Monday, June 29, 2015

Gay Pride Now & Then

When I moved to Chicago in 1982 New Town was just starting to be called Boys Town—now when I say New Town my daughter has no idea what I’m talking about. She only knows it is called Boys Town.

In the early 80s the parade jammed the streets of Boys Town, people marched in their underwear and united in solidarity. Yesterday an estimated 1 million marched and the parade takes up almost the entire North Side.  The trains were packed going into the city. In the early 80s it was easy to stumble into the parade; there wasn’t always a lot of publicity. That would be absolutely impossible today. It is an event on par with the Chicago Marathon as it threads its way through the city. Roads are shut down as revelers take over the streets and sidewalks. The beachfront at Montrose where there is an after-party was shut down because it reached capacity.

Then—people were dying of AIDS. By the millions. Today people are living with AIDS. Then coming out meant exile and divided families. Today gays are having families. 2015 will always be remembered as the parade marking the benchmark SCOTUS decision striking down the Defense of Marriage act and making gay marriage legal in all 50 states.

Let’s take a moment to look back:
Scenes from the Gay Pride Parade, Broadway and Surf, 1977, Chicago. Calumet 412

Scenes from the Gay Pride Parade, Broadway and Surf, 1977, Chicago. Calumet 412

Mayor Jane Byrne greets people along the Gay Pride Parade route on Broadway, 1983, Chicago. Calumet 412
courtesy of Alan Light, from Chicago's 1985 Gay Pride Parade:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Memory=a constructive process

The Theft of Memory
Jonathan Kozol

This past Sunday was Father’s Day, where we remember our fathers and honor them. The Theft of Memory is Kozol’s tribute to his father who passed away in 2008 age 102 years. So roughly the son knew the father for 70-some years. That’s a long time. Yet towards the end, which seems reasonable, the father’s memory began going. The subtitle of the book is: "Losing My Father One Day at a Time."

This book will resonate with families dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Or even families dealing with loved ones in general. It hasn’t been quite a year yet since I lost a dear friend, Fred Burkhart and though his mind was always strong, there were times when because of physical weakness or medications or even just approaching death, he would zone out, go into his own world. And, I would think, this is how it is to lose someone. Not quite, and not yet, but a foretaste of grief.

It is the long good-bye.

Kozol chronicles what it is like to lose a loved one and to lose them also to an interior world of Alzheimer’s. And, because his father Harry Kozol was a neurologist and psychologist, he also understood what it is like to have memory gaps, those moments when you simply cannot remember how you got somewhere or what you were just doing. He was a collaborator in the book, in that he added to his son’s observations and as best he could offered insight into the process of memory loss, an on-going evolution. He wrote notes about what he was feeling/thinking before his diagnosis and during the decade afterwards.

From the book:
I have had the opportunity to think a great deal since my father’s death about the truthfulness of memory . . . Neuroscientists today would argue that there isn’t any bank account, or storage box, in which our memories are waiting for us to retrieve them—to “reach in and pull them out”—but instead there is only the act of remembering—

“Memory is not a literal reproduction of the past,” writes Daniel Schacter, the chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard—it is instead, “a constructive process” by means of which “bits and pieces of information” are reassembled into a new reality.

This should help put the mind of the memoirist at ease.

“The notion that we re-create and, in the process, reinvent some portions of our memories—”

That is why we can also substitute the word recollect for remember. We are literally re-collecting what we have and hoping to rebuild the tree fort of our childhood, youth, the early days of one’s marriage, yesterday.

The Theft of Memory is Kozol’s loving recollection of his aged parents and how he sought to navigate the gaps in order to bring them into their final days with a sense of dignity.
My father, Harold Feeback, at his writing desk, late 1940s while at Ohio State

Monday, June 15, 2015

Rachel Dolezal--Who Am I?

I can’t stop reading about this issue—about reverse passing, or passing, or identity and self-identity or . . . it’s hard to put my finger on what makes this case so intriguing.

It boils down to: Who am I? Am I the sum of my parents, a product of my community, or the evolutionary offspring of my DNA? Is it in the genes or in the brain—who we are?

These questions often come up when looking at false memoirs—something this blog talks about a lot. I’ve always been fascinated by people who whip up whole stories, whole novels, whole worlds about their past. Some might disagree and say they are just stretching the truth, but in every stretching the act of lying not only affects the person telling the lie but the ones deceived or pulled into the untruth. Telling the truth about ourselves is important on so many different levels.

Nevertheless, it is a complex question of one’s identity. One not so easy to parse.

There have been times when I’ve identified more with a specific group than with my actual family. Just because we share the same gene pool, the same parents and grandparents doesn’t mean that much if we can’t find common ground. What is the cord that binds us together? Throughout life we are drawn and then fall away from friends depending on our current worldview. Education and experience, life milestones such as getting married, having kids, getting a divorce, or simply enrolling your kid in soccer moves us into and out of circles we might not have anticipated. Identity is somewhat fluid depending upon where we are physically and in the journey of life.
This past weekend I finished reading Chris Tomlinson’s book about race, Texas history, and part family memoir, and—it’s complicated. TomlinsonHill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the TomlinsonName - One White, One Black. See what I mean.
No one wants to talk about their slave holder past—see Ben Affleck. But it’s there, lurking in the dark sin corners. At some point we all were oppressors. Tomlinson as an AP journalist covered some of the most horrific clashes involving race while a reporter first in South Africa during the dismantling of apartheid and later in Rwanda during the genocide. I copied out a paragraph that I think relates to Rachel Dolezal:
In Africa, I witnesses bigotry based on anything from the color of someone’s skin to completely imaginary ethnic differences. Once I scraped away the false veneer of so called atavistic hatred, I found cynical politicians promoting baseless bigotry to gain or boost their their power and privilege. While they used skin tone and nose shape to define people, as in Rwanda, DNA research shows there is no such things as race.
Crazy, right? I can’t tell you how many times at Twitter and on Facebook I’ve read stuff that Rachel didn’t even look black enough or comments about her nose.
Growing up in Centerville, Ohio where I swear to you the only black kids I met were the ones adopted by white families, there simply was not a lot of mixing. I’m sure it was intentional. Except there was a girl down the street. She was the older sister of a girl about my age. Half sister as the dad had remarried and had a second family. Anyway this girl, not sure of her name, became involved with an African American. My mother said she took up with a black boy. There is a reason I don’t know much more about her or the end of the story because this girl stopped existing. She disappeared from the neighborhood and I never once heard her family mention her again. But I always wondered about her. If she was banished. I’m sure her exile took on romantic qualities in my head, but now, more than 50 years later, I wonder: Who became her people? Who saw her through the hard times? What was her name?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Submit, she said


2015 NANO Prize
The seventh-annual NANO Prize, awarding publication and $1,000 to a previously unpublished work of fiction 300 words or fewer, opened on April 1, and will be judged by Amber Sparks!  All entrants will receive a one-year subscription to NANO Fiction and winners will be announced in mid-September.
Rules and Guidelines: All entries must be unpublished and 300 words or fewer. While there will be only one winner of the contest, all submitted pieces will be considered for publication.
The entry fee is $20 for up to three shorts. Please paste all three works into the submission manager as one submission. You may enter as many times as you like. Each separate entry requires its own entry fee of $20. Entry fees are nonrefundable. Please withdraw your submission immediately if taken elsewhere.
The entrant’s name should not appear anywhere in the body of the submission.
Friends and family of the editors are not eligible to submit.
Click here to submit.
Deadline: September 1, 2015.

ALSO check out PLACES TO SUBMIT, I just updated.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Blood Corner

Last week I received a distressing e-mail. 5 Dead Birds at the corner of Wilson and Sheridan.

There they were on the sidewalk, bloodied and battered. Since the e-mail had gone out to several people there was a thread starting, assumptions on what caused the casualties. There is a 10-story building there, perhaps they ran into the building or the building’s windows. Perhaps the street lights confused them. It had been a windy weekend, so maybe wind patterns had something to do with the melee. While a friend was down at the corner checking the scene out another bird fell down, almost hitting him. The photos are shocking.

So many deaths have taken place at that same corner.

Two years ago 5 people were shot there. All black males in their early 20s, late teens. They were sitting on the steps of the uptown Baptist Church when a car driving by opened up on them. One was shot fatally in the head.

The birds were identified as yellow-billed cuckoos, though at times woodcocks have been sited and a lone spotted sandpiper. The death toll continued to rise.

My friend Hilde was walking to the bank and had just gotten to the corner of Wilson and Sheridan when shots rang out. Instinctively she ducked. I wonder about this word: instinct, as if it occurred all the time and she routinely dropped to the ground for safety. More than anything it was an evolutionary gene programmed to take cover in the face of grave danger. Even in the midst of fear she reached out for a souvenir: a bullet that had ricocheted off the wall of the building and landed near to her. It was still hot.

Death by flying too high, flying in the darkness, flying without thinking, without caution, without forethought. Flying for living in the moment. Because because; because you feel like it.

The same day we discovered the bird carcasses, that same evening there was another shooting. This time a bit north of blood corner, a territory fought over by rival gangs. This time a young rapper was the target. Young Pappy. He had already survived 2 other attempts on his life and this time, at blood corner, his luck ran out.

Someone needs to post a sign: Beware: unsafe for birds, black men, all creatures who draw breath and aren’t afraid of flying.

Silence Once Begun

Silence Once Begun
Jesse Ball

Who is Jesse Ball? He lives in Chicago and teaches literary dreaming and the act of lying at the School of the Art Institute. And he keeps no engagements, delivers no speeches, and cannot be found elsewhere—except in hardcover and paperback.

I just discovered him this weekend.

Or rather his novel, Silence Once Begun, which sounds like a secret. With so many words, there can be silence. Words suffused with silence. It is the kind of work that send the reader into a Zen-like trance.

Most post-modern books tend to have the look and feel of a fast-paced video game with eye candy ie violence and sex to keep the reader interested. Not this one. Even in its questioning there is gentle indictment.

It might also be the only novel I’ve read told primarily in dialogue. Its approach to story is very intuitive, forcing the reader to read between the lines. It is told through conversation and the silence between words. I like a book that trusts that I’ll “get” it.

There are several elements that might be interpreted by a hater as gimmicky, but for me they worked. Just like the book Fieldwork the narrator also shares the same name as the author, Mischa Berlinski —yet the book is not non-fiction or autobiography. It is a journey that took me a whole weekend to unwind and has left me ruminating since.

An Excerpt:

The Mother of the Accused
I said to him, I said: When you were four, your father and I had a thought that we should perhaps travel to different waterfalls, that it might be a good thing to see all the waterfalls we could. So, we began to go to waterfalls whenever we had a chance. That year I believe we saw thirty waterfalls, in many places. We developed a routine for it. We would drive there and get out. Your father would pick you up. He would say to you, Is this the right waterfall? and you would say, No, not this one. Not this one. We went all over. There are really more waterfalls than one thinks. When he talked to me about the project, I said, I don’t know how many waterfalls there are to go to, but I was wrong, there are many. It was just the three of us in the car then, as your sister and brother weren’t born yet. Just the three of us, riding along. We would go down these tiny roads, past fields and rice paddies. We would have to stop to ask directions of the strangest people. But everyone seemed to understand what we were doing. It was never hard to explain it. We are going to see many waterfalls. And the person would say that that was a good thing to do, and that right that way was another waterfall, a very fine one, quite worth seeing. Then we would go on down the road, and pull up at the place. I would get out, I would get you out. You would go to your father. Then the two of you, the two of you would go to the edge of the water. Your father would cock his ear to listen, and you would imitate him. We didn’t have a camera, so I don’t have any pictures of it. But the two of you would listen to the waterfall for quite a while. Then he would pick you up and he would say, Son, is this the right waterfall? and you would say, No, not this one. Not this one...

Friday, June 5, 2015

Keel of a Ship

Susan Sontag in a book of essays, Regarding the Pain of Others, writes about Collective Memory. She was referring to perhaps collective guilt surrounding the holocaust and how a nation with a strong collective memory also carries guilt. Many Americans have a collective memory of 9/11 coupled also with personal narratives about where they were that day and how it has impacted their life

Nevertheless, most memories are singular—though a few are collective or work in tandem with others. I might have a memory, my own particular interpretation of a memory you have shared.

My friend Hilde recollected to me that once she was running by the lake when out of the mist she saw the mast of a tall ship. It seemed immediately odd that it would be so close to the shore. A man on deck called out. The rest was confusing—he didn’t want to be rescued, he did want help. He didn’t want to leave his boat, but if the Coast Guard came they were responsible for saving only him and not the vessel. So she left him there on his slowly tilting sailboat.

She was confused when telling me this story. Mostly she said she couldn’t remember the word for the thing under the boat, the thing that caused him to be stuck on the sand bar.

Keel? I ventured.

She only knew the word in Norwegian* and hadn’t had much opportunity to use it in English. Yes, she said.

All this to say, this past weekend while running by the lake in a dreary mist my eyes searched the coast for ghost ships emerging from out of the fog. While at the same time my brain was repeating: keel.

Collectively I can’t imagine ever forgetting this story.

*From Wiki: The word originates in the Scandinavian word for beard.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Polio By Any Other Name

A mash up between
an NPR article by Linton Weeks, “Defeating Polio”/my own view point

Polio by Any Other Name

Between 1937 and 1997, it is estimated that more than 457,000 people in the U.S. contracted some form of polio.

Afraid of polio,
afraid of everything,
it gave us permission
to think it was out there—
and not inside of us.

It is a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

At the swimming pool,
not immediately changing out of a wet swim suit,
sitting in a damp sand box,
my mother warned me.
Now I wonder:
Was she afraid of polio
or afraid of losing me?

Polio was at its height in the early 1950s. There was no prevention; there was no cure.

And, what exactly is fear?
an emotion so strong it imitates love,
a shadow, an echo, a deceit.
I’m afraid of dying,
therefore I love death.

Coming back to school in September there were always empty desks.

This isn’t it.

Each summer, polio would come like The Plague.

Polio as the Jew,
the outsider storming the castle,
it is faceless, without humanity,
a hungry thing, a monster.

In some places people stopped handling paper money and refused to shake hands.

Polio as the black man.
Ferguson, Baltimore, Pittsburg, L.A.
Polio had to be destroyed
shot down, strangled,
lynched, eradicated.

There was nothing a parent could do to protect the family.

It takes away our children,
ruins our women,
paralyzes everyone and everything it touches.

On April 12, 2015, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of a vaccine developed by Jonas Salk that prevented the disease and eventually led to its remarkable decline. The introduction of that vaccine in 1955 was one of the biggest medical advances in American history.

My mother died an old woman.
I’m now past middle-age.
Polio is a thing of the past,
but it lingers—this fear.

The date was April 12, 1955 — the announcement came from Ann Arbor, Mich. Church bells tolled, factory whistles blew. People ran into the streets weeping. President Eisenhower invited Jonas Salk to the White House, where he choked up while thanking Salk for saving the world's children.

Polio by any other name
is that thing that cannot be named.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Root Canal Doctor

Sooo Friday I had two root canals. Yes, you read that right. Two root canals on the same day. On the same tooth.

It was a day that went from bad to worse to worser, before ending up feeling like victory.

It began with molar #3 and what felt like a pus bag under my right eye. My entire jaw ached. I went to the dentist and she said it looks like you need a root canal. Somehow that information sounded comforting because it was at least an answer to the pain. She sent me home with a script for antibiotics. Thus, began my search for a dentist who performs root canals on people with no money.

I found someone who goes by The Root Canal Doctor on the internet here in Chicago. Maybe I’ve read too many books about the holocaust, but a doctor dedicated to root canals? His website said to just sit back and relax—I’d be in good hands. Again, the words relax and root canal seem like an oxymoron. One is not like the other.

At noon Friday I hopped on my bike and after a block it began to sprinkle. I could deal with it because I told myself if I was late I’d be fined $50. If they had to reschedule me it would be an additional fee. I wasn’t going to be late because The Root Canal doctor was the cheapest in the city. By the time I cleared an intersection the sprinkles had become a full-blown rain. After a mile the rain was a down pour and yet I kept going. I really really wanted this root canal. I arrived soaked through and through.

In the pouring rain I rushed into an office. The woman behind the desk was completely sympathetic. You poor thing! Can I get you anything? I asked for a coat; I was shivering. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes and I thought this place is GREAT! Finally I counted out $385 dollars in cash onto the counter. She looked confused. What’s this? I panicked—did they need more? For the root canal, I answered.

We’re Root Realty. You need the office next door. Sheesh in the rain all I could see was the word ROOT on the window out front. I snatched up the soggy bills and left in a hurry. I was worried about being late.

After being buzzed in next door I took a seat and filled out a form and handed over the money once more. I left puddles wherever I stood or sat. On the way down the hallway to his office my shoes made squish-squish sounds. I apologized to the dentist telling him I was soaking wet. No problem! We have plastic on the seats.

I begged for a towel I saw in a cupboard. So as I sat shivering beneath a towel and that heavy apron you wear when being x-rayed I had the feeling I was about to mildew. He probed and prodded and kept up a running verbal commentary that in all his years of practice as The Root Canal Doctor he’d never seen a tooth as bad as mine. Yet he seemed enthusiastic. He’d give it a go.


Yet . . . in the end my tooth defeated him. In total after an hour and a half and leaving part of an instrument that broke off in my tooth (no worries he assured me, it's titanium, it'll be okay) and chipping pieces of the tooth as he attempted to drill deeper into the roots, and after pronouncing that this was the worse case he’s ever worked on he gave up. Oh, and he also said my tooth was killing his instruments. A quote: it’s eating my tools. I imagined a monster. I’ve never seen a dentist so glad to hand back money. He said I can’t do this. No root canal, no money. He seemed genuinely sad and perplexed.

So I left, riding home on rain-washed streets feeling like a loser. How did I get to this place?, I wondered. I was old, vulnerable, a contagion. I pedaled slowly, seeing my life flash before me.

Then—at 6:15 p.m. The Root Canal Doctor called me on my cell—do you feel like giving it another go? I can’t stop thinking about your tooth. I’d like to give it another try. I was on my bike in a hot minute. Wow, he said, that was fast. You have no idea how much I want this, I responded.

For another two hours he worked. He asked a couple times, do you need a break? Mostly I shook my head no. Keep going!

The end of the story is: He saved my tooth. He was able to get down to the bottom of two of three roots and clear out the infection. This man is my hero. He gave me clear guidelines for taking care of the tooth after such a vigorous operation and ordered a script for antibiotics if I needed it. I left his office just as the last light was dying in the sky, but I felt so much better.

Before we started for the second time I told him I was a writer. I am often puzzled by how to resolve a scene or how to order words to express exactly what was needed for a story. Editing and root canals, I imagined, are a lot alike. He agreed. Thanks Root Canal Doctor!