Saturday, January 14, 2006


"So you want two bottles of that and a six pack?" I heard a man say, as I walked through Georgetown on my way to the metro after work. He was a tall, heavy-set African American. I couldn't guess how old he was, but I figured he was in his late forties at least. The two girls he was talking to nodded. "And what are you going to give me?"

"Um, twenty dollars?" one of the girls ventured. She was tiny, with straight, shiny brown hair skimming her shoulders and a little more eyeliner than seemed good for her.

"Twenty dollars? Each?" The girl shook her head. I couldn't tell if he was really disgruntled or just giving the girls a hard time. "Man, I'm homeless you know."

"And we're seventeen and don't have jobs, just allowances."

And then I was out of earshot.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Book review: Freshwater Road

Freshwater Road is the story of Celeste Tyree, a young African-American woman from Detroit, who goes to Mississippi in 1964 as a Freedom Summer volunteer. Denise Nichols draws on her own experiences from that summer as she tells of Celeste’s work in Pineyville, a small town where blacks live in homes without indoor plumbing and step off the sidewalks to let whites pass. Celeste spends the divides her days during the hot, humid summer, teaching children about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in Freedom School in the mornings, and adults how to read and interpret the Mississippi Constitution in voter education classes in the evenings. She sees the church where she teaches burned to the ground and a little girl she loves die. She struggles with her motivations for volunteering, her questions about her family, learns to appreciate the community than is learning to accept her.

Several of the chapters take the reader back to Detroit, following the experience of Shuck, Celeste’s father, as he struggles with the knowledge of the danger his daughter could be in and his lack of knowledge of what’s really happening to her. While Shuck’s chapters aren’t as captivating as Celeste’s story, they don’t take away from the book. Instead, they give depth to Celeste’s story—showing her background, so different from what she experiences in Mississippi—and offer a larger picture of race relations in the country in 1964. The joy of three blacks who finally register to vote in Pineyville contrasts sharply with the decline Shuck observes in the black neighborhoods in Detroit.

Both Celeste and Shuck have incredible depth, as do several of the other characters. Nichols’ Celeste becomes a real person very quickly, from her first questions about why she decided to go to Mississippi and her struggles with how to relate to white volunteers, to considering whether she can remain engaged in non-violence and learning how to relate to the blacks she is helping prepare to register to vote. The black minister, who helps Celeste lead the movement in Pineyville, has chosen to take on the white establishment, but he treads carefully when it comes to issues within his church. Mrs. Owens, who provides room and board to Celeste, is a wonderful character, and it is interesting to observe how her relationship with Celeste transforms. While the Freedom School students are mostly minor characters in the story, they are artfully drawn, as are several of the Pineyville citizens who fight to register to vote.

Only one character did not ring true. While there are other Pineyville blacks that do not participate in Celeste’s Freedom School activities, Nichols chooses to highlight one character who responds with hatred toward Celeste and refuses to let his daughter attend Freedom School. While the character, Mr. Tucker, could be created with sympathy (even while remaining something of a bully) and seem realistic as someone who feared the danger that the movement could bring to the little town, Nichols casts Mr. Tucker in an almost consistently negatively light. He does act as a protective figure to several single black women neighbors, but portraying him as a potential child molester takes something away from his character, making him seem flat.

One of the most important elements of the book for me was reading about the Celeste’s motivation. In everything I’ve learned about the Civil Rights movement and Freedom Summer, I’ve been amazed by the strength of the volunteers. I imagined their pure motives, their desire to see justice in the South, their bravery. And so as I read the first pages of the book, I was surprised to see Celeste’s ambivalence and fear. I was interested to see her questioning her own motives. I had idealized the volunteers, and in the first chapter of the book I was drawn in to the reality of the experience, which only made my admiration for them stronger.

There are images in our culture of the Civil Rights movement—young men sitting at a lunch counter, Rosa Parks arrested on the bus, marchers knocked over by fire hoses. Freshwater Road gives readers a deeper look that goes beyond those images, to the small town where the struggle wasn’t captured by the media. The movement brought changes on a grand scale, but Nichols lets us see that it was made up of individual volunteers who were afraid and brave, of three people who registered to vote, and of little girls drawing pictures of Frederick Douglass and the North Star.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I love this title on Jeff’s site: Corn syrup is the new opiate of the masses. It’s one of those funny little things that I wish I’d written. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of months now.

The Husband and I do most of our grocery shopping at Whole Foods. It was something we started doing the summer between my two years of grad school. I was working full time during the summer months and there wasn’t a tuition bill to pay, so I felt less anxious when I saw the higher grocery bill. I enjoyed the better quality of the produce and the greater selection of organic foods. When school started again, we intended to return to shopping at our regular supermarket, but we weren’t as happy with the choices, and so now we do most of our weekly shopping at Whole Foods, with a run by Safeway on the way home to pick up kitty litter and various odds and ends that we couldn’t get at Whole Foods.

I’m sure some of my attachment to Whole Foods is simply based on packaging and marketing. I’m buying into something, and I’m aware of that. I want to buy groceries that are labeled organic and locally grown, and Whole Foods is willing to cater to that desire. I tell myself that it’s not just for my own health, but for the greater good: pesticides aren’t being washed into rivers, and energy isn’t being used to transport produce from other continents (okay, Whole Foods isn’t a great example for my second rationale, but at least things are labeled so I can buy locally grown items when there’s a choice). It is also certainly something for my health. I like to read labels and know what I’m eating, but it takes time, and I know that anything I buy at Whole Foods is going to be free of most of the ingredients that I try to avoid, such as “fake sugar” and hydrogenated oils (and fois gras--am always reading labels to avoid purchasing anything containing fois gras). I know that I am privileged to be able to afford to be so picky.

When we got back from London after Thanksgiving, it was a Sunday evening. We picked up Thai takeout on the way home from the airport, and for the next few nights ate soups that I’d frozen before we left. Because Safeway is the nearest supermarket, The Husband finally went over there one evening after work to pick up the staples—sandwich bread, cereal, yogurt. Every day in my lunch I take a lot of little snacks, including the little cups of applesauce that I use to have packed in my school lunch. The Husband, who is not usually the fanatic for reading labels that I am (“’Wheat’ and ‘whole wheat’ bread aren’t the same thing. And just because it says whole wheat on the front, doesn’t mean it is. You have to check that the first ingredient is actually whole wheat flour.” Oh, it is fun to be married to me!), chose that night to read applesauce labels. Nearly every one of them contained corn syrup. He found one that had a more limited ingredients list, although not as limited as the applesauce we normally buy, which contains apples and water. After he told me about this search, I started reading the labels on other things he’d bought. The “healthy, whole grain” cereal he’d bought me contained corn syrup and offered 13 grams of sugar per serving. The store brand yogurt was made with corn syrup. When I stopped in the Safeway next door to my office a couple of days later to pick up some chutney, I couldn’t find one that didn’t contain corn syrup.

It's not that I eat only healthy foods. I am quite willing to steal a handful of peanut butter M&Ms from a co-worker's desk, or rot my teeth with candy from strangers (or sisters). I love ice cream, and I've been known to eat popcorn and 7-Up and the movie theater and call it dinner. And I don't buy my peanut butter at Whole Foods, because I truly believe that it doesn't taste good without sugar and partially-hydrogenated oil. But I do hate that by the coffeemaker at work we have non-dairy creamer and artificial sweetner--no actual milk or sugar. And I worry about the people who don't have the choices that I have. Are people honestly surprised that sixty percent of Americans are overweight or obese?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

To the beat of a different iPod

I noticed him from across the train—noticed the almost-rhythmic nodding of his head, the movement of his shoulders. His back was to me, but I still felt weird about staring. The train was quiet and not very crowded. I could hear the tinny sound of music from the iPod of the young man standing next to me. I kept glancing toward the front of the car, trying to decide if the movements of the man with close-cut grey hair were my imagination. Sometimes he seemed to be dancing, but other times I suspected it was only the swaying of the train.

I spotted him again when I stepped out of the train at Foggy Bottom. He was coming out of the next door down, wearing a wool overcoat open over a charcoal suite and a burgundy tie, with white ear phone cords coming from his coat pocket and a briefcase in his hand. Even though I’d only seen his back on the train, I knew it was him, because he was lip-synching. I bit my lip, trying not to smile. Then, just before we reached the escalator, he began to play his briefcase like an air guitar. I told myself not to stare, but kept right on staring.

He caught me looking. He smiled at me, threw back his head, and played the next few silent chords with even more passion.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Keeping my word

When I took this photo, I told them, "I'm totally posting this on the internet." I think that counts as adequate warning.

Matt and Christie