It is said that there are two basic plots: a person goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. This is a man, or rather two men, on a journey through the cold in starving St. Petersburg during the siege of that city by the Germans in 1941, when slabs of human flesh were available in the market, after all the rats were gone. Given the desperate situations encountered in the book, the premise is whimsical: the Russian general’s comely daughter is going to be married the following week, and the general wants a wedding cake, but there are no eggs. Two men, the author’s grandfather and another man named Kolya, take on the assignment of finding two dozen eggs in exchange for their lives after they commit minor crimes. The charm of the book lies in the voice of the narrator. The author has taken his grandfather’s story as told to him, and turned it into a story. The depravity and suffering he encounters, and the air and snow so cold that toes and lives can be easily lost, could be considered fantastical nightmares not bearing close examination, but given the matter-of-fact, teenage mind telling the story, they all fall into place. I found myself thinking yes, this could have happened. If anything, Grandpa may have avoided telling of even worse deprivations and cruelty. City of Thieves resembles two other books I have recently read: Suite Française, which tells the story of the panicky exodus from Paris when the Germans threaten the city, after which the French realize it had not been necessary to leave after all; and Matterhorn, the story of a group of god-forsaken American Marines in Vietnam who take a hill only to leave it to the enemy after it is captured. The two boy-men in City of Thieves go through similar hell to capture two dozen eggs. It is, you see, the oh-so-familiar plaint about the exploitation of the helpless, of the lengths to which human beings will go in order to survive, and the surprisingly optimistic revelation that a person can remain almost dead for a very long time. It makes my worries about a mole I hadn’t noticed before or a missed meal seem self-indulgent. The cover blurb, written by Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, is “The perfect novel.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a well written story with engaging characters, a well drawn historical setting, and little superfluous flimflam. In these days of impending Armageddon, it is worthy of contemplation to wonder if I could be as resourceful and brave as the Russians in this book. Have I become so spoiled by warmth (and air conditioning) and ease that I would soon be dead under such circumstances? How many risks would I be willing to take to find an egg for my family? How could I weather the grief? But seriously, it’s a good read.
I’ve traveled alone to dozens of countries for almost six decades. In most matters, I am undaunted, but I have always hated to dine out alone. I’d rather order room service or pick up a sandwich than take a solo table. This aversion is neurotic, but has a gauzy relation to reality. In 1965, I was driven by hunger to sit down at a café table in Lisbon, though there were only men in the café, and in all the other cafes I had passed. The waiters flocked to me as if I were their baby sister, offering me a free glass of green Portuguese wine, and making recommendations from the menu. I didn’t think that they were disparaging my ability to figure out what I wanted to eat. I thought they were protecting me from advances they might expect from the other, all-male, diners. I felt like a rare bird. In 2004, I was doing research on the endangered status of the Macedonian language in Greece. When evening came, I ventured into the hotel dining room, and the waiter sat me at a table in the bow window, separating me slightly from the rest of the tables. I had been warned that people had gone to jail for asking too many questions about the Macedonian language. Academics in Athens advised me to pay attention to cars that were following mine. It is rare that a foreigner knows semi-fluent Greek, and the hotel clerk became cautious when he learned that though I spoke Greek, my heritage was not Greek. Why was I there? Did the other diners think I was an agent provocateur. Was one of them a plainclothes policeman? That was an unusual situation, but even under ordinary conditions, I feel people are looking at me when I eat alone. In Paris, I often found myself an unwelcome optic, seated near the toilets. Was it my imagination that detected a flash of “Oh no, what are we going to do with her?” when I showed up? I can’t say whether a single man would feel similarly. When Dean Martin died, I read that he ate alone every night at the same restaurant in his declining years – a fact important enough to be included in his obituary. My husband always brings a book when he dines out alone, but I get sauce on the book and it’s awkward to hold it open with one hand while eating with the other. I believe that the root of my neurosis was the embarrassment that I felt in dancing school in the 1950s. I was taller than most of the boys and skinny as a stick, and was often left a wallflower, sitting grimly in my chair because nobody chose me as his partner. Three men have married me, and I wrote a whole book about the men I dated when I became single at 60, so you’d think I would have expiated the embarrassment of dancing school, but the feeling of abandonment must be lodged somewhere near my spleen, difficult to get at and even more difficult to remove. My embarrassment began to turn one evening in New York City a few years ago when my husband and I visited the new restaurant in Lincoln Center. It was full, so we sat at the bar, near an attractive middle-aged woman. I found myself committing the very mistake that I feared others would make if I sat alone at a restaurant bar – I wondered if she was cruising for a date. My husband and I struck up a conversation with her, and I told her that I hated eating in restaurants alone. “Hah! I’d starve to death if I did that. I have a line of tableware, and I go on sales trips all over the country. I’ve eaten out alone more times than I could count.” How ridiculous I was! How old-fashioned! How pre-feminist! Why would I imagine that a successful businesswoman should closet herself in her hotel room out of embarrassment that she was alone? “If I hadn’t come out alone, I would never have met you, “she smiled. “I’ve met the most interesting people of all at restaurant bars.” She had done the field work on this experiment, yet I still demurred. On my most recent visit to my son in Burlingame, California, I was alone at dinnertime. I wanted a fine dinner, maybe not the cuisine my son would prefer. I marched up to the hostess at Il Fornaio and requested a table, “On the patio, if possible.” She scrambled to clear a patio table, and I caught myself wondering if she was thinking she should go the extra mile to accommodate this abandoned older woman. But I smacked my brain down. “Ann, you can’t think that people in Paris are putting you in an obscure corner because you’re a woman alone, and at the same time object that people are going to extra lengths because you’re a woman alone. You’re being hypocritical and illogical!” I was an insult to feminism. I enjoyed the heck out of it. Without chatter, I could savor my food. There is a yoga practice of silent meals, during which you are invited to pay attention to what you are eating – note the colors, the array of tastes, think where the food has come from and to whom you are indebted for it, from the person who planted the seed, to the truck driver who delivered it to market. I carefully crunched down on the sprig of decorative parsley, savoring its bitterness. I tried to identify the herb flavoring the sauce on my gnocchi– I think it was basil, maybe a hint of oregano, too. I took the time to remember the first time I had ever eaten gnocchi, at the table of the Sala family in Merate, Italy in 1961. There was no shadow meal going on across the table, just my own plate, with my own gnocchi. I ordered a glass of wine, and enjoyed pacing the meal without regard to another person’s preferences. Women’s liberation comes from the inside, and some of the outdated thought patterns of my childhood have been slow to dissolve. This aversion to eating alone was one of the last to go. I wonder which ones are left.
The data is in, the tears are being shed, and “nothing works,” “we can’t do anything about it,” “it’s the price of freedom,” are not solutions to our lamentable situation. Here are a few thoughts on how we can turn the great ship of our culture around. Some of them can be done by individuals, others would have to be done by governments or the media, with our support. There are surely many more -- these are what I thought of this morning. What else is there?
- Stop having “active shooter drills.” Call them “fire and safety drills.”
- Collect research on the most effective ways to protect oneself both at home and outside. Compare Senator Thune’s “become small” advice with some good advice.
- Do a comparison of domestic experiences with guns. Comparing us with other countries is helpful, but makes many people defensive. Is the death-by-gun rate in highly regulated U.S. states/cities lower than in lightly regulated states?
- Find out about gun regulation legislation presently under consideration. They nearly passed a law allowing more silencers, and I’ll bet there are a lot more laws in the wings. Your representative or senator may be able to provide this, and even if they cannot, they will notice that you asked.
- Share stories of victims who were not killed, only wounded. Occasionally there is a story in the news about them but not nearly enough. As a rule of thumb, there are many more wounded than dead.
- Share individual stories of people affected by gun violence; family members, observers, law enforcement officers, soldiers, and so on.
- Keep a running ledger of all the people killed by guns in the U.S. In the same week as Las Vegas, five people were killed in Lawrence, Kansas. We didn’t hear about them.
- Expand the ledger on the money received by politicians from the gun lobby. I have only seen figures so far about the NRA contributions, how about the gun manufacturers or other pro-gun groups?
- Find out what John McCain, who has gotten over seven million dollars from the gun lobby, does with the money. Does it benefit him personally? Does he share the money with Republicans running for office? Pay office staff? Take private planes? Leave it in the bank? Where does it go?
- Research the history of our gun obsession. Where did it come from? Why is it somehow related to religion and geography? Why the urban/rural divide? How did colonial and proto-Americans use their guns, and how many had them?
- Detail the differences between a blunderbuss and modern weapons.
- Place gun legislation in the context of other legislation where politicians have been bought (pharmaceutical industry, energy companies, big tobacco, etc.)
- Focus on white people. Pro-gun people can’t let go of “Chicago,” which is a code word for out-of-control black people. This is a white person problem -- we made the laws, enforce the laws, and can change the laws. I don't know this for a fact, but I'll bet as many white people, proportionally, are killed as black people, yet the news does not reflect this.
- Focus on tourism. I have been turned off traveling, for example, to Texas, by photographs of people walking openly down the street with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders or holsters on their hips. Make it visual. As you travel, post signs or photographs which shock you. “Leave your guns outside” at a Dunkin’ Donuts (I don’t know if any such things exists, I’m just imagining) would shock the hell out of me.
- For an academic take on gun control, read this, and find other essays and tracts. It was written just before the Heller decision which made gun ownership the right of an individual, not only a “militia.” http://www.english.illinois.edu/-people-/faculty/debaron/essays/guns.pdf.
- The Dickey Amendment is a provision first inserted as a rider into the 1996 federal government omnibus spending bill which mandated that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” (Wikipedia) The effect of this amendment was the prohibition of any studies of gun deaths as a public health problem. Pressure your representatives to act for repeal of the Dickey Amendment. The last time it was renewed, with only Republican votes, I understand, was just after the Newtown shootings.
- Learn your local and state gun laws and regulations.
- Support organizations which advocate for gun control. In New Jersey, there is Ceasefire New Jersey. I have not done extensive research on this, but you can begin here: https://blog.greatnonprofits.org/9-organizations-making-progress-towards-gun-control/. Michael Bloomberg is one of the well known people funding and supporting gun control groups.
- Take Gabby Giffords’s pledge: “I promise you that if we cannot make our communities safer from gun violence while protecting gun rights with the Congress we have now, I will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s.” The organization founded by her and her husband after she was permanently affected by a gunshot meant to kill her, is Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC.
- There are a thousand other ways to turn things around, but my final suggestion is that you settle in with a deeper personal philosophy which undergirds not only your views about gun control but your views about everything. I follow the Rev. William Barber, a minister informed by his Christian background but ecumenical in practice and outlook, an inspiring speaker, and a spreader of peace. http://www.breachrepairers.org/ Whatever your view of powers greater than you, there are others within your group who are fighting gun violence. Find them.
A letter I wrote to my friend Nadine in 1998, found while cleaning up files. April 8, 1998 Dear Nadine: It pays off, spiritually speaking, to enter into another’s world. Knowing you only in the workplace, I so appreciated the opportunity to meet your family, Franklin’s family, and the members of the church you have told me about so often. I loved the retelling of the Christian Bible stories. Though my church stretches its beliefs beyond Christianity, I learned these stories when I was a child, and they are familiar and comforting. Franklin as a “strong angel” sticks with me. His death was so sudden and unexpected – who dies at their desk at 38! We needed a bridge into the unthinkable, and the stories served well to do that. I might love the retelling of the Bhagavad Gita also, but haven’t sat in anyone’s temple to hear that. There are so many roads to God. Since you were not there when we kept watch before the service, I thought I would write and tell you what happened (I’ll leave out details of the tragically broken dike which allowed so many tears to flow). Susan and I arrived early, mistakenly thinking that the funeral would begin at 11:00. Already in the church were Reverend Queen and some of the Men’s Choir members. There were quiet hymns playing in the background. One by one, the men came over to greet us, either just shaking hands or stopping for a time to talk. Joe tried out his “I’ll have to take away your apron” and the “swinging too hard in the choir” stories on us before he told them to the congregation, which made them all the more funny and touching when rendered in fully finished form. They say the Marx Brothers used to try out their act on small groups to see if they were really funny, and Joe confirmed that his memories of Franklin triggered laughter. Joe also told us about the proposed expansion of the church and I had a look at the plans on my way back from the ladies room. We sat quietly as more people came in and they all greeted us until it became too crowded to acknowledge everybody. As the only white people in the room, we appreciated their graciousness; we were not sure what was in store for us. It wasn’t so much skin color that mattered, but our differing church (and, in Ellen’s case, synagogue) experiences. I had never been in a church like this one before. As the members of the Men’s Choir gathered they reminded me of a jazz ensemble, where everyone knows what they are supposed to do and, without cue, does their task. They considered each other in every step they took. They were equals, the rich and the poor, those who could sing well and those who couldn’t (Joe joked “That Franklin, he couldn’t sing a note!”), the shuffling old ones, and the vibrant young ones. The choir members surrounded the casket and moved it a bit this way, that way, until it was just right. They raised the lid and I couldn’t stop crying when I saw Franklin’s familiar face. One man carefully placed the roses on the coffin, rearranging them once or twice. A man came down the aisle holding the lamp which was clamped to the open top of the casket. He uncoiled and straightened the cord and experimented with the path of the light, finally reaching what he thought was just the right angle. They fiddled with the flowers. They fiddled with the lights. They dusted and patted and plumped things. One of the older men patted down the lapel of Franklin’s suit, which stuck up like a cowlick. He draped the white liner differently. I don’t think it really made any difference, he just wanted to fuss tenderly over Franklin. Ellen arrived just as the casket did. She, surprise, surprise, talked whenever that was even remotely acceptable. Fortunately, I was one person away from her. Just before the family came in, a woman dressed in a white uniform appeared. I wondered if she was a steward of the church or a nurse on duty for the funeral. Her white garb and serious demeanor were comforting. Franklin’s family was bigger than I had realized. Marlon embraced his mother and his grandmother. From behind, with his identically shaved head, he looked so much like his brother! And I wondered who their father was. I don’t think he had ever been mentioned. His grandmother was crying bitterly as she entered the church, the triangular handkerchief sitting daintily on her head. After the service, sitting on the couch in your apartment, with her knee-highs not quite covering her knees, she told me in an island accent which I didn’t always understand about her multiple recent losses, her imminent loss to cancer of one of her children, another having recently undergone heart surgery. She said that when she entered the church she thought of these losses and couldn’t help crying. When the family had said their good-byes, each differently, and sat in their seats, his mother was overcome. I couldn’t understand everything she said because her head was buried in the shoulder to the right then the shoulder to the left, but heard her say, “To have him take this road before me! I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it.” With the church filled, the pianist began to play, building up to the entrance of the organ. They played the same tune over and over and it was comforting. I thought to myself that the people of this church do as they say they do. There are no excuses on a Saturday afternoon. They were there for their brother and for you and really for all of us. We were wondering where you were. Were you going to be dragged into the church unable to stand? Were you refusing to come at all? Would it be entirely unthinkable to have the funeral without you? The minister mounted to the pulpit, greeted the congregation...and still no Nadine. He mouthed questions to someone at the back of the church...and still no Nadine. The choir began to sing. Ushers snapped a red belt in place to block the center aisle. People seen and unseen were doing their jobs — taking back the cassette player which had played soft hymns as we sat, the man took away the lamp on the casket, the men who rearranged the white casket liner were back, tucking it carefully around Franklin before closing the top; the ushers looked for places for latecomers. Franklin’s mother’s grief burst out of her once again as they closed the casket and my heart broke for her. At least half of the grieving for another is the fear of grieving oneself and I of course imagined what it would be like to close the casket on my own child and found the imagination unbearable. Life has taught me to (try to) kick fear out of the way, because you can end up quaking in a corner bedeviled by your own imagination. There was plenty of real-time grief to go around on that day without adding the imagination. When the choir had raised the spirit in the church, filled it with noisy praise, you came in quietly with a smile, leaning on Tina, trying so hard to feel what they were singing about -- the triumph, the liberation, the release of Franklin’s home-going over the desolation of your own loss. I understand why you didn’t come in until the coffin was closed. Seeing that door closed would have broken your heart. You know the rest because you were there. You know about the strong angel, the streets paved with gold, the pearly gates, the tearful and joyful remembrances of Franklin, Flying Away on the Wings of Jesus which brought us to our feet, the congregation shocked and stung by the Shadow of Death, the fried chicken, the heavenly baked beans, the chocolate cake, the friendship, camaraderie, the caring always the caring for one another which will go on long after the wounds of Franklin’s loss have begun to disappear under scar tissue which is itself painful to live with. In some languages there are many words for the one word which we use so frequently with so many meanings, love. The love you had for Franklin is so unlike the love which filled the church that day, but we use the same word for both feelings. And I love you too, in yet another way. People feel so helpless offering to “do” something for a grieving friend, but why should they feel helpless. There is so much that we can all do for one another. In the jazz-like improvisational way that the choir worked together, such different people each playing an important role, we can all contribute. Besides, I figure if I’m really, really nice to you, maybe you’ll offer me a bowl of your famous spaghetti when I come to visit you. Ann