Americans do not know very much about the world. Historically this is partly a result of distance and isolation and partly a result of arrogance. The arrogance comes into play when Americans consider the importance or relevance of what other people are doing, since it goes without saying that Americans do everything better than everyone else. Why individual Americans find it necessary to identify with the idea of America’s greatness may be sought in their need to bolster their self-esteem in the absence of personal distinction and in their feelings of insignificance in the shadow of the American Dream. The consequence of this arrogance and the ignorance it engenders may be found in the results of America’s involvement in armed conflicts around the world. Continue reading
The exit wound is always larger than the entrance. Well, not always- bullets don’t obey rules but in my case this isn’t a bullet we’re talking about. This is tens of thousands of bullets. This is tons of ordnance dropped from the sky and buried along roadsides waiting mute and blind and seething for a convoy to roll past. My wound is a tiny white crescent moon on the web of my right hand. The white crescent of Islam, a symbol more powerful and holy and frightening than anything I could wrap my homogenized and X-Boxed American head around. It was a hot shell casing from the breech of the man’s rifle next to me. A Major assigned to train the Afghan police; he emptied all 7 of his magazines within minutes of the engagement beginning. That’s how I came to be out of the truck and in the midst of the dust and chaos of my first firefight. The Major and our squad leader next to him had gotten trigger-happy and were now calling out for fresh mags. I grabbed a bandolier off the back of the seat in front of me and ducked out the armored door of the humvee, hustling the ammo one truck length ahead to them, “exposing myself repeatedly to intense small-arms fire” as the report would later word so eloquently. I joined these two and gave them some covering fire as they reloaded, popping off about 20 rounds. At this point the searing hot brass landed right in the web of my firing hand and I yelled and shook it violently, dislodging the cursed thing, then went back to shooting up the hillside across the narrow valley. Continue reading
In terms of art and artistry, culture and the intricate moving multitudes of its respective parts, the 1960’s in America dissected almost every aspect of popular culture and reimagined it into the future. It was a revolution, in the most basic sense of the word–a rotation from the old into something novel and remarkable, the past winding the gears onward. The music of the era tended to be the best representation of this new experiment of interpreting one’s place in a cultural reality; this new imagining, this great experiment, was the philosophy of psychedelia and psychedelic music. For music to be psychedelic, it must rip apart the binding structures of the status quo and rearrange them for a better, more complex view. Many artists were taking old traditions of music and creating sounds never before heard out of their essence; Jimi Hendrix played the blues through a buzzing cloud of electricity and noise; the Grateful Dead took American folk and melted it down into abstract explorations; and bands like the Beatles looked toward the folk traditions of the east to guide rock into another abyss. But as the excitement of the new took hold, as freedom became the modus operandi, the past seemed to be buried, or at least looked upon as simple and out of fashion. Dylan, who seemed to lead the charge out of the shackles of the old world, warned those of the past to “get out of the new way if you can’t lend a hand.” The Who sang of their generation and hopes to “die before [they] got old.” Continue reading
Girls from the church youth group I led were taken from their home by Child Protective Services with a police escort, their step father yelling and threatening violence. They called a few hours later. With no foster parenting prep classes, no reading over the rules, no official designation, my introduction to foster care was strangely perfunctory. Social workers brought the kids late at night, checked a few things (like the number of beds), 911 was written on a scrap of paper by the phone, and my husband and I signed a form. The children stood in a home they’d never seen before with wide eyes, searching to find any harmful secrets that might lurk. If their own home isn’t safe, how could this one be? They hoped that what little trust they had in me held true.
Foster parents must promise to keep all information about their foster children private. Social workers, teachers, doctors and anyone else who works with the child are also bound by privacy laws. The National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data & Technology attempts to help professionals negotiate between the laws and the need to share information. They concede, “Child welfare professionals face a daunting array of privacy, confidentiality, and security rules. Too often, the answer to the question, ‘May I share this vital information with a colleague who is also working with this family?’ is a frustrated shrug and an exasperated, ‘Better not, just to be safe.’” (http://www.nrccwdt.org/2011/12/privacy-protectio)
It’s clear that these laws were put into place by well-meaning individuals who seem to have never been a foster parent. Want to know if the child sleeping under your roof has AIDS? Sorry, that’s private. Want to find a foster family where a child previously lived so they can have continuity of care? Sorry, that’s private. All information is on a need to know basis. There is no conclusion about who needs to know, until you’ve been charged for sharing without cause.
The only time Child Protective Services (CPS) can publically release information about a child is after a fatality or near-fatality. And even in those cases it is not mandatory: “The State is not required to provide the information to the public unless requested.”(http://www.acf.hhs.gov/cwpm/programs/cb/laws_policies/laws/cwpm/policy_dsp.jsp?citID=68) How does anyone know to request the information if the case is confidential?
The consequences of this veil of secrecy over the care of the most needy children is expressed well by Jim Newton of the LA Times on March 8, 2011: “Their fates are controlled by officials who take them from their homes, assign them to new ones and reunite them with parents who brutalized them — all in secret.” (http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/08/opinion/la-oe-newton-column-foster-care-20110308)
With her baggy leather purse flopping at her arm like a broken limb, the mother moved in broad strokes, sweeping up her timid son. She covered him in gregarious sorrow and tears in front of all the other foster kids waiting for their parent visits or therapy appointments in that stained room. He didn’t want to come, but she lured him with a long awaited birthday present. Watching her cry over him like a lover I wondered where the gift was, hoping that her tears weren’t just show.
She started in with crazy stories and unrealistic promises as the social worker stood behind me, out of the reach of her mucus and grief. As she spoke her bloodshot eyes plead with me to believe her and I answered, “Okay,” and “I understand,” without conviction. I believed her for as long as she could see my eyes.
Walking away with her son at my side I told him I was sorry. He knows more of the world, filled with anguish and tribulation, than 9 years can hold. He brushed away silent tears and said he would never visit her again.
I met Erica at church. She had an adorable one year old daughter who toddled into mischief. Erica and her boyfriend were married at church in a simple ceremony. A week later they were baptized. I was asked by the church to visit Erica every month, to be her friend and assess their needs.
The first month I took a coloring book and crayons (washable) along with a large package of diapers. Erica didn’t sit still, she got up to pull chicken out of the empty freezer, explaining that her husband hadn’t worked much because business had been slow at the car wash. They were grateful for their illegal sub-let: a gay couple that fought nearly constantly and chipped in for food. The baby headed for the stairs so Erica turned on the big screen TV to distract her and I sat on the drooping couch covered with a sheet.
Erica had been in nursing school a little over 6 months, I asked how classes were going. She couldn’t afford gas money or childcare, so she hadn’t been to school in the last week. She talked big- that her husband would get a second job, she would get a night job, and they would move into a house, where she would have room for her 5 kids. Four lived with her mom now, something must have happened between the birth of her 4th and 5th children.
When a mom with kids in the foster care system gives birth to another child it’s like a do-over. Child Protective Services assumes normalcy until they find evidence to the contrary. That evidence can be drugs in the bloodstream of the mother at the baby’s birth or in the worst cases, later, when it’s too late.
Erica hated that her Mom cared for her children because her son has ADHD and her mom lost her temper often. She vacillated between gratitude for her mom’s care of her children and anger. The money her mom got from the state for taking care of Erica’s kids was more money than her husband made at the car wash. If she got the kids back, there would be no payments for her.
She never said how she lost custody.
The county jail is inaccessible by stroller. There is a wide set of steep steps leading to a set of darkly tinted glass doors high above street level. The advantage is that a passersby can’t gawk in the windows. The problem is taking an uncooperative two-year-old boy inside. Buckled into a stroller his protests would be of little consequence, the stairs eliminate that possibility. Instead, I throw his diaper bag over one shoulder, my purse over the other and heavy laden lean down to unbuckle the stroller straps restraining him. He bursts out of his seat and I grab his mittened hand. It takes a tight grip to hold onto him through the layers of knit.
With the other hand I hold the stroller and push the button with my foot to collapse it. I fold it to a manageable size and drag it behind me while lifting Bobby up each of the steep stairs to the glass doors. I can’t open the door, my hands are full. Standing there physically overwhelmed with burdens, mental burdens also stop me. I am walking into a jail. This two year old boy who was delivered to us at 4 am (filthy and grasping his only possession, a plastic red car) is now ordered by the court to visit his father in jail. His father is charged with child endangerment. He left his diapered son alone in their inner city apartment so long that the neighbors called the police after they couldn’t take his screaming any longer.
There must be a shift change, because through the dark glass doors I can see rows of guards coming towards me smiling. They hold the door open for me and I try to catch someone’s eye, to show them by my clear conscience that I don’t belong here.
Sitting on the row of plastic seats that look like leftovers from a 60’s era airport, I see that the only other white girl in the waiting area is with smeared mascara and ratted hair, rambling incoherently into a phone. My tawny skinned foster son pushes his red car across the floor, laughing when it crashes against the cement walls. When he runs his wiry black mop of hair bounces into his eyes. He comes over to eat Cheerios on my lap and an African American grandmother sitting next to me asks if his daddy is inside.
I say, “Yes, but I’m his foster mom.”
Her smile vanishes and she scoots to a chair further from me.
The guard at the desk calls Bobby’s name. I grasp his hand again and walk him up to the metal detectors. I bribe Bobby with more Cheerios so he’ll happily pass through with the social worker. After he’s beyond the solid metal door and is in the belly of the jail with his father I don’t know what to do. I choose walking the winter streets over the cold shoulder of that grandmother.
Marcy calls me because she left Bobby with a social worker at the jail and is now in that situation that I was in over a year ago – at the jail with time and no friends. I quickly realize that she’s on that border between tears and tantrum that is common for compassionate souls dedicated to nobodies’ children.
“This is ridiculous! This child has spent most of his life in foster care because of this man’s choices, yet here we are again, a 4 year old sentenced to spend time in jail because of who his father is!”
Marcy quit her job to be Bobby’s mom. She and her husband are providing foster care for him with the intention of adoption. He went to their home after being in legal limbo with us for six months. They are waiting for the courts to grant the coveted TPR: Termination of Parental Rights.
We say TPR because it isn’t the courts that really terminate the parents. They made the decision themselves years ago, courts just make it a legal fact.
The first time I went to the gym with Bobby the childcare was full, so I walked over to the older woman in charge, and asked if I could leave him for an hour, even though he wasn’t legally a member of my family. She smiled and gave an overwhelming, “Yes!” He ran off to bang trucks together and watch Dora. The woman kept talking to me. I wish I had walked away because what she said next will not leave me. It remains like an unhealed scab on my brain. I try to pick it off and make it go away, even though I bleed, but it comes back and stays.
“One tiny foster girl my neighbor took in had two broken legs. Her father raped her until he broke them.” She demonstrated with a crude thrusting motion.
Years later my head fills with bile and tears to write it.
I found a blogger who’s been a foster mom for more than 5 years. In that time she’s given birth to 2 daughters and will soon have a third. She and her husband also foster parent Becca, who just started kindergarten, has been with their family for more than a year and has Leukemia. When she came to their home she had no hair and a long list of doctor appointments and medications.
In the current system, the goal of foster care is always reunification with birth parents. Until the moment that the parent’s rights are legally terminated it is the focus of everyone involved in the case. Except for the most severe cases, children who are in foster care visit their birth parents regularly as part of a reunification plan.
Becca’s birth father doesn’t show up to her doctor appointments, as the judge ordered him to do as part of the reunification plan. Becca still goes to visits with him where they might eat ice cream or go to the playground. The social worker doesn’t share information with the foster parents about the other things Becca’s parents should be doing to work towards reunification. They did ask if they would be willing to take in Becca’s little sister too, on a long term basis. (Long term basis hints at adoption, or at least the agonizing legal process of sorting out parental rights.) That is how you know things aren’t going according to plan for reunification.
Becca still visits her father each week. Now her little sister joins them.
Nine year old Vinnie came to stay with us for a week, which turned into a month. Whenever possible siblings are placed in the same foster home, but Vinnie fought with his brother so violently that his previous foster mom refused to house both of them. She’d been fostering for 15 years and was spotlighted in the foster agency newsletter the same month we got Vinnie. Over the years foster kids had gotten more violent, she said. There had never been a child that scared her, until Vinnie.
A month later Vinnie cried and gave every member of our family hugs when we gave him belated birthday gifts, wrapped with bright paper and curled ribbon. That same week he told his friends at school that he hated his new foster family and wanted to kill himself. After investigating the comments his social worker assured me that it was a misunderstanding, Vinnie was not suicidal. After he left our home I heard rumors that he was institutionalized for attempting suicide.
Vinnie’s previous foster mom told me that the school nurse called Child Protective Services over her concerns about his home life for two years before he was finally removed from his drug addicted mother’s care.
Excerpt from “The Nobodies” by Eduardo Galeano
“Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream
of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will
suddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. But
good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter
how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is
tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or
start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.”
Before we became official foster parents my husband and I saw commercials on TV pleading, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a foster parent.” We felt strongly that homes like ours were needed. Foster parenting blogs and web sites also begged the sane and competent to step to the plate, out of traditional roles and into parenting a stranger. We had a taste of it with the girls from church so knew this would be hard. So we said then.
Hard isn’t a word I use much anymore. It’s a stupid little word, four little letters insignificant against all the meaning packed behind it. Difficult is better, I’s surround too many F’s and a crossed T brings up the rear. The base sound of the big D fights with the C in the middle, ending with the sharp LT. “Hard” makes it sound as if it can be broken through, like ice crusted on a street puddle. “Difficult” is complicated, like the thick ridged winter crust of an arctic lake, and goes on long enough to arouse fears that it’ll never end. That’s how this problem of endangered children feels, never ending.
Laws and rules have been made, with strict lines and solid parameters. But these are people, worn down round the edges- soft babies pitted against poverty and ignorance, accidental parents with addictions and mental illness flowing through the curves of their viens, and disheartened teenagers scoured by the mean streets until their soft child palms clinch into hard fists. These things don’t fit the image we have of America, where the huddled masses come to breathe free, not to be suffocated by the cold shoulder of secrecy and the hard lines of policy.
When I signed the paperwork to become a foster parent I signed a confidentiality agreement. I’m breaking it by writing this. It could ruin my hopes for a career in social work – a great irony considering “Social workers help people overcome problems and make their lives better.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, bls.gov) Very few people listen to children; they have little voices that don’t vote. They are nobodies in the eyes of politicians, lawmakers, and power players – people with the resources to help them.
While picking up my foster kids from their inner city school I saw a large woman walking a small boy home. They stopped as she stooped to tie his shoe. As we walked past them the little boy stared vacantly at me. His mother, with her back to me while she tied the small shoe, released a train of profanities that burned a trail from my ears to my heart. The destination of the singeing words was her son. The cause- an untied shoe.
I thought about putting a stop to it, pointing out that an untied shoe is hardly cause for verbal abuse. Then I looked down at my foster kids and remembered that in some homes children get the worst of everything. Concerned for how the boy would be treated if I embarrassed his mom, with burning eyes I put my head down, took my foster daughter’s hand and kept walking.
About 7 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning in July, 1990, I slipped out of my bedroom and into the hall, relieved I hadn’t woken my wife, Linda. I knew she’d rise shortly, and then I’d have an hour or less to get our three sons fed, dressed, and out of the house before she started screaming at us to leave. She’d been like this ever since we’d moved into this house the previous month and she’d claimed the extra room as her studio for her fledgling landscape architecture business. A large drafting board covered with new graph paper, rulers, rubber guides, and other paraphernalia dominated this converted-garage room, and the boys and I knew we’d be instantly eviscerated if we ever dared to cross the threshold.
No sound came from Ben’s bedroom—our three-year-old son was the most talented at sleeping in—but I heard strains of “Tiger Sharks” coming from Mathew’s bedroom, and when I cracked the door open, my sons Matt, 8, and Josh, 6, sat on Matt’s bed watching the program with rapt attention. They were pleased to see me, but Josh frowned, knowing his cartoon time would last only until I returned with a box of donuts purchased from the shop a few minutes away in downtown Castro Valley, a small, unincorporated township near San Francisco and Oakland. However, Matt’s face grew animated.
“Making a donut run?” he asked.
“Yep, wanna come?” I said.
Matt smiled, leapt down from his bed with a thump, and snatched up a pair of sandals. I winced at the noise, hoping it hadn’t woken Linda, but I was happy. Sometimes Matt was just as much of a tube zombie as Josh, but on days like today, he really wanted to hang with Dad.
When we entered the donut shop, we received a satisfying blast of warm, moist, sugary air. The middle-aged Chinese woman at the counter named Faith smiled and said, “Hello, Mr. Long! One dozen like usual?” She reached for a large pink box.
“Want to pick ‘em, Matt?” I said. “Get a couple of maple ones for your mom, then pick out what you and your brothers like.”
Matt pressed his face against the glass. “What are those?” he said.
I followed his gaze. “Bear claws,” I said.
“Are they real?”
“No, they’re a pastry, like donuts.”
“Can we get some and eat them here?—we could buy some milk.” His face was bright with excitement. I pictured Linda standing by the bed, hearing the low-volume TV, and jerking the belt of her bathrobe into an angry knot. The clock was definitely ticking now. I felt my usual Saturday morning spike of anxiety. Still, the little guy had given up his cartoons to hang with me.
“Sure,” I said. “Grab us two milks, and I’ll pick everything out. We have to hurry, though.”
Matt almost knocked over a chair in his rush to the milk refrigerator.
We sat at a bright yellow table near the window. While Matt snarfed down his bear claw between gulps of milk, I nibbled mine and glanced at the front page of The Daily Review. Russia had recently become a sovereign state within the Soviet Union, and a headline predicted the entire Soviet Union was headed toward dissolution.
“Donut Man!” Matt and I yelled as we burst through the front door of our house. This was the only moment we were allowed to make noise. Linda was showered and dressed, her shoulder-length blonde hair combed but damp. She shot me a warning glance—my time was almost up. Ben was on the move, and Linda had unplugged Josh from the tube. Everybody was hungry. I poured glasses of milk, and the five of us stood over the pink box on the kitchen counter, devouring donuts, almost as if we were predators and prey in Africa sharing an uneasy truce while lapping water from the only stream within miles.
As soon as we were sated, I rushed to dress the boys. Except for some crooked buttons I could fix later, Matt and Josh were fully clad. This allowed me to focus on Ben. He was easy enough to clothe, but finding his sneakers was another matter. Ben subscribed to the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer philosophy that no shoe was a good shoe. He would fling them into distant corners the moment we returned home from the outside world. I conducted a quick survey of the living room, the play room, and Ben’s bedroom. No Keds. My anxiety spiked again. We had T-minus two minutes to vacate the premises before Linda’s screaming commenced. I deputized Matt and Josh to help me, and they found Ben’s tennis shoes in Matt’s bed, where Ben had taken them off to watch TV the previous day. As soon as they made this discovery, Matt and Josh shot out of the front door, quickly followed by yours truly carrying Ben in one arm and his sneakers in the other.
“See you at dinner time,” Linda said as she closed the front door behind us and slipped on the chain.
You can never go home again, I thought, echoing Thomas Wolfe. At least not until dusk’s long shadows.
We piled into my blue Ford Ranger pick-up. Matt rode shotgun, and Josh and Ben sat in the jump seats in the rear.
“Where to, guys?” I said.
They all answered at once, “The Pirates!”
I drove us to Lake Chabot, a beautiful jade body of water surrounded by woods and hiking trails occupying 300 acres. I was ever-thankful this majestic and peaceful setting lay only fifteen minutes from our house.
As we stepped out of the truck, a warm breeze carrying a pleasant floral scent—jasmine?–caressed our faces. We began our walk. The sun was hot, but live oak trees shaded much of the path. We marched resolutely to the half-mile marker, which was just beyond a grove of shady and fragrant bay trees, then descended a side path leading to the water’s edge. Within a minute of hiking along the shore, we came to the boys’ favorite place to play, The Pirates. The boys loved the movie Swiss Family Robinson, and this was the spot where they could best enter that world. While my adult eyes saw the remains of a teenage party, complete with a burned out campfire and a scattered variety of empty beer cans and bottles, my sons saw the remnants of a recently abandoned pirate campsite.
“Dad, were the pirates just here?” Matt said.
“I think they left at dawn, so they’ve only been gone a couple of hours,” I said. I pointed to the small island about half a mile from shore. “That’s where they hide during the day, and they’ve got their pirate ship hidden on the other side of the island so we can’t see it.”
“Have you ever seen it?” Josh asked.
“Just a couple of times, once at sunset and once at dawn.”
The boys examined the island carefully, looking for movement in the woods and signs of the Jolly Roger flapping through the treetops.
“Do the pirates like skipping stones?” said Matt, skipping a stone across the water. It bounced five times.
“It’s one of their favorite activities,” I said. “Particularly when they’re full of rum.”
Matt continued to skip stones, which inspired Ben to pick up the largest rocks he could find and plop them into the water to see how big a splash he could make. Meanwhile, Josh, the engineer in the family, became fascinated with a fishing pole holder constructed out of niched branches and fishing line. Over the next half hour, he would take it apart and reassemble it. I watched the boys as they played, making sure they were safe and not getting too wet, since going home for dry clothes was not an option.
While they played, I thought about how I’d met their mother at Virginia Tech our freshman year in 1975. I first noticed her in my English class, where I thought she was a pretty blonde with a nice smile who seemed down-to-earth, unlike many of the stuck-up good-looking and popular girls who’d attended my high school. We shared two classes, ate in the same dining hall, and lived in adjoining dorms. We kept crossing paths. At one point, I learned Linda enjoyed Fleetwood Mac. I liked them too, and my cousin Jeff, who lived in my dorm, owned all of their albums, so I invited Linda to my room on a Saturday night for a Fleetwood Mac fest. She accepted, we sipped cheap red wine while we listened, and I kissed her after I escorted her back to her dorm.
She seemed surprised but pleased. “We’ll see about that,” she said as the door closed behind her.
Christmas break followed almost immediately, and we exchanged silly postcards. We both had long-distance lovers with whom we’d rendezvous over the holiday, but those romances hadn’t been going very well, and we knew our kiss was the start of something special.
However, when we returned to school, Linda was solemn. She’d had sex with her boyfriend over the holiday without birth control, and she was terrified she was pregnant. She told me this as we stood in the courtyard between our dorms one evening when the temperature was in the teens and the wind whipped wildly about us. I held her for hours, comforting her, and when we finally parted, we were in love.
A loud splash startled me out of my thoughts. At first, I was terrified one of the boys had fallen into the lake. However, I quickly surmised Ben had dropped an unusually large rock into the water. His brown corduroy jumper was wet from the splash, and I pulled him onto my lap so he could dry in the sun. He asked me a long stream of questions about pirates, and I told him everything I knew or could make up. Matt concentrated on digging miniature channels from the lake inland, and Josh had the fishing pole holder apart and was laying out the pieces in an orderly manner.
I hoped Josh felt okay. The previous weekend, his best friend, Seth, had thrown a birthday party and failed to invite Josh, instead inviting a group of older boys he wanted to impress, and they had attended because Seth was the only child of indulgent parents, and he had the coolest toys in town. Linda and I had been upset and angry when we learned of this treachery, but here’s the difference: while I quietly seethed, Linda phoned Seth’s mother and screamed at her. Every now and then, it was handy having a banshee in the family.
While I tend to characterize Linda as a banshee, witch, succubus, or other evil creature, I also recognize she was deeply unhappy, and I remind myself to feel compassion for her. Even as she destroyed virtually everything in her path, she was desperately searching for inner peace. After we divorced–two years following the events of this story–she earned a Ph. D. in spirituality. When that didn’t bring her calm and contentment, she went to Nepal on a spiritual quest. I don’t know if she ever found the tranquility she sought. A sad thought is she might have avoided a lifetime of misery by simply consulting a psychiatrist, which she refused to do. At the time of our divorce, her doctor brother and nurse mother told me they suspected she had a chemical imbalance in her brain.
Anyway, back to my concern for Josh. He looked like he’d regained his high spirits—just a few days earlier, when the trash truck made an unusually deafening noise in front of our house, Josh ran up to me and said, “Daddy, the trash truck just crashed into your Ranger!” Of course, I ran to the front picture window only to be confronted by my unscathed pick up and three wildly giggling boys. I was so grateful I was surrounded by these happy little guys in a marriage that had begun to scare the hell out of me.
After Josh reconstructed the fishing pole holder, I noticed the boys’ interest in their play waning. I suggested we hike a little farther along the shoreline. At first the boys weren’t keen on this idea, but I piqued their interest by pointing at the hut-like brown-and-gray thatches of cattails around us.
“See these huts?” I said. “Witches live in them, and they’ll come out and eat us if we aren’t sneaky and quiet as we hike past.”
Suddenly, everybody was up for a hike along the witch trail. Matt picked up a cattail.
“This is a kitty protector,” he said. “If it meows, we know there’s a witch in the hut.”
“Kiddy protector or kitty protector?” Josh asked.
“Kitty protector, as in cats,” Matt said.
We each picked up a cattail, and we quickly navigated the next half-mile of witch huts, quietly rushing past any that elicited a “meow.”
At the end of the witch trail, our kitty protectors suddenly turned into swords, and we fought one another valiantly until we each held the useless nub of our hilt.
“You guys ready to do something else?” I said.
The boys nodded, shouting out a variety of destinations common on Saturdays: Village Toys, Toys R Us, Crush Comics, Play It Again Video, Burger King, the Oakland Museum, and the Oakland Zoo. They left out the more mundane activities, like picking up my shined shoes or dry cleaning, but they were always good sports about even these dull ventures.
We ascended a path leading to the main hiking trail and headed back toward the truck. We proceeded without incident until the boys asked if they could sit in the last bit of shade before the parking lot to cool off for a few minutes. I assented. Ben immediately took off his shoes. I watched him with a sharp eye, making sure his sneakers didn’t disappear into a clump of poison oak. When it was time to move on, I helped Ben back into his shoes. While I was thus engaged, Matt decided to conduct a gravity experiment. He rolled a large rock off the edge of the trail down the embankment leading to the lake’s edge, curious to see how fast the rock could travel and whether it could make it all the way into the water.
I cringed, then thought, oh well, probably no harm done. Just then, we heard a loud clank and a scream as the rock smashed into the base of an aluminum chair occupied by a fisherman. The man, who was about sixty, sprang out of his chair, threw his white cap into the dirt, and charged up the long flight of oak stairs leading from the shoreline to where we stood on the main trail.
“I’ll teach that little son of a bitch to scare the shit out me!” the man yelled, his blue Hawaiian shirt and formerly combed-over gray hair flapping in the breeze.
Matt stared at the approaching man, terrified. “Dad, I’m sorry,” he said. “It was an accident!”
“He’s just a little kid,” I shouted at the angry fisherman. “It was an accident, and he’s sorry.”
“Sorry’s not going to cut it,” the man yelled back from halfway up the stairs. “He’s going to pay!”
“Dad, what should we do?” asked Matt in a paroxysm of anxiety.
I quickly assessed the situation. Should we do the right thing and stay and apologize to the enraged fisherman? My mind and body screamed, No! I didn’t like that the man was swearing, I didn’t like that he’d already rejected the possibility of an apology, and he sounded as if he intended to strike Mathew. Having received many severe spankings as a child, I was not about to let this happen to Matt. Also, I’m an introvert, and I get tongue-tied when an angry person is yelling at me, so I didn’t think I could talk the man out of his fury.
“Run!” I shouted. I snatched Ben up into my arms and ran as fast as I could; Matt and Josh streaked down the trail well ahead me, almost as if they were twin versions of The Flash, one of Matt’s comic book heroes.
Although we glanced back a few times, we didn’t look carefully behind us until we arrived at the truck. I quickly locked the boys inside and turned to see if the angry fisherman was rapidly approaching, but there was no sign of him. He’d been noticeably overweight, he’d probably been winded by his charge up the stairs, and the boys and I had just sprinted a quarter mile flat-out.
I took my place behind the steering wheel, buckled up, and said, “Who wants ice cream?”
“I do!” everyone shouted.
Usually making a pilgrimage to Loards Ice Cream in Castro Village, our town’s main (and almost only) shopping center on Castro Valley Boulevard, was a sacred afternoon activity reserved for family Sundays. If Linda learned we’d visited on a Saturday without her, we all risked losing major body parts—all she’d have to do was cruise down the Boulevard on an errand and spot the Ranger. Also, her best friend Susan’s daughter, Emily, worked here—we’d tried to sit in her busy section when we arrived, but she gave us a sad smile and gestured for us to sit in a less crowded area served by a cute red-headed teenage waitress. So word of our transgression might get back Linda, but I was willing to take this chance.
We were shaken from our experience with the angry fisherman, and I figured we could use a shot of sugar and endorphins to steady our nerves. Besides, it was too early for lunch, but we were about to crash from our donuts. Out of the many positive experiences I arranged for my sons on our Saturdays out, I confess teaching them good nutrition was not one of them.
Speaking of those donuts, it occurs to me now that I ate them in a similar manner to Wonderland’s Alice drinking from the bottle of magic potion that shrank her to a tiny size. The donuts allowed me to revisit my own childhood so I could best relate to my boys and keep them pleasantly occupied, since we had nowhere to go if we got bored.
Although many of our town’s citizens mindlessly flocked to Baskin- Robbins, we knew Loards had been producing some of the best ice cream in the Bay Area for decades, and we loyally stuck to our brand. I wanted my boys to become gentlemen of discerning taste.
We were soon gorging ourselves on ice cream fit for the gods. While the boys ate simple or crazy flavors like strawberry or bubblegum, I indulged in the mighty Fudge-Anna, a combination hot fudge sundae and banana split. I was thirty-three, trim, and didn’t yet have to worry about what I ate.
I was very proud the boys said please and thank you to our server, whose name was Kate. I once read that a woman on her first dinner date should decide whether to grant a second date based partially on how well her date treats the waitress. If he treats her well, that’s probably how he’ll continue to treat his date. If he treats her poorly, that’s probably how he’ll treat his date in six months. Even then, I was confident my boys would earn second dates.
As we consumed our ice cream, I realized moments like these with my boys were the happiest of my life, and maybe being kicked out of the house served the higher purpose of allowing me to spend Saturdays exclusively having fun and bonding with my sons. I was glad Linda wasn’t with us. Her sour presence would have added an element of tension that would have ruined our wonderful, guys-only enjoyment.
I didn’t know it then, but Linda would have a mental breakdown sixteen months later on Thanksgiving Day. After that, she was in a constant state of rage alternating with bouts of suicidal depression. The boys and I endured this situation as long as we could. Six months later, I filed for divorce, and Linda moved out. Our boys’ Saturdays continued long beyond Linda’s evil reign.
After the divorce, the boys and I spent Saturday nights watching Indiana Jones or Star Wars movies while eating pizza with root beer float chasers, our menu reflecting the same junk food fare over which we’d bonded. At one point, I asked Josh how he felt about our new circumstances. His answer warmed my heart.
He said, “Well, I think we’re all going to learn a lot, and we’re going to have some great bachelor parties!”
But let us return to the main action. As we finished our ice cream, Emily’s mother, Susan, came into the shop to deliver her daughter’s lunch. She worked as a dispatcher for the Oakland Police Department, and Linda shared her jaded view of the world. Susan spotted us immediately and came over to our table. We are so dead, I thought as I stood up to greet her. But she looked at me with deep sympathy.
“You guys still doing your Saturday thing?” she asked. I could see she knew Linda had kicked us out of the house. We said yes. She leaned so she could whisper into my ear.
“Is Linda still riding her bike insane distances?” she said in a low voice.
“Yes.” It was true. Almost daily, Linda wheeled the Specialized carbon-frame racing bike I’d given her for Christmas out to the street, where she’d take off on 50- or 100-mile rides without a word.
“Be careful. I think she’s going crazy. My sister did the same thing right before she cracked up, only she was obsessed with running.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” I said. On the surface, Susan’s suggestion surprised me, but a deeper part of me recognized the truth of her words. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, I thought, but my main mission is to protect the boys.
Susan smiled and stroked my back in a way Linda hadn’t touched me in months.
After Loards, the boys and I walked across the now-blazing parking lot to Village Toys, which was run by two brothers, one of them a father himself, who loved children. I always relaxed when we entered the store because the brothers doted on the boys as if they were young millionaires with the potential to buy anything they desired. In fact, when I asked the brothers if I could go next door to Jordan Books for five minutes, they said they’d be happy to watch the boys.
At Jordan books, I selected a Ross Macdonald detective novel entitled The Chill. At that time, I read about a novel a week. I was unhappy at home and work—I was employed by a dishonest and unethical management consulting firm– so books and the boys were my primary means of escape and pleasure. As for Linda, every night after dinner, she locked herself in the bathroom while she soaked in a hot bath, and then she later holed up in our bedroom with a closed door to read and avoid the boys and me in a mini-version of the exile she imposed on us on Saturdays.
When I put my book on the counter to pay, the fetching brunette cashier in her mid-twenties smiled and said, “Nice T-shirt!”
I wore a white cotton T emblazoned with the orange image of The Thing, my favorite Marvel comic book hero. “Thanks,” I said. “I guess some kids never grow up.”
“I like a man who still has some boy in him,” she said with a brightness of eye that went well beyond routine store clerk courtesy. “Did you know the Rowell Ranch Rodeo is next weekend?”
“No,” I said. “But it sounds fun.”
“It’s really great,” she said. “And they have a chili bake-off with some of the best chili you’ll ever eat. Would you like to meet me there?”
My spirit started to soar, only to be anchored firmly by a sudden tightening in my stomach. This is what it feels like to be offered a fresh start on love when you’re deeply unhappy in it.
I held up my wedding ring finger. “I can’t tell you how much I’d like to go,” I said. “But I can’t.”
My face must have telegraphed pain or sorrow because the clerk, whose nametag read “Trisha,” came around the counter and gave me a hug that had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with comfort. On one hand, this kind-hearted embrace felt wonderful, but it also saddened me because it wasn’t coming from Linda.
Back at Village Toys, the boys lined up the merchandise they wanted on the cashier’s counter: two LEGO sets for Matt and Josh, and a firefighter-themed Duplo kit for Ben. Although I’m not very mechanical, my sons only desired toys they could construct. Perhaps Matt and Ben shared some of Josh’s engineering ability, perhaps it was reassuring for the boys to build something with their hands while they were enveloped in a disintegrating marriage, or perhaps they simply were displaying their high levels of creativity.
Next, we went a few doors down to Play It Again Video, the first and only video store in town, which was run by a family of handsome and beautiful blondes who loved working together as a family at this new, high-sales business. After examining every video in the crowed store, we selected the original Star Wars movie, along with Swiss Family Robinson. After we’d rented these movies a thousand times, I finally wised up and bought copies. As a side note, Play It Again met a sad fate when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came to town: the happy blonde family quickly sold out to an Indian gentleman, the store gave up half its floor space to another store, and it opened up a small corner room filled with pornographic movies. A year later, Play It Again no longer existed.
During the second year of my relationship with Linda, she screamed at me for the first time. We cooked a meal in her off-campus apartment, and I was in charge of slicing and sautéing a green pepper. In high school, I spent three years cooking at Pizza Hut, so I definitely knew my way around the vegetable in question. However, as I finished slicing, Linda yelled at me, “What are you doing? That’s not how you slice a green pepper!” Her face was heart-attack red, and her eyes filled with fury. Mental illness, I correctly diagnosed. Flee now while you still can! And then a stream of counter-thoughts rushed through my mind—maybe she had a really bad day, maybe she’s having her period, she’s never done anything like this before, maybe I should give her another chance…. At the time, I didn’t know where these thoughts originated.
Now I’m certain they came from a weak part of my psyche riddled with low self-esteem resulting from the harsh punishments my brother and I endured as children. We’d been raised by seemingly loving parents who nevertheless frequently transformed into ogres and beat the childhood innocence out of us, so marrying a witch or banshee wasn’t that much of a stretch. I had a very high tolerance for abuse, which was familiar, and, foolishly, I decided to stick it out rather than flee. Of course, all of these decisions were subconscious. So I stayed with Linda. The result was fifteen years of often unhappy marriage and the birth of three wonderful sons.
From Play It Again Video, we drove down Castro Valley Boulevard a few blocks to Crush Comics, which stood next door to the Chabot Cinema. Matt excitedly picked up the latest issues of several series of Spider-man comics. I was pleased I’d turned at least one of my sons into a comic fanatic, not because I wanted Matt to be like me, but because I wanted him to experience the same deep pleasure I had. I flipped through the favorite comics of my youth: The Amazing Spider-man, The Fantastic Four, and The Incredible Hulk. Just seeing these familiar heroes brought happiness to my heart.
Josh and Ben explored the store with less interest. Josh eventually picked out an Invincible Iron Man, and Ben selected a Tales from the Crypt. The first time I bought comics for the boys, I thought Linda was going to rip my lungs out, but eventually even she recognized the pleasure they gave the boys, especially Matt. She even bought Matt a pile of comics once when he was ill. As we moved through this quiet, joyful room toward the cash register and clerk, I realized how much this little shop nourished the spirit of boys of all ages.
After Crush Comics, we refueled at Burger King, then drove west on I-580 to the Oakland Zoo. Back then, the zoological park was a beat-up, old-school enterprise with bars and cement enclosures. However, a patron donated a large sum of money the zoo spent wisely, and it seemed like every time we visited, another animal had been liberated into a new roomy and natural habitat. After we arrived, the boys begged me to go on the Sky Ride with them. The Sky Ride consisted of plastic benches hooked up to a pulley that enabled passengers to view the animals from above their enclosures.
This was the last thing I wanted to do; I was afraid of heights, and the Sky Ride didn’t have any flooring to anchor our feet, and the thin aluminum safety bar across our laps felt like I could bend it into a pretzel Superman-style if I gripped it too hard. Also, the plastic seats were slippery, and I worried we would slide right out from beneath the bar. In addition–I don’t know whose bright idea this was– the Sky Ride traveled directly above the open lion and tiger exhibits. One simple slip and you were literally dead meat. As I looked at my sons’ pleading faces, I thought, come on, don’t disappoint these guys, how scary could it be?
So I succumbed and bought four tickets. As soon as we squeezed into our bench, it swung wildly as Matt and Josh squirmed to find comfortable positions and Ben pulled at his shoelaces.
“Don’t move,” I said in a panicked voice. “Stay still.”
“You scared, Dad?” said Josh, pumping his legs like he was on a swing.
The bench spun with a strong jerking motion. The tigers below watched with keen interest.
I was soon drenched in sweat, and our seat suddenly grew wet and slippery. I jammed my butt into the curve of the bench and willed myself not to slide out. This was like a nightmare I sometimes had where I let myself fall from a tremendous height because I could no longer bear the fear of falling. Somehow we made it back safely, despite our sweaty squirming. As soon as we docked, I hurried the boys toward the men’s room—and not because they were the ones who needed it.
We spent a long time in front of the savannah containing giraffes, eland, and a wide variety of African birds. The boys gawked at the strange shape of the giraffes, and they laughed in wonder when the sound of approaching dinner inspired several of the creatures to run with a surreal gait toward one of their high feeding baskets.
Of course, we visited the monkeys and chimps—Jane Goodall was conducting a study of chimps in captivity there because of their outstanding natural habitat enclosure. And we flinched at the fierce and fury-eyed baboons who charged any spectator who accidently met their hostile glare.
As we toured the zoo, I lived in the moment as much as my sons. Looking back, however, I recognize two thoughts flickered in the back of my mind. The first one was about the progression of our day. We first visited the site of evil pirates and witches, who were now no longer a threat; then we’d entered the fantasy world of superheroes where evil was almost always vanquished by good, and now we were contentedly observing the natural world as it was, a world of tremendous fascination and adventure. We had temporarily purged the evil from our lives and were living in a state of grace.
The second thought was about my father. He never would have spent a day like this with my brother and me, although he occasionally took us on walks through the neighborhood, flew kites with us, and terrorized us as a sea monster at the swimming pool. Basically, he engaged us in activities he enjoyed, but he never showed an interest in entering our world.
My father has many times told my brother and me he’s nowhere near the father we are to our sons. He’s right. Interestingly, my dad’s father delighted in taking us boys fishing so he could share this great, manly pleasure with us. These outings were short-lived, though, because our grandfather fell on ice soon after he retired, and he injured his legs, which had to be amputated because poor circulation prevented them from healing.
We saved the elephants for last. As we plopped down on a bench facing their enclosure, a zoo keeper with a red face and walrus mustache finished filling up a large hole with water from a hose. While he threw apples into the makeshift pool and coaxed the elephants to swim to retrieve them, he recited a long string of facts. For example, these awe-inspiring creatures have 150,000 muscles in their trunks, and they can use this appendage to suck up to 15 quarts of water at a time, which they then squirt into their mouths. Also, he said, elephants can hear with their ears, trunks, and feet. In addition, these captivating mammals are believed to have the same level of intelligence as dolphins and non-human primates, and they can feel grief, make music, show compassion and kindness, mother one another’s infants, play, use tools, and recognize themselves in mirrors.
When some of the elephants exited the pool, they used their trunks to throw dirt on their backs.
“Dad, what are they doing?” Ben asked.
“Putting on sunscreen,” I said.
The boys giggled.
The zoo keeper continued to lecture, but we tuned him out and focused solely on the elephants as the great, gray, wrinkly creatures with the small dark eyes and long eyelashes and formidable, floppy ears shaped like the African continent bobbed and swayed in the hot July afternoon. Perhaps the boys’ minds wandered briefly to Babar, one of their favorite books about an anthropomorphized elephant, just as mine may have flashed briefly upon the proverbial elephant in the room at home, but our thoughts quickly returned to the magnificent elephants and our simple but immense male joy.
The library of the new millennium seems schizophrenic – with an array of sounds, smells and scenarios bizarre and strange; in contrast, the grand old book repository of my youth was sedate and serene. Times change. Society changes. Cities change. Today’s library system is large, expensive and is usually a big part of downtown and Any City USA’s outside burghs, hamlets and environs. There seems to be nearly as many branch libraries in most of our big cities as there are sections of the city. My home of Jacksonville, Fla., while being a major U.S. city, is actually made up of a lot of little places like Murray Hill, Paxon, Five Points, Cedar River, Ortega, Riverside, and a seeming couple of hundred other cozy little corners. It seems like each one of these little burghs of J-ville has its own branch library, too. Go back about four years: as I walked past the long pillars in front of the Eudora Welty Public Library’s front I saw how my then home of Jackson, Mississippi’s main branch public library operates after dark. Three or four homeless men were bedding down for the night in the shrubs. They were haggard, dirty and unkempt icons of an age of throngs of homeless, destitute downtowners. They are part of the new urban “human” blight the city’s Chamber of Commerce does not want to see in or around such a literary facility. In their humble, non-political life of being pariahs – individuals many would like to see denigrated to being totally invisible – their quandary is making a profound impact on today’s library and how it fits into the American socio-political fabric.
During these new-age days, it’s in vogue for the new library to look like a mural out of South Central Los Angeles. Sometimes such graffiti is being contracted by a locally distinguished artist. A fresco, friendly and frolicking, is usually the main branch’s urban look – sort of body art for the big building by way of a tattooed brick and stone covering mural. Sometimes, it is just plain old dirty street kid graffiti, though. Public Libraries on the East Coast, West Coast and in between are going to court over the homeless using the library as a living room, dining room or bedroom. Some groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s unjust to set into place odor policies or loitering mandates. And the ACLU also deems it unlawful to set stricter guidelines for borrowing library materials in regard to the homeless. Treatment of the homeless is one of the most salient and controversial of all matters facing the American Public Library today. However, my question is a little more far-reaching and deeply rooted: I’d like to know exactly what purpose the American Public Library has in modern society. In the first place, why is it the public library’s role to take care of homeless people? Exactly what decree or authority has deemed our public libraries as daycare centers for homeless folks? Why can’t it be the local convenient shop or deep discount store? Why can’t it be the local marina or auto plant? Even our churches don’t have the responsibility of caring for the homeless during daylight hours.
According to the Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, the tough Seattle winter of 2006-2007 has forced even the toughest homeless people into shelters. “We’ve already been open more days this season than the whole [season] last year or the year before,” said Al Poole, director of homeless intervention for Seattle’s Human Services Department. (Roe, Green)
Eastside Seattle shelters are few and they fill up rapidly during deep freeze temps. With temperatures dipping into the low teens many days, it’s out of human necessity that people get inside, and out of the cold Pacific Northwest cold. Poole said Seattle officials are asking workers at Seattle Center, Seattle public libraries and homeless day centers to “relax the rules a little bit and just be more welcoming to homeless people” seeking a warm haven during daylight hours. (Roe, Green). Accounts of this winter’s harshness echo the same concerns. Homeless people wandering around libraries and more or less “taking up space” in them isn’t such a great fit, however. Homeless people can be disruptive, destructive and sometimes frightening; especially to children whose first impression at the library may now include a jarring memory of a Uriah Heep character (seemingly torn from the pages of David Copperfield. It’s an unsettling sight, holding hands with Mom, in the children’s book section near the water fountain).
Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th U.S. President
I have a different view of libraries today. Although I really enjoy some of the conveniences and free perks of the modern American public library, I also feel an intellectual tip to Sophia, ancient goddess of knowledge, is amiss. As a child, I knew what that role of the local branch library had – it was for learning and becoming one of the learned. But public libraries today seem to take on so many roles. Strangely, they seem not multi-dimensional, but exhibit a stranger dilemma of having multiple personalities. Not only does the modern library have sights, but smells and sounds, too. Switch to 2003: I’m entering the Jackson/Hinds Public Library system’s H.Q. — the Eudora Welty Library on State Street, just off downtown Jackson, Miss. It’s a damp January day in the Deep South. I was living up the street a few miles northward in the Fondren District back then. I spent a good deal of time at the main library in this city of great writers. And I remember those days distinctly – the first thing I remember is catching a whiff of decaying, wet paper as I opened the front doors and entered – the odor was about the same smell as clammy, wet mush. The wet Mississippi winters were when this smell was the worst – it was usually too cold to rain, too warm to snow. What came down was very big, cold drops. Inside, the nice, comfy warmth made me forget the immediately previous environment – now, it’s probably raining cold drizzle.
In the summer, the quiet, cool and calm inside this library, named after one of Mississippi’s most celebrated serious fiction writers, almost cries out to the luxury and easy side of life, too. The library has the most comfortable chairs in all of central Mississippi. The banker and lawyer downtown would love the same seat during their workdays! Like all large flagship libraries, the Eudora Welty library is a great place to do research, read or study. Funny, though, it’s also a good place to run, play or hide from society. For those who still stroke their intellectual nerves, I guess the library’s still good for mental gymnastics, for finding an obscure plume for one’s publishing hat or for the avid reader, just having tons of great books surrounding scholarship and academic integrities in all directions, at all times. The Welty Library has an enviable collection of works by Deep South writers, particularly Mississippi writers. It also has a rare book room that celebrates The South’s great influence to the world of World Literature.
Maybe it’s just time to read the writing on the wall. In some of our major cities, the downtown library is a white elephant and has been publicly targeted in big news circles as a money pit. But any politician knows that you can’t sink too much money into an institution the public views as being as omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. The flagship library downtown is also a flagship-of-buildings. If there’s a place that has become all things to all people, it’s today’s public library. To change with all other venues of entertainment, these once stodgy old buildings had to have bright murals on their outsides, coupled with even brighter art on the inside. They had to become one-stop shops not only for the scholar and the avid reader, but also, for the sometimes reader, the never-reading teenage freak, the computer geek and even the homeless generic. I must admit I love the modern-day public library. It’s really all things to all people but sadly, on the flip side, the intellectual side of these hallowed walls has been denigrated with a seemingly hollow homage to pop culture.
Community branch libraries have become hangouts for middle school kids in the late afternoon. The little small-town library I knew, once – decades ago – seemed to be a quiet place. A book dropping into the return shoot rang all over. Now it’s muffled by sometimes loud laughter, constant computer clicking and banjo and guitar music coming from the basement immediately below, where the daily music show is going on. . . .When I was a kid, some thin spinster wearing drab Victorian garb, a bobby bun and a permanent scowl would never be reluctant to tell the noisy brats at the center table to pipe down. And if her commands were not observed, she’d evict the guilty for the day. But today, mum’s the word at our community “book house.” A lowly aid is always reluctant to whisper “be quiet.” What’s worse, when it comes time to order books, some community minded do-gooders want their version of the First Amendment upheld, which oftentimes equates to a book banning session. What used to be the only building in town with real First Amendment toughness has become a whimpering wimp that is a follower, not a leader. Try to find a book with any real contemptible grit at a little branch library (except for the endeared Classics, of course). For the most part, coffee books, process-analysis how-to’s and a legion of self-help digests are shelved there. I love the assortment of DVDs, CDs and about anything and everything that is media or multimedia. . . .The library is my video store and it’s become my record mart.
Yes, if there’s a building in your town that represents the politically correct to the tee, it’s the local library. It’s really a fun place to be, most days. And though the public computer usage can bring internet surfing for hours, the great works of Fyodor Dostoevsky are gone; and so is the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A few of the major works of the American big three (Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald) may be shelved somewhere in the fiction section but where is a complete works collection of more contemporary greats like Tom Wolfe, John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut? How quickly does the modern public librarian forget. . . .The library boards must discuss for hours, maybe even days, the pros and cons of shelving anything that might be considered even slightly “controversial.” I learned long ago in English Composition that anything worth its weight in words had to be controversial.
Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.
– Alfred Whitney, Essays on Education
And now back to my central thesis: what is the American Public Library of today? It seems to be a mixed bag, much like my likes and dislikes of the former book repository. It’s now a place to get a cheap, great-tasting latte, a free video just out on disk and some old Tom Petty albums I never bought in the 80s. The perks and freebies are impressive. Anyone starving for knowledge – particularly in the pop culture area – is too lazy to walk a few blocks to their local branch library.
Walk though any branch library between two and three-thirty on a fall, winter or spring day. The little book-storing facility sounds more like the halls of a junior high school in the late afternoon. At some branches, hundreds of kids gather for good times and a much needed recess period that they don’t get at junior high anymore. Or take the main branch at a half hour before closing (when the comfortably at-home homeless don’t want to be thrown out to the elements of nature’s heat or cold). The walls ring inside like urban convenient stores! The libraries I knew decades ago were so quiet they screamed. Now, I find myself wanting to scream for quiet in the same halls! I’m trying not being negative here. In fact, this article has gone through dozens of drafts. The first was nothing more than horrid condemnation of our public library system in America. But as the rejections from literary e-zines, academic journals and even some of the premier commercial mags came back in droves, my critique became less critical and more of a balanced story. I really love our libraries today – they are not just educational, but very entertaining, user friendly and more comfortable than plush living rooms! At the same time, however, I’m concerned that our future generations will not utilize these wonderful knowledge and wisdom incubators. Some of the greatest books ever written have fallen prey to the crude political and societal “upholders of decency and morality.” What’s missing is the thing that’s always made America great – a freedom of expression, of press and of belief. And the America that once was, the America that the world relied on as a stalwart and wonderful Big Brother, is all but dwarfed by the ignorance of the right-wing religious do-gooder and the leftist soccer mom from hell. Our hold on the world as an intellectual master, a seasoned teacher and overall fixer is waning. Our insistence on never settling for #2 suddenly sees our public school children intellectually falling behind some Third World and developing countries.
The library is not to blame for this downward spiraling mess, but it’s part of the affliction. My concern is if we’re looking to find a place to house the homeless during the day, we’re missing room and moneys for building the book collections and the hard-to-find research tools that were once only available at the public library. Hard-to-find books, videos, microfilm, microfiche, and rare book collections seem to be taking a secondary place to a fancy living room-style atmosphere.
Flash back to the downtown flagship book ship: Another homeless man shaves in front of the mirror, slicks back his hair and asks me for a cigarette. Today I’m sitting in the “home” flagship downtown library of Jacksonville, Fla.’s, very large library system. The Jacksonville Public Library System is a large and expensive one – with seemingly same numbers of buildings as inner-city convenience stores and gas marts.
I’m working on a computer. In front of me are some folks who are sitting on very comfortable, plush chairs staring out the large windows while it rains. It rarely rains whole days in Florida. But that day it was an all-day soaker. Some are enjoying the aesthetics of nature, sitting comfortably in a large enclave that serves as a living room. A man and his two young daughters chat on the couch. There’s a stately looking elderly gentleman who could be an overdressed homeless man or a retired millionaire. And a young woman is breastfeeding an infant quietly and discreetly in the corner. This is a comforting scene, yet its unsettling because I feel the local book repository of old has become a great place to sit and watch rain drip down very large panes of glass. The ultra-modern furniture inside is outdone only by the most avant-garde of new architecture outside.
A controversial hotbed of the creature comforts found in public libraries of today has Seattle, Wash., as its setting. The New York Times called the Seattle Central Library “Pure bling-bling: a $165 million, 11-story glass-and-metal “big rock candy mountain of a building.” (Jamieson) Seattle Post Intelligencer Columnist Robert L. Jamieson Jr., in a May 21, 2004 article, said he “hung out” with some of the homeless who frequented the library for a little while that spring. One of Jamieson’s acquaintances paused in front of a photo of a large, shiny sink in a bathroom of the new library, set to open in late May 2004. “His eyes get big,” Jamieson writes.
“You can put your feet in that sink and take soap and scrub your toes down,” the columnist reported the homeless man telling him.
“When you are homeless your feet can really stink,” the homeless man added. “There are only certain spots around town where you can get clean, where you don’t have to go to shelters and deal with perverts – or where you might pick up a foot fungus,” the homeless man said.
Then, the man was informed by Jamieson that the library will soon have a “Living Room” — a cozy area of long couches and a coffee bar.
“Living room?” the homeless man answers. “Isn’t that something?”
It’s something, all right. Jamieson’s observation: “For a man who has eyeballed homelessness the cushy new public building can make a guy feel right at home — too much so, if you ask me.”
I don’t want to marginalize the homelessness-in-America issue. It’s actually as salient a problem as the future of the American library. But I’m amazed that we’ve turned our public libraries into a dumping ground to take care of societal problems other institutions avoid; while it’s as hip, pop and slick as the newest industrial rock CD or chick lit book. Some say the library has been changing its face. I say the library of today is facing disgrace. It’s a place of quiet, serenity and safety – a good place to take long winter naps in the cold and long summer naps in the heat. Yes, all’s very nice and cozy somewhere in back of the elevators just behind the oversized reference works and the maps. And all that is shelved and borrowed is pretty, politically correct and screened. Even public library’s computer systems censor what is deemed “obscene.” In most matters, this is synonymous with pornography but the actual act of libraries screening for “decency and morality” makes me unsettled. What happens when all that is not moral is censored? More is fed to the flames, history has shown us. The library’s prime real estate, too, where both the urban planner and the community conscious real estate agent want it to be – downtown. Yet, businesses aren’t required to accommodate the homeless. Most businesses have some semblance of independence but when it comes to ideas, things turn to the censor and extremist. Yes, our downtown libraries have become good places for in-between times; and this means reading between the lines is not allowed. All is perfectly clear as family conscious Wal-Mart and Arby’s.
The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.
– Oscar Wilde
The Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force is criticizing American public libraries for adopting punitive policies in which to punish the poverty-stricken homeless populace. At the Salt Lake City Library, a civility campaign has been set in place to “teach the homeless, children and others how to behave” according to a report by the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force. This group also cites that in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., odor policies have been initiated which also target the homeless. Homeless people go to the library, the bus depot, malls and other public places because there aren’t other shelters for them.
In Wichita, Kansas, there is legislation pending that would make it illegal to set up temporary living quarters (like tents) on public property. But some claim it’s already all-too-easy for police to arrest homeless people for loitering, being in city parks after hours or for creating a disturbance. (Schubin)
Some people cannot help being homeless and destitute. Why should they be punished in libraries for a set of circumstances beyond their control? Why can’t society be compassionate enough to take real action to eradicate homelessness? Get to the real issue and not the problem of keeping society’s pariah populace happy, comfortable and well rested. Surely, pointing the city’s homeless is a scapegoat, but who makes the library system the responsible party for homelessness and day-care for unruly children and teenagers?
I’m no stranger to libraries. Even today, I spend a good deal of time at these wonderful places and have done so for much of my adult life. In the past few years I’ve not only written, but have published (primarily online in literary e-zines) tens of thousands of words and scores of pieces – poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and some oddball lit-art that I don’t know how to categorize or compartmentalize. Virtually all my work over the past decade has been written on public computers at public libraries in Jackson, Miss., and Jacksonville, Fla. I’ve been to a throng of libraries. Whenever I have interviewed for a job out of state or visited a strange city, I almost always spend some time at the library. Just like corporate communism and censorship, all is uniform. There’s a place for everything and everything has its place. If some weirdo writes a book that questions evolution, the place for that new book may indeed be the dumpster. The writings on the wall aren’t read like they used to be. It’s odd to see America’s great repositories of knowledge and papers becoming nothing more than cyber cafes with coffee rooms and a place to buy a snack and work on a wireless laptop. Perhaps no cappuccino and espresso bars have been carved into the walls yet, but wait a decade (or probably, even less) and the American Public Library will surely catch up with the times. It might even win the whole race. Though poetry may be thin and research and scholarly work may be waning, there’s more than enough selection of current pulp fiction, glitzy and multicolored-covered, to give Quentin Terrantino enough satiric ammo to go at it hard with Pulp Fiction II, Pulp Fiction III, IV and V and beyond….. Most journals aren’t the journals that once dominated the library shelf. No, little is judged, “refereed” or rejected anymore with our change of research from expensive, printed academic journals to on-line e-zines and journal collections. The Internet, meantime, has a lot of the same negatives as the Wild West. It’s the easiest place to get away with slander, libel and blackmail. A hateful spouse can find a gun for hire on Craig’s List, and though some are caught in doing this, others surely must succeed in cleaning up the garbage and wreckage in their lives. Ask, Yahoo! Metacrawler, Dogpile or Google give cyber fiber of expert voices.
Expert voices? In a day and age of utter hypocrisy, where pornography feeds the ugly bellies of Internet’ hungry advertising and commerce engines; where does truth fit in? Even self-proclaimed “defenders of truth” who fight to ban books are actually killing the real reason we have a First Amendment. New books are judged by their popularity as seen on the New York Times Bestsellers List, not by a review from the MLA. Controversial classics may not be burned or banned, but simply are not reordered after their pages are worn and these dog-eared editions go to the library book sale in the spring. Literature is being replaced by “convenient, pretty typing experiments.” Funding for libraries is going by the wayside, too. If ideas cannot be burned or ignored, they are starved. The research tools we now find in print at the library were probably outdated ten or fifteen years ago. And while many reference directories are electronically available, where is the funding for research coming from? The Internet? The government? In a clever and cunning way, research – particularly in the humanities – is being killed with electronics and electricity. It takes money to put out research. Finally, you’re probably saying, “what a hypocrite. A writer who is only found on the ‘Net is slamming his publisher. The ‘Net is used by the poor poet, but it’s more popular as a place to play glitzy games, build a nifty My Space page and listen to free music (but earphones must be worn at all times, thank you. And when the library’s use as a free Web surfing provider goes by the wayside, put the chains up and cover the door. Yes, it once was a grand ol’ institution, but now it has a big sign in front that reads:
CLOSED FOR GOOD.
Long before I met my eventual husband, I met television. When I was a child my father didn’t let my sister and I watch television because he thought that watching it would turn us into idiots and, although I haven’t read the stats on that, there may be some foundational truth there. Poor Daddy. He forgot the first rule of childhood, which is: that which is forbidden is, ipso facto, precious.
Whenever I could, I watched as much television as possible and by the time I was 12 and babysitting at night, I could pretty much watch anything. I watched a lot of old movies. My favorite one was the 1949 black-and-white version of Little Women, starring June Alyson as “Jo.” I was an avid reader but it never occurred to me to read that book. I’m sure I would have been disappointed. Peter Lawford was the handsomest “Laurie” imaginable, in spite of having a girl’s name.
Without doubt, the deepest connection I made with that film, (other than Beth’s death, which I haven’t fully recovered from yet), was with the Christmas scene. It had been a very hard year for Marmee and the girls. Father was away fighting in the Civil War (Union side) and they didn’t know when they would see him again, or even if he was still alive. Beth was sick, but not yet dead. They were poor and it was cold. Everything about that Christmas could easily have gone another way. Snowflakes the size of ping pong balls drifted down as slowly as feathers tossed by angels on high and they had to make all their presents themselves. But by dint of sheer will and brute effort Marmee and the girls decided they would make Christmas and somehow, bravely, keep their spirits up. The icing on the cake was that Papa, or whatever they called him, miraculously made it home on Christmas Eve just as they were starting to celebrate so that Marmee and the girls had the best Christmas ever. As the camera pulled away from that brightly lit scene into the cold, snowy darkness I always teared up. There was something ineluctably beautiful about that family together, the magic of the Christmas tree, their determination to keep each other’s spirits up by faking good spirits themselves, the odd, perfect grace of all of them being home together on that special night for what turns out to be the last time ever ; the triumph of human love over the reckless, bloody, indifferent hands of fate, all of it, touched me deeply. I wanted to crawl into that scene, into a corner by the tree, wearing a worn but still perfectly lovely muslin dress and braiding my long chestnut colored hair up in braids and be that unobtrusive fifth sister silently darning or knitting or stringing berries or just…belonging there.
My family had holidays together all the time and we, too, had triumphed over a couple of tough things, but real life can never compare with the movies. That’s why we watch movies, because they are not real.
As much as old movies, what I liked to watch on television was shows about families: My Three Sons, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, any one I could find. Without realizing it, I was subconsciously casting my next family, straight off the feed.
My parents were working class Jews who had emigrated from New York to L.A.. Their parents had been starvation class immigrants from Eastern Europe who got sent over to Ellis Island by themselves around the time they stopped teething. All alone. In the cold. It didn’t make for great parenting skills, even a second generation out, and they did not resemble at all the white Anglo-Saxon middle class families on tv.
For one thing the Cleavers and the Robert Young guys and all the others always seemed to be really happy. And not just happy, cheerful. They were inexorably polite to one another. They were even nice to all the working class people around them – the milkman, the repairman, the postman, the …well, all the men. Even when they got mad, well not mad, just irritated, they were always able to talk things through. Cooler heads, which were actually their heads but now cooler, would make good decisions based on certainty and feelings of communal worth.
By now, all this stuff has been hashed to bits by feminists, sociologists, media watchers, psychologists, even writers. Obviously, these early 60s sit-coms were just walking clichés. I got that now. Honest, I do.
But I didn’t then. I wanted those parents who never got mad. I wanted those large, well-ventilated houses on broad, tree-lined streets with like-minded people who never faced death, or crime, or cars that didn’t work, or poverty or disability or even weight control issues. I wanted a tall, slender WASP mommy who would wear pearls and heels while vacuuming. I wanted to belong to that phony perfect world And I knew that I didn’t.
But my husband, when I met him, a Mr. William Dennis “Denny” Stock looked like he very well might. He was tall and slim and had blue eyes and an adorable little nose.
On our first date he asked me about my family, and he filled me in a little bit about his.
He was from someplace called ‘Virginia’ and he had three brothers and his family were Christian. Goyim. They owned a house in a little town that had been where it was and what it was since the American Revolution. Until a few years past he’d had a Grandfather who doted on the boys and gave them candy (CANDY?!?!?) as a snack when they walked to his house after school. Grandpa had dinner with the family every night after he played a game of chess with Danny’s Dad, Bill. Bill was an executive at a Sears Department store and his mother didn’t have to work, ever. She cooked dinner for them almost every night and they had dessert and they were allowed to drink Pepsi as an ordinary beverage. She kept crates of Pepsi on the kitchen floor (and this was long before Costco) and they were allowed to just go and get one, any time, to drink along with their Twinkies. Of course, she always had a few sixes of Diet Pepsi for herself, because she was always, needlessly, on a diet.
All of this seemed almost profligately extravagant to me from every point of view. By the time I met Denny all of my Grandparents and replacement Grandparents were long dead. They had only come over for dinner on holidays, anyways, and none of them had ever played chess. I only met my paternal Grandfather once. He came out for my father’s funeral when I was 16 and he wept like a baby even though he had abandoned my father when he was 6 and had resisted all of my father’s very good efforts to try and know him. My paternal Grandmother was, I guess the word for it is, ‘deranged’. She hadn’t been much help, ever, and even though my father died of cancer of the liver, she said that my mother had killed him. So…..
Also – who gets to eat candy? We got to legitimately eat it exactly twice a year – on Halloween Night and during Hannukah. The rest of the year we had to sneak it from friends or buy it after school from the corner store and eat it before we got home. My mother, who fought overweight her entire life, would never have considered buying anything like Twinkies for the house. She didn’t even think it was an actual food, let alone a separate food group. And, Diet or not, we never had soda in the house. Soda wasn’t something you actually drank, it was a weird symbolic thing you served at barbecues and parties but not anything we associated with, like, thirst.
We also ate dinners as a family every night, just the four of us, and my mother cooked wonderful things from whatever meats she could afford – bean and barley soup, stewed chicken, salmon croquettes, flanken (don’t ask), vegetables, a fresh salad every night (true, with iceberg lettuce but that’s because it was the only lettuce that had been invented yet). My father was an early health nut who thought there was more nutritional value in cardboard than in white bread, a finding supported by science just a few years later, so we never had that. Dessert in our house might be a couple of cookies, and even that wasn’t a daily thing.
Of course my family didn’t celebrate Christmas. We are Jews. I have had the hardest time over the years trying to explain this to people and to be honest, I don’t think Denny actually believed me on that first date. I guess it’s just unbelievable.
After a few more shared reminiscences (I asked Denny what some of the ceremonial foods in his family were and he said that a good argument could be made for Cheez Whiz), he told me was that no matter where they were or what they were doing, on Christmas all his brothers came home. He said that his Mother was like a mamma bear and she wanted all her cubs around her.
More than anything, that was what sucked me in. The idea of that stability, that love and warmth and that family all wanting to be together with one another was very seductive. Listening to Danny talk about his family’s Christmases, I connected with my deep childhood yearning to one day find myself in that brightly-lit, homey Christmas scene with Marmee and the girls and, even though Danny was delivering a significantly different narrative, I think that while listening to him that first night, part of me decided that if I ever got chance, I would do just that.
He described Christmas morning in detail, how they would call his older brother Phil up and he would rush over from his nearby suburb and they would open stockings while they waited. Phil’s wife Cheryl never came because she was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t believe in giving or getting Christmas presents, but Denny’s mom, Wendy, would give Cheryl presents, such as bedroom slippers, “for the house” anyways.
The menu for Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning and Christmas night was exactly the same every year and it sounded great to me. It was a veritable taref extravaganza. Wendy not only cooked oysters, she cooked them in cream, on the same day that they had both ham and quiche with bacon. Plus, they had pies, mincemeat pies. Apparently, she was quite a baker – Christmas cookies and fudge and toffee and banana bread.
He had me at hello.
As they say, the course of true love never did run smoothly and it took a while for us to get it together, but long before we exchanged vows, or rings, or registry lists, or, more importantly, before I went home with Denny for Christmas, I got a chance to meet his parents
The first time I met them they were out on vacation, even though it wasn’t summer or anything. They had flown out to Los Angeles to visit Denny and to have fun. They were big on having fun and that, too, was odd to me. My family went on vacations to the mountains or camping with other families or with relatives, but they brought the children, of course. They brought everyone. They wanted to show us something or they wanted to be in nature. Or we traveled to see family, to go to a wedding, or to a bar mitzvah. Or we went somewhere educational and did educational activities. But we never took a vacation just to have “fun.”
What is “fun,” anyways, I remember wondering. Is it like a party? Does it involve (fingers crossed), expensive champagne? Any champagne? Cocaine? Pot?
Denny’s youngest brother, Brian, was in middle school at that time, but he wasn’t with them. He wasn’t, I guess, part of the fun. Denny had told me that his parents were third generation Christian Scientists and the entire religion at that point was only about 150 years old so that was impressive. They didn’t, he said, drink or smoke, or even have caffeine. Except for the endless pots of coffee they brewed eleven hours a day, and of course, the Pepsi, but that didn’t count. I didn’t quite get why, but I was such a neophyte on Protestantism that I didn’t question it.
They were staying in a fun hotel in Hollywood not far from a famous Japanese restaurant with a fabulous view and blue drinks with little umbrellas. We picked them up at their hotel and Wendy, who was very attractive and slender and blonde, chatted gaily with us as she put the final touches on her cute outfit, primped her champagne blond flip, fixed her bright red lipstick and gave, first her own reflection and then us, a fairly dazzling smile. She was dressed in all red, white and blue with a big red/white/blue scarf around her shoulders and gold kissing-dragon hoop earrings and pearl necklaces and a fancy gold watch. She looked like a dream. In fact, she looked like my dream. She was camera perfect and ready to join the Baxters in some sunny sitcom heaven.
At brunch, the first thing she and Bill did when we got the restaurant was to order up a big pitcher of sangria because, she explained, they had been drinking that with friends nowadays, back home, and it wasn’t really alcoholic. I knew all about sangria and I was delighted because I was very nervous about meeting them and I’ve always considered alcohol to be a great social lubricant. It hasn’t always functioned as such for me, in fact au contraire, but in this case it didn’t matter. What I didn’t understand that morning, or for decades following that morning, was that it didn’t matter at all what I said or did or drank or didn’t drink because I didn’t matter. I wasn’t real. I was that nice looking young woman sent out from karmic central casting to play the role of Denny’s girlfriend at brunch that morning.
They were both very polite and convivial and Bill had a sweet, silly sense of humor and looked just like a TV Dad. We were all pretty much three sheets to the wind but we could be because the alcohol in sangria didn’t exist and, you know…like that.
The next day Danny and his parents went to Disneyland. I may have had to work. Even if I didn’t have to work, I doubt that I would have gone there with them. I don’t generally enjoy amusement parks. I am not amused. I had worked for years as a tour guide for professional French groups and a day at Disneyland had been part of the tour. It was ghastly. The French couldn’t get over how bad the food was. They were furious that there was no alcohol served in the park at the time. All the tour guides knew that you could take the Monorail to the Disneyland hotel and spend the entire day drinking at the bar, which is what every self-respecting tour guide in the region did, but it was kind of like an omerta thing and none of us ever broke the code.
I don’t remember the rest of that visit, it was brief, they had other places to go, but apparently I passed inspection or so I thought, and I didn’t see them again for over a year and by that time Denny and I had moved in together and actually fallen in love.
In between, Danny and I had our first Christmas together as a couple, my first Christmas, period. I mean I always had friends who celebrated Christmas, I went to parties, I decorated trees, I shopped for, wrapped, gave and received Christmas presents, I got Christmas bonuses and watched Christmas movies. In elementary school I learned many, many Christmas carols and performed them. But I had personally never “celebrated” Christmas because….okay…here goes: Not Everyone Celebrates Christmas. They just don’t. It’s great fun, good shopping, it’s all good. But there are people whose entire lives do not stop and on December 24th and resume again on December 26th. It is not a universal rite.
But for Denny and his family, it is. To be fair, Wendy and Bill were still at least occasional church-goers at that time. However, as anyone who hasn’t spent much of the last century under a rock knows, Christmas in America, whether on television or in what some call “real life” bears only a vague, remote connection with the birth of Jesus Christ.
Denny holds no religious beliefs. He is an absolute atheist and he already was when I met him. But he does believe in Christmas. Absolutely.
That year we shopped for our first Christmas tree together as a couple. I didn’t know the routine so I thought that you just went to a supermarket parking lot and grabbed a tree. That might be okay for Jews, or for the poor, but for Denny’s family that would not do. He told me that his family always got the biggest, tallest Christmas tree they could find. Even if it had to be cut quite a bit just to fit in the room. Even if it had to be delivered by a truck because the family station wagon roof wasn’t long enough. It had to be fresh, it had to be green, it had to be expensive, and it had to be huge. A few times the whole family had driven out to the country to saw one down, a la Chevy Chase, but now they just went together to special Christmas tree lots near their town and Mom would pick out the tree. Why Mom, you ask? Why not everyone? Or, er, at least Mom and Dad?
These are naïve questions of a sort that a Christmas neophyte neither deserves nor could ever understand the answer to, so none were proffered.
In the absence of “Mom,” Denny picked out the tree himself, with me watching. It took me more than a few years to understand that my suggestions, or even pointing to a tree or row of trees, was extremely unwelcome. There was a standard of excellence to all this, but I didn’t know what it was. I did know that I was supposed to admire the choice and help load the tree onto the roof of the car, tie it down, and carry it up the narrow stairs to our flat once Denny picked it out. Buying the Christmas tree always seemed, and still does, to make my normally good natured husband very crabby and nasty. For the first few years I thought it was because he was homesick. Later, I learned from a friend that her parents always had a Christmas tree fight when she was a child. Nu? You don’t like that tree, get a different tree! But then again, what do I know?
So, we got the tree and put it in the bay window of our flat on Wilton Place in Los Angeles and it looked so green and beautiful that I did not want to put anything on it. Again, that kind of stinking thinking was worse than even the troglodyte hypothetical 4th child at a Seder might present. Of course we had to decorate it.
True to my own Christmas fantasy I suggested that we string popcorn and cranberries and make orange pomanders and put tiny candles on the branches like in Marmee’s house, but those suggestions were roundly, immediately, mocked and eliminated. We needed to buy stuff. Lots of stuff – bulbs, lights, ornaments, tinsel, all that we, (at my home, not Marmee’s), would have categorized as chazzerei, which is a cute Yiddish way to say “garbage.” But I was down with it. I couldn’t wait. I went out to the drugstore and bought boxes and boxes of bulbs. I had a color scheme. Unfortunately, it was the color scheme of Hannukah, blue and silver, but I swear I didn’t do it on purpose, I just liked the way it looked.
Danny didn’t even consider it. For one thing all the bulbs were the same size, medium. He wanted them to be all different sizes and colors. He also had a plan for how the lights were to be wrapped around. It was a simple plan and yet one which he still, all these years later, is convinced that no one without a PhD in christmasbulbology could possibly hope to understand. This is his burden, putting on the lights, and it is, I guess, an onerous one. However, once that is accomplished, just as in our first year together, we can begin to decorate the tree and I get to help, although I apparently need both supervision and critical feedback.
That first year, Danny and I didn’t plan on spending Christmas itself together. He was flying back East to spend it with his family, and I was staying at home in L.A. which was good because I could take care of his dog, Odie. I could also drive him to the airport and pick him up. Except that the day before he was to leave, I became very sick with the worst flu I ever had, before or since. I was waiting at an audition when I suddenly ran an extremely high fever. I got so hot so fast that I was flushed and weak and dizzy and the casting agent’s secretary, (and they’re not known for being hypsensitive) sent me home in a taxi although she really wanted to send me to the Emergency Room. When I got home, Denny helped me up the stairs and into bed and then he finished packing and took a cab to the airport in the early morning hours.
I was really very sick. Maybe not as sick as Beth was in my dream Christmas but not significantly better, either. I slept for most of the next 10 days. I got my neighbor to walk Odie and my mother came over every day to feed me and make sure I was still breathing, and friends called to see if I needed anything. But not Denny. He called once, briefly, to make sure that Odie was okay. He was, he said, having a wonderful time.
The next year I went back East with him for Christmas. I had no idea what to bring as presents so I just got everyone a little something I thought they might like. Denny said that his Mom liked Christmas mugs so I went to Pottery Barn and bought her some, the nicest ones I could find.
That morning we left in great spirits, however, as the flight went on, Denny became increasingly more anxious. He wasn’t afraid of flying so I wondered what was making him so tense. He was bringing his girlfriend home to spend Christmas, his favorite holiday, with his family.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, at first, nothing. In those pre-9/11 days, people could come up to the gate to meet passengers and Denny’s Dad came right in and helped us with our bags. Bill was such a sweet guy, always very warm and welcoming. Later he told me that he had seen me first in the crowd and that I had looked so worried to make a good impression that he wanted to reassure me. In fact I was very anxious that Denny’s family wouldn’t like me, that I wouldn’t fit in, but it seemed like as soon as the plane landed, Denny became completely unavailable to me so I had no one to run those doubts by.
The town where Denny grew up is a lovely mid-Atlantic place. Although they were bare, there were oak trees everywhere and Denny’s family lived on the corner of a cul-de-sac on a hill surrounded by woods. It was probably a typical middle-class suburb but it seemed much more beautiful to me. It was the first time I saw electric candles in windows and some of the houses looked colonial and had tasteful, subdued wreathes and lights as decoration, completely dissimilar to the kind I was used to back home in California where gigantic plastic Frosty the Snowmen often vied on the same small lots with Santa-fied Mickey Mouses and, of course, fluorescent creches.
The Stock home was very pretty. Wendy had furnished it in early-American style. All the furniture was maple and there were Currier & Ives prints on the wall and pewter knick-knacks all around, and every single inch of the four bedrooms, three bathrooms, large family room, extra room (for the dogs), staircase, kitchen and dining room was covered with Christmas decorations – small golden trees, lights, figurines, bulbs, Santas, reindeer, teddy bears and elves. It must have taken days, if not weeks to do. But none of it compared to the Christmas tree in the capacious family room downstairs.
The tree looked like Marmee’s tree on steroids. The room it was in was a furnished basement nearly the length of the entire house but it was dwarfed by the tree which took up all of one corner and protruded out at least a good ten feet. In addition to all the usual decorations there were many figurines – angels, porcelain toys, little Santas, tiny wooden trains and sleds and figurines and houses, brass trumpets, silver bells – some of which looked like they had been in the family for years. Underneath, where presents would eventually go (if Santa came!) were many, many, many stuffed animals, all wearing Christmas togs.
I was mesmerized. Little by little I felt myself moving closer to that elusive perfect Christmas of my dreams.
It was an exceptionally cold winter that year. No one expected snow but there it was, all over the ground, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I was delighted. However, I had neither snow boots nor a hat, nor anything close to what one wears back East during a cold winter.
Denny’s brothers came home and I met them one by one. They were all sweet and friendly, if a bit reserved. They spent most of the day out with friends but we all had dinner together every night.
Denny and I spent most of the days before Christmas hanging out with Denny’s mom. Whenever we went out, shopping, Denny and his mom would sit in the front of the Lincoln in their full-length down coats, chatting away happily and listening to the kind of canned Christmas music one hears in malls and elevators. For some reason, the heat only reached the front of the car and I sat in the back shivering in my Los Angeles-weight winter coat. Every once in a while Denny would look back and ask me if I was alright (sweet) and I would say, “actually, it’s really cold back here” and they would turn the heat up for several minutes, after which Wendy would say, “Oh, it’s much too hot” and they would turn it back down.
That first Christmas Wendy didn’t actually speak directly to me, except once. She had gone to France with a few girlfriends the previous Fall, rented a car and had a splendid time. Wendy had always wanted to travel and over the next decades she and Bill did quite a bit of it, but this was her first trip to Europe and going to Paris had been a lifelong dream. I think Denny must have told her that I lived in France for two years and that I spoke perfect French. By the time he told her that, my French, which had never been perfect, was barely even passable but it sounded okay in restaurants, which is the only place he’d heard me use it. I had spent two years in France but I had done it the cheapest way possible. I went to a California State College and they had a Junior Year Abroad program and I declared myself a French major in order to go. I stayed a second year by reapplying for the same loan/grant that had gotten me there the first year and spent much of the next five years paying back that loan. In the midst of talking about her wonderful trip, she turned to me and said: “You know, I had to wait until I was over 50 to go to Paris. I didn’t get to just go whenever I wanted to, like you did,” and then went back to describing what sounded like a really good time.
Now, while it’s true that television has failed me over the years in some fairly important ways, in this one way, not standing up for myself with Denny’s mother, I completely failed myself. I was to do it again many times in the future. I think I expected Denny to stand up for me in some way, to correct his mom or to smile at me or to somehow indicate that he was the reason I found myself sitting in that kitchen listening to that story, because we were together. But he never did. I guess he never knew how to and, sadly, neither did I.
Wendy liked to talk and she entertained her family with lighthearted anecdotes of her daily tribulations with the folly of the world. She had slender, long-fingered hands and wore fake oval nails in shocking pink which she waved about in big arcs or used to pick maniacally at the tablecloth. She had a lilting chortle of a laugh that just made one want to join in. But it was hard to, because these follies always involved Wendy’s gentle triumph over one of two different categories of people: 1) people who were ‘funny looking’ – this included poor people, fat people, ‘colored people’, ‘orientals’ and Mexicans; and, 2) people who had a funny religion – this covered every Christian denomination except hers. (Jews didn’t even make it into that food chain until the following Christmas and Muslims not until several years later.) And her family, including my anti-racist, liberal boyfriend listened in rapt delight. It was like they were under some kind of dark enchantment.
Wendy was very obviously the “star” of the Stock family. Denny and his brothers competed with each other childishly for her attention and approval, and she adored that. But there was no contest. Denny looked like her and it was apparent to everyone that he was her favorite.
You know…there are few human situations which cannot be made considerably worse by soaking them in alcohol, fumigating them in marijuana, quickening them with cocaine, covering them with sugar, dousing them in flour and frying them in the hot fat of dashed expectations, unvoiced resentments, faulty memory and botched communications, and this one was certainly no exception.
Everything that was already wrong with me – eating too much, drinking too much, smoking too much, talking too much and, on occasion, being snide and sarcastic — became much, much wronger and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The more left out and isolated I felt, the more worthy of dislike I became. Especially to myself, and I was the only one actually looking.
Christmas for the Stocks was the unquestioned apotheosis of the year and the concomitant traditions were iron-bound. After dinner each night the Stocks played various board games together, which was great fun. They seemed rather intense about winning, especially Wendy, but I just thought that’s what people did. Whenever we had holidays at my house, we always had people in, aunt and uncles, cousins, old friends The Stock family Christmas seemed to be for the nuclear family only. Phil was married, but his wife didn’t come. Friends did not come over. There was no extended family. Neighbors didn’t stop by. The phone did not ring. Christmas was an island in time for them; an island in stopped time.
But here’s the thing, it was also an island in time for me: it was an island frozen not only in time, but on film. Christmas for me, that is Christmas at Marmee’s house, was stopped in that moment in pre-adolescence when my deep yearnings for love and connection and meaning and life all coalesced around a celluloid fantasy of what I thought ‘normal’ families and ‘real’ Americans and even actual history was. Wendy and I had both been dazzled by a whirlpool of make believe Christmases. But, while both our visions may have been firmly rooted in televiseable hype, we were clearly not looking at the same movie. I don’t think Wendy’s movie ever included any additional cast members. It was a closed set.
That first Christmas, and for several others to come, I was the only outsider. Mom, Dad and the kids. And me. Just like Marmee and the sisters and finally Father, and, finally, me.
Except that in Marmee’s house, as I visualized it, we all loved each other and we were having a really good time. In Marmee’s house, Christmas brought out what was best in everyone – kindness and generosity and the ability to be there for another human being. In Wendy’s house, I was so anxious to be liked and so apprehensive about my sequential and unstoppable and inexplicable faux pas that it took me a while to see that everyone else was also anxious. There was a frantic, almost driven quality to those days before Christmas as if we couldn’t listen to enough Christmas music, talk enough about Christmases past, eat enough sweets, play enough games, have enough fun or be happy enough. I felt so uneasy that I did not at first notice that everyone around me was uneasy as well. My anxiety was because I wanted to fit in, to please them, to maybe earn a little approval, maybe even a little, you know, love. What was causing theirs?
There were some calm moments. Christmas Eve was exactly as Denny had described it and as we stood over the beautifully set table and lifted our glasses of cranberry juice for a toast (an homage to the years in which the Stocks didn’t drink alcohol, at least in front of their children), I felt a moment of peace. There was genuine affection around that table and I basked in the warmth of this tight-knit family and the specialness of a family Christmas Eve, something I had never experienced before. Except, you know, on television.
The next morning, like children, Denny and I woke up early and crept downstairs to see if Santa had come. This was against the rules, the procedure was to go upstairs, have coffee and sweet rolls and wait until Phil, sans wife, came to open stockings. There was a special deliciousness to doing it, for me, because Denny and I were doing it together. Denny and I already had some history of doing forbidden things together so this was, for the first time in days, familiar territory for me.
Denny and I met when we were both in our late twenties. We shared, and still do, a somewhat overdeveloped sense of irony. No one, to my knowledge, has ever accused either of us of being mature beyond our years. We made bad jokes, laughed at bad movies, broke more than a few bad laws on a regular basis and reveled in the harmless, renegade adventures of each other and our friends. We both considered gainful employment, outside the professional theater, to be something of a scam and it took us years to actually rework that concept. I had been an actress in Hollywood for several years by that time and I have to say that I’d seen a few things that, while they didn’t make me cynical, probably made me harder to shock than some of my peers.
But when Denny and I opened the pre-fab door to the finished basement family room that morning, the sight of that tree actually made my jaw drop. It was overwhelming. Nearly the entire floor was covered with presents. All those days we had been out with Wendy, Bill had been in his study wrapping and taping and labeling and ribonning. I couldn’t believe that all these presents were for only six people. It looked like what I imagined a Unicef tree might look like if presents had been collected for, say, the entire population of Uganda.
Wendy must have spent the previous weeks and months shopping every single day for her family. The presents beneath that tree represented not only a substantial financial outlay but also hundreds upon hundreds of hours shopping and choosing and comparing and deciding and schlepping and organizing and storing away. It was, by any standard, a prodigious piece of work.
And here is another way in which television failed me. I had watched hundreds and hundreds of hours of Christmas specials, and seen Little Women more times than I could count. None of that prepared me for the typical Stock Christmas. Santa hadn’t only visited the Stocks, he’d set up a FoxConn installation there. The specials on TV always had families being reunited and poor kids getting that one special little toy that they really, really wanted. I could not imagine anyone wanting the amount of stuff that lay beneath that tree, for any reason. These were middle class people who could easily buy themselves anything they wanted or needed, and they did. What could possibly be in these packages that would warrant not only the expense but the sheer excess?
There are rituals involved in almost all repeated human interactions, but some rituals are more opaque than others. The Christmas rituals I saw on television were very easily discerned. Anyone could have learned them from a few cartoon specials, and everybody did. In America, everyone knows about wassail and caroling and Christmas trees and Santa. They may not know that a Russian Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin (nee Israel Balin) wrote the song “White Christmas” but they know the song, the wistfulness, the movie. We’ve all seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” and many, many others like it. Most of us enjoy getting presents and most families have a certain ritual about how they present them. Still, I was as baffled by that first look at the Stock family Christmas tree as I have ever been.
We silently slipped back upstairs to have coffee and open stockings. Bill and Wendy made stockings for the kids every year, even when they were in their 40s, but they didn’t have stockings themselves. Wendy had been kind enough to include some things for me in Denny’s stocking – girlie things, hair knickknacks, gum, nail polish, a magazine and the boys all quickly tore through their stockings and pronounced themselves ready to go downstairs.
A hush fell over us all as we went into the family room, a collective “aaahhh” of reassured happiness was heard as the family saw what they expected to see. Everyone took their place around the presents: Wendy, Denny, Tim and Brian and on the opposite banquette, Phil. I was given a seat on the distaff side of Phil and that is exactly where I sat, on Christmas morning, for the next 10 years.
The Stock family procedure was for Wendy to indicate to Bill who was to get a present, in rotation, in order to be fair. Bill would find one for that person and we would all watch them open it and react. Later, when there were wives and children, the children might be given a small gift first, but then they had to wait their turn again. The brothers gave each other presents, small ones, and they gifted their parents, but by far the largest group of presents were from Wendy and Bill to their kids. Some of these said “from Mom and Dad” and some of them were from “Santa” although I never figured out what the criteria was there.
Every year Wendy would be concerned that somebody’s present had gotten lost in a cupboard somewhere and that the amount of presents might be uneven and also that Bill might have mislabeled a present. Every year she said in mock sheepishness that she had tried to “be good” about not shopping too much, but that obviously she had failed. Everyone smiled at that. How could there ever be too much?
The Stocks gave each other things they had asked for, but they also got lots of surprises. For example, a person might have asked for ski gloves and they would get ski gloves and also skis, ski pants, ski hats, ski goggles, a book (later a DVD) about skiing, a sweater, another sweater, a pair of pants, two sets of socks, TV trays, a frying pan, scarves, shirts, pajamas, a box of candy and, very often, a joke present like a wooden bass that flapped its tail or a snow scraper fashioned like a Yeti claw, and then we all knew that our household would get one as well. For girls, which at that time was just me, potpourri, pot holders, scented candles, bubble bath and of course a sweater, a cute top, a house robe, slippers, funny socks, another sweater, hand lotion, gloves, a pretty tray, tout quoi! There were a lot of presents. The boys would open each present, nod at it and look up and say “thanks.” Phil was never very happy with whatever his presents were and that always made Wendy rather cross but that, too, was part of the routine. Every year Bill would get Wendy something she had asked for, a toaster oven or a casserole or a throw rug, and whatever it was, it was never exactly what she wanted and every single year Wendy would turn to Denny and say: “You know, I should have asked you to get it,” because apparently while Denny lived at home he always shopped for Wendy’s present from Bill. Later, I would shop for Wendy’s Christmas gifts and also Wendy’s birthday gifts and she would smile her sweetest, warmest smile and tell Denny that he “always knew what to get her.”
That year Denny and his parents gave me several presents: a watch, a chenille bathrobe, lovely hair combs. All I gave them were some things for the house – a hurricane lamp, some fancy jam, the Christmas mugs. I gave Denny a beautifully bound book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and he and Phil joked that he had given me all these nice presents and I had only given him some dumb book. Now, I realize that was a way to make me feel included, and also that sometimes men joke in ways that women don’t, but after that year my husband and I didn’t exchange Christmas gifts again for many years, mostly because we were broke, and that suited me just fine.
We started opening presents at around 9:00 a.m., broke for snacks (and alcohol) at around 11:00, and by 2:00 it was all over but the shouting. It was an exhausting routine and no one looked very happy about it. We had a self-serve sandwich lunch and thanked one another and then everyone went to their rooms to put their things away, or went for a walk, or took a nap.
A warm, empty silence would then flood the house and in the decade or so that I went home with Denny for Christmas this was always one of my favorite moments. The worst, and the best, was now over. Little by little we could all return to ourselves and our ordinary lives and by that time each year my ordinary life looked enticingly seductive. I couldn’t wait to get home.
On the plane ride home Denny and I spoke little. We were tired and hung over and we had both thought horrible things about one another in the space of the eight or so days. At least I had. I was disappointed in myself and in Denny and in our relationship and in Christmas. My parents stopped giving my sister and me gifts for Hannukah by the time we went to college. Instead they cut us a check, which is what we both needed and suddenly, instead of seeming drab and minimalist, this looked like a huge advance in civic culture. My mother’s directness and secularism and my father’s genuine effort to try and live an authentic life now elevated them in my regard onto spiritual heights neither one of them would have appreciated. I wasn’t making comparisons, there were none to be made. My lifelong longing to be someone I was not and to be someplace where I did not belong had finally backfired on me and I had brought it all on myself. It turned out that my father was right, television had rendered me senseless.
However, if television has taught me anything, and it has, that thing is resilience.
My real Christmas miracle was that Denny and I recovered from that Christmas and continued to do so for the next decade until I finally, at the urging of friends, therapists and what little common sense God or DNA gave me, refused to go back East for Christmas. Soon afterwards the other brothers and their wives did the same.
In between, Denny and I grew up and had children and got better jobs and all that stuff. We worked hard to understand and value our differences and when we couldn’t, to accept them. It hasn’t been a television journey.
But every year, we celebrate Hannukah together. We both appreciate the quiet beauty of bright candles on a dark winter night. And, of course, we continue to have Christmas and trim trees and play games and wrap presents and go crazy trying to make everything perfect.
And some years, in the mad afterglow of Christmas day, as our friends and family gather with us around our smaller, gorgeous tree, I tear up a little thinking of all that we have gained and lost over these many years, and I find myself listening for the faint snort of horses and sleigh bells wending their way to us through the warm California snow.
* * *
“Can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”
In the back, where he thinks I can’t see him, the P.E. major in ripped jeans and a t-shirt touting some brand of Tequila texts his girlfriend. The girl to his left checks her iPhone for messages. The kid to her left studies the label on his bottle of Coke Zero.
“OK . . . Can anyone list the types of irony?”
Blank stares. John, the tanned stud-muffin in the third row searches his Facebook page on his laptop. He thinks he’s fooled me into believing he’s taking notes. His buddy rests his head on one arm and doodles in his notebook. The girl behind him sits, cross legged, with arms defiantly across her chest. She glares with a look that says, “Like, I don’t want to be here.”
“Can anyone give me a definition of irony?”
Silence, if you don’t count the sound coming from the mouth of Tattoo-girl—I think her name is Ashleigh—as she chews gum while picking at her LA-style fingernails.
The student-athlete in the third row dozes. Suddenly his head snaps back, his eyes open momentarily, he looks around to see if anyone caught him, then shifts to a more comfortable position and nods off again. Student-athlete, that’s an example of an oxymoron boys and girls. Like jumbo shrimp, congressional ethics, country music, cafeteria food, living wage, and happily married. That last one’s a hoot, ain’t it? But I’d like a definition of irony. Anyone. Anyone at all.
“OK, can anybody give me an example of irony?”
“OK, let me give you a hint. How about . . . at a ceremony celebrating the rehabilitation of seals after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, at an average cost of $80,000 per seal, two seals were released back into the wild only to be eaten within a minute by a killer whale?”
“Ew, that’s sick,” says Tattoo-girl.
Finally a hand goes up. The sophomore psychology major—Joseph is it? Or Jordan? Something with a ‘J’—sitting over by the window:
“Yes,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm in my voice and a glimmer of hope in my heart.
“Like, when a fire station like burns down,” he says, smiling.
Very funny. You better hope your little brother doesn’t play with matches.
“Like, when a cardiologist suffers a heart attack,” says the biology major in the third row.
Like, when you were in the tenth grade and didn’t know the difference between a dangling preposition and a dangling testicle.
“OK. That’s a start. That works. Any other examples of irony?” I ask, hoping to somehow guide the discussion back to Oedipus.
Silence. Blank stares.
Another hand goes up. The business major in the back corner:
“Like, Bill Gates never graduated from college but, like, he’s worth fifty billion dollars.”
“OK. Good.” Bill Gates was born with intelligence, had a keen business sense, taught himself computer programming, and had a work ethic that allowed him to beat out his competitors. He didn’t need a college education. You’ll probably need a college education and a father as rich as Bill Gates to succeed.
“Any other examples of irony?” I ask. Besides the fact that this university accepted most of you.
“Like, when an English professor misspells a word he’s written on the whiteboard,” says the communication major, smiling.
Smirks and smiles from the groundlings. OK, I deserved that. I tried to explain that faux pas away by claiming that I can’t write, lecture and spell ‘accommodation’ all at the same time. Too many ‘C’s and ‘M’s to keep track of this late on a Friday afternoon. Relax. Take a deep breath. Smile. Do the math. This is a sophomore-level English class. Thirty students with one reason for being here. Three credits. Except for the girl in the front row, these are not English majors. It’s late April, Spring is in the air, three weeks left in the semester. They’d rather be somewhere hot and noisy with a cold beer in one hand and a warm body in the other.
“Yes, the height of irony,” I confess. And inexcusable. I smile.
Another hand goes up. The history major over by the door:
“Sorry. Yes, James.”
“Like, when John Hinckley shoots at Ronald Regan, misses and hits the bullet-proof window of his limo. The bullet ricochets and hits the president in the chest.”
“That’s an example of poetic justice,” says the other history major in the class. Slight titters, then a slow slide back into their individual academic comas. Several blank faces suggest that they don’t know who Ronald Regan was.
“Any other examples of irony,”
I give up.
“OK. Let me list a few types of irony on the board,” and hope I don’t misspell any words. I turn and write:
Verbal irony – a gap between what is stated and what is really meant, which often has the opposite meaning. For example using “his humble abode” to describe a millionaire’s mansion. Also called sarcasm.
Dramatic irony – when the audience is aware of facts that the characters are not. When the reader understands more about what is happening in a story than the character who is telling the story does. For example, Shakespeare’s Othello trusts Iago, but the audience knows better.
Situational irony – a discrepancy between what actually happens and what readers expect will happen.
For example, like the discrepancy between the grade you actually receive in this class and the grade you expect to get.
“Now, can anyone give an example of dramatic or situational irony in Oedipus?”
The elementary education majors in the front row all dutifully take notes but say nothing.
“There are other types of irony, for example, historical irony. What we now refer to as ‘World War I’ was originally called ‘The War to End All Wars,’ or ‘The Great War’.”
“And then there are ironic similes.”
“Clear as mud,” I say as half a dozen stare out into the spring afternoon. The elementary ed major by the window smiles and waves to the squirrel sitting on a branch outside the window.
Clear as mud, like this lecture.
I look out the window and see students tossing a football around the quad. Laughter and hoots waft in. Music blares from car radios in the student parking lot across the street.
Silence. I sigh. Once more …
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
“When Oedipus was first performed circa 428 B.C.E., Greek audiences knew the myth of Oedipus, the myth upon which the play is based. The audience knew what Oedipus didn’t, that he had killed his father and married his mother. Based on the definitions I’ve written on the board, can anyone tell me what type of irony this is, that is, the audience knows but Oedipus doesn’t?”
I glance at the clock. Twenty minutes left.
One more try.
“How about another example. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when King Duncan sees Inverness, the home and castle belonging to Macbeth, he says, ‘This castle has a pleasant seat’— meaning site. Banquo adds, ‘The air is delicate.’ Knowing what happens later that night, what type of irony would you say these remarks are examples of?”
“The irony here is that Duncan is unwittingly entering his death chamber.”
“What kind of irony is this? Anyone? Anyone at all.”
I sigh, take off my glasses, plant my skinny old ass on the desk, glance out the window then turn back to the class. “OK, let’s try again. Another definition of irony is the discrepancy between appearance and reality.” Like, this appears to be a college class but in reality . . . “The discrepancy between ignorance and knowledge,” I add.
I continue: “The incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” I expected a class of students eager to learn. Silly me. How long have I been at this? How many decades? Maybe it’s time to retire. Maybe it’s me. “I’d write that on the board but I don’t know how to spell ‘incongruity.’” Smiles. Even the texting P.E. major looks up and smirks.
I sigh, look down at the floor, run my fingers through my gray hair, look out the window at the squirrel sitting on the tree branch looking in; What do you think, my furry-assed little friend? I find it ironic that you seemed more interested in this discussion than my students. What do you say we call it a day and retire to my favorite watering hole next town over? I’m buying. What’ll you have? A Pink Squirrel? Ha, ha ha! But I digress.
“OK, let me give you another example of irony, the difference between what might be expected and what actually happens.”
Stud-muffin chuckles softly at something in Facebook.
“When young men go off to war, what is one expectation?” I ask.
“Like, someone might get killed or messed up,” says the math major by the window.
“Yes,” I reply, “That would be a reasonable expectation based on history. In war people die.”
I’ve got stud-muffin’s attention. Tattoo-girl wonders, What’s this have to do with Oedipus?
“What if I told you I once advised a good friend to go off to war in order to save his life? Would that be an example of irony? Going off to war to save your life?”
“Like, that would be fucked up,” says stud-muffin, frowning.
“Why would you, like, do that?” asks the history major.
I smile. Now I have their attention, or at least most of them. The student-athlete continues to nap and nod. This may not have a lot to do with Oedipus, but maybe I can bridge that gap between ignorance and knowledge. Maybe not.
“I have a good friend who’s in the Army Reserve. We were in the Regular Army once, stationed together in some shithole Army base down south. He was a platoon leader in my company. We’ve known each other for over twenty years now and have followed each other’s lives for all that time. He lives in another state so we only get together every other year or so, but we keep in touch. We both have wives and families and jobs. We’re both in education. He’s a school administrator and I’m . . . here.” I smile.
“To put it simply, I married well, he didn’t. After fifteen years of marriage he discovered his wife was having an affair with her boss. Had been for some time. He was devastated. Unlike some people, he believed that marriage was for life and he trusted his wife to keep her marriage vows. In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful but Othello thinks she’s strayed. That’s an example of what kind of irony?”
“Like I said, when he found out, he was devastated to the point that one night he drank a quart of Scotch and downed a bottle of pills. He recovered physically but not emotionally.”
Stud-muffin closes his laptop.
“His wife threw him out of their house, the home they’d lived in for almost fifteen years and raised three children. He began to drink heavily and it affected his work. His boss took him aside and said he understood what he’d been going through but that he had to pull himself together. My friend began to see a change in his three children. They were angry and began to ask questions. They told him they thought this breakup was his fault. He despaired, drank even more, missed work, contemplated suicide again. I know all this because we talked and emailed each other back and forth.”
The P.E. major stops texting.
“One day he emails me that he’s thinking of volunteering for duty in Iraq. He asks me if he should go. I ask myself, does he want to commit suicide by war? What should I tell this friend of mine? ‘No, stay home? You have children to think of. Stay home, you’re not in your right head now?’ I wanted to ask him, ‘How will you function in the state you’re in? Will you cause the deaths of fellow soldiers because your head’s not in the game?’”
The student athlete wakes up.
“He’s a Lieutenant Colonel in military intelligence—an oxymoron if there ever was one—so he wouldn’t be kicking in any doors. He wouldn’t be driving a Hummer down the Baghdad to Basra highway hunting for IEDs. He told me the position would be with an MI unit that collects, collates, and interprets intelligence and then briefs units that move around the countryside searching for insurgents or guarding convoys. Still . . .”
The math major shifts in his chair.
“He told me the unit would be stationed at Balad, a former Iraqi Air Force base now used as a headquarters for coalition forces. I thought about it for awhile and wondered what to say to this friend of mine, a junior officer who once served under me and who occasionally still looked to me for guidance. I thought back to my tour in a war zone in a previous century, in another part of the world. I was only nineteen at the time, no wife or children, thought it was all a game, this war, a big adventure, at least until the green tracers started cracking over my head, my vehicle hit a mine, my friends started dying. There were others, many others, who sat fat and happy—safe, they thought—behind the wire in basecamp, who died during mortar and rocket attacks. Others died in accidents. What do I say to him, I asked myself? Young men die in war. Some suffer horrible wounds. Some suffer life-long damage that can’t be readily seen but comes back to haunt these young men years afterward. What do I tell my friend?”
The student with the bottle of Coke Zero, no longer staring at the label, shifts in his chair.
“Well, and this is where the irony comes in, I told my friend he should volunteer for the tour of duty in Iraq. You may be wondering how I, someone who has seen war first hand, could advise my friend to go off to war? A moral dilemma some might call it. And ironic.”
I shift position on the desk.
“It’s true, men die in war. Or at least there’s a chance of dying. But I was sure that if my friend didn’t go to Iraq he would die here, at home. He would die of grief at not being with his three children. He would die in an automobile crash after a night of drinking, or suffer irreparable damage to his internal organs from long-term alcohol abuse. Or he would get a DUI and be fired from his job. Or he would try to do himself in again. He was inconsolable. I knew it was only a matter of time. He was a weightlifter, a former football player, and in many ways, a strong man, but he was unable to deal with this breakup of his marriage and the possible estrangement from his children. He cried when he told me how much he missed seeing them off to bed at night and off to school in the morning. I was sure he would die one way or another if he stayed home, so I told him he should go to Iraq. I did the math and came to the conclusion that his odds at surviving were better in a war zone.”
Questioning looks from some. A shifting in chairs. Nobody’s staring out the window now. Nobody’s checking emails or texting.
“Can you see the irony in advising someone, a friend, to go off to war in order to save his life?”
“What if he dies?” asks the girl with the iPhone.
“Well, nobody wants to die, but we’re all going to die someday. If given a choice—and this question went through my mind at the time—how would I want to die? By my own hand? In a car crash? A drunk, unemployed, hated by my children, alone? Or in uniform, given a hero’s welcome back home, mourned by all, remembered by co-workers, maybe even a building or road named after me.”
“What difference does that make? Dead is dead,” says psych major.
“You’re right, but I advised my friend to go off to war because I thought he had a better chance of surviving in a war zone. Can you understand my choice, but more importantly—and this is the point to the story—can you appreciate the irony?”
Silence. A shifting in seats.
“Did you see The Hurt Locker?” asks one of the history majors.
“Yes, but my friend isn’t in EOD, he’s in MI and would be working in a fortified bunker,” I replied.
“Running away from your problems to solve them. That’s counter-intuitive,” says one of the education majors in the front row.
“And ironic,” I say, trying to work the discussion back to Oedipus.
“What happened to him?” asks the girl who had been glaring at me in defiance.
I smile. “He survived.”
Smiles from several others.
“He survived and after twelve months in Iraq came home healthy, sober, clear-headed, and with a medal for a job well done. While he was there he worked twelve-hour days, lifted weights, and dried out. More importantly, he got away from his wife. He kept in touch with his children via cell phone, letters, and two R&R trips back home. He and his kids—with the help of counseling—came to an understanding. He stopped feeling sorry for himself and got his life together.”
“And his ex-wife was dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job,” I add.
“That’s called irony,” says stud-muffin.
“No that’s called payback. That bitch got what she deserved,” says Tattoo-girl.
“In short, the war saved his life. That ladies and gents, is irony,” I say. “Now, can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”
It’s mid-October and I’m bundled up, wearing long sleeves that cap the tops of my hands, a normal thing for me. Ever since I started doing outreach with teens, I’ve become even more self-conscious about the scars that run down my wrists from cutting, and the tattoos that remind me about the journey I’ve made. I still feel edgy when they notice them, when they ask questions, so I hide them.
I’ve got a notebook with a list of things I want to make sure I say, and a note that says: “Smile!” It’s my first day as the lead writing instructor with a new outreach group: Teens Together. They are the only non-incarcerated writing group of teens who work with Storycatchers Theatre, a not for profit organization whose mission statement is to prepare young people to make thoughtful life choices through writing, producing, and performing original musical theatre inspired by personal stories. I remember how inspired I was after I first started telling stories from my life creatively, how inspired I felt about living, and how I felt like I had accomplished something. I take a deep breath, hoping I’ll be able to make it through the day.
I study the room, reminding myself that I am in a place that I call home. I remind myself that I learned how to teach a class of students in this very room. “I know how to teach,” I tell myself. But it doesn’t matter that I’m in the same room I have several classes in on the 12th floor of Columbia College Chicago: a chalk board lining one wall, windows on another; deskless chairs scattered around the room now arranged into a semi-circle; coat hooks that I’ve only seen used once or twice. These common things are only so much comfort, and I feel my first finger start to rub the skin around my thumb nail, wanting to peel the skin that sits around it, something I can’t help but do when I get agitated or nervous.
Within minutes of my arrival, my program manager Hillary arrives. She wears calmness; she comes in smiling, her strawberry hair tucked behind her ears, eyebrows raised, “Ready?” she asks. I nod, even though I’m not.
And soon, kids start filtering in. A tall black boy with a bald head who’s wearing dark jeans and a worn sweater bolts to Hillary and gives her a hug. His voice is full and warm, deep.
A shorter black boy with a mohawk comes in. He runs straight to Michael and speaks in a tongue I don’t quite understand. I later learn that it’s a language they’d made up the previous summer. Michael’s already, apparently, grabbed a contract for this boy, and Hillary explains that this is Jermaine, a boy who isn’t in high school just yet, which is not something that Storycatchers does very often–all the participants in Teens Together are usually in grades 9 through 12. Her extensive knowledge of these teens makes me nervous that I will mix them up or not win them over in the same ways. She manages to hold it together so well, and that’s something I only wish I knew how to do.
Soon, a calmness creeps over me when two kids that I’d taught in another teen outreach program–After School Matters, or ASM for short–arrive, Christian and Alex. They are both chubby and latino, but from different families. Alex is a senior in high school, but being very short, she tends to hang out with the younger crowd. A prime example of this would be later in the year when Alex invites Christian, a sophomore, to her senior prom as her date.
Behind them are some other kids I don’t know, who Hillary identifies as Michael’s girlfriend Myia and a new girl who Hillary had already met, Tazhaniq. Myia is tiny and dark skinned, with sleek black hair and a thin, muscular, dancer’s body. Tazhaniq is a full-figured girl, with braids, and baggie clothes.
We have only one white student. He stares at his hands, fingers interlocked in his lap.
“And this is Danny,” Hillary tells me. “We’re so happy to have him back. This is his second year in the writing program with us, and when the play is done, I’m sure this will be his third time in Summer Theatre Ensemble. He’s grown to be quite the actor.” She nudges me in the arm, smiling.
All I see is a tuft of light brown hair.
“Hi, Danny. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Miss Aimee.” I reach my hand out toward him, but he’s so folded into himself, I feel I need to pull my hand back. It’s hard to offer any of myself. It’s even worse because I know Hillary will let me know anything I’ve done wrong or right at the end of the day. That’s her job as program manager. I’m trying so hard not to have a list of wrong.
He doesn’t look up.
Hillary says, “Think Clint Eastwood, Danny, and introduce yourself to Miss Aimee.” I don’t know what this means, or why she would suggest Clint Eastwood, but I think I see the rims of his glasses creeping up for a moment. I’m wrong. It is still only the top of his head, that mound of light brown hair.
Before Teens Together had started, Hillary told me that there were several teens who would be returning from the summer program. She warned me, “Some of them are extremely outspoken, loud, and wild. They’ll say things that will surprise you. But all of them are amazingly gifted, talented young people.” There were no words within that warning about anyone paralyzed with shyness. There were no words about a teen who would appear as though he would rather die than look an adult in the eyes. And on my first day, this is what I came face to face with.
Once all of the teens arrive, we have them go around the circle, say their names, ages, and what school they attend. We also want them to discuss how they heard about the program and why they joined or what they hoped to get out of it.
“I’m Tazhaniq and I’m a Junior at Fenger. I heard about this program when Miss Hillary visited my school. It sounded cool that we’d be doing acting and writing. I really like both, and think I have talent in both, but I’d like to see my talent blossom.”
We fly around the circle until we land on Danny.
“Danny, who are you? Tell us about yourself,” I ask.
He glances over the tops of his glasses at me, blue eyes big and frightened.
His mouth opens and he drops his hands to the sides of his legs in the chair. They are balled into fists and he fingers the nails on his thumbs.
A breath comes out of his mouth.
“Danny.” His voice is so quiet that it is difficult to tell whether I actually hear him speak or wish I hear it.
He hears Hillary’s voice and his head tilts up. He faces her, looks her in the eyes. “Tell everyone your name so they can hear you.” I want to learn to master the magic she has with this boy.
He clears his throat, but still barely loud enough to hear, he says, “My name is Danny and I go to Lincoln Park High School. I am sixteen. I like the way this program helps you make friends and helps you build confidence?” His tenor, and what could be full voice, curves up at the end of the sentence.
I feel my lips curl into a smile.
Danny isn’t just one of those kids who is shy the first day. He is a kid that every time you have a first day with him, it’s like the first time you meet him all over again. The shyness comes back. Heck, Danny is the kind of kid that day four you need to remind him that he knows you; he can joke around with you; he can be loud! He isn’t one of those kids that will just open up after his parents leave the room. This is a kid who is terrified of everyone. He is terrified to speak in public. He is terrified of what people think. He is terrified to share his voice.
I don’t smile because I am happy that he’s paralyzed with shyness. I smile because in a lot of ways Danny reminds me of me. My first days at Columbia were after a major bout of depression and I became tremendously introverted. (And no, this is not me diagnosing Danny with depression. I don’t know enough about him in the moment to do that, and what I’ll learn over the course of these next couple of years working with him will show me that he is an extraordinarily happy kid.) I couldn’t look people in the eyes. I couldn’t speak without shaking. And I hated the sound of my own voice. I was terrified of people and their reactions to me. I was terrified of what people would think when I spoke. I was terrified of people hearing my story. I was terrified of hearing my own story. But, I learned how to use that nervous energy as excitement. And I want Danny to be as excited to come to program as I would be every Saturday. And even though this first day, I’m nervous too, his shyness makes me commit to a goal, and it makes me less afraid that I’m going to mess up, or worse break a kid.
We read aloud in session every week, and I’d been told that over the summer, Danny was given a soliloquy to perform. They had him research Clint Eastwood–which I began to assume was a choice made because of his love for TV and watching it with his entire family, including his parents–in order to figure out different ways of delivering the lines. Anytime Hillary coached him to “Think Clint Eastwood!” his face would change, eyes would glaze over, and he would become enveloped in some kind of act.
As a writing teacher, however, I wasn’t trying to find an actor. I was trying to find the writer. And as someone who this kid might someday see as a mentor, I wanted to find Danny!
I’d manipulate coachings while having him read, trying to play with the information I had about him in order to get him to have more fun, open up. I felt I owed it to him to help break him out of his shell, to let him find a comfortable space within the group to build his voice. I owed it to the teachers who had helped do that for me. I needed to knock away my nervousness and listen to all of my mentors’ advice. “What does he need right now? Say those words to him.”
“You’re an actor, right Danny?” I said when it was his turn to read, and posed my hand in front of me, like any and every Shakespearean actor I had ever seen. He nodded at me. “Okay great! So, go ahead and address it as a letter across the semi-circle. And when you do that, exaggerate your voice. Allow it to carry to the very back of the theatre in your mind. Think about the way you deliver lines on stage, your favorite character you’ve played. Give that much energy to the reading.” All the while, I moved my hand in a big circle, emphasizing just how much space I hoped he’d fill. My arcs grew wider and wider, and my focus stopped being on whether or not my sleeve would slide up my arm and the teens would see my tattoos and my scars, but instead on the theatre I was trying to create in Danny’s mind.
He bit his bottom lip, and then nodded again.
“Dear Myia,” he was still whispering. He’d chosen a girl, which was out of his comfort zone, but Myia was someone he was already close with from having participated in Summer Theatre Ensemble the last year.
“Let’s see that actor come out! Get that volume way up!” My voice was so loud I wanted to plug my ears. My hand was out in front of my body, twisting radio knobs I was imagining on him.
The kids stared at me.
“What are you doing?” one of them asked. Christian remembered my coachings from ASM, and he chuckled, removing his football-player hands from the pockets on his sweatshirt and putting them over his mouth. Those few months without the coachings seemed like a long void, and brought the amusing quality back for him.
“She’s turning up his volume.”
The rest of the kids wrinkled their foreheads.
“She told him to get his volume up and she started turning a knob. See it.” As a returning student, he’d picked up on my lingo, that writing teacher language I’d used with him all summer.
Danny’s breathy, gasping laugh erupted. He pulled the book up in front of his face, lifted his feet off the ground, knees high in the air, and then slammed them down as he reset the book in his lap. “You’re turning my volume button!?” It was the first time I really heard his voice, deep and full, much too big for that lanky kid’s body, I thought. I laughed along with them, realizing that for the first time I was smiling without really thinking about it.
“Listen to your voice. Now keep that volume way up. Read that story, and listen to your voice as you tell it to all of us.”
By the time all of the teens were turning in their final drafts of their stories for the anthology in the middle of the year, Danny had started exploring some personal material–a relationship with a girl where there may, or may not, have been an attraction. He wrote about the way the weather seemed to change whenever they were together.
“How do you see her, Danny? How does she make this boy feel? How does her being there change things?” I would sit in front of him, watching the way his face would illuminate when he would start to write. Sometimes, I would even sit next to him when we had the privilege of getting time in the computer lab, and have him tell me everything he saw in his head when he thought about her.
He wrote about how he couldn’t even feel the coldness or the snow. He wrote about how they would spend every moment at school together. He also wrote about how he started to watch new TV shows, ones he wasn’t really interested in so that they would have even more to talk about. Soon, a new side of Danny was being explored. This was a relationship he had developed in the Drama Department at Lincoln Park High School, and we started to see the humor he had hidden inside.
I forgot about myself. I only cared about the things that this ensemble of teens had to say. And soon, he started telling me without me having to ask.
I am asked to take a role as an instructor with the Summer Theatre Ensemble, even though I don’t know much about theatre, and I’ve never been a part of this program before, but I accept the opportunity. In fact, I’m excited about it. We encourage the kids to take the project from beginning to end, to see the arc of their project.
- Write Creative Non-Fiction stories.
- Rewrite them until they are of publishable quality.
- Find the common themes and perform them as a staged reading.
- Understand the growth of the staged reading and develop it into a musical.
- Perform the musical.
As a first time staff member, I am learning this process with the kids. And as a staff member who facilitated writing the musical and their “writing guide” I have no choice but to be excited to have a role in the summer. I want to see how the kids react to seeing it come full circle.
Danny applies for his third summer with Summer Theatre Ensemble, and he is accepted. He is one of four writers to take things all of the way to the end.
I’m more confident in giving jobs to the teens and figuring out what a day is supposed to look like. I am more confident in running a bigger group, and believing that everyone will get home safely and happily. And the more confident I become in myself, the more I realize that a lot of teaching can be hands off, that some of the kids grow on their own if they have the right nurturing.
I play a role in helping decide how the teens audition and who is cast for what. The girls are competitive in what they audition for. Every girl wants to be one of the main female characters. The boys, on the other hand, are more self-deprecating and place themselves in smaller roles for the audition.
The Artistic Director and I both see tremendous growth in Danny. “Let’s see him in the role of Carlos,” she says. Carlos is one of the biggest roles. He is the character that changes the most. He has a ton of lines, a solo, and a rap.
Danny stands on a box during the audition and loudly delivers lines. His body seems to have filled out in the four short weeks between Teens Together ending and Summer Theatre Ensemble’s start. He holds his shoulders back while he delivers lines, and his tenor voice now seems appropriately full for his body. It isn’t long before he’s in front of audiences of at least 70, singing, challenging himself to be loud, and rapping over the music. Danny makes eye contact with every person in the audience. On the last day, he tells me, “I think I found my volume knob. It’s up now.”
Blame it on four-dollar cupcakes. And capitalists and philistines. Because of them, the bookman has been forced out of his spot on Columbus Avenue just outside 67 Wine at 68th Street. At least, that’s what the angry words scrawled in black magic marker on a piece of salvaged wood propped up against a parking meter would lead one to believe. He had been a fixture there for at least twenty years. Not permanent, it seemed.
From 1982 until 2002 I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on West 70th Street. During that time the bookman was part of my life, the way other dog owners in Central Park and the pharmacy and drycleaner staff were. I used to walk by his piles of books every day and always stopped to see what had been added. After a decade in exile in Weston, Connecticut, I returned to my old neighborhood in early 2012, purchasing a small apartment on West 67th Street. Much had changed, but the dry cleaners with the outdated signage depicting, for some reason, the Eiffel Tower, remained, as did the pharmacy with the ancient and slightly bizarre window displays. Rigoletto Pizza was still there, with a facelift. Continue reading
The manuscripts had collected in my bottom drawer. This verbal clutter consisted of poems, stories and film scripts, all fused into the genre of unwanted black ink on white paper; in short, words rejected by the eyes of editors.
And then in early December 2009, an idea struck me. I decided to try to create a work of art in another form, gluing the scraps of paper to a foam board to make a collage composed of cut-up manuscripts. I even had a title for the piece: “Unpublished Manuscripts.”
As a recreational artist I have taken photographs over the years with my Pentax K1000 camera. Some of the images have been exhibited in small galleries in centralNew Yorkand also published in literary magazines. Continue reading
I. May 30th, 2010. Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In which I insist upon the veracity of the enclosed.
The characters in the following narrative were once really alive, even the kangaroo.
What is your name?
How old are you?
Do you have any relatives?
Are you married?
Where do you live?
Where do you work? Continue reading
Dear Mr. Castro,
I know you have little tolerance for the big bad neighbor to the north that has for years antagonized your slender island jewel. So let me admit right up front that I am indeed one of those Americans who lolls around in the mud of our freedom—I surf the Internet; I criticize my president; I even buy socks and shampoo at Target now and again. But before you roll this letter up and cigar-spark it into oblivion, please, allow me to elaborate.
I may live in the land of the infernal imperial idiots, but one quarter of my blood is Cuban, thanks to my grandmother, Elena Maria Delgado, may she rest in peace. She lived nineteen years in Camaguey before her father sent her to New York to find a husband. Mi abuela started fires with her tongue, she lived for food and family, and she never passed up an opportunity to sing or offer advice. A Spanish-loyal Cuban, admittedly, but a Cuban no less. I know this fact alone is insufficient to incur your interest—after all, millions of Fidel-hating American hearts pump hot Cuban blood. Continue reading
In the pantheon of the Classic American Novel, An American Tragedy and U.S.A. had been novels about the essential division of America between those who have and those who have not. Dos Passos produced an energetic narrative that raced along without lingering to give its characters a human face while Dreiser dissected his protaganist’s inner world so clinically that it is impossible to see him as a living, breathing individual. Not so James T. Farrell. His alone of the three great social novels of the era brings to life a full-blooded human being capable of moving us.
Like U.S.A., Studs Lonigan is a trilogy whose individual volumes were first published separately: Young Lonigan in 1932, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan in 1934, and Judgment Day in 1935, and then the trilogy in one volume over 75 years ago in 1936. Continue reading
Otavalo, Ecuador: Camera stolen in the early morning haze of travel, either on the bus or in the bus terminal, literally snatched from a bag I was carrying, that I never even set down beside me or had away from my view. Do I remember when it happened? No. Perhaps the girl behind me leaving the bus? Nothing out of the ordinary, not even a hint of being pressed against too closely. I had no idea it was gone until hours later, when I searched my bag frantically, and even then I held the unreal hope I had left my camera behind in the hotel.
And now gone are all the snapshots of rustic campesino life. The farewell shots with my host family and me, proud, work-weary, wholesome farmers and an itinerant gringa. Gone these images of dedicated mountainside farmers, the close-knit family and their American visitor. Gone these images of farmland and cows interspersed with Andean cloud forest, gone the picture with the cow who wandered right in the middle of the lush cloud forest. The waterfall, the luscious over-sized leaves, the overlapping shades of green, the idyllic, natural, dense beauty of this scene. The view of the village of Cuellaje taken from the mountainside, various shots of me on these mountain trails, with the splendor of the Andean background.
Gone are all the pictures of the goods the family had reaped: tomates del arbol, coffee beans, bushels of plant fiber, hanging banana branches, plantains, seeds left to dry out for planting, seedlings prepped for planting on their farm.
So last Thursday I went, by myself, to the post office to buy some stamps. It’s early summer here in New York City. Which means our city weather is in a schizophrenic state, not knowing whether to refresh us with spring breeze or scald us with relentless sweat-stewed heat. On this special day it was the latter. This afternoon, it was as if a citywide furnace had farted unseen fire into faux imported Manhattan air. As always, I was in my standard June uniform: a white tee and khakis, accented with two-dollar flip-flops. Looking just like your average Indian American boy walking in the Big Apple. During the summer. Which as anyone of Indian descent might know, often feels like August in Calcutta.
Three blocks away from my destination, I saw two older, balding Black gentlemen strolling down the sidewalk.. Nothing special. They were both conventionally dressed, in polos and shorts. Walking past them, I now saw a group of white men and women, maybe four in total. Oh. Damn it all to hell in a hand basket. Wouldn’t you know, these folks looked like they just left the set of Friends. The same show that gloriously depicted an all-white, melanin-free New York City. Twenty-something, upper-middle-class privileged nightmares who probably just graduated from Boston University and were now living it up in the big city. With their yuppie crapola, and with their wannabe-hip hairstyles and with their irritating young-professional attire and with their John Mayer music in their ipod’s. I didn’t understand why they weren’t at their 9-5 jobs. Lunch breaks, I guessed. Continue reading