Category Archives: home

95% American

After weeks of studying and photocopying documents, my husband has passed his U.S. Citizenship test.  The six paltry questions the USCIS agent asked him (compared to the 100 he’s been studying from a booklet and a fabulous online tutorial from the Smithsonian) were a breeze:

What is the supreme law of the land?

What is the capital of your state?

What is an amendment?

Who did the United States fight during World War II?

To what do you show loyalty when you say the Pledge of Allegiance?

In fact, the only interview question that threw him for a loop was a procedural one: “Are you planning to change your name?” Flustered, he responded very soberly: “Not at this time.”  I asked him after the interview if that meant he might change his name in the future. He just rolled his eyes at me. We assume this question is asked of everyone but aimed at immigrant women who might take their American husband’s last name but have not yet done so officially, or at people who feel that being American requires a new name. So much for Ellis Island.

After the interview, at the US Immigration Services building in lower Manhattan, we walked around through the sun and snow and passed a crew filming scenes for Law & Order SVU (which in my house is always called Law & Order SUV). We even caught a glimpse of the star, Mariska Hargitay, sitting on a director’s-style chair while an assistant covered her in a thick down jacket like a blanket. (For the record, she seemed shorter in person but seemed chipper despite the cold and the early hour).  In addition to the citizenship test, I feel like we’ve passed some kind of New York rite-of-passage. Live here long enough and eventually you will see people filming Law & Order.

From there, we turned the corner to the Brooklyn Bridge and decided on a patriotic whim to walk across it. At first, we aimed just for the first arch, which actually takes a bit of time to reach.  I’d made it to this point several times as a tourist or with tourist friends, but today my husband looked at me and said: “Let’s walk the whole way. What do you say? We can take the subway back from Brooklyn.”

The sun was peaking delicately through soft clouds, hitting the Freedom Tower and S.’s favorite spiral skyscraper just so. A layer of soft, fresh snow decorated the clay-brown metal suspensions of the bridge but the wooden pedestrian walkway had been conveniently cleared of snow.  We were stopped twice on our trip across the bridge to take photos of tourists: on the Manhattan side, a Spanish-speaking couple. On the Brooklyn side, a group of French-speaking friends.  Neither S. nor I spoke French to them. I could tell they were French mostly from the buttons on their digital camera and words they exchanged amongst themselves as they got into their poses.  We smiled and whispered to ourselves as we left them “Ils sont français!”

Halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty comes into view, just past Governor’s Island. She’s small but distinct from there, dwarfed by the skyline of Lower Manhattan and the paraphernalia of shipping and docks.  But S. looked at her with a half-smile as if greeting a friend. One of the questions he studied but that was not asked was “Where is the Statue of Liberty?” Correct answers included: New York, New York Harbor, and (much to our dismay) New Jersey. As corny as many of the civics questions were and as unsettling as any direct interaction with government bureaucracy and codified values can make me feel, we both felt like the Statue was welcoming my husband.

“That’s for you,” I whispered. “She’s welcoming you like all the immigrants. Like my great-grandparents.”

I offered the only line of Emma Lazarus’s inscription that I can remember:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

My husband smiled and hugged me tight through our winter coats. “Wow,” he said, “That means something.”

I could tell that it did, but what I love about that moment and S.’s comment is that it was understated. It didn’t feel forced or cliché or like we were trying too hard to make a symbol out of it. We simply walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and looked at the Statue of Liberty because we could and it was there. How lucky we are to live in New York and be able to do that!  It was one of those moments where you feel New York lifting you up and holding you in her arms, suspended like a cradle, above the East River.  For the first time, I felt like that Bridge and that Harbor belonged to us.

We made it to Brooklyn, and then, in true New York fashion, were waylaid by subway delays on the 4-5-6 trains due to a mysterious “police investigation” on 77th Street. We missed our commuter train but got burgers and shakes at Shake Shack– short lines in the middle of a weekday are the perfect chance to see what all the fuss is about (apparently it’s about the shakes– the burgers and fries were fine but unremarkable).  Despite this all-American meal, S. reflected that he still wasn’t quite American yet because he has to wait for the official letter from USCIS with the appointment for his Oath of Citizenship, which should be in 4 to 6 weeks.

“So you’re only half-American,” I joked.

“No, I think I’m 95% American now,” he said with conviction. We’ve come a long way since I began this blog 5 years ago and my husband described himself as 60% American.

I wonder what my Dad would have said about this news. I know he would’ve been excited, proud, and sarcastic, but I wish that he’d been alive to help quiz S. on American history and civics…and to teach him the “truth” behind our beloved founding myths.  In so many ways, my Dad set the stage already, pushing S. towards his vision of America from the start.  In 2009, when our fiancé visa was being processed and the prospect of immigration was imminent but not yet concrete, my father sent my then-fiancé a children’s book about Paul Bunyan and a very beautiful letter. We reread that letter together last night, and now that his English has become fluent and he has gotten used to my jokes and Dad’s metaphors, the letter affected my husband very deeply. I’m sure the boost from 60% to 95% in the last 5 years had as much to do with my father as with me.

From that letter, here is my Dad’s reflection on what America means:

“America is so young that we do not have proper ‘myths.’ Myths take centuries of telling and believing to become the story of what a people are. They turn the incredible into the landscape of ideas that people live with all the time. They are all about the time before time, or the beginning before we began.

We have many little lies–‘white lies’ is what we say in English–that we Americans call ‘history.’ Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock and ‘making friends’ with the Indians; Pocahontas falling in love with Captain John Smith and saving him from being put to death; George Washington as a boy chopping down a cherry tree (like Eve in the Garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit), and then saying to his father, ‘I cannot tell a lie–I chopped down this tree.’ They are weaker than myths, but our school children learn them to begin their idea of America.

And we have big lies–‘whoopers!’–that Americans call Tall Tales. These are also stories for the nursery or school-room and are told somewhere just beyond the moon of fairy tales. They never happened, but they have a time and a place that still exist. Their heroes are ‘bigger than life’. In fact they are almost bigger than language, and it takes enormous lies to lift them from the ground and carry them across the country.

I hoped this little book might explain the idea of Paul Bunyan, who I thought might give you a broader idea of the American sense of size. We like to think Grand Canyons are created when we drag our axe behind us.”

Even nomads need their founding myths. This letter is a blessing and now an artifact of one of ours.

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that time i almost died

A year ago, I nearly died.   Melodramatic, perhaps, but that’s how it felt moving 0.5 mph down the Hutchinson River Parkway as a nor’easter blew snow sideways across an endless line of taillights and twilight descended ominously. My Nissan was moving so slowly that a ridge of snow piled up on the hood, several inches thick, a cumberbund of ice that eluded the furious swipes of the windshield wipers and defied the reach of the front defroster.

Foolish, I thought. I had foolishly chalked up the excitable panic of my coworkers and radio announcers to New York cyncism and a desire to use any excuse to shirk work. I’m from the Midwest—at the University of Wisconsin there had been only 1 snow day in the last 10 years when a freakish 2.5 feet of snow were dumped on Madison in one night.

Midwesterners pack a shovel and salt bags in their trunk and go about their business without the customary kvetching and clucking of a New York winter. I didn’t understand it. Winters here in New York were reliably obnoxious—there would be several snowfalls, and they may or may not melt before March, but nothing like the bitter cold and prairie whiteouts of Wisconsin. Midwesterners all carry a grudging respect for winter and The Elements. Like Ned Stark, they live their lives according to the undeniable precept that Winter is coming. Always. Those whose hubris leads them (literally) onto thin ice too early in the season become cautionary examples of the perils of treating Winter too casually. Wisconsinites know that Winter must not be treated like a meek friend. Winter is a righteous enemy, a quiet challenger who dons the boxing gloves religiously each year, not out of pride or petulance, but to balance the scales of cosmic justice.

In New York, though, Winter is treated like an annoying ex-boyfriend who manages to reappear–suddenly yet reliably–at the most socially inconvenient moments. You can hear New York City collectively hyperventilate before every storm: “Ugh. It’s you again. Can you believe the balls on this asshole? I swear to god, if he does this to me one more time, I’m filing a restraining order!” Winter, meanwhile, just smirks in a corner booth saying: “What? I told ya I wasn’t gonna stop coming here. This is my joint. I’m a regular.”

And this is the most perplexing aspect of a New York winter storm: despite its regularity, despite data collected over 100 years and relayed daily on WNYC from the tower in Central Park, New Yorkers always seem shocked and outraged by winter storms. The way the bread, milk, and toilet paper flee the shelves, you’d think we were in Georgia– which is to say, you’d think this were Manitoba (or, this year, Boston) where a 10-foot drift is guaranteed to blockade our front doors and leave us stranded from civilization for weeks on end.  Perhaps fear-induced shopping makes sense in Westchester County where a car is a necessity and roadways are poorly plowed. But in New York City, you’re a walk away from a bodega, deli, market, bagel shop or restaurant. You will not starve in New York, and you will not run out of batteries or toilet paper.

Given the typcial histrionics surrounding even a mild snowfall, I dismissed the weather reports and went to work anyway on that day in early February 2014. The snow was feather-soft and sparse at the beginning of the day, and the streets were relatively clean. Not Wisconsin clean, but we can’t hold a city of 11 million people to Wisconsin’s German Housewife standards of spotless byways. At around 3pm, I realized that perhaps I’d taken Winter too lightly. This was not the grungy, lovably-irresponsible ex-boyfriend. This was the full fury of the Old Gods breaching the Northern Wall. This was some supernatural winds-from-Canada polar vortex shit.

I got on the road at 3pm and immediately realized I should’ve left earlier. Not for the snow per se but because every other working adult in Westchester County was on the road at the same time. The snow was just beginning, lightly, as I got into my car. Any other day, I could’ve been home in 30 minutes. But the traffic and the sudden onslaught of sideways ice-daggers that Winter was about to expectorate all over the Hutchinson River Parkway meant that I was a long, long way from home.

It bears explaining that a parkway is not the same as a freeway, highway, beltway, or thru-way.  It is four lanes, two going each way, divided by a thin concrete barrier with barely any shoulder, very short on-ramps, and hardly any streetlights to speak of. Parkways were meant to be Sunday drives from the city to the suburbs. You might picture Cary Grant driving along one (rear-projection of course) in a 1939 Rolls Royce at 40 miles per hour while Katherine Hepburn or Irene Dunne engages him in witty screwball shenanigans. But in 2014, a parkway is a death trap– a narrow country road without the “country,” driven at 70-80 miles an hour (although the speed limit is 55) by executives and soccer moms in SUVs auditioning for parts in The Fast and the Furious.  Unlike a country road, there is always traffic on a parkway; unlike a highway, there is never enough room for it.

I could tell as soon as I came to the Problem Exit where three lanes spontaneously reduce to two, that I was in for a long drive. This is a poorly designed stretch that, on any average Friday afternoon, is always jammed with cars unprepared for the lanes to narrow and philosophically incapable of zippering.  Except on this day, it continued like that, bumper to bumper, for 2.5 hours. I listened to three podcasts: This American Life, Radio Lab, and some third marker of twee liberal intellectualism whose name now escapes memory. Let’s assume it was Freakonomics.  Traveling 2 miles per hour means that it takes an hour to go 2 miles, a fact which should have been self-evident from math class and common sense, but which became more palpably clear in practice than I care to relive.

My car has a “slippery” sensor that engaged many times in the stop-and-go traffic as I struggled to keep the car from swerving on the ice while avoiding cars that had broken down in the middle of the road.  The worse part were the red brake-lights in front of me, demanding constant attention to their unpredictable movements. It felt like some kind of NASA endurance test. The road that I’d driven countless times in the past year suddenly felt foreign. The skies, though nearly undetectable amid the falling snow, nevertheless grew steadily darker.  Soon the only lights were those of the cars around me.  The layer of snow mounted higher on my hood and obscured the tail-lights of the car in front of me. If I’d been able to drive just a little faster, the snow might have blown off due to aerodynamics. There was no escape.  All other routes were just as bad, even if you could find an exit to take.

I found myself remembering my Driver’s Ed. course in high school. My instructor was an old Wisconsin Tech. Ed. teacher with a thin beard the same grizzled color as his face. Unlike Santa’s or my father’s, this beard was in no way endearing. He was missing part of his thumb (presumably from a Wood Shop accident) and let me know right away that my driving was not up to par with the farm boys who had learned to drive at 12 years old on their family tractors. “Bridges are the first to freeze and the last to thaw,” he always said gravely, whenever we crossed an overpass. But those months of easing off the break on my parents’ 1991 Crown Victoria—antilock breaks? please! – returned to me like muscle memory as I coaxed the wheel into submission. I even made use of the overdrive feature on my automatic, the mysterious D1 and D2 grooves that are apparently used to improve traction.

As greedy SUVs barreled down the slender shoulder, already filling with snow drifts, I thought about how Wisconsinites drove in winter compared to New Yorkers. On the one hand, most drivers in New York, in my nonscientific sample, do slow down in rain or snow. Wisconsinites tend to plow ahead, imperviously. But the aggressive weaving in-and-out of traffic that New Yorkers are famous for is not a feature of Midwest driving outside of Chicago. My moment of moral victory occurred when a huge Escalade pulled around the cars behind me–like a rogue bull leaving the pack– to enter the service lane on the left shoulder. I knew from experience that this lane would narrow in a few hundred feet. Where did he think he was going?  Was this assclown really sitting there thinking he was smarter than the rest of us law-abiding fools? Normally in a blizzard, I would let a car pass me just to preserve everyone’s safety.  But not at 1 mile per hour. When he ran out of room and tried to weasel back into the Lane of the Sane, I didn’t let him in. This was an hour into my white-knuckle commute, and I wasn’t even halfway home. Nobody else let him in either, like true New Yorkers. The Escalade had to cower back into his original spot in line. I saw at least three cars on the side of the road, having spun out when they attempted the same stunt.

The worst accident I’ve ever witnessed was in 2008 when friends and I were returning to central Wisconsin from a trip to Chicago to see the opera Doctor Atomic. Unseasonably warm for January, the 40-degree weather began to melt the standing snow alongside highway I-90, creating a white-out snow-fog. There was a 30 care pile-up with semi-trucks (or “tractor trailors” in New York parlance) jack-knifed on both sides of the road. One hundred cars were part of the ensuing traffic jam. We were stuck in our car for 9 hours. Two hours in, my friends and I realized the absurdity of the situation and started making our Zombie Apocalypse inventory of supplies. We had a lighter, sleeping bags, extra clothes, tinder, a cellphone charger, an ice-scraper that could be easily weaponized, ¾ tank of gas, a car radio—though at the moment the radio was full of information advising drivers to avoid the accident but no instructions for those of us caught up in it. We were pretty much set, although we lacked food. We were less than 20 miles from Madison. One of my friends had a panic attack in the back seat and didn’t find the humor in our game. She was upset about missing an online gaming appointment, and she talked two cellphones dead.  Eventually the other three of us got out to stretch and walk, where we inspected the extent of the pile-up several yards ahead of our car. We peed in a clump of trees on the roadside, feeling quite adventurous and independent. We exchanged information and jokes with others who had left their cars to stretch: “Global warming’s a bitch, huh?” “Tell me about it! I live right off the next exit!” I taught my friends how to Charleston on the side of the road. My friend Ashley claimed recently that this was captured by a news helicopter and made the local news, though I didn’t know it at the time. At hour 7, the Salvation Army came by with Cheez-its, water bottles, and bologna sandwiches. I’ve never been so happy in my life that I don’t keep kosher. Ashley donated to the Salvation Army that year, but I couldn’t bring myself to give to those homophobic, proselytizing Santas my money (you can blame the twee liberal intellectual NPR podcasts for that, if you like). Eventually one lane of the highway was cleared enough for cars to pass through, single-file, and the fog dissipated as evening brought a reassuring chill—the kind of cold that Winter is supposed to be. We drove to our friend’s house on the East Side of Madison to spend the night before continuing North.

Despite that day-long ordeal, I’d never felt mortality behind-the-wheel as strongly as on the Hutchinson River Parkway during the polar vortex of 2014. When I finally got home, my eyes were as exhausted as my ass, and I had a permanent knot in my left shoulder. I was sweaty, but my feet were cold from an endless battle to defrost the windows while not overheating. I never found the sweet-spot; my car’s side windows frosted over like snow-globes every few minutes unless I maintained the heat at sauna-like temperatures. When I got home, of course, there were very few places to park. I had to drive around the block before I finally maneuvered my car into a flat patch amongst the snow-plow moraines. It was only 5:30pm but it felt like 9:00pm. I was thankful to be alive, on some level, beneath the scolding I was giving myself for being too brave, for taking winter too lightly.

My first thought when I got home was to call my father and say “I nearly died today.”  Although I’d stayed calm in the car, the gravity of the situation became apparent only later. In fact, I was a little proud of my winter driving chops and that I didn’t spin out like those other poor marooned bastards.  In the end, I didn’t call. I didn’t want to worry my parents. Although my dad never begrudged Winter for doing its duty, he would readily stay home from work if it was snowing during his commute. His commute, which he’d been doing for 16 years, was about as long as mine—20 to 30 minutes on a good day—although for me that was only 14 miles of suburban cut-throat driving on the anachronistically-named parkways, while for him commuting was on flat, open state highways in Wisconsin for about 20 miles. I didn’t call that night. I stayed home from work the next day as the snow continued to fall and the plows continued to wall-in my car behind a rampart of dirty ice.

My dad died unexpectedly about two weeks later. His heart ruptured. I went home as soon as I could. It was one of the coldest and snowiest winters Wisconsin had seen in decades. The day I got home, the day I saw his body, the skies were clear, crystalline blue with sun blinding off the snow banks. His death didn’t make sense to me, but the Wisconsin Winter did. My dad always liked Winter. “Like” is too strong a word—he was reconciled to Winter, whereas he was always skeptical of Summer with its fair-weather fans and false promises. My dad appreciated Winter.  Not for its evergreen magic or pristine beauty, but for its brutal honesty. Some would call it bitterness, but that’s not quite apt. Winter, like my father, was always honest. If it catches you by surprise, that’s only because you weren’t paying close enough attention.

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A Mighty Stream

My husband is studying for his citizenship test. He got tripped by the deceptively not simple question: “What is ‘the rule of law’?”

It’s a national value, apparently. Something I had to memorize in 9th grade civics along with “checks and balances.” Shorthand phrases like two lovers who are so used to using their own euphemisms for sex that they forgot the scientific words for it.  Rule of law.  According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, acceptable answers include:

  • Government must obey the law
  • Leaders must follow the law
  • Everyone must follow the law
  • Nobody is above the law

Tell that to the families of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Marin. Indictments and ass-kissing. Prosecutors protecting those who fail to serve and protect. Even if the cops who killed these unarmed African Americans WERE indicted, what if they were then found innocent, like George Zimmerman? The outcome might be the same as it is now. Cries of injustice. Deepening distrust of institutions. Riots and looting. Self-righteous white folks wondering why black people can’t just get over it already.

But at least the cops would face the Rule of Law. Get their day in court.  We will likely never know exactly what happened the night Mike Brown died, how high he raised his hands up, why the fuck Wilson fired his gun through his car door without calling for backup and then pursued and shot Brown–an unarmed teenager– six more times. Either way it is suspicious with seemingly enough probable cause to take it to trial. Maybe not homicide, but what about manslaughter, excessive force? In Eric Garner’s case, it’s clear the officer continued to choke him when he said “I can’t breathe.” I hadn’t seen the tape until today, only heard about it on NPR this summer.  Now I see the fuckery of it all. Garner is a big man. He was unarmed and angry, flustered, but not aggressive by any stretch. The cops were prejudiced, overzealous, out to make their numbers, trained to react as if they’re in hostile territory. None of this excuses his death. I doubt the cop intended to kill Garner over selling loose cigarettes, but he did use force excessive enough to kill him. Everyone agrees the chokehold was an illegal maneuver. Why isn’t that enough to bring to trial? Maybe not homicide, but manslaughter, excessive force?

Innocent or guilty, whatever degree of wrong they might be, I’m not on their jury. I don’t have all the facts that the grand juries did when they voted not to indict in these two cases. But if we’re drilling our 9th grade kids and our new citizens on ideals like “the rule of law” and upholding the Constitution, then where the fuck is our court of law?  Why do the police have a different set of laws applied to them?  Especially when the cop is white and the dead guy is black? It’s too obvious to state but so few in the media or government have stated it. I sound like a 9th grader myself. The situation became obvious to me when I finally saw the full Garner video. Of course the cops killed Garner. He’s a large black man. He’s John Coffee. He’s John Henry. He’s Nat Turner. He’s a Field Slave. He’s the image all those white cops had in their minds of a criminal, passed down and mutated across generations.

But you see, this shit doesn’t surprise my husband. Police abuse and kill innocent civilians all the time where he’s from. There are always stories. People are beat up and intimidated at checkpoints. Majorities oppress minorities. The government rules by fear and people get disappeared. Anyone with a gun, a small dick, and a uniform thinks he’s got the right to wave it around– and it’ll go off more often than not. What’s surprising to him about America is that we get offended about it when the authorities abuse their power. We are offended not just because it’s morally and ethically wrong, but because it contradicts our national values and our historical ideals. We expect more. Always, we expect more from America. The hard part for Americans has been understanding that expecting more from our country means we must expect more from ourselves.

That’s another question on the citizenship test: Mentioned in the first line of the Constitution, who is sovereign in America? Answer: We the People. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. That means that any failing of the institutions, the judicial system, or the rule of law is a failure of us to understand ourselves and to extend the rights we want for ourselves to all our fellow citizens.

White people have failed. Over and over again. Leaders have failed. Over and over again. This is why our institutions continue to be biased, racist, unfair. On some level, we let them. We the People let our institutions fail and oppress us. We fail because we see ourselves as separate, as individual bubbles in a stream heading in a direction beyond our control.  I got mine. You get yours.  Sure we protest and things do change bit by bit– progress is made but only with the kind of dedication and persistence that I fear my generation is short on. Only with the kind of leadership that understands who people really want to be, who they want to see themselves as. It’s encouraging to see people lying down on bridges and in streets across America, marching on town halls and squares, walking out on college campuses, peacefully protesting. It’s terrifying to see police in military hand-me-downs patrolling legal demonstrations in riot gear, trumping up bullshit reasons to corral peaceful assemblies and diffuse their righteous anger, their legal manifestations. Once you give police that kind of firepower with which to oppress you, it becomes very hard to take back your rights. Once you give Wall Street a blank check with which to mollify the masses, it becomes very hard to take back fair wages.

We fail because we bought the myth of individual self-sufficiency. Animosity has been replaced by complacency. I see Elizabeth Warren on the streets of Ferguson. Occupy Wall Street on the streets of Staten Island. Rodney King in Cleveland. It’s all connected. It’s all our collective failure. We the People see ourselves as separate, as individual bubbles tossed on the stream of history, heading in a direction beyond our control.  Many of us don’t even acknowledge there’s a current. Others fight against it, but keep getting pulled back under. A lucky few effervesce into the wave-peaks, white with foam. These champagne bubbles look down on their murky brothers and ask why they are too stupid or lazy to rise to the top too.

One hundred and fifty years later, and we’re still on that fucking raft with Huck and Jim, paddling the wrong way down the Mississippi, thinking we are free when we’re heading back towards slavery. Only if we move together can the river change directions until “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  America is a mighty stream. Put that on your naturalization test.  “What is the ‘rule of law‘?” Replace that with a truer question: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

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of all possible worlds

Glimmers as I walk under the naked trees in their perfect circles cut from pebbly pavement. Pools of frozen water crack at their roots; my boots make tiny earthquakes. Glimmers of songs, of stories. Flashes of another world I could retreat to–and do occasionally–in the snowglobe of the car, talking to myself and people who aren’t there. Home appears, and dinner, and fatigue like a drunkenness descends as the last rays of evening sunlight turn to black. The void is back. The stories gone, returned to their secret stones beneath the ice. I’m left with the silence of a thought departed. And I wonder how I let myself get left behind, in this of all possible worlds.

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Roots

I’m getting that nomad itch again. My roots start to reach down like tendrils and take hold of bedrock. That’s what roots do. They don’t care whether the ground is fertile, ideal, dry, moist, clean. Like Virginia Creeper they just grow out the soles of your feet.
The question is, do I cut them off? Do I stop them from taking hold? Can we be intentional about where we live? How do I know that this isn’t the right soil to grow a home in?

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Anniversary of Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene came and went with a whimper last year and left us with jugs of water that lasted three months.  I wrote on this blog about the lights staying on in Times Square. Now, as Tropical Storm Issac approaches the Gulf, I’m thinking back to last year when the hurricane threw a fork in the first week of the semester at my library, throwing everyone into a tizzy that did not dissipate until December.  I hope that this semester I can be better prepared for everything, but signs do not point to “yes.”   In any event, I dug up this poem I wrote last year, before the hurricane:

8.26.11

Preparing for a Hurricane

I once learned that Walmart tracked statistics
on the things people bought before a hurricane.
The most common purchases were not water,
toilet paper, bullets, but rather beer and pop-tarts.

It’s 9:30pm and Stop n’ Shop is not too busy
but there is a special on bottled water
and a shortage of D batteries from here to New Jersey.

It reminds me of snowfall in Virginia:
the panic, the wonderbread flying off the shelves.
I am armed with a print-out from the Red Cross
distributed by my local surrogate Jewish mother:

Flashlights, nonperishable food,
three gallons water per person, per day.
Find your local hurricane shelter,
buy a ham radio.  Have an emergency blanket.
Make copies of your passports.  Get extra cash.
Board up your windows with plywood.
Have extra pet supplies (leash, kibble, kitty litter).
Fill your tank with gas.  Don’t use candles for light.
Don’t open your refrigerator in a black-out.
Charge everything the night before.

So we check off the list haphazardly.  No pop-tarts
for us but macaroni and cheese.  My husband
absconds with a watermelon, half-hoping New York
will be the center of a hurricane and we will
sit back and watch spitting our seeds on
the Chrysler building.

I left the Midwest for this?  Where are my blizzards
and tornadoes?  Where is the lake that flooded dry?
I plug in everything, phones, laptops, ipods,
knowing that loneliness is the one predictable
casualty of every storm.

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sendak

Ida blow your wonder horn.
Summon back your baby brother
from the goblin’s breath.

In melancholy, there is beauty,
and all the shades
of rage and harmony

painted out into a wild
rumpus of things
grown-ups pretend to repress.

It was simpler then
to just like the things
you liked.

To just be the things
you read. To just
put on a wolf suit.

You saw it.
You loved it.
You ate it.

And it was still hot.

 

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the economist speaks

“I’m not a Marxist” he began.  His white goatee looked vaguely Russian, while his white ponytail seemed inspired by some lesser-known Steve Martin film.  “But let me lay out to you the dialectic of materialism, which we are seeing today, in America, and which is the foundation of this divide between the one percent and the ninety-nine that we have all been chanting about.”

The attendees of the Occupy Wall Street forum sat in a loose circle of folding chairs in a cold prayer room in Brooklyn.  There was a faint smell of artichokes and coffee and perhaps a residue of tofu or lentil soup.  The crowd was fed, full, many still wearing scarves or vests or jackets indoors. But the room was brightly lit and the spotlight was on the Economist who was about to speak.

His credentials were not laid out explicitly, but he spoke like a professor.  Rather, the members of the group deferred to him as one might defer to a professor, according him a degree of respect and authority that had not fully been conferred upon other speakers.  Oh, there was politeness, reassuring nods, a play of open minds and open ears.  There was the passing of a tiny tape-recorder like a modern day conch shell or talking stick denoting that a new, valued contributor was about to speak.  But the woman who talked about a lesbian/gay/transgendered co-op while keeping her eyes fixed on the floor and the vehement firefighter who presented Wikipedia research on Keynes scrawled in sharpie on a poster board were (justly or unjustly) not given quite as much attention as the white-haired man with glasses who was, we were told, an economist.

  “What has happened, in the last 60 years or so is the codification of the Market-State Duopoly.” And he began, patiently, to make his case.  “What is money?  It’s the exchange value of a commodity.  And what is a commodity?  It’s an abstract value based on labor.  Anything we can sell, any commodity, can be valued in terms of the number of hours of work that went into its creation.

“What has happened in our society with this duopoly is that money has been hoarded by the very few, hiked up artificially in value via interest rates, thought of as an end in and of itself.  When money itself becomes a commodity, bought and traded on the stock market, then labor is commoditized as well.  And when that happens, people become the ultimate commodity.  Each of us here has a value, in money.  Each of us has a price tag in terms of the amount of labor we are able to produce.  It’s callous to say it, but practically speaking, it’s how the system now operates.

“Money began as a social relationship.  You trusted my marker because you knew me, or knew mutual friends who would vouch for me and ensure that I would pay.  It was an exchange of labor—my eggs for your fish. My time for your time. But with our current unfettered capitalistic system, the social exchange is devalued, and social relationships are replaced with relationships to things.  People are thus reduced to nullity.  We become what we own.”

The Economist cleared his throat.  His voice was smooth, like a storyteller.  He rested one boot on the opposite knee, making a casual kite with his limbs, as if we were sitting around a campfire.  His hand rested lax upon his knee.  Younger people and one older, bearded man were sitting on the floor, writing down snippets of the Economist’s wisdom with magic markers on a long roll of light brown butcher paper.  Earth Grandma kept tiptoeing out of her chair to nudge her recording device closer and closer to the speaker.  Her attempts to be invisible only made her more noticeable.  Every so often, when the Economist came to a particularly salient point, members of the audience would nod and wiggle all ten fingers towards the ceiling to display agreement.

“Advertisements are beautiful, aren’t they?”  the Economist continued with a wry smile.  “But they have a beauty that is simultaneously nauseating.  This is how they keep us believing that things are what matter—that money is not labor—that we are what we own.  And look at how we live:  In single unit apartments.  In suburbs.  The social relationships we have in our workplaces are severed as soon as we start the evening commute.  We go home to a different community entirely, interacting mostly with just one other person—a spouse—or children in a so-called nuclear family. We watch TV, exhausted from the day because the value of our labor is being outpaced by the cost of living.  Value and price in complete disequilibrium.  And so we sit in apartments surrounded by strangers, and we watch TV, and we see the ads…”

“No,” said the older man sitting on the floor.  He had a wiry grey beard and a craggy face like a sea captain or a fed-up Walt Whitman.  He had been on the floor, stretched out as if reclining on an invisible chaise lounge made of moss.  But now he rose to his feet, angrily, wiggling all ten fingers down towards the ground.  “I don’t see how this is helping.  Frankly, I think that what you’re saying is not true and not in the spirit of the movement.  I’ve heard enough.”

“If you’d let me finish—” began the Economist.  He sounded surprised, perhaps because he’d thought it was clear from his satirical tone that he was building up to a counterpoint.  Or perhaps he was surprised because a speaker of cultural and economic truths did not expect a challenge in a such friendly, open environment.

“No, I think we should move on. You’ve talked for twenty minutes about doom and gloom. People don’t live like that.  I don’t live like that.”  The angry Sea Captain had spoken earlier in the day about inter-generational gardening with his grandchildren at a local community garden.  He was in favor of alternative currencies and everything eco-friendly.  He had a vague penchant to side with the conspiracy theorists in the room, and he had looked as if he’d walked, fresh from planting the seeds of the future, straight into the Forum. But this, it would seem, was too much for him, this portrait of modern urban American life, of hard-working people stuck between middle class and bourgeois, mollified by advertisements and fatigue into accepting the status quo.

In fact, when the Economist was talking, I was thinking about my own living room and my one-room, 600 sq. ft. apartment in the suburbs that costs more in rent each month than most people’s mortgages in the Midwest.  I was thinking about my drive home from work in the evenings.  How the twilight is unfriendly, almost unbearable sometimes, and makes me wonder if this town I live in, this plastic county, which I chose by accident and necessity, can be a real place. And I think about the reruns I will watch, the food I will reheat, as the silence of streetlamps guides me home.

“I’m trying to make a larger point,” said the Economist.  But the Forum was now in uproar.  Most of the scolding was directed at the old Ecologist.

“Let him speak,” said a man named Echo calmly, sitting in a lotus position in his white socks, Birkenstocks tucked under his chair like a pair of dozing puppies.  “This is a Commons. We hear everyone out.”

“You may not live like that, but lots of people do,” said an earnest young man sitting behind me who worked on an organic farm in Vermont.  “What he’s describing is true for a lot of people.  Good for you that you’re living off the grid, that you have a community around you.  But that’s not everyone.  That’s not most people.”

The Economist tried to pick up the thread again, but his face was weary like Trotsky.  “I used to work on Wall Street. I used to work for the Fed.  And briefly in a Swiss Bank, as a trader.  But I couldn’t do it any more.  It got to be too much.”

He wasn’t more specific.  He didn’t place his own experience in the context of a market-state duopoly or a dialectic of anything.  All he said, as a true professor would, was:

“I don’t have the solutions.  I’m just trying to put what’s happening in context for you.  But I will say just one more thing, if you’ll let me finish,” he paused to allow the disgruntled Ecologist to grumble an assent.  “I am paraphrasing, but Thomas Jefferson said something to the effect of: ‘If you allow private bankers to control the money supply, they will end up by bankrupting the nation.’”

The audience began wiggling their fingers, pointed at the ceiling, in accord.  Chairs began to scrape on the wood floor, which badly needed waxing.  A break was proposed by one of the moderators.  A few other people spoke up, but nobody was really listening. The Occupy Forum was an endless floor, an open mic for the disenchanted and the undaunted alike.

And as his talking points were rearranged in the low murmurs of elapsed time and short attention spans, I watched the Economist’s face sink.  It would have been fitting if he had cleaned his glasses like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon or the owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library.  But he did not clean them.  And within minutes, all the clarity that he had built up in his argument, his lesson on how history repeats itself, had dissipated, joining the smell of quinoa and kale coming from the kitchen.  I had taken faithful notes, but by the time the next session began, I could no longer hold on to that slippery, fascinating tension I’d felt when the Economist was interrupted by the Ecologist.  And all his words that had made so much sense to me—that I felt deep in my stomach to be true— had evaporated like the mist beneath a yellow streetlamp on my drive home through the dusk.

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pittstop

There is something soothing about sleeping in the back seat of a car, especially as a child. Defying the perils of the road and slipping into comfort.  Allowing speed and motion–which could turn deadly in an instant– to lull you into a calming half-sleep.  There is power in vulnerability.  We must remember that.

I remember driving back to Oberlin from Pittsburgh my junior year.  It was four or five a.m., and four of us were in Michael’s 20-year-old beige Volvo.  The leather seats were not quite cracked, yet not quite softened.  We’d been dancing all night.  At Pittstop.  It was one of the first swing exchanges that we had been to as solid, intermediate dancers; one of the first dances where we weren’t following the addictions of our mentors, the seniors and juniors who came before us, the upperclassmen who had taught us how to dance and infected us (Lis called us “pod people”) with the lindy bug.  This was our  pursuit of the Swing Dragon– looking for that dancing high that hooks you and leaves you blissfully stranded in mid-song, out of time, straddling the twilight and the dawn with swing-outs and triple steps.  We had followed the Swing Dragon that night, and we had found it.

As usual, we got lost on Squirrel Hill on the way across the Hot Metal Bridge to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Ballroom.  The band was either the Boilermakers or George Gee and His Orchestra, either way a favorite.  The floor was fast.  The four of us–two boys, two girls– spent quite a bit of time dancing close to the stage, letting the music unstick any stray thoughts so we could lindy and blues dance on waves of notes.  Midway through the night, I remember watching a group of dancers break into the Big Apple, which at that point I’d never seen before.  In the middle of the circle of dancers was a smiling guy on crutches who hopped around on one leg, having broken the other in an aerials tragedy just before the big dance weekend.  At lindy exchanges, the goal is to dance with as many new people as possible and to reconnect with old friends from other cities.  We had done that all night, and now, reconvened, the four of us were heading back to Oberlin. Back home.

It was November, so I’m sure we had midterm papers and lots of homework awaiting us. (Back then, I was able to sleep until noon after an exchange, go to Stevenson Dining Hall to eat an omelet, and move about my day without further readjustment.  No jet-lag, headaches, crankiness or symptoms of sleep-deprivation.)  But despite our impending term papers, we felt that the three-hour jaunt to Pittsburgh to dance on one of the smoothest floors with one of the friendliest crowds in the region was an essential venture.  Traveling is where you find the lindy dragon, of course.  And, having accomplished our goals of dancing with So-and-So from Columbus , trying out new swivels or sugar pushes, and scoping out new partners, we were pleased to be reunited in contentment and fatigue in Michael’s car, heading home in the dark under clear black skies with jazz to accompany us.

I can’t remember in detail a single dance from that night, although I know I wore a pink newsboy cap.  But I do remember falling asleep in the back of the Volvo in the wee hours of the morning, past Youngstown, half-lying down in the middle seat with the seat belt lax, tucked under my arm.  Our bubbly recaps of the evening trailed off, and as I nodded off, Brandon, who was sitting next to me in the back seat, put his arm protectively across my shoulders.  He was wearing a leather jacket which had a comforting leather smell.  When I awoke from a kind of twilight sleep, we were just leaving a gas station in Northern Ohio and “Hard Times” was playing from the stereo.  It was a saxophone version, instrumental.  Michael had once played the sax solo in jazz band in high school, and it was one of his favorite pieces.  I didn’t move, just stayed resting there, with Brandon’s arm around me, and Michael humming along, and the dark highway interrupted by the blinking yellow traffic lights on Lorain Street as we headed into town.

I think we all were holding our breath there, appreciating the prolonged moment of the drive on 80 West, content to be in the same place, sharing the same experience, for as long as it would last.  When I miss dancing now, what I really miss was that car ride home.

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made of ice

1/20/12

I had a hunch that something would happen in Milwaukee.  I just knew it. I could feel the protective veil of Wisconsin—which I imagine looks like a halo made of snow—dissolving around me.  Have I worn out my stay or have I made too short a pitstop?

An hour on the tarmac– that word is no good here; it conjures up black asphalt and reflective tape, Presidents waving, the Beatles being swarmed. But today it was a tundra, a white, flat maze with small ruts carved out by alligator golf carts and baggage trucks.  We spent an hour on the tarmac, waiting as a Wisconsin woman in a neon parka hosed down the plane from a cherry-picker with de-icer the color and consistency of Agent Orange. The powder faded to green.  We were still on the tarmac. Finally they told us there was a mechanical problem.  After another set of “fifteen to twenty minutes” promises, we were “deplaned.”  Spit back out the belly of the aluminum whale and into the Mitchell Airport terminal again. I spent the rest of the afternoon turning on and off my phone, thinking of Grandma in the hospital, thinking of the calls I couldn’t make.

Wisconsin, why did you do this to me?  I thought.  But it’s like Lucy asking Ricky if he’ll let her in the show.  She knows the answer already but she just has to ask again.  Their relationship depends upon that request.  Wisconsin, I knew you would do this to me.

Meanwhile, it was 75 in Dallas, we were told.  And sunny.  Other airplanes took off, silver into white snow.  The little glowing batons held by the air traffic controllers stood out like red foxtails in the tundra.  Airplanes took off.  It wasn’t the snow, you see, but mechanics that caused our delay.

They fixed the plane. We re-planed from whence we had just deplaned.  Another 45 minutes.  A fresh coat of deicer.  A fresh set of promises of movement. A stale swath of “I do apologize once again…” from the flight crew.  The skies turned black.  Tracks worn by luckier aircraft showed us our way.  We took off, and there was no joy in leaving, no joy in the wait being over.  No joy in the fact that I suspected all along Wisconsin would do what it does best.

Why is Milwaukee en route to Dallas? Only the airline company can answer that.  But I sometimes feel that Wisconsin is en route to everywhere I go now, grabbing at my ankles with that white halo, a lasso made of ice.

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