All posts by Laura Grey

Laughing with Dr. King

MLK laughs
MLK laughing with Malcolm X, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., Coretta Scott King and others.

We often see photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looking serious, dignified, even dour. But he was a man who loved to laugh and who had great joy in his heart. His short, determined life involved constantly facing down injustice and living with fear and struggle, sure—but he loved laughter and fun, good food and good music as much as anyone. He was a real, flesh and blood human being, not a stoic saint immune to the pain and difficulty around him. And I think that makes his devotion, determination and persistence all the more extraordinary, don’t you?

Happy MLK Day, everyone.

Let Them Eat French Fries

Yes, it’s true: Trump’s failure to plan ahead and provide hot food for the visiting Clemson Tigers last night is just a distraction. The fact that he had piles of stale, cooling food sitting on the table and as the White House butler lit candelabra around them is as nothing to the horrid things he does each day. The ridiculousness of having staff portion French fries out in tiny water cups with the Presidential seal on them is laughable, but not earth-shattering. The fact that this billionaire was so cheap that he wouldn’t even spring for a hot catered dinner, but made a proud point of serving his guests of honor cold fast food shouldn’t surprise us—it’s totally in keeping with his usual ways.

But we should note his total inability to tell the truth even in the most mundane and verifiable circumstances. To be so incredibly petty as to lie even about the number of hamburgers served, to feel the need for self-aggrandizement and lies in even the tiniest particulars, to say that “over a thousand” burgers were served when he only bought 300—if he did pay any of his own money at all—this is a constantly changing virtual reality that he manipulates in order to destabilize the world. We should never assume that he will be honest or do the right thing in any particulars, ever. We should assume that he will pull the whole world down to make a point if we let him.

Will we let him?

Allies Behind the Scenes: Early 20th Century Support for Gay Rights

Radclyffe Hall (right) and her lover Una Vincenzo with their dachshunds at the 1923 Crufts dog show. Photo: Harry Ransom Center

In 1928, British lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was published. It scandalized official British society, was decried as “a danger to the nation” and was eventually suppressed and censored for being a work of “obscene libel”—not because there was any actual description of lesbian sexual behaviors beyond a kiss and the most oblique mention of sharing a bed. Simply admitting that lesbianism existed was considered a scandalous act, and allowing a lesbian to share her thoughts on what it was like to experience romantic feelings for another woman caused official fear and outrage.

Happily, we now know that Radclyffe Hall received thousands of letters of support from people around the world, gay and straight, following the official ban placed on British publication of her work. That she kept those letters shows how deeply they moved her.
In every cultural moment there have always been those who supported inclusivity and acceptance. When they speak up and announce who they are to the world, or when they prove themselves to be allies, they give comfort and strength to those on the front lines of social change. Even if we don’t feel strong enough to be leaders or to profess our beliefs in public, we do a great service by giving support and encouragement behind the lines. Every good action moves the cause of justice forward.

Charles Dickens: “Mankind Was My Business”

Christmas Carol Cover

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

—A Christmas Carol

In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story.  Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.

When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.

This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.

In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.

Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published 175 years ago this week.

 

 

Stop Beating Yourself Up

“The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo

I recently wrote an article for CollegeVine’s Zen Blog called “Seven Signs You’re Way Too Stressed Out Right Now.” Though it’s aimed at helping high school and college students to learn effective ways to lower their stress levels and improve productivity, the bulk of the article is applicable to people of any age. The article’s insights and advice are based on the work of psychiatrist and cognitive therapist David D. Burns, MD. His techniques involve recognizing and altering negative and self-defeating behavioral patterns, and his behavioral modification methods have been at the heart of many cognitive behavior programs for over 30 years.

Burns, who has taught at Stanford’s School of Medicine, has written several excellent best-selling books on fighting negative self-talk with realistic, fact-based positive alternatives. Years ago, my own therapist recommended his book Feeling Good to me, and I have found his techniques hugely helpful in my own life.

Burns’s work is not about spewing mindless platitudes and bland I-can-do-it positivism. It requires looking directly at the negative things we say to ourselves (and others), then peeking underneath to see what fears and distorted thinking cause such situations. Burns shows us how to counter automatic negative thoughts with relevant, accurate, truthful alternatives; he teaches that we can train ourselves to limit our unconscious and automatic negative self-talk. He shows that there are nearly always alternative ways to see situations that can lead to more positive outcomes in the future.

To learn more about “cognitive reframing” and discover methods to help you permanently improve your relationship with stress, I highly recommend Feeling Good. And, of course, read my article, too!

One for My Baby

Here’s one of the 20th century’s most influential interpreters of popular song, Frank Sinatra, glamorizing smoking, drinking, and leaving a bar drunk right after last call. So much of what I hate most about midcentury popular culture is wrapped up in this piece, yet I love this song. Why? Because it brings together three legendary musical talents in one perfect moment to tell a familiar story in a style so compelling that you have to lean in and pay attention.

Composer Harold Arlen wrote many of the greatest tunes of the last century, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Blues in the Night” to “The Man that Got Away,” and, of course, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote 1500 pop tunes from “Laura” to “Moon River,” and was nominated for 19 Academy Awards for his songs, winning four of those Oscars. Some of the duo’s finest compositions were the songs they wrote together during the 1940s. Arlen wrote several of Judy Garland’s greatest hits, and Mercer, though married to someone else, was Garland’s lover for a time in the early 1940s, and he considered her the love of his life. His beautiful song “Skylark,” written with Hoagy Carmichael and brimming with unfulfilled longing, was written for her.

Garland’s great friend Frank Sinatra was one of the key interpreters of both Arlen and Mercer, and when Frank gets a slow, melancholy song about lost love, he’s hard to beat. His styling here is impeccable: pained and haunted, dreamy and hopeless. The song seems simple and straightforward, but it’s full of surprising intervals and clever internal rhymes—it’s one of those sophisticated compositions that begs for a clean, spare performance, and that’s exactly what Frank gives here.

Why Do People Hate Vegans?

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I’m always surprised when a meat eater shows me disrespect and derision when seeing that I choose not to eat meat. I frequently hear the trope that vegans and vegetarians are inherently self-absorbed and annoying to be around. Those who enjoy meat often write that vegans are preachy or difficult. But you know what? In 30 years as a lacto-ovo (dairy- and egg-eating) vegetarian, I’ve never come across that in person.
 
Yes, I’ve politely asked waiters to accommodate my needs. I’ve asked about alternatives to meaty preparations of dishes, and been disappointed when every vegetable dish, soup and salad on a large menu is prepared with meat or meat byproducts. But I have not glared at my tablemates, lectured people on their dietary choices or berated chefs. It is not rude or unreasonable for me (or a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Seventh Day Adventist, keto-diet-follower, gluten-free diner, diabetic, GERD sufferer or anyone else) to ask politely for food that meets our particular needs.
 
I occasionally meet (and often read about) omnivores who see those of us with different culinary needs as being troublesome, inconvenient or even, somehow, threatening. Some have confided in me that they secretly feel squeamish when thinking about having animals killed for their meals, so they resent vegetarians for merely existing. They’re uncomfortable around people who avoid meat since our presence reminds them that the pink packages they purchase from the meat counter were once parts of living beings. Our existence proves that meat isn’t essential to health or happiness, and some sadly find that threatening to their comfort and traditions.
 
Shortly after I established Apple’s Vegetarian Club, I got a threatening anonymous message via intracompany mail. Why? Because I was so bold as to offer recipes and nutritional info and invite people to join me for lunch to discuss health and animal welfare. I didn’t publish polemics or accost people with speeches; I simply made information and encouragement available in a conference room once a month.
 
Over the five years during which I published Style With Substance, a newsletter of cruelty-free product news, I occasionally received hate mail telling me that I was going against God and nature by offering alternatives to cosmetics and household products that maimed and killed animals unnecessarily. Haters wrote that vegetarianism and a search to avoid animal cruelty were proof of my satanic and anti-Christian nature. But did I ever attack people for using makeup tested on rabbits or wearing leather jackets? Not once. I only offered alternatives to those who cared to find out about them. Did my newsletter include screeds or attacks on those with different views? Never. Indeed, I cautioned readers who wanted to contact companies to urge them to stop testing on animals to always be polite and respectful. But some people truly detest those of us who suggest that alternatives to the norm are possible and even beneficial.
 
My mother took my vegetarianism as an affront to her, though I never once put her down for eating meat or said that my choices made me superior. When she ate meat at the same table, I did not glare at or shame her. She chose to interpret my desire to live my life differently as equivalent to a slap in her face and a personal rejection of her. She decided it meant that I thought myself too good for her and her way of life—something I never said nor believed.
 
I’ve read that vegans can be pedantic and overly assertive and confrontational; in my 30 years as a vegetarian, I’ve never witnessed that happen in person. Not once. Do they exist? Sure; I’ve seen articles in which cranky vegans were quoted. I’ve been disgusted by the destructive, ugly, illegal antics of PETA and the Animal Liberation Front and other extremists who have sparked backlashes against gentler supporters of animal welfare. I’ve seen photos of confrontational vegans. But I have not met those people. I’ve met literally hundreds of vegans at vegetarian clubs, festivals and special events over the course of three decades, and made many more vegetarian and vegan friends in the course of a life lived in liberal communities near San Francisco, Seattle and Boston. If nasty vegans were truly so common, don’t you think I might have run across one?
 
I’ve also read and heard people whine that I must hate good food because I don’t eat meat or fish, but my vegetarian daughter and I are foodies who truly love fine dining, sophisticated preparations and presentations of beautifully prepared foods from all over the world. The mischaracterizations of those of us who simply, quietly don’t want to consume animals are common, and mystifying.
 
So why did and do people like Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child and Gordon Ramsay detest vegetarians so? Why do they judge our tastes and choices so harshly, assume that we are rude, tasteless, boorish or unsophisticated? Bourdain wrote, “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.” He described vegans as vegetarians’ “Hezbollah-like splinter faction.” He went on to say that vegetarians are a “persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn” and that “They make for bad travelers and bad guests. … [If] you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. … Being a vegan is a first-world phenomenon, completely self-indulgent.”
 
Julia Child said of vegetarians, “Personally, I don’t think pure vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle. It’s more fear of food—that whole thing that red meat is bad for you. And then there are people who don’t eat meat because it’s against their morals. Well, there’s nothing you can do with people like that. I’ve often wondered to myself: Does a vegetarian look forward to dinner, ever?”
 
Gordon Ramsay, who recently said that he’s following a vegetarian diet himself, used to find it hilarious to hide meat in food prepared for vegetarians who made it clear that they do not wish to eat meat. He delighted in subverting the deeply held beliefs of people who find meat eating problematic for ethical or health or other reasons—something equivalent to sneaking bacon into an Orthodox Jew’s or an observant Muslim’s lunch, or forcing a Hindu to eat steak tartare, or refusing an allergic diner’s request that you leave out an ingredient out of sheer petty spite. It’s not just contemptible—it’s immoral.
 
The truly rude, inhospitable, judgmental and threatening people in this world tend not to be those concerned about eating animals. Those who tease me and tell me I’m oversensitive, stupid, rude or unsophisticated aren’t vegans. I don’t want to tease or attack meat-eaters; I don’t find derision, contempt or lack of respect for strongly held ethical beliefs amusing or acceptable for anyone. So please, before you tease another vegetarian, joke about hiding bacon in their food or roll your eyes if they ask whether there’s chicken stock in something, think again about how you’d feel to be mocked, chided and derided for living according to your private principles. Live and let live.
[Illustration: A Feast for the Eyes, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590]

Hamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Miracle

It’s true: Hamilton totally earns the hype. My sweetheart treated me to a touring company performance of the musical here in Boston last night, and it was the first time either of us had seen it. What a tour de force!

It’s a constantly moving, singing, dancing, quite literally spinning masterpiece of intricate physical, vocal and emotional involvement among cast, crew, musicians, choreographers, set designers and visionaries. Everything is held aloft by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant rhythm, rhyme, and lyrical passion and inspired by Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s erudition.

It starts with a pow and never slows down, and turntables within turntables spin against each other to allow for even more movement and multiple simultaneous stories to play out before your eyes.

There is very little spoken dialog separating the musical numbers—it’s a constantly flowing, beautifully paced river of rhythm, full of emotion yet always supported by a framework of fact, a propulsive political urgency and this historical imperative: Make this moment count. Make your vision real. Fight for what matters. Keep on trying. You can rest another day—acknowledge your power to make a difference right now and turn that potential power into positive action. It’s honest, with no holds barred: thrilling, merciful, inspiring.

Your Baby Monsters: A Mini-Guide to Their Care and Feeding

From left: Twiggus, Flerjoob, Snorgustuflox and Zmoojius

Number 37 in the Cryptids Large and Small Series of Monster Care Guides by Dr. Skeezix Fremulon, World-Renowned Monstrologist

 Welcome to the Wonderful World of Monster Care!

In order to keep your baby monsters healthy and happy during their crucial early months, Dr. Skeezix Fremulon has formulated this short-form guide to baby monster care based on his original three-volume classic guide to a monster’s first year. We at Téras Publishing have provided Dr. Fremulon with key details about your particular monsters so that we may provide you with this customized guide.

First, Meet Your Monsters

 All four of your monsters are crepuscular fneedids, and each first emerged from its hanging cave pod at twilight during a January full moon. As you know, crepuscular monsters prefer to dine at twilight and absolutely avoid noshing during the noon or midnight hours. Because they are young, they need more sleep than adult monsters. They prefer to rest suspended upside-down like bats, but they are versatile beings and can adapt to resting in any position given practice.

Being flabjescent (finger-dwelling) monsters, they sleep with their eyes open so that they can always be aware of micromovements that might require them to rearrange their eyes, claws, antennae or fingers. Do not be alarmed if you awake to find them staring at you. They may actually be sleeping. If they are awake, you are likely to find that they are simply admiring your good looks.

Monster #1: Twiggus

Twiggus is a Jaundiced Pricklebelly. A gentle, jovial soul, her favorite foods are gooseberries and Triscuits. Her gelatinous eye pockets are light-sensitive and they act as night-vision goggles that allow her to see in perfect darkness. Her antennae are ticklish, so be careful that when you flex them, you do so delicately. Twiggus likes nomming lightly on fingertips and rolling in cotton balls. Her favorite performer is Charles Mingus.

Likes: Ginger-lemon tea, being read to during late-morning snack time, doing needlepoint, engaging in philosophical discourse

Dislikes: Chervil, mangoes, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, the letter M

Monster #2: Flerjoob

Flerjoob is a Tangerine Zogulanthropus. Anxious and easily startled, he needs frequently soothing. Though he does not own an automobile, he is always worried that he has misplaced his car keys. Has a tendency to shriek quietly when startled, and he startles easily. His shrieks are barely audible, but they rattle Snorgustuflox, so they are best avoided. When he is nervous, he finds tapioca pudding and golden raisins very comforting.

Likes: Having his teeth counted, being told that he’s a good boy, doing jigsaw puzzles featuring photos of rubber ducks, sharpening crayons

Dislikes: Loud noises, strobe lights, polyester blends, bar soap

Monster #3: Snorgustuflox

Snorgustuflox is a Celery Queezix. Singularly lacking in self-awareness, Snorgustuflox thinks he is easy-going and friendly because he waves at everyone all the time, but his gruff barking voice and aggressive manner often put people off. He is desperate for friendship and will wiggle his ferny antennae with glee when having a conversation with a new friend, but his direct questioning and habit of interrupting may be considered rude. He reacts badly to time-outs and benefits from a more relaxed approach. Gentle reminders and pleasant distractions when he becomes overbearing work best.

Likes: Cilantro-based herb blends, under-ripe bananas, hang gliding, luna moths

Dislikes: Fox News, cough syrup, backgammon, socks

Monster #4: Zmoojius

Zmoojius is a Flangified Multiocularian. A practical joker, she likes bending her eyestalks around corners, sticking them into things and commenting on what she sees. As a rare aubergine-snooted variety, she tends toward self-importance, but she has a good heart and is more likely to pick flowers for you with her clasping flangicles than to pinch you with them. A romantic monster, she enjoys eating Valentine heart candies and listening to soft-rock ballads while staring up at the moon.

Likes: Rom-coms, cornstarch, the way people’s eyes scrunch up when they smile, sphagnum moss

Dislikes: Cider vinegar, dust mites, egg salad, stand-up comedy specials

In Conclusion: Relax and Enjoy Your New Friends

It is normal for baby monsters to sleep for up to 23 hours a day and to cluster together in strange combinations. They play a mini-monster variant of Twister that requires no mat or spinner, so don’t be surprised if you find them gathering and piling up in unexpected ways. They are quite fond of bubble baths and underwater toe rides. They play hide and seek whenever possible, and particularly enjoy hiding in medicine cabinets, refrigerators, underwear drawers and glove compartments.

While your monsters have strong opinions, they are gentle souls at heart. You will find that as long as they receive frequent smiles, kind words and good snacks, they are quite easy to live with and will provide years of enjoyable companionship.

 

Nihilism and Nightlights

little-man

The Little Man movie rating system has been used by the San Francisco Chronicle since 1942. The excited Little Man above signifies a critic’s greatest satisfaction and is equivalent to a four-star rating.

• • • • • • •

The following is one of a series of six film review parodies I wrote for the Sunday Punch section of the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago. In each piece I wrote about outrageous, nonexistent foreign films and reviewed them in the voice of a pompous film critic. This was the second parody of the six.

• • • • • • •

Among the new foreign film releases this season are two films by female directors: Bebe Francobolli’s ode to Dada, Ciao Chow Chow, and Christiane de Geronimo’s children’s thriller, Nightlight.

Francobolli is the daughter of the Suprematist painter Mazlow Molotov (“The Black Russian”) and Constructivist painter Kiri de Kulpe Kloonig (a former courtesan known as “The Dutch Treat”). Bebe’s parents met in Rome at an international stamp-collecting convention and became Italian citizens before their only child was born.

Named Bebe Francobolli (literally Baby Postage Stamps) after her parents’ avocation, she refused to become a philatelist and rejected the art of her ancestors. She turned to Dada, the nihilistic movement that created “non-art,” laughed at overly serious artists and spawned Surrealism.

These influences can be seen clearly in Ciao Chow Chow, in which Bebe herself stars. Translated from Italian into English, and then back into Italian again, with no subtitles, the film begins and ends with Bebe waving goodbye to her beloved Chow dog, Antipasto, symbol of her lost youth and of her ridiculous early films.

Ciao is a parody of a self-parody, masterful in its simplicity and in its bold statement that life is to be laughed at, and that nothing is serious or sacred.

Basically nihilistic, with Dadaist subject matter and camera angles, this film is convoluted and uneven, personalized and stylized, and will make no sense to anyone who has not seen Bebe’s early travelogue films. Yet, Bebe promises that it will be her last film work, and that alone has prompted critical acclaim.

Avant-garde director Christiane de Geronimo’s Nightlight tells the terrifying story of the night the Mickey Mouse nightlight burned out in the Turner household. Little Bobby Turner is forced to face The Clown Puppet, The Vicious Animal Slippers and The Dreaded Man from Under the Bed.

Filmed in black and white, Nightlight captures the shadowy horror of every child’s bedroom, and forces even the adult viewer to come to grips with The Thing in the Closet. Not for the squeamish.

De Geronimo’s earlier attempts at children’s thrillers include The Teddy Bear with No Face, Scream, Barbie, Scream and Revenge of the Katzenjammer Kids, in which comic-strip characters from the past are set loose on an unwitting Nebraska farm town.

Nightlight, the third of her bedtime stories series, features the late French film star Estella de Lumiere in her final role before the dreadful accident on the set of Murder on the Trampoline.

Next month, two recent remakes: Canadian filmmaker and ice-hockey champion Pete Steed’s sport-oriented version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Fujiko Shiatsu’s sumo wrestling remake of The Music Man.