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Learning to protest

boston library protest

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I took the subway downtown with some friends, to join thousands of our fellow Bostonians in Copley Square. We were protesting the recent executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, which (as you know if you’ve been reading the news) has resulted in people being detained at airports and denied entry to the U.S.

This was my second protest in as many weeks – my second protest ever, to be honest. I have a feeling it will not be my last.

muslim sign protest boston public library

I’m deeply afraid, on many levels, that this is only the beginning of the terror and injustice we’ll see under Trump’s administration. I am furious, heartbroken, fearful, and determined not to simply stand by in silence. So I’m learning – as are so many others – to protest. (It makes my bookish heart glad that both protests I’ve attended so far have happened on the steps of public libraries.)

Protesting, as you might have guessed, doesn’t come easily to me. I’m not inclined, by temperament or by cultural training, to rock the boat. And what I really want to do, in light of every single horrifying headline we’ve seen lately, is to gather up the people I love and hug them until we all feel a little less afraid. But that’s not physically possible – my loved ones are scattered far and wide – and it won’t stop the evil coming out of Washington. So I am listening, reading, asking questions, writing postcards. And protesting.

I know these marches are only a beginning: there are many ways to use our voices, and we also need our elected officials to step up and use theirs. (I’m proud of my Massachusetts senators for doing just that.) I welcome ideas and advice from folks who have been doing this longer than I have. This bigotry and injustice didn’t start with this election, and it won’t end here. But we can – and must – speak out against it.

hancock tower protest boston refugees

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jfk jr forum balloons hks

LEWIS ROTHSCHILD: Mr. President. You’ve raised a daughter – almost entirely on your own – and she’s terrific. So what does it say to you that, in the past seven weeks, 59 percent of this country has begun to question your family values?

A.J. MACINERNEY: The President doesn’t answer to you, Lewis.

LEWIS: Oh, yes, he does, A.J. I’m a citizen. This is my President. And in this country, it is not only permissible to question our leaders – it’s our responsibility.

The American President (1995)

I watched The American President again this fall, the way I do every election year, when I need a break from the TV ads and the ugly mudslinging and the constant ranting from both sides of the aisle. It’s billed as a love story, and the romantic plotline is charming. But I love it most for its thoughtful, incisive words about leadership and character, and the bond between the tightly knit group of staffers who work with the President, played by Michael Douglas.

Every time I watch it, I’m amazed at how it holds up. The casting is fantastic and there are so many great lines (this is Aaron Sorkin, writing pre-West Wing), but the last one above, delivered by a young, fiery Michael J. Fox, has been ringing in my head for weeks.

I’ve done a lot of questioning since the election. I am asking why we elected a man whose lack of experience in governing I find troubling and whose actions in his personal and professional life I find repugnant. I am asking, along with my colleagues, what role the news media played in this election and what our responsibilities are in reporting on the work of the Trump administration. (I am not a newspaper reporter, but I work in communications for a school of public policy, so my work is absolutely affected by who sits in the Oval Office and what they do there.)

Most of all, I am asking how I can participate actively in making this country a safer place for people who are threatened by the rhetoric of our president-elect. And I am absolutely questioning what Trump is saying and doing these days.

Before you stop reading, let me say: this is not (entirely) about partisan politics.

As citizens of a democracy, it is our responsibility to question our leaders at every level of government, no matter their policy positions or party affiliations. All our leaders, from the President on down, answer to every one of us. “America,” as Michael Douglas says near the end of The American President, “is advanced citizenship.” It is hard and complicated work. It’s why I have (for a start) been adding my name to petitions calling for an audit of the vote, supporting my Massachusetts senators who have spoken out against some of Trump’s hiring choices, and calling the House Oversight Committee to demand a bipartisan review of Trump’s finances and potential conflicts of interest.

Full disclosure: I am brand-new to any kind of political activism, even these small steps. I have always voted, but I’ve never before gotten involved in government beyond casting my ballot. I’m fumbling around here, trying to figure out what I can do to make a difference, to let my voice be heard. I am listening to people who have way more at stake (and way more experience) than I do, and trying to follow their lead.

If you usually come here for the books, the tea and the posts about what is saving my life now, don’t worry: I’ll keep writing about those things, especially as we head into the holidays. This blog will probably never be all politics, all the time. But in the wake of an election season that has rocked this country to its core, I had to say this: please join me in asking the questions.

Your questions, and the people and issues you are questioning, might be different from mine. We may not – in fact, we probably won’t – like a lot of the answers we get. But the asking, and the listening to both questions and answers, is vitally important. It is part of what democracy looks like. And when we ask, we can also decide what to do about the answers, the problems and the issues. That, too, is our responsibility.

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brattle bookshop doors boston

Fall is the time to dig into new books (though, really, that’s every season around here). The doors above are from the outdoor sale lot of the fabulous Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and the books below are what I’ve been reading lately:

A Very Special Year, Thomas Montasser
I heard Liberty talk about this novel on All the Books and picked it up at Three Lives & Co. Valerie takes over her aunt Charlotte’s bookshop after Charlotte disappears. Despite her career plans, Valerie (of course) finds herself utterly seduced by the shop’s books and readers. A truly delightful slim novel, in the vein of The Haunted Bookshop or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
I’d heard about this sweeping time-travel romance series from a dozen friends, plus my mom. Claire Randall is traveling with her husband in the Scottish Highlands after WWII when she steps through a circle of standing stones and finds herself in 1743. It’s a wild (often violent) ride as Claire adapts to an entirely different world and becomes tightly linked to the clan MacKenzie and a young outlaw called Jamie Fraser. Powerful storytelling, fascinating history and dry wit, though with waaaay more sex and violence than my usual fare.

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, Katherine Rundell
Wilhelmina “Will” Silver relishes her life running wild on the farm her father manages in Zimbabwe. But after his death, she’s sent to England and finds herself completely unequipped for the foreign, catty world of boarding school. I found the book’s African scenes much more fully realized than the English ones, but I loved Will’s fierce, bold spirit and Rundell’s writing. Found at Book Culture.

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo
I’d never heard of Hugo’s poetry, but I found this essay collection at Book Culture and loved much of his wry, thoughtful advice on writing poetry and being a poet (two different things). Witty, aphoristic and encouraging, if a little uneven. A good read to start off the fall.

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, Kate Andersen Brower
The role of First Lady is visible, public and largely undefined – so each woman who takes on that mantle truly makes it her own. Brower draws a sharp, thoroughly researched, fascinating portrait of First Ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama. Really well done (and, obviously, so timely).

The Bell Family, Noel Streatfeild
I discovered Streatfeild via You’ve Got Mail, so I was delighted to find this novel at Book Culture on the Upper West Side (shades of The Shop Around the Corner!). The Bell family lives in a crowded vicarage in the East End of London, and their adventures are funny, sweet and altogether delightful.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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purple crocuses flowers spring

A Charm Against the Language of Politics

Say over and over the names of things,
the clean nouns: weeping birch, bloodstone, tanager,
Banshee damask rose. Read field guides, atlases,
gravestones. At the store, bless each apple
by kind: McIntosh, Winesap, Delicious, Jonathan.
Enunciate the vegetables and herbs: okra, calendula.

Go deeper into the terms of some small landscape:
spiders, for example. Then, after a speech on
compromising the environment for technology,
recite the tough, silky structure of webs:
tropical stick, ladder web, mesh web, filmy dome, funnel,
trap door. When you have compared the candidates’ slippery
platforms, chant the spiders: comb footed, round headed,
garden cross, feather legged, ogre faced, black widow.
Remember that most short verbs are ethical: hatch, grow,
spin, trap, eat. Dig deep, pronounce clearly, pull the words
in over your head. Hole up
for the duration.

I came across this poem back in February, via a Shelf Awareness colleague who pointed me to the On Being blog. It reminds me, in some ways, of Wendell Berry, and I love its clarion call to remember what is real. (Especially during a political cycle where reality is constantly being twisted and distorted.)

April is National Poetry Month, and I’ll be sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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On voting.

voting sticker

Yesterday morning, I left my house a little earlier than usual, walking down the block to a plain, unadorned brick hall that regularly hosts community events ranging from AA meetings to meat raffles. (The latter, apparently, are a real thing here in New England.) I walked through a hallway that smelled of stale coffee, into a large, bare room with two tables of cheerful volunteers and a dozen or so voting booths, standing against the wall in a neat line, balanced on spindly legs.

I gave my name and street address to the women at the first table, in exchange for a ballot and an information booklet. After spending a couple of minutes filling in circles in a booth (no one looking over my shoulder), I fed the ballot into the big gray box next to the second table. The volunteers there gave me a sticker (which, as we all know, is just as exciting for adults as it is for kids). I thanked them and headed out to catch my train to work.

Every time I exercise my right to vote, I marvel at the quiet, peaceful simplicity of the process: register, show up, give your name, make your choice, submit your ballot to be counted. Everyone has a say; no one’s vote carries more or less weight than anyone else’s.

Especially in these midterm elections, when the electoral college does not come into play, the process is beautifully, humbly straightforward: one citizen, one vote. In town halls and libraries and even grocery stores across the country, my fellow citizens – rich and poor, male and female, of every ethnicity and political persuasion – can exercise this fundamental American right. (And receive the stickers to show for it.)

I am as sick of campaign ads as the next person, already bracing myself for the firestorm of political rhetoric that will start long before the 2016 presidential election (and which, some would say, never really ends). I grow weary of the personal attacks, on Facebook and elsewhere, that attempt to reduce a person’s identity and character to the box marked on his or her ballot. I won’t tell you which candidates I chose on Tuesday, and I won’t ask you which ones you chose. That information belongs to each of us and no one else.

But I will say this: I hope you voted.

I hope you voted, because the system of a democracy depends on its citizens’ willingness to participate, to decide for themselves which laws they would like to uphold or repeal, and whom they would like to serve as elected officials. I know democracy is often a complicated thing, shadowed by back-door deals and mutual political favors and the byzantine processes of government. But I believe it still works, and it still matters. As a woman, I am particularly aware that I owe my right to vote to a number of brave women who fought for it – and I have a responsibility to exercise it, to honor their work and their sacrifice.

As Ann Patchett noted recently in the New York Times, “voting is like brickwork – the trick is to keep at it every election season, laying brick after brick.” I am not naive enough to believe that one vote on one day will repair all the problems that plague this (sometimes shaky) edifice of democracy. But I believe the act of showing up, trowel (or pen) in hand, is a worthy start.

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Election season is upon us with a vengeance – a vengeance more bitter than most elections I can remember. I am planning to vote, because I believe in exercising my right to have a voice in my government, however small. (I am also mindful of the decades when women could not vote in this country, and of the millions of women around the world who still have no say in either their governments or their lives.)

But I spent a recent evening enjoying a different angle on politics. J and I watched The American President, the witty and romantic 1995 film in which Annette Bening plays a sharp-tongued, sparkling-eyed lobbyist who falls in love with Michael Douglas as he plays the sober, thoughtful and warmhearted President of the United States.

american president poster movie

(Image from imdb.com)

I watched this movie as a teenager, when some of the political commentary went over my head, but I loved the clever interplay between the President and his staff members, and the tender (if complicated) love story. Watching it as an adult, I’m struck by how not dated it is. The banter is still brilliant and utterly quotable; the power suits are still (mostly) the style in the halls of power; and the overarching concept that “politics is perception” has never been more relevant.

The movie is set in an election year, with the President trying to keep his job while sending two important bills to Congress (the issues at hand are gun control and the environment). A likable, urbane widower (with a teenage daughter whom he adores), he has been consistently popular, until he starts dating Sydney Ellen Wade, a lobbyist hired to help the environmental folks push their agenda on the Hill.

Despite his attempts to keep his personal life private, the President finds his ratings sliding, and as congressional votes on his bills also start slipping away, he must decide which issues to support. Sydney isn’t sleeping with him to get votes, but the pundits – and his opponent – pounce on the potential for scandal.

This President is an intelligent, well-informed man who carefully considers his decisions (the scene involving an attack on Libya under the guise of “proportional response” is one of the film’s best). He struggles, privately and deeply, with the power and influence accorded him as the leader of the free world. He listens to his staff’s advice (the supporting cast, including Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox, is outstanding), but in the end he makes his decisions alone. And crucially, he has the courage to admit his mistakes.

The movie’s climax comes when the President finally steps up to address the White House press corps, refuting multiple accusations brought by his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss). Whether or not you agree with the political statements herein, it is an incisive, rhetorically dazzling speech, and it begins with this statement:

For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. And although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I’ve been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being president of this country is entirely about character.

 

I am more weary than I can say of the mudslinging, name-calling, pandering, dodging and mean-spirited comments that pervade the political ads, debates and social media sites in this country. I am not suggesting that a romantic comedy holds the solution to these problems, nor am I suggesting that it is quite that simple.

But I do believe we would all benefit by remembering that this country can be best led by people of character, whatever their political affiliation or stance on certain issues. And I also believe we ought to act as people of character toward our friends, coworkers and fellow Americans, even (or especially) when their political views don’t agree with ours.

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(Note: I’ve been tagging and retitling lots of old posts, and some subscribers have seen an influx in their Google Readers. My apologies – things should be back to normal soon!)

Seven years ago, I spent a cold February afternoon at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, exploring and absorbing hundreds of years of colonial history (or trying to) with about 30 other American students. We stayed after closing time to listen to a few British scholars (and one poor, beleaguered American) hold a panel discussion on the topic “Is America an Empire?”. (This was in 2004, at the height – or the trough? – of the Bush administration, and certainly at the nadir of anti-American feeling abroad.)

My friend Meg, a history buff, had recently read a book by one of the panelists – a handsome, well-spoken Scottish historian by the name of Niall Ferguson. We all teased her about being smitten with him, and asking him to sign her book afterward (which he did graciously) – but we were all impressed by his knowledge, his powers of persuasion, and of course, that Scottish accent. (Not quite Sean Connery, but close.)

A couple of weeks later, Niall made a guest appearance in one of our classes, thanks to two of my girlfriends. Angela made up a talk-show theme song involving his name and words like “world domination” and “unilateralism” (the man does have some interesting views on colonialism), and served as interviewer, and Andrea (blonde, pixie-like and definitely not Scottish) played Niall. Her role basically consisted of sitting properly in a chair and answering all Angela’s “interview” questions with “I wrote a book. You should read it. It’s very good.” (In a fake Scottish accent, of course.)

Fast forward to about a month ago, when I received an ARC of Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization (already published in the UK, out Nov. 1 in the States), to review for Shelf Awareness. As I picked it up and read his name on the cover, I remembered being in that dark, chilly museum hall, sitting on a hard wooden chair, listening to that Scottish accent wind itself around the complexities and ethical questions of empire. I remembered Meg, grinning, clutching her book, and I saw Andrea nodding sagely at Angela’s questions and repeating, “Yes. I wrote a book. You should read it. It’s very good.”

Of course, I let all my Oxford friends know, via Facebook, that I was reading Ferguson’s latest book (and, for the record, it is very good), and when I added the book to my Goodreads shelf, I found out that Roxanne was a student of his at Harvard. I also talked about the book so much at home that J borrowed it after I finished, and happened to ask our friend Ryan, who teaches chemistry at Harvard, if he knew Ferguson.

“Niall?” Ryan said casually. “Yeah. He hangs out in our house’s common room sometimes. Why?”

Mind. Blown.

I doubt I’ll ever actually meet Ferguson (and who knows what on earth I’d say to him if I did!). But after seven years, thousands of miles, five more books (for him) and one book-review gig (for me), there is now only one degree of separation between us.

Sometimes the world is very, very small.

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