Friday, July 31, 2009

How I would defend marriage

A few months ago, marriage equality was a hot topic here in New York State, and Albany UU minister Sam Trumbore's blog reports on it today. Orthodox commenters on his blog have predictably thrown up the usual blather about "logical extremes," like marriage among multiple partners, and continue the cant about "traditional" marriage.

That the traditional meaning of marriage has been between a man and a woman is, in fact, up for grabs. For most of recorded history, marriage was between a man or boy and a female of any age, including newborns, designated by their families to be contracted to that male. The participation of the female in the contract has been expected only in recent centuries in some countries. So tradition is a weak reed to depend upon in support of this argument.

Our society expects adult men and women to participate in the contract as equals. For myself and the women I've known, participating as an equal trumps every other possible variation in defining the marital contract. But once you accept men and women as equal partners, the question does arise about equal treatment of both men and women as to whom they prefer to marry.

Ethnic and religious custom does not trump civil law when civil law sets a bottom age limit as to who can be married. Why should custom then trump civil law about who marries whom? Society has already accepted having people of different races and religions marrying each other. Indeed, society accepts selling yourself into marriage, and society accepts sequential marriages with divorces in between. Custom has changed as civil law has.

I suggest that the stumbling block here comes from our acceptance of a religious contract as equal to or supplanting a civil contract. The civil contract supplants the religious one at the time of a divorce (although pious Jews and Catholics may take the extra step of arranging a religious dissolution as well).

We would take nothing away from religion if we defined marriage as the civil contract, and let the civil contract take place between two consenting adults, period. Those religious groups that choose to discriminate against individuals because of color, race, or gender preference could, because the equal protection of the civil law would be untouched.

In other words, the religious contract of marriage would have no civil value. To be legally married -- with all the privileges and duties of civil marriage -- would be wholly the job of civil authorities. Mormon clergy could continue to marry old men to their 10-year-old great-nieces but that ceremony would have no civil standing. Catholic and Anglican priests could refuse to marry whomever their bishops direct them to discriminate against, without taking away from those individuals' human and legal rights to marry those whom they love.

Is there a protest about these religions' rights to perform rituals? Perform away, I say. Do any states accept a baptismal certificate in place of a birth certificate? Does administration of last rites supersede a certificate of death? Of course not. Religions do their thing and the state handles its own documentation, and civil documentation has the last word legally.

The JK Wedding Dance Video has an Act II

"Defense of marriage" has taken on a new meaning and in one of those only-on-the-internet stories, Jill and Kevin found themselves in it.

(You have surely seen pictures of the wounded Rihanna on the news, and Chris Brown -- the singer on the wedding video -- was the guy who did the wounding.)

So Jill and Kevin put up a dance video website, and you can enter there to donate money to the Sheila Wellstone Institute, to prevent domestic violence. And while you're there, you can watch the wedding video again ... and just try to keep from dancing yourself!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Advice from my dad

My dad was a keen observer of my birthdays. Whatever happened on my birthday would be a great observation of it.

The year I turned 15 I received a letter from the governor of Texas, congratulating me for having been born there. When I was an ardent piano student, I got an informal pic of Vladimir Horowitz, personally inscribed to me, and the next year, the same from Arturo Toscanini. Another year there came an original Pogo strip, with an inscription to me from Walt Kelly as well as a letter from him.

At other times, Daddy would make a point of taking me someplace and introducing me to someone he knew I would find interesting. One year I was taken to meet Leo F. Grandmontagne, a geologist (I loved the fact that his first name was Leo, because I, of course, am a Leo). Leo F. Grandmontagne gave me some selenite crystals for my collection. Another year I met a taxidermist and yet another year, a man who made prosthetic arms and legs, who showed me how his own worked.

Because it was summer, some birthdays I was off at camp. And there were several tough years when my dad was in the hospital. But after I was grown up and had left home, letters came instead. One year I was told that precisely at 3.28 a.m. "...all the docs at Brooke General Hospital stop what they're doing and turn toward the maternity department and bow."

When I found the box with "old stuff" -- the one with the water pistols? and the egg? -- it also contained a letter which I received on my birthday 40 years ago today. It was the one time my dad actually gave me advice. I remembered the advice, but finding the letter itself was a thrill, because of all the offhand comments he made (most of which can't be printed here). It's too bad more parents aren't as open with their children as he was with me in this letter. After telling me that the United States would not have a violent revolution, he wound down with these comments:

Who do you like most? He might have been a
son-of-a-bitch. Who do you dislike the most?
He was probably a nice guy if you talk to him right.
St. Francis of Assisi was probably a lousy neighbor,
but he was a saint.

Danny the Red? Now that he's a tycoon with a Rolls,
he has no time for the canaille. A buck is the
best way to assuage any of the potential
revolutionaries, and as long as the economy keeps
feeding the animals, you may be sure there will
be no revolutions ...

You don't know what to do? You see everyone
doing their thing successfully? You may be
sure they have their fears and doubts just as
you and I and Adolf Hitler and Aldrin and Collins
and everyone else. Bigger ones than ours, too.

When I was your age, I fell into that trap of wondering
why everyone else seemed to be having more fun than I was.
Now, with a melancholy air, I know for a complete fact
that had I gone off to school, gotten a PhD in birds,
painted all I wanted, I would now be rich, famous, and
everything else. Ironically, I see those who I sorta envied,
completely lost just about the time I know where the hell I am,
and now, I feel it's too late.

I should have had the wonderful
fun of looking at Kennicott's willow
warblers on Adak when I was 30 ...
not when I'm 54.

So, dammit, do what you want to do most and like
best. If you can't do something and don't like anything,
then, dammit, cultivate it. Nothing invented by the
animal is anywhere near perfect much of the time
(including you).

What I loved about my birthday letter forty years ago was that my dad was giving me permission to be myself. He was of the generation that had finished high school at the depths of the depression, then gone through a war, and fear of and for the future marked many of their parental judgments.

Forty years on, I am sure this letter made me a better parent when my time came. Getting your parent's permission to displease him sometimes was a wonderful gift. Thank you, Daddy, for this and so many other things.

Gypsum var. Selenite crystal in clay matrix, crystal measures 3.4 cm (specimen Joseph W. Vasichko) Clay bank along West Branch of Meander Creek, Ellsworth, Mahoning County, Ohio.

The image of the Kennicott's willow warbler is from

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A letter from Eddie

Eddie Barnes: a name from the past. I met Eddie in grade school. His dad ran the village's only pharmacy. Yes! It had a soda counter, when you could get a cherry or chocolate Coke, made step by step, where Eddie sometimes worked. Eddie was smart and talented but above all, Eddie was fun. He loved music and played piano like nobody's business, was a great dancer and managed the football team.

I sound like Eddie is no more, but Eddie's still here. He is a GLBT activist in Houston. For many years in San Francisco he was a volunteer chaplain at a city hospital. People who have not known him since grade school know him as Ed, and Ed sent me a letter I am printing here in full because, well, it doesn't hurt for us to be bitch-slapped into realizing its truth.

(Tobias Barrington Wolff was the GLBT liaison in Obama's presidential campaign.)

Dear Mr. Wolff:

I'm Ed Barnes and I was present at a luncheon prior to the Texas March 4, 2008 primaries here in Houston which you hosted for leaders of the GLBT community of Houston. In said luncheon you asked for our endorsement and to vote for "Barack" as you referred to him on a first-name basis.

I want you to know that I have given approximately $500 to Obama's campaign. I stood out in the weather for two weeks at the March 4 primary early voting center in Houston (at the West Gray Multi Purpose Center) and handed out fliers for Obama. I repeated the two weeks for the Nov election as well. I also worked election day in front of my precinct 34 here in Houston 6:30am to closing polls.

I was so impressed with your presentation of Obama and one of the things you said to us: that if Obama were elected president he would issue an executive order to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". My impression was Obama would indeed live up to his promises. This was further installed in my mind when Obama had an hour-long conference call with the board of the Houston GLBT political caucus. As you know, the Houston GLBT caucus then endorsed him.

I felt excited and elated that finally we gay people would be treated fairly. You told us you were the GLBT liaison to Obama's administration. I was thrilled for the first time in my life to be a part of a candidate's campaign.

Then suddenly, the request to use the so called Evangelist Rev Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at Obama's Inaugural. I cannot tell you how shocked and saddened I was at this action of Obama's. What an insult -- to say the least -- to GLBT people.

Secondly, I am still waiting on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" termination by his aforementioned promise of an executive order.

Tobias, I am 65 years old and have been a political activist all my life. I was hosed in Berkeley during the anti-Vietnam war protests and marched in every GLBT parade when I lived in San Francisco. Worked early voting centers for GLBT rights and Houston GLBT caucus-endorsed candidates. I've glued enough envelopes for the GLBT caucus here in Houston but thankfully the glue has not shut my mouth, probably much to your dismay.

I have lived with HIV with good health for over five years now. However, I do have a heart condition brought on by chemo with the elimination of Karposi's Sarcoma. I now, being retired, volunteer as a patient mentor at our HIV Thomas Street Clinic here in Houston.

What I'm trying to say to you is I'm awfully tired of politicians who "gay bait". Obama to me is a true picture of this now. I feel like a fool because I never spent a cent on anyone's campaign until his. I'm so saddened that I may die with my heart condition with the status quo for GLBT people still without human rights on an equal basis.

Many of us here in Houston, Texas have been fighting for rights of GLBT folks all our lives. Keep in mind that the Lawrence sodomy case came, and was set up, by GLBT folks right here in Houston.

So in effect, please tell Mr. Obama that I am just fucking pissed off with the usual "gay baiting" bullshit practiced by him and his predecessor Bill Clinton when he then approved DOMA.

I'm tired, Tobias, and have lost all faith in politics. Saddened and genuinely hurt by Obama's political promises of equality of GLBT folks. He pure and simply gay baited. Know that many in Houston's community are angry and we don't forget.

As for myself, I feel much better in telling you that you were a part of the gay baiting process or you've been duped like the rest of us. Please don't let me go out of this life feeling this way. Again I'm just so saddened and angry. Do you really think he will deliver for us? We've certainly been moved by his promises but prioritized on the back burner, which appears to not even be lighted.

Edward R. Barnes
606 Harold Street #14
Houston, TX 77006

Back into my MacroMicro voice again. Look, I'm something of a political animal and I understand the need for compromise. But human rights are not a place for compromise. This is first, foremost, and maybe even only a human rights issue.

The Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell are blatant discrimination against people's most inrooted, basic natures. GLBT people can no more become "straight" than straight people can become GLBT. You are who you are.

You who say you don't know any GLBT people? I say, examine your life. Someone close to you is in a closet. You are keeping that person there. Your insistence that someone fit your description of normal is denying that person's basic reality. Is that love, keeping someone else from being their fully realized human self? All the reasons you may have are human constructs. Whatever God may be sees only our perfect selves.

Monday, July 20, 2009

What makes you a Catholic if you don't accept Catholic teachings?

The Talk to Action blog today discusses the Catholic Church's "art of constructive schism." Guest blogger Frank Cocozzelli writes about the ways in which ultra-conservative elements are driving out or punishing liberals and moderates in the Roman Catholic Church.

Standing at the far side of the Reformation, I have always found this issue totally confounding. Operating within the terms of the Catholic Church itself, how is it possible to be a "moderate" or a "liberal"? The Church says what it says, and that's that.

There appear to be places within Church doctrine where someone can sincerely disagree. But none of those places are concerned with infallibility. I went to Wikipedia to find the exact words to use for this, and find the distinctions so nicely drawn that it's worth a direct quote.

Catholic theology divides the functions of the teaching office of the Church into two categories: the infallible Sacred Magisterium and the fallible Ordinary Magisterium. The infallible Sacred Magisterium includes the extraordinary declarations of the Pope speaking ex cathedra and of ecumenical councils (traditionally expressed in conciliar creeds, canons, and decrees), as well as of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Despite its name, the "ordinary and universal Magisterium" falls under the infallible Sacred Magisterium, and in fact is the usual manifestation of the infallibility of the Church, the decrees of popes and councils being "extraordinary".

Examples of infallible extraordinary papal definitions (and, hence, of teachings of the sacred magisterium) are Pope Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII's definition of the Assumption of Mary. Examples of infallible extraordinary Conciliar decrees include the Council of Trent's decree on justification, and Vatican I's definition of papal infallibility. ... the ordinary and universal magisterium is the usual manifestation of infallibility, the decrees of popes and councils being the extraordinary expression.

In other words, and not wanting to be obstreperous, accepting infallibility of the pope and of the body of the church is part of the definition of being Catholic. If you do not accept that, by definition you are not a Catholic.

More to the point: why would you want to consider yourself a Catholic if you don't believe what the Church teaches? That's where I stumble. If you do not accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, by definition you're not a Catholic. Whatever benefits Catholics get from being Catholic are not for you. To protest that you are still a Catholic is to give jurisdiction over your life to an organization whose teachings you reject. Why the insistence?

It's obvious that many Catholics today are non-Catholics, or at least living in a state of sin, by their own definitions. Catholics get abortions and use birth control at rates slightly higher than the U.S. average. I guess the catch here is that the Church will not acknowledge that people who make these choices are not Catholics; rather it considers them as living in a condition of sin. So the Church doesn't throw these people out. If you're presidential candidate John Kerry, it may try to humiliate you by publicly denying you communion, but very few people actually get excommunicated.

Let's try these on for size:
"I'm a vegetarian but I eat meat."
"I'm a Jew but I refuse to have my son circumcised."
"I'm a Quaker but I'm a member of the NRA."
They don't work either -- and they all have more latitude within their definitions than Catholicism does. What am I missing?

Not because it was easy but because it was hard

The past several days have been filled with moon landing memories. Bookstore C has displays of commemorative newspapers, magazines, and other ways to part people from their money. Mira Costa tells us of the big step she is undertaking today, and my thoughts are very much with her. And I have been reminded of what I did on that day 40 years ago.

And I must say: what optimists everyone was! Most Americans were home huddled around the television. But not I. I and several skeptical friends decided to take advantage of the fact that everyone was looking in a different direction. We went out and climbed an abandoned dry-dock in Richardson's Bay, off Sausalito.

In two dinghies we rowed out to the structure, an unpainted wooden hulk several stories high floating way offshore. Someone had scouted earlier and found decking a few feet above water level where we could tie up. Clambering aboard, we found the deck leading to a featureless wall several stories high, with one ladder up.

When the dry-dock was abandoned, part of making it unusable was the destruction of that ladder by the systematic hatcheting of every rung. In other words, it wasn't really a ladder. It was two uprights with nubs of torn wood sticking out of the two sides. We used that to climb to the top.

Which was another deck, although rotten and broken in many places, through which one could fall fifty or seventy feet, whatever it was, into the dark interior where we could hear water lapping. We picnicked there for a couple hours. I made some attempt to be in the moment, and sat apart gazing up at the pale mid-afternoon moon.

Rationally, I could accept that there were people up there. It didn't seem to mean much, though -- after all, rationally I knew there were people in Australia, but I couldn't see them either.

Getting down that ladder was worse than climbing up, but we did leave and scatter to our homes. The streets of San Francisco were still empty in the early evening, and sounds of TV dialogue leaked through open windows. And I wondered: What's this all about, that America is so pleased by this and I simply can't see the point?

At that tender age I had known the total bliss of love, and I had found thrills in various discoveries that may seem small but were big when they happened (discovering garlic, how John MacLaren seeded the dunes to build Golden Gate Park, getting a feel for the Niagara Escarpment). But what spoke to me loudest were the words of e.e. cummings.

you shall above all things be glad and young

you shall above all things be glad and young.
For if you're young, whatever life you wear

it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever's living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love.

whose any mystery makes every man's
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time

that you should ever think, may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation's dead undoom.

I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

One of the best photos ever taken

This stunning photograph of a bubble at the instant of breaking is for real. Many, many more in the same series -- with info on how they were taken -- can be found here. If you look carefully, you will see the photographer reflected at the moment the pic was caught.

An image like this works better to persuade me about miracles than any "proof" I'll ever see about ghosts or visitors from space. As the old Beacon Street curriculum taught us Unitarian children, miracles abound.

Incidentally, Richard Heeks, the photographer, has also posted a completely unedited set of images here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What was I thinking? Chapter 37,592

Yesterday I found a stack of photographs from the 1975 dedication of the Poland, Ohio time capsule (at that time my mother was president of the Poland Historical Society). They were in a just-discovered time capsule of my own.

I am deaccessioning, because after 20 years it's time to bury my parents (No, they're not in the time capsule) so I am cleaning out my storage unit. There was a box labeled OLD STUFF. It was a big box, a heavy box, a sealed box. It was a sleeping dog I would no longer let lie.

Here are some of the things I found inside the sealed box:
The photographs from the time capsule dedication. I wonder if anyone in the village knows it exists!
Programs from celebrations at Poland Presbyterian Church in 1927.
Original membership applications for the Poland Library and Historical Society, probably from about 1924. The one shown is Mr. Steinfeld's.
Youngstown Vindicator roto section clippings about old-house tours (featuring, among others, my grandparents' house on College Street and my parents' house on Water Street) for years between 1945 and 1975.
Two half page roto section pictures from the mid 30s. One shows a group of girls, including my mother and her sisters Billie and Betsy, in Poland Woods. The other shows a group of young people, including Mother, her cousin Weedie, and other people on a horse-drawn sleigh at Zedakers' farm.
Programs from annual Junior Achievement awards dinners for my junior and senior high school years.
Programs for plays produced by my Junior Achievement company -- the only J.A. theater group in existence.
Programs for four years of high school academic awards banquets.

Six years of the Seminarian, my high school paper.
A program for the installation of new officers for the Poetry Club my junior year.
Aunt Betsy's first grade class photo from about 1927.
Letters from and newspaper clippings about a boy I had a massive crush on for years.
Pictures of me, My Hair, and Duke the Dog at the Grand Canyon during our grand tour of the U.S. and Canada.
An envelope containing My Hair. [When I lived in England, I cut it all off. The guy who did it went chop, chop, chop. I saved one hank and sent one to my ex-sweetheart, who still had Duke the Dog. I sent the third hank to my dad, from whom I received a telegram reading AWAITING RANSOM NOTE STOP]

A first-generation photocopy, on horrible paper, of a headline in the London Evening News, January 3, 1972. It appeared in only one edition, then the sub-editor woke up.
Hand-written notes on the contents of the rijsttafel at Garoeda in The Hague.
Hand-written notes on wild boar with juniper berries, after a meal in rural Luxemburg. (Afterwards I was asked to dance by two young men, Siegfried and Adolf.)
Two feet of very heavy chain.
Two empty water pistols.
One unbroken brown egg whose insides have evaporated.

I ask "What was I thinking?" because I cannot imagine a time when all those articles would ever have been near each other. Much less, why are they very carefully packed together in one box? And the chain? And the egg? Some of my past decisions have subsequently mystified me, but this leaves me beyond mystification.

Incidentally, everything listed down to Betsy in first grade is being sent to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Working Latinas

Latina Worker
by Doren Robbins
Then I notice through a triple-Americano-awakening moment,
in the mall food court, a young Latina cleaning around by the chrome rail
at Sbarro Pizza. Maybe a Guatemalan, possibly Salvadoran or

could've been Argentinean or Columbian, Chilean, Bolivian,
Panamanian—good chance a Peruvian, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Mayan,
Toltec, Sephardic, Huichol coffee plantation or U.S. Fruit Company

or tobacco company or auto industry slave labor robot or CIA-trained
death squad Guardia Nacional butchery massacre survivor.

Several tables down from mine--roughly stacking chairs on tops
of tables—cussing in Spanish, in the mall food court, she hates her job,
I hate her job.

This poem is on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac* today. Two working Latinas immediately tumbled through my mind.

As the whole world knows, Sonia Sotomayor faces her second day of Senate questioning about her fitness to serve on SCOTUS. Her appointment may not be a slam dunk, but near enough.

Not many people know of the other Latina worker whose face came to me. Eridania Rodriguez, a handsome 46-year-old, came to New York from the Dominican Republic more than two decades ago. She’d raised her three kids in Inwood, the neighborhood surrounding the Cloisters at the northern end of Manhattan. She vanished from her job last Tuesday, leaving her purse and cell phone behind.

Rodriguez cleaned offices in a Wall Street-area office building and thought her working conditions were dangerous. A man working in the building had exposed himself to her, and she was frightened enough that she planned to leave at the end of last week. She was missing for four days before her body was found jammed into an air conditioning duct in the building.

I was struck by Rodriguez’s good looks. She was an attractive, strong-looking woman, and her children have been reported as ambitious and hardworking.

She could be Sotomayor’s mother. One Puerto Rican, one Dominican, one story. Ambitious for her children, hard-working, minding her own business. A day’s work for a day’s pay, sensibly knowing that if you’re scared it’s for a reason, and dignified enough to know there are things you don’t put up with. Being responsible and working out her notice. But, being unlucky.

When Sotomayor’s appointment was announced, in the New York area it was no surprise. It’s amazing (since Hispanic surnames are everywhere) that we’re still saying it’s time. After all, these are people who have been here for generations now. Its time was years ago.

But that it’s noteworthy for two Latina workers to be in different headlines the same day? It should be noteworthy that it’s noteworthy. It’s time.

*"Latina Worker" by Doren Robbins, from My Piece of the Puzzle. © Eastern Washington University Press, 2008.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What every cat owner knows, even without knowing

Now we know for sure that cats manipulate their owners. We knew it before, but Not Exactly Rocket Science has the data.

Too lazy to click on the link? Or -- let me guess -- is Hecate or Horatio lying on the mouse? Here's how cats tell you they're hungry.

Apparently you cannot hear this with your unassisted ear, but a hunger cry is hidden in an apparently otherwise standard purr. Recorded properly, it can be played back and separated out from the standard purring sounds, and when that's done it sounds like the cry of a human baby. How on earth did that evolve?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Of all sad words of tongue and pen

Like every retail outlet in the U.S., Bookstore C currently has a display of Michael Jackson material -- in our case, commemorative zines. A table near the cash desk has stacks; each is different. Cover photos are all different too -- among them a close-up of the small boy Michael, with glowing unblemished skin; dancing Michael, in black pants and white shirt and socks; in a bright red uniform with lots of gold, looking astoundingly like a young, dark Elizabeth Taylor, with one random lock danging over his forehead; and an almost skeletal Michael, wearing sunglasses and beige lipstick.

Last night an African-American family came in together: Mom, Dad, big sis, little brother. He must have been about eight, and restless -- swinging off the umbrella stand, crouching under the display tables. He crawled out from under the display and stood up next to the zine with the young Michael cover. He looked from one magazine to another, and his baffled little voice piped up: "Mommy, Daddy, was Michael Jackson black?"

He was lifting one issue after another, now talking to himself. "No -- look, he was white. No --" and then his voice raised again -- "Mommy, Daddy, Michael Jackson was black. Look here -- you can see it yourself!"

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A short quarter century and a long 25 years

Today is Lydia's 25th birthday. It being Saturday, she went to town and ducked into an internet cafe to send a brief email.

She said, "I'm doing fine. They are giving excellent training, and although I've had some low spots I'm very glad I came. All is well, don't worry... I don't think I'll do anything much for my birthday. I might get myself something small, like a slice of cake or something, but I have no idea what I'll be able to find here." I predict that a year from now she will know the source of every sweet available in Swaziland.

A list followed. I will be scouring the internet for non-oily sunscreen in large quantities (you'd think the PC would have a source for all their pale volunteers in sunny lands). And perhaps I'd better just buy a case of Red Zinger and be done with it!

Twenty-five years ago this morning, I awoke and the presence of this other person in the room was huge. Her big dark eyes were open and she was watching, taking it all in. Many of the pics we have of Lydia that first day show her eyes open and alert. Her father and I were hushed and humble in the presence of this new intellect.

Yes! Ned Silverman's flowers arrived. And so did a nurse with a hypodermic. "What's that for?" I asked, shrinking away. The nurse uncovered my hip and started swabbing. "This is one time we know you're not pregnant," she said. "It's your german measles immunization."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What can get lost in Ürümchi

War is hell on history. Destroying places in order to save them has a long, sad, dirty tradition. One of the great shames of Bush 43 is Donald Rumsfeld’s blowing off the Baghdad looting with the idle words, “Stuff happens.

Which is why I am all the sadder to hear of mob violence in the ancient Silk Road city of Urumqi. There are treasures there — not, perhaps, fabulous treasures of the sort that vanished from Baghdad, but treasures of culture, treasures of human industry.

Treasures of fabric, woven treasure of wool is what quite amazingly has been found in [then spelled] Ürümchi. One of humanity’s earliest manufactures, woven, dyed, ornamented clothing has been found in desert caves, preserved for thousands of years. At left: Mummified three-month-old baby in elaborately made, brightly-colored clothes. The nursing bottle is manufactured from a sheep's udder. The robe on the man (below right) is also woven, but is a less sophisticated weave than that of the child's swaddling. You can't see it here, but the edges of his robe are carefully piped in a brighter red.

Just as startling as what was in those caves wearing the clothing: blue-eyed, blonde, Caucasian mummies, mummies of Turkic peoples whose descendants are still seen among the Uighur people in the region. In 2000, Occidental College archaeologist and weaver Elizabeth Wayland Barber published The Mummies of Ürümchi, about the people, the mummies, and their manufactures, dated to 1500 BCE. They are 3500 years old.

Ürümchi has long boasted of being the world’s major city farthest from the sea. For eons it was protected by that desert distance. The discovery of its mummies was the first time anyone other than China hands ever heard of the place. However, in the past decade, the Chinese government has been building up industry in Ürümchi and moving in whole communities of Han Chinese.

Inevitably there’s bad feeling between the Han from the east and south, and the Muslim natives. It’s reasonable, I think, to fear that ethnic hatred and rivalry could lead to the destruction of the materials that have been recovered from the desert’s caves, and ending their continuing exploration.

Barber hooked me on her explorations with her book Women’s Work, the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. She examined the history of textiles and the wealth they created in early societies, not only as an archaeologist but as someone whose avocation is weaving. Because of that and her other writing, I felt partnership and immediacy. I seemed to be in the room she entered in Ürümchi, examining the garments on the mummies. Noting their dyes, noting how the brightly striped socks were not woven or felted but simply carefully wrapped inside the white boots. Barber is a terrific teacher and the care and love with which she examined the mummies, their clothing, and other tomb textiles came right through her pages. Above: 3500-year-old plaid from Ürümchi mummy tomb.

So she made me her ally in wanting to find more caves in China’s western desert, and learn more about these out-of-place, out-of-time people and their manufactures. I dread the idea that ethnic jealousies could destroy these fragile relics. And unless there are bodies of outsiders paying attention to them, that is probably just what will happen.

My demon lover, Ned Silverman

My demon lover Ned Silverman might not have been a demon and was most definitely not my lover. He was also not many other things.

Long ago, in a kingdom very far away but near 51st and 1st, on a balmy spring Sunday I set out for the neighborhood park with Bleak House under my arm. When I arrived at the park, there sat neighbor Bob (from the next apartment) reading the Sunday Times. So I settled near him. Periodically Bob would read to me from the arts section and we would talk of opera and Carnegie Hall performances. People near us came and went. One fellow, about my age, looked up as we talked music and finally he joined the conversation. He was very knowledgeable.

I left and returned in a while and Bob and the other guy were still talking. Bob explained that his new friend was a conductor and composer. In those days I had an English accent, so when Bob got up to leave for a while, the fellow asked if I was English. I explained that I had lived in London for several years and only recently returned to New York. A coincidence! He too had recently returned to New York from the Netherlands — so recently that he didn’t even have an apartment yet but was staying with friends. He was a vice president of Philips and had been working in Europe for several years. He wasn’t sure about getting an apartment since he’d be spending the summer in Portland as conductor of the Portland Symphony’s summer program.

When Bob returned we continued to speak of music. The stranger was an Eastman graduate and been a fellow at McDowell. I mentioned an old friend who’d gone to Juilliard and written advertising jingles on the side. Another coincidence! He too had written many jingles, working a lot for BBDO. He sang some of his jingles, which Bob also knew. “What a great guy!” Bob said when he left. “He knows his stuff.” Bob went home, I dug into Bleak House, and the mysterious music man reappeared.

“Say, I’d like to call you,” he said to me. To my immediate and irrational panic. I was a single woman living alone in New York and this strange man might be an axe murderer! But I conquered my panic and gave him my card. Since the office was at 44th and 6th, I felt that my business card preserved my privacy somewhat. “By the way,” he said, “I’m Ned Silverman.”

A good tactician, that Ned. He didn’t call Monday, but he did call Tuesday. “I’m just leaving for Portland so I can’t chat, but are you free for dinner Thursday evening?” Well, hey — he was smart and knew a lot of cool stuff, and was nice looking and cosmopolitan. What was not to like? Of course I said yes, and (blushes with embarrassment) told him where I lived.
Just as I was hanging up the phone it occurred to me: what if something happens and I have to cancel? “Ned? Ned?” Dang — he was gone.

For some reason, knowing how to reach him “just in case” suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world … and I was stuck. But no! I called the Portland Symphony to leave a message, asking him to call and leave me a contact number.

“I’d like to leave a message for Ned Silverman,” I told the person who answered at the Portland Symphony.
“There’s nobody here by that name,” he said.
Oh, of course — the board had probably contracted with Ned and he wouldn’t be known to people in the office.
“He’s coming to Portland today — he’ll be conducting your summer program this year,” I explained.
After being connected to one person, than another, who did not know Ned would be there in just a few hours, I spoke with the executive director. “We’re not having a summer program this year,” he said.
Well, in a word, ????? Had I misunderstood? “Perhaps I misunderstood, and he was conductor of your summer program last year,” I suggested.
“I’ve never heard of Ned Silverman, ma’am,” said the executive director.

So I called Neighbor Bob. “You remember that fellow we talked with in the park on Sunday?” I asked. “His name’s Ned Silverman, and he called to ask me to dinner Thursday, and I didn’t get his number. Didn’t he say he was going to be conductor of the Portland Symphony’s summer program?”
“Well, congratulations,” Bob said enthusiastically. “He’s an interesting guy. Bring him by for a drink after dinner! And yeah — he did say he was going to Portland. You could always call him there if you have to.”

I looked out the window at 6th Avenue and drummed my fingers on my desk. What to do, what to do? So I called the alumni office at Eastman School of Music. After some waiting, I learned that nobody named Silverman, with a first name that could possibly be shortened to Ned, had any degrees from Eastman, and in fact no such person had ever even taken a class at Eastman.

Nobody like Ned Silverman had ever been a fellow at McDowell Colony either. Ned Silverman didn’t work for Philips Records, in this country or in Europe.

My last hope was Mu Murphy, who had been my aunt Billie’s roommate decades before, and who had spent her career booking various types of talent for BBDO. I explained the whole thing to Mu. “Honestly, this sounds like something Billie would have done,” she said dryly. She agreed that the world is full of crazies and you can’t be too careful and told me she would take some time after the office closed to go through old files. The next day she confirmed that Ned Silverman had not been employed by BBDO and had not been a contractor either.

I had all day Wednesday to think about it. When I got home from work Thursday, I talked to the doorman, Avi. “A guy named Ned Silverman is coming by at 7.30,” I said. “Before calling me, give him this note. If he leaves, buzz me when he’s out of sight.”

Avi buzzed me at 7.40 and I went out to the front door. “Your friend gave me a different name — I think he’s Israeli,” Avi said. “So I told him I had a note for Ned Silverman, and he said, oh, yeah, that’s me, so I gave him your note.”
“And what did he do then?” I asked.
Avi pointed to the front garden’s retaining wall. “He sat down there and read your note.”
“And?” I prompted.
“And he laughed and laughed and shook his head and said he couldn’t believe you went to all that trouble, and he went down toward Second Avenue.”

My note had told him that I had learned that he wasn’t who he said he was, and I listed all the places I had checked. However, I also told him that I would be happy to meet him for dinner, but he would have to have his passport and driver’s license and proof of employment. And so Ned Silverman disappeared from East 51st Street. Neighbor Bob was really disappointed!

Years passed. I was married and pregnant with Lydia, renting office space in Boston from A Better Chance. The ABC ladies and I often ate lunch together, and one day talk turned to Strange Situations With Men. I told of my encounter with Ned Silverman and pretty much walked off with the prize for weirdest story. Months later, several hours after Lydia was born, I was dozing when an aide bustled in with a lavish flower arrangement. “It must be from your husband,” she said. “It’s really beautiful. He takes good care of you.”

I reached for the card. “Yours always, Ned Silverman,” it read. Even with stitches where you shouldn’t have stitches, it was worth a good belly laugh. The ladies of A Better Chance remembered!

More years passed. On Lydia’s birthdays I always tell her when-you-were-born stories, and (when she was old enough) I told her about Ned Silverman, adding the coda of the wonderful flowers. Sometimes she’d ask me to tell stories when her friends visited, and the story of Ned Silverman was always a hit. A few years ago, I had surgery in Mount Kisco. Waking up in the hospital the next day, I found a lovely arrangement of flowers.

I reached for the card. “Eternally yours, Ned Silverman,” it read. Lydia in action! The card is on the fridge door even now.

So, two weeks ago when Lydia left for Swaziland and I found a lovely bouquet of snapdragons waiting at my door, my first, wildly irrational thought was: Ned Silverman! But then it appeared that the card, which read “Moms need flowers” was from Lydia’s dad. But no — it was an additional layer of mistaken identity. Having thanked the wrong person here, I want to give a shout-out to my college sweetheart Green Tanager (left), who has known me so long he used to remember my mother telling him not to wake the baby, i.e. me.

Whoever the Israeli music man might be, I have had infinitely more fun telling that story than I ever would have had if I’d gotten to know him. But inquiring minds want to know: was The Man Who Wasn't Ned Silverman a demon?

Long ago and in a kingdom far away, that thought hadn't occurred to me (axe murderers were the then-current trend). But now that I work in Bookstore C, I see all around me proof that there are indeed demons, and vampires too. I could look it up! But I like my story better, not knowing.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bookstore update: Evolution for Dummies

The customer approached me on the sales floor. "I can't find Evolution for Dummies," she explained. "You must have it, right?"
We chatted as I checked the computer inventory. "What are you using it for?" I asked.
"Actually, I'm kind of insulted," she answered. "I'm a grad student in education, and we're a classful of science teachers who have all been teaching this stuff for years. But the prof thinks we need this in addition to our other reading."
"Well, the Dummies books are generally thorough groundings in whatever," I said, thinking positively.
"I know! I'm using the one for bridge*, and it's terrific, but we were all science majors, and besides, we're also reading Origin," she replied.
She'd really caught my attention now. "What else are you reading? Any Ernst Mayr?"
"Yes," and she named a couple other writers vital to any sound discussion of evolution today. It sounded like a heavier reading load than you might expect, and the customer agreed that the prof has a good reputation and people come out of his classes well prepared.

She was right! We didn't have the book on our shelves, but I found it for her at the Bookstore C branch in White Plains. I reflected that the customer's true objection to buying the book was being told that she needed a Dummies as a text.

Dummies books are scattered through the store, shelved with others of their subject matter. I resolved not to hesitate about using them for my own classes should the need arise. There's a Bible for Dummies and a New Testament for Dummies. Probably not a UU Church Polity for Dummies, though.

*Full disclosure: from where I sit right now, I can reach out to Dummies books on Digital Photography, Photoshop 7, Excel 2003, Word, eBay, and starting an eBay business.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Swaziland update: First impressions

So: Lydia is training near Piggs Peak, and Swaziland is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. She recommends Google Image and I have saved you the trouble by posting some here. SiSwati has eight kinds of nouns. The PC handbook has 38 acronyms and is missing quite a few. She misses Red Zinger tea. Above: From the Piggs Peak home page.

Image of a Swazi village by Fosters4, found on Flickr.

When do I leave? Round-trip Jo'burg is about $1k. I can hardly wait! Of course -- and these are Lydia's doubts, not mine -- first she has to complete her training. Above: Another posting from Google.Image.

Access to Water is a Human Right. But …

The story of the New York City water supply is actually one of the Great True Stories. The quest for good drinking water is as old as the city (approaching the end of its fourth century) and involves Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, banking law, Irish immigrants, transported communities and abandoned villages, wile, guile, imagination and ingenuity. Photo at left: Many homes from old Katonah were moved to a new site a mile away, to allow for the construction of the Croton reservoir.

And as a resident of Westchester County, New York City’s water comes out of my taps — and it’s probably the best municipal drinking water in the world. Why any of my neighbors wants to buy bottled water is beyond me! Our water really does come from giardia-free crystalline mountain streams and is rigorously protected, not just by the city but by the people who live in the hundreds of square miles of the watershed. NYS DEC map at right: You can be hours from New York City (shown in purple) deep in the mountains and still have an NYC reservoir nearby.

The UU Service Committee is promoting a movement for water rights in California. And that's a grand idea ... but wait a minute. What does California do with the water it's got? Does California -- do most communities in the arid southwest use water wisely? Why should UU energy be directed toward providing more water to people living in a part of the country that cannot support the population it had forty years ago, much less today?

This question has several parts. One relates to public policy about a part of the United States that has far exceeded the carrying capacity of the land it occupies. One of the parts relates to public policy that continues to promote settlement there. And a third part relates to the goals of the UUSC. Yes, I believe that access to drinking water is a human right. But before we encourage Californians to take to the streets and the airwaves to demand more of the world's resources -- and given that nobody is lying dying in a dusty Marin street as I write -- why not assess the true starting and ending points of any suggested policy change?

In the first place, why should our denominational energies go to supporting anything as unsustainable, in any guise, as development in the southwest? Here we have a direct collision of long-term goals. The western and southwestern states need a water policy that goes further than water. The UUSC should be lobbying for a clear-eyed evaluation of today's real water management in the southwest in terms of future water needs across the continent.

Here's what I believe the UUSC should be working for. 1) Acknowledgement that access to clean, drinkable water is a human right and a government responsibility. 2) Therefore, government provision of trucked-in (if necessary) water to communities that lack other access to it. 3) Making equitable distribution of existing water a first step in any water-provision plan. As long as existing water supplies are unfairly priced and inequitably distributed, no state should be looking beyond its own borders for water. 4) Making desalination of sea-water the second step in any large water-provision plan, rather than a someday step. 5) Acknowledging that the abandonment of existing communities in unsustainable locations will happen, and plan for it -- starting now -- as a rational solution.

It's been only a year since the Great Lakes Compact was finally signed. The eight states and two provinces that surround the Great Lakes agreed on their management, today and into the future. There have already been legal challenges to companies wishing to bottle water from the GL watershed and sell it outside the watershed. It's hard for me to believe that politicians in the arid southwest don't have their eyes on GL water as a solution for their own foolish overdevelopment and bad management. The Compact pledges the signers to wise management (which includes effective use, reuse, and even re-reuse) and I predict that it will come under pressure from the arid southwest. Sending Great Lakes water south and west is not good management, wise use, or sustainable. I also believe the UUSC should have, as a goal, support for the Great Lakes Compact.

Which is the story of a large international community that made a good-faith, successful plan for resource management long into the future. It's kind of like the story of New York City's water supply! And nothing at all like the we'll-think-about-it-tomorrow greed that has characterized planning in the southwest.