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December, 2022
12-16-2022: A New Language-APPROACH I spin around in the middle of the corridor. My cane taps against four elevator doors. Read more

October, 2022
10-16-2022: World War I Abroad, War against Socialism at Home-Woodrow Wilson was elected on a promise to keep America out of war. My mother was in high school when he went back on that promise and the US entered WWI. Read more

August, 2022
8-22-2022: I Am Not Ready to Abandon the World-I haven’t been posting for a while, partly because we got a new dog that’s been taking my attention, and partly because the writing-to-prompt group I’m in was on hiatus, but it is going again. Here’s the latest, from Friday. Read more

June, 2022
6-30-2022: Here We Are Again-Post from a friend, “Look what came in my email! I finally found my life's purpose!” The email? “You look like a good fit for Forklift Operator.” Read more

6-6-2022: Are you gonna be ready?-Prompt: Maybe there will be a big dramatic battle one day something apocalyptic and all the horseman will be there and i'll be ready.  “Comes the revolution, we’ll all have __________ (or there won’t be any _________)” was a household phrase, usually kidding about something trivial, but still, the revolution was there ahead of us somewhere. Read more

May, 2022
5-21-2022: Oh, What a Piece of Work-Sometimes I find the business part of the music a drag but sometimes, like today, it is a delight. After two days of phone tag, Bill and I connected. Read more

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Nancy Schimmel, photo by Sandy Morris

Welcome to my blog. I have been writing a biography of my mother, songwriter/activist Malvina Reynolds, but I keep getting interrupted—first by Occupy, and Occupella, a song-leading group that grew out of it, blogging at occupella.org, making a book out of the blog, Occupella: Singing in the Lifeboats. Then came The Former Guy, and now the pandemic he assisted. Both the guy and the virus are distracting, scary, and exasperating.

So on this blog I will be posting about my family (my father, William “Bud” Reynolds was an organizer of the Ford Hunger March of 1932 and other disruptions), about the process of writing the bio, and also writing about these weird times and about my own life, writing songs, walking my neighborhood, working on a fantasy novel for children. It’s a good time to be hanging out with witches, dragons and trolls. The other kind of troll.

My old blog, Writing Malvina, got interrupted too. You can find it by clicking 2010 Blog at the upper left.


Friday, Dec 16, 2022: A New Language
An old memory


Prompt:

APPROACH

By John Lee Clark

I spin around in the middle of the corridor. My cane taps against four elevator doors. I have pressed both the up and down buttons because there is a fifth elevator door. If I tried to tap all five I would come to closing doors too late. Let the fifth door open to a ghost. Let it be confused and close again.

As is too often the case with writing to prompts, I am off to a memory, and I think it’s one I wrote about before.

When I was an undergraduate at Cal, I read to blind students for some small sum per hour. This was before computers could read things to you. I read, over the years, to three different students, mainly to Manuel Urena, who came from a family of farm workers and said he’d have been a farm worker too if he hadn’t gone blind as a kid and got sent to the School for the Blind in Berkeley and gone on to Cal.

I remember trying to explain perspective to him by arranging objects on a table and showing him, by feel, what happens when you could hear around corners but not see around them. I remember when he really liked something he would say “fine as wine.” I began my practice of cutting my friends’ hair by cutting his. He couldn’t see my learning mistakes and there weren’t many. My mother had cut my hair when I was a kid so I figured I could do it too.

He used a cane, but one day he told me that he had just fallen into a ditch some guys were digging near the Life Science Building. “Hey!” said one of the diggers, “are you blind?............Oh.” Manuel laughed.

After he graduated, he married and moved to the Midwest where he had some kind of job at an agency for services to blind people. We lost track of each other.

Years later, I was in Chicago at an American Libraries Association conference in my favorite hotel, The Palmer House, and I noticed little plastic strips of Braille writing next to the elevator buttons. This was way before the ADA, and I thought, Oh, how nice of them to accommodate blind patrons, and then I found that a conference was coming in about services to blind people. I asked at the front desk if a Manuel Urena was registered. Yes. I called his room. He was there, with his wife, and they’d love to have me come up. It was evening, they were in bathrobes. We had a good visit. No ghosts at the elevators, but it was a blast from the past.

And now I want to tell you about the poet, John Lee Clark, who wrote about canes and elevator doors. He is both blind and deaf. I read an interview of him on the Poetry Foundation site (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/159192/all-sorts-of-secret-treasure) and learned that DeafBlind people used to use ASL, touching hands, but in the last few decades they have become a community and have been inventing a new language, Protactile, in which the signs are more adapted to touch, not sight, and they are composing poetry in it. It blows my mind that there is a whole new language in the world. I recommend that everybody interested in words, poetry, language, read the interview. 


Comment from Jean Tepperman posted 12-18-2022:
How amazing! There really is a "language instinct!"


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Sunday, Oct 16, 2022: World War I Abroad, War against Socialism at Home
Malvina in High School


Woodrow Wilson was elected on a promise to keep America out of war. My mother was in high school when he went back on that promise and the US entered WWI. Many protested, including socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. And my grandparents. Debs was thrown in jail. My grandparents were not punished directly, but through my mother. Here is what Malvina wrote about her school days.

My first grade teacher was like something out of Dickens. We called her, when she couldn’t hear, Broomstick Pulsiver--tall, thin, dark, her gray hair pulled up tight in a knot at the top of her sharp head. If you were not absolutely quiet, she would pinch your face between her thin, strong fingers and shake your head from side to side. It wasn’t that it hurt so much, it was the indignity, and the deep-down feeling that it wasn’t fair, that what you were doing wasn’t wrong.
I had better teachers after that. They were such a contrast with my first experience of school that I loved them, and learned what made them happy, and got pink certificates of promotion or A grades all my school life.

I still have the Denman Medal Malvina was given as most deserving pupil when she graduated from grammar school in 1914, her name engraved on the back. Years later, after she became somewhat famous, she was invited back to the high school she had attended, to sing at a rally against the war in Vietnam. She accepted, and told this story:

Lowell is the school from which I was supposed to have graduated. I never did. A teacher called the morning of the graduation exercises and told me that my cousin Rosie and I (we had our new-made voile graduation dresses all ready to put on) were to be made a show of in front of the whole school and visitors, publicly denied our diplomas because my parents were socialists and opposed to that war (WWI).
I had first come to the attention of the principal’s office with a premature women’s liberation movement on the school grounds. At noon, the boys could leave the grounds to play around on the streets and to get hot dogs, hamburgers, coffee and pop at the little store across the street.
I circulated a petition that the girls be allowed out of the yard at noon, also.
The answer was no. It wasn’t proper for girls to be on the street. And if they tried to restrict the boys it wouldn’t work--they’d climb the fence. The boys had de facto freedom.
Probably in the same situation now, the girls would climb the fence.
Then nothing happened except that quiet, shy me was fingered as a troublemaker.

In an undated interview, my mother told another bit of this story: “I went to the [editor] of one of the great San Francisco newspapers, The Call. He was a very famous and fine interesting man, and we asked him to help me get my diploma. He said, ‘What do you want to go to college for?’ and I was really shocked because my aim had been in that direction, and I think if I had been sharp and alert and had a little broader perspective, I would have said to Fremont Older, ‘If you give me a job on your newspaper, I won’t care about college.’” Indeed, she did work on a newspaper, The People’s World, after she had finished college.

I read everything I could get hold of. I read all the heavy books in sets in my parents’ library, and when I discovered the public library, I read whatever fell to my hands, the Red Fairy Book and the Blue Fairy Book and all the Greek myths.
[My parents] cared a lot about socialism and the socialist movement. That’s where all our friends were. That made some difficulties for Pete and me. My folks were very shy about making friends with their neighbors, and there weren’t many kids in the neighborhood where we lived much of the time.
But later, our friends were all in the Socialist Party. I remember Bill Haywood and Tom Mooney--Tom’s case dominated our lives for many years. His wife, Rena, gave violin lessons to my brother and me until we realized that we needed a better teacher.

I don’t remember ever meeting Tom Mooney or his wife, but their names were household words. Mooney was a labor leader who was framed, along with his wife and his associate, Warren Billings, for the 1916 Preparedness Day Parade bombing in San Francisco which killed ten people. His wife was acquitted. His case became an international cause célèbre and his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 1939, he was pardoned and released. I have my grandfather’s photograph of himself with “Big Bill” Haywood. He was one of the organizers of the great 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as was Arturo Giovanetti.

Our heroes were people like Arturo Giovanetti, big, handsome boisterous poet political prisoner who stopped with us and cooked great pasta dinners for the gang. There was Frank Strawn Hamilton of Jack London’s Philosopher’s Corner, brilliant intellectual and ne’er-do-well. My uncle Selig took us to visit Jack London at his ranch in Sonoma County. I don’t think Selig knew him any better than we did, but he had more nerve. London took us to see Wolf House, then building, which was to burn down before it was finished, and I remember the handsome guy, in riding britches and open neck shirt, standing in the main stone fireplace to show us how big it was. We have one picture of Bud [her boyfriend around that time] where he looks very much the way I remember Jack London. The picture is the enlargement of a passport photo taken when Bud had been at sea on a windjammer for three months.
There were big dinners at our house sometimes, and we went to Socialist Party Picnics in Oakland at Idora [amusement] Park and Shellmound Park. I was always excited at the prospect of going, but I don’t remember having much fun. I had no friends my own age. If there were any kids playing there, I would have been too shy to make friends.

I was reminded of the graduation story when I read about a new book on that period by Bay Area author Adam Hochschild, American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis. I’ve ordered a copy. The Espionage Act, which the FBI cited in raiding Mar a Lago, was originally enacted to persecute WWI anti-war activists. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/03/books/review/american-midnight-adam-hochschild.html

Comment from Nancy Schimmel posted 10-15-2022:
I looked at my June 30 post and found this: "Shit has happened before, of course. Reagan and AIDS and Three-Mile Island, and, in my younger years, The Army-McCarthy hearings and then Nixon and Watergate. I don’t so much have hope, right now, it’s more like “Fuck you! I’m not going to give in to your fuckery.” Being the stubborn two-year-old to their tantrum-throwing two-year-old. So I keep fighting as much out of habit as anything else. In my parents’ youth it was the Spanish flu and the Palmer Raids." So the Palmer Raids were part of the war on socialism I refer to in today's post.


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Monday, Aug 22, 2022: I Am Not Ready to Abandon the World
Writing from a prompt


I haven’t been posting for a while, partly because we got a new dog that’s been taking my attention, and partly because the writing-to-prompt group I’m in was on hiatus, but it is going again. Here’s the latest, from Friday:

The prompt was a poem, “I Am Learning to Abandon the World,” by Linda Pastan

I am learning to abandon the world

before it can abandon me.

Already I have given up the moon

and snow, closing my shades

against the claims of white.

And the world has taken

my father, my friends.

I have given up melodic lines of hills,

moving to a flat, tuneless landscape.

And every night I give my body up

limb by limb, working upwards

across bone, towards the heart.

But morning comes with small

reprieves of coffee and birdsong.

A tree outside the window

which was simply shadow moments ago

takes back its branches twig

by leafy twig.

And as I take my body back

the sun lays its warm muzzle on my lap

as if to make amends.

Here is my response, with some additions today:

I am not ready to abandon the world, fucked though it is. I just read an article about how the stationary testing devices for smog don’t measure much, as proven by a new mobile one and guess what? There is more air pollution in neighborhoods where people of color or poor white people live. As we’ve known for years. And the racist comments after the article were just as discouraging as the article itself. The study was done in Oakland, CA and it isn’t just where freeways are built, which I knew about, but which ones heavy trucks are allowed on, as they are on I-880 but not I-580, which goes mostly through white neighborhoods in the hills. That part could be changed.

Earlier today I looked up “Merry Minuet” (“They’re riotin(g in Africa, La-la-la-la-la la-la/They’re starving in Spain, La-la etc./There’s hurricanes in Florida…/And Texas needs rain…”) because I think of it sometimes when I read the news. I thought Tom Lehrer had written it but no, it was some other guy I never heard of. I used to hear it at the hungry i back in the fifties, sung by Faith Winthrop, my favorite of the people I heard sing there, who included Stan Wilson, the Gateway Singers and later the Limeliters. Miss Winthrop sang it more delicately, which I think was more appropriate to the tune, than the Kingston Trio, who made it popular.

My father supported my mother in her singer-=songwriter career, but he didn’t like to go to night clubs, so she went with me or with women friends to the hungry i to hear the Gateway singers and the Limeliters sing the songs she wrote for them. I usually went with my friends who had all been counselors together at Camp Kilowana in the hills between Calistoga and Middleton. Some of this group also sang with my mother a few times. Later I went to the hungry i with my then husband, Jerry, who was a traditional jazz banjo player and played with Turk Murphy’s band now and then, so he was at home in the club scene. We had met at a folksong evening I’d gone to with my mother. The kids I ran with in high school had been trad jazz fans.

Tom Lehrer’s song “Pollution” has been going through my mind too, also triggered by the day’s news. I learned it in the San Francisco Lesbian Chorus, where I met Claudia back in 1981. My life would have been quite different without the particular sound track it had.


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Thursday, Jun 30, 2022: Here We Are Again
Can You Drive a Forklift?


Post from a friend, “Look what came in my email! I finally found my life's purpose!” The email? “You look like a good fit for Forklift Operator.” I commented: “There is so much $hit coming down these days that we need lots more forklift drivers.”

Shit has happened before, of course. Reagan and AIDS and Three-Mile Island, and, in my younger years, The Army-McCarthy hearings and then Nixon and Watergate. I don’t so much have hope, right now, it’s more like “Fuck you! I’m not going to give in to your fuckery.” Being the stubborn two-year-old to their tantrum-throwing two-year-old. So I keep fighting as much out of habit as anything else. In my parents’ youth it was the Spanish flu and the Palmer Raids.

Melanie DeMore, this year’s Pride Parade’s Grand Marshall, wrote a song we sang in Zoom chorus last night that starts, “You gotta put one foot in front of the other and lead with love.” And that, in essence, is what I believe. And, I guess, Paulo Freire’s “We make the road by walking.” I assume someone’s made a song out of that. I will look it up in case I need to. [Someone has.] And I discovered about forty years ago that songwriting was my road. Well, my highway…I have byways too.

Back in the sixties, I think, I went to a lecture by some local pundit, the gist of which was that what the US called the center was what most of Europe called the right, and our right was their far right and our left was their center. Same now, except we are naming the far right for what it is, fascist. And even fascism wasn’t invented in Europe. Germany studied our laws on miscegenation and our eugenicists’ writings when they were planning their fascist laws.

And here we are again—never left, really, they just come out of the woodwork periodically. And we just keep shoveling the shit.

Comment from Nancy Schimmel posted 7-1-2022:
The song is on youtube. Just enter youtube we make the way by walking david wilcox


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Monday, Jun 6, 2022: Are you gonna be ready?
A prompt write from 2013


Prompt: Maybe there will be a big dramatic battle one day something apocalyptic and all the horseman will be there and i'll be ready. 

“Comes the revolution, we’ll all have __________ (or there won’t be any _________)” was a household phrase, usually kidding about something trivial, but still, the revolution was there ahead of us somewhere. We sang “Tis the final conflict, let each stand in his place, for the International Soviet shall be the human race.” It wasn’t till I was in my forties or fifties that I realized there was no “final conflict.” Edna St. Vincent Millay said “It isn’t one damn thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over again.” So here we are fighting Roe v. Wade again, and all that. And when the Soviet Union fell apart and we saw what an ecological mess they had made of the land with nuclear tests and drying up lakes we realized they had been ignoring those consequences even more than we had and that there was a fight still to be fought.

And still, and yet, I am stirred when now and then I am in a group singing “The Internationale” or even “Solidarity Forever.” Or “Lift Every Voice,” if we’re celebrating the inauguration of the first Black president of the United States. And still, when a bearded sweet-faced middle-aged guy at the People’s Music Network gathering last January sang a song I hadn’t heard: “Are you gonna be ready, when the revolution comes?” I had that same feeling. Against all reason, I have the revolution in my heart.

People ask how I can keep doing political work when it seems so hopeless. I think what I learned from my parents, and maybe faster than my parents learned it for themselves, is that I have to enjoy the work and not depend on the likelihood of the outcome. My mother wrote a lot of dry, stilted articles and leaflets and a dissertation before she kicked over the traces. Marxist jargon and academic jargon didn’t work for her; what fed her was writing songs. Concrete, specific songs modeled on the language of folk and popular songs that is the opposite of jargon.

What my dad enjoyed, on the other hand, was the physical confrontation of a mass demonstration, the soapbox speaking on the corner, the political argument in the union hall or his living room. He was one of ten kids in a more rough-and-tumble household than my mother grew up in, and whatever conflicts the five boys had with each other, they presented a united front in the neighborhood wars between the minority of blond Northern European English-speaking kids, of which he was one, and the darker-haired French-Canadian immigrants. He grew up in Bay City and Detroit, a stone’s throw from Canada. And he loved to tell stories. The struggle, as he cockily waged it, was a wellspring of stories.

PS

I just read an article by Tom Hayden in The Nation (June 16, 2012, found in a free box) comparing Students for a Democratic Society and the Occupy movement. He says: “SNCC played a direct role in shaping my values, as it did with many SDS founders. SNCC’s early organizing method was based on listening to local people and taking action on behalf of their demands. Listening and speaking in clear vernacular English was crucial. Books were treasured, but where you stood, with whom and against what risks was even more important, because if the people you were organizing couldn’t understand your theories, you had to adjust. This led to a language and a form of thinking cleansed of ideological infection, with an emphasis on trying to say what people were already thinking but hadn’t put into words.”

My mother said more than once that in her songs she was “trying to say what people were already thinking but hadn’t put into words.”

Comment from renee posted 6-8-2022:
Great read- appreciate the narrator sharing how to keep doing the work without giving up...
"I have to enjoy the work and not depend on the likelihood of the outcome"
powerful


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Saturday, May 21, 2022: Oh, What a Piece of Work
(Written several years ago)


Sometimes I find the business part of the music a drag but sometimes, like today, it is a delight. After two days of phone tag, Bill and I connected. He plays piano at a Unitarian church in the East somewhere and wants to include my mother’s “Oh, What a Piece of Work Are We” in an instrumental album of hymns and spirituals he is putting out and wanted to know if it was all right to call the song that, though in the Unitarian hymnal the melody itself, which is all he is using, is called “Dove of Peace.”

I left a message saying “Oh, What a Piece of Work Are We” was not my mother’s title for the song but the Unitarians’. She called it “The Miracle” and the line was “Oh, what a piece of work is man,” a quotation from Shakespeare. Well, she added the “Oh.” So she certainly didn’t hold the copyright on the title in the hymnal, but would Bill call back, because I didn’t know what he meant by “Dove of Peace” being the name of the tune. As I remembered it, she wrote the tune in the style of the old hymns but not starting with a particular one.

Before he called, I looked in the box and found a copy of “The Miracle,” “Words and music by Malvina Reynolds, ©1958 by Schroder Music Co. (ASCAP).” I don’t think I’d looked at this copy before. I noticed word changes, in what I believe is my mother’s hand:

“Oh what a piece of work is Man [humankind],
How marvelously wrought,
The quick contrivance of his [the] hand,
The wonder of his [the] thought.

Why need we look for miracles
Outside of nature’s laws,
When man [our kind] is what to wonder at
With every breath he [we] draws.

But give him [us] room to move and grow,
But give his [our] spirit play.
And he [we] can make a world of light
Out of the common clay.

My mother’s changes are little awkward, but not as awkward, or self-congratulatory-sounding, as “Oh, what a piece of work are we.” I understand the necessity of inclusive language, but I want it done with some style. Years later, after my mother died, the local Unitarian minister took it upon himself to rewrite her “Soul Book,” and I was irritated into doing it myself with, I believe, more grace. Mom may have done the same with this song. It all reminds me of a road work sign I saw in Berkeley in the early days of the second wave of feminism. It was the usual yellow diamond with black lettering, but instead of saying “Men at work” it said “Persons at work.” The message was “See how awkward this is?” If the sign had said “People at work,” the message would have been “People at work.”

Bill called. I was singing him the original words and the changes Malvina had made when he stopped me. “That’s not at all like the tune in the hymnal,” he said. He sang it. He was right; the tune is totally different. Good old-time tune, but not Malvina’s. Bill said it was attributed to William Walker from a book called Southern Harmony. I had no memory of the Unitarians usng a different tune.

So Bill has the choice of calling this piece on his recording “Dove of Peace” or “Oh, What a Piece of Work Are We” or “Oh, What a Piece of Work Is Man.” We talked about hymn names old and new, and the Sacred Harp shape-note hymnal, and a bit of Unitarian history, which he didn’t know, growing up Congregationalist. We had a fine old time.

Here's the original version of the song.

Comment from RUTH POHLMAN posted 5-21-2022:
And the question remains -- Does he need a permission letter?

Comment from Renee posted 5-21-2022:
This was great to read. Love the intricacies of copy write and the history. And the hymn talk. :)

and loved the narrator being irritated into doing the rewrite themselves and wanting things done with some style!

Comment from Jean Tepperman posted 5-21-2022:
That's not really the business part. It's the community part. Weaving threads together. How nice.

Comment from Nancy Schimmel posted 5-21-2022:
I guess I should have mentioned that one can't copyright a title, so whatever he chose, no permission needed.


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