Update on James Baldwin


Thanks to sharp-eyed friend, Linda Work, I read an article on James Baldwin within days of publishing my last blog.

Seems my hero attracted the attention of the FBI as well as my own.

Quoting from Why Did the FBI Spy on James Baldwin?, By Hannah K. Gold, The Intercept, 17 August 2015. (reprinted in RSN, Reader Supported News):

“ James Baldwin’s FBI file contains 1,884 pages of documents, collected from 1960 until the early 1970.”

Quite the story.

Here’s the link:


Learning and Changing


Last week, on one of the many news programs to which I am addicted, I hear it is James Baldwin’s birthday. He would have been 91. Instead, he died in 1987 at 63.

I feel a twinge.

Sending me to my office bulletin board.

Where I find:

*A drawing by a 7-year-old Mexican guest last week, depicting Pati, Andrea and Angela next to a six-pointed star, a blue ball bigger than all three of us with a huge sun above decorated with a butterfly sticker.

*A faded photo of 2 yr. old Pat with my Grandma and Grandpa Browne. The taste of Grandpa’s homemade root beer sweetens my tongue.

*A card to “admit one” to see Toni Morrison on October 29, 1997, to a talk in Clowes Memorial Hall. Must arrive by 7:15 or seats will be relinquished.

*The inky footprint of Alice, my infant great granddaughter: “foot flowers” from her mother, granddaughter Elizabeth, on Mother’s Day.

Etc., etc.

Here it is:

A faded 3×5 index card with fifty years of history.

When I manage to get my fingernails underneath the pink plastic star thumbtack holding it up, the yellowed edge crumbles—past its prime, (like me) I hold it gingerly, feeling the many holes from earlier thumbtacks that weaken its once sturdy cardstock.

I read:

“that collection of myths to which white Americans cling:

that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes;

that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace;

that Americans have always dealt honourably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors;

that American men are the world’s most direct and virile:

that American women are pure.” (James Baldwin)

I recall the first time I read it—don’t know in which of Baldwin’s writings—and typed it out for my edification.

What bullshit it was, I thought, and yet, I knew some of it had seeped into my privileged white head.

Baldwin’s voice shocked me into the realization that there was more to racism than school segregation—a big deal then in my native Missouri. More chilling still—Strange Fruit, sung on two 78 albums I owned from Josh White and Billie Holiday.  At the time, I had no idea how widespread and recent lynchings still were.

Just this February in San Miguel, I learned from a PEN talk on protest music by Jon Sievert that black artists at the time pledged to include the song in their albums, over the protests of their publishers.

When I was 30, The Fire Next Time ran in The New Yorker, and burned another hole in my ignorance. By then, I was living in Indiana, home, I read with horror, to the largest Ku Klux Klan membership of any state in the Union.

I squirmed. As another Baldwin quote testifies:

Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.

Baldwin himself learned from movies, another powerful teaching medium:

It is a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers you are the Indian.

How much of who I am has been shaped by books, music and movies.

I give thanks for the gift of grace from the brave souls who put their words and music and pictures out there for the enlightenment of all.

And vow to keep reading, listening to music and going to movies.

Forever and ever.


Riff on Ritual

Last week, I traveled one morning on a PEN mission—Rochelle Cashdan, one of our members died recently, and I was on my way to Guanajuato where she lived to help plan a gathering to honor her life.

As I sat in the front seat of the bus awaiting departure—a long distance Primera Plus bound for Guadalajara, a six-hour ride away—I noticed a middle aged man and a young woman facing each other standing a few feet from the bus door. The man rested his right hand on the girl’s head for a moment, then touched his upright palm first to her left, then her right shoulder, ending with a cross in the air in front of her heart. They embraced, and she boarded the bus with her backpack. The father (my guess) stood and watched the bus pull away.

I had never observed this parental blessing in real time, but it was familiar from a Mexican movie, El Infierno, in which a mother blesses her son as he sets off to seek his fortune. Sadly, he ends up working for a drug lord, but that is later in the story.

Touching; the parent sending his daughter off for school or work with his blessing; I imagine an intercession for the blessing of God upon her journey, her safety along the way and success in her new life away from home.

Reminiscent of the custom in my own Jewish tradition of blessing one’s children on Shabbat.

Here, perhaps, is a rationale for what many contemptuously refer to as “organized religion.” In Mexico, Catholic custom; for me, Jewish practice.

I suspect these rites of passage handed down for generations do not spring easily to the unaffiliated. Although it can work: My older son improvised a welcome to his first son, a lovely party with neither baptism nor brit.

Yet something calls many of us to celebrate death, birth, weddings with classic rituals.


Would that we had more shared rituals to connect us to each other and our ancestors. Whether believers or scoffers—we all need hands to hold.

Certainly our political morass could do with some blessing? Ritual healing? Cleansing?

Like a blessing for a politician from Fiddler on the Roof:

May the Lord bless and keep the Czar—far away from us.”

Maybe laughter is the best connector.

Vis-à-vis another quote:

And if I laugh at any mortal thing,

‘Tis that I may not weep.” Lord Byron.

Whatever can connect us and help us get on with our work—our human family needs more blessings.

conga line

Lesson from my father


Scenes to honor nature and travel lover, my father, Andrew Barnes Browne; San Miguel de Allende; great granddaughter, Shona surfing at Sunset Cliffs; great grandson, Nico, climbing in the Shawangunks.

On 21 May 2015, midway between the 30th anniversary of his death on May 15,
and the 115th anniversary of his birth on May 29.

A man for all seasons.
Ace-ing every role: son, husband, father, grandfather;
Entrepreneur, raconteur, elder statesman.

Rather than the traditional paean of praise, I share my father’s teaching about money.
I learned mostly from his example, but there were a few maxims:

“Money is a good thing, if it doesn’t cost you too much to get it.”

ABB worked as newspaper boy, bellhop, night clerk, accountant, river barge hand, auto worker, shoe pattern cutter, president of Bourbeuse Shoe and owner of a Ben Franklin store—always earning and growing, but money was never a goal in itself. He worked to live life with zest and to enjoy his many communities, whether shoe workers, golfers, bowlers or family.

“The difference between being miserable and being content is very small: it is the difference between spending $5 more than your income every week and spending $5 less than you earned..”

Money is a prerequisite for the good life, but he never followed his alcoholic father into the life Roger Miller describes, all too common in my Irish family’s heritage:

“Just sittin’ round drinkin’ with the rest of guys
Six rounds bought and I bought five
Spent the groceries and a half the rent
I lack fourteen dollars havin’ twenty seven cents.”

My lesson learned:

You need money to fund the good life; but you can’t cuddle up to a bank account.

New Mexico’s First Jewish Saint


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A tongue-in-cheek title for this photograph of Judy Chicago posed in front of one of her paintings.

While in Albuquerque earlier this month, I heard a fascinating lecture about the artist in Oasis Lifelong Learning Center. Chicago has lived in nearby Belen for some years, embracing and being embraced by the local community. Ignorant about her career before the talk, I was a sponge soaking up the flow of information. Her most famous and controversial work, The Dinner Party, is now installed in a wing built especially for it in the Brooklyn Museum.
(see http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/dinner_party/)

When Chicago decided to try watercolor a few years back, she enrolled in a course from a master of that medium in New Mexico. At 75, she is my poster woman for lifelong learning.

Inspiring me to find teachers—for more fluent Spanish and more cogent writing.

Seems you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Gracias a Diosa.

Save our kids


Photo credits, Jay Williams, Georgeann Johnson

“All is for the best in the best of possible worlds.”― Voltaire, “Candide”

A self confessed news junkie, I am often told by friends they avoid the news as depressing. Why don’t I? I reply that I read about solutions to the problems. Is this my Pollyanna head-in-the-sand escape artistry? Am I, like Candide, insisting all is for the best as horrors flash across my TV screen?

While I am mulling this over, a post from Vox blings into my mailbox. “How low social mobility hurts children — and what we need to do about it,” by Danielle Kurtzleben, Vox March 16, 2015; an interview with Robert Putnam’s about his new book, “Our Kids.”

No Pollyanna, Putnam is even darker than Voltaire since he reports facts rather than using satirical overkill. The study began with a clue from a graduate student four years ago. She objected that some of the rosy statistics about the nations’s youth were skewed. It was not like that in my neighborhood, she told Putnam, citing her experience in a low income family.

Putnam followed the bread crumbs and was shocked at what he discovered. Poverty matters hugely in more than the obvious—food, housing, schools.

“Social capital,” what kids get outside of school, determines their chances of being middle class—watching Mom make a grocery list, getting a ride to practice for the swim or debate team, building a snowman with Dad.

The evidence is that “our kids” are growing up with vastly unequal social capital. Putnam shows that this contributes mightily to the inequality of opportunity that is strangling our democracy. He begs us to “look what’s happening to the kids in the lower parts of our society. And how that is damaging our future.”

“Do we really want to live in this kind of country?” Putnam asks, “a country in which it isn’t even approximately true that everyone has a fair start in life? And it’s getting worse and worse.”

The interview ends with Putnam’s plea for change.

Danielle Kurtzleben:
There are some heartbreaking tales in “Our Kids”. I’m sure a lot of people will read this book and ask themselves how they can change this. What would you tell someone who’s more affluent who picks up this book and wants to change things?

Robert Putnam:
Chapter 6 [titled “What is to be done?”] is aimed at exactly that person. We can join others to press for important public policy changes, and that includes stuff like early childhood education, where the evidence is overwhelming that providing early childhood education makes a huge difference in the physiological brain development of kids. And that puts [poorer kids] behind the eight ball when they’re still one or two or three years old.

So if I’m talking to an ordinary fellow citizen — and that’s what I’m doing in the book — you should work with your friends and neighbors and push hard for having universal early childhood education.”

He quotes directly from “Our Kids:”
“If you’re concerned about the issues discussed in this book, here is something you can do right now: close this book. Visit your school superintendent. Better yet, take a friend with you. And ask if your school has a pay-to-play policy [for extracurricular activities]. Explain that waivers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, because they force kids to wear a virtual yellow star, saying, ‘I’m so poor my parent’s can’t afford the regular fee.’ Explain that everyone in the school will be better off if anyone in the school can be on the team or in the band. Insist that pay-to-play be ended. And while you’re there ask if there are things you can do to help the local schools serve poor kids more effectively, both in the classroom and outside.”

With that, I out down my pen—ok, my iPad—and resolve to act. Use my child development training to make a difference. However I can. Wherever I can. As soon as I can.

Adios, Pollyanna.
Get thee behind me, Candide.

No more passive listening to the news.

Links to the Vox article:


Sure’n it’s the good saint’s day.i


March 17, day for the wearing of the green.
Badge of Irish pride.
When I mentioned dusting off my shamrocks for the coming celebration, an acquaintance was surprised. “You’re Irish?” (his unspoken subtext, “but you’re Jewish”)
Of course, my heart answered.
My three Irish great-grandparents after all.
But what about the three Brits, the Scot and the German?
oh … well … no, Irish.
Irish as Paddy’s pig. From County Mayo, home of great grandmother Nora Brady, and County Armagh, where my father’s father’s Catholic parents escaped from an orange world where they could only celebrate Mass hidden in barns.
My father, my model, was as proud of his heritage as if he’d been born on the Old Sod. Could quote John Boyle O’Reilly along with Robert Service. Never Boyle’s anti-women suffrage rants, praise be.

Dad was Andrew BARNES Browne, Barnes for Phoebe, his mother, pure Scot.
Yet, like me, Andrew claimed the Irish.
For the gift of gab, the blarney, the struggle for freedom, the poets, the spirit that survived centuries of British repression and a famine that killed all but the heartiest.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to one and all; we all claim the shamrock today.
May the indomitable spirit of the Emerald Isle inspire courage.
And in me, the right word, to attract like souls to whatever work needs to be done.
For “the right word fitly spoken is a precious rarity.” (John Boyle O’Reilly.)

Hammarskjold and me


Better late than never, but this is a bit much: In December 2014, the UN launched an investigation into the death in 1961 of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.
The facts were always suspicious. The Secretary was on his way to meet with representatives of a new state in the Congo. Serious financial interests were involved. There were reports of explosions before the crash.
Quotes from the Washington Post article announcing the investigation:
“Last year, a commission launched in the Hague issued a report, saying there was “persuasive evidence that the aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat as it circled to land.” The Hammarskjold Commission concluded: “the possibility that the plane was in fact forced into its descent by some form of hostile action is supported by sufficient evidence to merit further inquiry.”
The 2013 report had been spurred by the publication of a book in 2011 by British scholar Susan Williams. “Who Killed Hammarskjold?” suggested that the secretary general’s plane had been shot down by mercenaries in the employ of the breakaway state of Katanga, which was then backed by Belgian mining interests. The book paints a picture of Western cover-up and collusion with the remaining white-supremacist settler states of Africa.”

In my former life, I ignored evidence and blundered forward to keep hard truths buried—mainly dissatisfaction with parts of my life. It took many cold showers to awaken me (read: meditation, therapy, 12 steps.) For me, reality is worth it, even with all its annoying complications.
As with Hammarskjold’s death, it is never too late to seek the truth.
The full story from the Washington Post:

My New Year’s Gift to All


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Rebel Spinner Radio, link, a new, sparkling music source, the most congenial I’ve ever tried. New and free—all you need is Internet. Reel Spinner is lovingly crafted by Travis Parkin, a music fanatic/gourmet/aficionada now based in New Mexico (thanks to my Albuquerque daughter, Meta, for my introduction.)

WINTER BLOOM theme: events that expose how the prevailing culture shapes us, as the soil and the climate feed the bulb in the frozen earth.

Travis ran away from his home in Albany, NY at 15 and found shelter with the African American family of Henry Johnson, his high school buddy. The Johnsons lived in the South End projects in Albany and were Pentecostal Christians—white folks called them holy rollers. The matriarch of the household insisted that “If your gonna live under Annie Mae Johnson’s roof, you gonna go to church on Sunday.” Travis went, fell in love with the lively music, joined the choir and learned to sing Gospel. While living with the Johnsons, he also discovered R & B, Soul and Jazz on the streets of their ‘hood. Read more on his blog, link

WINTER BLOOM theme: people and movements that flower after a long dormancy, springing up like a daffodil pushing its Kelly green stalks through the snow, announcing spring with its bright yellow banner.

These many years after Travis’ found refuge with the Johnsons, the musical obsession nourished in their Pentecostal church and its environs blossomed into Rebel Spinner Radio., link. Connect and enjoy.

Gracias a Diosa.

NYeve in jardin

New Year’s Eve in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico



Mexico Awakens, continued

My host country and its citizens are dear to my heart, but as an extrañero (foreigner) I am relegated to the sidelines, where I cheer the forces for reform and pray for peaceful change. May faith in the Virgen of Guadalupe sustain the protesters—it will be a long, tough road.

Students at the University of Guanajuato protesting during the Cervantino Festival in October. photo credit, Russell Vile

For interested readers, information sources:
David Lida’s blog, a sharp eye on this writer’s adopted home, http://davidlida.com/

SinEmbargo, an online source of Mexican news (in Spanish), http://www.sinembargo.mx/

Mexico Institute, recommended by C.M.Mayo, award winning writer about Mexico, http://mexicoinstitute.wordpress.com/author/mexicoinstitute/

La Jornada, Mexico City’s most prominent leftist newspaper, quoted in English translation on Via Organica website, http://viaorganica.org/ayotzinapa-el-crimen-la-tragedia-y-el-discurso/