Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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. 


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.


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. 


Come Together

from (Abramsky)

from (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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388. It Wants To Be Found

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


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.


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.


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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365. Kindred

In blogs and blogging, Books, Britain, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, Words & phrases on April 14, 2016 at 8:35 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy




There are those conversations with cousins and aunts during which you realize that not just your features, but your quirks, as well as those of your parents, are theirs too. My Auntie Angy, married to my maternal Uncle Len, used to joke with my husband and my cousins’ spouses, that they were the A-Team—united by a crime they didn’t commit and forced to live with members of the Sharp family. Thank goodness for the long-suffering A-team in every family that tempers and balances the eccentricities of the other side!

UnknownSharp by name and sharp by nature: that’s my mother’s family. They have a way with words, both spoken and written, do everything quickly (quick-witted, quick-tempered, quick to take offense), but are fiercely loyal to those they love. They are also just plain fierce. It can be infuriating to encounter this fierceness on your own; but when, commiserating with siblings and cousins you realize that, a) you have the same traits yourself and b) you’re all in it together, you gain a new understanding and tolerance for the behavior, and it even becomes endearing—well, sometimes and to some extent. You are all kindred, and that is so comforting.

Now, Reges, my father’s family, are another kettle of fish (Pomfret/pamflet, if you want to get specific). They are contradictory characters, artistic and free-thinking, yet set in their ways; gregarious and hospitable, yet solitary, even shy; high-performing but wracked by self-doubt; stoic on the outside, but nursing anxieties and worries to which they will never admit (or is that myself I’m thinking of?). Getting together with Rege cousins to share stories about our respective parents allows us to see how many of the traits that baffle us about our beloved seniors are shared among all their siblings. On a recent, rare visit from India, my cousin Vidya instructed my father—lovingly, but in no uncertain terms—to listen to his elder daughter. She knows: she too is an elder daughter, and her father is just two years my father’s junior. I can’t tell you how supported she made me feel.

It is a truism that you can’t choose your family. This is another wonderful thing about kindred. This lack of choice means that your family contains all sorts, including people whom you might never have got to know, or even meet, unless you were related. This is good for your soul.

Then there are the kindred spirits. You’re not related at all—not by blood. But as soon as you meet you find yourself completely at ease. There is no need to explain; everything you do, everything you say, is understood and accepted immediately. And you can trust them to the ends of the earth.

Kindred-octavia-e-butler-124291_408_600 The late Octavia Butler wrote a novel called Kindred. If you haven’t read it yet you’re in for a treat. Her protagonist Dana (interestingly close to DNA) has kindred of both kinds: those whom she wouldn’t go anywhere near if she weren’t related to them, but for whom she must risk her life because she is. (Sorry, that’s a convoluted sentence, but as they say about fraught relationships on Facebook, it’s complicated.) These kindred force her to recognize that she has to know them to know herself, however difficult that is for her. To her dismay she finds that, even as she hates the things they do, she continues to care for them. Thankfully, Dana has the other kind of kindred in her life as well: the kindred spirit whose love and integrity she finds that she need never have doubted.

I am lucky to have both kinds of kindred in my life. All of them, but all of them, bring me joy.

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356. Bookshops

In Books, reading, Stories on April 2, 2016 at 12:04 pm

BBlogging from A to Z
Bringing Me Joy

FullSizeRenderOne of the doors to the beloved Black Sheep Deli in Amherst has a puzzling sign on it: BOOKSHOP. Only those who have lived in town more than twenty years know why. In those days the Black Sheep Deli was half the size it is now, and the long, narrow back room which now houses the stage was the home of Albion Books. I remember entering its mystic portal when I had just started my graduate studies, poring over the ponderous Theory titles and then diving into the novels in sweet relief. When Albion closed it felt like the end of an era. Atticus Books from New Haven set up shop in a large storefront just opposite and bought up Albion’s stock; softening the blow for us by calling itself Atticus Albion—at first, anyway. Soon it was just Atticus Books; now it is the fine, independent Amherst Books.

UnknownAs recently as seven years ago, there were seven bookshops (and six libraries to boot) in our little town, catering to our many students, professors, and avid readers, book lovers all. Now Amherst Books is the only one remaining. The Jeffery Amherst Bookshop, with its well-stocked college annex and its magical children’s section, closed its doors in 2009 after 31 years. Food for Thought Books, a worker-owned collective, lasted long enough to celebrate its 37th anniversary, but in 2014, despite the best efforts of the community, it too gave up the ghost.

Valley Books Amherst, MAOne of my favorites was Valley Books, a second-hand bookshop. Paying them a visit on my days off was a treasure hunt every time, as I ducked in and navigated down the book-lined alleys with shelves stacked up to the ceiling on either hand, always some impossible delight waiting to be discovered around the next corner. Eventually, in 2009, Valley Books closed too, after 34 years, because like all the others it couldn’t compete with the online book market. At least for its proprietor there was a reasonably happy ending, since he simply continued his business online. I bought two of the bookcases and, in memory of Valley Books, keep the signs on the shelves for the categories that used to be assembled there.


In neighboring Hadley, in a big old barn down an ill-marked driveway, one can find Grey Matter and Troubadour Books, two outfits sharing the space and together offering about a million second-hand books—a million—with a rich, dynamic, inventory that is a treasure trove for collectors. These two are bucking the trend of physical bookshops giving way to online behemoths by having started out as online businesses, but deciding to touch down with a physical presence as well.


All these shops: Amherst, Grey Matter, Troubadour, and the legendary Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, our neighbor to the south, host readings and book launches, and do what they can to support local writers. Stepping in, one enters a hallowed space. The proprietors wisely leave one alone to disappear down one of the aisles, not to re-emerge, blinking and tousled, for a long, long time. There may be a nod of the head between proprietor and customer, the acknowledgement of a kindred spirit, perhaps a limited, book-related exchange of words; but mostly, there is the recognition that this book-hunting is a solitary pleasure and the seeker must be given space and time to indulge in it in his or her own, idiosyncratic way.


Amherst Books

I almost forgot: the Bookshed at the Amherst town dump—uh, transfer station. When students graduate and leave town, professors retire, and Amherst readers do their Spring cleaning, they bring boxes upon boxes to the Book Shed, where they are shelved and sorted by category. There is even a table outside where the townspeople eagerly snatch up the new arrivals. Saturdays are its busiest day, and, when I have time, I join my father-in-law on his weekly outing there. I try to keep to my vow to take home no more than I bring in with me, and sometimes succeed. It’s almost miraculous the number of times I seem to have found exactly what I needed there.


Bookshops, you will have gathered, bring me joy. It goes without saying that books do as well; that would be like saying that life itself brings me joy.

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349. A Chair for My Mother

In 1980s, 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, parenting, reading, Stories, United States, women & gender, Work on November 7, 2015 at 10:58 am


BK100160AWhen Nikhil and Eric were young, one of our favorite picture books for them was Vera B. Williams’ A Chair for My Mother (1982). It became a Scholastic title as well as a Reading Rainbow book (remember LeVar Burton of PBS’s Reading Rainbow?), and Maureen, who taught kindergarten, must have brought it home as she did all the new and classic Scholastic books she would order to preview for her students. I don’t know who loved it more, the boys or us. We also read and enjoyed Vera Williams’ Cherries and Cherry Pits (1986), which, like all her books, she both wrote and illustrated in her distinctively bold, colorful style. A Chair for My Mother, though, was far and away my favorite.

I won’t spoil it for you by summarizing the plot; do pick up a copy and read it to the children in your life. Just know that its characters are a little girl, her mother, her grandmother, and, of course, the eponymous chair. They don’t have much in the way of possessions; the mother works hard for their living; and the love and warmth of its spare text and lavish illustrations continue to light up American children’s literature through the generations.


When I heard of Vera Williams’ death last month, I felt a pang and a deep sadness. I read in her obituary that after her divorce she moved from New York to a houseboat in Vancouver, British Columbia, where, in her late 40s, she began to write and illustrate children’s books. What constitutes the sense of home is personal and elusive, but A Chair for My Mother captures what’s essential. That stage of my life is long gone, but the chair and all that it stands for, sits squarely in my heart, inviting me to come home.


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345. Reaganomics 101

In 1980s, Books, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on October 10, 2015 at 1:40 am
Poor People's March, 1968 (

Poor People’s March, 1968 (

When I started my graduate studies in the late 1980s I taught freshman composition to entering undergraduates. As an undergraduate myself in the early 1970s and as a child of the 1960s (not just the 1960s in general, but the 1960s of post-Independence India in particular), I had had my core values instilled in me much earlier. At first it shocked and unnerved me to see how dramatically different their basic assumptions were from mine, until it dawned on me that, as children of the 1980s, these 18 year-olds had come to consciousness during the Reagan era.


My realization of this difference in perspective came when we were discussing an essay on poverty in the United States. In my childhood, the poor were the products of structural inequities in society, their children having grown up without proper housing, healthcare, or nutrition and without the educational and employment opportunities of the more privileged classes. The dominant view then was that social programs existed as a safety net for those who were struggling and to redress the imbalance in society. The poor were to be given a helping hand: not charity, but a fair shake. Furthermore, the rich were indebted to the poor, since it was their hard labor that had afforded the wealthy their lives of ease. That’s more-or-less how we saw it. We further believed that acquisitiveness was not a virtue: the wealthy at least ought to invest their surplus wealth in the national economy, rather than squandering it in conspicuous consumption.

WelfareMy students, however, thought that the rich deserved their wealth and had every right to the most lavish of lifestyles. Their disapproval was reserved for the “undeserving poor“, whose condition they ascribed to laziness and lack of ambition. If they wanted money, then they ought to work for it like the rest of us. This was the prevailing attitude among my students: if these people were poor, it was their own fault.This was the legacy that Reaganomics bequeathed to them and to subsequent generations.

I ought not to have been surprised. This attitude was set forth as common sense in the marketing of Reagan’s domestic policy and has taken root so successfully as the national ethos that all subsequent U.S. administrations have adopted it to some degree. While Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating a story of a “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac (a myth that maligned black people as well as justifying the slashing of social programs for the poor) it was Bill Clinton on whose watch “welfare reform” cut off single mothers’ welfare payments after a certain period of time and forced them to return to work on sub-poverty salaries, often having to leave their children unsupervised. Blame the Poor was again the watchword: if these immoral and irresponsible women had gotten themselves pregnant out of wedlock, what right did they have to expect society to pay for raising their children while they lay abed all day taking drugs and living lives of gay abandon?

baby-20with-20headphonesJust as hypnopaedia imprinted the babies of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with the ideology of their society, so Reaganomics 101 was imbibed by the children of the 1980s all unawares.

There’s plenty of work; they just don’t want to do it.
They just want a government handout.
Why should we subsidize their sloth?
I’m so glad I’m an investment banker. 

I guess I was out of step with the times; as Reagan was taking the oath of office, pledging to get Big Government off the backs of hardworking Americans, our newly-formed letterpress print shop joined the IWW (the Wobblies), whose Little Red Songbook featured the feisty Dump the Bosses off Your Back.

DumpTheBosses_thumbAlthough the Wobblies shamelessly secularized the beloved Christian hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, I’d dare bet that the IWW’s declaration, in the Preamble to their constitution that “there can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life”, is closer to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 19:24 than is Reaganomics 101, a doctrine that taught my innocent students to honor the rich and to blame, rather than bless, the poor.


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342. Inscriptions

In Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, India, parenting, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on September 6, 2015 at 4:11 pm

My father has trained us to inscribe every book we present him, and if we forget, he never hesitates to instruct us—insistentlyIMG_2830 —to do so. As a result, I too am in the habit of writing a personal inscription in every book intended as a gift, one that I hope the recipient will keep, treasure, and re-read.

It saddens me when I find books left at the Book Shed (aka our town dump) with their flyleaves intimately inscribed by grandparents or (ex-) lovers. I myself would find it exceedingly hard to part with such a book. Perhaps this is part of the reason why inscriptions are becoming a lost art: our throwaway culture demands an unmarked commodity that can be discarded or resold more readily, without leaving a trace of its past.

Here are a few of the inscriptions in my books, books all the more beloved for them. Each one takes me back to a time and a place and reminds me of the giver, what it meant to him or her and what s/he hoped that it might mean to me.

In A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, sent to Kharagpur, West Bengal, India from England (by sea mail via Suez, no doubt):

Sent to India from England (sea mail via Suez, no doubt)

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

bearing the inscription:



And in this book, at my request, an inscription to Nikhil, from the late great Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, written at his home in Khandala, Maharashtra.


Did I say that book inscriptions were becoming a lost art? Some of the most beautiful ones I’ve found today have been written by Nikhil and members of his generation. Theirs are inscribed in my heart and I am reluctant to wear them on my sleeve.

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341. Unexpected Fruit

In 1970s, 2010s, Books, Family, Food, Nature, reflections, Stories on August 23, 2015 at 12:14 pm


It was late August, 1990, when we moved to this house, with the schools poised to reopen after Labor Day and the cicadas in full-throated chorus every night. Soon afterwards Andrew dug up the twin nectarine trees from his parents’ old cabin on White Pond in Concord and transplanted them in our kitchen garden. This year, twenty-five years later, I am tasting the sweetness of their fruit for the first time.

One day, years before Nikhil was born, we opened a nectarine and found its seed sprouting, sending up not one, but two shoots. Although I can’t recall the details, I think Andrew half-immersed the split seed in a jar of water as one does an avocado pit (here’s a video on how one man did it). In any case, he nurtured the conjoined twins until they were old enough to separate very gently and plant in the soil. When the White Pond house was sold and its contents emptied, Andrew couldn’t bear to leave them behind; the twin nectarines and the two saplings we had planted for his Grandma Olga and Grandpa Victor: they all came with us, followed shortly thereafter by some honeysuckle from my parents’ house in Newton when that too was sold.

But not all transplants take, do they? Salman Rushdie showed us that in The Satanic Verses, when Gibreel Farishta careened into madness. Grandpa and Grandma’s saplings grew sickly and died, while the honeysuckle ran riot through the garden, choking everything in its path. Although the nectarines dug in tenaciously and managed to hold their ground, something wasn’t right. Perhaps their growth was stunted by the massive Norway spruce looming overhead, perhaps the soil wasn’t nourishing enough; in any case, they didn’t flourish. Eventually they started flowering in the spring and we celebrated the delicate pink blossoms, but come late summer the fruit was disappointing; either it fell off while it was still very small, or it was nibbled and knocked off by squirrels, or it was pockmarked and scabby. Andrew tried picking the fruits early, but the hard, tiny nectarines were too small to ripen. He tried making nectarine pickle as one would with green mangoes, but nobody much cared for it and it was more trouble than it was worth. The trees were weak—perhaps because their separation in infancy had left them inherently lopsided—and needed tethering and propping up. After a summer storm, one of them tipped over and started branching up from the ground again. We ought to have taken drastic action, but somehow we didn’t have the heart: besides memories, these were all we had left of White Pond.

But inexplicably, this year, a year of travel and transitions when the garden has received the least attention it has ever had, not only have both trees, even the broken one, flowered and set fruit, but the fruit has grown and stayed on the branches. The little nectarines are larger and healthier than I have ever seen them before, and there are so many of them that they are bowing the branches down with their weight. After all those failed attempts in past years I had given up on the fruit altogether, but just last week I took a closer look and found them filled out and beginning to blush. Sure, they weren’t going to win any prizes at the county fair: some of them were split open, others were oozing a strange gelatinous substance, and most of them were freckled and pimpled like teenagers; but they were healthy and definitely seemed to be maturing. I decided to pick a batch before the birds got to them and see if they would continue to ripen indoors.


An old man I met in the supermarket had once advised me to ripen peaches at home in a brown paper bag, so I followed his instructions and set them aside for a few days. Yesterday, to my delight, I found that several of them had ripened successfully. They weren’t flawless, but after some trimming they yielded a small mound: slivers and slices of delectable pinky-orange nectarine.

Only twenty-five years later. I wonder why the nectarines came to fruition this year? Was their profusion was a desperate bid for survival due to our neglect, or did they simply need more time? I will never know. But it just goes to show: things may bear unexpected fruit, sometimes long after one has given up on them.


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338. Self-doubt

In blogs and blogging, Books, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work, writing on July 9, 2015 at 2:09 pm


A talented artist-friend once said to me, during a conversation about our creative aspirations and our best selves, “Would you want, ‘She wrote a good blog’, inscribed on your tombstone?”

Boy, did that hurt! I knew that she hadn’t meant to hurt me, though, and was wrestling with unfulfilled aspirations herself, so I tried to take it as it was intended: that is, to invite me to explore what I really wanted for myself.

Another friend, a prolific writer and a mentor whom I honor and admire, put it this way: “I too turned to small personal pieces during a dry period. I found that they got my creative juices flowing again and helped me return to my scholarly writing with renewed energy.”

This too was hurtful because it dismissed the blog as a means to a higher end rather than something of value in itself. And, of course, because it reminded me of what I was not doing—as if I needed reminding!

A last anecdote, this one from literature. In Shashi Deshpande’s Sahitya Akademi Prize-winning novel, That Long Silence (1988), the protagonist Jaya retreats to an empty apartment while going through a family crisis. The time away from her workaday life precipitates a period of self-examination, in which she realizes, among other things, that she has been selling herself short in writing little pieces for a women’s magazine, “light, humorous pieces about the travails of a middle-class housewife (148-9, Virago edition). She has been afraid to take her writing seriously, so, instead, has created herself in the image of the “little woman.”

I often ask myself whether this is what I am doing in Tell Me Another. It is easier to write these short pieces, and I get instant gratification in the responses of readers all over the world. And then, in part because this is a public blog written under my own name and read by family and friends, and—who knows—employers and enemies alike, I must of necessity keep it relatively light, humorous. Is it self-deprecating? Ingratiatingly feminine? Or is it simply written from another part of myself?

Of course, it isn’t a question of either/or, but and/and. The blog is a kind of writing unto itself, and because it is a new medium, it gives me the opportunity to experiment, to develop a new voice and perhaps a new genre, in which I communicate critical concepts and issues of concern in a reflective, narrative form. Human beings are story-telling animals. We define, create, and understand ourselves through stories, and the art of storytelling is one that we neglect at our peril. At its best, this new form and personal voice is every bit as valuable, creative, and fulfilling for me as my scholarly writing, and reaches a much wider audience to boot.

At its worst, though, it is my equivalent of Jaya’s “little woman” column, something I resort to because it’s safe and easy, and because it sidesteps the arenas of publishing and scholarly judgement. If, year after year, I simply keep churning out the same kinds of stories without finding new ways to make them inform and enliven my scholarly writing (and vice-versa), then I am being driven, not by a joyful creativity, but by self-doubt.

Thankfully, at the moment, joy is winning.

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337. Lessons from a Historian

In 1970s, Books, Education, Family, history, parenting, people, Stories, United States on July 4, 2015 at 9:49 am
Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Years ago, around 1978, I participated in an anti-nuclear rally on the Boston Common where Howard Zinn spoke. I can’t remember the exact occasion of the rally or the main thrust of his talk, but one piece of advice in it stuck. Zinn’s words of wisdom have since come back to me in numerous very different situations involving negotiations with those in power.

“Always ask for what you want,” he told us, “never what you think you can get.”

He went on to explain what we have all experienced in one setting or another, but I had never quite articulated to myself as a political principle.

If an employee asks for a pay increase, for instance, probability is that the employer will come back with a lower offer rather than meeting the demand—that is, if he entertains it at all. People who feel themselves to be powerless start negotiations timidly and self-defeatingly by asking for less than they really want; but this guarantees that they will never get it, since the rules of power dictate that the powerful will always drive it down.

Power is (almost) never relinquished voluntarily, only under pressure, and of course a group of people can collectively exert more pressure than most individuals could ever hope to do. Another reason to articulate what you want, then, is to inspire other people. An individual going up against Power alone may gain something for him/herself, but the gain will be individual and limited; it cannot spark a movement for lasting social change.


When I heard Howard Zinn speak all those years ago, he must have been in the process of writing A People’s History of the United States (first published in 1980, most recent edition, 2005), which sets out to present American history through the eyes of the common people rather than political and economic elites. Of course, historiography—and the book’s title—tells us that this is one of many approaches to telling a story, and not the dominant one; Zinn’s popular and influential book has been challenged by many who question his political perspective. It is axiomatic that history is written by the powerful, so his approach is an important corrective to the history that most of us have been taught in school.

(from Occupy Oakland)

(from Occupy Oakland)

Children become masters in dealing with power in the persons of their parents. So it is no wonder that our son had internalized Zinn’s lesson long before he even learned to read; in fact, he went one better. His strategy was to make an outrageous demand, asking for much more than he knew was possible and then bargaining us down to what he really wanted. He invariably ended up with much more than his parents, putty in his hands, ever intended. So at bedtime, for example, he might ask me to finish reading the book and then bargain me down to “just” three chapters. (Come to think of it,  that doesn’t make a good analogy, since what he really wanted was usually what I wanted too.)

I write this on July 4th, Independence Day in the United States. Yesterday, a public radio station was asking listeners to share what it was that made them feel patriotic. I started making a mental list, which included national parks and public libraries. Add to that list the late Howard Zinn. howardzinnreadin

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