Thursday, June 2, 2011

On E.B. White

Earlier this week, C forwarded me an essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education about E.B. White’s writing: in particular, about his relationship with nature and the anthropomorphism of his animal characters. The author, Michael Sims, recalled White’s description of a Boston terrier from One Man’s Meat, so I pulled out my copy of that book to find the essay, titled “A Boston Terrier.” White translates for his dog:

“I’m in love,” he would scream. (He would scream just like a hurt child.) “I’m in love, and I’m going crazy.”

What follows is a hilarious description of his dog's trials and tribulations as he pursues the object of his affection: a little Scotty dog who lived down the road. White is a keen observer, but that can be said of almost any great author. He’s deeply empathic, but that adjective also gets thrown around a lot where good writing is concerned. He attributes human emotions to non-human subjects, namely animals, but other skilled authors do this as well. What I think sets him apart from most writers is his knack for observing and empathizing with a dog’s dogginess--the “brown vestigial bumps” that are the remains of an old dog’s teeth, and “awful” breath to go along with them, the dachsund that “quivers like an aspen” as he sleeps--while also attributing human qualities to the animals that resonate perfectly with behavior we’ve seen. It’s that special ability of a very few authors to create an image, description, character, that seems as familiar to us as if it were drawn right from our lives.

My sisters and I read Charlotte’s Web growing up, loved it; watched the movie, loved it. I can still picture the Garth Williams cover art, with the little girl Fern holding Wilbur the pig, and Charlotte dangling down at Fern’s eye level by a thread. Charlotte’s Web accomplishes the amazing feat of getting children to love, really adore, an insect that most of them probably hate/fear/avoid in every day life. I used to cry every time we got to the wrenching scene when Charlotte says goodbye to Wilbur, her voice growing faint as she nears death. Then I would relish the description of Charlotte’s little spiderlings floating away on filaments of web to find their own homes. Sims mentions that White carefully researched the life cycle and habits of spiders before writing about Charlotte, and through these discoveries he realized “that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows.”

White, like Gerald Durrell (another favorite author of mine), spent many hours as a child studying animals and plants on his family’s land in upstate New York. He hid away in the large barn with birds, dogs, rabbits, horses....rats, too (inspiration for the marvelous character Templeton). He was also a voracious reader of contemporary naturalists, and expanded upon the knowledge he gleaned from hours of observation. Durrell too

read contemporary science books, and was especially inspired by Jean Henri Fabre, a French naturalist who was most noted for his work in entomology. As young readers, both White and Durrell were drawn to writers who wrote animated prose about nature, eschewing the dry academic tone that that most scientists used. Fabre recognized that his writing lacked the “solemnity” and “dryness” that connoted truth for many people, because he felt truth could better be served with more accessible, engaging writing.

Fortunately for their readers, both White and Durrell took this idea and ran with it, but in very different directions. White’s nonfiction essays about life on the farm in coastal Maine delighted countless city readers of the New Yorker with their stories about dogs, cattle, fence building, chicken raising, and all manner of quotidian concerns in a small, rural town. But his fiction, and particularly what he wrote for children, has had the greatest impact, I think.

One Man’s Meat is a product of its time, as it was meant to be. Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and the The Trumpet of the Swan, on the other hand, transcend the times in which they were written. They feel as present now as they probably did 40 or more years ago when they were first released. In each of those books, White creates wonderfully unique animal characters that live with humans and that are imbued with human abilities, concerns, interests, and emotions. Louis the swan doesn’t have a voice, so he learns to write on a slate and play the trumpet in order to communicate. Wilbur lives with farmers who consider him to be a potential source of revenue or food, so his spider friend protects him by writing positive messages about him in her web. Stuart the marvelous mouse is the son of humans and lives, in great style, like a human AND a mouse.

Stuart Little came out in 1945, and family lore says that my grandmother started reading it to my mother in the early fifties while she was pregnant with her third child. I say she started reading it because as soon as she realized that Stuart Little, the mouse, was born to human parents, she allegedly stopped reading it, so alarmed was she by the thought of giving birth to a "surprise." If this story is true, then my grandmother must have put it down after just a couple of sentences, as this is how White begins Stuart LIttle:

“When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse.”

What other author could have pulled off such an outrageous opening to a children’s book? I identified deeply with Stuart when I was a child because he was small and different. I loved him because he was a very dear mouse-person. His devotion to the bird Margalo felt incredibly convincing to me, even though I knew they were of different species and probably wouldn’t fall in love in "real life." Margalo herself seemed like just the sort of person a songbird would be, if we could talk to songbirds. That’s the magic of E.B. White--creating characters that feel completely familiar to us and that make us comfortable being both human and animal.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Revisiting Katrina

After graduating from college in the spring of 2005, I decided to join my best friend in Washington, DC, and try my hand in politics. This choice made sense at the time: I had a bachelor’s degree in political science, after all, and so the doors of Capitol Hill and hallowed think tanks would be opened wide for me. Or so I thought.

When I got there and started the job search, I got a reality check. Most positions required more experience than I had, and the ones for which I was qualified were largely unpaid internships on Capitol Hill. My resume and carefully crafted cover letters went out into the void, met with echoing silence.

Finally, with the help of my friend and her college’s employment postings, I applied for a position at a government consulting company. It seemed at the time that everyone I knew was either working at a government consulting company or on Capitol Hill (there was a small contingent at the US Patent an Trade Office, but that’s government too). I got the job and started work almost immediately on a massive project documenting the government response to Hurricane Katrina. The first day I came into work at a building less than a block from the White House, the other interns and I had an orientation on the project and then got to work at company laptops set up along a huge conference table in a dimly lit conference room. These were temporary digs, we were told.

We got right to work on data entry and analysis. The project was to create a massive, hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute timeline of Hurricane Katrina from a week or so before landfall until about a month after the disaster, detailing every FEMA/DHS/local and federal government action. How much water and food were trucked in, when states of emergency were declared, how many people were rescued, etc. I came to have such a detailed view of the disaster and its aftermath that I began to question the simplistic picture that the media had painted: a deluge of epic proportions, massive chaos, unimaginable squalor and cruelty at the Superdome, “refugees” fleeing the city, and people losing all sense of “civilized” behavior.

What we hadn’t heard at the time was news of massive failures by the local, state, and federal government, a slow and inefficient emergency response, a lack of appropriate action by the president to recognize the extend of the damage, racism and prejudice seen at all levels, and myriad other problems with the people and agencies that should have had things under control.

Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun details some of these failures through the eyes of the title character, a Syrian American man who stayed behind for the storm, the flood, and the aftermath. What Zeitoun endured was partly the result of the chaos that Katrina caused, but mostly came from a special kind of prejudice common in the US since 9/11: equating a Muslim with a terrorist.

Warning to the reader: the following paragraphs contain spoilers!

I want to encourage everyone I know to read Zeitoun, both to learn about Katrina and the aftermath, and to see how terrible human rights infringements can happen when disaster strikes and chaos and fear take over. The government at all levels created an aggressively military response to a humanitarian disaster. Two days after the hurricane hit New Orleans, prisoners from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA were brought into New Orleans to build an outdoor prison complex at the New Orleans Greyhound station. Designed to hold people arrested after the storm as well as inmates from local prisons, this temporary facility housed Zeitoun for several days and reminded him of pictures he’d seen from Guantanamo Bay. As Eggers points out, prison officials were building an outdoor prison complex as thousands of New Orleans residents were stranded on roofs and in attics in dire need of food, water, rescue.

The Abrams Report on NBC aired a story on Camp Greyhound, as the temporary prison was called, on September 8, 2005, 11 days after the hurricane hit New Orleans. In the story, Abrams interviews an official from the LA State Penitentiary who shows him around the complex where Zeitoun was being held that very day. The NBC footage shows large chain link cages with a portable toilet and nothing else. No bed, blankets, chairs, sink, nothing. The official admits that many of the people being held at Camp Greyhound were in jail for speeding tickets and other minor infractions. Until officials could retrieve the records from an inundated building downtown, the official said, these people would be detained here and soon transferred to a maximum security prison, the place where Zeitoun spent almost three weeks without being allowed to contact his family and let them know he was still alive.

What most people remember from Katrina are the media reports of dead bodies everywhere, looting, shooting, and utter mayhem in the Crescent city. I do hope that Zeitoun and other books, articles, documentaries, music, etc. will teach them otherwise, but of course it’s already been 6 years since the hurricane, and for most people memories of Katrina have faded.

If Katrina taught us anything, it’s that our government is not infallible. Even in the richest nation on earth, this model democracy, terrible injustices are perpetrated, citizens are wrongly accused, gross negligence is allowed by the government. We must always watch what happens, look out for our neighbors, for everyone around us. We’ve got to hold our government accountable, and ask why the response to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters was not more successful. We must ask why the federal emergency management agency, FEMA, is now under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella, why disaster assistance is now rolled up into antiterrorism initiatives. My time in Washington taught me to question what our government does, to look for the facts, and not to be immediately convinced by a seemingly rational explanation of why we should give up certain basic rights in emergencies or after an attack.

Perhaps our government has learned its lesson after Katrina--even President Bush admitted that he had regrets about the government response. What Zeitoun’s story and many other reports show us, however, is that we must help to make sure nothing like this happens again. We must watch, and be aware, and stand up for what is right.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Freedom Frontiers

The Conservative Political Action Conference will be held this year on February 10th in Washington, DC, with confirmed speakers including Rep. Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul, Hon. Mitt Romney, and Hon. Rick Santorum. Hon. Sarah Palin is not yet confirmed, but she’s invited. It is hosted by the American Conservative Union Foundation (ACUF), a nonprofit that describes itself as representing “the views of Americans who are concerned with economic growth through lower taxes and reduced government spending and the issues of liberty, personal responsibility, traditional values and national security.” For more information, go to the organization’s website.

The first panel listed for this year’s CPAC is “Reagan at 100: Role Model for the Next Generation,” an appropriate choice given Reagan’s early role at the conference. The transcript archives of past CPACs on the ACUF website contain 12 speeches by Reagan between 1974 and 1988, followed by a notable 18-year gap in transcripts until 2006, two years into the second term of the second Bush presidency. Reagan ended his 1974 speech with this humble line: “We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.” He ended his 1988 speech, as President, with these words from an American soldier stationed in Korea: “Mr. President, we’re on the frontier of freedom” and he followed that quotation with his own: “Well, so are you.”

Conservatives today might agree with that 1988 message from Reagan, but they probably have a different idea about where the frontier of freedom actually is. That frontier is no longer at the edge of the great United States of America—instead, these new Republicans might depict the frontier graphically as a boundary separating the middle of the country (red) from the two coasts (blue), or as a ring around Washington D.C., which they aim to conquer and “take back,” for freedom’s sake.

One frontier of freedom that these new Republicans do not support is the issue of gay rights, specifically the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and any legislation or court decision granting gay marriage rights. In a January 27th article, the NYT reported on a disagreement as to whether a gay conservative organization should be allowed to co-sponsor this year’s CPAC. Several conservative groups, such as the Liberty Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation, have refused to participate in the conference this year because of the co-sponsorship. The organization in question, GOProud, believes in “limited government, individual liberty, free markets, a strong national defense and a confident foreign policy.” That sounds like a pretty reasonable platform. Interestingly, it’s also much more consistent than that of most conservatives who fiercely support business interests, limited government, free markets, and individual rights for…most people.

I can bet that Reagan would also object to the involvement of GOProud in his favored conference, though I’m seeing from a quick scan on the internet that his attitude towards homosexuality was a little more complicated than that of many conservative politicians. In any case, this current narrow-minded stance on gay rights is perfectly in line with history on the subject, and it fits well with the retro, Norman Rockwell view of America that conservatives hold dear. What will it take for hard-line conservatives to move into the 21st century and truly embrace the “individual liberties” for all that they claim to support?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Finding Spaces in Houston

I visited Houston for the second time over the weekend. The first time was two years ago, in May, when it was already very warm and humid and summer was just around the corner if not already there. This time it’s still winter, and it drizzled our first day and rained steadily the next. The plants seemed grateful, and it felt special and necessary, the way rain feels in Austin too.

Marjorie is my host this time, as she was on my last visit, and indeed seeing her is the primary goal in going to Houston—at least for my mother, her husband Randy, and me. Marjorie is Randy’s mother, and she is in her nineties. She and her husband bought the land where their house still stands in the late 1930s, and the first house they built on it burned to the ground two months after Randy was born, in 1947.

The family built the current house in 1950 or thereabouts, and it could be a museum to the 1950s and 1960s: beautifully preserved period furniture whose descendants are now sold as “retro” in hip furniture stores, blue metal cabinets in the kitchen that have not been altered since the house was built, narrow twin beds that were bought when people were shorter, slighter, and more modest, a guest room papered with a vibrant yellow floral pattern and a bed skirt that matches it, an entire wall in the formal living room covered in beautiful copper panels that have not gone green with age, and another wall in the same room almost entirely made of glass.

Outside of the house are a garden and a medium-sized pool, and then woods that stretch out in every direction until you reach the boundaries of the property: a private school in one direction and a busy street in another. These piney woods are all that was here when the family first moved to Texas, and all that connected them to the city of Houston were minor roads paved with crushed shells. The woods separate the house and the property from the rest of the city, and it is hard to believe, as you are looking out a big window into the quiet greenery, that we are in a bustling city of about 2.3 million people. Both Marjorie and her husband predicted that Houston would become a megalopolis, and of course they were right. It’s now the biggest city in Texas and the fourth largest city in the United States.

When I’m in Houston, I think a lot about space—specifically, the way that people find and make oases within a massive, traffic clogged, center-less city. Marjorie’s house and property is one such oasis, and so is the Asian buffet where we ate dinner on Sunday, Kim Son. We got in two cars with the six of us to drive about 25 minutes to dinner, passing mostly shopping malls and some residential areas. If we hadn’t been navigating it for the first time, we probably would have taken a freeway that would have shortened the trip. As we got closer, we realized we’d entered a pocket of Asian culture: Asian supermarkets, restaurants, dentists, salons, law offices, etc. (I later learned that this is considered Chinatown).

When we arrived at the restaurant, we parked and then walked all the way around the corner of the building where we had first seen the sign for Kim Son Buffet, and finally found the entrance with stairs and elevators up to the large buffet room. Inside, it seemed we were far from the huge parking lot and strip mall that we had just passed through. The room was filled with big groups, probably families, seated at large, round tables, and the fragrant buffet line was set up at the back of the room. Almost everyone in the room was Asian, and most people looked as though they were familiar with the restaurant, that they came often for Sunday dinner. It felt as though we had found a real community center.

Homes and restaurants are the main oases, as far as I can tell, but a third kind that we found was churches—more specifically, the Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston (Quaker meeting). I had an assignment from a relative to check out the building and ask people in the neighborhood about it (specifically a special skylight in the roof of the meeting room that creates light patterns at sunrise and sunset). My mother and I had a hair-raising drive to the building—via the freeway of course—on a rainy Monday, and the meeting house was closed. It being a workday, and a rainy one at that, we couldn’t find many people to talk to, but we did catch one guy as he walked his dog in the adjacent park. He has lived across the way from the meeting for the past two years, and he fairly gushed about the Friends and the work that they do to build community. According to him, Friends not only host many open houses at the meeting house, they also open the building up to community associations and other groups that need a meeting place.

Another significant contribution of the Friends was to purchase and protect the aforementioned open space behind their building to be used as a lovely park for the whole neighborhood. In any city, and especially in Houston, green space is sorely needed. Here was one such space, protected by the Friends and enjoyed by the larger community. It even looked as though a whole row of neo-Victorian houses was built facing the park after the meeting house and park were established.

I hope to go back to Houston soon for more observation of this unusual city—every visit will bring new discoveries and surprises, and I think I’ll come to like it more as I discover each new oasis. It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen when it becomes too expensive to drive as much as Houstonians do today, but I think the city may evolve in some fascinating ways…

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mourn, and Then Act


On Saturday, Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot during a public meet and greet with her constituents at a supermarket in Tucson. Her assailant, a 22-year-old Tucson resident, also emptied several rounds of bullets into the crowd of people at the parking lot, killing six people and wounding several others. Incredibly, Ms. Giffords is still alive but in critical condition, with a bullet lodged in her brain.

In all of my conversations with friends and family after the tragedy, the subject of gun control has been raised. I read in the BBC online that New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg has already said he would try to ban high-capacity ammunition clips, the use of which allowed Giffords’s attacker to wound and kill so many people in so little time. Though most Americans (69%) still support the legality of handguns, according to a 2009 poll by the Times and CBS News, 54% of Americans would support a ban on assault weapons.

It seems incredible that major acts of gun violence, such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, have not already brought about stricter gun control. But those incidents, while providing fodder for gun control advocates, also bring out the tired and illogical argument that honorable citizens can prevent and curtail murderous rampages by carrying, and using, their own weapons. I would be very interested to know just how many such citizens have successfully protected themselves or others by using firearms—I imagine that the number is extremely low. After Virginia Tech, only 30% of Americans polled thought that stricter gun control laws could have gone a long way towards preventing that catastrophic act of violence. It’s almost as though we do not have the example of nearly every other industrialized country with strict gun control laws, and significantly fewer gun deaths, to guide us.

Today in Tucson, President Obama will attend a memorial service for the six people killed and more than a dozen wounded in the attack. Let’s hope that even as the publicity for the horrors on Saturday dissipates, policymakers will gain strength and momentum in an effort to ban certain weapons and enact much stricter gun control in our country.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Naturalized Citizen


Yesterday I attended my first naturalization ceremony. My grandmother's housekeeper Viviana, an Argentinian, was successful in her application for citizenship, and she invited my grandmother and two aunts to the swearing in ceremony in downtown Philadelphia. She has worked for my grandmother for the past few years, cleaning her apartment, changing beds, providing moral and physical support for the bigger organization projects. While working at one aunt's house three or four years ago, she met Brian, a carpenter, and they are now married.

Aunt J drove us to the ceremony at 1600 Callowhill St, a large brick building that houses the Philadelphia Field Office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. After a 15-minute wait outside in a long line of aspiring US citizens, we were let into the warm lobby and passed through metal detectors. Aunt J shakes her head at that security measure; my grandmother says she appreciates it if it can keep us safer. We take an elevator up to the fourth floor and sit down in a medium sized room whose deep green walls are adorned with pictures of famous Philadelphia landmarks. At the front of the room is a built-in wooden podium and desk with a Department of Homeland Security seal hanging on the wall. Viviana’s husband Brian sits near us, and Viviana sits near the front with all of the other soon-to-be citizens. The room is nearly full, and the applicants are mostly dressed in business casual: slacks, sweaters, skirts, cardigans, sports jackets; some wear jeans and sweatshirts. The crowd is racially mixed, as emphasized later by the myriad countries around the world from which the immigrants have come. Africans, Asians, Central and South Americans, Northern Europeans, and a couple of Middle Easterners were in attendance. From the conversations I overhear, I gather that some of the applicants for citizenship have American wives, husbands, and/or children.

After about 20 minutes, the Philadelphia field office program leader kicks off the ceremony. He is a middle aged man with glasses and short brown hair; his manner is friendly and respectful. He begins by listing more than 30 countries from which the 73 new citizens come. Argentina, Belize, Canada, and on and on. As he lists each one, the citizens native to that country stand up. Then he asks the applicants to recite the oath of allegiance to the United States. Probably written long ago, the oath starts off by requiring new citizens to renounce their allegiance to any other prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty. I realize in that moment what a huge step it is to become a new citizen in another country. The idea of definitively cutting ties to ones natal country seems impossible, and yet that’s what we require of new US citizens. How many people, I wonder, can fully renounce the country of their birth and family, and no longer feel some loyalty or allegiance to it?

The program leader now addresses these new citizens, and thanks them for coming to the United States: “Whatever your reasons for coming, the United States is better for your presence,” he says. He also reminds them that with opportunity comes obligation, and he encourages them to participate in the American political process by voting. He concludes by quoting another naturalized citizen who stated that the day he arrived in the United States became more important to him than his own birthday. “Each of you can now add today’s date to your calendar of life,” the program leader says. Another USCIS officer turns on a video message from President Obama that conveys many of the same ideas as the program leader’s speech. “Together, we are a nation united not by any culture or ethnicity…” and “in America, no dream is impossible...” At the end of the video, a montage of American scenes rolls by, accompanied by a rousing version of “Proud to Be an American.”

Now the program leader announces that he will dispense certificates of naturalization to the new citizens. The other officer calls out names, and the program leader hands out certificates to each applicant. Family members move to the front of the room with new citizens to take pictures of the certificate hand-off.

At the end of the ceremony, the room fills with animated conversations, and we move to join Viviana near the front of the room. She seems happy and contented, but she’s not the sort of person to be effusive about it. She and Brian are going out for lunch at a nice restaurant downtown to celebrate.

Later, I go online to see what the oral citizenship test entails. Questions generated by the USCIS website to quiz applicants range from incredibly general (What is the economic system in the United States? “Communist economy,” “Capitalist economy,” “Socialist economy,” or “None of the above”) to specific (When must all men register for the selective service? “At any age,” “Between 18 and 26,” “At 16,” or “Men don’t have to register”). They don’t seem unreasonably difficult, but there are 100 possible questions, 10 of which would be asked during the test, and 6 of which have to be answered correctly in order for the applicant to pass. In addition to memorizing a whole lot of information about the US government, much of which people born here don’t know, applicants have to show proficiency in English. That, for many people, is the biggest hurdle. Again I think about how very small this group of new citizens is, in comparison to the vast numbers of immigrants who struggle to gain citizenship here. But for Viviana and those 72 others in the room at 1600 Callowhill Street, the struggle is over.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A&M limits freedom of information

In a statement that has been likened to a news story in the Onion, the general counsel for the Texas A&M university system recently stated that according to university policy, A&M professors may not direct students to file public information requests with any of the system’s universities. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a huge deal—one could argue that the policy is in place to protect sensitive internal information about the university. On closer inspection, however, the policy shows itself to be a serious infringement of academic freedom and students’ learning. Moreover, there is no policy like it at other Texas universities, or possibly at any university in the U.S., according to Hagit Limor, of the Society of Professional Journalists, as quoted here in the Austin-American Statesman.

Public information requests are essential to a journalist’s work, for all kinds of reporting, and universities should both allow and encourage professors to educate students about them. College students are more involved with their university than they are with any other entity; they will have a natural interest in the workings of their school. In towns like Stephenville, TX, where the A&M rule has played out recently, journalism students are more than an hour from a major city and will have even greater reason to investigate their own school as they learn the tools of the trade. Hopefully the negative media coverage of this issue will encourage A&M to look to its peers, revise its policies, and respect freedom of information.