Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Not Even for the Sake of Books

The National Book Festival is being held in Washington, DC, this coming Saturday. Sponsored by the Library of Congress and First Lady laura Bush, it's a significant event in literary circles, bringing together authors as diverse, popular, and respected as Neil Gaiman, E.L. Doctorow, John Irving, Donald Hall, Sue Monk Kidd, Bobbie Ann Mason, Buzz Aldrin, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Marcia Mullen, Diana Gabaldon, R.L. Stine, and Laurie Smith. Dana Gioia, the eloquent California poet, will be there. So will Lynne Cheney, whose most famous book is probably the lesbian Western she wrote years ago. (Brief bios of all these authors are available on the National Book Festival web site.)

These very fine writers will read from their work, speak, meet readers (an estimated 85,000 attendees), be interviewed by the Washington Post and other newspapers, and do all they can to promote reading and writing. It sounds like a lot of fun, even though John Irving did once observe that writers are not necessarily sparkling conversationalists: "Novelists in particular drag themselves around parties like gutshot bears." It's also a great honor to be invited.

At least one invitee, however, will not be present. The distinguished poet Sharon Olds refused the invitation from Laura Bush.

But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.

I don't fault the authors who are attending. But I am profoundly grateful for Sharon Olds, whose poetry I have long enjoyed, and who has so simply expressed the horror of the contrast between the civilized dinner table of the Bushes and their vicious, unconstitutional, and shameful policies.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


It’s been years since I was overpowered by the urge to nest: specifically, when I moved to Binghamton in September of 2000. Despite some issues with the apartment on Lydia Street, I loved it. I had the whole second floor of a Victorian house: a broad staircase up to a dining room, office, tiny living room, big bedroom with walk-in closet, huge kitchen, pantry, bath, and back porch with stairs down to the garage. (Which leaked, a fact I discovered only after storing boxes in it for months.) I lived there less than a year, but I felt settled there. I nested.

Nesting is more than unpacking. It’s hanging curtains, putting art on the walls, arranging the rooms, puttering in the kitchen, falling in love with the place. You know how a cat will stretch in a patch of sunlight, reveling in it? Nesting is like that.

Sometimes nesting also involves shopping. Things don’t have to be brand-new, but they have to be beautiful (or have that potential), and they need to fit the space. After I moved to Binghamton I bought the Croscill comforter still on my bed, and the beautiful bed and frame that I had to sell, and the one Calphalon pan that disappeared during the move west. Plus plenty of smaller things from the local Salvation Army (which I loved). When I left Billy, I had left behind my dishes and cookware, towels, furniture—the much-loved possessions accumulated in 16 years of marriage. I had to replace them.

The move to California and the subsequent changes of residence were hurried and usually meant fitting myself into someone else’s space. Even in the South San Jose house where we lived for nearly four years, I never felt settled, never felt at home—although I had my own bedroom and office, I couldn’t or didn’t or wouldn’t possess them.

Maybe by that time I was just too tired of moving. (Every night for two years after I moved to California, I had traumatic nightmares about moving.) Maybe I couldn’t trust any place to last long enough to be a home. Anyone who knows me can tell you I get profoundly attached to places. I rapidly became attached to California, but I still felt like I had no home here.

Now I do have a home. And, as is proper, I am nesting there. With the help of friends, Freecycle, yard sales, Craigslist, and the Salvation Army Thrift Store, I’m fitting up my space to be beautiful. My usual style: eclectic, color-conscious, warm.

I’ve got gorgeous Freecycled pale-green Ultrasuede curtains, fully lined, to cover the west-facing French doors in the living room/bedroom. (Sunlight is pleasant, but it heats the studio up to pizza-oven temperatures. Also, I’d like privacy at times in bed.) Thanks to a good friend, I also have the appropriate traverse rods and brackets. (She was glad to be rid of them, and I was glad to receive them.)

Over the weekend I picked up a cream and green area rug with touches of deep purple at a yard sale advertised on Craigslist. The rug and the curtains go with the Croscill bedspread, the purple-and-cream square porcelain plate, the purple-and-green Peruvian tapestry, and the various landscapes that usually hang on my walls. Also with the gorgeous framed Monet print I picked up at the Salvation Army—my first decorative purchase for the new space.

I found a lot of other goodies yard-saling, including a Cuisinart Little Pro food processor missing only the blades, which I figured I could replace. Even with the cost of new blades, the fifty-cent price tag made it a bargain. And a lovely little teapot for one—not something that was a need, but a decorative and useful item. Oh, and let’s not forget the gorgeous new Wamsutta towels—two thick, soft, luxurious, smoky-blue cotton terrycloth that I picked up for three bucks total at the Salvation Army.

I’m already cooking in the studio, too. I don’t yet have space or tools unpacked to make elaborate meals, but I have a working (Freecycled) microwave, the heavy-duty double hotplate my friend Debbie gave me, and a fridge out in the garage for soy milk, cheese, fresh veggies, and other tasty perishables. Half the time or more, I cook in the main-house kitchen (I cannot resist the allure of two ovens and a gas cooktop), but now I have the option.

Still don’t have the TV/VCR/DVD components hooked up, or the stereo, and I still have major unpacking to do. The office furniture is set up, but it will be a week or two before it’s fully usable. I need to hang the tapestry, the pictures, and the curtains. I’m still looking for a rocking chair. But already the studio is home, and at night I can snuggle down into my bed, glance around, and feel secure and loved and at peace.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Make Plans, Not Corpses

Nature can make a disaster; only humans have the hubris to turn it into a tragedy. And humans can, with careful thought, prevent tragedies.

These days I work in Disaster Recovery, so I took a professional as well as personal interest in the effects of rotten planning on the multistage Katrina tragedy. FEMA responded with too little, too late, but that was only one problem. The cutting of budgets and the unrealistic evacuation planning were major factors in the catastrophe.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Are people fools to live in a city that’s below sea level? Possibly, but name another port that isn’t subject to some kind of natural disaster: hurricanes, blizzards, tsunamis, wildfires, mudslides, floods, earthquakes, even volcanoes. (Think New York City, Chicago, Galveston, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Saint Louis, San Francisco, Seattle.) The blissful climate of Northern California contends with occasional shattering earthquakes. The scorching heat and tooth-aching cold of Chicago are their own type of natural disaster: yes, people die in heat waves and in ice storms and in blizzards. Inland cities deal with tornadoes and earthquakes and thunderstorms and floods.

There is no safe place to live, only safe ways to live.

Don’t believe me? Check out this map.

Buffalo, NY, deals nonchalantly with weather that would paralyze Fort Lauderdale. Big snowstorms are mopped up with speed, and kids don’t get many snow days from schools. Likewise, San Francisco is probably the safest place in the United States to go through a huge earthquake. That’s because SF is prepared for earthquakes: roads and buildings are constructed to code, people bolt heavy furniture to walls, factories and office buildings all have earthquake supplies. But an inch of snow would leave thousands stranded, and the annual heat wave leaves people panting and wretched. Nobody knows how to drive in snow, and very few people in the city have air conditioning.

A quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level. The country maintains its 1500 miles of dikes for the sake of the economic advantage for the nation as a whole. New Orleans is a major port and the source of a significant percentage of the oil refining for this nation (a fact our wallets have been proclaiming for the past week or so). Compared to the billions it will take to recover from the disaster, the hundreds of millions that could have prevented it are a pittance.

It’s cheaper to plan wisely than to mop up afterwards. And clearly we cannot leave such planning to the government, given FEMA’s pitiable performance. But what do you expect when you hand over a government agency to people who explicitly state that they don’t believe in government?