Friday, November 11, 2022
Monday, September 5, 2022
Today I read with interest the New York Times "Sunday Opinion" insert on the state of our country's schools post pandemic.
As a former teacher and a parent and grandparent, I am passionate about the subject of education. It might even be the subject of my next book that I finish after the one I'm working on at the moment.
The New York Times insert touched on the many troublesome concerns that pertain to the American educational scene today from critical race theory, to social mobility, to meritocracy, to hope, to wasting time and money, to making citizens, to bonding with nature, to learning to read. There were even a few thoughts and photos by teenage students and teachers and a story about parent activists. The main articles were written by variety of authors and educators and professors.
I found the different views fascinating even though I did not always agree with everyone's analysis.
For example, the article on citizenship by Heather McGee and Victor Ray favored much more radically a curriculum that exposes in much greater detail the inequities of racism in the past. I personally am a "just the facts" person so I probably might talk about Thomas Jefferson and his contribution to the making of America today without going into the details of his personal life. I might offer going deeper into Jefferson's life as an extra-curricular subject a student could pursue on his own. On the other hand, there are many facts to learn about slavery itself, i.e. that much of it was economic from the beginning and that even Abraham Lincoln was trying to figure out a way to find a solution to the problem from a humane point of view as well as political point of view. That topic might be a good one for a class discussion.
I so want us all to get along and am willing to make compromises in America. but not at the cost of embracing the importance of education for all if we are to maintain a successful country.
There so many disparities in points of view about the subject of education from the libertarian view that we should all be free to educate our children the way we want to those who insist we rewrite our entire history to be more inclusive. Of course, this is America and we all have a right to disagree.
Bottom line, though I think we need to have a cohesive belief in what it means to be an American and how we can best carry out this belief. To me, as the PBS travel host Rick Steves said, it means educating our children so that they can make rational decisions about what it takes to keep those beliefs. Then it's up to them to take what they have learned and make us and our country even better.
Mimi Pockross is a freelance writer and the author of three books. Currently she is working on her fourth book, a novel about immigration and assimilation.
Sunday, July 10, 2022
How delightful to be interviewed about my book on Harvey for a podcast dedicated to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights. Entitled "All the Drama" and aired on BROADWAYRADIO.COM, the program focuses on each of the playwrights' stories and is written and produced by Jan Simon, herself a sometimes Pulitzer Prize juror. I loved her "off the beaten path" questions. It amazes me that we can still be talking about Mary Chase and Harvey, a testimony to its lasting impact on the theater and life.
Here's the link:
Tuesday, April 19, 2022
The incident took place in a midwestern rural community about an hour away from a state university in the late 1960s. The make-up of the student body was a blend of children from the nearby Air Force base as well as the children of farmers, and the people of the main town.
I was the high school speech and drama teacher. In addition to being responsible for a full load of teaching public speaking classes, I was in charge of directing two major plays a year. After my first effort when there were only eight members in the cast and an audience made up of their relatives, I decided that every play I would choose from that point on would have casts of thousands.
My next selection after that rather disappointing first play was the 1955 iconic play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee that had become a very popular movie starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March and Gene Kelly in 1960. As you may recall, it’s a fictionalized version of the Scopes Trial that took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee and tested whether evolution should be allowed to be taught in the schools. In reality two famous lawyers came to Dayton to try the case, William Jennings Bryan who had been a three-time candidate for U.S. president and the famous trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
I was very young and naïve and never really thought about the political ramifications that might surface from producing this play in a small midwestern town. It wasn’t a matter of race because the Air Force students were a diverse bunch that included African Americans, Asians and even a Jewish child in the mix. No, the problem was Ms. Claire, a teacher who, for religious reasons, objected to the theme of the play, a test case with a little romance and family problems added to the drama. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court where it was determined that evolution could be taught in the schools.
Concerned with Ms. Claire’s objections, I wrote an article for the local newspaper. “The plot more clearly brings out the conflict between progress and tradition,” I wrote. “It merely tells us that both views should be allowed to be presented. It does not speak out against religion, but criticizes those who are not allowed to think or those who don’t want to.”
The upshot of this was surprisingly a very mellow one. Everyone liked the play, even the school superintendent, and life went on without a wrinkle. Even Ms. Claire laid her case to rest.
Thinking back on my brash decision, I wonder how I would feel if this situation occurred today. When I made my play selections, I did not have to account to anybody. The school trusted that I would make prudent and conscientious decisions. In our current atmosphere, I’m wondering how such choices should be made. Censorship certainly is scary, and we live in different times. Heavens, the plays in which my grandson acts are much more edgy than a story of Southern churchgoers in the 1920s.
My past experience made me realize how important it is to have guardrails, not rigid ones but ones that allow a robust discussion without making conclusions. The Inherit the Wind playwright Jerome Lawrence described his oevre as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control ... It's not about science versus religion,” he said. “It's about the right to think."
I have very fond memories of the time during which the production occurred. I still get letters today from some of the students that took part. Together we were able to talk and think and try to work things out. It is my hope that what I learned can somehow be applied to today’s educational philosophy. I’ll let the boards, the parents and the teachers figure out how to do this.
Mimi Pockross is a freelance writer who lives in Vail, Colorado. Her most recent book is Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase.
Monday, April 4, 2022
A couple of years ago around Easter time, a Wall Street Journal article listed the 39 most famous bunnies. Near the top of the heap along with Bugs Bunny and Peter Rabbit was an invisible six foot one-and-a-half inch tall rabbit by the name of Harvey, the subject of the Pulitzer Prize play by the same name and the movie that followed starring Jimmy Stewart in what he once said was his most favorite role.
Just like memories of Lucy and Ethel stomping grapes on an episode of I Love Lucy or Gene Kelley singing in the rain, there is, as one critic recalled her mother saying, no time when the mention of Harvey doesn’t bring a smile to anyone’s face who is familiar with the “tale.”
In the story written by playwright Mary Chase, a middle-age man named Elwood P. Dowd befriends an invisible six foot one-and-a-half-inch tall rabbit much to the dismay of his social climbing sister Veta. Chaos breaks out when Veta tries to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium. The question becomes who is more sane….Elwood and his imaginary rabbit or the outside world that Veta represents. It turns out that in many ways Elwood and Harvey are a lot more humane than those who claim to understand reality. Together Elwood and Harvey create mischief for those who deserve it and revel in their moments together when life is peaceful and kind and pleasant.
From the time that Harvey debuted on Broadway in the middle of World War II to a recent reference to Harvey by the mystery writer Louise Penny in her book Kingdom of the Blind, audiences and readers have never stopped thinking about Harvey and appreciating all he is to us.
That an invisible rabbit could be the subject of multiple references in movies like Field of Dreams, Shawshank Redemption, and episodes of The Simpsons on television is a tribute to the character that was created by his author, Mary Chase.
The actress Helen Hayes who played in the revival of Harvey in 1970 explained to host Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show that in her mind if youngsters just put their imaginations to work, they too wouldn’t have to find other destructive means of escaping. They too could just have a fun invisible companion like Harvey the rabbit and all would be well.
As the Easter season approaches and we think of Peter Cottontail hopping down the bunny trail, we should all have a dream of someone like Harvey in our lives that makes us all kinder and more pleasant human beings.
Mimi Pockross is the author of Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
“Why did you feel guilty about missing your son’s prom pictures?” probed a forty-something mother at a presentation I made for a book I had written on balancing work and family during the eighties? “I miss my kids’ activities all the time. It’s just part of life.” She, a lawyer, was lecturing me on how to behave like an independent woman. Really?
All right, I’m old and grew up in the Eisenhower fifties in a white privileged suburb. I enjoyed being a girl. I loved my time as a Girl Scout. I anxiously awaited the monthly delivery of its publication, American Girl, and I read with great interest about Jane Adams and Mary Lincoln. I never questioned my role. I ran for Homecoming Queen and I tried out for cheerleading and made neither and lived with it.
When I had my children in the seventies, I raised them in a white privileged suburb. Though the norms of the past were being questioned, I was more apt to read about the picketing and protesting and write a newsletter for the PTA about augmenting school curriculum.
I was ahead of my time in the sense that I decided to return to work rather than remain a stay-at-home mom. I did face discrimination against my gender. When I was looking for space to open an art gallery in the early eighties, the agent who was showing me around, a man, looked at me skeptically and asserted, “You’ll be back playing tennis with your friends in six months.” Needless to say, it took me a while to find a landlord who had faith in me. I still believe that male mindset continues to linger on today. The point is: I prevailed.
When I look at life today for women, I am grateful to those who helped me maintain a center, like my mother and my grandmother and also for the suffragettes, Betty Friedan and the feminists, and the MeToo movement. I ask myself if I were I growing up today: Where would I stand? Would I ally with the Me Tooers? Would I decide to be transgender like the child of one of our friends? Would I pursue a career above all else and overlook the demands of family when necessary? Or would I, like I did in the eighties, try to balance it all and make every effort to be present for my son’s prom pictures?
Bottom line for me is a belief that there remain variations between men and women and within those disparities, we should each embrace our genders and work to do our best. I’m against the progressive belief that we need to continue to speak out about having been victims, and I’m against the other end of the spectrum who believe a woman’s place is in the home. But we should allow for our differences and accept the realities. I don’t think women are ever going to be quarterbacks for the NFL and I don’t think men are ever going to deliver babies. To equalize the playing field has its limitations.
Mimi Pockross is the author of Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase.
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were booked for the second half of the Chicago CBS noon show where I was working in 1972. They were in town to plug the movie in which they were co-starring called Buck and the Preacher and which Poitier had directed, a first in his career.
The daily program featured the news and the weather followed with soft interviews presented by the hostess, Lee Philip. But Lee was on vacation as was my boss, the usual producer of the show.
Substituting for the hostess that day was Janet Langhart (the current wife of William Cohen, the former US Secretary of State). I was substituting for the producer of the show and was responsible for filling her in on the guests of that day and on the film's story.
It was standard procedure for all guests for the show to appear at the studio (a former roller rink and a block long) a half hour before the show. My regular job was to usher them to the Green Room, offer them coffee and let them know that Lee would be in shortly to meet them before the show began. Guests were instructed to arrive before noon.
On that infamous day, noon arrived without a sign of our guests' presence. No phone call. No heads up communication.
My mind was already on Plan B. I couldn't remember experiencing a no-show situation in the two years since I had been working at CBS. I didn't want to upset Janet. She was new to her role just like I was new to mine.
I started going through my boss's rolodex looking for ideas. It was now 12:05 and the news anchor was talking about a possible strike for the Chicago schoolteachers and getting ready to send the cameras over to the weather desk. Still no Harry and Sidney.
I'm not sure what we all decided Plan B would be, but whatever it was, I made my way toward the studio to brief the stage manager and then head to my place in the control room next to the director.
At 12:10, two tall, slim, gorgeous-looking African American gentlemen immaculately dressed in elegant suits and ties hurried into the studio. It was them! They had made it just in time.
Of course they were enchanted with Janet Langhart. She was one of the few African American women in the broadcasting business in the early seventies. And she was as beautiful as they were handsome.
The two guests were both so engaging and entertaining and wonderful and they looked like they were totally enjoying themselves and had no notion of the panic they had given us.
In particular, I remember Sidney Poitier's response to a question that I had prepared for Janet and that she had taken literally. About the film she inquired, "what is the plot?"
Sidney Poitier rolled those great big eyes of his, smiled a wide grin, and responded "the plot?" as if to say "Really? You want to know something that basic?" Fifty years later I can still remember this moment and how horrified and embarrassed I was that I had phrased the question for Janet in such a naive way.
Despite my faux pas, the glamour of that moment is indelible in my mind. The two men were icons and it was such a treat to see the human side of them. And, of course, I was honored to have worked with Janet as well.
Mimi Pockross is the author of Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase. Find her at www.mimipockross.com
Sunday, January 9, 2022
I was nine when I learned about my mother’s relatives being murdered by the Nazis. I was snooping around boxes in the basement of my home and found the telegrams that had been wired to my mother.
My mother never mentioned anything to me about this traumatic part of her life. On my own, I learned more about the story as I reached my teen years when movies like The Diary of Anne Frank and Exodus came out and my father handed me a new book called The Last of the Just that reviewed the history of discrimination and atrocities against the Jews and ended with stories of the genocide that took place during World War II. The term “Holocaust” was not even used then and only later was it introduced in the seventies when the series “Holocaust” aired on television. Of course, I watched the whole series, but by then I was married and had children of my own.
As the stories trickled out while I was growing up, I began to understand why I had only one set of grandparents. Occasionally my mother would recall happy incidents from her upbringing in Germany, but never once did she mention why or how her family had died.
I was raised in Chicago in two different “assimilated” places, more gentile than Jewish. When my parents moved to the expanding suburb of Skokie in the early fifties, they would never have imagined that one day it would have the highest number of Holocaust survivors in the country.
When I was growing up, I was the first Jewish child in my fourth-grade class and, though as I grew older there were more Jews in my school, it was always clear that there was a division between the Jews and the Gentiles. There was even a schism between Jews whose roots were in Central Europe as opposed to those whose ancestors were Eastern European. As my mother had desired from the beginning, I tried to blend in with the majority, at that time White Anglo Saxon Protestants. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I wasn’t tall and blonde and so there were a lot of places I didn’t really fit. My efforts to be a cheerleader or to be photographed for the school yearbook were in vain. I don’t know whether I attribute this to the fact that I hadn’t the physical or inherited tools to figure out how to “fit in” or whether I was just not that charismatic.
My mother and father never associated with the Holocaust survivors who moved to Skokie. Their group of friends were all from the Reform Jewish congregation they had started when they arrived in Skokie. A few of the couples they knew had emigrated from Central Europe near the time when my mother had also arrived. Many had married first or second-generation Jews and mostly they were professionals or academics. They had missed first-hand the horrors of Hitler’s wrath. No doubt many of them had relatives who stayed in their native countries and perished, but I never heard them talk about it or bring up the subject. And never did their children who often became my friends ever discuss the subject either.
The only Holocaust survivor I knew growing up was my mother’s seamstress that altered my mother’s and my clothes. I still remember with horror seeing the numbers on her arm when she was pinning up the hem of my skirt.
Since I have grown up, the divisions between ethnic and racial groups has expanded and the noticeable discrimination of Jews has somewhat subsided. When I was becoming an adult, it was easier to get in to college that originally had “quotas.” And there was less difficulty buying a home in the neighborhood of one’s choice. It was even a bit easier to get a job in the corporate world if your religion was Jewish. Still, when I went to college and tried to pledge a non-Jewish sorority, it was recommended by its leader that I join a Jewish one instead. It is not surprising to me that even today we still see so many outbursts of displeasure and violent attacks on American Jews. It’s still a problem.
As I grew older, there were many incidents that made my thoughts about my Jewish past keep changing. I allied with the Jews moreso when I saw the musical Fiddler on the Roof even though I learned later that the way my relatives lived was different from how Tevye’s family lived in their tiny Russian village. I was deeply affected when I was a young mother and heard Gerda Klein, a Holocaust survivor speak at a luncheon I attended with my friends. And when I read Orphan in History about a Harvard graduate whose high-profile parents hid from him his Jewish roots, I had to think even moreso about my future relationship with my religion.
The more I heard personal escape stories or read about them, the more I questioned how to accept my past. I had been raised in a Reform Jewish home where we celebrated the major Jewish holidays and where both my brother and I were confirmed, but my brother, unlike his Russian Jewish father was not bar mitzvahed. I knew I wasn’t going to become an Orthodox Jew. I wasn’t even going to be a more observant Jew though I did send my children to Sunday School and Hebrew School. I wasn’t going to get active in Jewish organizations that I admired and donated to but of which I did not feel comfortable becoming an active participant. Yet I am still haunted by what happened to some of the people in my tribe even though they thought it could never happen to them.
I hope that I can contribute in my own personal way to help work toward a better world. And I’m hoping telling my story will help both Jews, Gentiles and people of other tribes make peace with themselves and then hopefully we can all learn how to get along with each other.
Look for the future publication of my first novel.”Sarah’s Tribe,” a fictionalized version of this story.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Monday, November 1, 2021
Today is November 1st, the Day of the Pooka in Ireland!
One of the most famous pookas is Harvey, the creation of Mary Chase, the Irish playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize for her play Harvey about a six foot tall invisible rabbit who only Elwood P. Dowd can see.
Harvey opened on Broadway on Pooka Day, November 1st in 1944 and ran for four and a half years.
In Irish lore a puca (one of many iterations of the word) is a large animal, maybe a goat or a horse or a rabbit who is known for spreading mischief. Harvey is one of the nicer versions. There are many that are as not as benign.
Here's to Harvey on Pooka Day!
Monday, August 9, 2021
It's been a while since my husband and I have taken a road trip. This one was with our adorable grandchildren, ages 10 and 13 and our destination was Mount Rushmore, a place my husband and I had visited once before and one that I had visited with my parents when I was growing up, one of many road trips I took as a child.
But my eyes had never looked at the monument quite like it did this time. That's the beauty of revisiting places you've visited in the past.
Several things caught my attention, several political.
I found it interesting that South Dakota was looking for a way to draw people to their state when they settled in on creating Mount Rushmore. The original idea advocated by the state historian was to focus on Western heroes, but when they engaged their US Senator and hired the sculptor, the emphasis became more national. Another interesting tidbit was that the sculptor, a Danish immigrant named Gutzon Borglum, after insisting that the sculpture be national in nature and timeless in its relevance to history, and who was a Republican, voted for Calvin Coolidge, a Democrat because he supported the project over Coolidge's opposing contender. I also found it interesting why each of the four presidents were chosen, i.e. each represented an "eternal reminder of the birth, growth, preservation and development of a nation dedicated to democracy and the pursuit of individual liberty." Washington because he was the father of the country who chose not to be a king, Jefferson, not for his role in the Declaration of Independence, but for expanding the country by half with the Louisiana Purchase under his presidency, Lincoln for saving the Union, and Theodore Roosevelt who, by building the Panama Canal, expanded trade for the country and for the world and who encouraged the business side of the country's goals.
To see people from all parts of the country and of the world come together to marvel at the accomplishment that began in 1927 and culminated in 1941 after fourteen years of hard work and clever innovation, made me feel that there is hope for our country. Mount Rushmore to me renewed my belief in democracy. Even though I did see different representations of America, for example, the Amish, a few Black families, some bikers that were attending the nearby Sturgis rally, I still felt there weren't enough of us Americans there to see this incredible site and to rethink what makes our country great.
Another new observation occurred to me as I traveled to and from my destination, that of the country surrounding the site, the cowboy culture of the West, the rise and fall of the indigenous people, the gold rushers, the collective dissatisfaction of visitors like the bikers and ranchers and residents who reside in the wide open spaces of Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. It's a different world out there. One can start a bit to understand why they value their independence and why, somehow or another, they need to be brought in under the big tent of democracy as spokesman as well.
Thursday, July 29, 2021
It's been a while since I have visited the City of Angels. What a contrast to my tiny quiet ski village where I have lived for the past three years and to the mid-sized city of Denver where I lived before that for thirty years.
What struck me more than anything else was the complete acceptance of diversity throughout the city. Though I did not go everywhere, my impression was that races, genders, elders, and youth all seem to want the same things: good hotels, nice restaurants, enjoyable pastimes. It was a replica of all the commercials we see on television where everyone gets along and has a good time together, no matter whether you're the worker or a family or a group of friends.
Of course the traffic is ridiculous and the means of getting around daunting. To one of our destinations we were on a two way busy street for at least ten miles! And the homeless tents line the avenues.
Still, I love all the references to the film industry and Hollywood. In my home town you would never see a blockade adorned with photos of Matt Damon and his new movie Stillwater imposed on it or vintage pictures of Charlie Chaplin in a historic women's club.
The bougainvillea and hydrangea bushes are in full bloom, so rich you can't even see the branches.
And the California cuisine? Inventive with abundant amounts of kale, arugula and lesser known greens, a farmers' market entirely devoted to fresh fruits and vegetables, and creative versions of produce like canned kiwis and marinated plums.
The beach summoned us although the boats in the harbor all needed paint jobs. (Blame it on the pandemic). We saw tons of volley ball games, kids playing in the sand, girls in summer dresses, fancy parties in individual stalls.
The bevy of activity is exhausting but invigorating. It renewed my appreciation for why people live in megacities like the City of Angels despite all the problems that go along with that choice.
Saturday, July 3, 2021
The memories of my childhood education are the foundation for my beliefs today.
They are from a white middle class suburban community where in the 1950s and early 1960s schools were supposed to be a microcosm of American society.
Probably my highest achievement was giving the graduation speech for my grammar school, "Good-bye Cleveland, Hello High School." I guess that meant my teachers thought I was somewhat of a role model and also that I would get the job done. I was also proud to have been selected to be a member of an after school singing octet with my amazing music teacher, Mrs. Smith. I know I enjoyed the practices almost as much as the performances.
It was not all success for me in the cocoon in which I grew up. I didn't make cheerleading in the eighth grade, only in the seventh grade. I was selected to play the viola in the school orchestra rather than the coveted violin slot.
My school, a lovely blonde building in the middle of a residential neighborhood, became the backbone for the life I would later lead.
It was there that I learned to sing the Negro spiritual "Ain"t a That Good News" from Mrs. Smith and where I learned to diagram sentences from Mrs. Norkett and memorize the preamble to the Constitution from Mrs. Lago. It was there that I wrote a paper on "A House Divided." It was with my schoolmates that I played jacks at recess, traded baseball cards with the guys, and traveled to see the Chicago stockyards on a field trip.
After school many of my classmates and I would often walk home together after stopping at Tom's candy store to get a treat. And when I got home to my 1500 square foot house, I would relax with my brother as we watched Howdy Doody, Clarabelle and Mr. Bluster, and Kukla, Fran and Ollie and later Spin and Marty on our twelve inch television. Tim Considine (Spin) was so handsome.
I guess those easy, breezy days had to end when we said good by to Cleveland and hello to high school. For me, the competition would get greater and the ability to stand out would become more difficult. I always admired those who were comfortable with their innate abilities who just seemed to fall naturally into place. Most of us wanted more and struggled to find our places.
Those early happy days are the basis for everything else I have done in my lucky long life. I am usually pretty optimistic. I take my defeats and move on and try to alter the steps I take to gain some progress. As my father always said, you take two steps forward and one step backward. And I take moments off from my continual fierce ambition to just have a good time. What could be more American?
Mimi Pockross is the author of three books, most recently Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase. Harvey became a movie in 1950!