Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

396. Missing Ted

In Family, people, places, poetry, Stories, United States on March 18, 2017 at 2:56 am

My father-in-law Theodore (Ted) Melnechuk passed away on March the first, at the age of eighty-nine. There is a void where he once was, and we cannot fill it. Science writing was his profession—neuroscience writing in particular, but his interests and expertise were broad and eclectic. Poetry was his avocation, and he loved form in verse, from sonnets to limericks, which he wrote daily, for years, thousands of them. He wrote a poem for every occasion in our lives, on my mother-in-law Anna’s birthday and their wedding anniversary and, also for Anna, every Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. He was kind enough to read and edit all my writing for years, and I still follow his rules about the serial comma, the adverb following the verb, the title of an essay stating its thesis. Gently, he pointed out some of my tendencies to verbal excess, noting only that a second adjective tended to cut the impact of the word in half rather than doubling it. Once, wistfully, he expressed a wish that I would evaluate literary works for their intrinsic beauty, the way he had learned to do, rather than merely interrogating them politically.

For more than 40 years he marked, clipped, and sent me and many others articles of interest from The New York Times, which he read religiously every morning. He read the print issue, of course, and if for any reason it was not delivered he would fret, fume, make phone calls, and eventually drive down to the newsagent’s to pick up a replacement copy. Only then would his day take its proper shape.

Ted loved words, puzzles (crossword and jigsaw both), word games, games of all kinds. Puns, anagrams, acrostics, homonyms, palindromes, all endless sources of pleasure. He loved playing games with his children and together they made up their own idiosyncratic rules for them. In the ten years after his beloved wife, my dear mother-in-law Anna, passed away he had taken to organizing a games day on the third Saturday of every month, when all four children joined him for lunch followed by an afternoon of high jinks and tiddlywinks, Melnechuk-style, followed by Scrabble in teams. Ted always kept score, meticulously, and the family not only kept them in perpetuity, but compared their new scores to old ones, delighting in besting themselves. But the older he got, the less Ted, once super-competitive, cared about winning; he simply enjoyed finding good words, a place to put them on the board, and the company of his children.

Still, as much as he loved his children, my father-in-law had his priorities. He did move up his daily nap time on games days to accommodate the special schedule, but even Games Day had to give way to big football and baseball games; sometimes he would peremptorily announce that it was time for us to leave. Other events that could not be missed: all three of the horse races that make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes (on television of course). For every one Andrew and I would receive a cordial invitation to join him half-an-hour before the race began, when we would be given a photocopy of the line-up and invited to pick our first three choices for the winner. Ted would always pick the horses with the best odds of winning, while Anna would pick the names she liked best. Another must-watch ritual was the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day—mostly, I think, because it was held in his native New York City.

Ted loved New York. As a son of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born (in 1928) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended high school at Brooklyn Tech (where even then he brought the arts to a science and technology high school as Editor of their literary magazine), and college at Columbia, where he studied science, took literature classes with Mark Van Doren and wrote poetry with classmates Alan Ginsberg and John Hollander. Although he left New York for Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he followed the New York scene avidly and, as long as he was able, used to travel down to the City with an old friend once a year to go to the opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Amherst he was a member of a group called the Ex-New Yorkers, who used to gather once a month to reminisce about their hometown, choosing a different theme every time.

Also every month, from the very beginning of his stay in Amherst, Ted held a men’s poker game on a Friday night—low stakes, high seriousness. He cancelled the game only once that I recall— the month after Anna’s death. In the last month of his life he moved into assisted living in Amherst, and one of his poker mates moved in soon after. But they didn’t have time to get Poker Night going again in the new venue.

So many daily, weekly, monthly, annual rituals, now all gone. Will any of us ever manage to be as faithful to them? Which of them will we keep up? Now that I no longer receive my regular envelope of clippings from the Times, I must subscribe on my own, though mine will have to be the digital edition. Nights, when I am at a loose end, I will play Canfield’s Solitaire, Ted’s favorite, though I won’t keep a running score as he did. When I need to soothe my soul, I must remember to play music, like Ted, who always listened to classical music on the radio or CD player as he worked at his desk. And on Saturday mornings I will visit the Book Shed at the Amherst town dump to see if there’s anything of interest; but I won’t get there as often, or keep my eyes peeled anymore for British murder mysteries, Ted’s favorites (he went through hundreds of them, some of the best ones many times over, since he claimed that he always forgot whodunit).

His house is empty. This weekend Andrew and his siblings are clearing his room at the assisted living place, where he stayed for only six weeks. He had insisted on continuing to live in his own home, resisting home help, remaining independent to the end. Here is the obituary that he wrote himself; a shorter version will run in his beloved New York Times this Sunday.

Rest in Peace, dear Ted.

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395. “Oh, Rob!”

In people, United States, women & gender on January 26, 2017 at 4:26 am

54fa8e7403fadb657f1b508a3d658d1aI know I’m not alone in the pang I felt this morning when I learned of the death of Mary Tyler Moore, age eighty. For me she will always be Laura Petrie, the lovely, lithe, funny, frustrated young wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). I was introduced to the show when I met Andrew in 1970, the same year we immigrated to the United States. It was already in re-runs by then, but it was brand-new to me, like everything else in America. Andrew’s family watched television while eating dinner, starting with the CBS Evening News. Walter Cronkite signed off sometime over dessert with his “and that’s the way it is,” followed without fail by half an hour of Dick Van Dyke. On our trips to New York City, Andrew could never drive past the New Rochelle sign on the highway without murmuring, “Home of Rob and Laura Petrie.”

Looking back now, I see how young she was, still in her 20s. But I was 16 and the Women’s Movement was making her “Oh, Rob!” look terribly old-fashioned. I didn’t learn until years later how ground-breaking the show was, how subversive and controversial her tight black Capri pants had been. For Rob had married Laura right out of the army after the War (WWII, that is), and the successful dancer had become a suburban housewife. So much of the show’s comedy—and tension, and pathos—stemmed from Laura’s pent-up creative energy that burst out in the sparkling moments when she was allowed to perform on stage for part of an episode.

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Mary Tyler Moore was a New York actress and comedienne, progressive and public-spirited. She and the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke made a perfect TV couple. Just seeing them together made you smile. In the 1970s, she starred as Mary, the single “career-woman” in the man’s world of TV news in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), and again, as in the show’s theme song, she “turned the world on with her smile.”

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Behind that dazzling smile, Mary Tyler Moore the woman didn’t have an easy personal life. She was a victim of abuse as a child, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1970, struggled with alcoholism, and, in 1980, following a divorce, lost her only son. Still, she overcame the alcoholism, was nominated for an Oscar for her devastating portrayal of the bereaved mother in the film Ordinary People, and raised awareness and funds for diabetes research.

5b5ba9a186af7f9c51763da3d74f6714I don’t want to get too maudlin, but coming at this particular moment when the entire American landscape is changing, Mary Tyler Moore’s death feels terribly sad, not just for me, but for everyone who grew up with her. See, for instance, this very personal tribute by Michael Buckley, and another that includes an interview with Dick Van Dyke. With her seems to go a whole era. For me it was the time when I was defining feminism for myself, meeting the person who was to become my husband, and struggling to find my feet in a new country. But there’s to be no moping; just thinking of her makes me want to get on my feet and move.

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Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

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394. Scattergram, Spring 2017

In Books, Music, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Words & phrases on January 14, 2017 at 4:33 am
Robert Rauschenberg, Scattergram

Rauschenberg, “Scattergram”

My Spring teaching semester begins right after Martin Luther King Day, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States (there, I said itfollowing hard on its heels. As I find myself struggling to bring order to my mental landscape, the word scattergram comes, unbidden, to mind.

scattergram would require me to map my wayward thoughts in relation to something fixed. But rather than being plotted between two axes, representing dependent or independent variables, everything appears to be in total disarray. Nothing can be held steady, allowing other variables to be plotted in relation to it. Even scattered is too controlled—splattered, more like it.

No matter, I must posit order; let the horizontal axis be calendar time, the vertical, hours per day or hours per week. There looms a 15-week semester moving inexorably onward into May, with four courses (3 different preparations) running—galloping—concurrently, three of them twice a week each, the fourth, blessedly, only once. Here they are, with their attendant syllabi and lesson plans and work schedules, their assignments and office hours, their grading, grading, grading. Subject matter is another diagram altogether, but of course it will color the whole experience, mine and my students’, in and out of the classroom.

shoppingThe courses will inevitably overlap with each other. Concepts of freedom and unfreedom frame my two first-year composition courses, with a focus on incarceration in the United States, mass imprisonment of black Americans, black men in particular, disenfranchising them all over again: The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander describes and amply demonstrates. The ideas in these two courses can be further illuminated through the lenses of the third, contemporary theory. To Jean Beaudrillard, U.S. society is itself carceral, though Americans will do almost anything to avoid facing this fact, with “truth” becoming a non-issue in the age of the hyperreal, when media images no longer need to correspond to any underlying reality. 

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Michel Foucault’s genealogies of prisons and punishment trace the advent of “corrections” and the rise of all-seeing surveillance, epitomized by the panopticonStuart Hall, author of Policing the Crisisredefines “black” and unites in resistance the diverse new ethnicities of contemporary Britain. The fourth course, my weekly Special Topics seminar, after dragging us, bedraggled and grief-benumbed, through the wake of terror, helps us come to some kind of healing through art—and through humanity, I hope, bedeviled though we are.

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Sure, we’re scattered, shattered, shell-shocked, mud-bespattered. But we’d best take heart, bestir ourselves and coalesce, soldiering on through the blighted landscape, casting a smattering of light upon these benighted post-truth times. 

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Come Together

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

 Belay there, me hearties! Let’s Work Together.

(And why have I just used so many words with the prefix “be-“? Begorrah, I cannot say.)

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393. Flying those Flags

In Britain, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on December 4, 2016 at 3:25 am
Eddie Izzard's Do You Have a Flag?

Eddie Izzard’s Do You Have a Flag?

I’ll try to keep this brief, because to me it’s cut-and-dried. Hampshire College has folded, following a firestorm of protests and threats, and has re-flown the American flag on its campus. I have not followed the controversy closely, but I want to make one observation: private colleges in the United States are not required to display the national flag.

As a student of nationalism, I feel compelled to note that although pennants and flags have long been used as signals (as in semaphore) and to identify armies in battle, national flags are very recent developments in world history, only dating back to the late eighteenth century, and not becoming universal until the 19th century. Rectangular pieces of fabric bearing national insignia, they have become potent patriotic symbols that often carry strong military associations, but it is important to remember that they are just that, symbols, displayed on bits of cloth and mounted on poles—or, in one of my favorite songs, printed on plastic and plastered on cars.

Allow me, and yourself, a little levity: watch Eddie Izzard’s classic sketch, “Do You have a Flag?” performed here by the comedian himself, and here by Lego men. Now treat yourself to John Prine’s classic song from his first album, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore. Back in 1971, he was referring to the Vietnam War when he said, in the next line, “It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war”; but unfortunately it’s all the more resonant in this brave new world of perpetual war.

I recall with sadness the great Indian philosopher poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote Jana Gana Mana, the song that has become the nation’s national anthem. (He also wrote Amar Sonar Bangla, the song that became the national anthem of Bangladesh.) I can’t hear Jana Gana Mana without getting overcome by nostalgia—love for India, the aspirations of the–then newly independent nation, and memories of singing it at the top of my ten-year-old voice every time I went to the cinema with my father (the flag billowing on the screen for 52 seconds just before the running of the birth control advertisements: do ya teen—bas!). Tagore was a great patriot with a deep love for his country. But as he grew older, and began to understand what horrors nationalism was capable of wreaking, he came to see it as a modern scourge, and spoke out strongly and insistently against it. For this he was attacked and vilified by many of his compatriots, just as those who dare to question the military adventures of the United Statestoday are attacked and vilified as anti-national. As Tagore said in 1908, “I will never allow nationalism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” For both yesterday and today, his words warn us of the danger and the travesty of bestowing upon a state apparatus and its symbols the love best reserved for our fellow human beings, the reverence best reserved for all things sacred.

While the British once paraded their flag with overblown pomp and ceremony as a symbol of their imperial power, now their erstwhile colonial subjects, rather than turning away from such vainglorious displays of worldly power, seek to reproduce them with a vengeance.

The Indian Supreme Court has just ruled that the national flag must be displayed in all movie theaters, and the national anthem played to a standing audience before film screenings. While in my childhood innocence I sprang to my feet and sang with all my heart, now it chills me to see that ritual made mandatory by the highest court in the land.

I opened with a reminder that private colleges—and indeed, private individuals—are not required to fly the national flag. In closing, permit me another reminder: the last time I checked, the United States was a free country, whose constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech included the freedom to question such symbols of military might. To the extent that the flag stands for freedom for us all, long may it wave! But to the extent that it stands for Might over Right, I must say, like Rabindranath Tagore, that it does not stand for me.

Oh, and another song: U.S. Blues.

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392. Pecking Order

In Family, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on November 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

b943939cc38c7a4c769c401ab271f47cIn the past couple of years I’ve taken over the job of keeping my parents’ bird feeder filled. They always did so religiously, observing the birds’ behavior intently, keeping track of all the different species that paid them a visit, watching over the eggs and fledglings in the spring (see TMA #301, Babysitting), and worrying about their well-being as winter approached. I watch through the kitchen window as I do the washing up, trying not to anthropomorphize, though it’s well-nigh impossible for me not to do so.

At first I couldn’t help but notice the large birds taking up too much space, scaring off the smaller ones, and trying to scarf up all the seed. I also noticed little birds of many species perching on a nearby tree, like so many Christmas-tree decorations, and coming forward one by one to take their turn at the feeder. The term “pecking order” immediately came to mind, and it struck me how apt it was; here were the birds lining up hierarchically by size, taking it in turns to peck at the birdseed. But I was wrong, wrong on the origins of the term, and wrong in my knee-jerk interpretation of what was happening at the feeder.

It turns out that pecking order was coined by Norwegian zoologist and psychologist  Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, whose 1921 PhD dissertation presented his observations and interpretations of  social dominance among cooped-up chickens who, apparently, punished transgressors with a “painful peck” that taught them their place in the hierarchy. He claimed that this hierarchy was not learned, but inherent in the birds’ nature. Other scholars seized on this notion, and applied it to human social hierarchies as well, arguing that we are competitive creatures who naturally establish social pecking orders.

This line of thinking reached back to the 19th century, when Darwin’s theory of natural selection was seized upon by social Darwinists who extended it to persons, groups, and races, arguing for Herbert Spencer’s theory of the “survival of the fittest.”  According to them, human society naturally followed the law of the jungle, and those who came out on top were evolutionarily superior to the rest. In his 1949 elegy, In Memoriam, Tennyson entered what was to become a long-running debate with his now-famous phrase, Nature, red in tooth and claw, in a section of the poem where he contrasted the seeming heartlessness of Nature with the religious belief that Love was the ultimate force in the universe. And ever since, the work of politicians, artists, social scientists, and natural scientists has been shaped—or skewed— by the assumption that cutthroat competitiveness is hard-wired in human beings, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

How many Nature documentaries have you watched where a powerful predator stalks, kills, and devours its hapless prey? Take note of the narrative thrust of the storyline and tone of the commentary. More often than not, it seems, the narrator focuses almost obsessively on the gory details, delighting in the bloodthirsty order of things, as if to naturalize, even valorize, similarly violent behavior in human beings.

Back to my kitchen window. Viewing the birds at the feeder without my pecking-order lenses, I still saw the blue jay crowding out the smaller songbirds or the red-bellied woodpecker drilling far into the feeder with its long, rapier-sharp beak, which other birds wisely gave a wide berth. But I also noticed other kinds of behavior. First of all, there was very little actual fighting, aside from the occasional wing-beating flap when two birds descended on the feeder at the same time, and one made sure it got in first. But there was no further fussing and fighting, and certainly no pecking. The other bird simply waited in line, as customers do at a crowded restaurant, until there was space for it at the bar, and then took its place, first-come, first-served. I also observed that while big birds were dominating one side of the feeder, the smaller birds simply lined up on the other side, and there seemed to be little conflict either between the big and the small or among the small ones.

In addition to competition, I observed an interesting symbiosis among different species. While most of the birds perched on either side of the feeder, others who were no good at perching, like the mourning doves, picked up the fallen seed, as did the squirrels. One morning, I even saw a flock of free-ranging hens from next-door cleaning up on the ground—amicably, I might add: no sign whatsoever of a pecking order.

There have been some exceptional scientists who have been free enough from the prevailing social-Darwinist bias to pioneer other approaches, both at the cellular level and at the level of relationships between different organisms.  One was the late evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, who focused on symbiosis and  cooperation rather than competition as the driver of evolution. Her perspective brought her into vigorous debate with neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene), but while her ideas were initially ridiculed, many of them were eventually accepted.

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My father felt so strongly about keeping the bird feeder well stocked with seed that he was reluctant to leave home for any length of time lest it run out. As for the larger predators, he was a particular lover of the Big Cats. He never tired of watching documentaries of lions and tigers, neither reveling in or recoiling from their carnivorous natures. “They have to eat,” he would simply say, “What magnificent creatures they are!” But his favorites were the videos showing the close relationships that developed between Big Cats and humans, and he never tired of watching a YouTube video of the joyful response of a lion raised by humans, released to the wild, and then reunited with them when they returned to visit after many years. He was deeply touched by the scene every time. “We under-estimate these animals,” he would always say, shaking his head in wonder and sadness, for I think he was remembering having to leave behind our beloved dog when we left India for the United States (see TMA #54, Flash).

So what a person sees at the bird feeder depends on how that person sees the world. While one cannot  eradicate one’s own biases altogether, one can at least attempt to be aware of them. Pecking order—pshaw! More like pecking disorder.

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391. buying up the whole store

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, parenting, United States on October 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Birthday haul from the Indian store

Birthday haul from the Indian store

Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his own people,” however one might define one’s own. In his teens he left his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, where he apprenticed himself to an accomplished watercolorist for a year, then took a diploma in architecture from the Sir J. J. School of Art. Soon afterwards he boarded a steamship for London, where he was to stay for 5 years, studying, working, and befriending and sharing digs with Indians and Britishers alike. He met and married an Englishwoman (soon to become my mother), withstanding and wearing down the opposition from his bewildered family. Back in India, at I.I.T. Kharagpur, my parents’ friends included Indians, some mixed couples like themselves, and a few visiting foreigners. Later, in Athens, their friends included many Greeks and a cosmopolitan crowd including Australians, Austrians, Americans, Britishers, Germans, Indians, and Pakistanis. And when Mum and Dad moved to the United States, at a time when there were still very few Indians in the country, their closest friends here in New England were both American and Indian.

But despite his diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, in the last few years of his life Dad admitted, almost guiltily, that he pined for Indian faces. He looked forward eagerly to the local Indian association’s annual Diwali event, when they laid on a catered Indian feast and everyone took out their gold ornaments and dressed up in the silks that lay folded in boxes all year. Dad would put on his best Indian woolen jacket and Irish tweed hat and pace the front hall for hours in advance, while I fussed anxiously over the draping of my sari. Funnily enough, though, once he was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a lively, multigenerational, multilingual Indian crowd, he wasn’t much interested in interacting with anyone; he was content to eat, take pleasure in the sights and sounds, bask in the warmth of the organized chaos, and just be.

We don’t live in an area with a high concentration of Indian Americans, so the nearest Indian grocery store is in Springfield, about twenty miles away, and we usually managed to get there only a couple of times a year, when Dad had an eye doctor’s appointment. Last year we paid them a special visit on his birthday and came away with a highly satisfying haul that would last us until the next time. Just looking at all the choices made us ravenously hungry, so we always bought a fresh samosa each and ate it in the car on the way home, with Dad pronouncing it “Delicious.”

Our last visit to the Indian store, back in late May or June, had been delayed due to Dad’s second hospitalization of the year. He was now having to be on supplemental oxygen day and night, trundling a small oxygen tank in front of him in a little three-wheeled walker wherever he went.  On this visit, he put the oxygen tank in a shopping cart and pushed that around the store instead. We oohed and aahed at everything we saw: packets of savory snacks of every description (“munchies”, Dad called them); tins of pure ghee; frozen chapatis from Malaysia that tasted almost as good as home-made; heaps of fresh curry leaves, dhaniya-patta (cilantro), and green chillies; sweets of all kinds by the pound, driven up from New York; several varieties of  mangoes, sold by the box; blocks of jaggery made in Kohlapur, right near Dad’s hometown of Ratnagiri; cans of mango pulp made in Ratnagiri itself; and, of course, a myriad varieties of rice, tea, and spices.

As the clerk rang up our order and we began to maneuver our cart out to the car, Dad said wistfully, “one feels like buying up the whole store.”

The next month, the day after his 92nd birthday, we had to call an ambulance for what turned out to be Dad’s final hospitalization. Most of the Kohlapuri jaggery and the pure ghee still sits here at home, looking as lonely and bereft as we feel. Diwali approaches again, but this year it will be a quiet one. We will simply be content to attend the function and to be surrounded by Indians for a while.

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390. When You’re Pulled Over

In 2000s, Politics, Stories, United States on September 3, 2016 at 3:04 pm

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My heart is still pounding. This morning, en route to my parents’ house from the rehab facility where my father is convalescing, I suddenly became aware of a police car behind me. I had noticed the car earlier, but it had pulled someone else over, so I had driven on by in some relief, until I realized that it was now coming for me.

I might have known that the police would be out in force. It is move-in weekend for the returning college students, and traffic was already getting heavy quite early in the day. I admit I was preoccupied, in the midst of calculations as to whether I would have time to stop at the copy shop located dangerously close to the university, prepare a master for copying on my first day of classes, and get back to my mother before her caregiver had to leave. But although I was mindful enough to be respectful to the point of obsequiousness (a lesson learned long ago), although this particular cop was decent and I managed to defuse the situation, it started out charged, escalated rapidly, and came as close to a violent encounter as I would ever want to get.

Here’s how it unfolded, and how it very nearly unraveled: I knew the stretch of road well, because it has been a construction zone for the past hot, dry month, and the road was still stripped down to the dirt, choking passing motorists with billowing clouds of dust. (Why is it that they always seem to time these construction projects to coincide with the return of students in the fall, rather than scheduling them over the summer, when our area is depopulated?) When I saw the blue lights flashing in my rear-view mirror, I knew that I was in a heavy traffic zone and a turning lane to boot, that there was no shoulder or emergency lane, and that it was not a very safe place to stop. Still, after a little hesitation I pulled over as far as I thought I could, switched on my emergency flashers, and rolled down my window to seek guidance from the police officer as to where to go. No joy—he didn’t oblige. So I cracked open the driver’s door to let him know that I needed help; apparently that was a big mistake.

Already overloaded with the flashing lights, my senses were now blasted by a bullhorn, which warned me to stay inside the vehicle. I re-closed the door hastily, and now the officer stepped out and approached me. He told me that Massachusetts law required me to stay in the vehicle if I was pulled over, and to keep my hands on the wheel lest he worry that I had a gun. I had been rummaging in my parents’ glove compartment for their registration, so my hands had had to leave the wheel. His state of high anxiety immediately set up a matching state in me, as I searched my handbag frantically for my driver’s license, and he told me that the car’s registration, which he had already run through the state database, was associated with an expired license. I explained my situation, that it was my parents’ car and that my mother no longer drove.

To be fair, the tension now began ratcheting down as quickly as it had escalated, and he gave me a lecture, returned to his vehicle to check my driving record, and came back to let me off with a warning. I turned off the main road immediately, kicking myself for not having trusted my original instinct to take the back way home.

A Dallas police sergeant takes part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

A Dallas police sergeant takes part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

When I got home I looked up the Massachusetts drivers’ manual, the section entitled General Guidelines if You are Stopped By a Police Officer (pp. 111-112). It warns that: “[p]olice officers have reason to be worried about their safety during traffic enforcement. Each year in the United States, a number of police officers are killed and thousands more are assaulted.” Apparently “[d]uring 2013 alone, 2 police officers were killed and 4,335 others were assaulted during traffic pursuits and stops.” Two police officers were killed! I don’t have figures for 2013, but according to the open-source reporting project, Killed by Police, one hundred and sixty-eight people were killed by U.S. law-enforcement officers in attempted traffic or street stops in 2015, or 14% of the 1199 people killed (Reuters, Jan 2, 2016).

“[T]o help reduce the levels of anxiety. . .during a traffic stop” the Massachusetts driver’s manual lists thirteen things you should do. It does not say, by the way, that these things are required by law, just things that could make the police officer less anxious (and therefore, by implication, less likely to shoot you). By the way, I did all but one of them: “Stay in the vehicle (both you and your passengers). Only get out if you are instructed to by the officer.” It’s interesting that if the officer orders one to get out, one is required by law to comply; however, it is not a law, but a guideline, that one should stay in the car unless instructed otherwise. Still, if one wishes to minimize one’s chance of getting killed, it is a damn good idea.

I’m a 60+ year-old female college professor with no history of violence, in a rural part of the state that has virtually no history of violence. Still, just cracking open the car door rapidly escalated the police officer’s anxiety to levels of volatility that we could both feel in our guts; and that, if I had inadvertently made one more false move, might have driven the situation right over the top and out of control. My breathing is quickening again just thinking of that.

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What nearly happened to me this morning was a wake-up call. It could happen to anyone at any time, but it happens to black people, and people of color in general, at a dramatically higher rate in proportion to their numbers in the population. If you don’t think so, take a look at The Counted, a website maintained by the British newspaper, The Guardian, that also documents people killed by police in the United States: 730 to date in 2016 alone, 112 of whom were completely unarmed. Of those 730, 365 were classified as white, 180 black, 122 Hispanic/Latino, 15 Asian/Pacific Islander, and 13 Native American. That’s 5.49 per million Native Americans and 4.51 per million Blacks in comparison with 1.84 per million Whites killed by police this year so far.

I’ve been aware of these disproportionately higher numbers for some time, and they amply document the problem, but after today I will no longer be able to go out in the car just enjoying a lovely day. For sure, everyone’s mind should be on the road at all times, but in addition to that alert attentiveness, there will be a dull anxious ache in my stomach as I negotiate the nation’s roadways. While we are all advised to modify our behavior so as to placate the anxious—and armed—police force, my experience today gave me just a taste of the visceral fear that Blacks in the United States must live with at all times.

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389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

In 1960s, 2010s, Britain, clothing, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, women & gender on August 29, 2016 at 12:37 am

3d57c1d7d0a94e46a4d6a300c1dbaf4dYoung people are bound to set and follow fashions as they shape and explore an identity that distinguishes them from their elders. Back in the mid-Sixties when I was at boarding school in India, the Thai boys, who were always ahead of us in India when it came to fashion, arrived for the new school year sporting bell-bottomed trousers, or flares. But bell-bottoms weren’t regulation, and their flares were duly measured to determine whether they were in excess of some official width (that I suspect was invented on the spot). Our Thai guys’ wings were clipped as they were returned to the population. But though their style was cramped and trousers narrowed, they were always and forever our fearless fashion vanguard.

Ironic, isn’t it, that less than a decade earlier the cool guys had been sporting drainpipes. No doubt their trouser legs were also measured and found wanting—too narrow by half. The truth is, clothing is a marker of identity, and therefore must be controlled by those who are in the business of social control. And as long as the authorities seek that control, there will be acts of rebellion to wrest it away from them, whether out in the open or undercover.

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As teenage girls in late-Sixties England, our mild act of suburban rebellion was to surreptitiously fold over the waistbands of our sensible school-uniform skirts as we left home in the morning, instantly shortening them by a couple of inches and giving us that critical edge that our mothers just couldn’t understand. Of course, the authorities had to intervene; but the way they chose to do so backfired hilariously.

We got to school one day to find the prefects awaiting us officiously, armed with tape measures and unable to control their smirks. Apparently acting under orders from the very top, they ordered us girls to kneel in turn, while they measured the length of our skirts from the ground up. For those of us under 5’ 2’, that distance could not exceed six inches, while I think the taller girls were held to seven.

They reckoned without the press: the spectacle was a bonanza for them. The next day, photos of school-uniformed girls on their knees and tape-measure-wielding male prefects (curiously, they were all male that day) bending over them gleefully made several national papers as well as the local ones. How I wish I still had one of those cuttings!

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

  (In our case, the prefects caught in the act were Senior boys.)

But while purporting to safeguard female modesty, the school authorities only exposed their own perversity with those lascivious images. Their ridiculous efforts to nip our wayward tendencies in the bud only redoubled our rebelliousness, while revealing that the indecency lay, not in our innocent hearts, but in their male gaze.

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

A similar fiasco is unfolding in France today with the ill-conceived burkini ban. While purportedly upholding France’s hallowed tradition of secularism, armed police were snapped standing over a woman on a Nice beach in the act of making her strip off her clothing. Far from challenging the control of religious extremists and modeling French social permissiveness, they only exposed their own need for social control. And as we schoolgirls did back in the Sixties, women are resisting. It’s a sales bonanza for burkinis and a warning to any authorities who seek to regulate what people choose to wear: banning will backfire on you.

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388. It Wants To Be Found

In Books, Media, Music, Politics, reading, Words & phrases on August 17, 2016 at 2:17 am

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Happiness is a warm gun (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)/Happiness is a warm gun, mama
When I hold you in my arms/And I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
—The Beatles

When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a child, the scene that most disturbed me was the diminutive hero Bilbo’s underground encounter with the etiolated Gollum, in which he found the Ring and got away by outwitting (cheating, actually) his opponent in a game of riddles. From then on, Bilbo kept the Ring and he kept it a secret, using it to make himself invisible whenever expedient, and thereby sealing his reputation as a brilliant little burglar. It was clear to me that Bilbo’s behavior, though justifiable, was not altogether ethical, and I even felt sorry for the light-deprived, near-translucent Gollum, left all alone in the underground tunnels without his “Precious.”

Gollum’s hissing to himself, “What has it got in its pocketses, my Preciousssss?” filled me with a terrible fascination, followed by the chilling realization that it wasn’t his own precious Self he was referring to, but the possession he had come to prize more than his own soul. In fact, his “Precious” was precisely what was in Bilbo’s pockets.

But the most terrifying realization came in the later Ring Trilogy, when it became clear that the possession of the One Ring had not only turned the benign Sméagol—once a harmless hobbit himself—into the slinking, sniveling, cringing, cadaverous Gollum, but threatened to do the same to anyone who held onto it for any length of time. How did it do this? It made its possessor feel powerful and it made him feel safe, especially when slipped on his finger, cloaking him in invisibility. But in fact, the feeling of safety conjured up by the Ring in his pocket was entirely false.

Here, in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf warns Frodo of the Ring’s active desire to be reunited with its true master.

You must remember, Frodo, the ring is trying to get back to its master…. it wants to be found.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo had found himself continually fiddling with the Ring while it was in his pocket, and on occasion it even seemed to slip itself onto his finger. The same thing happened to his nephew Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. The Ring actually compelled its wearer to slip it on, thereby making him, far from invisible, hyper-visible to the Dark Lord; far from a powerful agent, it made him an instrument of another’s evil designs.

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Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also pull the finger.
                                                                      —Leonard Berkowitz

It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” goes the ubiquitous anti-gun-control slogan. But what Leonard Berkowitz, the late, eminent professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, found was precisely the opposite: the mere presence of guns in a given space excited and incited greater aggression. It came to be known as the weapons effect. The proximity of a trigger made a person want to pull it. Like the possessor of the Ring of Power, far from making him safer, it exposed both him and others to much greater danger. He became hyper-visible, because having a gun—in some studies, just seeing one—made him want to shoot it.

Guns do kill people, because, as with the Ring of Power, being in the presence of their terrible power evokes the desire to wield it. Sadly, one may not realize until too late that one is not the possessor, but the possessed. Efforts to conceal the weapon will be futile, because it wants to be found.

*****

Let’s not just leave things here, ascribing intent to the instrument but leaving its lord and master unnamed.

In the aftermath of the December, 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, there was plenty of talk of the deranged shooter and the need to prevent the sale of guns to the mentally ill. What was almost never mentioned was the curious fact that Newtown, Connecticut is also the headquarters of the NSSF, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, just three miles away from the elementary school. The NSSF is a non-profit organization, the trade association for the firearms industry and its foremost lobbying group, in recent years outspending even the NRA, the National Rifle Association.

NSSF Logo

The NSSF’s mission is “to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.” But its logo, with green deer, pine trees, and hunters with protective earmuffs, and its accompanying slogan: Promote · Protect · Preserve, suggest something very different from a trade association, more like an environmental conservation association. What purports to promote gun safety simply promotes more guns; as another of its slogans puts it more starkly: Always shooting for more. (See the Gun Violence Archive for more information on gun-related incidents in the U.S., including mass shootings.)

The NSSF runs and publicizes shooting ranges all over the country. Its website has a handy-dandy feature that allows you to find the range closest to you. Adam Lanza’s mother, a gun enthusiast herself, had taken him and his brother to one of these shooting ranges, where he learned how to wield the weapons he later took from her hoard to shoot and kill her and 26 others, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The New Republic ran an article soon after the shooting that made the link between the NSSF and the Sandy Hook mass shooting. However, it disavowed any suggestion of causation, that the presence of the NSSF headquarters in Newtown had anything to do with the young man’s shooting spree. Instead, it merely noted that there was “a certain tragic irony to it.”

It seems to me that this link underscores the illusory nature of the sense of safety conferred by the possession of a weapon. The NSSF claims to be all about safety: teaching people to use weapons safely at shooting ranges, even running youth programs that promote the responsible use of firearms. But what happened in the very belly of the beast? A mother took her son to one of these shooting ranges, and he made full use of his training, right in the backyard of the outfit that promotes them. What was touted in the name of safety and protection was in fact the very instrument of death and destruction, both for the de-ranged young shooter and for his innocent victims. As Gandalf noted: “The Ring is always trying to get back to its master”. To know its true nature, we would do well to track the smoking gun back to its source (bang, bang, shoot, shoot).

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387. Not So Posh

In 1970s, Food, Stories, United States, Work on August 6, 2016 at 10:46 am

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In the late 1970s, when Andrew and I lived in New Mexico, I worked as a waitress at an establishment by the name of The Posh Bagel. In those days bagels were still a specialty of New York, not yet a national food (no national chains like Bruegger’s, no breakfast “bagels” at Dunkin Donuts) and so they were a novelty in the Southwest. Not satisfied with plain old cream cheese or even with the magisterial cream cheese and lox, The Posh Bagel dressed up its bagels with all sorts of other non-traditional fillings, like roast beef. It further embellished its menu with ultra-cheesy attempts at humor. Nearly 40 years on, I still remember that the roast- beef bagel was called “Rubber Buggy Baby Bumper” and a dessert fruit bowl was called “Can’t Elope (O Honey, Do).” The bagels were okay, nothing to write home about but they were fresh and, in any case, the Posh held a virtual monopoly on them in Albuquerque. My co-workers were friendly, as were most of the customers (except for the West Texans, who were notorious for not tipping) so the job would have been fine, if it hadn’t been for the manager-proprietor, my boss.

Thankfully I have long forgotten his name, but I remember him as a weaselly man, always trying to sniff out employee graft. He didn’t seem to realize that disgruntled employees are much more likely to steal, especially if they work in a restaurant that doesn’t give them free food. Every time I worked the morning shifts, which ended at lunch-time, the cook would make me up a lightly-toasted sesame-seed bagel, loaded generously with cream cheese, thickly-sliced tomato, and red onions (I can’t recall whether or not it contained lox, and if I did, I’d probably plead the fifth) and slip it to me surreptitiously on my way out. I don’t think I’ve never enjoyed a bagel so much; my mouth waters just thinking of it. If the boss had allowed his employees a free bagel after every full shift, I might not have enjoyed it quite so much; and I certainly wouldn’t have taken such pleasure in conspiring with the cook.

My manager wasn’t just a miser; he was a lecher as well. At the time I was passionately involved with an anti-nuclear group called Citizens Against Nuclear Threats (with the rather unfortunate acronym CANT), which was working with a statewide coalition to oppose the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a high-level nuclear waste repository (dump) planned for Southern New Mexico, right near the Carlsbad Caverns. So one day my boss, finding me alone, actually offered to give me a donation for the cause. But of course there was a catch: I had to give him a kiss. If you’re saying “Ewww”, that’s the sort of person he was.

Another mark of his character was his anxiety to present a posh exterior coupled with a disregard for basic principles of health or hygiene. One day, needing to find busywork for me, he asked me to fill the half-empty tomato-ketchup bottles on all the tables. When I demurred—surely it wasn’t good practice to pour fresh ketchup on top of old—he ordered me to do what I had was told. So I did. Later that day—I must have been working the afternoon shift—I heard a loud report, as if a gun had been fired; and, in short order, another. Then a wail from a hapless customer: it was the ketchup bottles exploding! Hah!

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I must confess that I took a malicious delight in my manager’s consternation. The jumped-up Posh Bagel, and its equally puffed-up proprietor, didn’t look so posh that day.

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