A few weeks ago, I heard an author named Min Jim Lee interviewed on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show. Could that be the attorney I used to work for? Yes, it was. We had a warm reunion at her reading at the KGB Bar. Then I read her book. "I always knew you'd do something great!" I told her, and she has. Pachinko is an excellent read from cover to cover. The characters come alive, the plot is sturdy and subtle, and the writing is incisive. It is about Koreans in Japan. If you are Korean or Japanese, you probably know some of this story, but aside from the occasional newspaper article or television report about “comfort women,” for example, I knew little of the enmity of the two countries. How odd that we lump them together in our minds when they are such deeply sworn enemies! Pachinko did not leave me chastising myself for ignorance though, it left me grateful for the insight. Since I was neither Korean nor Japanese, I read this as a cautionary tale. I am American, and inside America, we have the African population and the Native American population who have been treated as cruelly and hypocritically as the Koreans in Japan, though there are differences between the two situations. Lee's universal message is that in the end, human beings have an irrational need to feel better than others, and that has caused us no end of suffering for no reason at all other than atavistic ego. When you have been callously mistreated, you have several choices – jump lemming-like off a cliff, outwit your rivals at their own game, or stay so far below the radar that nobody notices you. I doubt that Min Jin Lee began her book as a didactic exercise in tolerating prejudice and cruelty – there is way too much humanity in it for that - but she covers all bases. Her knowledge of the two cultures is deep, and whenever a person gets to know another person deeply, enemy or friend, it is impossible to view them without at least a grain of compassion. Her story is rich with detail, perception, understanding, and conscience. The masterful writing style is transparent, skillful, manages time and language seamlessly, including the insertion of Korean terms which become familiar as the story progresses. Don’t worry. You won’t put it down. Lee is also a wonderful reader of her own work, and if you have a chance to hear her at a venue near you, don’t pass it up. She is a person of massive intelligence and humor.
The male political candidates in 2016 breathed out a few words about “a woman’s right to choose,” but the bulk of discussion about abortion fell to Hillary Clinton, as if only women were qualified to speak on the subject. But if one-third of American women have had an abortion, then one-third of American men have had one, too, and it’s time they spoke up. Almost eighty percent of abortions take place before eight weeks, when the embryo is the size of a small bean. The woman may have suffered some morning sickness or minor discomfort, but the financial, personal, educational, familial, professional, and religious aspects of abortion would be equally shared between the pregnant man and the pregnant woman in an honorable relationship. I don’t hear men who are party to an abortion accused of murder. Do their priests threaten them with excommunication? Are men escorting their partners to an abortion heckled and assaulted as they enter the clinic? Does the silence of men indicate that they quickly put the experience behind them, or are they taking the easy road to avoid accusations and attacks? Men hold the cards, since they comprise a majority in most legislatures. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know which men in each legislature had been party to abortions? They aren’t the province of atheists and pagans, 13% of women who had one are evangelical Protestant and 24% are Catholic, so religious affiliation is no sure indication. Callous dismissal of abortion as an irresponsible abomination might be thrown around less often if male legislators owned up to their own experiences. When will a man stand up in Texas, as a female gubernatorial candidate recently did, and tell his story? His anguish was surely no less painful than his wife's. The nine men on the Supreme Court gave the decision-making power to other men in Article XI of Roe v. Wade, which states: “…the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician.” In 1973, almost all “physicians” were male. Liberals campaigning for “a woman’s right to choose” are hoping to prevent the overturning of Roe v. Wade when, in fact, they should be requesting a rewrite, taking out the middleman physician to give power to the woman herself. Subsequent rulings of the Supreme Court have weighed the rights of the pregnant woman against the rights of the pregnant man (as opposed to the physician), and have favored the woman, because it is she who would be taking the risks if the pregnancy were carried to term. The woman’s decision-making power would be more secure if the original law were rewritten in her favor. It is likely that at least one of the nine justices who ruled in Roe had been party to an abortion. If the one-in-three statistic played out, three of them would have been. One hopes that the affected justice(s) showed more compassion than men who had never faced the consequences of a crisis pregnancy. A man cannot have the power to force a woman either to carry a pregnancy to term, or to have an abortion, but that does not mean that the men are immune to the heavy thoughts that a crisis pregnancy engenders. I had an abortion in 1961, twelve years before Roe v. Wade. When the doctor gave me the bad news, my boyfriend was in Innsbruck, Austria. I wrote him, and he wrote back: “I’m about to leave for a bow-and-arrow hunting trip behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, and I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get back. Good luck.” I saw him several months later, and he was solicitous about my health, but he had missed the hard part, and never offered to pay for half of my expenses. I have recently learned that he, let’s call him Frank, now lives in Hawaii, in a town which I visit from time to time. What would happen if I walked into his business and said, “Hi Frank. Remember me?” Would he remember me? How would he feel? Does he occasionally ruminate for a quick second that he might have had a child who would be 58 years old now? Has he ever mentioned his part in an abortion to anyone else? His wife? Is he still glad that I didn’t have the child and give it up for adoption, which would mean he had a son or daughter somewhere? Would he say he was sorry for abandoning me? Has he ever wondered where I got the necessary five hundred dollars – a lot of money in 1961? Did he wonder who drove me to the abortionist’s office and waited for hours till I came out? Did his feelings about having children, or, for that matter, having sex, change after this? I don’t know what I will do the next time I’m in Hawaii. I’m seventy-five years old now and have nothing to lose – I might just pop in on Frank. He is one of the few men I know who I am sure has been party to an abortion. I would tell him that I never have regrets, and that I worry about the young women whose safety is now at risk. I would ask him whether, knowing how easy it is to slip into a crisis pregnancy, he has these same worries. Frank clearly thought abortion was a “women’s issue” in 1961. I’d ask him if, after fifty-eight years of reflection, he still thought so.
I was invited to be part of the new Jim Johnson commercial to be filmed in his house. Jim is running for governor in New Jersey and is building up a head of steam against Phil Murphy who is papering the state with his Goldman Sachs money in an effort to buy the governorship. But I digress…… I knew I had arrived when I turned the corner onto Jim’s street and saw several large vans and about 25 cars parked along the street. Jees! Who were all these people? There was a young man in Jim’s front yard who directed me to the back of the house. I went up the stairs into the house. Countertops and chairs were covered, with five foot tall baffles of corrugated cardboard in every corner, and a cardboard walkway on the floor. People everywhere. I joined the other “actors” in the basement, where we whiled away the time eating snacks from Trader Joe’s and checking our cellphones, occasionally chatting. It was impossible to know, without spending time finding out, who all the people were – campaign operatives? Other actors? Sound men? The director? Visitors? Jim's relatives? Campaign employees were on their computers and cellphones around one of the tables. Groups of people retreated to a back room for a private discussion. (By the way, Jim’s basement is tidy, which I took as a physical manifestation of his orderly mind.) We were down there for an hour as a soft mumble of activity went on over our heads, then we were called upstairs. Before sitting at the dining room table I went in search of a Kleenex and ran into Jim in the hall. He greeted me with his usual smile, “Hi Ann! Thanks so much for coming.” A makeup artist or hairdresser or something was snipping away at his already short hair. The level of detail is astonishing. Who would ever notice an errant strand of hair? The scene was to take place at a round dining room table. I assume it was his own table, though they might have brought one in. There was a theatrical light outside the window, providing daylight. The windows were partially blocked, partially veiled, with strips of tape across them, all in service of getting just the right light, without glare. There were no microphones because our words would not be part of the commercial. “Maybe there will be a low hum of conversation, but people won’t be able to distinguish your words,” said a person in charge. (At one point a hand-held microphone on an extension appeared over our heads, but only for a while. To get the “hum,” probably.) People placed half-full cups of coffee, popcorn, and potato chips on the table. Then somebody placed a paper plate with a half eaten pastry (sandwich?) in front of me, and Jim laughed. “Hey! In my house people don’t eat off paper plates. I don't want to look like a skinflint.” They got real plates. The director, I guess, gave us the instructions. “I know Jim is a gregarious and charming guy, but he’s not supposed to be the one talking. We want you to have different kinds of conversations, serious, lighthearted, involving Jim, but not just you guys listening to him.” Then we started filming. One woman was intent on pressing Jim for political reforms, but most of the time we just got to know one another. “Eyes on her,” the camerawoman said. “Look over there!” "Now change the subject to a lighter one.” I hope our genuine interest in each other came across. Jim did as he was told. In real life, he's equally comfortable speaking and listening -- he didn't feel deprived giving away the spotlight for most of the commercial. Late in the filming, they focused on Jim, who was asked to formulate questions for each person around the table. The questions were pointed and probing. Nothing he does is done lightly, though it is always done in good humor – at least everything I’ve ever seen.The camerawoman, or director, or whoever she was, asked me to move closer to Jim, who was sitting to my right, because the camera caught an empty space between us. I moved closer. “More,” she said. Jees! How close could I get! Our feet were tangling under the table, bumping against the table foot, our arms were only inches from each other. I didn’t want to look like I was tackling him, but the woman kept saying there was a space there and I needed to move closer. So Jim and I were snuggled up and the rest of the table was evenly spaced. The magic tricks were numerous – fake light, no background sound, engineered spacing, invented conversation. That’s how it’s done. If you see the commercial, look for me. I’m the one beside our next governor – you won’t see our toes touching under the table. Frank, a former teacher and avid tennis player, asked how long our part of the commercial would be. “Two and a half seconds” she replied.
No grumbling, I told myself. Get out there and do something. So I did something I have never done before; I joined a political campaign as a volunteer. As long as I’m not parading around with a swastika on my arm, any campaign would do, but the one I joined is JimJohnson4governor in New Jersey. He’s a progressive Democrat, I know his wife slightly, and respected friends speak highly of him (“I’d move heaven and earth to get Jim elected”). So instead of staying home grumbling about the daily cascade of scandal and chicanerie, at least I’m doing what a citizen is supposed to do. I think.
My mother was a politician for a while, and I can tell you, it doesn’t run in the family. This is my first personal immersion in what they call the “political process.”
My first outing was on Washington Street in Hoboken, getting signatures to get Jim on the ballot in New Jersey. He already has the required 3,000, but we want to get as many as we can. I am told that after the signatures are presented, in the beginning of April, the campaigns sit down with them to see how many of them they can get disqualified. One woman, for example, said she’d already signed a petition for Phil Murphy, another candidate for governor. You can’t sign two petitions.
I also needed to sign an Affidavit as a collector of signatures, including getting it notarized. I have been impressed by the rules for campaigning, and I haven’t even had contact with the fundraisers. Just collecting signatures is tightly controlled.
Next, I canvassed my building with Pilar, a young, Hispanic, bilingual paid member of Jim’s staff Brad, a young, black, college student from Union City who is interning in the campaign.
You can’t just waltz into a building and canvass, you have to have a resident with you. This made me a valuable member of the team, though I made myself more valuable as we went from door to door because I’m really interested in each of the people we talked to, and I got a gold star for schmoozing.
There are 25 floors, 9 apartments per floor – 225 apartments in all. It took us three and a half hours to cover half of them. It was exhausting, but fascinating.
We started with a list of all the people in the building who were registered Democrats, though I could see it was out-of date. I don’t know every person in the building, but did know for sure that some of the people had moved to a different apartment, or had moved away. Since I knew the list was out-of-date, I didn’t know what we would find – maybe one of those people who said “F—k you” to me when I was canvassing on Washington Street. Maybe people would be offended or disturbed at our visit – I didn’t know what to expect, and was nervous.
It went well. Some people were busy, and we exchanged a few words, left a flyer, and moved on. Most had a few moments to discuss what they considered an important political race.
We encountered one woman on her way to the trash compactor. She was interested in Jim, but annoyed with our mayor, Dawn Zimmer, who was “turning the place into yuppy heaven, with bicycles all over the place.” Yup, I could see how old-time residents of Hoboken would be disturbed at the gentrification of their town. Another old-timer said, “Zimmer wants to build parks for the homeless to sleep in.” This aversion to spending our hard-earned taxes on the least among us sounded more Republican than Democratic, but she was a hardcore Democrat, and she’s got a heart of gold – she has raised two adopted sons who have developmental problems. She’s walked the walk when it comes to people in need.
Three times I handed over the flyer for Jim, who is black, and the woman at the door looked at Brad, who is also black, trying to gauge whether he was Jim Johnson. One of them said, “Oh, you’ve brought him with you!” I was embarrassed. Jim is a good thirty years younger than Jim, and his skin color is much darker. I experienced vicariously one of those experiences that black people talk about – “Can’t tell them apart….” As if one black person spoke for all.
I took a chance on sounding the wrong note, but had to say SOMETHING, so I put my hand on Brad’s shoulder and said, “Just in case you thought that white people don’t notice this sort of thing, aren’t bothered by it, I want you to know I noticed.”
Brad is a gentleman, raised to courtesy and good humor (he calls me “Miss Ann”) and was gracious about it.
By the time the afternoon ended, I was tired. But I’ll do it again. I got a lot more than political capital out of the afternoon; I got to know my neighbors and learned their opinions, which I would never learn in the elevator. I exposed my own political beliefs to the people I run into every day; that was a little uncomfortable, but turns out to be a good thing.
Next up, being one of the “ordinary Americans” in a photo shoot for a Jim Johnson commercial. I’ll let you know how it goes.