Category Archives: Just thinking

Reading Social: A Day in the Boston Public Library

The cathedral-like atmosphere in the Boston Public Library gave me the peace I needed last Tuesday to settle down in one spot for a good long time and to really read. I was not alone; in fact, probably hundreds of people nestled in the courtyard, the corners, at the computer spots, at tables, and in aisles. The ambiance created by the architecture of the building and the collective act of reading helped me concentrate in ways that I don’t do at home, even in a comfortable chair in quiet moments. I never had to leave the building to have my vacation: I had a coffee break in the library cafe and I changed the pace with an art break in the print exhibit. Through it all, alone with my thoughts, I was surrounded and encouraged in my meditations by the presence of others setting a good example: focused, quiet, pondering.

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The “Rite” Help at an Main Drug Store Chain?

Recently, I stood in line behind an elderly gentleman who was trying to get some money back from a clerk at a local drug store chain. He had the advertising flier, his purchases, his receipt to prove he had been overcharged. He was polite, organized, and reasonable. The clerk quickly assessed the evidence then abruptly informed him that he “did not have a wellness card so he didn’t get the sale price.” He didn’t seem to understand what that had to do with the prices boldly advertised in the flier. He pointed to the flier again as the clerk repeated, “You don’t have a wellness card.”

As they circled through this several times, he showed the ad and pointed, then she repeated that he had no wellness card, while the giant gap in understanding between them became clearly evident to me and several other people watching in line behind me. The obvious solution was to let the man return the items, get the card, then repurchase the items at the sale price. But she never offered. Maybe she didn’t offer because filling out a long form while a long line gathered seems like too much work. Maybe she didn’t offer because she didn’t think of it. But these cards are effectively ripping off senior citizens.

The irony of a “wellness” card stressing old people out and becoming an institutionalized excuse for allowing them to pay too much is that when they come in they should get the “correct” “help” as your name implies, even though your spelling is atrocious. The worst part is, we have three of these stores in our town of 15,000 and I have seen similar scenes repeated at each of them. Executives, fix this.

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Balancing Act: Accents in Arizona’s Schools

Andrei Codrescu’s editorial on NPR commenting on Arizona’s decision that teachers with “heavily accented English” be identified and made to improve left me torn. I want to agree with him. But my agreement with his premise that people like Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger contribute much, despite their accented English, is tempered by my memories of my frustration and struggles as an undergraduate chemistry student; I was attending lab classes at a major university in the 1970s taught by Asian grad students whose English was incomprehensible. No matter how closely I listened, I had no idea what these grad students were saying; the frustration literally brought me to tears. How could I pass a required course when I didn’t know what my teachers were saying? (I had to get help from a student using the same text at another university.)

According to The Washington Post, “Arizona’s education department has sent people into schools to audit teachers on comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar and good writing. Teachers who fail may try to improve, but if they don’t, school districts can fire or reassign them.”

The conditions and timing of the remediation are not fully explained in the Post or a recent Wall Street Journal article on the subject. What both articles say is that teachers who are not fluent in English will be given opportunities and training in order to improve, but the length of time for training or quality of training provided was not explained in the articles by what I consider to be substantial, respected news sources. Why not? Didn’t anyone ask the question? And read carefully: “comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar, and good writing.” That list goes way beyond accent to the fundamentals of the language.

I was disappointed by Codrescu, a scholar and commentator whose work I have admired:

That was in 1966, and now in Arizona in 2010, the police can target both my trench coat and my accent. The Arizona Department of Education has told schools that teachers with “heavy” or “ungrammatical” accents are no longer allowed to teach English to kids just learning to speak the language.

Oh boy! Did I land back behind the Iron Curtain half a century ago? My last 40 years of teaching would have never happened if the Arizona law had been the law of the land in 1966. Forty years of accented instruction gone by the wayside! Gone also the 40 years when American education, lower and higher, finally recognized the diversity of America.

Fluency and accent are not synonyms, which leaves me as a reader uneasy about the politicizing of the issue by school officials and reporters and Codrescu. While pronunciation is important, the series of words that form grammatical units within sentence structure are even more important. The example of “tink” for “think” or “biolet” for “violet” are not examples of pronunciation that obscures meaning in a grammatically correct sentence: I “tink” that flower is a “biolet” is comprehensible versus “flower tink biolet” which is not  comprehensible. How weak was Codrescu’s English at the beginning of his 40 years? If it was so incomprehensible his students wouldn’t have understood him, it is selfish of him to think that he should have been their teacher. Whose education is it anyway?

Like most issues in life, there is a balance, a reasonable point at which to draw the lines. The power does go to the ones drawing the lines, however, which in this case, is the state of Arizona. Since the teacher issue unfortunately surfaced during the immigration discussion surrounding the new Arizona law that gives police powers to challenge people on the streets about their citizenship, timing may be everything in terms of emotion that brings confusion with a heavy dose of logical fallacy.

Recently, a teacher I know who is Puerto Rican was told she needed to take more Spanish credits to be highly qualified to teach Spanish at an American public high school: No Child Left Behind standards. She is complying and understands the standards. Spanish teachers need to know Spanish. Does that seem unreasonable? I don’t think that expecting teachers who take a job teaching in English to speak the language rises to the level of intimidation that asking anyone for citizenship papers does.

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Health care debate irony

What I love about putting the old and new adjacent are the creative insights they provide when side by side. Someone explained to me that health care is not a right because we are only guaranteed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Health care, he continued, is something of a privilege. I have heard that repeated several times  lately, sometimes attributed to the inspiration of Dr. Ron Paul. What confuses me is how the proponents of this line of thinking define life. For that, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary:

The active or practical part of human existence; the business, active pleasures, or pursuits of the world; freq. to see life. Also: the position of participating in the affairs of the world, of being a recognized member of society; esp. in to begin (also enter) life, to settle in life.

How one participates in the practical part of human existence sick with an infection, out of commission with a broken limb, or struggling with cancer is beyond me.

Here is an excerpt from a December 3, 2009 Reuters story:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Most Americans would like to see a “public option” in health insurance reform but doubt anything Congress does will lower costs or improve care in the short term, according to a poll released on Thursday.

The survey of 2,999 households by Thomson Reuters Corp shows a public skeptical about the cost, quality and accessibility of medical care.

Just under 60 percent of those surveyed said they would like a public option as part of any final healthcare reform legislation, which Republicans and a few Democrats oppose.

Here are some of the results of the telephone survey of 2,999 households called from November 9-17 as part of the Thomson Reuters PULSE Healthcare Survey:

* Believe in public option: 59.9 percent yes, 40.1 percent no.

* 86 percent of Democrats support the public option versus 57 percent of Independents and 33 percent of Republicans.

* Quality of healthcare will be better 12 months from now: 35 percent strongly disagree. 11.6 percent strongly agree. 29.9 percent put themselves in the middle.

* Believe the amount of money spent on healthcare will be less 12 months from now: 52 percent strongly disagree, 13 percent strongly agree.

* 23 percent believe it will be easier for people to receive the care they need a year from now.

The nationally representative survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 percent.

Has anyone calculated the cost of no health care? What are the numbers if all the people who currently have no care suddenly need to be fed and housed because they cannot work due to preventable health problems? I am trying to think this through here. While I am thinking it through I learn that the person who does did not believe in the public option was just laid off and lost health insurance, about which I sincerely feel badly. In an odd twist of fate, the stress of not being able to “participate in practical part of human existence” has this individual feeling badly. I was not rude enough to suggest seeing a physician.

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Cat O’clock

For twenty years, I really didn’t need an alarm clock, because Stormy knew when it was 5 a.m. This little mutt of a cat came into our lives when my son was a Cub Scout: “Good news, Mom, Tony says we can pick out our cat today.” I did not really remember asking Tony, another Cub Scout in the local pack, for a cat, but when a Cub Scout says your cat is ready, you show up with a shoe box and a can of tuna.We climbed the two flights to Tony’s apartment, found our way through the kitchen to his bunk bed, and out of a carton brimming with fluffy kittens, a little black, grey and white fur ball joined our family.

Despite his humble roots, Stormy was proud and was smart. He took charge immediately, showing  up at 5 a.m. on my head for his can of food. Somehow, he never scratched my eyes out waking me up. He breathed on me, and when I was really tired, a tender brush of his face next to my cheek roused me. Over the years, when our work schedules changed, Stormy seemed to realize that the best bet for a prompt can of food would come from my husband, so he moved over a pillow and made his gentle request there.He was so reliable, Verizon could set their time by him.

Cat box

We moved twice during his lifetime. He came to us when we lived in an old farmhouse with three acres, located in a smal town in western New Hampshire. When we had to move, he stayed with a friend who had a pack of animals; yet when we retrieved him to bring him to our little cape-styled home in a suburban neighborhood, he figured out that teens in cars should be avoided, along with large dogs and state highways. Always an outside cat, somehow he knew his address and never came back from his morning walk after we left for work. He ate his breakfast, went to the door to go for a walk and when it was time for us to leave, he was at the back door, ready to have the house to himself for the day.

This went on for twenty years!

Long after my Cub Scout had a Master’s degree, a wife and a passport stamped for many countries, Stormy made his daily rounds. We moved again, this time back to a small town with both hazards: 28 acres of woods behind us and a state route in the front. Neither tractor trailers or fisher cats were a threat to Stormy. He made his rounds, and showed up for family meals to sit with us when we watched a movie or read the paper.

It should have been no surprise to me, then, that when he slowed down last weekend, he would keep his routine. But it did surprise me that on the day he breathed his last, he tried so very hard to keep his appointments. Here it was, 2009, a full 20 years after his 1989 debut into our lives, that he began to slow, really, really slow down. He rose slowly, walked slowly, mused over his dish with just a few licks and slept more than ever. He preferred milk over fish and drank water in abundance. He squinted at a passing mouse, as if the chase held no interest for him. And he began to pee on the dining room carpet. That was not good.

Yet what do you do for an old friend, one who has curled up in your lap on winter nights like a warm muff? You clean the carpet, lay out plastic and move the litter box. You know his time is short and he has been so faithful for so many years, it seems a matter of respect.

On Saturday, September 12, Stormy did not wake us up. But when my husband rose and came to the head of the stairs, Stormy lay at the bottom. He didn’t want to disturb him, so let Storm lay there for me to investigate. But when I got up, he had mysteriously staggered to his litter box, where he was sleeping. I picked him up and put him back on his blanket. I held his paw for a while; it became strangely cool as he went to sleep for the last time, as his little chest slowed its expansion and contraction.

What amazed me is that up to the hour of his death, at the same times that he had always done, he tried to carry out his routine. I hope he knows we would have understood if he had just decided to stay in bed that day.

I never thought I’d find myself writing a tribute to my cat, something I promised myself I would never do. But there is something warm and comforting about an animal that seemed to think he was taking care of me that demands a eulogy when he passes away. Having a close relationship with an animal is a relationship I recommend to everyone. A heartfelt bond without words brings a special peace.

I still wake up at 5. I glance at the sliding door and think I see a little cat upright on his haunches demanding an open door.

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The pilgrimage

When I drove a tiny car with a standard transmission up the narrow, winding road to Tripi, Messina province, Sicily, Italy two weeks ago, I felt I was paying a debt to the great-grandmother I never knew. Guiseppa Rao married Rosario Cicero and had 13 children, 12 of whom left their tiny town for Rome, Pisa, Argentina and the United States. The idea that a woman from a culture that treasures family would have so many children, yet so few grandchildren around in her old age, has long made me sad. I suppose my great-grandfather would have shared her pain in some fashion, but as a mother myself, I feel as if I might understand her feelings better than I might understand his. When I actually knelt by her grave, I was struck by the softness of her image, an image I had seen in photos many times before, but which seemed so much more compelling as my fingers traced its rim.

Tracing not only her image, but her journey compelled me to make the trip. Now two generations removed from those who left, the contacts, the houses, the memories of those still there are swiftly fading. Yet the place itself with its profound silence, its stunning view of the sea miles away, and its current population carrying on their lives reminds me that places are living organisms. For those of use with roots in far away places, the people who live there today are not part of a living museum to our past, but are elements of their own vibrant present: moving, changing and growing with the times. The “old country”/”new country” dichotomy that we heard around the holiday table left me with the feeling that there was an unchanging “old” that owned an authenticity I would never have as a new world hybrid. Instead, I found people hybrids in their own ways, and whose stories released me from an internal label as a cheap knock off. I hope to share some of those stories in the coming days.

Silent alley in Tripi

Silent alley in Tripi

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Emilio San Pedro and the BBC let us down

In San Pedro’s recent BBC article, called “What Cubans Brought to Miami,” he maintains that the Cuban community considered itself “exiles” not immigrants, and to this day look to the day when they can return to Cuba.  As a child, he was raised with this mentality: ‘As budding Cuban exiles, it would therefore be our duty to make learning Spanish and adhering to the culture and customs of our parents, a priority. There would be no melting pot for us.” After explaining his father’s newspaper work and his mother’s work ethic, San Pedro ends with a concluding statement that “In the process, it has helped make Miami the cosmopolitan, international city that it has become.” For those of us who have not been to Miami, a category I would think a fairly decent proportion of BBC readers might fall into, what those contributions are, is not immediately obvious. Since the title implies that is his topic, I would like him to explain.What contributions come from a mind set of separateness? It was the first time I had heard of that mindset among Cuban Americans; as a second generation American, I grew up with the melting pot ethic a theme that was emphasized by my immigrant grandfather. In an era when our next president will be calling on all American to pull together and to put our individual interests, how the Miami community answers that call may be influenced by an exile rather than immigrant mind set.

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