Monday, March 21, 2022

Mid-Century Memoir- "What happened in 1969, when young people tried to remake the world?" Answer PART 2: Activism


 

ACTIVISM Part 2

This is a personal essay through the imperfect filter of memory. I began this series, when a friend asked what the year was like,  how was activism organized. Here's the second part of my answer.

It was late August 1969, when I arrived at Syracuse University, then a hard-partying campus. I remember rescuing a naive roomate through a window, after she unknowingly drank quaaludes at a raging frat party. But the war was to intrude on such campus fun and games.

That fall we freshman went about our business often oblivious to teach-ins on campus. They were also held in public schools sponsored by local business. Unlike rallies, the purpose was educational. Speakers, usually teachers, gave slide shows explaining the history of Vietnam and the French involvement, current politics and rationales for U.S. involvement. Financial and human costs were updated. (Our body counts kept rising, despite the napalm, we made and dropped) At the end of a teach-in, there was a Q&A, but it was less for shared feelings than information. Hand-outs with reading lists were available. 

The lottery, instituted in December 1969, brought new urgency to the politics of war.  Network news was pro-war, as were audiences at first. But as time went on, doubts arose and many people wanted to make up their own minds. Teach-ins were in demand. Before the lottery, the war was inequitably fought by those not attending college. Some, motivated by patriotism, deferred college acceptance. Others of draft age, who were "not college material" (and lacked funds to find a doctor to certify flat feet) had little choice. 

Now everyone was eligible.  A low lottery number meant you had to serve and without connections, go to 'Nam.  If in college, service awaited your graduation. Any academic lapse or failure, a delay in graduation, meant induction.  Families prayed for high numbers. Draft cards were burnt (an illegal act) followed by disappearances. Canada became a haven for draft resistors.  Others disappeared into a nebulous "underground." Those who had eschewed college for a business, like our class' star auto mechanic, served, unless the business was designated "essential." I also met guys with low numbers, who took LSD to appear crazy or faked being gay. They were put through tough interrogations, though the worst was rumored for conscientious objectors. Toward the later days of the war, those close to legally blind passed physicals.   

In 1969, individual cities in the Northeast organized Marches, culminating in a large national one in Washington. My experience was grass roots in upstate New York. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War were active in the antiwar movement, as were clergy and student groups. Door-to-door organizing was taken on by students. Novices worked with more experienced activists. Teachers also participated, supported by their universities. 

That this occurred is still a wonder to me.  I remember shock, as the university voted to close down for antiwar work. At a huge meeting of schools and departments; deans, chairmen and faculty stood up, one by one, and stated that their areas had voted to close for the antiwar effort. Students were to receive current class standing for the year.  I had an A average after only a couple months and was free to stay in the dorms (pre-paid) and take part or go home. 

I think my parents didn't quite understand or believe I had an A average for the year, though there would be no classes. It was kind of unbelievable to me that I would have full college credit for a year of antiwar work.  They listened to me, as though I were speaking a foreign language. They never asked for details but encouraged my idea to transfer to another school. I did my antiwar work days and painted nights in the deserted basement of the art building.  

As I recall, upstate universities and colleges, Cornell, Binghamton, Ithaca, coordinated with Syracuse in this effort. We learned to role-play. understand maps of neighborhoods and work in small mixed groups of men and women. There were expectations and rules. No one was to approach a residence alone. And the group always waited. We had copies of the Declaration of Independence. Circled were lines declaring it was a citizen's duty to protest an unjust war. 

We knocked on doors, explained the purpose of the March in Syracuse (to end the war), the groups participating, local sponsors, and invited everyone to take part. If interested, we gave a map which showed where their block was to meet the March. We also talked about the later March on Washington, that this one was a first step. My group was part of the effort to organize local marches in individual cities. All would culminate in the big March in front of The White House. There had been previous marches in Washington, such as in 1967, but in 1969 the stakes were higher. 

I remember the slanted porch of a ramshackle wooden house painted slate blue. Set far back from the street, settled into a narrow diagonal shape, I couldn't imagine people lived there.  When I knocked on the door, a middle-aged woman in a neat but faded housedress opened. "What do you want?" she asked annoyed. I started talking about Vietnam and showed her the Declaration. "Get the hell off my porch," she shouted and slammed the door. I quickly jumped down from that porch. My group was in sight. "Wait," she said, reopening the door. "Come in a minute." 

She looked at my group. "I'll wait," said the team leader, "We will meet you at the next place," he said to the others. who left. He looked curtly at me, as I followed the woman inside a long low room. Smaller rooms were toward the back, where she said the "old man" slept.  Like the woman, the house was tidy but little looked new. She took me to the front windows overlooking the porch and two framed photos of young men.  I looked politely. "This is my brother and this my son. My husband died in Korea. But his father's here. We're an army family. We stay together." I smiled, figured mine was a lost cause. But when I reached the door, she had her hand out for our giveaway map. "They're all dead now," she said. "Except for the old man."

Then came the day of our March. All neighborhoods joined the March to City Hall, as were other neighborhoods in other cities. Each city had a statement with mention of the Washington March. There were military groups in uniform, including the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  Clergy of different denominations linked arms. I saw chamber of commerce and business people, teachers. The University had student and faculty groups.  "Bring our boys home!" banners were carried by families with loved ones overseas.  Among the stream of people, we had walkie-talkies, water, snacks, extra supplies for the first-aid groups. We also had marching orders; wheelchairs in the middle and sides, check old people and kids.

Among the wheelchairs in the center, I saw the woman in a fresher dress, pushing an old man wearing a military jacket. I was supposed to gather slips of paper from people in my neighborhood but I had lost track a while ago. Some came to the start point to march together. Others just showed up. Then we were together, walking. I remember the heavy thud of feet, an occasional hymn, antiwar song, a spiritual. This was a determined serious crowd, not a rowdy angry mob, yet I was claustrophobic.

Someone panicked in the crowd, stopped moving in my sector. I had to get through, make sure no one was trampled, offer an arm and water, get them to a side. With the walkie-talkies we got through to medics, who used megaphones to clear paths. These regular Americans weren't drunk or drug addled. Yet I remember seeing a stampede, quickly headed off by an organizer.  I am sure there were others.

After a final prayer by clergy, veteran and student groups thanked all who participated and local sponsors. The March ended with a rally in support of those fighting. There were fervent wishes for the war to finally end. Exhausted but feeling I had done something,  I signed out.  It was yet evening on the quiet campus. I slipped into my basement studio to forget the world in paint. 

As the war continued, in the face of growing opposition and infernal body counts, the Antiwar Movement expanded from student, clergy and veteran groups to outspoken politicians and coalitions of peace groups. There was a unified national strategy with both teach-ins and financial appeals to aid the anti-war effort. These culminated in the March on the Capital in November 1969. This was the largest antiwar protest in U.S. history with an estimated 500,000 people. In Syracuse, my activist group helped participants onto buses. We worked to make it safe, peaceful, orderly.  Did I board the bus? Not exactly.

Though I had wanted to escape before, peace and my job were foremost in my mind in the middle of the crowd. A quiet person, I have never liked crowded places. Yet I had prevented injury and done a job I believed in.  Was it time for me to leave The Moratorium March to others? Being a full-time activist was not a life I wanted.  It seemed trivial, but I wanted to complete my portfolio and try to transfer to an excellent art school with low tuition. (I had been rejected initially for a B/C average.) 

On May 4th 1970, students were shot in Kent State at a peace demonstration. Around the country, camped out in student unions, students watched the loop of the event over and over.  A sweet-looking girl put a flower in a guardsman's rifle. The sound of rifles. Unarmed students fell dead in a nonviolent protest.  After Kent State, there were mass rallies around the country, petitions to raise money for the defense of those in custody. "They Shoot Students Don't They" marathon dances were held (after They Shoot Horses Don't They, the Jane Fonda Depression era movie). Student leaders, working with faculty, coordinated efforts to find sponsors. My roommate, a young woman from a prominent St. Louis family,  danced nights on end raising the most money. She had incredible stamina and dedication, until her angry father arrived and dragged her to his car.  

Her family had little objection when the "Stumpies," a forest fraternity, chained her half-naked in a locked trunk and threw it into a fountain. Only by chance did campus police fish it out. When she sobered up, indignant that she "could have suffocated!", her feelings were smothered in parental pride that she had been selected. (The "prank was part of a competition to choose a mascot). That was all in “fun”. The movement to defend the Kent State students arrested and prosecute the officers (which had spread nationwide) was a "disgrace." 

I was accepted to transfer into Temple Univ.'s art school.  Ironically, my activist A's were considered a great achievement. (I believe they were unaware of the college shut-downs in New York State.) They also liked my 6-foot Payday Candy Bar painted with obsessive pop detail. Before dorms closed, I decided to visit an old boyfriend in Providence, who was part of a group with an incendiary approach to political change.  I was afraid of his maps. My cowardice was the practical kind learned in high school. Safety first, trouble can find you anyway. 

Fall 1970, I was so behind in my drawing skills, the instructor offered private crits until my work was up to class standard. The goal was to be able to draw whatever you could see. (If given an assignment of a 20-hour rendering, it was obvious if you only spent 10.)  Toward the end of the semester. I could put drawings in weekly "hangings” critiques. I also was able to process my activist work. For me, commitment to a political goal meant being useful, a cog in some wheel for the greater good. 

On network news, I had seen the thousands of people, young and old, Veterans, Jaycees, and Lion's Clubs; families, teachers, priests, ministers, rabbis.  Black and White people, marching as separate individuals or parts of groups. (Writing this, I wonder where were the Hispanics and Asians?  Did I not notice, or did they blend-into other groups?) All I know is that we were Americans together to end the war, as a peaceful community. An LBJ biography said that when he looked out his window at all the demonstrators, he knew it was time to go. Was that the March of 1969 or 1967?  My recollection was 1969, the rarely-aired Moratorium March. 

2022, "We the People" seemed to have lost touch with the yearning for peace that once remade America. The horrors of the Ukrainian war may have refreshed our minds. In 1969,  though sidelined by corporate objectives and elected officials, the big March, signalled crucial change. In 2022, our handlers cannot manage the crisis of environmental change. We are called by planetary crisis of epic proportions. Future shock is now, Facts broaden our nation to the entire human race. 

The peace movement showed unity came with a common purpose. And it took discipline not to fragment into groups.  Social media makes this harder, encouraging people to take sides, identify with a racial or social group, vent their frustrations. Yet listening to those with differing ideology and working to find understanding, common ground, is still essential--to create agency for an ongoing movement. Peace groups included Panthers and SDS. "Identity politics" work against mass societal change. 

The "Woodstock" generation was the first in U.S. history to publicly seek the end of an unpopular war. It succeeded in influencing the outcome, because it became a broad mainstream movement. The Vietnam War, when it is studied in schools, rarely focuses on what the Antiwar movement actually accomplished. We have always had propaganda to nullify political or social movements but in 2022 such controls have a multiplicity of objectives. 

Marginalizing environmental change seems to protect the profits margins of corporate business. Managing "hopelessness and eco-fear" are less expensive than changing their product or means of production to halt environmental crisis. Covid narratives in media focus on the isolated individual and their country's reaction to the virus. Few focus on the National Geographic story about the link between the depreciation of environments and the emergence of Covid and other viruses. All over the world, the usual hosts of these viruses, small mammals (who don't get sick from it) disappeared with their environments. That they jumped to human hosts is a fact, not some debatable possibility. How are world leaders restoring those environments and animals?  Why for convenience and profits, are some choosing  extinction?  (Other primates don't destroy their habitats).

But there are positive actions also occurring, little perceived by the obsessive churning "breaking" news of the 24/7 news cycle. A teenage boy invented an app for plastics and has cleaned the North Sea.  Defunct dams have been removed in every state and at least 1800 free-flowing rivers having been restored. Whole ecosystems including fish, have returned. Every city in the nation has removed one or more defunct dams. Coral reefs are being built. Young people growing up with serious environmental threat, are learning they can connect with others and make changes. What are our corporate overlords doing? Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg seem invested in vehicles to flee Earth. Branson is also joining the space race. Gates is one of the few focussed on Earth's ecology and the survival of people. (I am all for space exploration, not the spectacle of an Exodus of rich people abandoning Mothership Earth).

As we celebrate the fight against Britain for Independence, the first generation in U.S. history to halt an unpopular war should also be discussed. History is in books, free in libraries that are still funded. I have worked publicizing political books for many university presses. There are two you might want to reference in terms of the Vietnam War and propaganda, information unknown today or forgotten. 

M.I.A.: Mythmaking in America by Bruce Franklin (Rutgers University Press). Excerpted in The Atlantic Monthly in the 1980s (and accepted as fact) shows the origins of the M.I.A. myth as a negotiating tool for the Nixon administration in the Paris Peace Accords, They took place ten years after the war was over and no soldiers were left. 

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembcke, Sociology Professor at Holy Cross College and former member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, analyzed the widely believed narrative that American soldiers were “spat upon” and insulted by anti-war protestors upon returning home. After extensive documented research, Lembcke found not one case of any soldier being spat upon. Antiwar activism-the peace movement was widespread and included the participation of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The enemy was never our brave soldiers but the hidden “military industrial complex” well depicted in “Dr. Strangelove.” Yet Hollywood movies like "Coming Home" sold that narrative. 

Hollywood characterizations of the antiwar movement rarely stray from deranged "hippies" obsessed with drugs and sex. Most films ignore the sane young men, who did not feel it was patriotic to die for geopolitical advantage. Also ignored in depictions of easy 60s "chicks," is the fact young women faced death from illegal abortion. Planned Parenthood gave many women, for the first time, access to gynecological care and counselling about sexuality. 

So many narratives of young women "getting into trouble" (their fault obviously) and no reference to a clean clinic they might go to--without shame. There is a reason Margaret Sanger, born in 1950s, became a birth control activist, sex educator, writer and nurse. Google her.  Today, any man can choose a vasectomy, even a reversible one. Why then the cultural desire to deny women's choice? The woman's movement was about the value of female lives as human beings. The worth of those lives was not equal in 1969 and still  disparaged in 2022.  

In 1969, grass-roots education, door-door work were essential. Soliciting donations was important, but the more impersonal, the less useful.  In 2022 a "the World First, save the planet movement" might focus on deliberate thoughtful actions occurring around the world.  Anyone can do something useful. For instance, during the early days of the Trump administration, scores of media people worked quickly to save scientific information on public sites, particularly NASA, that were being erased. People with skills were asked by government employees (many losing their jobs) to help preserve science.

Imagine where our diplomacy would be today, if all the career diplomats, forced to leave, after spending lifetimes working with other countries, had been able to store their knowledge for what has come.

S.W.


Sunday, March 13, 2022

Mid-Century Memoir--"What it was like in 1969, when abortion was illegal and sex a girl's "fault"?" Answer PART 1 Normal (Part 2 Activism to come)

 

Borough Hall 

Mid-Century Memoir. "What was it like in 1969 when young people tried to remake the world?"  Answers-PART 1 "Normal".  PART 2 "Activism"  next week. This is a personal essay through the imperfect filter of memory.

"What was it like in 1969, when young people tried to remake the world?" I was recently asked this and found it difficult to summarize that time, when "normal" became something else.  2022 is also an era of intense social upheaval.  How the "normal" of 1969 spurred serious generational change is useful to understand, especially with conservative groups lobbying to turn back the cultural "clock." 

Life Magazine featured Haight-Ashbury's hippie mecca, yet racist conservative George Wallace was elected in my high school's mock elections for the 1968 race against Richard Nixon. "Times were achanging" somewhere else than my Philly borough, twenty minutes away from downtown. How did an integrated school, roughly half Black, half White, have such an outcome? Race was less important than our economic profile, and certainly our religious affiliation. We were Irish and Italian Catholics, WASP and African American Protestants, with a handful of Jewish families trying to blend-in. Hispanic and Asian Americans were nonexistent, residents of a "Downtown" many kids had never visited. Some boasted, 'Why travel, when we have everything here?' 

Borough was originally defined as a fortified town. Ours had well-paid factory workers, professionals, executives, and entrepreneurs. There were big and small businesses in both the Black and White sections of town. Homeowners were proud they could live here, instead of Philly's poor neighborhoods. There were attached homes and unattached single-family homes, a few with 60's modern custom designs. Founded in the post-war economic booms of 1950s and go-go 60s, there was a sense of "arrival" with respect for upward  mobility.  Both sections took pride in their fashionable swim clubs, restricted to members though guests of any race or creed were welcomed. 

In a carful of White kids, I remembering gawking at the town's only airplane, kept in the backyard of a Black dermatologist.  His son, an admired athlete and A student, was definitely "college material." For his parents higher education was a given, different from anti-higher ed parents, who often had "made it" through a good company job or family business. I remember a friend, who was pressured by his family to turn down a scholarship from a major Catholic university for a factory job with his father's group. (When it didn't work out, he took to drink.)

Where college was valued, grades were non-negotiable. In my house "I guess you're not college material" had the ring of primal failure. Though neither of my parents were college grads, we were to "buckle down" at school and not be shirkers. Life was about doing your duty, like our GI dads, whose benefits enabled them to become homeowners, start businesses, get an education. Kids in "The Donna Reed Show" might groan, but there was no compromise about gratitude for food, respect for elders, cheerful chores, AND diligent homework.  I just knew Lucy would help Little Ricky if  (like me) he brought home study-resistant D's in math. She might have found a tutor!  

But as I recall, learning to "apply yourself" was the point of education. We were tested in kindergarten and if you were IQ smart, your parents were told you could learn anything. Not performing meant some personal flaw. Even so, it was commonly assumed a kid was "book smart" or not.  Only a few "eggheads" qualified for college or just had rich parents. The rest of us were supposedly better off not thinking we were smarter (or better) than others. 

Poverty, especially if your parents grew up in the Depression, was an underlying fear. Pride  in not going "Downtown," because they had "made it" to this great place, was part of our isolation. Unmentioned were unsavory "elements" in the city. Special consideration was given the few single moms, who raised their kids, went to church, and maintained their houses. (A Thanksgiving turkey might appear anonymously on a front step, courtesy of some Church group or stray do-gooder. ) 

So how did Wallace get the votes in this middle class high school with about equal numbers of Black and White students? There was our widespread ignorance of the candidates and the belief that a "mock" election didn't count, So why not Wallace? He was "cooler" than Nixon.  I heard students excuse Wallace's racism, because he was a Southerner. "Come on. Who took the Klan seriously? A club of grown men wearing white sheets! After all, the South did lose the Civil War." 

Collective common sense also agreed that enlistment, especially if you came from a large family, was a great career opportunity. Serving the nation and earning a paycheck was a viable path to adulthood. "Nam" talk, full of adventure and tests of bravery, was oiled by enlistment bonuses. Body bags on the news were unmentioned. Naturally, since girls didn't serve, we kept our opinions to ourselves. I was okay with that, until the war on the home front came sharply into focus. 

My boyfriend, "Pineapple Head"(so called because he was raised in Hawaii) and I became unwitting targets of a security operation. Recently arrived in our borough to live with his aunt after his mother died, he was exotic, handsome, and free. He had been schooled out of doors on a dormant volcano!  This rare boy, who read books and thought deeply about life, was my kind of guy.  One day after school, we went to his aunt's house to hang out with his cousin and his girlfriend, who drank a lot of beer.  She stood on the coffee table in a platinum Supreme's wig, belting out "Baby Love" with Ross' perfect moves. I was entranced but we didn't stay long. As we reached the sidewalk, we were suddenly halted. A man in a beige raincoat jumped from a parked car, snapped our photo and quickly drove away. "What was that?" we laughed. "Are we famous?" 

Weeks later, stuck in a chair across from the Principal, I found out. A stern man at best of times, now he was apoplectic, mirrored in the polished desk that separated us. Sputtering with rage, he yelled that I was a ringleader (not just a part) of the Tristate Drug Ring. (What, I wondered?)  "I expect you to give me the names of all involved!" I told the truth (maybe it would make me free?) "I never heard of such a thing."  "You're lying," he said, moving (was he going to grab me?). I stood. "This is a school of beer drinkers." (this was true, with the exception of Richard, our sole hippie). 

Judgment towered over me, fierce and nasty, "You will tell me who they are!"  I put my hand on the doorknob. "You were seen!" He moved to his desk drawer and hurled a photo of Pineapple and me, across the shiny desk. "Some guy took our photograph?  Anyway, it was after school." (As though non-truancy counted in this alternative universe.) The principal now spat each word: "You will not graduate if you do not cooperate." I opened the door, now more angry than scared. "Tristate drug ring doesn't exist." He stood furious, his face flushed red. "So don't graduate me." 

Outside, I briefly collapsed against a wall. Safely turning the corner, I wondered what adult could I tell about this? My mother would certainly ridicule my "overactive imagination" (her take on all truths inconvenient). Weeks later a bald circle appeared on the top of my head, expanding until a comb-over was futile. She took me to a doctor. But when he suggested I might be losing hair from stress, Mom laughed. "What does she have to be stressed about? These are the best years of her life!" 1969 marked a real generation gap, visible on my scalp. 

A bald spot was nothing compared to Pineapple's consequences. He was in the hallway, having forgotten a hall pass (which didn't exist in Hawaii), when the principal appeared out of nowhere and bodily threw him against a wall. Reflexively, Pineapple hit him back and was instantly expelled. With no parents to advocate for him at a new school, he was forced to drop out. Unable to find work and unwilling to be a burden, eventually he disappeared, Years later I saw him on Sansom street, far less handsome and with fewer teeth. He recognized me too, less with love than irony. He had become a speed freak on the street, a "head case," he said, lucky to be alive. Now finally clean and a counselor, he offered street kids food packages and a card with a safe address to "crash."

I made it to graduation with no interference from The Tristate Drug Ring. Decades later, I learned that identifying "student troublemakers" in high school, before they went to college and became demonstrators, was a security directive. Had Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program 1956-71) visited my high school for suspicious students? Was I fingered by the home ec teacher? Pineapple had certainly stood out but I had not -- though records may exist.  (I read such operations reached Elementary Schools before it was defunded.) 

That June, I was one of ten people headed to college out of my class of about 100.  Graduation opened with an original poem by our Student Council President, a popular Black girl. Her reading received much applause, as did the announcement of her full scholarship to an elite university for international studies. The WASP valedictorian, a pretty, shy girl, was our most academically gifted student. With 800s in college boards, she had multiple offers of 4-year scholarships. Unfortunately, her parents forced her to decline. Education would make her unfit to be a good wife--according to her mother.  Ambition shelved, the girl graduated to housework under her mother's guidance. 

We thought this extreme (scholarship money was forfeited) but the ultimate career path for girls was still to become a wife. Home Economics was a required course, no matter how much we might want to learn drafting or woodshop. Girls also had a serious dress code, skirts were measured and slacks forbidden. We saw a dating film in Health, where a girl's duty was "not to give in." Smart girls did not get in compromising situations. Our job was to save the noble (less mature?) male sex from themselves and date with the altar in mind. Girls were blamed for pregnancy, though occasionally boys were pressured to "do the right thing." 

The lives of schoolgirls were routinely ruined, not only by becoming pregnant but the moral judgments of adults. Unable to choose a legal abortion in PA in 1969, meant unless she had a "shotgun" wedding or a family that would pretend it had a new "little sister," she had to give the baby up. Expected to slink away in shame and disgrace before they "showed," was just punishment. Pregnant girls had to leave school and rarely returned. The religious called it "God's will", though many of us girls thought it unfair.  Recently, I read a man's online post  that more unwanted white children empowered the race (not to mention adoption agencies). I learned girls were somehow responsible and expendable.

But were boys really the enemy?  They often alluded knowingly to Playboy as favorite bathroom reading. I became curious enough to discover my father's hidden stack. In "Party Notes," a section about wild times in Hefner's Mansion, I read an especially instructive story about a Quaalude party. "Wasn't it fun" how girls, honored to be asked to the party, took what was offered? Turned into "living dolls." They provided some entertainment! So while I was holding up the nation's morals by kneeling for my skirt to be measured, men were drugging girls comatose?  

In June 1969, feminism was as foreign to me as the new so-called "Sexual Revolution." In fact, a girl who got drunk and "pulled a train" was marked as a whore for life. (Psychological reasons weren't part of our Puritan ethics.) At my regular lunch table was an intelligent, funny girl, who laughed easily, until one wet fall evening her mom was killed in a car accident. When her father quickly remarried, she was ignored for his new wife and kids. Grief-stricken, my friend passed out in drunken oblivion at some post game event. A line of boys formed to take advantage (as I learned from one who declined the opportunity and threw up). Ostracized at school, condemned at home, she eventually dropped out to become a cocktail waitress; then moved away.

I remember  sad school lunches in social Siberia, listening to her feelings of worthlessness and humiliation. Former friends, especially boys, mocked her relentlessly. Church offered no balm for her "shame."  It is all still familiar. Even in 2022, where male porn is ubiquitous, female sexuality still evokes "slut shaming." Erotica, which briefly in the sixties celebrated the female experience, is all but invisible. The double standard appears unimpeachable, yet for the recent spectacle of women prosecuting men in power for sexual abuse.  Neo-Puritan witch hunts or long-deserved justice?  

When I read about the trials of a generation of Playboy era men, from Harvey Weinstein (2021 indictment) to Bill Cosby,  I wondered if they were confused about changes in cultural rules.  "Mad Men" had it right. "No means yes!" Power was an aphrodisiac. Women were a perk of authority.  Now, suddenly, women were expecting redress?  I wanted to see the legal prosecution as a step forward, but...why was Hefner lauded at the time of his funeral (2017), as a great cultural thinker-- while his disciples would soon be indicted?  

The sexual divide was extreme in my 1969. In 2022, there's social dissonance as conservative powers (male and female) work to subjugate women. What is the fear of equality? How are men 'desexed,' when women share prerogatives once associated only with male freedom? When boys risked lives in illegal drag racing, looked for disturbed girls to pull trains with, got crazy drunk and beat each other up, the solution was--sports. This safe outlet for  "normal male energy" was also made the focus of high school life. (Girls basketball was a joke except for those of us who played when we could get a space .) Girls were supposed to cheer or bake goodies -- though some worthies volunteered as candy-stripers in hospitals, or actually found after school jobs. 

Rebellion through clothes was an option.  I had babysitting money and took the subway surface car "Downtown," finding freedom in Mary Quant striped mini dresses. Unknown in our demure land of pastel sweator sets, these dresses of electric lime green, purple and orange earned me respect. A little notoriety went with dangling earrings. Everyone knew they were worn by whores, my "weirdness" made that impossible. You could remake yourself with clothes. Twiggy had. My friend and I used wax paper and ironed our hair straight.

Another challenge to social limits, interracial dating, also happened in my 1969, though not condoned by any communities. A girl from a financially struggling White family regularly snuck out to see her more affluent Black boyfriend.  When discovered, his parents quickly transferred him to a private high school, though her folks looked the other way. Trading up by marriage was considered using one's assets ("Mad Men" got this right.) When marriage is a career, it's the obvious path. 

In our borough, founded on WW2's optimism and industrial build-up, there was no end in sight for a boom economy. Anyone willing to do an honest day's work had a financial future.  Of course this excluded women, whose unpaid home-bound work was meant to benefit their families. But typing was a required course, it opened a business career to women with a fast and accurate wpm. 

In June of 1969, for the college bound minority, graduation was a series of fast announcements of academic awards and scholarships. The main celebration was for the savvy kids graduating Vo-Tech. Vocational-Technical students apprenticed with local businesses. One young woman, halfway to her beauty license, had a chair waiting at a beauty salon. Another had a bookkeeping position in a real estate firm. Our most successful male grad was a talented auto mechanic, who had flunked a grade. (Quick to learn the new car electronics, he eventually serviced the tri-state area with his own shop.) 

Unmentioned were the disappeared, those repeating the grade or the pregnant, like the Home Ec teacher's daughter and my friend from drag-racing double dates. Though we had desperately solicited money to go to New York to get her an abortion, it wasn't enough. The girl with an amazing photographic memory practiced denial. She hid college acceptances, wearing ever larger sweatshirts. That was just the "way of the world."

Our graduation audience clapped respectfully for enlistees, even those who had flunked enough years to be drafted. A motivation beyond the "opportunity" was the expectations of fathers. Many, like mine, were World War II veterans. One White father was a career merchant marine, whose son would be attending a Naval Academy.  A Black father had served in the Air Force and his son enlisted to become a pilot.  It was yet a time of optimism. We would win this war.  "Give Peace a Chance" was still an unknown chant. I might have been the only one watching the body count.

I began truth-seeking. What was the attraction between war and profit, greed and death?  Machiavelli's The Prince had some answers.  I looked for others. Time was critical, as my study hall pals toyed with destiny. These  "hoody" guys, who ignored school, had  motorcycle dreams, "Going cross-country," finding an America beyond our town, was a hunger.  I had not heard of Kerouac but the open road stirred imaginations. We had adventures, gunning the engines of our minds. And, despite their bragging about the enlistment officer's cash offers, few had yet signed up for 'Nam". There was hope. I invited them to my upcoming debate against a despised "bleeding heart liberal." My argument, "Why war was good for society," used The Prince, and 1984, advantages such as population control, winning the proxy war; ways the war industry primed private business at government expense, etc.

My opponent used humanitarian arguments, eliciting derision, especially when she talked about napalm destruction. I glimpsed victory, when I saw my pals' shocked faces at the irrefutable logic of deaths for progress.  A tense moment, while the points were added up, before I was declared the victor. But after the stunned audience filed out, angry teachers, our debate sponsors, closed in.  I was expelled from the team and the results nullified. When I objected that I had won on points, the head sponsor cried out, "You were insincere!" But that was untrue. They had mixed up the means with my ends. The means did justify my ends, a very 1969 moment.   

My reward was the pals who decided not to enlist. 1973, living in San Francisco, I was surprised by a late night call from one who put his college acceptance on hold to serve his country. He told me how our fellow student, a kind gentle person--the son of the Air Force officer--had died in a helicopter crash. My caller, now discharged, was studying animal psychology, how attachment happened in ducks. He wanted nothing to do with the human race.  He kept asking, "How did you know the truth about the war?"  He never heard me say, "I didn't. I just read a lot."

I had been saving for a car I never bought. After graduation, I left home for a Jersey Shore version of Haight Ashbury, and a shared studio apartment that became a "crash pad." Young people, stoned, homeless or just lonely, came through our ground floor window to sleep. I worked as a chambermaid at a hotel and at a "Head" shop, body painting and selling homemade candles. Later, when all, but my original roomate and I, left for Woodstock, we were elated to be alone. Some staggered back, others hitchhiked to California or followed the concert trail. At least one, who explored psychedelics, mentally never came back.  THC use then,, and vaping even stronger THC now, had no cautionary labels about becoming psychotic, a "head case."  The price of experimentation was steep in 1969. 

Unmoored, the fragility of existence came down on me.  As fall approached, I realized I didn't have to continue as a chambermaid.  I had a place at Syracuse's art school.  I finished a painting comission of a giant psychedelic goldfish on the wall of the hotel's cocktail lounge. I also reconciled with my parents, who rang my bell at 10 AM on a Sunday morning, Thinking the meeting was at 10 pm,  I opened the door in a robe, a glass of wine in my hand.  My parents suggested we convene at a nearby diner. Not a flicker of an eyelash or a raised brow showed they noticed the bodies visible behind me, sleeping on the floor. They went unmentioned later, as we discussed school. I was eager to move forward, to learn something. 

                                                                    ***

 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

LINCOLN HIGHWAY and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, road trips to American Dreams- 1939's Great Depression, all is lost but the road ahead, 1954's post-war boom straight ahead

 


I recently learned that The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's 1939 classic, is now a banned book. It is more than ironic that a book celebrating American grit in the inhumanly gruelling time of the Great Depression is banned in 2022, a time of unprecedented national hardship. In Grapes, The Joads, a family of tenant farmers, flee their Oklahoma home amid drought, poverty and bank foreclosures that make survival untenable. There is no hope in the Dust Bowl and, like thousands of others, they've seen handbills advertising jobs in California.  

The story begins as Tom Joad, paroled from prison, where he was incarcerated for a homicide in self-defense, is hitch-hiking home. He meets a preacher, who he remembers from childhood, and they travel together. Tom finds the farm home deserted and goes to his uncle's, where the family is staying after the banks evicted all the farmers. Tom's family is loading what possessions remain into a Sedan-truck, when he arrives. The farm repossessed, they have no option but to seek work in California. Although leaving Oklahoma would violate his parole, Tom decides to risk it. He and the preacher, Casey, join the family road trip. 

Is The Grapes of Wrath banned for it's vision of hard-working Americans abandoned by business, government, religion  and the law?  In that desperate time, the survival of the family was questionable. Steinbeck was probably branded a Communist for his pro-union stance opposed to legally sanctioned union busting. (Is it a coincidence in 2022 that politicians who believe government should serve the needs of people, as well as business are often labelled "socialist?")

I recently read Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and found some insightful parallels to The Grapes of Wrath.  As the novel opens Emmett Watson, like Tom Joad, is newly paroled from prison for an accidental homicide, though his prison is a juvenile reformatory. The kindly warden who drives Everett home, like Joad's preacher, says he had bad "luck," but that he is a good man with his whole life ahead of him. But, like Joad, Emmett is young at 18 to be the head of the family, guardian of his 8-year old brother Billy. Both Tom Joad and Emmett Watson had fathers who were "broken by the land." 


A big difference is that Emmett's journey begins in 1954, not the Great Depression and Nebraska is a fertile place.  Emmett's dad was not an experienced dirt farmer but an educated man from an old Boston family with money. As Emmett sees his father's books and stacks of unpaid bills, he mulls over who he was. He knows he turned his back on the East from some quest to get back to the Earth and became a "piss poor farmer." A man broken in spirit, not just financially.  Besides his failure with the farm, he lost his wife, the boys' mother, who disappeared for parts unknown. When Emmett meets the banker, who seems to have already taken over the property, the man says his father left nothing and suggests it's better for Emmett to move on.  The 1954 Studebaker bought with his own money from carpentry work, is his alone. He refuses to concede his car and grudgingly, the man lets it go.

Though the farm has been repossessed, Emmett doesn't actually have to leave Nebraska. And the banker may have had his reasons, he later learns, for making him think otherwise. Then he finds money hidden in the car hidden by his dad. There's a housing boom in the West,with the money, Emmett can go to Texas and build houses. Until he's settled, he figures his brother could continue to stay with Sally, the banker's daughter and his friend, until he's settled. He can take the Lincoln Highway across to Texas. But Billy won't stay behind and wants to go to California, where he's traced their mother's possible whereabouts. Emmett's okay with California, which also has a housing boom.  He can take the Lincoln Highway to route 66 (the Joad's road). 

The next morning ready to go, they see two inmates from the reformatory, Duchess and Wooley, who escaped in the Warden's trunk. Everett, like Joad, worries his parole could be endangered if he's involved with them. He agrees to drop them at the bus station. But Duchess, theatrical and completely unpredictable is a grifter and Wooley, "differently abled" scion of a blueblood New York family, have another plan.

Like the Joads, Emmett and Billy's road proves a highly circuitous path to a new start. The inheritors of the Joad Family trip have an eccentric "family" of individuals in their Studebaker.  All are as desperate as Everett for their own reasons. Driven to his limits, trying to stay on course, the ten-day trip takes him from Nebraska, to New York's Adirondacks, to New York City sites--a hidden hobo settlement, a bawdy house, the Empire State Building and Time Square's culture of theatrical down and outers.

Emmett's hard luck beginning, unlike the Joads, has more fluid less fateful consequences. Good and bad occur in equal measure, one often becoming the other. It's partly the post war optimism founded on the industrial prowess that won WW2. The motley group  on Emmett's road trip are related in American individualism, a kind of self-invention that was a post-war credo. With sly humor and sympathy, Towles makes you care about the stakes in unexpected turns of situations.

Steinbeck's viewpoint of  American resettlement wasn't just pessimistic but based on facts. There was a huge Hooverville of unemployed homeless in New York's Central Park, and such encampments currently exist with the the wreckage of lives during the pandemic. Everyone in Emmett's car has an individual plan for fulfillment, even Sally, who joins to get off at San Francisco. Bred to be a housewife and sick of constant cleaning and cooking, she wants a paying job in her future. They want to get on, not just exist.

What may seem an odd parallel in these stories is the link between Rose of Sharon, the naive pregnant teenager in Grapes and Billy Watkins. An adult by the end of the novel, she provides hope for mankind's continuance, when she offers her breast milk to a starving stranger (after her mother agrees. That is enough to get the book banned).  Lincoln Highway provides redemption through the precocious Billy.  He finds postcards their mother sent,hidden by their father, which point the way to a possible (though maybe not probable) reconciliation. Unlike Emmett, Billy is a believer in the magic of life, the value of serendipity and the meaning of heroes and their journeys. Throughout the book, when bad things happen, like a theft from a fallen preacher, Billy's faith continues. Unlike the preacher in Grapes who loses his faith, Billy's preacher has lost his moral compass.

On the Joads' journey, there is the fateful deaths of members of the family. There are  confrontations with a business model which guarantees starvation for migrants fortunate enough to find work. There are big corporate farmers in collusion with police and state law enforcement authorities.  In Lincoln Highway authorities seem fair and even understanding. The only public agency that offers relief from exploitation for the Joads is the New Deal agency, which offered decent conditions and protection from police harrassment, if not work or food.

In 2021, when Lincoln Highway was published, it delivered an enjoyable, even heart-warming fable of a more promising time. In 1954, America's "can-do" culture offered promise to innovative people with skills and ideas. Fortunes were made, the standard of living rose. In the 60s, it looked like there was no ceiling to human advancement--business, sciences, arts. Now in 2022, we are aware of human limitations. As creatures on a degraded planet, we suffer from lack of a universal will to reclaim our habitat and risk human survival.  In our country, economic inequality seems institutionalized in our corporate business estates. We certainly need inspiration in these times.

Is Grapes banned, because there's too much similarity to a world ahead, if the country and the world doesn't change course?  Too much reality for kids in a pandemic, trying to escape with mind-candy on phones?  No one wants young people to suffer. Yet this book is both a cautionary tale and a story with an inspiring sense of hope in the human will to survive, The grit of the Joad family is tremendous.  I also believe Lincoln Highway highlights the perils of self delusion of an era, where puruing money and comfort were all. The sense of young Billy was a touching avowal of the existence of goodness and purpose. 

I think these books should be taught together. And no book should be banned. Religious  values and the dignity of man are at the core of Grapes of Wrath.  Similarly, I see Jung or Joseph Campbell in Lincoln Highway.  These two viewpoints are not incompatible. 

S.W.


Monday, February 7, 2022

MY INTERVIEW W/CARLA SARETT ON A CLOSET FEMINIST, her romantic comedy for thinking women


3/29

I did this interview with Carla Sarett, novelist, short story writer and poet. https://youtu.be/bAxQKhTz98c

    at SMOL small press fair.  if you have interest.


3/4/22

A Closet Feminist (Unsolicited Press, 2/7/22) is an old fashioned new romance set in pre-Covid New York, Philadelphia and L.A., as a young woman finds herself.  I like Emma Roberts for the role of  Bella, a smart, funny self critical young woman overly aware of being too skinny, demanding, lazy and just weird to attract a man that she might want. She becomes a graduate student almost by default. It's the "almost" that's at issue, since Bella is a woman who doesn't yet know her own strengths. On the far side of twenty, she only knows she needs to be on a path.

As the story opens, Bella's got a job she barely does and considers herself without ambition, a person who would rather watch movies all day than work. Her tolerant boss also knows she's not living up to her potential. So Bella decides to leave her incredibly handsome writer boyfriend, Jeremy, with his apartment of no chairs and a marginal job like her own for a graduate program in linguistics. As she says "you may not be able to go back home, but you can go back to school."



In Jeremy's inarticulate way of paying less attention to what Bella says than what she does, he gets the real picure. She may not be breaking up with him but she's leaving New York for Philly. He approves that she's taking a stab at a future. Bella could be a teacher. It's something she could do and, of course they will see each other?  The question mark is there between them.

What awaits Bella is a zany graduate department dept; from her pal Jessica, who considers herself a gay Asian cliche, to the brilliant radical-chic Professor Natasha, who happens to have a Hollywood  producer brother. There's Professor Francois, Bella's charming department head, who seems to read her in disconcerting ways. Then enters the wild card of opportunity. While helping Jeremy's career, Bella discovers some unexpected talents and a purpose all her own. 

This is a very enjoyable, extremely fast read. From the opening pages, you are entertained and wondering about the twists and turns of Bella's fate. As her consciousness deepens and by sheer force of character she becomes herself. 

S.W.








A female artist fights for success in a world dominated by men and expectations of conventional sexuality in THE LOOKING GLASS, novella by Carla Sarret. 

Claire Charles, a member of 1930s New York high society, has been trained in painting in preparation for marriage, but shocks everyone by pursuing art as a career and her own inclinations. In Paris, fifteen years later, she collides with Leah, a mysterious artist who has been secretly painting for her husband. When Kay Charles, Claire’s 16-year year old niece, reluctantly models for a portrait, the lives of the three women become intertwined. Claire’s voice alternates with James, a handsome art dealer, and Kay, who claims a special legacy. From Manhattan to Paris, galleries to artist colonies, from the 1930s to the 1970s.  THE LOOKING GLASS is a story about women, art, and memory.

I found this story particularly moving for what's rarely shown; how women artists have lived and worked in two worlds, the public one under the male gaze and the private one where freedom from the male gaze and power structure is essential for creativity and love that's meaningful. 

https://www.propertiuspress.com/our-bookstore/The-Looking-Glass-by-Carla-Sarett-p395402005

Propertius Press, October 8, 2021






Great blog interview w/Carla Sarret: 
http://theleavingyears.blogspot.com/2017/06/interview-with-carla-sarett.html





Contemporary short stories often present, in present tense, a slice of prosaic life with a psychological insight that's not unpredictable. Carla Sarett's stories astonish you with the extraordinary in contexts you thought familiar. Readers, like complacent aristocrats in a story in Roald Dahl's classic collection KISS KISS,  tour a manicured garden suddenly halted by Pan's primal savagery, Sarett's world, like Dahl's is both genteel and primal, Both expose the fantastic behind the prosaic, poking holes in hypocrisy with cool wit. Sarett surprises with a tender feeling for human suffering, though she skewers human idiocy  .

    For instance, in "Kindred Spirits" from her Art Collection stories, a young artist looking for inspiration in the Catskill Mountains, finds a painting in a Curio Shop that uncannily transforms her work and life, though fame has a peculiar price. In "For Better or Worse" from Crazy Lovebirds, a woman makes herself "perfect" with technology,convinces her partner to match her--with devastating results. In Chopin for Igor from Spooky and Kooky Tales, a "cat person"chosen by her feline little realizes the true nature of her adored pet. In "String Theory Valentine"from Strange Courtships, a high school couple's romance dissolves as they go off into the world, but through a strange quirk of a parallel universe, are forever linked. In" Stand-By", when a man's on-line date stands him up, his notion of himself enters another world of values. Both these stories and the enigmatic "Mandolina" are in Strange Courtships. This story is below.

So, who is Carla Sarett?  Carla Sarett began writing stories in 2010, after careers in academia, film, TV and market research. She has published short stories in over twenty magazines, literary and humor, as well as in anthologies. Recently, she finished two novels,  Closet Feminist and The Captain's House.  The first is a comedy about a brainy, clothes-obsessed 20-something who chases after her dream guy, only to find her dream career instead. The Captain's House is a literary mystery in which a historical re-enactor discovers the secret of Philadelphia's Underground Railroad. 

Whether Carla Sarett is writing comedy or mystery, investigating metaphysics, theoretical science, history or art, her subject is the human dilemma.  Outrageous, subtle, funny or tragic, Sarett's stories are completely original. Her books are in the Kindle store

Audio Clips: "The Library Girl"  https://clyp.it/klnngcmt


For me, there’s no film like Vertigo.  What scene can top the one in which Jimmy Stewart rejects one suit after another, yearning for the perfectly tailored gray suit, the one that his beloved Madeline wore?  It’s the scene in which the saleswoman knowingly says, "The gentleman certainly knows what he wants."  The irony is perfect—we know that Madeline was a fake, her death was faked, but the man has no clue.

But he’s right about that suit, isn’t he?  That suit has style. I’ve learned a bit about style from Lucia Forrest—she is now well-known in museum circles. In college, Lucia seemed the pinnacle (at least to me) of old money, high spirits and a certain kind of Southern decadence.  She used a cigarette holder, she wore dark red lipstick, she even quoted Baudelaire.

Like many friends, we lost touch after college and then found one another though Facebook.  And after a hiatus of many years, we got together at the Algonquin Bar, in midtown Manhattan—at around three in the afternoon, it’s empty.  She was instantly recognizable, despite her shapeless plaid dress which seemed straight off the farm.  With her blond hair primly tied back, Lucia’s new style seemed to be country woman in town for the day.

As it happened, Lucia Forrest did live on a farm a few hours from the city. “I don’t understand how I’ve ended up single, all alone with just the horses to keep me company.  I thought I’d make a perfect wife,” Lucia said, sighing. The horses and the farm seemed about right, but the wife part was jarring.  At school, Lucia had been linked with a tallish woman from Maine.  “You two walked hand in hand, like lovers,” I reminded her.

“That was to attract the boys,” Lucia laughed. “I heard all the boys liked lesbians.”  She said “the boys” the way Southern girls do. It seemed a misguided strategy.  But, maybe lots of girls did wild things to persuade an ordinary fellow that they would make a good housewife.  You never know.

"Perhaps men aren’t so eager to marry a woman who wants to have sex with other women," I suggested in my married voice. "Perhaps they only want to have sex with such a woman, but not marry her. Because sex and marriage are different, sex and love are different." Lucia nodded, as if my statement were a novel and original insight.  This fit in with Lucia's idea of me as a brilliant Jewess from her past, although Jews were hardly scarce in New York.

Just then, a pretty woman entered the bar. She seemed to be in her thirties or older, dressed hippie style, with gold hoop earrings, a gauzy Indian-tunic and long flowing hair.  She approached and asked politely if we wanted our cards read.  Her voice was educated-- she might have been an actress before ending up in these sad straits.  I imagined her as a little girl, unaware of a future in which she roamed bars seeking tips for card-readings. I sensed that Lucia was in the mood for frivolous entertainment. “Sure, let's do it, it's on me, Lucia."

“I need you to focus on a problem in your life,” the Tarot woman said, with a touching gravity.
Having none, I thought about a business contract, which I felt confident about winning. I have learned to wish for things that I know will come true.

The woman spread the cards for Lucia. I have no knowledge of the cards, but they looked invitingly bright and bold. “You are going to start a new business-- perhaps, something with computers.”
I had assumed that Lucia, like me, viewed the cards as a childish game, but she gazed at the Tarot woman with intensity. Perhaps Lucia was becoming a New Age woman.

The bright cards were laid out again, this time on my behalf.  I’m thinking of business, I said.  Her beautiful eyes met mine. She asked, “Have you met someone from a strange place, maybe a foreign country?
“No, I’m sorry, I haven’t.”
“Pay attention, you will,” the Tarot woman said, disappointed. “This is important.”
Taken aback by her sweetness, I handed her a generous tip.  "I'll pay attention, I promise!" I waved to the pretty Tarot woman as we left.

Lucia and I next met at The Arts Club in Gramercy Park—Lucia’s a member there.  Perhaps in honor of the club’s famed Gothic ornamentation, Lucia had resurrected some of her former elegance and even had a new hairstyle.  I myself had worn a wonderful grey vintage jacket, asymmetric and stiff.
Lucia admired the hand-sewn silk lining of my jacket.  “This type of construction, it’s too complicated and detailed for today’s factories.  No one knows how to create things like this anymore,” she said, with her enthusiasm for all things old.

After dinner, Lucia confided about her new online relationship.  The man's name was Henry Oliver --he was a professor of American history at a small liberal arts college, somewhere in New England.  His expertise was the history of the Salem witch trials.  He had responded to Lucia's profile, which highlighted her interests in American antiques, the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School, horses, and, also, modern witchcraft.  Lucia showed me his picture-- a distinctive face, craggy and dark-eyed, handsome.

"Sounds promising, you two have a lot in common.  It’s a good start," I said.
I meant it.  Lucia and Henry were both scholarly types.  It was comforting to imagine them engaged in this almost nineteenth century correspondence.  Besides, Lucia might even admire Henry's academic writings.  Those who toil in museums must read the books that most of us do our best to avoid.

She smiled. “We’re planning to meet this summer at Olana.  That will be our first meeting.”
"Olana is amazing.  It’s like a fairy tale.  It’s the perfect place," I agreed dreamily since Frederick Church’s Olana is one of the most beautiful of the estates along the Hudson River.  Although, it occurred to me, driving to Olana was a lot of work for one date.  Why not go to a nice restaurant in New York, instead?  But I kept quiet--no one ever takes advice anyway.

In hindsight, I should have spoken up.  Poor Lucia had made the trek to Olana, and waited until the gates closed. Henry’s e-mail arrived the next morning.  He claimed to have met a new woman, unexpectedly—he hoped Lucia would understand. 

"Why do men think women should understand? Why am I supposed to understand?" she said, tearfully. Henry is a moron, I thought.  He didn't even have the sense to trot out the usual tale of the insane ex-wife swinging an ax or the suicidal ex-lover.  All he could invent was a new relationship, of all things."There's nothing to understand.  A lot of men are lunatics, this happens a lot.  It's happened to lots of my friends."

In fact, my other friends were nothing like Lucia, although maybe they too chased men like the neurotic handsome Henry.  I wondered which of Lucia's many photos Henry had seen—she had hundreds of pictures of her younger glamorous self.  But with men, who knows?
Soon after, Lucia's new online identity was born.  With considerable artistry, Lucia digitally manipulated the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting by the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti – its actual title is La Mandolinata.  Lucia was now Mandolinata, an exquisite beauty with long wavy hair and soulful eyes.

Mandolinata described herself as a “spirit girl”—a student of Wicca and the occult.  She was intent upon exploring her deeply spiritual voyage with a man who, like her, longed for freedom, longed to explore his inner self.  Mandolinata lived in a remote part of upstate New York, not far from Olana, as it happened. I wondered how many hours had been wasted on this silly invention, and to what end? 

 I asked, "What kind of man would want a woman like Mandolinata? I mean, the name alone."
“Thousands,” was Lucia’s answer. “They want to join her on her spiritual journey, they want to climb mountains—she’s the girl of their dreams.”  Lucia cracked up as she read the e-mails: "Oh, spirit girl, I must meet you!"—that was the general theme.

Of course, it was not thousands that Lucia cared about.  It was only one.  And sure enough, Henry Oliver took the bait.  Lucia had judged her man correctly. Mandolinata was the spirit girl of Henry Oliver's dreams, too.This was when I expected Lucia to reveal all and teach Henry a good lesson.  That's the romantic storyline that I imagined.  Henry would lament his shallowness.  He and Lucia would have their date.  She would wear a beautifully tailored suit.  They would drink martinis, maybe at the Carlyle, jazz piano playing softly in the background.  They would laugh at their middle-aged follies.

But Lucia had a different plot in mind.  She started to write to Henry as Mandolinata. Their second online correspondence was more intense than the first, but with a twist. Lucia Forrest by this time knew exactly what would excite Henry’s imagination.  So the tale of Mandolinata was tinged with a sense of the Gothic. Lucia read me some of it:

"I spent my early years on one of the remote islands in the Gulf of Maine-- we were completely cut off from the modern world.  The island's beaches were solitary and rocky. I often walked hours without seeing a soul. My father was a boat-maker, well-known for his designs.  My mother taught me how to play the mandolin, read me the poetry of William Blake, and introduced me to the ancient ways of white witchcraft. I remember her sweet voice. But then, for reasons that no one understands, my father drowned my sweet-voiced mother at sea.  Terrified, I escaped from the island, helped by a kind fisherman and his wife.  I now live alone. I can only speak to you when I meet you- please understand."

She paused.  "I think I got everything in there -- the mandolin, Blake, boat-making, even witchcraft."
"Hmm," I said, "Isn’t it a bit much?  I mean, he's a clever man, he's got to know this is a joke."
Although come to think of it, I had no evidence that Henry was clever.  In fact, given his interests in modern witchcraft and now, spirit girls, he probably was not.  Lucia shrugged, as if to agree with my thoughts.

Inevitably, Lucia/Mandolinata probed Henry's romantic history-- was she Henry's first cyber-love?  And so, Henry described his "callous" deception of Lucia.  Now that Mandolinata had made Henry "a better man," he confessed he had never intended to meet Lucia at Olana.  At Mandolinata’s insistence, Henry wrote Lucia a hand-written apology on lovely parchment paper.

“Not bad, surprisingly grammatical,” Lucia said, after she read the letter to me.
"So, he screwed up, so what? If you told him the truth, you'd be even," I argued, frustrated with this revenge theme. "A neurotic man is bound to screw up at some point." But I guess I do not understand high style -- and I should have remembered, no one ever takes advice.

The elaborate charade continued.  Now, the spirit girl and Henry arranged a meeting at the Algonquin Bar, after which they would spend a magical evening in Manhattan.  This time, according to his e-mails, Henry arrived early and waited hours.  Naturally, Mandolinata did not show up – and she vanished. Tired of the time-consuming game, Lucia had deleted Mandolinata's profile. Henry Oliver now bored Lucia, although, interestingly, he had moved to New York.  

Lucia rattled off her accomplishments: Henry had been punished, he had apologized to Lucia, and he had told the truth about what happened at Olana, or what Lucia imagined was the truth.  My own opinion of Olana differed, but I kept it to myself. Lucia joked about Henry’s yearnings for his imaginary spirit girl.  "You have to admit, Mandolinata is far more interesting than Henry, especially after her vanishing act."
"I guess so, but deception's not my style," I said.

Months later, I returned to the Algonquin Bar to meet a client—my first visit since my encounter with Lucia and the Tarot woman.  I checked off what had happened.  Yes, I won a business contract, and to my amusement, my client was Pakistani. Lucia Forrest's digital spirit girl might be considered a new venture --it certainly had involved a computer. And, in a sense, I suppose it was fair to say that Mandolinata came from a “strange place.”  Perhaps, the Tarot cards had been in touch with something, after all.

Just then, I noticed the pretty Tarot woman sitting with a dark-eyed handsome man.  Now, I did pay attention. It was not a card reading.  Two glasses of white wine were on the table.  The man gazed at the Tarot woman, clasped her hand, and smiled.  Today, she wore pearl earrings and a tailored dove grey jacket.  It was only a matter of seconds before I recognized the man as Henry Oliver.  I looked at the pretty Tarot woman with her long wavy hair and her beautiful eyes. For all I know, her name really could be Mandolinata.