Sunday, January 31, 2010

D-Day Assault: Day Two

See that little stretch of stone in the water behind me? It's the remnant of the "mulberries," artificial harbors that were made secretly in England and put in place just after D-Day to allow easier access to troop and supply ships. I love this kind of stuff.

You get a good view of them standing on the boardwalk of the little beach town of Arromanches, and I remember seeing them when I was here in 1994. It was low tide, so they seemed closer--I guess because there were people in the water. It seemed weird to see them swimming, tossing beach balls with the mulberries as a backdrop.

I saw them from different perspectives all day. We went from Arromanches to Juno Beach, where the Canadians landed, and I could see them from there.

I saw them from way up on a cliff, outside the Arromanches 360, a nine-screen circular theater with a movie that "plunges you into the heart of the action, among the fighters on D-Day, and [you] will thus feel tall the intensity of the great moment of the Normandy Landings." (Mainly, this attraction made me dizzy.)

And there were the mulberries again, viewed from the battlements Longues-sur-Mer--a remarkable site, with its ominous gun emplacements that seemed to me like pre-historic monuments. The guns were still in place in several of them, and you could go inside and stand where the gunners stood, looking out over peaceful farmland.

A pretty gray cat crept out of the emplacement closest to the sea and tried hard to adopt me, rubbing her head on my legs, leaping into my lap when I sat down on the concrete and burying her head in my warm jacket.

What did the animals do on D-Day, I wonder? Where did they go?

The gulls, squawking, today. Did they fly inland to escape the smoke and fire, coming back later to feast on the remains of the dead?

And what about the people, waking to the sound of guns that morning?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

D-Day Assault: Day One

My husband Steve, a major World War II buff, has long fantasized seeing the D-Day landing sites in Normandy, and—here we are. I saw the area in 1994, during the 40 year anniversary of the landings, and found it incredibly fascinating—and moving—so I was excited to take this trip with him.

We arrived in France yesterday, drove to Bayeaux (in the rain) with only a few minor mishaps, checked in at the fabulous Hotel D’Or, napped, had dinner—and got a good night’s sleep.

First thing this morning, we set out for Omaha Beach.

First on Steve’s agenda: stand at the shore line and look inland to see how utterly impossible this mission was. The beach, with no cover whatsoever; rocks—eventually; then hills that go straight up, from which there was constant fire from the Germans.

We found what was surely was one of three “draws,” roads that led up from the beach—and the gun emplacement protecting it. (Gun facing directly at the road.)

On down the road, we found the “official” Omaha Beach memorial, where we stood and surveyed the beach in both directions. Each landing craft unloaded 31 men, Steve said—and they came relatively slowly in the beginning, each one of those guys an easy mark.

We spotted a small gun emplacement set into a hill and hiked up to it. How strange to think of it occupied by a real person, looking out over the water, perhaps seeing the first of those landing crafts on the horizon that morning.

Monday night, before we left, I watched “Saving Private Ryan,” which I had avoided watching in the past because I thought it would freak me out too much. But watching it didn’t really faze me at all. I knew it was a movie, I knew the blood and fear weren’t real.

Just imagining that German in the gun emplacement, the flimsy landing craft on the horizon filled with men who knew that, within moments, they might die seemed more real to me than anything somebody else’s imagination could create on the screen.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dear President Obama

A year ago today, I awoke in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. filled with anticipation at the prospect of witnessing your inauguration. I am not a political person; in fact, I loathe politics. I had never worked in a political campaign in my life, but I made up my mind to work for you because I believed that you were our last best chance at becoming the country we claim to be—and must become if we are to survive. I spent hours, days, weeks, months making phone calls, going door-to-door, and sitting at a card table in the parking lot of a grocery store in a ghetto neighborhood, signing up people to vote.

I will never be sorry that I did it. I will never forget the whole families that stopped by on Sundays to register, after church, the ladies in their beautiful hats. And the down-and-outs, the kids—barely eighteen, people just pulling in on their way to or from work. There was a sign on the door of the grocery store that said, “Felons can vote.” Some came, tentatively, to sit down at our table, and left standing taller.

The last day of registration, people came all day long. I walked up the block with my clipboard to where a bunch of guys were hanging out on a front porch, spilling out onto the street. “Have you registered to vote yet?” I asked. It was very quiet for a moment; they looked at me. Then one said to another, “You register, man?” The guy shook his head, no—and his friend gestured toward me. I signed him up—and several others. “Thanks for coming down,” they said, when I left.

We signed up thousands of voters at that corner from May to October; in November, we took busloads of people to the polls.

Election morning, my husband and I were at the gathering place for poll workers at 5 a.m. Spirits were high. It turned out to be a chilly day, but sunny—and we sat outside of our assigned place on lawn chairs all day, hoping, hoping, hoping.

“YES WE CAN,” you said. And we did.

It was the most amazing feeling. That, too, I will never, ever forget.

We hadn’t really talked about going to your inauguration, but the morning after the election, my son-in-law Jim made hotel reservations on an impulse. “We have to go,” he said.

I will never forget the day of your inauguration, either. It was bitterly cold, and I remember setting out, all bundled up, merging with the river of people heading for the mall. Everyone was so—happy. We had tickets, but when we got to Fourteenth Street we couldn’t get across because it had already been closed. We didn’t care. We walked back toward the Washington Monument and watched on one of the Jumbotrons dotting the inauguration landscape that day.

I remember looking at the monument, so white against the cloudless blue, blue sky—and the flags circling it, thinking that it was lovely to be able to look at American flags and not feel angry. To think, maybe, I could begin to feel that the flags were mine, too. I remember all our little clouds of breath mingling in the cold air. Thousands and thousands of people. People as far as I could see in any direction. So many kinds of people, all of us gathered for this momentous event.

In time, the dignitaries began to arrive. Eventually, President Bush. Dour Dick Cheney—in a wheelchair! I swear, there was a collective gasp of pleasure that had to have been heard all the way to Virginia when your beautiful girls appeared on the screen—our girls, too.

Then there you were, striding onto the screen. Calm, collected, there. You raised your hand, your voice rang out. “I, Barack Hussein Obama…”

The inauguration of the first African-American president! I had wanted my grandchildren to see that, to tell the story of your inauguration to their own grandchildren years from now.

But most of all, I wanted them to be able to tell their grandchildren about being present at the moment when, finally, America grew up and began to fulfill it’s true promise.

I wanted them to be able to say, with wonder, “Before President Obama, people were hungry, they suffered and died because they couldn’t afford the health insurance they needed to get medical treatment, some kids went to schools were there weren't enough books.

“Before President Obama, we were arrogant, we believed we were entitled to try to make everyone in the world believe what we believed, to be like us—though what we said we were, a beacon of freedom and equality, really didn’t match up with the way things were on the street. We were wasteful with our natural resources, we allowed greedy corporations to send jobs to countries where labor was cheaper because there were no laws in place to control the exploitation of workers. People died in a war we initiated based on intelligence we manipulated to make people believe it was necessary. We treated gay people as second-class citizens. We wouldn’t let them marry, we wouldn’t even let them serve the country in the military, though many were highly qualified to do so.

“And get this! Before President Obama, there was this insane practice called lobbying, in which people with special interests were allowed to organize to gain power of legislators through money and favors. And another one in which major bills went to a vote trailing dozens of minor, but costly, bills—pet projects of legislators who agreed to support the major bill only if they were included as part of it.

“Can you imagine that?” I wanted them to be able to say.

“No way,” I wanted my great-grandchildren to be able to answer.

I didn’t think you were a god, like some of my fellow volunteers did. I knew it would be hard. I knew you’d have to compromise. I certainly didn’t expect you to change everything over night.

But I did expect you to do the right thing when it was possible. Gays in the military, for example. You could have changed that ignorant, discriminatory possibility with the stroke of a pen. You still could—and should. You owe it to the GLBT community that came out to support you.

I expected you to recognize the mistake W. made in turning over billions of dollars to banks whose greed and dishonesty had gotten us into the economic mess we were in. I thought you knew that about them, I thought you knew they were the last people likely to care about the millions of people losing their jobs and homes, their life savings. I never thought you’d endorse the continuation of that misbegotten policy—certainly not without establishing the kind of controls that might force the banks to behave responsibly.

I expected you to take a stand against the immoral greed of insurance companies, too, as you worked to fulfill your promise of affordable health care for everyone.

I expected you to see that war in Afghanistan would be as fruitless as war in Iraq. Not to mention the fact that we simply can’t afford it.

(“Nobody Denies that Kids Need Literacy Help…But Can Indiana Afford It?” That’s the headline in the Indianapolis Star this morning. The answer, according to our state government is, “No.” Just a small slice of the billions and billions of dollars allocated to the war in Afghanistan would make such a difference to countless kids who must have a decent education if they are to grow up and become the kind of citizens we need. It makes me heartsick.)

I didn’t expect you to surround yourself with, well, politicians. I expected to see new faces, to hear new voices speaking new ideas.

But mostly,I expected to hear your voice—the voice I heard during the campaign, the one that spoke so decisively, intelligently, compassionately and, above all, honestly about race and about so many other things.

I respect and value your belief in consensus; I admire your determination to give everyone a voice in the legislative process. But consensus is only possible when the people involved have the best interest of our country at heart. Not self-interest or the interest of their party, certainly not the interest of pet projects or, worse, political grudges.

When that happens, as it inevitably has, there must be one brave voice that speaks out above the others. As president, that must be your voice. For better or worse, you must stand up for what you (and we, who elected you) believe is right. If it means you’re a one-term president, so be it. You could do a lot in one term, really. And, even if you lost in 2012, there’d be millions and millions of us who would remember that we had made something amazing happen, electing you in 2008, and we’d be willing to gather our strength, find the next person with courage of his convictions, and try again.

Please, President Obama, speak. It’s not too late, not yet.

But I’m sorry to say that I feel less and less hopeful that you will. I’m not angry at you, I don’t feel I was tricked into believing in you. I still believe you are a man of great integrity who wants to do the right thing.

And, like I said, I’m not sorry I worked so hard for your campaign. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life.

I’m just very, very, very sad.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Watching People Write

Few things make me as happy as watching people write. I love the bent heads, the scratch of pencils, the occasional whisper of a page turning. The particular silence of people lost in a world of words.

Yesterday was the Writers' Center's "New Year's Resolution: Write," an annual class geared to get kick recalcitrant writers' butts into the new year. We dredged up material, which brought both laughter and tears. We experimented, doing exercises on character, voice, and the ten-minute play. We wrote rough drafts of poems using stories from the news, and wonderfully absurd lists inspired by Sei Shonagon's "Pillow Book." (My favorite was: "Why It Is Terrible to Be the Least Crazy Person in a Mental Hospital.)

It was the kind of day that makes me remember why I love to teach writing. That silence, yes. And, okay, I've got to admit I like a captive audience, too. Hardly anybody in my real life wants to talk about this stuff.

But what I love best is the moment when a tentative aspiring writer surprises herself by writing something wonderful, something she didn't know she knew.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Eulogy for My Friend Mike

"Old friends," Simon & Garfunkel sang in 1968. "Sat on their park bench like bookends.

"...Can you imagine us years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy."

Well. Mike didn’t quite make it to seventy, but it’s pretty darn strange to be sixty-seven. Or sixty-two, as I am.

Or fifty—as some of our former students are now.

Time, it turns out, is nothing at all like we thought it would be when we were young.

Who knew you could be—old—and still feel like a teenager inside?

Who knew that a song, a photograph, a smell, the sound of church bells or a motorcycle engine could send you backpedaling through time so that for one sometimes wonderful, sometimes sad or embarrassing or scary—always very disconcerting moment you are fully alive in a different time and place, some younger version of yourself, often in the company of younger versions of people you’ve loved for a long, long time?

Time is fluid. Life is—well, we don’t really know what life. Only that we have one shot at it and that it matters. Who we are, what we do has repercussions down through time long after we are no longer, physically here. Maybe forever.

Mike’s life mattered.

The work he chose: teaching. The nature of the relationships he had with the countless people who threaded their way through his life.

Mike was my first adult friend. He was my first male friend, which was no small thing when we met in 1974. We shared a family group in Learning Unlimited—and had tee shirts made, playing off of the Campbell soup commercial of the time: Cupp and Shoup: A Family Group in an Instant.

Mike and Pat were Steve’s and my first—and most enduring—couple friends. Also a kind of family group in an instant. I remember once, on a lark, going through a huge, beautiful double on Meridian Street, fantasizing about how cool it would be to buy it and have our own little commune.

As it was, we spent many happy times living together in our cozy chalet in Michigan-skiing in the winter; Steve, Mike and the kids out on their dirt bikes in the summer while Pat and I (and eventually Joan) took a walk through the woods or just stayed inside, reading.

In time, Joan’s husband Bill was added to the mix. Just a few days after Mike’s death, we gathered at their house for our annual Christmas Eve Brunch—a bittersweet event. But so good for all of us, still stunned and brokenhearted by the idea that Mike was no longer among us.

In a stroke of brilliance, Joan and Bill established what I hope will become a Christmas Eve Brunch tradition. Each of us drew a slip of paper with the name of a character from Dante on it; then Laney, Mike’s granddaughter, drew from a duplicate set of names for the winner. It was Virgil. Drew won—a gift certificate to Target.

Mike loved Dante; he loved Target. He was a complex guy.

The white index card in your program is there for you to write a favorite memory of Mike to share with his family. I know. That’s hard. There are so many. But pick one, write it down—and I guarantee that, for a moment, he will come alive in your mind, just as he always was.

I’ll cheat and tell you two—from early times.

In the first, I am embarrassed to say, we are heading (with cans of shaving cream in hand) for the sound booth where Mark Edelstein is broadcasting the daily Learning Unlimited news. It is our misbegotten plan to occupy it. We burst in, laughing, shoot Mark with the shaving cream, but it’s such a shock to him that he falls backward and hits the button on the console that causes the news of our occupation is broadcast to the whole school. The incident was written up in our files. Enough said.

In the other one, Mike and Pat give me my first blank book. Christmas Eve: 1975. It is green with gold stamping. Inside, in Pat’s beautiful handwriting, it says, “To Barb—A very special person with a great deal to say—here’s a place for it.” Just holding the book in my hand thrills and terrifies me. I see myself later, alone, after midnight, the house asleep around me…finally beginning to write.

It is good that we could all come together this afternoon to remember our friend, Mike. To celebrate the essence of him—

His intelligence; his sharp, irreverent wit; and that endearing goofiness

His passion for motorcycles and the Cubs and art

The beacon he was for thousands of students over the years, especially those who’d lost their way.

And, most of all, the beautiful simplicity with which he regarded love and friendship.

If Mike loved you, he loved you. That was that. And he loved every single person in the auditorium today.

For all of us, the world is a sadder, harder place for the fact that he is no longer in it.

To end, here is a poem by Lisel Mueller.


The first time we said your name
you broke through the flat crust of your grave
and rose, a movable statue,
walking and talking among us.

Since then you’ve grown a little.
We keep you slightly larger
than life-size, reciting bits of your story,
our favorite odds and ends.
Of all your faces we’ve chosen one
for you to wear, a face wiped clean
of sadness. Now you have no other.

You’re in our power. Do we
terrify you, do you wish
for another face? Perhaps
you want to be left in darkness.

But you have no say in the matter.
As long as we live, we keep you
from dying your real death,
which is being forgotten. We say,
we don’t want to abandon you,
when we mean we can’t let you go.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Teens Blog

I just got an e-mail from Reyna inviting me to the Grand Opening of the Teens Blog Network. I'm in!

In fact, I like the idea of teens blogging about the books they love so much that I'm offering a copy of my novel Everything You Want to the reader I think wants the most interesting thing.

If you want a chance at winning, respond to this post. I'll announce the winner on January 12, as part of the celebration.

Here's the info about the Grand Opening:

Time: January 12, 2010 from 6pm to 7pm