Carbon

She was dazzled by the carbon paper.  "I don't understand how this works!" she said, running her finger down each side.  I showed her how to put it between two clean sheets of paper in order to make a copy.  She's fascinated.  Astonished.

It's the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school.  She had a month between commitments so I hired her to help me sort through old files.  We got into a cabinet that I haven't opened since moving it into the keep-out room 22 years ago.

There was a fat file labelled "poems in redundant drafts."  Many versions of poems I was working on in the mid-eighties.  (Why I felt compelled to keep all of the drafts is a question I don't feel qualified to answer.)  "I wrote on a typewriter," I told her.  "Typed out a poem, and then I made revisions in pen or pencil and then I typed it again."  Three or four versions in a day, according to the dates at the top of each sheet.  I used carbon paper to keep a copy of the one I mailed to the magazines.  She can't quite visualize it.  The unconnected world.

I tell her about traveling with a heavy portable (luggable) computer back in 1990.  About modems and phone lines and disk drives that had their own power supplies.  "You don't know what a floppy disc is, do you?"  She shakes her head, trying to peer through me into the distant past.  I tell her about taking the silver dip pen and a bottle of ink and a volume of Tom Jefferson's complete works into the class I was teaching about the internet and copyright.  That was in 2000 and the students were in their late teens. The kids passed the pen and bottle around and gingerly wrote their names. I held up the book, "Now imagine using that to write all of this." They were impressed, but they still had bits of memories of a pre-internet world.  But Josie was born in 2005.

Carbon paper.  Typewriters.  I didn't attempt to explain a mimeograph machine.  She'd had a similar reaction a year and a half ago when her Mom gave her a Crosley turntable and a vinyl record for Christmas.  She'd turn the record over.  "Why does it have two sides?  I don't understand how it works!"

In my study, with the amazing carbon sheet in hand she said it again, but then, "But my phone, the CDs, DVDs, I don't understand how any of it works!"  She's brilliant at using the devices in her world, of course.  But she has no comprehension of how they work.

I turned her age in 1971.   When my Dad told me about the world he lived in as a boy, thirty-five years earlier, I could understand how it worked.  We lived in the same electro-mechanical world, principles established during the industrial revolution.  Television wasn't around yet, but you could imagine it as an extension of the radio.  When it arrived, he knew how to tinker with it.  Jet engines were built from the same underlying dynamics as automobile engines.  Things got faster and more efficient from his boyhood to mine, but the technologies were fundamentally the same.  He understood how the things in my boyhood worked, and I knew the same about his.

The half century following the invention of the moveable type press is the incunabula period, European civilization being reshaped by the impact of inexpensive, uniformly replicable books, and the technological and cultural transformations they set in motion.  Our Gutenberg moment, analogous to the days those first printed books went on sale, occurred in the fall of 1994 when Netscape was released -- the first widely available graphic internet browser. 

By 1500, printed books were no longer curiosities, game attempts at emulating the handmade books of previous centuries.  They were the standard means of knowledge transmission, with dozens of printers and publishers across Europe vying to tap into the new markets.  Among the crucial innovations was the widespread adoption of the size called octavo – a book that could easily fit into a saddlebag.  New knowledge spanning the continent as fast as a rider could take it.

Our incunabula period ended when the iPhone launched, barely a dozen years after Netscape.  Now Josie carries the internet in her hip pocket.  That feels natural.  A world of carbon paper and typewriters is nearly inconceivable.   I straddle the two worlds, writing in my leather-bound journal with a good fountain pen, then shifting to my laptop to write things I can easily share.  I'm not nostalgic for the world we're leaving behind.  I feel lucky that I get to taste them both and that I can tell Josie tall tales about the ways of the world before.

 

 

 


Heaney At The Hirshhorn

Watched him chat politely.  They'd hand him a book.  He'd ask a question, then nod, sign, hand it back smiling.  Then he’d look out over the big crowd loosely lined up, inching toward the table. Cloud of curly hair, the thickets of sideburns framing his face, kind eyes, inquisitive, the rectangle glasses perched on the big nose.  So familiar.  It was a loud space, excited happy chatter bouncing off the polished surfaces outside the auditorium.  The reading had been a great success.  He was funny and self-deprecating, leaven for the deep seriousness of the poems.  He enjoyed performing.  He was good at it.  His voice rolled across the cadences, the troubled history of Ireland wound round his own humble beginnings, the precision of his Belfast accent on the d, the clackety-clack roll of the r.  He was still eight years from the Nobel, but he was the most famous poet alive.

When Sandy and I were half a dozen or so people back, a quizzical look crossed his face as he saw us.  Now, after each signing, he cast the same look toward us.  Bit of a smile.  Trying to remember.  Finally at the table, I handed him Station Island.  He said, apologetically, “I know we’ve met before…”  I was shy, tentative.  “Yes, I brought you to Oshkosh…”  “Oshkosh!” he leapt up, huge grin, laughing, grabbed my hand with both of his.  “Oshkosh!  That was the wildest night I’ve ever spent in America!”  He signed “for Scott & Sandy  Yippee for Oshkosh!  Seamus Heaney  1.2.87”  We pledged to write to each other. 

I’d no idea what I was doing five years earlier when I invited him.  I was the editor of The Wisconsin Review, the school’s lit mag.  I had some money for programming.  He’d recently started teaching at Harvard and signed with an agency to do a college tour.  I booked him. 

A year before that, fall of 1981, we’d been going to Fred’s every Wednesday night to listen to Fire & Ice, the jazz quartet.  Fred, taciturn Chippewa, had a little dive near the river, and there were plenty of nights when the number of people in the band exceeded the number of us sitting along the bar.  So we got to know the regulars.  Segnitz taught at UWO, the local outpost of the vast state university system.  He was the Review’s advisor and eventually he told me he could arrange for me to take over as editor when I started grad school in January.  If I was interested.  Willing.

When I was six and home with a fever, upstairs in the small bedroom on the east side of the house, I wrote my first poem.  It was about Superman.  I remember feeling giddy seeing how rhythm and rhyme bounced against meaning.  Mysterious and perplexing.  Thrilling.  It baffled and excited me.  From forever I needed to write.  But what?  But how?

By the time I was spending those Wednesday nights at Fred’s, talking with Segnitz about my literary aspirations, I’d been imagining myself a fiction writer, poems on the side.  There’d be novels and short stories, although I had only the vaguest notion of how to construct either.  I was immersed in science fiction and fantasy.  In the big enclosed front porch of the apartment Sandy and I rented on Washington Avenue I strung cords from window to window over the table and paper clipped character sketches and maps and mini-histories of a world and culture that I was trying to create, inspired by Fritz Lieber and the dozens of SF and fantasy books I’d read through my teen years. It was building worlds that fascinated me.  I had shades of characters, vague plot concepts.  But I didn’t know how to make it cohere.  I had a few stories that I was sending out to the magazines.  They kept sending them back. 

More than a decade before that, once I got my early teen hands on a guitar, I’d thought I’d be a songwriter.  I wrote dozens of ‘em.  Not that I knew anything about song structure or about chord progressions.  My lyrics were primitive angst.  “Twisted shadows in the rain…”  “Every time I think of you / I start to cry…”  That kind of thing.  But I learned.  My lyrics got a little better, my guitar chops and composing skills improved.  By the time I got to JFK Prep for my junior year of high school, I was a better singer and player than most of my contemporaries.  I played the standards of the time – the Bob Dylan songs, Arlo Guthrie, Neil Young, Crosby Stills & Nash, James Taylor – interspersed with a few of my own.  Fewer as years went by.

I was serious enough about music that after I fled high school in the wake of the cocaine scandal and spent an aimless half year at the plastics factory (finishing my courses by mail), when Kevin persuaded me to go on to college I decided to be a music major.  The structure fascinated me.  The puzzles of keys and progressions.  Tension and release.  Why did that sequence of sounds compel that series of emotions?  A tug beyond words.  I wanted to know how to make it happen.

At the community college, studying with Frank Doverspike, it seemed plausible.  My parents managed to rent a good upright piano.  I took lessons.  I wrote simple compositions, pored over Bach and Beethoven scores.  I could see myself as if I had a future as a composer.  Davey and I fantasized about writing a rock opera.  But then I got to UW-Milwaukee, which had a very serious music program with serious, distinguished music faculty and very serious and cutthroat music students.  It became quite clear quite quickly that success in this world required a single-minded devotion to the art and craft that I was unwilling to make.  I was too interested in too many things (and too intimidated by the other students).  By the middle of the next semester I was no longer a music major.  I loaded up on Philosophy and English classes.

I kept writing, looking for my beat.  Songs, poems, stories.  I took a class with James Liddy, the Irish poet.  The San Francisco Renaissance.  Read Spicer, Duncan, Snyder, Ferlinghetti.  Ginsberg.   Nights, after supper and getting stoned with my housemates, I’d make my way to Axel’s to carouse with Liddy and the poets.  Loud and profane and mad with the love of language.  Scandalous Penglase and his tales of student seductions. One night, to the great amusement of the assembled, Joe Henry, the IRA gunrunner, showed up with Miriam Ben-Shalom, the lesbian Zionist who was suing the US Army for kicking her out (for being a lesbian, not for being a Zionist).  Apparently the fires they recognized in each other were much stronger than the obvious differences and contradictions – for one passionate week, at least.  (And how did I end up one night in Miriam’s leather jacket?)  I read Ulysses for the first time.  I read it for pleasure because the poets talked about what a rollicking and wild fun read it was.  I loved it.

I wasn’t trying to make it as a poet.  I didn’t bring my drafts along, as some of the other youngsters did, hoping for encouraging words.  Whatever poems or stories I was dabbling with I kept mostly to myself.  I was still imagining the singer/songwriter.

Sunday evenings it was the Gasthaus open mike.  Wisconsin was eighteen for beer and the Gasthaus, in the basement of the student union, poured more than any other bar in that beer-drenched city.  We’d sign up for 30 minute sets.  I was popular.  I’d spent a semester’s lunch money on the Framus 12-string.  I could fingerpick on it, which dazzled the other guitar players.  I could do the long songs – the whole monologue from “Alice’s Restaurant.”  “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.”  “Tangled Up In Blue.”  I still sprinkled in a few of my own.  On stage, behind the microphone, I was bold and comfortable.

Offstage, not so much.  My comfort zone was very small, and, though I didn’t see it at the time, it was getting smaller.  My shyness, building since I was seven, was inching relentlessly toward the pathological.  My professors were amazed when I’d come to their offices for one on one.  I was articulate and insightful and fully engaged.  My papers were brilliant.  But I never said a word in class.  I was okay with people I knew.  I could manage groups of two or three.  But to spontaneously speak up in front of a classroom of faces?  Not happening.  I could get on stage and sing to a full room, because the guitar and the songs protected me.  Finish my set and go over to the table where the other guitar players were drinking and joking and sharing tips and teasing each other?  Not happening.  I couldn’t impose myself.

Still, I managed to arrange a couple of local auditions, was infuriated by the bar owner who said I was okay but needed to stop overdoing the Dylan stuff.  I was pissed because I’d only sung one Dylan song.  But of course everything I played or wrote was suffused with Dylan, even if I refused to own it.  I got one gig, playing and singing while people ate in a little café.  It went well, and the audience seemed to like it, but I wasn’t happy.  I didn’t want to be background music even though I knew that’s how you start.  But it was all terrifying and unsettling and after a bit I didn’t have any more auditions lined up and I didn’t make any more calls.  I was getting married and moving to Oshkosh.

The guitar playing and the singing, writing my own songs, everything I’d rested my character on in Milwaukee, drifted away.  I didn’t know how to hustle for it in Oshkosh.  Maybe, I thought, it turns out the guitar playing was just a phase after all.  A high school and college thing.  Just one more kid with a teenage dream.  I was wistful about leaving it behind, but okay!  Sandy and I could still be artists together.  Mutually supportive.  I’d start with a factory job and write late into the night.  She’d finish her art degree.  When she graduated, she’d get a job, I’d leave the factory and write more.  Poems, novels.  Maybe short stories (although how they worked perplexed me even more than poems some days).

In the candle factory I’d have a book of poems in one hip pocket, a little notebook in the other.  My job was “material handler” – to get the right packaging materials to the end of the line where the women gathered the wrapped candles skittering down the shoot and lined them up in their boxes and packed those boxes into larger boxes and stacked those boxes onto wooden skids that I’d scoop up with the forklift and bring out to the warehouse.  The supplies were kept in a mezzanine where I had my perch looking down across the factory floor, the six production lines, where I could see who needed new supplies or who had a skid about ready for the warehouse.  There was plenty of slack time.  I’d go into a back corner for a couple of hits off a joint, return to my perch to write in a pocket notebook, or to pull out Howl or Four Quartets.

My shift ended at 10:30.  The factory was a mile and a half from our apartment and when the weather was fine I’d run, just for the sheer physical joy of it.  The factory work kept me in the best physical shape of my life.  Sandy’d be in bed and I’d fix myself something to eat.  Sometimes I’d bake something – I made a fine chocolate soufflé – and I’d wake her up for a snack.  And I’d write.  I’d study Poets & Writers Magazine, pore over Len Fulton’s Directory.  Sent out my stories and poems.  Plotted my fantasy novel. 

The rejections mounted.  An occasional encouraging note, but no successes.  The factory work was mind-numbing, far, far worse than I’d romantically imagined.  The novel wasn’t coming together.  Editors weren’t interested in my stories and poems.  I wasn’t emotionally capable of the hustling that a freelance writing career requires.  I was 24 and trying to come to grips with the fact that, after giving up the notion of making it as a composer, or a singer songwriter, I wasn’t going to make it as a writer, either.

It brought a kind of weird relief.  Because if I no longer had to deal with the pressures of trying to make it as a writer, I could use my free time for whatever I wanted.  And what would that be?  Well, writing, of course.  But for myself, without worrying about publishing or selling.  That seemed pretty safe.

I was turning further and further inward.  I rarely saw my Kaukauna or Milwaukee friends anymore.  Emblematic was me at the post office.  To stand in line waiting to buy some stamps was torture.  I’d start to sweat, my face would get flushed.  When it was finally my turn, I’d stammer out what I wanted but it was painful.  I was so afraid of getting it wrong.  It was like that everywhere I went.

Social phobia.  Social anxiety disorder.  Selective mutism.  Plenty of diagnostic slots for it all now, but I knew none of that then.  I only knew the fear of being pointed out.  Of being noticed.  And disapproved of.  Embarrassed.

But I had to get out of the candle factory.  If I wasn’t going to be spending my stony nights being A Writer (as opposed to just writing poems), I was going to need to find a new way of making a living. Sandy was getting itchy about financial security.  My fantasy about mutually supportive struggling artists wasn’t quite as shared as I’d thought.

I’d been a science snob in high school and college.  I’d managed to avoid calculus (to my everlasting regret).  Everything I knew about physics and chemistry I’d gotten from Isaac Asimov’s columns in Fantasy & Science Fiction (which was quite a lot, actually).  But high school science classes?  College?  Unh-uh.  And I was stupidly proud of that.

Computers were interesting, though.  The science fiction I’d been inhaling all through the seventies and into the eighties featured computers.  And I’d come across articles occasionally about how a career in computers was a promising choice for somebody looking for a path in 1980.  My dad’d had a Sinclair ZX-81.  One kilobyte of memory, expandable to eight.  Membrane keyboard.  Hooked up to an old B&W tv.  Did just about nothing and was absolutely captivating.

But when I looked into computers as a trade it seemed as narrow and limiting as classical music had been.  I was too interested in too many things. 

I quit the candle factory.  Spent six months plotting my next move.  When had I ever had a job I liked?  At UWM I did work study in the reserves & periodicals section of the Golda Meir library.  I’d loved that.  I’d felt obviously at home.  And wouldn’t you know, the local campus of the University of Wisconsin had a library school!  Well, no, not a school – a program.  Started by a couple of women who’d been faculty at the very well regarded School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan.  Unaccredited (which meant nothing to me), half a dozen faculty, students mostly school librarians looking for a credential boost.  My ignorance about what I was doing was profound, but I figured it’d work out.

I started running a linotype machine at Miles Kimball, the mail order outfit, in order to raise money for school.  Made the lead slugs that were used to imprint personalized pencils and napkins and Christmas cards.  Felt connected to Gutenberg.  The guy who trained me was taciturn and focused on the work, which suited me just fine.  I liked the process.  I liked the machine.  I liked the order and the mechanicalness of it; the slight whiff of danger from working with molten lead.  The complexity of steps leading to the finished product.  The solitude. 

I’d come into work with the crowd and leave with them but I didn’t have to make eye contact, didn’t have to  talk with anybody.  The breakroom was too terrifying, so I never went.  On my lunch break I’d go out to walk, eating a granola bar I bought from the vending machine. 

I knew I was in a bad way, even if I didn’t know there were diagnostic categories for it.  The day after Segnitz brought up The Wisconsin Review I shuffled through the fallen leaves trying to figure it out.  It was sunny that afternoon, the fall air crisp, the familiar and welcome earthy scent of the crumbling leaves.  It was a little chilly but I was sweating under my light jacket, miserable.  I knew it was a turning point.  If I said no, then my fears would determine my choices for the rest of my life.  If I said yes, I had a chance to do something I desperately wanted to do, to engage with the world of literature outside of my room.  But I would be putting myself into the world in ways that I’d spent the last few years trying to avoid. 

I take it as given that most of the daily decisions that stress us out are actually completely inconsequential.  Whatever we decide to do about today’s crisis will end up having very little impact on the actual course of our lives or the lives of those rippled by those decisions.  (“Don’t sweat the small stuff.  It’s all small stuff.”)  But then there are those occasional days when the divergent paths are indeed momentous and irrevocable.  So there I am, all by myself, on a pretty, cool, sunny, brisk autumn afternoon in Oshkosh, nibbling my granola bar, on respite from turning molten lead into the names of young people whose grandparents will see that personalized pencils get into their Christmas stockings.  The branches of my life are before me.  It has never been so clear.  Never before and rarely since.  What does it mean to say that I made a choice?

Unpublished and unpublishable I might be, but now I’d decide who got into print and who didn’t.  Thirty-two pages an issue.  Three issues a year.  I said yes.

I sat with each of the editorial staff, the half dozen students who helped select and organize the content.  What did they want?  What did they bring?  This one was pretty and blond and oh so sure of herself.  She was one of the Flaherty groupies, Flaherty being the English department’s resident boho poet.  He’d been the Review’s faculty advisor before being ousted by Segnitz in a typical bit of academic skullduggery about which I knew nothing.  Selecting the poems was easy, she said.  You looked at them and picked out the good ones.  I sighed, inwardly.  “And what makes the good ones, good?” I asked.  She didn’t stay long.  I wasn’t much fun.  I added editorial advisors of my own.  John Harmon, composer, pianist, and spirit guide from Fire & Ice; Davey & Doc, reliable friends from my hometown.

The Review was organized as an independent student activity group so we had a budget of a few thousand a year for programming.  Segnitz had seen the flyer from whoever was repping Heaney and said we should get him.  He’d just started teaching half years at Harvard and every article about him included the Lowell quote calling him “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.”  He told me later that he'd been expecting some greybeard professor from the English department to pick him up at the airport, not this 26 year old kid with a scraggly beard and skinny tie.  Have I mentioned that I didn’t know what I was doing?

Segnitz had a fishing shack on the shores of Lake Winnebago, which is where we ended up after Heaney’s reading.   I’d never been to a reading by a famous author.  The Review wasn’t connected to the English department.  (We heard later through the grapevine that few of the English faculty bothered to come to the reading, figuring this Heaney guy was some Irish ne’er do well friend of Flaherty’s).  I didn’t know that the standard routine would’ve been a wine and cheese reception at the faculty club afterwards.  We got a bottle of Jameson and some six packs of Guinness and eight or ten of us headed to the shack.  We had a great time.  Echoes of Axel’s with beer and an Irish poet and conversation rolling over and on top of each other.  Davey had the wickedest wit of us all and was in particularly fine form, needling our distinguished guest about the Yeats quote.  Heaney cringed at that, but once he got over the shock of realizing how different this evening was unfolding from what was typical, he gave as good as he got.

The hotel I’d booked Heaney into was a fleabag near campus that had hourly rates.  I did manage to get him back to it safely, but had to rouse him only a few hours later.  Sandy was doing feature articles for the local paper in those days and she’d arranged for him to do a press conference / reception at mid-morning the day after the reading.   We dragged our hangovers back to campus, to the Pollock House, the fancy Spanish Revival building from 1920, gifted to the University by the president of Oshkosh B’Gosh (when it was the Oshkosh Overall Company).   The press consisted of Sandy and an over-eager kid from the student newspaper.  The reading had been a great success, despite the non-interest of the local English faculty (the liberal arts school down the road – Lawrence University – sent a busload of students), and the place was mobbed.  Sandy and the kid talked over each other asking questions, while students pushed books and slips of paper his way to sign.  He smiled and answered and signed, patient and affable, seeming only a little bewildered.  I sat next to him, trying to orchestrate the madness until I could see his veneer thinning and figured it was time to get a drink into him before heading to the airport.  I knew which joint on Main opened the taps at 11:30, so we piled in, me and Heaney and bits of my crew and hangers-on from campus.  Boilermakers standing at the bar and then back to the airport and then he was off to whatever college town was next on the list.

Heaney went on to his next gig, but then he cancelled the rest of the tour.  I felt responsible for that, in a good way.  Perversely proud of it in fact.  I never knew if he cancelled the trips because he was afraid there’d be more nights like that in other little college towns or he was afraid that there wouldn’t be.  We traded post cards, but the correspondence never took off.  My fault.  I could carouse with him, drink with him, tell stories with him, but in the quiet of my apartment I was too shy to write to him.  I couldn’t quite feature that he’d actually want to hear from me.  I dreaded being a nuisance; or, even worse, a bore.

Such a hodgepodge of anxiety and arrogance I was.  Timid, sure.  Terrified, often.  But sure of myself?  Yeah. Very sure of myself.  I knew people would follow me – they had since kindergarten.  I knew my brain was quick.  I knew I could write.  I knew I had talent.  I knew I was lucky.  I just didn’t know what it was all for.  You’d think I must’ve been insufferable.  And yet, on the evidence of those who’ve loved me, apparently not.  At least not entirely.  I don’t understand it.  I wasn’t humble, but I was kind.  If my arrogance was overpronounced, so was my empathy.  I ignored what I didn’t know and forced myself to go on. 

In my teens, when I was still living mostly at home, I’d sometimes have a couple of beers late at night with my Dad.  He’d’ve had several by then and I was probably stoned, having been out with friends but getting home more or less in time for my curfew.  He’d tell me things about his life and his hopes and the things he wrestled with on his quest to be the good man.  He told me two very important things.  That it was okay to be scared.  Because life was, after all, very scary.  This was astounding coming from that guy, who I would’ve thought scared of nothing.  Not just that it was okay to be scared, it was sensible!  It was the appropriate response to dealing with the world.  Later on I would quote this as “If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention,” although I don’t think he ever actually put it like that.  And he told me about a conversation he’d had with my cousin Michael, who was getting ready to usher a wedding (or maybe a funeral).  Michael was very nervous, afraid of doing it wrong.  Dad told him in most settings most people are unsure about what to do, but they’re afraid to let on, so they hide it.  They’re scared, and they think they’re the only one.  They’re looking around for somebody who looks like they know what they’re doing so they can follow.  Just act like you’re the guy who knows.  That was the secret power.  You’re not the only one who’s scared.

By the time I saw Heaney at the Hirshhorn, we’d been living in DC for three and a half years.  I was getting better at pretending to be that guy. The Wisconsin Review had been a huge step.  Then, with my library degree I got a fellowship at the National Library of Medicine.  I got training in public speaking, worked on group projects.  I had a career now.  I was meeting my responsibilities.  Sandy was getting to be an artist but I was still writing every day, mostly poems.

I bought each of Heaney’s books as soon as they came out, relishing my special connection.  I loved the poems and the translations.  The way his language fills the mouth, reading him aloud was a physical, muscular exercise.  The centuries of sadness and struggle springing from the ground on rhythm and rhyme.  I was never much caught up by his prose, though.  I’ve almost never read anything about poetry that helped me understand how to read it. 

What is it about?  What does it mean?  People want to know.  I want to get away from that need to know.  When Rothko’s kids gifted 1,000 of their dad’s pictures to the National Gallery of Art in the early 80s (just after we arrived in DC) he was not nearly as popular as he is now.  NGA mounted a blockbuster show and after the opening weekend where many in the crowd were actively hostile (“my little girl could do that”), the galleries were frequently deserted on the many days that I went back.  Occasionally there’d be a couple of other people there and I’d hear them whisper, “But what do they mean?”

It seems I’ve been trying all my life to short circuit that pedestrian part of my brain that insists on shellacking meaning on to ordered prose.  Get out of my way, brain!  Psychedelics in my teens helped me see what prose couldn’t touch, that my excessively verbal, excessively rational mind couldn’t get me to.  By the time the psychedelics had begun to bore me (junior year of college) I’d learned that the arts could get me there.  “There” was what was called the ineffable.  That which cannot be described in words.  Sitting in a room full of Rothko’s pictures (Rothko was very precise in his use of language and he always referred to his work as “pictures,” never “paintings,” which tells you inscrutably much about what he was trying to do) I could open my self and shut down the endless internal chatter and experience them.  The translation of the ineffable I called it.  Abstract art.  Symphonies and string quartets.  Coltrane.  Poems.  Poems could do it, too.  How weird is that?

There’ve been years when I worked on my poems every day; there were years when songs or fiction took precedence, but the itch to write the poems were always there.  I was most serious about it in those years around my Heaney encounters.  Not long after the Hirshhorn reading my career took Sandy and me to St. Louis.  But the poems kept tugging at me.  I took some workshops, even applied for an MFA program.  Spent hours with a (female) friend discussing Rilke and Neruda, poems of our own.  The marriage imploded.  Turns out the two mutually supportive artists thing was only my own fantasy.  I moved out, did readings at local open mikes, finally got a couple of poems published in a local magazine.  I joined a band, fantasized about quitting my job, spent my off hours with painters and musicians.  Negotiated mid-30s singlehood.

And stopped writing poems.  No more poems.  WTF?  It happened without much thought and without regret.  I still thought of myself as a poet long after the desire to actually write poems had passed.  It took me a long time to realize it was gone.  Apparently writing this essay has been an attempt to understand why.  Turns out it was the letters.

Frisse said, “That woman has whole cities inside her.”

She was a professional colleague whose job was to build relationships with library directors.  Like me.  After politely avoiding her invitations to dinner for eighteen months, I said yes.  To my surprise I had a wonderful time.  So a month later, yes again.  And then emails.  I could tell her everything.  That had never happened.  I could hardly keep up with myself.

Her boss scolded her because her excitement when my emails arrived was disrupting the flow of things in her office.  (But we were still “just friends”).  So I started writing her a letter every day.  Physical good Crane stationery fountain pen four and five and six pages letters stamped and delivered by mail.  We were colleagues, then friends, confidants, lovers.  It happened fast.

Different cities, busy travel schedules, so for nearly two years I wrote at least one letter every day, many days two, occasionally three.  Who had time to struggle with poems?  The letters became little essays.  I’d found my form. 

We married, I moved.  New town, new job, new level of confidence (although still reliant on my Dad’s secret power).  I still wrote letters to her when we travelled apart, which was often.  My library career blossomed.  I was a success.  An in demand speaker.  And there were the editorials and blog posts and professional articles that I always approached as if they were personal essays.  Every memo I wrote was an exploration of creative writing.  Every multiply revised email an exercise in creative nonfiction.  Rhythm, sound, image.  Looking for the poetry in even the most mundane of bureaucratic tasks.

Very occasionally I’d get the urge to try a line or two of verse, or maybe a lyric for a song.  But then those scribbles sat untouched.  From the age of six I thought I was supposed to be writing poems.  I was wrong.  Why did it take so long?  I’ve no answer. 

I never stopped reading poems, and these days I’m getting better at it, getting good at giving myself over to the experience, getting in on the side, past that linear, analytic rut.  What, after all, did I learn from multiple readings of Ulysses? Of Pound's Cantos?  To let myself float along on sound and emotion without worrying too much about the sense of every line.  To note with delight how each re-reading of a poem is different from all the readings before and after.  To trust the transformation of experience even when I don’t entirely know what’s going on.  I’ve read poetry for insight, instruction, inspiration, enlightenment; while I’ve often been surprised and delighted, I’ve rarely read poems just for pleasure.  I seem to be learning how to do that now.

I recently came to accept the fact that I’m not going to live long enough to read every unread book we have in the house.  (Tsundoku – Meiji slang for letting them pile up.)  That takes a lot of the pressure off.  It doesn’t matter anymore how long it takes me to get to a book’s last page.  Some evenings I'll come across a poem that sits just right and I'll spend the next half hour reading and rereading; listening and watching as it tumbles and unfolds.  A poem is its own object in the world, unlike any other piece of text.  Of course it has meaning – but not a meaning.  To ask what the poem is about is a terrible place to start.  Just as with humans and dogs and spiders and rocks and rivers, the poem is its meaning. 

I found that verse was not my form, but I've never stopped pursuing poetry, looking for it in every line.  What else so well reflects our beautiful human foolishness?  We turn to the arts to try to cut through all the scrims of arrogance and envy and wickedness and loneliness and fear and embarrassment and hope and ecstasy and love and madness to touch the ineffable, to reach that pulsing heart of existence which, by definition, cannot be expressed in words.  We’re desperate for it.  We paint, dance, pound on drums, carve stone.  The translation of the ineffable.  But for our purest, most naked attempts to reach beyond our limits, what tool will we use, we brilliant, perplexing, confused, limited and limitless humans?  Words.  Against all reason, we’ll use words.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Touchstone.  Seamus Heaney, roaring with laughter in a fishing shack on the shores of Lake Winnebago, bottle of Guinness in hand.  We’re all throwing our best words at each other, down for the joy of it. 


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.