Life and death

Ronny, Fran & Tony Hadloc

I’ve been shooting for cheery, but it’s just not going to happen in this post.  On Saturday morning, so early you might as well call it Friday night, a wonderful woman named Fran Hadloc died.  My relationship with Fran is complicated.  It’s most accurate to say that she’s one of my best friends’ mom, but that doesn’t give you an accurate picture of what she meant to me.  She was a lot older than me, sure, but I considered her a friend.  She was Tony’s mom, sure, but she was my mom too sometimes.  She helped me get my first office job, so I owe her a supreme debt of gratitude for my current cushy workplace circumstances.  She loved my children as though they were her own grandchildren.  She taught me about life, and love, and faith.  She was willing to talk to me about books, and she always took care to understand me (not an easy thing to do).  She loved my husband like a son.  She encouraged all of us from Foothill Community Church Youth Group (circa 1994-1999) to develop deep bonds of friendship and to hold on tight.

Her death cannot help but leave a Fran-shaped hole in the life of every person she knew.  Energetic, joyful, vibrant: Fran was all of these things and more.  I mourn this loss, even though I cannot wish that the events of Friday evening had turned out differently.  The truth is, Fran was in terrible pain.  The truth is, she really is in a better place right now.  I look forward to a time when I can reflect on that with equanimity, when it isn’t a cold comfort.  Is it selfish to be sad that she’s gone when I know that death was the best thing for her?

And here’s the real question, the deep one, the almost shameful one: is it selfish that while I’m mourning Fran and supporting Tony, I’m more than half consumed by the fear that I’ll lose one or both of my own parents?  It is easy to acknowledge intellectually that none of us gets out of this alive.  It is another thing entirely to confront the emotional reality that if I feel this strongly about Fran’s passing, I’m going to have a hell of a time dealing with my parents’ eventual, inevitable, deaths.

All that to say, it’s been a rough couple of days.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Book cover image

Cover image, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

I’ve never before tried to participate in a book club with strangers, but this book really caught my attention, so I decided to join a book club.  The Office of Institutional Diversity at the college where I work hosts a diversity-related book club twice per year.  This semester, they timed the book club meetings to coincide with Black History Month and selected this fascinating book that discusses the lives of the women pictured–what’s happened to them over the past fifty-five years?–within the context of race relations in America.  I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I think it’s an amazing read.

In my last post, I mentioned all the photos I had on my wall when I was a teenager, including a photo of Elizabeth and Hazel taken on September 4, 1957.  David Margolick’s book focuses on a view of that moment captured by photographer Will Counts.  The photo I had on my wall was by Johnny Jenkins, and it showed the same scene from a different perspective about a second or two before Will Counts snapped his famous photo.

Photo by Johnny Jenkins (Bettmann/Corbis)

This is the photo I had pinned to my wall (above).  In it, Hazel Bryan is just another member of the crowd of angry white people.  Now check out Will Counts’ version of the photo.

Photo by Will Counts

In Will Counts’ version, Hazel Bryan is the central figure, and she seems to be the only member of the crowd around Elizabeth Eckford who is angry about Elizabeth’s attempt at integration.  From this angle, the leering lady that I mentioned in my last post is completely blocked from view by Elizabeth.  There’s no one to distract the viewer from Hazel’s expression of distaste and hatred.  It isn’t accurate, really, to say that Hazel became the accidental villain.  After all, she was present among the mob that day, and she did shout rather horrible things at Elizabeth.  But a picture only tells a certain story, locked in time, unchanging, and this picture tells a very different story from the other image (Jenkins’) shown above.

We all do plenty of stupid things when we are young.  Most of the pictures I have of myself from the time just show an extremely awkward child who is uncomfortable in her own skin, but there are moments of my life that, if captured by photo, could haunt me more powerfully than they currently do, muffled as they are by those distorters: time and memory.  What if there had been a photographer to catch that moment in eighth grade when twenty (or forty?) girls surrounded me and threatened me because I was wearing a pale blue denim dress and pigtail braids–a very Little House on the Prairie homage.  The only girl from that crowd that I can remember with any sort of distinctness was dressed in white leggings and a black t-shirt.  Normally I might not recollect someone’s sartorial choices, but under those white leggings the girl was wearing bright green underpants, and they showed.  The idea that someone whose own clothing choice was so awful would shout at and threaten me for my own, admittedly odd, clothing choice always struck me as being an important point to remember.  In my life, that moment stands out as memorable because it demonstrates that people really do fear those who are different and that a mob mentality can break out no matter how apparently innocuous the cause.  A photo of that moment might not tell the same story.  It just so happens that I am white and that all the girls who stood in that crowd are black.  Maybe none of the undercurrents, the bits that seem so important to me because I was there and am aware of them, would show in the photograph.  Maybe for the rest of my life I would be that girl in the photo, unable to change or grow, when, in reality, I am so much more.

I suppose I identify with both Elizabeth and Hazel because they have at least one thing in common: they are both forever stuck in that photograph, in that moment in time when they were fifteen, in that image that only tells one tiny part of the whole story of that day.

Regarding the book club, it is so odd to me to actively participate in a discussion with a bunch of people that I don’t know.  I have grown accustomed to stifling my personality and remaining silent when among strangers for fear that they would misunderstand me (Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood) and take offense where none was meant or belittle me for being different.  I am still that girl who stood in the middle of that crowd and didn’t back down, but I have learned to be wary.  I am so sick of that wariness, so sick of being afraid of people, of being unable to trust that adults don’t act like twelve-year-olds.  The book club is a challenge, but so far it’s going OK.  There are definitely a few women in that room who have taken a dislike to me, but there are also a few women (and one man) who feel positively towards me, despite my opinions and decisive manner of speaking.

I was trying to make this post less of a downer than the previous one, but I’m not quite sure that I succeeded.

Photos on my wall, a preface to Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

I have been reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock quite a lot this week, so I thought I should write a post about it.  I quickly realized that I need to share some context: my original position, my baseline.  Not only is this book very different from anything else that I would ordinarily pick up and read, my experience of reading the book is new and different because I’m reading it for a workplace book club.  A lot of my reaction to the book is directly linked to some of my thoughts and experiences in late high school.  So, as a preface to my thoughts on this book, allow me to present some photos and narratives for context.

When I was in my last two years of high school, I took to tearing pages out of magazines and plastering the walls of my room with their images.  When I went away to college, I took the photos with me and pinned them up in my dorm room.  I’m not sure what images other girls my age had on their walls, but my walls were plastered with these images of injustice, some of them rather disturbing (just warning you).

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

To me, this image (above) represented both despair and love.  These folks don’t have much, but they have each other.

Photo by David Douglas Duncan

I read Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo in my sophomore year of high school, and I ended up something of a pacifist.  This photo (above) represented to me the human cost of war.  Like the character in Johnny Got His Gun, this guy (Ike Fenton, a US Marine) might have signed up for military service thinking that he was going into Korea to fight for democracy or freedom or liberty, and he probably discovered that war isn’t really about any of those things.  It’s about being cold and hungry and shooting at the other side because you are told to do so.  There isn’t any room for big ideals on the front lines.

It was around this time in my life that the U.S. sent troops into Kosovo, and I recall being so angry at the media representation of what our forces were doing there.  Now that I am quite a bit older, I am better able to understand the importance of selling a good story at home, but it still makes me angry that when these folks in the military get home they have to deal with the great disconnect between what everybody believes they were doing over there and what was actually happening.  Military folk honestly have enough to deal with–why do we have to stack one more thing on top?

middle finger

Photo by Perry Riddle

My mom wouldn’t let me take this one with me to college, because she thought people would judge me based on the art I chose to display.  As it turns out, she’s right.  Very few people at APU were able to understand exactly what I meant by plastering this imagery all over my dorm room.  The photo is of anti-war protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  As an interesting little historical tidbit, the shirtless guy flipping off the camera was later sent to  Vietnam and died in combat.  I think that outcome provides a compelling context for the anger he displayed in this moment.

Photo by James Nachtwey

Yeah, I know it’s disturbing.  I find it even more disturbing now that I have children.  This photo was taken during the famine in Somalia in 1992.  I was eleven years old at the time, and I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t do anything about it (what could I have done?).  What disturbs me is that I didn’t really find out what was happening over there until 1997 when I happened to see this photograph.  My family watched CNN all the time, and I was one of those kids who was generally aware of the outside world, but I didn’t know about this.  As a sixteen-year-old, I suspected that the lack of media coverage was because the story was so bleak.  Really, what American stuffing her face full of cheesy poofs wants to hear about a man-made famine thousands of miles away that causes this degree of suffering and degradation?

As an adult, I really don’t know what it means.  Are we so caught up in wanting to believe in the good in the world that we purposefully turn away from stories that challenge that belief?  And, a related question: isn’t it ultimately a more positive story to believe in the good in the world existing despite all the bad (rather than focusing one’s attention solely on the good to the exclusion of all the bad)?

Once again, the folks at APU had a hard time understanding why I would want to look on the picture of a starving child every day.  To them, it was probably the sign of a lack of faith.  It probably seemed as though I was one of those people who says, “there is too much evil in the world.  God cannot possibly be good.”  As with everything, my perspective was a lot more complicated than that.  I looked on this picture every day because I felt it was my duty to do so, because I was lucky enough to be born in a country and in a socio-economic position where this degree of suffering would never happen to me or to anyone I know.

September 4, 1957

Photo from Bettman/Corbis Archive

Finally, I had this picture on my wall.  I’m pretty sure I had it arranged next to the photo of the guy in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention–the one flipping off the camera–but the arrangement didn’t really signify anything in particular (or maybe it did… crowds of angry white people?).  I was always more focused on the woman behind and to the right of Elizabeth Eckford–the one leering at her in silent disapproval–than on the shouting girl behind Elizabeth.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found silent, simmering hatred to be more damaging and disturbing than loud, expressive hatred.  Perhaps it’s because people always seem to focus on those who loudly proclaim their racism while those folks who quietly emanate hostility slip under the radar of public notice.  Case in point: Hazel Bryan Massery, the shouting girl in this photo, achieved national recognition as being the “face of hate.”  Meanwhile, no one has any idea who that leering woman is.

I like smutty novels

A decade ago, I worked for a now out-of-business bookseller.  My local store allowed employees to check out books, one at a time, for a two-week period.  I prefer to own books, really, because my memory is terrible and re-reading becomes necessary after a few years, but it was great to have the opportunity to read a book first to determine whether or not I wanted to add it to my growing collection.  Most of the employees took advantage of the program, and most of us recognized that we would be judged intellectually by the caliber of book we chose to read.  I checked out a lot of Joyce, some of which I read (all of which I bought), and Thomas Mann (the German novelist, not the political scientist), and, to break up all that twentieth century thought, a lot of Greek philosophy.  There was one girl there who boldly and bravely checked out a new romance novel every few days.  The rest of us tittered behind our hands and thought grand thoughts of our own superiority, but I think she had the right idea.

I have been a reader of romance novels since I was about twelve years old.  I read constantly, and, at that early age, I tended to read whatever I could find in my mother’s book collection that looked halfway interesting.  In addition to some forgettable historical romance novels (Lion’s Lady is one of the best of that group, just for its bizarre notions of “history” and astonishingly bad dialogue), some odd suspense/thriller novels that I did not understand, some Stephen King novels (that I also did not understand), I read nonfiction current-events books discussing such events as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Nabisco/R.J. Reynolds Tobacco merger.  The pattern, here, is that I read anything I could find, regardless of whether or not it seemed to fit into any particular genre.  I was twelve; I didn’t have a favorite genre.

When I was fifteen, I discovered that I enjoyed classics written by European authors, and I’ve spent most of my life reading books that fit in that genre.  I soon discovered, though, that I couldn’t read these good, thought-provoking books constantly, because I did not allow myself enough time to think about them, to reflect, as Mrs. Thomas’ classroom quote exhorted.  Rather, I went from one to another, and all of that grand thought and all those new (to me) ideas became a bit of white noise crackling in the background of my mind.  Those ideas were there, but I was not assimilating them into the context of my life.  I was a fifteen year old girl reading Les Miserables.  What did I know about Waterloo or the subsequent revolutions in France?  What did I know about poverty, or religion, or criminal justice, or love, or redemption?  If I did not take the time to figure out what all of those concepts meant to me, I would have, pretty much, wasted the time it took me to read that sixteen-hundred page tome (nearly two weeks of almost constant reading).

But reading is a compulsion to me.  I honestly can’t stop–certainly couldn’t in my youth–and if I wasn’t to pick up another great book until I had fully digested the last one, what was I to do?  The answer: romance novels.  They allow one to pass the time, but they don’t require any real thought on the part of the reader.  They are feel-good fluff, often humorous (often unintentionally so), nearly always satisfying.  When you read a romance novel, you don’t have to worry about the threat of a Tess of the D’urbervilles-style ending.  Romance novelists don’t kill off their main characters after subjecting them–and the reader–to several hundred pages of torment.  I think romance novels can be fabulous (also horrifying).

So when I think back to that girl at Borders  (I can’t remember her name) who read so many romance novels, I understand why.  Sometimes you just want a story that will sweep you up and take you away to another life, perhaps to another time, that is more ideal than your life will ever be. There’s no real harm in romance novels, provided the reader doesn’t get so swept up in the fantasy that she expects Fabio to walk in the door at any time.

What is analysis anyway?

Right now, I am reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolis, The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae by Stephanie Laurens, and The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal.  As I have time, I’ll post about these books and any others I pick up.  I am not certain that I will finish Charterhouse.  120 pages in, I still hate all the characters, and I don’t really care what happens to them.  I am reading Elizabeth and Hazel for a book club at work, and I am really enjoying it.  Glencrae is pure fun–not much to analyze about it, per se, but self-analysis is possible regardless of the quality of the stimulus–but fluffy books of its ilk give me blessed relief from my ever-churning thoughts.

There are a lot of very good book review blogs out there, but reviews aren’t precisely what I’m going for with this blog.  My starting perspective is that everything that we experience in our lives changes us in some often ineffable way so that, every day we have the opportunity to get to know ourselves, to incorporate these changes and figure out where they leave us.  I have this horror of waking up one morning, looking in the mirror, and seeing a stranger.  It is so easy to allow habit and mental laziness to work their magic on our lives, to slip into mental somnolence until we no longer know our own minds.  It is easy to hide things from ourselves, to fool ourselves into believing that we are better than we are.  I am absolutely terrified by the very real possibility that I could, one day, be a stranger to myself.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m quite neurotic!

Analysis, then, is my means of making sure that I never get away from myself.  And, since I spend an awful lot of time reading every day, a good deal of my analysis is directed at what I’m reading: what I think about it, how it changes or challenges my beliefs, how it might be changing me.  So this isn’t really a review blog, although I will doubtless give my opinion of what I’m reading.  What I am interested in is having a record of my thoughts and, if possible, entering into a dialogue with others about those thoughts so that I can move forward with the ones that make sense and have a certain universal (ish) applicability and reject those thoughts that don’t.

Abrupt subject change: I made a wonderful and dangerous discovery a few months ago at work: there is an automatic espresso machine on campus that doles out free custom-made cappuccinos (or lattes or americanos) all day long.  In addition to the three cups of brewed coffee that I had this morning, I have had three of those lovely cappuccinos, the last of them with an added shot.  It is wonderful to have no real limit on the amount of caffeine I consume, now that I am no longer pregnant or nursing.

It’s a dangerous business, going out your front door…

Usually, when I start a project, I want to have a clear idea of what it’s going to be.  In the present case, I don’t, but perhaps that lack of a preset expectation on my part will enable something organic, something creative, to occur.  I need a project to focus my mental energies and take some of those energies away from the neurotic meanderings of my mind, but I am yet unsure what sort of project will accomplish this goal without feeding further neurosis.  I will have to see what develops and whether I have the stick-to-it-ive-ness, as my sister would say, to keep it going.

My initial notion of this blog is based on a quote that was displayed prominently above the chalkboard in my eighth grade language arts class.

 “Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” – Edmund Burke.

Until today, I never knew it was a quote–my recollections from that class, now eighteen years past, are not perfect–but Google does not lie.  Mrs. Thomas, the teacher, had created a banner using stencils and colorful construction paper, and the quote certainly had pride of place at the front of the room.  I have always remembered the quote as “Reading without analyzing is like eating without digesting.”  Perhaps my substitution of “analyzing” for “reflecting” is indicative of my rather more active manner of thinking about anything that crosses my path.  When “reflecting,” one can recline in a leather wing chair and, with eyes unfocused, saunter along clearly set out mental pathways.  “Analyzing,” by contrast, conjures a certain twitchiness, a mental tangle that needs to be worked out.  One does not analyze in repose.  Or, at least, I do not.

Like many neurotics, I tend to analyze everything, including everything I read.  The trouble I run into is that I generally do not have anyone to talk to about the things that I read.  I don’t know anyone who has taste like mine, who has read what I’ve read and would be willing to talk about it.  All that analysis without an outlet leads to a whole lot of crazy–thoughts that never get out of my head, context that no one else can understand because they’ve never heard it.  Enter this blog!