The magic of ‘Marjorie’

William Shakespeare had it wrong about names. Maybe a Rose by any other name would smell as sweet but some names claim themselves with their very own brand of distinction. The magic of ‘Marjorie’ comes to mind.

Four generations of Marjories grace our family. My mother, about whom I will speak in a minute; her niece, my cousin, who was a renegade bohemian who ran off with and eventually married her UC-Berkeley professor in the extremely Ozzie and Harriet 50s; my own niece and my mother’s granddaughter  whose praises I am about to sing; and the youngest, a soon-to-matriculate freshman at Kalamazoo College who won the coveted Heyl Scholarship there in math and science awarded to students with tops scores and a desire to pursue “chemistry-related disciplines at Yale” as a post-grad.

Last Friday, my niece Marjorie McAfee was nominated for an Emmy for co-producing an MSNBC documentary in 2015 called ‘On the Brink,’ about the future for autistic young adults about to transition from graduation to whatever society holds for them. She spent three years following families with autistic children about to age out of the system, each confronting the abyss their children face thereafter. It was a labor of love. It was also a labor of pure professionalism.

The fact that NBC let her go just before she completed that project and that she fought her way back as a freelancer to finish it shows both her grit and her commitment to her work. The fact that UC-Berekeley School of Journalism turned her down twice before she was finally accepted and that she kept her eye on that prize until, on  the third application, she got in, is indicative of a Marjorie-ism: Marjories don’t take no for an answer. She completed ‘On the Brink’ before taking the job she holds now at ABC’s Nightline. She’s covering the Republican and Democratic conventions this week and last. My big brother’s baby girl.

Only recently did this Marjorie become aware of the fact that journalism runs, not just in the family, but straight down the female line. The first Marjorie, my mother, graduated from Bethany College in 1933 with a pre-med degree. She also had the greatest grasp of the English language of anyone, laymen or college prof, I’ve ever encountered. But she was a woman of a certain class and condition that did not encourage working outside the home unless she was widowed or a spinster. When she married my father, a gentleman of some means, any dream she may have had of a professional life evaporated before the social conventions of her day. Instead, she became a mother of four, a role for which she was not naturally suited, and eventually did acceptable volunteer work once her children were grown, working in a United Nations gift shop, for the Welcome Wagon or in a thrift shop owned by a friend.

But she also had a secret aspiration. She loved to write. I would not learn this until after her death when I read through the 1,300 letters she left behind. Among them were the occasional essay and short story but I also discovered there a nugget of news which rang with poignancy when I came across it. At the time of my birth, nearly eight years after my closest sibling, she was writing not one, but two, different newspaper columns in Pittsburgh, where they lived. She thought with all her children of school age, she could get some of her life back; that she could re-invent herself in the image of her earlier dreams. Finding herself pregnant again ended all that. She confided in her letters to her sister that she felt compelled to give the columns up, to devote herself once again strictly to the duties of motherhood.

She was the first of the women journalists in our family. As the next wanna-be writer in our line, I was the last to know her secret. Not once in all the conversations about me wanting to grow up to be a writer did she ever let on that she had once shared that selfsame dream. That she had had to abdicate her budding foray into the profession because I was on the way. Not a drop of resentment, not a hint of envy, nothing but a mother’s encouragement to be whatever I wanted to be. She lived to see my ambition become by-lines in countless newspapers and magazines and to see me receive a regional Sigma Delta Chi award for best magazine feature writing presented to me by a personal hero, NBC’s then-anchor David Brinkley. That story, by the way, was on teenaged suicide. But she did not live to see the newspaper I founded and published on Nantucket for the best part of 20 years, the Nantucket Map and Legend.

This Marjorie, Marjorie the First, spawned both the aptitude in science Marjorie the Fourth is getting ready to explore in college as well as the bug for journalism that goaded me and Marjorie the Third into the professions we now dedicate ourselves to. I think of my mother now, and how proud she would be of her Emmy-nominated granddaughter who is also every bit as proficient as a mother of two. I think, too, what a phenom she would have been in the working world of women had she lived today. And a happier mother, no doubt, too.

— Belle Songer

My words are mine

I guess you can’t blame Melania for quoting Michele Obama verbatim and thinking it was her own fine sentiments. Never mind that there are free ‘plagiarism checkers’ available on the internet. She could have plugged ‘her’ speech into one of these services and found out instantly that even if it were “93%” different, that other 7% matters. But then, she probably never heard the 2008 speech from which her own was pilfered. And she certainly didn’t write her own speech. So, don’t shoot the messenger, right? Poor, innocent Melania! Surely, she should not be held accountable for the things she says when baring her soul to the nation in an effort to get her husband, that bastion of honesty, Donald Trump, elected. Surely not!

But what about the moron speechwriter? If he were going to harvest his words from the brilliance of a first lady, why not choose one from his own party? Laura Bush, say. Or Nancy Reagan. It is as incredulous as any argument made or not that he was unaware of his infringement as it is that he should duplicate the words of a Democratic first-lady-in-waiting. And a speech only two conventions ago, at that. Why not steal the words of Mamie Eisenhower? No one would have picked that up.  Perhaps because these women did not say anything affecting; perhaps because said speechwriter was too lazy and too careless and has a boss who wouldn’t have recognized the infraction any more readily than his wife did. But to copy and paste Michele Obama’s words into Melania Trump’s address? Please.

To say that a little plagiarism is okay is like saying 7% of a song is okay to replicate without paying royalties or a little copyright infringement is nothing to either be worried about or ashamed of. When, indeed, it is both. Otherwise, all those students expelled from schools and universities for copying their friends papers or from scholarship available on the web should be re-instated. Otherwise, the music and movie industries shouldn’t be so fired up to fight piracy. Otherwise, writers and poet might as well kiss goodbye their pride in authorship, to say nothing of their livelihoods. Otherwise, the moral imperative of taking ownership of and responsibility for one’s own words would be toothless. To defang that imperative is a dangerous business, indeed. It’s the stuff of libel and slander.It’s the stuff of anonymous threats and ‘blocked callers’ who leave obscene messages. Of ransom notes and poison pen letters.

A few years back when I was teaching online English lit courses at Southern New Hampshire University, I was dumbfounded to discover just how stupid students could be when it came to baldly ripping off other people’s scholarship. Papers would be turned into me with sections of argument recognizably lifted from sources. How did I know? Not only was the tone and intellectual content different from the students’ but so was the font and the point size of the text. What? Did they think I didn’t have eyes to see? I flunked them. And when they came back to me with sob stories, I said simply: Plagiarism is stealing and stealing is not condoned by this university or by society.

Which brings me back to that standard-bearer of fair play, upright thinking and enviable integrity, namely Donald Trump. He defended his wife and did not fire the speechwriter by arguing that “93%” of her speech was hers. Well, his. Or somebody’s. But not Michele’s.

That “93%” argument is nothing but a 100% sham, because plagiarism is not just the theft of another’s words; it is also a theft of another person’s ideas. Melania’s borrowed rhetoric stole Michele Obama’s context as well as her phraseology.

Melania or her speechwriter could have attributed those sentences and sentiments to Michele Obama as words so wise as to be worth both repeating and attempting to live by. Even after the fact. What an act of grace that would have been! Or, this morning Donald Trump, a candidate for President of the United States and as such defender of the principles this country is predicated on, could have defused the fuss with an apology and an acknowledgement. It is the mark of a winner to know when to eat a little crow. It’s the mark of a loser to deflect ownership of one’s errors by taking aim with blame.

And yet 41% of Americans want to make this man the leader of the free world. But Trump’s definition of free may be closer to ‘free to do whatever I want; free to break the rules; free to lie, cheat and steal.’ Including the words of others.

— Belle Songer




Of teenagers and toilets

It’s a miracle of life’s incongruities that a single day could be both wonderful and horrific. But that’s the correct description for the last 24 hours.

Four of us — two old fogies and two teenagers — arrived on Nantucket yesterday to find the one toilet in our cottage so plugged up that, not only was it declared user-free, it was potentially going to be that way for a very long time. Since this house has only one loo, having that one out of service left us all wondering if we should just turn around and go home. Which, in July, is much easier said than done. In fact, we were stuck. For at least the night. Peeing in the woods has such primitive charm . . . until you have no alternative but to do just that.

What I learned is this:  there’s no better way to take casual relationships, especially those separated by generations, on to an entirely new footing than having to discuss the intimacies of who needs to do what when and how we are going to do it. The teens were predictably uncomfortable but, being well brought up, pretended otherwise. Especially when it was time to go to bed, and it was declared that we would all climb into the car and drive down to the Steamship Authority’s public toilets for a group tinkle. ‘Group’ as in, we all went together, after which we ungrouped to head for our gender designated restrooms.

Is this the stuff memories are made of or what? By the time we got home, we were all laughing about it and figuring out how we were going to handle the morning call of nature. But of course! We would go to breakfast at the Downy Flake, that iconic island diner famous for its cake donuts, not this time for their succulent baked goods but for their clean and available restrooms. Suddenly, talk of leaving the island had vanished and the unspoken but unanimous decision to stick it out was made. The Toilet Dilemma had morphed into our personal bond in under 12 hours.

Today, after the Downy Flake, the kids went to Dionis Beach (where they have toilets and we all partook of the opportunity) while the cottage was invaded first by two plumbers (candidates for sainthood since it is a well known fact that plumbers on Nantucket are more elusive than God himself and yet here they were!) and then by a sewer specialist, the toilet problem having escalated from a simple blockage to a monumental nightmare. They plunged and they reemed; they brought in coils and compressors; they spoke in hushed tones of excavation. It was too worrisome to watch, so we assuaged our sorrows with a sandwich order from Something Natural, picked up the kids and took them out to Cisco for a surfing lesson.

It was, by all accounts, the finest summer day yet on the island this year. Sunny, dry and hot but not hot-hot. Both kids got up on their boards on their very first tries; Cajun played in her first real surf; Pete and I dozed in the shade of our LLBean beach cabana. Life was good. Especially if you didn’t have to pee and you didn’t think too very far into the future of one fragile toilet.

By the time we got home, we had a working john. If only just. And on the porch was a bag left by the sewer guy labeled “Gunk.” I won’t go into details of the contents of that bag, though I will say Pete could not resist, as he put it, getting his hands dirty, to have a look. In fact, he was disappointed. Nothing there. But on my phone, an ominous text from my caretaker: “You have a working toilet. But there are other issues. Call me.”

We are far from out of the woods on this toilet issue. In fact, the woods are the problem itself. What the plumbers extracted was loads and loads of  . . .  vegetation! . . .a sampling of which they left for us to examine. Roots. And tendrils. Somewhere underground, the pipes are compromised, allowing an invasion of living matter. But this is to-be-continued. For now, there is nothing more to do until the next diagnostics are run.

Never mind. We  are just back from the Juice Bar, following a lobster dinner. The four of us, two old fogies and two teens, will never forget this week, in which we bonded over a busted commode.

Good things have grown out of this shared adventure. Even if good things are not growing inside our sewer pipes.


— Belle Songer




Upholding America’s honor . . .among other things

I met a guy at a party.

You may think you know where this is leading but, rest assured, that’s not where it’s going. For starters, the party was in Cape Town, South Africa, and the guy, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, was about to drive home. He offered me a ride but said I would have to keep my head down if I journeyed all the way with him because the moment we crossed the border the bullets would start flying. ‘Home’ was in Rhodesia back when it was Rhodesia, and there was a brutal guerrilla war raging. British control and white dominance were about to go the way of all flesh, possibly taking our flesh with them.

Still, I saw it as a free ride up the Garden Route and along the Shipwreck Coast. Why not? Free is free. Adventure is adventure.

Before I left for South Africa I was given a cautionary warning from my father: write your will. I was 27. All I owned was a bicycle. A will seemed just a tad over the top. But he was serious and consulted Thurston Morton, our US Senator, on the subject of my travel in southern Africa for three months on my own. He gave a wobbly green light to apartheid South Africa itself (it was, after all, just a year after the riots in Soweto) but a stark red one to Rhodesia. No embassy, he advised; no consulate either. If I got into trouble trying to see Victoria Falls, it could be the nasty variety. My father conceded on the will but insisted that I promise I would not, under any circumstances (including free transportation), go to Rhodesia. He was a career negotiator, and those were his terms. Not that he could stop me. As an adult, I was under no obligation to pay the slightest attention to his worries. But I did. Because we had a mutual admiration society that was going strong.

But here I was at a party with a nice guy willing to give me a lift to . . . Rhodesia. The next day we were off. Not long before I’d seen David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter with its spectacular headland scenes shot along the same stretch of road we would take in the morning. I wasn’t thinking Rhodesia and neither was my new friend. He said he had some business calls to make along the way and, if I’d just bear with these delays, he’d do his best to show me the sights up the coast.

And that is how I came to ride an ostrich and, in so doing, defend America’s honor. Turns out there were several business stops along the way and to make up for the hang-time I’d had to accept, he suggested we visit an ostrich farm. Why not, I thought, in the when-in-Rome spirit. The long dusty road into the compound took us by a corral of ostriches, some of which were saddled. I’d never seen an ostrich before, much less a saddled one. My curiosity was piqued.

At the barn, one thing quickly led to another and the half dozen local workers asked my friend in a suspiciously casual way if he’d like to try to ride one of the birds. A gauntlet is a gauntlet, and we both recognized the nature of the offer. It took all six men to hold the ostrich in place while my friend climbed the mounting platform and took a seat on the bird’s back. There was no saddle; there were no reins. The instructions were simple: hold on tight to the bird’s wings at the armpit and wrap your legs around his middle. Then they let the ostrich go. The bird shot forward — turns out ostriches can hit speeds up to 40 land miles per hour; roughly the top speed of a thoroughbred racehorse — and right out from underneath my Rhodesian pal. He dropped like a stone into a pile of ostrich poop with a discernible plop, a fistful of feathers in each hand.

The six South Africans slapped their knees and double over with mirth. The set-up had worked. They laughed and danced and hooted, and then they looked at me. Did I want to try? A Yank. A woman. A white woman.

How could I say no? So, up the platform I climbed and waited for the six guys to rustle up another racing bird and line him up for me. Then I was aboard. Again, no saddle, no reins; and now I could report first hand, very very slick feathers. So it was just me, my wits and an angry bird dueling to the death. Or at least to the far fence. Witnessing my friend’s mortification had armed me with secret knowledge — and resolve. Upon release, the bird broke like a stone out of a slingshot. And I stayed on! My secret weapon, besides the fear of personal humiliation in a pile of dung? Very very long legs. It was a thrill, all right. To ride an ostrich bareback running at full and frantic speed.


At the far end of the corral, he inserted himself into a herd of his fellows and I slipped off, upright and triumphant, my friend avenged. Those six guys were some surprised and equally as delighted.

It was an unusual way to defend America’s honor. And the honor of women breaking glass ceilings, albeit an odd and little known ceiling, and not just because it was on a horizontal plane. You might say, the experience was a feather in my cap.

That was 1977 and I was not yet politicized as a feminist. But now as we approach the first woman president of the United States, I’m proud to have done my bit to advance the cause.

— Belle Songer