Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Cake" News or Let Them Eat Styrofoam

Have you heard the story about the inaugural cake? The cake for Trump, which was a replica of a cake for Obama, was three inches of cake, the rest of the multi-tiered structure was styrofoam. Author, journalist and activist Masha Gessen shared this story at a recent CAJM conference to illustrate the sham so often present in a totalitarian regime. 

Gessen knows of what she speaks. She grew up in Moscow, leaving in 1981, only to return in 1991. She once again departed in 2013 when faced with the threat of children being taken away from gay parents.  As an openly gay journalist with an adopted son, she was under particular threat.

I had read, loved, and written about her book Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace so was looking forward to hearing her speak. Today she is often discussing Trump through the lens of one who grew up in Russia and lived there during the Putin years.  

She began by quoting Soviet dissident Andrei Sinyavsky, who once said that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” She then elaborated on his meaning by exploring the culture of mediocrity that sets off the cringe reflex in anyone who places a value on excellence. That quality is very much reflected in the culture that surrounds Trump from his misspelled tweets to his incoherent sentence structure to his disdain for facts to the sheer meanness reflected in both his language and his budget. It is an embarrassment to be represented in this fashion.

All is sham and styrofoam layers where appearance matters more than reality. She spoke of how similarly Putin surrounds himself with staff who all have PhDs, but each one of them is plagiarized. Putin himself has been accused of plagiarism, which is quite common in Russia.

On the one hand she noted that Trump is all about raw emotion and public profile while Putin doesn't express emotion and had no public profile. Despite these differences they are similar in the way that they use language and lies. They exert power over reality by bully lying. She noted that Trump doesn't care if you believe his lies, but will continue to assert them to render you powerless like the bully who takes your lunch box.  Similarly Putin claimed there were no Russian troops in Ukraine, then said, oh of course there are. Reality is what they say it is.

Both disdain the public sphere and are contemptuous of public politics, the media, and how the public conversation occurs within a democracy. Gessen referenced Tillerson's first trip as Secretary of State without the press corp.  He noted that he didn't feel he had a use for them and would use them if he did.  She contrasted this CEO view of the press with the public servant view. A CEO is accountable to a board, a public servant to the public. The press corps is one of the vehicles by which the public servant view is implemented.

Gessen spoke about Perm36, the only gulag museum in Russia that was based on what was once a gulag camp during Stalin. In its later incarnation it served as a political prisoner camp until 1988.  In 2013 the museum was taken over by the state and those who created it were forced out.  It was turned into a museum glorifying the gulag.  Gessen spoke of a visit where the guide spoke of Sergei Kovalev, a well-known geneticist held there, as if the camp had attracted distinguished guests rather than the fact that he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for much of his time.  The museum was designed to create what she called "squishy reality" where nothing in the museum was clear, pointed or original.  It is much how cacophony works to muddle and confuse the public into silence.  

Gessen referenced the cacophony of the Trump administration as echoing this approach.  Nothing means anything because everything is quickly overtaken by something else.  There is always the shiny new object to distract us from public politics which needs to be our focus.  She stressed that it is our job to save the public sphere and it must be reality based.  The question she closed with is what will we be left with post-Trump and the risk he presents to both our language and the role of our media.  Critical thinking must be upheld lest we discover that all that is frosted is not cake. 

If you'd like to read more of Masha Gessen's analysis you can find her work at the New York Times or pick up one of her books, one of which takes a closer look at Putin is The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Story Writ Large

I came across this page on JewishGen while doing some research on Radom, Poland, in an effort to complete a book on my family history - my grandfather and his siblings grew up in Radom, on a street called Malczewskego.  I'm wondering if you might have a moment to help me better understand the city, especially from a visual perspective.  

So began an email I received three years ago requesting information on Radom, Poland, one of my ancestral towns. The site she was referencing was a website called a Kehilalink on Radom, Poland that I created for Jewishgen.org. Kehilalink means community and this is a virtual community for those who are researching their Jewish family roots from that town.  While the website was  a lot of work to set up, the payoff comes when I hear from people around the world who are traveling there or in some cases writing a book which features Radom. This email was from Georgia Hunter, a writer, who happened to be writing a book about her family's story which began in Radom.

She was intrigued by a photograph on the site and was curious about what kind of trees were in it. As luck would have it, I received the email as I was having lunch with a good friend of mine who is a survivor from that town.She quickly reached into her memory and reported that they were chestnut trees. I responded to Georgia and put her in direct contact with my friend Dora as well as with Jakub, a friend in Radom who knows its history well and ultimately showed her around when she visited. 

She was also tickled to discover an ad for her grandparents' store with its address. I remembered the painstaking process of cropping each image from an old phone book and linking each one to my listing of names. Her delight underscored why I made that effort. I, too, am excited when names suddenly become real people.

Well now I've just finished her book and I am doubly delighted that I could play any small part in her extraordinary effort. Her book is We Were the Lucky Ones and it traces her family members from Radom across the world during the war as they each seek their path to survival. So many stories are told within one family-from the Radom ghetto, to digging a grave in the killing fields, to Lviv under both German and Soviet control, Warsaw during its destruction, hiding as Christians with false papers, to the notorious Nazi prison in Krakow, shipped to the forests of Siberia to enlisting in the Polish army and serving in a famous battle in Italy. A child is hidden by nuns and parents hidden behind a false wall in a farmhouse outside Warsaw. This is a story writ large, filled with risk and answered with bravery, always surrounded with a deep love of family. The family is flung apart by war, occasionally reassembling in pieces, but often losing family members and uncertain of their survival for years. Ultimately the Red Cross plays an important role in reuniting them and when that happens you will share their tears of joy even though as a reader you have a peek behind the scenes.

This offered an added resonance because of my familiarity with the city. It is rare that I can so easily picture a city as history unfolds within it.  This is a debut book for Georgia and obviously an important story she needed to tell. Her skills as a writer and a compelling story make this a book well worth reading regardless of whether whether you have ties to Radom and a must read if you do. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

To Catch a Thief

When I was nineteen I got my first apartment. I had spent the year in the dorm  and when summer came I was not ready to yield my newly-won independence by returning home. I got a job and together with a friend found an apartment. We climbed the stairs to the second floor of a white house, facing a tree-lined street near the university, but its side bordering a busy commercial corridor. I,too, was similarly situated, at the crossroads between my cloistered college world and the larger world. Each day I caught a bus to my job across town at an insurance agency. I felt very grown up. Looking back, I cheer myself on across the decades, marveling at my youthful clarity as I began to shape my life.

I remember that apartment in varying degrees of vividness.  My memory begins in the worn brown chair in the living room from which I watched the Watergate hearings. That was the epicenter. Memories spill out from that point, paling as they extend their tendrils like water. To the left of the chair was the kitchen, a largely useless room to me at that time in my life, so only lightly sketched in memory. A splotch of orange, perhaps a dish towel, colors the room.  It was not until a few years later that a boyfriend would teach me how to cook. From the living room the hall extended in front of me, linking the two bedrooms and the bathroom between.  I picture a claw footed tub, uncertain if my memory is embellishing. My memory is of institutional green bedroom walls, not an inviting place, save for that first taste of freedom it afforded.

It occurs to me that it is significant that my memory begins from that chair. Watergate was the obsession of that time and my first exposure to the seaminess that politics can offer. It is the only thing I ever recall watching on that TV. We had no cable TV, no CNN, no Facebook to share our reactions, no Internet; just me in the chair and that TV. It was a simpler world, but unseemly human behavior still was what drew our attention.

Next to the chair was a bowl of nuts, my fuel for the Watergate viewing. Each morning I would find it emptied and a trail of shells nearby. One day I caught a glimpse of a bushy squirrel tail as it slipped out the window through a narrow and barely visible space next to the air conditioner. Our thief was revealed, a fitting parallel to the Watergate saga, closer than I had ever imagined. We'd been burgled.

Since that time, I have not been as engaged by political scandal; the glued to the TV, watching the swimmer, awaiting the shark variety. It’s the kind of impending doom that has ominous music playing in the background, just before the shark makes contact and blood fills the water.  

Now once again I am obsessed with the news, but this time in all its channels and Internet varieties, 24/7. I wake to the New York Times and Washington Post on my iPad and go to bed to PBS NewsHour. Even our entertainment is marinated in politics and serves to reassure us that we are not alone.  The highlights in our household are watching Stephen Colbert’s monologue and Saturday Night Live.There is no escape. My husband is similarly obsessed, perhaps even more so. While I am grateful that our view of the world aligns, it adds to an inability to escape this perpetual news cycle. It is a bit like trying to cut out sweets and having your husband bring home a box of chocolates. Even if I momentarily choose to tune politics out,  I am gradually lured by the drone of that nearby TV, beckoning me to hear what new horrors await. I feel as if my home has been invaded by something far more nefarious than my one time bushy-tailed burglar. This thief has taken our peace of mind, and our trust in many of our neighbors, our government and our country.

So many of us are united in our abhorrence  for what is unfolding. We can hear the ominous soundtrack and await the denouement of this horror show, praying that it comes before too much damage is incurred.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Taking a Catcation

"Do you have any trips planned?" I'm frequently asked.  "Not this year" I reply."We need to stay home for our cat." It is not unlike having an elderly parent who depends on you.

This is Simba's 21st year and he is on that downward slope. He used to execute the leap to our bed with a graceful arc, now I often hear the thump of his body as he slips back to earth, ungainly and embarrassed as I, the human elevator, lift him aloft.  He stalks around on the bed and then jumps off as if to say disdainfully, "I didn't want to be there anyway." My husband tells me it is all a ploy to lead me to his food bowl.

A much younger Marty with Max
Our animals live a long time. This is the last of our pets from the past twenty years. We "inherited" our animals from my stepdaughters. One contributed a dog, the other two cats. I think they decided their father needed a pet, which has some truth to it.

Our dog, Max, was a wire-haired terrier with attitude who wormed his way into my heart. I'm rather partial to attitude. He lived to seventeen, but only because when his hind legs gave out, my husband constructed a contraption that allowed him to move with the aid of lawnmower wheels and pvc pipe. Together with our grandson, he watched the movie Babe, watching for the scenes of Flealick, the disabled dog who likewise relied on wheels. Using that for inspiration and his own ingenuity, my husband figured out how to construct this doggie wheelchair.  I remember him adjusting it at our studio as Max nudged him in anticipation. As my husband released him, Max wheeled out the door and down the hallway delighted to be able to move once again. It gladdened our hearts to watch him. 

The night Max died, my husband dreamed of him walking down the stairs. He incredulously thought, "He can't do that!" I am convinced that was the moment of Max's departure.  I still thrill at sightings of wire-haired terriers and have been known to chase people down to admire their pup.

Our cats came to us as a package, originally on loan when my stepdaughter was selling her house, but we knew them for years before they joined our household. We first met Simba as a small kitten when my step-daughter picked us up at the airport from our first overseas trip together. It was the Fourth of July 1996 as this little ball of orange fluff first meowed at us demanding our attention. He's never stopped since.

Simba and Kitters cuddling
His compatriot, Kitters, had black and white markings that emphasized the elegant structure of his face, while Simba as his name indicates is quite lion-like in his orange glory. Kitters was the elder and the alpha cat. He had the most attitude so I resonated with him. Simba was needy, more dog-like. He used to chase a stuffed fish down the stairs and play fetch and he was most happy when situated on your lap. I wasn't good at staying still so he quickly became my husband's cat.

Kitters lived for 22 years and that last year was difficult. My husband speaks cat pretty well. He has a natural empathy for animals and tries to put himself in their paws as he considers why they aren't eating or using the litter box properly. He factors in their sense of dignity as a behavioral influence which I always find quite touching. Soon we had a makeshift litter box without sides so the cat could easily enter and wouldn't run the risk of falling. Near the end when Kitters was having difficulty getting up, Simba lifted him with his mouth like a mother cat with a kitten. 

Now this is the point where most people grapple with a hard decision. We told ourselves we were going to the vet to get her perspective and to assess whether he was in pain.  We invited my husband's daughter to join us as he was once her cat.  The vet confirmed that Kitters was in pain and told us we could take him home to say goodby and come back when we were ready. My husband and I were both ready to hightail it out the door, the cat in our arms and never come back, when my step-daughter said, "I think it's time."  We meekly followed her lead, respecting her knowledge as a nurse in making this difficult decision that we felt so cowed by. For a long time afterwards I could feel Kitter's weight in my arms. It was harder than I had ever imagined, not on him, but on us.

We were not the only ones missing Kitters. He had been Simba's companion for 17 years. They used to curl up like yin and yang. Now we became Simba's companions, his surrogate cats. His loneliness was palpable. We cuddled him and played with him, trying to fill the void in his life, and ours.

Now almost four years have passed. We have all aged a bit, but four years in cat years is a much more substantial time. Now we cut blood pressure pills in quarters for Simba, sprinkle medicine on his food and give him eye drops. He often can be found under the covers between us, his favorite spot. He doesn't like when we are gone for a whole day. He makes his displeasure known by leaving us little "presents" upon our return. He can't walk a straight line, doesn't see or hear well and finds comfort in our familiar presence.

Master catnappers
My husband once vowed he didn't want a pet that wouldn't outlive him, restricting us to turtles and elephants. I believe he feels that, but not that he can act on that feeling. He is a person who loves and needs animals so I suspect there will be more animals in our future.

It is amazing how central animals become in our life, this living, breathing being for whom we are responsible. We often talk for our cat and write story lines around his behaviors. We know his personality well as he no doubt knows ours. Now in his elder years we still can recall that youthful kitten who first meowed at us to the pop of firecrackers so long ago.