The subject of that famous 1928 essay by Virginia Woolf, establishing a room of one’s own for writing, has finally become a reality for me. In truth, I’d had a room of my own, but in this life, you know, things change.
Until recently I had my “study,” a room tucked away at one end of our home, which became my private working space. There I had three desks: a computer desk, a household desk for paying bills and making calls, and a lovely wide drafting table with lots of elbowroom to create my short stories, blog posts, and book reviews. With my husband away at his office all day, I could write and write to my heart’s content. All was bliss.
I saw Donald Trump Jr. the other night, in the cloakroom at the Harvard Club. I was standing off to one side as my husband was retrieving our coats at the coat check. And there he was, Donald Trump Jr., standing there looking very handsome, but twitching a bit, seeming a bit unsure and on edge as though wondering how he had found himself waiting idly in a crowded New York City cloakroom. There was a burly man at his side wearing a badge with some sort of cryptic ID on it, a Secret Serviceman or bodyguard, I assumed.
At the instant I saw Don Jr., I knew I had to take the opportunity to speak to him. I approached (he was only steps away).
“Mr. Trump?” I whispered, not wanting to attract attention. My face was two inches from his. My heart was pounding.
“Yes?” he said, sotto voce.
“I’m Jacqueline Masumian. It’s so good to meet you.” I whispered this slight fib as I stretched out my hand to him.
As the bodyguard made a protective move, Don Jr. took my hand. His fingers were slender and damp.
“I was wondering,” I said, “if you could give your father a message for me. If you happen to see him over the holidays?”
He gestured to a pair of leather chairs in the corner of the cloakroom, and we sat. I perched on the edge of my chair and leaned forward.
“I was wondering,” I continued, “if you could ask him to…well…to stop destroying the environment. I mean…look at all he’s done! It’s not good. He’s wrecking the environment almost as much as he’s ruining our democracy…and it just doesn’t seem right, you know?”
Don stared at me, a deer in headlights. “Well…”
“And another thing…about the lying. Could you ask him, please, to stop telling all those lies? He knows they’re lies, and we know they’re lies. Why does he do it? He’s starting to look like a fool.”
Don Jr. tucked his finger into his shirt collar and tugged, as though to give himself a bit more air.
“And just one more thing,” I said. I was on a roll. “Why don’t you tell your dad to stop wrecking your life? I mean, regifting? Honestly? And, come to think of it, hasn’t he fouled up your entire life? It’s a shame, a real shame.”
A tear glistened in his eye. I realized I’d gone too far.
Just then my husband approached, carrying my coat. I stood and pulled the scarf from the sleeve.
“So, you’ll tell him?” I asked with urgency.
“Yes, ma’am, I certainly will,” he said. Don was so polite.
“Thank you so much. Have a Merry Christmas. And…good luck.”
By now, dear reader, you have probably guessed that all the above is a fantasy. A basket of untruths. A bald-faced lie. Why I told it, I do not know. Just wanted to, I guess.
But the first part is real. I did see Don Jr., standing in the cloakroom at the Harvard Club the other night. That part is absolutely true.
As I look out the window of my study, the sun is finally shining, highlighting the brilliant colors of the litter of fallen leaves on the drive, the lawn, and my flowerbeds. The red maples were exquisite this year. And droplets from last night’s rain cling to the tiny crabapples and the slowly bronzing dogwood leaves. All this autumn beauty is exhilarating, but I realize there is another reason I love fall. Apart from the cool air, the acrid fragrance of fallen leaves, the promise of cozy evenings by the fire, fall is the time I rid myself of garden clutter. Plants in the garden that have grown and bloomed and given much pleasure through the year have become excessive; the annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses, and small shrubs are falling all over themselves, competing for attention. They were lovely, but now they are clutter, plain and simple. And clutter makes me anxious.
So I have begun to de-clutter, emptying and removing my burgeoning flowerpots that have finished for the year, cutting back browned stalks of peonies and asters. Pulling out annuals and tough weeds that have escaped my notice till now.
Some species will get tossed altogether. If they no longer give me pleasure, or they are more trouble than they’re worth, they are out—period. A clematis vine that hasn’t bloomed in three years, a creeping silver perennial I’ve forgotten the name of, and Shasta daisies that have spread way beyond their intended space, harboring weedy grasses and poison ivy, all will be wrenched out ruthlessly. And I will relish the remaining patch of plain brown earth beautifully uncluttered.
This de-cluttering comes at an interesting time, the end of an election, an election that seemed endless. Not unlike my garden, the last few months have been a disordered collection of voices, phone messages, pleas for support and money. Fliers and emails and political signs on every street corner and in people’s front yards, screaming for attention, for help, for support, for my vote. But now it’s over. The election has happened, and while not all my favored candidates won, many did, and now I can relax. I can toss out my list of favorite candidates, my script for my candidate phone calls, and the program for the local debate. I can clear the yard signs I put up in the neighborhood. I won’t need them anymore. I can breathe a sigh of relief.
Or can I? No. Our so-called president will not give us a moment of relief. As recent events indicate, he is determined to keep us stirred up, agitated, on guard. I’m so sick of it, I could cry.
But I digress. Back to the garden. If I work outside for a couple of hours every fine day, I know I can do quite a lot. Assessing plants that need to disappear forever is the hardest part. But I know I can do it. I know I can. I have to. My life needs to be simplified. And the work will keep my mind off political issues, if only for a short time.
After I’ve done my purge, the landscaping crew will come and cut down the remaining perennials and the milkweed and goldenrod in the butterfly meadow, giving everything a tidier feel. Ahhhh! The last step will be leaf removal, leaving the lawn smooth and clean, ready to accept frost and snow. And I will be all set for winter and hopefully a brand new outlook for spring.
Who could imagine that mere marks of graphite or ink on white pieces of paper—and I’m paraphrasing John Updike here—could stimulate a reader’s imagination to such an extent that a glorious escape to another time and place fills a person’s mind and holds him or her tightly? And, by the same token, electronic images of squiggly symbols on a screen? They do the same.
I encounter this stimulation through both writing and reading. Writing, for me at least, consistently requires a bit of discipline, as there are so many distractions. So, I press myself to do some writing every day (at least every weekday) as though it were a job. While sometimes I’m composing a review or a blog or an important email, I’m usually writing or editing one of my short stories. I try to write for two hours straight. Which means for two solid hours I am preoccupied with my characters’ thoughts and actions, happening in a place I myself have created and which is so firmly fixed in my brain, I am just totally there. For two hours I am completely immersed in that place and in the words and sentences I am seeking to make perfect. I am just gone, as in a trance. And even though my characters may be going through difficulties (they usually are), it’s a delightful place to be.
I also make it a point to read every day, most often sitting down with a novel in the late afternoon when all the busyness of my little world has been attended to. There again, if the book is well written, I become completely absorbed. I share faraway places and situations with the book’s characters, and I have an intense feeling of being there, away from “it all.” Again, it’s a marvelous place to spend time.
So, for four hours a day, roughly one quarter of my waking hours, I am somewhere else. My husband rails at me often for not listening to him, and he’s right, I’m not listening; a good part of the day I am elsewhere or wandering around the house doing things but thinking about elsewhere. It’s no wonder he’s impatient with my absentmindedness. If only I could make him understand…
I wonder, is all the writing and reading I do a manifestation of escapism—let’s face it, the world we inhabit is often a scary place—or is it something more than that? Is it perhaps more a search for enrichment? I will likely never see Beirut or Greenland or north Texas, the settings for novels I’ve enjoyed, but the fine books I’ve read have taken me there, and my life has certainly been enriched by those travels. Inhabiting the lives of memoirists and other nonfiction writers has had the same effect. Oh, my gosh, when you think about it, what a huge number of fine thinkers and writers are out there!
For people who do not write, and particularly for those who do not read, I feel a certain sorrow. They are missing out on so much life has to offer. Chances to escape and enrich themselves are passing them by. Yes, there are many other distractions and means of escape from our troubled world. But to me, nothing matches the effect of quiet words on a quiet page.
Americans seem to be caught up, via our current government, in a maelstrom of unkindness. And unfortunately our resistance efforts, our shouts and complaints, do not seem to have much power against the declarations of a president intent on voter suppression, denial of asylum to refugees and immigrants, defense of bigotry, reduction of medical care to the poor and disabled, and unjust expulsion of non-citizens who work hard and pay taxes. Somehow our resistance falters in the face of this governmental machine churning out cruelty with apparent ease.
So, here is what I propose we do: implement a new form of resistance by countering every mean-spirited directive from the White House with as many small acts of kindness as we can muster, so that those acts become the center of our lives, rather than the madness emanating from the Oval Office. For each report of intolerance or malice, let’s resist by going out of our way to perform kindly actions, demonstrating that goodness still rules in our country, that most people are capable of charity and love.
Every time you hear a report of or come across mean-spirited behavior, do something to counteract it. First, speak out against that behavior on the spot. After that, pile up a raft of daily acts of kindness--send a get well card to someone you barely know, call a friend who may be lonely, thank a congressman who espouses your values, write a check to a charity (victims of Hurricane Harvey need our help), volunteer at a soup kitchen; contribute clothes and household items to Goodwill, Big Brothers, or Vietnam Veterans of America; send an unexpected gift to a relative, cook a special meal for your spouse, pay the toll for the car behind you, tip the kids working at the ice cream stand; if you are fortunate enough to have such people in your life, speak kindly to and generously thank the landscapers and cleaning people who work so hard to keep your life orderly; let someone--anyone--know how much you appreciate having that person in your life. And don’t forget to graciously thank anyone who offers a kindness to you!
Can we erase bigotry and injustice by doing these things? Of course not. But what we can do is flood our little corners of the world with kindness, espousing values of fairness, tolerance, and generosity that America has always been known for. That sort of resistance, if done on a massive scale, could be the most powerful of all.
Over the past few days I’ve had the misfortune of simultaneously having to weed thousands of unwanted plants from my garden and reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. For anyone who has not yet read this instructive piece of nonfiction, Dark Money is about the undermining of our country’s democratic system by the infamous libertarian Koch brothers and other billionaire business owners, men who are determined to influence elections in order to protect their vast fortunes. Forget Russian influence--these American magnates are the guys to worry about--far more insidious, in my opinion.
Though I spend hours in my garden pulling unwanted plants, seedlings, and shoots of aggressive perennials, I know that beneath the surface, weeds continue to seed and spread even as I labor, which means I will be weeding again later this summer or into the fall and next year. It’s a tedious task--somewhat futile, perhaps--but one that is unavoidable if I want my garden to thrive and not get completely overrun. As I’ve been weeding I’ve been thinking about the Koch brothers and their right wing buddies feeding their dark money into our political races, unseating Democratic candidates wherever they can. The Kochs and their operatives systematically scatter lies and character assassinations to seed their ideology into the soil of the American populace, poisoning the well of democratic spirit.
With regard to my garden, one might ask, why don’t I just use a weed killer? Why not hire a landscape crew to pull those nasty weeds? Well, it’s not that simple. Weed killers kill nearby plants, so that’s not an option. And the landscapers don’t always know the subtleties of what’s a weed and what isn’t. So, that leaves most of the cleanup pretty much to me.
And what about those dark money guys? Why can’t they be exterminated or brought down by the government? Well, unfortunately they now have their fingers in all branches of our government, and taking them out will be no easy task. Not until the populace comes to understand these billionaire’s true purpose will anything get done. Makes me wonder if, when we rail against Trump, we are aiming at the wrong target.
All I know is, as I pluck and pull and toss weeds into my wheelbarrow, I wish with each yank I could be extricating the dark money people from our society and keeping their evil seeds from spreading and destroying our democracy. Stretch, pull, yank, and toss. I just have to keep at it.
Here’s a link to some reviews of Dark Money on Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/book/show/27833494-dark-money?ac=1&from_search=true
Friday, March 10, 2017
This morning our internet went out. It was working fine until our provider’s service truck appeared at the end of the driveway. The service guy lifted himself to the top of the pole, futzed around for a few minutes, drove away, and lo and behold, our internet was gone.
My first bizarre thought was that government forces were at work: operatives had seen my political posts on social media, didn’t care for them, and cut off my ability to write any more. Yes, truly bizarre, I know.
Anyway, we ended up calling for service, and I was resigned to waiting all day for the technician to arrive. But in the meantime, I realized I had an opportunity. Time I’d normally be using to screw around on my iPad could actually go to something else. I decided to go outdoors and enjoy what will probably be one of our last snowy days this year.
Wandering around the property, I yanked fallen branches clogging the brook, checked out the extent of deer browsing on the azaleas, and traipsed along my woodland paths, enjoying the big furry flakes falling all around me. At one point, the hooty calls between two barred owls caught my attention. The owls were quite close to each other—mating calls? Normally I would look that up on the internet—but, no, not today.
Flocks of house finches and juncos chirped and twittered from the pepperidge trees; they seemed to be enjoying the fresh snow, too. And Sasha, letting the white stuff collect on her golden fur, waited patiently for me to throw her some snowballs.
The peace and near silence were refreshing and brought me back to a place I used to be familiar with—a long time ago, or so it seems. A place where nature held a much larger share of my mental energy. Where I could get totally absorbed in the sight of water flowing in the brook, the smell of wet soil, the sound of a woodpecker drumming on the bark of an old beech tree.
Recently though, in the last few months in particular, I’ve become obsessed with what the internet offers me—the world is at our fingertips, after all—especially the political news. Ever-present and ever-available, it consumes me. Columnist Thomas Friedman said it in an interview a few weeks ago: Americans have a new addiction—we cannot get enough of the troubling and sometimes bizarre news cycles that confront us daily. Gruesome stuff, surely, but I’m obsessed with it anyway. I find I’m itching to check in with the news several times a day to learn what egregious remarks have been made, what damage has been done to our democracy, our civil rights, our health and security. And what, if anything, anybody is doing about it. It’s like watching a horror movie or a TV crime drama full of violence and grisly images. I am enthralled, watching avidly, but waiting and hoping for some sort of fair resolution, some kind of good ending to the nightmare.
But not today. Today I’m free of all that (other than writing about it). And as TV service is out, too, I am released for a bit from my obsession. Thank you, Optimum, for this brief (I expect) time with no internet service and no TV news. It’s still snowing outside. And I plan to take full advantage. I’m going out to throw more snowballs for Sasha.
What an exhilarating day! The Women’s March on NYC exceeded my expectations by miles. I hadn’t been to a protest march in fifty years and hardly knew what to expect, but this march was phenomenal.
As soon as George and I got off the train in Grand Central we sensed the extra energy in Manhattan. We saw women in pink hats carrying signs and banners. We knew we were in for a great day. Approaching 47th Street and Second Avenue we threaded into a throng of excited, energized people. A ragtag brass band of tuba, trombone, and drums pulled us along onto Second Avenue where people were so tight, shoulder to shoulder, we were barely moving as we merged with crowds coming from the east and north. Smiles and looks of determination surrounded us. Thousands of hand-made signs bobbed in the air.
Happy, friendly, energized Americans jammed the avenue. Young people, parents with infants, seniors, people in wheelchairs, Muslims, Asians, blacks, whites, gays, and straights made their way along the route. Women were the intended primary focus of this march, but there were throngs of men, as well.
PROTEST SIGNS GALORE
George and I had brought a sign promoting Equality, Fairness, and Tolerance, but the others signs ranged from obscene to hilarious – many of them championing women’s rights, but far more expressing outrage at the new administration in DC. “NYET, TRUMP!”, “IKEA has better cabinets!”, “UNFIT”, “WE REJECT PUTIN’S BITCH”, "A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN YOUR FACE”, “KEEP YOUR TINY HANDS OFF MY RIGHTS”, “TRUTH NOT TWEETS”, and on and on. One of my favorites was “FREE MELANIA”, which for some reason struck me as hysterically funny. But perhaps the best was “Can we just admit we have taken this ‘anyone can grow up to be president’ thing just a bit too far?”
George and I marched—walked, stumbled, or inched along would be more accurate—for four and a half hours, and I was smiling the entire way. What a joy to be in this energetic, creative crowd.
All along the route protest chants rang out, but my favorite was “TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!--THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” shouted again and again and followed by a huge whooping cheer. All afternoon at regular intervals we heard from behind us a deafening roar of cheering voices, a wave that made its way to us and in which we joined. The sound of thousands and thousands of defiant cries and whistles resonated through the streets of Manhattan all day long.
On the sidelines people were standing on bollards or shinnying up light poles to get a better view of the crowd. People were hanging from building scaffolding cheering us on. Many others just stood and took photos of the marchers. But up in the windows we spotted a brown-skinned woman cleaning office windows; she waved her bright blue cleaning rag at us. And we waved back. Dark-skinned porters at the windows of a luxury hotel smiled and gave us thumbs up and waved, and we waved back. Children and mothers and apartment dwellers hung signs out their windows and waved, and we waved back. “We are all in this together,” I said to the woman next to me. She smiled and agreed.
To be part of this throng of half a million people was utterly exhilarating and empowering. As one sign declared, “This is not a moment, this is a Movement,” an expression of hope, a pledge of continued resistance to threats on our human rights. I was so proud to be a part of this extraordinary event, and, moving forward, to be carrying a banner for decency.
Well, it’s been quite a year. Some goals met, a number of accomplishments under my belt, and some disappointments, as well.
On the positive side, I’ve met my goal of reading fifty books this year, and many of them were superb, giving me hours of relaxing pleasure. A few books were clunkers, but the rest made up for those.
I’ve written three short stories this year and had great fun doing it. I made 75 submissions to literary journals, an accomplishment in itself, and I had four stories accepted for publication. It’s so gratifying to know someone is actually reading my words and finding them worthy of passing on to others. I’ve also written seven blog posts. Now, that’s puny compared to most blog writers, but there’s this little thing called time that often seems in short supply. Maybe that’s because of the 42 mini book reviews I’ve written on Goodreads.com this year. All this sounds like a lot of writing but surely a good deal less than some of my writer friends. My friend Alison McBain entered NaNoWriMo and wrote 50,000 words—an entire novel—in a month!
One major accomplishment for my 2016 was getting this website up and running. It’s a simple one, but I was thrilled that I managed to create it all by myself (with the help of Weebly support, of course).
So lots of great things happened this year in my writing life and the rest of my life, too—plenty of travel and fun times with George and with friends. However, in early November my momentum took a hit, and I was plunged into a funk from which I’m still not fully recovered. The unthinkable happened, and soon a man with the demeanor and intellect of a fifth-grader will be taking the reins to lead our country. It’s an ugly and frightening prospect; a very rocky road lies ahead. As a recent acquaintance quipped, “Is it four years yet?”
So, we will simply have to press on, speaking out loudly against injustice and incompetence and standing up for values we know to be best: unity, brotherly love, acceptance, and equality. Hopefully we’ll be able to somehow make things right.
My best wishes go to all my readers for joyous holidays and a bright new year!
As I set pencil to paper (really!) to lament the immense invasion of TV and computer screens into our lives, I see how my handwriting has deteriorated. And it’s all because, like most people, I spend so much time typing into computers and staring at screens.
Remember, if you are old enough, when television first came into American households, how our mothers complained, “You’re going to ruin your eyesight if you keep staring at that thing!” We ignored our mothers, of course, and continued to gape in utter fascination at “Captain Video” and “Howdy Doody” and “The Lone Ranger.” Our eyes were glued, there was no unsticking them, and thus began the Age of Screens, an era that has now progressed far beyond what those early video creators might have imagined.
Hardly a day, (hah, an hour!) goes by that I am not surrounded by screens—my desktop computer, my laptop, my tablet, my phone, the function screen on my printer, and the television, of course. And beyond home is as bad: the super market screens everywhere (why does my little IGA have opposite the checkout a huge screen advertising septic service companies?), the TV display of financial news at the bank, the screens attached to the equipment at the gym, search screens and self check-out screens at the library; wide screens at bars and restaurants and servers’ ordering screens. (It is a rare and delightful thing to find a restaurant having no screens whatsoever). One cannot avoid screens in taxicabs or airplanes; in fact, a passenger is aggressively confronted with them, and while you might have the ability to shut them off, there are always myriad screens everywhere else. Outdoor signage is increasingly relying on screens. Screens large and small are impossible to avoid.
A common sight in public is a group of people sitting or standing or crossing the street (!), their eyes transfixed on screens—laptops, tablets, watches, and phones. A person sitting in an airport or coffee shop without his or her eyes glued to a screen is perhaps an oddity.
Recently I had the rare pleasure of enjoying a lovely spa where electronic devices were politely forbidden, and yet one woman, wrapped in a lovely white robe, insisted on blithely scrolling away on her phone, completely oblivious to the serene environment surrounding her. And on a long hike the other day, absorbing nature in all its glory, George and I encountered a young man sitting in the middle of the rocky trail, his phone screen before him. What on earth? Taking a selfie? Sending a quick text? Good grief. And it is not uncommon to see a young family in a restaurant, each member with his or her own device at hand, ignoring each other as they stare at their screens. Is there some sort of addiction at work here? Or do we use screens as a way to avoid human contact?
Of course, I am as guilty as the next person; my tablet is on first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I can’t seem to help myself.
Delights of the Electronic Age
But is my plaint justified? Don’t computer and TV screens provide us vast amounts of information and infinitely beautiful images? Don’t they represent convenience and pleasure? Of course they do. And I wouldn’t want to be without them. But sixteen hours a day? Maybe not.
Fortunately the ruination of eyesight our mothers predicted all those years ago has not come to pass. But a mental mindset for information overload has been established—actually, has captivated us—and is unlikely to disappear.
My archaic practice of writing in longhand, creating my first drafts by hand, releases me, at least for a couple hours a day, from screens. Of course my handwritten draft will get typed into the computer and edited on the screen, but for one small segment of the day, I can rely on only a lined sheet of paper and my pencil (which has now become quite stubby). If all the screens that surround us were to suddenly shut down, as they do during a power outage, I would still have my pencil and paper and a brain, which, so far, has not been overwhelmed by screens.
Postscript: For an in-depth discussion on this topic, read this excellent article by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html