The Things They Carried

So. Pandemic reading. I have been familiar with Mr. O’Brien’s writing for decades but somehow this one escaped me. It is not long, but it is a not a read straight through book. It is powerful, moving, scary, heartbreaking. It took me some time to get all the way through.

This book is a series of stories with thematic and character continuity throughout. It is autobiographical but doesn’t read as autobiography in every way, it reads as story populated by the author and the other characters. That those characters may well have been real in the author’s life doesn’t really enter into the reader’s consciousness until the author adds a personal narrative. This happens with some regularity throughout the stories but doesn’t negate their power as story. The author actually talks, in the story, about the power of story.

Although this is overall an amazing work, what held me most is the author’s grasp of imagery. His descriptive passages are compelling, almost mesmerizing whether he is describing something so awful that it is unimaginable or something beautiful.

“He would’ve explained how it was still raining, and how the clouds were pasted to the field, and how the mortar rounds seemed to come right out of the clouds. Everything was black and wet. The field just exploded. Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into the slime and cover up and wait.”

Maybe this isn’t the best example but it goes on to describe what it is like to sink into a field of shit completely so I thought I would stop there. His images are often of the horrors of war. In another gruesome passage he describes working in a pig slaughterhouse in meticulous detail. Some of the best are when he describes feelings, what is happening to the person, or himself, internally. In one particularly moving passage he describes the imagined life and feelings of a young Vietnamese man who has been killed and is lying in the path in front of them.

“He had no stomach for violence. He loved mathematics. His eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, and at school the boys sometimes teased him about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers, and on the playground they mimicked a woman’s walk and made fun of his smooth skin and his love for mathematics.”

Reading this, you forget that he is looking at a destroyed corpse in the path, imagining the life of the dead man. This is all part of the internal life of the author/narrator/character described objectively but felt subjectively.

I find it hard to describe here the power of Mr. O’Brien’s writing. Some of it has to do with the subject matter, the Vietnam war. Much of it has to do with the intensity of emotion with which he writes. A very great deal of it has to do with his control over his writing and imagery. Every word is careful and has purpose and intention. Reading this little book is a master class in writing.

Read it.

Snakes Don’t Wear Sparkles

So, here I am living in a swamp. I grew up in the northeast where the creatures that roam are very different. Sure, there are snakes and frogs and spiders, but they seem to keep to themselves. They both have bear and deer and raccoons and squirrels and the like. But they seem to behave differently. Here in the swamp called Florida the creatures have no respect for the humans that have taken over their habitat. Imagine that.

Here, the snakes languish, sunning themselves on the warm concrete sidewalks, occasionally biting a curious dog or cat on the nose. Here, the deer eat my rose bushes daily – taking all the beautiful blooms, leaving bare snipped stems that I first believed was a neighbor’s work. I am told that they also eat geraniums but I don’t have any that are accessible for them. The frogs make so much noise during the rainy season that it can keep you wide awake if you can’t accept it as background music. For me this is especially true as I have a wetland next door to my home and the frogs are incessant. It is the summer choir.

Every once in a while a black snake will find its way onto my lanai or front porch. I should say here that my son and I are both snake phobic. I was at work one day when I received a text that said “Mom, I sacrificed the cat.” This seemed improbable to me so I called him immediately. There were two rat snakes in my lanai and my son told me he liked the dog too much to use him to chase them off – wise choice. So he put the cat out to shoo them away. This, of course, did not work. My fat black cat was soundly sleeping next to the snakes. For next time, a broom. As an aside, my best friend found a coral snake in her pool once, eek. And I have learned the behavioral differences between rat snakes and black racers, who look the same. This is knowledge I could easily have done without.

The other night I inadvertently dropped a bookmark with a tail of sparkly beads attached. No, I did not buy it – it was a gift. All of a sudden my daughter in law gave a scream/squeak. Turning, I asked her what was wrong.  “There’s a snake” she said.  I looked down at the bookmark and burst out laughing. Snakes don’t wear sparkles, I said.

The spiders here are the stuff of science fiction. If you are not bitten by a brown recluse and have a chunk of your body cut away, then you will be terrified by the huge wolf and banana spiders that are the size of the back of my hand. I am also spider phobic, sad I know. And they always seem to appear when I am least able to deal, in the bathroom, in bed, etc. And the tiny spiders are everywhere. When I walk out my front door I almost always walk through a thin, unseen line of spider silk.

When I garden, I almost always are bitten by some unseen, unnamed and vicious little insect. I grew tomatoes this spring and while I got a few, the plants were overwhelmed by some mysterious bug/fungus. I recall my father’s constant battle with his tomato plants and now I can empathize.

The lizards are everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. They are underfoot on my front walk, eating my cucumber plants, on my pool screen. Occasionally in the house and sometimes half eaten as a result of the Fat Kitty hunting just a little – he grows lazier by the year. They are often clinging to my windshield when I drive away.

And if you have never lived through the time of lovebugs you really haven’t lived. They are insidious, everywhere. They coat your car, smash by the hundreds on your windshield, fly into your face with no respect at all.

So here we are in the swamp. The tradeoffs – the sun is shining, the beach is close (watch out for sharks), the flowers are abundantly in bloom, there is the occasional onshore breeze, life is a bit slower and snakes don’t wear sparkles.

Cookies Like Memory

He cut the grass, and then it rained. And then the sun came out and the blazing heat resumed. It smelled just like my grandmother’s house during our vacations in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My grandmother lived in Miami Beach.  I have lived in Florida for almost 15 years, but it has never smelled like Florida to me until that very moment.

Every summer we would go to sleep-away summer camp in Vermont, as the children of a working divorced mom. After that we always went to our Grandma Jennie’s house in Miami Beach for a week or two.

My grandmother made these amazing cookies, crunchy and not too sweet, that she kept in a hall pantry closet and doled out two at a time to my brother and me. For special occasions she made what our family calls the “cherry cookies”, very labor intensive and very yummy. I make both sometimes, generally as a gift for someone in the family as much as a gift for myself. She always made them in the shape of our initials, T for me and P for my brother. I continue that tradition, it makes them taste more like memory. I have never quite duplicated how they tasted when she made them. Like New York bagels, I think it is the water. Maybe just the taste of her fingers on the dough.

On those gloriously free summer days in the Florida heat we would go out in the afternoon sun showers and dance on the lawn in our white cotton 1950’s underwear. We would walk every day and in the little neighborhood park we would stand at the flagpole where she taught us to pledge allegiance with our grubby  hands over our hearts. We would stop at the crest of a walking bridge over a canal and look for dolphins and rainbows. We would go down to the sea and she would hold us on her lap in the ocean, bouncing with the waves, and she would sing to us “By the Sea”. That melody still comes to me occasionally unbidden.

My grandmother was an amazing woman. She lived to be over 100 years old, retaining her faculties and her home well into her nineties. When her neighborhood became predominantly Cuban, she went to the local senior center and learned Spanish so she could talk to them. When she did not feel safe to drive, she walked about four miles to groceries and back. She was extraordinarily self-sufficient, her husband having died one summer in his sleep when we were little and we were there. I went to Miami Beach once in my free wheeling hippie days with a ridiculously tall boyfriend with ridiculously long hair. It was Christmas time, although I don’t recall that she celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas, and we just turned up at her door. We were welcome, of course, because with Jennie you never ever judged a book by it’s cover.

I have long though of her as the single most influential woman that has been in my life. Not to negate my mother’s influence, of course. And I deeply regret that in my unconscious twenties and thirties and my insanely busy forties I did not find the time or energy to be more in touch with her. Life lessons, learned too late and generally unheeded by the young coming behind me.

It is useless to regret but some regrets are unavoidable, they teach us not to make the same mistakes again. But the lessons, they are to be cherished and taken to heart. This amazing woman had standards of behavior that were clear and important, but she also accepted everyone for exactly who they were regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, appearance or anything else that might make them different.

In that moment when my lawn smelled like Florida at my Grandma’s house so long ago, I hoped that I had become half the woman she was. It is good that the bar is set high.

It Matters

These days racism seems to have emerged more overtly  in the public consciousness both in the instance and in the outrage. It is heartbreaking but complicated.

Racism never left us in this country, it just was disguised in the name of correctness for a time. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. But in a peculiar and sad way the return of overt racism and it’s concomitant behaviors is a good thing. This comes under the category of the devil you know is easier to fight than the devil you don’t. Not that racist behavior is ever a good thing.

And while outrage is good and appropriate, social media outrage unaccompanied by action, doesn’t do anyone much good other than to shine a light. For some of us knowing what to do other than sympathize and voice our outrage is perplexing and difficult.

I just finished reading the autobiography of Albert Woodfox, a story of one of the most egregious miscarriages of our “justice” system that I know of; and I was a public defender for a good long time. Albert Woodfox was wrongly and improperly convicted, slandered and tortured and was kept in solitary confinement conditions for forty years. His memoir is full of the injustices done to him and many others, but it is also filled with grace and courage and compassion for others. Albert Woodfox is one of my personal heroes and this book should be required reading for everyone. Louisana, it’s congress people, judges, attorneys and most especially the former governor, Bobby Jindal, should forever hang their heads in shame.

Woodfox talks not only about the system and the injustices it did him,  but he talks about racism in rational and meaningful terms. He talks about the vilification of the Black Panther Party that was founded to do good, not violence. Woodfox preached constant non-violence to all those he was incarcerated with. His strong compassionate voice serves to set right many of the notions that were born in the sixties when striking workers held up signs that said “I am a Man” and continue today when movements like Black Lives Matter are vilified as themselves racist. One might ask why anyone in this country and this age should have to identify that they are human and worthy.

And if you think that inequities of race don’t continue to exist in our criminal justice system, look at the demographic statistics. Even more, read this book and see what the state invested in continuing to incarcerate an elderly innocent black man. And understand that it was not until 2016 after eighteen years of court dates, disappointments and many lawyers and supporters efforts, that he walked out of prison. And he did not walk out acknowledged as an innocent man. He pled nolo contendre prior to a third trial that would clearly again be unfair. And even as he chose freedom, he agonized that he had sacrificed his integrity by doing so.

Albert Woodfox is a man of unparalleled ntegrity, courage and grace. I wish to live with a fraction of that. And so, when you don’t know what to do when faced with racism, speak up even if it seems dangerous; take out your phone and record it; be counted; take action.

You have a voice, use it.

Remember When

Pandemic singing

Remember when you were a pre-teen, or a teenager, and conversations revolved around just a very few things. How much you disliked (not really) your parents, or at least their rules. How you looked; hair, clothes, makeup, etc. Music, for me it was the time of the Beatles and all the other bands that came along as all the musical rules were broken. And it was about boys, at least for some of us, not so much for me.

I was not a popular girl, I didn’t have a clique, I was not thin or pretty. I was chubby and wore braces. At most schools – I changed schools a lot – I had one friend. Nobody thought I was funny or particularly smart and I didn’t work hard enough to prove them wrong. I started smoking young to try to be cool. It was the sixties after all, everybody smoked. It was cigarettes that gave me a blues voice, very different now.

I skipped a couple of grades and had a late in the year birthday so from junior high school on I was always much younger than those I went to class with. I don’t really remember ever dating in the traditional sense. I remember my first “boyfriend”, a bass player from Queens, when I was in tenth grade – I was 14-15. This only meant that we played music, hung out and smoked pot, there was no real dating involved. It did start a long line of crushes on musicians though, not sure I have outgrown that yet.

From that time on it was always in a pack. It was hippies, free love, the grateful dead, playing music and a tribe. And I never really gave any thought to what I might want in a partner, even though the subject comes up periodically amongst women and girls. I have been married three times and still, until recently, never actively or consciously thought about what I might want in a partner. I note here that I am partnerless and generally think I will remain that way. But it is interesting to think about the what ifs in life every now and again.

At this advanced time of life here is what I would wish for in my imaginary prince charming: someone who notices that I am wearing two different earrings, someone who notices when I get a haircut, someone who doesn’t mind if I sing all the time (preferably someone who can play music with me), someone who will travel the world with me and hold my hand all the time, someone who reads, someone who can fix things, someone who will cook for me every now and then, someone who will hold my feet on his lap along with the cat. Most important, someone who sees me and doesn’t mind me being who I am. Too much to ask I think, that’s why it is imaginary.