Trying to Make Sense out of America: Killing Babies/Punishing the Sex Act/Gun Fetishes

 I don’t want to regurgitate the avalanche of horrific news bombarding us day after day, second upon the following second. I can hardly breathe; unspecified terrors fill my sleep, and feelings of being slightly unhinged haunt me during my waking hours. I can’t imagine my readers want more of that!

COVID initially created a similar malaise, but I devised a strategy to cope. I sewed masks for family, friends, co-workers, and Native Americans on reservations across the country from where I live. I stayed home, cooked in, and gave up shopping forays as well as travel domestically and abroad. Then the vaccines arrived, masks were plentiful, and people were more conscious of following the six feet apart footprints on the floors of many of our local businesses. I could cope. I got my muchness back, or at least most of it.

Who could have imagined that surviving a global pandemic would be easier than managing today’s plethora of crazy? The New York Times recently suggested summer movies as a panacea for our collective problems . . . as if . . . . We are not recovering from the winter doldrums but facing the possible extinction of our planet.

Too intense? Sorry. This week I learned to make homemade Greek yogurt. Will it restore my faith in humanity, my sense of future and possibility? Not sure, but learning new things, keeping up with chores and responsibilities, and being kind all contribute to our mental health, and we can all do them. I once asked my dad, an orthodox Jew, whether Jesus was the Messiah, as my Catholic school friends insisted. He replied, “If everyone actually practiced the gospel of Jesus, we would have world peace. If we believe what is written in Leviticus 25, God wants the land to be looked after and for all people to have access to the earth’s resources . . .”

I’m not much on religion, but it seems to me that we need to learn some lessons if we are to survive. Sleep peacefully, live with purpose, and be kind.

Burning Books: The Strategy of Weak Minds to Control Ideas

Rebecca Knuth, the author of two books on book burnings and the destruction of libraries, believes that books are the targets because they “are the embodiment of ideas, and if you hold extreme beliefs, you cannot tolerate anything that contradicts those beliefs or is in competition with them.”*( https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/the-books-have-been-burning-1.887172)

The son of a close friend, and a long-time teacher, wrote this compelling letter to his superintendent and school board members. He agreed to let me integrate his words into my blog. I have, however, deleted information that identified his school district.

Superintendent and Board Members,

My name is Matt. I’m the parent of two young boys who attend a local elementary school. I’ve also been a teacher in this county since 1999. For seven of those years, I served as the Library Media Specialist.

One of the many things I learned as a Media Specialist is that media centers must serve readers of all ages, ability levels, cultures, backgrounds, personal interests, and identities. From fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose, a library collection needs to include a wide range of materials, including some topics and subjects that may not align with everyone’s personal beliefs.

As a Media Specialist myself, there were certain materials in my collection that did not necessarily align with my own philosophies. But it was not my place to decide what other people’s children may read, nor is it the place for any one parent or ten to do so.

There is a philosophy that books should be “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” As a mirror, we hope for our readers to see their own identities reflected in the pages of the book. As a window, we wish for readers to have a glimpse outside of their own world and into someone else’s. And as a sliding glass door, we encourage our readers to step even further from the safety of their own four walls and truly immerse themselves in someone else’s universe for a little while. When we limit our students’ access to books, we remove their ability to look out that window or to step through that sliding glass door. We allow readers to see only into our own comfortable mirrors. Worse, we prevent others from being able to see their own reflections.

While it’s fair to say that an entire library collection might not be deemed appropriate for every one of its readers, I think it’s also fair to argue that a small group of citizens should not be allowed to dictate what the vast majority of our students have access to.

As I’m sure these concerned parents already know, there is a Book Restriction Form available on every Media Center’s website that will block their own students’ access to the items they feel are inappropriate. They are welcome to encourage their friends, neighbors, and fellow community members to choose to complete these forms on behalf of their own children to whatever extent they feel is necessary. However, to demand that NO student should have access to certain books is censorship, plain and simple. It stands against the ideals of freedom, the

freedom to choose. It sends a message that says, “My reflection and my child are more important to protect than yours are.”

A librarian named Jo Godwin once quipped that “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” While it is, of course, not the intent of any Media collection to offend anyone, we also cannot control what might offend someone. But more importantly–and I cannot stress this enough–the voices of the few should not be allowed to dictate the children of the many.

I thank you for your time today. I trust that the right decision will be made for the students of [our] County School District.

Sincerely,

Adding my own thoughts on book burning would be superfluous. The recent spate of book burnings and textbook censorship should chill us all to the core. It’s one more of the heinous signs of a society, global and domestic, plummeting into chaos and darkness: mass shootings, rising crime, war in Ukraine, environmental degradation, and the roll-back of civil rights to name a few. To add an exclamation point: 11 people have been killed and 67 injured in mass shootings in the week since the children’s deaths in Uvalde.

The Tooth Fairy and Other Money-Making Schemes

My niece, who fled to Denmark after Trump won the 2016 election, proudly informed her extended family that her six-year-old son, Walter, had lost his first tooth—a rite of passage. In my best great aunt response, I asked her the going Tooth Fairy rate in Denmark. Her reply took me by surprise.

“More children with PDD-NOS, (Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) have trouble differentiating fact from fiction, so we stay away from unnecessary lying; there is no Tooth Fairy, and the kid (Walter) has expensive taste in toys.”

Her response triggered two reactions. My first was to ask myself what drove us to substitute celebrating the occasion—a first lost tooth—with the creation of the Tooth Fairy? My second was to recall a personal experience: introducing the Tooth Fairy to my g-d-grandson in Cambodia.

Without launching into a full-blown thesis on the origins and traditions of the Tooth Fairy, my research revealed that cultures throughout history have marked the time when a child loses a tooth. However, these rites were created for diverse reasons and in different ways.

In the U.S., the advent of the Tooth Fairy dates back only to 1927, and the giving of money is a uniquely American custom. In other cultures, it is more popular for a family to hand over the tooth to a mouse or a rat in the hope that the child’s adult teeth will be strong and sharp; or the parents hide it from witches who could use the tooth to control the child. In Spain, a mouse named Ratóncito Pérez is the equivalent of our Tooth Fairy.

Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans have positive feelings about the custom, and dentists promote it as a way to encourage healthy oral hygiene habits. One dentist I found on Google went so far as to suggest you tell your child that a healthy tooth will earn him or her more money from the Tooth Fairy than a decayed one.

On a visit to my g-d children in Phnom Penh, one of the young boys in the home, Sal Lee, lost his first tooth. Dentists back then, probably circa 1997, were scarce in Cambodia, and modern dentistry and dental hygiene were non-existent. I told Sal Lee about the Tooth Fairy and instructed him to put his tooth under his pillow, promising a visit from the magical creature. He did. That night, his father snuck in his room and exchanged a dollar’s worth of riels (four) for the tooth.

“Granma, Granma! She came! She brought me money!” He was so excited to have money to buy candy or a toy. Not only were there no Cambodian Tooth Fairies, but there was also no allowance or extra riels to spend for fun. This was a big deal for Sal Lee. I was quite pleased with myself for bringing such excitement to this little boy until . . .

Meng, his father, took me aside. “We have a problem,” he confided. “Sal Lee is planning to pull out all his teeth so that he can make more money.” It took a while, but with his father’s help, I convinced Sal Lee that the Tooth Fairy only left money for teeth that came out naturally—no riels were awarded for pulled teeth. I mollified him with a trip to the local toy shop.

Sal Lee has grown up and is studying to be a dentist. Maybe he has just found another way to make money from teeth.

Outside the Fence 

I’ve wanted to write a blog with this title ever since I discovered the grave of Reyele French outside the picket fence that encloses the headstones marking the rest of his Civil War Kentucky soldiers unit—his comrades in war and death. The refusal to bury Mr. French with his fellows was because he was African American. What could be a more poignant metaphor for the marginalization of a people? 

However, while in rural Maryland visiting an old friend in declining health, I drove by a colonial period log cabin, a slave house. It was dilapidated and abandoned, but the property owners were not allowed to demolish it.

I was surprised and disappointed not to find a historical marker or any attempt to protect the cabin or maintain the overgrown surrounding area.

Taking photos of the cabin as the sun set jolted my memory. I was reminded of Reyele French, also abandoned and mostly forgotten.

The history of the people who lived in the slave house and the “colored” soldiers who fought in our wars is our collective history, and we need to reclaim it, know it, own it, and work together for a better shared future.

Mask-less America

I gave in. I could no longer avoid a few short airline trips to celebrate a couple of special events and catch up with a few lifelong friends who are not doing well. The passing of Carole Ann just weeks after I took the plunge and flew to Florida to visit was proof enough that some things should not be delayed.

What a difference! In February, the airport was a sea of masked travelers, albeit many seemed unaware that their noses are part of their faces. Now it is mid-May, the omicron variant is surging, and I can count the number of masks worn at the airports and on planes on two hands.

Those few of us wearing masks bond immediately. We shake our heads in disbelief and occasionally share disparaging remarks about “Trumpies.”

“Thirteen dead in Buffalo” screams from the airport television monitors, replacing news about stock prices spiraling out of control and Ukrainians running for cover from Russian artillery. And yet, travelers around me all seem to be committed to behaving as if life is as normal as a ’60s family sitcom.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine a terminal full of ostriches clucking and flapping their long necks aimlessly. Or perhaps they’re looking for the sand

Lessons Learned on the Jungle Trail

Before I left Cambodia for Fiji, I booked a Lao village tour. I had remembered taking one with my mother and brother years ago on my first visit to Laos and wanted to recapture the experience. However, somehow, I missed the part where the tour company called it a leg-pumping trek and falsely assumed that I would be Jeeped to a village in Laos’ rugged interior as we had been in the 1990s.This tour was an adventure for someone else, although I think that even a twenty-something trekker would have found it daunting. During the hike, I worried most that I’d die from heat stroke or fall down and twist my ankle! That was if a snake didn’t bite me in the jungle. (My guide, a small, compact young man in his mid-twenties named Lajly, told me that snakes often fall out of the trees, but he reassured me that they would either be dead or too hot to bite.)

Lajly and I started out on a short trip across the Nam Khan River in a long dugout canoe. By luck, we came upon a small herd of elephants and their mahouts, who were leisurely preparing to spend the day taking tourists to other hamlets and over the steep, rocky trails in and around the jungle and rubber plantations. Riding elephants wasn’t an option on my tour, and neither was a special audience with a herd. I considered this a good omen for the rest of the day.

Not until I hiked to it did I realize that the Theung village of Lao Sung could only be reached by four hours of trekking on unshaded, rough dirt paths potholed from elephant tracks and dotted with large mounds of elephant poop. The temperature was close to one hundred degrees, and the only shade came from the leaves of elephant ear plants—luckily, a plant quite abundant in Laos.

As Lajly was cutting leaves for us to carry like umbrellas, he related an old Lao fable. The story went that a merchant was traveling by elephant to Southeast Asia. When they reached Laos, the elephant told his master that he was old and could not go any further. It was time for him to die. His master, who had great affection for the beast, buried him in the jungle, and the elephant ear plant grew from his ear. His eyes twinkling, Lajly said, “That’s why so many elephant ear plants grow in Laos.”

Occasionally, we would duck out of the sun by walking alongside the edge of a rubber plantation or cool off by crossing a stream on a rickety foot bridge made of twigs and vines. But mostly we walked in the unrelenting sun as it rose high above us in the sky. It was late morning by the time we reached the village; rather than explore anything, I collapsed on a bench, closed my eyes, and didn’t move for a very long time.

The village, with its bamboo huts and dirt yards, seemed intensely poor. The only inhabitants besides the goats and chickens were very young children—who appeared to spend their days unsupervised, running barefoot over the dirt—and very old women with gnarly hands and bright birdlike eyes that squinted from faces of wrinkled leather. We ate a simple homemade lunch prepared by an elderly couple whom I assumed were husband and wife. While we sat at a picnic table in front of a glorified shack, two little girls peeked out from the doorway to giggle and watch us; the apparent husband smoked on a homemade bamboo water pipe. Embarrassed by the poverty, I took off the necklace I was wearing, a colorful piece of costume jewelry, and presented it to our hostess. Although her toothless smile was shy, I think it was sincere.

Unfortunately, there was no shortcut back to the river, so we started walking down the sun-flooded trail at high noon. There was no Jeep service to call, no elephant to rescue me. Eventually, Lajly turned off the road, entering the jungle. “What are we doing? Are we there?” I asked, hoping we were close to the river. But no, Lajly was cutting through the jungle to get us out of the sun. I ignored the mosquitoes and did my best to keep hiking, even though I was unbearably hot. Lajly stopped and said, “This way; we have to climb down in order to reach the waterfall and the river.” What way? All I saw was a black hole in the ground! “Climb down? Climb how?” I squealed as I looked into the dark abyss.

“It’s okay,” he replied, trying to reassure me. “There’s a ladder.” I peered in closer. There was a rope ladder, the skinny wooden rungs about fifteen feet apart, descending further than the light. “I’ll go down first,” he said. “Then I can help you.” What choice did I have? I could turn back to the sun-drenched trail, stay where I was and get bitten to death by mosquitoes, or go down the rope.

He directed my shaking foot down to each rung, while my hands clutched the cables with a death grip to slowly lower myself. At the base of the rope ladder, Lajly helped my feet touch solid ground and grinned at me. “Are we there?” I asked. “Close, close. It is just a little further,” he answered. “Take my photo,” I demanded with a false bravado—my jeans were soaked with sweat. Close was still too far, but I was okay, and finally we arrived at the falls. Tourists were swimming in the cold pool or sitting on the deck drinking beer and wine. I lay down flat on a small deck off the base of the waterfall, trying to relieve my aching back. There was no relief, no euphoria—only dull shock. I fell asleep. When I awoke fifteen minutes later, or maybe it was an hour, I was disoriented. When I tried to stand, my legs cramped from my hips to my toes. I was dehydrated. 

Lajly gave me a bottle of water and assurances that the river and our boat were just a few paces away beyond the brush. Next time, I will read the fine print.

This story is excerpted from The Wanderer.

Thanks Thom Thom (Means Big Big in Khmer)

I’m still not quite proficient in this blogging sphere and haven’t yet figured out how to thank those of you who have taken the time to acknowledge some shared connection with something I have posted. However, I am grateful, and I admit to a thrill when I get a notice from WordPress.

This past Mother’s Day brought with it joy and sorrow, surprises and disappointments. My elder two daughters presented me gifts that displayed a true sense of my aesthetics, most grandchildren remembered with sweet sayings and cards, and close-almost-family surprised me with thoughtful gifts and wishes.

I missed my mom, GiGi, as did my cousins, who were all texting remembrances of aunties and shared grandmothers…and I dwelled too long on my own mortality.

My daughter, with whom I share a home with her family, left after a breakfast of home-made egg McMuffins for the Atlanta Zoo, but I preferred to remain behind. It was then that I learned Carole Ann had passed away the day before. Carole Ann, my friend of 71 years. I was lucky enough to see her just a few weeks ago. I had decided to brave Covid and travel to Florida…call it intuition. Not even a half hour after I left her, I had a major arthritis flare…call that intuition too.

Not everyone I “mothered” felt called upon to wish me a happy day, but there were certainly enough joy and love to see me through my most recent loss, my missing my own mother as well as those women who no longer are present in life but live large in my heart and memories: Marilyn, Faye, Sr. Libby, and now Carole. Happy Mother’s Day.

“Like her name, so is she . . .”

The biblical verse uses the pronoun “he,” but never mind. In the Jewish tradition, especially Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jewish culture, families name babies after the dead. It is not only a way of honoring the person and hoping that the child will emulate the qualities of his or her namesake, but also as I understand it, the name carries that person’s memory forward. It is a way to assure their immortality. My granddaughter, Ella Michelle, bears the name of my aunt Marilyn and shares her Hebrew name. (Ella is a special name of her father, maybe because Ella Fitzgerald is a favorite singer— although it has no religious significance.) In temple, at Ella’s baby naming ceremony I, named Chasha for my paternal grandmother, stood with my daughter, named Brina for her maternal grandmother, as well as my mother. I felt the presence of generations of Jewish women and rejoiced in knowing that their memories would carry forward.

My granddaughter, Ayla, was not named in a temple ceremony. The members of her family were neither practicing Jews nor Christians, although they occasionally celebrated holidays of both religions. I convinced a family friend who belonged to a rather unorthodox Jewish congregation to name her in his temple for two of the women I loved best in this world. Both died relatively young, and both were exemplars of strong, loving, and courageous women. Faye was a psychologist, feminist activist, mentor, and friend. Sister Elizabeth was a progressive Dominican nun. For Ayla to bear their names was not so much for them to be remembered—many would remember them—but for her to be “like her name, so is she,” She carries their English names, Faye and Eliza, a gift to inspire her life.

The Journey of a KFC Gift Card

The young couple sat on a bench across from the screening desk where Avery was taking temperatures and directing clients into the health center. Both of them were thin, their clothes scruffy and too flimsy for the cool winter weather. Two bulging white trash bags leaned against their legs. They talked in hushed voices, their faces masks of anxiety. Avery called over to them. “Hi, can I help you? What seems to be the problem?” The woman replied. “We need to get to a DMV and then to Marietta to a sober living community. We tried once before but couldn’t get there. “

Her voice was neither hopeful or angry—rather, it was flat and defeated.

“But why come here to the health department? Are you from around here?”

They named a county in Georgia, but Avery had no idea where it was. They apparently came to seek information and confused the health department with the public library, which sat directly across the parking lot.

“The people here told us there is a local bus that can drop us at the DMV; then we can call the sober living community, and they will come and get us. (Marietta is the next county over and a good hour away by car.) “But we have to call the community before 2:00 p.m. or we will be too late again.”

“Do you have change for the bus?” Avery asked. I knew that buses often take only the exact fare, and bus prices vary wildly from place to place. 

The young woman replied, “It’s $2.50 a person, and we only have a credit card. I called them for their schedule, but they won’t take a credit card.”

Avery was hoping for a dollar each, not $2.50 for a community bus. Damn, she thought. Avery had a five and a twenty-dollar bill. She wasn’t keen on giving them the twenty, but the five was okay, even if it was a scam. Avery’s personal philosophy: Better to be cheated than not to help people in need. It was already past noon, and they were running out of time. She offered them the five.

Relieved, the girl called the bus again to check when it would arrive. It would be at the library in twenty minutes. They could get it all done in time.

“Have you had your COVID vaccinations yet?” Avery asked. The young man said “yes,” but his partner shook her head to indicate that she had not. “You can get one here free, right now, and be able to still catch your bus on time.” She nodded her agreement, and I ushered her down the hall to the nurses, leaving the young man behind to wait.

Earlier that December, at Hanukkah, Avery’s daughter had given her a KFC gift card. Avery occasionally, very occasionally, treated herself to a chicken thigh and a biscuit. It was an addiction of sorts—a treat for a difficult day, or a lunch break on a long drive. She had tried to use the card. It didn’t work. Apparently, she had not scratched off the code. She subsequently followed the directions, this time giving the card to a co-worker, but it still didn’t work. Her co-worker got stuck paying for lunch. The KFC help line said that it was not formatted correctly and agreed to mail her a new twenty-dollar card.

She watched the young man as he waited patiently for his partner to be vaccinated. He didn’t look sad; as before, he appeared to be resigned and tired. Avery pulled the new card from her wallet. “Be sure to scratch off the code before you use it,” she instructed as she gave it to him.

He clutched the card and thanked her.

Later, as she watched the pair cross the parking lot to the bus stop, she thought, I guess this card was just not meant for me.

Caveat Emptor: Let the Buyer Beware

In this crazed housing market, I want to remind folks who want to buy a house today that they need to step back before bidding up their dream house and buying a nightmare. Sellers lie; they employ subterfuge and deception. For example, they top off a broken air conditioner with freon, fooling the inspector—perhaps costing them $1,000 but saving 10 times that much on the cost of replacing a damaged system. Friends have had sellers who patch and paint over leaking roofs and ceilings that conceal mold and damage. Inspectors routinely underestimate the cost of repairs, such as foundation and drainage problems.

I heard of one seller who cheated the buyer, a neighbor, by not revealing a long-standing, major drainage problem that had existed for years. She was a local TV celebrity, divorcee, and single mom. The woman she sold it to was a single mom as well. When the bill to correct the problem came in at $35,000, the buyer confronted the seller. Her response: “I’m a single mother and needed to get the most I could from the sale of my house.” In her hubris, she had no regard for the woman who bought her house. 

Yes, older homes have problems, and home buyers often do not prepare for unexpected repairs and costs. Real estate agents should always remind their clients that this is a given. Buyers should insist on at least a one-year home warranty in the sales contract. Paying for a second inspector could protect you from a deceitful seller, but a clever seller can be hard to overcome.

I find the greed and avarice in the housing market to be unforgivable, but it is merely a reflection of our world today. Self-interest at any cost is the motto of our times—and it will be our undoing-whether its ignoring climate change, price gouging, cheating a buyer, or letting the Ukrainians suffer while we complain about gas prices.