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Legacy II: Elvis, LBJ, and My Father

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Elvis Presley

Cover of Elvis Presley

The night Elvis was introduced to America via The Ed Sullivan Show, my mother, a Frank Sinatra worshipper, was amused: sitting on the red loveseat in the living room, knitting as usual, her mouth twitched at the corners as she tried to hold back a smile of…in hindsight I’d say it was ridicule. My older sister alternately screamed and swooned, down on the floor where she always sat in a weird double-jointed position I couldn’t get myself into no matter how hard I tried. Ten years old, I watched Elvis gyrate on the tube, confused by my mixed-up responses, at least partially hormonal. And my father? He was the only one in the family who knew exactly what he thought of this person.

Arggh!” he half growled, half shouted, waving a muscular arm at the television in disgust and dismissal. “Write this jerk’s name down on a piece of paper, and ten years from now take a look at it. You won’t even remember who he is!”

Toby Sheiner (Dad)

Toby Sheiner (Dad)


This, of course, became one of my family’s most famous stories, a favorite of my sister’s and mine. My poor father’s been dead and buried since January 1980, and we still tell the tale, to which most people respond with, “Wow, he sure picked the wrong guy to say that about!” After all, he could’ve said it about a million other singers who offended him: say, Carl Perkins. Carl Perkins, you know…Aarggh, forget it!

I was reminded of my father’s hapless prediction this morning during a news story about Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy; it brought to mind another prediction of my father’s—except this one was right. LBJ went



down in history as a presidential failure for continuing, even escalating, the war in Vietnam. Not to mention his path to the presidency; anyone alive at the time still recalls the image of Johnson with his hand raised to take the presidential oath on Air Force One, Jackie Kennedy in a pink blood-stained suit at his side. I was old enough to remember, yet young enough to equate this image with one of a murderer: for a long time I believed Johnson was central in a conspiracy of assassination. (While I still believe JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy, I’ve ruled out Johnson as the hit-man-in-chief.) In any case, what was overshadowed by Johnson’s unfortunate path to power and missteps with the war was his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all the other socially progressive legislation of his administration: Medicare, The War on Poverty, food stamps…the social safety net that lies torn and tattered even as I write about it. My father talked about all this on the day that LBJ declared he would not make a run for another term. Then and there my father predicted that “Someday they’ll realize Johnson was one of our greatest presidents.”

Does my father’s clarity regarding LBJ cancel out his inaccurate assessment of Elvis, or even tip the scales a little in his favor? I hate to say it, but I think not. He was so monumentally wrong to think Elvis was a passing trend that his intellectual legacy suffered greatly, no matter how smart he might’ve been with regard to presidential politics. Still…I’ll raise a glass and toast dear old dad later on today, and while I’m at it give Lyndon Johnson his due—belated, but long deserved. Will I include Elvis in my toast? Always.


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An Open Letter to Senator Barbara Boxer

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Boxer speaks at an event.

Boxer speaks at an event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just sent the following email to Senator Barbara Boxer:

Dear Senator Boxer:

I recently listened, via podcast, to your speech at the Commonwealth Club. I agree with and am grateful for your point of view on what’s happening in our country, and your policy ideas for repairing some of it, like raising the minimum wage for everyone and addressing climate change on a tangible level. However, I’m sorry to say that some of your perspective is myopic and limited.

When you say those who “play by the rules” ought to reap the rewards of the “American Dream” you…discount me and every other artist in this country. I am a writer, and I’m speaking as well for painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, and everyone else who commits themselves to bring truth and beauty into the world. We are consistently told we do not “play by the rules” because we don’t buckle down and go to work for some corporation or other. Similarly, when you say those who “work hard,” you omit the disabled population who cannot “work hard” at most of the jobs available in our culture. When you say government must step in when “the middle class is in trouble” you omit the poorest of the poor.

In fact, Senator, by your choice of language you are dismissing everybody whose personality or disposition doesn’t fit into the capitalist mold. Some of us just can’t make it in the usual 9-5 routine—and we pay for it, believe me, we pay for it.

I am the mother of a disabled son who is now nearly 50. Between raising him myself (and a daughter) through brain surgeries and seizures, while still trying to write (not to mention being one of, as Erica Jong calls us, the “whiplash generation” of women who had the game switched on us midway), I have had a checkered work history that’s left me with a paltry amount of Social Security and nothing else to support me now that I’m 68 and getting older every day. My son is poor, I am poor, and I’m told it is my fault for not playing by the rules. You should know, however, that I have worked extremely hard in my life by necessity, and it continues. Compared to my still-married friends who’ve retired to Florida or Costa Rica, my life in East Oakland is deprived. I am not complaining: I’m glad I didn’t spend my entire life in some office (as it is I had to spend too much time in them). But I do want you to know that I and millions of us who don’t fit the American Dream mold deserve a decent life just as much as the middle class corporate workers, who I readily admit have also struggled without reward or justice because of what’s become of this country.

Despite my criticism of your language and what it might reflect, I still thank you for holding down the liberal fort in Congress.

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Black Panther Free After 44 Years

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The Hour of Sunlight in Prison by Erik Reuland

The Hour of Sunlight in Prison by Erik Reuland

Marshall Eddie Conway isn’t the first Black Panther to be released after decades in prison, only the most recent, and every time a political prisoner goes free it’s cause for celebration. I’m celebrating by searching for a correspondence program, or a “pen pal” as we called them in grade school, to write to. I’m doing this because when Conway was asked how he got through 44 years in jail he didn’t say “Allah,” or “Jahweh” or reading the Christian Bible or the Koran or Torah; he said it was the love and support of people on the outside that gave him the hope he needed to get through.


At 68 Conway is one of the most mentally stable ex-prisoners I’ve ever seen and heard. He didn’t just “get through” those 44 years, either: he continued doing political activism, initiating a program of older prisoners mentoring young ones as they entered the prison, and somehow extending youth programs to outside communities. He’s been out less than 24 hours (how does Amy Goodman get these people on her show?!), and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more of Conway’s activities as time goes by.

Unlike some of DN’s prison stories, especially those about solitary confinement, I was able to watch this one without freaking out. It was when Conway said people on the outside had helped him that it occurred to me to write to a political prisoner. I’ve been beside myself about the growing prison industrial complex, but I’m averse to doing political work that involves meetings and listening to people spout rhetoric, no matter whose side they’re on. And my emotional reactions to jails and solitary send me running from that particular area of human torture. As we all know, however, I can sit home and scribble. I won’t play the same role in someone’s life as Eddie’s friends and family played in his—they helped get him out—but maybe I can engage someone’s mind for a few minutes a week.


In the course of researching pen pal programs, I was inspired by an article written by someone who corresponds with political prisoners herself. Molly Fair says, in part:

The powers that be lock people in cages, feed them nasty food, deny them medical attention and education, surveil every aspect of their life and communications with the outside world, deprive them of fresh air and sunlight, deem them criminals (often based solely on the color of their skin, nationality, and/or class background) and profit from this system which is incredibly inhumane to all involved.  

I encourage everyone to see the interview with Marshall Eddie Conway on DN. From Goodman’s introduction:

Supporters describe Conway as one of the country’s longest-held political prisoners. He was convicted of killing a Baltimore police officer in 1970, for which he has always maintained his innocence. The shooting occurred at a time when federal and local authorities were infiltrating and disrupting the Black Panthers and other activist groups…the FBI was also monitoring Conway’s actions as part of its counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO

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The Question

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God quoteWho has and has not? That is the question of our time.

You know that saying: I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes, until I met a man with no feet. Material wealth is relative. Well, up to a certain point, anyway. Or I should say, down to a certain point. When you don’t even have money for necessities like food and housing, it’s no longer relative. But otherwise it is. For instance, for most of my life I thought I was sort of poor—I used to call it broke, actually—until I really was! I can pay for necessities, but at a fairly low level. Still, I frequently recall with wonder the days when I could occasionally rent a car, and, even further back, when I owned one. I even went on a few seaside vacations. And I thought I was poor!

I just visited friends who think of themselves as ordinary people who, like everyone else, are struggling to get by. Their refrigerator is bursting with vast containers of food bought in bulk, and they frequently go out to eat. To many people they possess unimaginable riches. All relative.

Still, what’s happened here in America is unspeakably unjust. Nobody should go to work every day and be poor. I don’t care who they are, what kind of education they had, or what kind of work they do. When I worked as a secretary I wasn’t exactly poor, but I could barely make ends meet. That is the worst life of all: to get up every morning, go to a place you have to stay at for nine hours, do someone Nickel and Dimedelse’s tedious or difficult work, and have hardly any time to yourself or your family and friends, yet still go without, pinch pennies, beg the phone company not to shut you down. Some people work two and three jobs these days and live in hotel rooms. (Read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed). I’m poorer now than when I worked for low wages, but at least my time is my own. The working poor are in a terrible position.

I don’t know if everyone knows this—younger people, for instance—but it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time in America if you had a job you might actually own a house, a car, feed a family of four, and even save some money! For the past 50 years workers’ lives have gone steadily downhill. We’re moving towards becoming the England of Charles Dickens’ time. It’s taken a lot of maneuvering on the part of the upper classes, busting unions and such, but now they have the majority of the population dancing like puppets on strings.

It’s a complicated, convoluted and depressing situation, and I haven’t much else to say about it, so I’ll move on to another source of my depressed mood, trivial by comparison…


derek-jeterI —we—were lucky enough for over a decade to watch a fantastic team of New York Yankees, with the Core Four at its center: Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte. One by one they left, not only the Core but other greats as well. All but Posada, who was shamelessly and unforgivably pushed out, retired by choice. Captain Jeter, a fan favorite with his boyish dimpled good looks and extraordinary playing, is the last to go. I’ve had trouble enough continuing to follow the Yankees since Joe Torre was bumped and Girardi the incompetent became manager, so once Jeter leaves I don’t know what I’ll do.

I’ve tried to develop love for one of my home teams—the SF Giants or the Oakland A’s—but it just doesn’t fly. They never seem to hold my attention long enough to get to know them, let alone root for them. The A’s are constantly coming and going, thanks to Billy Beane and his Moneyball sabermetrics system. The Giants are erratic: champions one year, in the basement the next. I suppose I could jump on board, with my masochistic son, and root for the other New York team, but I don’t like losing all the time. So much for them Mets.

As the Yankees have crumbled, so too has my enthusiasm for writing about baseball. Anyone who’s followed DIRTY LAUNDRY for any length of time might have noticed I blogged a lot on the topic at first, and slowly dribbled down each season. Of course, my posting in general has fallen off, from daily to every other day to a few times a week to a few times a month. Shit happens. I don’t know what’s in store for my blog this baseball season, but I’ve been thinking of reorganizing anyway, combining DIRTY LAUNDRY with my business blog, BOOKBUSTER, and concentrating on the writing life and business. Stay tuned.

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Journalism: A Noble Profession

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English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...

Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is unfortunately true that when most people hear the word journalism they automatically envision reporters descending on tragic scenes shouting ghoulish questions. “How’d you feel when you saw your son’s dead body?” Or they blame the ruthless papparazzi for Princess Diana’s death, losing sight of journalism’s many heroic professionals: Woodward and Bernstein, Walter Cronkite, and, more recently,  Amy Goodman (Democracy Now), Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Jeremy_ScahillPowerful Mercenary Army),  and Julian Assange (WikiLeaks).

Then there’s Edward Snowden who, though not exactly a journalist, blew the whistle on NSA’s busy activities. Incidentally, Snowden  is the seventh person accused by the Obama administration of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by leaking secrets to the news media.  Historically, only three people have been accused by all previous presidents of violating this law. Whatever happened to our super liberal, transparent President-elect? But that’s a blog for another day.

Without the courage of investigative reporters, Richard Nixon might have served out his full term, and our nation most likely would have witnessed an entirely different history. Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to The New York Times. They revealed that the government knew early on that the Viet Nam war could probably not be won, that continuing it would lead to more casualties than publicly admitted, and that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied to the public and to Congress.

My point is that journalists go after the truth and shout it out to We the People. We need them: we cannot rely on governments to tell us the truth. Sure, some media deliver a hefty dose of propaganda with their reportage, or even tell outright lies; still, not all are dishonest. Without reporters we would know a lot less than we do, and those in power would get away with even more than they already do.

thI don’t presume to put myself in the same category as Woodward and Bernstein, but I’ve done my share of newspaper work and learned a thing or two in the process. For several years I was Assistant Editor at the Woodstock Times, a weekly paper in upstate New York. While it was a great opportunity for me to learn the news biz, especially how to cover topics I cared about, I also covered local news, some of which nobody else would do—like the town’s new sewer system, or the ambulance bought with donations.

During one of those assignments that seemed, to all outward appearances, a boring write-by-rote, I was happily surprised by a hit of that rarefied air breathed by reporting’s upper echelon.  Unlikely as it seems, it was at a meeting of county agencies starting up a day care program that I grokked the full nobility of my profession.

As at most of these kinds of gatherings, the movers and shakers sat on fabric-covered chairs behind a long desk facing an audience of citizens and reporters, the latter relegated to ice-cold metal chairs placed around the fringes of the room. I sat with my legs crossed, notepad on my knee, head down, scribbling half shorthand, half my own unique symbols, hair falling in my face. Suddenly an extraordinary physical sensation came over me: my body felt like a conduit into which words were poured, processed and translated into ideas of supreme importance. My hand followed a kinesthetic route taking notes that would eventually be typeset onto newspaper and distributed to thousands of readers. I was nothing more and nothing less than a channel through which information was transmitted. Hardly a top-rate job description and verging on  corniness I know—yet it gave me a sense of wild exaltatation. With hindsight I’ve come to regard that moment as one of being well-used: I was performing a necessary task, contributing to the community in which I lived. Go ahead, laugh—but I felt close to heroic.

Now that my moment of heroism is on record, I’ll confess that I seldom was. One day I answered the office phone to an anonymous caller reporting on a cross-burning in front of a house purchased by a mixed-race couple about 15 miles away in Phoenecia. I immediately started calling around for more information. In my young naivete—I was barely 30—I questioned cops, realtors, and shopkeepers as casually as I might ask what they they thought of the new ambulance.

Late that night I got a call at home. A woman’s voice commanded, “I want it stopped!” No hello, no self-identification.

“Who is this?” I burning cross

“Never mind that. I’m doing you a favor. If you persist with what you’re doing, you will be watched. Consider this a friendly warning. The next one won’t be so friendly.”

“What is this?” I actually laughed. “The Lou Grant Show?”

“This is real life, honey, not television. It’s not one of your hippie games either.” Before hanging up on me she repeated, “Believe me, I’m doing you a favor.”

I hung up and sat by the phone, dazed. I supposed these things happened, but nothing like it had ever happened to me, so it did seem like a television show.

For the next few days I went about my life, the call never far from my thoughts. I didn’t investigate the story any further. It is one of the things I regret having done, or not done, in my life. It’s true I was in no way prepared to cover such a dangerous story—I was learning the news business “on the job”—but I wish I’d asked the publisher or another reporter to help me; we might’ve done it together. To my credit, I did tell both the publisher and a reporter about it, but the former only cracked a few jokes and promptly forgot it, and the reporter, full of righteous indignation, swore she’d ship off her daughter to stay with grandparents while she charged into the fray. She too promptly forgot the forgot about it.

I did not. To this day I frequently think about that cross and my inaction. The incident looms large in the narrative of my life. Not only do I regret dropping the ball for the moral lapse it represents, but I sometimes wonder, had I followed the story and exposed the Klan, would my career have benefitted? Who knows: I might’ve won a Pulitzer! Or been hailed far and wide for my bravery! Offered a job with the New York Times! It’s not that far-fetched; such things happen every day, so why not to me?  Because I wimped out, that’s why. Out of fear I did nothing, and I never heard another word about the local Klan, the cross-burning, or the couple who’d been their target. A few years later I did testify at county hearings looking into the Klan’s activities, but nothing came of that either.

I do not lightly set this down here for the world to read. Why, I asked myself, should I publicly announce that when the shit hit the fan I turned tail and ran? I failed to live up to my principles. I decided, however, not to chicken out this time, though I can’t imagine anything will be gained here. Maybe I just wanted to say that I still believe in the nobility of journalism. Despite some of the terrible things done in its name, newspaper and online reporting is one of the few real sources of People Power, a rare avenue of Truth. Don’t give up on journalists.

Related Articles:
The Regime’s Efforts To Silence Whistleblowers And Intimidate Reporters Have Been Historic by DEBRA HEINE

Living In Post Time

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The famous "black and white" LAPD po...

The famous “black and white” LAPD police cruiser (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are living in a Post time: Post-Nine-Eleven, Post-Stress, Post-Trauma, Post-Modern. Think about it: the number of people, and not only war vets, living with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Post-Traumatic Brain Injury has multiplied geometrically since the turn of the century. My son Daryl, for instance, is, at nearly 50, Post-TBI—Traumatic Brain Injured—though I suppose we could skip the Post. He is brain injured, period. Bad enough he was born neurologically compromised; in 2004 a driver in a hurry ran a red light and threw him 30 feet or so onto hard pavement. His brain has never fully recovered; if anything, it’s gotten worse and may still be worsening.

Post-Thanksgiving, the Friday after the feast, we were returning from a visit to my daughter and family, a short delicious visit that had nearly been canceled when my grandson had a Crohn’s flare-up, but was merely truncated instead. Laden with leftovers, we entered airport security, and therein lies my sad traumatic tale.

The uniforms at LAX were a bit testy, and who could blame them, having lost a TSA to gunfire a mere three weeks ago. I was cleared for quick screening—didn’t even have to take off my shoes—so while I zipped right through, Daryl had to pass the Four Stations of Security: (1) putting shoes, jacket and bags on the conveyor belt; (2) walking through some kind of alerting device; (3) standing, hands raised, before a full-body X-ray; and (4) letting the TSA go through his food bag. Pre-screened or not, they’d looked through my food bag too, and decided the stuffing was really stuffing and the pie was made of pumpkin. I am not brain damaged, so I didn’t mind; but Daryl verbally pounced. Eager to dump half a century of personal struggle on someone, anyone, and heedless of our Post-Everything world, he yelled, “I’m an American citizen! While you look through my food some foreigner is blowing up the plane!”

Any non-comatose person reading this knows what followed, more or less : handcuffs, uniforms, TSAs replaced by LAPD, my tears, Daryl’s lunatic ravings, and a hotel room instead of a seat on the plane

I sit here now, having been momentarily inspired to create art of the experience, but in fact it is not art. It isn’t even much of a story. It is just another event in the life of the mother of / and a person with / disabilities.

Doris and Me

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The Sweetest DreamThis morning I started re-reading Doris Lessing‘s The Sweetest Dream. It’s one of her realistic novels (as opposed to her “space fiction”), published in 2002. The story revolves around a British household of extended family and friends during the Sixties. I wanted to read Lessing, and chose something I’ve only read once,  having OD’d on my favorites as many as five times.

I would’ve written this yesterday, but I was torn between doing so or continuing with a YA novella I’ve been revising. I knew what Doris would say: she’d say it’s a stupid waste of time for writers to go on and on about other writers, that I’d be better off creating my own work, or reading someone new. I faced the same conundrum today, but decided to defy my guru.

Doris Lessing was—still is—my guru. I say this in all sincerity, not as a joke or clever wisecrack. What else do you call a person whose words you hung onto for 30+ years, memorized, absorbed? Someone whose eyes you looked through when you looked at the world? Whose perspective informed your own observations and conclusions about politics, society, human behavior? Her writing wasn’t gorgeous; she didn’t go in for fancy flourishes like Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton. Her language was plain, almost bare at times: she simply said what she had to say. What was so outstanding about Lessing’s writing was The Truth writ large. When I opened a Doris Lessing book I felt myself to be in the presence of Truth. I suppose it’s that her version of the truth is one with which I agree, though I didn’t know it until each gem made its way from her brain to mine.  As she said, you can’t tell anyone anything they don’t already know.  I felt less lonely when I read a Doris Lessing book. When I was at my 4Gated Citymost down and out, re-reading ShikastaShikasta or The Four-Gated City was a better cure than therapy or massage or any of the commonly prescribed stress-relievers.

Doris Lessing’s most famous, endlessly lauded book, The Golden Notebook, was far from my favorite. Critics and scholars dubbed it The Great Feminist Novel, much to Lessing’s distress. I certainly liked it, and discovered plenty of truth in it—but I’ve always thought that calling  TGN her best book is like saying Stevie Wonder’s best song is I Just Called to Say I Love You. Only a simpleton would judge Stevie Wonder’s huge output of complex, meaningful music by that bit of three-minute treacle. Not that TGN is treacle—Lessing could never write that badly—but many of her books are more deserving of an audience that might not have been inclined to read them after TGN. The fact that she was annoyed almost to the point of fury when it became the standard-bearer for feminism ought to be a clue to critics that they’re on the wrong track here.

When my friend Corky turned 60 she asked friends to come to her party dressed as a woman we admired. I put on a dowdy black-and-white polyester dress from the Salvation Army, a pair of low black heels resembling Doris’s signature shoes, pulled my hair into a bun, and wore no makeup. I read aloud from Shikasta in a British accent. I was surprised at how easily I slid into her persona. The dress-up transformed me, and I’ll never forget the way I felt that night.

Doris LessingOne of my lifelong goals was to go to London and meet Doris (I did meet her stateside; more of that later). When Kate Millett wrote about having tea with Doris Lessing, I longed to do the same. In the mid-90′s I had the good fortune to meet Fay Weldon, who called after seeing my review of her in the Bay Guardian, and took me out to dinner. She knew Doris, lived not far from her; I thought I was one step closer to London tea, now revised to “Tea With Doris and Fay.” I never made it. It’s good to have fantasies, and I ‘m not regretful. What I do regret is the way I behaved when I met Doris in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge

I was visiting  the city for the first time, scoping it out as a potential place to live. I fell in love, as so many  do, on the second day, and my bags were mentally packed. I was hanging out in a Mission cafe reading one of the free alternative papers when that face popped out at me: that face with not a spot of makeup over wrinkles, her steely gray hair tied severely in a bun, the eyes, as always, gazing out over great landscapes of time and space. My heart skipped a beat, and I read the caption: Doris Lessing would be speaking at a luncheon in San Francisco ten days from now, the day after my flight back East.  Without a thought I left the cafe and quickly walked back to the friend’s flat at which I was staying. I phoned my son to tell him my plans had changed, that I was staying an extra week. He wasn’t home, but Gina, a housemate, took the message.  (When I did go home, Gina told me she’d gone to the library after my call, where she ran into her mother and another friend of mine, and she told them I was staying longer in SF to see Doris Lessing. Gina performed for me, imitating the women’s histrionics: “Doris Lessing? Oh my god, oh my god!! She must be so excited! Overwhelmed! My God, Doris Lessing!” Perhaps Gina exaggerated, but I don’t think  so.)

Meanwhile, back in SF, I called the number in the paper to buy a ticket for the event. They were sold out. No matter. The ticket seller put my name on a list in case anyone canceled. Every day twice a day for the next ten days I called to see if anyone had canceled; every day twice a day he told me they had not. No matter; I was going. Since I had no Lessing books with me, I went in search of one for her to sign. I wanted a hard cover version of my favorite, The Four-Gated City. I must’ve called every bookstore in San Francisco—and back then there were quite a few bookstores in San Francisco—but found only a paperback version. I inquired about some of her other titles in hard copy: zero. I began to reconsider my plans to move West: “I’m not sure,” I told people, “I want to live in a city where I can’t find a hardback copy of The Four-Gated City.” New Yorkers got it. In the end, I bought a paperback, though I had one at home.



I continued my endless calling for a ticket; considering my peskiness, the guy in the ticket booth was extremely tolerant. When I told him so, he said he’d had so many hysterical calls from women since Lessing’s visit was advertised that he was used to it. He assured me that my name was first on the waiting list.

The morning of the event I rose early to get ready. With or without a ticket I was going to the Four Seasons Hotel—lunch was in the majestic Redwood Room. If I didn’t get to attend the luncheon, I’d sit in the lobby and wait for her arrival, and wait for her departure as well. I’d ask her to sign my book, and perhaps talk to her. Now, I happen to have a miserable history of meeting and greeting celebrities; for someone who turns to jelly in the presence of her idols, I seem to meet a lot of them. The epitome of my repeated self-mortifications occurred when I bumped into Barbra Streisand at a HoJo in upstate New York. I was not going to blow it with Doris. I was older and wiser. I knew myself better, knew I’d have to be cautious with my words. I hadn’t yet figured out just what words I would use, but I was aiming for short, sweet, and sane. (You can smell the smoke already, can’t you? This is why I don’t write mysteries.)

That morning, as I dressed to hit the street, the phone rang. When I picked it up, my best friend the ticket man informed me someone had canceled and he had a ticket for me. Unsurprised I thanked him and finished dressing.

The Redwood Room was almost full by the time I got there. Afraid I wouldn’t get a decent seat, I looked around frantically and saw Doris at one of the big round tables up front. I needn’t have panicked: as with my ticket, a chair was waiting for me at the table next to hers. When I sat down in it I looked over at Doris; she turned towards me and our eyes immediately connected.  I am not lying. Nor was I hallucinating. It was as if we knew each other.

The luncheon was sponsored by some suburban book club and, to my shock, most of the women at my table had never read a Doris Lessing book! Imagine if I hadn’t gotten in, if I, who loved and appreciated her work, couldn’t attend, while women whodoris_lessing were apparently just eating lunch and idly passing time surrounded her. I was appalled. Still, I was civil to them, and even enjoyed chatting through a lovely meal I’ve now forgotten except for dessert—a kiwi-berry tart with whipped cream. As I scarfed it down, Doris took the podium. By now I’ve forgotten what she talked about—it was almost 30 years ago, and I’ve seen her twice more since. After her talk and a Q&A (during which I forced myself to remain seated and silent), a line formed and people took their books to be signed. I was fifth on line. I stood there repeating inwardly over and over, “Say nothing, Marcy, do not open your mouth.” As Doris signed my book I stood beside her and suddenly, entirely unbidden, these words fell out of my mouth: “This is the happiest day of my life.”

I cringed. I cringe to this day. You are no doubt cringing. Doris, however, did not cringe. She simply lifted her head, gave me a look of utter disgust and said “Oh, don’t exaggerate!” As I slunk away, tears in my eyes, I paused to turn around and saw Doris looking after me with something that seemed like regret. Knowing what I know from her writing, I like to think she regretted that we were in a situation where it was difficult to have an honest exchange. Maybe she saw the intention behind my idiotic words and regretted I hadn’t found a better way to communicate. Neither had she: we were victims of circumstance. At least, I like to think that is what she thought. For all I know she was just relieved I hadn’t tried to stab her, since I was clearly insane.

NOBEL-LITERATURE-LESSING-FILESI did move to SF. It turned out that Lessing had good friends here, and, as I said, I saw her twice more. By the third time I was writing regularly for local publications, and a tiny bit more poised, so I asked her for an interview. She said “Not this time—too busy,” with no indication she recognized me (so I fervently hoped).

I knew she was getting on. I worried about it, knowing her death would mean no more words from her. I forgot that with 55 books I will have Doris Lessing to re-read for the rest of my life—after all, I’m no spring chicken myself.  When a friend emailed me with news of her death two hours after the fact, I was only surprised for a second. Then I began reading all the obits, tweets and accolades, glad she was being thoroughly acknowledged. (I wonder if that would have happened without the Nobel.)

A Proper MarriageIronically, it took me three starts many years ago before I took to Doris Lessing. It was in the early Seventies that a friend recommended A Proper Marriage, the second book in her Children of Violence bildungsroman. I couldn’t get into it. Some time later I tried again; still, no dice. The third time, however, it took; who knows why? I’m just grateful I kept trying, something I probably wouldn’t do today: once I was on Lessing’s wavelength I stayed there. It’s not a bad place to be. Thank you, Doris, for all the hours of joy and camaraderie and comfort you’ve given me. You helped get me through this life. And I’m not exaggerating.

“Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty, and vice versa. 
Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.” – Doris Lessing, from the 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook


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