The Island

I was raised on an island.  The river split the north siders from the south siders.  Two downtowns.  Each side with its churches and movie theaters and dime stores and drug stores and banks and schools and envies and rivalries.  The Island, neutral territory, right in the middle, squeezed long west to east.  Island Street split it crosswise, bridges at either end.  To the west side, across the Field, the massive dark brick and gothic arched doorways of the High School (where Dreamworld still sometimes takes me, footsteps too loud on marbled halls, looking for the right classroom).  Then, across Main Avenue (with two more bridges) the Municipal Building, with the city offices, police department and fire trucks all tucked together.  The city garage, with the street sweepers and the snow plows nestled under the foot of the north side bridge.  The public library and the post office facing each other across Main, further towards the south.  East of Island Street, two city blocks for the residents.  The corner bar where my mom met my dad when she was seventeen and he was just back from the Navy.  Goldin’s junk yard, where we were forbidden to go.  A lumber yard, torn down before I hit my teens, bordered by a tall thick hedge of lilacs.  Fewer than twenty houses.  Elm Street, my street, ran between the two blocks, the big trucks rumbling back and forth between the paper mill and the world.  Three or four boys close enough in age to Dan and me to be our friends. 

The Island tapered to a point at its western end.  Bounding us to the north, the Fox ran wild through its main channel.  It roared over the rapids every spring, but by late fall was so diminished by the government dam you could walk far into the riverbed if you didn’t slip on the stinking, weedy moss that draped the rocks.  We called it seaweed, dark green, slimy, and smelling of rot.  The river was scary and comforting.  We were embraced and encircled and bounded by it, and that made us feel safe.  But the adults warned it could kill us if we weren’t careful, if we ventured too far into the rapids, if we lost our footing.  At times I felt that I was an alien, living on the Island only by some sufferance of wild nature.  Tripping on acid one night in my teens, I sat on the bank, the Shamrock Bar noisy behind me, the bridge rising to my left, and it looked like there were thousands of little Sinclair brontosauruses running down the channel.  It was obvious to me then that the river always ran like that; the drug was letting me see it unshrouded.

The river’d been tamed by a series of Locks and Dams, carved and stacked in the 1850s by the mysterious Corps of Engineers to take boats step by step from Lake Winnebago down to Green Bay and out to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Seventeen locks all told, with five snugged through town just north of the main channel.   Between the locks and the river rose the gray brown blocks, the girders and sulfurous smokestacks of Thilmany Mill, the beast pumping the town’s financial heart, its energy drawn from the river.  Along the Island’s southern edge, sedate and uninteresting, the river’d been canaled more than half a century before and flowed through the electric plant, powering the rest of the town.  We were the Electric City.  One of the very first.  

For my first five years, I ran free on the Island.  I’d’ve been happy to spend all of my life there.  I never longed to visit faraway and exotic places.  Look how it turned out.  A lifetime of travel.  “Ran free,” he says.  The story I’ve heard is that Dad put up a low white picket fence in the back yard where I could play.  It was hot in the summer and at four years old I’d take off my clothes and unlatch the gate and go running.  Mom would get a phone call.  “Your Scotty’s loose.”  They tied a rope around the latch.  I took off my clothes, untied the rope, unlatched the latch, but then re-tied it before I ran off.  I don’t know how many times that happened.  I’ve always been rather proud of it.  I’ve a memory picture of myself undoing the rope, but I’m pretty sure it’s constructed from the stories.  It’s not a true memory, not anything direct.  This doesn’t mean it’s not real.

I’m trying to figure out what formed me.  What I have to work with are memories, those funny, fragile things.  Some of my memories are accurate reflections of events that happened.  Some of them started with a real event, but have been altered as they bump up against other events, against my willingness to remember certain things (or not), or they’ve been shaved and shaded and reshaped by subsequent events and things I’ve been told.  Some of them are completely false, entirely fabricated.  They all feel exactly the same.  They all feel true.  They all are true.  They just don’t all map to an actual out in the world historical set of facts.  But I’m less interested (less, not un- ) in what actually happened than in what (or how) I remember.

My first ever memory finds me on the floor of the living room, looking at the bright reds and yellows of the Sunday comics, spread out on the floor.  It’s the day my grandmother walked into the river and drowned.  The day she didn’t take me with her.  My parents took Beth and Linda to church.  They’d only be gone for an hour.  I can see sturdy shoes and legs up to the knee.  Hear voices without understanding what’s said.  See the front door open and close.  It doesn’t concern me.  I’m aware of it, but nothing is as fascinating as the colors and the figures on the crinkly paper I’m crawling on.  The colors so bright, bounded by the heavy black lines.

*

The house we were raised in is gone.  I haven’t been by, but Google maps shows the empty lot, the gravel driveway going back to nothing.  The sidewalk that went up to the front steps is gone.  The walk that Dad had poured that ran along the side of the house to the back door is gone.  There’s a fence separating the back of our lot from the one behind it, but the maple tree that rose there, that I climbed, that I sat in reading for hours looking out over the Island is gone.  The above ground pool that we spent one long summer putting in when I was fifteen is long gone.  One of two elm trees that stood on the grassy strip between the front sidewalk and the street is still there.  Everything else is gone.  The garage that was at the back of the lot, basketball hoop over the door, Dan’s pigeon coop in the back corner gone.  The footprint of the house is dirt.  Whoever demolished the house filled in the basement but didn’t bother to put in sod.  The rectangle of dirt seems much too small.  Ravaged, condemned, abandoned.  Without my dad’s hands there was no reason for it to keep existing.  I look at the image on the screen with wonder and relief.  The loss would hurt so much more if that broken building still stood there.

My older sisters are traumatized by this.  I don’t know what Dan and Carrie think.  I think it’s strange, but I’m relieved.  No one else should be living there.  With his youngest married and his Parkinson’s advancing, Dad sold the house and he and Mom moved to Sullivan Street on the far south side.  For thirty years he’d tended to that house and every alteration, every shelf, tile, screen, cabinet, bench, plumbed pipe made it better.  And then we saw, over the next few years, how neglect and bad choices made it worse and worse.  The new owners were oblivious.  They hacked away.  Why move the front door to the side of the porch, destroying its warm welcoming symmetry?  Why the boxy additions at the back?  They made it ugly.  I’m glad I never saw what they did inside.  Some nights Dreamworld takes me in and I stumble my way through half built rooms and dead-ended hallways, arguing with the strangers who are moving the walls.  I wake up angry.

Linda spent her first few months in the house across Elm street, on the corner, before Dad bought this one for the family he and Mom intended to have.  Does Linda have memories of her first house?  For the rest of us, this was the only house.

When I was very small, the house was heated with coal, the monstrous octopus laboring in the basement.  There was a small room next to the furnace room for the coal.  The coal truck would come by, back up across the side yard.  The chute extended into the coal room window and the chunks tumbled down.  Coal dust billowing.  The loud sound of the clattering against metal.

Winter mornings Dad would be first up, down to the basement to put shovels full into the furnace.  We kids would come downstairs and take turns sitting on our heels against the grate in the living room, warming up as the heat rose.  Sometimes I’d sit on one of the basement steps where I could watch him, his shirt off, his face grim.  Not his favorite chore, but I was envious and imagined when I’d be big enough to help.

But he replaced the coal furnace with gas before I got the chance.  Over the years he added a sidewalk from the front walk to the back door, retiled the kitchen (I did help with that), added an upstairs bathroom, built desks and bookshelves for his kids, screens for the big front porch.  He got a small inheritance one year from Aunt Ann and used that to put an above ground pool in the backyard.  We spent weeks that summer digging.  He put a fence around the backyard to keep neighbor kids from sneaking in and drowning.

He tried to get one side of the house painted each summer.  By my mid-teens he was trying to devolve that chore to me, with mixed success.  The summer I was eighteen I spent lots of nights cruising the Valley doing cocaine runs with Paulie.  Things were loose in those days.  We’d go from bar to bar, he’d put a few sampler lines out and sell a few bags.  All out in the open.  He brought me along to have somebody to talk to in between stops.  So dawn might find me up on the ladder, painting the edges off my high.  Dad would see me there when he went off to work, shaking his head.  Those were the years of our estrangement.  We were each convinced (wrongly, as it turned out) that the other didn’t like them very much.  So we avoided talking.  Eventually Mom took us in hand, tired of the resistances.  We repaired the breach by going to a Gordon Lightfoot concert.  It worked.

*

“When I was your age I walked a mile in the snow through the forest to go to school,” says the curmudgeonly grandfather to the slacker kids, who roll their eyes impatiently.  Weirdly, in my case it turns out to be true.  Nicolet, where I went for kindergarten, and St. Mary’s, a block from there, where I did second through seventh, were exactly a mile from my house.  And the best walking route was the path that went through the woods from the intersection by the municipal pool up to the dead-end of East 7th.  And in those pre-climate change days, we were covered in snow for most of the school year.

The clean smell of the snow.  The crisp taste of it.  To be bundled up and walking in a blizzard.  Glorious.  You wear the right layers, move quickly when you first get outside and your body heat kicks in in just a few minutes.  You can be comfortable for hours.  Southerners don’t understand it.  You can be skating and sledding and building snow forts and having snowball fights without any discomfort.  The wool scarf is damp across your mouth as you breathe through it.  It tastes of ice.  Shoveling the walk, sweating under the layers, shoveling the path from the back door to the garage, snow as high as my chest.

Spring.  Mom planted flowers along the side of the house.  Snapdragons.  I’d put my finger in the little mouth imagining it might bite.  Even though it never had before didn’t mean it might not this time.  The drowsiness of the early summer sun and then the heat of late August where there would be a few days finding us all mid-afternoon on our upstairs beds with the fans blowing through the house, staying as still as we could, waiting for evening.

Kindergarten was a half day of games and recess and I was popular with the little girls.  Amy was my first crush.  I knew so little about myself.  I didn’t know that I was sensitive.  I learned quick how mean boys could be.  They were already belligerently competitive and I hated it.  Tried to avoid the team games.  I was better on my own. 

I was mystified when the teacher pointed to the clock on the wall and told us to watch the second hand.  I hadn’t seen a clock like that before.  The ones I learned to tell time with at home only had two hands, so this quick moving one was obviously the third hand, not the second one.  Language. 

First grade was boring.  I was sick a lot.  If I was sick I could stay home and be curled up on the couch wrapped in a blanket reading books or watching cartoons.  I was asthmatic.  My teacher was concerned.  I was missing a lot of school.  I was obviously capable of doing the work, but I didn’t want to bother with it. My parents took me to a psychologist.  We went into his office and I greeted him by name.  “How did you know that?”  He was startled.  “I read it on the nameplate.”  It was reflected in the mirrored glass on the bookcase so I’d read it backwards.  I knew I was showing off.  He gave me lots of tests, which I loved.  I’ve always been very good at standardized tests.  Afterwards I sat in the hallway outside his office for a long time, watching the dust motes sparkle in the light streaming from the high windows.  I wondered what he was telling my parents.  Years later, Mom told me he said, “You’re going to have trouble with that one.”

They sent me to second grade.  I’d spent an unhappy nine weeks of first grade at Park School on the north side; now it was into second grade at St. Mary’s on the south side.  I didn’t know anybody.  I had no alliances.  The cliques had been formed long ago.  Most of the teachers were nuns and most of them were terrifying.  I withdrew.  I don’t think I ever really recovered.  I only learned about selective mutism recently, but that would have been the diagnosis.  I’d been kicked off the Island.

*

I started reading when I was three.  Beth would “play school” with me when she came home from first grade.  I followed her finger as she ran it along the page of her reader.  I said the words after her.  We turned the page and I said more words.  The symbols on the page made sense to me.  Beth ran downstairs shouting, “I taught Scotty to read!”  My mom laughed, “He’s just copying you.”  But we took the book to show her and I read another page and another. 

I’d come down the stairs in the morning, into a sea of cigarette smoke.  On sunny days the light would illuminate the smoke, turning it to a silvery mist.  Stepping around the corner, out of the stairway, into the living room, I’d see Mom sitting in the corner, reading.  Dad was off to work, my older sisters off to school, she’d cleaned up the breakfast dishes and before she got into whatever housekeeping chores she’d planned for the day, this was her time.  She sat with one leg tucked underneath her, cigarette in hand, coffee cup nearby imprinted with lipstick, intent on her book.  What book might it have been?

She was a volunteer leader with the Great Books program.  The boxed sets sat on the shelf in her study off the kitchen, called her “sewing room.”  Women didn’t have “studies.”  Dad had a den.  Mom had a sewing room. 

My kindergarten had a library that you could borrow books from.  What a fabulous idea!  I brought a few home every day and then the teacher called my parents and said I needed to bring at least some of them back.  I was so eager to get new ones I wouldn’t think about the ones I was supposed to return. 

Is it a surprise that I’d read through most of Shakespeare by the time I was ten?  Every book on Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology in the children’s department of the Public Library, where Mrs. Black indulged my curiosity and guided me gently.  One afternoon I was playing in the dining room, on the floor with my Kenner Girder & Panel set, building little toy homes and office buildings.  Mom was working on a poem.  “Who was the goddess who had to go to the Underworld for half a year?” she called.  “Persephone,” I hollered back, without interrupting my focus.  “And her mother?”  “That’s Demeter.”  “Thank you.”  Her friends would be skeptical when she shared the anecdote.  But we knew what we knew. 

After the Greeks and Romans I read north.  Of the Norse gods, Thor was my favorite.  I imagined what it would be like to be pulled through the air by that hammer.  Odin’s cloak hung round him like tragedy.  Loki couldn’t be trusted.  Not too many years on, in the library I found the boxed album sets of the Götterdämmerung, listened to the clanging of the anvils in Mime’s workshop, trying to imagine how Wagner could have conceived it all.

A friend of my mother’s was outraged at what she let me read.  “He can’t possibly understand those books.”  Mom didn’t bother to defend it, just let me keep reading.  I thought, “I know I don’t get all of it.  But I probably get more of it than you do!”  Polite kid that I was, I didn’t argue, although I was annoyed.  What was she worried about?  What did she think those books were going to do to me?

Mom and I had an argument when I was in my teens, about life choices.  That she’d always wanted to be a writer and hadn’t been able to, couldn’t make that choice because of her obligations.  I was full of freshman philosophy classes and said that was a choice too.  It’s always a matter of choice.  She was frustrated, became angry.  “Should I just leave you all and go off on my own to do my thing?”  “That’s a choice,” I said.  I was young and naïve and idealistic, with no understanding of the way that a brilliant woman’s choices were constrained in a small town in the middle of the American century.  We were both right, of course.  But her right was more real.

She wrote anyway.  Poems.  Short humorous essays, some of which she was able to place in the big city paper.  Joined writers’ groups.  Got published in anthologies.  Did readings at the local bookstore.  Eventually self-published a couple of books of poems and stories.  Taught workshops.  Planned a book on dealing with Dad’s Parkinson’s and his death.  But the years and the wine and the depression eventually caught up and the writing stopped and the last book was never finished.

*

Dad built and repaired.  Mom learned and created.  They both taught.  Dad was stuff, the material world, machines and wood and tile and concrete.  He was very concrete.  Mom was ideas and words and aspirations and mythologies.  Dad’s was a world of things that you made and fixed.  Mom’s was a world of ideas.

The story they told us was that they sat on a park bench and decided they were going to make a family, the kind of family neither of them had ever had.  They would dance together in the dining room singing “Someone To Watch Over Me”.  That turned out to be enough for him.  It wasn’t enough for her, although on some days it might have been close.

She got a job as a teacher’s aide.  She went to college.  She got a Master’s degree.  She became the reading specialist at the High School.  She was ambitious.  She was successful, but never as successful as she wanted to be.

He was happier than she was, because he wasn’t that kind of ambitious.  But he’d get frustrated during the years when his wife and children were off finding themselves, while he worked at the garage 50 and 60 hours a week getting it all paid for.  By the mid-eighties he realized he’d been putting kids through college for nearly twenty years. 

He thought he was being enlightened when he let her get a job.  He worked to understand that it wasn’t his permission to give.  That took some time.  She wrote an essay for an anthology of feminist writing, but published it anonymously to make sure he wouldn’t know.

They were multifaceted and complex.  They can’t be reduced to sketches.  Neither can the town in which they raised that family.

*

My sisters, older and younger, remind me that they had different childhoods from mine.  Each of us did, as the family grew, as the parents’ marriage rose and fell and rose again; as America traversed the sixties and seventies.   The five of us spaced three to four years apart.  Linda ten years old in 1957.  Me that age in 1965.  Carrie in 1973.  A different world for each of us.  Beth remembers our house as the center of the small town’s intellectual life.  Carrie remembers being mostly an only child, her siblings all having moved on.  Mom used to say she raised five only children.

I loved that we were raised on the Island.   Very special.  Eleven thousand people in my little town, but fewer than a hundred Islanders.  Not north side or south side (although I was fonder of the south side).  Placed uniquely in the world.  I liked the isolation and still do.  I’m not a joiner.  I don’t root for the home team.  I thought I’d’ve been happy to spend all of my life there.  I had no ambition.  Dreams, maybe.  And I’m not saying that I wanted not to leave, just that I imagined I’d be just as happy if I didn’t.  I didn’t feel any need to escape.  There wasn’t anything I needed to escape from.  I didn’t need to leave the Island because there wasn’t anything lacking. 

Google tells me that my siblings live 2.6, 127, 128, and 137 miles from the house we were raised in.  I live nearly a thousand miles away.  I look at the numbers with a sort of bemused wonderment. 

I made choices.  There would be bridges and I would cross them.  Because there were things that I could do.  Good things, things that would matter.  Things that would be helpful and would make a difference.  Things that I couldn’t do from my island.

If you’re a strange kid, I suppose there’s a couple of paths.  Your strangeness, your inability to fit in, becomes a torture.  It cripples you, manifests all too often as depression.  Or you lean into it, adopt it, flaunt it, make it your brand.  I’ve always been lucky.  Growing up when the 60s counter-culture was in full flower, being nonconformist and unconventional could be acceptable.  Yes, I was crippled, but yes, I leaned into it. 

Because I had responsibilities.  I had talents.  And the cosmos requires that you use your powers for good.  I don’t think there are many things that are more fundamental to my understanding of human existence than that.  Buffeted I might be – certainly would be – by my fears and my appetites and my ego, but I would still have to address that responsibility.  That my parents would be proud of me.  That would be the measure.

*

Define normal.  Describe typical.  When we watched Leave It To Beaver or Ozzie and Harriett or Danny Thomas I wasn’t searching, wasn’t comparing what was on the screen to see if it reflected our lives.  I wasn’t looking for clues.  I wasn’t looking for models.  It would never have occurred to me to wonder if our lives were normal or typical.  They were the way things were here.  I knew well enough that in other places things were different.  All that reading.  I look back now, with my head tilted one way and it seems almost a caricature of small town mid-century American normal.  My dad the auto mechanic, Mom at home with the five kids sewing all of the dresses for my two older sisters.  The vegetable garden in the back yard.  The swing, the sandbox, the basketball hoop above the garage door.  TV dinners on Wednesday night.  Cub Scouts.  Jonny Quest.  Walter Cronkite.  Sunday mass. 

But that’s scarcely a complete picture.  It seems to be a classic American small town life, and then you gently tap at the shell of it and inside it’s unique and wonderfully strange.  All of it is true.

The millworker with his shot and his beer, smoking at the bar and complaining about the government is no more or less emblematic of the town in which I was raised than is the woman who went from sewing all of her daughters’ dresses while composing poems to spending her days trying to help the kids and grandkids of that guy find a path beyond their raising through language.  That the town had more of him than there were of her doesn’t change that.

West coast commenters wanting to cast Alabama out of the country for irredeemable racism.  Texans eager to secede and New Yorkers saying, “Good riddance!”  As if all the complexities of states and towns and the complicated people who live in them are sanded away into homogeneity based on polling data.  That what someone believes can be predicted by knowing where they live, or where they were raised.  In my post-graduate year I took a seminar on using statistics in medicine.  Hack Schoolman poses the question, “You know that the 5-year survival rate for this cancer is 20%.   What does that tell you about the patient in front of you?”  It tells you nothing.  In five years that particular human being is going to be entirely alive or 100% dead.  We’re not Schrödinger’s cats.

You can believe that if you knew everything there was to know about someone when they were five, their town and their family and what they read and watched and listened to, you could make a predictive map leading to where they’d be at sixty-five.  Is that comforting in some way?  Believe it if you like, but it’s an untestable theory.  The boy in the middle doesn’t have that knowledge.  There’s just the breeze, the snow, the lilacs, the comfort of being safe at home.  The island and the river. 

 


Date Night

It’s not our first date, but trying to get the meal just right keeps me nervous.  The worst thing I could do is fix something bland.  (Or, well, serve liver.  Liver would be worse).  She’s carnivorous, but believes in the importance of a green vegetable.  She likes bold flavors, some heat, some spice.  Something a little unusual is good.  I plan the menu a couple of days ahead and during the night before I’ll visualize how I’m going to pull it together.  Which pans, which dishes, how to arrange it for maximum visual appeal.  The wine has to be red.  A southern Rhône might work, or a Barolo, or maybe a peppery Australian shiraz.  Pick out the wine glasses.  While I’m cooking I’m mentally testing bits of conversation, something to ask her that I’m curious about, or something that happened to me during the day that I think will amuse her.  Jazz plays softly in the background by the time I light the Jameson bottle oil lamps, bring out the plates, call her to the table. 

This we do two nights a week.  Two other nights, she’s the one in the kitchen going through a similar process, although it’s still up to me to pick out the wine and light the lamps.  A fifth night is reserved for family dinner with Marian & Josie & Chris, and on Fridays and Saturdays we eat in front of the big screen streaming a movie or whatever series we're binging or catching up on.  This has been our pattern, more or less, for very many years.

I was very comfortable with the notion of being permanently single when she and I first got together.  Wrecked marriage was a few years in the past.  There’d been a couple of romantic dalliances with varying levels of satisfaction.  I was in the process of breaking up with the woman I’d most recently been involved with because she wanted more from the relationship than I did.  She wanted commitments that I was never going to be able to give.  Not to anyone.  It wasn’t about her.  I knew that. 

So why, within six weeks of getting out of Lynn’s bed the first time, was I so sure that she and I would both be better off getting married and spending the rest of our lives together?  I didn’t know then and twenty-seven years later, I still don’t.  She’d been living the life of sequential monogamy that I imagined for myself for a decade and seemed to be quite happy with it.  She was extremely skeptical of my plan.  It took a lot of convincing.

At this point, I think we’re both pretty sure it’s going to last, but I take nothing for granted.

I was reading a lot of Rilke in those days.  One of my failings in relationships had been jealousy and possessiveness.  I knew this was poison.  Rilke was tremendously helpful.  “…a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude.”

In 24 Frames Jason Isbell sings, “And this is how you help her when the muse goes missing / You vanish so she can go drowning in a dream again.”  I’m learning to play it myself and I choke up every time I get to that line.

When we got married and I first moved in with she and Marian, we renovated the basement of her townhouse as my refuge.  She liked telling people she kept her husband in the basement.  When we moved to Lakeridge a few years later, I took one of the upstairs bedrooms as my study.  There’s a full bath attached, so I’m as settled as can be up here.  As far as it concerns Lynn, not much has changed since I retired.  We might say hello in passing in the morning, talk briefly at noon before fixing our separate lunches.  I come down at 7:00 to read for a bit or to fix supper if it’s one of my nights.  But it’s not until we finally get to the dinner table that we fully engage.  And for that hour we are fully present to each other.  Did we get the meal right?  Is the other as pleased as we’d hoped?  What happened in your world today? 

In the best of the conversations we have with those we love, or come to love, I imagine a translucent bell shaped dome of solitude descends around the two of you.  You’re in a semi-separate world of your own, where nothing is as important as those moments with that person. 

Mark Frisse was the first person I told that we were seeing each other.  “Wow,” he said, somewhat flabbergasted (most people who knew both of us had a similar reaction – we weren’t anybody’s idea of the perfect couple).  “That woman has whole cities inside her.”

Very perceptive.  I expect never to fully explore, or even be able to visit, all of them.  So every night is date night.

 


Enough of us

What an audacious, reckless, foolish, improbable, brilliant, and beautiful thing this American experiment is.  As if one needed reminding (and maybe we did), the inauguration day events, very much including the Parade Across America and the evening’s Celebrating America, made it abundantly clear that nowhere else on the planet, now or in history, has something this radical been attempted.  Nowhere else could the great dream of Democracy be celebrated as it can be here.

The day exposed the great MAGA lie, that America’s greatness lay somewhere in the past, and we needed to return.  The day revealed the simplistic fallacy of those who complain that "liberals" are always apologizing for America.  They fail to grasp the great paradox -- that America, in its aspirations, is great, and we can humbly take pride and joy in that, even as we acknowledge our many failings, even as we are ever rededicated to our "unfinished work".  It is the greatness of our aspirations, and our Sisyphian determination to live up to them, that makes us a symbol for the world and that must be the mirror that we use to guide us.  On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Nobel laureate Dylan echoes Whitman saying, “I contain multitudes.”  On Inauguration Day, multitudinous America was very much the evidence of the day.

Lynn and I have been reviewing the transcript of our MLA oral history and feeling quite proud of our professional accomplishments.  We are quite aware, as well, of our failings, of all the times we didn’t do as well as we should have.  We mentally play the do-overs.  I’d never say, “I did the best I could,” if I thought that meant I didn’t think I could have done better.  I know too well the times that I could have, should have.  But just as my pride in my accomplishments doesn’t absolve me from taking responsibility for my failures, neither does my acknowledgment of those failures diminish the good that I managed to get done.  At the core of Trump’s pathetically shriveled sense of self was his terror of ever admitting mistakes or showing any weakness.   He transferred that insecurity to his MAGA mythology and managed to get millions to go along with it.  But I have no trouble carrying the complexity.  I happily contradict myself.  I contain multitudes, too.

These last few weeks I’ve been reading my way through Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (with a copy of Sikoryak’s Constitution Illustrated near to hand for reference).  Eerie to be reading Tocqueville’s explication of the relative powers of the legislature, the President, and the judiciary on those late December days when the tensions among those powers made it feel as if the whole thing might blow apart.  Frightening to be reading Tocqueville’s analysis of how democratic excess can lead to despotism as readily as to equality on the days when the mob attempted to stop American democracy once and for all.  America’s failure to live up to what he hoped for wouldn’t surprise him.  He was very clear about the dangers that beset democracy from all sides.  He was hopeful that we could avoid them, but he knew it was far from a sure thing.  The Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, the emergence of the US as a mega superpower, the bitterness of the Civil Rights movement, the nearly fatal partisanship of the Trump years – all of this could be foreseen in his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the American experiment.  He would have been saddened by our failures, but not surprised.

But he would have been astounded by the Parade Across America.  He believed that the shared Anglo heritage of the colonists, and the mores they derived from that heritage, were an essential part of what might hold America together.  The Indians, he believed, were destined to die out within a few decades at most.  And the Black and White races would never be able to live together (although he believed in the positive impact of interracial marriage).  The best thing would be to enable the Blacks to move to the newly established African country of Liberia, where they could take their American ideals with them and live in peace, but that was impractical.  Eventually the evil of slavery would tear the South apart.  

And yet, there on our screens, were dozens of Indigenous, dancing in all their finery; and Pacific Islanders chanting, and Puerto Ricans singing and dancing, and small town residents and big city dwellers celebrating the many ways they reach out to help their neighbors.  There was hip-hop and grunge and country and a beatific Yo-Yo Ma.  There was Lin-Manuel Miranda reciting Heaney's magnificent "The Cure At Troy".  And there was Amanda Gorman:

In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country,

our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge, battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

And there was Kamala Harris, whose inauguration was an American hat trick of the finest kind, being sworn in as the Vice-President of the United States. 

Tocqueville didn't think such a thing was possible.  No idea could possibly be strong enough to take all these people, coming from all over the world, determined to preserve all their own beloved customs and traditions, each so exotic and unfamiliar, and bind them together in the belief that they are all Americans.  Even for all his devotion to the power of liberty and equality and democracy, Tocqueville wouldn’t have imagined that this America could come to be.  Even he didn’t know how powerful that American idea, bringing to life the land of hope and dreams, would turn out to be.  And yet, here we are.

Biden didn’t say, in his plea for unity, that all of us would come together.  His idealism is tempered with a large dose of pragmatism.  What he did say is that in our most dire moments “enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward and we can do that now.”  Enough of us.  Think about that.  Enough of us, to carry all of us.  Even those who don’t agree with us, who are fearful, and distrustful, and resentful.  Millions of Americans will spend the next four years raging about how Biden is destroying America.  Most of them won’t be persuaded otherwise.

That’s okay.  Enough of us will persevere.  Biden said, “The battle is perennial and victory is never secure.”  But as I wept my way through the catharsis of the day, I was reminded again and again of how powerful the American idea is.  Once again the American experiment has been tested.  Once again we are called upon to give the full measure of devotion.  Once again I'm willing to believe.

 

 


Kenosha Broke Me

It wasn’t the shooting of James Blake, mundanely horrifying as that was.  It’s become all too familiar and the roar of defenses of the cops’ actions along with the blame showered on Blake were completely predictable.  It changed nothing (except for Blake and his family, for whom it changed everything).

It wasn’t the pathetic stupidity of cop wannabe Kyle Rittenhouse.  That was predictable too. 

It was the cop tossing the water bottle to the vigilantes that made my spirit crack (“we appreciate you,” he shouts).  And then it was the kid trying to surrender and being ignored by the cops as they race off to protect and defend.  That broke my heart wide open.

Because a distraught unarmed Black man who might be trying to get a knife is clearly a deadly threat and a white kid with his finger on the trigger of an assault rifle must be one of the good guys with a gun.

Has the contrast ever been presented in such stark terms?  But Coulter says she wants him as her president (she gave up on Trump years ago).  A congressional candidate in Arizona calls it “100% justified self-defense.”  An evangelical site raises money for his defense fund when GoFundMe and Facebook refuse.  He’s a “national treasure,” he did nothing wrong, he’s filling the void left by incompetent (or worse) Democratic politicians.  And how do you even choose which to get among the many celebratory Kyle t-shirts?

In Intimations, her brilliant little book of coronaquarantine essays, Zadie Smith says she used to believe that if enough evidence was presented to white people about what Black people actually deal with every day, enough of them would finally get it that we could begin to change things.  She says she doesn’t believe that anymore.  When I read that section three weeks ago, the note that I wrote next to it said that I hadn’t quite reached that point yet.  When I re-read it on Thursday I added a note that said I had.

I have been trying to be empathetic to the middle class and working class white people who cleave to Donald Trump because they feel their way of life is under threat and that he is the only one willing to stand up to the powerful elites and protect them.  I’ve been clinging to my imagined America where they finally begin to see that giving up just a bit of some of that privilege doesn’t mean losing everything.  That it means an even more vibrant and healthy life for them and their kids and grandkids.  That their way of life might need to change just a little bit, but it isn't under attack after all.  But their fear is too great.  Their unwillingness to give even an inch is too deep. 

The greatness of the United States that I grew up loving so passionately was in its aspirations.  Every other nation in history boasted of what it was, what it had been, what it would always be.  The greatness of the United States was in what it intended to be.  That it was founded, not on shared tribal histories, but on an idea.  That everyone is of equal worth and that the role of government – government being the mechanism by which we band together for the benefit of all – is to insure that everyone has an equal shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Such a crazily bold aspiration.  Greater than the men who formulated it -- that's how powerful those ideas are!  So many missteps along the way.  But by the middle of the 20th century, people here and all around the world believed in the promise enough to make the United States the exemplar of freedom and democracy, the place where every suffering person wanted to be, because this was the land of justice and opportunity.

I believed that we were building a country with room for everybody, where everyone, coming from all of their various religious and cultural traditions, could be welcomed and cherished and respected and made to feel safe.

Of course it wasn’t going to be easy, but I never stopped believing that we would get there.  There was a political component, there was an education component, there was a cultural component.  It would take endless effort on the part of millions of daily heroes.  But eventually, all but the most twisted fearful holdouts would come to understand that bending a little, opening up a little, being just a little more welcoming and tolerant, would blossom us into a nation whose gifts would more than compensate for what they’d have to give up.

The backlash from Obama’s election didn’t surprise me and it didn’t weaken that faith.  Trump’s election (through the fluke of the electoral college) shocked me, but the fervor of his supporters didn't frighten me.  I still believed that enough of them would turn.

After George Floyd was murdered, there was reason to hope.  This time the killing was so blatant, the expression on the cop’s face so brutally nonchalant, it seemed impossible that people would find ways to ignore or explain or turn away.  White people marched like never before.  Politicians promised real change. 

But the miserable summer wore on.  Among the marchers were those whose patience was gone.  Not many.  But enough that the sympathetic kumbaya white people on the sidelines who were willing to acknowledge that maybe Black people had been systematically poorly treated had to draw the line at the destruction of property.  Addressing structural racism and economic inequity is complicated.  Focusing outrage at a burning building is simple and clear.  It makes one feel pure and righteous.

You can tell a very scary story with just a few well-chosen videos.  Carnage in America.  Riots and looting and lawlessness.  Cities in flames.  But do you know what it means for the police in Portland to declare a riot?  They’re required to say they’ve observed six people behaving in such a way as to “intentionally or recklessly create a grave risk of causing public alarm.”  This is important because the law requires a riot declaration for the cops to use tear gas.  So now there’s a riot declaration in Portland almost every night.  Imagine that.

Which gives the President and his minions the visuals they need to inflame the fears of those middle class and working class white people who believe their way of life is under attack.  Which led young pathetic wannabe Kyle to drive to Kenosha to protect the city from the rioters, which led him to kill two people while the police looked aside, which led the right wing commentariat to lionize and defend him.  Which led to my heart being broken against my dream of America.


The Bridge

Tom Ekin grabbed my hand and my shoulder when he found out where I was from.  “Birmingham!” he said.  “I’ve been to Birmingham. I’ve been to Selma. I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”

It was September of 2004 and I was the guest of honor at a library conference in Belfast.  The elaborate opening reception was held at Belfast City Hall and I was being presented to the Lord Mayor.  Short, portly, white haired, ruddy faced, wearing the heavy ornate medallion of his office, smiling as he greeted the guests,  he looked every bit how I would’ve pictured the Lord Mayor of an Irish city.  But I hadn’t expected his reaction on being introduced to me.

Ekin told me that he was the first Lord Mayor of Belfast to come from the Alliance party, which was dedicated to finding non-sectarian solutions to the Troubles.  Neither Unionist nor Irish Nationalist, the Alliance Party sought to bridge the divides between Protestant and Catholic.  They took inspiration from the American civil rights movement.  A couple years earlier he’d made a pilgrimage to Alabama with his family so they could go to the 16th Street Baptist Church and the other important sites in Birmingham and join the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Right before my eyes he shifted from being just a jolly little businessman and local politician.  I saw he was a hero, risking his life every day, trying to help heal the divides in his hometown and country.

“I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”  Words have power.  A phrase can become an incantation.  When the Lord Mayor of Belfast said those words he wasn’t just referring to a beat up old bridge in a small town in Alabama.  He was invoking something much greater than a single place and time.  To march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is to be a part of the greatest movement for human dignity that the world has ever seen.  

History isn’t just a set of facts, it’s a story.  It’s a story about the present and the future as much as it is about the past.  The story of Edmund Pettus, the man, doesn’t end with the bridge being named after him.  You could hardly find a better representative of the need to march than Edmund Pettus.  Delegate to Mississippi’s secession convention, senior officer in the Confederate Army, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, U.S. Senator following the failure of Reconstruction.  Linger a moment on that last title.  Thirty years after the defeat of the Confederacy, Alabama made Pettus a Senator.  Forty years after that, when the city fathers named a bridge after him, they were sure they’d won.  Lee’s army might have been defeated, but the cause of white supremacy was secure.

But the story didn’t end there.  John Lewis wouldn’t let it end there.  Lewis, and so many others, who’ve been willing to put their lives on the line to defeat everything that Edmund Pettus stood for.  And now, whenever the words “the Edmund Pettus Bridge” are uttered, they don’t honor a misbegotten man who personifies all of the racial failures of America, they honor all the thousands whose lives will not be denied. 

John Lewis wasn’t just a hero that day he first marched across the bridge.  Lewis marched every single day of his life.  And that gave courage to so many others.  Maybe my favorite John Lewis story is the one from Comic-con just a few years ago – 2015.  Lewis was being celebrated there on the publication of the 2nd volume of his graphic novel, March.  He decided to cosplay himself; scrounged up a trench coat like the one he wore in 1965, found a similar backpack, loaded it with the same items he’d carried back then.  He went into the convention hall in San Diego and was surrounded by little kids.  They were awed to be in the presence of a real life superhero.  He held their hands, and they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

I favor keeping Pettus’s name on the bridge.  Maybe History has a sense of humor, too.  Let his name stand in for all those who believe they can’t succeed without beating somebody else down.  Every time his name is uttered, the echo comes back from a million voices, “We shall overcome.”

When Kaepernick took a knee, he was marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The women who founded Black Lives Matter are marching cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  When the Moms linked arms in Portland, they were marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Every day this summer, in big cities and small towns, across America and around the world, people are marching with John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  And they’re going to keep marching.

Words have power.  Say it.  Think of John Lewis and say it.  “Today I am marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”  March.


White Guilt

You’re not being asked to feel guilty over things that you haven’t done.  No need to get your back up.  You're hollering that your ancestors came from Europe after the Civil War.  They never enslaved anybody.  I get it.  They were immigrants who worked hard to pull themselves up.  You’re grateful for their sacrifice.  You’re a good guy and you’ve always tried to play fair with everybody.  It’s not your fault!  I get it.

“To whom much is given, much shall be required.”  You’re not being asked to feel guilty.  You’re being asked to make a difference.  Well, okay, the demand from the street is stronger than that.  You are required to make a difference.  It’s an old biblical maxim, repeated again and again throughout history.  Nobody makes it on their own.  Everybody has an obligation to lend a hand up.  Why so defensive?

The street isn’t saying that everything bad is the fault of every individual white person.  But you can’t shirk your responsibility by claiming it’s not your fault.  That’s not the point.  If you are white, you benefit from a society that has been designed, in some cases very explicitly, to maintain white supremacy in economic, political, and social matters (check out the 1901 constitution of the state of Alabama, among others – the documentary trail is exhaustingly long).  Maybe you don’t feel that you benefit very much, but ask yourself this (and try to be honest), would you readily change your white skin for a black skin if it came with a 50% increase in your income?  Would the extra burdens of being Black be worth the tradeoff?  You seem to be squirming.  Is this making you uncomfortable?  That’s good.  It should make you uncomfortable. 

Those feelings of guilt that you have (if you didn’t have them you wouldn’t be protesting so strongly) aren’t arising from something you didn’t do a century and a half ago.  They’re the faint stirrings of your conscience telling you that you’re not doing enough right now.  That’s your better nature tugging at your own complacency.  Better listen.

It’s Huck Finn lying to the men in the skiff when he has a chance to give Jim up (chapter 16).  He feels terrible about it.  He lies in order to help a runaway slave!  He’s “feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong.”  But he just can’t help himself.  He knows he should turn Jim in, he knows he shouldn’t’ve lied.  Have all of Miss Watson’s efforts to teach him right from wrong been a miserable failure?  But he realizes that doing what he’s been taught was right wouldn’t make him feel any better.  He’s too young to make sense of it, so he decides he’ll just follow his innocent American heart.  He doesn't know he's a hero.

Nobody is telling you to feel guilty over the things that were done by others in the past.  What matters is how you live up to being an American right now, here on the raft that's carrying us all down the river somewhere there might be freedom.  You don't have to atone for what people did that was wrong; you have to live up to how much they did that was right.  We hold these truths…

 


The problem isn't bad cops

For a few minutes, Rayshard Brooks might have thought he was going to make it, that the cops were going to let him go to his sister’s house, pick up his car the next morning.  There’d be hell to pay and he’d have to deal with that, but he knew it was his own damn fault.  At that moment, the cops could've walked him to the sister’s house.  They could have given him a ride.  But they brought out the cuffs.  And he panicked.  We can’t know what he was thinking, he’d been in trouble before and it’s no stretch to imagine him thinking of other black men beaten and killed once they were handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car.  So he panicked, he fought back, he grabbed the taser.  And he ran.  At that moment, he was done for.

Former DC cop Ted Williams was interviewed on Fox explaining why this was a pretty clear cut case for the justification of the use of deadly force.  I am very much afraid that he’s right.  Suppose that Rolfe isn’t a bad apple, isn’t a rogue cop.  He did what he was trained to do.  He started to arrest someone for a misdemeanor.  That person resisted, took one of his weapons, struggled, ran, fired the weapon at him, and at that point everything in Rolfe’s training said to take him down.  He did what he was trained to do.

This is why the entire edifice of standard policing in the United States has to come down.  No amount of additional training, no body cameras, no transparency in disciplinary reports, no banning of choke holds would have changed this.  We sent heavily armed men, whose primary tool is the use of force, to address a minor problem.  Subdue and arrest.  Dominate the situation.  The system worked exactly as designed.

Then Rolfe is fired and the police chief resigns.  Why fire Rolfe?  Immediate scapegoat.  A clear signal to the community that this was only a case of bad cop.  The chief resigns because she hasn't done a good enough job of weeding out bad cops.  

There’s no way to tell if the outcome would’ve been different if Brooks had been white, but it’s hard not to imagine so when there are so many cases on record where a white perpetrator is subdued without grievous harm and so many cases where a black person dies. But the racism that pits the edifice of policing against the community isn’t a problem of rabidly racist cops hating black people.  The structural racism that insists on using force to dominate and control will always result in the deaths of those we keep at the margins.

The images of impassive Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd was the spark that ignited simmering rage and protest around the world.  It should outrage you.  But what should engage your determination, what should make you join cause to insist that we rethink what we pathetically refer to as “public safety” are the two bullet holes in Rayshard Brooks’ back.


Imagine

It was my early teens, and I was reading a pulpy science fiction space opera.  There’s a scene that describes the protagonist looking at himself in the mirror and you realize that he’s black.  I felt the ground wobble (this was the author’s intention).  I’d pictured him white.  Of course I did.   I always did, whenever I pictured the person I was reading about.  To have that truth about myself slapped at me so effectively unmoored me.  Even more unsettling and chilling was realizing that it was likely that a black kid my age, reading the same book, would have made the same assumption.  Because books, like everything else, assume white men as the default human.  To be black is to be an exception.  To know that this world was not made for you, and the very best you can hope for is to be tolerated.  What does that knowledge do to a kid?  Imagine.

In our country, here in the 21st century, there is ample evidence that if you are black, and particularly if you are a black male, you are seen by so many as so threatening, that your life is in danger at all times.  There is no protection.  You’re not safe in your own home.  You’re not safe from the police.  The courts won’t protect you.  Rationally, you might believe that every cop isn’t out to get you.  You may even believe that most cops are hardworking and honest and as dedicated to being on your side as they are to anyone else’s.  But the cop who pulled you over yesterday and you’re not sure why?  You don’t know that about him.  Or just now, when you were crossing the park, doing what people do, you might know, rationally,  that most of the people you pass are going to treat you fairly and fine, or at least ignore you.  But you don’t know for sure about that one, who’s moved a little further to the side of the path, watching you.  You don’t know which gesture of yours will set that one off and who they’ll call and who’ll come running and what they’ll do.  You're always on alert.  At least, you'd better be.  You aren’t ever safe.  Not ever.  Not anywhere.  You are always the scary other.  I can imagine that.  It opens a hole in the pit of my stomach.  But I have the luxury of being able to stop imagining.  “Privilege” is the word we use.

And I still make those assumptions when I read.  It astounds me how hard wired they are.  If the byline is ambiguous, until I get a clue otherwise, my laziness will picture the writer of the essay I’m reading as a white male.  At least now I know that’s fucked up and I can push back at it.  I can look harder for those clues, I can make that image in my mind blurrier and more androgynous and more multi-hued until a real person emerges.  But even after all this time, a full half century, it requires a conscious effort. Every goddamn time.

I don’t have the lived experience.  Imagining the fear isn’t the same as living the fear.  I can set it aside.  The gap between imagining and the lived experience is vast.  But human beings keep reaching across it.  That's partly what art is for.

I read a lot of novels from a very early age.  I may not be able to undo the psychological grounding that establishes the white male as the default, but I know it’s an illusion, a constructed illusion established by power.  Imagining is a skill.  Novels are dangerous.  Novels helped me spend my formative years exploring the minds of the powerless as well as the powerful.  Enabled me to take on different skins, to see the world through different eyes, and experience the wonders and horrors of the world through the emotions of people very unlike me.  Who turn out, of course, to be very much like me in all the most important ways.

I’ve been encouraged to see how multiracial the demonstrations have been.  White people listening with humility.  Marching alongside.  Sharing articles and books that can deepen understanding and enrich the imagination.  Asking, “What can I do?” and acting on the answers.  My sister says it’s different this time. 

“I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.”  This is something white people might say when they’re trying to come to grips with the lived experience of black men in America.  It’s intended to acknowledge that the experience is something horrible, something that white people don’t have.  When said with its usual intention, it’s an attempt to bridge the divide.  It’s an attempt to exhibit humility and say, I’m not going to try to tell you how to feel.  That’s all a step in the right direction.  It isn’t nearly enough.

Because you can imagine what it’s like.  You must.  It’s hard and scary and then it lays a heavy obligation on you.  Small wonder that people turn their imagining away.  But our imaginations have to be tougher than that.  Where does empathy come from?  What does it take to imagine yourself into someone else’s skin?  The times demand that you make the effort.  And when you've made it, when you're breathless because you've imagined the soul-crushing weight of it, and you've shed some tears over the echo of a pain that you know you can't feel for real, start imagining what you'll do to make sure that this time it is different.  

 


Remember Becket

I wasn’t surprised when the carrier captain was fired.  Sure seemed like a hasty, knee-jerk response, but we should be used to that.  But I was shocked by the diatribe that Acting Secretary Modly flew 8,000 miles to deliver.  I’ve never served in the military so I hesitate to critique military decisions, but leadership is something I do know something about.  Such a glaring lack of it startled me.

I'd been moved by the video clips of the crew seeing their Captain off.  Apparently Modly was as well.  How long does the flight from DC to Guam take?  Picture Modly, with his Eraserhead hair, seething that entire time.  How dare they!  He’d show 'em.  Question his decision, do they?  His anger simmers.  Next to it, his fear.  All during the flight, he’s checking his twitter feed.  The President backed him up right away, so that was good.  But the winds can shift.  He needs to show the boss that he’s tough.  Not going to put up with insubordination.  “Cap-tain, Cro-zier!  Cap-tain, Cro-zier!” the sailors chanted as he walked down the gangway.   Modly can’t get the sound out of his head.

Trump’s critics often accuse him of actively being behind every loathsome decision, as if he'd called Modly himself and told him to fire that damned captain.  He doesn’t need to do that.  Once the bus is running and a few high-profile minions have been ground under the wheels, the problems take care of themselves.  “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” says Henry.  Becket dies.  Modly himself told WaPo’s David Ignatius that he was thinking about his predecessor who’d been fired because he “got crossways with the president … I didn’t want that to happen again.”

Survival in Trumpland requires demonstrating unending loyalty to the boss, the ability to anticipate what might set him off, and then take care of it.  There’s a little room for missteps because, ironically, Trump actually hates to fire people straight out.  He’d rather belittle and insult them.  Eventually someone else will pick up the hint.

Trump has many people who are now in “acting” positions (the jokes write themselves).  He says he likes “acting.”  He doesn’t have to send them to the Senate for confirmation and they’re easier to get rid of when he tires of them.  So they’re all dancing on thin ice, anxious to please the audience of one.

The role model is VP Pence, who understands that whatever he’s talking about, every other sentence needs to praise the President.  Pence is lucky though; as VP, he doesn’t really have responsibility for anything.  The various secretaries and under-secretaries have actual jobs to do, decisions with consequences.  You can use pleasing the boss as your lodestar for decision-making, but what happens when you guess wrong?

Poor Modly overreached.  He’d probably have kept his job if he’d just stayed home and ridden it out.  But he was afraid his decisive firing of the captain might not be enough.  That chanting!  So he had to go and berate the crew in person.  Show Trump just how tough he can be. 

Defense Secretary Esper tried to save him by giving him a chance to apologize.  And then he mucked that up as well. “I believe, precisely because he [Crozier] is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship. I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused.”  Nobody hearing it was confused.

It was over by then anyway.  Trump was backtracking from his initial support.  He’d heard good things about Crozier.  “So, I'm going to get involved and see what is going on there because I don't want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”  He hates it when he sees somebody being treated badly.  He didn’t need to say anything else. 

 


Who is that (un)masked man?

I was sure that the holdup on the mask recommendation was because Trump didn’t want to wear one.  Sure enough.  “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I don’t know.  Somehow, I just don’t see it for myself.”  Erratic his judgment may be, but his narcissistic vanity is unwaveringly consistent. 

It’s not as if he’s got a steady stream of dignitaries coming through the White House these days.  But it could happen.  And one wants to look one’s best for the dictators of the world.

Seems to me it would’ve been a great opportunity to start up a cottage industry in red MAGA masks.  Put your MAGA where your mouth is.  A counterpoint to all those pussy hats that infuriated him so. 

He soothes his annoyance at being talked into allowing the mask recommendation by firing a couple of inspectors general.  Rooting out disloyalists always makes him feel better. 

The language on the Strategic National Stockpile website was quickly changed to reflect the nonsense that Jared was spouting about “our” stockpile.  And people say that this administration isn’t efficient. 

Here in Alabama the governor finally issued a stay at home order.  I don’t expect to see her wearing a mask either.  Her explanations for waiting were pretty vague.  “We’re not California.  We’re not New York.”  Quite true.  But we could be! Give it another week or so.  She was one of the last holdouts.  Even the governor of Georgia beat her to it and he had the excuse of not knowing asymptomatic people could be contagious.  When he found that out on Tuesday of this week, he said it was a game changer and issued the order.  Then yesterday he overruled some of the local jurisdictions and re-opened the beaches.  He’s confident people will follow the social distancing guidelines.  Of course.  Because that’s so obviously what people have been doing in the absence of the stay at home orders.

I completely understand that in the press of their daily lives many people don’t have time to keep up with the latest expertise on this fast moving crisis.  Alexandra Petri does an excellent job of explaining why so many people are willing to believe Trump’s statements that he always knew this would be a pandemic and he was just trying to give people hope.  There’s a lot going on in our lives!  But I’d’ve thought (speaking of hope) that a governor would’ve been paying enough attention to what the public health experts were saying two months ago to know a little more about the mechanics of the spread. 

Now that Trump has undercut his own recommendation I don’t expect to see a lot of mask wearing down here.  That’s the whole point of leading by example, but he doesn’t quite get it.  You can tell that the people around him have been trying to feed him the right lines, get him to make the right gestures.  Exercise leadership in a time of crisis.  And he tries.  But the words don’t feel right in his mouth.  It’s an effort for him to say that Cuomo’s latest comments were “okay.”  But he can’t keep himself from saying, “But they weren’t gracious.”  It enrages him that some of the governors aren’t as appreciative as he feels they ought to be.

We had drinks over FaceTime earlier today with our friends in Cyprus.  We had bloody marys before brunch while they were having wine after dinner.  They go out twice a week now for groceries and essential healthcare.  They need to text the local authorities to let them know they’re leaving and where they’re going and when they’ll be back.  Imagine how that’d be received here.  There’s a vocal subset of Americans, particularly here in the South, who are already screaming about the unconstitutional assault on their civil liberties. The luxuries of ignorance.

Have no fear.  Your President will not force you to wear a mask.  He’s made sure that the gun shops are essential services.  He’s still encouraging people to go to the churches next Sunday.  Other than that, he’ll leave it to the governors.

If I were the praying kind, I’d just as soon do it from home.  A church full of evangelicals with guns scares me much more than the coronavirus.