Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hooray! It's September!

Unabashedly, I love fall the most. Summer is too much like a teenager, demanding time spent at parties, sweating and glistening in the sun, worried it will all end too soon. Autumn, the fall comes, and I can breathe. Unfortunately, not necessarily so in Los Angeles, as this is when the fire season starts. But the idea is there, the season of sweaters and boots and tromping through leaves. Shorter days that lead to more lamp-light and book-reading and lingering over long dinners with wine. It invites contemplation more than its sister of sunny summer, and September always reminds me that it's here.

The Great Black Heron

Since I stroll in the woods more often
than on this frequented path, it's usually
trees I observe; but among fellow humans
what I like best is to see an old woman
fishing alone at the end of a jetty,
hours on end, plainly content.
The Russians mushroom-hunting after a rain trail after themselves a world of red sarafans,
nightingales, samovars, stoves to sleep on
(though without doubt those are not
what they can remember). Vietnamese families fishing or simply sitting as close as they can
to the water, make me recall that lake in Hanoi
in the amber light, our first, jet-lagged evening,
peace in the war we had come to witness.
This woman engaged in her pleasure evokes
an entire culture, tenacious field-flower
growing itself among the rows of cotton
in red-earth country, under the feet
of mules and masters. I see her
a barefoot child by a muddy river
learning her skill with the pole. What battles
has she survived, what labors?
She's gathered up all the time in the world
--nothing else--and waits for scanty trophies,
complete in herself as a heron.

- by Denise Levertov

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Life Lessons from Mary the (Slow) Banker

Maybe not everybody should get to live their dream of being a bank teller, I thought, watching Mary.

Mary finally gave up on what I can only assume is a "control, alt, delete" function to re-start her machines so that I could swipe my debit card, and instead slowly typed my bank account and ID into her computer. I watched every, single, slow, deliberate keystroke, worried that my paycheck might not actually be entered into the correct account. I couldn't hear more than half of her mumbled words, as apparently the microphone in her booth didn't work either. While describing in detail every move she was making, she paused and looked at my hand, then looked up into my eyes to tell me what a pretty ring I was wearing. Thank you, Mary, I said, looking at her name-tag that said, Service Starts with Me: Mary.

I was in a rush, trying to make it to work on time, and had driven out of my way to the bank with a parking lot. To make life easier.

She continued to gaze at my ring. How much did you pay for it, she asked? Slow AND tacky, I thought, while smiling and saying, hmm... I don't remember exactly. 20 or 25 dollars? Oh, no, said Mary, now just gripping my receipt tightly in her hand while staring at my ring. I think that's agate, she said. That must me more than 20 dollars. I don't know, I said, wondering if my hand would fit under the plexi-glass to grab my receipt and parking ticket so I could make a run for it. And silver! she exclaimed.

I'd have to use the hand without the ring, so she couldn't grab hold of it to inspect it further.

I got a good deal, I said brightly, wondering how much the parking attendant would charge if I left without my validated ticket. Well, said Mary. Looking down at her own rings, she realized she was still in possession of my receipt, and proceeded to search her desk area for a little tube, that she slowly aligned with the top of my receipt, and pushing down firmly and carefully, added a smiley face to the top of my bank record. She smiled up at me, and then, with a slightly trembling hand, signed her name above the smiley stamp.

Pushing that and the parking ticket through the opening at the bottom of the window, she held her fingers on them a bit, as I tugged at them, the lower half of my body already angled toward my escape. Thank you for coming today! Mary said, barely legible through the think glass. There's coffee and candy for you...

THANK YOU MARY. I'm fine, I just have to get to work. She released my receipts, and I was gone, breezing past the free candy bowl and coffee area.

I was a few minutes late to work, and when I told my Mary story to a colleague, she said she often avoids going to Mary's teller window if she's in a rush. I can just picture it, a whole line of regulars ignoring the lighted arrow telling them to step right up to bank with Mary.

Thinking back on it, I realize Mary may have been teaching me a lesson. Not the one I immediately thought of (how not everyone is meant to be an astronaut or bank teller), but how I can respond in a situation that is not working out to please me. All Mary wanted to do was connect, to compliment me on the steal of a pretty ring I'd found, to wish me a happy day filled with smiley-faces, free hard candy and coffee. And all I could think of was my schedule, how, since I was not technically punching a clock, I felt Mary was infringing on MY time.

"'Happiness that lingers is not the face the world turns to you," she said. 'It is the face you turn to the world.'" (Sight Hound, by Pam Houston)

Sigh. Alright. I'm coming for you Mary, have your smiley stamp ready.

Happy smiling dog, originally uploaded by LivornoQueen.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Stories Our Leaders Tell Us Matter

"The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to 'expect' stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

"Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and 'news stories' that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. ... the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables."

In "What Happened to Obama's Passion?" an opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" continues, setting the stage of Obama's inauguration in the midst of an economy spinning downward, a month in which three-quarters of a million people had lost their jobs. Westen offers a story that President Obama could have shared with the American people on his inauguration into office. One that would show he understood the suffering of the majority of the population, one that said "he understood what they were feeling, and that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. ... A story isn't a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. ...

"And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it."

Westen continues to tell the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that when Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, "he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy."

Yet, instead of looking deeply at that history, Obama "chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it."

Westen describes Obama's half-stimulus package, and that, to the average American, "who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, stick."

I connect so deeply to this idea of story-telling, that we need to reclaim our narrative as a nation. Read the entire (beautifully written) piece here.

(Image from NYT)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Not Alone... but Overwhelmed

Removing the bright blue wrapper from yesterday's New York Times, I saw the image of a starving child in Somalia. I'm thankful for the Times for printing this front page story to raise awareness about the famine, but it's hard to start the morning with tears and, reading the article about the insurgents blocking aid programs from providing food and water, a feeling of total helplessness.

And then to my job, where I'm surfing food blogs to find chefs for a reality show. The paradox of photos of the morning's photo of a child dying from malnutrition juxtaposed with gorgeous photos of specialty dishes is not lost on me. I just had a conversation with a friend from Holland, talking about the sickness of greed that has infected the first world, and particularly the U.S. To have SO much wealth concentrated in such small areas, while vast swaths of humanity are suffering, where tens of thousands of Somalis are already dead, and more than 500,000 children are on the brink of dying, is sickness. It's unbearable, and I don't know what to do.

So I went for a walk after work, and via Pandora on my phone, Michael Franti sang to me.

"I'm Not Alone" is not an answer, but it's something that keeps my spirits up, and keeps me asking how. How can we actively show others that they are not alone? How can we change the course of history, NOW? How can we get food to these starving children, NOW. How?

And I'm reminded of the work Amani is doing in the Congo, reminded that these women and children and families are not alone — that good work is being done.

From Nabirugu*, one of the women in the sewing collective that is supported by your donations.

"My name is Nabirugu*. I am 21 years old. I have no father. I joined the ABFEK centre 10 months ago and today I am ready to go and start my own sewing workshop based on the skills I have [learned]. Today I am able to measure,cut fabrics and join them. I can now make dresses, skirts, a pair of shorts, pants, and blouses. Isn’t this progress? I learned to use sewing equipments in this centre, before that time I had never used a pair of scissors to cut fabrics or a tape measure. I am very proud of my training in this centre. Now I have hope and confidence. I hope for success in my life. If I succeed to get my own sewing machine, I can start a small business such as making school pupils uniforms,make [outfits] from fabrics when there is a wedding ceremony, make my own clothes without paying as I was doing before. We need to start learning embroidery and then people will not be taking their fabrics to Bukavu if they need embroidery. I am very happy and I thank everyone who has donated his money to provide us with the sewing equipment we are using in this centre."

We're not alone.

Tell Congress to help Somalia NOW.  (Via the International Rescue Committee)

(*Names are changed to protect the identity of women in the workshops.)