The BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is sickening, beyond the fact that 11 men died needlessly, leaving bewildered and bereaved families behind. I’ve avoided most of the news and photos about it because it makes me ill. Not simply upset or disturbed, which are natural reactions, but physically ill. Ill for the Gulf people whose hardships seem never to end, for the wildlife whose mute suffering speaks volumes, and for the environment that won’t recover in my lifetime, or those of generations of descendants.
My protective shell is imperfect. There’s so much news, most of it bad, that some gets through. Today I saw a Yahoo News headline about sea creatures congregating near the shore, while birds soaked in oil crawl off into the marshes, never to be seen again. That image alone breaks my heart. But my heart is a small thing in a sea of loss and despair.
In the early hours of the morning, I dreamed as though from a future vantage point that the well was never contained, that in time the oceans turned to oil, then the earth. It wasn’t just me who was helpless to stop it. It was all of us.
Right now I don’t care whose fault it is or who is accusing who of what. I want it plugged so that not one drop of oil ever escapes from it again. I wanted it plugged or diverted now, not in a few months when possibly — possibly! — relief wells may — may! — alleviate the volume. I want all the best engineering minds to focus their theoretical thoughts and practical experience on this singular calamity. I want it fixed, and then I want those entrusted with power to make sure this, and anything like this, can’t and won’t happen again.
I want the suffering to end, for life to go back to normal, for birds to go back to raising their young, not crawling off in anguish to perish miserably.
I want us to break our cycle of addiction to oil and other dirty energy.
I want the clean world we’ve never had.
At times separated by an ocean or by hundreds of miles, John and Abigail Adams wrote thousands of letters to each other, covering personal matters such as their farm, family, health, and hopes, as well as their views of freedom, the American Revolution and government, and its participants. Despite the distance, quite possibly their correspondence benefited from postal efficiencies introduced by fellow revolutionary and occasional nemesis Benjamin Franklin, who was appointed Joint Postmaster General of the colonies for the Crown in 1753 and Postmaster for the United Colonies in 1775.
Adams wrote prodigious numbers of letters throughout his adult life, to Abigail, children and grandchildren, and friends on both sides of the Atlantic. Through letters, he and Thomas Jefferson, past their primes and their ambitions, rekindled their friendship and their dialogue about the rights of man and the role of government. Adams finally quit writing in extreme old age, when his eyes were nearly sightless and his hands shook too much to manage a pen. Only physical infirmity deterred him.
As revolutionaries, then as president and president’s wife, John and Abigail had a great deal to say. Like Benjamin Franklin, they were keenly aware that what they wrote would become part of U.S. history.
I happened to be reading John Adams by David McCullough when I saw the Washington Post story about vanishing blue U.S. mailboxes that had become a fixture on city street corners and in the downtown area of many a burg. With e-mail, texting, social media like Facebook and Twitter, 24/7 mobile phone access, and other instant, on-the-go ways to communicate, who today takes the time and effort to write letters? Many seem to be able to communicate what we have to say in Twitter’s 140 characters (even John Quincy Adams), except when we’re texting cryptic messages back and forth: “whr ru?” “*bcks.” “b thr sn.” If you feel you need to communicate at greater length, you might start a blog, which, without a theme of general interest to the world or of particular interest to a special niche, will probably quickly fizzle out from lack of participation on both ends, readers’ and writer’s. Of course, you might not want to say to the world what you would to family, or to family what you would say to friends.
Although she did not have much to say, my mother wrote letters to sisters and brothers spread out across the country — Pennsylvania, Arizona, California. She didn’t like writing letters. I don’t think any of them did, because letters she wrote and received invariably began with an apology that the writer had not written sooner, followed by numerous apologies for having nothing to say, descriptions of the local weather, a bit of news if there were any, e.g., “Diane starts school in two weeks, Where did summer go?” Why write when there was so little to say and it was such a disliked chore? The answer — long distance was relatively expensive and reserved for truly important and immediate news, like deaths. Usually only one aunt, more affluent and urbanized than the others, called once in a while just to chat — and possibly to avoid writing a letter.
My mother also kept a diary, one of those old-fashioned small books with psychedelic covers popular in the 1960s. Five years of entries for, say, April 8, fit on a page, with perhaps three to five lines on which you could summarize the day for posterity. “A.M. Sunny but snowed in P.M. Insurance man called.” Writing didn’t come naturally to my mother, and she seemed painfully aware of it. She told us that, when she died. she wanted her diaries burned — clearly not for their lurid content or insights into her thoughts, but, I suspect, because she didn’t want anyone to see how mundane they were. I complied, although of course now I wish I hadn’t. I did keep my own two equally dull diaries from my childhood, although I rarely look into them — there is that little of interest in my colorful childish scrawls.
As someone who is paid to write, I’ve found that most people, even those with advanced degrees, are not comfortable expressing themselves in writing. Ostensibly, they worry about such things as grammar, flow, and polish. Could I make them sound better, more intelligent, more interesting, please?
I don’t think people are afraid of their technical shortcomings as writers, whether of professional communications, day-to-day diaries, or letters to family and friends. I suspect there’s a deep-seated fear of revealing our thoughts and how we think to those who know us personally. Unlike John and Abigail, my mother didn’t have congressional congresses, wars, courts, diplomacy, or politics to write about from a firsthand viewpoint. That left her feeling like most people, who think they have nothing worthwhile to say or are afraid to say anything worthwhile from fear of offending or causing an argument or a break (something that troubled Adams less than Jefferson). So they talk about TV shows and tweet about the weather, what they’re listening to or watching, where they’re eating, perhaps what they’re reading. We’re afraid to write, or are unable to write, paralyzed by our lack of material or the unwillingness to be ourselves. We’re afraid to be judged by what we say and how we say it.
I write letters — lots of letters. For all I know, they bore the recipients. But I love the sensory experience of writing, the glide of pen across paper and the appearance of writing, which is almost magical. I may start out on one mundane topic, which leads to another, and another, and, on occasion, sometimes a broader topic of more general interest. A comment about a Victorian novel may lead to a different perspective about some aspect of contemporary life. Writing — not typing — helps me to think questions through and to remember details. Knowing that I am going to write letters keeps me on the lookout for things to write about — the lack of fireflies this summer, neighborhood news, overheard conversations, interesting perspectives on the news and the world, quirks of human behavior, including my own. Sometimes a seemingly ingenuous observation launches me into what I hope is a worthwhile digression, making me perceive a topic or problem differently. Letters allow me to think out loud in a way that a journal, with its audience of one, can’t. Even without a dialogue, I can imagine my audience’s reaction, just as perhaps John, Abigail, and the other assorted family members thought of each other centuries ago as they sat at their desks, dipped their quills, and looked out over the bleak fields of winter and the ripening fields of summer.
Communication doesn’t have to be instantaneous or uninterrupted for the emotional connection to remain strong. To remember this, read some of the most poignant letters from any war — or the letters of John and Abigail Adams. When Abigail reminded John that he was sixty years old, he replied, “If I were near I would soon convince you that I am not above forty.” Could John Adams have conveyed his feelings and the implicit compliment to Abigail so eloquently in a text message? One can only imagine how Abigail’s heart rose as she held the paper and read of his love and lust for her in John’s own handwriting.
My heart still rises in the same way when I receive a handwritten letter, no matter who it is from or what it proves to be about. It’s an old habit that dies hard — and I’m not the one to fight it. Long live the blue U.S. mailboxes.
Mary Schmich left a voicemail to interview me for an August 30 Chicago Tribune article, but I didn’t get the message in time to meet her deadline. I sent the following letter to the Chicago Tribune and to Schmich. As soon as I get some post-surgery energy, I’ll be writing more here.
To the editor:
As a former Lincoln Park Zoo docent during the 1990s (I was 29 when I joined the program), I read “Zoo docents fading from landscape” by Mary Schmich (August 30, 2009) with interest. During my docent service, I received laudatory letters from donors, ovations after animal presentations, and kudos for tours; helped develop a popular “Escape to the Tropics” weekend during the winter; talked to families who delighted in both the interaction and the information; participated in numerous revenue-generating programs such as family workshops; and delivered in countless other ways on what was one of the four prongs of the zoo’s mission: Education. And I was one of more than 200 people of various ages and professional backgrounds, including not only retirees, but working teachers, college instructors, lawyers, nurses, dietitians, executives, Ph.D.s, and so on, doing the same — all on a volunteer basis. To paraphrase the Peace Corps slogan, “It was the best job I ever loved.” I left it with regret for personal reasons.
According to a zoo document quoted by Schmich, “the antiquated volunteer utilization model . . . does not enhance the zoo’s strategic initiatives and often does not set up volunteers for success.” Neither “strategic initiatives” nor “success” is defined. I admit I felt successful when, for example, families paying to attend workshops requested me as their tour guide and when I could persuade children — and their parents — to overcome their fear of snakes to touch one and find out that reptiles are animals, just like us. It’s hard to believe that the docent program, and docent-guest interactions like these, didn’t benefit millions of zoo visitors during the docent program’s nearly 40-year history. Surely the education mission and the visitor experience remain important to Lincoln Park Zoo.
To find out how to enhance its strategic initiatives, Lincoln Park Zoo might consider redesigning the docent program with help from its sister institutions. For example, Prospect Park Zoo (Brooklyn, New York) “is welcoming applications for its Docent Program . . . Docents lead group tours, interpret exhibits, present biofacts and other touchables at Discovery Stations, assist in our interactive Discovery Center, work at zoo special events, and teach visitors how to interact with alpacas and sheep at our barn area. Docents who successfully complete Live Animal Handling Training are also eligible to present short Live Animal Encounters to the public, teaching children and families about animals from the Zoo’s collection of education animals.” According to the Saint Louis Zoo, “Our docents are volunteer Zoo educators who are dedicated to teaching schoolchildren and the general public about wildlife, ecosystems and conservation. In sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm about our Zoo animals, they help increase our visitors’ caring attitude toward nature. Docents are critical to the successful operation of the Zoo’s Education Department and the greater zoological community.” Closer to home, “Brookfield Zoo docents will host the next National Association of Zoo & Aquarium Docents (AZAD) Conference September 7–12, 2010.” (The 1993 national AZAD conference was hosted by Lincoln Park Zoo docents.) These, and many other zoos and aquariums with thriving, successful docent programs, can provide the kind of guidance that Lincoln Park Zoo isn’t able to obtain from a consultant focused purely on business.
Renowned primatologist and herpetologist Russell A. Mittermeier Ph.D., the president of Conservation International and the only working field biologist to head a major international environmental organization, says, “The dedication and efforts of docents are a major contribution to the education of society. Their volunteer services are exerting a real impact, particularly on this country’s young people who show a growing interest in natural history and conservation.” This fits in perfectly with the Obama administration’s nationwide service initiative.
During this severe economic downtown, when Lincoln Park Zoo has had to slash budget and staff, it seems counterintuitive to squeeze volunteers and downsize volunteer programs. And it would be deeply regrettable if Lincoln Park Zoo were to dismiss as an “antiquated model” one that so many zoos and aquariums, and environmental leaders such as Mittermeier, have embraced as essential to conservation education and human appreciation for our fellow earth travelers.
I first noticed this proclamation displayed prominently in the building across the street, the pillars of which had been painted in colors complimentary to the logo, then in my building, then seemingly everywhere downtown. This ubiquitous display of Olympic love, it turns out, had been carefully orchestrated to coincide with a visit by the International Olympic Committee.
Who is the “we”? I wondered.
The answer to that in this case is no mystery — every business that needs to stay in the plus column of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s ledger. When Da Mare’s cruising, you want to make sure you, your business, and your building conform to his mantra, even if you personally pay your taxes in Naperville or don’t care one way or the other. It’s the wise thing to do.
I live in Chicago, I care, and those signs don’t speak for me. I am not part of the universal “we.”
I don’t back the bid. I don’t think I’m alone.
I’m sure many Chicagoans and suburbanites crave the excitement, prestige, and economic stimulus it’s claimed that the Olympics would bring to Chicago. I don’t. I also don’t desire the long-term disfigurement of places like Jackson and Washington Parks for the sake of a two-week event whose benefits are debatable.
I’m jaded enough to wonder if Daley, during whose reign the classic Soldier Field was transformed into a futuristic glass toilet bowl where the regular folks are huddled together on one side of the field while the wealthy and influential take the other, envisions the Olympics as the capstone of his legacy. Perhaps he has Chicago’s best interests at heart, at least when they coincide with his.
Rootless, I’ve remained emotionally detached from Chicago, even as I approach my 30th year here. I missed the regime of the first Mayor Daley and have never been interested in the Machine, whether yesterday’s powerhouse or today’s more sophisticated and streamlined version. But a recent incident in Hyde Park is a measure of how I feel about the government of the city that works. A local restaurant was shut down by city inspectors for not having the right kind of Dumpster, or for having an outdated one. J. and I had the same thought: “Sorry, we gotta shut ya down until ya get the right kind of Dumpster. Say. I gotta card here of a guy who sells the kind of Dumpster ya need, the kind in the city ordinance. He’ll fix ya up good. He’s the mayor’s [insert relationship here].”
That’s how the city of big shoulders works. And that’s part of why “we” back the bid, although no one asked us, just like they didn’t ask us if we wanted the runways at Meigs Field rendered useless by enormous Xs gouged into them late on a Sunday night. That’s just the way it is in “My Kind of Town.” The mayor’s way or the highway.
So, no offense, but I hope I don’t see you in 2016, unless you’re here for the zoo, the aquarium, the planetarium, the museums, the parks, the universities, or the professional sports — all things that Chicagoans are and should be proud of.
2016 would be my 37th year here.
One day a co-worker told me, “Multitasking makes you stupid.” It turned out that this was not a personal commentary directed at me. She had recently read an article to that effect and decided to share its wisdom. I’m keen on neither multitasking or stupidity.
I thought of all this when I read about the motorist who was reported by a fellow driver for talking on her mobile phone and breast-feeding whilst driving. I feel confident asserting that this form of multitasking falls into the “stupid” category, although not as cause and effect.
I’ve often wondered why people feel compelled to answer their cell phones, no matter where they are or what they are doing. J. is guilty, and he’s never been able to give me a good answer when I ask why he never fails to pick up calls. It’s one thing to expect a call. But, whether he’s driving, dining out or watching television with me, or otherwise engaged, he always answers his phone, as do people on the bus, in restaurants, and even in bathroom stalls. Most of the conversations that follow hint of their urgency: “Hey, what’s up? I’m on the bus. Yeah, long week. Yeah. Yeah.” or “Hi! Nah, we got out of the house for dinner. Did you get to the sale?” And so I wonder what was so important that this driver had to make or pick up this particular call while juggling the operation of a moving vehicle and breast-feeding. Is she one of those souls who think accidents happen only to other people? (The answer, as it turns out, is “yes.”)
I don’t drive, so I suspect this makes me less empathetic than I would be if I did. Many drivers flout speed limits and other traffic laws as their assertion of independence and as though they have some secret knowledge that moving in and out of expressway traffic at 75 miles per hour really isn’t that dangerous. Laws are just a nuisance, an intrusion by government, and/or an excuse for the authorities to collect revenue through tickets. The car has become the new mobile home and office. A man’s home is his castle, and so is his car. When you spend so much time in your car, it may seem reasonable to eat, drink, chat on the phone, apply makeup, and even watch TV (to say nothing of engaging in sexual activities) while motoring along. And now (although I’m certain this can’t be the first-ever incident), we can add breast-feeding baby to the list.
The driver in question, Genine Compton of Kettering, Ohio, “was given a ticket and a summons, and has been charged with a first-degree misdemeanor of child endangering and minor misdemeanor for unlawfully restraining (in other words, not restraining) her child, who, by law, should have been in a car seat.” She remains unrepentant, however. According to the New York Times, “Her children need to eat when they need to eat, she said, explaining, ‘If my child’s hungry, I’m going to feed it.’ She also said she would do the same again.”
Allow me to point out that the child who was apparently in such immediate danger of starvation or dehydration is two years old. Isn’t that old enough to wait a few minutes until Mommy can pull over and dig out some crackers or a breast? And doesn’t a two-year-old child deserve a more specific pronoun than “it”?
“‘Walking down the street can be dangerous,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to say that this one incident was just going to put us in harm’s way.’”
You’re not going to say it, but allow me. You put yourself, your children, and other drivers around you in harm’s way. You’re fortunate your little “it” didn’t become a human airbag.
The issue in this case was child endangerment, but public breast-feeding is another, if minor, controversy (minor because no one risks an accident or death over it, one hopes). Many breast-feeding mothers have become almost militant about their right to breast-feed in public; I’ve learned they call themselves “lactivists.” This doesn’t seem that unreasonable — less repressed peoples who live in tight-knit villages breast-feed openly and naturally without challenge, and it’s hard to find anything wrong with that. I would like to say that I’m unreservedly open-minded about it. But I can’t.
Long ago, when I was about 21 or so, a friend and I went to a local restaurant for lunch — a rare treat for financially strapped young people. The place has a typical setup; there’s a long bench against a wall, tables next to each other, and a row of chairs on the other side. In that situation, you can’t miss what your neighbors are up to.
I think I was on the bench, and my friend was on the chair across from me. Two women were sitting at the table next to us, although we were talking and barely noticed them at first.
Until they began breast-feeding their babies.
Almost simultaneously my friend and I started to send eye signals to each other. She had noticed the woman next to me, and I had noticed the woman next to her. When we saw each other’s rolling eyeballs, it hit us that both women were similarly engaged. I think we were more surprised than disturbed, but I vaguely recall that we didn’t appreciate it entirely, either. Perhaps it seemed too much like performing a bodily function in an inappropriate setting and was unappetizing, too.
I’m not sure how my friend feels about it now, and I vacillate. As a mother, she became more sensitive about better restaurants and other public places that aren’t family friendly, while I as a childless woman perceive a world in which many children seem left by doting parents to run amok. It made me realize, not for the first time, that most strongly held opinions are a matter of perception and that a mother and a childless woman see the world from different viewpoints. The same is true for a breast-feeding woman and everyone else.
I said that I waver about public breast-feeding, although I would never complain about it — it doesn’t bother me that much, if at all. But I don’t like self-righteousness or blindness to courtesy and common sense. In a perfect community, breast-feeding would be no more remarkable than eating or drinking in public, something that one does and sees without a thought. But we have not perfected our society, which is fragmented into many cultures. The perceived right to breast-feed should be tempered by respect for the wishes of others who have nothing against motherhood, but who don’t want to observe its intimacies while, say, dining. After all, even the most assertive mother wouldn’t change a diaper at a restaurant table — another necessary and natural function.
Then again, I wouldn’t have imagined breast-feeding while tooling down the highway . . . and talking on a cell phone.
October 15 — I was listening to one of my favorite songs from my adolescence, the eerie, haunting “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I think I’ve always assumed Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 tune was about a shipwreck that had happened long ago, but today I decided to find out more. To my surprise, two of the best sites dedicated to the Fitzgerald have been developed by young people who weren’t yet born in 1975, which I learned is the year in which the Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, killing all 29 members of her crew.
The first site, S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online, has information about the ship, the crew, and the wreck. The second site, 3D Edmund Fitzgerald, features 3D drawings, meticulously detailed and with documentation where details are missing, for example, the hole for the ladder to the crow’s nest. I give these kids a lot of credit for their thoughtful interest in an event that is minor in the scheme of history and that most remember primarily because of Lightfoot’s tribute. Both sites are well done and worth bookmarking.
I won’t get into the details of the Edmund Fitzgerald or the wreck — just visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. What the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald reminds me of, though, is what all of us too often forget — the work of those who keep us comfortable and in comfort. The Fitzgerald was carrying iron ore in her hold for the auto industry. Who mined the ore? Who loaded the Fitzgerald? Who would have unloaded her? Who would have hauled the ore to the plant? Who would have processed it? People — people who risk their lives so that we can have heat, food, necessities, comforts, and conveniences. People who may like danger and risk and who are often fatalistic about it. People who work on farms, in mines, in processing plants, in rail yards, in dockyards — and on freighters. How many farmers killed or maimed, miners buried, rail men crushed, how many injured, amputations a testament to the risks of the machine age? How easy it is not to think of the essential work we’ve never seen or experienced, like that performed by stagehands behind the scenes at a theatrical production.
The men of the Edmund Fitzgerald experienced bitter cold, howling winds, and crashing waves — and the knowledge of wrecks that “the gales of November remembered” — November, one of the stormiest and deadliest months for shipping on the Great Lakes.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the deaths of all her hands. No one knows what caused the wreck itself. But we do know a great deal about her crew. For the most part, they were seasoned seamen, as well as family men. One had survived Iwo Jima, while another pursued a passion for learning cooking and baking. A couple, including the captain, were looking forward to retirement. They were ordinary men who knew they could die on the job but probably never expected to, or to be memorialized in one of the decade’s hit singles — or online.
When you take a look around you, at your food, at your clothes, at your appliances, at your furniture, at virtually everything you own, remember the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald — and everyone else who, sight unseen, keeps you warm, fed, clothed, and comfortable. They deserve to be recognized for all they are willing to do — and all they are willing to risk.
On this 30th anniversary, take a moment to think about the men who died and their families, and all who die or are injured performing their work.