Sunday, September 30, 2007

Going Against History

One of the classes I visited at Parents' Night this week was AP American History, taught by family friend Nancy Larkin. She told us that her class was going to debate the Articles of the Constitution the following day. My daughter Jules loves history, and she really gets into these situations where history is dramatized, so I was curious, the following afternoon, to hear how it went. Here is a report, in her own words.

Everybody was lining up on the “FOR” side of the room, and all of a sudden I yelled “I AM OPPOSED!” And I ran across the room to the other side. People know I’m a good debator, so five kids followed me. When we got over there, they all said “Jules, what are we doing?!”

I asked Mrs. Larkin, since we were on the tough side, if she could find out who was doing the opening argument for the other team. So she casually went over, asked them, came back and told us it was Jack. I said “Michelle, do you still want to do our opening?” She said “No, if it’s Jack, you’d better open, Jules.” So I did. I raised my voice big and strong and dramatic, and did the opening argument. We had plenty of facts to support our position.

We went against history and we tied the debate, 5-5!

Mrs. Larkin
(who married into a family of powerful NYS legislators) said, “Jules, you’re going to be a politician.”

It's no wonder I occasionally get a little discouraged with the teenage battles that go on in our house. I'm living with a naturally contrarian personality who never saw a debate she didn't believe she could win.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Columbia Controversy: Call for Humility

My friend Daoud Kuttab (Executive Producer of Hikayat Simsim, the Palestinian "Sesame Street" production) is a guest professor in residence at Princeton this year. His perspective on the controversy surrounding the appearance of the Iranian President at Columbia University caught my attention because of my experience as an American visiting the Middle East last year. The Arab culture is unfailingly courteous, and I enjoyed repectful courtesy and hospitality throughout my visit, despite the fact that Americans are not exactly favorites these days. Daoud's perspective on the fiasco at Columbia likely reflects the way this incident was perceived throughout the Middle East.

We have to do better than this kind of shallow posturing if we want to reclaim the high road as champions of human rights and dignity.


By Daoud Kuttab
Guest Columnist, Daily Princetonian
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The controversy surrounding an academic invitation to the Iranian president reflects one of the more serious problems that is
negatively affecting the image of the United States around the world.

It was clear that Columbia president Bollinger and his staff wanted to boast that their university respects freedom of expression by inviting a controversial head of state. But when this academic exercise was challenged (mostly by radical pro-Israeli elements), he was forced to tweak this right in order to satisfy his critics and more importantly, the university donors. The way in which this problem was handled (nasty irreverent and unprovoked attack at a guest you invited) made the Ivy League university lose any credit it could have gained by what was otherwise a courageous decision.

The funny thing is that it didn't have to be like this. Columbia didn't have to invite Ahmadinajad even if he expressed interest in speaking at a U.S. school of higher learning within the 25-mile radius of the United Nations. But once the invitation was made, Bollinger should have had the decency to deal with this guest as they would any other guest. There is no evidence that Iran's human rights record has worsened in between the invitation and the speech. If anything, a few academics were released a few days earlier.

It is easy to be for freedom of expression when it is convenient and when everyone agrees with you. The problem is when one simply wants to have it both ways: wanting the appearance of defending freedoms yet intervening the moment it starts to hit your pocket. Serious students of U.S. foreign policy regularly feel this American schizophrenia. Take the case of Iraq and Palestine. The United States went to Iraq to free its people from a tyrant dictator only to find itself stuck in the middle of a civil war. Instead of letting the people of Iraq decide their fate, America decided to stay in order to protect its longterm interests in the region.

Instead of practicing the Wilsonian doctrine that guarantees the rights of peoples to determine their future, America approaches the issue very selectively. For example, the Kurdish people's right to determine their future is sacrificed to please America's powerful Turkish NATO member and ally.

The Palestinians' decades-long quest for freedom and independence is pushed aside because of domestic pressures from the pro-Israel and Christian right lobbies. Other examples abound. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush has taken taken rightly up the case of the people of Myanmar, but Taiwan is not memtioned because of America's interest in China.

It is natural for countries to defend their interests. It is also fair for a university president to try and respond to the desires of
his donors. But such posturing lacks the "intellectual courage" ( Bollinger's words) to pretend you are doing it in the name of
people's freedom (as in the case of Bush) or freedom of expression (as in the case of Bollinger.)

200 years ago, Voltarie said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Last century, the American Civil Liberties Union defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to demonstrate in the predominantly Jewish city of Skokie, Illinois. The Executive Director of the ACLU was Aryeh Neier who is Jewish and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Neier is today the president of the Open Society Institute, George Soros's foundation which supports freedoms around the world. One of the people working for the society is Dr. Kian Ajbakhsh, an Iranian American social scientist and urban planner, who a few days earlier was released from an Iranian jail but has not been allowed to leave Iran. Bollinger
announced that Ajbakhsh has been invited to teach at Columbia next year and called for his freedom of movement. It is unlikely that such a call will have much effect following the unwarranted, humiliating and disrespectful statement Bollinger made. Clearly, the university president was more interested in pleasing his university funders than in securing the professor's exit visa.

It is difficult to expect genuine fighters of freedom such as Neier and Kian in today's political and academic world. If living up
to such ideals is difficult, a little humility would serve all of us well. It would be more honest for the presidents of countries and universities to be truthful about the challenges of balancing interests and values rather than attempting to paint themselves as the heroes of freedom — which they are not.

Daoud Kuttab is a Ferris Professor of Journalism and an award-winning Palestinian columnist. He can be reached at

The Ugly Side of the G.O.P. by Bob Herbert

This powerful Op Ed piece by Bob Herbert was in yesterday's New York Times. Herbert - New York Times

It makes me think of the opening of Michael Moore's flawed but fascinating documentary Fahrenheit 911. I sat and wept as I watched his montage of one after another African-American member of the House stood to try to convince the Senate not to ratify Bush's 2000 election, because Black voters in Florida had been denied their right to have their vote counted. No one was willing to take a stand. As a child of the 60s, when blood was shed to gain African Americans' right to vote, it broke my heart to watch it.

Herbert points out in this powerful piece that it is not only not getting better, it's getting worse. How do people of conscience vote for members of this party? It's beyond me.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Barack Obama's Fascinating Electronic Campaign

Barack Obama is pursuing an interesting campaign fund-raising strategy this week. Between now and Sept. 30, they are recruiting new donations, which will then be matched by an Obama supporter. You have the opportunity (optional, of course) to be in email correspondence with the person you are matched with. | Contribution Matching

I did both this week - I donated, and was matched by a man in Ohio. The site gave me the opportunity to sign up to match someone else, so I matched B. Todd Jones, in St. Paul, Minnesota, sending him this message. Hi. I first got excited about Barack Obama when I read his book "Dreams from my Father." I was inspired by the young man who wrestled with his lack of a father figure, and pursued his destiny as a community organizer despite many setbacks that challenged his youthful idealism. I believe our country needs a real leader - someone who, like FDR or JFK, is not afraid to tell us what we really need to know, and challenge us to do what we need to do to pull ourselves out of our national malaise. I believe Obama is the only candidate in the field who has this ability. Thank you for supporting him - I am happy to match your donation.

I got an email back inviting me to be "B. Todd's Friend" - there is a full-fledged social network on

They've also been very savvy re mobile communication. He registered the text address is 62262 (OBAMA), and you can sign up not only to receive text when there is Obama news on specific issues, you can also download ringtones with his voice/speeches.

Whether all this will pay off is a question - this kind of approach appeals to younger voters, who are notoriously difficult to get to the polls. No matter what, it is fascinating to watch a Web 2.0 campaign gathering steam.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fracaswell Hyman directs brilliant "To Kill a Mockingbird"

My friend Cas Hyman is working in the theater again - and are we lucky to have him back in that genre! Cas directed a stage adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," which opened this past Wednesday night at the Intiman Theater in Seattle (Intiman wins Tony as best regional theater). I traveled to Seattle mid-week, arriving in time to catch a preview performance as well as opening night, before hopping on a red eye and heading back to NY.

I have worked with Cas on and off for many years in children's television, and one of his great strengths has always been casting and working with child actors. That talent was critical in this production, since the story is told from the point of view of 8-year-old Scout, along with her brother Jem and friend Dill. Young Kealon Whittaker shone in the role of Scout - she convincingly portrayed the cocky tomboy to frequent laughter from the audience, and was heartbreakingly bewildered as she tried to understand what was happening when the lynch mob threatened Atticus as he sat guard outside the jailhouse where the accused rapist, the Negro Tom Robinson, was being held.

Cas and scenic designer Alec Hammond went way out on a limb with the set, which was a heightened, symbolic representation of small town Maycomb, Alabama, dominated by a blood red tree and red kitchen chairs, of all shapes and sizes, suspended from the ceiling by nooses. The dangling, "lynched" chairs overhead served to pull the audience straight into the drama, which we were to be anyway, as the lawyers argued their cases to us, the jury.

I was particularly moved by the musical choices he made for the play. Hyman opened up the script to include the hymn "Blessed Assurance." We first hear it when Calpurnia (in a warm and nuanced portrayal by Josephine Howell) sings it under her breath as she folds laundry on the front porch. Rev. Sykes (William Hall Jr.) arrives to ask for extra donations to help Tom Robinson's family, and he joins in. Then the white neighbor, Maudie Atkinson (Patti Cohenour, known to Broadway theatergoers in the role of Signora Naccarelli from The Light in the Piazza), joins in from her nearby porch. Both women are powerful singers, and the moment is transcent - until they are angrily shushed by Mrs. Dubose for making so much confounded noise! Later in the play Calpurnia reprises a halting, poignant version of the song, her arms sheltering the children, when they hear the terrible news that Tom Robinson has been killed.

I asked Cas how he had chosen this piece of music, and he said that he'd been listening to his iPod on "shuffle," and Blessed Assurance came on, sung by Gladys Knight. "I listened to the words," he said, "and I knew that I had to use this song." He went on to say that he believed that the promise in these words would have enabled Calpurnia and other Negroes in Maycomb to endure the daily injustices and cruelty of life in the Alabama in the 1930s.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God.
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angles descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest;
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

In addition, Cas asked composer and harmonica virtuoso Grant Dermody to write an understated "Scout's theme" and other incidental music for the production. Sean Phillips, the actor who played Tom Robinson, also appeared as an anonymous harmonica player, who casually played from various spots (up in the tree, leaning on a fence) at critical moments in the story. Talking to Dermody later, I was stunned to learn that he taught Phillips how to play harmonica for this production! To hear his haunting, soulful playing, one never could have guessed that he's only been playing for a few weeks.

A word here about the Intiman Theater and its relationship to the greater Seattle community. I was invited to the opening night, pre-theater dinner, where I was seated next to actor Tom Skerritt ("A River Runs Through It"), a longtime Seattle resident and charming, if somewhat ascerbic, dinner companion! Of course, all the theater's patrons and sponsors were being feted. But also present were the members of the "Community Committee," a number of whom spoke to the assembled group. The Intiman is particularly proactive, with each of their plays, in trying to discern the core message of the work, and then reaching out to try to bring that message (along with the production) to numerous schools and other community groups. In the case of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus' admonition to Scout and Jem that they need to "walk in the other person's shoes" before criticizing them is a powerful community rallying message. The passion and diversity of the committee members was moving and inspiring. I filled out my card and became an Intiman supporter right at the table.

Cas has many friends in the television industry in both NY and LA. Most of them will probably not see this production, but they would not be surprised at its excellence. I hope he is able to work in the theater again and often.


One of my most enjoyable creative experiences in recent years was traveling twice to Australia to oversee production of the pilot and then the early episodes of The Upside Down Show. This extraordinary show teaches creativity via imaginary play (with powerful literacy, vocabulary, and mathematical concepts thrown in along the way) for preschoolers. Actually, describing the audience as "preschoolers" sells it far short. Creators and performers David Collins and Shane Dundas are so uniquely talented that these episodes tickle older brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents as well! And the awards reflect this success. The Upside Down Show has won an Emmy Award, a Parents' Choice Award, and Australia's Logie (the equivalent of the Emmy) for "Best Children's Program."

Sadly, although at its debut it was instantly one of Noggin's top-rated shows, this brilliant program is caught in the politics and economics of the increasing consolidation of the children's media industry. Nickelodeon/Noggin do not own the show outright, as it is partially financed and owned by the company that created it, Sesame Workshop. My hunch is that Nick is simply not willing to put their powerful promotional machine behind making a hit out of a property that they do not own outright. Sesame Workshop, on the other hand, is too uncomfortable with any kind of conflict to take the kind of aggressive approach that I believe it should to reclaim those rights and find another way to finance and continue to produce the show. And so, this exceptional piece of educational programming (in my opinion as radical and ground-breaking as Sesame Street was back when it was created back in 1968) will disappear with just the barest hint of a whimper.

The Upside Down show airs on Noggin daiily at 7:30 am and 3pm ET/PT. Since the folks at Nickelodeon show no sign of getting it out on DVD, I'd strongly advise that you tape it and keep it for posterity (as well as any occasion when you might want to entertain and stimulate the imaginations of young children).

I recently stumbled across this long chain of parents talking about the show and how it has benefitted their children. In particular, check out the July 8 entry re child with Asperger's Syndrome. Although the show is not going to have the longevity it so richly deserves, at least, reading these words, I know that we accomplished what we set out to do.
UpsideDownShow Parent Chat Boards

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Iraq Through China's Lens: Thomas Friedman

This is a very insightful piece. And, I think when even Tom Friedman has conceded that we can't win in Iraq, it's time to throw in the towel.

Read this column. Iraq Through China's Lens - New York Times

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Love This Global Village: : Messaggio da YouTube

I opened my email and was intrigued to find a message from You Tube, written in Italian (although, as we decided years ago with "MTV," "You Tube" is iconic and stays in English, regardless of the language).

Subject: Messaggio da YouTube: women in art elektro
Date: September 11, 2007 11:39:41 AM EDT

Riogoldriver ti ha inviato un messaggio

Fai clic qui per passare direttamente al messaggio, oppure controlla la tua Posta in arrivo su YouTube per visualizzare tutti i tuoi messaggi.

Arrivederci su YouTube!

— Il team di YouTube

So, I clicked on the link ('clic qui per passare') and found this message from a user that I had queried the day before (in English) about the source of the music on his video.

Messaggi inviati: 11 settembre 2007
Oggetto: women in art elektro
hi liz
the music is "Narita made" by tujiko noriko
thanks for your comment and if you can help me to diffuse that video I really appreciate it

I am happy to direct you to Rio's video, search "Women in Art Elektro." But before you go there, his video is a response to one called simply "Women in Art." It is stunningly animated - my only quibble is that a visitor from Mars would think that only white women have ever been seen as beautiful enough to feature in art.

After you've enjoyed "Women in Art," check out Rio's response, "Women in Art Elektro." He needs to spend more time on the visuals, but the music mix and overall mood are quite captivating.

I really love the way the internet connects us with kindred souls everywhere. What a wonderful world we're living in!

My Little Town

People in the city often ask me "Where do you live, again?" Not too many people have heard of tiny Cornwall-on-Hudson, but we're featured today in this New York Times article. I guess is is a small town - I know nearly everyone quoted in the article!

Worried Town Recalls a Young Petraeus - New York Times

Monday, September 10, 2007

As Gen. Patraeus Testifies, Join the SURGE of PRAYERS

Jim Wallis, on his "God's Politics" blog, is organizing a surge of prayers directed to members of Congress. See his rationale (and join in if you wish) at: God's Politics - Jim Wallis blog

My prayer?

Almighty God, we beseech you to kindle in every heart the true love of peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquility your dominion may increase till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love.

Lord, guide those who serve in Congress in the ways of your justice and peace, grant them wisdom and courage as they make their decisions and take action so that the death and suffering in Iraq might come to an end.

9/11 - Where Are We Now?

I've decided to mark this sixth anniversary by going back just three years, to the day I met a New York City cop-turned-flight attendant named Patrick Marcune. His perspective on 9/11 is personal, powerful and painful. Here, in his own words, is his story.

"The aircraft door is closing. Please be sure that all cell phones are turned off, and any electronic equipment should also be turned off at this time. My name is Patrick and I just retired after 22 years as a New York City police officer. I’m having a ball with Continental – thanks for flying with us."

I see heads pop up all the way down the aisle when I say it. People are talking, reading their magazines, not really listening because it’s the same old routine. And then their heads pop up and they clap. I walk back because I have to do my inspection, make sure everybody’s seat belt is on, and everybody offers a handshake and congratulations.

After 9-11, and after I’d gotten my friends out of the rubble that was down there, I retired and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went to visit a friend down in Florida and on my return trip I was speaking to a flight attendant. I asked her “How do you like the job?” She said, “It’s a wonderful job. You get to see the country, it’s exciting, you get to meet a lot of people.” And those are things that I like. So, when I got home I went online, put in an application, and they called me a few days later. That’s how it started.

The pilots like the idea that I’m on the plane….it makes them feel more at ease. I watch who comes on the plane. The pilot comes out and wants to use the lavatory, I go right in the middle of the aisle, making sure everyone is sitting down, no one is going to threaten the pilot while he’s walking around the cabin. That’s a natural instinct. So far, I haven’t had a problem. But I watch.

The first month I became a flight attendant I had an emergency landing. Some flight attendants don’t go through that in their whole career. It happened to me in one month. I was sitting in the jump seat, we just took off from Newark. As we were going up, the chimes started – the signal that tells me that there’s a serious emergency. I’m thinking “Oh, no. I just became a flight attendant…one month.” (laughing) “I can’t go now. I don’t want to go now.”

So, I pick up the phone and say “Cap, what’s up?” He says “it’s showing that we have a fire in the cargo. Go back there, check it out.” People hear the chimes going off, they see me jump out of my seat and run to the back of the plane. They’re looking at me, scared. This lady starts crying – she has three young children with her and she says “We’re going to die… Mister….are we going to be okay?”

It felt like I had my firearm out as a cop and somebody was looking to shoot me. You get the adrenaline flowing and your heart is pumping and you just have to calm yourself down. It was the same feeling I had. But, you learn how to say “All right. This is the problem. Let’s see how we’re going to fix it.” That’s what the police department trained me for. I brought it right into the airline. And it works.

I get those four chimes, I was nervous. I thought about my family, too…what’s going to happen here? But I had no time to think about that. I had to worry about making sure those people were safe, and that I’d do the proper procedures if we have to make an emergency landing. The whole point of that job is safety and to protect everyone’s life. God forbid.

I got to the back, and didn’t smell any smoke. I went up and tried to calm that lady down. “Everything’s going to be ok, it’s probably just a malfunction – there’s no smoke.” I held her hand and said, “Don’t worry. I’m a New York City police officer, the pilot’s got 35 years of flying experience, everything’s going to be fine.” Turned out the problem was somebody had a can of hairspray in the cargo. And the smoke detectors don’t just pick up smoke – they pick up any particles in the air. That’s what it was – just a can of hairspray.


I was off on 9-11. The precinct called, they wanted everybody in. I saw what happened on TV – I was already getting dressed. I got into the precinct and they shipped us down to the World Trade Center. I remember walking down Washington Street, and the only thing I was finding was body parts – four blocks away. I found out later on that two close friends of mine were in there and they got killed.

I ended up working there for six months. We were called the Bucket Brigade. Any time the front-end loaders were digging, we were standing right there watching the debris being picked up. If we saw anything we would stop the bulldozer from working, and then we would dig by hand to get the people out.

Then I was transferred to the Staten Island Landfill. We sifted through the debris with our hands, looking for body parts and pieces of the aircraft ⎯ any evidence we could find. We worked up there for about a month, and then Flight 580 crashed in Rockaway. And all of us from the World Trade, the guys are there. That was just as horrible cause there was about five children on that plane. Women and children.

I saw a firefighter pick up a lady with a shovel (long pause). I said “Don’t do that. Don’t pick her up with a shovel.” I mean, if that was my Mom, or somebody else’s mom, you don’t want to pick her up with a shovel. So, I picked her up with my hands, and I put her in the bag. That’s uh…you know, you think those things don’t bother you, and I always thought I was okay.

Then I got very sick after that. I was stressed out. You never know. I thought I was fine. But, it stays up in that brain of yours. You don’t realize how it affects you. I mean, so much stuff you see. God. Two good friends. One was a firefighter. One was a police officer. That’s when I said, “I think I’ve been around too long.”

And I retired, one year after.


The guys tease me about being a flight attendant. By the same token, they realize that it’s such a great job. I have my pension and now I can go anywhere I want, like I have my own private plane. They tease me about it, but then they say, “You know what? It’s a great idea. It’s a perfect job for you.”

I always liked to fly as a kid, and I always was infatuated with the planes and travel. But I never had dreams of being anything but a New York City police officer. I went to John Jay College of Criminal Justice and my Master’s degree was in Public Administration, so I devoted my whole life to public service.

I loved being a cop. (long pause) You know….I wanted to stay. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life, to retire. I miss all my friends. When you have a partner, you’re like brothers. You spend most of your life together.

I made the leap. I miss it something terrible. People tell me it gets easier. You get to adjust.

Yeah. At least nobody’s shooting at me any more.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle as Poet

I honestly don't think that L'Engle was as powerful a writer of poetry as she was of prose.

Yet, I read her poems, because in her poetry she gamely wrestled with God, in all the joy and pain that comes with trying to be a person of faith.

Late tonight I pulled down yet another book, THE WEATHER OF THE HEART, a book of L'Engle's poems published in 1978. This one is a beauty, and particularly appropriate at the moment of her death. It is titled LOVE LETTER.

I hate you, God.
Love, Madeleine.

    I write my message on water
    and at bedtime I tiptoe upstairs
    and let it flow under your door.

When I am angry with you
I know that you are there
even if you do not answer my knock
even when your butler opens the door an inch
and flaps his thousand wings in annoyance
at such untoward interruption
and says that the master is not at home.

    I love you, Madeleine.
    Hate, God.

(This is how I treat my friends, he said to one great saint.
No wonder you have so few of them, Lord, she replied.)

    I cannot turn the other cheek
    It takes all the strength I have
    To keep my fist from hitting back
    the soldiers shot the baby
    the little boys trample the old woman
    the gutters are filled with groans
    while pleasure seekers knock each other down
    in order to get their tickets stamped first.

I'm turning in my ticket
and my letter of introduction.
You're supposed to do the knocking. Why do you burst
my heart?

    How can I write you
    to tell you that I'm angry
    when I've been given the wrong address
    and I don't even know your real name?

I take hammer and nails
and tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood:

    Dear God
    is it too much to ask you
    to bother to be?
    Just show your hindquarters
    and let me hear you roar.


Madeleine L'Engle on Writing for Children

There is nothing that annoys me more than how little respect people have for children's media. I will meet someone at a cocktail party, and when they ask me what I do, and I reply, "I'm a television producer." That always elicits a bright, engaged reaction, "REALLY? What do you produce?"

When I say I make television for kids and teens, the response is a dull "Oh." End of conversation. As if great story-making for kids is any easier than it is for adults, especially because the budgets are exponentially smaller! I am proud of my craft and resent the assumption that because I try to change the world for kids with meaningful media, I'm somehow not "in the game."

The brilliant writer Madeleine L'Engle wrote books for both audiences. Her adult books, both prose and poetry, explore issues of faith and spirituality. I have been thinking about her work all day, and tonight I pulled one of her books, WALKING ON WATER: REFLECTIONS ON FAITH AND ART, from the shelf. It has a wonderful passage about this topic.

One summer I taught a class in Techniques of Fiction at a midwestern university. About half way through the course, one of the students came up to me after class and said, "I do hope you're going to teach us something about writing for children. That's really why I'm taking this course."
"What have I been teaching you?"
"Well - writing."
"Don't you write when you write for children?"
"Well - but isn't it different?"

No, it is not different. The techniques of fiction are the techniques of fiction. They hold as true for Beatrix Potter as they do for Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Characterization, style, and theme are as important in a children's book as in a novel for grown-ups. Taste, as always, will differ (spinach vs. beets). A child is not likely to identify with the characters in Faulkner's "Sanctuary." Books like "A Wrinkle in Time" may seem to difficult to some parents. But if a book is not good enough for a grown-up, it is not good enough for a child.

Farewell, Meg Murry

It is 6am, and I write this with tears streaming down my cheeks as I've learned of the death of the brilliant writer Madelaine L'Engle, author of my favorite book, "A Wrinkle in Time." It will not have escaped discerning readers that this blog, Tesseractive Pictures, derives its name from that book and the tesseract that allows Meg and her baby brother Charles Wallace to time travel as they try to save their father. I remember myself as a child, arguing vehemently with my own father, an eminently practical engineer who had no use for science fiction or fantasy. I insisted that the idea of time as the fourth dimension, accessed by "wrinkling" time, was certainly true. It had to be. The way L'Engle wrote about it in the book was so logical and compelling, I was certain that it could be proven to be true (as indeed it still may be). And besides, Mrs. Whatsit said so.

The last time I cried over Madeleine L'Engle was eight years ago, when I was reading "A Wrinkle in Time" aloud to my daughter Jules, then a second grader. We got to the part at the end when Meg is steeling herself to take on the all-powerful IT, who has captured the brain of her beloved little brother, Charles Wallace. Meg knows she has to go, but is terribly afraid, as she cannot imagine how she can overcome his power. She is a crusty underachiever who is struggling with self-esteem issues - hardly the person who is likely to be a hero, and she knows it. The stubbornness that often infuriates the people who know Meg is an asset at this moment - she simply refuses to give up.

As I was reading, I started to cry. My daughter looked at me curiously. "Mommy, why are you crying so hard?" she asked.
"I am crying because I am being Meg, and she is very afraid," I replied, and kept on reading aloud and crying.

Meg gets closer and closer to the moment of truth, still not able to think of anything that she could possibly have that would defeat IT. "WAIT! I know...I KNOW!" Jules said excitedly. "It's LOVE." Which of course, made me break down in sobs.

The climax of the final Harry Potter book turns on this same realization, as Harry defeats Voldmort through the power of love. J.K. Rowling has been widely praised for creating a mythology based on a rich and nuanced presentation of the battle between good and evil, even touching occasionally on theology. I like this very much about her writing. But, Madeleine L'Engle did it first, and she did it better.

I once attended a reading by L'Engle, in the old Brentanos Bookstore, on Fifth Avenue. I perched on the edge of a bookcase in the children's section, behind the kids sprawled all over the floor, listening to her read from her latest story. When she finished reading she talked to the children about the process of writing, and described an incident that is quoted in today's NY Times obituary. She was in the habit of reading aloud to her son whatever she had written while he was at school each day. On this particular day, she was reading the chapter from "The Arm of the Starfish" in which the character Joshua dies. Her son started to cry, and insisted that she needed to go back and re-write it so that Joshua wouldn't die. She told him that she couldn't - "that was simply what had happened, and there was nothing I could do to change it."

L'Engle's writing had a searing, enduring impact on my way of thinking about myself, first as a young girl who was often as complicated and prickly as Meg, then as a woman and mother (Meg's mother, a beautiful scientist absent-mindedly cooking dinner on a bunson burner, has long been my idealized role model!). She also inspired me to continue to be a dreamer, a woman of faith, and to eventually become a writer. As I learn of her death, I thank her, once again, for these gifts.
Madeleine L'Engle - New York Times Obit

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Thinking about Civic Ministry

I write a monthly column for my church newsletter. Occasionally, I like to share a topic that seems suitable for general consumption.

By Liz Nealon

This month we would like to consider two promises in our parish Vision Statement as they each relate to our obligation to reach outward to the community around us.

We are a center of civic ministry. We need to be a beacon, open in ever expanding ways to our community.


We are a place of compassion, a congregation whose mission is deeply rooted in concern, care and action to the needs of others.

Each of us has something to offer to others. We can give our money and our time to charity, be a friend to someone who is sick or lonely, do volunteer work, or be a peacemaker, teacher or lay minister. We may give unselfishly of our time to our spouse, children or parents. We might choose a service-oriented occupation, or we may just do our everyday jobs with integrity and respect for others. At St. John’s, our civic ministry includes our support of feeding programs like the Good Shepherd Soup Kitchen, our willingness to allow community groups involved in self-help to use our facilities, and our openness and willingness to support one-time and recurring civic concerns such as the Communities That Care program.

Logic dictates that the more we give to others the less we have, but in fact, the opposite is true. Service to others and spiritual leadership in our community bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives in a way that wealth, power, possessions and self-focused pursuits cannot.

The idea that St. John’s should be a place of civic ministry, a beacon of God’s love and compassion in our mid-Hudson community, made me think about the book GOD'S POLITICS: WHY THE RIGHT GETS IT WRONG AND THE LEFT DOESN'T GET IT (HarperCollins, 2005), written by Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners magazine, God's Politics Blog, and a public theologian, preacher, speaker, activist, and international commentator on ethics and public life.

Wallis objects to the idea that any political institution, Conservative or Liberal, Right or Left, can claim to have a monopoly on representing God and His wishes. Instead, he evokes Jesus’ continual reminders, throughout the Bible, of our obligation to serve the Poor. In his book Wallis writes: I am always amazed at the debate about poverty, with one side citing the need for changes in personal behaviors and the other for better social programs, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Obviously, both personal and social responsibility are necessary for overcoming poverty. When this absurd bifurcation is offered by ideological partisans on either side, I am quickly convinced that both sides must never have lived or worked anywhere near poverty or poor people. That there are behaviors that further entrench and even cause poverty is indisputable, as is the undeniable power of systems and structures to institutionalize injustice and oppression. Together, personal and social responsibility creates the common good. Because we know these realities as religious facts, taught to us by our sacred Scriptures, religious communities can teach them to those still searching more for blame than solutions to pressing social problems.

Wallis goes on to say that: Recovering the faith of the biblical prophets and Jesus is not just about politics; it also shapes the way we live our personal and communal lives. How do we live a faith whose social manifestation is compassion and whose public expression is justice? And how do we raise our children by those values? That may be the most important battle of spiritual formation in our times… Our religious congregations are not meant to be social organizations that merely reflect the wider culture’s values, but dynamic countercultural communities whose purpose is to reshape both lives and societies.

We all know this from Jesus’ words in Matthew Chapter 25 – “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Or as James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, put it, “Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!”