My most recent publication is a short piece about taking up the accordion, published in the The Threepenny Review. (Winter 2019). Years ago, I also wrote several pieces about playing the piano. Even people who enjoy listening to music often find my hobby baffling. It’s a lot of work and I’ll never make any money playing. Yet there is something about the physical activity of making music that is very gratifying. The scanned article about my piano lessons attached to this post helps explain why.
My husband and my sons (my daughter couldn’t get away to come home) teamed up to make Thanksgiving dinner this year. I wasn’t allowed to help. So I started the day with a benefit yoga class, where the teacher donated the fee to the Alameda County Food Bank. It was a clear day here, after the rain, after a week of poor air quality due to the fire in Butte County up north. We were all newly grateful for clean air. I came home to a kitchen buzzing with activity. They managed to get an ambitious menu of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, brussel sprouts and macaroni and cheese on the table, supplemented by marinated cauliflower from a friend and candied sweet potatoes from my nephew.
Not having to help was amazingly therapeutic for me. Growing up, Thanksgiving was the apotheosis of sexism in our house, before I knew what apotheosis or sexism meant. My father never stepped foot in the kitchen at any time but he was not a sports fan, either. When we combined forces with relatives, that’s when the truly toxic dynamic of all the guys, including male cousins and male nephews younger than me, watching the football game, eating snacks while the women slaved away in the kitchen held sway. And the guys didn’t do the dishes, either.
My husband started making the turkey in our house years ago when I was on call and has done it ever since. When my sisters are in town, they always contribute to the feast. One brother-in-law who doesn’t eat turkey created our mac and cheese tradition. Yet until this year, the anger I felt as a child and young woman always had a place at the table with me. It’s still not my favorite meal, or my favorite holiday but I’m hoping that I can retain the spirit of the gift my family gave me for the rest of my Thanksgivings.
It's been ten years since my book When the Personal was Political was published. It was a frantic summer, trying to put it together while the publisher, iUniverse, was merging with another online publisher. To say that they were not focused on my book was an understatement.
Ten years on, my central thesis, that the experience of a woman doctor is different from that of a man doctor, is hardly disputed. People are familiar with the concept of implicit bias and women are fighting again for wage equality. But at the time, there was a lot of push-back from men and women who felt that we women doctors should just be grateful to be in medicine at all. It was unseemly to draw attention to our less-than-equal status. I have always been susceptible to this argument, which in one sense is practical advice. Assertive women are judged pushy and aggressive. The "angry black woman" is an enduring stereotype. On the other hand, nothing changes if we don't speak up. There's a wonderful essay by C.L.R. James where he addresses the accusation that he is showing poor sportsmanship by pointing out the discrimination against black cricket players. He says, "What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?"
As I near retirement, I am proud of my years as a primary care doctor and my later years in the disability program of Social Security. We were an altruistic generation and many of us shared the goal of treating every patient with dignity and fairness. We advocated for our patients because that felt comfortable in our doctor role. It still does not feel comfortable to speak to our colleagues about fairness in the workplace.
Sometimes I come across a book that explains so much, answers so many questions that I never quite formulated much less asked, that I regret that I am reading it so late in life. The book The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, lectures that the psychologist delivered "at Edinburgh in 1901-1902" is such a book. It's a synthetic work, which doesn't get bogged down in the details of individual beliefs but offers a grand overview of what we talk about when we talk about religion. Here's a favorite quotation, from the chapter on mysticism:
"Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. The words have now perhaps become mere polished surfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetch these vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding our pursuit. We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility."
I think of my school hymn, "Lord, thy daughters pray thee, make us one and all, like the polished corners, of thy temple wall..." and finally understand why I disliked it so much when I learned it in middle school. I already recognized that those polished surfaces were not for me.
Last weekend I attended the Berkeley YWCA Women Authors Luncheon, which is a annual fundraiser. As usual, there were four thought-provoking women authors, who spoke about their work. One of them was Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist I greatly admired in the past, for books like The Second Shift and The Managed Heart. Unfortunately, the best I can say about her current project, Strangers in their Own Land is that it is tone-deaf about race. It's been hailed as "the book that explains the election" because she went to Louisiana to interview working class white people (the analogy would be going to South Africa and interviewing only the Afrikaners) and came away with the "Deep Story" that they feel that they have been waiting patiently in line for the American Dream and that "blacks, immigrants and ambitious women " have cut in line in front of them. Never mind that educational attainment and income for blacks in Louisiana still lags far behind that of whites. Ms Hochschild wants us to focus on feelings, not facts. I asked her why she didn't ask her subjects about race directly, since they spent their formative years under segregation, a lifelong Head Start for whites. First she said that she knew that they were afraid that she would call them racist (now why would they be afraid of that? but good to know she realized that she was protecting them ) and then she referred me to the appendix of the new paperback edition. I felt like I was back in my childhood, where no one ever talked about race and it was impolite to bring it up. I wonder if Ms Hochschild ever anticipated how asking for empathy for white Southerners would feel to a black reader whose parents left the South to find opportunity? Especially when she does not ask them for empathy for us?
Here is a quotation from W.E.B. DuBois writing about reconstruction, that helps put the suffering of working class white people in the South in perspective. "When a right and just cause loses, men suffer. But men also suffer when a wrong cause loses. Suffering thus in itself does not prove the justice or injustice of a cause. It always, however, points a grave moral. Certainly. after the war, no one could restrain his sorrow at the destruction and havoc brought upon the whites; least of all were the Negroes unsympathetic. Perhaps never in the history of the world have victims given so much of help and sympathy to their former oppressors. Yet the most pitiable victims of the war were not the rich planters, but the poor workers; not the white race, but the black."
For some time, I've wanted to write about the opioid epidemic from my point of view--the doc in practice, who doesn't understand what's happening at the time. Here is that piece. It is difficult to imagine how doctors trying to do the right thing can ever prevail against the influence of the drug companies, who put profits ahead of patients. The coverage in the mainstream media, which has focused on the doctors who were paid spokespeople for the pharmaceutical companies, has not emphasized enough how the companies influenced the rest of us through state medical boards, legislation and the FDA.
Those of us who pushed our way into "male" careers forty years ago learned to cope with a workplace that was not welcoming to women--it was the only way to do what we wanted to do. They told us that we had to be tough, and part of being tough for women was not letting men derail us. As I wrote in The Personal was Political we were astonished to learn during the Anita Hill hearings that there was a name, sexual harassment, for the abuse of power we took for granted. So I am not shocked by the current revelations, more surprised at the reaction this year when last year it was business as usual. Years ago, I wrote a short story (fiction) based on one situation I encountered in training, a story which was published in the online magazine Persimmon Tree. http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/winter-2013/sara-and-us/
Just returned from a trip to Canada--Calgary, Lake Louise, Banff, Vancouver.
While I was away, an essay I wrote as part of a symposium on "neighborhood" was published in The Threepenny Review and a short story Fools Gold in a literary magazine Radvocate. Fall is here, with Japanese anemones in bloom and tiny flowers on the lemon verbena that I have never seen before. With both writing and gardening, there is a long gap between beginning a project and seeing the finished product. It's always a bit of a surprise to see how it turns out.
I have been reading Alice Mattison's wonderful book about writing:The Kite and the String. One passage that has particular resonance for me concerns literary writing about modern women with careers. "For many centuries a novel about a woman doctor (for example) was so unlikely that when it became possible to write one, it still seemed unlikely. When we have written such books, because the carrying-out of work by women is still a recent phenomenon, often they are books arguing that it's right for women for work, instead of assuming it and moving on from there." Or, I would add, books where the career woman fails or sabotages herself. For example, the midwife character in Michael Chabon's book Telegraph Avenue, is a black woman who fights with the obstetricians. As any U.S. midwife can tell you, learning to work alongside obstetricians is an essential skill, one they master in training or pick another career. And black women have gone along to get along for centuries. It was painful to read about this character committing what in real life she would have known was professional suicide in an almost casual manner. On the other hand, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, a memoir by a scientist in her forties, is spectacular because the author never questions her right to be a botanist and doesn't dwell on the inequities, without pretending they don't exist.
Tessa Hadley writes rich prose about present day women (Clever Girl, The Past, The London Train) whose lives are still regularly derailed by pregnancy and childrearing. Maybe literary fiction can not embrace women who take control of their reproductive lives with birth control and abortion because pregnancy is such a useful literary device. I appreciate that Hadley wants us to remember that there are many women who throw out their youthful ambition, like the character in Married Life who almost chucks her violin. The descriptions of children are profound and the novels are seductively comfortable. But I, like Mattison, would also like to see ambitious women on the page.
I open my new (secondhand) yoga book by Judith Lasater and read "Living well is not about being calm; it is about being present." This has not been a calm year but I have been present for the graduations of two children, my husband's third knee replacement on the same side in six years, trips to London and Costa Rica and of course, the election. I guess there is a reason that I have felt distracted and unsettled. There have been months when all I have been able to write is my short garden column for The Berkeley Times. Transitions take energy, even if they turn out well, even more if they are as unpredictable as our new president. Oddly, I felt some relief, as soon as the storm broke in November. Now we know, we can move forward, since that's the only direction available. Happy New Year.