Saturday, October 31, 2020

Reading Fairy Tales for Solace

I signed up to read fairy tales for solace.

Or so I thought.

I love that expression -- "or so I thought."

A Public Space, which is a journal+adventures in writing, is hosting reading groups, and at this time #apstogether is reading Grimm's fairy tales. I should know from my psychoanalyst teachers that fairy tales are about deep stuff, like mutilation and abandonment and being devoured. But I got the book and started to read, thinking oh joy, Cinderalla, in a Disney-esque spirit. Escapism, you might say.

But of course that's not it at all. The stark brutality is sometimes met with a solution, but sometimes not. Then we have to live with it. In a tale for grown ups that I read last night, a girl was cut off from her only supporter, who thought she had betrayed him. The multiple levels of loss and trauma make each other ring, like hitting the right note on the G string so that the cello's C string vibrates in resonance. 

What use is that? Why do we read such stories?

I think the resonance is the recognition, the similarity, the "oh I know about that." 

I saw the headlines in the paper -- immigrant children being deported to Mexico, even if that's not where they're from, zombie oil wells in Canada that threaten the earth, the God knows how many-th storm forming in the Caribbean. 

Now why that should be comforting is anyone's guess. But perhaps as the poet Michael Lally always reminds me, "There is surely a time in history when things were also terribly difficult, yet people made it through." He would also say that we carry the memories of those bad times in our DNA, which is perhaps why the tales make us tingle. And we must also carry the DNA of survival, which is why we keep reading. Don't quit before the miracle happens, because God makes a way where there is no way: we know this, too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Coronavirus: Not over yet?

I really hit a wall this month, as the curve of infection inched up in the third wave and the weather turned cold. My summer adventures in the out-of-doors had been delightful and the idea of shelter-in-place-by-myself AGAIN was painful. I complained bitterly to everyone, and listened as they complained bitterly back to me. I've stopped thinking of Trump as idiocy and started thinking of it as domestic violence against all of us, trapping us in a very bad experience of the pandemic. When conservative organizations like the New England Journal of Medicine denounce the handing of the situation, you know we're in deep trouble. And of course climate change is hovering over us, Thomas Friedman says we can expect big changes in how we work -- which likely means lower salaries -- and surely there's more. In the midst of all this angst, I backslid on my daily self-improvement routines of exercise, cello practice, homemade bread and green leafy vegetables.  I wanted cake and TV period. End of discussion. The fears of the spring were no longer motivators. I was in a slump.

This is the point at which my beloved friend Pam Shaw, were she with us, would say, "Time to put on your big girl pants." She might say it sweetly, as in "You are so loved!" (from some encouraging message site) or superhero-style, as in "You are a bodacious woman warrior and you can do this!" but she would surely draw a line on my self-pity. She was a stern but wonderful cheer-er-upper and I miss her terribly.

Left to my own devices, I reorganized my house and took my friends/family's suggestion to get an outdoor grill and fire pit to extend the outside season into the cold days. I am going to get a new sofa and a new very warm coat for these forays to the outside. I also got poles for pole walking, per the advice of the Washington Post, and recruited a friend to try it with me. This is all good.

In light of those accomplishments, I said to myself, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!" OK, great metaphor, and I know what the lemons are but what is "lemonade"? Thinking about Pam, "lemonade" might be just the willingness to say, "This is a shitty day (shitty period), but 'I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.'" 

I threw in the Frost because it seemed to fit. I could have quoted Emerson -- 'when duty whispers low, "Thou must," the youth replies "I can" or Thomas Paine --

“THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”

These great writers urge fortitude in the trying times, self-sacrifice for the larger good. While it seems as if my huddling in my house is nothing like the suffering of George Washington's battered army in 1776 as they fled across New Jersey, their ill-shod feet bleeding into the snow, I am supposed to do this thing, this shelter-in-place, it is my contribution to the cause, not to get sick myself. I can be cheerful so that I don't burden others. In fact, I can invite them over and feed them from my outdoor grill, cooking in my incredibly warm new coat (which I didn't actually get yet, but you follow the storyline here). I can use my time to learn from this "apocalypse," understood to mean "pulling back the veil" between reality and me.

And what I glimpse behind the veil is that a shift as large as the American Revolution or the Civil War is ahead -- as we make a necessary transformation from our rape-and-pillage-the-earth economy to a just-and-sustainable one. It doesn't have a name yet, this new system, but I think one will emerge soon. And we will see that that transition will demand all the fortitude and winter solidering we can muster. In the future, when we look back, we might think of this as the "Summer" of the Revolution. We are all Sarah Connor at the end of Terminator, knowing that hard times are coming, and this is the moment to prepare.  

I think that is the bittersweet lemonade we are called to make in this moment.   

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I Voted!

I voted today. In New Jersey, all voting is by mail-in ballot. The ballot can go in the mail, in a county-sponsored dropbox, or one can take it to the polls. The many texts and emails asking me about my "voting plan" made me reflect on which of these I thought best.  I decided to go to the county dropbox.  

With my plan in place, I turned to the ballot. It took quite a bit of work to learn about the candidates and the public questions. Then it took work to fill out the ballot, put it in the envelope, sign the form BUT NOT DETACH IT, and put all that in another envelope, find a convenient drop off place in my county and go there. Not as easy as strolling around the corner to Hazel Avenue School and pulling levers. 

When I got to the drop-off spot, however, I was really really enchanted. I loved that the ballot box was under the gazebo across from the fire station in South Orange and daily decorated. There was a certain joy and dignity to it that shouted, "Ain't democracy great?" It seemed very official and very inviting to me. I think others thought so too as there was a steady stream of people arriving to vote. 

Here's a photo of me, all masked, putting my ballot in the box.  And then a photo of the voter after me -- you can see how attractively the gazebo is decorated.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Ripped up, robbed and relocated! How urban renewal is PEOPLE REMOVAL

Last night, Doug Farrand sent an alarming email to our University of Orange Urbanism Team.  It contained a link to a news story about the City of Orange Township's plan for urban renewal on Main Street, replacing the old Y, where I achieved junior and senior life guard status, and Rossi's Paint Store with an 400-unit apartment complex. I lived through the decades of urban renewal which tore apart Newark, East Orange and other cities in the 1950s and 60s. And I have had the opportunity to study urban renewal in major US cities. Bottom line: urban renewal promised riches for cities and delivered chaos. The people in the path of bulldozers were "ripped up, robbed and relocated" as my brother, the songwriter Joshua Thompson, put it while I was working on a subtitle for my book Root Shock: -- eventually subtitled: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It

Urban renewal causes horrific harm all the way around, yet planners and developers told me "you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet." I gathered that by that they meant they'd break the "eggs" of the community to make an "omelet" of wealth for themselves. But people do not take well to having their "shells" broken. Urban renewal was, I learned, a prescription for death of those who were carelessly pushed aside. You can see the award-winning video Sara Booth made about urban renewal -- Urban Renewal is People Removal -- and I'm happy to send you a free DVD. 

The official horrible US urban renewal program was shut down in 1973, but the laws that enabled it linger on the books. The leaders of Orange, NJ, are licking their chops at the money they could rake in by tearing down the historic buildings of Main Street and replacing them with 5-10 story "market rate" apartments. This means that the apartments will rent for upwards of $1500 a month and be geared toward people who would take the train to work in New York City (but will anyone do that in the future?). The incursion of these apartments will trigger an avalanche of gentrification, pushing the minority and immigrant communities living to the south and north of Main Street out of the city. Their needs are not considered in the planning process. Orange "has enough" low income people, or so they say, or maybe too many, so this "push out" is justified in the eyes of the decision-makers.

This article kept me up all night. You might ask, "Why did you check your email at 10PM?" And you might ask, "Why were you surprised, you wrote about this in your book, Main Street?" Both good questions. It's not that I'm surprised, it's that I'm physician and it is extremely upsetting to me that we have failed to learn that urban renewal=death.  It is what Edgar Rivera Colon has described as hell. While I was awake and in that hell, I imagined writing a pamphlet called "Death by Renovation." 

Morning brings good counsel. My UofO colleagues suggested that I write this blog post instead, and having explained the horrors of what's being planned, shift to our proposal: an urbanism that centers life. What could be a better urbanism for Orange, NJ? It is a city full of life. On Saturday, I was at an event to promote completing the census, registering to vote and wearing masks to prevent Covid-19 infection. During the event, young dancers from Concepts in Choreography demonstrated their considerable skill in a genre my granddaughter explained is known as Jersey House. In the parking lot of the building next door, a Guatemalan folkloric dance was taking place with gorgeous costumes and drumming. The issue in Orange is to take the talent to Main Street, let people come visit us and see the amazing accomplishments of the people. We can nurture these accomplishments and get all the money we need or could imagine, while extending life! That is what urbanism that centers life can do!