Rothman At-Large

‘Across Two Novembers’: The Diary of a Blind Pepys

October 31, 2017

Going blind was a major fear of Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century English diarist (he did not). 

Still, Pepys would have loved Across Two Novembers, by David L. Faucheux, a Louisiana man now in his early 50s, who, as a teenager, did lose his sight to glaucoma. 

Don’t let Faucheux’s blindness put you off. He can still hear, taste, smell, and feel life’s joys, and the one sense he lacks he makes up in wit and thoughtfulness. And so Pepys would have enjoyed Across despite his fears, and, in fact, given Faucheux’s inspiring resilience, maybe the book would even have assuaged them a little.

Faucheux, yes, has suffered his share of woes. He made Phi Beta Kappa and earned a masters in library science at Louisiana State University. But no full-time permanent library job ensued, just internships and freelance work reviewing audiobooks for Library Journal. Too many managers in the library world today care more about skills such as prowess in technology---a challenge to many blind people of Faucheux’s generation in this era of graphical interfaces---than about a passion for books. And Faucheux wanted to stay in the American South, so dear to him, as a long-time resident of Lafayette, a gourmet paradise said to have more restaurants per capita than New Orleans or New York. Hence, no big-time library career.

Despite Faucheux’s misfortunes, however, he has not written a tear jerker. Rather he both lives and writes about his life with dry humor and aplomb; and in his diary, set in the years 2013 and 2014 and subtitled A Year in the Life of a Blind Bibliophile, he is far more eager to educate us and share his joys than to seek our sympathy. What else to say about a trivia-loving blind man who dreams of appearing on his beloved Jeopardy? Or who can jet off to Paris with friends, then dig up such gems as a critic’s critique of the Eiffel Tower, “a black asparagus.”

Before going on, let me reveal that I myself am a friend of Faucheux---he contacted me out of the blue after hearing me on Jim Bohannon’s radio show, and for several years I posted his entries to Blind Chance, perhaps the world’s first regular audioblog by a blind person. But I’d talk up his diary even if I did not know him. As an example of Faucheux’s prose style and scarcity of self-pity, at least as expressed in public, I’ll quote him on a kitchen accident: "I nicked my left little finger tip while peeling potatoes. It bled a bit. I hope I do not have a trail of red drops along the counter and on the living room carpet. I love eating, and I like the idea of cooking, but I dislike actually cooking; you can become a casualty! I’d rather paraphrase Cold Stone Creamery’s catchy trademark this way: I’ll dream it and have someone else ice cream it. Laura Martinez, I am not. She was featured several years ago on a news program as being the first totally blind chef. I am amazed. I wonder who her support people were. Even using a potato peeler, I have to be careful, because it can skid on a bump on the potato surface and catch on a finger, gouging it.” 

Here's another Faucheux sample. Recalling the late Nader, his service dog at LSU, Faucheux wrote in the blog that his yellow lab enjoyed the university library. “He seemed to like to snooze under the table while bits of knowledge rained down on his slumbers. It’s basically easy to handle guide dogs in the library as their book needs are very small.” Here’s a Nader-related MP3 from the blog.

To be sure, Across Novembers may try your patience at times---it is not a book for all. 

You may love the details in the above depiction of Faucheux’s kitchen adventures. But you might not be so fond of lists of what he ate at certain times. Instead you might favor a narrative with a well-defined story arc and only selective details, as opposed to a Pepys-style diary. Still, that is issue with the genre---even as a contemporary of Pepys you might have not have enjoyed the famous diarist’s work.

If, on the other hand, you are a patient, literate reader and love books, food, trivia and travel and can appreciate the sheer joie de vivre that permeates Faucheux’s pages, then you should give Across a try. I would especially recommend it to librarians and others working with people with special needs, including vocationally related ones. Based on various statistics and personal experiences, David Faucheux says three-fifths or more of blind people cannot find work. If nothing else, given Faucheux’s intelligence, curiosity, talent, and perseverance, his diary reminds us what we’re missing when even gifted people like him are left in the cold. As a bonus, disability historians in the future may find Across Two Novembers to be a treasure trove.

You can buy Across Two Novembers, self-published, at independent bookstores, Amazon, B&N, Smashwords and elsewhere or, yes, ask your local library to order it directly. The ebook costs only around $5.

Related: Upbeat review from AccessWorld Magazine---published by the American Federation for the Blind---which I did not see until I finished the above.

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R.I.P. Carly Rothman—Lover of Library eBooks, Jimmy Dean Sausage Biscuits, and Me

September 5, 2017

When Carly and I were among strangers, we would sometimes hold hands, gaze into each other’s eyes as if newlyweds, and tell gawkers: “It’s ok. We’ve only been married two days. We’ll get over it.” Of course, we never did—not in 26 years of marriage.

My wife was an easy love, affectionate, caring, loyal, even-tempered, and almost always logical: we discussed rather than argued. But in many ways, albeit not the very most important ones such as values, we were opposites. Perhaps our real-life Love Story can offer a little hope in this era of widening chasms of class, ethnicity, religion, and geography.

I was a D.C. area native raised in Fairfax County, Virginia, on its way back then to becoming an upper-middle-class citadel. Carly had grown up in Conover, North Carolina, a little blue-collar town known partly for the NASCAR auto racers from there. She worshipped all things Southern except for the bigotry, which she abhored. Not that the North was perfect. We agreed to disagree over the Confederate flag. Same over food. The more fried it was, the more Carly savored it. I was a health-fixated lactovegetarian.

She loved not only Jane Austen novels but also bodice-rippers with Fabio-chested men on the covers. I read Sinclair Lewis, say, or Philip Roth or, more commonly, staid nonfiction. She watched network TV reruns. I favored MSNBC and quirky movies on Netflix. Carly enjoyed classic rock. Me, too, but also baroque.

Carly was Methodist, complete with a minister brother-in-law. I was Jewish. Never, though, did religion come between Carly and me. Values above all! The Rev. William Draughn and I enjoyed many talks and walks together despite opposite political views. Both of us, regardless of our different beliefs, hated the cruelty that the American plutocracy had inflicted on the rest of the country. I’m looking forward to another hike with Bill up Stone Mountain in the Blue Ridge Range.

Sometimes Bill joked about my wife’s “Hebrew name.” “Carly” was not her original name—she loved to sing and picked up her new one from the pop star Carly Simon, while noting that it could mean “little” or “womanly.” Her favorite Simon song was “You Belong to Me.” Carly Rothman disliked “Tommie Nell” even though she was meticulous in using it in doctors’ offices since it was her legal name. Her parents had named her Tommie because they liked the sound of it; perhaps they also appreciated the overlap with her father’s name, Tom. But “Tommie” just wasn’t feminine enough for Carly even with the ie instead of a y. I couldn’t have cared less. I would have loved her by any name. Out of respect for her family, when visiting Carolina, phoning or emailing, I always tried to say “TN” or “Tommie Nell.” By law, a certain percentage of Southern newborns each year must bear double names.

Telecommuting for an education association, Carly was the same as toward me: likable, considerate, empathetic. Her bosses relished her swiftness in learning new software—she lived up to her maiden name, “Sharpe”—but complained she spent too much time on individual calls helping the association’s members. I wouldn’t have wanted Carly any other way. I preferred a caring friend and lover, not a heel-clicking careerist. Even in a business sense, it would have been better to let Carly be Carly, given all the people she charmed in the service of her employer with both her beautiful voice and her Tar Heel friendliness. That said, the newlywed shtick notwithstanding, she tended to be far more of an extrovert on the phone than in person, and definitely not a partier.

For medical reasons but perhaps also by temperament, Carly even was teetotaler. I was, too. Call me in that way an honorary traditional Methodist. She herself was an honorary Jew fond of the related humor and cuisine. Her biggest weakness was macaroons.

Physical attraction? Of course. Carly’s hair was long and thick, and she stood 6’1″ in her prime. I enjoyed being vicariously tall. She overdid “zaftig”—I worried about her health and urged her to diet—but I’ve always believed that feminine beauty can defy the traditional American stereotypes. Carly’s pale skin was that of a woman decades younger, a miracle of wrinkleless.

Due to Carly’s delicate health, we never had children. But our stuffed animals were very articulate, and when she and I disagreed, they generally took her side. Allergy-ridden, Carly couldn’t enjoy the companionship of a real dog or cat. Dander from the Golden Retriever that she owned, before our marriage, had sent her to the emergency room and almost killed her. Toward the end of her life, she would watch the Kitten Rescue webcam site out of Los Angeles, keeping up with all the gossip about each cat’s health and odds of adoption. I’ve always been a rotten recaller of human faces. But from several thousand miles away, Carly knew her kittens cold.

Carly loved high technology and the online world, which helped us get to know each other in depth, while she was living in Arizona, before we even met face to face. When she lacked access to a printer needed to turn in a school paper on time, I faxed her professor a copy of her email. She favored ebooks over paper ones and held cards to enjoy the digital offerings of three library systems. Carly liked the ability to blow up the type. Tired most of the time from fibromyalgia in her last years, she could stretch out in bed and change the pages with less effort than a paper book required. I wish the anti-ebookers could understand what digital library books meant to my wife.

Not so coincidentally, Carly was on my mind in the early 1990s when I begin pushing for a national digital library system and dirt-cheap gadgets to read ebooks with, so that even Americans in the poorest Southern hamlets could pick from millions of titles. The library campaign goes on today on the site. Certain members of our academic and social elites laudably care about “digital preservation” but not quite so much about the nuts and bolts to let the masses share the riches and improve their lot. Some even want public libraries to back off from popular-level books, the very stuff that in digital format helped sustain my sick wife when she was unable to visit the stacks. A gift in Carly’s memory will be made to our public library here in Alexandria, Virginia, to increase its ebook collection.

Would that the super rich valued public, K-12 and academic libraries as much as others do! All the library endowments in the U.S. total only several billion or so. Harvard’s endowment alone is worth some $36 billion. Bill Gates and other Ivy-educated philanthropists would do well to remember the Carlys, donate far more than now to public libraries, and resist their gentrification, which could diminish tax support or at least their effectiveness as literacy-spreaders. Yes, libraries are for education. But they are also for entertainment, often a first step toward the former. 

Class conflicts, of course, rage on most everywhere in American life. But our marriage transcended them. The Rothmans were white-collar people. Carly’s father, Tom Sharpe, was a union electrician who almost lost a good part of his retirement benefits at GE due to cutbacks there. My late mother-in-law, Annie, worked in dusty textile mills despite her asthma. Carly could have thrived at Duke University, Melissa Gates’ alma mater, but her high school teachers and counselors never gave her the encouragement that the daughter of a well-off family might have enjoyed. The Duke dream died. Carly thought at one point of becoming a librarian, and sometimes I wondered if she read Jane Austen with “might have beens” in mind.

Even as an alum of an obscure community college, Carly was still a catch for me. Her emotional intelligence, along with the EQs of her parents, her sister, Kay, and The Reverend Bill, was off the charts. They got along flawlessly with difficult me, after all; what better recommendation? Simply put, the Sharpe family was an in-law joke in reverse. Other positives abounded. Kay was a gifted amateur artist who also shared Carly’s knack for gadgets and, in fact, worked as a computer programmer for a bank until a disability forced her to quit. Logical minds ran in the family. So much alike in many ways, the two sisters could spend hours and hours talking on the phone.

Sunday morning, at Capital Caring Hospice in Arlington, Virginia, it all ended for Carly and me—our happy times together, the newlywed shtick, the shared passion for ebooks, and the rest of the marriage. Carly was a mere 61. The normal survival period for pancreatic cancer, after diagnosis, which generally happens too late, is months or even weeks; that’s about how long it took her father to die of the the disease after learning his fate. Same for one of my favorite Southern writers, Pat Conroy. But Carly lasted two and a half years thanks to her oncologist, Dr. Ivan Aksentijevich, her radiologist, Harold Agbahiwe, her internist, Scott Whittaker, her physical therapist, Chaney Hindman, and the vigilant nurse case managers we hired, Liz Shifflett and Suzanne Hanas. Not all pancreatic cancer is the same. But as a lay person I truly believe that the high-quality care Carly received made a difference.  This week or next, my family and I will scatter Carly’s ashes off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, in line with her wishes for cremation and the sea.

R.I.P. my dear Carly. I hope that your eternal life is like the happiest moments in a Mayberry RFD rerun and that you can eat all the Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits you want without gaining an ounce.

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Gun Control Could Save GOP Politicians’ Lives Too

June 14, 2017

After the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer got punched in the face, many of my fellow progressives laughed.

Wrong. Our tolerance of political violence should be zero. I join millions of Democrats and Republicans alike in wishing for the speedy and full recoveries of Rep. Steve Scalese and other victims of the baseball-field shooting here in Alexandria. Thanks to our brave local police as well as the Capitol Hill Police for limiting the mayhem.

My multi-ethnic hometown is normally peaceful and harmonious. A Confederate statue, unmovable due to an old law still imposed on us by our GOP-dominated State Legislature, stands undefaced in the middle of Washington Street. 

For that matter, Spencer runs his racist think tank out of an Alexandria townhouse and hasn’t been shot at yet even if a gym has expelled him. Good. Let bullets rip apart no one of any ideology.

But as deplorable as the baseball-field shooting was—officials should have prosecuted the suspect to the max, had he lived--I’ll avoid “Don’t blame the victim” rhetoric. Granted, House Majority Whip Scalese is father to two children, and I hope he lives to 108. But do blame Scalese and like-minded politicians as a group--along with some extreme leftists--for helping to make violence and hate crimes more common. This is not “political exploitation.” It is simply the truth.

Scalese is a steadfast supporter of Donald Trump, who has described the congressman as “a true friend.” Trump set the tone for the 2017 Presidential campaign. When a heckler interrupted him at a rally, the then-candidate said: “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks." 

Of Hillary Clinton, Trump said: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks…although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.” 

The New York Times cut to the chase. “Oblique as it was, Mr. Trump’s remark quickly elicited a wave of condemnation from Democrats, gun control advocates and others, who accused him of suggesting violence against Mrs. Clinton or liberal jurists. Bernice A. King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called Mr. Trump’s words ‘distasteful, disturbing, dangerous.’”

Extra-stringent, truly comprehensive gun control at the federal level may or may not have prevented the baseball-field shooting Wednesday. Still, a national ban on working assault weapons in the hands of civilians would have at least partly stymied violence-prone “Second Amendment people” of all ideologies. says: “A review of mass shootings between January 2009 and January 2013 by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that incidents where assault weapons or large capacity ammunition magazines were used resulted in 135% more people shot and 57% more killed, compared to other mass shootings.” 

Across the river from me, D.C. law prohibits assault weapons. No such luck in most of Illinois, the shooter’s home state, or in Virginia--adults here can own them. 

Meanwhile some past polls have shown that most Americans are at odds with the National Rifle Association on the assault weapon issue. A federal ban on these killers existed once, flawed but still useful. No more, thanks to the NRA and gun makers with fat wallets. Steve Scalese himself received at least $5,000 from the NRA in the 2016 election cycle. 

Will Republican ideologues like Scalese listen? I doubt it, and, alas, that is at their own peril. As the Alexandria tragedy may show, right-wing crazies aren't the only nuts with assault rifles. If I were a GOP congress member, I'd be scared. Same for Democrats, too. A deranged Republican may seek revenge or target a political foe for other reasons. The shooting of former Rep. Gabby Giffords reminded us of the risks in both directions.

In this case, the alleged shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, was apparently a former Bernie Sanders volunteer said to be “living out of a gym bag” at age 66. He is dead. We don’t know what he was thinking. But we can speculate and remember all angry people for whom Republican healthcare would be a death sentence, whether or not this was true for Hodgkinson. Laws, yes, can kill. To slightly tweak a campaign line that Trump used in an entirely different context, some may think: “What do I have to lose?” Steve Scalese has fought hard for Republicans’ misleadingly ballyooed healthcare legislation, aka “wealthcare” via tax cuts for the rich.

Again, no one should be shot or even punched. No justification! Realistically, however, if smug Republican don’t learn and if they keep enraging so many people, they are multiplying the chances of death at the hands of their victims. Forget the fruits of gerrymandering and voter suppression and corrupt campaign laws. May the Republicans instead think survival. The risks will only grow as gun-toting Trumpists finally grasp the extent of their betrayal.

I hope Congress sets aside more money for security precautions. But in the end the best way to reduce threats to Republican members’ lives, whether they admit it or not, will be a mix of gun control and compassion toward the millions whom GOP lawmakers are now dead set on shafting in various ways--to free up billions in tax cuts for wealthy campaign donors. What’s more, among many other messages, an impeachment of Trump would be a powerful statement against violence in campaign rhetoric even if his bloody language weren’t an official reason. Don’t be fooled by a reality show star’s ability to act “Presidential” at times. And no false equivalents, please. Democrats have had their lapses, but not from within the Oval Office

Let Republican and Democrats play baseball together and otherwise socialize and become much, much friendlier at the personal level. But let this not this interfere with the removal from office of Donald “Carry them out on a stretcher” Trump. The shooter must have been a sick man inside. But so is a fomenter of violence like President Trump, and bipartisan amnesia about his past words and deeds will ill-serve us.

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