Category Archives: Current Events

Okay I read it! Here’s what I think of Go Set a Watchman

If Go Set A Watchman hadn’t been written by Harper Lee, I don’t guess I would recommend it because it isn’t all that good a read. But it was written by Harper Lee, and we know that if she had chosen to revise and edit it, she was capable of producing a brilliant snapshot of the south in the years immediately following the historic Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Supreme Court decision.

It’s been widely reported that Atticus Finch displays a racist side in this novel, but less has been made of the fact that Jean Louise herself agrees with her father on many, though not all of his opinions. There are several long, rambling conversations that escalate into arguments, and in most of these scenes no one’s point is explained very well. That’s okay, this was apparently an early draft. But I was appalled at the final confrontation between Jean Louise and her uncle, Dr. Jack Finch. Gee whiz, were there no present-day editors? Did they really think that (SPOILER ALERT) a pompous older man striking a young woman across the mouth would play well with a 21st century audience? I know that in the 50s and 60s jokes about domestic abuse were common, but it can’t be tolerated today.

The scene that touched me the most was the one between Scout and Calpurnia, the now-retired domestic worker who served the Finch family for so many decades. Lee implies that the advent of the civil rights era has created a chasm between the white gentry of Maycombe County, Alabama, and their “Negro” servants and “neighbors.” Of course there is little acknowledgement that from the servants’ point of view that chasm always existed. Nonetheless in this meting with Cal, Scout feels this separation from the woman she considers her surrogate mother, and it wounds her in a way more poignant that the intellectual arguments she has with her father, uncle, aunt and boyfriend. (Yes, lots of people and lots of talk, talk, talk!)

It’s true that the flashbacks to childhood and teen years were the most engaging in the book. It makes sense that Lee’s editors back in the 50s urged her to focus on those. But I also have to wonder if her publisher’s real motivation was to steer Lee to a safer, less controversial subject that the fears of white southerners now the their servants were attempting to exercise their right to vote. Of course I’m happy Harper Lee wrote the heroic and beautiful To Kill a Mockingbird, but a well thought-out, polished novel on the fears of the 50s might well have been a gift to us too. As it is, it’s rather confusing and sad.

SPOILER ALERT: I miss Jem something awful.

Here are a few articles on the book I found interesting, even though they contradict each other:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/25/opinion/joe-nocera-the-watchman-fraud.html?_r=0

http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/go-set-a-watchman-isnt-a-good-book-but-it-is-an-import-1718471112

And to my writer friends: write a will. Write it now. Be sure your wishes are known. Don’t even get me started on whomever is handling Theodor Geisel’s estate.

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What To Think About Watchman?

First I have to say that I have not yet read Go Set a Watchman. I do intend to read it though; my copy arrived from Amazon yesterday. But the early reviews of Harper Lee’s second novel have been playing on my mind and I feel a need to set my thoughts down now.

As I said in a previous post, I was concerned that this “new” book would expose writing that wasn’t ready for publication, that maybe it just wouldn’t be very good. It never occurred to me that the beloved Atticus Finch could ever be anything but the paragon of handsome virtue Gregory Peck portrayed him to be. But is the racist, segregation-supporting Atticus of Watchman a first draft character that Lee totally discarded when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird? Or was this darker man always there in her thoughts as she wrote the story from a child’s point of view? Was she intending to write a sequel where the adult Jean Louise would be disillusioned to discover the true nature of the father she had idolized?

Perhaps I’ll have a clearer answer after I read the book, but I want to believe that the former is true. I want to believe that Lee never released this book because the Atticus Finch of Watchman no longer existed. Maybe she’d thrown him out and invented a whole new guy for Mockingbird. Of course this is a very idealistic wish, and the fact is none of us will ever know what the answer is. Harper Lee is unwilling or—more likely—unable to tell us what she was thinking back then.

It’s occurred to me this past week that Atticus Finch has been a perfect, pure, unadulterated hero for all of us white progressives. At the risk of his reputation, his safety—and most importantly the safety of his children—he did the right thing, he stood up to the bigots in his town and defended an African American man unjustly accused of a crime. We all like to think we could perform as well, you know, if we were ever tested. And yet most of us design our lives so we won’t be tested, so we won’t have to confront our own bigotry. This is especially easy here out west where there are no Civil War battlefields or memorials to fallen Freedom Riders.

So here I will present a small test for my literary minded friends: how many books have you read lately by African American writers? How may books have you ever read by authors of color? I have to admit for myself, it’s not many. I will say that when I was first out of college, as a fledgling feminist and aspiring writer, I deliberately chose to mainly read books by women. I was looking for role models. Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver are now favorites, and I wouldn’t miss one of their novels as soon as they hit the shelves. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Toni Morrison’s work, but I’m sorry to say I can’t tell you what her last novel was called. And oh—I just remembered—I used to read each new book by Alice Walker, but at some point decades ago she fell off my radar too.

What’s really embarrassing is I don’t even know where to begin. Who are the up and coming young writers of color?

We can speculate forever about Harper Lee’s state of mind back when she was writing Watchman and Mockingbird, and about her cognitive health now. We’ll never know for sure. So let’s take the discussion in a new direction. It turns out Atticus Finch was a closet racist. Well, guess what, he’s not alone. Let’s expand our reading lists to include more ethnic diversity. I challenge you to help me out, to give me the names of novels to read and writers to watch for.

Join the Discussion!

Let’s celebrate the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman by reading (or re-reading) her only other published novel, the incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m hosting a discussion group right here on my website! For details click on the Mockingbird link above. It will take you to a special page devoted to one of my favorite books of all time.

ps–if you don’t have the time or the desire to read (or re-read) the book, go ahead and rent the movie. You won’t regret it!

Unsafe Airbags

Last week I took my 2002 Honda into the dealership because there was a recall due to unsafe airbags. They told me it would take a couple hours so I asked if I could test-drive a 2015 Civic. I’ve been on the fence wondering if this will be the year for a new car and since I had time to kill, I thought, why not?

Many many moons ago I encountered more than one car salesman who thought it was cool to be condescending to a young woman who dared to shop for a car alone. Even now I had my defenses up, using nature’s tricks to look bigger—feet set wide, arms akimbo, chin raised. And some nice looking, rather young man came to help me. I relaxed a bit.

I just wanted to get in a car and drive around the block, but he wanted to be my friend, or so it seemed. He asked me where I lived, and wanting to be noncommittal, I told him East Sacramento–which of course convers a broad area. Nonetheless it seemed I was now a stereotypical white woman from an upper middle class neighborhood. He proceeded to tell me that his kids went to a school in East Sac known for its program for gifted students and its high test scores. Then he complained that the principal they loved had transferred to a middle school farther south where he had started a prestigious program, but that particular school attracts kids from Oak Park, and “maybe we don’t want that kind of influence.”

I was stunned that a salesman who wants to sell me something big and costly would say something that reeks of racism. But I didn’t say anything. I just narrowed my eyes and gave him my disapproving teacher look. “Where are the Civics?” I asked curtly.

He led me toward the cars and asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a retired teacher and that I had generally worked in poor neighborhoods. I thought maybe he’d understand but I overestimated him. He made a comment about the “bad side” of the Natomas School District. I decided to be direct.

“Look, sweetie,” I said as if talking to one of my 4th graders, “you shouldn’t make comments like that when you don’t know who you’re talking to. You don’t know me.”

He looked very confused and professed ignorance. I said, “What you said about Oak Park hurts my heart.”

“Oh, no,” he said.  “I didn’t mean it in a bad way–”

You don’t want kids from Oak Park in your kids’ school, but that’s not a bad thing?

 I said, “Look, I just want to drive a car. Can I drive a car now?”

So he let me drive a car. And I don’t know if it was the East Sac white thing again, but he insisted I take the car with all the bells and whistles. I was less than impressed—and said so repeatedly—but I figured if this is what cars are like now, I guess I could get used to it. When we came back he showed me the scaled down version. Oh, gee, I thought, this one is more my speed. Wish I’d seen it first.

He gave me his card. But if I decide to buy, it won’t be from him. Like I said: unsafe airbag.

My Mother’s Orange Tree

On December 7th, 1941, my mother was at her friend Louise’s house.  They were picking the first oranges of the season when Louise’s mother came out to the yard to tell them the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

 

Every year after, my mother commemorated the date by picking, and then eating, the first orange of the season in honor of those who had fought in World War II.  Hers was a silent tradition; for decades she never even told anyone she was doing this.  She finally shared the story with me, and if I could, I would come to her house on December 7th so I could pick an orange with her.

 

My Mom died in October 2009.  That first December I made a point of driving over to her empty house after work to pick an orange for her.   My brother and I were preparing to sell the house where we had grown up, and I wondered where I would pick oranges in the coming years.  I wondered if I could fit a tree in the tiny yard of my midtown bungalow.

 

Later the following year I made a decision that surprised even me:  I decided to move into Mom’s house.  It’s been nearly three years since I’ve moved home, and it’s been a great blessing for me to be here in this lovely, quiet neighborhood.  Now another December has arrived, and I’m excited to see all the beautiful orange fruit hanging like Christmas ornaments amid the glossy dark leaves.

 

So I invite you to join me:  eat an orange on December 7th in memory of my Mom, and in memory of any of your family—your parents or grandparents—whose lives were touched by that horrendous time in our history.  Its aftermath has affected us all.  Eat an orange in memory of the Greatest Generation!

 

Post script:  please say a prayer for California citrus farmers whose crops are enduring a week of hard freeze as I post this.  Hoping I don’t lost my entire backyard crop, but at least my livelihood doesn’t depend it!

A Prayer for These Times

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most beloved stories from the New Testament—not just among Christians, but throughout our western culture.  In a nutshell: a man traveling on a public road is attacked by robbers.  His belongings are stolen, he is beaten and left for dead.  Members of his own ethnicity and religion see him and pass him by.  But a Samaritan—a member of a rival group, a people for whom the Jews of Jesus’s time felt animosity—a Samaritan stops and helps the man, tends his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays from his own pocket for the man’s lodging and care.  The Good Samaritan—or the person we might least expect—he is the answer when Jesus is asked, who is my neighbor?

            I was thinking about this story this morning and it occurred to me for the first time that what the Samaritan did was easy.  Now don’t get me wrong:  after thirty years working in special education I know that the physical care of others is no simple task.  During my years as an Instructional Assistant and a Teacher, I changed soiled diapers, cleaned up vomit and blood, even improvised on-the-spot instruction on how to hold your head upright and pinch the bridge of your nose while blood is gushing out of your nostrils.  The act of caring for others is often physically exhausting and emotionally draining—and I should add that the smell and sight of bodily fluids and excrement can bring you close to losing your own lunch.  Not the most fun part of the job.

But what’s easy about it is this:  you can’t do it wrong.  Today in education heated arguments ensue about what to teach, how to teach it, and how to know we’ve taught it well.  There’s a lot of finger-pointing and blame.  But when you see a child who’s soiled his pants, there’s no debate. You know what you need to do.  Likewise when the Good Samaritan saw a man lying in the road, bleeding and near death, he knew this wasn’t the time to debate the merits of the Affordable Care Act.

I like to think that for the vast majority of us, when we know the right thing to do, we do it.  The problem often is that we’re not sure what to do.  All who know me are aware I have strong political opinions.  I think my side has been doing the right thing—for the most part.  Folks on the other side probably feel the same way.  But right now I don’t want to talk about politics; I want to talk about prayer.

For many years I was deeply in love with a man named Harry.  We used to pray together—not as a regular routine, but often.  One of my most comforting memories of our time together was sitting on the couch holding hands on the morning of September 11, 2001, praying.

Inspired by John 14:13 (“Whatever you ask in my name I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”), Harry liked to end our prayers, “. . .in Jesus’s name, Amen.”  I liked this too, but one day I created a new prayer for us:  “May the love we have for each other be a reflection of God’s perfect love for us.”

Harry and I are no longer a couple but I do feel this prayer was fulfilled.  I feel we completed the work we were meant to do together and now we’ve moved on.  I haven’t said this special prayer in a long time but I thought of it this morning.

I want to offer this prayer to the world as an affirmation of our intent to turn over all worries and concerns to Divine Consciousness (or God).  There is great anger in and at Washington right now.  We don’t know what to do to heal the divisiveness but Divinity is already at work in ways we do not understand.  It is our greatest desire to see our own ideas of perfection manifest, but we must be open to the idea that God’s perfection may not look the way we want it to.  But even as I’m writing this, I’m thinking, I don’t know what to do!  I don’t even know what to write!

Then I remember my friend Craig telling me, “It’s never about doing, it’s about being.

Call it prayer or affirmation or meditation.  You can even call it an intuitive leap based on empirical evidence if you want.  But know that prayer isn’t necessarily something you do, it may be what you are.  Allow yourself to be the prayer, because you are God’s love, you are God’s perfection.  Affirm that this is so.  Ask for understanding.

And if you need words, I give you mine:  May the love we have for each and every one of our NEIGHBORS, be a reflection of the perfect love God has for us.

In Jesus’s name, Amen.

Post Script:  please know that I feel comfortable praying in this way because I come from a Roman Catholic/Christian tradition.  I believe the prayers, hopes and wishes of all people—whether they believe in one God, many Gods, or no God—are equally valid.

Let’s Do Away With Schools

Years ago, when Sacramento native Dusty Baker was manager of the San Francisco Giants he used to dress up his 3-year-old son Darren in a miniature Giants uniform and let him hang out with the team in the dug-out during the games.  The announcers would fall all over themselves blabbing about how cute the kid was, and how this proved that Dusty was a great father, etc.  Then one day the boy—caught up in the excitement like everybody else—was loitering near home base as one of the Giants was sliding in to score, and there was a very good chance the kid was going to get knocked into next week!–but another player scooped him out of the way at the last second.  Whew!  Then began the inevitable backlash:  what’s a child that age doing in the dug-out during a game?  It’s dangerous!  What is his father thinking?  As a public school teacher, I was right there with them during that scary inning.  Children need to be protected, I thought.

Then, immediately, I changed my mind.  Let’s not keep children out of the dug-outs.  Let’s put dozens of children in the dug-outs, and the bull pens, and along the side-lines of football and basketball games!  This isn’t “men’s work” where children don’t fit in.  It’s a game, for crying out loud.  Now I don’t doubt that most professional athletes want to put on a good show for the fans.  But for some quirky reason our culture has deified these guys, which is one reason why they make so much money.  In return, I think they owe it to us, at the very least, to try to be good role models for our children.  So if there were kids right there with them during the games, those guys would need to watch themselves:  no cussing, no chewing tobacco, no trash talk, an emphasis on hard work and practice.  Better put some mothers and elementary school teachers with them too.   Trust me, the presence of women and children will make these guys better players and better men.

Okay, so you’re probably thinking I’m naive or annoying or both, but now it’s going to get worse.

I think we should have children in the work place.  All work places.  Working.

Everybody and his brother are complaining these days about the inadequacies of our public schools.  Well, guess what?  They do not give us (by which I mean teachers) the resources we need to do the job we’d like to do.  But there is one thing every public school does really well:  getting your kids out of your hair for six or more hours every week day so you can go to your kid-free work place and not be bothered.  That’s right, we provide free (FREE!) day care.

Yeah, it sounds very cynical of me to say that once we outlawed child labor we had to institute compulsory attendance in public schools so the working class could work.  Whether or not this is true, it’s not what I want to talk about.  What I want to say is this:  our culture has separated children from the majority of adults for the better part of each week day and I don’t think it’s such a good thing.

So my wild radical idea is this:  let’s close all the schools, and all of us together share responsibility for educating our children!

I admit it, I don’t know how it would work.  Even I think it’s a crazy untenable idea at this point in history.  But think about it!!  My goal in throwing it out there is to get people to think in different ways about education.  “Elementary school” has become such a universal experience that most of us think we’re authorities on the subject.  We think it should be just the same as when we were in school.  It’s as if we have a nostalgic desire for something unchanging.  Some of us may even have a certain stubborn belief in school as a rite of passage (“Hey, I survived those nuns!  My kids will too!”)

But this is very limiting.  Everything else in our culture is changing at warp speed.  Don’t we owe it to our kids—our future—to try something truly new?

When I say we should all be responsible for our children’s education, I’m not talking about home schooling.  That’s fine for those who choose it, but it can be very isolating.  So let’s move the kids to the workplace.  The obvious solution would be for each person to take brief time periods away from his or her regular job to teach a class or tutor small groups or individuals.  But I’m going to push this idea even further:  let’s somehow integrate children into the actual work in each place of business.  Somehow—while you’re teaching them to read and write and do math and learn about science and history, they’ll be helping you with your work too.  Impossible, you say?  You’re probably right.  But we don’t know if it’s impossible because we haven’t thought about it.  All I’m saying is we should think about children and how they’re educated in a new way.

I know that no one is going to rush in to implement my idea.  I write this to make people think, but this isn’t my version of A Modest Proposal (Jonathan Swift).  Well, maybe it is.  But we need to integrate our children more fully into our lives, for our sake as well as theirs.  Imagine this:  if you had children in your workplace, every afternoon you could spend an hour drinking milk and eating cookies, playing with blocks or baby dolls or board games.  It would be so good for your soul.

And to all my beloved teacher friends:  have a fantastic school year!  You deserve it!