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.


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 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.


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 (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

The Elephant and the Whale (Theater Notes)

27 Jun

The circus traveled around the country. Pulling into cities, emptying box cars, putting up tents, taking them down again, and moving on. It wasn’t a big top. In fact it wasn’t even a medium top. It was a very small, small top, a tent that held “all the fun and a quarter of the action.” But after 67 tours, the circus got tired and wondered what was next.

This is not the end of The Night Circus. It is the beginning of “The Elephant and The Whale,” a magical play conceived by Redmoon Theater’s Frank Maugeri with an original story and songs by Seth Bockley with composer Kevin O’Donnell, produced in collaboration with The Chicago Children’s Theatre.

Ella the Elephant has been the star of the small Hoogebeck Family show for years.  When the family sells the circus in 1919 to a Mr. Quigley who likes to think bigly, Ella and the family are in for some unpleasant surprises. Mr. Quigley wants to turn the show into “Under the Sea,” complete with mermaids in salt water tanks. He accidentally brings a baby whale to the Midwest when he imports seawater for his circus. The whale grows bigger and more miserable. Ella grows more discontent. And an unlikely friendship ensues.

This tale about the two largest mammals on earth is created in miniature. A bicycle built for four doubles as a pre-cinematic moving screen that forms a backdrop as the Hoogebeck’s and Ella’s pre-story is told. Once we reach the play’s present day, the actors dance, tumble, and glide across the stage in a glorious combination of physical comedy and dramatic movement.  They move in perfect sync with each other, creating a monumental story on a small stage, telling an epic tale in 60 minutes.

Four actors play all of the parts, holding mechanical wooden masks in front of their faces for some characters, operating puppets for others. The Whale doesn’t speak; a saw played with a violin bow evokes the sound of his whines and tears. It is a sad, mellifluous sound that asks for empathy. Ella is expressed through song, in third person. We learn that she is graceful, dexterous, and loyal.

suitcase set 2True to Redmoon’s reputation, many theatrical tools combine to create the magic–live-action stick puppets operated in suitcase-sized sets that are moved around the stage, acrobatics, hand puppets, masks. When a suitcase is slammed shut, we  feel the constraints of the circus cage and boxcars and how claustrophobic they are for Ella and the Whale. We flinch when the case is closed, not just because of the loud bang, but because we know an animal is inside, yearning to be free.E&W bicycle

Shadow puppets are used to tell the story when it hits the open sea. The sudden change in dimensions and the hilarity of movement convey Ella and the Whale’s dizzying freedom, achieved together. Eventually, they must part–she must live on land, of course, and he in the sea. But their friendship is the truest, most touching one might imagine.

The children we came with were a bit fidgety on their gym mat as they waited for the play to begin. Then they sat, transfixed, moving only to turn and give us a thumbs up and to balance on hands and knees to get a better look. I’ve long wanted to experience Redmoon Theater’s renowned approach to puppetry and pageantry and I was not disappointed. But, I think there is no better review of a play than an eight-year old saying “That was the best play I’ve ever seen.”

Originally in the theater this spring, the play is enjoying a limited run, with free admission, at Chicago Park District venues.

Remembering Veterans and the Legends They Leave Behind

27 May

My father was a U.S. Air Force veteran. He served in ROTC and after college in between WWII and the Korean War and, lucky for our family, never saw combat. Today, as every day, I remember him.

But, today I remember two family members whose service to our country has become the thing of legend, and a local veteran whose continuing service to our country inspires me. I only know tidbits of their stories, but through them, I see how service to our country creates ripples in ponds for generations.  In alphabetical order they are: Colonel Abraham Garfinkel (U.S. Army), Jimmy Proffitt (U.S. Marine Corps), and Samuel Rosen (U.S. Navy).


Memorial Day Flag Display, Boston Commons (Photo courtesy of Global Jet (Flickr). Click image for more information.)

Uncle Abe

Colonel Abraham Garfinkel

Abraham (Garfunkel) Garfinkel (d. 4/11/1962): My great-grandfather’s brother Abraham faked his age to enlist in the Army in 1900. That would be legend enough, I think, given his subsequent 45+ years of service. But he went on to be the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March and an inspiration to soldiers around him. Colonel Garfinkel was, according to the research my mother has done, one of the highest ranking Jewish Army officers at the time of his retirement. Born in 1885, Uncle Abe was near retirement when WW II broke out. Having served most of his career in the Philippines, Colonel Garfinkel continued to serve in the Pacific Rim. He was one of the highest-ranking officers on the Bataan Death March and remained a POW in various Japanese internment camps until his liberation from Mudken on August 20, 1945. Uncle Abe survived his son Lt. Harold Garfinkel  who was KIA in April 1945 in the European theater. His oldest son Capt. Bernard Garfinkel survived the war.

My distant cousin Sheldon Zimbler, a great-nephew of Uncle Abe, immortalized the men of the Bataan March in Undaunted Valor: The Men of Mudken…In their Own Words. As one reviewer wrote, it’s not a new history, but it  is one we mustn’t forget.

Jimmy Proffitt: Jimmy would blush silly if he knew I was writing this. Jimmy is a Vietnam-era Marine. He was injured stateside and never saw combat. My understanding is that he suffers survivor’s guilt because he trained many men who went to war and never came home. Jimmy is, simply put, the salt of the earth.


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 to click the link above, read about the supplies they use each year, and find out how you can help.

Samuel “Sonny” Rosen (d. 12/27/1944): Growing up, I always knew that my Aunt Ethel had married a soldier just before he shipped out on the USS Spence in the fall of 1944 and that he never came home.  Samuel Rosen left behind a widow and son, my cousin Eric who was born in June of 1945.  My cousin Eric and my father grew up together in their grandmother’s home until Aunt Ethel remarried (or my grandparents moved out, never have been sure which happened first). Though my father was 13 years older than Eric, they were quite close. My dad made sure that we knew about Samuel, but I’m sure I never quite understood what it meant, really.Samuel "Sonny" Rosen

Samuel Rosen was only 35 when he went to war . His ship, and three others, sank in a typhoon on December 27, 1944. just three months and 17 days after Samuel married Ethel. He perished along with 800 servicemen and his body was never found.

What I never understand is how viscerally affected Eric was by the loss of a father he never knew. A founding member of the American WWII Orphans Network, Eric has searched his whole life to make meaning of his loss, of the emptiness he felt, and of (in his words) “growing up fatherless in the 1940s and 1950s” shaped the man he became.  Since retiring from his long career as an attorney, Eric has studied theology and has used this study to explore the feelings he harbors about his fatherless childhood. The result is a play, The Trial of Abraham and Abraham’s Choice . This brief tome sums up all the questions about G-d and faith that Eric has had as a result of the guiding absence that has shadowed his life, situating them in the biblical tale of Abraham’s sacrifice.

Eric’s book is suspenseful and moving. It raises as many questions as it attempts to answer and it is, I think, a must read for anyone who has lost a parent in war. When I finished reading it, I felt I knew my cousin’s anguish just a bit more.

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl

3 May

Culture Bean seems to be in a bit of a slump these days, but posts like this remind me why I like to read/watch/experience and then think and write about it. In the interest of not letting Culture Bean go to seed (bad pun!), I want to share this insightful, beautiful post about one of my favorite authors and best-remembered childhood treasures. See my comment at the end of the post for my brief perspective on James and the Giant Peach.

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl.


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