… the one cultural revolution truly worthy of the name would be a revolution for peace, capable of transforming a man trained for war into a man educated for peace, because peace requires a proper education. This indeed would comprise the great mental, and therefore, cultural revolution of humanity. And this owuld mean, finally, the advent of the much discussed new man.
~José Saramago, The Notebook “May 7, 2009″
Category Archives: Blog
We leased a car today – a new one. I’ve never owned a new car, or driven a new car. I’ve never been to a dealership to get a car and had no idea the process would take nearly four hours. When we first arrived I felt snippy — anxious about the financial commitment, the cost, having to haggle, our credit rating (how terrible would that be?), and what will we do with our old car, which was in the shop, and so on … so many things worrying me. I feel old and shrunken up when I fret like that.
And then I felt I had to keep an eye on Hubster, the wildcard. When it comes to money we tend to switch roles – I go from erratic to plodding, and he goes from objective to thrill-seeking. I would rather back away from a purchase altogether if it seems excessive, whereas he will say things like, “Well if we’re going to spend [x amount] on a lease, we might as well buy the car and pay for it in cash.” And then I have to look at him like he’s grown antlers and he says, “What? You don’t agree?” And then I have to explain why that is ridiculous, and how we already talked about this and my god, nooo.
As often happens with us, the saleslady was amused by our banter and maybe the fact that we actually exist as a couple — I suspect a lot of people think it’s interesting that a Black woman and an Asian American man are even together, and I can only imagine what stereotypes we’re reinforcing or destroying as we go about in public together. It’s not something I think about at the time, but sometimes later when I’m home I reflect on it….
Anyway. Back to the car. I was abrupt and guarded and trying to manage all these concerns at once when we first arrived, so I kept the saleslady at arm’s length. She initially struck me as harried and a little dismissive, a woman probably in her late 40s, with whom I surely had little in common.
Then at some point I realized, “Oh my gosh. I’m that woman.” Yes, I’m that 30-40-something woman with the spouse and the kid, who is not being present, who is stressed out, lacking charm or the ability to find humor in things. I used to have customers like this all the time in my previous work, back when I was still in my 20s. And I used to wonder, “How do these sour women get this way?” Now I know: they are not like this all the time. This is what it looks like when you have so many things you’re trying to take care of that how likable you are in that situation is simply not a priority.
Before I knew it, the test drive had been completed, and I was being given quotes. I was so focused on my goal to not spend more than I felt was reasonable, and to keep to a budget, that I found myself doing something I rarely do – saying No. I sent the saleswoman back three times. I don’t think I’ve ever sent anything back three times for anything in my entire life. Hubster wanted to reconsider, “Well, maybe ….” I put my hand up –at least that’s how I imagine it — and put my foot down. “No. We can’t do this.”
Surprisingly, the saleswoman kept going back and it occurred to me later that even though I wasn’t trying to haggle, this was haggling. She didn’t seem surprised by it. The fourth quote was the one that worked, and we managed to get it without any rudeness or hurt feelings. Now that I know this is possible, “the game” has changed?
Ultimately, we got a solid car on a three year lease, and I don’t think we overpaid too much for it, all things considering. The saleswoman turned out to be very chummy with us. Before we left, I was relating to her as one adult to another.
Even though I’m in my late 30s I still often feel like an adolescent in unfamiliar situations. But the way I view myself from the inside is not how I present anymore on the outside. My life has changed, I’ve changed, in ways I don’t always realize. I hope that I can remember from time to time that Oh my gosh, I am that woman! And what’s more, so is she! And it’s all right. There are good things about being “that” woman. And sometimes, it just is what it is, nothing more.
All in all, a good experience to have on the second day of the New Year.
How to celebrate New Year’s when you’re in the doldrums? I’m so often in the doldrums, most people wouldn’t notice I’m there — sometimes it takes me a few weeks or months of getting shadowed up to my knees or waist or neck in it, to realize where I am. You’d think I’d recognize the signs, and I sort of do, but whether I’m always willing to admit it to myself is another story. Daily life lights up with easy distractions.
But a big warning sign I should stop ignoring is not wanting to write things for the public (via blog or wherever) — I do this mostly out of a bizarre fear of sounding like a loon. How terrible it would be if I hit Publish on something ridiculous! Which is silly for three reasons: One: no one cares. Two: I am ridiculous. Three: not-writing for me is about the most depressing thing there is; it makes everything worse.
Every first day of the year for a decade or so now, I read a passage called “For the New Year” from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. It’s one of those things that sits on my heart and from day to day I weigh my actions against the ideas presented in that passage, choosing to be guided by it when I do; and just as often, noting when I didn’t follow it — usually because I was thoughtless and forgot.
But this year is the first time in a long time it hasn’t resonated with me. I still think it’s a terrific aphorism, just not the one I need right now. And although the New Year is my favorite holiday, for 2015 I didn’t plan or do anything special for it. I didn’t even go and get the mochi to make for breakfast as I’ve done for years since marrying Hubster. Late on New Year’s Eve, I regretted doing nothing. Most holidays I’m content with not doing anything special, but it didn’t sit well with me neglecting this day. Not at all.
What a way to start the new year, with a regret. But also a realization: some things do matter, some things do matter to me. And recently I’ve been lost in the fog of discontent that arises from focusing on unimportant things, so finding that I cared about something was like finding a little lamp shining on the path leading out.
I did make a wish for the year, that I posted on Twitter: To have a more lucid and efficient mind, a softer heart, and stronger muscles. Those are reasonably achievable, and what’s more, they are sincere. It’s strange not step into the year with enthusiasm and my usual optimism, but I still have sense enough to know that my life is full of great things, that I have many good fortunes. 2014 was good for me, but part of what makes me sad is knowing it could have been more. And all the more that it wasn’t, was no ones fault but my own. I have another post sitting in Drafts that touches on that called “Aging Gracefully in an Age of Regrets.” Maybe I’ll post it later this week or month or year.
A great thing that happened at the end of 2014 was reading Rilke and having his words finally ring a bell for me. Here’s a part of a poem I found pertinent to this day, a prayer I make for myself. From Part Two: XIII of the Sonnets to Orpheus.
Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.
Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praising as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.
In this post, I’ll share highlights of our visit to Berlin, Germany. Kidlet and I were joined by my long-time friend Elandria, who had met us in Prague. Not only was it great to see my friend again — she normally lives 2,500 miles away in Tennessee — but it was wonderful for Kidlet to get some quality time with her “Auntie E.”
After writing yesterday’s post on Prague I realized how much wasn’t said. Places to eat (and not eat), buying souvenirs, what things confused or perturbed me, history, culture, race and language, our accommodations, the arts scene — not to mention so very many more photos I wanted to share. If you have a specific question about Prague or want to know more about the experience, feel free to ask in the comments. (If you know me offline, of course you can ask me offline.)
Now on to Berlin, where we spent four nights in a one-bedroom apartment (Air BnB) in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood:
Sights We Saw in Berlin
Potsdamer Platz — Salvador Dali gallery — a wintergarten — shopping mall
Museum Island — Pergamon Museum
MACHmit! Children’s Museum
City bus routes #100 and #200
Story of Berlin museum
Berlin is enormous, flat and full of bicycles. It also feels young and vibrant, diverse and full of history, too. It felt like a place one could just slip into, if one were accustomed to cities and city life. Getting to experience Berlin with one of my BFFs was great, and she was a real help to Kidlet, too. We all really liked the city and its excellent transit system, and by the end I was trying to figure out if Hubster could be persuaded to move there!
Berlin is also where I realized I’m a selfish introvert used to getting lost in her own head; hence, I am not the best travel companion. That was a humbling experience and I often felt frustrated with myself. The one time in Berlin that I felt truly at ease was on our last night there — after a few glasses of wine (and uzo). Only then did I feel like a fun person to be around. For the future, I could probably address this problem by: doing daily relaxation exercises; traveling with more than one other adult (so that I can “tune out” as needed without guilt/anxiety); learning to ‘lighten up’ and be less serious/anxious; and traveling more frequently with another adult so that I can get better at it.
My own hangups aside, Berlin was great. It’s hard to list the highlights because almost everything was pretty cool (once we found it and arrived there).
Riding the #100 city bus — Elandria had read somewhere that this was the thing to do, and a much cheaper alternative to those sightseeing buses that charge 40 Euro to take you to the same locations. Many of the city buses are double decker, and we lucked out by boarding the #100 at its starting point, so we had front row, top deck seats. As the bus took off, E and I agreed that this was really nice and the only difference between this and those sightseeing buses was that we weren’t getting a running commentary from the tour guide. Well. Lo and behold! Seated behind Elandria was a Berliner in a burly coat, who appeared to be in his 60s, with a voice made for theater. He began pointing out every thing for us! As we rode down the main avenues, he told us about this and that museum and what sort of collections they held, this and that church and when they were built and destroyed and rebuilt, what that construction project was, and what types of events were held in this popular site. He told us about the previous night’s celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling. He was not condescending or overbearing in any way. We got the grand tour, he was very kind. I wish I’d been more bold and asked his name or at least his occupation. Thank you, man from Berlin, for the first day orientation!
Seeing the Salvador Dali gallery was another thing Elandria wanted to do, and I ended up really liking it! I’ve seen some of Dali’s more famous works, but this museum was focused on his sketches and lesser known sculptures and paintings. What I loved about it was getting more insight into his process as an artist, seeing the evolution of his ideas through sketches. I was happy that Kidlet got to see this, too, as she does mostly pencil and pen drawings. I left the gallery with a deeper appreciation for Dali’s brilliance as an artist – not just his famed imagination, but his actual, technical skill. I could have sat with some of his pictures for half an hour simply because they were so good. I also learned more about his life, like his 50+ year devotion to his wife, Gala, and bitter feuds with other artists, and for heaven’s sake, the man was burned in a tower that he’d retreated to after Gala died — in all, what a cinematic life. And he is not overrated.
The Checkpoint Charlie museum was more than I bargained for, in terms of information. First there’s the cheesy, touristy thing where you can pay a few Euro to take photos with young (non American) men dressed as American guards, then there’s this strange, deceptively small-looking private museum that declares its dedication to peace and human rights – CRAMMED FULL of text, photos, artifacts and videos. It’s old-fashioned in its presentation. But there is a wealth of information there, countless testimonies and photographs. The unabashed, passionate feeling about the fact that people’s lives were devastated by the Wall and and that the people who rose up against it were heroes was … kind of awesome. So many historical museums have a cold veneer of objectivity, whereas this one feels very much a product of the 1960s.
An eight-minute walk from our apartment, right in the heart of Prenzl’berg was the MACHmit! children’s museum. Kidlet was stoked to check this place out, as she’d been toted around for days looking at things that had belonged to dead people. Many Berlin museums are open until 6, 7 or 8 at night. As a tourist, this means there are things to do after dark in the wintry months. MACHmit closed at 6, so we were able to visit on a weekday when school aged children were there, and Kidlet had a blast.
The MACHmit looks like it was designed by Waldorf-obsessed storytellers who’d been given approximately a million dollars. I was taken aback at the exhibits and their high levels of sturdiness, simplicity and beauty. The downstairs was an homage to the way things were done in olden days and the Grimm fairy tales … with printing rooms and a recreation of an apothecary that I wanted to play in. Upstairs was more play-space, a story time area, massive tables for art, and a café. Prenzl’berg is a trendy area of town with lots of families with young children, and I felt at ease there. The way people dressed, ate and behaved was not that different than what I’m used to in Seattle, with all the emphasis on organic (called bio in German) foods, old-fashioned little dining spots, and probably many other insufferable bourgeoise obsessions that I have no business knowing about.
A final highlight for me was getting to meet a long-time online pal, whom I met long before I even knew Hubster. She is somewhat famous these days (there is a Wikipedia page about her!) and I was slightly disbelieving that she made the time to visit with us. I’m so proud of her and all the important work she does, and to meet her in person and see who she was and what she was like, face-to-face, just made me feel good.
When it came time to leave Berlin, I was not ready. Elandria had to return back to the United States, and Kidlet and I were expected in Munich. Maybe one day I’ll return, and if I do, I will definitely spend some time in the Tiergarten (a 520-acre city park). Every time we passed it, I’d feel my spirit trying to pull away and run in! In Munich, I was able to get in a bit of park ramble, but that’s for another post. A few more photos from Berlin:
So I managed to blog exactly once since leaving for our three-week trip to Europe (Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Austria) – and that was on the plane ride there. Oops. Traveling (with a young child) is tiring, and between journaling and updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I’d had my fill of documenting the experience while there. Still, there’s a sense of completion I get from blog posts that I just don’t get from other forms of social media.
Let’s begin with the trip itinerary:
Prague, Czech Republic – 4 nights
Berlin, Germany – 4 nights
Munich, Germany – 3 nights
Verona/Brescia area, Italy – 3 nights
Florence, Italy – 2 nights
Overnight train – 1 night
Vienna, Austria – 1 night
Prague again – 3 nights
That sort of pace has never been my style, but the transitions were not as grueling as I’d expected. I still prefer to stay longer in a single city or to visit more than one or two cities of an entire country, but given the parameters I was working with, it was the best itinerary I could’ve come up with. And I can say that because I came up with 19 possible itineraries – this one was #17!
Several people have asked me for highlights of the trip, so I’ll structure my blog posts along those lines. First up: Prague, our arrival/departure city. We spent four nights there at the start and three nights at the end. Initially we stayed in Malá Strana (Little Quarter), several hundred meters from Malostrenská Square (aka Starbucks Square). It was a good location because of its proximity to the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and a few key tram lines. On our second visit, we stayed in a more remote location up on the hill, a few minutes’ walk beyond Prague Castle, near the Loreto. Prague is compact, so we were not very far from things, but the hill is a consideration. Especially walking back after dinner at 10:30 at night when it’s really cold. Which we did, several times. If I visit Prague again, I’d like to try accommodations in Old Town or thereabouts because there were more restaurant options on that side of the river, and a lot of stuff over there we didn’t see much of.
Sights We Saw in Prague
Prague Castle — St. Vitus Cathedral — Golden Lane
Franz Kafka Museum
Petrin Park — Tower — Hunger Wall — Mirror Maze
National Marionette Theater
New World Street
Strahov Monastery Library
Old Town Square — Astronomical Clock
Museum of Miniatures
Old Jewish Cemetery — Pinkas, Spanish, and Klausen Synagogues — Ceremonial Hall
Palladium (Shopping) Mall
Museum of Ghosts and Legends
The Charles Bridge is not overrated. We walked across it eight or nine times and it never got old. It was the first tourist thing we did on our first evening in Europe. It was not crowded, and early enough we could look up at the statues and see them against a backdrop of sapphire blue sky, with all the waterfront lights reflecting on the Vltava River. Buskers (one of Kidlet’s favorites was a man who played glasses of water) and portrait artists were still around at night. During the day, there are more ware peddlers and a lot more visitors in general. One day I’d like to walk the Charles Bridge at sunrise.
Franz Kafka Museum – Well, I can’t think of a better museum dedicated to an individual, what an homage this place was. It’s located on Kampa Island and there’s a David Černy fountain out front of two men with swiveling hips facing each other, perpetually “urinating” into a shallow pool shaped like the Czech Republic. Kidlet got a real kick out of that as I mulled over the artist’s statement. I spent two hours at the Kafka museum and could have lingered longer, but six year olds have their limits. Kidlet never fussed or complained and spent most of the time drawing in her sketch book, but she found the space, full of shadows and angles, to be eerie. As we moved from room to room, she’d grip my sleeve and ask, saucer-eyed, “What’s that sound?”
In Old Town, we visited the Municipal House (the exterior of which is spectacular) for the two-room show, Vital Art Nouveau 1900. When traveling, the temptation is strong to see famous warehouse-sized museums, but museum fatigue is real (and lousy). I retain so much more information from a small, well-written and well-curated exhibit on a subject I’m interested in. Here I learned more about the philosophy and influences behind Art Nouveau, especially as it developed in this region, and also about Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, whose work you’d likely recognize even if you don’t know him by name. There were echoes of ideas and feelings I experienced at the recent Seattle Art Museum exhibit on the Northwest School. Some artistic connections were made for me here, and also some beautiful artifacts and film footage of Prague from a century ago.
On our first full day in Prague — before one of my best friends arrived to join us — we had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours at Petrin Park. It was one of our best days on the trip. We set out for a breakfast place called Cafe Lounge near The Hunger Wall, but accidentally took the long way (I wasn’t lost, just confused about where we were going).
It was a great thing because we stumbled upon the Lennon Wall, and some funny statues of giant babies on Kampa Island, and we were along the water and met friendly dogs and their smiling owners in a little park. After a good breakfast (with good service!) at Cafe Lounge, we walked to Petrin Park. There was the sculpture art dedicated to victims of communism, and near that, a big bed of blue and white flowers. I got yelled at by an impatient transit ticket seller, who was then yelled at by an Englishman who came to my defense. Then we took the cable car (aka the funicular) up to the top of the park, where we saw the replica of the Eiffel Tower and spent some time in the Mirror Maze (a major highlight for Kidlet). It was still pretty Autumn that first week of November, and we got to see Prague’s trees full of changing leaves. Petrin Park was calm and interesting, with lots of paths crossing the hills. There’s a nice playground at the bottom of the Park, off of Ujezd. We returned a day or two later with my friend and climbed Petrin Tower (299 steps, and the elevator was broken – be sure to ask after the lift’s condition before buying tickets if there is anyone in your party unable/unwilling to climb those stairs!). It was cold and misty on the second day but the views were still grand.
Kidlet was a real trooper and let me visit not only the Old Jewish Cemetery but several important buildings related to Prague’s Jewish culture and history in the Jewish Quarter. The Cemetery is a sight to behold, with graves — dating back to the mid-15th century — scrambling over each other and every which way. Adjacent to the cemetery is the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of 80,000 Moravian and Bohemian Jews killed by the Nazi regime are written on the walls. In the upstairs of the synagogue, we looked at the art of children from the Terezín (aka Theresienstadt) Camp. Kidlet’s mind is still very much in a child’s world of cute critters and robots, candy, hearts, flowers and rainbows, but I talked to her about what we were seeing here. I know she doesn’t well understand the context of World War II (nor does she care to go into details of history) but she listened and seemed to think about it. Another highlight, half a dozen blocks from the Cemetery, was the Spanish Synagogue. It’s done in a Moorish Revival style, and all I can say is, do an image search and see for yourself; I stepped in and was in awe.
Well, summing up just the highlights was tough. I have so much more I could tell or write about Prague, but no one wants to read a 2,000 word post. I’ll just end by saying I truly hope to visit Prague again — it’s beautiful, approachable and very romantic. Also, one final highlight: Kidlet lost a tooth there on our very last night!
I’m standing with Kidlet on the jet bridge, about to board our first flight of three that will take us to Prague, when I overhear an older man in a rumpled polo shirt tell another passenger: “Nobody reads books anymore when they travel.”
At this my ears perk up. I’m an inveterate eavesdropper, but I’m also selective: what I love to overhear most are absurdities. The man continues, shaking his head till the white wisps of his hair change direction.
“Ten, 15 years ago, I’d get on a plane and everyone would be reading a book. Now, no one reads books on airplane. No one reads books anymore, everyone’s got their faces in these ‘devices.'”
The woman he is talking to nods sympathetically. “It sure does seem that way, things sure have changed.”
He leans toward her now like she’s an old pal, though they’d only met in the terminal. “Digital devices. Cell phones. Tablet computers. The Internet. Who wants a book anymore? Nobody reads on planes.” His tone was lamenting yet excited.
As we inch forward toward the plane door, I consider the airport’s busy Hudson News shop just 500m from our gate – half of the inventory appeared to be books. Best sellers, business manuals, genre fiction, and so on.
I’m still thinking about the man’s words as we make our way to our seats – the very last row. The plane isn’t even 20% into the loading process, yet I pass four people already reading paper books before row 12 – another half dozen are obviously reading books on e-readers.
Seeing this cheers me. One, it confirms my own experience – which is that quite a good number of people read on airplanes; and two, I hope the man will see what I see and realize that his assertion is wrong. I hope he will be comforted by the sight of people reading books.
Fast forward two hours. The same man comes to the rear of the plane to use the lavatory, which is occupied. As he waits, he strikes up a conversation with the flight attendant. “You know what I’ve noticed,” he says, sighing. “Nobody reads books on the airplane anymore.”
I look up.
To get to the 34th row, he must have passed many people holding books, but he chose not to look at them or to see them. I myself am not two feet from him, and nothing at all obscures his view of me sitting with one book on a tray table and another (notebook) that I’m writing in.
He makes a concession, gesturing at a seat in front of me: “Well I see one person over there reading a magazine.”
The flight attendant tells him she brought a book with her to read but she hasn’t had a chance to get to it. “By the time you’re heading back to your seat, I’ll be reading it. So that’ll be one person you can count, at least.”
I listen carefully, waiting for him to express happy surprise at receiving hard evidence that someone reads books on airplanes after all.
He rolls his head as if to stretch his neck. “What book is it?”
“It’s called River of Doubt.”
“What’s that? I haven’t seen it.”
She explains that it’s about some exploits of Teddy Roosevelt in South America in his later years. The man soon changes the subject, begins to talk about his life and career. Apparently, he writes?
He doesn’t seem perturbed by evidence that clearly refutes his earlier assertion. What an investment he’s made in his belief! Such a little thing, so easy to prove false. No doubt, he will go on repeating it.
Earlier this week I read a blog post titled, “I Am Slightly Insulted by Homeschooling,” over at Sammiches and Psych Meds. Today I commented on the post but it’s – in my typical fashion – so long that it could be its own blog post. Comments have to go through approval over there, so I’m going to post my responses here, as well. (Might as well, my blog could use another post!) The original poster covers an anti-homeschooling argument that’s familiar to most homeschoolers: The “Expertise Argument” which can be summed up as: “I’ve received quite a lot of training and credentials as a teacher, how on earth do you think you can do what I do?”
While I know there are homeschooling folks out there who diminish the work of teachers, that’s not the case for me and most of the homeschoolers I know. We commit large amounts of time on a daily basis to studying, observing, discussing, and thinking about learning, about how to be better learners and how to be more effective communicators with our children. Do I think there is a role for professional teachers in our society? Absolutely! But for me, this doesn’t translate into my child needing to spend 6-8 hours a day with them.
In any case, my reply to the post (again, linked here) follows:
I’ve been involved in homeschooling (as a child and now as a parent) for over 25 years and have never met anyone who made the decision to homeschool arbitrarily. I’ve met lots of people who’ve homeschooled for reasons I don’t agree with, but “just because” has never come up once on my radar, not even as a rumor. If anyone has told you that they homeschool “just because” I suspect that was their way of saying they didn’t want to talk about their actual reasons with you at that time.
I have many dear friends who were trained as professional teachers, and I have a great deal of respect for their expertise and their efforts with children. We often talk about education, childhood development and the learning process. We exchange ideas, and I learn from them regularly. Homeschooling doesn’t have to mean being at odds with professional educators or rejecting their knowledge and experience.
I absolutely agree with you that teachers are the most qualified to teach what they’ve been taught, as they’ve been taught. What you’ve missed – and some homeschoolers miss this, too – is that it’s not my goal to replicate what you teach as you’ve been taught to teach it. Put another way, you’ve confused ‘education’ with the current public (or even private) school system. These things are not synonymous.
You gave the example of construction or dentistry – and it’s true, outside of the most desperate circumstances, I would not attempt to build a dwelling or perform oral surgery without any training or research. I wouldn’t live in a house built by or have oral surgery performed on myself by someone who had no idea what they were doing, either. If that’s your analogy, I can see why you feel it is obvious that homeschooling is a bad idea. But a more appropriate analogy would be this: I recently traveled to Colombia and stayed in several dwellings that had been built by people who did not have the certifications and trainings required to be licensed contractors in the United States. I took my daughter to a hospital there in which the doctor who saw her was not licensed to practice in the United States.
My point is that what matters is what you know, and the expertise you have – not who credentialed you or how many hours you spent in a particular kind of classroom. There are many ways to learn, not just the way you’ve learned. There are many ways to get good at something, not just the way you’ve learned how to get good at something. Once we step outside of our own particular context, this becomes apparent.
Lastly, I will say there are things I want my daughter to learn about learning that I can’t expect her to learn in most public and private schools because of their very design. Would you really feel comfortable with a parent coming in and saying, “I want my child to equate learning with joy and diligence, not external rewards or punishments or fear of humiliation?” Or “My child needs a mentor, not a teacher.” Or “In order for him to have a chance at surviving in this society, I need you to model for my child how to critique capitalism and dismantle institutional racism instead of internalizing the violence done towards him.” Have you been trained to teach in ways that would allow you to accommodate children with these needs? Are you given the freedom as a teacher in a school to accommodate them?
Review number four for the TwitterBooks Project is of Lori Tharps’ memoir, Kinky Gazpacho.
Twitter Handle: @LoriTharps
Actual Name: Lori Tharps
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: about a year
Book Title: Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain
Book Format: Library hardcover
What I liked: A Black American woman’s story, for a change! A short read, good humor.
What I didn’t like: Confusing bits on identity and race, not as much detail about places as I expected.
When I first heard about Kinky Gazpacho, Lori Tharps’ memoir recounting her love affair with Spain, it went on my to-read list immediately. Tharps, like me, is a Black American woman, born in the 1970s; and I had already been to Spain twice. There are not many travel memoirs published by women like us, so I had to get my hands on this book!
Tharps begins her memoir with an incident in her third grade classroom. Her teacher introduces an upcoming event, “International Day,” which gets young Tharps excited to explore traditions from around the world – especially food. But then the teacher clarifies that this is about celebrating ones ancestry and everyone is to come to school dressed in the attire of their ancestors. Tharps is the only Black girl in her class, one of the few Black children in her private school. Immediately, she feels shame and thinks, “My ancestors were slaves!”
Thus begins Tharps’ complicated relationship with her racial identity, growing up in a mostly white, comfortable suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is popular enough, and fits into the culture, but she never knows when one of her white peers is going to toss out a little grenade of anti-Black racism to explode in her face. The worst thing is that she faces this alone – the silence of white friends and acquaintances during these incidents seems deafening. Why do they act as though no one just called her n—-? What is going on? Unsurprisingly, it can be difficult for her to let her guard down and feel safe.
At the same time, because of where she lived and went to school, Tharps doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in cultural environments where everyone is Black, either. Maybe this is why she seeks refuge in multiculturalism, where the race spectrum isn’t stark black and white; where she can be unique (like everyone else), without being an oddity. Because of my own upbringing, I could truly relate to the way Tharps found comfort and commonality in multicultural, international, and immigrant spaces.
Tharps progresses chronologically through the book, discussing her years in elementary school, middle school, high school and later college – in that order. I got a little frustrated with the length of time it took to get to the meat of the traveling. But there were some interesting bits along the way. For example, Tharps details several attempts to befriend other Black girls. She’d often gravitate towards the one other Black girl in mostly-white spaces, but then they wouldn’t “click.” This scenario is familiar to me, and also the self-doubt that can occur as a result – “Am I doing something wrong? Why can’t I make this friendship work? Am I not Black enough? Wait, which of us isn’t Black enough? Wait, what?”
Well, the fact is that friendship is often a numbers game; if I have 100 random Black girls to choose from, I might really mesh with five or six of them, maybe 10! (A made-up statistic, but you get my gist.) Unfortunately, the odds of hitting it off don’t improve when you meet just one Black girl here and there out in a White world. It’s still only 5-10%. There will be more failures than successes – something our existing narrative around Black sisterhood often overlooks.
That being said, Tharps doesn’t spend as much time on friendships as she does on romance. The subtitle of the book is Life, Love & Spain, and we get more than a glimpse into her significant crushes, first love, college romances, long distance relationships and plenty of ye olde street harassment. Along the way, Tharps tries to track what role her being Black might play throughout these exchanges. For example, during a high school study period in Morocco, she is showered with profuse praise for her beauty – she even receives marriage proposals. This flatters her initially because she felt invisible at her white high school in her white town, but she tires of it once she understands that Moroccan men are hitting on her because of their assumptions about American women.
The parts of the book I found most interesting were those having to do with the culture and locales Tharps visited. A lot of the focus in the Morocco chapters had to do with boys she met there and culture shock, but the details of Morocco itself were spare. This trend mostly continues when she arrives in Spain.
Some minor details struck me as familiar – like her early impression of Madrid’s smoky airport. And the cities she visits were cities I visited, even Salamanca – which most visitors never travel to. But on the whole, I didn’t see much about Spain as a destination, the country felt like a rough backdrop where she went to college for a year as she grappled with love and being Black in yet another not-very-Black place.
Tharps perceives some things differently than I might have, and she ignores things I could’ve written pages about. Ah! Now I start to experience the potential agony of reading a travel memoir of a place one has visited. It’s like watching a competitive cooking show – “Why are you making a risotto when you could be making a linguini – you only have 20 minutes! Argh!” I have to take responsibility for my own impulse to impose my self on her story; as much as Tharps and I seem to have in common, we are actually not the same person. (Obvious statement is obvious.)
The prose isn’t inspiring or elevated, but it is straightforward, reflecting Tharps’ background as a journalist. Her voice comes through clearly – especially her sense of humor. The parts that are funny, are very, very funny. Her descriptions of some of her dates made me laugh out loud.
I often found myself talking back to Tharps as a character – I say character, because no single book can reveal all the facets of a person or all the important details of their life. For example, when she complains about “the race police,” I wanted to ask back, “What race police? You don’t give any examples except for a rude guy in college and being ignored by those snobby Black girls at Smith!” Then there were the parts where I wanted to ask, “Why do you care so much what people think of you?” I also wondered why she was so concerned about her children getting by in Spain – did she really think it would be worse than in the US? If so, why? I can only guess at the reasons because she never got to the root of it in the book.
Some of her ideas about race and color were strangely simplistic, such as when she wrote, “There was a good chance that my husband might have a Black African in his not so distant past. That might explain why our son had such a beautiful brown coloring even though [spoiler name removed] is really pale.” I was puzzled by this take on genetics. Wasn’t her own brown skin enough reason for her son to have brown skin? I scratch my head, still.
By the end – and all the parts about her research into Africans and Spain are in the final three chapters – I was left with the sense that Tharps’ views on being Black in America and Spain were not fully formed. That’s the thing about a memoir, if written early enough in ones life, the dust has by no means settled. If she ever wrote another memoir, or a book on race again, I’d read it, if only to get an update. I know from my own experience that racial identity shifts and takes on different shapes over the course of ones life.
Near the end of the book, Tharps writes: “It’s so strange because Spanish people do not recognize Black as something familiar. But there is something about the Spanish soul, perhaps its own Black past, that welcomes Black people into the country.” This sentence is a good example of the tension that crops up again and again in this Kinky Gazpacho. Tharps goes back and forth between her love affair with Spain and her disappointment with the institutionalized and cultural racism that meets her there. Ultimately I think it may boil down to the question of essentialism … like looking for the Black ancestry in her husband because her son has brown skin. Is there anything specifically Black about Spain that calls to Black people from across the Atlantic? Or does she hope there is because she’s found herself there?”
Some of my thoughts and notes from bell hooks’ discussion panel at The New School: “Are You Still a Slave?” – a talk held on May 6, 2014. The two hour discussion (with Q&A) centered on representation of the Black female body. The panel was composed of bell hooks, Janet Mock, Marci Blackman and Shola Lynch.
You can watch the video here. Are You Still a Slave? at The New School. The times listed below are not *exact* but should be within a few seconds. While I enjoyed all of the speakers, most of the words I found to be quotable were said by bell hooks [bh], so you’ll see mostly quotes or references to her in my notes. (Note: The title of this panel is taken from the title of Shahrazad Ali’s book of the same name.)
From the Video
- 9:50, bell hooks on 12 Years a Slave: “I just want you to think critically about what we do with the Black female body, why we image some things and not others, why if you can create that fictive sex scene – could we not have had any fictive moment in the film where the Black female body is in resistance – not in despair, ’cause despair is not resistance, that is, you know when Patsy thinks about killing herself. The reason I am so excited and proud to be here today is because I am up here with Black women who are all about redefining and creating a different kind of image, liberating the Black female body.”
- [bh] “She [Patsy of 12 Years a Slave] has no point of view.”
- 25:30, [bh] talks about how having humor when dealing with the Transportation Security Authority (TSA) is not really allowed because the whole experience of being harassed by security is meant to demoralize you.
- 32:00 – Beyoncé discussion
- 32:30 – Shola Lynch talks about “symbolic annihilation” a term from feminist studies (Hearth and Home edited collection of essays from the late 1970s, by Gaye Tuschman). “Symbolic annihilation is two things: It’s one, not seeing yourself, but it’s also seeing yourself only denigrated, victimized, etc. and what that does to you. And I think that, we can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze and look for the images and – [interjection of “all right!” from bh] – the people and the places that feed me.” Shola continues to talk about bodies of work and her own daughter’s reaction to the trailer for her film about Angela Davis, and how the imagery of Angela altered her daughter’s view of her hair.
- 38:00 – after hearing from Janet Mock that Beyoncé likely had control over the image and styling of herself for the recent cover of Time magazine, bell says: “So you are saying, from my deconstructive point of view, that she is colluding in the construction of herself, as a slave – Are You Still a Slave? It’s not a liberatory image.” Marci Blackman interjects: “Or, she’s using the same images that were used against her and us for so many years and she’s taking control of that and saying ‘If y’all are gonna make money off of it, so am I.’ You know? And there’s collusion perhaps, but there’s also a bit of reclaiming, I think, if she’s the one in control, right?” bell hooks: “Of course, I think that’s fantasy. I think it’s fantasy that we can recoup the violating image and use it -[…] I used to get so tired of people quoting Audre, ‘The master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house,’ but that was exactly what she meant, that you are not going to destroy this imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it, even if it serves you to make lots and lots of money….” bell goes on to talk about the extreme lust (especially among young people) for wealth, fame and celebrity.
- Note to self: Need to re-read Lorraine Hansberry.
- 41:00, [bh] “… there’s also that price for decolonization. You’re not going to have the wealth … there is a price that comes with de-centering, decolonizing, and part of what has to happen for us to be free is we have to create our own standards, of how to live ….”
- 48:00, bell: “The major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media – and from television and videos.” Says there are no major tirades against feminism from powerful men of any color – “The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image-making business, in what we see.” Wants to see more images of women answering the questions, “What am I looking like when I am free?”
- Note to self: Listening to bell talk in this video, I’m struck by the distinction between people like her (of which there are not many who are as widely known) and people like Oprah (who is in all likelihood a very good person) – the difference is that the former are counter-hegemonic. Thinking about this in terms of what the vast majority of people aspire to, and what we find challenging (perhaps too challenging, to our hopes and wishes for ourselves).
- 1:08, [bh] talking about meeting Janet Mock and feeling connected to her upon first meeting her: “We are not alone and that the process of healing, all of that does not happen in isolation … [Janet Mock’s journey reminds me of] that journey that I took many, many years ago …. That heroic journey to freedom is not a journey that we make by ourselves; we make it by selectively choosing the people who strengthen us, empower us, and who make it possible for us to keep on going.”
- Q&A – [bh] talks about wanting to see different stories that can bring us to a different level of understanding, stories about the good that is done, and the ways people transform, versus the “repetitive stories of victimhood.”
- 1:25 [bh] on sexual liberation – “What are our choices, as we journey towards sexual freedom? What choices do we have?”
- 1:40 [bh] talking about trauma: “Trauma often produces complications … one of the joys of healing is that it allows you to separate out that which may have wounded or hurt you but that which also may have been life-restoring or life giving to you…. ” Those who come from abusive, dysfunctional families are constantly trying to “do that work of memory … holistic memory, where you’re not just remembering the bad stuff …” Speaks of her father – “the patriarchal terrorist” – and how she had to go on a journey of remembering the good he did, the good times, she had to have a more complete view of him as a human being in order to deal with the pain and to heal. “My brother is very closed off to remembering any kind of good action [on part of their father], or positive action, and I think that is very wounding for him and really tamps down his own growth.”
- 1:46 [bh] “We don’t have a team of psychoanalysts studying how much damage is being caused to us by the images that assault us.” Speaks of an incident in which she caught herself repeating a tune she could not recall ever hearing; upon learning that it was from a television program or ad that she couldn’t even recall having watched, “that was the end of me not being critically vigilant about the images I consume.” She believes that “what will produce the transformation is when we as people of color are critically vigilant about the stuff we consume.”
- [bh]-“A lot of stuff that is toxic is fun.” Note to self: This is not something people want to hear! It’s also a very religious idea, actually! Most religions tell us this.
- [bh] in response to frustrated mother of child who is self-harming, coping poorly with eating disorders: “I think the most radical action that you are taking is that you are there for her, and to never stop being there for her no matter the different forms her crisis may take. Because I think that that sense that someone is there for you and is never going to let you go [can be] a healing force in your life.”
- [bh] in response to pair of women struggling to talk about race in grad school program, “In the continual celebration of your passion for space, for thinking critically about space, we have to be able to follow those passions. I feel like for me that was one of the saving things, as an abuse survivor, of my life was to be in touch with what are my dreams, what are my passions, and what little bit can I do every day of my life, to bring myself closer.”
- [bh] says that therapy can be a “therapeutic friend” in terms of finding someone you can have “meaningful, restorative conversation with.”
On Beyoncé as “Terrorist”
Many people have taken issue with bell hooks’ use of the term ‘terrorist’ in the video to describe Beyoncé: She says at minute 38: “… because I see a part of Beyonce that is anti-feminist, that is assaulting – that is a terrorist […] especially in terms of the impact on young girls ….”
I have to admit, I wasn’t offended or surprised by the term. It’s a strong word (though I’ve seen and heard people describe their young children as not just terrors, but terrorists, as well, so it’s by no means a taboo word), but it’s also not the first time bell has used the term “terrorism” to describe actions that don’t involve some guy blowing up something to make a political statement. It would have been great if someone in the audience or on the panel with bell had asked her: “So what is your definition of terrorist?” Perhaps no one anticipated the blow back that would occur in mainstream – and corporate – Black media?
I recall hooks using the term in previous works, and in fact, in this discussion, she later refers to her father in passing as a “patriarchal terrorist.” And yet, as you’ll see in the video notes above, she goes on to talk about the importance of recognizing his good qualities and good acts along with the harmful ones, for her own healing. As I tweeted earlier today: “For me, the most important takeaway is that calling something for what it is – even if it’s unpleasant – is not the stopping point.” And I think bell demonstrates that she can reflect on her father as he was, and acknowledge the good things he had to give her and teach her and say, based on his actions, that he was a patriarchal terrorist. And if you watch the video, she doesn’t call him this with anger, she is just stating it as she sees it – in the same way she talks about “white supremacy” – a term many people cringe at for being “too harsh.”
I didn’t have time today to reread my bell hooks books but I did find in All About Love, another instance where she uses the word “terrorism” – in the chapter “Honesty: Be True to Love” – “While much cultural attention is given to domestic violence and practically everyone agrees it is wrong for men to hit women as a way of subordinating us, most men use psychological terrorism as a way to subordinate women. This is a socially acceptable form of coercion. And lying is one of the most powerful weapons in this arsenal.” On the previous page she writes, “Talk to any group of women about their relationships with men, no matter their race or class, and you will hear stories about the will to power, about the way men use lying, and that includes withholding information, as a way to control and subordinate.”
All of this is to say that bell hooks’ definition of terrorism is probably wider and more expansive than most people’s. I would love it if people would find and cite other uses of the term in her work, as I know it’s cropped up more than a few times over the many years she’s been writing and speaking.
I think it would alleviate the angst of some people to have a definition that would explain how and why bell hooks thinks that “a part of Beyoncé” is a terrorist. (Though some people may never be satisfied, and others will continue to believe that bell hooks suffers from a jealous hatred of Beyoncé.) I will openly admit that my bias is that bell hooks was not name-calling but rather, giving a name to something – in this case, Beyoncé’s image-making.
All in all, I found the discussion worth listening to. I enjoyed the uplifting of Shola’s work as the kind of thing we need more of, and also the respectful back and forth between the panelists. We need more of this, we don’t all have to agree on every single point. As bell pointed out early on, the reason there are four women on the panel is because they offer four points of view.
As a final note, I’ve been surprised to discover how few people seem to be on board with bell’s emphasis on the power of imagery. My major in university was Cultural (and Historical) Studies, and general consensus there was that the power of mass media (especially visual media) simply could not be overstated. Perhaps this idea is slipping out of fashion, or perhaps it was never accepted by the majority of people in the first place. In any case, I find it interesting!
For the second week of National Poetry Month: Honoring Roque Dalton, Robert McDowell’s Poetry as a Spiritual Practice, and advice from songwriter Mike Rosenberg of Passenger.
- Texas poet Andrea Beltran invited me to guest on her blog for National Poetry Month. The subject of the short essay I wrote for her is El Salvadoran poet and revolutionary, Roque Dalton. The piece can be read here: “Like You” by Roque Dalton. It’s all about how I came upon his work and its effect on me.
For National Poetry Month, I’ve been reading quite a lot of poetry (far more than usual) and sharing bits of things that resonate on my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I’ve also been reflecting on poetry as a way of life. There’s a book, Poetry as a Spiritual Practice by Robert McDowell (2008, Free Press) that I’ve been reading here and there, and I realized that the whole premise of the book is something I’ve taken for granted almost all my life: poetry as a deep source of spiritual instruction from wiser voices, emotional balm and light with which to explore the more obscured self. As Freud famously (?) said: “Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me.” But people who are new to poetry and want to incorporate it into their daily lives might find it a useful starting point; it’s full of exercises and simple explanations about forms of poetry, like the sonnet, pantoum, free verse, etc.
- And lastly: I’ve been listening to lot of new-to-me music, and one of those is the 2012 album, All the Little Lights by Passenger, which is the band name for one man, Mike Rosenberg. (I think there may have been more people in the band once, but they all left). It was random how I was introduced to his music, but I came across this amusing interview with Rosenberg. He says something that keeps sticking with me: “I think the idea of a great song is just writing something – usually pretty simple – harnessing a very simple idea and putting it simply to music. You know what I mean? And connecting with people. I think people think songwriting’s a real mystery at times, but actually it’s not, it’s really simple.”That idea of simplicity keeps coming back for me as I attempt more challenging things, and I keep wondering why, the deeper you get into something, the more you need to hold tight to a principle of simplicity just to keep your head above water. Maybe it’s a conundrum, but it bears reflection. Well, it’s been guiding my writing lately. And aside from all that, I like Rosenberg’s writing and some of his lyrics read well as little poems in and of themselves, so I’ll close this post on National Poetry Month with a few verses from All the Little Lights.
from “Life’s for the Living”
I took myself down to the cafe to find all
the boys lost in books and crackling vinyl
and carved out a poem above the urinal
Don’t you cry for the lost,
smile for the living,
get what you need and give what you’re given
life’s for the living, so live it
or you’re better off dead.
from “Feather on the Clyde”
Well on one side all the lights glow
and the folks know and the kids go
where the music and the drinking starts.
On the other side where no cars go,
up to the hills that stand alone like
my restless heart.
Well I would swim, but the river is so wide and
I’m scared I won’t make it to the other side and
well God knows I’ve failed but he knows that I’ve tried.