Sunday, January 26, 2014

An Open Letter of Questionable Charity and Consumer Disappointment

To My Readers

To be a good person and a caring human being in the capitalist economy of the United States today, it seems only reasonable, even for one being of only lower middle income in New York City, to attempt to give 10% of one's gross income to charity. Sadly, Miss O' usually only manages about half that, or 5%. Some of that 5% isn’t even charity, but political donations, which I wouldn’t have to do if we could just get legislation to overturn Citizen’s United. But I digress. Not really. But onward to the task at hand.

Selecting charities over the years was a challenge, but I give reliably to Planned Parenthood, Gay Men's Health Crisis, NPR (various local affiliates over the many moves), WBAI independent radio in NYC, and Doctors Without Borders. I also fund cancer walks for my friends, and AIDS walks, and toss in ten bucks here and there as the need arises. I'm happy to do it, but all giving must be done with a full heart, or (at least in the view of Miss O') the giving will be tainted with bad blood. Yes, I really believe that. 

Another reasonable feeling for a human being is desire for products, that is, goods and services, of the highest quality we can afford. Cheap stuff is cheap stuff: It's terrible for us and terrible for the environment, even as it might amass big bucks for one or two guys working the racket from an island off the coast of Florida. When we find the perfect good or service of the highest quality, it is not unnatural to form a deep attachment; this is not a foolish attachment. That kind of attachment is reserved for lovers who are assholes.

Herewith two letters: Miss O' complains.


Tryin’ to Get Off the Smile Train

Dear Smile Train:

For the record: Yours was a charity I really believed in, and the importance of whose stated mission no one can question. Until I received that first mailing over a decade ago, I had no idea about the rampant problem of children born with, and dying from, cleft palates. Here in the U.S., this problem is taken care of to the extent that one hardly even notices the scars. I researched the charity, deemed it a good thing, and climbed aboard (to hold with your metaphor). My donations funded probably 5 or 6 cleft palate surgeries in full over the years. Only three times (when I was financially more stable) did I write checks for the full amount of one surgery, $250.  I’d like to have done more, of course. Who wouldn't? 

But in 2008 and more particularly in 2011, something happened in regards to Smile Train that really disturbed me. This article appeared in the New York Times:


For the last decade, Smile Train and Operation Smile have been the Hatfields and McCoys of the charity world.

Leaders of the two organizations, which work to repair cleft lips and palates of children in poor countries, have long been estranged. Even though Smile Train’s founders at one time served on the board of Operation Smile, they and its founders, Dr. William P. Magee and his wife, Kathleen S. Magee, ran separate charities with similar goals while remaining divided by their differences year after year.

….In the nonprofit equivalent of a putsch, Mr. Wang and four Smile Train board members who are also employees of his businesseses engineered the merger and presented it as a fait accompli at a regularly scheduled board meeting on Feb. 8, board members who opposed it said….

The controversial deal gives Mr. Wang oversight of the bulk of Smile Train’s roughly $160 million in assets, and it guarantees lifetime tenure at the new organization to the Magees.
Additionally, it commits the merged organization to put half of all the money it raises over the next three years into a fund under Mr. Wang’s control.

Based on this article, and the fact that since about 2009 I was INUNDATED WITH REQUESTS FOR MORE, MORE, MORE, I began to wonder where my money really went. I was not alone in noticing the changes.

And then this in 2014:

Solicitation Train
"Make one gift now and we'll never ask for another donation again!"
If you receive a solicitation in the mail from any charity that makes the above promise, you would be wise to be skeptical. No donor should ever feel obligated to make a contribution in order to not be solicited.
A fed-up donor contacted AIP to let us know that she had asked Smile Train, a charity well known for its ads of children with cleft lips and palates, in September and November of 2009 to remove her name from its mailing list. In early December of the same year she received a letter with Smile Train's promise that in exchange for a contribution they would cease further solicitations to her. So to get the charity off her back she sent them a contribution--yet she continued to receive Smile Train solicitations (one more in December and two more in April 2010) despite notifying Smile Train of her wish to be removed from their list each time she received a solicitation. Rubbing salt into her wounds, this May she received another solicitation with the same offer to not be solicited.

A Wink and a Smile Train
- published in the December 2008 issue of the Charity Rating Guide & Watchdog Report
100% of your donation goes toward programs -- 0% goes toward overhead.
Many AIP members have seen the above language in solicitations from Smile Train, a charity that treats children born with cleft lip and palate. One may wonder how a group that spends about $15.5 million or 34% of its cash budget on overhead, and receives a B- from AIP, can make such a claim.

Lately, the desperation of your charity has begun to show in more egregious ways. In November, this little item arrived:

On Friday, January 24, it was this:

I note the locations where these “gifts” were manufactured, because all I could picture were the tiny, suicidal fingers (can't you picture them jumping off those hands?) of Chinese factory workers laboring under horrific conditions to churn out these stupid, plastic products in order to help you entice a donor (for a children's charity) who WROTE YOU SEVERAL TIMES that SHE WOULD NO LONGER BE GIVING TO YOUR CHARITY because your money and egos seemed to be clashing with the mission.

Is there anything to which you will not stoop? PLATINUM PARTNER?
I never gave out of EGO. 
Jesu Maria.

I'm writing this HERE, on my blog, because you have ignored all my letters, complaints, and messages. Not that you will see this blog. But my friends will. And I'll just continue to recycle all the paper you are WASTING on this effort to lure me into your money pool. I have no idea what to do with calculator and bag. DAMN YOU.

I repeat (for what good it does): Miss O’ has respectfully told you, Smile Train, that, since the merger and the uncertainty of the way funds were being handled in 2011, she would no longer be donating to your charity, the aforementioned Smile Train. “Godspeed,” said I, “and I hope the children still get the important surgical care you are promising. However, I have decided to spend my $250/surgery, and double it, by partnering with Doctors Without Borders.” Is this ON?

Yours &c.,

Miss O’


If the Shoe (Gives You) Fits

Dear Naot:

Oh, Naot, how I will ever live without you I do not know. But until I have reassurances for the complaints below, live sans you I must. To my readers and to you, I must explain.

A woman searches her whole life for the perfect shoe brand. My mom, Lynne, told me from a very early age, “There is no such thing as ‘breaking in’ a shoe. The shoe either feels exactly right the moment you put it on, and comfortable as you walk around the store, or it doesn’t. Don’t kid yourself when it comes to shoes. And buy the best. Worry about how to pay for it later, if you have to; remember that one great pair is worth ten cheap ones.” And is she wrong?

Enter Naot, shoes made on a kibbutz in Israel; crafted with the best materials, for comfort and for durability, they just cannot be beat, as the old used car guys used to promise. The price was high, but so what? Once my feet fell into that footbed, it was love!

Around 1993, I found my first perfect shoe, in the form of your clogs pictured below, a style which you no longer manufacture. Sadly, the photo you see shows these 20-year-old clogs as they currently live in my kitchen, for porch duty (after 12 years of teaching duty); in New York I turned them into paint and project shoes. They've been great. Only in the last year have chunks of the sole begun to sort of fall off, and yet still I can walk in them, and comfortably. Naot Clog in a discontinued style, I cain’t quit you.

20 Years of Great Sole Soul

Over the years, at Mad, Mad World in Qccoquan, VA, and more recently, online, I have amassed Naot brand shoes in a variety of colors and styles for all occasions and seasons. In these shoes, I take long walks in the country, I walk the New York Streets from Times Square to the Battery, and they have the added fillip of looking good on the job and out at the theater. My personal style credo is that I want to be able to go to the compost heap, to work, and to dinner and a show in the same outfit, and still look fabulous. It’s been a real trick, and (mostly) I pull it off. Naot was the linchpin. Accessories do the rest.

And then a few years ago, something terrible happened. I wrote to Naot about it. Naot, I tried not to let it come to THIS blog: I explained. I described. I shared in private the pain I am about to share with my readers. I was met with, to put it plainly, indifference and unconcern. I was rebuffed. Here is what began to happen, in the space of about six months after adding to the boot and clog wardrobe.

ASTER CLOG (center right)

[Photos also show the brave attempt by Drago, a great family of cobblers in Penn Station, to save the split shoes.
Their good work did give me another year and a half…but that's it.]

The brown pair…


And no, Naot, this is not an “aberration” with “flaws” in the materials. This would seem to be a story of bad design, cheaper materials, and poor craft. See the Lynx boots below, the red ones? They are about 13 years old. I wear them in the city ALL THE TIME. Despite discoloration of the toes (all my own fault for wearing them in all weather), the soles are superb. See?

So you’ve left me high and dry, Naot. I will try to make the shoes I have left last as long as I reasonably can, because you know as well as I do that every “comfort” shoe brand out there is manufactured cheaply in China, that the “leather uppers” now are really “all manmade materials,” and that I will never walk as well again.

Have you at last no sense of decency, sirs? Where is your PRIDE?

Yours to command in body and sole no more,

Miss O'


The Play’s the Thing (It Usually Is)

Here's the event that really kind of sparked this post, which I've been promising myself I'd tackle for the past year. So last night I went to see a show in the Village, a revival of a long-lost black farce by a 1960s playwright. The show, it seemed to Miss O', had no idea what it wanted to be. When that happens, which is to say when a play is a farce, a black comedy, AND a political commentary, as this play was, the director of the play has to make choices. These choices have to do with 1) why he's directing it to begin with; 2) what the play IS first and foremost; 3) the acting style he wants to see; 4) guiding designers to his production concept; and 5) work in rehearsals, accepting input from all the artists and then making it all seem of a piece. The director of this show did not seem to make choices; or rather, he made LOADS of them. For example: The opening moment gave us a darkened stage, an old man staring into the middle distance as he sat in a plastic-covered wingback beside the casket of what must be his dead wife. It's a tragedy. Or is it? Apparently this naturalistic drama was supposed to turn to farce, BING!, when a fakey-acting blonde walked in and switched on the lights and delivered the lines, meant for him, to us. Huh? The entire audience, and not just Miss O' in the audience, shared that quiet, and the occasional uncomfortable chuckle, of the mystified; and finally, after several other entrances and oddly executed lines and fuzzily depicted plot points, the bored

At intermission, a very talented theater friend with whom I attended this play blamed the obvious failure on "bad writing" (it wasn't a good play, certainly), but he mainly blamed it on the audience: "How can the actors play to this?" he asked, gesturing to the people around us rising to head to the head. "There is no good will in the whole house!" I have never heard a quiet house accused in quite that way. After a pause, Miss O' cried "bullshit." In her day as a high school drama director, from musicals to dramas to comedies, one-acts and full-lengths, and hundreds of scenes from dozens of other plays in between, Miss O' learned that the only shoulders upon which the success or failure of a play rests are those of the DIRECTOR. (This director, as it turned out, was a friend of my companion's, but that is no excuse.) The director has to make it work. That is a director's JOB.

Audience “good will” has nothing to do with it. An audience’s good will should be the assumption, in that they’ve paid to be in that theater and don’t want to see their entertainment dollar wasted on crap. But if the director fails to pull off a great show—actors acting in at least three different plays; a cold lighting scheme even for a black comedy; a miscast female lead with a really bad British accent and a look more suggestive of a Real Housewife in L.A. rather than the competent nurse she was supposed to playing (the character was meant to be played by a young, female Bill Nighy—that’s what the role wanted: competent and sly with crack comic timing)—well, what can you do?

And this morning it hit me how all these disappointments are connected, and hence tonight's blog so fast on the heels of yesterday's blog. Just as a production cannot rise or fall by counting on an audience's "good will"….

Just so with a charity: Smile Train Charity, you cannot command my good will by plying me with flashy and unsolicited goods, repeated requests (at least two per month) for donations, or by showing pictures of the suffering, which is to say GUILT. You have to demonstrate your responsible, and need I add charitable, use of the hard-earned money donated to you with the full hearts of people like me, and make me WANT to give out of the real need you are supposed to be fulfilling. Right?

And just so with a quality brand company: Naot, my years of ecstatic shoe purchases—shoes of extraordinary comfort, variation of style, and marvelous durability—cannot sustain this buyer's loyalty when the shoes begin to go up in price and drop dramatically in quality. The company especially cannot continue to thrive when the complaints of a loyal customer of 20+ years are dismissed with, “Sometimes there are flaws…” and “if the purchase was made recently, you can return it to the merchant from whom it was purchased,” however your email phrased it. When the customer points out that three pairs of expensive shoes in one go were in fact flawing in precisely the same way, the flaws only to be discovered about four to six months after the purchase, one would think the big brand name company would at the very least promise to look into it. A GREAT company would send you a prepaid UPS label and ask to have the products returned for a full refund or replacement. And maybe offer that customer a coupon toward another purchase in the future as a sign of good faith.

To Smile Train and to Naot and to that stupid show last night, Miss O’ says: “Where is YOUR good will? Where is YOUR good faith?” To America and the Readers of the Miss O’ Show I say: When it comes to spending your money: Quality. Always quality.

A final point, from

Whew. NOW I can finally STOP THINKING ABOUT THESE ISSUES. Godspeed. Do better work. You have no one to blame but yourselves.

It's time to talk about CONGRESS, but fuck it. Typos? Sure. Fuck them, too. It's bedtime.

Yours &c. with kisses,

Miss O’

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Are You Not Entertained? Well Fu@k You.

(With Apologies to My Mom)

My mom, Lynne, gave up swearing sometime in 1971, the year I started. I was in second grade. My dad, Bernie, was forced to follow her example in short order, all because of the morning I was looking for my shoes and couldn’t find them, and cried out with all the anger I could muster, “GODDAMMIT WHERE ARE MY SHOES?” My dad, who had been asleep because he’d been on second shift, came flying out of my parents’ bedroom. “You didn’t know I was here, did ya?” he said. And he grabbed my arm and spanked the shit out of me. (We called it “spanking” then.) I’m hazarding a guess that I knew “goddammit” was not a nice thing to say, but more to the point, I must have known that it had power. When my mom asked me why I’d said what I did, I told her the truth, through my snot and tears: “Because whenever Daddy says ‘goddammit’ he finds what he’s looking for!” Couldn’t argue with that. And so, together, the O’Parents stopped swearing (mostly) to the point that any swearing out of the mouths of their sons and daughters to this day is a cause for alarm. “Honey,” the O’Ps advised in an email a few years back, “we know you don’t want to hear this, but a foul-mouthed woman is a real turn-off.” Fortunately, I found a man who begs to differ.

My mom will be 80 on Monday, January 27, this year of 2014.  At Christmas she told us kids, “Now, listen, you guys, don’t do anything for my birthday. Those flowers you sent to your dad [October 5, 2013] will do for both of us. Okay?” And the O’Kids in attendance, Mike, Jeff, and I, sort of looked down. After checking with my five siblings, I ordered the flowers on Friday—don’t worry if you think I’m spilling some beans; Lynne doesn’t read this. She hasn’t read my book, either. In fact, after the second letter I wrote home from college my freshman year, she explained on a Sunday when I called home, “Honey, why do you send me letters? I’m busy. I don’t want to read those.” What Lynne wants to know is if her kids are all right: “Are you all right?” And after you manage to keep her on the horn long enough to force feed her the salient news of your life during the every-other-Saturday morning phone call, she says, “You can keep talking to your father; I’ve just got to get off the phone,” and Bernie stays on the extension and the two of you leisurely chat politics and media until Lynne gives him a signal, and he hurriedly says, “Okay, hon, we’ll talk to you soon…” and off they go, doing the mysterious things they cover up with their casual, "Nothing new here."

Our Common Core

Last week I published my 100th blog entry. (It's a little exhausting to think about the word count of the past three years, let me tell you.) I started out to write exclusively about education—the state of the national school scene, my own experiences in teaching, and what I saw as ways to shape the future of it for the better. For the kids. Somewhere in there, because apparently I can’t help myself, I started writing other stuff, and less and less about school; teaching as a practice stayed on in my voice and in my approach, for good or ill, if not as an actual subject. Glancing back over the posts, I see there sure is a lot of shit on The Miss O’ Show; and based on the very occasional comment on Facebook and some longer messages from dedicated readers, I know that while most of this thing is just me thinking out loud, some of it resonates and even inspires others to think about and express ideas, too. That’s the best. That’s why I became a teacher. But I do wonder about my style. I have come to realize that the harshness of the Miss O’ voice does not really inspire collaboration or conversation, for which I wonder if I should apologize. I’m more bullhorn than bullshit, surely, but that doesn’t make my voice any less unattractive to those who would, you know, participate.

The most popular* blog posts, as far as readership statistics show, are the ones that are autobiographical and unabashedly personal. Emotion—obvious anger or, by contrast, real sentiment—as a Miss O’-motivator is, understandably, the best hook. (*Note: Because of trolling sites such as “vampirestat” and “adsense” and anything with “.ru,” as well as image entries via “google.imgres,” it’s hard to know how many of the hits you get are actual readers; it’s of course impossible to know how many people actually READ the blog after clicking on it, or how much they read.) The least popular blog posts are the ones that, as indicated from the title on, wrestle with ideas, mostly political; and unless those are generously laced with personal details from Miss O’s actual life, from an early paragraph, I suspect they go unread in full. Let’s face it: Who doesn’t love a juicy memoir? Still, I receive almost no comments on the blog itself—one or two people do occasionally message me on Facebook; apparently Blogger makes it way too hard to comment unless you too are a blogger, but no one confirms this. In addition, the number of people who joined my blog back in March of 2011 has not increased at all from the original 31. I don’t know what to think about that. To the 31 who have stuck with it, I thank you. I’m not complaining; in truth, I’m amazed I am read at all.

(Miss O' has no idea where she found this image. -ed.)

Speaking and Listening

So the other (post-snowstorm) morning I get a text message from my friend (whom I’ll call) Hutch. So Hutch shows up in 5° weather and 30 mph winds via Brooklyn and F Train to his Manhattan corporate job for a big managers meeting at 8:00 AM, for which he was right on time. No one was there. He texted various people in charge, and finally heard at around 8:30: “Oh, we postponed it until 10. I guess the communication never went out.” Well, it didn’t: gradually people started coming in, panicked because they were not on time, only to learn they needn’t have rushed through the freezing temps to even bother to try. “I guess the communication never went out”? Communications do not go out on their own; someone IN CHARGE has to do what is called “send them.” Whoever was in charge declined to comment or to accept responsibility. Ironically, the two biggest things on their agenda? 1) Employee Satisfaction Survey results; and 2) “How to Make Work More Fun” for the employees. Pardon Miss O’ as she throws up. This "fun" crap is a national, indeed, a global corporate trend, it seems. It is mad-making. Does anyone else just picture David Brent, the office manager character played by Ricky Gervais in the original The Office, playing air guitar trying to get a laugh out of the team? It’s pathetic, this idea of corporate “leaders” trying to make work “fun.”

You know what work should be? Satisfying. You know what makes work satisfying? Tangible results, fair compensation, and a safe environment. You know what fun is? Fun is deeply satisfying. Fun is the result of a spontaneous burst of enthusiasm and engagement with the task at hand. You know what not fun” is? Managers making employees eat cake, wear silly hats, clap, and do a primal scream before heading out into their cubicles or onto the factory floor.

So this morning as I wait for my kitchen faucet to unfreeze for the dozenth day, I am wondering at the lack of work ethic in this country, from the top down. Apparently. And why don't we hear about the stuff that workplaces actually create? Why don't we experience responses to all those surveys? So much Gallup polling, so little substantive change for the workers. Why this that?

Mainstream media is corporate-owned, corporate-run.  Duh, as the kids used to say, before they stopped saying things and began using only their thumbs. The views expressed on the air and in the pages (print or digital), are more and more the views of the owners. Facts, nuance, real grappling, all seem to go by the wayside, along with courtesy. In addition, the people who really need to have their voices heard don’t OWN the sources of sound-making, are not paid to…and I could go on and on and ON. In fact, I have. This from the Al Jazeera op-ed to which I've linked at the beginning of this paragraph:

In the American media, white people debate whether race matters, rich people debate whether poverty matters, and men debate whether gender matters. People for whom these problems have no alternative but to matter - for they structure the limitations of their lives - are locked out of the discussion.

And this just has to change. We the moneyless, the voiceless, have to take back our agency. And not just in the bars during Happy Hour. And not just on our blogs. Voicelessness and inaction cannot be the new normal. Where does it end?

("Where does it end?": A friend took a similar photo about a week ago,  a fallen rubber band in its usual dropped shape, which is the symbol for infinity. I posted my (blurred) find on Facebook and playfully "credited" him, but he was deeply hurt that I'd "stolen" his picture. Even after I explained that it was my own photo meant as a creative homage, he asked me to take it down. So I did. And I'm putting it here. Does anyone really "own" what never ends? Especially when it's been discarded on the sidewalk? And if your own calling out of such a ubiquitous cast-off object got another to notice it for what it might also be, shouldn't one be pleased about that? Miss O' says, definitively, yes. Yes, you should.)

Reading and Writing

So I'm doing a lot of thinking about the next phase of my writing life. To my readers, I don’t want to lock you out of a discussion, even if Miss O’ is more monologue than obvious team player. (As my mom, Lynne, said to me, “I can’t imagine anything worse than being called a team player”: Clearly, however much I rattle on, I am her daughter.) That said, your Miss O’ is asking for your comments on your blog-reading experience. I’m not looking for criticism, constructive or otherwise; neither am I looking for praise or even encouragement. I’m really interested in your experience as a reader. And write me about that. This is about you, when you read the stuff I write. I’d like to see the comments here on the blog rather than on Facebook, though that is just fine, too. I guess what I’m saying is I wish we could talk more.

Possibly it’s the weather getting to me. It’s snowing again, here in the coldest winter of my 10 years in New York. This sort of relentless cold used to be fairly normal, but by the late 1980s New York was becoming like Virginia; Virginia like Georgia; etc. Global warming and its new extremes have revealed us to be a species of pussies. And kids, we’d better take a good, hard look inside our innermost gun-totin’ souls, because we can’t shoot our way out this one.

Thanks in advance for any time you take to read and write back; I’ll listen. We’ll talk. And frostbite ain’t no joke: Keep warm.

Love and kisses &c.

Miss O’

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Finding My Teacher Voice

Could You MOVE Please?

Instagram photo by Penny Chu, seen on 41st St and Madison, NYC;
quote by Miss O's favorite writer

The other evening I was on the platform of Queensboro Plaza here in Queens, New York City, waiting for the Flushing-bound 7 Local Train that, because of delays, would be crowded. When the local pulled in, people began piling on and, as usual (because most people tend to think in incremental ways, such as, “I am on now, so I will stop moving”), the middle of the car was empty and the area by the doors was too packed to allow more riders on. Your Miss O’ called out in that arresting teacher voice so many of you remember so well (if not exactly with fondness), “Hey, guys, move inside, the middle is EMPTY, and there is SO MUCH ROOM!” And they did that.

Why did they do it? So very often, “they” don’t move at all, or one will and no one else. They got theirs, see: They are ON. What do they care that you are not? They are not responsible for your journey, your arrival. If you really wanted on, you’d shove your way and tell them, “FUCK YOU” as you elbowed on, and then someone would say, “Fuck ME? Fuck YOU!” and a real fight could break out, people injured, lots more screaming, “Fuck you,” and heedlessly, in front of small children (is it any wonder that the first small motor gesture of any New York toddler is the middle-finger thrust?). And it is here one remembers that the train moves at the same speed and in the same direction, whatever people do while inside it. And for the love of Christ let the doors CLOSE.

When all those people moved into the middle as requested—an extraordinary occurrence, let me tell you—and I was able to enter, I said loudly and enthusiastically, “Thanks, team!” The doors closed, the train moved, no one looked up—just as usual—but I got to wondering how it was I found my “teacher voice” in the first place: that voice that gets people to, you know, do stuff they really don’t want to do, but which they know, somehow, they probably should. I also got to wondering why it was SO HARD to put the teachings one shares into other people’s muscle memories; while learning how to be a dick to others via peer pressure is so easy to put into action. Why is it hard to be the person who breaks from the throng by the door, says “Excuse me,” in a voice loud and clear, and then move, whatever the human obstacles, to the empty pocket that is the center of the car, thus making it possible for others to be less squashed, and for still more to get on the train?

Obviously, I am being metaphorical as well as literal. Because this is Miss O’ talking.

MLK Day and Going Hunting

The first year I taught (at a rural Virginia high school, at which I stayed a remarkable three years when you consider what I’m about to tell you), of my three preps one was English 10. In the text book from which I taught was Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream.” It’s a gorgeous speech, one of those speeches that change the course of human history. I prefaced the speech by giving some history of King’s work, and I remember the class being sort of silent in a way that was, how to say it, eerie. Having no recording in our school’s library, which I found odd, I read it aloud as best I could, invited discussion, perhaps gave an assignment. After class, two white boys, “Billy” and “Jimmy,” approached me. (Did I tell you this already? Well—as my dad, Bernie, would saydid I tell you today? Alright then.)

“You called Martin Luther King a great man,” Billy said, standing too close to me, his eyes dead cold. “You know who was a great man? George Washington. Why didn’t you talk about him?”

Jimmy put his finger in my face, “You know, Miss O’Hah, huntin’ accidents happen here.” I batted his finger away from my face.

I was later threatened with assault charges when Jimmy went to our assistant principal to complain of being battered by my finger-batting. When I explained to the A.P. that what Jimmy was really upset about was my teaching of the MLK speech, my A.P. (who was from New York, as it turned out) said to me, “Remember where you live. If you are smart, you’ll teach something else.” I told him about the “hunting accidents” threat. “Yeah,” he said, “that could happen. Watch yourself.”

Nothing like being supported in the face of oppression. Makes it hard to believe that 50% of this nation's teachers quit after the first or second year. (So at any moment, 50% of America's teachers are teaching with virtually zero experience. Take that in. It took me at least five years to be worth a damn, certainly to have a teacher voice. And, remember, Miss O' quit, tootwice.) 

When King’s birthday, January 15, was proposed as a federal holiday, the Republicans (who manage almost always to be on the wrong, and often ugly, side of history, science, art, and, let’s face it, everything but Fox “News”) opposed it. Led by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the holiday was opposed on racial grounds, er, sorry, on the grounds that King hadn’t done anything important. President Reagan, too, did not want to sign the measure, when it did in fact pass Congress:

From Wikipedia: President Ronald Reagan originally opposed the holiday, citing cost concerns. He later signed the measure, after it passed with a 338 to 90 margin in favor in the House of Representatives.[8]

As long as it was only “cost concerns.” Jesus.

But I am from Virginia, and I saw Virginia in action, up close and deeply personal, when it comes to the whites' treatment of blacks; so it came as no surprise when the Virginia legislature declared that same January 15 federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, to be Lee-Jackson Day, as well, to honor those Confederate heroes. (At my next high school I taught with several history teachers who applauded the measure. Again: Jesus. Or as my Grandma Kirlin would intone, eyes going sideways, the cigarette smoke swirling, "And Jesus wept.")

Then I have to remember that while Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely memorialized, celebrated, and revered all over the world, only a few vestiges of bigoted bellyachers will grieve the disgraced Lee (though he really was quite a man) and fallen Jackson. (For more perspective on this great man's legacy, go to this terrific essay.) King had a dream, not merely a grievance, and the dream became action.

From Google Images

What Difference Does It Make?

During the past week, I’ve enjoyed an actual exchange of actual email with my once and former best friend, Tom Barry, who is happily married to his current best friend, Jen (who took over my part ca. 1998), and the father of two delightful children. Of a mutual friend of ours (an ex-friend of mine, really), Tom noted that this fellow was very lonely, in the “If I’d done nothing at all, would the world be any different today?” place. I replied, in part:

Thinking of your last sentence, "If I'd done nothing at all, would the world be any different today?" It's why I love It's a Wonderful Life, I guess; and short of being an EMT, a firefighter, a parent, or the CEO whose greed caused a massive chemical spill into a river, thereby destroying the drinking water for eternity, I guess it's hard to be sure you've made a difference in the world.

You know that song, "Nature Boy"? I love Nat King Cole's rendition. It's the line, "The greatest thing you'll ever learn/ is just to love and be loved in return" that resonates most with me in my everyday life.  Maybe it sounds foolish or small-minded, but loving my friends and family, and now [my boyfriend], and feeling loved by them….is about as good as life gets, and about as meaningful as it can be.

And still we have to work at things, be OF the world, and in it, too. Goddammit anyway.

I suppose a good question to ask yourself this weekend of the MLK national holiday is not so much, “If I’d done nothing at all, would the world be any different today?” but rather, “How have the actions I’ve taken made the world a better place?” Accentuate the positive, I say. And then ask, “How might I make a positive difference for the vast majority of us, even now as I live my life and try to get home in time to have dinner with my family?” And then search inside yourself for the courage to do that.

Metaphor Alert

Just as a handful of white, bigoted Republicans tried to sabotage the desire of millions of Americans to celebrate by national holiday the birth of one of America’s greatest heroes, so, too, on the subway: One large (and coincidentally white) man with earbuds in and his back to me and the door, stood full center by the entrance and the vertical pole, oblivious and unmoving, even as spiritually diverse, multiethnic, and (doubtless) many-gendered people slid around him to the middle and made room for more, at my teacher-voiced clarion call.  We all got on and could now get home, in time for dinner, say. The obstructing man remained where he was, unmoved and unaware of his obstruction and the obstacle he’d presented to the little moment of making our lives better. The point is: One voice said, “We can change this if we all work together,” and we did. Because we were hungry, we were tired, and goddammit, just move already. And if you had told me ten years ago that I would have had the courage to use that teacher voice on a crowded New York City subway, I'd have shown you flying pigs.

Gift to the author from Chuck Edwards and David Andrews, ca. 1993

Being In Love is Cool

So for years now, I’ve said, “Love is not possible for me.” And I moved on. I’ve made a thousand friends, built a real web of love that was not romantic, created new work, lived in a few different places, tried to be of use. I write stuff. And then, as I wrote last time, I met a man who changed the whole story I’d built. My friend Anna Citrino recently wrote a blog that I just now read, Being in Love is Cool, which dovetails amazingly with my own recent experience. (Did I mention I’m in love? Well did I mention it TODAY?) Anna wrote today to send me to this blog of Dec. 31, and her note closed with this:

Just having a life together is something I am deeply grateful for. Deep gratitude. There can't be enough said about coming back to that place in the heart every day. Let the cynics go on being sour if they choose. To be in love with life is to know it is a gift, every day, the simplest things.

In her blog post, Anna writes, Love is an act of imagination—imagining life together, and how you can live in a way that allows you to come together in wholeness. In the act of loving, daily giving ourselves to each other, we are made whole.” I think this is especially apt right now, because for one, Miss O’ has lived single until now and has ever championed the well-lived single life; and for two, Miss O’ is ever scolding the cynics and mean people who sabotage the prospective happiness of others; and at a time when Miss O’s heart is dancing for purely personal reasons, it might seem as if I could offer no perspective on the lives and possible suffering of others. Just because one is no longer only one should not mean there can be no more empathy for individual lives, the solitary life. We’re all only temporarily “with someone,” after all, death being what it is. The revolutionary 1971 women’s health guide, Our Bodies, Ourselves, reminds us, “We are only temporarily healthy.” You have to be ready for the inevitable when, while remaining open to “what if.”

Kids used to ask me all the time, “Why are we doing this?” They’d whine at a grammar lesson, “I’ll never need it in my real life.” We all did that, and what’s creepy to me is that so many grown-ups, who seriously ought to know better by now, for the love of Christ, do that, too: “I’ll never be poor” and “I’ll always have health care” and “I’ll always have fresh water to drink.” These colossal failures of imagination most likely become worse when arts funding is cut, when kids quit being able to make paintings and act in school plays—when we start pulling away the opportunities that spark, “What if…?” I think the greatest challenge to being human is the same challenge teachers face when teaching school, because here is our answer to the doubting: “You just have to trust me on this.” Miss O’ cannot help but find it a curious thing that so many of the same humans who believe emphatically in an imaginary being, “God,” rail and cry out against the empirical findings of real-life climate scientists, the feelings of oppression experienced by living blacks, the relentless struggles of the actual impoverished. Having blind faith is not the same as making an imaginative leap to trust people who are in positions to know more than you do. It’s one thing to trust the guy driving the subway train when you step on board, and quite another to fall into the train’s path and believe that the guy driving the train will, you know, magically catch you.

What are you? Stupid?

Living has to be an act of imagination as well as a grappling with actual, real reality. We sometimes must do things we aren’t ready for—because that inner teacher voice says to us, “Sit down, be quiet, and do the work.” And we have to trust that at the end of the exercise, well, that the learning will be part of the bigger picture, will fill in a gap, or at least get us a smiley face and a Twizzler.

My boyfriend asked me the other night, “How would you build your perfect, happy life?” My knee-jerk response was, “Live alone.” As I thought about it over the next several days, I could finally tell him what my perfect life would be.

“It starts with a porch,” I said. He smiled, his perfect profile dropping, his laugh beginning. I continued, “With a view of fields, a creek of fresh water, mountains; a house behind me with a good bed and a toilet that works; some food; unlimited red wine, and you.” He knew exactly what I meant.

Did the alert O'Reader notice what is NOT in my “perfect, happy life”? Look again. See it? That’s right! No politics. Not one mention of fighting Washington. No straining against a national takeover by the greedy corporations, and no arguments about how to solve all the problems that Republicans deny are problems. (And no lousy health, obviously.) And I started to wonder, “What would happen if Miss O’ decided to LIVE that perfect, happy life—go this summer to my love’s house among the pomegranates in Montenegro and just never come back?” 

Then one remembers the down side of It's a Wonderful Life. So here's a question: After the movie ends, does George Bailey have to keep running The Building and Loan, or will enough people have come to the understanding of how important it is to have that independent institution and, finally, offer to take over so George can go off and build some things and live some of his dreams? I quit teaching, and the schools I left kept on going, the kids just fine. When I take breaks from posting political warnings on Facebook, somehow the pictures of kids and kittens and the offerings of Upworthy keep appearing without me.

But I don’t stop to ask, “If I’d done nothing at all, would the world be any different today?” I am trying to remember that it’s important to use my teacher voice, and it’s also important to allow myself to love this man and be loved by him, to balance that. It means I might stop writing the blog for a while. I might not. It means, this love in my life, that I’m having to rethink what’s important to me as a daughter and sister and aunt, as a friend, a teacher, a writer, a New Yorker, an activist. “If I stop all my political involvement and focus solely on the happiness of my love, will it change anything?” You might just as well ask, “If I stop breathing, will the world be different?” Of course it will be different.

The real question to myself is, What are you going to do to learn all you can, love all you can, be useful and good and not a royal pain in some poor stranger’s ASS? And I'll try to do that. You do it, too. I say this with my teacher voice: I say it with love and real knowledge that your life will be better for working to be a more empathetic and informed person. At least, MY life will better if you are. I'd really like to go hang loose in the Balkans for a few years, knowing you were taking the reins.

Adventures in Infrastructure

I’ll close by sharing with you, dear Reader, the transformation of my Writer’s Chair, which has been out of commission for months due to a broken foot and crashed-in spring bed. I grieved the loss of the old upholstery, but I think the change to the lighter Crayola “spring green” is refreshing. (Thanks to the craft of Oscar Deco, Inc.  in Corona, Queens, for the big restoration, and to Judy at Zarin Fabrics on the Lower East Side for all the swatches.)

Miss O's Writer's Chair, gift of Gail Evans ca. 1984, Blacksburg, VA
1940's Platform Recliner
Repaired, Restored and Reupholstered by Oscar Deco, Inc.

Are you believing that? I know. I stare and stare. It's as hard to believe as the spring green change in my O'HEART, and that is refreshing, too. 

That's all I got today, in the year of 2014, the year that Michelle Obama, Stephen Colbert, and Miss O' are all turning 50. Now MOVE IT already. You're not alone, remember? Pull out your earbuds. Fix that goddamned chair. Love somebody. Share in the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. Look around you, for the love o' god. The doors are closing faster than you think.

As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., used to write at the close of many letters pleading for sane action…
In Christ,
Miss O'