Thursday, February 16, 2006


I have been unable to access my email all week.

Yes, I am one of those stupid, stupid people who does web-mail and does not back any of it up. Periodically I go through my Inbox (dating back to early 2000) and delete all the mail I don't want to keep. This generally creates enough space in my inbox for me to continue functioning on the "free" level, without having to upgrade my status to Preferred Member (which really just means I have to pay to do what I did for free, before).

My husband (who makes his living in computers) has been telling me for ages that I need to do my mail differently. And he has even offered to set it all up for me.

Now, I am one of those people who can't be bothered. And I don't mean that I won't work very hard to get something or I don't want to get a little dirt under my fingernails. I mean that I literally can't be bothered about certain things, much the way I described Eliot in my story, running.

Unlike ninety percent of America's women, I generally have only one pair of shoes at a time. I just can't be bothered to care about shoes. If my shoes are worn out, I'll keep wearing them without thinking about it, until one rainy day when I step in a puddle and have to live the rest of the day with a water-logged sock. And I will live the rest of the day with that sock, rather than run to my bedroom to change it, because, well, I simply can't be bothered. And even then, I am as likely as not to step in another puddle the very next day and the next week and the next month, before I finally, probably on impulse, buy a new pair of shoes. I am adaptable. To anything. This is good in some respects. But every now and then I'll see a stack of books on the floor in front of the bookcase or glance at the china cabinet where a game that we played a year ago still sits, or I'll take last-year's overlooked Christmas ornament from the top of the microwave to put it on this year's tree, and I'll think, "I really should take more notice of things. My life is all about reaction and not at all about prevention.

It shouldn't surprise me, then, that when I tried this morning, for the 6th consecutive day, to check my email, I was able to access my mailbox only to find that it had been wiped clean. All of my mail from anybody for the last six years is gone. And unless finds the method and the generosity to restore it for me, I will never see it again.

I'm trying to decide if this matters to me. On the one hand, I kept all that mail for a reason, and my relationship with all of you who email me is important to me. Also, although perhaps somewhat sadly, most of my friendships and the larger part of those individual friendships have taken place via email.

On the other hand, how important is it that I hoard or revisit those conversations? I have my memory. I carry them with me. I don't remember many specific emails, but the whole of those conversations, over the years, has informed the way I know each person and the way I know myself, because of him or her. Life is organic. When we try to go back in memory to a specific place or time, it is all different, anyway, even if we've taken great pains to preserve it intact.

Several months ago I sorted through my "Treasure Box", a box containing memorabilia from my childhood and adolesence. The treasures therein did not give me the pleasure I thought they would, though many of them I would never part with, willingly: like the letter my older brother gave me at Summer Camp one year.

Camp Gitchee Gumee set up a "Secret-Brother, Secret-Sister" arrangement on the first day of camp. Every boy was given a girl's name at random and every girl was given the name of a boy. During the week each camper was to write friendly notes or give small gifts to the person bearing the name on his or her slip.

About mid-week I understood that whatever boy drew my name out of the hat must have asked someone to point me out and realized he'd drawn the short stick. I cried. I withdrew. I couldn't look in the mirror at my fuzzy hair and my awkward body draped with garage sale clothes. I knew that some boy had been sorely disappointed and didn't want to risk peer-taunting, even to send me a friendly note.

The next day one of my cabin mates handed me a folded letter. On the outside were the printed words, "From your Secret Brother." Inside were several kind paragraphs, replete with mis-spellings and poor grammar, but to me they could have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

At the end of the week, when the Secret Siblings were revealed and nobody stood up and showed himself when my name was called, the truth slowly began to dawn on me.

Michael told me later that he had asked a girl to write the letter for him, so I wouldn't recognize his handwriting, and that he'd dictated the mis-spellings and grammatical mistakes so as not to arouse suspicion, because most pre-teen boys just don't know how to write.

I wasn't let down when I learned the truth. I was used to being overlooked, especially by boys. But not another girl in that whole camp had a brother who loved her the way mine loved me.

I still have the note, tucked away in a box somewhere in my garage. And I'm glad I have it. But what's really significant is that it did exist, and I read it, and I learned something because of it, and I carry that tender piece of my brother with me every time we talk.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Flu Reflections

I spent the weekend with the flu and Dorothy Day's autobiography, "The Long Loneliness".

I am struck by the vast difference between the world then (early 1900's) and our current world. Has human life ever changed more rapidly than in the 20th century?

Dorothy Day was Catholic, a non-violent social activist and a writer, who lived in Chicago and New York during prohibition (though bootleggers were plenty) and in a time when women were not allowed to smoke in public or to vote. Day went to work on a newspaper, reporting social injustice wherever she saw it. Labor Laws and worker's rights were largely non-existent (a 14 year old boy working 90 hours/week, injured workers left without compensation to beg on the streets, the poor working themselves to death and relegated to unsanitary housing). Most young social activists of her day were Communists (or the more benign, Socialist) and Anarchists and sometimes resorted to violence in protest of the corrupt social order, but to a large degree they were peaceful protesters who picketed or wrote and spoke against injustice. Still, almost all Dorothy's friends were arrested multiple times, and during this time some Radicals were tried and sentenced to death.

We have undoubtedly made social progress since then. Women have voting privileges (and I can't believe how begrudgingly I accept this right), there are child-labor laws and, despite low wages and run-down housing for the poor, there are laws governing minimum wage and work-week hours and there is compensation for occupational injury and medicaid and food stamps and WIC. It is helpful to me, to look back at where we've been and appreciate how far we've come. I would not dare purport that our current system is in all points just or that our existing programs are sufficiently effective, but we do a disservice to the remembrance of all who worked and fought for reforms when all we manage is to sit back and complain.

At the same time, I'm in a bit of a quandary when I think about our responsibility to carry on their work. The climate has changed so much. The world has changed so much. As I see it, at least two major changes make responsible social activism very difficult.

First, we have "specialized" everything and everyone. When Dorothy Day left her parents' home at 16, she attended University for two years, on a scholarship of $300 (semester tuition fees at the University of Illinois were $12.00), which covered books, tuition, and most living expenses. She took various odd jobs and living situations to cover the rest. After two years she took a job as a reporter with the Call, a socialist newspaper . During World War I she joined a hospital nursing program, which trained its students on the job, with three hour breaks in the afternoon for lectures and training seminars.

Today, a minimum of four years higher education is required to get a job in just about anything, outside of the most basic customer service jobs, and the cost of education is unattainable for all but the wealthiest few. An untrained person can't just volunteer to become a nurse and an eighteen year-old with "some college" is not going to land a reporting job, nomatter what kind of paper or what kind of writer.

The second obstacle to social activism is a prevailing social attitude that equates radicalism with lunacy or barbarism. Dorothy Day was arrested for a peaceful women's suffrage demonstration on the White House lawn; today picketing is associated with crazy fundamentalists in front of abortion clinics (who are often hauled off to jail just as Day was). We look, in retrospect, at her activism as heroic and necesary for social reform; why are today's activists on both sides of the political spectrum (Pro-lifers and Environmentalists) written off as mentally imbalanced or intolerant or at best, annoyances to roll our collective, enlightened eyes at? We are told that we can't "legislate morality". But then how do we procure change? Weren't Women's Suffrage and Labor Unions and the Civil Rights Movement exactly that, attempts to legislate morality, so that society would run by more moral laws?

In general, I see my life as being full of restrictions. I found myself complaining to a friend just the other day that I feel stuck in the "this is how things are done" rut, and I lamented my deplorable lack of imagination. I want to do something, but I don't know what to do. Whereas the world of 1915 was wide open, almost begging individuals to stand in the gaps and shape the future, the world of 2006 feels closed to me. If I want to help the sick I need training in the medical profession. If I want to help poor families or orphans or victims of abuse, I've got to become a "social worker". I don't even qualify to counsel pregnant teenagers, even though I was one 15 years ago, and have felt the weight of it every day since.

Maybe I'm being obtuse and looking at the roadblock instead of the grassy bank that winds around it. I know I can donate food and clothing to charities and I can help serve meals at a shelter. I can give money. I can pray. I can vote. I can practice kindness. Am I the only one who feels immobilized in the face of it all?

Although she eventually converted to Catholicism in her thirties, Dorothy Day rejected Christianity for agnosticism in her college years. Here is her account of it:

I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn't see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt and the blind. And those who were doing it, like the Salvation Army, did not appeal to me. I wanted, though I did not know it then, a synthesis. I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too. I did not want just the few, the missionary-minded people like the Salvation Army, to be kind to the poor, as the poor. I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. [which she experienced in her childhood neighborhood] Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.

I want to understand my place in all of this. Certainly, Christianity as I have known it is far from this abundant life. Is there even a line of demarcation between the church and the world? When I was small I thought as Dorothy did and I was full of zeal to be Christ to a hurting world. Popular culture must have a sinister goal- or perhaps it is merely a natural side-effect- of squelching virtuous passions, while feeding destructive ones to bursting. I have tried to close my mind to its inundations, and still I find I have been mesmerized, sedated, lulled into a life of dangerous conformity and appalling self-absorption.

And I will probably join you, when you roll your eyes at me and tell me I'm being overly dramatic. And I will probably agree with all your assesments of "youthful idealism" vs. the "wisdom of age". And I will probably laugh when you say that the flu "went to my head" and concede that I "shouldn't be too hard on" myself. But then there are those disturbing Biblical words:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27 (NIV)

Monday, February 06, 2006


When I was almost three, a dark man and woman knocked on the door of our gold, shoebox house on Locke Avenue and wanted to buy it, so we moved “Out to the Country”. We lived in a square white house with two levels and black shutters and a concrete front porch, sporting rectangular pillars. A Weeping Willow yawned in the front yard near the ditch that ran along Eighth Avenue; the ditch I squatted by and caught pollywogs and fat brown toads and made mud-pies with Johnny Height, my next-door neighbor with wild blond curls and a cap-gun. My brother and I weren’t allowed guns, so Johnny cut an unsettling figure, running around the neighborhood like a renegade, bare-chested with cut-off blue jeans and a holster slung low about his hips.

The gun wasn’t the only dangerous thing about Johnny. He never got spankings, for one thing, and he had a dirty mouth. He was an only child and I remember seeing his parents only a few times, when my brother was lost in a book and my desire for a playmate outweighed my fear of knocking on Johnny’s door. His mother was a left-over Hippie, with straight black hair that fell down in front of her shoulders. She had yellow teeth and a cigarette in her left hand and she never addressed me by name or seemed very interested in me, or in Johnny, either. I think she invited me in once, in the five years we lived there. The house was strewn with cigarette butts and dog hair and when I came home my mother scrubbed my hair and clothes to get out their smell.

Johnny’s dad looked a lot like Johnny, but bigger, and wore a bare chest with just as much ease. He parked a beat up Chevrolet in the back yard some time before my memory; put it up on cement blocks and left it there. Black-Eyed Susans and wild rhubarb grew up around it, in the thick, uncut grass. Johnny showed me the best patch of rhubarb, alongside the back wall of his house. He cut gigantic purple stalks with his jack-knife and gnawed on the juicy ends.

The Heights didn’t go to church and had an old hound named Reefer. Johnny thought this name was funny and liked to say it a lot, but once, when the subject surfaced at home, my dad grew angry and my mother’s posture drooped. She turned quiet and sighed and I thought she was going to cry. Johnny Height and his parents and his dog became my first demonstrable link to the word “heathen”.

One time while we were playing hopscotch in the driveway, my stomach knotted up with conviction and wouldn’t let go. I took Johnny by the hand and led him to a shadowed corner of my basement, behind a rocking chair, and made him pray the Sinner’s Prayer. He didn’t really want to, but my vivid explanation of the torments of Hell made him more willing. I could be pretty persuasive already at five or six. I waxed eloquent, like a tent-revival preacher and tried to measure my effectiveness by Johnny’s face. He teetered on the edge of decision, his eyes shifting from me to the marbled shag carpeting, to the stairway that led back outside. Time to close the deal:

“Anyway, I won’t play with you any more until you say it”, I blurted, thinking of mud-pies and tadpoles and rhubarb and hoping he didn’t hold me to my words, in the event that he was blinded to the truth and damned, after all.

“Okay.” He shifted his agile body awkwardly, and half-closed his eyes.

“Repeat after me,” I said.

When we had finished a sufficiently salvific prayer I told him we were done. He opened his eyes.

I looked for the bare-chested cowboy with hands quick on the draw, hands which caught twice as many frogs as mine and were both surer and freer with a Frisbee or the branches of a tree. Johnny’s hands lay folded strangely on his lap, his face was flushed and funny and he wouldn’t meet my gaze.

“Can we play now?”

“Yes”. I stood up, suddenly tired and wondering why my legs were shaking and why I felt so crummy when I’d just saved a soul.

It was maybe ten minutes before Johnny’s movements quickened again and the fire lit in his sky-blue eyes, but it was ten years before I tried my hand at Conversion again.

We played long into the summer evening shadows that day and many other days, and when my family moved, the summer I was eight, Johnny was the only one who saw me sneak around the side of my house to hug it at the back corner and to look one more time at the Black-Eyed Susan’s and the broad-leafed rhubarb in his backyard.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Maybe God Created Me to Get My Children

My two oldest boys have found new respective occupations this past week, which has made the house much quieter.

While all of our boys love books, Micah (9) is sometimes difficult to coax into one. Micah is a man of action and interaction; he is drawn to computer games and board games and cooking and playing with friends and pushing his brothers. He is prone to nagging and boredom. He loses interest in a story more quickly than does Marshall, and will sometimes leave a book un-finished.

Last week he chose Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" for an upcoming book report in school. He has read good books before, including the Narnia books amd Harry Potter, and he has enjoyed them. But something in "A Wrinkle in Time" caught him in a new way. He has finished the first book and is on to the second in the series. He's reading before school in the morning and after school whenever he is not eating, doing homework or playing piano.

My children's school, North Hills Classical Academy, is helping each grammar-school child write and "publish" a book, to be completed by the end of this year. Marshall (11) started writing and hasn't stopped. He's in the middle of two stories, one for the school project and one "just for myself". He is getting up early (6:30 a.m.) to write. (Oh, that his mother could acquire such discipline!)

Mark my words: within five years Marshall will be a better writer than I am. At least as concerns fiction. Here is a teaser:

Zecor was waking up. It was not terribly early nor terribly late, but the sun was shining brightly. Zecor, like everyone else in Platinum, was a robot.

Zecor half reluctantly rose from his bed. He put on his removable armor, which was only taken off during the night. This certain armor covers the head, back and shoulder area and is unique to this particular type of robot.


I must tell you that Zecor had long envied the position of Rash, leader of the group Sliver. Silver was a group of three robots who fought crime and protected the whole of Platinum.

Zecor suddenly had an idea.He came up with this idea without trying to. There is no way to tell how he thought of it but... he thought, "If I secretly kill Rash, then I might make it up to his position."

With this plan still fresh on his mind, Zecor rushed through the crowds, which were quickly gathering as the morning progressed. As he pushed and shoved through the population on the street, his plans grew greater and nastier.

At the Head Government Building...

Zash and Slash, Rash's two companions, were competing in their acrobatic and weapon-handling skills.

"Beat this!" yelled Zash as he ran toward the wall of the building, jumped, ran up the wall a ways, turned around on the wall, and ran back, brandishing his weapon.

"That's easy!" replied Slash. Then he did the same move, but in a slightly more impressive manner.

No, Marshall has never seen the Matrix.

Zash and Slash are twins, which is a complicated thing for robots.

Ummmm... Perhaps he knows more about reproduction than I thought? He seemed to think this line was funny.

Zecor has now infiltrated the government building:

It took Zecor very little time to reach the stairs. From the bottom of the stairs he proceeded to the second floor. Going up, Zecor went a bit faster than he meant to. It was a strike of luck that nobody saw him ascend.

And one more bit of humor, as Zecor confronts Rash, the leader of Silver.

"Hello! I believe your name is Rash?" said Zecor.

"Yes, it is. And, by the way, my name does not describe my personality. What do you need?" Rash said, kindly.

For anyone who's interested, I can let you know how the story ends, but it's shaping up to be a long one.