Walks with My Granddaughter Eva

Our granddaughter, Eva, has just been elected Ms. President of our town, Westport, CT). We couldn’t be prouder.

In my declining years, I’m leading a charmed life. Here Peggy and I are living in Westport, CT, just down the street from our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and five of our grandchildren.

Here’s a picture of our house where we moved just three years ago:

Our grandsons, Oscar (10), Orlando (8), Markandeya (6), and Sebastian (2) usually stay overnight on Fridays and we have breakfast together Saturday mornings. All of them (except little Sebastian) love baseball, so Peggy and I spend a lot of time cheering them on in their Little League games.

About three nights a week, Peggy and I also have dinner at our daughter’s beautiful home. And with the advent of warmer spring nights, we’ve been eating outdoors, where we share not only Maggie’s gourmet meals, but the day’s “roses and thorns,” i.e. all of us taking turns telling about the highpoint and low point of our days.

When my turn comes, my “rose” is often an account of my morning walk with my granddaughter, Eva (12), who is the reigning “Ms. President” of Westport. [That’s right, Eva recently ran (albeit unopposed) for our town’s Ms. President and was elected based on her compelling presentation of a platform promoting planet-saving vegetarianism.]

In any case and for years, Eva has often joined me for my daily four-mile fast walks (which are getting slower all the time). This often happens on weekends, but sometimes we end up walking together to her school about two and a half miles distant. About half-way through our routine, we invariably stop for coffee at Starbucks and spend about 30 minutes just talking there on the shore of the Saugatuck River that runs through Westport’s heart. Our conversations are uniformly wonderful.

We often discuss what we’ve seen and heard lately on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman‘s Monday through Friday news program which Eva watches faithfully every day. (I’ve told Eva that if she continues her practice, she’ll end up knowing more about the world than most of her teachers at her Pierrepont School which she absolutely loves.)

Pierrepont School, Westport, CT

Both Eva and I are admirers of Malcolm X. So, we’ve watched and discussed Spike Lee’s film together (along with “Fahrenheit 451,” “Soul,” and “My Octopus Teacher”). We’ve also read Malcolm’s autobiography, and we’ve talked about Les Payne‘s latest biography about our hero, The Dead Are Arising (which I’m sure Eva will read on her own when she gets a bit older). I can imagine her producing some kind of research paper on Malcolm in high school or college. Anyhow, we often talk about X; Eva is intensely interested — as she is about almost everything.

And our conversations are so much fun.

For instance, just this morning, we had maybe our best exchange yet. In her history class at Pierrepont, Eva’s studying the Illiad and Odyssey. While Eva loves the tale, she was mildly complaining that her teacher takes the classic too seriously — i.e. she leads discussions as though Homer’s work were something more than what Eva recognizes as historical fiction.

“You know, Baba,” she confided to me, “I think they’ve misplaced Homer in the history section of our library; it really belongs in the fiction aisle. I mean, all this stuff about Helen of Troy as the cause of the Trojan War doesn’t make sense. How does anyone know that her abduction started the whole thing?”

“That’s a brilliant question,” I said. “You should ask your teacher.

“But you know,” I said, ” that’s probably true of all of the books in your school’s library. I mean they all should probably be classified as fiction. That’s what historians and other authors do; they write accounts that reflect their own biases. And that goes for the Bible too.” (I voiced that last part, because Eva considers herself an atheist, so I wanted to be even-handed about fields of study — she knows I’m especially interested in questions of faith and biblical interpretation.)

“But don’t be too quick to dismiss fiction,” I added. “Fiction is often more revealing of truth than history or scientific theory. It’s like my friend, Guy Patrick, used to observe about the Bible. . . ‘All of it is true,’ he’d say, ‘and some of it even happened.’ Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s novels are true, even though they didn’t happen. You might say the same about the poems of Emily Dickinson.”

And Eva could see all of that. Despite her atheism, she even agreed that the biblical stories of creation might be truer (i.e. more revealing of human meaning) than Darwin’s revolutionary theory. Stifling a theatrical yawn, she said “Darwin might be factually true, but it’s more boring, I agree.”

Can you see what I mean about a charmed life — and about my charming granddaughter?

“In the Heights” Answers the Immigrant Question in Arts-Friendly Westport Connecticut

On Mothers’ Day, the immigrant invasion that Donald Trump has warned us about, finally reached my new hometown of Westport, Connecticut. It came in the form of Lin Manuel Miranda’s sparkling musical, “In the Heights.”  My daughter and son-in-law generously took us to see the play.

At first glance, a performance in Westport might seem literally out-of-place. After all, it’s is one of the most affluent cities in the country. By contrast, Miranda’s play is set in a poor barrio located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. However, “In the Heights” succeeded in bringing two disparate communities together in a mutual appreciation that should characterize all interactions between “Americans” from the north and those from the south.

Let me explain.

Westport is the home of Wall Street investors, lawyers and insurance brokers.  But the town of 26,000 clearly has a social conscience. At least in part, that’s because in the 1930s it was an artist colony animated by the horizon-widening presence of its venerable “Country Playhouse.”

A converted barn right out of a Rooney and Garland movie, the Playhouse was later adopted by local residents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who inspired its renovation. Over the years, many famous authors, television personalities and actors from Hollywood and Broadway have been drawn to Westport by the playhouse and its theatrical sprites. The best-known personalities include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, Robert Redford, Ann Hathaway, Keith Richards, Martha Stewart, Jim Nantz, Phil Donahue, and Christopher Walken.

Miranda brought together Westporters proud of such lineage on the one hand and immigrants far from such pedigree on the other. And guess what: there was not even one of President Trump’s frightening rapists or gang members among the latter. Instead, they included a street graffiti artist, a snow-cone vender, a bodega proprietor, the owner of a small taxi service, his dispatcher, a sassy beautician and her staff of three, and a college student from Stanford University. Over a period of 90 minutes we came to know and care about each one of them.

The characters came from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Yet all of them had lived in New York for years hardly even noticed as somehow out-of-place. Like many of their real-life counterparts, those the Trumpists call “invaders” were marvelous singers and dancers. Each had a story of family idiosyncrasy, love, economic struggle and high aspiration.

Countering Trump’s cheap clap-trap, “In the Heights” underlined the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens. They are hard workers with lofty aspirations, and rich cultures with enviable family values, joy, music, dance, colorful language, resourcefulness, patience and faith. They love their children and grandparents. They scrimp and scrape and help each other with their meager resources. With patience and faith, they endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, without diminishing their indominable carnival spirits.

Capturing all of that, and following the triumph of “Hamilton,” this earlier musical by Lin Manuel Miranda once again displays the author’s unmistakable genius. (Its first draft was written when he was only 19 years of age.) Its main storyline belongs to Nina Rosario, the first in her family to attend college. Her whole barrio is proud of her and her scholarship to Stanford. However, she disappoints herself and her parents when she secretly drops out in March of her first year, because the work necessary just to pay for her books cut so deeply into her study time. (By the way, her bio reminded me of the students I taught over my 40 years of teaching in Appalachia’s Berea College in Kentucky. Its familiarity brought tears to my eyes.)  

Returning home for summer vacation, Nina causes a family crisis, when she finally informs her parents that she has lost her scholarship. Initial parental chagrin and anger soon turns into resolve to sell the family taxi cab business in order to finance their daughter’s college costs.

Meanwhile, Nina falls in love with Benny, an African-American who works for Nina’s father and the only one in the story who does not speak Spanish. Nina’s parents’ own prejudice doesn’t allow them to see Benny as worthy of their daughter. But Benny too has his own aspirations. He wants to learn Spanish. He wants to start his own business. He’s serious – and deeply in love with Nina. Their duet, “Sunrise,” makes that touching point.

But in the end, it’s elderly Claudia, the matriarch recognized as abuela by everyone in the barrio who saves the day.  Before her sudden passing, she wins the lottery and immediately shares it with her grandson, who in turn shares it with others. Her image and spirit rendered permanent by the barrio’s graffiti artist prevents the neighborhood from disintegrating. Her memory successfully overcomes the centrifugal force of poverty, crime, and economic hardship. The strength of such family ties, memories and tradition hung like a bright shadow over the entire performance.

Not surprisingly, and thanks, I’m guessing, to their art-friendly context, Westporters accepted all of that with open arms and a standing ovation. It was as if the audience recognized themselves in these on-stage first- and second-generation immigrants. And of course they did – precisely because that’s what all of our families are or have just recently been.

Too easily we forget that. We’re all immigrants, aren’t we? At the most basic level, our ancestors were absolutely no different in any way from those we Westporters watched on stage. We’re no different from those our “leaders” fear and cage.

Yesterday’s audience thankfully realized that those Mr. Trump calls “invaders” deserve welcome, appreciation, and standing ovations reserved for the local “celebrities” whose families themselves were once immigrants like those now living in Washington Heights.

Everyone deserves the honor now given to Lin Manuel Miranda. Everyone merits the response we all gave the Country Playhouse yesterday afternoon. That’s the lesson my new neighbors taught me on Mothers’ Day in their hallowed theater.