Thirteen Years

On Rosh Hashana 2001, the shofar reminded me only of sirens.

In early October 2001,  at the Barnard open house, the representative asked how many students were afraid to come to school in New York. A few hands went up. Then she asked how many parents were afraid to send their daughters. All along the back, where the parents were standing, hands went up.

That weekend, we went to Ground Zero. Stood silently looking across the rubble still smoking. Even after a shower, my hair smelled like smoke.

Five years later, I interviewed people who had been at Columbia that day, a professor of terrorism who turned on the television and thought for a moment the image of the burning tower was a bad movie, student photographers who walked the length of Manhattan, a student who had interned at Lehman Brothers at the World Trade Center that summer. His hand shook as he passed his I.D. across the table to me. Five years later, the card, with a World Trade Center icon, was still in his wallet. We talked in early September sitting outside, a day just like the one he was remembering.

The high school auditorium with the televisions showing the falling towers and projecting news broadcasters who sounded as confused and scared as us, feels worlds away and like I was there yesterday.

Personal Rage

Chalk messages written on a storefront on Newbury street the week following the Boston Marathon bombings and the arrest of Tsarnaev.

The idea of human rights arose in parallel to the rise of photography; when we could see abuse happening around the world, we had more reason to get angry about it.* Photos made the tragedies seem closer to home. In the age of the Internet, it would follow, we should be able to get outraged about everything. But we don’t. Maybe there are too many things worthy of our outrage. Maybe, when we have access to information about everything we need a way to rank tragedies, to say this one is closer to me. These victims looked like me or lived near me or could have been me.

All of which is complicated by the fact that while we could have equal access to information to everything, we actually don’t. News doesn’t get all covered equally. Rich white child victims might sell more papers than black teenage victims. I feel dirty just writing that. It shouldn’t be true. But too often it is. War in an African country gets fewer viewers to tune in than a dick pic scandal in Washington D.C. Sometimes, lots of news competes for the same news cycle. (See for example: the international section in the last few weeks). Sometimes, it’s a slower news week so one story gets more attention than it would any other time.

Sometimes the news is personal; we find ways to make it so, We find that someone we know knows the mother of a kidnap victim. The planes came from our airport. For a few hours, or minutes even, we couldn’t reach our family, worried that they were hurt or that their homes were destroyed. A bomber attacks our city.

Journalists are taught to remove themselves from the story. It’s the ultimate death of the author, by choice, a surgical removal of a person who actually is part of the story.** Well-written journalism moves me as it should, but objectivity is a habit that dies hard, so I was shocked to find myself furious when I read that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers wanted to move his trial out of Boston and to D.C. Lawyers said Tsarnaev “could not receive a fair trial in Boston or elsewhere in the state” because a large percentage of people knew someone at the marathon, were affected by the shelter-in-place city shutdown during the manhunt, and presume that Tsarnaev is guilty.

And my first thought when reading that was “well Dzhokhar should have thought of that before he planted a bomb at the Marathon! He should have thought of that before he placed a bomb at the finish line of a race that embodies the city, killing Martin Richard, Krystle M. Campbell, and Lingzi Lu and then shooting and killing MIT police Officer Sean Collier later in the week. He should have thought of that before attacking MY CITY.”

“Woah,” I thought. Not only should I still be thinking of him as “the alleged bomber,” because that’s how newspapers refer to suspects who have not been found guilty, but I also actually do believe in the right to a fair trial for everyone, that upholding our democratic values when it’s the hardest is what makes our democracy strong. And yet, my reaction to the news was that if Tsarnaev wanted a fair trial, he shouldn’t have committed the crime. Twisted logic at its best.

Because ultimately, I didn’t sleep for a week after the bombings, reading the news non stop. Because this year on Patriot’s Day, standing at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill wearing a Boston Strong t-shirt felt like the healing I didn’t know I needed.

Because it turns out that inital rage cannot always be suppressed by journalism ethics and democratic values. That initial reactions can be tempered in the name of logic and values, but can’t be prevented altogether. That while we should rage about all tragedy, some will be closer to home than others, and that there’s a limit to how small the world can shrink. Even in the age of the Internet.

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A memorial to the victims of the 2013 Boston Bombing victims, placed at the finish line of the 2014 Boston Marathon.

 

* I first heard this idea in Samuel Moyn’s History of Human Rights class. Any misrepresentation of this is a reflection of the fact that I took the class my sophomore year of college, not of Prof. Moyn.

**The New Yorker is laughably strange about this: “‘How would you like it if I called you a whiteskin?’ Sherry Pocknett, a Wampanoag from Mashpee, Massachusetts, asked a person who asked about the name.” It’s possible that the person who asked was not the reporter who wrote the Talk of the Town piece, but given the New Yorker’s record of awkward third person self referrals, I’d bet good money that it was Ian Frazier himself who was doing the asking.

#YesAllWomen

In college, I volunteered in a fifth grade classroom in East Harlem, teaching conflict resolution. We did a “stand up/sit down” ice breaker: We sat in a circle and someone stood in the middle and said something about himself or herself. Anyone who agreed or had the same experience stood up.

The students were blown away that their teacher listened to rap, that other kids had parents who were divorced, or were afraid that their siblings would join gangs.

The conversation that I remember most visibly was this one:

Me: Was there anything that surprised you?

Child One: I was surprised that the adults (the female teacher and the three female volunteers) stood up when someone said “I’m afraid to walk alone at night.” Because you are ADULTS and we are supposed to walk with ADULTS to be safe. If the adults don’t feel safe, how are we safe?

Me: Well, there is safety in number–

Child Two: It’s because of RAPE.

Child Three: Don’t SAY that.

They then went on to discuss everything else they were afraid of or things that had made them afraid (ghosts, spirits as completely distinct from ghosts, a brother getting killed, seeing someone kill himself). These weren’t kids who were isolated from legitimately frightening things, and now, hopefully, all of those kids are teenagers. I’m not sorry we were honest with them, but I’m sad we had to be.

The Wolf of Wall Street Failed the Bechdel Test Spectacularly. And That’s a Problem.

This post contains minor spoilers, though nothing in the movie was particularly surprising, so I think if you read this and then see the movie, you will not be upset.

Wolf of Wall Street Movie Poster

Oh Leo. Remember when you were a 90’s heartthrob?

To say that The Wolf of Wall Street fails the Bechdel test is a massive understatement. Women are almost all objectified, evaluated for their beauty and willingness to sell sex. The firm has some women too, but there is only a single actual mention of them outside of aforementioned objectifying. (I get distracted by things like this in movies, I kept trying to figure out why they wouldn’t all sue for sexual harassment/hostile workplace and then trying to figure out if that was even an option at the time, and then I think money. Tons and tons of money, which in this movie buys all other morals and solves most problems (see above, re: buying sex)).

Now, I understand that that is the point of the movie, and that you weren’t supposed to like the characters who were doing the objectifying, buying of sex, harassing, and, in one case, raping. BUT the movie was three hours long and the comeuppance (which also included some long-overdue sticking-up-for-herself from Jordan Belfort’s wife, Naomi (and some excellent acting from Margot Robbie)) takes place in less than an hour. And, it doesn’t seem to hurt Belfort all that much.

So, we are supposed to sit through three hours of movie with Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and come out saying, “God, what a sleaze ball.” Maybe we are also supposed to question the morals of Wall Street altogether (but haven’t we already done that?). But, when you spend three hours with a guy, and sometimes he’s funny, and sometimes you laugh with him, and sometimes you laugh at him, probably the directors wanted us to feel something for him other than hate? Maybe?

And, some people in the theater certainly did. For example, there is a scene where a night of debauchery that costs Belfort $2 million dollars ends with furniture destroyed and prostitutes and stockbrokers  asleep on basically every surface in a Las Vegas suite. Belfort walks through the room, uncovers a sleeping, naked prostitute, and squeezes her breast.

The guy sitting behind me in the movie theater (and presumably a few other people at least) laughed.

OK. I don’t even know what laughing man looks like, let alone what his morals are. Giving him full benefit of the doubt, let’s say he’d never in a million years engage a prostititute, and if he did, he would only do things she explicitly consented to. But he laughed, as in, haha, squeezing a breast.

The movie is set up in a way where the antihero sort of becomes the hero. Other than the prostitutes, a few of the wives, and one or two of the female employees, we don’t ever meet any of Belfort’s victims–the people he stole massive amounts of money from. His crimes are not victimless, but they kind of seem like they are. The Wall Street guys are supposed to be some strange combination of nebby and glamourous, and the Feds are just supposed to be angry and nebby.

Movies are entertainment, right? Escapes? And so the moral of a movie which is almost 100 percent about debauchery, is “imagine this life, where you can do anything you want. Sure, he’s sleazy, but look at all the sex he gets to have.”

And if we start laughing with him, instead of at him, isn’t the movie just glorifying it? Saying, “come along while we objectify and assault?” And isn’t that a problem? Isn’t that part of the culture that lead a man just the other night to grab my friend’s breast, and when she said, “did you just grab my breast?” he leered, “and I liked it,” and then just walked off?

Isn’t that why we should be talking about the Bechdel test even in a movie that didn’t even walk into the right testing center?

Three Generations Strong

It’s been a while since I wrote here. (The last post was actually written in August). This summer has been monumental. I graduated the Kennedy School. I got a new job in a new field. My grandmother died.

My grandmother, the woman I hope to emulate, died at age 91. My grandmother, born two years after the 19th amendment was ratified, saw the world change in ways I can only begin to imagine. At 16, she went to work to help support her family after her father was killed in an accident. At 22, she travelled from Brooklyn to Temple, Texas to marry my grandfather, who was stationed at an army base there. During WWII, she worked for the military; I know from photos that at some point she sold war bonds, but I imagine she had a wide range of jobs.  When my mother, the youngest of two, was in elementary school, my grandmother went back to school and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. She taught reading until, as she told it, she could no longer climb the stairs at the school. Then she retired.

She loved fully and devotedly. She was , in all the good ways, the stereotype of a grandmother. She baked brownies, and showered us with gifts and kisses and love. She shepped nachas. She told me over and over again, “I just want you to be happy.” And she meant it.

For most of her 69 years of marriage, she served my grandfather dinner every day, making sure it was ready when he came home. Until she was too frail to serve. Then my grandfather served meals and became her caretaker. Even then, she wanted to help out with preparing for holiday meals, and was frustrated when she couldn’t. But she could still offer advice, and food, and love to everyone. And she did.

My Grandma Miriam was a  woman of her era and of every era she lived through. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: I miss her terribly.

*  *  *

Today, I was in the  LOFT dressing room staring at myself in the large shared mirror, trying to evaluate a suit. A woman holding her granddaughter–a tiny baby wrapped in a pink blanket–looked on. “That’s a nice suit,” she said.  Do you wear suits to work?”

“I think so. I haven’t started the job yet.”

“That’s the kind of suit that the young women wear in my office,” she said. “I’m a corporate attorney.” We talked about suit jacket options, and she congratulated me on getting a job.

“She’s beautiful,” I said, motioning to the baby. How old is she?”

“One week. My daughter needed new jeans.”

On cue, her daughter came out for an opinion on a pair of jeans.

“Can  I ask you something else? Is this shirt is too low?” I asked the grandmother. It wasn’t.

“I would wear that to work, and I’m a corporate executive,” the daughter said.

I changed back into my own clothes, and congratulated the women on the baby. They congratulated me on the job. I bought the suit, shirt and all.

*  *   *

As far as I remember, I never went clothes shopping with my grandmother. Maybe I did, when I was a tiny baby wrapped in pink and my mother needed a new pair of pants.

The last time I visited my grandmother in her house, I came bearing a brand new dress that I planned to wear to my graduation. I modeled it for her and got her approval. She told me I looked good in it and that it wasn’t too short. “That’s how you know it really looks good,” my sister said. “Grandma would never tell you it looked good if it didn’t.” True.

As I write out today’s dressing-room conversation, it seems utterly mundane, but I think that’s why it thrilled me: the normality of the high-powered women, the way they were willing to offer fashion advice, which really was also career advice. The tiny, third-generation strong woman resting in her grandmother’s arms, still completely unaware of the blessings of the strong women that came before her. The blessings I am so lucky to have.

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My mother, me, and my grandmother.

The Brazenness of Wind, The Comfort of Silence

I haven’t fully figured out what I want to say here tonight, but I know I want to say something.

First, because the names of the victims must always be more important than the names of the perpetrators (while noting that the Tsarnaev brothers are still officially alleged perpetrators), the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing are Martin Richard, 8, of Dorchester, Krystle M. Campbell, 29, of Arlington, and Lingzi Lu, 23, of Shenyang, China. And, MIT police Officer Sean Collier, 26, was shot and killed Thursday night at MIT. 

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I spent almost all of Thursday night listening to the police scanner, watching WBZ, and reading The Boston Globe on line, and looking for updates of Twitter. I live on a side street, but I could see the police cars speeding down the next main street down, sending spurts of blue light to my street.

I spent Friday on lockdown, listening to WBUR, and reading the Boston Globe. At some point, I had to give up on Twitter, and then for a bit, I had to turn off the news. There hadn’t been new information for a long time, and the constant news diet was exhausting and draining.

But on Friday night, at a low-key dinner with friends who live around the corner, after the lockdown was lifted, I kept wandering back to the television. And then it was confirmed:  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was in custody. When I got back to my apartment, my roommates and I discovered that the radio we had left on was actually on a timer, so it was silent in our apartment.

I was far enough from the scenes that  I hadn’t heard a lot of sirens on Thursday night and Friday, but the silence in our apartment late Friday night–without the news on, with the lightness that came from  knowing Tsarnaev was in custody–was palpable.

I could hear the wind, and it seemed both comfortingly familiar and shockingly new. And the word brazen popped into my head.

Cities that literally had been shut down would come to life again and move forward. Our hearts were torn, and our sense of security would be shattered, and for many the path to recovery will be long and painful.  But we would walk our streets again, attend sports games, go shopping, and go out to dinner.

Throughout it all, the wind had been blowing, but only now–the first time since Monday afternoon that I was in my apartment with both my radio and computer turned off–did I notice it. And the  wind, in its complete normalcy, its constancy, its lack of awareness of the terribleness of the week, sounded like a declaration of defiance, of above-it-all-ness, of brazenness. Which is something I needed to hear at that moment.

In so many ways we are still not OK. It will take a very long time for that to happen, and for the families of the victims and for the injured that day may never fully arrive.

In the weeks and months that follow, there will be tears, and arguments, and debates–about media, about the role of the Internet, about civil liberties and terrorism. But on Friday night, the wind died down, and as I fell asleep there was silence, not the eerie silence from empty streets. But the silence of a city feeling a tiny bit safer.

 Photo of Boylston Street by Flickr user toddmundt http://www.flickr.com/photos/toddmundt/8664495840/ Some rights reserved

Photo of 200 Newbury  Street by Flickr user toddmundt http://www.flickr.com/photos/toddmundt/8664495840/ Some rights reserved

“Love That Dirty Water. Boston You’re My Home”

My family lives near the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, named for its location in the Boston Marathon.

Photo by Jerome Gerrior Racing. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Jerome Gerrior Racing. Some rights reserved.

For a while, we were under the false impression that we, in fact, lived at the top of Heartbreak Hill and we would yell “congratulations! The hard part is over!” Oops. Sorry. (In our defense, the youth race is called “Heartbreak Hill Race,” even though it’s on one of the earlier “Newton Hills”).

***

Every year, my parents take a walk after the Passover Seder. One year, Passover fell out on Patriots’ Day. My parents took their walk late at night, long after every runner had finished. The streets though, were still littered with paper cups and orange peels, signs that at some point earlier, all along the route, people had held out cups of water and orange slices for runners to grab as they came past. As my parents walked down the street, a truck driver pulled up, clearly completely lost. My parents gave him directions, and the truck driver looked up and down the litter-strewn street. “Man, you guys sure know how to throw a party,” he said. I think of that story every year, my parents hosting a 26.2-mile party, and laugh.

I told that story to some friends last night, adding that I remember learning the proper way to hold out a cup of water: palm curled just enough so that the cup doesn’t fall out of your hand, but open enough so that when a runner comes by, he or she can grab it from you without slowing.

One of my friends said, “people just take cups of water from strangers? Anything could be in those cups! I would only take sealed bottles of water from official water stations.” I was totally confused: “But why would anyone put anything into the water? What would be the point?”

Every year people run past, right near my parents house. We cheer them on. We yell encouragement. We offer water or oranges. We see neighbors we haven’t seen in a while and buy lukewarm lemonade from little kids who have set up a stand in their front yard. Because, I guess, that’s what you do, when someone runs a marathon in your neighborhood.

***

Today was different. Today, I was on the T, trying to get to my parents’ neighborhood, when Hynes Convention Center T station was evacuated. The announcement came three times, uncharacteristically clear, and very calm. “This is an emergency. Please leave the station.” No one on the T itself moved, since it wasn’t clear if we should get off, or if the best way to leave the station would be to stay on the T. There were murmurs of confusion. And then, someone must have realized what was going on. The fourth announcement came. “This is an emergency. Please empty the train and leave the station.” And so we did.

People wearing Boston Marathon medals and wrapped in “space blankets” limped a little as they headed back up the steps. Others gave them sympathetic looks. Once outside, police directed us away from Copley, but had little other information to offer. So we walked. Alongside, but in the opposite direction of, the Marathon runners still heading towards the finish line. “Good job! You’re almost there!” spectators yelled, cheering on strangers.

We steered clear of the emergency vehicles racing down the street and of the cops on bicycles who easily made it clear that they were no longer just policing an ordinary race. At one point, one of the cops along the marathon route started telling runners he was going to direct them to one side so motorcycles could pass. Everyone moved aside but kept running.

It took a few texts from my family and then a stop in Dunkin Donuts to watch the news for me to fully grasp what was going on. I kept wondering if there was anything of use I could have done had I had a press pass, (I would have had to have crossed many police barriers to have gotten close to the scene).

But my first concern was contacting my parents, who knew I was supposed to be heading through Boston just as the bombs went off. (As far as I can tell, the T must have been under or just past Copley at the time of the explosions). Once I managed to convey to them that I was safe and that I had figured out a way to walk back to Cambridge, I joined the people walking over the BU Bridge. On the Cambridge side, some people–clearly not from the area, and now completely adrift –stopped me to ask, “what’s in this direction? If we walk this way will there be some place for us to go?”

“Yes,” I said.

“We’re all walking the same direction,” someone else crossing the bridge said, “so follow us.”

***

Later, home, I read that people who finished the Marathon as the bombs went off kept running to go give blood. That emergency personnel lept the barriers between the spectators and the runners so they could reach the wounded; they ran toward the explosions. People opened up their homes to stranded runners and checked in with people they knew. I was, throughout the day, completely impressed with how helpful, calm, and informative, cops along the Marathon route were.

It didn’t occur to me that anyone would ever have a reason to attack the Marathon. Even when the train had been evacuated, I assumed there was some sort of threat, but that it would turn out to be unsubstantiated. Because, who would do that?

But we step up. We offer water, and shelter, and blood, and information, and encouragement, and prayers, and comfort. Because, ultimately, that’s what you do when someone attacks a marathon in your neighborhood.