Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Making Quilts and Carrying Water: Unsung Heroes

I'd like you to meet Karen Dawson, the USA TODAY All-American Teacher of the Year for 2003-04.

She's a cheerful lady, one of those relentlessly perky people who always seem to chair the committees. Among other things, Mrs. Dawson is the chairman of the National Association of Student Councils, an advisor to the sort of kids who were also cheerful and relentlessly perky and chair the committees. You know. The pretty, popular kids we all hated.

To look at Mrs. Dawson, to have a casual conversation with her, you would peg her as the product of several generations of white American suburbia, happily helping "the poor" without the slightest understanding of what it means to be poor, to endure hardship.

You would be wrong.

Mrs. Dawson's family fled Germany in the 1940s, after her grandparents were placed on the list for Birkenau. See, her grandmother had been a German Jew. She had since converted to Christianity and the rest of the family were all Christians, but because of that one association, everyone was condemned to the camps.

They fled in time, and made it to America, eventually Missouri. There the future Mrs. Dawson was born into a family lost in a country not their own, where no one spoke English and five people lived in three rooms. Work was difficult to find when you can't speak English. Grandfather tried to run a German-language newspaper, and that went over like the Hindenberg. Grandma spoke only Yiddish, Mrs. Dawson said, so no one ever knew what she was saying.

The future Mrs. Dawson had two older cousins. Their dresses would be passed down to her, so she was always about five years behind the fashions. When the future Mrs. Dawson wore out the dresses, her mother and grandmother would sew them into quilts to give to "the poor." Eventually, the future Mrs. Dawson figured out that they, in fact, were poor. Why give away these quilts? Because they should, she was told. Because there is always someone worse off than you.

The future Mrs. Dawson went on to college nonetheless, and got a job at one of those reproduction Wild West towns. There she met and fell in love with the train-robber. How could you resist a man who could jump from a horse onto a moving train? she said. Even though the train was only going two miles per hour.

It was the time of Vietnam, and the Train-Robber's number came up. So they married quickly, before he went away, and she had their first child. It was a long time before the Train-Robber was injured and came back to her. Not long after that, their second child was born.

But lo, the Wicked Witch of the West had visited on the land of Vietnam a curse called Agent Orange. We all know what Agent Orange is, and what it did to people. In the case of the Train-Robber, it affected his DNA. Their second child was born without an esophagus and in need of surgeries throughout much of his childhood to survive. These surgeries could not begin until he weighed nineteen pounds - a milestone he did not reach until he was three years old.

Personally, I would have been angry. But Mrs. Dawson didn't speak of fury and protests, of letters sent to Congressmen, appearances on "60 Minutes," lawsuits filed in the millions. She spoke of pushing her young son's wheelchair through the hospital, wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. They passed a young child going through chemotherapy, his head bare. Without a word, Young Dawson put his cap on the other boy's head. Mrs. Dawson could hear the voices of her mother and grandmother, telling her once again about service and compassion.

Young Dawson survived his childhood, and grew to the height of four-foot-eleven by high school. His prom date was over six feet tall. She was proud of her son, of his strength and resilience in facing down the bullies and keeping his cheerful demeanor up despite the hardships he faced.

Young Dawson eventually went on to graduate - suddenly shooting up to six feet tall - and went to work for AT&T in New York City. There he roomed with four other young men, all from India and Pakistan and Taiwan, who worked for AT&T. In the World Trade Center.

Young Dawson was in the south tower when the first plane hit. Thinking it was an earthquake, he stood in a doorway during the tremors. But when the announcements came that they could return to their desks, Young Dawson made his way downstairs instead.

When the building fell, he was hit with flying glass, injured but not killed. His poor roommates were terrified to come find him, with the airwaves full of evil Muslim terrorists and horrified Americans shocked out of their complacence.

But the next day, Young Dawson AND his roommates returned to the World Trade Center to volunteer their efforts, bringing water to rescue workers. It was hard to go back there, Mrs. Dawson said, but Young Dawson had to do it. He had to serve.

Mrs. Dawson has gone on her way, advising students to leadership and spearheading everything from blood drives to canned-food trick-or-treating to a senior citizen prom. She's still the young girl watching her relatives make quilts for the poor in their three-room apartment. She's still the woman whose family was victimized, first by Agent Orange, then by 9/11.

So she stands on a stage before more than 2,000 students and shares her story. The teenagers have been fidgety, ready to go home after five days of seminars and events. But they are held still, riveted by her story and her strength. As am I, sitting on a desk in the back of the room, just another day of work, toiling in the vineyards. I would have been angry. But Mrs. Dawson took her trials and made them into small ways to help other people.

There are many Mrs. Dawsons out there. People making a difference in ways that rarely make USA TODAY. They run blood drives and collect food for the poor. They call up the newspaper after a family loses their home to a fire and offer their children's outgrown clothes to the suddenly-homeless family. They sit in moldering cinderblock schoolhouses tutoring children for free after school.

Their names do not appear on plaques, because they had no money to give. They have no statues, no monuments, nothing to remind us that they were here. Nothing but the mass of good they achieved, the people they helped and the people they inspired. Unsung heroes like Mrs. Dawson in her classroom, like her mother and grandmother sewing quilts and her son carrying water to Ground Zero with fresh bandages on his skin.

The heroes aren't just the ones who lift the flags and stand on mountains. They're the ones we don't see who make all the difference.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Please Don't Rescue Me

What a way to piss off your viewership.

I'm comfortably reading my TV Guide, a story about the women characters in the testosterone-soaked "Rescue Me." Frankly, most of the characters annoy me. It's a well-written, well-acted show that I still dislike for the same reason I found it hard to like "The Shield" and even "NYPD Blue" until it hooked me: when every character is a racist, sexist sonofabitch, I lose interest. Nothing says characters have to be saints, but it would be nice if I wasn't rooting for them to die in a pool of their own vomit.

Still, I keep trying with "Rescue Me." It's peer pressure - all my friends like it. Besides, I like the female firefighter and the fact that they have a plus-size woman who is sexually active - with a male hottie - and apparently comfortable with herself.

Then I read comments that I think are from the male co-creators, Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, about the rising female viewership of this predominantly-male show:

"For women, the idea of a sexy fireman is a fantasy. They're these strong, manly men rescuing you."

"Women may start to watch because it's eye candy. Then the story lines and character development and complexity of the relationships really get them."

Steam starts coming out of my ears. Spare me. Can we get over the rescuing complex already? Personally, I'd rather be the rescuer. The last guy to (physically) rescue me from anything was a man who stepped in when a drunk guy attacked me in a bar, apparently mistaking me for another woman about whom he had very mixed feelings. I was nineteen and had the physical strength of a lace doily.

Since then, I have defended myself verbally and physically, and I feel stronger as a person because of it. I have physically fought off three muggers, verbally fended off a man in the grip of road rage, thrown a drunk being an ass at a party into a wall, etc. I can take care of myself and other people. Seeing movies where women cower in the corner and whimper to themselves just pisses me off. When Robin Hood is fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham to rescue Marian, I'm yelling, "Get off your ass and hit him with something, bitch!"

As to eye candy: I appreciate a shirtless Angel or smoldering Lex as much as the next woman. Mrow. But it's sure as hell not why I watch the shows. They've got really hot guys on reality shows, and you couldn't pay me to watch that shit. I choose my movies and TV shows based on the premise, the characters and the reputation of the creators and actors. If the guys are hot, that's icing on the cake.

This is the mentality that, in part, killed the Star Trek franchise (or at least put it into deep hibernation): The idea that men wouldn't watch science fiction unless there was a hottie in a velour catsuit. The addition of Seven of Nine to VOYAGER, the utterly ridiculous way T'Pol's character was treated in ENTERPRISE and so on. I find it insulting to men and women. I presume guys wouldn't watch a boring piece of dreck just because there was a big-breasted woman with a nice ass in it. Why should these sexist assholes assume this of women?

Then I read a little more closely.

It was the women actresses who said this.

I don't know if it was something fed to them by the PR department, or if they've been inhaling too much hairspray in their trailers, or their own insecurities, or perhaps they've been reading some dumbass Freud.

But now I feel even less like watching "Rescue Me." In a show of thoroughly unlikable male characters, I was hoping for some development of those two women. With these idiots playing them, I am very close to dumping this show altogether.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


A friend of mine asked point-blank what her friends believe. As in Believe, the big faith question. I get more of that than most, because unlike most of my friends and colleagues, I remained a Christian in the Episcopal denomination in which I was raised, regularly attend church, and yet do not denounce my Wiccan, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Catholic or Jewish friends. The fact that they consider this rare saddens me.

On the one hand, I believe faith is an ongoing question, a journey for self-improvement and seeking greater meaning and harmony in our lives. There is an element of truth in all faiths (though it is REALLY hard to find one in the World Church of the Creator). Who am I to say that God visited us only once, in the person of Jesus Christ, to speak to only one group at one time? Who am I to say that he has not visited in many forms, under many names? Have we not entertained angels unawares?

To that extent, I cannot simply say, "It's doctrine. Accept it." That is the way of the fundamentalist, the devotion to credo over questions. Those who take Scripture at face value, after thousands of years of translations done by men of various beliefs and politics who needed their own spin on each translation, boggle my mind with their nearsightedness. Few realize that the true sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, as they love to crow on the late-night televangelist shows, but lack of hospitality to visitors.

Unfortunately, no one can give proof, no matter what they say. None of us were around when the great miracles described in the Bible, Qur'an and Torah occurred. None of us have personally seen a miracle, though a few events could possibly come close. Few of us have truly heard the voice of God, and if we did, we likely mistook it for something else.

The search for proof eventually ends up back at the fundamentalist, who tells you what you should believe and do and sign on the bottom line, and we will give you everything packaged in a nice bundle, no thinking required. That was why some who have asked could never really get behind my faith - they wanted me to prove with specific recitation of Scripture that my belief was the One Truth.

To which I can only reply, "Faith is the evidence of things unseen." If we had proof, we would not need faith. We could point to the parting of the Red Sea and say, "See? There's God."

So instead, I believe what feels right to my heart.

That a benevolent God would want me to care for others and treat every one of his children with respect, especially those in need.

That he would want me to care for his earth to the best of my ability, and teach my son to care for it as well.

That as a loving father, he would want me to seek balance and calm through prayer and meditation, and attend church services as a weekly reminder of my spiritual path. Because together we can do more good than we can alone.

That I should use the talents and gifts God has given me in furtherance of his service, whether that is wrangling my team to raise money for cancer research or singing in my choir to help the spiritual experience of others.

And I believe that the only true blasphemy is to presume to know the mind of God, to take his place as judge of all the earth and condemn others in his name.

Although I could quote Scripture to my purpose, others could find just as many Scriptural examples to prove me "wrong." I cannot, therefore, rely on holy books as more than a guide and reminder, a wonderful metaphor.

From time to time, my newspaper will have a battle of letters to the editor over the question of Genesis. Creation vs. evolution. They bash away at each other until something shiny passes and they wander away for a while.

You know what I believe? Creation as described in Genesis is the best proof we have that God exists.

Consider the story of Creation. First the earth was formed, and the oceans. Then life began in the oceans. Plants grew. Then sea creatures, then land creatures. Finally man emerged to take his place as king of the earth.

See? It's the exact same order as evolution.

How would the old Jewish men writing down Genesis for the first time know that sea creatures came before land creatures? That man came last? The humanocentric view would have placed man at the beginning, guiding the creation of the earth. Those old Jewish men were not there when the sea creatures emerged onto land, or when the monkeys descended from the trees.

Genesis is a metaphor for the evolution of the earth, exactly as the "theory" of evolution would prove millennia later, and there was no possible way they could have known. That whole business with the apple is a marvelous metaphor for sentience, the sense of self and conscience that distinguishes humankind from the animals. We knew that we were naked, and we clothed ourselves.

The fact that the holy books contain the story of events none of the authors could ever have witnessed is the greatest proof to me that God exists, and speaks to us from time to time. Perhaps not a burning bush, and often we mistake his voice for something else. We cry out for proof, and when it appears, we push it aside. We are contrary people, after all.

At heart, I suppose, I am a humanist Christian, if such a thing can be allowed to exist. We are put here to serve God's purposes by serving one another. And I continue to strive against that one great blasphemy, to presume to know the mind of God.

As to the afterlife, I guess when I die, I'll find out if I'm right, or if I'm toast.