Category Archives: memoir

having one conversation for 26 years

(Salem, MA) I am here for a retreat of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, where I work. In the summer of 1987, I came here for a retreat of the Charles M. Kettering Foundation, where I served as an intern between my sophomore and junior years in college. I’ve been back to Salem since then–we don’t live very far away now–but I recollect the first retreat forcefully. Early impressions bite deeply; later experiences just leave surface scratches.

The 1987 retreat was my first business trip: we could charge meals and get reimbursed for them. It was one of my first times sitting around open tables with water pitchers and notepads, talking about what an organization should do. (How many hundreds of such meetings have I attended since?) It was not my first time in an old city, because I had been privileged to spend years of my childhood in Europe, but it was my first time in an old American town. I remember thinking that Salem’s crooked, narrow streets and houses with historic placards were exotic. And it was one of my first discussions about civic engagement: why do Americans not participate as much as we would like in civil society and politics, and what should we do about that?

Now I am grey and “experienced,” a board member of the Kettering Foundation instead of an intern. We’ve seen Prague Spring, Bowling Alone, Points of Light and AmeriCorps, the Tea Party, Occupy. I can’t remember the conversation in 1987 well enough to be sure, but I would bet our analysis is more sophisticated now. People at the 1987 retreat–and many of their colleagues–have done important and valuable things in the past quarter-century. The large-scale trends, however, have mostly been for the worse.

indicators of civic engagement (DDB = DDB Needham Life Styles Survey. GSS = General Social Survey)

If I’m fortunate still to be having these conversations in 2039, I hope we will be able to point to upward trends, not necessarily in the measures depicted above (for instance, newspapers will probably be defunct), but in their functional equivalents.


(Washington, DC) All this typing about politics, ideas, policy, the American people–2,077 posts on this site, plus articles, emails, graphs–and what I really care about, of course, is me: my own passage through time. For instance, how long ago did we visit Lancaster County with two children, one young enough to have her nursery school’s stuffed bear with her for the weekend, and the winter came suddenly as we drove homeward, and the radio told us we were at war in Afghanistan?

On my last visit to DC, on a clammy night, unpremeditated, I walked down our dark old block, feeling that I was walking into the past. You only know a street intimately if you have explored it with small children. The tree roots of Cortland Place, for example: we fed the tiny ants who swarmed there by dripping apple juice from a sippy cup. I know shortcuts for trikes, slopes for rolling. Amid the murk, I half expected to find us hunting fireflies.

Consolation: only by moving forward can we make room for the new ones whose entry into the world is the basis of freedom.

Consolation: I am wisp, but we are something significant, and that is why politics, ideas, policy, and the people matter after all.

Syracuse is taking over

I am a native of Syracuse, NY, born and raised. I think my accent is “downstate” thanks to my parents. Our family was part of the Great Brooklyn Diaspora. But I grew up extremely familiar with what I considered a “Syracuse accent,” characterized by distinctive vowels. Given the generally friendly culture of the place, the accent is best illustrated with phrases like, “Heeave a nice day!” Or “Keean you believe it, Sairacuse is in the Cheeampionship!”

As an adult, I have made Midwestern friends with similar accents, especially people from northern Illinois and urban Wisconsin. It turns out that something called the “northern cities vowel shift” began in the vicinity of Syracuse and has been spreading west, like acid rain but in the opposite direction.

On our western frontier, Nordic Minnesotans with their elongated o’s. To our southeast, impregnable New Yuwalk City with all those extra w’s. Canadians to the North, flinty New Englanders to the east (stingy with their “r’s”), and Apallachia not so far southward across Pennsylvania and Ohio. But if nobody minds, we vowel-shifters will be heeyapy to keep on spreadin’ out.

Prof. William Labov is the expert on the vowel shift, and he thinks it may have begun during the construction of the Erie Canal. I personally find the Chicago version just a little different, although I lack the technical training to know how to represent the distinction. Many European-Americans from Cleveland, Madison (that’s Meeadison”), and Michigan sound to me strikingly like their counterparts from Syracuse. It’s not only the vowels: if you grew up in Syracuse, there is something ineffably familiar about a row of double-decker wooden houses on a wintry side street in Madison. Maybe it all comes from living on drumlins or shoveling snow in May.

my past from the air

(In DC for the Everyday Democracy board meeting): We landed through clouds that ripped open just as we passed above the Kennedy Center, revealing Northwest DC spread out over the airplane wing. It was my seventh landing in DC this fall and probably my twentieth since we moved away from the city in July 2008. Before that, I had spent two decades there. For me, the panorama of Northwest represents the place where our children were born, I was married, unforgettable good and bad news arrived, and the ordinary rhythm of commuting and shopping played through my twenties and thirties. When I see that view disappearing on northward flights, I feel that my youth is also falling behind in a great chunk.

The view is of “DC,” the vernacular city of Metro trains, DC Public Schools, Safeways, summer evening concerts at the Zoo, and the dreaded DMV–not “Washington,” the federal city of power and glamor, nor “Washington,” the tourist destination with its museums and monuments. But the three cities intersect. If you live in bourgeois Northwest, you probably know people who know powerful and glamorous people, and you occasionally visit those museums and monuments by the Mall.

Today, while on a conference call by cell phone, I strolled through Oak Hill Cemetery, where lie Dean Acheson, Jefferson Davis’ infant son, Myrtilla Miner (an abolitionist who founded the DC Normal School for Colored Girls), dozens of congressmen, several descendants of Martha Washington, a man who was “promoted to Assistant Chief Engineer, DC Fire Department,” and a recently interred man with an Arab name and a quote from Khalil Gibran on his grave. They and many diverse others built the city that becomes one studded reliquary as you view it from the air.

in-flight nostalgia

(On a plane from Boston to San Francisco) I spent every childhood summer in England–in a different home almost each year–and have returned there repeatedly in adulthood. Whenever a long time passes without a visit, I feel subtle nostalgia growing. Here’s the kind of thing I miss:

A summer morning, cool enough to require a sweater and jacket outside. The sky has been light since 4 am. The bathroom window is almost always a frosted pane of glass on a hinge, set in a thick stone wall. There’s no screen, because there are hardly any mosquitoes. Open the hinge and damp air flows in, carrying strong smells of pollen, rich soil, and new growth–even in the heart of London, although there you can detect engine exhaust as well.

The hot and cold water flow from separate taps, the hot coming directly from a gas heater overhead. It steams in the sink. There’s never a shower, just an elaborate coil of metal pipes that hangs on the side of the tub along with a steel basket for the soap. Because of the high voltage, the electrical outlets are big plastic boxes with on/off switches. Layers of paint cover old wallpaper; wires are tacked to the baseboards. Cleansers give the room an ineffably British smell.

The staircase is long and narrow. Bacon is thick and intensely salty. Tea is strong. The insides of the mugs are tea-stained. The grass is luxuriously thick and green. Cumin wafts from restaurant doors, and the glittering cement pavements are sticky from last night’s spilled beer. An unmarked white delivery van rushes past, pinning you against a bowed stucco wall. Tattered music billboards, surveillance cameras, Oxfam and Barclay’s Bank on the High Street, black fences topped with spears, zebra crossings, beds of lavender and rosemary bushes.