A Christmas Song

With Apologies to Mel Torme and Nat King Cole

Our nuts roasting on an open fire.

Don-ald Trump is here to stay.

Traffic tie-ups, city streets are a mire,

And New York can’t wait for the day

All Trumps go away…


No turkey and no mistletoe

Can help to make this year a friend.

Sentient beings, with red eyes all aglow

Will never, ever sleep again.


They know that war is on its way,

And there are no more ethics panels we can sway.

And every mother’s child is gonna pray

That the Electoral College saves the day!


And so I’m offering a simple phrase

To grown-ups, most of whom concur:

I know it’s been said,

Many times, many ways,

Jesus God, I’m Still With Her.


Fear of Fear Itself

A few nights back, I was at a bar with friends, talking art, mostly, and when it turned briefly to politics, it went straight to Trump and what the next years hold. Muslims, gays, and Blacks have the most to fear and to lose, followed by Mexican immigrants, Jews, and women. Out on the sidewalk, one of my friends began shouting at me: “You need to be serious! You post on Facebook about how we need to build an underground, you post where everyone can see it! You aren’t serious, because if you were serious in wanting to help, if you really cared, you wouldn’t post about it, you would DO it!” His wrath was so relentless, and we were so drunk, really, that nothing I could say would assuage it. I turned around and swiftly walked down the avenue to make my way home. I heard faint calls after me, and my arms shot up, my hands flipping the bird, and not the Christmas one.

A border had been crossed.

He made apologies, via message, the following morning, and I accepted his apology, of course, but what happened there on the sidewalk will only become more and more frequent across the nation, sister against sister, brother against brother, faced as we are with Donald Trump as our president. It’s about fear. Every sentient human knows this. What Donald Trump wants, Donald Trump takes, and with impunity. He does not recognize borders. “I just grab their pussy. I do what I want.” Hence our fear.

 To the Barricades

I read an alt-right blog yesterday wherein, if I’m interpreting correctly, the blogger feels that regulations about factual reporting, relying on science, allowing consenting adults the freedom to love, protecting all citizens from discrimination, protecting the fresh water supply from corporate destruction, and criminalizing hate speech and actions, are in fact tools of oppression: He and his friends are oppressed because they cannot feel free to act on their hatred, discriminate at will, spew epithets and string up individuals they don’t like, ban books, and ignore scientific facts, making their faith, their prejudices, the law of the land instead.

This blogger does not see irony, because minds like his aren’t capable of that level of self-awareness or subtlety. So who is right? Who is wrong?

I Spoke as a Child

This morning a neighbor told me about his grandson, who is nearly three, and who said, after hearing it on TV (by accident), “Fuck it.” They all started roaring with laughter, because such a vulgarity is so innocent, so unexpected, and the surprise of it is hilarious. “Fuck it!” he shouted again, so excited to be causing all this joy.

Later, of course, his parents will pull him aside and explain how he cannot say that outside of the family, and should not say it anymore. Miss O’ here, in adulthood, is fond of “fuck,” but when I say it means what I want it to mean.

First Corinthians 13:11:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

In his first inaugural address to the United States, President Barack Hussein Obama invoked this verse from the New Testament, a verse I too had found myself quoting throughout the election, faced with the childish judgment of the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, and the childish behavior of his vice presidential selection, Gov. Sarah Palin. I never thought I would see a campaign so childishly conducted. Then in 2012, we all met Paul Ryan, malarkey-filled brat and junior senator from Wisconsin, and loads of wing nuts who’d gerrymandered the districts of lazy, asshat America to keep their congressional paychecks and payoffs coming. In the crushing blow of 2016, we all faced the Electoral College win (though not the popular vote win, down by 2.6 million votes so far) of one Donald Trump, whose party also carried the congressional elections (96% re-elected despite an 11% approval rating). And we all know, and the world knows, that compared to the entire Republican Party and their entire voting base, Barack Obama stands apart as a man. Hillary Clinton, whatever her failings, stands apart as a grown-up, as a woman.

The childish grabbers of toys and hoo-hahs have used man-sized hands to grab and destroy what they do not understand, and what is not rightfully theirs.

So how do we deal with it? This is what’s troubling us. We can’t put Trump and company in a time out. We can’t vote them out for at least two years, though probably for at least four years, the gerrymandering done as it is, and even then, elections may not be allowed. We’ll see. But that we are all looking at each other hard, unsure of where to turn, shows just how low this nation has fallen. And being Americans, and humans, really, we hate feeling like victims.

 On Safari

Lately I’ve done a lot of web surfing via my Mac browser, and perhaps the most disturbing stories I’ve come across have been recent animal killings perpetrated by rich white people—men and women both—while on safari in Africa. One image hit me hardest, that of a dead giraffe, the long neck bent at an unnatural angle, the blood streaks browned, stained around the nostrils, and the smiling white woman posed with her gun, lithe arm about the kill.

A sentient human being using a firearm in the name of the hunt is not a hero, is not tough or brave, is not a prizewinner. Such a killer has an addiction, as to an opioid like heroin, and the enablers of such a big game hunt are no better than dealers and traffickers. Trafficking is about the crossing of borders—sex trafficking forces a child across the border of innocence into a land of the sickest of adult pursuits, pedophilia as opioid, as well as over a physical border far away from home. This happens in America, too, and not just to children and young girls. The roundup of black men for minor offenses is trafficking in slavery, forcing inmates to do slave labor on the public dime and in spite of guaranteed Constitutional and human rights. Abuses are rampant, too, in the trafficking of arms to other nations to assist in warfare. And perhaps no more of a symbol here at home exists but the Standing Rock standoff over the pipeline. What are the borders? These fractures destroy any illusions of a government moral high ground.

And my friends and I look around at other. What are we supposed to do?

Those Are Those Things

During a centuries-old border dispute a few years ago (an Eastern European friend recounted to me), two recently liberated and newly independent nations came once again to the precipice of war over Nation One’s taking of trees, across the border from Nation Two. How to solve this? As long as man has existed, and especially since people began settling land and claiming it as theirs, planting, harvesting, and creating surplus, some outside groups, green with envy or merely lazy, began wanting it, what was not theirs, for themselves. And there was the birth of terrorism and warfare and “the art of the deal” to screw over good people. Humans are amazing, aren’t they? No creature can break your heart or baffle your head like our species.

So back to the border dispute: A 103-year-old Albanian woman who lived in Nation Two, the nation with the trees desired by Nation One, had simply had it. She went to a lawyer and asked him to write down for her a letter to the presidents of both countries. “Write it exactly as I tell you, leave out nothing, add nothing. Just write.” And this, paraphrased, is what she said to each of these men:

I am an old woman. I am 103 years old. I have seen it all, the Turks, the Russians, the Germans, the Yugoslavians, fighting about borders, the same borders, all of my life. I want to tell you this. I am a woman. When I married my husband, I put in place there a border. A border around myself, a border no man could cross. There may be other men who wanted my vagina, but it was my stuff and it had a border around it and it was for my husband, and only for him. A border around my marriage. That is how it works. That is what borders are for. As a country, you might want what is not yours, but you can’t have it. There is a border. Now stop this.

 And the two nations stopped the fight. Her letter worked. Crazy as it sounds, her letter did the trick; it broke through all the bullshit swagger and defensiveness of the lifestyle that is rape and pillage in the worst of mankind. “Those are those things,” my friend (a man originally from Nation One) said, after recounting the story, “that human beings must learn over and over. Fuckin’ Trump. Rapists have the wrong fuckin’ minds. They don’t deserve this life. It’s why I think all the leaders of the world should be women. Women everywhere. Maybe half men in the Senate.”

Mine v. Yours. Right v. Wrong. The alt-right blogger way up there, by the way, is wrong. He is wrong. He will never be right. Centuries of fighting over borders will never make him right to come over and rape me, steal my trees, take my life, because he feels he wants to. That is the behavior, the feeling, that four-year-old children have who are also sociopaths. If you don’t understand the difference between right and wrong, as that blogger clearly doesn’t, you will ever be a nasty version of four years old. No wonder he is so frustrated.

I imagine the old Albanian woman and what she would do to Trump if he grabbed her genitals. I don’t imagine Mr. Trump would have hands anymore. Or life.


If all weapons manufacturing stopped tomorrow, imagine.

If all the rapists and dealers  and deal-brokers and traffickers were rounded up tomorrow, imagine.

If all the slaves were freed tomorrow, imagine.

It’s all I’d want for Christmas.

Peace on Earth, good will toward men.

I think that last thing is all we can do in the meantime: Wish us well. From the Book of Luke: “And the angel of the Lord was upon them. Fear not! I bring you tidings of great joy.” So don’t rage at your friends, don’t scream at the ones who care for and love you, and don’t fear. Fuck fear. While you are at it, treat everyone else you encounter like the friends you are not going to yell at. Feel the good will deep inside your heart. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, now.

See you in the New Year. With new ideas. And hey, over the holidays, spruce up.












A Tale of Two Americas: A Miss O’ Thanksgiving Meditation

A Tale of Two Americas: A Thanksgiving Meditation


[Note: This version has been slightly revised. -ed.]

Oh, kids. Miss O’ wanted Hillary Clinton to be our president, and not just because she’s a woman, but because she GETS it, IT being Democracy and all its messiness. We’ve all been sad, we supporters of the losing side that strives to make a more perfect union, which opposes the side that celebrates greed and narcissism and God and hard judgment and “I got mine” in the name of “change.” Understanding, please, that neither party has a claim to perfection by a long shot, where does this divide come from? And who do we want to be as Americans?

To start thinking about the events of November 8, 2016, I thought I’d reach back to our earliest successful colonists in America, the Puritans.

“Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno. 1632”

O Bubble blast, how long can’st last?

That always art a breaking,

No sooner blown, but dead and gone,

Ev’n as a word that’s speaking.

O whil’st I live, this grace me give,

I doing good may be,

Then death’s arrest I shall count best,

because it’s thy decree.

~Anne Bradstreet,    1612-1672, Newtown (later Cambridge), Massachusetts

Miss O’ is in a fit of goddamned sickness. And as Anne Bradstreet was our first woman poet, and our first feminist, really, I thought hers a good voice to open this little essay. She grew to be deeply ambivalent about religion in the Puritan mode. The term “puritan” was an English slur against this ascetic religious group, and so loathsome and annoying were they that King Charles I gave them a ship for the Great Migration and hoped they’d drown in it. Instead, they made it to Plymouth, in Massachusetts, and the rest is history. Sort of. I say “sort of,” because most Americans don’t know jack shit about it. And we are paying the price of that ignorance, I think.

My Country ‘Tis of Thee v. My County ‘Tis of Me

So we had an election. Every election is too much for television, and every election seems to carry the stakes of life and death. But the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, for the first time in our 240 years of Democracy, actually was a referendum on democracy itself. The stakes for preservation have never been higher, and possibly never less understood by half a country—the half that voted for Donald J. Trump, a man right out of that Sinclair Lewis novel that you have never read (by a Nobel Prize-winning American author you’ve never heard of).

There are a lot of ways to try to frame this election’s outcome, so Miss O’ here is going to approach it in the ways I can think of to see if anything can make any sense of it. Trump voters famously don’t read, so this won’t reach them. I can only hope to clear it up for me, and maybe a little for you.

My Country ‘Tis of Me  (possible new lyrics for an old patriotic song)

My country ’tis of me,

This is my liberty,

Of me I sing!

Land of the white man’s pride,

Walt Whitman’s dream has died,

For all the liberal tears you’ve cried:

God Save the King!

Take One: Omniscience v. Free Will

Who were the Puritans, and why does this matter? It was the beginning of “separate but equal,” is one way of looking at it. I’m not even remotely a theologian, nor a deep historian, but I offer some ways to looking for information, should it interest you. From an article on the Washington State University site:

“The term ‘Puritan’ first began as a taunt or insult applied by traditional Anglicans to those who criticized or wished to ‘purify’ the Church of England. Although the word is often applied loosely, ‘Puritan’ refers to two distinct groups: ‘separating’ Puritans, such as the Plymouth colonists, who believed that the Church of England was corrupt and that true Christians must separate themselves from it; and non-separating Puritans, such as the colonists who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed in reform but not separation. Most Massachusetts colonists were nonseparating Puritans who wished to reform the established church, largely Congregationalists who believed in forming churches through voluntary compacts.  The idea of compacts or covenants was central to the Puritans’ conception of social, political, and religious organizations.”

I pledge allegiance. Puritans also believed in Predestination. “Predestination, in theology, is the doctrine that all events have been willed by God, usually with reference to the eventual fate of the individual soul. Explanations of predestination often seek to address the ‘paradox of free will’, whereby God’s omniscience seems incompatible with human free will.” So here’s the BIG question: Is God, if she exists, all-knowing, all-seeing? Or do we have free will? John Milton’s famous Paradise Lost hinges, more or less, on the following question: Why did God put the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden, and then forbid us to taste of it?

And, for that matter, why did God create disharmony between the sexes, between our brothers, among us all? Our nation might do well to revisit the old Bible story of Cain and Abel: Let’s take a little stroll back to 1632, again with poet and ambivalent Puritan, Anne Bradstreet.



There Abel keeps his sheep, no ill he thinks,

His brother comes, then acts his fratricide.

The Virgin Earth of blood her first draught drinks,

But since that time she often hath been cloy’d;

The wretch with ghastly face and dreadful mind,

Thinks each he sees will serve him in his kind,

Though none on Earth but kindred near then could he find.

~ from “Contemplations,” Anne Bradstreet, 1612-1672

So religion is very much about war, whether war within oneself or with another, or with God, and projecting our self-loathing onto others. Life is, and is only ever about war, not peace, the Scriptures tell us (until Jesus, but no one reads the words of Jesus anymore, just as no one reads The New Yorker–so sayeth Trump). Republicans go on and on and on about religion and crime and war and the devil in this country, and yet it’s like they don’t know all this stuff is a part of our history (see previous parenthetical), an in an almost barbaric way. Do you or they remember The Great Awakening? What about Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758) and his immortal sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God? Here are we humans, according to Rev. Edwards:

  1. The devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion. The Scripture represents them as his “goods” (Luke 11:21). The devils watch them; they are ever by them, at their right hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back; if God should withdraw his hand, by which they are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls. The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.

Jonathan Edwards was a complex and deeply serious man, and he’s a confusion to me. From the Wiki: “Recent studies have emphasized how thoroughly Edwards grounded his life’s work on conceptions of beauty, harmony, and ethical fittingness, and how central The Enlightenment was to his mindset.” And to continue: “The emphasis of the lecture was on God’s absolute sovereignty in the work of salvation: that while it behooved God to create man pure and without sin, it was of his ‘good pleasure’ and ‘mere and arbitrary grace’ for him to grant any person the faith necessary to incline him or her toward holiness, and that God might deny this grace without any disparagement to any of his character.” So much for the God of Love of the New Testament. The God of Wrath returns. Where did such a view come from? Did it come from within himself and he projected it onto others?

So what does this relic of reverend have to do with Trump v. Clinton? For one quick image: the Republican National Convention used a background color of fiery red, the color of wrath, which matched the tone and content of the convention speeches. The Democratic National Convention used the backdrop of clear blue, the color of tranquility, matching the tone of optimism and clarity of vision of the speeches. Another comparison: The Puritans believed in the Elect, or the idea that God does not take everyone into heaven, and that “goodness” has nothing to do with it. There is no way, the Puritans said, to know who is among the Elect. But, as my junior year English teacher Mr. Edwards (no relation) explained, “Surely God would not bless you with a Cadillac, surely not, unless you were  among the elect.” And, lo, capitalism was born, and dressing up for church, for if God is “blessing” you with material things and great opportunities for sex (or grabbing pussy), apparently you must be going to heaven. (“The meek shall inherit the earth,” said Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. “But,” as someone said in a movie, “the meek don’t want it.”)

So Trump deserves the presidency, you see, because God has blessed him. Hillary has had to work and work for her success, and so of course she has been predestined to fail. If you are truly worthy, then, what you seek comes easy and without a hitch. Just ask Jesus. And all the while, Trump called Hillary “crooked,” “lying,” and the rest, projecting onto her what he himself is guilty of. He fired up his base. Sinners were in the tiny hands of a deeply angry Trump.

So to sum up: Religion is interwoven with politics in American Christians, and is so deeply ingrained in part of the American psyche that the indoctrinated don’t even realize it. It goes like this: God gives grace in an arbitrary way, so that there is no point in being good. Being good is for suckers. Whether Rev. Edwards intended it or not, the idea of Predestination and being among the elect and being in God’s favor “at God’s pleasure” really opened the doors to sinning with impunity, it seems to me. People who were truly good, therefore, were being suckers. The Donald Trump who refused to pay small business owners is going to heaven, seeing as God has favored him so nicely, and the truly good, hardworking business owners who lost their shirts because of Trump? They are dangling over the pits of hell at God’s pleasure. At least, this is the view taken by the Americans who elected Trump the elect. Everybody loves a winner. Greed is good.

The trouble is, the nation was founded by deists, by men who accepted God but not any church or dogma attending religion. They established rights that would prevent forcing religion on people, prevent persecution and separation under the law. Republicans are ever trying to repeal those rights, and they make no secret of it.

Take Two: Pessimism v. Optimism, or Us v. Them

Republicans typically paint the nation as in a state of continual and unabated crisis: Nixon, Reagan, Bush—all said America was on the brink of disaster, and that they each were the one, with God’s help, to repair the tattered remains of our republic. Public cries for civil rights, ending the Vietnam War, bringing home Iran hostages, ending military waste, sustaining labor unions, or protecting the environment—and all the attending citizen protests and placards for justice—were, to Republicans, destroying the fabric of the nation. The problems these protestors were seeking so solve were irrelevant: The problem was the protesting. Are you following? America, Republicans always declare, is on the brink of ruin (even as life gets progressively better for a lot of citizens); and in victory, damned if these Republican presidents and the others among the elected didn’t try to push it over the nearest cliff. (Watergate? Iran-Contra? Trickle-down Economics? The 2008 Mortgage Crisis, anyone?)

Democrats, by contrast, except in times of actual crisis (the Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement) never have any idea what nation, exactly, Republicans are talking about. Democrats see hope not “around the corner,” should they become elected, but living in our midst, playing out in every moment. Democrats fight for voting rights, and they encourage active participation—whether it’s hippies in sit-ins, or student activists marching, or unions marching, or women marching, or #blacklivesmatter as a movement—and see peaceful, vociferous protest not as destructive to democracy, but rather as the very essence of our national identity. Give us Liberty, or give us Death!

To reiterate: Republicans want “law and order” and abject silence—unquestioning obedience—and never see the quiet for the apathy or the fear it actually is; rather, they see incarceration (Lock her up!) and quashing of rights and voices as the hallmarks of “success.” Give us Liberty, and give you Death! (Did I get that right?)

For Democrats, protest brings us closer together as we define our ideals and goals, how we want to govern, and how we want to live. Democrats ask for money loudly. They call people. They make big noise. They welcome real debate. Note: Television news seems not to broadcast liberals in action or celebrating the wins.

Republicans, by contrast, do their voting and deciding silently; the money filters in covertly; and the gerrymandering is done in a backroom. Their idea of “change” and “Make America Great Again” is antithetical to Democracy with a capital D. Note: Television news broadcasts Republican dismay with Democrats 24/7.

Thus the great divide. So which way is “authentic” to the spirit of the Constitution, to the original founders’ intent? Does it even matter anymore?

Take Three: Separate v. One

A few quotes from the past few decades:

From The Atlantic: “In 1968, Richard Nixon spoke of a nation torn apart by crime at home, and by wars abroad. But, he promised, better days were ahead. ‘Without God’s help and your help, we will surely fail; but with God’s help and your help, we shall surely succeed.’”

It’s up to you and God, says the Republican nominee. So which is it?

“America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s always been about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard, slow, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government….The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous.”
~ President Barack Obama, Democratic National Convention, 2016

“I alone can fix it.”
~ Donald Trump, Republican Nominee, Republican National Convention, 2016

From The Atlantic: “[Trump] broke with two centuries of American political tradition, in which candidates for office—and above all, for the nation’s highest office—acknowledge their fallibility and limitations, asking for the help of their fellow Americans, and of God, to accomplish what they cannot do on their own.
“But when Trump said, ‘I am your voice,’ the delegates on the convention floor roared their approval. When he said, ‘I alone can fix it,’ they shouted their approbation. The crowd peppered his speech with chants of ‘USA!’ and “Lock her up!” and ‘Build the wall!’ and ‘Trump!’ It booed on cue, and cheered when prompted.”

And not to go all apocalyptic on your ass, but here’s an Irish poet to say it:

The Second Coming

by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


Reread that a few times, why don’t you? There’s a question about the way religion is used to oppress in there, and a warning. Then take that image of the “slow thighs” and read it against the two poems that are coming up. Look how all these disparate poets are talking to each other across centuries, rooting, in their way, for the good of US.

Take Four: Generosity v. Greed, or Abundance v. Deficiency

The Statue of Liberty: Iconic to the entire human world. Engraved on its base, the most famous poem of freedom, which was written by a Jew, Emma Lazarus, July 22, 1849 – November 19, 1887, an American born in New York City. The title, little known, of her sonnet is “The New Colossus,” the title taken from a statue that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The New Colossus

by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.


“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I contrast the message of this poem with the Puritan disdain for, say, Native Americans, even as the Puritans depended on them for survival. I also contrast this message with that of Manifest Destiny, “the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.” I contrast this with 350 years of slavery justified by white supremacy. And with the treatment of women who sought the vote, tortured and beaten and tormented for wanting a voice in government. (Women couldn’t own a home in her own name, or even have a credit card, until 1974, or work while pregnant, the list goes on. I read of too many female Trump supporters who wished he’d grab their pussies. Give me your genitals, yearning to grope free? How have we toppled this low?)

Two Americas, Take Five: Color v. Content


When Barack Obama was elected, I read that John Boehner was heard to say of our first black president, “I can’t even look at him.” Friends of mine in Virginia actually said, “Well, we’ve been debased. I can’t believe I have to live under a nigger as my president.” And, these friends noted, a “negress” as first lady was beyond absurd.

Their comments deeply troubled me and angered me, and I said so, but more than that they baffled me. Harvard Law Review editor, constitutional law professor, state legislator, U.S. Senator—and still Barack Obama is “debasing” us and cannot be “looked at” because of the color of his skin? When I try to explain that my disgust with Trump is based on the content of his character and his lack of elected experience, and not the color of his skin, the deplorable white friends explain to me that it’s exactly the same. And they aren’t racist, they point out, but rather simply right.  Blacks in America are viewed by them as, if not subhuman (though often that), at least clearly inferior to whites, and I was reminded of this over and over as a teacher in rural Virginia. The impossibility of working with the Republicans in Congress was blamed never on a racist (“You lie!” “I can’t even look at him”), intractable Congress, but on Obama himself, for his arrogance. So I cannot seem to get through to these white friends and relatives, who could not look on Obama without retching, that their worldview is simply ugly and wrong.

Then last weekend, following the election and its astounding and embarrassing outcome (and this is globally recognized to be true, if not universally understood in the U.S.), I was walking through Port Authority here in New York City after a bus trip out to Jersey to visit equally aggrieved friends, and I saw at a newsstand a People magazine cover featuring a full body photo of our president-elect with the title, in appropriately big white letters, “President Trump.” I thought to myself, “I can’t even look at him.”

So am I no better than a racist?

White supremacists, again including relatives of mine, and their friends, have told me that it is I, not they, who have the closed mind because I will not consider white supremacy to be a fact of life. They have told me this in ALL CAPS: “YOU HAVE A CLOSE [sic] MIND!!!!” My friend Mark heard such a supremacist on NPR say this same thing just yesterday. I, who have been enriched and amazed and loved by humans of all races, religions (and ages, for that matter) am “closed minded” for not seeing whites as supreme. Because I am not giving WHITES—and we mean white CHRISTIANS, to be clear—a chance to run everything, “for once,” in their belief system, then it is I have who have the closed mind.

Where do I start?

Back when I was a high school English teacher and a co-sponsor of the Gay-Straight Alliance, a group designed to promote understanding and tolerance, a nice English teacher lady colleague said to me, firmly, “I don’t believe in tolerance. I don’t like gays, I don’t like illegal immigrants. I don’t like liberals.” She seethed. “Why should I tolerate what I don’t like?” Lately, I am asking myself the same question. But we are asking that question from two entirely different points of view.

Who is right on the issue of gay rights? Mike Pence and my colleague up there and millions like them, or Miss O’ and the millions of gays and their friends in the world? Is global warming real? Who is right as to whether or not blacks and Muslims, as well as whites and Christians, have the Constitutional right to fair and equal treatment under the law? Who is right about women’s right to their own bodies and decisions about their health? Who is right, people who think we need to work together to solve problems, or people who want one (straight, white, Christian) man to solve all the problems for them?

These are the questions that divide us in the United States right now. Trump supporters tell me their side is just as worthy of consideration as my “liberal” “closed” side.

How do you tell them, “No, it’s not,” without sounding like a tyrant and a hypocrite?

In Sum

First came the Puritan, white, my-way-or-the-highway, love-it-or-leave-it, God-fearing, separatist, elite, elect America of Plymouth Colony origins: It’s complicated, and often unattractive, boring to study during junior year of high school, despite their suffering—and this is a shame, because America just voted it into office in 2016 without realizing it, probably. And these historical folks aren’t funny. Just not. Ever. Funny.

Second came the Revolutionary War-winning, immigrant, dynamic, deist-not-Christian, Enlightenment-influenced, red-white-and-blue, Declaration of Independence, Constitution-based, vote-giving, anti-oligarch, Hamilton-rap-fest amazing America, inspiring to the world, taught in school—and yet it was voted out of office in 2016. Plus, it’s the America of genuine humor and scathing satire.

There is a Third America: The America of slaves, of dispossessed and tortured indigenous people, of oppressed women, of exploited laborers, of religious and racial bigotry, of socio-economic disparity. Only Democrats include this Third America in their party platform and policies, and the Republicans very consciously do not.

Finally, I am going to say it, I am going to pronounce judgment: White supremacy is fucking wrong. Like bigotry, murder, rape, bullying, and abuse, I can comfortably categorize white supremacy as equivalent to a biblical sin (a bible in whose God I do no personally believe, but in whose stories I find important views of the world). White supremacists don’t see they are wrong, any more than Donald Trump doesn’t see why he can’t grab the genitalia of any woman he wants, or ogle teenage beauty contestants in their dressing room, or destroy a small business. Just because he doesn’t think it’s wrong doesn’t mean it isn’t. Any four-year-old will rationally explain why she or he is perfectly capable of being left alone around hot stoves, big lakes, and strangers. Grown-ups know better.

Unfortunately, Trump supporters own all the guns. So you can see where this is headed.

“Divided We Stand”: In Memoriam, Democracy #notmypresident

 When Barack Obama was elected, a brand new group arose out of the clear red, the Tea Party, funded by the Koch Brothers. They were mostly older white people who were terrified of a black man in office, and the Kochs were terrified of a Democratic president and congress that might raise taxes on rich people like the Kochs, or make it impossible for them to get tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas. It’s an old, old game, stoking irrational fear for an endgame that has nothing to do with the people who go on the lines in the name of, er, freedom.

Americans of the Red Elephant who coined “Not My President” (co-opted now by the Blue Donkeys as “#notmypresident”) called Obama a nigger, questioned his citizenship, called his wife a gorilla, and said worse about his daughters. (These same people wore tee-shirts calling Hillary Clinton a “cunt.” They wore these shirts in front of their children.)

In the America where I was raised, as I said before, blacks, to many, simply are not humans, but are wild animals from the jungle, cut loose from captivity. If you don’t believe me, watch video footage of the way white officers approach and kill unarmed black men and women, and it’s as if you are watching Daktari. These officers of “the law” approach black citizens while in crouched stances, backs arched, as if they are on safari. It’s horrifying. It’s absurd.

My parents did not subscribe to this at all, and used All in the Family to teach me about racism, explaining why Archie Bunker was wrong. I was six when this started. So when I went to teach in rural Virginia I was unprepared for having my life threatened by two white boys in my class for teaching “I Have a Dream,” and for calling Martin Luther King “a great American.” They pointed fingers in my face, “You know was a great American? George Washington. Huntin’ accidents happen, Miz O’Ha.” The Vice Principal took their side. I taught the speech with even more determination, this being Miss O’, and I’d like to think that maybe, as the first white person in that school ever to do so, I made the tiniest bit of difference in a good way.

Of my disappointment over the results of this election, a black colleague and friend said to me, “I have had it with all of you white people and your white privilege.” She frowned at me. “You are disappointed. You are. Now you know what it feels like to be a black person, how I feel every single moment of my life in this country.” I felt chastened. I think it would behoove every white Hillary supporter to take in those words and have a Great Awakening of our own.

Art as Life: Hope?* (*This section edited from an earlier version. –ed.)

If you know the musical Hamilton—and how could you not?—then you know we just elected Aaron Burr over Thomas Jefferson. More than that, we may have “elected” King George III:

Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!
~ Donald Trump, er King George III, “You’ll Be Back,” Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda

This is a real fear—a promise, even, if you are Muslim or undocumented or black—stoked by the President-elect himself. We know this. We’ve heard this from his very lips in various shapes and forms—both the words and the lips. “Detention camps for Muslims are on the table” in the Trump administration, read a recent headline.

You’ll be back like before
I will fight the fight and win the war
For your love, for your praise
And I’ll love you till my dying days
When you’re gone, I’ll go mad
So don’t throw away this thing we had
Cuz when push comes to shove
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love
     ~ Donald Trump, er King George III, “You’ll Be Back,” Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda

And you’d have to live in a fully armed bunker not to know that on Friday night Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, his entrance into the theater after intermission was attended by boos and applause, both—divided we stand. And yet united by art. During the show, various lines got wilder applause than usual, or even standing ovations, including this one, sung by King George.

What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
~ The American Left, er King George III, “You’ll Be Back,” Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda

You know how great is the artistry of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics because one can also imagine Obama and Clinton and Biden and Kaine singing this song of King George’s, and to Mr. Narcissism himself:

You’re on your own
Awesome. Wow.
Do you have a clue what happens now?
Oceans rise
Empires fall
It’s much harder when it’s all your call
All alone, across the sea
When your people say they hate you 
Don’t come crawling back to me

~ “What Comes Next?” from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

After the show, at curtain call, Mr. Pence was hustling out when the cast, led by A-dot-Burr himself, read a respectful letter, on behalf of the cast, imploring the VP-elect (M-dot-Pence) and his boss (D- dot-Trump) to lead the nation by including ALL people, despite their promises to the contrary. What a RADICAL NOTION! As quoted by Peter Marks yesterday in the Washington Post:

“Thank you so much for joining us tonight,” Dixon said, on behalf of the production. “You know, we had a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here, sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir, and we hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post, because this message needs to be spread far and wide, okay? Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf ofall of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men, women, of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

Trump tweeted a giant whine against the cast of Hamilton: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” — President-elect Donald Trump (Come January, Trump may well try to close the show. For good. Will he find a way? The fact that I could even IMAGINE such a move is what makes me so nervous about Trump as a leader.) What Trump doesn’t understand about theater and its place was critiqued beautifully by the Washington Post‘s Peter Marks yesterday: Why Trump gets theater completely and utterly wrong (Miss O’ recommends the full read, and hopes you do it.)

Trump also doesn’t get this thing called American Democracy, nor does he want to. His transition to power has been the slowest and by all accounts most incompetent in recorded history. I read that Obama’s people are freaking out because Trump won’t read anything, won’t move on any issue, and there’s plenty to know about. (Anybody else remember Bush willfully ignoring the memo: “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States”? Anyone?)  Trump’s never had truck with democracy and so knows next to nothing about it, as evidenced by his speeches. We’ve all heard them. He’s been, and I say this factually, the pampered son of a rich white man in America, and has broken and destroyed lives, raped young women, and spent money that was not his, all with impunity. To keep this good luck going and to pass it on to his kids, he’s trying to return to oligarchy, and possibly monarchy, apparently. Today’s headline in The Guardian:

Trump transition provokes cries of nepotism – but can anything be done? Despite concerns over Donald Trump’s decision to bring his family into his White House inner circle, experts says critics have few ways to stop him.

 Is it just me, or does Trump more and more remind you of the machinations in Richard III? I swear his family looks like the cast of an updated version of one of Shakespeare’s history/tragedy plays. King Lear, perhaps.


Are you a Puritan or a Hamilton? Are you an American in the spirit of Manifest Destiny, or an American in the spirit of Ellis Island? Can you reconcile yourself to both? And of course it’s way more complicated than that, but we have to start somewhere.

So when you People of Trump out there start thinking that the Left is really out of its Thanksgiving gourd, or that our warnings of fascism are little more than “sour grapes,” you might listen to the Hamilton cast album and read the Chernow biography that inspired it; reread “The New Colossus,” read about the Puritans and the Revolutionists. And read the FUCKING CONSTITUTION. I swear that with love.

Post Script

 “According to most contemporary descriptions, the Colossus stood approximately 70 cubits, or 33 metres (108 feet) high—the approximate height of the modern Statue of Liberty from feet to crown—making it the tallest statue of the ancient world.[2] It was destroyed during the earthquake of 226 BC, and never rebuilt.”


 No American (mostly) wants (surely) the nation’s history of democracy to come to an end. Shelley’s famous poem up there, as my friend poet Jean LeBlanc says, shows a poet’s ability to “remember the future.” So, in that spirit, ol’ Ozymandias should be reminiscent of the latest man to claim absolute power, this man who has no honest claim to be the leader of the United States, and thus the world, except that he is among the Elect, and select of the Electoral College, if not elected by majority vote (Hillary Clinton is leading by 1.65 million votes and counting); and unless we are eternally vigilant, as Jefferson warned us, it could be Donald Trump’s words on the base of a torch-less, headless New Colossus. In the form of a whiny tweet.

(P.S. The worst thing you can do is nothing. Make calls to your reps. See you, perhaps, at the Million Woman March on January 21, in Washington, D.C. I have friends flying in from London to attend, another friend in New Delhi counting on me to represent her, too, because this is of global importance, and our rights must not be rolled back or run over. Will it make a difference? Oceans rise, empires fall. And in this election, the world turned upside down. Time to right it, from the left. Sending love.)

Demon #5 Noise


From a Series: One! Half! Dozen! Demons!

(after One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry)

Noise 2: Collage of post-its and note scraps from eight years ago. Why do I have these?

Today is November 6, Sunday, two days before an election in the U.S. not quite like any other. Barack Obama’s in 2008 was the only one thus far to make your Miss O’ weep with joy and hope and possibility. The election of Hillary Clinton would be another historic marker like no other. (The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about today—we all know where that will go.) I work like mad for candidates I believe in, person by person, conversation by conversation. I don’t knock on doors, I don’t do phone calls, but neither do I shy away from conflict. To be the best citizen I can be, I read everything of merit I can find, and lots of stuff NOT of merit, to know what’s out there. Emotional involvement is unavoidable, but it’s not been for naught. I know that. It’s exhausting, and election years pull me away from something I cherish more than any single thing in being alive: Total focus, my creative head and spirit in a single zone. The rest of life, quite simply, is noise.

Shut UP.

As a child, whenever I ran in from outside, I would find my mother as often as not working on the Washington Post Sunday Magazine crossword puzzle, using a black mechanical pencil she’d had since she was in the navy. As soon as she heard our noise sloshing through the open back door threatening a wave of nuisance, I know she began to lose focus, but she’d try to finish her thinking on just one more clue, often by the light of a single lamp, surrounded by a blue menthol haze. Her steady companion in her own zone all the years of my childhood was a Salem, one in her mouth, one in her hand ready to light. An only child with her own key (to the apartment she shared with her divorcée mom) by age 4, my mom Lynne knew more solitude than companionship. That habit of solitude carried over to her children, for though we enjoy a party and friendship as much as anyone on our dad’s side of the family, we are, in varying degrees, solitary, as likely to disappear as not from a gathering, or to stand back in a corner and watch.

Subway platform view. When Miss O’ is at her most quietly reflective while waiting on a train.

This habit of solitude is not necessarily meditative. In fact, the habit my siblings and I share most deeply is the long attention span focused on a single activity, interrupted by a constant recall of work that must be done. Thus, watching a movie will be met with, “Oh!” and a leap out of a chair to put on water to boil, or give the bathroom a quick cleaning before company comes, or put out the bills on the dining room table so we don’t forget to pay them, or any number of other quick thoughts that prevent us from being, say, successful artists.

Miss O’ cleaned out the takeout menu drawer yesterday. First time in 13 years. She did not, however, write anything.

Now Listen

Claire Booth Luce called politics “the refuge of second class minds,” and each political season I am reminded of why I’ll never be a first-rate anything. I’m sucked into the noise of America being assholes, my mind alert to the world’s ills, and also to my dirty kitchen floor, a thirst for a cold one, associative reading of books and magazines otherwise collecting dust around my apartment, and zipping around the web and social media and putting idiots straight with facts.

Noise. So much noise.

All of it little more than noise. And I get sick from it.

Being sick with noise reminds me that I so deeply want to be a better, more focused, finer human being, that I often forget to do the very things that might help me achieve that—things like writing, drawing, or creating theater.

Maybe I will do those things.

Right after the election.






Demon Number Four, from a Summer Series: Holding the Space


Demon Number Four for Miss O’ 8/27/16


Daydream Believer

I think the first time I was aware of the demon that is daydreaming (with nothing, such as plans, to back it up) was while sitting on the music room floor, side-saddle, as it were, because of the skirt, my right hand pressed hard onto the cold asbestos tile, holding me up, one day in fifth grade. Mr. Hart’s class—that was mine—was in charge of putting on the school talent show. We helped produce it (make programs, usher), light it (overhead projectors and lighting gels), and some of us might even perform in it, if we passed Mr. Hart’s auditions. When imitating Judy Garland in my bedroom, I was pretty sure I would have been a big star in 1939, but this being 1975, probably I was too late. Still, a girl can dream about being discovered and given her big break, and that’s what I was waiting for Mr. Hart to do while Brenda Naylor was singing “Have You Never Been Mellow?” along to the record by Olivia Newton John. Brenda was a very nice, quiet girl, largely built, of indeterminate ethnicity, with the smallest mouth I’d ever seen. She had a lisp. She swayed while singing, sang off-key, very hoarsely, and looked around at us uncertainly. She was just awful. Mr. Hart, though, treated her like a star. “Wasn’t that great, guys?” He made all over her, never noticing that a real star was sitting right there on the floor. Oh, I never bothered to sing, dance, speak, or in any other was actually audition—but if I really had talent, and I was sure I had, wouldn’t someone as bright as Mr. Hart just know it?

I was never afraid of being bad. I was fearless in my heart. What I was afraid of was looking like a show-off. I would watch amazed as the super-talented dancer Terri Trelinski (who is now an elementary school music teacher) performed this original robot dance to Queen’s “Killer Queen,” music I loved but was also afraid of because I didn’t understand what their songs meant. (The only movie musical lyric I didn’t understand up to that point was, “And you’ll find that you’re in the Rotogravure”, and that was totally forgivable.) I didn’t think of her as a show-off. So what was I doing sitting there on that floor, smiling mysteriously to myself while all the other kids did the actual work of performing an audition and got parts in the show?

It turns out I was becoming addicted to my first taste of a powerful drug called Holding the Space. So powerful did my addiction to this become, I didn’t even realize that in Holding the Space I was Holding Myself Back. In fact, I never even thought about this tendency in myself until some 30 years later at a space down on White Street below Canal, a fifth floor walk-up loft where I found myself as assistant director in an experimental theatre company in New York. (Note: The late great actress no one ever heard of, Ruth Maleczech (whom I met once, and really scary in her power), who dedicated her creative life to Mabou Mines, the legendary experimental theater company based in NYC, said, “Don’t call it experimental, because people will say the experiment has failed. Just call it your work.”) Herewith, Demon #4 in Miss O’s Summer Series:

Miss O’s Demon Number Four: Holding the Space 8/27/16:    Years ago, when I was assisting a theatre genius who was guiding her company to create a piece I could not understand—I, who could only take notes, was unsure of my role in all this. About an upcoming rehearsal I could not attend, one actor said to the director, “But Lisa has to be there. She holds the space.” Whenever I feel lost, untalented, useless…I remember that perhaps my job is not to do anything, but rather, to just HOLD the SPACE. I think this sucks.

 Miss O’ Reflects

LISA HOLDS THE SPACE. She has to be there. She holds the space: Hear this like an echo chamber moment in Spellbound. The weight of the responsibility is enormous, in that unlike, say, being an actor there, my attention could not sway/falter/shift for an instant; I could not miss any single particulate of a moment if I was to do my job. More or less, that is my nature, and my students back in my teaching days found this unnerving. (“How do you remember all this?”) I also became aware that too many times I wasn’t remotely “holding the space” in my classroom when I learned later how much I actually missed—kids’ sense of confusion, being lost, feeling left out, etc., however much my awareness of life seemed heightened. (“I don’t see why you don’t think to help me just because I behave.”)

Holding the space made me well-suited to teaching and directing, professions as mysterious as they are obvious: Everyone knows directors make shows and movies, and that teachers teach school, but no one outside of it really knows how it gets done, how the work happens. Teachers and directors shoulder all the responsibility and accept all the blame, but are very often given no credit for successes. To the actor go the spoils. And for someone of my temperament—patient, a natural listener, given to life lived in the present (in what acting teacher Patsy Rodenburg calls “the second circle”)—holding the space or creating a place where people feel safe to be who THEY are, to create what they want, is a natural fit.

So this got me thinking: Is that who I am? A “space-holder”? And if so, is that a defeat for me as a creative person? Does this mean that in and of myself, I have nothing to offer to the world beyond my presence, my place in the audience, my payment for the purchase of your book, your art, your show ticket, and all the good wishes (truly heartfelt) that attend those purchases?


A few years ago, when I was at a low point—I would say nadir is not too strong a word—of my romantic life, a friend said to me, “You are a Rorschach. Like Marilyn Monroe, not physically, but in that way of hers. You have that something. People project onto you’re their fantasies, hopes, dreams, and expect you to reflect back to them exactly what they want everybody to see. And when you don’t respond the right way, they turn.” While not exactly comforting, the observation nonetheless made a lot of things clearer to me—mostly in the form of behaviors, turnabouts, and so forth. It also helped explain the sudden and deep criticism I might get from a friend I had known as supportive if I moved into a new creative area, or moved, say, to New York City. And it made me learn to stay away from Rorschach projectors. Here’s ink in your eye.

The connection between Holding the Space and Being a Rorschach has mostly to do with serving the needs of others. I’m very good at maintaining friendships, checking in on people or being there when they need me to. Sometimes I fail. But this thing that nags at me is, “Is there anything else I can contribute?” or maybe more than that, “Is there anything that I have to say for myself that others might want to hear?”

The Open Theater

In my junior year of college I was assigned to act in a directing student’s final project. The student, who went on to appear in a few films and in theater before giving it up (and happily) to be married and a mom, was given the task of creating an original piece in the style of Joseph Chaikin. Chaikin is all about emotional honesty, and I suspect she was assigned this style to help “grow” her professionally. It’s what taking classes is for. As we began the rehearsals, one thing that cropped up as a topic among all of us was daydreaming. I don’t know how we arrived there, but we all talked about our fantasies, and I shared mine, which was of “being discovered,” just like in fifth grade. And the director herself began turning around like an Oscar, and we developed my whole scene in a short time. Although it exposed my shallow dream for all to see, it was honest, and it was funny. When we went on to create her daydream—of being swept up by a knight in shining armor, to the strains of the soundtrack from On Golden Pond, the honesty nearly destroyed her. She returned to the next rehearsal saying we had to scrap the whole idea, that it was too close to the bone, and find a new idea to build a show around. We slapped together something, though it really didn’t have anything like the intended outcome of honesty and deep connection to the material, and I’ve always thought the loss of that show was a shame.

The consequences of this pulling back, pulling away from truth, though, has always stayed with me. It put me on the alert—looking to see when I did that to myself. And slowly, slowly, I have been working out this demon.

In graduate school—five summers at a the Bread Loaf School of English—I came to the summer before my senior one, and at a cocktail party the fiction professor (who had taught three of my closest friends there) asked, “Are you finally going to take my fiction workshop next summer?” He and I were both from Virginia and had bonded over that through the summers; I shook my head. “Oh, no, David, I’m not a writer. I teach and coach drama, theater is my thing.” And he eyed me over his gin and tonic and spoke in a way I had never heard, and it shocked me: “Is the baby afwaid to take my workshop?” I glared at him. “Fuck you. I’m taking your workshop.” He smiled, pleased with himself, and sipped his drink.

The following summer, as I was well into my second story in the workshop, I chanced upon Professor David as he left the tennis court. “And how is your writing life today?” he asked. My writing life. MY creative life. As a writer.

Whenever I feel lost, or untalented, or useless, I think I need to remember to ask myself that question.

I count it as the happiest question I have ever been asked.

Miss O’ in Vermont, ca. 1990









Demon Number Three: I, Hermit!


Alone in My Room

Miss O’ reflects on Demon #3, from her Summer Series

When I was born, my Great Aunt Lora (whose name I thought until about six years ago was spelled “Laura”), my mom’s mother’s older sister, made me a quilt. It had red and white squares in a pattern not quite checkerboard, but like that, over-embroidered with swirls of red thread, white thread quilting it together. It was measured for my twin bed, and included a pillow sham and a sham to roll an extra blanket into. I wore out the entire right side of the coverlet by sitting on it to stare into my mirror, the frame of which was painted red to match; and the mirror sat atop a quilted dresser scarf with a ruffle outlined in red, resting on a dresser that was also painted red. My walls, which began life in mint green and then robin’s egg blue, a color scheme from the 1950s, were finally painted white at some point. The room, about 7’ (maybe less) by 8’ (probably a little less), would be unsuitable for even an HGTV master closet today, but it created a nest for my dreaming ways. Though mostly red and white, including a clown lamp with white shade covered in red polka dots, and a red smiley-face rug, I remember my room in Technicolor.

Room Collage Memory, with apologies to Van Gogh and the Stones

I was the only sibling of my parents’ four kids (my older half sister and brother, from my dad Bernie’s first marriage, lived in North Carolina with their mom) to have her own room. My three younger brothers shared the third bedroom, one that included bunk bed plus trundle bed, three dressers, and shelves, in a red and blue color scheme. We thought nothing of this crowding (until it came time to wash sheets, and then dear GOD, the gymnastics), seeing as my dad slept in an attic with his brother (two of eight) back in Iowa in the 1930s, so shut up already.

My room in our small house was a sanctuary from television noise and Lego fights, and I was put in mind of that cozy feeling again today, as I always am, when watching a TCM black and white classic movie from the 1940s—when a middle class (and inevitably white) character goes upstairs and retreats to her small but very pleasant bedroom to grieve, or dream, or scheme. Everyone was so clean in those films, and the rooms were so tidy. I still find it comforting to watch—they are so safe there, so loved. I’m not a nostalgic person, but I take my comforts where I find them.

I guess it’s not surprising that I had a reputation, if brothers are to be believed, as a hermit. My strongest memories from childhood are not really in my room, though, but outside playing, and yet when I reflect, I know I spent nearly all my time in my room reading Humpty Dumpty magazine for children, and, later, Scholastic books and Nancy Drew mysteries; listening to The Partridge Family, rearranging my little objects—a music box, a few dolls, a little ceramic bust of Mary in prayer (what else?), and my makeup tray-turned-bar (a decanter of my mom’s, filled with water and red food coloring flavored with cinnamon, and a glass for “sherry”)—drawing pictures (mostly copies of the cartoons my friends drew), and writing little poems. I loved getting a little desk with a blotter when I was in 4th grade. I still don’t know how all of it fit in the room, but it did.

Meet the Welcome Wagon

In my neighborhood in the 1960s and early ’70s, with our town situated between two major military bases outside of D.C., and this being the Vietnam War, we saw a lot of military families coming and going on two-year stints. Other neighbors, mostly young families, stayed only a short time and moved away to larger homes when they began to do better financially, or to trailers when the opposite happened. I remember my neighborhood, as a young child, seeming very empty of activity, and then wild with it, trucks to work on, cars and their radios, teenagers–all those potential babysitters.

Whenever a family with young children moved in—and this habit of mine began when I was in 2nd grade or so—I took it upon myself to be the Welcome Wagon I heard about on TV but never actually saw. Naturally watchful and shy, I simply SHONE when in the company of NEW PEOPLE. “Hello, new people,” I would say, “I am Lisa O’Hara.” I befriended the kids (teachers sensed this knack, and always put me in charge of the new kids in class), introduced them around (as best I could, given that I wasn’t “cool”), and played with them even though most were much younger. I liked looking at all their stuff. Then they’d move away: Michelle (who had a collection of dolls from Korea), Sandra (who had a lot of board games I’d never heard of), Teresa (who stole my allowance from my bunny bank), Dawn (who invited me for a sleepover and whose parents kept us up watching the creepy Charlton Heston movie Omega Man on ABC’s Friday Night at the Movies), Jimmy (who taught me the expression, “Finder’s keepers, losers weepers,” which I thought was hateful), Tommy (an early crush, and his parents were real-and-for-true hippies with a “Never trust anyone over 30” poster and a “Save water, shower with a friend” poster hanging in their basement). A lot of other kids stayed around for years, though, and we’d see each other in all the schools from first grade to graduation, on college breaks, in the store, but I remained close with only one or two people I grew up with in the neighborhood. I was always more comfortable helping all the new kids—a lifelong habit—than I was in maintaining friendships in situ, as they say.

How many friends was I close to for merely a few weeks or months of a school year? Surely I wasn’t the only one. Were other people like this? When I was in high school, my mom, Lynne, gave me a copy of Truman Capote’s memoir, bound in a lovely case, called “A Christmas Memory.” It’s the brief story of his childhood with his cousin, Sook Faulk (not named in the telling), and their Christmases together, including the baking of fruitcakes. They mail the cakes to friends: “Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.”

This sentiment hit my heart just right, and so did this: “Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes.”

I am, by nature, an itinerant friend, but through great good luck and the energies of others, I have a wealth of friends kept over the long haul, people who don’t seem to tire of me after a month or two once I’ve helped them into the world, showed them the ropes of the work ring, or they’ve shown me; or simply moved to a new place. It’s a little miracle. I say this because one big down side of me, Lisa, is that I tend to put the feelings of complete strangers ahead of people I am close to. Once, a new boyfriend dumped me when, because our meal came late and the boyfriend was vocally critical of the service, I made a comforting joke to the waiter. Things like that. All the time. Somehow I feel it’s my job to take care of the feelings of strangers I will never see again in all my life. I have no idea why I do this.

I think it’s this habit of being—of being itinerant in my acquaintances and at ease in fast friendships—that made teaching a natural fit. I like meeting new people, working with them, and letting them go at end of term. I like moving on to the next people. Or rather, I did. At 52, much as I really love chatting up strangers here and there, making new deep friendships isn’t something I look for. I am so grateful for the ones I have. So lucky.

I must also note that I tend to inadvertently hurt new acquaintances because I create the feeling of ease and intimacy so quickly: They assume, these New People, that they have this new best friend, after the simplest of compliments or a casual funny remark, and sometimes there’s really no there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland. “Hi,” I want to say to them, “I am Lisa Oakland.” And I feel bad about it, but not bad enough to protect feelings that might turn into “glomming,” as in “glomming onto me” for some kind of therapeutic reason or something. “No, really, I am Lisa Oakland.”

Dance, Ballerina

Oh, the sweet silence of my room. The pleasant feeling of walking into my very own room. It never gets old. In the silence of my room…I used to talk out loud, acting out scenes as if writing them, except out loud—and little, if anything, made it on to paper. After performing many of these scenes in the 3′ x 2′ of open floor space, I might, perhaps, dress up in one of my mom’s glamorous dresses from her swinging years as a naval officer in San Juan, and humbly, graciously accept my Academy Award. I would also accept offers to dance, or accept a date from Errol Flynn or David Cassidy. Games of my imagination felt very natural in the safety of my room, but outside playing with the kids from my street, any game other than kick ball or tag or racing on bikes would have made me feel foolish.

Above all, I remember that I spent hours staring into the mirror. Who am I? What will I become? What’s in a face? Why can’t I see my own eyes without a mirror?

Somehow, I turned inward into outward, walked through or past the looking glass, and tried out for plays. I wrote parodies of books, or musical versions of our dramatic efforts, such as Dracula set to the music of The Wizard of Oz.

 Weeeeeeeee’re OFF to see Count Dracula,

The count is a really bad guy!

If we don’t stab him in his coffin,

Then we all will die…”

Followed by: “Crosses and garlic and sun, oh my!”

I dreamed of being fabulous, glamorous, witty, and cool. An actor, a writer, a dancer, a dazzling interview guest on Dinah!. I also dreamed of being a school teacher. No one knew this. No one could have imagined how my imagination lit up while crooning along to Sinatra or Nat King Cole on my record player, performing Peggy Lee-style to the face of my clown lamp. I may have been a hermit; maybe I missed out on a lot of action out in the world. Who knows? And how to explain that being up on a stage, or in front of a classroom, feels just as safe as being alone in my old room? It’s the oddest thing.

I still live alone. A few roommates aside, I mostly always have. Was I right to play like this, live like this? Play at being a teacher to my dolls, being a performer for my stuffed animals—giving my all, all of me, once more with feeling, all for strangers I’d never meet, and later to perfect strangers? As Truman Capote might say, I think yes.

Miss O’, ca. 1976



Demon! Number! Two! Second in a Summer Series

Demon Blog #2 July 16, 2016

In my continuing summer series based on the encouraging work of cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry in One! Hundred! Demons!, I bring you Miss O’s Demon No. 2:

Miss O’s Demon #2

My Big Fat Mouth

It is in the small moments that I do it: Walking through a derelict section of town, a dust bowl, a collection of tall weeds and small multicolored houses from the 1930s, probably, now in decay, but still inhabited; a dirt road, maybe the last on this side of the county, runs its short length. My brother Pat and his friends always called it Carney Town, after their classmate Jimmy Carney, who lived there. They were being mean, in that thoughtless way little boys can be, but I wasn’t naturally mean, so I didn’t realize it. I thought the name was real, like a place named after its founder. Our grown older brother Craig was visiting, so Pat said, “Hey, can you walk us to the store?” We took “the path,” a supposed Indian trail behind the housing development where we lived, which ran through woods along a creek over to the elementary school, ending at Blackburn Road. We crossed the paved road and began walking the dirt road that led to the loading docks behind the new grocery store, a short cut. As we walked in the summer sun, I was feeling so free, just us kids hanging out and the dust blowing from the road; I announced to Craig our location, like an asinine tour guide.

“This is Carney Town!” I exclaimed, smiling.

Pat said, whispering hard, “God, Lisa, don’t say that out loud!”

“Why not?”

“It’s a JOKE. That’s Jimmy’s last name. We just call it that.”

“Why do you call it that?” I asked. Pat just shook his head.

And then I got it. And I wanted to die.

Collage response to Miss O’s Demon #2

I have done this sort of thing as long as I can remember. Sometimes I have the flair of a comedian, and the older I get and the less stupid I become, the more I manage that identity most of the time; but sometimes, especially in my youth, I might just humiliate myself, and everyone around me, with the casual gaffe. It’s my gift—the riches of embarrassment.

It’s a knife-edge I walk between funny and destructive over the shit-road leading outta my mouth. My brain makes a shift from surprisingly thoughtful to you did not just say that in the trip of a tongue. Here is a typical moment: Once, in high school, my friend Jason’s sister tried to commit suicide by taking twenty-two aspirin tablets. Jason was kind of a kook, troubled in many ways that would become apparent in later years, but he was wildly funny in a sarcastic way, laughing sometimes too loudly at the antics of others, or saying something bitingly nasty while serving you homemade cookies. You just never knew. One Friday night a group of us got together, all of us knowing what had happened to Jason’s sister, who had survived her suicide attempt and was in the hospital. We were all eating popcorn, sitting on the basement floor, I beside Jason. Someone shared an anecdote and remarked at the close, “I could have died right there!” to which Jason said, “Next time take twenty-two aspirins.” There was a silence, and I said, “Twenty-three.”

A beat.

And Jason collapsed with the most full-bodied laughter I’d ever seen. It was disturbing, but it gave the room a release—a terrible joke that came off, a blend of the situation, the recipient, and the timing, balancing on a knife-edge. I am haunted by the big fat mouth portion of this story, in any case, because I later learned about many problems Jason had, and how close I was to having it all go wrong. For example, not long ago, one mutual friend reminded me of a time that he, Jason, and I went to the mall, Jason driving, and that Jason later told the friend that he’d intended to kill himself on the highway that day, and take us with him, but that we’d made him laugh so hard he forgot to do it.

Is the story true? Did Jason really mean to do that? Suppose I’d said something that sent him careening into a guardrail while doing eighty? How could I have known? Did my big fat mouth, after all, save us?

For Living Out Loud

I live in New York City, where I take mass transit most every day with a hundred strangers on any given car and more on the streets, and somehow I still find myself talking out loud. Yesterday, for instance, I was saying something out loud on 7th Avenue by the Uptown 1-2-3 subway entrance, when a woman coming around to the entrance from the other side looked at me quizzically, and then said, gruffly, “Go ahead,” and used her arm like a maître d’, though she was closer to the entrance. My eyes widened, and I said, “No, please, go, I was just talking to myself.” I laughed. And she began descending the stairs, saying over her shoulder, “Oh, I do that all the time, too,…”. And you see, she was black, with an afro, and Obama had done this race “town hall” on ABC that afternoon, one that had turned into whites saying in essence that black people need to learn to behave and “comply,” with so little talk about the need for new training of law enforcement that it’s become a national humiliation, our racism—and I have no idea what I’d been saying, while talking to myself, I don’t know what she heard, or thought she heard, that caused her to assume something “entitled” about white me. But somehow, in being present to her, in simply saying the honest thing—that I was talking to myself—and laughing at myself, we figured out if not an intimacy, at least some kind of stair bond to get us to our trains.

Would You Mind Not Posting about Politics on Facebook?

F*#% you.

I say that with love. And often in print.

Guts and Glory: I Dream a Mouth

Listen, it’s not just talking to myself in public or loudly exclaiming my politics in social media and at the office that makes me unattractive. When I was in fifth grade, I said to Lori Grimaldi, “I hate your guts.” I’m not necessarily always a nice person, is what I mean. Sometimes I’m also a rat. Once, when I was around that same age as when I told off Lori back there, I told a fat old lady in a sleeveless house dress who was complaining about “these kids” that my brother Pat was one of them, and she said, “I’m calling the law.” And she was as good as her word, first calling up our house asking for my father. I’d answered the phone and then lied with “You have the wrong number,” and hung up. But she called again, and this time my dad, Bernie, answered. My face burned. I ran upstairs. The world was over—everyone was going to go to jail, Pat was going to jail, all because of my big fat mouth. But as it was, my dad talked the fat old lady down by threatening to countersue her “for calling those kids names,” and she shut up. “How did she get our number?” my dad asked me. Search me, I said. But I could never lie well, and his stare blew a hole through my heart and out my mouth.

I got over it.

I kept talking. I could keep talking about incidents like this, I gotta million of ’em, but I think you get the picture.

Where I worry most about the consequences of my big fat mouth, where my regrets run in mind mazes of torment, is when I try to get to sleep nights and begin recalling my life as a teacher. I’ve written blogs in the past (feel free to read them here and here) about particular students or classroom examples, but the truth is I don’t know how many times a smart remark or a naïve exclamation has ruined the days of how many people. Poor kids, I think to myself. God knows what I’ve said to let them down, because what I recall myself is most likely but a little spittle in the life spittoon.

Where do I still find the courage to talk? To crack jokes? To yell about injustice? To write and publish, to go out into the world making casual remarks on the subway hoping for a laugh? To tell a son of a bitch to calm the f*#% DOWN already? Where does anyone find it?

Red faces didn’t stop me. Braces didn’t stop me. The possibility of a smack upside the head still doesn’t stop me. Even the threat of the law, I guess, won’t make me shut it.

All I really want from this mouth of mine is either to make someone think or to make someone laugh.

Make my day.

Miss O’ announces her braces, ca. 1976.





One! Summer’s! Demons! With gratitude to Lynda Barry, though this is not her fault

Demons of Miss O’

This summer, inspired by my dear friend of 26 years, poet Jean LeBlanc, I am rereading her gift book to me, One! Hundred! Demons! by artist and writer Lynda Barry. When I first read it a year ago, or was it two, I enjoyed it. I was on a bus returning to New York City from Jean’s home (shared with husband George, retired school teacher and bead artist, and also a friend of 26 years) in western New Jersey, and the book was perfect for a two-hour ride; it was diverting, but at that time not wholly inspiring. I thought about the book, the art, the stories. I shelved it. I spent another year being depressed and creating nothing. Still in need of inspiration, obviously, after a year, I finally found the THING at a poetry workshop this past June, arranged by Jean, with poet and dancer Katrinka Moore (coincidentally a former colleague of mine in educational publishing). Through the processes of “erasure” and “augmentation” (do Google this, and the poets, too—must I hyperlink? must I?) with assorted pages of text, I felt I’d found a way to reconnect to the written word. And moved into rereading Lynda Barry’s book again by reading another Barry book, set out for me as Jean and George’s guest, What It Is, I realized that all of us go dry, aren’t sure where to turn—creatively or personally or life-wise—and that that is what art might be for.

So I have begun this past week listing my own 100 Demons, which is not the process Barry models at all—she models painting them out, an empty mind open to discovery and surprise, the traditional Buddhist way. My paintbrush, as it were, tends to be my eyes washing over the masses living in New York, and they inspire demons to appear before me so fiercely that I have to write them down. And since I can’t seem to locate the necessary Asian art supplies and really want to start, I’m beginning by using what I have at hand. In this blog this summer, I’ll be laying the resulting demons out and commenting on them in terms of teaching, which seems to be what I do and who I am, no matter what dreams I may have to the contrary or to the more glamorous. Dammit. Another demon.

Demon #1 PRAYER Demon

Photo 1: My painting using calligraphy practice paper, dried up India ink, water, and nearly-dry gold paint, all stored in a cardboard box where I keep 25-year-old calligraphy stuff, a gift from my parents back when I was a young teacher with dreams of lettering, and brushes I bought back in college for making watercolor renderings in set design and costume design classes. To the DEMON.

Demon Art #1 by LO’H


Photo #2: My story, in brief. Curtains up on the…

Demon Story #1 by LO’H

 Miss O’, Teacher, responds/elaborates/queries:

In first grade, my mom, Lynne, had me wear a little gold cross to dress up my velvet multi-colored-stripe dress for picture day. This was a very expensive little necklace, very fine and delicate, and was only for special occasions. It had been a gift from my godmother, I think. So nervous was I, I guess, about hurting it, that I took it off for recess, putting in on the little tray just inside my school desk. When I returned with the rest of the class, the necklace was gone. That moment is amazingly vivid for me—the taking off of the necklace—and all my life since I’ve had to endure the premonition problem, that knowing that I am damned if I do, and if I don’t. (I’ve always known, when lending an item, whether or not it will be returned. I have not been wrong, and this is scary.) I remember that I told my mom but nothing else about it, and years later, when looking at pictures, she told me always regretted making me wear that cross. She blamed herself, though of course it was the sneak thief and his or her parents. My mom was always very fair to us that way, owning her choices.

That summer, though, or maybe the summer after second grade, my mom became troubled that I had no idea who Jesus was. “Who is Jesus? Why do kids keep talking about Jesus?” I asked. One day, I found myself crammed into a station wagon with the Hollisters, Jimmy and Teresa, as well as other neighbor kids, for an adventure in Vacation Bible School. I lasted one day. “We cut out pictures of Jesus and put him on popsicle sticks to carry around. Why are we doing this?” I demanded of my mom. I remember being disgusted, standing there on the yellow and beige asbestos kitchen tiles, wearing a tidy dress of some sort when I ought to be in shorts from Sears Roebuck. Strike two for Christianity.

But it was in middle school that the real “you need to find Jesus” or “you need to find God” pressure started. All the girls at lunch, the white, tall girls from the posh section of our suburbs, who’d been bused in from their overcrowded middle school, went on and on about God. I couldn’t help noticing that the people who most professed the need for God and the love of Jesus in my state of Virginia were either poor and black or rich and white. If you were working class or middle class, and not aspiring for riches so much as hoping to maintain a decent status quo, God was sort of a fact of life without the proselytizing.

And in college, some of us would try an occasional midnight mass. Our parents’ religious upbringings or personal beliefs notwithstanding, I and most of my friends enjoyed the American right of freedom of (and from) religion, and we enjoyed it with grace.

A few years ago, on a visit to Iowa and staying with my mom’s cousin, Denny, a longtime deacon in the Catholic church, I came downstairs to find him standing, eyes closed, hands against the wall, and he looked up. “You caught me in my morning prayers,” he said quietly, and then grinned. He became serious again. “Do you pray?” he asked.

I hadn’t thought about it—not since the Passion of the Plane Crash ca. 1979 (I think it was, and I am learning that I don’t need to Google this event just to prove a date, because really, is that even the point?)—and was surprised to hear a golden truth come out of my mouth: “Uncle Denny, I’m never not in prayer.” He regarded me and nodded. He’s a man who sees a truth told. “Wanna go to the cemetery?” he asked. And we did that.

Prayer for me is a private act. It’s not something that can be coaxed from me, nor advertised for on social media, nor requested on the phone. It’s an act performed at the oddest times and places, and that’s all I’ll say. To ask for prayers seems to me a kind of violation of basic etiquette, like telling me to send you a present for your birthday. Prayer for me is above all an expression of love, bestowed upon those I love, and some I don’t, freely, with real heart, and truly.

And finally, it’s not a little cross necklace worn on picture day, or Jesus on a stick.

But your way of praying is your way, and just as valid if it gets you through the chemo, the surgery, the childbirth, the deaths of parents. I wouldn’t take it away, though I may not answer in the way you want or at all.

I pray that with love.

Miss O’, ca. 1970

About Birds


Dead Birds

The spring here in New York City has been a seriously odd one: Odd because it was so cold, too dry, and then too wet, for so long; then the winds shifted and I went, quite literally, from wearing flannel pajamas to bed one night to wearing a tee shirt and turning on a fan the next night. And it’s been hot and humid ever since.

It’s been “seriously” odd because on sidewalks in Queens I’ve been seeing small blobs of what looks like flesh, and it wasn’t until I came home a few weeks ago to see such a blob on my own stoop, a curve of flesh with a bright yellow point on it, that I inspected closely enough to see the shape of a bird embryo. My friend Ryan remarked the other day that he’d never seen so many dead baby birds in New York in the 20 years he’s lived here. Neither have I.

Birds are consuming the attention of lots of my friends this spring. My super, Hasan, was hauling up the trash last week, and I saw him trying to catch something—which turned out to be a mostly-flightless baby bird. He’d been keeping an eye on two of them, trapped down there, and he was torn: He realized they were probably safer down there in the trash alley than out in the open, but also they needed water and food, and he grinned because they are so cute, but he also didn’t want to step on them. (And you might think: “It’s a couple of birds. Who cares?” If you thought that, why are you reading this? Go vote for Trump and watch the whole human story go up in YU-uuge showgirl plumes. You disgust me. I say that with love.) Hasan put out water and and I contributed crumbs, but in the end they didn’t make it. He told me yesterday he found both of them dead. “I think it’s pesticides,” he said; Rachel Carson’s “silent spring” 2016.

The nest under neighbor Bob’s AC, Sunnyside, Queens

Signs of life: In a lump of an excuse for a spruce tree in front of my co-op, a Hispanic woman on my block pointed out the “bird that always sits in that tree”. I was out watering the flowers I’ve begun planting in an earnest garden attempt, for the second year, and she complimented my colors (it’s wildly life-affirming to see even the toughest looking New Yorker, and anyone of every imaginable background, have his eye caught by blooms in dirt). I realized this was the same mourning dove, or partner (because they mate for life), I’d seen pecking among the marigolds the week before. “There must be a nest,” I said, and maybe it’s a trend; a co-worker had recently posted her own mourning dove colony from her Long Island porch. I hope they make it, these babies. Hasan hopes no one smacks the tree—easy reach from the sidewalk; and you wonder why the doves landed here rather than behind the tree—I guess to face the sunshine. I put out a planter base and keep it filled with water. I hope I’m helping. Poor things—they’ve probably been breeding here for years and my expanded garden has encroached on their peaceable kingdom; or else mourning doves prefer to breed around people who tend gardens so they feel safe—perhaps human activity keeps squirrels and other birds at bay. (In my youth, we had a pair near my parents’ side garden for years; I suppose I could research these birds’ habits. I probably won’t. It’s the American in me.)

As a hopeful contrast to the bird deaths or worrying about their survival, I like to check on my friend David’s Facebook page, where he shares his daily photographs of his Vermont aviary—the wild visitors to his garden, a habitat complete with heated birdbath. I have the rather unimaginative habit of anthropomorphizing the portraits. It’s the actress and mime in me. I told David I’d like to do a series of essays called “Man Kinds: An Aviary,” and he gave me his kind consent. I haven’t gotten around to it, dwelling as I have been on birds dying no doubt because of human poisons. The birds seem to deserve better than to be compared to human types, better than to be labeled by my own limited worldview, to say nothing of limited talent.

Not to be a narcissistic asshole, but in former years I thought of myself as imaginative; creative; even, on occasion, artistic. I seemed to have unlimited faculties, deep memory, living equally, powerfully, in the present, past, and into the future. My mind, like the birds in fountain frolic, seemed to be in continuous motion, or majestic pause, or profound repose. Present. But lately my brain feels less like a marvelous engine of the gods and more akin to the dead embryos splayed on the sidewalks of Queens.

Kiss me, I’m poisoned.


Silent Spring Redux

Mourning dove, first sighting, Sunnyside, Queens

What dominates your memory? Yards, food, couches, jobs, relatives, relationships, clothes, games, birds? Is it jagged? Spotty? Light like a balloon? Weighted by cement blocks of regret? A long line of losses? A fabulous ride with a Bond-style soundtrack in the background? Up until around my 52nd birthday, my life felt like a steady continuum, a nice little chug, you know, interrupted by mental breakdowns. Like everyone. This continuum/eruption pattern has ever been centered on, as for anyone, the places I’ve lived and the things I created there, jobs I’ve had, and the people I knew and cared about there. I used to could (I love that expression) remember with equal vividness living in my childhood home, my college dwellings, my first-job apartment, houses in rural Virginia, and my New York City apartments. I also remembered with equal vividness my friends’ homes around the country, from childhood and adulthood visits; relatives’ homes in extended visits to Virginia, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, North Carolina, and California; hotel rooms and campsites from various vacations. Schools, applications, interviews, degrees, theaters, deadlines, papers, rehearsals, votes, getting my truck inspected over 17 years—all tossed in the bowl of my brain like a delicious crisp salad, dressed lightly but with tang.

What has happened since turning 52 (this past month—I know, monumental reflection attends this writing) is that my memory has begun to slant and obscure—not from a disease, but from aging out of the past. I mean the past has begun to feel far away for the first time, veiled in sepia tulle in parts, the way I picture my parents’ childhoods during the Depression. The moment of the turning, or my awareness of it: Yesterday my old friend Rick wrote me that “it’s finally happening,” and his mother “is moving out of her home.” This news hit hard for a number of reasons—partly to do with circumstances and partly to do with the wording, and it’s in words that I really live. The circumstances: The reason for the move is that Rick’s father and a true friend to me died quite unexpectedly last August, and ever since, the question has been what his mother, Jane, would do, or rather what Rick and his sister would do with their mom, as we say now of the aged. And I don’t mean to sound flip—it was the first thing I thought of, and my wording, and she isn’t my mother. I and my friends are of the age that, if our parents are still living and not yet infirm, we have to think about this. Nearly all of my friends, come to think of it, are way past the thinking stage.

And not to turn this into a linguistic exercise, for my feelings about this are anything but a game, but I’m trying to trace my thinking about how the wording of Rick’s quite simple message seemed to melt my brain:

  1. “it’s finally happening”: “it”= what? Everything we dread: The eventual death of his mother on the heels of his father, the end of childhood, the abandonment of him and his sister to the winds; “finally happening”= inevitably, the thing that can no longer be put off or denied, the movement toward eternity, is coming to pass.
  2. “is moving out of her home” = “her home” is what hit me—“her”—the land where Jane’s house is that used to be the Family Farm; and it was a farm for three generations; but piece by piece by piece, by cousins and the kids, the farm was sold to developers, with some pieces taken by eminent domain for a road-widening project (for eleven years I rented a beloved little sharecropper’s house on this parcel); it was a farm where Rick and his sister Susan used to invite all their suburban friends for popcorn parties in the basement and jeep rides out to the cemetery in the woods on Halloween nights; where for all of Rick’s childhood was a goat pen and for the last 25 years a Christmas tree farm; and it hit me that since their marriages and children, it hasn’t been “their” home—the home of my friends Rick and Susan—not for a long time; and since the death of their father it hasn’t been “their” home, meaning the home of Jane and her husband Jerry, my friends’ father. It’s been Jane’s alone.
  3. And I felt that awful sting behind my eyes as my mind’s eye photograph of the farm and our youthful times there went slant, viewed as through a funnel. It freaked me out: In that moment, this part of my life became, officially “the past.” This is the first time in my life I was conscious of a huge swath of my life losing its presence in my mind. A boundary shifted.

Have you experienced that? Weird, isn’t it?

Blue Birds Return to Virginia

A few years before I left the house on Spriggs Road, my corner of the old farm, the blue bird house on the edge of the woods, across the fallow field that was my back yard, was finally occupied. Blue birds had become nearly extinct in Virginia, as invasive bird body snatchers threatened their survival. But one spring, I saw them—a pair—using the house. And it filled a girl with hope.

More hope: Each fall, the great migration brought the biggest murder of crows you ever saw, a veritable slaughter of wings, landing on the land all around the house to feed and rest before heading off again. It was thrilling.

And always the geese, the same flight, the same pattern, until one fall, when I saw geese flying around and around, crying out in calls that began to sound desperate. I went outside, and it seemed the arrow of geese was becoming tired, even frantic, and it hit me: I knew geese flew by topographical map, and not far down the road a swath of trees had been cut down that summer for a drainage project and new sewer line. I knew the pond they wanted, and they were about 200 yards away: I found myself waving like mad, pointing to the farm across the road. “Go! Go! You are so CLOSE!!!” Eventually they landed, and I’m sure I had not a goddamned thing to do with it.

Goose Family, Syosset, Long Island industrial park. Surely there was a farm here once.

And now the farms all around that place are nothing but housing developments. God knows where the geese have gone, or the crows, or the blue birds.

I moved to New York.

But birds keep following me. Because it’s all about me. What I mean is—wherever you are, the birds got there first, and whenever you’re feeling lonely or in need of perspective, you can go watch birds. They just don’t get dull. It’s a mystery. For instance, I’ve got two whatever-the-hell-they’re-called sparrow-type things who fight most every morning around 8 AM by my air conditioner; I hope that’s a good thing. There’s a regular conclave atop the 15’ chain-link fence that separates our co-op (very like a coop) from the playground.

It’s the aviary of actual birds that matters. I’ve lost interest in comparing human types to the birds in David’s gorgeous photos. There are too many of us, anyway. Childless and in peri-menopause, I often think the very best gift I’ve given to humanity is no more of me. (Whatever ills the humans do, the birds show the symptoms if not at first, then at near-last, it seems, and either way it’s bad.) And if I’m lucky, no one will have to figure out what to do with me when my time comes. I just need a working rocker under a tree, a warm blanket, and a box of wine, until I turn into a tree myself. A wobbly tree.

In the meantime, I’ll keep up the bird watch. Much love to all those who are losing links in their chains of life. Look up, though. I see a bird.

Mourning dove in Sunnyside, Queens

All photos by Miss O’, 2016

Bucking the System

Recently, in honor of Black History Month, one of my former students posted an essay on “buck breaking.” I had never heard of that. Here is research I found, oral histories of former slaves recorded at the time of the WPA in 1937. The pieces require real concentration, as the chronicler honored the dialect of each speaker, but the stories are horrifying and make for utterly necessary reading.

AMERICA: As Miss O’ used to point out to the white students who would ask (and ask and ask and ask) why 1) blacks just don’t “get over it”; and 2) why we don’t have a WHITE History Month–I could only point out that we had 350 years of slavery, and (today) only 50 years of civil rights; the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed in MY lifetime. But I didn’t know the half of it: THIS is the history of slavery that needs to be taught in every high school. 

For your further edification, in case you missed it in your history classes, I am including photos and engravings I found on Google Images which further show the history of abuses chronicled at the time of slavery.

  1. This was the photo which appeared in a newspaper to galvanize the Abolitionist Movement in this country:1095374

Prior to the publication of this story, Americans at the time of the Civil War had no notion of the cruelties. These weren’t even the beginning of them–the accounts of sodomy (a white slave owner in front of his male slave’s family, to “break” his spirit) and rape, to say nothing of a white master standing over an unwilling “buck” and female slave to “breed” them. How does one recover from 7 or 8 or 9 GENERATIONS of this treatment in this country? HOW?


2. Slaveowners “broke” “bucks” in any number of ways–torturing strong black men into “complying” with the “system”.


Did that look familiar? It should:


3. And white slave owners forced other slaves to do the breaking for them:


A friend of Miss O’s maintains to this day: “Lisa, slaves were lucky. How would they give up that way of life? They were nothing, and we took care of them.” And Miss O’ throws up a little in her mouth. Too many Southern whites (and other whites) feel this way–they dehumanize blacks and know nothing of the true history of slavery. Even in colleges and universities–particularly Southern ones–professors preach the old story of “states’ rights”, stating that the real cause of the Civil War was about state autonomy, though the South surely couldn’t have cared less about the North’s rights to house free men and women who made it North.

4. The above reasoning for the war’s cause is, frankly, BULLSHIT. The war was about slavery–the human rights abuses and the economic stranglehold the South held because of “free labor,” in the form of slaves. I hope that American schools today are teaching this, or will change if they have not already–to teach the truth of this horrifying practice of slavery as it really was, and then to acknowledge the PTSD suffered for generations. The police forces need this education, as do our politicians. ALL of us need this education, as ugly as it is–and at its ugliest.


It’s Black History Month. (And if for even a fleeting second you thought, “Why isn’t there a WHITE History Month, you need to read this piece more than anyone else. And also the ones I’m linking to below.)

Here’s a current piece that reflects the legacy of slavery, for as you ought to know, 42% of Black men are incarcerated, many for life. Read and contemplate, from The Guardian:

Albert Woodfox released from jail after 43 years in solitary confinement

From the article:

“Woodfox, who was kept in solitary following the 1972 murder of a prison guard for which he has always professed his innocence, marked his 69th birthday on Friday by being released from West Feliciana parish detention center. It was a bittersweet birthday present: the prisoner finally escaped a form of captivity that has widely been denounced as torture, and that has deprived him of all meaningful human contact for more than four decades.”

It’s worth noting:

“His murder conviction was twice overturned – once in 1992 on grounds that he had received ineffective defense representation, and again in 2008 because of racial discrimination in setting up the grand jury that indicted him. Last year, Louisiana announced it would put him through a third trial despite the fact that all the key witnesses to the killing have since died. Woodfox’s lawyers argued the lack of witnesses would render such a retrial a legal mockery.”

That’s right: TWICE overturned. Because white-owned and operated prisons don’t give two shits about justice, fairness, or following the law when it comes to Blacks. They don’t traditionally see Blacks as people. I say that with love, though Whites make it really hard.

So if you are a White person reading this, and especially if you count yourself among the  White people who have been outraged by the very existence of #blacklivesmatter; or are incensed that Black people are upset about the murders of other black people at the hands of cops, just because they wouldn’t “comply”; or who agree that the police should never indicted (unless the cop is Asian) for such murders; and who cannot understand why Black people don’t get that Trayvon Martin was killed rightly for being male, black, young, and wearing a hoodie; and who think that Tamir Rice deserved to get shot dead for playing in a park with a BB gun, without warning, and in an open-carry state; and who found yourselves baffled or “turned off” by the brilliant Kendrick Lamar’s shattering performance at the Grammys–read every single thing I shared in this little post.

And then:

Watch Kendrick Lamar Own the Grammys With a Stellar Performance Honoring Trayvon Martin

Again. And again. And again. Until you are sobbing like the ignorant White person you have been all these years.


Miss O’s friend Sylvia saw a sign on a college campus:  “Yes, all lives matter – so if your black brother feels his doesn’t, help him carry his sign.” This is your Miss O’ saying, “Make an effort.” For America.

Here’s to Black History Month.


With all this in mind, the contributions of Black artists to American and world culture are all the more extraordinary. For Black History Month, I would also like to honor poet Nikki Giovanni. Back in the summer 1987, just after my extra year at Virginia Tech for student teaching and education classes, and before becoming a teacher, I was recruited to do a couple of stand-up comedy routines to introduce sessions at a national Women’s Symposium held on the campus. Ms. Giovanni was the featured poet. I didn’t care much for poetry–maybe because I was limited, but I rarely understood a poem without help–but I decided to go. I sat in front of Nikki Giovanni, who directed her poems to three people, mainly: all the black woman poems were delivered to a young black woman behind me; the black man poems to a young black man to my right; and all the creative/lonely woman poems were directed to me, my eyes. She read “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day” to my face, and she opened something in me–she opened all poetry for me. And that fall (I think it was), she began teaching at Virginia Tech, and is still there today. (Her poem in honor of the massacre, delivered to a stadium, helped heal the campus.) Thank you, Nikki Giovanni.

Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day  (thanks to the the Tumblr “A Poem a Day” for posting)