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Ann Patchett was sitting right in front of me last night at Parnassus Bookstore. We were listening to Meg Wolitzer read from her new book, “The Female Persuasion,” when Ann (I hope I can call her Ann since I see her so much around town) asked if the sum of a writer’s work isn’t simply an aria – one voice:

“aria, an elaborate accompanied song for solo voice from a cantata, opera, or oratorio.”

In other words, every book you write is saying something about you, about what’s really important to you. Your subjects may change, your place in time or your landscape may change, but your unique Voice, your Point of View comes through consistently, almost unwillingly.

And Wolitzer has written plenty of books, in fact this is her tenth novel. She notes that she actually started writing “The Female Persuasion” a few years before the #MeToo movement, but she has always been interested in female friendships, and the power dynamics in relationships. This book pivots around a college campus where a young female student, Greer with a streak of “electric blue hair,” is mentored by an older feminist writer, Faith Frank.

The audience last night was a mix of ages, young feminists with severely short hair, mixed in with my aging variety and a few men. One shop dog named Bear strolled around the room, while the smaller variety, Mary Todd Lincoln was cradled in a baby wrap on a bookseller’s hip. Wolitzer read from her opening chapter, where Greer is groped by an entitled frat boy at a party her freshman year. I wondered how many of us could relate to that!

I thought about a friend’s son, a quiet innocent boy, who went off to college only to be expelled after an episode with a girlfriend he dared to break up with – he was an unsuspecting sheep while she turned into a wolf. I thought about the UVA Lacrosse player who was killed in her dorm room by her off/and/on boyfriend. And that girl who was raped and left outside a garbage can at Stanford.

“Novels can be a snapshot of a moment in time, or several moments in time, and as a reader that’s what I really like, and as a writer, it’s what I’m drawn to also. It can’t be a polemic. I’m always saying, What is it like? That’s one of the mantras of writing novels for me. And then, in the game of musical chairs, the book is coming out now.”  

http://www.vulture.com/2018/04/meg-wolitzer-doesnt-want-to-be-tied-to-a-moment.html

Wolitzer would call her publisher and ask her assistant first, a millennial, “Before you put me through, tell me, what was it like being a feminist at your college?” 

And that was my question. At my Boston college in 1966 we didn’t have the word “feminism” yet. We couldn’t wear pants outside our dorm, we had to wear a dress or a skirt once we left the brownstone. We didn’t have birth control pills or roofies or mind-altering drugs, yet. There was obviously no social media, if a girl dropped out, you assumed she got pregnant. We didn’t wear bobby socks, we wore knee socks. We had no recourse, no defense; we huddled together and traded tricks sneaking into the Beacon Street residence after curfew.

We had a phone booth in the downstairs lobby!

Strangely enough, Wolitzer hits her mark writing about today’s college culture, about those times in our lives when we meet someone who will change our trajectory. Her generation is just behind mine, a decade younger – the second (or is it third) wave of feminism. And she mentioned that another Nashvillian, Nicole Kidman, has optioned the rights to play her character Faith in the movie.

My first thought was, so Kidman is playing a mid-60 year old woman? And I immediately slapped that thought away as too judgmental, the opposite of feminist, after all maybe Helen Mirren is unavailable!

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Hold the applause and pass the champagne for our little coterie of writers in Cville. This past weekend I attended another writing workshop on Memoir at The Writer House. Our fearless leader, Sharon Harrigan, helped us dig into our past, crystalize our vision and discover a theme that might shape the story of a life. This town is a veritable estuary of literary types, it seems I have found my people!

Although I’m not crazy enough to think my life story gives me the right to run for President, for instance, I wondered if it’s worthy of a book, I thought that delving into my past could help me structure the fictional story I’ve been working on for years based on the life of my Flapper. You see, I didn’t really get to know my biological Mother until I moved in with her at the age of 12, and I never knew my birth Father. He died of a brain tumor when I was seven months old.

I could write a scene about the automobile accident three months later, on July Fourth weekend in 1949, our family’s Year of Living Dangerously, only through the eyes of my sister Kay. It might start like this scene in a drugstore in Scranton, PA:

Robert P. Norman’s name was emblazoned on the door and he was always happy to see us. I’m the oldest, and only girl at home, so I’m the sugar in his coffee. Only lately, Daddy was having trouble moving his left arm, and sometimes he had headaches, headaches that sent him stumbling towards his office in the back. I was heading there to see if he needed me when I heard my name.

She was fourteen at the time and is currently my living archive. She helped our Father pound chemicals into pills in the back of his pharmacy. After the accident, she was in a coma for a month. She had to care for me that summer and her brothers, and eventually the Flapper when she was discharged from the hospital, her dancer’s legs broken in so many places she would never walk normally again.

But first I had to get to know myself better. Sharon had us make a list of our quirks, which was a fun exercise and kept me busy jotting down things like:

  • “I need to keep my hair short, or I’ll twirl it all the time;”
  • “Small talk is painful, but I’m told I’m good at it;”
  • “Sleep will sometimes elude me for no particular reason;”
  • “I stop for stray dogs.”

I was getting discouraged, my quirks didn’t seem quirky enough. Then someone said we should ask a friend or family member to list our quirks. Genius!

“You have to load the dishwasher a certain way,” Bob said. Now that is true, and it did show up at the end of my list. I’ve even been known to return to a dishwasher only to reload it, if someone else was kind enough to “help” with the dishes.

I’m also pretty particular about hanging clothes out on a line. One of my very first memories is of getting stung by a bee under clouds of crisp white sheets floating above me on a clothesline.

And I love to dance. The Flapper signed me up for ballet at Phil Grassia’s studio in NJ. I chased a dream in high school and commuted to Martha Graham School in NYC to study modern dance. I continued to study all types of dance under Bill Bales at SUNY College at Purchase.

And when Bob, who never liked to dance, wouldn’t take me to our Junior Prom at sixteen, I asked our good friend Bernie. Because I was that girl who had two Mothers and was never afraid to ask for what I wanted. I guess that was pretty quirky in 1965.   Junior Prom 20151111

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A phenomenal woman died this week. She was our spiritual mother, a national treasure; Maya Angelou had that voice that could peek into your soul and reach bedrock. She was what every poet must aspire to be, of every color and every gender and every nationality. She could transform words into pure emotion.

We Americans were lucky to have her around for 86 years, lucky to call her our own. She once said that courage was the most important virtue, and certainly to endure her early life of poverty and abuse she must have exhibited tremendous courage. I would add that patience is the least important. I’m pretty sure she would agree. “The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is not an important virtue in my book.

It’s the second part of that definition that irks me. Because by squelching your feelings, even the angry ones, you nullify your existence. Every two year old knows that! OK, so I wouldn’t make a great yogi, suffering in silence, sorry. Feeling your anger is the first step to changing an untenable situation – ask any psychologist. Internalizing your anger equals high anxiety over a lifetime.

But for this weekend, when many of you are celebrating and not suffering, weddings and graduations, I thought I’d dig up an old commencement speech that Dr Angelou gave to the graduating class of 1977 at UC Riverside. She directs these young people to identify the heroes and sheroes in their lives, to be courageous and adventurous and NOT to travel a well worn path. RIP Maya Angelou, your words will live in our hearts forever.

Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be invited and certainly pleased by the reception. I thank the Chancellor, the officials, senior members and junior members of the institution, parents and friends.
In particular, I thank the graduating class. It seems to me that a commencement address always comes after the fact, after the long hours, after the tedious work, after trying to come to grips with somebody else’s ideas, after trying to stimulate one’s own brain so that it may come up with some ideas of its own. After all that, and even after the institution of higher education says to you, “You have done well, and to prove it I’m going to give you a diploma. After all that, then along comes a stranger who says, “I’m going to give you a commencement address.” It seems a contradiction, or else a little presumptuous. However, (pauses for laughter) there is a challenge that faces you that is incredible. And the challenge is not new. However it has not abated. The challenge is how to create a sense of adventure toward life and how to maintain that sense of adventure. There is an African statement that says, “The trouble for the thief is not how to steal the bugle, but where to blow it.” And it would seem that the trouble for you is not just how to get out of this institution, but once out, what does one do? Does one simply sit with that diploma and say, “I have found the one way, the true way for myself and I call all the others false.” Or do you indeed join life, that is the challenge.
There’s a poem that says. “She does not know her beauty. She thinks her brown body has no glory. If she could dance naked under palm trees and see her image in the river, she would know.” But there are no palm trees on the street and dishwater gives back no images. Now, the way one maintains, I believe, a sense of adventure, a love of life, and since life loves the liver of it, or certainly seems to favor the adventurous spirit, it is a wonderful thing to maintain that idea, that concept. The one way is to keep alive heroes and sheroes. I believe that people live in direct relationship with the heroes and sheroes they honor. And I will talk to you about sheroes and heroes. I don’t believe that he or she must always be embodied in the physical body. I believe that an idea can be a shero or hero. Certainly the idea of religion can be.
Black Americans were first brought to this country in 1619. That was one year before the Mayflower docked. That’s an aside (laughter.) Today, we are upwards of thirty million and that’s a conservative estimate. How do people continue to exist, and walk as if they have oil wells in their back yards, except that there is a hero/shero that stays alive. Some years ago when I was with “Porgy and Bess,” we went to Morocco. The company had traveled through many countries. And when we arrived in Morocco, we were told that the sets had been sent on to Spain, and we were obliged to give a concert. Well opera singers, as some of you know because some of your are, are a people always prepared to sing. I believe they have their portfolios taped behind their watches or something, they are always ready. So when the conductor said to the singers, “We should do a concert,” they really got into fine voice. I was the premiere danseuse and I simply couldn’t. I was not trained in that discipline. I went to the conductor and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to sing. I don’t have any arias. He turned to me, he was Russian, and said, “Bah. Don’t you know a spiritual?”
I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, about the size of this side of the seating (she gestures to one side of the audience.) We went to church on Sunday. I don’t mean we went to church and left. We went to church on Sunday, that was all day, and then Monday night missionary meeting, Tuesday night deacon meeting, Wednesday night prayer meeting, and so on. And at all these meetings we sang. Now I had never really thought about the black American spiritual. I never understood what meaning, what value it had, until that night in Morocco. The people in the company went out and delivered themselves of these beautiful arias, from Rossini and Resphigi and Handel and Purcell, just lovely things, Mozart. And they were well received. But then I went out onto the stage and there was a pit with a 120-piece orchestra. But how could they help me with their violins, celli and things. So I said, “It’s alright.” And I sang a song that my grandmother sang every Sunday of my life until I was 13 and left that small town in Arkansas. When I finished, 4,000 people stood up and stomped and made noise and shouted. (here she imitates some of the language.) And I thought, uh huh. What was that? It wasn’t for my singing. I can sing fairly well. But it wasn’t that. I walked away from the auditorium and I walked alone in Morocco trying to come to grips with what had happened. The great singers had sung “La Donna’ e Mobile,” (she sings it) and sung it beautifully. They had done it to perfection, lyrically. And I sang, what I had thought to be a good song, but not very important music. And there were 4,000 people screaming my name. And then I realized that my people could not give me the great names that bring shivers in the marketplaces. They couldn’t give me the land that people barter their souls for sometimes, nor money, nor power. But what they gave me was a hero/shero that allowed me to walk as tall, and be free enough to accept other ideas, ideas other than those that generate within my own community. And it is that for which I am very grateful. It is that I want to encourage in the breasts and minds of the graduating class.
There is among black Americans, for centuries, we were known to laugh when we weren’t tickled, and scratch when we didn’t itch. And those gestures have come down to us as “Uncle Tomming.” I suggest to you that those people, who were successful in that particular strategy, are heroes and sheroes, and we live in direct relation to the heroes and sheroes that we have. I wrote a poem for a woman who is a maid in New York City. She rides the bus. When the bus stops too fast, she goes “Ah ha ha ha ha ha.” When it picks someone up, she goes, “Ah ha ha ha ha ha.” When it misses them, she goes, “Ah ha ha ha ha ha.” And I thought, “Now what is that?” Really? If you don’t know black features you may think she is smiling. She’s not smiling at all. She’s exercising that old survival apparatus, that’s all. So I wrote a poem for her, because she is a shero of mine.
When I think about myself, I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke, a dance what’s walked, a song what’s spoke.
I laugh so hard I nearly choke, when I think about myself.
Sixty years in these folks’ world, the child I works for calls me “girl.”
And I say “yes, ma’am” for workin’s sake. I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break.
So hmph, humph, ha, ha, humph, I laugh until my stomach ache, when I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side. I laugh so hard I nearly died.
The tales they tell sound just like lyin’. They grow the fruit, but eat the rind.
I laugh so hard, I start to cryin’ when I think about myself.
Ladies and gentlemen, a good commencement address should be brief. It might be funny. In this case I shall not be funny. I will encourage you along the lines of Terence, a playwright in 150 B.C., who said, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” It is interesting that his name is Terentius Afer, or Terence of Africa. He was a slave sold to a Roman Senator, freed by that Senator, and he became the most popular playwright in Rome. And he said, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”
I encourage you to live with life. Be courageous, adventurous. Give us a tomorrow, more than we deserve. I thank you very much, and I encourage you to commence.

http://newsroom.ucr.edu/announcements/2009-10-24maya-angelou.html

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Did you feel normal growing up? The Rocker’s friend back in Jersey, a guy from his early high school heavy metal band years, asked me this question the other day. He was writing a paper for his college upper-level Psych course and had to interview someone from another generation. By that I think he meant a “senior!” Why he picked the mom who served bagel dogs and root beer after school is beyond me. Needless to say, I was flattered.

“When you were growing up, did you ever think you were abnormal in any way?”

Doesn’t everybody? But that’s not what I said. I said “Yes,” and went on to try and explain how this could be a good thing. I knew I was abnormal because my name didn’t match my foster parents. First of all, I was the only kid I knew with foster parents. My last name belonged to a father who had died in Scranton and a mother who had been crippled in a head-on car crash. Having two moms in two different states wasn’t normal then. No matter how hard I tried, I could never really be their child.

I said that I also felt different because I had strawberry blond hair. But that’s not the same as saying that my signature mane turned almost white in the summer and got redder as the winter sun faded. That I felt like a too tall, skinny, scrawny kid. That my real (biologic) mom, the Flapper, said she could always find me in a crowd. That I made myself a bowl of spaghetti at night before bed to put on some weight. That I dreamed of having jet black hair just so I could fit in and not stand out. Later I would thank my Nana’s mahogany red hair and the Flapper’s platinum blond bob for bestowing their unique recessive genes on me; but as a kid, I was mortified.

“How have your own attitudes toward what’s normal and what’s abnormal changed over the course of your lifetime?”

Now that is a loaded question. First of all, what constitutes a “family” is very different. My hodge-podge of half/step/foster and biologic siblings is pretty tame, or normal today. Marriage equality has leveled the playing field. Growing up with a Jewish step-father in my teen years, with college educated brothers, I stepped out of the cocoon my foster parents had made for me. That little Catholic school girl became a child of the universe, with a rather striking liberal, progressive bent. Except for one thing, I’m pretty much in agreement with most of my current family’s attitudes.

That one thing is the death penalty. My step-father, who was a town judge, must have had some effect on me since even the Flapper was against the death penalty. For years I differed with the rest of my loved ones, like a lone wolf cast adrift whenever the subject came up. My reasoning was subjective; if somebody ever killed one of mine, I’d be the first to retaliate. There were, in my mind, circumstances that should relieve the taxpayer from paying for a monster’s life in prison…like killing a child, a police officer, or planning to ram planes into tall buildings etc.

But my philosophy about government-induced-death has been slowly changing. After reading about “false confessions” and mistaken convictions once DNA evidence was introduced. And knowing how the justice system is rigged toward the wealthy. After seeing how most of the civilized world has stopped killing its prisoners – so much so that the needed chemicals are hard to come by for a lethal injection. And this week, after hearing about the botched execution in Oklahoma, it became harder for me to justify my pro-death penalty stance. I could rant about pro-lifers not caring about the children born into poverty, and yet I found myself in their camp, a double paradox, when it came to the death sentence.

Then I read why those two prisoners were on death row. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/04/30/why-were-the-two-inmates-in-oklahoma-on-death-row-in-the-first-place/?tid=pm_national_pop And now I wonder why the gun lobby doesn’t try to bring back the firing squad. And I’m only half kidding.

The lone Conservative, surrounded by his Liberal sisters

The lone Conservative, surrounded by his Liberal sisters

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What would you do if you came home and your front door was ajar? You went into your bathroom and noticed some drops of caked blood on the sink and the rug? Would you take a shower? Then, let’s say you did take a shower, and you noticed another toilet in the house hadn’t been flushed.

And let’s just say you are 19, and studying abroad where your knowledge of your host’s culture and language is limited.

It took the poopy toilet for panic mode to set in for Amanda Knox. The year was 2009. In her mind, she’d been explaining away all the other little things: a broken latch; recently pierced ears or maybe menstrual difficulties. But the toilet was another problem entirely. Just days earlier her roommate, Miranda Kircher a British student, had mentioned in passing that Amanda needed to clean the toilet after every use, this was the European way.

Hailing from Seattle, Amanda was more of a water conservationist, but she understood  – when in Peugina, Italy, you abide by their customs. And when she couldn’t open Miranda’s locked bedroom door, she did what every other red-blooded American girl would do, she called her mother!

You may have heard that last week, Italy’s highest court decided that Amanda and her ex-boyfriend, Raffaela Sollecheti, have been convicted again, found guilty again, in the murder of her roommate Miranda.

And I remember at first back in 2009 thinking, oh sure enough, they did it. Amanda sounds like a compulsive liar. I rarely gave it another thought – then after serving 4 years in prison, they were found innocent by an appeals court. It had been a comedy of errors. A provincial police department ignored and/or contaminated evidence, they held back key pathology reports. There was a prosecutor who was being investigated for improper conduct around a “satanic serial killer.”

So when I heard the Italians had changed their minds again, found the pair guilty of murder again, the Agatha Christie in me just had to come out. I read Amanda’s memoir, “Waiting to be Heard.” I devoured every news article I could Google. And it turns out Amanda was guilty of a few things – her demeanor and facial expressions were inappropriate – she had demonstrated some yoga moves in a police hallway at the urging of a cop, she had been filmed chastely kissing her boyfriend in the driveway at the scene. To her detriment, she waited 4 days for her mom to arrive and to help the police who were framing her for murder. And sleep-deprived and naive, she was forced into a “false confession” that implicated her boss at a café in the murder. The real murderer would be arrested in Germany after his DNA was found all over the murder scene.

The theory of a sex game gone horribly wrong was more or less a fantasy of the prosecutor. And all it needed was a willing Italian press to spread its discrepancies and lies. And sell newspapers.

And I remembered sending the Bride off to Paris for her Junior year abroad. And sending the 15 year old Rocker to visit her along with her roommate’s brothers for Thanksgiving, 1999.

On top of the Eiffel Tower

On top of the Eiffel Tower

And even with some anti-Semitic graffiti in the 16th Arrondissement, I felt sure that they would be fine. They lived in an apartment above a French family, it was probably once the servant’s attic atelier. The girls ate with them weekly.

Now if I were Amanda’s mother, I’d be getting our passports in order.

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I’ve noticed that news travels slowly in the South. Maybe it’s the history of cool, early evening  breezes on a front porch, where neighbors would catch up with the news of the day, or maybe it’s just the culture. Everything is slower here, and I’ve come to expect it and actually I’ve come to like it. A little banter before a business transaction never hurt anyone, and in fact it helps keep us human.

Well, it’s not often that my husband says he hasn’t heard about a drug. He is a walking encyclopedia of drugs – their generic and brand names and what they say they can do for one of his patients. I used to quiz the Bride on a shoe box full of flash cards filled with a pharmocopia of drug information that she had to commit to memory in order to practice the art of medicine. Brand and generic name on one side, its prescribed use and complications on the other.

But my brilliant hubby never heard of “Molly.” We just figured this illegal drug hadn’t made its way to our sleepy central VA town. Two people died over the past weekend at a concert in NY, and one died in Boston from a new “club/designer/street” drug named Molly. When we heard this news, I said it must be a type of Ecstasy, and I guessed right.

“Molly is classified as a Schedule One drug by the federal government. That means they believe it has “no currently accepted medical use” and “a high potential for abuse.” So now we know it a very pure form of the club drug MDMA , and when taken with other drugs, including alcohol, it can be fatal. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/mdma-ecstasy-abuse/what-does-mdma-do-to-brain

And yesterday, we found out that one of our own, Shelley Goldsmith a 19 year old second year UVA student, may have died last Saturday after taking Molly at a rave club in DC.

“Shelley Goldsmith had a full scholarship to U.Va., where she was beginning her sophomore year. She was a Jefferson Scholar and a member of the Alpha Phi sorority. Students remembered their friend by painting the Beta Bridge near campus with the message “Shelley our Shooting Star.”

Her autopsy results haven’t been published yet, but statements from her friends, the people who accompanied her by bus to DC, are becoming public. It may take awhile, even in this digital age, for news to travel, but I hope our kids are listening. My condolences and prayers to her family.

http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Police-Investigating-Molly-Use-in-UVa-Students-Death-Mary-Shelley-Goldsmith-222397561.html

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Picture from her sorority’s tumblr page

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