Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘people’ Category

402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

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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.


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.”


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.


Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

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384. Auntie Bette’s Litmus Test

In 1980s, Britain, Family, Food, people, Stories, travel, United States on June 28, 2016 at 9:35 pm


My Auntie Bette has always had impossibly high standards and we were anxious not to disappoint her. In the summer of 1984, older then than I am now, she stepped off the plane at Logan Airport looking regal in a powder-blue jumpsuit, as ravishing as if she had just stepped out of a beauty salon, rather than having survived the ravages of a seven-hour transatlantic flight. England, of course, was the pinnacle of perfection and in her eyes, the U.S. would always be playing catch-up. For years she sent us massive care packages at Christmas, telling the neighbors, sweet-shop man, and post-office clerk that it was “for my poor sister out there in America who can’t get a good Christmas pudding for love nor money.”

So when we took her to New York City we wanted to show her something really impressive. But was there anything there that could match London? She didn’t think so. FAO Schwartz wasn’t bad, she conceded; the Statue of Liberty: well, all right if you liked that sort of thing; bagels, meh. We’d heard of this building that had just opened a few months before and which we hoped would be just Auntie Bette’s cup of tea: unashamedly luxurious, in-your-face-opulent, totally over the top. It was named Trump Tower, after some wealthy toff who had developed it, no shrinking violet himself, by all accounts.

Atrium, Trump Tower

Atrium, Trump Tower

The building’s massive foyer—the Atrium, they called it—was dazzling with gold glinting and reflecting off every surface. The walls, the ceilings, even the escalators were gold. Auntie Bette didn’t think so. Gilt, she was sure, and showy; she remained singularly unimpressed. We checked out the restaurant, but no dice: the menu was ordinary and overpriced, and you couldn’t get a good cup of tea. Suddenly Auntie Bette said, “What about the loos? Are the seats made of gold? Now that would be something.”

There ensued a half-hour search—upstairs, downstairs, and in my lady’s chamber—but most of the building consisted of a hotel and high-end retail stores, and we couldn’t find a public toilet anywhere. Finally, deep in the bowels of the building, in some lower basement, we found it. There was a line of expensively-dressed ladies waiting outside in the corridor for a few miserable stalls to be vacated. We joined them, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other until it was our turn. What a disappointment! They were just ordinary toilets; no gold seats or gold faucets, in fact, not a glimmer of gold anywhere in sight, except on the ladies’ fingers. “I thought so,” said Auntie Bette; “All show and no substance.”  Or words to that effect: maybe she said, “Flash waistcoat and dirty knickers.” You can always judge a place by its lavatories, says my Auntie Bette, and I fully concur.

photo by Joseph Burke (

photo by Joseph Burke (

Thankfully, America did redeem itself that day. On the drive home we broke our journey at the legendary Secondi Brothers truck stop where Andrew’s brother Dan always had breakfast on his weekly food co-op truck run to New York. (Sadly, the restaurant is no more, only a gas station and convenience store.) This was a place guaranteed to fill the stomach of the heftiest trucker, but Auntie Bette is a good trencherwoman and more than a match for anyone. And breakfast is her favorite meal.

She asked for a fried-egg sandwich, with home fries on the side. If I recall, she gave the amused waiter detailed instructions about how she  liked her eggs and how many pieces of toast she wanted. At least, he started out amused; by the time he had finished taking the order he was quaking in his boots. It was going to be hard to satisfy this customer.

But Secondi’s delivered. When the massive platter arrived, steaming hot, with the food threatening to fall off its edges, even Auntie Bette was suitably impressed. There was silence all round for a few minutes, as she did justice to the order and we all looked on, amazed. Her only remark, halfway through, was, “three eggs!” And at the end, she went up to the front personally to thank the cook. “Now, they know how to do breakfast,” she pronounced, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Secondi Brothers had her seal of approval.

Trump Towers, however, failed to pass Auntie Bette’s litmus test. And I suspect the man behind the (gilt) curtain would do the same.

(from the guardian.com_

(from the


Note: Word must have gotten out that the TT toilets had failed to pass muster because, in search of images to illustrate this story, I found a 2012 article listing the locations of the top ten public bathrooms in New York City, guaranteed to “make you feel like royalty.”  Whaddya know? Listed at number seven was Trump Towers at Columbus Circle.

(not at Trump Towers)


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381. Cousin Mischa

In Family, people, Stories, United States on May 10, 2016 at 1:58 am
Vortex site, Sedona, Arizona

Vortex site, Sedona, Arizona

He was frequently the first person who called to wish me a happy Mother’s Day. Now, I’m not sentimental about Mother’s Day, but he was. I appreciated his calls all the more because he had no biological obligation to me: he did what he did only out of the goodness of his heart. Mischa (Michael) Wecher was Andrew’s maternal cousin, his mother’s sister’s son, and an elder brother to us all.

I hate having to use “was” to describe someone who was such a life force. On Wednesday, May 4th, I received a tearful phone call from Andrew’s sister Eve, who had flown out to Oregon with their brother Dan, with the sad news that Mischa had just passed away. They had got there less than two days before, and it was almost as if he had been waiting for them to arrive before he took his leave, just a couple of weeks short of his 68th birthday.

I first met him when I was just 17, when he spent a year in Andrew’s family’s uninsulated cabin on the banks of White Pond in Concord with his lifelong friend Bob Parker. At the end, in Coos Bay, Mischa waited for Bob, too, and breathed his last only after Bob had left to return to Los Angeles. But that winter of 1972, they kept warm with cheap Ripple wine and by coming to my college dorm during the coldest spells, when the preppies gaped at their tattoos, biker gear, and Mischa’s expansive presence. For he was well over six feet tall and was not one to tone himself down for anyone. No doubt he got a kick out of the wide-eyed Cliffies, and played up the role of the stereotypical biker to watch their reactions. Mischa invented the fast-and-furious game of Gnip Gnop at my dorm: it was played with ping-pong paddles and ball over a ping-pong table, but although the ball had to be kept in the area over the table, it was not allowed to touch down on it.

John_Prine_self-titledThat was also the year when Mischa introduced Andrew and me to John Prine. He was on tour to promote his first album, and was giving a now-legendary performance at Passim’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After listening to the young postman and Vietnam Vet-turned singer-songwriter-poet introduce and sing all the songs on the album and then some, starting with the now-iconic Spanish Pipedream, I was a fan for life. Since that day I must have seen John Prine half a dozen times, and know almost all his lyrics by heart. The New York Times was calling him “the working-class Bob Dylan,” and they were half-right in terms of his genius, but John Prine can’t be compared to anyone else. Neither can Cousin Mischa.

The chorus of Spanish Pipedream goes:

Blow up your TV, throw away your papers
Go into the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus, on your own.

In his own way‑and he did everything in his own way‑Mischa might have adopted this song as the anthem of his life. Home and family meant everything to him, especially his beloved daughters, Jessie and Michelle. He was a fiercely protective father and would move heaven and earth for them. He did just about everything himself, letting nothing and no one dictate his beliefs and behavior. For several years when his daughters were small, he moved the family to the wilds of Northern California and panned for gold. He made homes in New York (Brooklyn; Massapequa, Long Island), Concord, Massachusetts; Washington State; California (Redondo Beach, San Diego), Phoenix, Arizona; and, in what was to be the last year of his life, in Coos Bay, Oregon, where he realized his dream of living by the water, buying a boat, and fishing as his father had done before him.

In every home of his, he threw himself into building and remodeling, building a garage single-handedly, putting in a pool, creating a desert rock garden in Phoenix, completely renovating the house in San Diego that he inherited from his brother Richard before selling it and moving with Debbie to Coos Bay. On his Google+ profile he listed himself as “Bum,” but he was one of the most hard-working people I have ever known.

Mischa was larger than life in every way, not just in terms of energy and physical size; he was also big-hearted and the soul of generosity. Like all of Andrew’s family, he celebrated the Ukrainian Orthodox Easter and Christmas, and never failed to call in whenever we gathered for those occasions, talking to each of us in turn as we passed the phone round the dinner table. When he came to visit he would cook for us, shopping in bulk at Costco and preparing about three times the quantity  that anyone could be expected to consume in one sitting. On every visit Back East he helped complete projects around the house; thanks to him, our bathroom floor is beautifully tiled.

Also thanks to Mischa, we have a small glass-stoppered bottle of his younger  brother and our cousin Richard’s ashes on the shelf in our living room, next to the Russian icons, the statues of Ganapati, and Nikhil’s school photos and sports trophies. After dear Richard’s untimely death a few years ago, Mischa rode his Harley across the country with Bob as he had many times before, this time carrying his brother‘s ashes with him everywhere he went, even to the table at restaurants, before bearing them to the cemetery and his family’s plot. But he left some of them behind with Andrew, and perhaps with others along the way.

gandalf-and-staffcMischa had more than his share of health problems over the past decade, undergoing several surgeries and forced to take heavy-duty meds, but his zest for life was undiminished. He decided to have two hip replacements, and in close succession so that he wouldn’t be long out of action. While grounded, he threw himself into a new project, making striking, intricately carved walking sticks, each one worthy of Gandalf himself. He insisted that the hospital return one of his hip joints to him, and embedded the ball in his personal walking stick like a royal sceptre. And when he was given the green light to walk free, he went right out and bought jet skis to test-drive his new hips.

As a strict rationalist, Andrew’s father Ted is liable to scoff at anything that hasn’t been scientifically proven. Mischa always saw it as his personal mission to get Ted’s goat, and Ted usually obliged by rising to the bait. On this one particular occasion, though, he outdid himself.

star-trek-transporterMischa was planning another cross-country road trip but didn’t reveal his plans to his uncle. Instead, he mentioned to him on the phone that he’d heard about a new device, like a Star Trek transporter, that actually made it possible to teleport oneself across long distances. Ted just switched his mind off as he tended to do when Mischa was talking nonsense, as he saw it, but he was playing right into his nephew’s hands. When he arrived at our house, Mischa called his uncle as if he were still in California, and again brought up the story. “Ted, remember that teleporting device I told you about? Well, I’m going to test it out right now.” And such were his persuasive powers that he pulled it off! He materialized in Ted’s kitchen, tiptoeing over from our house next door with the cell phone to his ear, and, for a few minutes, rattled even a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic like my father-in-law.

He delighted in getting a rise out of all of us, ruffling our East-Coast-liberal feathers with his forwarded emails and jokes that we often considered off-color, offensive, or downright wrong. But they were part of the total package, and because it was coming from someone we loved, we were forced to confront this point of view, much as Ted was forced to consider the possibility of something he considered unscientific in the extreme.

Mischa is responsible for so many high points in my life. He got us into Disneyland on special passes when Nikhil was four; took us to Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Festival on the banks of the Hudson River in New York State; drove us to the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, at whose legendary vortex the earth is said to be exceptionally alive with energy; and when, on a cross-country trip at age 18 I had the worst sunburn ever or since, he gave up his king-sized air bed to me, where I was rocked to sleep like the first created being on the floating islands of Perelandra. And, of course, he introduced me to the music of John Prine.

I can’t wrap my head around the idea that Mischa has gone. He was always calling in and reminding us that we had family who cared about us, and we took it for granted that he would keep on doing so. Even when he was ill he kept on calling, and making light of the round after round of chemotherapy that he was enduring. Eventually Debbie contacted us and told us that he was not doing well, and Eve and Dan made the trip out to the Northwest, where Andrew had traveled with him less than a year ago to help him move. I wanted to go, and told him so, but never made it. I wanted to tell him how much we all loved him and how much of him would forever be part of us, but now I can’t do that, except in spirit.

Two more songs by John Prine will always bring Mischa back to me. The first is Please Don’t Bury Me, from the Sweet Revenge album, especially the last verse and the chorus, which go:

Give my feet to the footloose
Careless, fancy free
Give my knees to the needy
Don’t pull that stuff on me
Hand me down my walking cane
It’s a sin to tell a lie
Send my mouth way down south
And kiss my ass goodbye.

But please don’t bury me
Down in that cold cold ground
No, I’d druther have ’em cut me up
And pass me all around
Throw my brain in a hurricane
And the blind can have my eyes
And the deaf can take both of my ears
If they don’t mind the size.

The second is Paradise, John Prine’s beautiful environmental elegy, which I heard for the first time that evening at Passim’s 44 years ago. Here’s the last verse:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam,
I’ll be halfway to heaven with Paradise waitin’,
Just five miles away from wherever I am

Love you, Mischa. Let your spirit soar.

Washington State (

Washington State (

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360. Friends

In blogs and blogging, people, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 8, 2016 at 1:00 am

MyLorgan (Youtube)

                                                                    MyLorgan (Youtube)

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

FYou have made a plan to get together. Arriving on time at the appointed place, you start looking around for a glimpse of him or her. Then you catch sight of each other from afar, each hurrying purposefully towards the other, and the surrounding crowds blur and fade into the background. Your face breaks out in a huge ear-to-ear grin; in fact, you’re smiling all over. You are in the presence of your dear friend.

I hope I don’t take my friends for granted. Having moved so many times in my childhood and early teens, I’ve largely missed those lifelong friends going all the way back to infancy, so the ones I do have are all the more precious to me. In the world we live in, your childhood best friend, even if you are still in touch, is liable to live thousands of miles away, so your tea dates must perforce be virtual ones. But when you do have a friend you can call on the spur of the moment to ask what she’s doing, and she says, Nothing, why don’t you come over? I’ve just put the kettle on, you are indeed fortunate. Or a friend whom you can call—again on the spur of the moment, and say, I need a little getaway, can I come and sleep over? And she replies, When can you get here? You arrive on her doorstep with your contributions toward dinner, which you cook and eat together, and she has borrowed a pile of videos from the library for your review, which you eventually settle down to watch. But first, during, and after, you talk and talk and talk. And your friend, even if she is tired, shows infinite patience.

There are friends on other coasts and continents; who drop you a line just to say they’re thinking about you, proposing a Skype date across six time zones; who drop everything to lend you an ear, no matter how much grading they’ve got to get through that night; who send you photographs of their luxuriant gardens when your own is frozen solid or wall-to-wall weeds; who post links to stirring songs that carry you back and launch you forward.

Friends from different times and places of your life have shared intimate experiences that continue to bind you closely together no matter how many years or miles separate you. You shared a secret language and wrote notes to each other in it; made pacts to wear matching outfits for a month; went to your first anti-war demonstration arm in arm. In graduate school, you called each other late at night, desperate to come up with an assignment for class the next day; studied for your qualifying exams together; read and re-read chapters of each other’s dissertations. You entered motherhood together, straining organic vegetables and scouring thrift stores for 100% cotton all-in-ones, sharing bedtime and sleep strategies, worrying about the pernicious influences of television and schooling. Later, when miles upon miles separated you, you wrote long letters, later emails, to each other, and saved them all.

I call my one of my two dearest friends in California at bedtime Eastern Standard Time, their evening, Pacific Time. We ask each other whether we have taken exercise, meditated, gotten enough sleep. They pray for me. We send each other successful recipes, Netflix recommendations, student essays so unspeakable that we haven’t a clue how to respond.

During my sabbatical in 2014 I visited an old friend in England—who does go back to my infancy, but whom I hadn’t been able to meet for several years. As she met me at the railway station she asked, How long do we have? Twenty-four hours, I replied. Right, she said; let’s make the most of it. And we sure did.

Although we do the best we can to span the distance between us, nothing beats the golden times we get to be together in person. Thanks to all my friends, who bring me joy, and try to knock some sense into that hard head of mine.

Here are some songs to friends and friendship:
You’ve Got a Friend — James Taylor and Carole King (Winter, spring, summer or fall/All you have to do is call/And I’ll be there/You’ve got a friend)
Precious Friend — Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie (You bring me hope/Not just the old soft soap)
Make New Friends and Keep the Old (Girl Scout song)
Say Say My Playmate (girls’ clapping song)

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350. Lest We Forget

In Britain, Family, history, Media, people on November 11, 2015 at 6:40 pm
Remembrance Poppy

Remembrance Poppy

My maternal grandfather was a proud man who refused to wear a tie or to bow to anybody or anything. But Mum said that he made one exception, at 11:11 am every Armistice Day, when he stood stiffly to attention—as did everyone else in the room, or woe betide them—during the minute of silence on the radio in honour of all who lost their lives in the First World War.

My uncle Ted told me that Granddad signed up with his younger brother at the start of the War. The pressure to enlist was enormous, and there was no work for them in England, so off they went to France. Granddad made it through with only a knee injury that sent him to a hospital in Wales for a short period of recovery and then back to the front, where he was transferred from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps Regiment to a “cushy” job in the Royal Army Medical Corps, retrieving the wounded and the dead from the field of battle. He served to the very end and came home in one piece, but his brother wasn’t so lucky. He was killed in the very last month of the war, and the family has never found his grave.


The demobilized soldiers were promised “a land fit for heroes,” but the reality back home was very different. During the four years of the war our grandmother had given birth to three children and buried two of them. Life was bleak for the young couple, with more children being born and no work to be found. Granddad faced a Catch-22 whereby he couldn’t receive unemployment because he had not lost a job; apparently the war didn’t count. As a small boy, Uncle Ted remembers queuing up with his father for food relief and coming away with a single loaf of bread to feed the whole family.

Although Granddad himself remained staunchly patriotic and proud of his military service, Uncle Ted is sad and bitter on his behalf. He blames the diplomats who failed to secure a negotiated peace, the generals who sent soldiers to certain slaughter, and the politicians who allowed the war to drag on for years, long after anyone remembered what it was all in aid of—if they ever had.

It was in my childhood that I first wore a poppy on Remembrance Day in remembrance of the dead of the “Great War”—the war in which there was hardly a family in Britain who didn’t lose someone. But this year the controversy surrounding that simple emblem has left a bad taste in my mouth. Right-wing anti-immigrant parties have attempted to appropriate the remembrance poppy and its meaning. It was always sold by the Royal British Legion in aid of the WWI veterans; now, however, there are hardly any of them left and apparently groups like Britain First have been selling the poppy as well; I wonder what they do with the money.

I am not living in Britain, but the controversy reaches me over Facebook, where I have been seeing aggressive posts telling those who disrespect the poppy to Go Home. After a little research into the subject, I find that the so-called disrespecters are straw men: that is, no one has shown disrespect to the poppy and what it stands for; these groups are creating a false enemy in order to fan the flames of hate. It would be well for these haters to remember that among the many men who fought and died in the First World War were nearly two million British colonial subjects, Indians and Africans who were aggressively recruited, with promises of land and freedom upon their return. For those who did return, the promises were not kept, fueling the movements for independence from colonial rule.

An Indian soldier wounded in WWI

An Indian soldier wounded in WWI

So on Remembrance Day, once but no longer Poppy Day in my mind, I remember the hard lives of my grandparents and the ordinary British working people, as well as the men who gave their lives for their colonial rulers. That war was not fought for any of them. If the poppy means anything to me, it is as an emblem of the fragility and preciousness of human life and a reminder of all those who have been sacrificed to the insatiably hungry war machine.

Lest we forget.


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346. Keeping Up with The Times

In Family, people, reading, Stories, United States on October 16, 2015 at 10:29 am


My father-in-law Ted is and always has been an avid reader of The New York Times. He is a native New Yorker, and although long-resident in New England, he still has a fierce loyalty for his hometown newspaper. The Times structures his day. When a New England snowstorm buries his morning copy or otherwise disrupts its delivery, the order of his entire day is upset, and he spends much of it on the phone trying to determine what went wrong and when he can expect it to be set to rights. But when the day’s edition is tossed onto the ramp up to his front door on schedule, then all’s well with the world.

Ted’s routine begins immediately after breakfast. He works through the Times methodically, section by section, alert to the interests of his children and the friends with whom he corresponds on a regular basis. Along the way he marks articles of possible interest to one or another of them, clips them out, and puts them in an envelope labeled with their name. Over the years he has had me earmarked for clippings on medicinal herbs, the dangers thereof (his scientist’s corrective to my missionary zeal); writers: postcolonial, Indian, British; single authors: Doris Lessing, Ruth Rendell, Salman Rushdie; and anything to do with India. In 1993, when we spent six months in India, we received a fat envelope every few weeks from my father-in-law, containing all the Times’ stories on India in that period. He still clips them for me to pick up, but now emails me regularly to let me know that my envelope is getting full, or to give special mention to a noteworthy piece.

I am not the only lucky person who is the beneficiary of my father-in-law’s volunteer clipping service. For each of his children he fills large manila envelopes on mushrooms, mystery novels, and book design (Eve); Japan (Vera); computers (Dan), letterpress printing and the Red Sox’s progress (Andrew); and for his grandson, dispatches regular packets of clippings on films and filmmaking, poetry, and anything of interest happening in his beloved New York City.

UnknownAfter his work is done, he tackles the Times crossword, which starts out simply on Monday and gets progressively more challenging with each day of the week, culminating in a near-impossible one on Saturday. Sunday being a day of rest—relatively speaking, since of course there is the massive Sunday Times to get through—a more forgiving puzzle lets readers off the treadmill.

It was a proud day when Ted got a story published in the Times, a piece about the childhood games he played on the sidewalks of New York. Of course we all received a clipping of the piece, as did the members of Ted’s ex-New Yorkers group, who used to meet monthly to discuss a different topic related to the city of their birth.

Sadly, print journalism is in a steep decline these days, and major dailies have been doing away with their print editions at an alarming rate, cutting back to online only. The time-honored ritual of going through the morning papers may soon be a thing of the past. Instead, people will get their news piecemeal, from a number of different online sources. It feels like the end of an era, one in which a whole segment of the population shared “All the news that’s fit to print.”

Although I haven’t dared to break the sacrilegious news to Ted, my own father recently discontinued his longtime subscription to the Times. Why? It was getting too time-consuming. He felt compelled to go through it, since he had paid for it, but what with Rachel Maddow and the rest of the gang on MSNBC, India Abroad, the London Review of Books, and the occasional New Yorker, he was saturated with news already, and decided that he would rather spend the time on more serious literature, both in English and Marathi. But he is grateful for the weekly packet of New York Times clippings from Ted, which he and I now share, and the Sunday Times Book Review and Magazine (minus the crossword, of course), which Ted passes on to him every week when he has gone through it.

In the past, I too have been a near-obsessive collector of newspaper clippings. Half our attic and basement is filled with boxes of them, unread, yellowing, waiting for Godot.  Now I just wait for Ted’s weekly envelope. Thank you, dear Ted, for keeping us up with the Times!


A note on word choice:  In British English we say “cutting,” not “clipping.” Although I use the American term above, I’m fond of the British one as well. While the former puts me in mind of dead nail clippings, the latter conjures up plants and new growth.

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340. Coastal Connections

In Family, Inter/Transnational, Nature, people, places, Stories, United States on August 2, 2015 at 11:07 am

Anna and I had managed to get away for three whole days and were finally on the road, heading up the Maine coast and on to Monhegan Island. We planned to spend a quiet overnight in New Harbor and to catch the first ferry out the next morning.


Maine’s mid-coast region has a number of peninsulas that sprout from the mainland like fingers and reach towards the sea. Driving up from Portland we passed a succession of signs for small towns: Brunswick, Topsham, Bath, Boothbay Harbor, Wiscasset, Georgetown, Damariscotta, Pemaquid, all known and loved by my brother-in-law Charles, who had just died right here, much too young, after a long and painful illness. It felt strange for me to be in his old haunts, while he himself was gone. When he was with us, Charles almost never left Maine; he was ill at ease anywhere else.


Passing through the little community of Bristol (formerly Pemaquid), only a mile from our destination, we noticed a handmade sign announcing an “Artisan’s Reception” in a barn next-door to a tiny public library. My sister-in-law Vera has worked in the Maine public library system for years, most recently in Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library and prior to that in the children’s room of Bath’s beautiful Patten Free Library. No doubt she knew the Bristol Area Library as well. We stopped on a whim, thinking to browse for a few minutes and perhaps buy a gift or two before checking in to our lodging and going out for dinner. But as it turned out, we were not to emerge until two hours later.

printed at Saturn Press, Swan's Island, ME

printed at Saturn Press, Swan’s Island, ME

We did browse the collection of handcrafted work by area artisans: weavings, pottery, fine printing, feltwork, handmade clothing. We bought letterpress-printed cards from Saturn Press on Swan’s Island, and I found a felt bird’s nest with two small felt eggs to go in it for my friend Cylla, whose two daughters had miraculously made her a double grandmother in the space of four days just the previous week. Then we moved outside to the generous reception in the garden, and a series of encounters that made me see why Charles and Vera loved this part of Maine so much.

We met a young dress designer whose clothes, we had been quietly telling each other, were outrageously expensive. But then we met her, modeling one of her creations beautifully, and so open and vulnerable as she spoke of her struggle to market her clothing. Her boyfriend was an artisan, too, she said, a skilled worker in metal and wood, who always sold himself short though he did wonderful work.

may-coverWe had a long talk with an earnest and articulate young writer and editor at Maine’s Down East magazine, who had recently relocated to the area from the Midwest with his wife and baby. He talked about the upcoming issue focusing on the islands of Maine, and said that they themselves had almost moved to Isle au Haut, which was encouraging couples with children or of childbearing age to “build a sustainable year-round population” and keep open the school, whose “enrollment ha[d] fallen to the single digits” (Town of Isle au Haut Comprehensive Plan). This story recalled my favorite Isle au Haut Lullaby, and also Two Thousand Acres of Sky a British television series I used to enjoy about an odd couple who did just that, moving from inner-city London to a tiny (and fictional) island in the Scottish Hebrides.

asian-university-for-womenBut for me, the most astounding encounter was with the young woman whose ancestral origins were here in Bristol, but who had been born and raised in Bangladesh. As we were talking to her, her mother came over and introduced herself, and we learned that she and her husband still lived and worked in Bangladesh, running a school for slum children and a music academy. When I told them that I had grown up in West Bengal, they began speaking to me in fluent Bangla—who would have thunk it, in the wilds of Maine? But that was not all; the daughter had just returned to Maine from a stint of teaching at the recently-established Asian University for Women in Chittagong, which I had intended to visit during my sabbatical last year, but had not managed to get to. She even knew my dear friend Sartaz’s sister, who is AUW’s Vice-Chancellor. We exchanged email addresses—we will surely reconnect—and I came away abuzz with energy and ideas.

When Vera first moved up to be with Charles—since Charles would never have dreamed of leaving Maine—she found it a cultural wilderness, without the diversity of the Boston area, whose universities draw so many international students. But after they married and she committed herself to the place, the region began to change, and she herself was probably one of the agents of that change. There was an active Japan Society in Portland, and she served on its board, helping to organize cultural events and hosting visitors from Japan. She promoted international education and awareness through her programming at the children’s library, and became deeply involved with a growing and multigenerational network of peace activists, many of whom lived spartan and sustainable lives in houses that they had built themselves. Charles and Vera themselves lived off the grid for several years on a tiny island, having to hike three-quarters of a mile to the cabin from their car in the winter, lighting the way with headlamps and carrying their groceries in backpacks.

The young editor told us that in the past couple of years the area had been experiencing something of a baby boom. As I cradled Cylla’s little felt nest in the palm of my hand I thought of Charles, with his deep respect for the land and tidal waterways preserving the best of the local traditions and of Vera, with her delight in international cultures teaching children and adults alike that nobody is an outsider. Their work and examples surely helped to make this cultural renaissance possible, and nurtured the loving community of friends who had stood vigil for peace at President Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport and kept vigil at Charles bedside throughout the last weeks of his illness.


In New Harbor that evening we lodged in an old house that had belonged to the proprietor’s great-grandparents and had fish stew for supper. As I lay in bed, I couldn’t fall asleep for some time; I was too wired. What connections we had made—and in a spot that didn’t even have cell phone or internet service.


Rest In Peace, Charles King.
May Love comfort and sustain you, dear Vera.


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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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