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Monday, October 24, 2016

Skylands Photos by a Camera-Phobe from Not the Best Autumn

Photo by Carolyn Messina, a much better photographer than I, taken the same day.
You can see how much better the exact same scene looks when it is photographed
by someone who knows what she is doing. 

Another shot by Carolyn Messina. See caption to above photo. 
I'm learning disabled. I was never diagnosed; rather nuns told me I was possessed, and secular teachers told me I am retarded. I am dyslexic, have trouble with left and right and sequential order. Human brains split and lump. That is, the brain does two things: it creates categories of related things, and it divides things up into discrete units. My brain is good at lumping, not so good at splitting. I can see all the letters in the word; I just have trouble figuring out which letter comes first, which second, and so on.

Also I'm cheap and poor and a luddite. So I shy away from anything technology-related. I don't own a TV. And I'm very intimidated by cameras.

2016 was the hottest year in history. Except for the days getting shorter, when it comes to weather, September was just another summer month. October has also been hot. I'm sure bed-and-breakfast proprietors in Vermont gazed at the sugar maples and wondered if they'd ever light up. This autumn has been worrying for those of us who are concerned about climate change.

And northern New Jersey is under near drought conditions. In hot, dry years, leaves tend to just go brown and drop, rather than sing and dance their way to the grave.

But the other day I went to Garret Mountain and it was as if all the trees had gotten together over night and agreed to put on a show. And I wished I had a camera.

Then it rained, and we had a wind storm. I wondered if there were any leaves left. No pun intended.

I went to Skylands yesterday, camera in tow.

I don't really know how to operate this camera. It has some buttons and I press them randomly and sometimes I like what happens and sometimes I don't.

Skylands is north of here and many trees were leafless. Those leaves that did remain were largely subdued brown. I reminded myself that Andrew Wyeth can take just some grey, some black, and some brown and create a memorable image.

So here are some inept photos of Skylands on a fall day in not the best foliage year.

Believe it or not, as unremarkable as these photos are, many of them capture exactly what I was trying to capture: sun on leaves, clouds in sky.

The last two photos are by Carolyn Messina, a much better photographer than I. You can see how much better the same scene looks when it is captured by a proficient photographer. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Pawn Sacrifice 2014 Brilliant Performances; Troubling Account of Bobby Fischer

For much of its runtime, watching "Pawn Sacrifice" is a grueling experience. Young Bobby Fischer is growing up fearing being spied on by government agents. His mother, Regina, (Robin Weigart) is a communist living in Cold War era Brooklyn. Bobby escapes from what looks like a loveless childhood and a chaotic home life by focusing on chess.

Regina takes Bobby to Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pia) a teacher who greets Bobby by telling him that chess is a religion that takes anyone regardless of nation or creed. One hopes that this kindly man will serve as a ray of light in Bobby's life, but Bobby behaves as if he is autistic. He makes little eye contact and focuses only on the board, shutting out his opponent and his mother and sister who must stand and watch as he spends hours on his first chess match with a near master. Once young Bobby loses to Nigro, he refuses to shake hands, cries silently, and icily demands another game.

The real Bobby Fischer was noticeably tall and slim with very striking facial features: piercing eyes, prominent nose, large, curved lips and a sprinkling of facial moles. Tobey Maguire is short and slight, with refined features, darker hair and no moles. Fischer was from Brooklyn and he lacked a formal education. He dropped out of high school. He talked like an uneducated Brooklynite who happens to be a headline-making genius; he had a lot of attitude. Maguire is from California and he never really captures Fischer's unique voice or inflection.

The film picks up with the arrival of three characters played by brilliant actors: Michael Stahlbarg as Paul Marshall, a sort of fixer / hand-holder, Peter Sarsgaard as Father William Lombardy, a chess master, and Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky. These three actors are superb, and each has a moment on screen that absolutely took my breath away.

Marshall is a long suffering lawyer who prods Fischer to go to Iceland to take on Boris Spassky and become the new world champion. Lombardy is the closest thing Fischer has to a friend. He serves as Fischer's second.

Bobby tears apart hotel rooms seeking hidden microphones; perhaps the Russians, the CIA, or the conspiratorial Jews are spying on him. Bobby runs from journalists' cameras and the fans who want to grab and kiss him. Bobby cracks when he hears spectators cough or when he can smell their breath. He demands more money, special chairs, different rooms, quieter cameras. Though Jewish, he listens to tapes that convince him that Jews are evil people taking over the world.

All this is really hard to watch. It's especially hard to watch for anyone who remembers the Fischer-Spassky match. Bobby Fischer was an incredibly gifted man. He was world famous. After his match, he could have made millions and enjoyed a cushioned retirement. Instead he trusted the wrong people, became a raving lunatic Jewish anti-Semite and a member of a cult he would later denounce, denounced America, cheered 9-11, spat on documents, broke laws, became an exile, and, after refusing necessary medical treatment, died entirely too young and unnecessarily. His ironic, poignant last words, they say, were, "Nothing is as healing as human touch."

You can't watch this movie and not wish that somebody had done something to help this man. You can't not wonder, what was wrong with him? Was it the bad relationship with his mother? His lack of a father? His illegitimacy? Was he schizophrenic or autistic? Or is that he was treated like a star and did not receive, from others, the kind of feedback that forms character? A combination of all of these factors? Because Bobby Fischer is a commodity, even in death, we will never know.

In the film, Paul Marshall, the more practical and earthbound of Bobby's advisors, suggests taking him to a psychiatrist. Father Lombardy responds that chess is a rabbit hole. He mentions the hundreds of millions of moves that chess masters must take into consideration. He says that taking Bobby to a psychiatrist would be like pouring concrete down a holy well. The implication is that Bobby's chess genius is inextricably tied to his mental illness.

Lombardy cites Paul Morphy, a chess genius who could not succeed at conventional life. But look at Boris Spassky. He is still alive and no one suggests that he is mentally ill. Maybe a mentally healthy Bobby would have been an even better chess player.

Liev Schreiber, in the commentary, says that chess masters must constantly predict their opponent's attacks, and that doing so contributes to paranoia. Perhaps so.

Although I found the film hard to watch, the performances by the leads were so profoundly rewarding that they lifted me up in awe and made me cry. I don't know how Liev Schreiber did it, but he perfectly channeled a Soviet man from the 70s. I know because I was there in the 70s. Michael Stahlberg utterly inhabits his part, a chain smoking, sweaty palmed, tireless enabler who takes every abuse from Bobby and never stops trying to push him forward. Peter Sarsgaard is just simply superb, in every scene, from praying the rosary on his knees to the moment when dawn breaks on his face as Bobby starts winning. Tobey Maguire has a moment that is so powerful it gave me chills. He is beating Spassky. He is in his element. It is his bliss. See the movie for that moment, one I watched over and over again.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Owl Pellet or Hawk Pellet from Garret Mountain

Hawk owl ejecting a pellet 

I had been birdwatching for decades before I saw my first pellet. I was hiking at Skylands with Mark S, a hunter who had once downed a deer with the first arrow he shot that morning. He looked down at Mount Defiance and said, "That's a pellet."

Now I see pellets at Skylands all the time.

Sometimes all it takes to see something in nature is to have someone point it out to you.

Birds need to be light, so that they can fly. Given their bodies' emphasis on lightness, they don't have many of the bodily organs that heavier animals have. Birds don't have teeth. They can't chew what they eat. Owls don't have crops, a bodily organ used to store food for later digestion.

Some birds, like ostriches, deal with the absence of teeth by eating pebbles so that they can abrade food in the digestive tract. Parrots eat clay so that they clay can absorb poisons from seeds. Lammergeiers or bearded vultures eat animal bones. Their digestive acid is very strong.

From Wikipedia:

"The acid concentration of the bearded vulture stomach has been estimated to be of pH about 1 and large bones will be digested in about 24 hours, aided by slow mixing/churning of the stomach content. The high fat content of bone marrow makes the net energy value of bone almost as good as that of muscle, even if bone is less completely digested. A skeleton left on a mountain will dehydrate and become protected from bacterial degradation and the bearded vulture can return to consume the remainder of a carcass even months after the soft parts have been consumed by other animals, larvae and bacteria." says "An extra-long intestinal tract helps the lammergeiers digest bone, as does their gastric acid, which has a pH of about 0.7, close to pure hydrochloric acid."

I usually dissect pellets in situ. I just take a stick and poke at them on the ground until I see the bones inside. The last pellet I picked apart had some pretty big bones in it. One was the size of a human knuckle bone.

I usually don't bring pellets home.

I brought a pellet home from Garret Mountain yesterday. Boy, did it smell bad. I put it in the freezer over night hoping that that would diminish the smell. No such luck.

I googled "pellet" and "smell" and I found many claims. Some insist pellets don't smell at all. Some say they smell like rotting fruit. Some insist that they don't smell like poop. 

This one smelled like manure. I washed my hands several times after handling it. Good thing because pellets can contain viable rodent pathogens.

This pellet appears to be nothing but gray fur, with one little bitty bone, seen in the photo, above. Probably this bird, a hawk or an owl, had eaten a grey squirrel, or maybe a rat.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

October 12, 2016

I didn't get up till 7:30 on Wednesday, October 12, 2016. I am chemically addicted to election 2016's constantly breaking news. I stay up late sharing outrage at the Defeating Trumpismo Facebook Group I started.

I did my daily exercises, showered, and graded some student papers. Student papers make me worry about the future of America. My students could leap over the Eiffel Tower if I asked them to. I worry because expectations are so low, and Politically Correct indoctrination, in lieu of education, is so great.

I don't like seeing students cry. I don't like receiving emails from my boss telling me that my requirement that students attend class has traumatized a student.

Administrators are fearful of confrontation, political show trials, and personal injury attorneys. What happens once coddled students collide with the wider world? What happens to the wider world?

I think about the expectations nuns placed on us baby boomers back in St Francis School. Fifty-three kids in a class. No air conditioning no sports or musical equipment. Just one nun, a blackboard, and various implements of torture. We met their demands. There was no other option.

After grading papers, I took on the torturous discipline of sending out queries on my manuscript, God through Binoculars.

This past summer, God through Binoculars was under consideration at four top publishers. Editors called it "captivating," "fascinating," and "spiritually profound."

I put on plays when I was in kindergarten. I performed my works in front of other students in second grade. I've received thousands of rejections on works I'll never publish. In decades of writing, I had never been this close to real publication.

"We liked it but the marketing committee … Not what we usually publish … outside of genre boundaries … hard to market." I have been unable to pray since. 

So, on Wednesday, October 12, after grading papers, I sent out queries for God through Binoculars. Around one pm I realized I just couldn't take any more.

I become alert to my approaching birthday whenever the hair on my arms registers the first crisp breeze, when I note the first lone leaf strip from green to scarlet.  

Birthdays and holidays are hard for people who are alone. I am not alone by choice – in a sense. I never was offered a menu; I never selected to inhabit the planet where no one would like me. But I have made little choices.

There was once a Jewish lawyer. I dumped him. He had a bumper sticker that said, "I break for unicorns," and he was plumpish in a way that suggested a complete lack of movement other than between a desk and a refrigerator. I've never been thin, but I've always moved – my calves are like railroad ties and I do have biceps.

I love having control over what gets played on the car radio, what I eat for dinner, and how long I soak in the tub. Other times being alone almost kills me and I wonder why I am here, and why I don't just leave. 

I had a good birthday once. It was so long ago and so far away it feels like another world.

No. Not "it feels like." It *was* another world.

I was living in the Himalayas. Machapuchare, the most beautiful mountain on earth, so sacred it is never to be summited, was so close, and the air was so pristine, I felt could throw a rock and hit it. I was sleeping on a red clay floor and teaching English to Gurungs, future Gurkha soldiers. No radio, no telephone, no electricity, no running water.

I received a message from a runner: report to such and such a town. I didn't want to go. I'd have to descend a couple of thousand feet (and then ascend on the way back) and walk through a freezing cold, very rapid river with a rock-covered bottom that would punish my bare feet as I traversed the stone's slick surfaces. The current would batter and tug at my mighty calves and I'd have to struggle with all my might against teetering into the rushing, freezing water shooting down from Machapuchare.

I had to go. DH, my boss, had summoned me.

DH was a dictator. Demanded strict obedience. Ironic. In the US he had been a rich hippie. In Nepal, an absolute monarchy, he adhered to Asian totalitarian models of authority.

I arrived. Our rendezvous point was a ramshackle tea shop of nailed together wooden planks plunked on river gravel. Inside the shop, I could not escape the roar of the rushing water just outside the door. I associate that roar with low altitudes in Nepal. It used to lull me to sleep when I was passing through valley towns; the softening and then disappearing rush was one way to calculate altitude as I climbed up and away from river valleys.

The tea shop owner gestured for me to ascend a banged-together ladder to a loft above the smoky shop. I did. Someone grabbed me from behind and covered my eyes. "Happy birthday to you," a gathered group of Peace Corps Volunteers sang. I looked through my tears across the dark room, lit only by lanterns built out of inkwells, and saw DH, my boss. God, I loved that man. And I thought he loved me. Gestures like this inspired me: an old fashioned, all-American birthday cake, slick with icing and illuminated by candles. How in Shiva's name they got that cake over the trail and across the river, I will never know.

We were cross legged on the floor; the floor was the ceiling of the tea shop below us, which we could see through knotholes in the wood. Little dishes of stewed goat meat sat in front of us. Marie could eat goat meat with such gusto. Marie was what, five foot ten? Long hair heavy as a mattress. Sharp tongue. Blue teeth – her mother had taken tetracycline when pregnant with Marie. She was smoking, as ever. Marie is now gone. Cancer. Marie was watching me like a hawk. She watched everything like a hawk. Maybe now she is one.

"I asked myself, do you love him and does he hate you?" she, direct, blunt, and wasting no time said to me when we were alone together. "Or do you hate him and does he love you? Or do you both love each other or hate each other? I was watching you two that night. The toasts, going back and forth." Marie, I don't know how to answer your question, even now.

DH was eating goat and drinking raksi. He was devout. He never ate meat or drank moonshine. I teased him. "DH, are you abandoning your dharma?"

"It's you," he said to me. "You make me drink. You make me eat meat."

Me? What was it about me, anyway? I still don't know.

DH raised his glass. "As everyone can see, Danusha is posted on a very high hill. I didn't want to come here. It's such a tough uphill. But something drew me here. Danusha's spirit. A toast, to Danusha's spirit."

Later, when I returned, alone, to the Gurung village, I struggled to remain in touch with reality. But another runner arrived with another missive from DH. This time it was a hand-written poem, not on conventional paper, but on lokta, handmade, artisanal, Nepali paper, bumpy with fibers from the laurel bush, soft as a baby's skin. I still have that poem. If I had any self-respect, I would have used it as toilet paper years ago.

Just googled DH. He appears, finally, to be happily married. He came back to the US and wrote his dissertation, as he put it, on how "Rich white people screw over poor brown people in public schools." Aha. And he's never taught in a US public school. Aaaaaha. He is employed doing good deeds and enlightening the world. Not at all ironic. Feh.

He now looks like one of those apple dolls. Oh, the shame, of crying so many tears over a man who'd end up looking like an apple doll. Not even a male apple doll. A female apple doll. I wonder if his spouse has two X chromosomes.

Another birthday. The black telephone ringing outside my room – was it three in the morning? Daddy entering around six. "You don't have a brother Phil anymore." Daddy leaving the room. I remember consciously going numb, because I knew it was more than I could take.

Once day broke, crossing the street to Alice's house. She wasn't there. She'd tell me later that when she heard the news she left town because she knew I'd turn to her and she knew she couldn't handle my pain. The moral of this fable is not complicated. You have friends until things go south.

Alice is now a nun. I recognize her in the group photo of grey-haired nuns – the only kind there are these days – by her posture. She always stood like just like that, the turn of her neck, the position of her hands, the angle of her elbow. Her distinct posture wrings love from my heart; my love races across the miles, the years, and the disguise of her in her billowy, larger, looser, body. Oh, Al. All these photos on your convent's web page of you spreading Christian love and mercy. Why wasn't I included?

One more birthday. 2014. I am visiting my sister in the third facility I will visit her in in 2014. She has a moment when she realizes that it is my birthday. She says, "Happy Birthday. Too bad your brother is dead."

I gasp. After the lifetime we have shared, her weird, random cruelty still takes me by surprise. I look at her. Her face is composed and cold. She is now staring at the TV. Was it her brain tumor, or she herself, demonstrating that she could still knock me on my ass?

I am alone. I have failed at so many things it would be easiest to list the things at which I have not failed: cooking and cleaning. Why not just leave? Because, so far, on the days that I think about it the most, something happens that brings me up short.

Laundromats are prime locations for suicidal thoughts. "Laundromat suicide" would be a terrific band name, or the title of a modern ballad.

You do something intensely personal in laundromats. You wash your intimate clothing. You do it publicly, in machines that invariably smell like cigarette smoke. You don't smoke. If all of this is not depressing, what is?

A few days before my birthday, I was in a laundromat. I was inside my own fortress, resistant to siege. My awareness of external stimuli was like a bug's awareness. You note the folded up newspaper heading for your compound eyes, but little else. All your human stuff is deep, deep, deep inside, and focused on the exit.

There was a man in the laundromat. He is tall and big, probably strong like bull. He dresses like an extra in a Soviet Stakhanovite propaganda flic, like he should be chanting the Volga boatman song.

Back in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit this neighborhood, two weeks without electricity forced us all together. I had said, back then, to this very man, "Are you Russian? Polish?" I had noted his accent. Also I noted that he lives in a majority-minority, high crime city. Usually if you are not black or Hispanic here, you are Slavic. The other white meat. The poor one.

He had responded with rage. "You tink I accent? You accent. I American."

There he was, in the laundromat, as I contemplated my birthday and my aloneness and failure. And he was fumbling. Badly. He couldn't get the washing machine to work.


I walked over to him. Shook the damn machine loose from its moorings. Took his money. Put it in the machine. Got it to work. Went back to my own clothes and my own thoughts.

Scary Slavic Man smiled at me with shy and boyish glee. "Tank you! Tank you lady! You know how to do!"

Another moment that brought me up short, on that very day. I was walking, and thinking about leaving, and I looked up and saw a face I have not seen since St Francis School. And the poetic thing, the rhyming thing, the thing that makes you think about patterns, that makes you think that maybe there is some underlying meaning: I immediately knew who it was. There are some disguises, some lines, some changes in hair color, but those are minor. This is a face I last saw sitting two rows over.

"Chris?" I said her name. She said mine. We approached across the distance, made contact, chatted as if no time had intervened, none. And after some amazement, we promised to connect via Facebook, and went on our way.

So … I'm not totally invisible.

Something bad, and medical, happened a few weeks back, on September 21st. So-called "doctors" made a so-called "mistake." Just mentioning it, just mentioning it right now, my entire body became hot and tears filled my eyes and my shoulders turned to lead. Pain radiated down my arms. My body is saying to the writer inside me, "Please don't type those words. I can't take it anymore. Not after these four years of cancer and cancer and chronic illness and broken bones and scary lumps and death and funerals and Ted and failure please just shut up. Eat some more chocolate, destroy yourself, but don't put into words any more all this bad stuff that just keeps happening."

And since it happened, or since the surgery this summer, or since all the rejections, or even my sister's death, not a single person has hugged me.

I have no money so my only choice for salvaging what the "mistake" left of my body is to be treated by the same "doctors" who hurt me. It's like going to your rapist for therapy. I had to phone the quote doctors unquote and I thought eff it, it's my birthday. So I didn't.

I got into the car and drove north.

Color is arriving in the trees a month late, after the hottest summer in history. The Wanaque Reservoir looks like a moonscape. A lone heron patrols the shore. I pray for it. The state says we are officially in drought "watch" conditions. Pumpkins are small this year.

I saw activity on what used to be Mount Saint Francis, a convent. The Catholic Church had to sell it. I saw sticks topped with fluorescent orange flags poking out of the vast lawn and a "construction entrance" sign. I imagine the new buyers will turn those magnificent grounds into a strip mall. Breaks my heart.

The proud eagles guarding Skylands' entrance greeted me with their usual regal reserve. The annual garden is winding down for the year, but still productive of colorful petals.

I occupied a bench and took out my Victorian Fairy Tarot Deck. The other day on Facebook my cousin Phil belittled me because I read tarot cards. Phil posts memes saying that anyone who hasn't accepted Jesus is going to hell. He is also pro Trump. In response to his criticism, I told him that he does not demonstrate Christian qualities of kindness. I should not have spoken. But I did. Famous last words. He's probably unfriended me by now.

Were it not for my tarot deck and the ravens, I would have spoken to no one on my birthday.

I asked about Antoinette. I drew the three of coins, the "genius" card. Well, she was, and she was proud of it, too.

I asked about God through Binoculars and drew the queen of coins. Okay.

I asked if the deck wanted to convey any special birthday message. I drew the page of wands, what I call the "hippie" card. The deck was mistaking me for a younger version of myself. Joan Bunning, my favorite tarot interpreter, says that the message of this card is "Be creative. Be enthusiastic. Be confident. Be courageous." I'll get right on that. And I'll get smashed in the face. Pass.

I asked about Ted; I drew The Star, a card of hope. I hope he croaks. I hope I never forget what a bastard he is. I hope I win the lottery so I can afford a boy toy.

I said, I have been so alone in my life. Have I had any companion, even a spiritual one, a guide, a ghost, a guardian angel?

I drew the nine of coins. She is one of two distinctly solitary women in tarot. The other, the queen of swords, is known as the widow. I have never been married so I cannot be she. The nine of coins is elegant; she makes her own way in the world, keeps her own counsel, and is accompanied only by the ornament on her wrist: a falcon.

I liked it that I have some ephemeral guide who is herself an independent woman who likes birds.

I walk the same route every time: the annual garden, the perennial garden, the rhododendron garden, the wetlands garden – not so wet now. The pond, the hill, Mount Defiance, the orchard, the lilacs, the sundial, the azaleas, the magnolias, the manor house, the weeping cherry, and then back. Following the same route every time, I don't have to think, "Where is my body going?" I can follow my mind.

When I am at Skylands, the story I tell myself is a World War II story. It involves huge ethical questions as played out in England and Germany in the occupation and the post-occupation eras.

On Mount Defiance, I heard a raven. "Croak, croak, croak."

I responded. My raven is pretty good. "Croak, croak, croak."

The raven responded. "Croak, croak, croak." Maybe a little closer.

This went on for a while. I think even the raven got bored.

I thought about children in Syria. They were born. They were beautiful and worthy. They heard an explosion. Their former home pulverized to toxic dust; they breathed it in as they died, under rubble. They never got to fall in love, bake cookies, take a hot bath, watch birds. God creates people who live stunted lives and die alone. Why?

I cut some Sulphur shelf bracket fungus off of an oak tree. It really does taste just like chicken.

During the drive home NPR broadcast an interview with Colin Dickey, author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Dickey said that there are predictable archetypes in American ghost stories: tragic slaves, tragic Indians, and tragic spinsters. Women who never marry make scary evil ghosts.

As I drove, I debated with myself. "Buy take-out food? Go head. Give yourself a treat."

I go through this every year. I am poor and I am cheap. I can't bring myself to spend any money.

No take-out food.

I went to bed realizing the day had not been horrendous, because I'm resigned to it. I didn't expect. No one is going to realize it's my birthday and do something special. I am not that person; I was not issued that life. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Saint Karen, Librarian

I don't know the source of this image
Karen, I'll be honest. I didn't want to go to your memorial.

Listen, it was Friday evening, the last Friday in September. I had spent the day alone, planning lessons, concocting future disappointments for my students. Also I am wrestling with an open wound recently inflicted by ham-handed medical students. Poking it – was it going numb? Sniffing it. Had the penicillin not done its job? It was Friday – no medical access, for me, till Monday. Regretting my entire life that brought me to this medical no-man's-land. It had been overcast all day and it was already beginning to get dark; leaves swirled and danced as if to entice light to linger at a not very good party, maybe to strangle some last-minute joy out of it; but no.

It's funny. My Polish, Viking, and Lapp genes render me allergic to clement weather. I spend April through September wrestling with the Sun god. Apollo always triumphs, reducing me to a slick, impotent puddle. My Southerly-facing apartment with its fifty square feet, or whatever it is, of windows turns home into a brick pizza oven.

And yet it's always the same.

Various portents tap gently on shoulders and announce the earth's passage. School supplies go on sale. Farm stand workers stop stocking their bleacher-seat shelves with tomatoes and corn and now tote pumpkins and stack haystacks.

For me, someone without TV and radio-dependent, it's often this: I'm walking along at an hour when I had, just the other day, been walking in full sun, and suddenly I can't tune in an AM station. I go home and turn on the radio and, again, nothing but static. The sound of bacon frying.

I don't understand it, but AM radio does not work as well after the sun has set. In autumn and winter my access to AM radio is diminished.

I have discovered that if I place the radio on something solid, like the couch, and not hollow like the shelf, and turn the radio speakers to the west, the stations come in crisper. But if I forget and reposition the radio, suddenly I am a stick figure off on the fringes of the map of civilization, isolated in a remote lighthouse. The other night, as I cooked dinner and struggled to make out the words being spoken through the static from my favorite AM station, my radio seemed to be bringing in Gregorian chant. The monophonic murmuring haunted me. My radio seemed to be tapping into an abbey in thirteenth century France. Radio as a time travel device is of course nonsensical – but at times it has, for brief moments, violated spatial constraints. It brings in stations from Buffalo, NY and even Canada, and that makes no sense, either. I always want to grab someone to make them listen but there is no one to grab, and by then, after I have been told what to wear in downtown Montreal, the station has evaporated.

I live in a city in the twenty-first century. Funny how my radio's malfunction can suddenly throttle me into the wilderness, into centuries' past, and into a thorough awareness of my own isolation.

So, no, last night I did not want to go to the memorial. Because though I curse the sun all summer, when it finally does what it does so very predictably, I always find myself thinking, Really? Is that it? Am I going to have to put on a jacket now? And worry about whether or not cars see me as I cross the street?

But I really didn't want to go to your memorial because I didn't want you to be dead.

Outside it was the gray of a film noir. Roads were slick. I walked.

Your library was five miles from my apartment. There is a library less than a mile from my apartment. It is New Jersey's first public library. The majestic current building is over a hundred years old. It contains magnificent, original oil paintings on its high-ceilinged walls.

Why don't I go there?

Where to start.

Black Lives Matter. Trump on race. Political Correctness.

How does a little person like me say what's true and not get steamrolled by words-like-troops, punctuation-like-tanks, silences-like-barriers, assumptions-like-hanging-judges, accusations-like-career-suicide?

I am white. Paterson is mostly black, Hispanic, and Muslim. When I walk the less-than-a-mile to the local library, there are incidents. Beggars, drugs addicts, cars that won't stop driven by people who threaten to kill that white bitch (me.) There are sometimes punches and spit. Not often but once would be enough, and more than once.

And then there is the local library staff. I ask for a book. A book they have reserved for me. It's on the shelf behind the woman at the counter. She says she doesn't have it. I say I see it; it's right behind her. She says she doesn't like my attitude. She abruptly turns around and talks to her supervisor. This takes a while. Other patrons form a line behind me. She comes back and gives me the book.

Enough of that and you just stop going.

Now, multiply what I just wrote by millions. And talk to old Jews and old Italians who used to live in Newark, or Irish who used to live in Paterson, or people I know who used to live on Liberty Street – until they were mugged / robbed / arson / drug dealing.

Yes, black lives matter. Maybe these white ethnic lives mattered, too. Their ancestors didn't own slaves; their ancestors were serfs and sweatshop workers. Those tiny little, pristine homes that stara babkas cleaned so scrupulously, sweeping the streets in front. The cafes where Italian men sat around sipping cappuccino. But they are gone from Newark or Paterson. And no one dare tell the story of why they left.

So, Karen, I went to your library, five miles away.

Listen, Karen, I keep asking myself why we didn't do more. And it comes down to this. When I was talking to you, I always felt ashamed. I walked to your library. If it was summer, I was minimally dressed. I sweat. If it was winter, I was in a coat that got hot and heavy as soon as I walked inside. I smelled bad and I was dressed poorly in clothes meant to survive a ten-mile roundtrip along a four-lane highway.

And you, Karen, always looked so beautiful.

And those final days?

Karen, you worked in two different branches of the library. I never knew which one you were in on any given day. So when I didn't see you for a while, I thought, she's at the other branch.

Till that day when I saw a flier on the counter. "Memorial for Karen … " I started crying.

Karen. You were so alive.

I keep looking back for signs.

You: "How are you?"

Me: "Sad. My sister Antoinette just died. How are you?"

You: "Sad. My husband Fred just died."

Did we honor each other's pain? As I checked out books?

So, your memorial service.

As soon as I walked in from the cool, dark, rainy night – God lord, how long have I been shaking my fist at heaven, raging against sun and heat and dryness? And here it was cool, and damp, and dark, and I hated it and wanted the sun back; there, I've said it. As soon as I walked in, I was glad I came.

The library did itself proud. There was a crew of librarians at the front door to greet us and guide us into a side room. The room was brightly lit. There was a table in back with food. Food! How great. I didn't expect food, but it was such a nice touch. Sparkling apple cider, cheese cubes and pepperoni, crackers, those decorative Italian bakery cookies that don't taste like much except sugar and flour and probably artificial vanilla but that look very nice. Fruit.

Against another wall, a collage of quotes, some by famous people, some by people who knew you. This, from Martha Graham: "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost … It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you."

Parallel to that table was another table, loaded down with books about art, knitting, and cooking. Your knitting group had donated six hundred dollars to the library; the library used the money to buy books about things you loved.

In front was a collage of photos of you. None of them adequately captured your beauty. Your sisters and stepdaughters sat up front.

The room was so full I had to strategize to claim a seat. Very good. You got a good turnout, Karen!

A spunky, petite, no-nonsense grey-haired woman snapped us all to attention. She didn't say much of anything. Just asked if anyone wanted to say anything. Another gray-haired woman, still in her raincoat, said she didn't want to get up front but would say something. She did.

"We can't hear you!" the overflow crowd protested. The woman tried to speak more loudly but we still couldn't hear her. She sat down. We applauded.

I didn't want to wait; waiting would make me nervous. I charged up front. Someone handed me a microphone. I took it.

"Can you hear me okay?"

Yes, people said.

I said, "I am a writer. I spend all day writing, alone. I love that. I need solitude to write."

I thought of all the years I spent in shared houses, struggling for that "room of one's own." How hard I gauged at life to get the solitude I have now.

"But when I am done writing for the day, I crave people. After I moved back to New Jersey after a long time away, this library became one of my key stops. That was because of Karen.

"I am a heterosexual woman," I announced, just in case any man there might fall in love with me. Never know. "But I really appreciate beauty, and Karen was beautiful. I think of her, and I see the sun. Her hair perfectly coiffed, her jewelry, makeup and clothing all perfectly selected. Her smile.

"Karen was very knowledgeable about movies, and we always talked about what we had just seen. One day, in the course of conversation, I mentioned that I had never seen The Godfather.

'You've never seen the Godfather?' she said, outraged."

I imitated Karen. Everyone laughed.

"'No,' I said. 'It glamorizes the Mafia … '

'It's a great movie!'" I said, imitating Karen again. Everyone kept laughing. "It doesn't glamorize the Mafia, it depicts the Mafia! There is a difference between depicting and glamorizing!"

"So, every time I saw Karen, we would chat, and towards the end of our conversations, as I was moving toward the door, she would start saying to the person next to her, 'Would you believe? This woman thinks she is a film fan, but she has never seen The Godfather!'" Big laugh.

I changed tone.

"I am a teacher," I said. "And my students think about the future, about what they will do with their lives. About how to be a good person.

"Karen smiled at me. She shared her beauty with me. She greeted me. She paid attention to me. She engaged with me. She brightened my day, like the sun. Karen was a saint. It's very easy to be a saint."

I sat down.

Behind me were three females, obviously a mother and her two daughters. They all looked so alike, as if they were dressed up as each other for Halloween. The mother was nagging her daughters, who were looking stubbornly unmoving.

The mother went up front and said, "And my daughters should really come up here now," and she stared bullets. A bit of discomfort in the audience. But the daughters did get up and they sang a lovely song, using their phones for the musical accompaniment, about how the departed are still with us, in a sense. And then all three of them burst into real sobs. It was something.

A woman got up. She pointed to her scarf, which she had knitted with you. She brought up the Holocaust, which struck me as a bizarre violation of Godwin's law, but then she said that there was this guy, who resisted the Nazis, and he was in a concentration camp, where he wrote that the only thing that matters is human relationships, or something like that, and I understood her. She was saying that you, Karen, had formed good relationships, and that that's the biggest thing there is, bigger even than the Holocaust.

More speakers. A couple of people said, "I tried to be there for her at the end, but … " and I'll never know the predicate of that sentence, because we were not close. I'll know only the lingering regret.

A woman next to me leaned over. She liked what I had said. She confided that she regrets that maybe she was not as sensitive to you as she should have been towards the end. One day she asked you, "How are you, Karen?" and you replied, "Everything sucks," and that was so unlike you. And she wanted to pause, and reach out to you, but she was in a line in a library, a bead on a string, and couldn't stop the line. She had to allow the bead behind her to move forward. And she regrets it to this day.

A geezer got up. He had thinning gray hair, not many teeth, and his wrinkled shirt was encased in suspenders. He said he worked with you. He said "Karen was no saint! She could really lay into you if she didn't like what you were doing!" And he said that the other night he dreamt he was at work in the library, and Karen was there, and walking around as if nothing had changed, and yet only he could see her.

We all gasped and nodded.

Karen Marie Stiner Kaplysz 1956 - 2016

Friday, September 30, 2016

Hillary Clinton, "Bitch," Your Daughter, Your Mother, Your Wife, Your Sister, You.

If a man has a high IQ, he is smart and intelligent. His brain is a gift to society. He might discover a cure for cancer, or cold fusion, or rockets to Mars.

If a woman has a high IQ, she is a bitch.

If a man is quiet, he is deep. He is respected. He is assumed to be thinking profound things.

If woman is quiet, she is invisible. Ignore her. Forget her name.

If a man is strong, his strength is our strength. He can be our soldier to defend us. Our champion debater who articulates our values.

If a woman is strong, she is a castrating bitch.

If a man is creative, give him a grant. Hang his art on the walls of museums. Give his novel a Pulitzer. Give him a best director Academy Award.

If a woman is creative, why doesn't she have children? Selfish. Bitch.

If a man is ethical we put him on a pedestal and make him a judge and ask him to help us decide complex, weighty issues.

If a woman is ethical we mock her as self-righteous and focus on every chink in her armor. Mother Teresa went to a hospital when she had heart trouble!!! What about those vows of poverty, hey? Christopher Hitchens built his career on mocking Mother Teresa as a phony.

If a woman is chaste she is a prude.

If a woman enjoys life she is a whore.

If a woman has women friends she is a lesbian.

If woman has no women friends she is a bitch.

If woman has men friends she is promiscuous.

If a woman has a PhD or a JD or has an executive job she is unwomanly.

If a woman has no degree and is a stay-at-home mom she is "barefoot and pregnant." An airhead.

Look at the headlines on women's magazines, from Seventeen to O.

Every magazine, no matter the age of the demographic, has headlines focusing on one theme:

Women and girls, you are doing it wrong. Stop doing it. Start doing it right. Change your life now. Lose weight. Gain bust. Cook chocolate cake. Jog. Shut up. Speak up. Bathe. Get dirty. Stop stop stop. Do this do this do this.

No matter what a woman is doing, she is doing it wrong, and she'd better stop, and start doing it right.

This is a no-exit maze. There is only one solution.

Women and girls: shut up the internalized misogynists, and respect your intelligence, or your disinterest in intellectual pursuits. Respect your quiet or your noise. Respect your beauty or your ugliness.

Turn off the voice of misogyny.

One of the themes of election 2016 is misogynist caricatures of Hillary Clinton.

I check in to Facebook daily. Ever since polls reflected Trump's lack of viability in a general, as opposed to a primary, election, Trump boosters and those who self-identify as hating Hillary Clinton began to post memes depicting Hillary Clinton as

a toothed vagina

a witch

a blood sucking vampire

a crazed, serial killer ax murderer

a fat, wrinkled, naked old woman.


These images were

more frequent


more extreme

Than any images I saw during the same period depicting any male figure, including Donald Trump.

In fact I saw vanishingly few malicious caricatures of Donald Trump.

If you are a woman, if you have a wife, mother, sister or daughter, if you are a teacher or other leader who cares about women's fate, it behooves you to take note of this.

The world is (still) hateful towards women in a way it is not hateful towards men.

All other factors accounted for: who the woman is, what she does for a living, what she has done with her life.

The world saves a portion of its hatred to spend on women alone.

"The world" includes other women. Women perform FGM on little girls in Muslim countries. Women slice women's faces with razor blades if hijab is inadequate. Women participate in honor killings. Women abort female fetuses.

Women were the driving engines of the witch craze that mass murdered women in Europe for two hundred years.

Criticisms of Donald Trump that I have seen focus on actual things he has said, done, or proposed. These criticisms use transcripts and video and charts and graphs to make their points.

Criticisms of Hillary Clinton I have seen focus on making her face and body look as ugly as possible.

Yes, it's different for women than it is for men. Yes, we should pay attention.