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My sister, Lisa Baird, 5 Years later – posted 10/19/2014

October 19, 2014 5 comments

It has now been 5 years since my sister Lisa died. My family organized a memorial event on November 22, 2009 at the Germantown Jewish Center. Many people attended and quite a few people offered remarks. On this occasion I wanted to remember Lisa by reprinting the remarks of Lisa’s friend, Sherri Grasmuck, as well as my own remarks on that day. I also wanted to add a very artful video tribute to my sister that was created by my son Josh. This also was shown at the 2009 memorial event. The video is about 10 minutes long. The link is http://vimeo.com/7766076

Sherri’s remarks

I would like to begin by publicly thanking Deena for the generous way she opened her home to so many of us who loved Lisa and felt the need to be very close in the final days of her life and for the attentive and brave way she confronted the unbearable process of watching her second child die in her presence. Lisa felt that it was in her mother’s care that she wanted to have her final days and to have that relationship affirmed by those final days spent together. Thus we are even more grateful that you shared these treasured moments and your beautiful canopied bed with so many of us.

Though I have known Lisa for more than 30 years, she remains a mystery to me. Since she died I have been trying to get my head around that. I knew her in Texas in overlapping political circles, and lived with her at two different times in Germantown in the early l980’s, once as single women and once when she lived with John and me in a quasi-group house and through the years between then and now. Lisa was a very happy soul back in those early days. We shared many happy solutions to life’s challenges.

Rather than repairing or repainting ugly chipping walls in my house, we drove to French Creek State park with John and painted on huge rolls of paper, murals of bold red and black streaks. We then nailed them over all the questionable surfaces of my house, deluding ourselves that it worked aesthetically.

We had the good fortune to wear the same shoe size. So when we were shifting from hippydom to our early professional jobs, we managed to share for one solid year, on alternative days, the one acceptable pair of shoes— we had. A pair of flat heeled, blond Spanish leather pumps. We mourned that lost capacity when she moved out- a sweet kind of shoe intimacy.

Another challenge related to our commitment to shared meals in that group house. In those days, Lisa was one of the worst cooks imaginable. There was not a noodle casserole, one of her favorites, which she did not overcook by at least an hour. We coped by giving her one less night to cook than the rest of us. She loved to assure me later in life that she had overcome that early disability. But since one of her favorite contributions to potlucks was strudel made not by her but by Deena, her mother, my doubts lingered.

When I think of Lisa I think of polka dots.

There is a lot to celebrate about polka dots

and a lot to share in that spunky, playful, out-there side of Lisa.

Think about it.

Polka dots are perky, mischievous and stick together, devoted to collective solidarity, ready but huddled on the same surface.

Their mere presence, especially if they appear on someone’s grandmother’s underwear, can bring a smile, like Lisa–an announcement that frivolity is allowed.

Her gray blue eyes, those golf ball pink cheeks, curls and more curls.

The way she leaned forward to tease. Lisa was game.

Always happy to see you, taking time to remember details of our lives that so many others seemed to forget.

Polka dots and Lisa in their essence just make us smile.

Polka dots also huddle together, ready for action and but clustered together on the same surface.

They dramatize, like Lisa, solidarity. Lisa’s was the human kind.

She cared about and was interested in human dramas. No conversation with Lisa failed to include a detailed account of someone else’s life. She knew a lot about the people she worked with, carried those stories around with her. Recently she hired my daughter, Tessa, to do some official translation at a deportation hearing and what struck her most, even more than the intensity of the drama involved was how much time Lisa spent beforehand offering details of the lives of her clients so that she would see them through their human yearnings, even though it was not essential to the task of translating their words.

Lisa enriched so many lives; she had a powerful urge to have children, and to love them deeply, to make them know this. She certainly succeeded in this just as she succeeded in enriching, improving even rescuing the lives of so many others, clients and friends alike.

Polka dots and Lisa, make us smile and feel their solidarity.

But polka dots also float in a mysterious darkness, something below the surface that contrasts with the happy dance. Lisa could delight us with her stories, but they also served to direct our attention away from her present, from her own unresolved personal struggles.

Lisa was a master at looking away from her present.

Listening to Lisa sometimes I wanted desperately to stop her from talking about so many other people, to admit in a shouting voice that she deserved more personal happiness, to face what she needed to do to rescue her heart from manipulation, to rescue herself from the need to fight for her right to love her children in an unfettered way. But Lisa was a master of camouflage, she would trick you, she would turn that gaze on you, on your needs, making you collude in turning away from her deepest longings.

Lisa said to me at the end of her life, “Sher, you know that I’ve has always been my own worst enemy,” her form of, personally taking on the blame for not having gotten her house more in order. Though my head tells me otherwise, my heart rebels and leaves me with a lingering despair that perhaps more could have been done to help her feel more entitled to a defense of her own welfare. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t shake the haunting feeling that we did not find the way to help her rescue herself in a manner similar to the way she rescued others. But Lise was a master at directing our and her own attention toward the happy polka dots and away from the darker isolation of her life. But both were part of the truth of her existence.

I hope Molly and Lou will take comfort in the years to come in the depth of her love for them, by remembering how much meaning and joy they gave to her existence. She held onto life so tenaciously precisely because of them. I am profoundly grateful to Lisa for the way her friendship enriched my life. I share the profundity of the loss that her family feels. But it is a small comfort to me to realize that Lisa is also now free from the burdens she privately endured as she sparkled, danced and delighted the lives of so many of us.

My remarks

This event stirs up many feelings. Pride in the person my sister was. Horrible sadness in the tragedy of her death. Regret at what we will not be able to share. And fear that life will go on its normal way with Lisa forgotten.

I was recently told that in early Polynesian culture, the world was not divided up into the living and the dead. Rather, there were the dead and forgotten, the dead and remembered and the alive.

I am glad we are here today remembering Lisa and honoring her memory. Lisa was an unsung heroine, although I know she would have resisted that characterization. She attended to the small daily tasks of family and the injuries to her clients with zealous devotion. But she also had a bigger picture view that she remained true to. Lisa represented the best of the New Left generation.

In looking through Lisa memorabilia at my mom’s apartment, I came across her old Baldwin School yearbook from 1970. The quote under her picture read, “Hello I love you won’t you tell me your name.”

That totally evokes the Lisa I knew my whole life. Lisa’s magic was her warmth and capacity for empathy. That was a great connector with all kinds of people from all walks of life. She redefined the attorney client relationship to something warmer than the norm. To resurrect an old phrase, Lisa could feel your pain. Instead of turning away from other peoples’ pain, she took the person in. Lisa was about as down-to-earth as you could get.

That empathetic quality was at the heart of Lisa’s politics and her lawyering.

I am reminded of a quote from a beautiful book, Song of Ariran, about a Korean revolutionary, written by Nym Wales, Edgar Snow’s wife.

“I like unhappy people. I understand them. Suffering creates character and human feeling. Cheerful, happy people seem like idiots to me. They seem to fly over the surface of life and never to know its meaning. They are not close to the heart of humanity but are remote and isolated. Perhaps this is why they can remain cheerful.”

Lisa did know about suffering and pain. She was schooled in it and maybe that is why she was close to the heart of humanity. She never seemed to do anything the easy way. I think this was true in many areas of her life. I wish it had not been so true.

I have to say that in her last weeks I never saw even an iota of self-pity. She faced her death with bravery. On mornings when she got up and felt a little better, she would say to me, “I don’t think I’m going to croak today.” Her focus remained her kids and her clients.

Her selfless quality drove me crazy because so often she left herself out of the equation. That is very unusual in this culture, but Lisa was stubborn and pretty much went her own way.

Marion Wright Edelman has said that “service is the rent we pay for living”. I think that was Lisa’s ethic.

She was very precocious politically. She figured out capitalism at age 16. She made it her business to educate me. Lisa was a critical thinker, but she was always engaged in practical politics to help poor and oppressed people. Her activism was lifelong and it never stopped. Lisa never surrendered. I am glad that she got to see Barack Obama elected President.

Lisa had a lighter side with a fine sense of humor. I wanted to mention some random memories of happy times:

* playing stair games at 284 Melrose Road when we were little
* Lisa’s boffo performance as the Artful Dodger in Oliver singing “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” at Friends Central School in 4th grade
* her encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway show lyrics and her frequent singing demonstrating that memory
* her horseback riding, especially with my Dad
* her being Winnie captain at Camp Red Wing where she had fabulous good times and adored being a camper
* her falling asleep in my bedroom early doing her Baldwin homework because she was a morning person
* her long distance swimming, especially with Joyce Abrams
* bobbing contests with me at the Longport Seaview pool in Longport NJ
* just being at the shore in NJ with Rob, Mom and Dad
* teasing Lisa for her whole life with her affectionate way of responding to my teasing by saying, “Shut up, you asshole!”.

To Molly and Lou, I want to say your mother unconditionally adored you. To say she was proud of you does not do justice to the depth of her feelings. She kvelled talking about both of you. Your happiness was probably the most important thing in her life. She was a warrior for both of you and I hope the memory of her love can be a source of strength for you.

To my mom, I want to say thanks for opening up your home and allowing Lise to have as humane an end to her life as possible. Mom, you have always been a tremendous, caring mother. Lise, Rob, Rich, and I have been and are blessed to have you as a mom.

To Lisa’s friends, I again want to say thank you for your amazing support and help during this most trying period. Tish, you were an angel. Bob, John and Sherri, Bebo, and Eva, I will always be grateful for your stepping up at the hardest times. Kate Winkler, I also want to mention because she was there in the trenches for Lise. I think Kate gave Lisa courage to go on and vice versa. I know I am not naming others who I should name and thank. Please do not be offended. Lisa had a wide circle.

Finally, I want to say “Lise, I will miss you.” I was incredibly lucky to have a sister like you. You taught me so much and helped me in a million ways. I miss the simple act of calling you up everyday and chatting. Please know that I will miss you everyday I am alive.

Jose Pepe Mujica: An Unorthodox President Who has Lived His Ideals – posted 10/13/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 10/22/2014

October 13, 2014 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 10/22/2014 under the title “The People’s President.” Jon

Probably there is no more powerful political force on the planet today than cynicism. Nothing acts to prevent activism and positive social change more. Cynicism is the ultimate inaction producer. It is a bulwark of the status quo.

The conventional wisdom is that regardless of political party, you cannot trust any politician. Politicians are like con men – they take you in and then they sell you out. Cynicism makes it hard to believe in any cause or collective effort toward any social justice objective. It promotes doubt in the sincerity and goodness of everybody.

But then along comes someone like Jose Mujica, the President of Uruguay. To friends and foes, he is known as Pepe. Still little known in the United States, Mujica can shut up cynics and force reexamination of fundamental assumptions. He was elected in 2010 and his term ends this year. He is not seeking re-election. Here are some of his accomplishments as President:

* reduced extreme poverty and successfully focused on lessening economic inequality
* raised the minimum wage 50%
* legalized gay marriage
* legalized marijuana so the state can regulate it
* confronted corporate abuses, especially by tobacco companies
* made Uruguay the first Latin American country to ban smoking in enclosed public places
* supported women’s reproductive rights, including passing the most liberal abortion rights law in Latin America
* promoted environmentalism and recycling
* opposed war and militarism
* helped pass a historic affirmative action law to help Afro-Uruguayans who have faced a long history of racism and discrimination
* increased education funding and helped to promote a program which gives all Uruguayan children a laptop and internet access

In a recent profile in the British newspaper, the Guardian, President Mujica said:

“A left-wing vision of the world requires you to imagine a future utopia but one doesn’t have the right to forget the most important thing for every human being is the life they lead now. The fight to make today better must become your central task.”

As president, he has shunned all the perks of the presidential office. He has not lived in the presidential mansion which had a staff of 42. He has stayed in his modest, long-time, one-bedroom home located on the outskirts of Montevideo. He has no servants. He and his wife raise chrysanthemums which they sell at local farmers’ markets. He never wears a tie. He is frequently accompanied by his three-legged dog, Manuela.

Mujica has donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities that benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs. He drives a 1987 VW Beetle. When asked about being a poor president, he quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more, who is poor.”

For anyone who has stereotypes about Latin American dictators or strongmen, Mujica is a total contrast. He describes himself as a left-wing libertarian. He idolized Che Guevara as a young person but he evolved to temper his idealism with flexibility. He has worked persistently to advance reforms inside the Uruguayan political system.

You might wonder about his background. There again, Mujica is anything but typical. In the 1970’s, he was a member of the Tupamaros, left-wing armed urban guerillas. For those who recall it, the Tupamaros were central to the Costa Gavras movie State of Siege.

In 1970, after being recognized in a bar in Montevideo, Mujica engaged in a shoot-out with the authorities. The police shot him six times and he wounded two policemen. A surgeon on call at the local hospital who was a secret Tupamaro member saved his life.

Mujica actually escaped prison several times in the early 70″s. The Tupamaros had some success in tunneling their militants out. Mujica kept getting recaptured. After a recapture in 1972, things turned for the worse for Mujica. A military coup led to an extreme crackdown on the Tupamaros. Mujica ended up spending 13 years in prison in the most squalid conditions. He spent a decade in solitary confinement. He has said his companions were a tiny frog and rats with whom he shared crumbs.

In 1985, Uruguay restored constitutional democracy. An amnesty freed Mujica. After getting out of prison, Mujica reevaluated his politics. He adopted a more pragmatic left-wing stance. He and other Tupamaros joined the Frente Amplio, a broad coalition that included liberals, social democrats, Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists.

The Frente Amplio has proven to be a powerful vehicle for electoral change. Politicos like Mujica worked to turn activists and the uncommitted into voters. The results have been very impressive. Since 2004, The Frente Amplio has arguably turned Uruguay into the most liberal and tolerant society in Latin America. It is notable that Uruguay has the lowest illteracy rate in Latin America.

Mujica has been quite vocal that Uruguay should not go the way of more advanced industrial societies. He has raised prophetic concerns about the environmental cost of a culture based on acquisition, greed, and growth.

“What are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you what would happen to this planet if the Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans. How much oxygen would we have left? Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”

In the last year, Mujica’s popularity in Uruguay has fallen off. At the time of his election, he had a 66% popularity rating. Last month, that number had plunged to 43%. When asked about it Mujica responded, “I don’t give a damn. If I worried about pollsters, I wouldn’t be President”. Part of his appeal has been his blunt, down-to-earth speaking style.

I think over the last decade Americans have paid inadequate attention to Latin America. So much attention has been lavished on the Middle East with its history of endless vicious wars. Latin America has pioneered a far more creative, positive way forward. Multiple Latin countries with democratically elected governments have struggled to address poverty with some positive results. Uruguay is among those countries and we could learn from its example.

As for Mujica, he says he will be happy to go back to full-time farming. He did manage to govern without giving up his revolutionary ideals. His story should be a movie.

Music Review: “Tooth and Nail” by Billy Bragg – posted 10/5/2014

October 5, 2014 Leave a comment

It is a little late to be reviewing Billy Bragg’s 2013 CD, “Tooth and Nail”, but I wanted to write an appreciation. It is a great album all the way through. It is rare to find an album that has so many consistently good songs.

For those who do not know Billy Bragg (and I have been surprised to find many who do not know of him), he is a British leftist folk/rocker. He has been around, performing for almost 30 years. The closest American parallel I could think of is Phil Ochs. Like Phil did, Bragg plays at many political events in addition to his touring. I heard he was recently in Ferguson Missouri which does not surprise me. Bragg is an activist musician.

I first learned of Bragg when I heard Worker’s Playtime, a fine album he cut in 1988. He has been knocking around since then. Artists like Bragg seem to operate outside the celebrity machine. You will not find him on Access Hollywood. While it is extremely difficult for musicians to survive and make a living, Bragg has succeeded.

“Tooth and Bone” is a mix of political and love songs. Bragg has a knack for writing in an appealing, non-polemical way. Plus his songs are melodic. I cannot think of any current political songwriter who is as skilled as Bragg in combining the personal and the political. I would acknowledge there does not seem to be much competition. Probably those who would compete cannot reach any mass audience so they remain unknown.

My favorite song on the album is his version of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”. That song is timeless and universal. I believe it originally appeared on Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. It could have been written today. I actually think Bragg’s version is better than the original. I imagine it is hard to write songs about homelessness but Bragg’s version captures the sadness and hopelessness. In hearing the song, it did make me think that it is surprising there are not more songs like it.

Bragg writes, “My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road, a hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod..” Now it is like millions have trod that road but it is amazing how little we talk about it or sing about it.

Maybe it is too real a topic for singers to take on especially since most singers are likely so removed from it. Considering the numbers of people experiencing homelessness, there should be more songs about it than there are. I do think we are anesthetized as a society to not feel and to not imagine. We generally lack the ability to put ourselves in the position of the other.

I also really liked “There Will Be a Reckoning”. The lyrics are about attempts to divide people by hate. I assume Bragg is talking about racism, sexism and homophobia. The song has some fire and it is like an anthem against hate. I think the title is cool.

The song “Over You” is poetry. I am not sure I can say exactly what it is about but the song moves well and the words seem right. I really like it.

There are some love songs on the album too. I will mention “Swallow my Pride”. That song speaks to the need to own up to mistakes. Also “Handyman Blues”…that song is one I can particularly relate to not being a Mr. Fix-it.

The album ends on a positive note. “Tomorrow’s Going to be a Better Day” is a mature, glass-half-full perspective. The tone is not whiny negativity. On the contrary, it is upbeat and reflects Bragg’s activist bent.

Listening to Bragg made me wonder about the decline of political folk music. Maybe I am too removed from contemporary music but the political music genre seems moribund. I suppose the music scene follows the culture generally. The 60’s revival of political folk followed the Movement. Our lack of political music reflects the sadly internalized world view that dominates our social lives now. In a world of every person committed to a best private outcome, music is mostly an endless succession of love songs. The dark side may get covered but not in a politically aware way.

If you are unfamiliar with Billy Bragg, just go to youtube and check him out. If you are familiar, consider buying this CD. Independent musicians need the support and I fully expect you will love it. I sure have and that is after many listens.

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