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Essay: What would King say about these two senseless deaths?
Friday, August 30th, 2013

Fifty years ago, a Baptist preacher mounted a stage on the Mall to offer a thrillingly operatic description of his American dream. Today, many who’ve called a Florida 17-year-old’s shooting death an “epic tragedy,” and those who recently stormed the airwaves to decry a white Australian baseball player’s killing are wondering what these deaths say about that dream’s fulfillment.

Trayvon Martin and Christopher Lane were unremarkable young men whose cruel slayings thrust them upon the national stage. It’s appropriate to spotlight their tragically shortened lives — yet I keep thinking about Daniel.

A real, live black Florida 18-year-old whom I recently met, Daniel is every bit as unknown as Trayvon and Lane were before their deaths. What do his humanity, his aliveness — and that of countless other anonymous youths — tell us about why the killings of the other young men became theater?

Vacationing in Orlando, two weeks after George Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict at a Sanford, Fla., courthouse, I wandered into a sports outlet to buy sneakers. Within minutes I was greeted by a hoodie-sporting young salesman whose smile and greeting were so warm, I blurted, “Are you on commission?” Daniel’s reply: “My commission will be your smile when you find your shoes.”

Read the rest at the Washington Post



At Spelman College, a program tackles tough issues of weight, health and self-image
Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

ATLANTA — As part of its new plan to address black women’s wellness- and obesity-related health issues, Spelman College recently hosted “The Best Advice I Ever Got: Conversations with Wise Women.”

Featured alongside health and fitness professionals was plus-size comic-turned-Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique. The star told students how she for years owned the “sexy big-girl thing,” sticking with it when industry experts warned she’d never make it in Hollywood.

The big-and-sexy trademark worked so well, Mo’Nique said, that when her husband asked her weight, she told him, “proudly, as sexy as I could, ‘262 pounds.’ ”

When her husband responded, “That’s too much,” Mo’Nique was dumbstruck. Until he added, “I want you for a lifetime.”

 
Read more at the Washington Post



Beasts of the Southern Wild’s tiny star: It’s all in her name
Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Days after she taught me how to pronounce it, I still find myself saying the child’s name, just to  hear the singular exoticness of it:

“Quevenszhane’.”

Michele Norris with Quevenszhane Wallis

The first time I saw the first name belonging to the youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee in a review of the acclaimed film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” it stopped me in my tracks. Quevenszhane’?  Trying to break it down phonetically, I finally gave up in frustration, thinking, “Nah, too hard.” But I hate giving up on anything, so at a recent screening of “Beasts” sponsored by the Center for American Progress, I asked the name’s young owner—who was on a panel with “Beasts” director Ben Zeitlin and producer Dan Janvey—how I should say it. With a polite “Here we go again” look, the tiny star grabbed the microphone.

“Kwa,” she began, waiting for me to repeat it. I did. “Vahn. Zsa [as in Zsa Zsa Gabor]. Nay.”

Putting the sounds together, I said it aloud: “Quevenszhane’.” Hearing it, I found myself charmed by its musicality, and by the very uniqueness that had irked me. Because it’s just the kind of name an exceptional kid like this deserves.

Normal nine-year-olds don’t earn Oscar nods. Typical third graders don’t carry entire Best Picture-nominated films on their narrow shoulders. This little girl’s accomplishments are extraordinary–so I was surprised that with her hair pinned back and her hands clutching a plush-toy puppy purse, the child who at age five beat 600 other hopefuls for the role of  “Beasts”’ resilient heroine looks like a regular kid. But no matter how often she mugged, giggled and rambled off  I’m-just-a-tyke answers, it was impossible to forget that the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee was, well, special.

Sitting up straight in her chair in a black sequined dress and matching boots, Quevenszhane’ worked the room like a seasoned politician. Displaying not a hint of shyness, she waved and grinned at the adoring adults who’d packed theater, coyly posed for fans snapping cell-phone photos, and answered with enchanting authority each time  moderator Michele Norris of NPR asked her a question. Clearly, she’d done this dozens of time—and enjoyed every minute of it.

She seemed vastly different from Hushpuppy, the destitute, swamp-dwelling waif whose spellbinding stillness and penetrating silences captivate filmgoers. As played by Quevenszhane’, Hushpuppy’s tough demeanor and determined mouth are at war with the terror that radiates from her as she contemplates her ailing father’s imminent death. It’s a performance nuanced enough to earn her a place among the ranks of previous African-American Best-Actress nominees Dorothy Dandridge, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Gabourey Sidibe and Viola Davis.

“Beasts,” too, is impressive. Like the flood-prone Louisiana bayou whose stubborn and joyful inhabits it celebrates, the film is both harsh and poetic, loving and brutal. Though its images are breathtaking and its depiction of an impoverished, rarely-seen community enlightening, I was confused by its blend of mythical fantasy and grim reality. So I asked its star to interpret its meaning.

Quevenszhane’ smiled. When the frustrated Hushpuppy hits her abusive father in his chest, she explained, his unconscious collapse to the earth makes her fear that she has broken something that “makes the universe fall apart.” Everything she does afterward is an attempt to put it back together again.

Suddenly, I got it. Much as she’d done with her perplexing moniker, Quevenszhane’ introduced me to the film’s hidden resonance. It hit me: Isn’t that what all kids do—make us see stuff in totally new ways? Is it possible this lovely child isn’t so unique?

A second later, I came to my senses. Nah, I told myself.  This one’s special.

Just like her name.

 



Upper Crust’s closing: Losing a local treasure — and more
Friday, January 11th, 2013

New business partners Nancy and Diane

The Upper Crust bakery is no more. And I’m annoyed.

Okay, not annoyed, exactly. I’m actually feeling sad, frustrated and abandoned, like the dozens of Colesville, Md.-area residents who lined up outside the bakery Thursday to say goodbye.

It was 18 years ago that I first stepped into the bakery that had just opened next to a Giant near my new home. I wasn’t expecting much, so I was astonished to discover the store was fabulous. Captivated by its rustic ambience, dark wood shelves and welcoming employees, I found myself marveling, “This jewel is in my neighborhood!?”  Then I tasted its offerings:

Turkey and cheese croissants so rich that a wistful customer yesterday said they “made your arteries shrivel just looking at them.” The aptly named “Chocolate Sin Cake,” a dessert whose moist irresistibleness made it my sons’ go-to birthday choice for years. Buttery dinner rolls worthy of my family’s every Thanksgiving and Christmas feast. Blueberry muffins so perfect, they’re the favorite breakfast of my pickiest son, 17. For a Midwestern girl who’d grown up thinking of Wonder Bread as a treat, Upper Crust was a revelation, introducing me to golden Challahs, rugulahs so tasty that transplanted New Yorkers bought them by the dozens, and a yeasty Vienna White so sumptuous, my sons inhaled peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches made from it as if they were brownies. The store’s pumpernickels, ryes, sourdoughs and olive-, nut-, raisin- and cheese-laden breads gave me an education on baked goods’—and life’s–possibilities. I wasn’t alone. Customer Rebecca Breeden says even her cats adored the parmesan loaf. Her husband George would drop it on the kitchen counter “and turn around to find one of them dragging it into the other room.” When she told George the store was closing, she thought he was going to cry.

Yesterday, this neighborhood treasure closed its doors. Not so  much because the bakery wasn’t doing well, but because its wholesale arm is doing spectacularly, with much lower overhead. And as Nancy Neville, co-owner of Upper Crust with her husband Dave, explained repeatedly to disconsolate customers, our favorite bakery was “a business, not a charity” (though Upper Crust nightly donated leftover goods to the homeless). “Retail is tough,” Neville explained, looking heartsick. “Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve had a holiday where we weren’t thinking about people’s soft dinner rolls and pies? But I love this community….My husband wanted to close three years ago and I fought him.”

Now Neville admits she’s tired, and craves more time for herself and her kids. And though she accepts that expanding the company’s burgeoning wholesale operation while shuttering the storefront makes sense, the past few weeks have been agonizing. She spent them “crying my eyes out—my husband thinks I’m a basket-case,” consoling customers and searching for a nearby store to sell her beloved breads to locals once a week. Yesterday, she found one: Quench! Craft Beer and Wine, a deli around the corner at 13423 New Hampshire Ave., where Neville and new partner Diane Hayes expect to be selling bread on Fridays by February.

It’s comforting knowing that Neville’s amazing breads will still be available nearby. But customers like Stephanie Grant, who waited patiently outside on the sidewalk on Upper Crust’s final day, is regretting the loss of the shop itself. “Everything’s a big grocery now,” the IT manager for Choice Hotels explained. “Nothing has that mom-and-pop feel. I’ll miss the bread sitting out on the shelf, that neighborly kind of spirit.” Grant says she bought several loaves she could freeze to “tide myself over” until it is again available. But losing the bakery represents “another way of removing us from our food source,” she said.” It means going back to a grocery store that may or not really know or care where its bread comes from.” Grant sighed.

“At Upper Crust, they cared.”

 



Can’t Stop Giving, Day 20: Five ways to know you’re giving too much
Thursday, December 20th, 2012

All of us know people with a penchant for giving, who generously offer whatever is needed by others. Some of us are those people. That’s great because giving is good. Not only is generosity a spiritual precept of every major religion; giving sweetens, deepens and adds meaning to our lives whether we’re offering or receiving. Anyone who doubts that giving is a force for good should consider what life would be like in a world populated only by takers.

But what if it’s your habit to give too generously? Most of us know someone–most likely, though not necessarily, a woman–who gives too easily, too reflexively, too much. Especially in this, the “season of giving” in which the holiday culture goads us to buy, make, or arrange gifts for everyone we love, and for some we barely tolerate.

Like today. The first day I’ve had time to Christmas shop, I found myself giving over and over, starting with an extra hour’s sleep to my husband by taking our son to school. Other gifts: A carrot-pineapple cake from the bakery for my mom; healing CDs mailed to under-the-weather friends; compliments to folks I saw whose voices, shoes, haircuts, earrings and Santa hats delighted me; Derek Walcott’s stirring poem Love After Love to a friend in need; the benefit of the doubt to a woman who cut me off on a major thoroughfare; a gift recommendation for a man at the Apple store who was clueless about what to get his wife; smiles to passersby at the mall–a few of whom even smiled back, and more. Nine hours later, I was pleasantly worn out, not exhausted, by my small but mindful offerings. Giving too much feels entirely different.

My dear friend Mary Jo knows. As a mother and a social worker–two callings that easily bring out the over-giver in people–she has learned to keep an eye on her giving before it becomes “a detriment.” Like with her two grown sons. “If I’m always givng stuff to them–money, advice, doing things for them–at a certain point, they’re not doing for themselves. With the famlies I work with, there’s a line I walk between being giving and compassionate, and doing so much for them that they start depending on me, developing a ‘gimme’ attitude that suggests, ‘You owe me.’  I mean, some don’t even say, ‘Thank you.’ …I know I’ve crossed the line when I start feeling burned out, weary and unappreciated.”

Does her last statement ring any bells? Here are five ways to know if you’re offering more than you should:

1. You derive no pleasure from your giving. Being generous should make you feel as good as it does the person you’re offering yourself, your time and your gifts to. If it doesn’t, it’s a problem.

2. Your generosity exhausts and depletes, rather than satisfies and fulfills you. If your giving leaves you drained, resentful and/or bone-weary, consider being more circumspect with your offerings. Or forego some of them altogether.

3. You notice nobody is giving back to you (or if they are, they’re not making an effort to give you what you really want or need). It may not be others’ fault. Some givers have real trouble allowing others to return the favor.

4. You let your own needs and desires go unnoticed or unmet. Think about it. Don’t you deserve some of the splendid treatment you offer others? Don’t forget to give to yourself.

5. Your bank account, fridge, gas tank, wallet and/or precious repository of time for yourself are empty. ‘Nuff said.

If the list sounds all too familiar, be like Mary Jo, who has learn to put the brakes on her over-giving. Mostly. “These days, I’m much clearer from the start what my expectations are–at work and at home,” she says. “They’re higher than they used to be. People can produce more than you give them credit for….

“But I think I’ll always struggle with giving,” she admits. “Because I really enjoy it.”

 

 

 

 






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