Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, A Book Note

30 Apr

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbot

Recently, I became an accidental student of the Civil War. While standing in the checkout line at the library (yep, I LOVE the library), I noticed a book with an intriguing title–Liar Soldier Temptress Spy. I popped out of line to look at it.    karen-abbott-photoThe topic, the under-sung stories of four women who served the Confederacy and the Union as spies (one as a soldier!) told by a historian, Karen Abbott. The cover blurb by Erik Larson (Devil in the White City), naming Abbot “the John Le Carré of Civil War espionage,” sealed the deal. Larson made my beloved Chicago’s true history of serial murder during the 1893 World’s Fair come alive, like only the best murdery mystery writers can. If he thought Abbott was worth reading, then so did I.

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Belle Boyd (Credit: Library of Congress)

I was not disappointed. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy starts a bit slowly as Abbott introduces each of her four characters in turn, providing biographic background that explains how each woman came to care about her cause enough to take huge risks to support her side of the war. Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an ardent rebel hailing from Martinsburg, Virginia, supported her cause using all of her beguiling (and belligerent) traits. Smart and beautiful, she had proven her determination by the age of eleven when, told that she was too young to attend a dinner party, she rode her horse into her parents’ dining room and declared, “Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?”  Before her mother could raise a hand or voice, a guest (a politician or Revolutionary war hero, no doubt) intervened to ask Mrs. Boyd to “tell me more about your little rebel. Six years later, on July 4, 1861, when Union soldiers demanded that her mother fly their flag and then physically threatened her, Belle did not hesitate to shoot. She survived her offense by following up with a charm defensive and spent the rest of the war spying for the Confederacy.

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Emma Edmondson as Frank Thompson (image credit: Wikipedia)

Emma Edmundson, seeking to escape her father’s disregard and her mother’s sadness over having born daughters, became Frank Thompson, and upon leaving her native Canada, volunteered for the Union Army. Serving from 1850 through most of the war, she remained undetected, cross-dressing, living as a man among men, and amassing a reputation for cunning, bravery, and compassion. In one brilliant moment of spying on the Confederate Army she “masqueraded” as a woman to cross enemy lines. When terribly injured in a battle, she cared for herself, unwilling to be discovered (and dismissed with dishonor or, worse, tried, for her patriotic deception). After the war, Edmonson/Thompson was recognized for her exemplary service and her case paved the way for remuneration and pension for women who had served.

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Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy, with her daughter, Little Rose (Smithsonian Magazine, The Granger Collection, NYC)

Southern widow Rose Greenhow used her social position in Washington D.C. to penetrate the upper echelons of Union leadership and pass valuable information to the rebel leaders. Like Boyd, it was her deepest desire to be recognized as valuable to the cause, especially by their beloved Stonewall Jackson. Like Boyd, she was eventually found out, jailed, banned from the north, and exiled. Greenhow, however, was sent to Europe to President Jefferson Davis to try to persuade the French and British leaders to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.

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Elizabeth Van Lew (credit: Smithsonian Magazine, (The Granger Collection, NYC))

It may have been Elizabeth Van Lew, however, who won the war for the Union. A wealthy abolitionist in Richmond, Van Lew’s servants were all paid former slaves. Once she acquired a slave, she freed them and kept them on if they wished. This, plus her vast social circle, allowed her to be the center of a spy ring that penetrated as deeply as Davis’s private office, so that she was able to send accurate information, on a daily basis, to General Sherman. Van Lew, despised by Richmond, deserves her place in history as much for what she gave up to support Lincoln and the Union  as for her heroic actions.

Abbot makes these stories come alive, alternating between the women in a seamless way and connecting their stories via in-depth historical accounts of battles and the machinations of war. Her extensive archival research allows her to attribute to the women thoughts and words that they wrote in their letters and journals. She describes the near-misses, the penury brought on by the war (I could smell it!), the shear ingenuity of the codes and techniques they used to pass messages, and their innermost thoughts about the people and issues of the day. More than a women’s history, this is a readable, compelling history of the Civil War that illuminates the issues and concerns that nearly fractured our Union. And more than a history of the Civil War, this book educates us about early spying techniques, the gruesome results of battle, and the deprivations (physical and emotional)  caused by the war and its aftermath.

As I was reading the book, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln which I marked (with Culture Sprout) by seeing One Destiny at Ford’s Theatre. We also visited the Spy Museum where we spent a lot of time looking at the exhibit on Civil War spies. More on those later….

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Remembering a “Veteran’s Veteran”

11 Nov

I have not blogged since 9/11 when I posted my annual remembrance of Jeffrey Gardner, a childhood friend who perished in the World Trade Center.  A lot of things have been banging around in my head, half-baked and not written. They will come soon, really soon I hope.

Today, though I want to pause on Veteran’s Day to remember another friend, Jimmy Proffitt. Jimmy passed away last month after a long battle with leukemia. If there ever were people who epitomized the term “salt of the earth” it was Jimmy and his widow Virginia. He was a man of modest means who made an enormous difference in the lives of veterans and homeless people in Chicago. His energy and his dedication to his fellow humans inspired me and everyone who came in contact with him. His death leaves a void, to be sure, but his mark on his community will be felt for years to come.

My notes from last Veteran’s Day:

More than 25 years ago, Jimmy and Virginia found themselves with leftover Thanksgiving dinner. They made about 30 sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and headed to downtown Chicago. Once there, they found homeless men and distributed the food. Recognizing the incredible need, Jimmy and Virginia continued to make sandwiches for Chicago’s homeless. Every Sunday, with the exception of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day weekends, they circle Chicago’s loop with their small army of helpers. The Chicago Homeless Sandwich Project today distributes more than 1,500 bagged lunches each week. They also provide hot and cold beverages, clothing, and a ready smile to the increasing number of homeless on our city’s streets.

We have been privileged to ride with Jimmy many times, handing out sandwiches and seeing firsthand the need he fills. Jimmy tells us that more than 75% of the homeless on our city streets are veterans, men (and now women) who have come home from war so damaged that they cannot hold a job, or who lost everything while they were serving (job, home, family) and have not been able to get back on their feet.

Jimmy was called to serve his country, and while his own life has been modest compared to many more visible philanthropists, he may be the most philanthropic person I know. Next to the hospital that saved our child, The Sandwich Project is our favorite charity and I encourage to click the link above, read about the supplies they use each year, and find out how you can help.

 

I wish I had thought to call him a “veteran’s veteran,” but I give all credit to the headline writers of The Herald NewsWhat does that mean? Well, it means that Jimmy continued to serve his country and brothers long after he left the Marines. If our actions define the name we leave in the world, Jim Proffitt left an illustrious name, one which we should all strive to emulate.

May his memory be for a blessing

–“Joining to Bid Farewell to and Almost Homeless Veteran,” The New York Times, 2/5/2011 by Don Terry

Remembering Jeffrey Gardner on 9/11

11 Sep

There’s no easy way to say this: My childhood friend Jeffrey Gardner died on 9/11, a victim of terrorism. I pause today to think of him and what his death, and that of the others who died that day, as well as the countless more who have died since in the “War on Terrorism” means in our culture today.  I think Jeffrey would find it meaningful that this year’s anniversary during Elul, when Jews around the world prepare for  return, for the Jewish High Holidays, the Days of Awe during which we repent and hope to be written in the book of life for another year. For if ever there was a man who deserved be written there–who in many ways might have been said to define “life”–it was Jeffrey Gardner.

For 13 years I’ve written a memorial post on this day. That first post surfaced in an Internet search and put me back in touch with my best friend from elementary school, so I like to think that the gifts Jeffrey gave us in life continued past his untimely death. Today as I get ready to hoist my bike on the car and then go for a long lakefront ride, and as I plan a philanthropic event for pediatric healthcare, I can’t help but think that the values Jeffrey lived do, in fact, live on in many of his friends. Maybe not with the same gusto, but still. And we all think of him often.

In that spirit, I am reposting lat year’s memorial:

In 2012, Culture Husband and I visited the 9/11 Memorial to culminate our anniversary celebration. Somehow it seemed appropriate, even necessary, to visit the memorial and remember even as we celebrated. When we returned to NYC in December, we took Culture Sprout there as well. In fact, we stayed at a new hotel by the memorial and from our balcony we could see the people teeming toward the security line and the edge of the memorial park.

As I wrote last September, even in the cold of December, atmosphere was eerily like the memorials on the beaches of Normandy–all obvious signs of the destruction, horror, and blood are gone. But there is something in the air and light, in the way other visitors walk slowly and whisper, in the quiet, respectful aura of this place despite the hustle and noise of the surrounding city that took our breath away. Charlotte seemed to intuitively understand the sobriety and sacredness of the memorial.

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It’s hard to tell a kid that the world is a dangerous, scary place. Even harder to tell her that someone you loved was felled by hatred and intolerance. But, recently she has said she’d like to take on world peace as a life goal. It’s a big one, but maybe, just maybe, she’s got a guardian mensch guiding her.

 

Each year for a long time I’ve posted an essay about Jeffrey, about what his life and death meant to me.

Politicians continue to fight over the completion of the 9/11 Museum, leaving the memorial and legacy painfully, shamefully unfinished. We’re still at war around the world–a war whose opening salvo was loud and silent at the same time (remember the deafening silence when all air traffic stopped?) And, yet, Syria indicated today that it might be willing to declare its chemical weapons. Do we have reason to be cautiously optimistic?

I ask you to please take the time to read my essay and remember that while “America was under attack,” as Andrew Card famously told President Bush 7 years ago, very real people were being injured and murdered. The ripple effect of their loss cannot ever be forgotten.

(Originally written on 9/11/2006)

Jeffrey B. Gardner died 5 years ago today when the World Trade Towers collapsed. I had known Jeffrey for as long as I can remember, growing up in the same town (Livingston, NJ) and attending religious school at B’nai Jeshurun together.

More than a boy I grew up with, Jeffrey was a dear friend throughout my high school and college years. We were both socially conscious teenagers and active in our temple youth group and in JFTY, the Jersey Federation of Temple Youth.

Like all of the people who have signed his guest book, I can attest to Jeffrey’s special qualities–his goodness, kindness, wisdom, and sense of fun. I can also recall his pride as he listened to his father sing in the temple choir on the high holy days, his clear affection for his siblings, and his love for his mother. Jeffrey and I, along with 20 other Jewish teens, spent a special summer together in 1982. As part of the JFTY Urban Mitzvah Corps, we lived in a fraternity house at Rutgers (later Jeffrey’s alma mater) and volunteered for various organizations in the New Brunswick area. We worked with the elderly, disadvantaged children, and the disabled. In the evenings we studied and played, enriching our Judaism and bonding as a group in a way that is immeasurable. Jeffrey lived his Jewish values and he taught us how much fun (and mischief) we could have within the limits of a moral, thoughtful life. My father had a special place in his heart for Jeffrey. Not just because they were in the same business, but because Jeffrey was respectful, forthcoming, and friendly. In business, my father could count on Jeffrey, just as I could count on him as a friend. Since Jeffrey’s death, I’ve learned that he continued to live those values for the rest of his far-too-short life. He read the Christian Bible and the Koran in order to understand other people’s belief systems. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity throughout the hemisphere. He worked hard at his career and prospered. In his obituary, his sister Amy noted that he had a sun tatooed on his ankle because “a good day was as bad as it got. ” Jeffrey shone like that sun. Even when we weren’t in touch for a long time (we hadn’t spoken for about 3 years before his death), I felt his presence and the mark that he made on my life. On that perfect sunny September morning, a day eerily like today in Chicago, hatred killed Jeffrey. The irony that intolerance killed a soul who embodied tolerance is not lost on me. I dedicate today to Jeffrey–as sad as I am for his loss, I strive to live a life of which he would have been proud, to be tolerant and kind and strong as a tribute to his memory. Rest in peace, dear friend. You are indeed Z”L (Zichrono Livracha), of blessed memory.

Postscript, 9/11/2012: I think Jeffrey would have liked the Survivor Tree. He might have said that hatred cannot destroy what G-d has made, no matter what G-d you believe in. I know it made me smile on that sunny day in March, as I placed a stone on Jeffrey’s name to let him know I’d been there, wiped away my tears, and left with Culture Husband to face the city.

 

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I’m Not Fluffy: A Memoir

13 Apr

This story was dictated to me by my beloved Esther Williams Goldman. We all miss her every day.

“I’m Not Fluffy”

by Esther Williams Goldman

         There I was in my cage at the pound.  It wasn’t a bad place—I was warm, well fed and my litter box was pretty clean.  But, I dreamt of a new home. A place to run around, a spot in the sun for naps, a lap for cuddling, and most of all, a nice person whose head I could sleep on at night.

It was Saturday and the people started coming in. The first lady walked up to my cage.  I ran to the window and tried to be really cute, sitting up straight and wrapping my tail around me.  She said, “You’re awfully sweet.  I’ll call you “Fluffy.”  “Harrumph!  I’m not Fluffy,” I hissed and stalked back into the corner.

Another woman came by, this one with a little boy.  I thought that a family sounded good, so I pranced up to the window and pawed at it to get their attention.  “Mommy,” said the little boy, “Look at this tiny tabby. Wouldn’t it be funny if we called her Tiger?”  “I’m not Tiger,” I protested as I slinked away.

Just how would I pick a new owner who would know my name? My name is very important.  I’ve had it for my whole life and I didn’t want to someone to change it.  It suits me.

Two young men walked up to the cage and tapped on the window to get my attention.  I sauntered over and rubbed up against the window, being as sweet as I know how.  “Hey, Bill. How about her?  She’s quite the flirt.  We could name her after Angelina Jolie.”   No, fellows, I don’t think so. I’m not that kind of a girl.

It was getting late.  If I didn’t choose a family today, I’d probably be at the pound for another week. I was getting worried.

Two young women came up to my window.  I rolled over lazily, thinking that they wouldn’t figure me out either.  One of them tapped on the window.  “How cute is this one?”  I made one last effort to tell them my name.  I ran to the window, stopped, dropped down, rolled over, and began doing my best backstroke.  “Check it out!  She’s doing the backstroke.  And she looks like she has a movie star attitude.  You have to call her Esther Williams!!”

“Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod, I thought, Yes!  Esther Williams.  That’s my name!  I’m named after the 1940s Olympic swimmer and MGM movie star. That’s it!  They recognize me.”  I jumped up, and began to head butt the window. “I really, really want to go home with you.”

Next thing I know, I’m in a cardboard box on the back seat of your car.  I tried to talk to you all the way home to tell you how happy I was that you chose me, that you knew my name, that you recognized me.  I was the luckiest kitty in the world.  Well, I AM the luckiest kitty in the world.

Your friend gave me a diamond-studded collar, befitting the movie star that I’m named for.

I’ve learned a lot since then.  I’ve found my favorite sunspots. I’ve dealt with moving twice and getting a little brother cat.  I’ve discovered that I love chicken and tuna fish.  And, I’ve realized that you like to call me lots of different names even though you know I’m Esther.  Some of my favorites:

Tabby Won-Kenobi, when I’m sitting still, staring into space, looking wise and thoughtful.

Queen Esther, for Purim, the Jewish holiday apparently celebrated in my honor.

The Esther Bunny, on Easter, of course.

Esther Nightingale, when I nurse you during a headache or tummy ache.  My secret?  Lie on the painful body part and purr.  It seems to cure all kinds of ailments.

Just plain Bunny.  Not sure if this is short for Esther Bunny or because my little pink nose makes you think of a bunny.

Honey Cat.  Rhymes with Bunny.  What else could it mean?

Thumper.  When I just can’t get my thumping tail under control.

And maybe a dozen other names, based on the purr of the moment.

But even though you tease me a lot, you never, ever call me Fluffy.  That’s why you’re my best friend.

Watching Princesses With My Princess, Part 1: Princess Protection Program

9 Jan

I have a confession to make: I’m a trained film scholar. That sounds more dangerous that it is, though for a while it threatened to kill my enjoyment of movies. This blog was conceived as to keep those critical, scholarly muscles toned while I pursue a career elsewhere.

Last year I flexed those muscles preparing and presenting a paper on film versions of Snow White. As an academic, my training and most of my work has centered around Latin American film and video, particularly feminist work and images of Jews. But now that I am not affiliated with an academic institution and have no pressure to build a curriculum vitae, I write about what I think about. And, as a mom, I think a lot about princesses. (As a scientific experiment, I’ve posted my conference paper here. I have little intention of pursuing publication, but welcome all comments.)

I’ve decided to kick off 2014 with a periodic series of reviews and rumination about princess movies, both animated and live action.

Princess-Protection-ProgramEarlier this fall I watched the Disney Channel original move Princess Protection Program (2009) with Culture Sprout.  She loves princesses and she thinks Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are heavenly, so what better way to pass an easy 88 minutes with my kiddo?  I expected this Disney star vehicle to be a fluffy, silly movie that I’d probably keep half an eye on.  I won’t say I was riveted, but I will admit to being happily surprised at the film’s portrayal of teenage life and its deviation from the standard Disney princess format.

Princess Rosalinda Montoya (Demi Lovato) is rehearsing her coronation when her fictional country, Costa Luna (a sort of Latin American-Italian influenced place, in a Gomez Addams kind of way), is invaded by a despot from the island next door. She is rescued by the super-secret Princess Protection Program, an international agency that helps princesses imperiled by coups, crushes, and who knows what. Her rescuer, Joe Mason,  takes her to safety at his home in the bayou in Louisiana. He means to pass her off as his niece with the help of his daughter Carter (Selena Gomez).

Like most fairytales, this one is set in motion by the death of a parent, the king, and the arrival of a villain who wants to usurp power. The princess is doomed, if not cursed, to abandon her country in order to save her own life. She must rely on the kindness of strangers in a strange land. From here, the film actually exposes many tropes of fairy tales and pokes fun at our cultural obsession with royalty. You see, Rosie is ill-suited for a life without servants. She quickly learns that Carter will not help her get ready for bed, that she has to share a bedroom, and that not everyone sleeps in pink silk nightgowns. She must discover what it is like to live as a real person in a real world, including a high school full of nerds, jocks, and mean girls.

But there is another princess in this movie. The kind of princess Culture Sprout can relate to–an only daughter of  a devoted father. She also has to learn to share, and to trust.  Together Rosie and Carter have to face down the mean girls at high school, particularly Chelsea (Jamie Chung) whose sole preoccupation is with getting voted prom queen. Chelsea wants so badly to be prom queen that she’ll lie, cheat, and back stab her best friend. To beat her at her own game, Carter and Rosie enlist the help of all the wallflowers and the nerds. Shades of The Princess Diaries (Gary Marshall, 2001), to be sure, but not star-studded in the same way (you really can’t beat Julie Andrews as the Dowager Queen, unless you can get Maggie Smith.)

In the end the real princess teaches Carter that each girl has a princess within. That being a princess is not about gowns and jewels, but about being kind, caring, and thoughtful, and about taking care of the people who depend on you. The girls demonstrate pluck and courage, bringing down not just Chelsea (I’ll admit I cheered at her comeuppance) but also the general who invaded Costa Luna. In the process, they elevate the wallflowers and delight the nerds. The high school social order renovated and Rosie is successfully crowned queen of Costa Luna. (This is not a spoiler–it’s a Disney movie. It has to end this way.)

Of course, it was Disney-clean. These teens don’t smoke, drink, make out, or generally do anything more real than send text messages. But, just as there are stock good girl characters there are also stock mean girl characters. The movie is tailor-made for opening a discussion of the right and wrong way to treat people. And, while Disney princess movies (especially the older ones) generally annoy me, particularly when I enjoy them, this film tickled me. I’m not really sure why–maybe just because the feminist in me didn’t feel guilty about enjoying the film! Or maybe because if I had to define its genre, I couldn’t call it a fairytale. There is no magic, no curse, and no prince or fairy godmother to save the day. Rather, it combines the elements that make the best and most fun coming of age movies rise to the top–character growth, ingenuity, and pluck. While this isn’t quite Clueless, it also isn’t Little Mermaid (which I watched with Culture Sprout last week). Princess Rosalinda only lives happily ever after because she recognizes Carter as a friend, trusts her, and earns her respect. Together the girls prove that girls can do just about anything, or at least solve their own problems, big and small.

Joan Fontaine, Manderley and Me

17 Dec

Years ago my grandmother asked me if I had ever read Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca She looked truly stunned when I told her I had not read it. She then told me that she tried to read the book every year.  A few weeks later, I received an envelope from my grandmother with a copy of the book. Thus began for me a love affair with the book, and subsequently, the movie.

Like so many readers before me, Daphne du Maurier captivated me with the first eight words: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” The room around me faded away as I continued to read: “I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”  But, the narrator goes on to explain, she can never go back to Manderley again.

Published in 1938, Rebecca  has never gone out of print. Its opening lines cast it into the pantheon of Gothic novels.  Not surprisingly, Rebecca also captured the imagination of Alfred Hitchcock. His 1940 adaptation of du Maurier’s classic marked his Hollywood debut and launched Joan Fontaine into stardom (and perpetual rivalry with her sister, Olivia de Havilland). While the subject of film adaptation of classic/beloved/popular novels can start passionate debates, Hitchcock did du Maurier proud with his haunting rendition of her words, in many cases using her novel  verbatim.

A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fonta...

A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I heard of Ms. Fontaine’s death this morning, I couldn’t help but think of her gorgeous performance in Rebecca. Restrained but passionate emotions simmer just below the surface as she first suffers her gauche employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, and then imagines that she cannot compete with Rebecca, her husband’s first wife. Insecure and inexperienced, the second Mrs. de Winter–whose own name is never uttered–is impressionable. Rebecca’s devoted servant, Mrs. Danvers, becomes her nemesis, egging her on in her descent into despair.  Mrs. de Winter grows to believe that Max de Winter can never love her as he loved Rebecca, and that she is but a poor substitute for the lost love of his life.

Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers comes to life for me in the movie in a way that even eludes du Maurier. She moves so silently so that she suddenly appears in a room like a stealthy cat. (Rumor has it that Hitchcock actually had her on a board atop wheels so that she glided into rooms.) The chemistry between Fontaine and Anderson is truly terrifying.

Like my grandmother, I return to the novel Rebecca fairly regularly. I also return to the film. It surprises my students because it isn’t what they expect of Hitchcock, but it is PURE Hitchcock, unmistakable and unforgettable.  The novel bears rereading because it is so elegantly hewn. The film bears repeated viewings because Fontaine’s performance is so nuanced, Anderson’s is so psychotic, and Hitchcock beguiles. (Yes, Laurence Olivier is good, too.But, that’s beside the point.)

Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for her indelible performance of the most famous unnamed character in American cinema. Her second collaboration with Hitchcock–paired with Cary Grant in Suspicion–garnered her the Award in 1941. In that film she plays another impressionable young bride, this time one who believes her husband is trying to kill her. Her fear is palpable and, at times, bone-chilling.

Actors Gary Cooper and Joan de Havilland holdi...

Actors Gary Cooper and Joan de Havilland holding their Oscars at Academy Awards after party, 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what it was about Ms. Fontaine–she wasn’t the prettiest actress of the 1940s, and she wasn’t even the most prolific. But her performances, withstand the ravages of time. Mrs. de Winter cannot go back to Manderley, but thankfully I can go back again and again and remember an actress who took a character with no name and made her legendary.

Thank you, Joan Fontaine. And thank you, Mimi, for the introduction. Rest in Peace.

A Moment’s Pause for Veterans’ Day (It’s not all about the sales!)

10 Nov

I’m listening to Studio 360’s fascinating radio piece, American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  I recommend it highly as a commentary on the memorial itself, but moreover as a reminder of how controversial the war was and how poorly remembered its veterans were for far too long.

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When Philippe and I visited the wall in 2003, we were moved by the somber yet elegant design. In the aftermath of 9/11, war was, of course, on our mind. But, daily counts of the deaths of “troops” and “civilians” had begun to dehumanize the very human toll of a war that was being waged so far away. Seeing the names of Americans who fell in a war to defend democracy on the other side of the world drove home the somber fact that our contemporaries were doing the same.

At around the same time, our friend Don, a Vietnam veteran, started telling us some of the stories of his four tours of Vietnam. In the first tour, as a draftee, he was one of a handful (or maybe the only?)  of his brigade to survive. He volunteered for his subsequent three tours out of a sense of guilt, duty, a job left undone. His service took him to Cambodia–unofficially–and in performing “black ops” he was asked to commit crimes in the name of his government. This part of his service was never officially acknowledged. Like the many veterans whose sacrifice was anonymous before the Wall was erected, Don’s service was invisible.

Shortly after our trip to D.C., Don proudly showed us his certificate of pardon from President Bush — his “illegal” service had been recognized and forgiven. Don is just one of many veterans of the Vietnam War, and other wars, who we have been privileged to meet through our friendship with Jimmy Proffitt.  As I wrote on Memorial Day, Jimmy is a Vietnam-era Marine who was injured stateside and never saw combat. Jimmy is, simply put, the salt of the earth.

Jimmy

Jimmy Proffitt (photo from Vietnow.com)

More than 25 years ago, Jimmy and his wife found themselves with leftover Thanksgiving dinner. They made about 30 sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and headed to downtown Chicago. Once there, they found homeless men and distributed the food. Recognizing the incredible need, Jimmy and Virginia continued to make sandwiches for Chicago’s homeless. Every Sunday, with the exception of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day weekends, they circle Chicago’s loop with their small army of helpers. The Chicago Homeless Sandwich Project today distributes more than 1,500 bagged lunches each week. They also provide hot and cold beverages, clothing, and a ready smile to the increasing number of homeless on our city’s streets.

We have been privileged to ride with Jimmy many times, handing out sandwiches and seeing firsthand the need he fills. Jimmy tells us that more than 75% of the homeless on our city streets are veterans, men (and now women) who have come home from war so damaged that they cannot hold a job, or who lost everything while they were serving (job, home, family) and have not been able to get back on their feet.

Jimmy was called to serve his country, and while his own life has been modest compared to many more visible philanthropists, he may be the most philanthropic person I know. Next to the hospital that saved our child, The Sandwich Project is our favorite charity and I encourage you to click the link above and learn how you can support him.

As one of the commentators just said in the background as I write, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial serves as a mirror. The names on the Wall force to see ourselves, to recognize and individualize the real human loss, the loss of fathers, mothers, brothers, sons, sisters, daughters, friends. They are no longer “our brave servicemen and women who gave their lives.” Each one has a name and a story and a life left behind. Tomorrow their comrades, including Don and Jimmy, will gather at the Wall and read their names in remembrance and reverence.

As you shop Veterans’ Day sales and enjoy your day off (if you get one!), take a moment to thank the men and women who serve our country today and every day. You may not agree with the wars they are asked to fight, and you may not choose to serve as they do, but we should all be grateful for their dedication and sacrifices.

Remembering Jeffrey Gardner on 9/11

10 Sep

There’s no easy way to say this: My childhood friend Jeffrey Gardner died on 9/11, a victim of terrorism. I pause today to think of him and what his death, and that of the others who died that day, as well as the countless more who have died since in the “War on Terrorism” means in our culture today.  I think Jeffrey would find it meaningful that this year’s anniversary comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the Gates of Repentance open and Jews around the world repent and pray that they might be entered in the Book of Life. For if ever there was a man who deserved be written there–who in many ways might have been said to define “life”–it was Jeffrey Gardner.

In 2012, Culture Husband and I visited the 9/11 Memorial to culminate our anniversary celebration. Somehow it seemed appropriate, even necessary, to visit the memorial and remember even as we celebrated. When we returned to NYC in December, we took Culture Sprout there as well. In fact, we stayed at a new hotel by the memorial and from our balcony we could see the people teeming toward the security line and the edge of the memorial park.

As I wrote last September, even in the cold of December, atmosphere was eerily like the memorials on the beaches of Normandy–all obvious signs of the destruction, horror, and blood are gone. But there is something in the air and light, in the way other visitors walk slowly and whisper, in the quiet, respectful aura of this place despite the hustle and noise of the surrounding city that took our breath away. Charlotte seemed to intuitively understand the sobriety and sacredness of the memorial.

DSCN1634  

It’s hard to tell a kid that the world is a dangerous, scary place. Even harder to tell her that someone you loved was felled by hatred and intolerance. But, recently she has said she’d like to take on world peace as a life goal. It’s a big one, but maybe, just maybe, she’s got a guardian mensch guiding her.

 

Each year for a long time I’ve posted an essay about Jeffrey, about what his life and death meant to me.

Politicians continue to fight over the completion of the 9/11 Museum, leaving the memorial and legacy painfully, shamefully unfinished. We’re still at war around the world–a war whose opening salvo was loud and silent at the same time (remember the deafening silence when all air traffic stopped?) And, yet, Syria indicated today that it might be willing to declare its chemical weapons. Do we have reason to be cautiously optimistic?

I ask you to please take the time to read my essay and remember that while “America was under attack,” as Andrew Card famously told President Bush 7 years ago, very real people were being injured and murdered. The ripple effect of their loss cannot ever be forgotten.

(Originally written on 9/11/2006)

Jeffrey B. Gardner died 5 years ago today when the World Trade Towers collapsed. I had known Jeffrey for as long as I can remember, growing up in the same town (Livingston, NJ) and attending religious school at B’nai Jeshurun together.

More than a boy I grew up with, Jeffrey was a dear friend throughout my high school and college years. We were both socially conscious teenagers and active in our temple youth group and in JFTY, the Jersey Federation of Temple Youth.

Like all of the people who have signed his guest book, I can attest to Jeffrey’s special qualities–his goodness, kindness, wisdom, and sense of fun. I can also recall his pride as he listened to his father sing in the temple choir on the high holy days, his clear affection for his siblings, and his love for his mother. Jeffrey and I, along with 20 other Jewish teens, spent a special summer together in 1982. As part of the JFTY Urban Mitzvah Corps, we lived in a fraternity house at Rutgers (later Jeffrey’s alma mater) and volunteered for various organizations in the New Brunswick area. We worked with the elderly, disadvantaged children, and the disabled. In the evenings we studied and played, enriching our Judaism and bonding as a group in a way that is immeasurable. Jeffrey lived his Jewish values and he taught us how much fun (and mischief) we could have within the limits of a moral, thoughtful life. My father had a special place in his heart for Jeffrey. Not just because they were in the same business, but because Jeffrey was respectful, forthcoming, and friendly. In business, my father could count on Jeffrey, just as I could count on him as a friend. Since Jeffrey’s death, I’ve learned that he continued to live those values for the rest of his far-too-short life. He read the Christian Bible and the Koran in order to understand other people’s belief systems. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity throughout the hemisphere. He worked hard at his career and prospered. In his obituary, his sister Amy noted that he had a sun tatooed on his ankle because “a good day was as bad as it got. ” Jeffrey shone like that sun. Even when we weren’t in touch for a long time (we hadn’t spoken for about 3 years before his death), I felt his presence and the mark that he made on my life. On that perfect sunny September morning, a day eerily like today in Chicago, hatred killed Jeffrey. The irony that intolerance killed a soul who embodied tolerance is not lost on me. I dedicate today to Jeffrey–as sad as I am for his loss, I strive to live a life of which he would have been proud, to be tolerant and kind and strong as a tribute to his memory. Rest in peace, dear friend. You are indeed Z”L (Zichrono Livracha), of blessed memory.

Postscript, 9/11/2012: I think Jeffrey would have liked the Survivor Tree. He might have said that hatred cannot destroy what G-d has made, no matter what G-d you believe in. I know it made me smile on that sunny day in March, as I placed a stone on Jeffrey’s name to let him know I’d been there, wiped away my tears, and left with Culture Husband to face the city.

 

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The Ditchdigger’s Daughters (Book Notes)

23 Jul
English: Head photo of Dr. Thornton in Black a...

English: Head photo of Dr. Thornton in Black and White (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Ditchdigger’s Daughters

by Dr. Yvonne S. Thornton and Jo Coudert

The Ditchdigger’s Daughters: A Black Family’s Astonishing Success Story  demonstrates how Donald Thornton raised five daughters to be professional women and did it, in memoir-worthy style, against pretty big odds. In pre-Civil Rights New Jersey, no one expected his five black daughters to do anything but get pregnant and drop out of high school. No one except their mother and father, that is. First published in 1985, the book has never been out of print, has been translated into more than 15 languages, nominated for a Peabody award, and adapted for cable television. Clearly, this is an American story that resonates with many people.

As the book’s subtitle announces, all the girls turned out fine and Dr. Yvonne Thornton is proud to tell us how that happened. It should have been a compelling story, the all-American trajectory from rags to riches in one generation. Yet somehow Thornton’s tale lacks the bite of Cupcake Brown’s Piece of Cake or Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle. The Ditchdigger’s Daughters works so hard to paint a happy picture that it avoids the hard themes that Brown and Wall tackle. Donald Thornton’s determination to shelter the girls borders on isolation; their mother, Itasker Thornton,  suffers from debilitating depression that the narrative avoids; and the tumult of the Civil Rights movement is glossed over as if it barely affected Thorntons. Nowhere, for instance, does she discuss what it might have meant to this family that the children were guaranteed the right to vote while the parents never had it.

Itasker escaped a hard-scrabble life in West Virginia. She worked hard at school and finagled scholarships for her first couple of years of college, with the intention of becoming a nurse. But when the scholarships ended, she waited for her sister to send promised funds against their father’s wishes. When the money didn’t come, Itasker realized that she had to escape her father’s control and she ran away to New York City.

Donald escaped a home that alternated between abuse and neglect, lying about his age to get a job in New York City. His parents came to retrieve him and force him home. But he kept running and eventually met Itasker, ten years his senior. They fell in love and when she got pregnant, they got married. When Donald joined the Navy, Itasker turns to her in-laws who at first didn’t believe her, then reluctantly took her in until Donald returned and she was able to escape them.

With a start like that, these two certainly did not have great parenting examples. They fought the racial stereotypes that prevented them from fulfilling their dreams, and sometimes even having any. Their daughter’s elegy to her father rings almost as a justification for the methods her father employed to ensure their success. Without question, it is a story of sacrifice and perseverance leading to great achievement–the American dream at its most mythical.

In response to ribbing about how his five girls were bound to end up pregnant and abandoned, his responsibility forever, Donald joked that his daughters would all become doctors. Eventually the joke became a dream and then the dream became a goal. Along the way, the girls, each in turn, developed musical talents and Donald realized that he could use their music to help shape the women they would become—loyal, driven, and educated.

Summed up, this is the American dream writ large—through a musical talent that brought recording deals to their door, these five girls and their parents financed their college educations. Father worked hard to provide for them and to instill values that would help them have a better future. He insured that they stayed focused—life was family, school, practice, performance. There are the requisite rebellions and stumbling blocks, but it all works out..

As the third daughter, Yvonne assumes the responsibility for her father’s dreams. She not only becomes a doctor—getting into a prestigious school from an unknown community college—she marries a doctor and both go on to be leaders in their fields. While I find myself marveling at her father’s doling out of $1.97 when asked for $2, telling the girls to scrape up the last $0.03 themselves (and think this is a great way of sharing the value of money with a child), I frequently found myself questioning if Dr. Thornton ever had any dreams of her own and if she understood how–from our 21st century perspective–she seems burdened by her desire to make her father proud and save him from disappointment.

None of this is “spoiler alert” territory—it is mostly summed up on the book jacket and in online reviews. And what isn’t there could easily be filled in by a habitual memoir reader. And that may be where The Ditchdigger’s Daughters disappoints—after it sets up the history and demonstrates the father’s parenting style, the rest of it is completely predictable. Thornton quotes lengthy conversations that happened in the distant past as if she could remember them verbatim, a narrative approach that quickly grows tiresome. And most concerning, she does not recuperate her mother’s role in her success, relegating Itasker to the passenger seat she occupied on the way to Thornton Sister concerts. Tellingly, Itasker plays in the band as a sixth “sister” for many years.

Granted, Walls and Brown had demons to work out in their memoirs and Thornton seems to have nothing but pride in her upbringing. Further, writing in 1985, Thornton was breaking ground for a post-Civil Rights African American woman, both in her accomplishments and as a memoirist. But she does have a compelling, American story that spans the post-war era to a time when a black man was appointed to the Supreme Court. Beyond demonstrating that through sheer willpower her father (what about her mother?!) ensured that she and her sisters defied societal expectations of black women, she does little of note with their story.

That’s my opinion, of course. Oprah Winfrey had an entirely different take and the book is nearing 30 years of continuous publication. For that reason alone, it is worth a read.  My research for this piece also turned up a book by another sister* and the Thornton Sisters Foundation, which provides scholarships for women of color in New Jersey. Whatever I think of Dr. Thornton’s writing style, I cannot fault her continuing efforts to help other young women of color achieve what she has.

*From what I can tell, A Suitcase Full of Dreams (1996) by Jeannette Thornton and Rita Thornton tells the untold story of Itasker Thornton

Fixated on Short Fiction: Jenny Hollowell’s “A Short History of Everything, Including You”

29 Jun
Radiolab

Radiolab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Cross-country drives with Culture Husband mean time to share our favorite music and podcasts. We’ve learned to love Ira Glass‘s “This American Life” and many of the storytelling radio programs that Culture Husband believes Ira made possible. A particular favorite is Radiolab. We’ve even gone to see a live taping of it.

Today Culture Husband insisted I listen to an episode called “The Trouble With Everything.” Radiolab tackles questions of science in a a smart, entertaining,  and thoughtful way. This episode explored the hypothesis that it is possible, according to some physicists, to know everything, and its counterpart, that every question leads to more questions.

But first it began with a piece of short-short fiction exploring the same topic, defined as 2,000 words or less. The hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, introduce Jenny Hollowell’s story briefly, stating only that they read it among hundreds that they we’re reading to screen for a collection of shorts. While they argued, debated, and fought over most of the stories, this one they both immediately loved.

It is once of the loveliest, most haunting stories I’ve heard (or read). Lovely in its simplicity, tight craftsmanship, and gorgeously precise word choice. Haunting because of the fundamental, universal truth it seems to get at with regards to human relationships.

I won’t say more because I could never do it justice. I simple urge you to listen to Hollowell read her beautiful story.

You’ll want to listen to the whole episode Continue reading

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