Whose Voices?

I was in the airport and had time to kill. I had finished the book I brought with me, so I went in search of another. I scanned the display and saw one that looked interesting. It was an Oprah Book Club selection and I usually find her recommendations to be reliable – they are often the right blend of substantive, and highly readable. Aside from having her seal of approval, the descriptors on the cover were ‘propulsive,’ ‘magnificent,’ and, ‘heart-pounding.’ I was in the mood for that. Perfect reading material for my wait in the terminal and the two-hour flight.

I dug in and was taken on a ride from the beginning to the end. I read 378 pages in basically two days. What book was it? American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins.

Some of you may recognize the title. When I was perusing the shelf in the airport store it did not ring a bell. After I finished it and went to enter it to my list on Goodreads, I saw that it was the subject of controversy. I saw comments that labeled the book racist. When I read a little further, I remembered the storm. I don’t think I followed it closely at the time – it was published about two years ago – but I recall the dispute over whether a white woman could credibly tell the story of Mexican migrants.

As I read the book, I did note that the author’s name did not sound Latina and I wondered if its portrayal of Mexican cartels and culture was accurate. I flipped to the back to read about the author, and I also read the acknowledgments. I thought, like with any novel, that I would give the writer the benefit of the doubt – that she likely would have done her research, that she and the editor(s) were responsible and would not knowingly put forth a false picture of that life. I was quite invested in the story, and I wanted to find out what happened to the main characters. After all, I knew I wasn’t reading a scholarly history book or anthropological analysis. I read on and I am not sorry that I did.

It is a powerful story. I came away with a much greater awareness of the dangers, risks and challenges faced by those who make the arduous trek from Central America and Mexico to the United States. I don’t know if many face the near-death experiences that the mother and son did in this work of fiction, but their fear rang true. I was moved by their plight and by those who took the journey with them.

On first reading the criticisms of the book, I was embarrassed that I missed that it was racist. But was it? I wanted to understand what the issue was. Did the story stereotype Latinx? I thought the characters were multidimensional, but I could be oblivious. Did it misrepresent the violence of the cartels by either romanticizing them, downplaying them or sensationalizing them? That is possible, though movies and television shows are far more extreme than this book was. I am not knowledgeable enough to assess the book’s take on that. Most of the disapproval, though, centered on the author’s lack of credentials to tell this story. Under pressure, Jeanine Cummins eventually claimed a Puerto Rican grandmother, though I believe she identifies as a white woman.  Ultimately the question seems to be: can a white woman write a novel about persons of color?

This question applies more broadly, and I am troubled by the conversation around it. I heartily agree that historically marginalized voices need to be heard – space and time must be devoted to those who have previously been denied access. Also, if one wants to gain insight into a culture, it is probably best to read the literature of that culture rather than an outsider’s view. That said, writers should not be limited to only telling stories born of their personal experience. Male writers should be permitted to tell a story from a woman’s perspective and vice versa. Their success must be judged on the merits. I think it is a daring thing to do – I don’t write fiction, I don’t have the imagination for it. I can’t conceive of writing in another voice. But I don’t want to make that a rule for those that can. Thankfully we have many creative storytellers who reach beyond their own lives to explore the world (or create other worlds). Wally Lamb, in my opinion, did it quite successfully in She’s Come Undone, a story with a female protagonist, among others.

This raises several related issues. One might criticize Oprah for picking the book. She has a lot of clout. One could argue that she should use her influence to bring authors forward who would not otherwise get mainstream attention. To be fair, though, I think she has done just that many times over. But, perhaps if she wanted to focus on the migrant experience she could find a book written by someone who took that journey.  On the other hand, this was a very compelling read and sparked a lot of discussion. Isn’t that a good thing?

The publisher came in for a lot of criticism too. To some degree, the same questions that faced Oprah were directed at them. Should this manuscript have been bought and promoted? I don’t know the answer to that. I can only say that I found it to be a spellbinding story.

The controversy over this book raises important concerns. The backlash against it and the author raises lots of questions. In our desire to bring forward previously marginalized voices, is it a zero-sum game? Can the marketplace expand, or will voices that had access before now be silenced? Did this author deserve to be vilified?

I am not one who has worried about political correctness or cancel culture. I believe that many people do indeed need to be more sensitive in the language they use; that our collective (and individual) consciousness continues to need raising; and, that people deserve to be held accountable for their words and deeds. I am concerned, though, that if we narrow who is permitted to be heard on a given topic based on some aspect of their identity whether it be gender, race, ethnicity, or religion, we will have taken a giant step backwards. Sometimes an outsider brings needed insight and a useful perspective.

Upward Mobility

Note: The following essay was written by Gary Bakst, my husband. Thank you, Gary, for you thoughtful, insightful piece.

The American dream is you work hard, and you get ahead.  Your children should have a better life than you have.  Their children should have a better life than theirs.  And, to be fair, this country has lifted millions of people into the middle class over the years, especially during the post-World War II years.  While there are all kinds of questions about how you measure this, the middle class is mostly estimated to comprise over 50% of our total population and has been over 60% at times. 

That is the dream.  Then there is reality.  Many people are struggling to achieve that goal.  Many others are struggling to hold on to that achievement.  The share of Americans in the middle class has gradually diminished over the last 5 decades according to most estimates and the percentage living in poverty has gone up.  People have fallen out of the middle class showing us that mobility can go down as well as up. Income inequality has risen.  The wealthiest Americans have seen their share of wealth grow ever larger while most people struggle to meet their expenses for food, fuel, heat, medicine. 

The myth of upward mobility is the real world for so many people.  Not that nobody is able to achieve a better life, a more comfortable financial situation.  Some do.  But, I am writing this because I am thinking about the people I see every day.  I see patients and I see staff working in our office.  So many make decisions about their care that would be different but for the cost of their medications. 

So many patients tell me about their children.  Some are doing amazing things and it is so nice to hear those stories.  I think about the kids who are accomplished professionals, or well on the way to becoming that.  Children who have their own lives, homes, families and are such sources of joy and pride to their parents. 

But it feels like many more of my patients describe children who live in a different reality.  They are dealing with unstable job situations, unstable relationships.  Some deal with addictions, depression.  Some have children but need help taking care of those children.  Many are adults living in their parents’ homes. 

As I have thought about these people, I have tried to make associations.  What is the common denominator that explains who has done well?  Of course, there is no perfect predictor, but I do think that stability in the parents sure does help the children.  I think of some of the married couples I take care of who are just such fine people.  Maybe they are not particularly wealthy, but they are terrific role models.  It seems to me that this, along with the expectation that their children will get a college education, goes a long way. 

But some other people are also fine people, hardworking and with wonderful values.  But life perhaps has just not gone the same way for them.  Perhaps they have had children but a relationship that did not last.  Perhaps they have had career setbacks.  It seems to me that it is so hard to recover from those setbacks in this country.  I know these people hold their children just as close to their hearts as others do.  But I wonder if their expectations for them are different. 

I remember when I graduated from high school, there was a mother who was crying with joy saying she never imagined she would have a child who would graduate from high school.  I recall thinking how different that was from my parents’ expectations and from my own.  Perhaps the child internalizes those expectations, and their goals and decisions are likewise impacted.  My parents had little education, but they sure did believe in its power and were determined that their children would go to college.  

It seems to me that community has an awful lot to do with these expectations.  I see people who live in small towns and may not have the same opportunities that others do.  There may not be a tradition of people going on to higher education there.  That same issue can often be true in urban areas.  While we are nearly all connected virtually, we still live in a concrete world that we see, walk on and experience.  It is a powerful message about what is possible.  

I did not intend this essay as a dissection of American public policy, but I do think that we need policies that encourage that upward mobility and the factors that promote it.  I think we should look at what personal characteristics and family dynamics are most helpful and do more to encourage them.  And I believe we need to break down barriers that prevent people in specific localities from reaching their dreams. 

I am not suggesting that money is everything.  There is so much more.  We should not equate money and success, money, and happiness.  And there are surely lots of paths to a happy and fulfilled life.  It does not have to be, it really cannot be, the same path for everyone. 

But it is hard to imagine that having the means to live a healthy and comfortable life is not better than not having those means.  Money for many of my patients is a direct barrier to health.  It seems like that ought to matter to somebody.  

It is also worth pointing out that I am not suggesting upward mobility means everyone should be richer than their parents.  For one thing, some parents are already doing quite well and there may not be that much room to go up.  How rich would a child of Bill Gates need to be if we used that definition?  For another thing, the goal is surely not endless wealth.  That seems like a bizarre set of values. We are hoping for people to be secure and happy; healthy and safe.  Money is part of that but is not an end in itself.  

I wonder if anyone else out there has thought about this issue.  What factors do you see as positively or negatively affecting these outcomes, be it at the family, neighborhood or even at the public policy levels?  How do we make the dream attainable for more Americans?

Air Travel: No Better Than a Bus Trip

Regular readers of my blog know that my relationship with Florida is fraught. I love the beach and sunshine, but I have been traveling there since I was 11 years old to visit elderly relatives. Those trips didn’t feel like vacations, they felt stressful. I connect Florida with aging, the state serves as a reminder of our mortality, not to mention its ridiculous politics, and even though I know my grandparents and parents loved their lives there, it is a negative association. Others with the same history feel positively and have warm memories of their visits. I can’t explain why I feel the way I do, but I can’t seem to shake it.

I have also had difficult travel experiences, from an Amtrak trip that took 24 hours longer than it should have, to last year’s nightmare landing in Orlando in turbulent weather, then sitting on the tarmac for more than two hours before taking off for our final destination, Fort Lauderdale; it rarely goes smoothly.

All of that said, we looked forward to our trip this year. We planned it as a long weekend getaway back in December. We would meet close friends near Port St. Lucie and see NY Met spring training games. We would also visit Gary’s mother and other family. I was determined to approach this year’s trip with an open mind.

We got off to an uncertain start when, not long after I made the flight reservations, I received an email from JetBlue advising us that the departure time for the outbound trip was changed. If I wanted to reschedule, the email said, it could be done simply by clicking on the link provided. I wanted to adjust our flights, so I did just that and was directed to their website but was unable to make any changes. After repeatedly getting the same error message, I called the airline. I was told by the automated system that my wait time would be over 120 minutes! It gave me the option to communicate with them by text instead. I took that opportunity. They would text me when a person became available. I went about my business that day, keeping the phone close so I wouldn’t miss their message. Seven hours later, as I was driving on the Thruway, I heard the familiar ding of an incoming text. I briefly looked at my phone. It was indeed JetBlue. Perfect timing! I would have to try again later.

The next day, I called and this time after the maze of menus, I chose the option of having them call me back. They said the wait time would be about an hour and I did receive a call in that time frame. Things were looking up! I explained the adjustment I wanted to make to the JetBlue representative. It seemed simple enough. After the call was completed, I received an email confirmation, but the heading of the email said, ‘Your itinerary has been cancelled.’ Uh-oh. I opened the email, the body of which provided a new confirmation code. I went online and put that code in, and it looked like we still had our reservations. Okaaaay. I was cautiously optimistic.

I know this is a lot more detail than anyone wants to read, but there is a point to all of this. The point is that with all the efforts to automate and streamline operations and allow passengers to ‘manage’ their travel plans, my experiences suggest that it is all a clusterfuck. I don’t like to use coarse language generally, but I need to call it like I see it.

I should have known at that point that this trip, at least the travel part of it, was destined to be aggravating. It got worse. I thought, based on finding our travel plans intact, despite the heading of that email, that we had what we needed. I was wrong. As the date of our travel neared, and I had not received anything from JetBlue, usually they bombard us with emails, I thought I better check. Good thing I did. Turns out my trip was cancelled, though Gary’s was not. How that happened, given that we had the same confirmation code, I will never know.

This required another series of calls and call backs. Finally, I reached a human being. It took 90 minutes on the phone to re-book my flight. I had already tried to do it myself online, the system would not let me. It gave me the message that this was a duplicate reservation!  You gotta love these systems.

Eventually, I was successful – we no longer had the same confirmation code, but Gary and I were on the same flights. Phew! Now the only disappointment was that it became increasingly clear that there would be no baseball. Oh well, we and our friends decided we would keep our plans. We were staying on the beach on Hutchinson Island, and we knew it was lovely there. After a long winter, shut in by Covid, I was especially excited to get away.

Gary and I got to the Albany airport, bringing only carry-on bags, and boarded the plane. We learned that not only was the entertainment system not working, but the wi-fi was out as well. They offered no complementary future service and no rebate or credit. Fortunately, I had lots of reading material. Gary tried to sleep. Other than the ambient tension around mask-wearing, the poor flight attendants had to admonish passengers multiple times, it all went smoothly. I don’t understand why folks make a big deal about the mask, especially when the airlines make the rules crystal clear. And you’re allowed to take it off to eat and drink! I don’t get why it is such a hardship. Gary and I made it to Fort Lauderdale, got the rental car and were relieved to check into our hotel.

The next four days flew by – we visited with friends and family, sat on the beach, tried pickle ball for the first time and ate good meals. Before we knew it, it was time to return home.

On our final night at the hotel, I used the lobby computer to check in for our flight. Since we had picked up a few items to bring back to New York, we had too much to carry on, so I paid $35 to check a bag. As I went through the process of the online check-in, I found Gary had an assigned seat, I did not. I would have to take care of that when I got to the gate. I printed out the boarding passes and went back to the room. Again, this is way more detail than anyone wants, but I share it because it illustrates how complicated travel has become.

We successfully returned the rental car and took the shuttle to the terminal. We already had our boarding passes, but we needed to check the bag. We looked for signage to tell us what to do. We went to one of the many kiosks. I tried to initiate a transaction with my passport – the system kept freezing, nothing happened. We tried another station. Eventually we had success and were able to print out a baggage claim tag. I fumbled with it, trying to figure out how to affix it – not rocket science, but not clear either. We got on a long line to check the bag. There were three JetBlue employees seemingly set up to receive luggage. One was doing something on their phone (perhaps it was work related). Another one needed assistance from the third one so no progress was being made. Only one employee seemed to know what they were doing.

The whole process was stressful. So many steps, so many glitches…and we weren’t through security yet.

Gary and I paid for TSA-Pre to expedite the security process. We approach the security line. The person checks our documents, we walk a little further and another stops us. “Will your bag fit?” she asks Gary.

“Yes, I put it in the overhead compartment on the flight down.”

“Let me measure it.”

“I don’t think that is necessary.”

“Yes, let me check.”

She takes the bag, and it doesn’t fit into their compartment.

Gary and I object. “I’ve taken this bag more times than I can count onto planes. It always fits.” “I’m sorry, we can’t allow you to go ahead. You have to check it.”

“Who is your supervisor?”

She points vaguely behind her.

We make our case to the guy we think she pointed to.

He says, “You have to go to the ticketing area.” We realize we are getting nowhere.

Fortunately, we left enough time for this nonsense. We walk back from whence we came and looked for the correct line to get on – someone tells us we need to use the kiosk. We don’t want to do that – we want to deal with a person. We are directed to another line.

We finally get to the counter and plead our case. Getting nowhere, we give up – we’ll check Gary’s bag. Another $35, but at least we can get through security and go to the gate. Gary watches to make sure they attach the baggage tag and put it on the conveyor belt. We leave, both of us beyond frustrated. We get through security without further incident.

I still need to get my seat assignment. No one is staffing the gate desk. I stand there waiting. Now it is only 30 minutes until the flight. When someone finally comes, they tell me to go sit down – I point out that there are no seats in the gate area (it is crowded – Gary has gone to sit at another as yet unused gate). The employee shrugs and tells me he needs to meet a plane and will be back. I go find Gary at the other gate where there are seats. I sit for ten minutes, stewing. I fire off a few angry tweets, decrying JetBlue’s service. Then I go back to our gate where there are now three JetBlue employees behind the desk, though no one looks up to acknowledge me. I approach and explain that I need a seat assignment and am hoping they can place me near my husband. They tell me they aren’t ready yet. One says, “It will take about ten minutes for the system to boot.” I back up. There are other passengers waiting to be helped.

I wait. Eventually another passenger approaches the podium, and they are helped. I figure now it must be my turn. The agent hands me a boarding pass. I am five rows behind Gary. Whatever, at least I have a seat.

We board. The woman sitting next to Gary is willing to switch with me. It isn’t essential that I sit next to Gary, we have flown by ourselves and separated by the aisle or rows apart, but it is more pleasant to be next to each other. The flight proceeds, this time with working wi-fi.

Looking back at the flights and our experience at the airport, I wonder why I got so easily riled up, why was I so frustrated? The process of changing the reservations was absurd, but the other stuff wasn’t that big of a deal. The additional fees were annoying, the extra steps irritating, but it shouldn’t have gotten me so agitated. I need to get back to meditating! There is something about air travel, and it precedes Covid, that ramps up the stress. There are so many delays, so much ‘nickel and diming’ us, the online systems are not user friendly, and the airports are woefully inadequate for the crowds of travelers, that I start to wonder if the trip is worth it. But I want to go places! I have sites to see! I don’t want to get to a point where I am dissuaded from exploring the world. Maybe I need to adjust my attitude, accept that it will feel like a giant cattle call, no more luxurious than bus travel, and allow that more often than not there will be a delay, and make peace with that. Or, is there some magic to planning air travel to improve the experience that I am unaware of? Suggestions, please!

The beach at Hutchinson Island – worth the hassle?


As has often been the case recently, I got to thinking after attending a talk at the University at Albany. Anthony Ray Hinton, author of The Sun Does Shine, was the featured speaker at the annual MLK Celebration. Mr. Hinton served 30 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Through the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative, and his own forbearance, he was released from prison in 2015.

Mr. Hinton’s speech was both inspiring and heartbreaking. I find myself noticing that a lot lately – the duality of good and evil in this world. The tragedy of the injustice of Mr. Hinton’s prosecution, the racism and cruelty he endured, is countered by his faith and the steadfast effort of good people. Mr. Hinton told his story through tears. I found it painful to hear, it was uncomfortable – but we need to bear witness to the damage done when our systems fail, when people entrusted to carry out justice fail. I am no psychiatrist and won’t pretend to be one, but I have to guess that Mr. Hinton suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. How could he not? The fact that he isn’t in a constant rage, he shared his humor and compassion, not just his tears, in his speech, is a testament to his strength. To be willing to relive his trauma so that we may learn from it is a gift.

As I sat in the audience, I thought about the courage of individuals who come forward after experiencing something so harrowing, those who are willing to expose their suffering, to live it again, and I am humbled. I don’t know what to do with all the emotion. I want to fix it – I want Mr. Hinton to be able to heal. I want to prevent another person from experiencing the injustice. It feels overwhelming. But, if I don’t come away moved to action, even if it feels inadequate to the task, then Mr. Hinton’s willingness to dredge up his pain will be for naught.

We ask a great deal of survivors of trauma. We ask them to tell their stories so that we might learn. We ask them to not make us too uncomfortable while they tell their truth. We ask them to continue to function in this world, despite the fact that they have seen and experienced the ugliness of mankind. I think of my in-laws giving testimony as part of Spielberg’s Shoah Project. I have written many blog posts about their journey. It took a while for my father-in-law to recover from the process of giving testimony. There was a personal cost to doing it. He wanted the story known, he wanted it documented, but he paid a price in reawakening pain, depression and anxiety that had been pushed down. I believe it was worth it to him and to my mother-in-law, their experiences are now preserved for the ages, they cannot be erased from history even after their time on earth expires.

When we hear the stories of survivors, it often includes a message of hope. People who stood up, who made survival possible. In Mr. Hinton’s case, he had the emotional support of his mother and best friend, as well as Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (and the staff of that nonprofit). My in-laws were aided by their families, ‘righteous Gentiles,’ and luck. I am thankful for those forces for good, Paula and David would not have survived but for their efforts and their stories would be unbearable if not for those acts of courage and kindness.

I watch the war in Ukraine unfold and I see the same duality. The barbarism unleashed by Putin, countered by the resolve and courage of Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. Gary and I attended a local prayer vigil in support of Ukraine. The Archbishop of the Albany Diocese, Edward Scharfenberger, spoke, cautioning us to not give in to despair. He said despair was a tool of the devil. While I don’t believe in God or the devil, those aren’t words or ideas that resonate for me, I do believe humanity has the potential for good and evil. I think he is right to say that if we let despair win out, then we cede ground to the worst among us.

It is daunting and frightening to open one’s eyes to the pain and cruelty abundant in our midst. It is easier and tempting to bury our heads in the sand or focus on our own immediate needs (like worrying about the price of gasoline), but that is shortsighted. That’s how evil wins. I also come back to Mr. Roger’s seemingly simple statement to look to the helpers in times of crisis. I think that offers comfort, but it isn’t enough. I myself need to be a helper in whatever ways I can. I am not José Andrés, the remarkable chef who has made it his mission to respond to humanitarian disasters around the world. But, I can donate to his organization. I can write this blog and maybe move others to take action in whatever form available to you.

We need to bear witness and we need to do what we can to do good in this world. I hope you will not let despair get the better of you and together we will do the work necessary to ensure, to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King Jr, that though the moral arc of the universe is long, that it bends towards justice.

The Ukrainian National Flower – in solidarity – picture taken in Cooperstown, NY August 2021