Michael Rosen

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That's me, and the 2nd classroom of incarcerated teenage boys I spoke with today. CENSORED location. CENSORED hosted me, together with Books Inc., in Opera Plaza. I'll read and discuss What Else But Home tonight, Wednesday, September 30, @ 7 PM. 601 Van Ness.

CENSORED writes: "An individual's [child's] outcome is directly correlated to the level of education completed. 46% of the kids I met will finish high school or a GED. Less than 3% go to on to a 4-year college. 40% will become adult offenders - that means prison. 69% will be dependent on the system; that means public assistance, homelessness. S____ CENSORED and B_____ CENSORED, of CENSORED, kept asking me how I was? Kept reaching out to touch my shoulder. I understand now they knew how gut wrenched I'd feel. The hard sadness. But the statistics mean that 60% will not be adult offenders. 31% will not be dependent on the system. Half full ?

These boys could be the brothers of our five bigger boys. I heard that, I saw it in them.

I asked the first class: "Who will love you? Who will care about you?"

"My moms," one wrote in my notebook.

Dante wrote: "When it all falls down @ the end of the day, alone in my room sitting in a corner thinking w/ all the lights off, I will love me, I will care about me the most. More than any man or woman ever will."

Dylan wrote: "The person I will trust most is me, because in the end I make my own decisions and only I will deal with the consequences. I can also trust my art teacher, who is my mentor and role model."

I asked the second group:"How would you change an 11 Year old's life?" - whom they met on a basketball court or baseball field.

Lopez: "What I'd do is give him a home where he can be safe and learn."

Wilson: "I would tell him to think about where his way of life is leading him and think if he still wants to still live that way."

Thich Nhat Han says that when he looks at a tree, he sees clouds and their rain, sunshine and summer warmth, the soil and all that made it. I know Dante and Dylan are taking care of themselves, but their loneliness is cut off from whom we are together. I was at the destruction of Sept 11th, I've written about that before. The people caught in the fire above used cell phones to reach out to their loved ones. So many who jumped held hands. Today, the boys and I spoke about what a "mentor" is. I kept saying that a mentor is someone who loves you.

This is a classroom while the teacher was introducing me:
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These folk are S_____ & T_____ CENSORED, and two teachers, between classes. Male counselors, big men, were also here. Two boys were taken out later in handcuffs, after I spoke. The boys and I lined up and shook hands. One promises to write. He asked me to be his mentor. I hope he does write, he got my email address:

CENSORED PHOTOGRAPH

Come to Books Inc in Opera Plaza tonight [Wednesday], if you can. I'll be in Los Angeles on Thursday and Friday, Book Soup in W. Hollywood & Vroman's in Pasadena.

The glass has to be half full.

Oh, & guards at a station in the hallway. CENSORED is clean and sharp looking. Every door locks. Kids walk through the halls with their hands clasped behind their backs. It's prison:

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You ever listen to Nick Cave singing Into My Arms ? God, the angels and love. "...In the end all was said about him is forgiven because of this one song." I didn't say that - someone wiser than I. Give a LISTEN.

I've never driven over the Golden Gate Bridge. I've never driven Divisadero Street - you know they don't get snow here. New Dimensions Media had me in Ukiah today. Justine Willis Toms & Michael Toms gave me tea and talk. They're good. I'm excited about hearing the broadcast. Will post when I know it's going on the air.

My friend Blue is blue. He's a Lower East Side kid, not cut for here, by the Bay, he says. But he's recording on Bill Evans' piano for 3 hours on Friday, a gift from his co-magazine friends at Wired.

I'm reading at Books Inc. tomorrow night, Wednesday - in Opera Plaza. At 7 PM. BUT, Books Inc. is working with City Youth Now, and together they've arranged for me to meet two groups of "juvenile offenders" tomorrow morning. I'm their English class. I'm told mostly Black kids, some Latinos. Some Pacific Islanders, if I remember. The City Youth Now people are picking me up and going with me to Juvenile Hall. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know how I can help incarcerated kids. Say something someone remembers, that touches something deep enough to change a world for the better? I don't want to just be entertainment. So how do we help change the world for kids, make it safer, head their lives from hell to health and happiness? Isn't that Tikkun Olam, isn't that what sanctity really is? I don't know what the words "religious angle" really mean, but I'm thinking about them a lot these days. The whole Interfaith Voices thing. "I was in prison and you came to Me", that's Matthew, isn't it? Or do we need to use the word "God" to make it all so obvious? I don't know, I'm just asking - I'm not an expert on the "religious angle" thing. Sister Maureen Fiedler says of the story of inviting our five bigger boys into our family, taking them in as strangers, feeding them when they were hungry, tending them when sick, clothing them, taking one from prison when that happened and keeping others from its clutches, Sister Maureen Fiedler says "the religion angle isn't strong enough for our show..." I keep thinking about that "religious angle" thing.

Yes, Harish, I'll take photos. I should have done that with the Toms today up in Ukiah. I will tomorrow in Juvenile Hall, at least the outside of the building.

"If you're going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you're going to San Francisco
You're gonna meet some gentle people there..." ...okay, give yourself a gift. Just CLICK and listen and smile. And come to Book Inc. on Van Ness. domo arigato.

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Martine Fougeron took that photo, back in the day.

And the other day, on September 21, the Wordstock blog (scroll down on the Wordstock blog, to Sept 21, if you click and go there) ran a piece by me on the Ethics of Family.

It's not the simplest, easiest piece, not fluff or bubble gum or cotton candy. And it's a blog, with some typos and mistaken words.

It is about the limits of family, something we want... we tend... to think of as limitless. My friend Tom Mullen wondered if we mature out of unconditional love - do we mature into conditions of love between mature people? - or people you want and expect to be 'mature'? And if not "love", then "support" ? ? but that's leading the reader...

Cutting and pasting:


wordstock festival
News from the Pacific Northwest's largest book festival

Essay: Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen appears Saturday, October 10th at 11 A.M. on the Wieden+Kennedy Stage.

I'm drowning in an ethics of family. Okay, not quite. I am claustrophobic, disappointed, sometimes angry, perhaps too often prideful these days with some of our sons.

We've raised an extended family of seven boys, starting by adopting our sons Ripton then Morgan. Each was named for a Vermont town, the state where I grew up.

My wife and I live in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an urban place with the feel of community. Our sons' names may come from my pastoral yearning. Robert Frost, Vermont's state poet and sage, lived and wrote in the village of Ripton. I named my recent book about our extended family (What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse) from his The Death of the Hired Man. Perhaps from your schooling, the hired hand Silas has returned to the couple's home whose farm he's worked, abandoned, worked, abandoned. "Off he goes always when I need him most," Warren the husband complains to his wife Mary. He'll not have Silas back.

Mary answers about work, then Warren about home, then Frost writes a coupley back and forth in his poetry of place, Mary leading:

"You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time."

"Home," he mocked gently.

"Yes, what else but home?

It all depends on what you mean by home.

Of course he's nothing to us, any more

Than was the hound that came a stranger to us

Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in."

"I should have called it

Something you somehow haven't to deserve."

In the summer of 1998, when Ripton was seven, he walked us away from the jungle gyms he'd grown up on in the park across the street from our apartment, onto a blacktop baseball field. Where he joined a sandlot game we'd seen for years. Ripton was the only White kid there. He was assigned right field and afterwards invited teammates home for video games and dinner. Handfuls of boys came.

We took Ripton and Morgan to the baseball field the next day and thereafter, and neighborhood boys kept visiting our home. Five boys from the game--Black, Dominican, Puerto Rican, from public or other subsidized housing, motherfull and fatherless homes (their fathers dead from murder, from prison and drugs, others moved on encouraged by alcoholism, or uninvolved save for fertilization, or involved till involved with another woman then another, maternal and paternal half siblings spread through households)--eventually moved in and became our extended family. Each came into our home during a crisis in his life, most often about finishing high school, sometimes frozen and needing a push towards college.

Early after we'd met our five "bigger boys"--Kindu, Carlos, William, Philippe and Juan are four and five years older than Ripton--a friend lectured that Leslie and I had to grow an unconditional parenting relationship with them. They needed to be welcome always, this years before any of them moved in. The boys would test us, my friend said, conditioned to an initial attention from middle class, mostly white adults, followed by abandonment. I thought my friend formulaic. And, he added, we were in a life or death struggle for their live. I thought him dramatic then. A decade later, I know he was accurate all around.

Leslie and I agreed to act unconditionally. We found ways even as the bigger boys ignored our house rules. The arguments we'd have afterwards with them terribly tried our commitment. We found ways to act unconditionally through the disappearance of Ripton's sneakers, of his jeans and tees as he grew to the same size as the bigger boys. Ripton's and Morgan's Walkmen then iPods disappeared as each technology held sway. Then far too much money was stolen from Leslie's wallet. These incidents and the issues we dealt with regarding all seven boys growing up together are painted in What Else but Home.

This autumn marks four and a half years since the story of my book ended. Six of our sons are in college, the five bigger boys and now Ripton, who attends Elon University in North Carolina. Kindu lives again at home and is one year from a BA at Farmingdale State College , a daily train ride away. We rent a room for Carlos near Queens College, where we hope he is a couple years from graduating. Juan, Philippe and William are all back at Borough of Manhattan Community College, BMCC, starting and restarting their educations. They were taking remedial courses this summer. They'd previously dropped out of various colleges for various reasons. In the case of two, it was to join the Navy, then they dropped out of that. One dropped out to come home to a pregnant girlfriend, though we argued that earning a college degree would best enable him to be a provider. Another seemingly dropped out to come closer to a missed girlfriend. Sometimes they failed out.

Each has held jobs, save one. That boy did for the shortest time, when I helped him towards a retailing position in high school--but he was let go, apparently for a lack of effort. Two of the boys now rely on unemployment insurance, though my wife and I have moral qualms with their accepting welfare payments at young and healthy ages. The "bigger boy" who doesn't work, now a young man, has money. Neighborhood intimations hint at not legal earnings. And we don't know.

Leslie administers of our support for the bigger boys--an awkward word though appropriate. This semester, after helping them register for the proper courses at workable times, paying for tuition for most of them and overpriced textbooks for all, it came time for Metro Cards, for riding our public transportation system of busses and subways. Each of the three attending BMCC wanted monthly Metro Cards, enabling them an unlimited number of rides. Leslie, sitting with each individually, tried to calculate how many times that son went to BMCC each week, to price the cost of individual trips against the cost of an unlimited ride ticket. I didn't participate. I hadn't spoken with Leslie about her thoughts towards funding transportation. Two of our sons endured my wife's questions. One stormed out. He sent an email to Leslie and me the next day:

Dear Mike and Leslie,

Yesterday Leslie and I had a disagreement. She wanted to control everywhere i moved around this city with the counting of my off days and school days. I don't believe that idea came from her. I know its a privilege to have you guys paying for our school and transportation but this year you guys dint pay for my school. You got a me scholarship and the other half i applied for financial aid and received it which this is my last time because i cant receive it after the age of 24. You guys told me to follow my dreams. I joined the business enterprise club and the dominican club at school. Now my problem is if i get invited to go to a museum etc. i have to rethink it because i cant go cause my transportation is very limited. I asked leslie if this is because of money problems and she said its not any of my business. So i'm going by what i see. Luxury cars and school don't mix. Im not asking for a Luxury car, i'm asking for a metrocard. If you guys cant provide then let me know because i have no means of transportation and i will drop my classes at least with a 75% refund. By the way i only have 1 book for 5 classes because i'm wondering what leslie would make me do for the other 4. I really don't want an educated comeback because thats what you guys are good at and i am very simple. all I want is a yes or no. Thank you (Name)

BMCC, from where the angry boy lives now again in his mother's apartment, is 2.2 miles, a forty six minute walk according to Google maps, twenty nine minutes by public transportation, which does not include waiting time. It's perhaps ten minutes by bike. The boys know I'd buy them bikes, but only Morgan has decided to pedal our flat city. And youthful legs do remain a means of transportation.

I was upset by our son's personal accusation of parsimony, what seemed vitriolic. More, I'd arranged the scholarship he'd written about. Leslie and I were paying for textbooks. We'd supported him for years. We'd earned livings to afford whatever cars he was taunting us with. Accusing Leslie of trying to control his movements around the city was a powerful stance. He knew, without much doubt, that Leslie and I weren't having "money problems" sufficient to effect his access to public transportation. Threatening to drop his college courses, twenty-three years old after finally returning to an education, was a threat to hurt us by hurting himself. Which Leslie and I believe he is capable of.

I wrote back, rebuking his accusations.

He wrote back with more incendiary accusations - demanding our money to support him on his terms.

Our back and forth was taking place when the opportunity for this blog arose, while I was thinking, At what point is home no longer "something you somehow haven't to deserve," no longer "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Without elegance, at what point is enough finally enough?

But that line isn't sufficiently rigorous. The poetry of "take you in" and "someplace you haven't to deserve" aren't exactly unconditional love, what parenting dialogues consider appropriate for parents in building healthy self-esteem in young children. But at what time does a roof come with serious conditions? As Tom Mullen remarked (quoting to quote a friend here), does a child "mature out of unconditional love?"--into young adulthood. A young child can't comprehend complex consequences of action, while a responsibility of parenting, as it goes along, is to encourage such comprehension. And increasingly to hold one's children accountable.

At what point does caring for become enabling, not in the best interests of one's child? "Best interests," "objective interests", these are terribly slippery concepts. And from "best interests" to "harmful" is a simple progression assuming only timing and chance - smoking can lead to cancer, drug dealing can lead to prison and the harshly delimited life of an ex-convict.

Leslie say's our responsibility with this son is to reestablish our role as the financial and advice providers and for him to return to providing parental respect. I'm not so sure. I have brittle faith he can offer such respect. Each time Leslie says so, I think of the Fifth of the Ten Commandments, which precedes the bans on murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness and desiring your neighbors wife: "Honor your father and mother." I'm not learned in Jewish law to know its nuance, the subtleties of honoring and dishonoring, and the consequences. Nor is ours only a Jewish home; five of our seven boys aren't Jews. Nor am I strictly this son's father.

I feel claustrophobic, drowning when I don't know the way forward. I want, still need, to take care of our seven sons. And with this young man, with some of the others, I no longer know how. Parenting feels like herding wild flowers. And I don't know the boundaries of family, let alone its ethics.

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This entry was posted on Monday, September 21st, 2009 at 9:08 pm and is filed under Wordstock. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

so I spoke with this fiddler yesterday, Thursday Sept 24, on 9th Street in Durham, NC, just across the street from Duke University, just beside The Regulator Bookshop...

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He was a bit forlorn, worn for the road. His music was beautiful. Gentle. Considered. Bluegrass and sonatas. He carried hardship. He was down. He showed me the hardcover book he was reading. Ted Kennedy. I put money in his violin case. We shook hands.

I was supposed to be reading at The Regular Bookshop. This is their frontdoor, yesterday...

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My Rutland, VT, high school classmate Nansi Gregor-Holt and her husband, & Rabbi Goldberg, the retired rabbi from our New England hometown - met me for dinner before. Then we walked to The Regulator Bookshop.

I've recognized the foreshadowing. A bookstore that doesn't put your book in their window display, a bookstore that posts a flier with the book title and subtitle, the cover and author, a bookstore that doesn't go through the effort to include a blurb about the book (pretty easy to find on the publisher's or the author's website, on Powell's or some such), that doesn't include an author's photo, that bookstore just isn't, ummm..., just isn't doing what Carla Cohen of Politics & Prose does... See, Carla Cohen is a genius and saint to book lovers in good bookstores, to book writers. She spends effort to make sure ZERO people show up for a reading.

My reading at Politics & Prose was PACKED. With smart and considered peoples.

Here are some photos of the best not-so-little bookstore owned by the best co-owner I've come across yet....

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If you want to get to Politics & Prose, take the Red Line to this subway (oops, Dorothy, we're not in NY anymore, "Metro") stop...

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When / if you walk inside, go 1/4 way back to the right, on the round table, and you'll see...

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now that's love...

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I taught the "bigger boys": Do a job, big or small, do it right or not at all. That's part of What Else But Home is about.

I know there are other great places and great book peoples out there, and I'm heading those ways.


I was talking with folk at New Dominion Bookshop yesterday, in Charlottesville, VA.

and on FaceBook, you won't see these GREAT photos, so please also CLICK on my blog! With other good photographs.

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I was hurrying to get there...

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facing adversity (isn't that the arc of any narrative?)...

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overcame challenge & arrived at the bookstore in time for my Noontime reading...

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and they were ready for me...

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and people did come, some great people. I asked them what FAMILY meant to them.

Some answers:

"Family is your safety network - whoever will always be there for you."

"Family is a group of people whom you love and they love you."

"Family, either born into or found, who give you support, love and perspective."

"People who can bond, who look out for each other, who make each other better people - ideally."

I'm at Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth Street in Durham, NC, tonight at 7 PM. Come join me!

I had a reading today at Kathryn and Harry Amyotte's, in Darien. I've never been in Darien. Connecticut. They invited neighbor friends and church friends to come over. People with passion. And Harry told me he'd speak with Pastor Dahl about inviting me to come speak with his men's Bible study group, which meets in Manhattan on Tuesday mornings at 7:30 AM, for an hour before Harry and his friends go to work. Yes, yes, I'd love to participate, to tell the story of our family.

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trees....

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and lots and lots of trees, and penetrating questions...

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Tomorrow I'm off to travel most of America. As much as will have me. Please CLICK on "Events" on my Homepage to see how close I'll be to you. I'd love to meet you, talk about the issues of What Else But Home.

What does Interfaith mean to you ? Please write to me (rosen@michaelrosenwords.com - or post something here), let me know.

On Friday, a woman asked me about "interfaith" issues & our extended family. I told her how our two sons Morgan and Ripton were going to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, when we first me the bigger boys and other kids from the Tompkins Square baseball game. I told her I'd overheard an early theology conversation among the various boys. "What are Jews?", one of the bigger boys asked our kids. Then another bigger boy asked if Jews believed in G-d. Our sons said "yes", but one of the bigger boys said that was impossible, because Jews don't accept Jesus as G-d. On and on.

I told this woman about Rabbi Heschel marching with Reverend Martin Luther King Junior from Selma to Montgomery, and when asked why he marched, the Rabbi answered, "When I march in Selma, my feet are praying."

I related that story in reference to the work I do (& now that I'm traveling so much "do" is suspended into the past and future tenses, sorry Pastor Phil and my friends at Trinity Lutheran, who feed 150 hungry homeless a day), where I mostly cut onions and over vegetables. I told the lady that when I cut food at Trinity Lutheran, I feel that my hands and fingers are praying.

I spoke about the sanctity of Tikkun Olam, of repairing the brokenness of the world, of saving the world one act of kindness at a time.

I paraphrased a bit of Talmud: And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world, and spoke about a friend who'd very early said we were saving the bigger boys lives, and I doubted what he'd said, except he pointed out the murder, the jail terms, the dropping out of school, the unemployment and more surrounding the bigger boys in their families.

I spoke about our sons and some of the bigger boys going to Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ ,,,, and the discussions afterwards among the boys about Ripton and Morgan, Leslie and me ("because you killed Jesus" (did we?)) going to Hell regardless of how that particular son thought of us - and again, the question of accepting G-d.

The woman didn't think my stories were really issues of Interfaith concern.

So I'm wondering, as I'd asked above, What does Interfaith mean to you ? Please write to me (rosen@michaelrosenwords.com - or post something here), let me know.

The wonderful Wordstock Festival. I'm proud to be in Portland, OR, on Saturday, October 10. And the good Wordstock is for Word Lovers people have asked me to send a blog post by next Monday on the "ethics of family."

I have some good thoughts on the ethics of family.

What do you think? What does the "ethics of family" mean to you?, particularly when it comes to the issues I've written about in What Else But Home: race, class, poverty, adoption, fostering, parenting, fathering, fatherlessness....

Post your thoughts here, or email to me at rosen@michaelrosenwords.com

and follow my What Else But Home fan page on Facebook. Click HERE.

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If you're traveling across America today, my friend Aaron Graf (a precious man and son of Arnold Graf) texted and told me Hudson Booksellers, the airport bookseller, has What Else But Home in their BESTSELLERS section !

And YES, that photograph is the front window of Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers, 716 Broadway @ Washington Place. Showing a little love. Thank you. And thank you Owen !!

Are you a fan on Facebook? Here's the LINK, - follow my events as I travel to bookstores, book fairs & universities across the country, talking with you about family, parenting, adoption, fostering, fathering, public education & more.

19 years ago today, Ripton....

By Michael Rosen on September 1, 2009 7:45 AM | 0 TrackBacks

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Our biggest son is in college. Today is his birthday, & his first day of class (8 AM!) at Elon University. He's happy and proud. We're proud. "Ripton's room", what was the "video room" is empty. Infused with him. Happy Birthday, Ripton. We love you, I love you. Dad.

 

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