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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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