Night at the movies

It had been a couple of months since we’d been to the movies, so recently my husband and I decided to see Hidden Figures, the movie about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn, three African American mathematicians who worked for NASA in 1961. We wanted something uplifting, inspirational, maybe even aspirational — in short, a diversion for a couple of hours from this new world we’re living in.

Turns out, that’s a lofty goal. Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot to enjoy about Hidden Figures. It’s entertaining, the actors are accomplished, everyone cheers at the end. Definitely go see it, and if you know any girls who love math and science, take them too.

But as I sat in the dark watching three women fight hard against segregation and sexism, I couldn’t escape feeling that not much has changed. These women were brilliant, educated pioneers in a field whose history until recently only acknowledged the swagger of John Glenn and scientific contributions from men whose names came first on research papers because they were the ones in charge.

Rather than an escape, Hidden Figures held a mirror up to our country right now, and the picture wasn’t pretty in terms of national priorities and progress.

The imperative of the American space program in 1961 was to beat the Russians to space. Anything less than that was failure, not just of imagination but of national pride. Part of the reason Katherine and other women were even brought into NASA was that despite their gender and color, their skills were essential to achieve that goal. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder: Do we have that same spirit today? Will NASA return as a national priority, years after its influence has waned as a result of budget cuts?

I was a child during the early 1960s, when Hidden Figures takes place. My family lived for a while in Kentucky, and as I watched Katherine and her friends navigate separate bathrooms and water fountains, I remembered clearly the times when I saw two drinking fountains, one labeled white and one colored, and buildings with two entrances, one in front and a second one either at the side or in back. Those memories mixed with the ones on the screen, and I was back to being four and thinking all I want is a drink of water.

It struck me, sitting in that theatre as an adult, that despite the vintage feel of the movie, the problems with race and prejudice obviously aren’t past history at all. While we celebrate the women in the film, it’s hard to deny the fact that racial and gender-based prejudice divide us as much today as they did back then. In fact, today’s uncertainty surrounding immigration bans and deportations expands that prejudice, and it’s not hard to imagine what those policies mean today not only on a human level, but in terms of our nation’s values and progress. It’s as damning now as it’s always been.

The movie ends with photographs onscreen of the real-life Katherine, Mary and Dorothy along with summaries of their professional careers. One image shows Katherine, at 97, receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. That’s the triumph of the film: the belated recognition it gives NASA’s women scientists and mathematicians, and acknowledgment of the vital role they played in the success of America’s space program.

Hidden Figures is all kinds of girl power, and triumph over circumstance, and girls can and should be proud to be smart and work hard and succeed. It’s a message we need to hear; I just wish I could’ve enjoyed it without the shadow I felt creeping over it.

Home

When I think about home it’s rooms that pop into mind: the kitchen at my grandmother’s house; my office in the early morning; the dining room where my children did their homework; my best friend Cathy’s teenage bedroom on the morning her mother and I sorted through her clothes a few weeks after she died. These rooms contain within them much of what I see and feel when I sit down to write, each of them a meticulously detailed diorama that evokes precise memories, feelings, emotions, even smells that often surprise me with their insistence on being shared.

It’s as if I’ve built a kind of dollhouse in my mind: ground floor living spaces for eating, cooking and gathering as a family; second floor bedrooms, one for each person to reveal themselves; third floor attic where the memories are stored. This house resembles the one my dad built for my fifth Christmas, a handsome yellow colonial from the front that’s open at the back so I can stare directly into each room and structure its reality as I see fit, decorating each room from photographs before adding the people and voices I remember from the past.

Rooted in these domestic scenes are small stories, and I believe whole-heartedly that from these small stories come bigger truths. While home is and always has been a safe place for me, I recognize that for many others, maybe even most, home isn’t sacred or safe or even a place. It’s that fact that makes me wonder sometimes (actually, quite often) whether our stories about relatives and friends and things that happened are important, are even worth recording aside from a selfish need to be remembered.

Why do I return home in my writing? Maybe it’s as simple as this: It’s the place I know the best, and so I use it because that’s the only way I know to tell you the things I’m trying to say.

Friday Flash: Snow

Friday posts are part of an ongoing series of short nonfiction essays inspired by ordinary events. Each piece is an original, stand-alone essay of less than 500 words.

I step in frozen footsteps. Make my way past dry blacktop. Snow, loose powder, dances in the wind. I see the task at hand.

This early-morning winter ritual repeats. Shovel and clear. Go inside and work. Suit up again, and shovel more. Throw salt and get the kids. Shovel and repeat, over and again.

We clear 120 feet of driveway by hand, no snow-blower for us. We shake our fists at snow. Grit our teeth at blizzards. Double-layer extremities. Face sub-zero temperatures head-on. Shovel through a storm to keep up. Our snow-blowing neighbors? They wait it out. Polar vortex, my ass.

Farm ancestors whisper to me. Get on with it, they say. Go out and get it done.

I don’t really mind. It’s exercise. It’s meditative. When you finish, there’s something to show. You can measure your progress. Carve a neat, tidy path to shelter. Create crisp white edges that lead inside. That’s the image I have in mind. Makes me believe I can finish something.

Shoveling the walks and driveway is straightforward. But satisfaction is short-lived. City plows overturn what we just cleared. They wreck havoc on the order created. I hear them and stop my work. Listen as they go past. Look out my window. Shrug on my coat. Go back outside.

Begin at the foot of the driveway. Sweep the slush away.

Flash Friday: On Twitter

Friday posts are part of an ongoing series of short nonfiction essays inspired by ordinary events. Each piece is an original, stand-alone essay of less than 500 words. (I’m posting this week’s entry on Sunday, having spent the last few days catching my breath from Tuesday’s election results. I’ll be back on schedule this week.)

I have what you might call a Twitter problem. Every day I find myself tethered to the open tab on my laptop or glancing at the phone screen after hearing the ding of a notification. It’s a welcome distraction from writing, but my Twitter affection is more than that it, it’s a need to scratch an itch and take a digital hit of news, snark, and just maybe a status update from my college sophomore.

I’m not totally proud of this. I read somewhere that social media is as addictive as sugar and cocaine in that the reward of likes, views and retweets stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, the part that releases dopamine to reward and reinforce the stimulus. In other words, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can be as addictive as chocolate, booze and drugs, which is why more than a few of us seek it out during every spare minute, like waiting on the sidewalk for a walk sign, standing in a coffee line, even driving an empty stretch of road. (I don’t do that, by the way.)

There are different types of Twitter. Political Twitter is the worst, yet it’s the one I spend the most time with. What crazy thing did Trump do today and how did Clinton respond? What’s the latest from The New York Times and Washington Post? Answers are at the fingertips. Then there’s entertainment Twitter. Say, for example, you watch “Scandal” like I do. Watching “Scandal” is fun – but watching “Scandal” and following #Scandal on Twitter? Hilarious. It’s like being at a party with the actors and thousands of people who are also tuned in, or being at a concert where the TV show is the main act instead of a band. It’s silly, but it’s fun. Is that a bad thing?

I often worry that I can’t step away from the keyboard, and sometimes I try. A couple of months ago, my 17-year-old son and I went to the Cubs game on what (unknown to us) turned out to be social media night. Fans were encouraged to post pictures to Instagram and tweet updates during the game, all under the handle #Cubs. We found our seats and sat down, and we both reached to pull out our phones. I realized quickly that I’d forgotten my glasses at home, which meant no Twitter for me because I can’t read my phone without them. I put my phone away; my son did too, in solidarity.  We watched the game – the entire game – and it was great. We talked, the Cubs won, we took the train home. When we got there, I found my glasses and caught up with the world. My first stop? Cubs twitter. 

Gutted

I spent yesterday working as an election judge for the first time. There were six of us, four democrats and two republicans. Two of the judges were high school students who volunteered to work their first presidential election; they were excited to be there, and they were awesome – smart, enthusiastic, and total masters of the computer system (thank god, because the rest of us were way out of our league). Together, we had a great time – we cheered high school kids who came in to vote for the first time, helped a few voters maneuver their wheelchairs to reach the electronic voting machines, gave ‘I voted’ stickers to kids who came in with their parents, and thanked the dozen or so people who stayed in line for almost an hour after one of our computers went down. To a voter, people were polite, appreciative and excited to be there; as for the judges, we had a blast. Except for one, an older man named Bob who turned out to be a metaphor for what happened last night.

Bob was the judge in charge of the equipment at the polling place, and he was an angry man. He yelled at me in front of voters, at the young women several times, and after one voter with autism and his dad left, called the young man ‘a retard’ to the shock of all of us. (Don’t worry, I’ve reported him to the board of elections.) We weren’t his only targets – he was mad at the system, concerned he wasn’t going to get his money, and when we asked him not to interpret a ballot question for a voter (per judge rules) he ignored us and did it anyway. We got through it but it bothers me that Bob is part of the memory the two high school judges will have from that day.

I got home last night around 10:00 pm after leaving the house at 4:45 in the morning (yes, it’s a very long day), and all the excitement of working the election (despite Bob) was crushed by what was happening nationally. Turns out Bob was about to be elected president: a man who bullied women, ridiculed a person with disabilities, and forced his will upon people despite them asking him not to. I sat on our couch and watched incredulously as the disrespect we experienced at our polling place was being rewarded with the biggest prize of all: Trump was elected president. I sat with my son and tried (unsuccessfully) not to cry. Then we both went to bed.

Around 2:30am, I started getting texts from friends. “I see you’re awake too, are you okay?” “I can’t believe this is happening.” “WTF is going on?” “How is this possible?” I checked Twitter in time to see the CNN Alert: Trump is elected 45th president, and I started sobbing. I felt like every man who’d ever yelled at me, screwed me over at work, talked down to me or just laughed at me had gathered together in a circle and I was in the middle, and they were kicking the shit out of me.

I’m still tearing up today as I try to understand what this means, not just for the issues I care about (short answer? catastrophe) but what it says about the kind of country we are. Are we at heart a racist, misogynist and bigoted majority who favor mass deportation and prohibitions on civilian refugees; who condone torture, who deny climate change and are willing to repeal health insurance for 20 million people? Are we so cruel as to deny and repeal LGBTQ rights and reproductive choice? Are we really okay with the bullying and cruel language that Trump deals in, and the way he talks about women? Do we honestly believe that a man who exploits an aggressive tax strategy to avoid paying federal income taxes that among other things pay for the Secret Service protection he and his family receive is going to fix the tax code so that it makes people like him pay more? What world do we live in?

I don’t want to hear anything about emails or jail or how hateful Hillary is, may be, or always was. That’s false equivalence. There’s a lot of blame to go around with this election cycle, starting with the media circus that forced this narrative on all of us. Yes, we have serious problems. But yesterday, in our little polling place, I spent the day with a man who embodied the candidate that has become this country’s president-elect, and I am just devastated that this was our country’s choice.

Fox News and Breitbart News have traded in hate, conspiracy, half-truths and outright lies to build their audience, and guess what? Now it’s all theirs. Their boogeymen are gone – the Obamas in two months, and the Clintons forever. Their arguments are over – they control Congress, they will control the Supreme Court for at least a generation, and they have every tool to govern as they see fit at their disposal. I pray that Trump and his government will operate with the country’s best interests at heart, but if you take him at his word that won’t happen. He’s told us what he’s going to do, and the electoral college majority – NOT the popular vote, she won that – has sealed it. It’s time to accept it and move on. But that doesn’t mean I won’t fight against it. Not for a minute.

Flash Friday: On Books

Friday posts are part of an ongoing series of short nonfiction essays inspired by ordinary events. Each piece is an original, stand-alone essay of less than 500 words.

I wasn’t always not a reader. Before I finished the latest book, which took me more than two weeks to read and for which I now owe at least a dollar in library fines, I hadn’t read a book in a couple of months. The one before this I didn’t even finish, and the one before that I can’t even remember. When I was a reader that would never have happened. Back when I was a reader I could’ve told you every detail about the last book I read.

Before I stopped reading books, I read them all the time. I read them to my kids when they were babies, and we read books together up until they started middle school. Back when we were readers, my daughter begged for Madeline and my son rushed us with Curious George. Before we were a family of readers, and we sat together with chapter books and National Geographic and Calvin and Hobbes. We read newspapers and the New Yorker and Sports Illustrated and yes, People magazine. Before Apple came into our lives, my husband and I spent entire Sundays reading two newspapers and finishing that week’s book so we could each start another one on Monday.

Before I met my husband, I knew I’d marry a reader. Before that, I worked in a bookstore – a real bookstore, not a Crown or Barnes & Noble or Borders. This bookstore, Kroch’s & Brentanos, trained its staff on titles and authors and bestseller lists and Publisher’s Weekly reviews. The book clerks (that’s what we were called) ranged in age from me, a recent college graduate, to a 50-something man who worked there more than 20 years. Before I worked there I went in to browse every Saturday afternoon, because back then I looked for books even though I couldn’t afford them because back then I was a reader.

Old habits, new resolve

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Source: The New York Public Library digital collections

It’s one week into 2016 and already my old habits nibble at the edge of my new resolve despite extraordinary effort to the contrary. But this isn’t an essay about failing, or falling short or even self-recrimination.

Instead it’s a piece about hope. And intention. And turning back to the things that bring my life joy and fulfillment, curiosity and comfort.

How do I want to spend my days? What work, aside from the daily business of living, brings meaning to my life, enhances it, rewards my passions and in some small way – or dare I dream a larger, more significant one – contributes to someone else’s life, enhances their point of view or opinion, maybe offers a new perspective that might make someone consider something in a different way?

I think often about what I want this space to be. Like most writers, I love to read about process, and daily routines and time management tips that I’m sure will make me more productive and, yes, PUBLISHED. I’ve had some success: an essay here, my most popular post here, my own magazine of which I’m extremely proud. I belong to a writing group, whose members are friends and whose input and advice I value more and more as we continue to travel our writing paths. I’m also a huge fan of Story Studio Chicago, a welcoming home for writers whose instructors encourage, guide and push when necessary, and who provide validation that our work matters.

Yes, writing takes a community but ultimately it’s the act of one – one woman, alone at her keyboard or with a pen and a sheet of blank paper – that brings the words forth. It’s knowing the solitary thrill of writing that one perfect phrase, of explaining how I felt at that one singular moment, of telling the story precisely, exactly the way I want.

That moment of knowing that yes, I got it right, is the zen of creating. It’s why we all keep writing, even after months or years of not doing it but thinking about it all the time until one day you’re watching The Thin Red Line on Starz and checking Twitter, and the music Terrence Malick chose to underscore his movie draws you to Pages and the blank screen and you start writing again. And you decide you want to keep writing and not give up because how could you? What else would I do?

Stories matter, the real ones and the made-up ones and all the ones in between. That’s where I want to be, creating them and sharing them, and that’s my hope for this new year. I promise to keep writing and I hope you keep reading. I’ll do both, and let’s share what we discover along the way.