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Tom Phillips Changed My Life

The summer I turned 19, in 1966, Martin Luther King came to Chicago to support the local Civil Rights movement in their fight for open housing, and for access to jobs. The Presbytery of Chicago supported this mission, and asked for college students volunteers, who would be embedded in the neighborhoods, and assist in any way asked of them. Although I was a Jew, I was accepted as a volunteer and assigned to work for Tom Phillips at Marlboro Presbyterian Church to help run a daycamp for local kids aged 7 – 11. We were asked to perform a sort of soft propaganda in an all-white blue-collar community – winning hearts and minds – to try to move away from hatred as a response to diversity.

Tom was the best manager I ever worked for. He gave our group of three volunteers guidance and direction, but left us to manage the day camp on our own. He taught me how to think outside my own narrow experience of life. We took our forty kids everywhere in Chicago, by bus and L. We had story time, music – one of our group, George Harris, knew a thousand songs and knew how to engage the kids in singing them. Some I still sing myself. We had a little cooking club. When the ringleader of the big boys learned we were making chocolate pie from scratch, he signed up. (Against my advice he tried a piece of unsweetened chocolate, and then bullied the other boys into eating some, too.)

Tom also involved us volunteers in the politics of the city, from the big stuff downtown to the power structure in our own community, including the local Catholic church, where most of the neighborhood worshiped. We met with our peers in the Catholic Youth Group, and were dismayed at their support for their drunk, racist alderman, but Tom talked us through that, as well.

The next year, when I graduated from university and was at loose ends, Tom and his wife Carolyn invited me to live with them and their two children while I looked for work. This cemented my connection/commitment to Chicago, and led, indirectly, to my meeting my husband.

Tom died yesterday. I am grieving, but I am constantly grateful for my time with him and with Carolyn.

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Girl, Interrupting

Episode One: Genesis

 

Andromeda came into this world with a few impediments to the happy life most parents want for their daughters. She had a cleft lip and a wall eye. And her parents gave her a weird name. Who knows why?

These hindrances didn’t make Andromeda shy. She was vocal from birth, crying and gurgling with equal intensity. When she began to speak, and then to become aware of the world around her, she was passionate, and often loud in expressing herself.

She developed a natural left hook which she used when kids in her first grade class teased her over her name. The teacher actually called the cops, who handcuffed her and took her away in a squad car. (Yes, you guessed: this girl lived in the United States). Her mother was furious on her daughter’s behalf. But she encouraged young Andromeda to develop a hobby, an outside interest where she could put her passion and her energy.

Andromeda tried jump rope and baseball, but it wasn’t until the day she saw a public TV documentary on the mistreatment on honey bees that she found her passion.

“They don’t have enough flowers to eat,” Andromeda wailed. “They’re starving, and then they have to work as slaves in the California orchards and they’re dying.”

Her mother encouraged her to learn as much as she could about honeybees. Andromeda read as much as even a precocious six-year-old can and decided she needed to plant clover and thistles in her parents’ tiny backyard. She looked after her crops vigilantly, and by the second spring, when she was eight, her little garden was alive with bees. Triumph. Three hives were built. Triple triumph.

Andromeda raced home from school each day to check on her garden. She protected the hives from violent storms, she built triple-decker raised beds to grow more flowers. She got stung from time to time, but didn’t mind a few stings. “They know I’m trying to protect them,” she told her mother. “They don’t mean to hurt me.”

The neighbors weren’t nearly as understanding. Andromeda’s father built a screened-in enclosure around the hives, and moved them closer to the house.

Even with this outlet for her energy, Andromeda remained vocal and often loud. Her early history of arrest, and her passion for the plight of bees, also made her sensitive to injustice. Bullying, we call it in primary school.

One of her classmates was a very chubby girl named Sara. Kids in her class loved surrounding Sara as she walked home from school, chanting a verse which even later, at the age of 74, Sara could still recite with perfect accuracy.* One day Andromeda saw the bullying in action. She leapt into the middle of the group and started using her left hook. Unfortunately, she was not only outnumbered, but the group was a lot stronger. She and Sara were knocked to the pavement. The other kids were starting to kick them when suddenly, out of nowhere, a swarm of bees appeared. They didn’t sting the bullies, but they buzzed around their eyes and noses and made the bullies run screaming from the scene. As soon as the bullies took off, the bees disappeared as well.

Andromeda raced home, ignoring Sara’s shyly muttered thanks. Her hives were intact, the bees contentedly sipping nectar.

 

*Yes, this happened to me when I was in second grade. I was chubby until I was about 30, but I’ve never forgotten the crude and cruel rhyme. Sadly, I never met Andromeda.

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Remembrance of People Past

Over the weekend, I submitted what I hope will be the final version of my 23rd novel. The working title is Double Dirty, but I’ve struggled so much with this novel that I’ve been calling it Ugly Baby. My mother told me that I was such an ugly baby she couldn’t bear to have pictures taken of me; she didn’t want the reminder, so my earliest baby photo is from my first birthday. I was apparently a breech birth and my head was squeezed into a point. She showed me my baby bonnets, which had pointy tops because of where my head had misshapen them. As a small child, I kept thinking the point had sunk into my head and that it would pop out some night, and in bed at night I would keep feeling the spot, wondering if a mountain was about to emerge.

I sent a draft of Ugly Baby to my editors back in April. They were very thorough in their critique, and over the last 3 weeks I tore the ms apart and rewrote big chunks of it. As I read through it, I was dismayed by the incoherence of the April draft and wondered how I could possibly have read it through – not once, but 3 times, and with an outside reader going through it at least 3 times – and thought it was a finished novel.

This experience reminded me of the melancholy events that surrounded another writer’s last novel. I won’t put her name here, just say that she was perhaps twenty-five years my senior, so I only knew her during the last decade of her life. Her agent and her editor were both good friends of mine. When she submitted her final novel, her agent was dismayed to find it was incomprehensible. He sent it back with some gentle comments, and she returned an even more incomprehensible draft. When he followed up with people close to her, he learned that she was suffering from significant cognitive impairment. He explained the situation to her editor, who was a wonderful woman. The editor rewrote the book from beginning to end, and it was duly published.

 

I find this story heartbreaking, not least because the agent and the editor both died long ago of cancer. However, now that I’m in my 70’s, when I turn in a manuscript that’s largely gibberish, I can’t help being scared. Is that demon that takes our wits starting to remove mine? I hope not, but how can I be certain?

 

 

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Dead Land now in paperback

Dead Land is now available in paperback at your favorite bookstore. I’ll be signing copies at Women and Children First, so if you want a personalized edition, please contact them by April 6 at 5 pm.

Dead Land by Sara Paretsky

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Love And Other Crimes

In June, I’ll be publishing 14 of my short stories, under the title Love and Other Crimes. Some of these stories are new, some have already been published. Some feature VI, some are standalone. Two – “Wildcat” and “Death on the Edge” – were published only as ebooks and so now will be available in print for the first time. Thanks to Erin Mitchell for recovering “Murder at the Century of Progress” – somehow in the migration from a Hewlett Packard to Windows to Apple I lost the file.

I write short stories for a lot of different reasons, often to entertain myself. I loved writing the title story for this collection – a chance to create a Mr. Micawber kind of family. But they sure do love each other.

Jacket cover

 

“They’re trying to frame Gregory,” she announced baldly.

“Who are ‘they,’ who is Gregory, and what are ‘they’ saying he did?” I asked.

“Fucking Warshawski snob,” she said. “I might have known. Like your mother, too good to walk around the planet with the ordinary mortals.”

“Anyone who compares me to my mother is paying me the highest possible compliment. But I still don’t – oh, Gregory? Baby Gregory? Are you Sonia Litvak?” She’d given her name as Sonia Geary when she made the appointment.

“I got married. Did you think that was impossible?” she jeered.

She saw my inadvertent glance at her bare left hand. “It didn’t last. Neither did yours, what I heard, but you had to keep your own name, didn’t you? No one else could be as good as a Warshawski.”

“Do you want to tell me who framed Gregory for what?” I asked. “Or just needle me about my family?”

“I want you to understand I don’t need any Warshawski pity or handouts. I came here for help and I plan to pay your bill.”

“That assumes I agree to help you,” I snapped.

“But – you have to!” She was astonished. “You’re from South Houston, same as me. And I need a private cop to go up against the city, although come to think of it, your father was a Chicago cop and –“

“If you insult my father on top of my mother, you’ll have to leave.”

“Oh, don’t get your undies in a bundle,” she grumbled. “I never went to finishing school.”

It was as close as she would come to an apology. I turned away to type Gregory Litvak’s name into a legal database and he popped right up: charged with second-degree homicide along with criminal destruction of property. Someone – allegedly Gregory Litvak – had gone through the Roccamena Warehouse and smashed about twenty-five million dollars worth of wine and booze.

Sonia was reading over my shoulder. “See, I told you – they framed him for this.”

“Sonia – this doesn’t prove anything about anyone.”

I scrolled down the screen. Roccamena had fired Gregory a week or so before the destruction. The state – and the liquor distributor – claimed he sought revenge by rampaging through the warehouse.

He might still have made bail, but the crime held a second, more serious offense: when the clean-up crew started hauling out the debris, they’d found the body of Eugene Horvath mixed in with the broken bottles in aisle eleven. Horvath was Roccamena’s accountant; the state’s theory was that Gregory blamed him for losing his job.

“They fired Gregory for no reason,” Sonia burst out. “And then, because they feel guilty, they have to frame him for destroying the warehouse and killing Horvath. The Roccamenas probably did it themselves to collect insurance.”

“What made the police pick up Gregory?” I asked.

“His prints were on the forklift. Well, of course his prints were on the forklift. He drove it for them, loading and unloading crap for them all day. Eighteen years he worked there, and then, bingo, he’s getting close to being a hundred percent vested, out the door with him. I need you to prove he didn’t do it.”

She glared fiercely. When she’d been young, carting baby Gregory around, her hair grew in lopsided clumps around her head, as though she got her brother Donny to cut it for her. Today the thick curls, dyed bright orange, were symmetrically shaped. Her face was covered with the armor of heavy makeup, but beneath that, she was still the ungainly, needy girl of fifteen.

Sonia didn’t want Warshawski pity, and I didn’t want to give her any, so it annoyed me to find myself stirred by it.

“He has a lawyer, right? Or is he in the system?”

“The public defender. We’re trying to put the money together for a real lawyer, but we can’t even make bail right now. They set it for two million. Who can come up with that kind of money? Reggie could help, but he won’t. Taking his brats to Disney World instead of taking care of his own flesh and blood.”

I didn’t think suggesting that his children were also Reggie’s flesh and blood would help. Instead, I laboriously pried details from her. Reggie had moved to Elgin, with his own little company. Sonia was vague about what they did, but it had something to do with computers. She seemed to think Reggie had become another Gates or Jobs, and that he wouldn’t help Gregory out of spite.

Donny worked for Klondike insurance. This was an agency that had the inside track on a lot of city and county business, which somehow, inevitably, also seemed to mean some of their clients were Mob fronts. It sounded as though he was the agency’s handyman, repairing broken machines, changing light bulbs, ordering supplies. I could picture him siphoning off supplies and selling them on Craig’s List, but not engineering the big deals that make a successful Mobster.

“So it’s not like Donny’s got a lot of money,” Sonia was continuing to whine, “and then his ex is sucking the marrow out of his bones. He doesn’t even get to see the kid except weekends and then the kid doesn’t want to hang around Donny because Donny doesn’t have a play station or any of that crap.”

“Stanley can’t help?” I asked.

“He dropped all the way out,” Sonia snorted. “First he was in business with Reggie, but he said late-stage capitalism was draining his life blood, whatever the fuck that means. He lives in a cabin in the hills somewhere near the Grand Canyon and thinks great thoughts. Or maybe it’s no thoughts.”

That left baby Gregory.

“Gregory is super smart,” Sonia said. “Like, he had really high ACT scores, so Daddy wanted him to go to college. He even got a scholarship to go to the University of Illinois, but then he never went. So Daddy threw him out of the house, which was when I was married, and he lived with me, then Ken threw him out, which led to me beating Ken up and him getting an order of protection and then a divorce. Anyway, that’s when Donny found Gregory a job at Roccamena’s, and he’s been there ever since. Until they fired him for no reason at all.”

“They must have told him something.”

She tossed her head, but the orange curls didn’t move. She must have sprayed some kind of epoxy on them.

“Ask him yourself. Maybe you can turn on some Warshawski charm and he’ll tell you stuff he won’t talk to me about.”

The chin beneath the thick makeup wobbled; she fished in her handbag and blew her nose, a good loud honk. “You going to help me or not?”

Not, I chanted silently. Not, not, not.

So why did I find myself printing out a copy of my standard contract for Sonia? I thought when she saw my fees and the non-refundable deposit she’d walk out, but she signed it with every appearance of nonchalance, counted out five hundred dollars in twenties, and swept from the office. Sort of. She was wearing a sweatshirt that proclaimed her attachment to Liggett Bar and Grill’s Slow Pitch team; the sleeve snagged on the lock tongue on her way out and she had to stop to pull it free.

 

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On Losing and on Being Lost

I’m misplacing gloves and bank cards, keys and eyeglasses, with more than average frequency.

I am grateful to Anna Freud for writing the essay, “On Losing and on Being Lost.” She’s writing about grief, and the way it manifests itself in our behavior. During WWII she ran the Hampstead War Nurseries, which cared for children who had been orphaned or otherwise left on their own by the war. After the war, recovering from a life-threatening bout of flu and pneumonia, she had leisure to think about her grief for her father, and the way the children in her care had grieved. She noticed she kept losing commonplace objects, like keys and glasses, and saw how similar it was to the way bereaved children had lost hats or gloves. This was at a time of poverty and need, where it was not easy to replace a hat: everyone paid more attention to their small possessions than we do now.

Freud wrote that children who’d been abruptly separated from caregivers – by their death, or a call-up for active duty – were more likely to lose things than were children who’d had time for a meaningful leave-taking. Similarly, children from angry and abusive families were more likely to lose things. Freud speculated that when we are grieving, we feel (inter alia) abandoned and so we abandon in turn, or assume we will be abandoned in turn, not just by other people but by our belongings.

I know this feeling, this feeling of being adrift, unconnected to people or to the material world. I’m doing my best to carry on, but now, 5 months from Courtenay’s death, I still often feel wrenched by grief.

When I went to the Newberry for the Fuller award, I cried most of the evening.  Yes, I was truly moved by the generous praise my friends gave me, but so much of the evening highlighted what I was missing: Courtenay’s constant support for who I am and what I do. Near the end of his life, as he had forgotten many things, he was proud, almost unbearably proud, of me and my work. “I saw how you made those New York publishers pay attention to women,” he would say. “I know what you did.” Of course I keep losing things, my darling one. Of course.

 

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Remarks on Receiving the Fuller Award, 9 May 2019

Receiving award from Chicago Lit Hall of Fame Chair Randy Albers

 

A few years ago, I saw the Oriental Institute exhibit on the history of writing. I felt a sense of awe as I saw myself, one small person, one small voice, connected to a chain of storytellers that stretches almost 6000 years into the past. Buffalo, elk and wolves roamed widely here when the ancient Sumerians made the spoken word visible.

Writing probably developed so accountants could keep track of land and livestock ownership, but it quickly became the purview of poets. And it is to poets, to musicians, to artists that we turn when we celebrate our joys or need help in enduring our sorrows.

We are enduring bleak times, indeed, in these United States, and we need the arts today as we never did before.

In the aftermath of 9.11, musicians from America’s great symphonies went to Ground Zero, where they played through the night to support the hard work of the first responders. No one sifting through rubble for fragments of human bodies wanted to hear someone read an accounts payable list, much less an ideological diatribe. They needed music, they needed poetry.

When you are out of work, or ill, or grieving, you need a sense of an enduring beauty, one that transcends our changeable mortal condition. In these hard times, I turn to the poet Akhmatova, whose work helped her fellow Russians endure Stalin’s tyranny. I turn to the American poet Mary Oliver, whose deep digging into the natural world gives me new ways of thinking, seeing, feeling.

 

My own most moving moment as a writer came one evening at a reading I’d given here at the Newberry. A group of women stayed after everyone else had left. They told me they were married to steelworkers who’d been out of work for over a decade. These women worked two and three jobs to support their families. They told me they hadn’t read a book since graduating from high school, until they heard that my books take place in their scarred and wounded neighborhood. They came to hear me read, they said, because my words gave them courage to face the hard hand life had dealt them.

That my work spoke to them in such a way does me more honor than I can rightly express. The Fuller award is for me a shorthand for every writer, every storyteller, poet, painter, singer, whose art has helped another person endure the dark night of the soul.

Around 600 BCE, the Spartan poet Sappho wrote, “Although they are only breath/Words, which I command/Are immortal.”

We don’t today know the names of Sparta’s accountants, nor what they had to say about poets and poetry. We know the name of Pericles, a statesman from Sparta’s rival city, Athens, not from his tweets, but because he funded some of the greatest art the world has ever known.

Sappho lived through times as turbulent as our own, but what we remember from those times are not the account books. We remember the poetry and the sculpture. If we want to create a lasting legacy, it will be through the support of that word, the word cherished by every reader in this room, that word which is only breath; in the end, it is poetry which endures.

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All about the Benjamins

When Rep Ilhan Omar quoted Puff Daddy’s song, I had to have it explained to me – I tend to be clueless aboout pop culture and didn’t realize that it was a reference to the hundred-dollar bill. But I did, sadly, know the trope. Ever since our 9th grade English teacher at Central Junior High reinforced the stereotype of the money-loving Jew in the way she presented Shylock to us as we read A Merchant of Venice, I’ve understood that some part of the world will always view me as though I valued ducats more than daughters.

There were very few Jews in my home town and I was almost always the only Jewish kid in any classroom. I’m not sure how or why I got picked to make presentations on Judaism to some of the area churches when I was 17, but the inevitable question was why Jews were so rich and why we controlled the world’s money. My family struggled like every other to afford a car and a mortgage, but to my audience, all that proved was that we were clever about hiding our wealth from the people around us.

The trope persists, through the halls of Congress, and the pages of Louis Farrakhan’s work. A friend’s sister at a recent party started in on it – my friend pointed at me and shook her head and her sister shut up – I pretended I had heard nothing and seen nothing. I try to be generous with money because I believe that as my physical energy waanes I can use money to do good. But I also worry that non-Jews are judging me  in restaurants or occasions for charity

I have nothing to add to this centuries-old libel/slander. I know it will persist long after I’m dead and gone, like so many of the other ills I’ve tried to fight – unsuccessfully. I don’t have much optimism these days. I pretend to, I pretend to rejoice in the energy of the youth around us – but when our energetic youth carry so much old baggage with them, I don’t have a lot of hope.

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Do-Overs

I replay my past with anguish over my failures – my biggest – my hot temper which bubbles over when I suffer a narcissistic wound. Every time it happened I was ashamed in the aftermath, vowed not to do it again. In time I learned some patience, some cooling off before reacting, but never enough.

When I think of Courtenay’s last days, I suffer a different self-torment – that I wasn’t physically with him – not at the moment of his death, but in the days before, where I came and went.

I’ve been hearing from other grieving people since Courtenay died. Some are close friends, some are strangers, but all experience the same torment I do, the “if only” torment.

I admire Kate Atkinson as a writer, but when I read her 2013 Life After Life, it irritated me exactly that reason – the effort to rewrite a personal as well as a meta life.  You could do it differently, you could affect the outcome – if only someone had killed Hitler (or, for that matter, Stalin) before 50 million people were murdered. If only you’d stayed home instead of going into town and contracting influenza. If this, if that. It seemed to me at the time to be unbearably juvenile, even while beautifully structured and written. Today it hits me even harder.

Ten years ago, if I’d been offered a chance for a do-over, it would have been for some  missteps I took that harmed my public career. Now – I’d redo those last two days. Or the time I screamed my head off in traffic. Or – or – or.

The point is, if you were given one do-over, you’d always pick the wrong one. And then you’d spend your time wanting a do-over to change your choice.

 

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The Quotidian

The quotidian does me in. I love to sing, although my musicianship can charitably be called “sketchy.” Courtenay loved listening to me. When I took lessons or sang in a community musical he always came to hear me perform. Similarly when I did readings or gave talks. Last night I went to the choir  practice for my local synagogue. I’d never been part of it; in fact, i didn’t know it existed. On the way home I had a total meltdown. I kept thinking, I have to get control of this or I’ll hit someone and then I’ll cause wider floods of grief for strangers, but I couldn’t stop weeping.

Grief surges are like power surges. They overwhelm the system, the trigger all the circuit breakers. They do us in.

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