Molly Kaufman and I are visiting friends in Lodi, New York, which is on Seneca Lake. We are staying in a small cabin with a deck that hangs over the lake. This morning I made a rather perfect cup of Peets coffee and sat on the deck with my laptop. Molly brought her laptop and coffee to the deck and we did some work, while also scrolling the New York Times, and answering a few emails. It was the kind of summer moment that one remembers all winter. The dock -- like a hotel balcony in Johannesburg overlooking Grant Street -- struck me as the perfect place to sit and write a book.
Saturday, June 26, 2021
The observation that the redlining imposed on American cities in the 1930s affects tree cover now is more and more widely appreciated. This terrific piece in National Geographic includes a fantastic video about the topic. Worth a read!
The piece also explores how to examine cities for the places of the haves and the have-nots, using the "transect," a walk along a boulevard that cuts across the neighborhoods. Fascinating photos!
Bloomberg News/CityLab collaboration produced a superb report on the redevelopment of the Lower Hill District in Pittsburgh, a pivot point for the future of the historic African American neighborhood of The Hill -- famous as the setting of August Wilson's 10-play cycle. My favorite line -- the project overall will be $1 billion dollars -- $50 million is slated to go to the residents of The Hill, who have suffered decades of displacement and disinvestment. The developer said, "I think that's more than fair." It's slightly better than the $15 million that was being bandied around by some developers who talked to me a couple of years ago. But FAIR???? Have they completely ignored the news???? Did they visit The Hill????
In order to see this in your own city, you might find the article on "map twins" interesting -- a Chicago project to introduce people who have the same house number but live on different "sides" of the north-side divide of Madison Street. It would be an interesting project to replicate, if your city has a nice long transect that cuts through a variety of neighborhoods.
Some advice on building a healthy society by the leading American epidemiologist Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University School of Public Health. At the heart of his advice: fairness.
Saturday, June 19, 2021
The awesome website, kdramabeans, is my go-to site for step-by-step action of whatever kdrama I'm watching. I'm one of the those people who looks at the end of the book soon after I start, and kdramabeans offers me that opportunity. So I was intrigued when I read posting on episode 24 of "Tree with Deep Roots" and author questioned the deaths of the two young lovers, Ddol-bok and So-yi,
I’m left to wonder why they couldn’t have just actually lived, and why that final scene we were shown truly couldn’t have come to pass. Did their deaths really change anything? Were those deaths necessary to propel the story? Not really.
First a bit of background -- this show is about the invention of the Korean alphabet by King Sejong in 1446 -- even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. This is a formidable feat, the making of a phonetic alphabet, easily learned by Koreans but also accessible to foreign students (I got the basics down in 59 minutes). This drama centers around the ruling class's opposition to universal literacy. Ddol-bok and So-yi are servants who play important roles in the creation and dissemination of the language.
Why do they die? Could they lived modestly and happily ever after, having played a role in Korean history?
Who knows what the authors were thinking, but I think all kdrama is metaphor, and therefore their deaths stand for a larger truth. In this case the truth that the drama is exploring is the wisdom of the people. The head of the opposition argues that the people will are protected from sophistry because of their lack of education. They will be more vulnerable if they can read. King Sejong doesn't buy that argument. He replies that maybe sometimes, but not all the time, echoing Abraham Lincoln who famously said, "You can fool some of the people all the time, and you can fool all the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time." In the meantime, the chance of literacy is a chance for dreams and hope.
It is that dream for which Ddol-bok and So-yi are willing to risk their lives and die with pride. Do they have to die? Well, of course not. But their deaths signal the stake that working people have in literacy. All working people have struggled for literacy, certainly including African Americans. So I identify deeply with their commitment to this deep cause. Ddol-bok and So-yi stand for the wisdom of the people in fighting for literacy and the chance to dream.
Thursday, May 20, 2021
On Tuesday I bumped into some issues of aging. I felt discouraged and trapped by the inevitably of getting older and sicker. I slept well, but woke up in much the same sad, hopeless mood. One of my first activities was reading Father Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, which had the title, Choosing Love in a Time of Evil. He quotes from Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl noted:
Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision [emphasis mine], and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any person can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of them—mentally and spiritually. They may retain their human dignity even in a concentration camp. . . . It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. . . .
I know Viktor Frankl's work well, yet it shook me up -- it reminded me that I, too, had choice. I did not need to surrender my humanity to my troubles.
With that in mind, I went about my day, focusing on the famous glass half-full. When depression tugged at me, I pushed it away. After dinner, I found myself shelling roasted, salted pistachios for dessert. Each nut required that I push the two sides of the shell apart and scope out the nut meats. I was chewing on my third or fourth nut when I realized that I was sublimely happy. My problems had not changed since the day before, but my perspective had opened up. If someone in a concentration camp could hold on to their humanity through troubles, then so might I. That's the theory -- but sitting in my kitchen cracking pistachios, I had some proof that I could do it. It wasn't an automatic thing. I had to make the choice. And I had to push away my unhappiness throughout the day. The work, however, allowed me to recognize the pleasure of eating some nuts.
Tuesday, May 11, 2021
The New York Times has run a special section devoted to the lives of those we've lost to Covid-19. Today, in the print edition, it was devoted to people in India who have died, including a young American who was living there.
Several of my friends are closely connected to organizations in India that are responding to the crisis and here's their advice on organizations worthy of support.
Nupur Chaudhury recommends these:
ARCHThis org is near and dear to my heart, and I continue to do service work in honor of Daxa Patel, who passed away recently. Working with her in rural health camps was my first job out of college. They work deep in the rural areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra, and were very involved in helping displaced families during the construction of the Narmada Dam. They continue to hold my heart as I continue to work to integrate service in my life.You’ll see that their website is bare bones. Don’t let that deter you from donating.The org: https://archgujarat.org/Where to donate (USBased 501c3 to accept donations ): https://www.friendsofarch.
org/If you do donate through PayPal, feel free to include a note saying that you were “referred by Nupur Chaudhury” so that they know it’s a legitimate donation—they don’t have a ton of donors.Manav SadnaI worked with this org in the slums of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They work mostly with the dalit commuity, and work out of Gandhi’s old ashram.The org: https://manavsadhna.org/
Latha Poonamallee shared this:
If you are looking for a trustworthy grassroots organization to help rural India, I would strongly recommend Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan, India.I have been involved in this organization from 2001 and know them intimately. Their ground game is exemplary and they have the infrastructure to reach nooks and corners of their part of the country through their networked parallel governance organization. Their leadership is morally upstanding and you can be assured that your donations are being put to good use.
Monday, May 10, 2021
I love Eric Kim's piece on a year of cooking with his mother, which he called "a masterclass in Korean Home Cooking." No children would move home to learn cooking from me. Their father and stepfather did the cooking, while I happily and occasionally baked -- to great acclaim, I might add. Paul Hollywood is my idol -- 'nuf said.
This pandemic forced me to confront this lacunae in my homemaking skills. My daughter Molly took over my food life in gentle steps, first of which was bringing me food in those days when my age group was in lockdown and we were all living in terror of the unknown. Given raw ingredients, could I make something? It was a tad grim at first. Gradually, the meat-and-potatoes recipes I'd learned at my mother's side all fell into place. Beef stew, spaghetti and meat sauce, meatloaf -- you see the pattern here. I ventured into lentil soup and rice and sweet potatoes.
Then we went on a vacation for two weeks and I got to cook at Molly's side. She was at the beginning of a cooking adventure. While we were at Plum Island, meals featured the fresh produce and amazing ice cream and bread that were to be found. Chocolate milk ice cream, fresh corn on the cob. The house we were renting was equipped with a grill, reputed to work once you got past the cranky starter. Molly insisted I work this thing -- I was ready to quit when the starter acted up, but she powered us through that. We made hamburgers and hot dogs and veggies on that grill and ate on the porch overlooking the ocean. We were satiated. We were not afraid.
As we returned, the second wave took off, followed closely by the third wave. We had to stay close to home. Molly took up cooking with real seriousness. She tried many recipes, investigated cookbooks, bought new spices. She regularly shared what she was trying with me, by which I mean, we talked about it, as we rarely got to eat together. We subscribe to the New York Times Cooking app, and discuss Sam Sifton's advice on a regular basis. She encouraged me to try certain recipes that she thought would be easy and satisfying. Thanksgiving was a time for experimentation, as was Christmas. We could only share in our small "pod," which put certain constraints on, for example, the number of pies we might bake. The many satisfying discussions of stuffing were topped by a terrific meal. Molly got me a Challenger bread pan for Christmas, which is one of the best presents I've ever received.
As we come to the end of this year, I find that I am a very different cook. Mainly this shows up in how comfortable I am in my kitchen. My pots and pans are friends. I can throw a meal together from what I have in the refrigerator. I can steam, boil, bake, braise, sear, grill. I chop with ease. It doesn't always turn out well, and that usually happens when I get too freeform. I'm much better off with a recipe. But some things are so clear to me that whatever variations I try they work. At the beginning of the pandemic, I could not make a decent pot of rice and now I can. At the beginning of the pandemic, I rarely ate green leafy vegetables of my own volition. Now cabbage, kale, collards and spinach are friends. I even harvested dandelions from my garden and threw them into the pot of collards I was making. I know how to freeze and unfreeze. I can make a shopping list. These are good things.
The year of cooking with my daughter has been a master class in "try it, you'll like it."
Sunday, May 9, 2021
I am in the process of packing up my research team's papers, which are set to go to the archive at Columbia University. In the midst of the stacks of old transcripts and drafts of papers was a paper bag with things that belonged to my mom, Maggie Thompson. At the bottom of the bag were a bunch of small pieces of paper. I went through them very carefully, like a '49er shifting for gold. Almost all were her to-do lists. But one small piece rewarded my efforts: it was a joke that she'd gotten on the internet, printed out, cut off the parts of the page that weren't relevant, and then folded. How it got into the bag I don't know. I do know that the joke was so typical of my mother's sense of humor, I had a flash of her laugh, which was a delicious feeling.
Here's the joke.
96 year old draws a bath. She puts one foot in and pauses. She yells to the other sisters, "Was I getting in or out of the bath?"
The 94 year old yells, "I don't know. I'll come up and see." She starts up the stairs and pauses. "Was I going up the stairs or down?"
The 92 year old is sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters. She shakes her head and says, "I sure hope I never get that forgetful." She knocks on wood for good measure. She then yells, "I'll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who's at the door."
Happy Mother's Day to All!