Monday, June 29, 2009

Who Do You Think You Are?

Last week my California friends Steve and Suzanne visited Seattle and me, from their home in California. As we walked through the arboretum one sunny morning, talking about our lives, Steve told me that whenever he finds himself getting angry and upset about the behavior of others, he says to himself, “Who do you think you are?”

There are so many reasons why I love this question. When I was a columnist in Port Townsend, and here, too, as a blogger, I can’t help wondering why anybody finds my thoughts and opinions worth reading. Who do I think I am?

And I think there are kind and helpful ways to ask this question of oneself. In my opinion, a good way to discover true answers is to look at what you spend your money and your time on.

Here in the blogging world, I have another kind of reality check. Do you ever notice the instant Google ads that accompany my blog? The last time I checked, my account, started in March, was up to a whopping $3.27 earned by me as my readers click on the ads Google picks out to display. They choose stuff based on what I’m writing about. Sixty and Single in Seattle? Would the ads be lingerie or dating services or posh restaurants for daters?

No. I noticed, for example, that a post about making a cake and dancing alone elicited an ad for making solar power at home ( What does that mean?

I thought something interesting might appear with my recent post about David and Goliath and Con Air, but Trophy cupcakes wasn’t what I expected. Still, the all-time winners for an amazing look at who Google thinks I am are these:

Water Leaks Located

Las Vegas Clean Pipes (!)

Seattle Laundry Services

Tattoo Removal Pictures

Porsche Boxster Wallpaper.

But, enough about me. Who do you think I am?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Tough Job, but Somebody's Got to Do It...

On the whole, I’m not a big fan of dramatic violence. It’s true that a couple of violent films are semi-favorites of mine -- Con Air, where Nicholas Cage, released at last after being unjustly imprisoned, is forced to kill a whole bunch of bad guys in order to get home to his beloved wife, and Air Force One, where Harrison Ford, former Special Forces guy and now president of the United States, has to save everything -- the people on the plane as well as the country and the world -- all by himself.

I’d just as soon they leave most of the actual violence to the imagination, but then the audience would shrink, I guess. Anyway, what I like is not the blood, but the heroes. Give me something worth fighting for.

So I was dazzled on Sunday by a script I heard read. It’s set in the really old days, where a single Schwarzenegger-sized guy, representing his side in a war, has challenged the other side. “Choose your man to meet me,” he says. “If he can kill me in a fair fight, we will become your slaves; but if I prove too strong for him and kill him, you shall be our slaves and serve us... Give me a man, and we will fight it out.”

[Incidentally, I’ve always thought this made much more sense than having everybody jump into the fray and so many die.]

This boasting went on for forty days. Nobody dared to respond. Then one day, a young boy is sent by his father to the armed camp with food for his enlisted brothers. Brother Eliab hears young David talking with the soldiers, finding out what the situation is, and says, “What are you doing here? And who have you left to look after the sheep?”

“What have I done now? I only asked a question,” says David.

But once he understands the situation, David goes to the commander and says, “Do not lose heart, sir. I will go and fight this Philistine.”

“You cannot go and fight with this Philistine; you are only a lad, and he has been a fighting man all his life.”

“Sir,” David responds, “I am my father’s shepherd; when a lion or bear comes and carries off a sheep from the flock, I go after it and attack it and rescue the victim from its jaws. Then if it turns on me, I seize it by the beard and batter it to death. Lions I have killed and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine will fare no better than they.”

So the king dresses David in his own bronze helmet and coat of mail and fastens a sword on him. [Picture this! A teenager, weighed down by armor, barely able to see out of the helmet, sword dragging.]

But David says, “I cannot go with these, because I have not tried them.” He takes them off, picks up his stick, chooses five smooth stones from the brook and puts them in a shepherd’s bag which serves as his pouch. He walks out to meet the Philistine with the sling in his hand.

The Philistine looked him up and down and said, “Am I a dog that you come out against me with sticks? Come on, and I will give your flesh to the birds and the beasts.”

David says, “The Lord will put you into my power this day; I will kill you and cut your head off and leave your carcass and the carcasses of the Philistines to the birds and the wild beasts; all the world shall know that there is a God in Israel.”

When the Philistine began moving towards him again, David ran quickly to engage him. He put his hand into his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell flat on his face on the ground.

Of course I knew the story of David and Goliath; you do too. But nearly every word you have just read is the actual text from 1 Samuel 17. As I heard it read on Sunday I thought, if I saw this on the screen, I’d think some writer had worked over the dialogue. Even that question of David’s: “What have I done now?” -- it’s in the original.

And this was just one of the stories we heard Sunday morning at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Queen Anne. We also got Jesus Stilling the Storm, which our rector reinterpreted as Jesus Sleeping in the Stern. She considered with us a quote from somebody suggesting that how well we sleep at night is a useful indicator of the health of our spiritual lives.

Well, it was a thrilling morning, doing one of my jobs for my new sixty and single life in Seattle: finding a church.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What did you learn in school today?

I’m sixty and single in Seattle, and still going to school. So I’m thinking about the question, What did you learn in school today? First, because I’m a tutor at B.F. Day Elementary in my neighborhood. I recently had my last tutoring day of the school year.

I would love to know someone at home has been asking my students what they learned. If somebody is asking, I hope Arynne said, “Today I learned that since I can spell ‘cat,’ I can also spell ‘mat,’ and ‘hat,’ and ‘rat,’ and....

And I hope Tina said, “I learned the magic ‘e’ rule: In English, we don’t say the final ‘e,’ but it makes the preceding vowel say its own name.”

I hope someone asks them, because saying what you learned helps cement it.

To that end, I left my other school today, my Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) class on religion and violence, thinking, “What did you learn in school today, Mary?” I’m afraid it’s not too cohesive.

Our prof is youngish and enthusiastic. He says he ‘guesses he’s a practicing Christian’ -- how weak is that? I guess he’s avoiding an appearance of pushing his beliefs on us, but he speaks so neutrally about issues of religion that he seems more enthused about the game of academic argument than the substance.

Still, he made some interesting points. He reminded us that we’re all looking at culture from within a culture, “fish in a stream,” he put it. He said religion, prostitution, and gun-making are the oldest “sustainable” -- did he mean “sustained”? -- institutions. He pointed out that there is an expectation, in evangelical Christianity, of tension and conflict with the world. And he said we’ll look at the historical, scriptural, and intellectual bases for church support for war. I’d like to do that.

As usual, I’m impressed with the quality of my fellow students, all age fifty and over. One of them suggested that it’s psychology that prompts individuals to choose a particular religion, rather than religion that molds a psychology. The prof disagreed; I wonder.

So did I learn anything in school today? Looks like I brought home a bunch of questions, and no real answers. And that might be okay. If there were time, and there never is in the short OLLI classes, I would have liked to start with finding out why the professor, surely not making any real money at it, cares enough to teach us about religion and violence. And what each of us students hopes to learn, and why.

Because it’s rather urgent, when you think about it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Remembering Dad on Father’s Day

Before Mary moved to Seattle, she was a columnist for the Port Townsend Leader. She published this there last year.

My dad died in 2002. He was a motorcyle-riding minister and a teetotaler until late in his life. He loved photography, and in fact, was employed as one of the original testers of color film when it was new. My Father’s Day musings tend toward what I’d serve Dad, if I could, for a special Father’s Day dinner, and the questions I’d want to ask him. My brother Tim told me he’d had a different idea: a letter. He kindly agreed to share it with me.

Dear Dad, has been a long time since you left and a long time since we talked. I miss you.

I wish we could go fishing. I wish we could go for a hike up around the shack. I wish we had taken more opportunities to sing together. I wish I had prepared one of the many sermons I thought about over the years, and that you had heard it and talked with me about it.

I remember our motorcycle trip around lower Michigan. Did you know how nervous for you I was when we were riding together, or just when I knew you were out riding? Even so, I wish we were on our bikes somewhere in the sun, right now.

Do you remember telling me that someday you would like to lock yourself up in a room and get drunk just to see what it was like? Have you had the chance to do that? I don't know if any of the family noticed, but I sort of did it...the night after you died. I sat in your dining room, on the floor with my back against the wall, and put down glass after glass of the boxed wine from the counter in your kitchen. It was a good drunk. I missed you and I could still feel you there with me.

I have written quite a few emails lately that will never be sent. I would send this one if I knew your address
(cthorpe@heaven.home?). I hope you’ve been reading over my shoulder anyway.

I love you Dad.

Tim has three favorite pictures of Dad. In one, Dad is smiling and looking through his camera. Another shows Dad and Mom along the bay in Michigan the last time Tim came out from his New York State home to visit them around Easter; it makes Tim wish he’d started those trips years earlier. And one shows Dad with his Banana Whipped Cream Cake at his 75th birthday celebration at Aunt Esther and Uncle Craig's. Tim remembers that one especially because he’s diabetic, and it’s a cake that’s healthier for him to eat. Tim learned after the party that Dad had chosen it for that reason, even though he himself was leaning toward German Chocolate.

Still, Banana Whipped Cream Cake is a winner, and one I think my dad invented. It was definitely on his list of top two favorites. Here’s the recipe.

Banana Whipped Cream Cake
Bake up a favorite yellow cake into two or three layers. Mine is this: Cream together 1/2 c butter, 1 c sugar, and 1 t vanilla. Add 2 eggs, and beat well. Separately stir together 2 c white flour, 1 t baking powder, 3/4 t baking soda, and 1/4 t salt. Beating as you go, combine half the dry ingredients with the butter mixture, then add one cup of buttermilk, then remaining flour. Bake in two greased 8” round pans for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees. When done, set hot pans on wet towel for one minute. Remove cake to racks and cool.

Chill a cup or two of heavy whipping cream, along with your bowl and beaters, in the freezer for 30 minutes. Just before serving, whip the cream into stiff peaks; add a spoonful of sugar and a bit of vanilla. Spread the cream atop the layers, slicing on bananas as you go. It’s nice with fresh peaches or strawberries too. We always leave the sides uncovered.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Single: Upside, Downside

Upside: Making a chocolate cake for the potluck this afternoon, and I get to lick the beaters, the spatula, and the bowl all myself.

Downside: When Van Morrison's Have I Told You Lately that I Love You comes on the stereo, I have to dance it with a pillow. Just a pillow, still.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Three months and sixteen days into being sixty and single in Seattle. Much has been accomplished, like phone, internet, electricity, and insurance. I signed up for Group Health and I like it, including my new doctor and the results of my routine tests. I also got dental insurance, now that I know old age is as perilous for teeth as childhood. I would marry Dr. Falcone in Wallingford, if he were single -- he hums along with the classical music while he works, and he’s extravagantly courteous with his staff. I expect to enjoy my replacement crown very much indeed.

Still to find were a hair cutter and an automobile maintenance shop. As I write, my 1996 Toyota Corolla -- 35 miles to a gallon of gas -- is at Superior Auto down on Leary, and I have every confidence they will do a good job with my oil and filter and possible battery service.

My hair, though. Before I left Port Townsend, I was walking with my friend Carolyn and mentioning all the new services I would need to discover, and she said she knows somebody who gets her hair cut in Seattle. She said she’d find out where. It turns out, that shop is two blocks from where I now live.

In Port Townsend, I was lucky enough to be on the roster at Salon Bon Bon. And I do mean lucky: there’s a wait list. Robin Stemen not only cut my hair, she advised me on all sorts of things, including the necessary feng shui to attract a man to my life, and did it all in her standup-comedian style. And what other beauty salon stocks Ms. and Feminist Studies Quarterly along with Fine Gardening?

Plus, her shop is my ideal. Quiet jazz on the CD player. Local art. A head massage! Just Robin and me. And all for $35.

Hair is more expensive in Seattle. And the music is pumping and the stylists are tattooed in a way that scares me: who wants an aggressive haircut?

Have I mentioned that lately I favor a style unique to people under 6 and over 60? Where the hair in front is pulled up and back behind the ears with fetching barrettes or those clamp thingies? I consider pulling my hair back as good as a facelift.

With all these issues, my hair has simply been allowed to grow since I got to Seattle. Finally, yesterday, I tried the recommended salon two blocks away.

Four stylists. Fresh flowers. No pounding music.

But my stylist had that hair you know is dyed, because there’s no shine to it -- or is there a product people put on to remove the shine? -- and it was cut in those super-straight long tendrils of varying lengths, and quite honestly, I thought a couple of barrettes would do her good.

But for the kind of money I would be paying -- $55 -- I thought I should at least ask what she’d advise. And she recommended a shorter version of what she has, with super-straight tendrils and sort of layered. She said, “I’ll do whatever you want, but this would update your look.”

“Updated” sounded good, the alternative being what? “Outdated”? She’s the expert, I thought. And, hair grows.

I’m blind without my glasses, so I just let her cut away, and then she finished, handed me my glasses, and voila!

Well, she loves it, but I think the tendrils just hug my little round face and make it look rounder and older. I walked on over to the Wallingford farmers market in my new hairstyle, just to try it out and see if people exclaimed over A) how up-to-date I look or B) how ugly. Neither, of course. I got home with a big bouquet of flowers, hoping it will make me clean my house again this week, and thought I’d try to take a photo of me in my new hair and bouquet for you, dear readers, but the photo looked awful, which is why you don’t see it here.

This morning, I washed my hair and stuck in a couple of my velcro curlers and then pulled it back with a couple of clamps, and it’s not too bad. And it’s already growing, I’m sure.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How to Get Me to Clean My House

I grew up with certain rules I never got over. Rule One: No ketchup or mustard bottles or pickle jars on the dining room table. Mom actually serves that stuff in little fancy dishes with spoons! (What else can she do with all the silly little dishes we bought her for Mothers Days through the decades? You know the ones in odd, ruffly shapes and amber or cranberry or milk-white glass?)

I myself get around the condiments issue by treating any meal that requires them like an indoor picnic; I say they give the table a campy warmth.

Rule Two: Don’t wear your apron at dinner. I think this comes from the days when Woman’s Day magazine advised women to take a moment before the hubby walked in the door after work to remove the apron, comb the hair, freshen the lipstick. And why not, I say? On the other hand, I did once wear only an apron to dinner, a bib apron with a ruffle, and I heard no complaints. Mom never mentioned this option.

Rule Three: No milk cartons on the table. I keep this religiously, since I almost never drink milk at meal-time.

But here’s the biggie, Rule Four: Better no flowers at all than flowers in a messy room.

Last week a friend gave me an armful of gorgeous blowsy pale pink peonies. It was late. I put them in a vase and went to bed. I got up and saw the state of my living room.

I cleaned. I had to.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Do You Have to Give Up So Much?

I have to stop making snide remarks about men not being interested in relationships, even (gasp!) in marriage. Because every time I make such remarks, I hear instantly, as I did after posting “Arranged Marriage,” from some of my guy friends who are longing for permanent relationships with women. They tell me it’s women who are the commitment-phobes.

In the work of my single-blogger colleagues -- all, interestingly, women -- I often read about what women give up for a man. A recent post on Onely, Secret Lives of the Happily Single: Laundry Edition, had a bunch of us writing about the things we get to do single that we wouldn’t if we were coupled. But Trauma Queen wrote that she’s always done pretty much what she wanted, in and out of relationships, including eating out of jars and burping and farting.

Really, it’s women who tend to have the overblown ideas of decorum, not the guys. At least, I’ve been guilty of it. The first date I went on with my last husband (so far), he took me one chilly night an hour’s drive to San Francisco for a classical music concert at a church. We stopped at a gas station on the way home, I went to the rest room, and came back to find the wind blowing through the car. I said, “Why are the windows down?” Jon gave me a big grin which somehow conveyed to me that he’d put them down to clear the air inside.

Not to get all maudlin and sentimental on you, but I wonder if I’d be married to him today if I’d had the moxie to say, “Oh, don’t roll them up yet!” and cut loose myself....

Decorous behavior is not the only issue, of course. As an example of what I might have to lose of my wonderful single life at sixty in Seattle, here’s last night: I made myself a glorious dinner, left the dishes for later, and got on the bus to another Town Hall program. I thought of a couple of people who might have liked to come along, but I guess I wanted to go alone. The speaker was a hacker/inventor. I jumped up and asked the first question at the mic, and would I have done that if I’d been with a guy? Probably not. I liked that freedom of nobody knowing me, no one to embarrass but myself.

I loved my evening as it was, but would the possibility of having to share such evenings prevent me from having a relationship? I could still go on my own. Or if my guy also wanted to go to Town Hall, we could pretend we didn’t know each other as we got on the bus -- if we took the same one -- and maybe on the way home we could be distantly flirting on the bus -- if we took the same one -- as if we’re strangers, and then we could practice pickup lines on each other, and that’s as much of this fantasy as I’m going to write down.

I’m sure men, like women, have fears about how their lives might be wrecked by the changes a relationship would make. But see how creative fear can make you? Fear rises; courage rises higher. Maybe we should just trying doing whatever we want, together, and see how we like it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Arranged Marriage

I was thrilled to find Farahad Zama’s An Arranged Marriage, Then And Now in a recent New York Times "Modern Love" column.

I love reading about arranged marriages; why is that?

My parents never weighed in much on my mate choices. They lived far away and sometimes I think they thought I knew better than they did. Being young and stupid, I thought that too, so I never asked for their opinion and guidance. And see what it got me? Here I am, sixty and single.

Next time, I’m bringing Mom in early.

Anyway, back to Mr. Zama. Although he grew up in India, and I in Michigan and many other places, we’re clearly kindred spirits. He’s practical, for example. His mom asks what he’s looking for in a woman and he says, “A college graduate who speaks English.” Me too!

His mom says it has to be somebody from the neighborhood, and I too would love to find a man right here in Seattle, preferably on my block in Fremont.

“The slow discovery of another person and the unraveling of layers of mystery are part of the fun of arranged marriage,” Zama says. And even though I have my lists of what I’m looking for, and my high hopes about interests and activities we’ll share, I think any wise person enters a marriage recognizing how much is yet to be known.

Of course, whoops! I’ve already blown my chances with Seattle men, I suppose, by even mentioning the marriage word. Marriage. Gays are marching and suing and petitioning and voting to get it, while heteros seem embarrassed to mention the word. What I dream of is an intimate partnership with a man. I guess so few marriages turn out to be this, that the confusion is understandable.

But confusion is okay. Gives us something to think about.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Bus Stop

Long before I moved to Seattle, I somehow came across Carla Saulter, aka Bus Chick, which is also the name of her P-I blog. As it says in the bio,
Carla Saulter is one of a growing number of Seattleites who have chosen to live without a car. Because Seattle still does not have in-city rapid transit, she takes the bus everywhere—really, everywhere—she goes. On any given Saturday night, you can find her running for the number 27 in heels and a backless dress.

If she can go out dancing via the bus, so can I, I thought.

Before I moved to Seattle, I tried it out on a visit, so by the time I moved, I knew the bus was for me.

Now I take the 44 from Fremont Village to Ballard’s Leif Erickson ballroom for dances, and lots of buses get me within range of Highway 99 Blues Club.

Even more, though, I bus to Group Health Downtown, events at Town Hall, an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute class, and events at the Seattle Public Library. I feel sorry for people all alone in their cars.

On a lovely day last February, I was exhausted from unpacking in my new home. But it was so pretty out! I want to take a walk, I thought to myself, every time I surfaced momentarily from my two-hour nap.

When I finally got up and out, it was nearly 5 pm, and still beautiful. I decided to walk down the Fremont Hill and over the bridge. Then I thought, Why not see what’s in Queen Anne? So I walked straight up that crazy-steep hill which apparently doesn’t even allow cars, and on and on until I got to the Seattle Center, dined on my first pho, and saw Book-It’s presentation of Moby Dick.

I wasn’t clear at that stage on bus options home from Seattle Center, not, as it turns out, my favorite nighttime bus stop. But there was a woman in her twenties waiting with me in the dark. She had finished a late shift and said, “If my mother could see me now, she’d have a heart attack.” Though I’m old enough to be her mother, if not her grandmother, I said, “Mine too.”

Her bus came, and I was on my own. Until, along came a nice young man. I said I’d recently moved to Seattle from Port Townsend, and he was the first to say what I’ve heard so often since: “I didn’t know people moved from Port Townsend; I thought they only moved to.”

Some buses are famous for weirdness, I’ve learned, like the 358. But my weirdest moment was when an apparently drunk guy on the 44 kept wanting to tell me jokes, from a few seats up and across the aisle. “They’re clean,” he said. I don’t know what to do in these situations. I don’t like feeling hostage to someone else’s lack of inability to pick up on my disinterest. On the other hand, what an opportunity to see another side of life.

Yesterday I awaited the #5 on 43rd, sitting on a bench in the sunshine. Nearby, a guy with bushy brown hair and beard finished his smoke, then sat down and pulled out his phone. “Don’t talk to them,” I said, “Talk to me.” (Talk about lack of social skills! I’m not usually this bad. And if he’d demurred, I would have let him be.)

I asked if this was his neighborhood too, and found out that he works with a nonprofit that gets homeless folks into the food industry -- training baristas, for example. He’s thinking about what’s next for him and looking into a city I know, and maybe even to courses at the university where my niece Miranda studies. His name is Damien, and I won’t be too surprised to hear from Miranda one day that she ran into a guy who knows me from a bus stop in Seattle.

Sixty and single in Seattle: the bus is the place to be.

Back when I thought riding a bus was heroic...

Before she moved to Seattle, Mary was a columnist for The Port Townsend Leader. This was published there in early 2008.

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” So begins Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to tell us the story of his life.

What a great epigraph for a journal, or an organizing idea for a review of 2007. If there is going to be a hero, I believe it will have to be me. And am I doing it?

True, if your idea of heroes runs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Gandhi, or even Bruce Willis in Armageddon, my accomplishments will look tame. But to me, heroism occurs any time I go ahead and do something I’m afraid to do.

Household repairs, for example. One morning last winter, I got a call at 3 a.m. from my renter. She was up to tend her babies in the wee hours, and found her pipes frozen. I rev’ed up Google for advice, dipped water from my toilet tank, heated it in a saucepan while I pulled my boots on under, and my coat and muffler over, my pink nightie, then shivered my way out to the spot where the water cutoff valve peeks out from under the house. I applied the warm water, and soon the pipes were flowing. My renter actually said to me, “You’re my hero.”

In 2007, I also replaced the spring switch in my renters’ bathroom which controls the exhaust fan, then cleaned and oiled the fan so it runs smoothly and quietly. We’re talking electricity here, folks! I installed a screen door, too.

Also, I have taken dancing boldness to a new level. I remember lurking timidly outside the Upstage the summer I first became single. My friend Marlene saw me there and coached me. “Go by yourself,” she said, “or with a couple. And ask the men to dance. They like it.” By now, the Upstage is like a second home, and I ask everybody to dance. But for zydeco, I often have to go to Seattle. Recently I ferried over, then walked up to Third Avenue to wait for the 7 bus to Columbia City. (Who knew there was a Columbia City?) I rode five miles through the international district, with people of many colors and costumes, all traveling together past Vietnamese department stores and international markets and restaurants from Cuba and Indonesia and everywhere else in the world.

The dance was at Awash, an Ethiopian restaurant. It would have been great to share that meal with somebody, but I didn’t have anyone, so I just ordered up my lentils and collards and giant flat injera pancake, and by the time I finished eating, the place was full enough that someone finally sat with me. Scary, but worth it.

What’s really heroic, though, is dating. On a recent Friday, I found myself with a date in an enchanted medieval hall where costumed maids and men celebrated the solstice with shadow puppets and belly dancers and a tuba band and sculptures of fire and ice. I wore a headdress of sequins and flowers and peacock feathers. At my age! We also went bike shopping in downtown Seattle, test-riding an unfamiliar bike in city traffic, back and forth past the homeless guys under the freeway. We ate Vietnamese food, and visited the Fremont troll, and went dancing at Leif Erickson Hall. And then everything fell apart.

What I miss the most are the phone calls, as many as four a day. “I just saw the most amazing movie!” “I think I found your new bike; check out this website.” “Shall I bring cornmeal, or do you have some?” That hurts. But miss all the fun? No way. Next time I get a chance for a date with another big teddy bear of a guy with brains, I’m going to take it.

So, that’s my account of the modest heroism I find in my life. What's yours?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Tough on Canada and Harlem

I had a winning streak for awhile, but lately I can’t seem to find a novel I want to finish. I got bored with Irene Nemerovsky’s Suite Francaise -- good writing, but was it going anywhere? I’m on page 68 of Per Petterson’s To Siberia, but I’ve been there for a week. I started a Chinese mystery, and an English one, but couldn’t stay with them.

In the meantime, I couldn’t put down Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes, Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. It brings to mind books like Three Cups of Tea and Mountains beyond Mountains, other accounts of men determined to change the world.

I got on to it because of
David Brooks’ recent NYTimes column. Canada is an African-American educator who got tired of little programs that help a select few. He asked, “What would it take to change the lives of poor children not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in a programmatic, standardized way that could be applied broadly and replicated nationwide? Was there a science to it...?”

His dream is to remake Harlem, and so far, he’s working on 90 blocks of it. Starting with Baby College, for parents of unborn and very young children, he envisions a place where kids are provided “whatever it takes” to get to and through college, and to return to the community as living examples of success.

Not everything works; not every character succeeds; not every child gets it. Author Tough uses this truth and uncertainty to produce a page-turner. Who’d have thought an important book like this might be the summer’s favorite beach read?

All material copyright © 2009 by Mary Davies