Archive for the social justice Category

The Verb To Inquire

Posted in Education, Pandemic, Poetry, social justice with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2022 by Louise Steinman
collage/LS and LBR2022

Every Friday afternoon, I have been tutoring a fourth grader named Delilah, whom I view through a screen on Zoom. During the pandemic, Delilah’s school is the bedroom she shares with her two brothers. Her desk is her bunk bed.  The family rarely goes out. Her mother quit her job to monitor the three kids’ schooling. Last December, they all got Covid. Her little brother bounces on the bed behind her, desperate for attention. Her older brother is playing a video game, with volume on high. After our first meeting, I cried. Delilah had no books. Everything was on the screen. She told me her eyes hurt after so many school hours on Zoom. 

Still, Delilah is patient. Slowly but surely she sounds out the words in a story about a girl named Esperanza. Today she’s added more emotion to her telling, and we’ve discussed what quotation marks mean. Delilah changes the quality of her voice now for the different characters. We take apart the words she doesn’t know, this week “crisis” and “opinion.” She has a lot of opinions. We laugh a lot.  Sometimes while we’re talking, Delilah transforms her image into an avatar of a pirate or, say, a panda bear. (This is a feature of Zoom that Delilah understands but I do not.)

“If you’re going to be a panda bear,” I say, “then write me a poem about what the panda bear dreams.”

PANDA’S DREAM

My dream is to eat many bamboo

And to find so many panda friends

And to have a party

One day

In the house of my Dad.

-Delilah

……..

My mother taught me the verb “to inquire.” No cream cheese on the shelf in the supermarket? “We must inquire.” It sounded so grown-up.  We threaded our way through the aisles until we found the  door to the stockroom where the store manager sat at his deck.  I picture this scene at Market Basket grocery in the Culver Center, the locus of several favorite haunts: Grant’s Department Store, where I could purchase Chanukah gifts for everyone in my family with a fiver, where, downstairs in the pet department, I spent hours watching the colony of turquoise, green, yellow parakeets, their wings clipped, their space equipped with miniature parakeet furniture. They gossiped with one another, clanged small bells, nibbled seed. There were also the small turtles with beautiful colorful roses painted on their carapaces, designs which I later learned meant sure slow death.

My sister Ruth, six years older, a polio survivor, patiently taught me how to write my name when I was three. We practiced every day for a week, at a little table in the garage, printing out L-o-u-i-s-e. She took me by the hand and we walked a few blocks to the branch library on Sawtelle Avenue where I demonstrated my clumsy calligraphic prowess and, as a reward, received my first library card. New power!

From my older brother Larry, I learned several crucial lessons. After I’d read a whole book on the subject without any idea of practicalities, he finally told me how babies were made. I had to inquire.

I recently unearthed my term paper, titled BEING BORN,  submitted during fourth grade MCL (“More Capable Learner”)  summer school.  I did not understand what quotation marks were for:  Eventually the time comes when these two reproductive cells must find each other if they are to carry out Nature’s plan for the future. “But how?”  “That is the question!” The egg cell, of course, must stay where it is, inside the mother, for that is the place where the baby is to grow. To the sperm falls the greater task of finding its mate. It must leave the body of the father, enter the mother, find the egg cell, and unite with it. Then there are no longer two cells. There is just one cell, and from it the baby grows…The sperm cell not only starts the growth of the egg cell but we “believe it does two others things.”

……..

I tried to teach my mother to ride a bicycle on our street, Harter Avenue, which was flat. (“At least it has a curve in it,” an architect friend said to console me once, when I brought him to see my childhood house.) My mother was unable to achieve balance on two wheels. She hadn’t learned as a child. “Your body follows your eyes!” I yelled, but she fell over time and again. I was dumbfounded. Convinced it was easy. Just like I was convinced, when I was eight, that Mr. Goldstein, the sixty-something housepainter who was touching up the moulding in our living room, could also paint pictures, if he would just try.  

My brother, age five, attempted to teach me square roots, in a hall closet. I was two. I was screaming. His pedagogical method was not successful. I have never liked math, am dyslexic with numbers. I must also credit him with being the one who blurted out, one night at the dinner table—as the body count in Viet Nam was ringing out on the TV— “I would lose my virginity!” in answer to my father’s question: “what would you do right away if you knew the atom bomb was going to drop? A new word.  What’s virginity? Look it up, my mother said, which I did, in the big Webster’s that commandeered its own wooden dictionary pedestal, always resting open in its cubby hole on the shelf below the World Book Encyclopedias. 

Sometimes we surprise ourselves at what we’ve learned, without knowing that we learned it.  Early memory:  a drive home—I was three?— from a cousin’s house, down Motor Avenue, past the 20th Century backlot, passing the large red neon sign with that grinning creature and the letters that spell F-O-X… FOX! I yelled from the backseat, shocking the adults and shocking myself as well. I was overwhelmed not with sense of pride but with a sense of loss. That I would never again be able NOT to read, that those squiggles would forever more correspond to sounds that would add up to meanings. No going back. Words would now have their way with me; I’d crossed over the border from pure sensation, stepped out of comfortable oblivion, those hours spent up into the branches of the Chinese elm in front of the Britton’s house, observing the world through the green leafiness, where stories came to us primarily through the ear.

As infants, we extend our sense of self by literally reaching out with our hand. To grasp. Physical and mental development are inseparable.  Rudolf Laban uses the German word antrieb, which has the sense of a “drive onwards,” the urge of the organism to “make itself known.” Movement is assertion, and assertion is one of the primary acts of the mind. Our bodies educate themselves in the sensorial world. Don’t touch that pan, it’s hot. Startle when you hear a bear grunting.  Over time, we adapt to limitations, learn habits that may even create new limitations, the body responds with pain, the brain blurs.

……..

Reading with and for Delilah allows me to re-enter and re-admire reading in its inherent complexity, as a feat of translation, noting voice and thought. It’s humbling. Those marks on the page represent ideas, creatures, actions, emotions.  Yesterday we drew pictures on the shared Zoom whiteboard and made up stories about the creatures we drew: a cat, a lizard, a clown named Bobo. Two weeks ago, Delilah abruptly remarked, “I wish I could go back to the year 2017.”  Why 2017, I asked. “Before Covid,” she said somberly. 

Since her bed is her desk is her room is her school, I asked Delilah if she would write a poem about what was above her and what was above that and what was above that.

SKY

there’s an attic that’s been closed a long time.

there’s a roof that has little dots there’s a

blue sky that’s shining

there are clouds in the shape of pandas and

koalas and a lion and a puma

and above them planes pass by on their way to Hawaii

and above the planes there are

people floating with their arms

out

and as they pass by they say,

“Oh those midget people in

the bottom of the sky.”

-Delilah

……..

Today, Delilah showed me, with obvious delight, the bright orange back-to-school backpack that her mother purchased for her return to school next week. She unzipped the many compartments to show: this is where I keep my hand sanitizer! This is where I keep my masks! This is for my math homework! This is the pocket where I keep my erasers! She is so ready to be among her peers, even masked and at a distance. So ready to exit the small bedroom of her apartment, to re-enter this imperfect but vibrant world full of stories, a world where we must inquire.

[this essay first published in thursDAY morning, a chapbook published by Firehouse Press, San Francisco, 2022.

Unclaimed, Unforgotten

Posted in homelessness, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Los Angeles, Peace and social justice, reconciliation, social justice with tags , , , , on December 4, 2019 by Louise Steinman

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Time Regained: Reading Józef Czapski in Billings, MT (about Marcel Proust, the Gulag, and reading as salvation)

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, social justice, translation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2019 by Louise Steinman

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[from THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOZEF CZAPSKI, Polish limited edition]

I WOKE UP around 5:00 a.m., disoriented in an unfamiliar bed. I did not know east from west, up from down, where I’d find a floor to take the weight of my body. The hazy proportions of the room gave no clue; curtains blocked the winter light. In the moment my eyes opened, I lost my connection to those essentials that are, as Proust assures his readers, held fast by our psyches during sleep: “[T]he sequence of the hours, the order of the years, and the worlds.”

 

My disorientation went beyond the geo-gravitational. One era of my life had ended, and the next had not yet begun. If I lived in a traditional society, I’d have been standing on the threshold of the hut listening as a priest beat drums and stirred strong potions, a state the anthropologists call liminality.

Just six weeks before, I’d been fired from my job of 25 years. It was a job I’d loved, that had drawn on my love of literature and my delight at convening people from across Los Angeles to engage with the issues of the day, to ask questions of innovative thinkers, to practice agreeing and disagreeing in a public forum. The events at Central Library, the hearth of the city, were free; homeless patrons sat next to lawyers and teachers and students to listen to Christopher Hitchens talk about religion or Ta-Nehesi Coates discuss reparations. They came to hear local poets read Walt Whitman translated into Farsi and Spanish; to celebrate novelists like Colson Whitehead and his re-imagining of the Underground Railroad, to learn from naturalists like Terry Tempest Williams, primatologists like Frans de Waal. Hundreds of literary luminaries — Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, W. G. Sebald, Margaret Atwood, Adam Zagajewski, Ursula LeGuin — all presented their work on our stage over the years. At our last event, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter read from her grandfather’s just-published prison letters. One evening, during his sound check, Cornel West pulled me aside to say, “You know, don’t you, that this space is sanctified?” I did.

Now I was untethered from the satisfactions of my job and as well, from the scaffold of responsibilities that had, for so many years, structured the rhythms of my life. I was past the tearful stage, but I was still heart-torn, grieving. Luckily, I had been granted a writing residency that fall at an arts colony on a ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, and Susan — my soul sister-in-art — had been awarded a residency there as well. Perhaps some time away would open a way to re-focus, to pick up the thread of my own writing life.

As a way to jumpstart our adventure, Susan and I schemed a rendezvous, picking a town on the map that neither of us knew at all — Billings, Montana — simply because it had an airport and decent airfares from Los Angeles, for me, and from Portland, Oregon, for Susan.

Susan rented us a car and a two-bedroom Airbnb bungalow in Billings. We planned to cook simple meals together, drink good wine, catch up on stories about our lives, plan collaborative projects, and, at the end of the weekend, drive the 70 miles to the Crow Reservation to spend some daylight hours at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, then travel the final stretch to the Wyoming ranch and our official residency.

At the last moment, life tectonics shifted. A mutual friend — jazz musician David Ornette Cherry — suffered a medical emergency. He couldn’t breathe, barely managed to call 911 from his Portland studio before he suffered a cardiac arrest. David was “gone,” the paramedics said, for four whole minutes, and was now in an induced coma, on a ventilator in a Portland hospital, in the limbo of the ICU, where machines bleated heart rates and IV bags dripped nourishment into human veins, between life and death, this world, that world, with Susan by his bedside. He had no family nearby. He was going to need a lot of support to pull through.

I wholeheartedly supported Susan’s decision to stay behind, to forgo the residency if David didn’t recover soon. I realized as well that it was too last-minute and too costly to redirect my itinerary.

Which is why I woke up alone, in a strange bed in a strange house in Billings, Montana, where I dreaded spending the weekend alone.

MORE. READ ENTIRE PIECE, as published in Los Angeles Review of Books, May 21, 2019

Resister in Sanctuary: We Won’t Go

Posted in FRIENDS, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Los Angeles, Peace and social justice, social justice with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2018 by Louise Steinman

Maizlish_Sign

Joe Maizlish at Induction Refusal, 1968 Black and white photograph/L.A. Resistance Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In one glass case, what first draws my eye is a REMEMBER JOE MAIZLISH bumper sticker identical to the one I affixed to the bumper of my dad’s Ford Mustang in 1968. Yes, I do remember Joe Maizlish. Decades ago, I wrote to him in while he was in federal prison, where he served two and a half years of a three- sentence for refusing induction to the draft. Joe, now a psychologist and mediator, in present-day, is my neighbor in Silverlake.

The item, along with posters in fonts of various degrees of psychedelia, is on exhibit at WE WON’T GO: The L.A. Resistance, Vietnam and the Draft (at the Central Library’s Getty Gallery until August 19). Curated by Winter Karen Dellenbach, an L.A. Resister, together with Ani Boyadjian, Research & Special Collections Manager for the Los Angeles Public Library, this inspiring display of civil disobedience was drawn from the Los Angeles Resistance Archives, acquired by the library in 2014. The collection includes letters, posters still and moving images, diaries, mimeographed newsletters, draft cards and other ephemera donated by members of the L.A. Resistance and their supporters. Essentially, this is a chronicle of the non-violent anti-draft activities of the L.A. chapter of the Resistance, a nationwide movement.

I recognize a black and white photo of General Hershey Bar, with his signature plastic B-52’s worn as medals. The real General Hershey, a Nixon advisor, was head of the Selective Service, and General Hershey Bar was a familiar sight at anti-war rallies in the ’60s. “Fixin-to-Die Rag” (Country Joe and the Fish) cues in my head:

Well, come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books and pick up a gun
We’re going to have a whole lot of fun”

MORE on Los Angeles Review of Books

 

“Happiness is Bullshit” Celebration of the Life of Judge Harry Pregerson

Posted in civil rights, homelessness, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Los Angeles, Pacific War, social justice with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2017 by Louise Steinman

Judge Harry Pregerson, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

I never got a chance to meet the legendary Judge Harry Pregerson, who served over fifty years on the Ninth Circuit federal court in California (stepping down at age 92) and died last month at age 94. When I got word of his Dec 1 memorial at the Shrine, I decided to make Harry’s posthumous acquaintance. I parked, passed through a security check, settled into one of the back rows of that vast hall, listened to the musical preamble of dirges performed on-stage by the Salvation Army brass band.

The seats were filled with people who loved Harry, were related to Harry, had worked with Harry, had been helped by Harry or mentored by Harry, or all of the above. Harry’s signature cowboy hat placed on the podium bore witness to their heartfelt stories over the next two hours, stories that created a vivid portrait of this tough, tenacious, cantankerous, loveable man.

Harry Pregerson, son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, raised in a free-thinking home in diverse Boyle Heights. At 21, a Marine lieutenant on Okinawa, he sustained serious wounds in both thighs. He was rescued from the battlefield by two Marines, surnamed Martinez, Mexican-American cousins, compadres from Boyle Heights. “Leave no one behind,”—the Marine code of honor became Harry’s life-long mantra. Just a week before he died, he told his wife, “…the hardest thing is that I don’t have strength anymore to help people.”

Judge Harry had been the sentencing judge in several trials of draft resisters during the Vietnam era. One activist, Bob Zaugh explained to me how Judge Pegerson was known for visiting ALL the people he sent to prison and when… “on a visit at Lompoc to visit a bank robber, he inquired who else was on the manifest. The judge learned that one of the resisters he’d sentenced—Michael Schwartz– was in solitary confinement for non-compliance. Schwartz had also been on a hunger strike. Judge Pregerson was so disturbed to learn that resisters were being sent to this type of prison. When he got back to Los Angeles, he drafted papers to change the sentences to time served.” After that visit, he decided he could no longer send resisters to prison.

When asked once what guided his decisions, Judge Pregerson explained: “My conscience is a product of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath and the Marine Corps Hymn. If I had to follow my conscience or the law, I would follow my conscience.”

Another judge, a former Marine, stepped up to the podium and described Harry Pregerson as “a man with no guile. Either you were a guy you hit the beach with, or just no damn good.”  A former law clerk, now a judge, described how Harry frequently hired women as his clerks—unusual at the time—and, if one of them became pregnant, Harry would say: “That’s fine; we’ll just put a crib in the chambers.” City Attorney Michael Feuer described him as “…a force of nature. He was on a mission. No one could say no to Harry Pregerson. ‘Ok ok maybe the Supreme Court, once in awhile.’”

Harry’s moxie could move mountains, jump-start homeless shelters. During a particularly cold winter in LA in the mid-eighties, with people sleeping on the streets, Harry sent his law clerks to research a little used federal statute which he then used to commandeer an empty federal warehouse in Bell (built to house supplies for troops of the Pacific Theater in WWII) as a temporary shelter for the homeless.

The Bell Shelter, administered by the Salvation Army, is now one of the largest homeless shelters in the nation, providing over 1500 meals a day, to 500 former Skid Row residents, and offering job training as well. As Lt. Col Doug Riley of the Salvation Army testified at the memorial: “Harry made it happen.”

Pregerson established numerous other homeless shelters, including the Salvation Army’s Haven Program on the V.A. West Los Angeles campus which offers services for veterans with PTSD, job and addiction counseling. “Lemme tell you,” Harry remarked on one of his frequent visits there, “the finest people in the world live in these shelters.” The list of good works is astonishing: among them, the modernization of the Hyperion Treatment Plant, which revitalized marine life in the Santa Monica Bay; creating affordable housing and child care programs for those displaced by the 105 Century Freeway.

When Harry called, people answered, even in the middle of the night. When you shook Harry’s hand, his grandson Bradley recounted, it meant you were being swept up into the good fight, “joining Grandpa’s army, brought in with a Kung-Fu grip.” No one was ever a stranger to Harry, his daughter Katy told us because, “you never knew who a stranger could be… someone to help… or someone who could be a resource.”  He also once told her, “Happiness is bullshit.” Real satisfaction came from service to others.

At the end of the almost two hour memorial, a lone bugler from the Salvation Army Band stood stage right and played TAPS. The notes were sweet and clear. I let the cleansing tears run freely for the sheer goodness of the man. I came alone, but I didn’t feel like a stranger. I will store the stories I heard about Harry Pregerson on the solar grid of my psyche for those dark hours ahead when the discouraging news– the meanness of those in positions of power– drain me of hope and energy.

Mayor Garcetti told the crowd that Harry Pregerson was “the greatest angel the City of Angels has ever known.” On this Hanukah night when we celebrate miracles, I raise a toast to the miracle of Harry Pregerson’s life and work. Of blessed memory.

(thanks for photo: Jason Doiy)

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