Off the rails at a brick & mortar bookstore

Enough with the essays!  Here is something in true blog style —

Stopped in Barnes and Noble today, bringing with me my mocha from the adjoining Starbuck’s.   Some might say this constituted a corporate morning, and point taken.  But, I like the consistency of Starbuck’s drinks, and I want to do my part to keep brick and mortar bookstores alive and well.

Settling down in an easy chair, I set my mocha on the low table, along with the books and magazines I had snagged along the way from the door to this cozy retreat.  As I shoved aside the tumbling stack of books previously abandoned on the table, the titles caught my eye: When Anger Hurts, The Anger Management Workbook, Anger Control Workbook, and Taking Charge of Anger.

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Sure hope this person doesn’t return in a rage at me for taking his/her seat!”   I wondered where this person was now and whether any of these books had helped with the issue at hand. I decided to take notes on these titles for this blog, and worked my way down the stack.  The last three titles were The Dance of Anger, Loving Him Without Using You, How to Get Your Lover Back, and Getting Back Together.   Ahh.   The story was coming into focus.  The angry and hurt person was a woman, and her goal was to get her boyfriend, significant other, or spouse back. Although happily married myself, I could feel her pain.  My younger years had certainly included bouts of relationship angst.

I leaned back in the easy chair and sipped on my mocha, grateful that I was feeling secure and happy on this particular morning.

Humbled, I turned my attention to the books and magazines I had gathered to peruse.  The first was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  After reading just the first pages, I knew this was a book I would buy.  I then dipped into Reason Magazine’s lead article: “Millennials Are Not Listening to You.” This cover story had caught my eye because I thought it might better help me understand a certain relative who, indeed, does not listen to me.  He’s not a millennial, but he is young and he has certainly tuned me out.  A recent conversation closed with the following exchange: He: “Um… why are you telling me this?”  Me:  “Because you asked.”  He: “I was looking for a yes or no.”  Me: “You don’t get a simple yes or no from me.  You should know that.”  He:  (No comment)  Me:  “And, just for the record, when I ask you a question, I do NOT want just a yes or no.”  End of so-called conversation.

I sipped on my mocha again.  My drug of choice.  And, turned to my next selection – a coffee table-type magazine called Daphne’s Diary. This British lifestyle magazine is full of Victorian illustrations, recipes, and cute little essays.   Brain candy.

While perusing these, I couldn’t help but overhear a loud nearby conversation between a bookseller and a customer.  The bookseller was saying, “Oh, I know how you feel.  The first time someone I knew died, I couldn’t believe it.  I was thinking, This is awful.  This can’t happen.  But now I have a more philosophical view of death.   What helped me was taking walks and just looking at … well, just looking at a tree, for example.  You don’t have to go out in the country.  There are trees everywhere.  Well, I’m just saying that helped me.”

The customer responded in a barely audible voice and was apparently even tearful.   I won’t bore you with the whole conversation, but it was clear that this bookseller was offering therapy for this woman.  And, at the close, the bookseller said, “Well, come back and see me and let me know how you’re doing.  It will get easier, just hang in there.”

So, brick and mortar stores can deliver therapy above and beyond the self help books, I concluded.

And, even my brief visit lifted my spirits.   On my way to the register to buy Gone Girl, a mocha-and-bookstore-high led me to grab a Little Golden Book from an end cap.  This was a book for adults called Everything I Need to Know I learned from A Little Golden Book by Diane Muldrow. As I flipped through the illustrations and catch phrases, my eye was caught by that iconic picture of Tootle the train after he has left the tracks and is happily lollygagging in a lovely meadow.  He has a loopy smile on his face, a daisy chain around his neck, and is surrounded by gay butterflies.  I think what young readers were supposed to learn from Tootle was that he, and everyone else, should stay on the tracks.  But I’m pretty sure what stuck in our young minds was exactly what Muldrow, the author of this new book, had seized on: That leaving the tracks is actually great fun!  Indeed, Muldrow used this particular picture to illustrate the following word of advice:  FROLIC.  Indeed.  Hear, hear!



Pete Seeger: A Tribute to a Musician-Activist

SeegerA tribute to Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

Below is a sermon I wrote and delivered in 2010. I was so sad to learn, via NPR this morning, that Pete Seeger had passed away today, January 27, 2014. This sermon puts into words the admiration I have had, throughout my life, for this musician-activist.

Pete Seeger: A Life of Singing for Social Justice
Morning Message, Saltwater Unitarian-Universalist Church, Des Moines, WA
March 14, 2010
Composed and Delivered by Joan C. Tornow, Ph.D.

I hope you’re all enjoying the Pete Seeger music filling the sanctuary this morning as much as I am. It does make me nostalgic because this music has been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember. When I was little, my Mom often played Pete and the Weavers on the record player – and my three sisters and I knew almost all the songs by heart. When I was in fifth grade, Pete Seeger even came to our little town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, to do a concert. Mom piled us four kids into the old Chevy and away we went. On the way, she said excitedly, “I hope he plays ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’” — her favorite.

The school auditorium was packed. Pete was wonderful, and we were all singing along with great enthusiasm. But, my sisters and I kept waiting to hear that song Mom especially wanted to hear. Toward the end of the concert, Pete asked for requests and we whispered to Mom, “Request it, request it!” But Mom was very, very shy, and we were sitting toward the back, so she would have had to speak really loud. Hope was fading that she could summon up the courage when, luckily, someone else called out that very request. “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And Mom, suddenly exclaimed, “Yeah!” so loud that everyone could hear! And then Pete echoed her, “Yeah!” Everyone laughed – and we kids were so happy for her. Which is why, I think, I’ve remembered that moment all these years. As I look back on it now, I see it as one very personal example of Pete’s extraordinary gift for getting everyone to come out of their shells. And for him, it’s not just about participation in singing; it’s about participation in the broadest possible sense – participation in democracy and in those causes that touch our hearts.

Pete has been like family to me – perhaps like an older brother saying, “Here’s something you should pay attention to. Here’s something that needs fixing. Let’s sing about it and then roll up our shirt sleeves and do something about it.” In my college years, Pete expanded my sense of family to include the family of man, or as we learned to say in the 60s, of humankind. And, still later, he expanded my sense of family to include not just humans, but fish and fowl, and the entire planet and its ecosystem.

Now Pete is almost 93 years old. That’s why some of you younger people here today may not be too familiar with him. But, I hope you will know a bit more about this musical man – a Unitarian — when you leave here today.

At the close of my comments this morning, we’ll segue to a brief video clip and a beautiful song he wrote in which he addresses his own mortality. But, first let’s look at his life.

Pete was born in NY in 1919. His mother was a classical violinist, and his father a music professor. When he was old enough, Pete accompanied his father on field trips into Appalachia and other places where his father was studying folk music. Pete’s mother was not into folk music and was rather put off when Pete’s instrument of choice turned out not to be the violin, as she had always hoped, but – to her dismay, the banjo.

After Pete’s parents divorced, Pete was sent to boarding school. He spent summers on his grandparents’ farm, and loved to wander the fields and forests, developing a bond with nature that later played a huge part in his activism. Like many musicians, he was quiet and introverted. A good student, he later entered Harvard with the goal of becoming a journalist. He was by now pretty good at playing the banjo, but to please his mother, he occasionally attended a chamber music concert. One night after returning to his dorm from such a concert – classical music — he reflected in his journal about what he felt was missing in such concerts. He wrote, “The audience should be a great chorus.” In these words, we can hear his early yearning for a more participatory relationship between audience and performers – an early preference for folk music.

In 1936 college students were avidly discussing what to do about the rise of Hitler. The communist party, at that time a legitimate political party in America, wanted the world to quarantine Hitler. The party also supported labor unions and worked to end race discrimination, further attracting Seeger. A person of conscience, Pete decided to join the young communist league – an affiliation which, while relatively short-lived, certainly complicated his career in years to come.

More intent on social activism than on his studies, Pete allowed his grades to fall, and had to leave Harvard. He still played the banjo only as a hobby until 1940 when he agreed to play at a NYC benefit for California migrant workers. He later said, “I was a bust. My fingers froze up on me and I forgot words.” But he was stunned by the concert’s surprise star that night — a relative unknown by the name of Woody Guthrie. Music historian Alan Lomax says, “You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night. Pete knew it was his kind of music — It was a pure, genuine fervor, the kind that saves souls.”

Guthrie and Pete were soon off on a road trip through Oklahoma and Texas. Together, they bummed meals and jammed with strangers — in back yards and on front porches. Inspired by Guthrie, Seeger next embarked on a solo trip westward, hitchhiking or jumping on freight trains. Playing in saloons, he further cultivated his talent for getting everyone to join in on the choruses. And he truly reveled in hearing the voices of all – the great chorus he had yearned for during that concert at Harvard.

Seeger was in deep sympathy with the labor movement, and said, “Just as every church has a choir, why not every union?” He, Guthrie, Bess Lomax, Lee Hays, and others formed the singing group, the Almanacs –becoming song leaders of American labor.

In 1941 came Pearl Harbor, and in 1942 Pete was drafted into the army. Meanwhile, he had a sweetheart –Toshi Ohta whose father was a Japanese political refugee. Pete and Toshi married during one of his furloughs. They were so poor that Toshi paid the $2 for their license. From that moment on, she served as Pete’s manager and, as he says, his tower of strength. She’s had to have a sense of humor to be married to Pete — with his relentless work for liberal causes. She likes to say, teasingly, “If only Peter would chase women instead of chasing causes, I’d have an excuse to leave him.” I love Toshi’s sense of humor. Once, when Pete was being honored, Toshi spoke first. She said, “In my job [as Pete’s manager], I work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year [and] with no vacation. I [now] want to introduce my husband, Pete — you know, [that] guy who goes around the country singing for the 40-hour week!” The audience just howled.

But, meanwhile, back to the army days. Pete served overseas as a musician, entertaining wounded troops in hospitals. He also played for local children in Saipan and other places. Playing for children remained one of his favorite activities throughout his life. After his military tour, he and Toshi lived in NYC and started a family. They longed to move to the country. And, although they couldn’t afford a house, they did manage to scrape up enough money to buy some land — 17 acres overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York. Seeger checked out a library book on how to build a log cabin, and almost singlehandedly built the modest home in which they raised their children – Dan, Mika, and Tinya. For years they had no electricity or running water, yet they enjoyed, for the most part, being so close to nature.

World War II came to a close, but now we had the cold war and it was starting to heat up. One of Pete’s acquaintances was Paul Robeson — a black scholar, activist, athlete, and singer – credited, among other things, with bringing African-American spirituals to a wider audience. Robeson was also an un-apologetic socialist. In 1949, he was invited to sing at the Peekskill Resort and asked Seeger to join him. The Ku Klux Klan fanned the flames of local controversy. The concert itself went smoothly, but the aftermath did not. As the Seeger family drove away together, their car, like others, was pelted with rocks by angry protestors. Son Dan, just a young child at the time, remembers his grandfather Takashi, pushing him and his sister onto the floor of the car to protect them from the flying glass. This harrowing experience deeply affected Pete. He vowed to keep his family safe but also resolved to continue peacefully expressing his values through music.

Meanwhile, he had joined a quartet called the Weavers. This talented group soon had two hits at the top of the charts –“Tzena Tzena” and “Good Night, Irene.” But Seeger was uncomfortable with commercial success. So, when the Weavers were put up in fancy hotels, he would stay with friends or in cheap rooming houses.

In 1952, the proverbial hammer fell, and Seeger was called up by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, citing his past association with the communist party and his social activism. Seeger was calm and respectful — but, he refused to sign a loyalty oath. He said he resented the implication that he was un-American just because his opinions might be different from members of the Congressional committee. He was willing to go to jail, if necessary, in support of his belief that in the United States, people can freely hold and express their own opinions — and should never be required to sign a loyalty oath.

Pete also goes down in history as the first and only person to show up at a congressional hearing with a banjo. At one point, he was grilled about having sung the song, “Wasn’t That a Time,” a song some Congressmen considered subversive. Seeger said he considered the song deeply patriotic, and offered to play and sing it, as evidence. The House Un-American Activities Committee was un-amused. Instead of allowing him to play, they convicted him of contempt of congress for his refusal to sign the oath. The conviction was repealed after seven years and some years later, Seeger was even awarded a Congressional Living Legend Award. Pete said of the era of blacklisting, “I really believed, and I think I was right, that in the long run this country doesn’t go in for things like that.”

Not long after this ordeal, the Weavers performed at Carnegie Hall – to a sell-out crowd that felt that the House Un-American Activities Committee was, in itself, un-American. Despite this affirmation by fans, Pete didn’t stay with the Weavers. The group had become too commercial for him, and he decided it was time to part ways.

Although Seeger was officially vindicated, he was one of many artists harmed by what is now generally known as the McCarthy era. Folk music was extremely popular in the 60s, with musicians like Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, singing their hearts out at Hootenannies and on TV. Meanwhile, Seeger was banned from TV for 17 years for his refusal to sign that loyalty oath. But he was well-received on college campuses. He said “People are searching for roots in a world of change.” Pete offered these roots – this historic connection – telling the stories and struggles of the American people through their music – folk music.

In 1957, at a civil rights event, Pete sang a relatively obscure song, “We Shall Overcome.” Martin Luther King was there and liked the song. It soon rose to play a central role in the movement. Pete did not write the song, but changed the words from “we will overcome” to “we shall overcome.” Why? Because when you say the word, “shall,” you can’t help but smile. He also added the verse, “We’ll walk hand in hand.” He participated in countless marches and rallies, and he and Toshi marched proudly in the famous Selma march – a perilous 3-day march in which songs provided a constant source of courage and resolve. Seeger said, “I don’t think there was any movement in history that had as much singing as the civil rights movement.” He added, “Music is not just a distraction. Some music helps you understand your troubles, and some music helps you do something about them.”

There was a sobering event in the 70s when a Viet Nam vet met with Seeger backstage, after a concert. The former soldier had been outraged that Seeger wanted the U.S. to pull out of the war. But, during the concert, Seeger’s songs had moved him. So, after the concert, the man came backstage and asked to speak with Seeger. Toshi arranged for the two to sit down together. The man said, “Mr. Seeger, I came to kill you tonight.” He went on to explain that he had lost friends in the war. He was upset and confused but Pete’s songs had dispelled his anger. As they sat together, Pete picked up his banjo and began singing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The former soldier wept.

The Seeger family’s property overlooked the Hudson River which in 1967 was horribly polluted. With help, Seeger built and launched the majestic sloop Clearwater which in turn launched a whole era of people working to clean up the Hudson. For decades now, school kids have gone out on this boat to learn about ecology firsthand. Says Pete, “The kids go back to school — and some of them have had their lives changed.” The annual Clearwater Festivals have inspired river clean-ups throughout the country.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Pete on the Tavis Smiley (radio) Show, sharing a special memory about a 1969 peace demonstration in Washington, DC. He recalled trying to get everyone to sing together, but with 500,000 that was hard. By the time the voices of those in the back reached the front, those in the front were on a different lyric. Pete decided to lead the crowd in a slow and simple song — John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

“Well,” said Pete settling into the memory, “You know, Peter, Paul, and Mary jumped up on the stand and started singing it with me. Mitch Miller of Sing Along with Mitch – he jumped up and started waving his arms. After a minute or so, 10,000 people were singing along. After two or three minutes, like 100,000 were singing along. After five or six minutes, all 500,000 were singing it over and over –.” All we are saying is give peace a chance. Choking up with emotion, Pete continued sharing his memory of this event: “And parents would put their children up on their shoulders so they could see, and the whole crowd like a gigantic ballet was swaying from right to left, slowly, and then back.” He concluded, “It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”

Yes, for Pete Seeger it has always been about participation. When we participate, we feel our connection to one another. And when we sing, this connection becomes palpable. Thank you, Pete, for all you have done for social justice. We’ll treasure the old songs, write some new ones, and always add our voices to the chorus.

[Segue to DVD featuring Pete Seeger singing the following song, composed by him:]

To My Old Brown Earth
To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine.

DVD montage continues and includes Seeger’s voiceover:
“Once upon a time wasn’t singing a part of everyday life – as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our ancient ancestors, wherever they were in the world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start.

And when one person taps out a beat while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as if to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”

Joan’s sources for this sermon include How Can I Keep from Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger by David King Dunaway (Villard Books, 2008), Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, directed by Jim Brown, a PBS American Masters film (2007 Live Nation Worldwide), and The Tavis Smiley Show, PRI, February 19, 2010.

Bending Toward Justice: Birmingham Then and Now

Sixteenth Street Bapt Chch B'ham Museum Family

  • First photo: Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Exactly 50 years ago, on September 15, 1963, four children were killed here when the church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Second photo:  A family watches a video, recently, at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Bending Toward Justice: Birmingham Then and Now

A reflection by Joan Tornow

Birmingham, Alabama. The city in the deep South that in 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” At two separate times in my life, I lived in Birmingham — first when I was in high school. And later, in 1967, when I returned for three months as a civil rights worker.

Before our move to Alabama in 1958, our family of six was living in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where my father was a professor at Antioch College. Rather suddenly his research agenda led to work at the University of Alabama Medical Center, and before you could say Ulysses S. Grant, we found ourselves living in the deep South.

I was a teenager and fitting into teenage culture is always hard. Actually, our entire family had a hard time fitting in. We talked and dressed funny, we held unpopular views, and we attended the Unitarian Church, known for its liberal, progressive beliefs. Each welcoming neighbor would almost immediately ask what church we went to. When we responded, “Unitarian,” the inevitable response was, “Isn’t that the church in the woods near the zoo?” It was. Actually, it was a blessing to be near the zoo. On those Sunday mornings when we received bomb threats, we could quickly escort the Sunday school classes across the street for an impromptu field trip. Why bomb threats? Because many in the church criticized Governor George Wallace while actively supporting integration.

My parents, my three sisters, and I were all dismayed to see the ‘white only’ signs over drinking fountains and at the entrance to swimming pools and parks. When we went to movies, we watched the black children filing up to the balcony … the only place they were allowed to sit. Although I was white, I found it frightening. In Ohio, my best friend, Sandra Anderson, happened to be African-American. Her father, Walter Anderson, was the chair of Antioch’s music department. Although Walter taught a few children, he mostly worked with college students, including Coretta Scott who later became Coretta Scott King.

When Coretta, an education major, needed to fulfill her student teaching requirement, the Yellow Springs public schools refused to accommodate her. She was able to fulfill her requirement through a patchwork of teaching positions, including teaching music in the small nursery school my mother ran in our home. My point is that the race thing for me is personal. Although I was too young to remember Coretta Scott, I do remember Sandra who is still a close friend. As kids, we had played jump rope and hopscotch together, and prowled the campus where both our fathers taught. At our progressive elementary school, we played a version of hide-and-go-seek that we called “underground railroad.” Indeed, our small Ohio town had been an important link in the underground railroad a century earlier.

But, back to Alabama. As soon as I graduated from high school, I returned to Ohio, becoming a freshman at Antioch in 1962. The following year, efforts to integrate Birmingham went into high gear. With the leadership of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., African Americans began peacefully claiming their rights. But the response, as we know, was not peaceful. Reverend King was jailed in April of 1963, and it was then that he wrote his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. This included the familiar passage, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”

A couple months after Reverend King was released from jail, Governor Wallace blocked the door of the University of Alabama, attempting to prevent two black students from enrolling. In September, President John Kennedy federalized the National Guard to insure the peaceful integration of two public schools. Five days later, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed and four young girls were killed. Two months after that, in November, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. All this happened in 1963 when Sandra and I were college sophomores, studying at Ohio colleges a few hours apart. Many of us coming of age at this time were stunned and frightened about the violence against those working peacefully for change.

At the same time, thousands, millions, of people, regardless of race, were in awe of the emergence of Martin Luther King and his principle of nonviolence. I’d like to also credit a relatively unsung hero – a Unitarian minister who gave a sermon in 1853 that Reverend King drew upon in some of his speeches. This Unitarian minister was Reverend Theodore Parker.  He took personal risk in breaking the law and sheltering runaway slaves in his Boston home.

Reverend Parker died shortly before the Civil War, not living to see emancipation or even the election of Abraham Lincoln. But before he died, in an 1853 sermon, he proclaimed his moral philosophy in words that were later echoed by Martin Luther King, and more recently by President Barack Obama. He said: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of [what is morally] right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one.” Parker continued, “My eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve — by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Reverend King read Reverend Parker’s sermons in seminary and found the concept of the moral arc to be a powerful one. He carried it forward while distilling it into a single sentence: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” In a few minutes I’ll share how President Obama has also built on the legacy of this concept.
But, for now, I want to return to my own small story within this huge, centuries-long, American struggle.

In 1965, a small group of students and recent graduates from Harvard Law School went to Montgomery, Alabama, and founded The Southern Courier, a newspaper with the goal of providing balanced coverage of the civil rights movement.

In winter of ’67, The Courier needed a reporter to cover Birmingham. Still at college in Ohio, I was seeking a work-study position for that quarter, and this position interested me. I was soon off to Montgomery on a Greyhound Bus. There I was issued a car and a camera and sent on to Birmingham.

One morning, I read a one-inch report buried in the back pages of The Birmingham News. A black man had been spotted running near a school where, in the past, they claimed break-ins had been attempted. The report said that the police yelled stop and then fired a warning shot into the air. Later they found the body of 18-year-old James Small. That was how the Birmingham News reported it. The officers apparently needed only to express mild surprise that a shot fired into the air could somehow lodge squarely in someone’s back. In Birmingham, in those days, a police report like this was not questioned by the authorities. No official investigation would ensue. This was the type of investigating that fell to reporters from The Southern Courier.

I made my way to the police station to request the official report. While waiting for a clerk to retrieve the file from a back room, I adopted a nonchalant attitude in front of the police officer in charge. Another officer, on other business, strode into the building, the door slamming behind him. His hand was bandaged.

“What happened to you?” asked a policeman who was milling about — quickly adding in jocular tones, “Didn’t I tell you never to hit a Negro in the head?!” But he didn’t say “Negro.” The officers – all white, of course — laughed. A black couple sat waiting for something, keeping their eyes lowered.

“What business is this matter to you, little lady?” the officer in charge now asked. I said I was a reporter for The Southern Courier, and fortunately he didn’t appear to have heard of it. He handed me the report, and I read that Officer R.G. Haltom had fired “To apprehend a fleeing felon.” Hmmn. Not exactly how it was reported in The Birmingham News. I wondered just where the cover-up had begun. What evidence did they have that he was a felon? No break in had occurred that night, nor – I later learned – in the past.

After my visit to the police station, I knew I needed to meet with James’ family to get their side of the story. I enlisted the help of a friend of mine from high school. My friend Joyce had been raised to be an elitist Southern lady, but had rebelled against her own culture. She still dressed in pastel and had every blond hair in place. Yet she was well aware of Birmingham’s racist policies, and events like this angered her. She was an important ally for several reasons, including the fact that I did not know my way around the city.

We located the Smalls’ home and now sat in their living room where grief hung heavily in the air. Charlena, the sister, said that James had gotten home late after a date and the two of them were talking late into the night. Maybe, as people their age are apt to do, they were constructing dreams for the future or solving the world’s problems. Around 1:30, they ran out of cigarettes and Charlena convinced James to go buy some from a machine at a nearby gas station. It was not wise for a young black man to be on the streets late at night. But, teenagers are not known for always using good judgment.

When James did not return promptly, Charlena eventually fell asleep on the sofa.
Early the next morning, Mrs. Small said she was awakened by a phone call.
“Do you have a son named James Small?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, you better come get him ‘cause he’s in the morgue.”

Mrs. Small sat there now on her sofa, weeping, as Charlena tried to comfort her. Charlena then told us that when they went to identify the body, they were handed James’ effects – simply his hat, his money clip, and a fresh unopened pack of cigarettes. They learned that James was killed just two blocks from his home. Mrs. Small, clearly heartbroken, said that she was active in the movement and couldn’t help wondering if this was some kind of retaliation.

Dr. King had said in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail that in any nonviolent campaign the first step is the collection of facts. So Joyce and I went to the funeral home to find out the truth about how James died.

The funeral would be the following day, so today the funeral home was empty but for the two of us, the friendly black proprietor, and James Small. The proprietor knew we were here to ascertain the location of the bullet that killed this young man. James had clearly been a strong and healthy young man in the prime of his life. The proprietor showed us exactly where the bullet had entered his back. The “warning shot.”

Joyce and I exchanged looks with the proprietor and the three of us shook our heads in sorrow. After thanking the proprietor, we stepped back outside into the harsh February sunlight. Later that day, I filed my report with The Southern Courier and it was soon front page news in that Montgomery-based newspaper.

A few evenings later, I went to a meeting at a black Baptist Church where Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spoke. “Every time you turn around, some Negro’s being killed by some trigger happy policeman in Birmingham,” he said. “Every time one of your sons is accused of some crime, some policeman’s bullets serve as judge, jury, and courts.” Indeed, there had been 14 killings in 12 months. He invited the Smalls to come up and tell their story. Still overcome with grief, they asked if I would speak for them. I was extremely shy at the time, but something about that pack of cigarettes spoke of a tragic truth that needed telling. So I made my way up to the pulpit and told the story of James Small.

And now I have shared this story with you. I feel it’s important to tell this story because it represents thousands of casualties of the civil rights movement – African-Americans who were shot, lynched, beaten, jailed, or attacked by police dogs. It’s incredible that in the face of scorn, hatred, and violence, blacks in the South continued to demonstrate peacefully for their rights.

One thing I learned is that much of the courage and resolve of those days was born and nurtured in churches.  Just this morning, exactly 50 years after the bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, I heard in an NPR report that the sermon to be delivered that morning was called, “A Love That Forgives.”  Carolyn McKinstry remembers that.  She was just a young girl and lost four dear classmates.  Ms. McKinstry, now a minister, has dedicated her life to the ongoing struggle for peace, love, and justice.

Much has changed in the past fifty years.  Not enough – but much has changed. Who could have even dreamed in the ’60s that a few decades later our country would elect a black President. On election night 2007, many of us gathered with friends to watch Barack Obama accept his position as our president-elect.

As Obama made his way to the front of the stage, he walked in measured steps as if aware that his steps were made possible by earlier steps – the weary steps of maids and gardeners in Montgomery, Alabama, walking for miles on tired feet to get to work during the bus boycott – the steps of protestors crossing a bridge in Selma as they faced police dogs, heavily-armed officers on horseback, tear gas, and rocks from jeering crowds. And other steps: Steps of school children facing fire hoses and fists as they simply exercised their constitutional right to demonstrate – the steps of Rev. King, climbing to a podium to speak to thousands, gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital.

Obama said, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Obama gave his acceptance speech at Grant Park, the same Chicago park that saw violent confrontations between anti-war demonstrators and police during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Then, this park had been the site of animosity, violence, and despair. Now, it hosted a rainbow crowd in the throes of peaceful jubilation.

President Obama’s road has been rocky. But he appears to have the same visionary stance as Reverend Parker and Martin Luther King. One of my favorite quotes of his is, “Let us not be defined by our differences, but by what we share in common.” And, Obama has built on the legacy of Parker’s vision of the moral arc by saying, “The arc doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because we put our hands on it and bend it in the direction of justice.”

The Smalls, now all deceased, were ordinary people living in extraordinary times. They lived with dignity and they practiced nonviolence. I’m sure that Mrs. Small’s fight for civil rights was, in part, a fight for the future of her children. Yet it was other children, not hers, who ultimately reaped the rewards of her sacrifice and the sacrifice of so many like her.

For example, consider a child named Annetta Watts, born in 1959 to a nurse and her coal-miner husband in Birmingham. Annetta was only four years old when Dr. King wrote that famous letter — and when that bomb went off in church. She was seven when James Small was shot in her city and eight when Dr. King was assassinated. Most likely, she heard talk of these events both at home and at church.

Years later, with the governor no longer blocking the entrance, Annetta Watts was able to attend the University of Alabama. In 2003, Annetta Watts Nunn became the first woman, and the second African American, to be named Chief of Police of the City of Birmingham. She promised the people of her city that the police were committed to serving everyone with dignity and respect. No longer are racist jokes told in the station lobby by an all-white police force.

And consider another child – the daughter of Governor George Wallace. Peggy Wallace Kennedy spoke not long ago of the marchers in Selma, saying, “I knew in my heart that their cause was just, but unlike them I did not let my voice be heard.” She, the daughter of a segregationist icon, supported the candidacy of an African-American to be president of the United States. Remember, this is not about politics. This is about how far we’ve moved along the moral arc of the universe — toward justice.

My friend Sandra and I still keep in touch. About the only disagreement we’ve had was during Obama’s first campaign. She supported Hillary Clinton, and I — supported someone else. She’s writing her memoirs now. Almost every week, I get another installment from her. When we were about eight years old, we pricked our fingers and pressed them together to be blood sisters. And, to this day, we sign our letters, “Your sister.”

Well, even if you’re not writing your memoirs, I encourage those of you who have seen positive change in the world to talk about the way things were – and how far we’ve come. Talk about the way that hard times in our country have inspired people to summon strength they didn’t know they had and to join with others in working for social justice.

When you see things that need changing, remember the people of Birmingham, and others, who dared to dream of change and peacefully work for it, despite huge, frightening, and even deadly obstacles. As Police Chief Watts said, “The Movement was led by members of the faith community who came outside the walls of their places of worship to change not only our community, but the world.”

There is still much work to be done, much that needs changing. Let us continue this work, moving ever-forward on the moral arc toward justice.

Peace, Love, and Happiness in the Big Apple: A Tourist’s Journey

By Joan Tornow

It was a hot August afternoon in NYC. My husband John and I were sitting back comfortably in a sort of rickshaw, being transported through Central Park by a young man pedaling a sturdy bike attached to our small carriage. We normally refrain from touristy things like this. But, the young man needed customers, and he won us over. As we settled into the cushioned seat, our driver began pedaling vigorously. Then, twisting his wiry body and speaking in broken English, he told us his name was Yuri and that he was from a small town in Turkey. He was here on a student visa, and this job enabled him to work on his English.

This special journey of ours started at the Southern end of the park where we told Yuri we just wanted to go in the general direction of our hotel on the upper west side. “And we definitely want to visit ‘Strawberry Fields,’” said John.

“Have you seen ‘Strawberry Fields’ before?” he asked.

“No, but we’re big John Lennon fans,” we responded.

We had not been to New York since 1984, and then only passing through. I had lived there in the late 60s and early 70s – attending graduate school and then working in the Head Start Program. Being back after all these years had elements of déjà vu. So much the same, yet so much had changed.

Back to the rickshaw. John and I leaned forward to better hear Yuri’s spiel: “‘Strawberry Fields’ was dedicated in 1985 by Yoko Ono, five years after the death of John Lennon. There is a mosaic there made of marble tiles, a gift from Lisbon. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is a Lennon song he wrote when remembering an orphanage by that name near his childhood home in Liverpool. The ‘Strawberry Fields’ here has no strawberries, but it has161 plant species — gifts from many nations of the United Nations.”

As we absorbed this information, Yuri returned his full attention to pedaling. We leaned back and let the summer breeze flow over us as we jounced along. Starting the next day, I would be secluded in classrooms at Columbia, attending an educational conference. So, John and I had already spent much of this day – a Sunday – taking in as much of New York as we could. Tired, we settled into our enclosure, gazing at the canopy of green branches above.

As we headed up a hill, the rickshaw slowed to a crawl. Yuri said, “Very steep, sorry.” He began traversing to reduce the grade, standing up as he pedaled, panting, swerving. John said, “If you want, we can get out. And even push.” We were just about to do that when suddenly we felt the rickshaw rocket forward with some mysterious new energy. We saw that a large hand off to our left had grabbed the side of our cabin and was pushing, propelling us up the hill. Enclosed as we were, we couldn’t yet see the owner of this hand, but it was a person whose dark skin was made even darker by tattoos. We were amazed and delighted to be the recipients of this sudden and well-timed helping hand.

Soon, we could see handlebars and a bicycle wheel off to our left and discern that another rickshaw driver was lending his strength to the task of getting our vehicle up the hill.

“Thank you,” said Yuri, gratefully.

“No problem,” said the other young man. Now we could see our helper, as he had pulled up a little closer. “This hill can be tough,” he said with a friendly smile.

And so, in this manner, the two bicyclists – the Turkish student and the Good Samaritan — carried us – two aging hippies – up the hill to “Strawberry Fields.”

The memorial plaza could be reached only by foot, so at a certain point, we disembarked, and made our way up a quiet path, arriving at the special mosaic created to honor the memory of John Lennon. We joined others quietly gazing at the simple black and white tiles which, in the center, spelled the single word “Imagine” – a word immortalized in song and now in stone. This song had always been a favorite of mine: “Imagine all the people, Living life in peace.” I later learned that candlelight vigils were held here in the days following 9/11.

Walking on, we encountered a group of older musicians singing the Lennon/McCartney song “In My Life”: “There are places I remember, All my life, though some have changed, All these places had their moments.” The lyrics brought tears to my eyes and prompted me to place a few bills in the guitar case sitting open on the pavement. The musicians – grey-haired and balding – nodded and smiled. I had a sense that we were acknowledging a shared past – not just living through the 60s, but remembering that era with fondness – especially the idealism that helped shape our values.

Yuri was waiting for us at the edge of the park. As we climbed back into our little carriage, he pointed across the street to the Dakota, the building where Yoko and John had lived and where Yoko still lives part of the year. My eyes fell on the entryway where Lennon had been shot. Yuri pointed out the windows on the penthouse apartment facing the park – including a high window belonging to the room where the white piano was, where Lennon had composed “Imagine” in 1971.

Back when I lived in NY, the city had been rocked by the issues of the day – especially the Viet Nam war and the struggle for civil rights. I remember in particular the peace march just hours after those students were shot at Kent State. So much has happened in NY, in the country, and in the world since then. But seeing NY again, after all these years, I had a sense that the city had emerged from its many challenges – even 9/11 – with more resilience and a sense that “we’re all in this together.”

Earlier on this day, this rickshaw day, our first in the city, we headed for Ground Zero – the site of the former World Trade Center. En route to the subway, while crossing Broadway, we were temporarily stranded on the median strip and admired the lush garden growing right there on the median. A sign credited this garden to a nearby store. This landscaping was certainly an improvement over the bare-dirt median strips I remembered from my earlier days in the city.

Throughout this trip, we noticed hundreds of little flower gardens, nestled in nooks and crannies. Often they were enclosed by short decorative fences – pragmatic, but mostly symbolic – as if to say, “Someone is tending to this little plot of earth. Please enjoy and respect it.” Those who tended these petite gardens had clearly cast aside cynicism – putting their faith in the good will of the people who shared their communities.

The subway tunnels were still noisy and, at this time of year, hot. But they were now free of graffiti. As a crowded train pulled into the station, we were among the last to board, and we faced the closing door dilemma – to push our way in or just wait for the next train. But a passenger already on board held the closing door open – just a moment – till we were safely inside. Again, like the Good Samaritan in the park, a helping hand just when we needed one.

When we got to our stop, we were surprised to see almost everyone getting off here, too. We climbed the stairs up to the street, noting that we had apparently joined a pilgrimage of people making their way down the sidewalk toward that place – that empty space where once the twin towers had stood. When I first caught site of the vast open area, encircled by a tall fence, my throat tightened and tears welled up. Everyone fell silent in this strange zone – a place seen on TV and now right before our eyes. Beyond the huge fence, we could see the towering orange cranes, a few of them doing some sort of weekend catch-up in the daunting, complex task of building something new here, something that would honor the memory of those who died, and give hope to those left behind.

On one side of the street was a very old cemetery – one with those thin, flat stones, standing crookedly like dominoes about to topple. Near the entrance, several vendors were selling photograph books about 9/11. I bought one, and John and I retreated into the cemetery to look at the photos and to just hold still and take in the enormity of ground zero – right across this narrow street. John pointed out that we were standing at the very spot where one of the photos was taken. There was that gravestone, there was that tree. They appeared identical in both the photo and in the reality of where we stood. But in the photo, the ground was littered with debris, and the tree was enveloped in dust from the newly-collapsed buildings. Now, today, the cemetery grass was green and the tree – so close we could reach out and touch it – sported shiny new leaves.

In a way it was fortuitous that our tourist itinerary that first day in NY happened to begin at Ground Zero and end up at “Strawberry Fields.” At Ground Zero, we were confronted with the stark reality of man’s inhumanity to man. At “Strawberry Fields” we were reminded – albeit via a still small voice – of something stronger – the human imagination and its longing for peace and love.

One hot afternoon, heading back to the hotel after the conference, I was overcome by thirst and stopped at a street kiosk that sold snacks, newspapers, and water. I spotted the proprietor, an elderly man, looking wilted from the heat. He pointed to the cooler, and when I had the icy bottle in hand, he signaled for me to give the cooler door an extra push to make sure it was closed all the way. He grinned a toothless grin when my extra push did the trick, saving him the trouble of leaving his shady enclosure. Well, of course, I was happy to give the heavy cooler door that extra push. It seemed that these little acts somehow characterized present-day NY. Nothing extraordinary, just small moments of caring – whether pushing a rickshaw up a hill, pushing a subway door open, or pushing a refrigerator door closed on a sweltering summer day. We’ve all heard of death by a thousand cuts. What seemed to be at work in NYC now was life by a thousand acts of random kindness. No one act heroic – yet all these little acts adding up to something good – a sense of civic community, of caring for other people, other creatures, and the environment.

NYC is not unique in this respect. These kindnesses occur everywhere. I think it’s just that when traveling, one is especially dependent on the kindness of strangers. And, the traveler has special opportunities to honor and participate in these affirming rituals. This particular trip, too, had happy coincidences. For example, one afternoon we returned to the park and visited the wide shady path called the literary mall, honoring America’s authors. We sat on a bench to rest, and I turned to read the inscription on the back. It said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” –Theodore Parker, Unitarian Minister, 1853.” One of my favorite quotes.

One night in our hotel, we watched a TV documentary called “The Human Spark.” It chronicled research on helpfulness. In one experiment, they showed how a toddler will spontaneously help another person trying to reach something out of immediate reach. They showed chimpanzees doing likewise. It seems that evolution has resulted in an instinctive impulse – built into our DNA – to reach out and help.

I believe that these acts – these helping hands – do more than just brighten our days. On a grand scale, they help us survive. And, in everyday life, they weave the fabric of community, of what John Dewey refers to as conjoined living.

This spirit characterized our visit everywhere we went – A heavily tattooed fellow-passenger on the subway telling us our stop was next, a taxi driver, in broken English, asking which train we were taking from Penn Station, so he could take us to the best possible door. Someone at the Museum of Modern Art telling us which café had the shortest lines. We rarely had to even ask for help because it was so forthcoming!

One morning, we had breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant on the upper west side – my coffee shop from 40 years ago, when my office was nearby. The waitress who refilled our coffee cups was singing. I smiled and said, “Ah, you’re singing!”

“Yes, every day,” she said with a grin. Walking away with the steaming pot, she added in her Greek accent, “Every day! Every day I sing!”

All this good will came to a crescendo on our last night there. We had gone to see Jersey Boys, a feel-good musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. We emerged on Broadway with the music still ringing in our ears: “Oh, what a night, late December back in ’63, What a special time for me, hypnotizing, mesmerizing me,” and “Sherry, Sherry baby, Sherry can you come out tonight.”
Well, it was quite a night! And Sherry baby probably was out – along with everyone else in New York City. The streets were filled, everyone enjoying the gentle breeze and easy camaraderie. We headed toward Times Square and saw a panoply of huge digital displays stacked high into the sky like children’s blocks. They bathed a spacious walking mall with warm light.
Families of tourists posed and took photos of each other with tiny cameras or cell phones. Some were enjoying hot dogs, pretzels, or ice cream from food carts. Young couples walked hand in hand. A little girl rode high on her father’s shoulders. A little boy shared fist bumps with a police officer. A family of tourists, speaking Spanish, took pictures of each other. I offered to take their photo together and they smiled, handed me their camera, and assembled themselves: “Uno, dos, tres, whiskey!”
Being here in Times Square, I felt something in the air – a sense of unity, community, and hope. And the LCD screens added a celebratory feeling – as if fireworks were suspended in mid-air, brilliant in the night sky.

We noticed a set of bleachers where tourists perched to take in the panoramic view. We, too, climbed up and sat awhile, drinking in the atmosphere. I said to my husband, “It’s so peaceful!” Then, my eye was drawn to a huge LCD screen depicting people of all ages and ethnicities dancing – sometimes comically – always with exuberance and joy.

Below each clip the name of the location appeared: Mumbai, India; Stone Town, Zanzibar; Teotihuacan, Mexico, Madagascar, Figi, Morocco, Brazil, Japan. Every cluster of dancers includes Matt Harding – now famous for, as he says, “dancing badly around the world.” I later learned that he set the conditions for these spontaneous dances, resulting in the U-Tube video called “Where the Hell is Matt.” It was the perfect video for that moment because it so captured and celebrated our common humanity.

I know problems still exist and that if we had stayed in NYC longer, we would have experienced some disappointments as well as what I’ve described here. Still, the fact remains that we humans are still working things out on a global scale. In NY, I was reminded that we can imagine peace, create it, and experience it – even if just in pockets of time and space.

(“Where the Hell is Matt” may be accessed at
Note: This essay was originally delivered as a sermon at Saltwater Unitarian Church in Des Moines, Washington. It was later delivered, by invitation, at several other Unitarian churches in Washington State. At the close of each sermon, the video clip above, “Where the Hell is Matt” Dancing, was projected at the front of the sanctuary. This musical video seemed very appropriate in a church setting.

My Life with Insects

Spider web Sprawled out on the crabgrass in our Ohio back yard, I watched a tiny inch worm curl its pale green body, then furl out on a stem to repeat its acrobatics till it reached a confusion of leaves  Such magic!  While my sisters were content to play indoors, I took every opportunity to skip out the door and get down in the dirt.

 How insects captured my attention!  Even photographs of me as a child show me crouched on the ground, my cornsilk hair mingling with the antennae of my latest find.

Ohio insects were the best.  I could not believe my eyes the first time I saw a praying mantis, its spindly body looking like it was assembled of mini TinkerToys.  Then there were the walking sticks, mimicking the twigs on which they perched.  Spotting such a creature, I would run for an empty peanut butter jar, stuff it with leaves, and capture my find for further observation.

I loved to pry up a rock and see what lived beneath, watching “rollie pollies” become tiny pellets in my palm.  Centipedes also hid out under rocks, and although I marveled at their multitude of legs, I gave them a wide berth.

Feeling a piercing pain, I would look up to see a smug bumble bee circling the site of the crime.  I tended to forgive bees, because they were hard workers and had something to do with making flowers bloom and making honey to eat.

The lady bug, red with black polka dots, looked as if designed by a child with a box of Crayolas.

Many Ohio spiders build exquisite webs, just like the star of E.B. White’s, Charlotte’s Web.  Familiar with that story, I was fond of spiders.  Finding one in the bathtub, I would gently nudge it into a jar, using a matchbook cover.  Then I would take it outdoors and release it.

Meanwhile I admired the butterflies drifting through the air like tiny paintings entertaining invisible angels.  Monarch butterflies were common, and at school we kept cocoons of them on the science shelf where we could watch them emerge each spring.

Midwestern evenings brought out the night shift of insects.  In the fading pink of a Midwestern sunset, lightning bugs began to glimmer like stars sifting down from the heavens.  My parents would sit on the porch gazing into the shadows, as my sisters and I ran about, catching these phosphorescent miracles. And a chorus of crickets on a summer night still evokes that feel of being a child, safe in the embrace of my house, my yard, my family, and my town.

My parents and teachers taught me respect, and even awe, for the wonders of nature.  But when I became an adult, I assumed a more pragmatic stance toward insects.  As a responsible parent and homeowner, I now viewed insects as pests.  I morphed into a vigilante, keeping them at bay.

In Washington, D.C., I swatted at flies and sprinkled hot chili powder on the aphids intent on consuming our tomatoes before we could!  In Denver, I fanned bees and wasps out of windows, and put down ant poison. In California, I applied the death penalty to black widow spiders that hid out under the seats of my children’s tricycles.  I took a broom to wasp nests and then ran like crazy to the shelter of my house.

In New Hampshire, I lured mosquitoes to lamps that incinerated them with a noisy buzz. And I rejoiced after smashing a bloody mosquito on my flesh.  I starved gypsy moth caterpillars by ringing trees with foil so they could not reach their leafy dinner.

In Texas, I protected my children from the fire ant hills that cropped up in our yard.  This, too, involved the application of poison.  I’ve poured toxic mothballs into boxes of stored clothing and mercilessly smashed moths, quickly removing the telltale powder from the wall. I have committed all these brutalities, and at times with loathing and glee.

So firmly have I been in this adult mode of thinking that I was caught off guard one day when I noticed a small boy kneeling on the sidewalk and gazing intently at something on our lawn.  I wondered what he saw.  A bit later, I saw that he had returned with a glass jar. He gently picked up a stick on which a praying mantis was perched, and put it in an empty peanut butter jar.  Then he carefully put the jar in the little case on the back of his bike.

I guessed that he would take this magnificent creature home and show it to his mother.  He would stare at it with curiosity and wonder.  He would give it a few drops of water.  And then, not knowing what to give it for dinner, he would let it go.

As the boy rode off, I returned to the kitchen.  I thought wistfully of my Ohio childhood and its insects.  I gazed at the fruit flies newly dancing above my peaches and pears. Pulling up a stool, I sat down and stared.  And I was filled, once again, with awe.



Short Story Contest I Entered

I entered a short story contest via NPR.  The prompt appears immediately below, and my entry appears shortly thereafter.  I didn’t win, but I had fun writing the story.  Because of the ending, I chose for the main character, the speaker, to be a male.

THE PROMPT: Round 10 of Three-Minute Fiction, the short story contest from weekends on All Things Considered was based on the following premise: Write a piece of original fiction that can be read in about three minutes (no more than 600 words).  The judge for this round was author Mona Simpson, whose most recent book is My Hollywood. She most recently won a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other prizes. Here’s her twist for Round 10: Write a story in the form of a voice-mail message. “It doesn’t have to be crazy, but it could be crazy. By nature, first person — basically, a soliloquy or a monologue.”


A Perfect Stranger  (By Joan Tornow)

Hi, this is Scott. You don’t know me, but please don’t hit erase!  This is important.  I’m phoning for your daughter, I mean on her behalf.  That’s a funny word, behalf.  She’s fine, don’t worry.  She’s more than fine, she’s amazing.  Sorry, I’m talking too much. She just boarded a plane for Pittsburgh.  There it goes, it’s pulling away from the gate.  I’m waving but I don’t see her.  Before she boarded, she tried to phone you to say she’d be getting in too late to tell you she arrived safely.  Her phone was dead, so she gave me your number to call and explain.

She missed the actual plane.  Well, I mean they’re all actually planes, all the planes here at the airport.  Actual planes.  The first one, she missed.  We laughed about that.  You had to be here.  We were talking in the bar near her gate right next to my gate.  We forgot to watch the clock.  She was telling me why you don’t want her to marry that guy in Pittsburgh.  She told me he thinks she talks too much and sometimes when she’s with him he’ll look up suddenly and say, “What?  Did you say something?” and her heart just folds up.  That’s how she put it; she said her heart just folds up.

She told me to tell you she’s still thinking about what you said.  About not doing something she’ll regret.  She said she probably does talk too much, but I told her she talks just the right amount.  I wish she was still here talking right now.  Crazy, right?  I mean we just met.  I didn’t even get her name, so could you call me with it?  On her behalf?

Oh, I almost forgot.  I think she left her garment bag.  Let me see if the tag is inside or something.  Oh, wow.  White lace.  Just a sec… Just a sec…

Okay, she did say the wedding was tomorrow.  Also that you didn’t want any part of it.  Said she wasn’t sure she wanted any part of it.  That made us choke on our drinks.  Then, she looked me right in the eye and asked, “Should I go through with it?” and I said, “It’s your decision, but here you are telling a perfect stranger you’re not sure you’re in love with him,” and she said, “You’re right.  You are a perfect stranger.”  And we laughed again.  She’s beautiful when she laughs.  You know how her nose wrinkles up?  And then she tucks her hair behind her ear, but it has a mind of its own.  Like her.

Just call me, will you?  That would be great.  Star 69.  I missed my flight, too, so I’ll fly out tomorrow.  But first, can I bring you the dress?  No way to get it to Pittsburgh, is there?  She’ll be a gorgeous bride, but not tomorrow, right?  No!

Forgive me, but if she would have me, well, I mean if we talk some more, your daughter and I, if we can, and we — well, you know — if we continue like we did here at the bar and at the gate, well, what I’m trying to say is, if it did work out, I would always listen to her and not let her heart fold up.  Hope you’re still listening.  I didn’t hear the beep, so I have a question: “May I marry your daughter?” Beep.

The Importance of Ideas

One day I realized that ideas had become as important to me as facts. Ideas were real, almost tangible. I could toss them around in new combinations, even blend them like paints. And, like paints, some were opaque, others translucent. Sometimes I reveled in coming across an already-formulated idea.  Other times, I reveled in a new idea that seemed to spring forth from my subconscious.  An intriguing idea was valuable regardless of its source.

Finding or creating a new idea had suddenly become as exciting as being at a Macy’s sale and finding a just-my-size cashmere sweater — or having a friend show me how to knit one myself!  But an idea was far better than a beloved sweater… an idea could evolve and have a life of its own. It was really not like a sweater, but more like a splendid bird that could articulate patterns emerging from chaos.

Why had it taken me so long to give ideas their due? Facts are certainly important, and  provide the basis of knowledge. But do our schools put too much emphasis on facts while failing to acknowledge the power and relevance of ideas? Why is the discussion of ideas so often reserved for those who have already mastered facts, as in classes for the gifted, or for those in higher education?  Shouldn’t students learn at an early age that it is ideas which shape our concept of which facts are worthy of study? Why had I for so long considered a fact to be a sturdy thing, whereas an idea was merely a phantom — fickle and unreliable? Could it be that my schooling had imparted a fondness for facts because they seemed to hold still like obedient students?

These thoughts come to mind as my colleagues in education discuss the meaning of the word knowledge. At first the word conjures up a static image, an image of facts inventoried and stored in a mind that resembles a warehouse. There is something about an idea that prevents it from being warehoused. It won’t sit obediently like a fact. You can store an idea under “psychology” and it suddenly pops up under “art” or “archeology.” A good idea darts around the mind like Tinkerbelle, leaving diamonds of light in its wake. A bad idea flings itself around the mind like a squirrel trapped in an attic.

As a teacher, I think a key problem is that society at large still operates with an outdated simile of the mind itself. A society still operating on the simile of the mind-as-warehouse will never take kindly to an educational system devoted to ideas. The history of ideas, the creation of ideas, the pooling of ideas – all these are issues which draw me toward education. Ideas are what make facts relevant. Yet young students too rarely come home from school filled with the excitement of ideas. They come home, instead, with lists of facts seemingly detached from any overarching concept. Instead of using their minds to consider and build on ideas, they fret over lists of facts which, in their frequent isolation from meaningful context, are soon forgotten. The evolution of knowledge into wisdom is thereby thwarted.

Ideas worthy of discussion do, thankfully, show up in the curriculum. After all, our country was founded on what might be the best idea ever: people working in a democracy to create and sustain a just society. Our Constitution is filled with procedures on how best to achieve this. And our country is known around the globe for being a sort of giant think-tank – a Petri dish for creativity.  Educators in several countries are currently looking at U.S. schools to see exactly how we are fostering the originality and creativity apparently not thriving in their schools.  So, overall, we are doing a good job in engaging young minds.

Meanwhile, we continue to deepen our understanding of democracy and of the human mind as we work toward the “more perfect union” envisioned by our country’s founders. Despite restrictive curriculum guides and textbooks, wise teachers continue to make room for the discussion of ideas. We should express our appreciation to these teachers. They certainly devote time and attention to the domains of knowledge available to deepen our understanding and enlighten our minds. At the same time, they invite and welcome that most wondrous of things: A newly minted or freshly-applied idea.

Lead Paint, Vodka, and the Human Condition


I was standing in line at the customer service counter at my local grocery store, when the young man in front of me turned his head a couple of times and on the third time addressed me, in halting English, with this question, “Why does company put lead paint on toy?” He nodded toward a customer alert printed in huge type and taped to the customer service window.

“It makes the paint shiny,” I said, sort of rolling my eyes to convey my disapproval of that particular technique.

“But what about common sense?” he asked. He gazed at me intelligently through wire-rimmed glasses. This man appeared young enough to be my grandson, and I would be proud to have a grandson who wasn’t afraid to pose important questions, even to a stranger. Based on his accent, I surmised he might be from Russia. He shrugged his narrow shoulders and shook his head, adding, “Where is common sense?!”

“Common sense can be used in different ways,” I said. “I agree with you that it is common sense to protect children from poison. But pure capitalists believe it is common sense to make a bigger profit, no matter how you do it.” He smiled and nodded, and I was instantly grateful that my time standing in line could be spent in one of my favorite pursuits: discussing political philosophy.

My new acquaintance was now leaning in closer to the alert so as to read the small print describing the toy train being recalled. Meanwhile, I became emboldened as my mind presented me with – alas, it is a passion! – political rhetoric. “That’s why I’m a Democrat,” I announced. Soon he would be a voter, I reflected, and perhaps I could set him on the true and enlightened path. I spoke again: “Democrats believe that capitalism should be regulated in order to protect consumers.” He appeared interested, so I continued: “Republicans often believe in pure unregulated capitalism. They think corporations should do whatever they can to increase their profits. It is up to the consumer to beware. But does it make sense for every mother to conduct a lead paint test on each toy she buys?”

I knew I was leaving out part of the standard justification for a free market economy. Republicans typically are convinced that eventually the market will self-correct. Consumers, they reason, eventually wise up and stop buying from companies that produce dangerous or defective products or companies that pollute the environment. But, of course, Republicans also tend to leave something out from the debate: they leave out the part about all the damage done before consumers recognize problems in products and services. Consumers don’t always have a quick and effective way to vote with their pocketbooks. My main point stands: Democrats favor more regulation, Republicans less.

I’ve learned to make these little speeches with casual nonchalance since moving here to the sedate northwest, more reserved than other places I’ve lived. In Texas and in the Midwest, for example, political debate could even crop up among women standing in line to use a public bathroom. And certainly on park benches, and at post offices and bus stops. While living in Germany, I noticed how strangers freely give unsolicited opinions – even prescribing how a certain unruly child should be handled or when a specific yard should be mowed.

Perhaps this young man’s national origins made him more open to conversations with strangers. He seemed, at the very least, as entertained by our dialogue as was I. The customer service clerk, now just two customers away, glanced in our direction, but I doubted if she could hear us through the Plexiglas. Oh, well. I already knew her politics. Once when I was outside this store, arguing with a petitioner who was collecting signatures to do away with the “death tax,” she had come running up to the petition table. Apparently on her way back inside from a cigarette break, she shouted toward the petitioner, “There’s already a million dollar exemption for crying out loud. Rich people don’t need more breaks!”  Exactly the point I had been making that fine day. She was a political ally and I took comfort in suspecting she would side with me on this lead paint issue. At the very least, she must have been annoyed in recent days to have had her line clogged up with worried mothers returning shiny little trains.

Now it was the man’s turn to make his return at the counter. As he did this, I busied myself with getting my receipts ready.  My turn came next, and the clerk was quick and efficient. Soon I was on my way, sans package of unwanted merchandise. To my surprise, the man had paused.

“You say lead paint make toys shiny?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “In fact, I can tell you something funny about that. Do you know Bill Maher on TV?”


“He’s a satirist and a comedian. He said that it’s ironic that Americans just love things that are bright and shiny. And now, we are literally being poisoned by the stuff that makes thing bright and shiny.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

“That like in my country, we, too, have joke,” he said. “In Russia, we all drink vodka, we love vodka. We have joke that we crazy because we say same thing that make other people sick and die — for us, we Russian, it make us healthy, live forever.”

We both broke into laughter. And for a moment, there we were, an American in her 60s, a Russian immigrant in his 20s, standing in the aisle at the grocery store, laughing our heads off at lead paint, vodka, and the perilous human condition.

Purging Catalogs from Our Mailbox to Combat Global Warming

Yikes! Something had to be done! The torrent of catalogs arriving in our mailbox each week had become almost unbearable. To fight back, I took to tearing off the back covers and systematically phoning each company to request being taken off their mailing list. This task was surprisingly pleasant and gave me a sense of accomplishment. All the customer relations people were friendly, and many said they understood completely. I even had an opportunity to mention global warming to a few of them. Getting rid of catalog subscriptions was akin to pulling crabgrass – spotting those little nuisances and uprooting them one by one.

Of course, almost every customer relations person closed the conversation by saying it could take several months for the catalogs to cease, as many were “already in the pipeline.”

While phoning 32 companies, I alphabetized the list so that when new catalogs arrived, I could quickly assess whether another phone call was indicated. After years of being horrified by the phrase, “Shop till you drop,” I wondered if I had somehow become addicted to shopping without realizing it. I did sometimes head to the mall to spring loose from occasional funks and writer’s blocks. Shopping for things one really needs is, of course, a necessity. But had shopping become not just a means to an end, but an end in itself? Had catalogs become a gateway drug to a shopping addiction?

I took a cold hard look at my list to honestly assess what I had been buying that might have led to this glut of shiny seductive catalogs. I was surprised to discover that I had, indeed, made purchases from about half of them. I had bought a singing teakettle from Crate and Barrel, dog vitamins from Drs. Foster and Smith, boots from Eddie Bauer, and yes, gifts from Harry and David. And there was that cheesecake that I bought for myself! Hardly something I needed!

Moving alphabetically down the list, I recalled buying rose bushes from Jackson and Perkins, a lampshade from Lamp’s Plus, furniture covers from Lillian Vernon, a jacket from L.L. Bean, a car-visor-sun-zapper from Plow and Hearth, bean bag ottomans from Pottery Barn, and storage baskets (for my unfinished essays) from West Elm. And a few other purchases, most of which were not necessities. Meanwhile the catalog subscriptions seemed to metastasize.

I was glad I had called off so many companies before we left for our two week vacation. But, when we returned, the accumulated mail still filled a huge plastic bin, and half the bulk consisted of catalogs – an average of two a day! I ripped off all the back covers, tossing the new harvest into our recycle bin with alacrity … fighting the impulse to check out that new “harp” end table from one company or the bird-motif fleece jacket from another. “Mustn’t be tempted,” was the refrain in my mind as I whisked each enticing offer out of sight.

Fifteen of this new crop were repeat offenders, and I put checkmarks on my list to so indicate. Yes, they had warned me this would happen, but I was going to keep close tabs just in case another phone call was necessary! (I noticed that I had TWO new catalogs from Pottery Barn, a company with, apparently, an unusually long and prolific pipeline.)

I was beginning to wonder if this catalog purge was ever going to pan out. The problem seemed intractable. I had hoped to illustrate how easy it is to simplify one’s life while saving trees and cutting down on fossil-fuel energy used to publish and transport catalogs to our homes — and to subsequently schlep all this paper to recycling centers. When, if ever, could I report success?

And then it happened. Last Thursday, I went to my mailbox, and I found it! A tidy stack of mail, small enough to easily fit in one hand while I held the dog’s leash in the other. Usually, embarking on a walk with my dog, I would rifle through the contents of the mailbox with one hand and then leave it there – the mail, not the hand — until I had walked Toby and taken him back inside. Then, I would return to the mailbox and use both hands to haul the unwieldy mass of flyers, catalogs, and mail into the house — sometimes having to chase down a wayward flyer blowing down the street. But halleluiah! Today’s mail was a beautiful little stack of envelopes. Not a single catalog.

Oh, I know that the battle is not yet won. I know there will be hard days ahead … days when the mailbox again sports an untidy stack of catalogs. Days when I have to phone 15 more companies. (Even a day when I gird up my loins and phone Pottery Barn and ask them just how long their pipeline is, for heaven’s sake.) This is a marathon, not a sprint.

But on Thursday the inside of my mailbox looked like one of those pictures one sees on a holiday card.  The feeling that swept over me was downright nostalgic. It was a Currier and Ives moment. My mail was simply mail. How pretty. How quaint. How simple. And I like to think that somewhere in the Northwest, a branch of a tree has been saved and is absorbing C02 that would otherwise go into the atmosphere – an atmosphere that most decidedly does not need it. And I hope that a little less gasoline will be pumped into delivery and garbage trucks for my dubious benefit. And that, as a result of all this, a cubic inch of ice in Antarctica will remain frozen, as it should be, and not melt away into the rising and troubled sea.