Friday, May 7, 2010

On losing my vision

Today is Friday.  On Monday, I will have the cataract in my right eye removed.  In its place, a plastic lens will be placed in my eye.  The surgeon tells me she will be correcting me as close to perfect vision as possible.  The left eye will be done two weeks later.

There are hitches.  Without additional surgery (slitting the cornea, ugh) I have to choose between correcting my astigmatism and correcting my nearsightedness.  High school classmate Judy Burke Kraynak warned me that the plastic lens does not adjust between near and not-so-near.  If you don't choose a correction that, say, lets you read your watch, you will need to wear glasses for watch-reading.  Choosing a correction for close-up vision means no astigmatism correction.  Which to do?

(Left: An autumn hillside at Storm King mountain.)

I agonized over this for a couple days, then I realized that seeing clearly into the faces of people I love is really important to me.  Imagine, holding a baby up close and not being able to focus on its face.  (Reminder: babies are fascinated by glasses and  want to grab them.)  So I am going for the near vision.  (Continues below.)

There's another hitch that nobody ever thinks of.  I have worn glasses for 57 years.  About 45 years ago my prescription moved me into the category of  legally blind or, as my then-ophthalmologist said, "I could get you out of the army."  But it's not that I don't see anything without my glasses -- it's just that I don't see what you see.

Without my glasses I live in a world nobody knows but me.  Among other things, it's a world of shimmer and of melded moving colors.  Light and shade have different meanings in this world.  What I see as areas of light or shade may actually be the same color as their surroundings but a different unseen texture.  Movement is different in this world; a train moving across the far valley doesn't penetrate it at all.  A car moving toward me could be a tank, or a buffalo.  Sun glittering on waters of a flowing creek is dazzling -- there's nothing like it!

So I've been playing with images trying to approximate some of the things I now see that I will no longer see.  The image to the right is something of an approximation -- although now that I look closely, the trunks of the young trees are far too clear -- I probably shouldn't show them at all.  But I wanted to show how astigmatism works too.  At least in my case, it's almost double vision, or a shadow vision with a similar image adjoining the stronger image.

So, by a month from now, this singular, personal, private world will be gone from me, never to return.  Surely this visual world has helped make me who I am!  Who is to say that the nearsighted kid who gets called weird isn't really walking in a completely different world?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I don't mourn its passing

Youngstown, Ohio is featured in this month's Inc. magazine. Youngstown! The city with poisoned air, in the heart of the Steel Valley. Famous for nearly a hundred unsolved bombing murders (which more or less ended in November 1962 but which have remained alive in memory). Famous for electing bribe-taker Jim Traficant to the sheriff's job and then to Congress, and then for supporting him while he did prison time. (Left: One of a million pics of an abandoned steel mill.)

But to many of us from Steel Valley families, Youngstown also has Mill Creek Park, 4,400 acres and more than four miles long, of lakes, waterfalls, tumbling streams, glacial caves, forested cliffs, and flowered meadows. (Right: Mill Creek's silver bridge in winter -- my dad would take me there the day after Christmas to feed the chickadees, which flocked on the field by the bridge.)

Youngstown has ethnicity. Everyone knew a restaurant with something special. Carchedi's in Lowellville?  Wedding soup. Cornersburg Pizza? Best pizza in the world. Kravitz's Deli? Corned beef to die for. Joseph's?  A separate psrt of the menu "For Fressers Only." Yes! I did know people -- cosmopolitan types -- who sneered that "in Youngstown, even food at the Ding Ho tastes like spaghetti sauce." Well, one thing that didn't taste like spaghetti was kolachi. I just googled kolachi and what was the FIRST result? A recipe from Youngstown, Ohio!   I note that the recipe keeps the fillings a secret but next time your Aunt Ann is making it, I prefer walnut.

In the Labor & Industry Museum (near St. Columba's Cathedral, left) there are blast furnaces and locker rooms lifted out of a steel mill. Locker rooms signs are in at least a dozen languages. While men of different ethnicities mingled in the locker rooms, their families didn't mingle anywhere. I have a photograph of a sixth-grade me as a finalist in the Vindicator spelling bee. Two other finalists represent St. John the Baptist school (Slovak) and St. John the Baptist school (Polish). Honterus Lutheran had services in Swedish. My college sweetheart John's family spoke Friesish at home. My friend Oksana Zayatz's dad was a Ukrainian orthodox priest (and Gayle Woloschak, one of my profs this semester here in Chicago, was best friends with Oksana's little sister).

Neighborhoods on Youngstown's west side had blood feuds going and their leaders never spoke to outsiders. For a couple years, my mother chaired the American Cancer Society's annual fund drive. She tried to get organizers in every neighborhood of Mahoning County. Nobody in a hundred blocks of the west side would speak with her -- not patients, not the priests, not the parents, not the children. Serbs here, Croats there, Ruthenians and Rumanians, Slovaks and Slovenes, all living in hostile silence in the shadows of their own, unshared saints.

And that ethnicity became something to flee. At Youngstown State, right along with their diplomas students would get a name change. Topolski became Talbott, Degli' Uomini became Degly. Why did Ozersky become Ozer, though? A Youngstown past was something to be ashamed of and left behind as soon as possible.

And it wasn't just the people in the neighborhoods of post-WW1 immigrants who wanted to get out. Pioneer families like mine, who'd settled there before statehood around 1800, counseled their kids to get out, move away, don't come back. Our generation saw people who stayed as deliberate losers. Over the years, when I sent Youngstown articles to several childhood friends, their question was, "Why do you care?"

I cared because Youngstown is a fascinating place and a life there can be well-lived. In the western foothills of the Alleghenies (which you can see now that the mills are gone from along the Mahoning River) most neighborhoods had tree-lined streets. There were dozens of cultures. Sure -- my mother's family, Ulster Presbyterians out of the Pennsylvania mountains, were a culture too (they just didn't understand that theirs was also a culture, with dialect and tribal rules). First Unitarian Church, on Youngstown's north side, was a Harvard culture. Butler Art Institute (right) in its McKim, Mead & White building, was a copying-Andrew-Carnegie culture.  It was possible to live a good life in Youngstown -- if you could let go of that nagging feeling that others, people in bigger cities, people on the coasts sneered at you for being too dumb to know the difference.

I am so proud of my many cousins who've stayed around the area (or, as we say, the southeast corner of northeast Ohio).  Betsy Johnquest taught at the Rayen School (which my dad, both grandmothers, several aunts and uncles, and one ex-husband attended) and preserved its 140-year history in a final Rayen Annual when the school closed.  Heather McMahon and Brigid Kennedy were both in a recent selection of Forty Under Forty Who Are Making a Difference in Youngstown.  Uncle Dick McLaughlin returned from a law partnership in Washington to make a difference in Youngstown.  And they have.

The reporter for Inc. magazine went there looking for people who have given up.  But giving-upness is old news.  Black Monday, in 1977, was 33 years ago!  Two generations have come and gone -- to the south or wherever they imagined a pot of gold awaiting -- but Youngstown is still there!   With ethnic food, a lively art scene, doers and shakers who open their ranks to newcomers, a symphony orchestra, several wonderful museums, and an interesting and different city plan.  You can have all that and encouragement for a large garden and live near a farm, within ten minutes of City Hall, at the same time.  That sounds like a pot of gold to me!  (Right: Lanterman's Mill in Mill Creek Park.)

I have always wanted to build a house out of Coke bottles and cement.  And I'll bet Youngstown would welcome a non-standard idea like that!  I have a site overlooking a glacial gorge all picked out, too.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Virginia, we hardly knew ye

We approach the end of the state of Virginia’s Treason, Secession, and Shooting-Yourself-in-the-Knee Month. Bob McDonnell, the Virginia governor who decreed the festivities, has gone on to boost Earth Day by promoting drilling off the coast of Virginia!

Bob McDonnell may wish to play down his values. A day for the Earth, but a whole month for secession? But realizing that the Confederacy’s great soldier Robert E. Lee thought secession was a bad idea, I wondered whose ox is being gored so badly that Virginia needs a whole month to scratch its ancient wounds.

Do Lee descendants themselves wish to retrieve the family honor? Reputable scholars agree that Lee’s honor wasn’t and isn’t on the block here. The website for Stratford Hall, Lee’s family home (after the loss of Arlington to the United States government), has a descendants-of-Lee family tree. It’s not totally up-to-date, since the last recorded birth was a quarter century ago, but in 2003 Internet sources reported 20 living descendants.

I searched the Internet for suggestions that Lee descendants are active in the secession month movement. They are a remarkably low-profile lot. Hasseltine R. DeButts, Lee’s great-great-great-grandson and born in 1964, holds two patents. His brother William Fitzhugh DeButts’s wedding was reported in the New York Times, but the report focused more on the bride’s family and didn’t mention the Lee connection. Amelia Lee Glover, the youngest on the online tree, seems to be a recent Dartmouth grad. So Lee family muscle, such as it is, is not behind the Organized Soreheads of Virginia.

So who is Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s secesh-minded gov, anyway? His Wikipedia entry tells us he was born in Philadelphia to a family of Irish descent. His father was career military and Bob himself spent time in the military. The two McDonnells saw heavy action on the battlefields of peacetime Germany and Newport News, Virginia. Then, Governor Bob became a salesman. Not very Lee-like.

On the other hand, we all know about those fighting Irish and in fact the governor went to Notre Dame. But the Irish connection is intriguing. Many Irish immigrants fought in the Civil War. Might that be the secession connection?

No, it isn’t. The famous Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War was from New York. Overall, though, "About 190,000 Irishmen contributed to both sides of the cause. It is estimated that 150,000 served on the side of the Union and that about 40,000 served the Confederacy. After the conflict was over, more than 130 Irish soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor." The same source suggests that nearly 50,000 of the dead were Irish by birth or descent.

So get that. If Governor "Fightin' Bob" McDonnell is claiming that his military background puts him in a position to honor Lee -- well, why doesn't it seem likely that the great general needs to be avenged by a sunshine soldier? If the Gov is out to avenge his Irish brothers who died on the battlefield, statistics suggest that nearly 80% of the Irish dead died at the hands of the south.

But there's an even more interesting back story to Irish Bob's wrongheaded politicking. In his race to the bottom, blind to the slaveholders of Virginia as he panders to their heirs, Gov. McConnell ignores -- or more likely is ignorant of -- the hard reality that his own blood may have been slaves in the south. Lost in the centuries of agonizing over African slaves in the Americas is the story of Irish slaves sold into New England, Virginia, and the Caribbean before, after, but especially during Cromwell's time.

"In the 12 year period during and following the Confederation revolt, from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves, as the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000," reports a history of the Cavanaugh family. [my bolding] In another brief period, at least 100,000 Irish children were taken away from their Catholic parents (who were forbidden by law to even exist and thus had no claim to their own children) to be sold into Caribbean slavery. Some sources quote figures across the entire 17th century of nearly a million Irish sold into slavery; several thousand Scots were also enslaved.

Where did the Irish go? Well, the prettier women were concubines to the planters, but children of these "unions" were also slaves. Frequently the men were more literate than their owners, and were valuable as house slaves and business managers. But their price was low -- they were enslaved to empty Ireland so the land could be redistributed to Cromwell's favorites -- and they were more likely to be beaten to death than the Africans, a luxury item. Speaking from my own pale perspective, I wouldn't be surprised if melanoma leveled many of them. Crafty owners chose to cross-breed them with Africans because their lighter-skinned offspring sold better on the North American continent (especially, of course, the women).

Montserrat alone has a population distinctive because of its mix of Irish and African. From the late 19th century comes this story. "About 100 years after the 1768 rebellion, a ship crewed by Irish-speaking Corkmen dropped anchor at Montserrat....Eventually, as things loosened up a bit, it's said the Montserratans also informed the Corkmen with good humor and a straight face 'Tá sé sin ait, ní fheictear mar Gaeil sibh' - 'That's funny, you guys don't look Irish'"

Another visitor to Montserrat reports: "And then there were the obviously Irish surnames, despite the less than obvious features that went with them: the Burkes, the Collins, the Lynches, the Murphys, the Maddens, the Mullings, the Lanigans, and the Walshes. There were the McCarthys, McCormacks, McDermotts, McDonnoughs, McGanns, McLaughlins, and McMorrises. I found the O'Briens, O'Connors, O'Reillys, O'Haras and O'Meallys -- the list is almost endless, with Madden being one of the least popular, as Madden's is the name of the main undertaker in Kingston."

What can you say about a man -- an elected official in these United States today -- who celebrates the rape, murder, and enslavement of millions of people? You can say that he is free of compassion. You can say that he is ignorant of what "America" is about. You can say that he is calculatedly pandering to a group of people like himself, who envy the perhaps "chivalrous" history of a few Virginians and are pretending a likeness, aspiring to a sort-of-aristocracy among the dead. And who, incidentally, are unimaginative, mean-spirited, and deeply forgetful about what their God intends for them to be.

What can you say about a man who celebrates the rape, murder, and enslavement of a million and more of his own kin? Who sees slavery with the face of his own mother, of his own son, and separates himself out of that image? Out of sight, out of mind, and six degrees of separation counts for naught. Virginia's Governor McCromwell has truly lost his soul.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Marble Man, 145 Years Later

It’s Day 12 of Virginia’s Bad Ideas and Treason Month. Today is the actual anniversary of the end of the Old Dominion’s ancien régime, and since any number of pallid politicos are having their belligerent say, it’s worth examining the greatest Virginia soldier of them all. (And the handsomest! Right: Lee as a young man.)

Robert E. Lee stepped open-eyed into his future. He was no fan of the Confederacy in its first stages, but when President Lincoln asked him to take command of the entire Union army, he refused, saying that he could not take up arms against Virginia, should it secede. It did secede, and he went with it, [I assume] resigning his commission in the army of the U.S.A. He ultimately commanded the Confederate forces in the east, and it’s in that role that we are most familiar with him.

If Lee had chosen to lead the Union army, it’s unimaginable that the war would have lasted as long as it did. His record at West Point was one of the best in its 208-year history, and he served as its superintendent from 1852 to 1855. Lee was an outstanding military leader during his life in the U.S. Army and did the best with the resources he had in his years with the C.S.A. (It’s worth remembering that his resources included soldiers trained at West Point and the many United States military bases built throughout the south.)

Nonetheless, I believe that Lee’s most remarkable feat — of all his life — was his surrender. What the soft-bottomed soreheads in Virginia (most of whom have no doubt visited a military base only as a tourist, just like me) forget is that Lee surrendered. He had to. He had no other option. The C.S.A. was defeated. It was not betrayed. The Confederacy lost. Robert E. Lee was the supreme commander of the Confederate army in the east and he believed the war was lost. Period, end of story. (Left: Lee as the Confederacy's great general. The portrait is at Washington & Lee.)

Lee and General Grant, head of the Union forces — and, incidentally, with a career trajectory nothing like as brilliant as Lee’s — discussed the terms of Lee’s army’s surrender for several days. There was no treaty, perhaps because Lincoln’s government insisted that the C.S.A. was not a sovereign nation. The terms of the agreement were simple, permitting every soldier to return home safely, if he turned in his arms and horse or other animal (if publicly owned). Soldiers could keep horses or other animals if they were privately owned, which was regarded as a mercy to men who had to return home, possibly to ruined homesteads, and begin the spring planting.

The paroles — the pledge of safe passage to these soldiers — were based on Lee’s word alone. In effect, the last public use of Lee’s honor came in the maintenance of the peace. Imagine what it would have been like if Lee reneged! Within the week Lincoln was assassinated, and a lesser man might have taken up arms again or encouraged an uprising. Lee did not.

I am telling a complicated story in a simplistic way. There’s a lot to argue with in terms of Lee’s choices. He was a slave-owner, although in a limited way, although he did control an estate that owned slaves. Slaves on his property did testify that he had ordered whippings. He had been shown that Arlington, his estate across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., was financially viable only when operated with slave help, and that trumped any thought of freeing them. After the surrender, Arlington was confiscated by the United States government as part of the punishment for Lee’s treason. Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington; it subsequently became Washington & Lee. (Right: The Matthew Brady portrait of Lee, following the surrender, in Richmond.)

Robert E. Lee died in 1870, but he was in the process of becoming “the marble man” as his biographer, Thomas L. Connolly, described him. The myth-making had begun.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Confederate History Month, Day 11, and Golden Tomatoes

Confederate History Month continues.  I am reminded of a classmate from the Virginia boarding school I attended.  I visited her Norfolk home and was shown into a drawing room with a portrait of a Virginia gentleman over the fireplace.  A cut in the canvas had been clumsily stitched up.  "What happened?" I asked, ingenuous at 18.  "Oh, a Yankee soldier stabbed it with his sword,"  I was told.

A few years later, I wanted some reassurance that I had not imagined the exchange.  Ah, said my friend.  "That's what we were told in the family!"  She went on to say that her parents had taken the portrait to a restorer who examined the rip and said no, it was not the result of an intentional cut -- probably just wear, or a bump against a sharp object when being carried.  That story seems to me to be a metaphor for Virginia's ill-considered new festivities.  The actual history, the intent of the story, and its actual effect seem strangely, nastily, mean-spiritedly askew from each other.

Well, the small minds in the Old Dominion don't affect my life here in Chicago.  Today the temperature was 72 and I had a lovely walk through Kenwood and along the lake.  And I worked up a thirst, also a hunger.   What would still my craving?

Too early for gazpacho, I thought, which is only adequately served with red tomatoes ripe and scented, taken  from the vine in the last several minutes.  I recalled reading about a golden gazpacho, with yellow tomatoes and red-gold fruit and veg.  Yellow tomatoes were in the store -- ripe-ish looking, not too insulting, from Mexico of course, and I recalled that I have a huge batch of bean and kale soup in the fridge which was just too wintery for a day like this.

So: two pounds of yellow tomatoes, into the blender.  Two cloves of garlic.  A medium red onion.  Two red peppers.  It wouldn't be gazpacho without cucumbers.  Olive oil, wine vinegar, ground pepper, some salt.  A large handful of cilantro.  And a beautiful ripe avocado!  Result: smooth, creamy texture ... but a little brash (the garlic).  An hour later, mellowing and even creamier, but ... boring, actually.  I put a cupful into the blender and added carrot juice; sweeter but two-dimensional.   A second cup, with sweet potato this time: sweeter and stiffer, no more interesting.  Orange juice -- sweeter and wetter.  By the fifth cup, I was still dissatisfied and tried blending in some fresh yogurt cheese I made this morning: tangier, certainly.  I realized I have consumed more than a quart, which is a lot of tomatoes, and put the experiment aside until tomorrow.

A small thing, but a lot more nourishing than the sourness emanating from Richmond.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Santa Claus, is there REALLY a Virginia?

I have wanted to resume blogging, but as time passed by, asked myself: what topic really deserves being the one to break silence for?  But Gail Collins tells us, as kings of stupid begin to line up south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Explanation: Virginia's governor says it's now Treason and Secession History Month!  Yes, indeed -- economic crisis be damned, the new south hangs on to its old garbage.  Onward into the swamp, my friends.

The alternative histories are fascinating. If you agree that it would be legal for a state to secede (Lincoln's view is that secession was illegal, thus impossible) a CSA [Confederate States of America] would have been created, of states who believed they could secede as needed. So it would have been a more fragile organism to start with. Add to that the short fuse and honor obsession of the Celt (historians Grady McWhinney and David Hackett Fischer separately suggest that the south was basically a Celtic culture), and without any prodding, the CSA would be even more likely to implode or explode.

Western provinces would not have automatically assumed they would join the Union -- but on the other hand, if the CSA was combustible, or relatively poor, or did not believe in unity, why join it? Would Texas have stayed in the CSA once oil was discovered? Why? I think it more likely that Texas and Louisiana would have held their noses and allied with each other, because of oil and the Mississippi River. They would be better off doing business on their own with the CSA than joining it. The north central territories would NEVER have joined with the CSA, port or no port, but would do business through a foreign New Orleans.

But again, the northern route through the Great Lakes would have united the Union and the north central territories firmly with British Canada. I can't imagine the Union and the north joining Canada, but I can imagine the southern tier of populated Canada being ever more firmly allied with the USA. Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Ottawa, Quebec, and Montreal were already population centers by this time -- a far better substrate to build an enduring alliance than one along the Mississippi. The Chicago River might still run north!

Once you no longer have northern sheriffs being forced to observe the Fugitive Slave Act, the CSA's northern boundary would always leak. Imagine a Berlin wall stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi! Would the CSA have the leadership or the money to make it happen? If you were a southern soldier with a small-holding and a slave or two, or none, once the dust had settled and your so-called honor was no longer threatened by the Yanks, would you feel like paying taxes to Richmond or sending your son to protect that boundary? It didn't work for the British between 1763 and 1776, it didn't work for eastern businessmen in 1792, and it didn't work for East Germany in 1989.  In fact, it didn't really work for East Germany between 1961 and 1989 either!

I haven't read this anywhere and I'm not spouting another author's ideas -- I've just been tossing this around in my head in the few minutes since reading Gail Collins's blog. If I can come up with such serious reasons for the CSA not to stay together in just a few minutes, I don't think it really could have survived.

The north has been subsidizing the south since the writing of the Constitution: the three-fifths compromise and the siting of the capital on the Potomac. The south has been holding the north for ransom -- almost literally, since we've been putting our military bases there -- ever since. After the late 1860s unpleasantness, it received northern industry because carpetbaggers saw a fresh wilderness to exploit. Before globalization, it received northern industry because southerners were willing to sacrifice their dignity, working without unions. The south would have been better off listening to Robert E. Lee's better angels than sending him off to fight.

(Incidentally, Lee himself did not always listen to his better angels.  You can read here about how he treated his own and inherited slaves.)