Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Alchemist

Soon after Baldwin's class, I graduated and won (there was competition) an internship to write for the Pioneer Valley Advocate, a weekly newspaper that served the Amherst-Northampton area in western Massachusetts.

Side Note #1
My father was not particularly impressed by this internship.  I don't know why.  He was very anxious about my future. He'd call me up at 8 in the morning to berate me for still being in bed, failing to take into account that I worked nights at the Iron Horse, in Northampton, and did not get to bed before one in the morning.  

The Iron Horse, like my internship, had really been a fantastic experience (that did not particularly impress my father).  In 1987, it was a cozy concert venue, iconic in Northampton, that attracted a great list of performers: Cocoa Taylor, George Winston, Harry Chapin Carpenter, Cecil Taylor, comic Steven Wright...the list is long indeed.

Which leads me to...

Side Note #2

The greatest shared-art performance experience of my life   

Forget Billy Bragg and the other thing I was going to write about.  This is going to be about the Odetta concert.  

Summer, 1987. Odetta did two concerts, and I had tickets for the second.  

I worked at the Iron Horse in the kitchen, as a prep-cook, but I took that night off to be in the audience with my friends for this concert.

I was familiar with Odetta's deep and soulful voice because my father loved her and played her records.  On the rare occasion, in the car, when her voice came over the radio, he would turn it way up  and assume an uncharacteristically blissful expression.  

My father was a person who struggled with a deep and frequently relentless unhappiness.  

Odetta's voice was deep and wide, like a boiling river of sadness, yet undeniably gorgeous.  

Misery brings shame and isolation; but in music, it is nothing more than a cello, or the key of A minor, or Odetta's voice.  

In 1987, the Iron Horse still seated about 85 people, a very intimate space.  Waiting in line for the second concert, the audience from the first concert filed out.  Many of them were shaking their heads. It was not a very good concert, they said.  She didn't seem to be particularly into it, they said.  

My friends and I looked at each other with our characteristic scoffing disgust.  

Had they not heard that Odetta's mother had just died that very day?  

We sat in a booth to the right of the stage.  I sat back on the pew-like bench, bracing myself for grief.

It was a remarkably diverse audience, especially by Northampton standards.  Now that I think about it, there may well have been friends and family of Odetta's there who had traveled in from out of town.  Thre were many African-Americans in the audience. They were not students or graduates or hipsters; they were grown- up men and women.  

They also seemed to braced for grief.  

We all started out a little glassy eyed.

Odetta, very poised, brought the words out slowly.  

The first song I am going to sing for you, in honor of my mother, is "Winnie the Pooh."  

Everyone in the house was crying, daubing cheeks with napkins that smelled like lasagna and jambalaya. 

She embraced our compassion, our tears, our embrace of her. 

I could have stayed there forever.  For all the crying, it was a joyful place.  I had never experienced a pain so exultant in dignity; a pain that bound so many strangers together in sympathy for our shared and frail human condition.

The earlier audience complained that the first concert went short.  

The second concert went long. 

It was an eternal evening, never to be forgotten, never to be repeated.  Lugubrious tides of grief washed across the audience, and back to Odetta.  

And it was okay.  It was more than okay, because Odetta was an artist; and as an artist, she took all of that sadness and transformed it, that night, into something sublime.   

The link below is Odetta singing, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child".

Friday, December 25, 2015

Celebrating James Baldwin

White literary critics described the youthful James Baldwin as an angry young man. But while Baldwin eloquently wrote about anger, anger never clouded the lucidity of his narrative--or the gentleman that was James Baldwin himself.

The brilliance and sensitivity of Baldwin's oratory was recognized in his church community at an early age.  By the time he was fifteen years old, he had begun to fill his father's shoes as a preacher in the pulpit.

But I met James Baldwin at the other end of his life--when he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and I was a student.

James Baldwin taught a class in the African-American Studies department. I don't remember the title of the class, but I remember the thesis: that the history of black people in the United States is American history.  Without understanding African-American history, we cannot really know American history. The black American story reveals an essential truth about this country that, while not flattering, cannot be subtracted or diminished from history without history itself becoming a lie.

Baldwin was a physically diminutive man.  He wore long and wide scarves that he wrapped around his neck several times.  By this time, he had a home in France.  (Had I not known that, I would have inferred a French connection nonetheless.)

He had a gravelly smoker's voice and may have mumbled, or the acoustics in the lecture hall may have been really terrible, or maybe he didn't speak closely into the microphone, or maybe the microphone distorted his voice.  I don't know the very reason, but I had to concentrate intensely to hear and understand what he was saying.

And then there was the fact that he was so incredibly brilliant that I had to think and listen and think and process and think and think to keep up, keep up, keep up...It was kind of exhausting.  Some students who loved him fell asleep in the front row.  Two rows back, I did my best to follow along, but I probably zoned out briefly a hundred times.

His novel, Another Country, was why I loved him.  It was filled with a truth that I had never known before, not really. Jack London's brutally unflinching observations on nature spring to mind as a possible comparison to Baldwin's insight about people and society.  I also think of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as well as, among artists, Van Gogh and Rodin.

In college, Another Country felt like the first book of its kind that I'd read--not because it was about black people per se, but because of how honestly Baldwin depicted the crushing influence of society's hostility or its utter indifference toward his characters. Compelling, yet excruciating; I had never experienced anything that revealed the poisonous nature of contemporary society from such a place of empathy before I read that book.

On the last day of class, a reception was organized in his honor.  Perhaps it was supposed to be a surprise, or maybe lines of communication had broken down somewhere...

We waited for Professor Baldwin for fifteen minutes.  It was not unusual for him to be ten minutes late.

Half an hour went by.  People started to worry.  A search party was assembled and dispatched.

They found Baldwin in the lecture hall, delivering his lecture for the day to a few students who, like Baldwin himself, hadn't heard about the reception.

So, picture it:  There's the great James Baldwin at the lecture, that famously "angry young man," delivering a lecture to a class diminished in size from 250 to not more than twenty-five students.

He probably wasn't feeling that good to begin with.  Maybe he was tired and achy. But he wasn't lecturing vitriolic about the 200-plus kids who hadn't bothered to show up for his last class that day. He wasn't wagging his finger and saying how terribly irresponsible and thoughtless they all were.

No, he was just teaching.

When Baldwin arrived at the reception, the first thing he did was apologize to everyone in the room for being an hour late.

I was amazed by his generosity and modesty.  James Baldwin had every right to be irritable--even outraged. Communication clearly had broken down somewhere.  His time had been wasted.  Even the lecture he had been faithfully delivering was interrupted and terminated for this event.

And he looked tired.  But he also looked pleased. And he was not irritable at all.

That's when we fell upon him like a pack of sycophants.

There was one student among us whom I detested.  He was such a pompous ass.  His name was not, but was equivalent to, Geoffrey Chaucer, and he acted as if he was Geoffrey Chaucer.

Baldwin had recently published a collection of essays under the title, The Price of the Ticket.  

Spoiler alert: What is the price of the ticket for black people to be citizens in this country?  The price of that ticket is too high.

Cut now to Geoffrey Chaucer attacking James Baldwin with a pen: Would you sign my book? And in it, would you please say...

OMFG, Geoffrey Chaucer was dictating to James Baldwin!!!  I heard it from just a few feet away.  I had positioned myself very carefully so that I wouldn't be mistakenly associated with Chaucer, who was now dictating to the great man: When the price of the ticket is not enough.

Not enough?!  Are you kidding me, Geoffrey Chaucer?  OMG. WTF? (I was a very angry young woman at that moment. I could have throttled Chaucer within an inch of his life, if he weren't so damn big.)

Baldwin glanced up in search of a face--any face that would look back at him with appropriate incredulity.

It was my face that Baldwin saw--a handy mirror of horrified incredulity and scoffing disgust!  (Mine was the horrified incredulity and scoffing disgust; Baldwin's was bemused incredulity.)

I could tell that Baldwin was sick.  He didn't look well. He had never been a handsome man, but he looked especially drawn and frail in 1987.  I often managed to be close by when he was entering the building.  (We were both typically a little late.)  In addition to his friends and admirers, there always seemed to be a question hanging around Baldwin: Did he have the energy to teach today?

I wanted to tell him that I loved him. I didn't think I would have the opportunity again to tell him. I wasn't the only one who wanted to express love to him. Other students approached, sat down across from him, talked a bit about this or that, and concluded by saying how much he meant to them.

I was shy, so I waited until every single person had left the room except for Baldwin. I had already talked with him briefly about Another Country.  I told him how painfully honest I had found it, and how incredibly difficult I imagined it must have been for him to write it. He admitted that it was; he had written it during a time when he found himself at the very edge from which many people (writers and non-writers alike) don't return.  But Baldwin did return. He returned with that book.

I was surprised how quickly the library in the African-American Studies Department, where the reception had been held, now emptied. Many had spoken with Baldwin, but few had talked for long. Everyone had taken turns, politely. Despite how unassuming Baldwin was, both physically, and in his gentle qualities, still I think we were all (except for Geoffrey Chaucer) properly humbled. We understood the value of Baldwin's time and his words; and perhaps, too, there is something about genius, however sweet, however gentle, that is a little bit overwhelming for the rest of us.

But I wanted to tell him that I loved him, and there he was now sitting in a chair by the window with an empty chair across from him. He was waiting for his ride.

I went over to him and smiled. We were acquainted now, thanks to Chaucer's gaff and our conversation about Another Country.  I think he realized I meant no harm.

I just want to tell you I love you.  

I think he reached out his hand. I think I kissed him on the cheek. I know for sure I promptly burst into gulping tears and beat a hasty retreat into the Women's Room, where I continued to cry very loudly for quite a long time.

But I do remember distinctly that as I hastened out of the library, I heard Baldwin behind me say, You're going to be okay, Baby.

It was cancer of the stomach. That was late spring. He died that summer.

What did he mean, I was going to be okay?

For years, I thought he meant me.

But now, I realize that he meant that we would be okay without him, because he was leaving behind a body of work--a legacy--that was everything he had to say and everything he had to give and most of what we needed to light the way.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Are You Susan B. Anthony or the Other One?

I have no memory of my mother vacuuming.

I remember her folding laundry, and the smell and sound of clothes churning and roasting in the coin-operated machines at the laundromat.

I remember when she cooked, because it didn't happen very often.  She made a pork-chop thing with lemons three or four times; eggplant parmesan a few times; and, for two or three Thanksgivings meals, lasagna.

I bring this up not to suggest anything about my childhood one way or the other.  I was thinking about from the point of view of being a grown-up...Specifically, of being a wife and a mother who vacuums frequently and cooks constantly, with regular mid-week breaks at Burger King or Qdoba.

My son will have loads of memories of his mother in the kitchen.   He will be doing his homework, and I will be cooking; or he will be practicing piano, and I will cooking; or he will be playing on his X-box, and I will be cooking.

So, there's a variance, a discrepancy, a deviation, a divergence...between my adult life and my mother's.   I'm trying to figure out why.

My mom is a feminist, but so am I.  I used to think that she and her cohort were the first feminists ever, before I realized Simone de Beauvoir's THE SECOND SEX had been published 10 years before Betty Friedan's THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE.

Somehow, I thought that as a feminist, my mom's generation would win all these rights and privileges for women and that I would be the beneficiary.

But, I still wasn't paid nearly as well as my male counterparts at work.

I still experienced sexual harassment as a teenager and young woman.

And somewhere along the way, how the hell this happened I don't now, I became the primary housekeeper and cook in my family.

My mom still doesn't vacuum or cook.  They pay a lady to do clean.  (Note: A woman is still cleaning the house, but at least she's getting paid for it.)

My mom doesn't cook or clean and she rarely shops for clothes.

What does she do with all of that time?

She reads.  She reads the New York Times, the local paper, the New Yorker, and a variety of books, including very good books, pretty good books, and murder mysteries.  Now and then she'll reads something enormously taxing, like Proust or Bleak House, just to prove she can.

My mother lives with women.  I live with men.

My mom has no pets.  I have at least ten.

I wasn't supposed to be Betty Crocker.   I prefer Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Susan B. Anthony said she never wanted to get married or have a family and become a complete drudge.  She  didn't.  She ran around the country free and unfettered, demanding that women get the vote.

Elizabeth Cadish Stanton stayed home and cooked and cleaned; when she got a moment, she sat down at the kitchen table and hammered out a pamphlet or a speech.

We're like them, my mom and me; Mom visits her friends all over the country, and finishes the New York Times; I stay home, and cook and clean, and in my spare time, I write.

What if, instead of being the beneficiary of the feminist movement,  I had been among the first American feminists..?  What if I had stopped wearing make-up and shaving my legs?  What if I had read more dangerous books...(Okay, to be honest, I've read quite a few dangerous books...more than my share.)  But what if I had marched in the streets for equal rights and equal pay?  What if, instead of a book club, I belonged to a women's group intent on mutual empowerment and consciousness raising?  

Would that make me more free?


Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Christmas Letter to Save the World

Dear Friends and Family:

Even when the world seems to be spiraling out of control--like now--we are called upon to carry on with our daily chores and duties.  In my family, we celebrate Christmas and New Years, so we (I) am shopping for presents and reaching out to loved ones in the spirit of good cheer.

As citizens of a great country, we should be able to do many things simultaneously.  Save the planet from overheating.  Save ourselves from terrorist plots.  Stop shooting each other.  Buy more Christmas presents.  Write and mail out holiday cards.

This post attempts to do all of these things at once. So, in no particular order...


Of course, all lives matter.  But to reject the term BLACK LIVES MATTER is a way of continuing to deny the scourge of racism and the truth of what we are seeing.  Over and over, what we now see, (thank you, Steve Jobs), insists that we recognize racism as a problem in this country that demands a remedy.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi answers the same question with regard to feminism.  Why should I say I am a feminist, rather than a humanist?

"...To choose to use the vague expression'human rights,'" Adichi says, in an interview with NPR, "is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender...The not about being human, but specifically about being a female human."


2015 marked our second summer and third winter on the farm.  We now have three horses, three dogs, and an appalling number of cats (more than 3 and fewer than 30).

Frankly, asking how many cats a person has is kind of a rude question.

Until June, we had an exchange student with us for the academic year.  He was from France, and he was with us in January during the attacks on Paris.  He was not in Paris, thankfully, for the November attacks on Paris.


First of all, let me come right out and tell you that my father, a Jewish-identified atheist, married a doctor from Kashmir in the 1980s, when he converted to Islam as a conciliatory gesture toward her family.  So, technically, my father was a Moslem, although he was never observant and inevitably lapsed into his default position of being a Jewish-identified atheist.

I remember asking my father if I was Jewish.  I never went to temple, unless it was for a funeral or a wedding.  I didn't have a bat mitzvah.  In fact, my father attended a Presbyterian church when he was a child, and kept, on his bureau, in a manly jewelry case, a small tarnished medallion in recognition of his perfect attendance at the Presbyterian Sunday school.

What did my father say?  He said, "You're Jewish enough for the SS."

The SS, of course, was the Nazi Schutzstaffel, the"protective squadron" in charge of rounding up  Jews, homosexuals, and other misfits to be sent to the concentration camps.

Moreover, in the interest of full disclosure, there is the matter of my family name, Barmack.

In the series WEST WING, (Season 4, Episode 23, I'm pretty sure), President Bartlett rattles off a list of names of suspected terrorists.  Among them, loud and clear: "Barmack."  (In the script, it is spelled Barmak.)

Family lore has it that the name Barmack comes from the once-great-and-powerful Barmakid family of Persia.  It links us to the treacherous character of Jafar, in Disney's Aladdin, and specifically to the Jafar al-Barmaki of Persian history, the inspiration for a few characters in several stories in The Arabian Nights.

Or, perhaps, the name Barmack simply connects us to the rabbi in the Ukrainian village from which we came (to New York City).   We were a Jewish family (picture Fiddler on the Roof) who booked passage to New York at the turn of the previous century--fleeing, most likely, the Russian pogroms.

To some extent, because of my name and associations, I have a personal stake in how my country decides to treat Moslems.

Jews had a personal stake in how this country decided to treat Jewish refugees attempting to escape from Nazi Germany.  In 1938, the U.S. had strict immigration quotas and visa requirements that supposedly prevented it from choosing to save the 900 or so Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on a ship, the S.S. St. Louis.  They were all sent back to Nazi Germany and exterminated.

Which is more or less what will happen to the Syrian refugees who have to go back to Syria.

You can see the bind I'm in.  On the one hand, I am by name and affiliation a possible person of interest, should everyone in the U.S. with Islamic affiliations be required to register, or be questioned by a fortified FBI with broad discretionary privileges and little or no accountability.  .

I think it would be really nice if everyone had to be a little bit worried about what would happen to them if they could be broadly construed as having Moslem affiliations...

Because it's one thing to point a finger at a group of people with whom one has no affiliation.  It is very different if you know that your destiny may be attached to theirs in some way...

We ought to be able to empathize with one another as human beings, regardless of our differences, but  it's difficult when those differences seem profound.  And it's even harder when we are viewing them through a filter of fear.

But do try, if you can, to imagine that your late father was a Jewish-identified atheist Moslem.

Or, if that proves impossible, try to imagine that you have a surname that is to this day linked to the living memory of a notorious family in Baghdad.


I was shocked that one of the St. Bernardino terrorists was in touch with ISIS on Facebook.  I don't think ISIS should be entitled to a Facebook page.  Liberty-shmiberty.

I think social media privacy needs to be compromised in the same way that all of our privacy is compromised at the airport when we go through security.  There are people somewhere off-site scanning  pictures of us... naked...all of us bowing to authority, trying to make a flight...

I don't care if some faceless third party looks over everything I put on social media.  They should--but not just my stuff--everyone's stuff.  And they should be sensitive to the possibility of false identities and coded messages.  I know this isn't very libertarian, but we have to make compromises somewhere, and we already have a precedent at airport security, have we not?  Naked is naked.

They shouldn't comment, though, the way FB and Google does...Like, with the advertisements that  suggest that maybe you need ointment for the bags under your eyes, or yoga pants.  I hate their tacit commentary.  I wouldn't want FB surveillance making comments like that.  They should be like the people looking at the naked people--without prejudice or interest, unless we're concealing a weapon.


Shall, not should, please.

"We shall save the planet."  That means we must do it.

"We should save the planet."  That means we'll take the suggestion under advisement.

Saving the planet should be compulsory.  It shall be compulsory.


We went to Hawaii in 2015 during the kids' spring break.  Had a marvelous time.  Loved seeing  old friends.  Hope to go again before another 15 years elapse.


We wish you a healthy and joyful 2016.