first day of school

Schoolgirl rhythms never quite leave you.
Summer holds its breath and then
the bad dreams come back:

a prison of lockers, tests
not studied for, classes
not attended, degrees
not earned.

You can still wear new shoes,
see old faces, hope
this year will be different.

Teachers are like farmers,
beholden to the calendar,
shaking their rakes at ideas
that settle, errantly, like crows,
trying to remember all their names.

 

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Upstate

“You’re not excited to see where you were born?  I’m more excited than you are!” my husband told me as we packed for a weekend trip to upstate New York last weekend.

“I have no opinion about that,” I said, like Fat Charlie the Archangel from a Paul Simon song my dad loved.

The house where I was born is still the same, only smaller.  Low.  Flat.  White siding.  Rust-red shutters.  Everything gets smaller, the older we get.  If “home” can be defined by longing, then there was no longing–and no home– here.  That house, with the long hallways made for “piggy ball” and chasing little brothers, with the strange Victorian newsprint wallpaper in the bathroom, with the basement that smelled like basements everywhere. The basement slightly terrified me because you could see through the stairs and there was a paper Halloween witch on one of the closet doors, but once I got downstairs, I would feel reassured by the sounds of my dad’s typewriter. Whether they changed the interior or not, this house itself does not feel like home.  At one time, it was all I knew.  At one time, it was “ours.”  Now, it doesn’t even feel like the memory of  home.

 

house where i was born (so to speak)

the house where i was born (so to speak)

We left upstate New York for Virginia when I was eight.  In comparison, moving to Wisconsin at thirteen was a much harder adjustment.  I have happy memories of New York, but they are childhood’s memories: watching and later acting out The Wizard of Oz with friends, learning to swim in the town pool, sharpening sticks in the backyard, which was really one big backyard that stretched the whole block and felt wild and vast.

The town also looks the same.  In the forgiving light of the evening, with softly intense sunlight sneaking down at angles after a sudden downpour, the town looks quaint and adorable.  In the right light, even the outskirts, the dead-fish factories, the dilapidated barns, the pick-up truck cab that’s now a planter in someone’s front yard, all look rather charming.  The woods, the corn, the rolling hills have a Thoreau appeal.  In a romantic mood, you can still imagine forests and Iroquois hunters dominating the Mohawk Valley, much like Cooper and Irving did (with all their “noble savage” nostalgia).  But romance only goes so far.  I know how much the children-of-the-corn fields viscerally perturbed my father, how the black country roads at night starred in my mother’s anxiety dreams, how many times I said “I’m bored” during the long summers.  I liked it there as a kid, not because of some Norman Rockwell ideal of leaving your backdoor open, kids running loose and catching lightning bugs, and neighbors looking out for each other, but because my parents and their friends consciously created entertainment and community and culture for us.  In the summers, the parents took turns teaching us to swim or sew or play baseball, according to their talents.  My dad drove us to parks and old forts and the movies, making our Subaru gallop up and down winding country roads–blasting Bruce Springsteen on the radio of course– in lieu of a roller coaster.

It would seem my inherent distrust of winter— born of my respect for its inevitability– applies to memory as well.  I’m not a very stalwart nomad. I never learned to shed an old land like an old season.  There can be no homelessness without nostalgia.  But as a homeless nostalgic, I try to make sure I’m at least being nostalgic about the right home.  And home, I’ve come to find, is so much more time than it is place.

I envy people like my husband, for whom, “home” is a specific pale blue-and-yellow house with a metal door and white lace curtains that billow in the breeze in the city up a hot, slanting hill.  He grew up there; his people are still there; this was the home he left when he moved to France to seek his fortune.  He is greeted like a prodigal celebrity when he returns to his neighborhood, shaking hands with every neighbor on the block.  I almost can’t understand what he means when he talks about missing home or being homesick.  It’s so unified. So succinct.  To miss your mother is the same as missing your old bed, as missing the laundry flapping on the terrace while you kick a soccer ball with your sister, as missing childhood. Or if not the same, at least they’re very close.

What I miss about upstate New York were the Friday night dinners with other families in our “Play Group,” and the creative thrill of building a stick fort or inventing a new game with other kids.  I miss the immersiveness of playing dress-up as a child. I miss my love-hate relationship with the texture of our old saggy couch that gave me carpet burns.  I miss how my dad used to refer to himself as a poet back then, even if it sometimes sat strangely on his tongue.

I’m not sure what my husband learned about me from seeing the house I was born in. On our last trip to Algeria, I think he started to understand the phrase “you can’t go home again,” because he recognizes how much living in America has changed him.  But that cement house–that street–that city will always be his one-and-only boyhood home. My mom, who came with us, didn’t seem to be nostalgic about the old house or that time “in the slightest.”  We had a great weekend. We saw old friends, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I marveled at how much smaller our friend’s house appeared to me, after 25 years, my mom replied: “It’s always been a small house.”

Other houses I’ve lived in– and some that I have only visited– have felt more like home, and the impossibility of returning to other places, other times twists the knife of homesickness much more than this little white ranch house in upstate New York.  Now this house is just a security question: “What’s the address of your childhood home?”  As if such a thing could ever be so clear-cut!  When I answer it, I always have to remember which “home” I designated, and I always curse the inventors of such questions, who obviously grew up as privileged, sheltered people who never got to move and never felt like nomads.

 

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an honest man and an honest writer

After my father died, I set myself the goal of reading all the books he’s sent me before this year ends. I started with this biography of E.B. White. I wanted so much to share my thoughts on the book with my father, so I did what I would have done if he were still alive: I wrote him a letter, which I am excited to share with you now.

3.17.14

Dear Dad,

I just finished The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims, which you sent me for my birthday or maybe Christmas (or perhaps no reason at all) last year or the year before that. I have the letter you sent with it in my filebox, I’m sure.  I began to read the book once, making it past the forward and into the first chapter, but I couldn’t overcome my love-hate relationship to nonfiction.  It wasn’t until we moved to Mount Vernon and I could imagine walking down to Summit Avenue past the corner where E.B. White’s boyhood home stood or perhaps still stands, that I felt compelled as if by some giant magnet to finish reading it.  I marked the cross-streets where the house once stood and, as soon as the weather warmed up, I looked for it. There weren’t really any remnants of the barn–just a garage that’s seen better days, but here is a photo of E.B. White’s childhood home as it is today:

Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY

Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY

Sims’ style is breezy and rich like good travel writing—he clearly has tried to inhabit White and bring him back to life.  He is an unabashed fan and doesn’t hide behind the mask of professional distance, doesn’t force himself to be critical just for the sake of seeming “fair and balanced” or “provocative.” I imagine Elwyn Brooks White growing up in a Vincent Minelli version of Mount Vernon full of sledding hills in winter and lush lawns and carriages in summer.  There used to be a vaudeville theater on Gramatan Avenue!  Was it next to Maggie Spilane’s? Or on what’s now the “dodgy” end, past the roundabout with the fountain where rundown barbershop polls are frozen next to delis selling lotto tickets and greasy kabobs?  You’d think I would have seen a decayed facade… I did see Lincoln Elementary School, probably on the same grounds where Elwyn went to school in the 1910s—one hundred years ago!—but now as a sterilized 1970s brown brick building.

Equally engaging was Sims’ account of young Elwyn—redubbed Andy by his Cornell frat buddies after a beloved college founder, Andy White (no relation)— entering the literary world.  Andy’s first publications were poems and essays of a nature-writing variety sent to the children’s magazine Saint Nicholas. In my History of Reading and Readers class at library school, one of my classmates researched the publication history of Saint Nicholas, the first American magazine for and by children. I felt a twinge of proud librarian expertise at the recognition of the name. (I did learn something at my fancy school.) Sims documents with a historian’s precision but a fan’s devotion the literary culture of New York in the 1920s, detailing the newspapers, satirical rags, and high literary magazines that populated the newsstands in Grand Central station during that golden age of American print. He imagines–apocryphally, but who cares?–Andy picking up the first issue of The New Yorker at the news kiosk next to Grand Central’s globe clock with early morning light streaming in from the high, rounded cathedral windows. Having seen the streaks of light across the marble floors, I could fill in rest: the wooden benches (all removed now to discourage the homeless) that once filled the hall, the train schedules (that still exist) flipping over with mechanical clacking like clockwork dominoes, the newsboys in caps and knickers, the ladies in cloche hats carrying portmanteaux or parasols.  And Andy, who was too skinny to be drafted in World War I, delighting in this cheeky new upstart magazine, The New Yorker, and deciding—to hell with his advertising job!—he would submit something.

Publishing seemed so open back then. Although there were more daily publications, there seemed to be freer reign. Perhaps fewer writers were available than today, since comparatively fewer people were highly educated or went to college?  Perhaps Sims was exercising a bit of biographical determinism by making Andy’s rise to a writing career seem simpler than it was. Or perhaps the 1920s and 1930s really were a scrappier time when an adolescent America was hungry for taste-makers and experimentation, and where print reigned supreme in the media kingdom, despite the oncoming storm of Talking Pictures? I was left feeling both invigorated, as a writer, by E.B. White’s origin story and a little despairing: “if only publishing were still that simple…”

The descriptions of New York bustle, which Sims recreates from historical research and copious close readings of Andy White’s regular “Comments” columns from years of New Yorkers, drew me further into his story.  Again, I saw yesterday’s New York waving behind today’s.  Yet Andy White himself regularly sought refuge from the city, eventually moving to a farm in Maine, near where he’d vacationed as a boy.  This farm and his childhood barn and love for animals of all kinds, particularly birds, cows, and dogs, spawned Charlotte’s Web.  That’s the contention of Michael Sims who quite convincingly uncovers references to animals—especially spiders—in Andy’s early writings dating to childhood and his New Yorker days.  It’s the animal-lover side of E.B. White that I identify with least.  As much as I can appreciate natural beauty when confronted with it and enjoy anthropomorphism in literature, I don’t feel the same connection with animals that lead E.B. White to spend a year researching the life and death of barn spiders.  Nor can I easily put aside my disgust and enmity for the mouse that seems to be living in our stove when I read about young Elwyn taming a mouse who used to visit his childhood bedroom in Mount Vernon, eventually inspiring Stuart Little. The brilliance of Charlotte’s Web and White’s writing is that he made Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton and farm life real for children all over the world.  Reading Charlotte’s Web at age 6 or 7, I did learn–at least morally– to respect and empathize with spiders and pigs.  Recently, my librarian friend Angie’s 9-year-old son explained to me that he has decided to be a vegetarian because of Wilbur.

As I wrote two years ago upon seeing the real toys that inspired Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library, the literature of childhood resonates with people in a visceral way that is hard to describe and analyze.  That makes Sims’ biography all the more impressive to me.  He captures the frenzy, excitement, and setbacks of the writing and editing process, and he includes reproductions of White’s manuscripts. As the chapters get closer to the publication and success of Charlotte’s Web, the reader experiences emotional reactions of recognition—“Aha, finally, this is the part I know!”—and revelation—“I didn’t know that! So that’s how it happened.”  When influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore panned Charlotte’s Web as she had panned Stuart Little, I felt professional shame on behalf of all librarians!

I finished the E.B. White biography alongside a visit to the Morgan Library’s exhibit of manuscripts and draft drawings from The Little Prince, which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in 1942 as an expat in New York. I was struck by how similar both men were in their writing processes and beliefs about how to write for children, yet how different their personalities seemed to be.  Saint-Exupéry was a daredevil who felt restless in Manhattan and wrote the French military for special permission to reenlist as a pilot in North Africa.  Just as his novel was taking off, he disappeared during a solo recon mission over the Sahara dessert in 1944 at age 44. By contrast, E.B. White suffered from hay fever and sinus problems throughout his life and went through periods of chronic and possibly psychosomatic illnesses, yet he lived into his 80s and died at home in Maine in 1986.  Saint-Exupéry never fully mastered English but was part of the French expat community in New York, which eventually lead him to meet the wives of two American publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock, who ended up publishing Le Petit Prince, first in French then a few months later in English, here in New York.  It wasn’t until 1945 that the novel was reprinted and more widely distributed by a French publisher, Gallimard, in France. By then, Saint-Exupéry was already missing over the Sahara, leaving only his ID bracelet and some plane parts behind. This broken bracelet sat in a display box at the Morgan Library, making me wonder if Antoine had in fact evaporated like his Little Prince and traveled back to his home planet.

The two authors never met, although they could have, in theory. Surely E.B. White was summering in Maine in 1942-43 while Saint-Exupéry was busy sketching elephants inside boa constrictors in a rented house on Long Island.  Michael Sims’ biography mentions that E.B. White’s wife, Katherine Angell White, a long time fiction editor for The New Yorker, where they met, reviewed The Little Prince for the magazine. In her brief review of the novel, Katherine quoted their young son, Joe White, as saying somewhat critically that: “The author seems to be writing about grownup things in a childish way.”  In contrast, E.B. White seems to write about childhood in a grownup way. He peppers Charlotte’s Web with sly vocabulary lessons; Charlotte is always defining words for Wilbur including: aeronaut, humble, salutations, and her last name, taken from the genus and species of her type of barn spider: Charlotte Aranea Cavatica.

Yet, to me, there seem to be more stylistic similarities than differences between Charlotte’s Web and Le Petit Prince.  Neither book shies away from death or making larger points about life and morality; both are deeper than most children’s books appear. Both books were whittled down expertly, mostly by the author-as-editor, to their essence.  According to the Morgan Library exhibit, Sainte-Expuéry’s first manuscripts were nearly double the word count of his final draft.  White struck out entire passages and scenes, reworking Charlotte’s Web for a couple years before sharing it with his editor.

Perhaps the difference lies in the space between the sentences.  The simplicity of language in Le Petit Prince undercuts deep and obscure meanings. It’s airy and metaphorical, a fable fallen from the stars. In contrast, Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of concision and clarity, a fable grounded in the earth. E.B. White uses language that’s been refined and revised down to its core to present an unmistakable truth.  The difference could be explained in part by the inherent Frenchness of Le Petit Prince—its roots in LaFontaine fables and the darker fairytales of Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson whose Little Mermaid was one inspiration for the Little Prince. This contrasts with the inherent Americanness of the farm setting and folksy human characters in Charlotte’s Web.  The illustrations, essential to both books, also carry different weight: Saint-Exupéry’s colorful petit bonhomme, playful proportions, and winking stars are ethereal and whimsical, while Garth Williams’ black-and-white ink drawings are grounded, accessible, and realistic.  (According to Sims, Williams agonized over how to make Charlotte a charming but still scientifically accurate spider.)

The main difference, finally, is that in Le Petit Prince, Saint-Exupéry orbits around a mysterious core, searching for those essential things that are invisible to the eye.  In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White serves up the essential on a silver platter. Saint-Exupéry says: “You can see the truth if you look closely enough.”  E.B. White says: “Look, the truth was here all along.”

Love,

Your Daughter

P.S. According to Sims, , E.B. White borrowed the final line of Charlotte’s Web from his wife Katherine: “It’s not often someone comes along that’s a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”  Katherine publicly defended her husband’s essay-writing against a scathing New York Times critic, writing in her reply: “They [the critic’s words] are not words that should be applied to anyone who is an honest man and an honest writer. Andy is both.”  How small his change of “honest man” to “true friend,” yet how it makes all the difference!

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couple at panera

a very young woman at Panera
is pushing back the cuticles
of a man with tattoo-sleeves

she is scraping his nails with hers
with a mason’s intensity
with a surgeon’s finesse

he has to be in love
why else would he submit
to such a public grooming?

she has to be in love
why else would his cuticles
bother her so much?

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Jon Stewart, Meet Me At Camera Three

Like many fans and critics, I’ve been preemptively nostalgic about the impending end of Jon Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show. When Jon announced his retirement, I was astonished and moved. From my adolescence until now, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show was a constant, a salvo, an adult version of a bed-time story. Particularly in the Bush years, but equally today, it has been an oasis of sanity in an ever-darkening geopolitical climate and an ever-sensationalized media landscape.

For someone who came of voting age just eleven months after 9/11 and who came into the workforce during the Great Recession, it has been reassuring to hear a voice of truth and humor cutting through the bullshit and the darkness and telling me: “You’re not alone. There is still sanity somewhere. As long as we all know this is fucked up, and we acknowledge it, all is not lost.”  I’ve lived in red states, blue states, purple states, and blaze orange cheesehead states. I’ve lived in a socialist country, a former Capital of the Confederacy, the Big Apple, and the People’s Republic of Madison. Jon Stewart kept me centered through it all and reminded me that I was not alone as a Jew, a progressive, a skeptic, an educator, a nerd, a lover of nuance, and an aficionado of dick jokes.

I started watching The Daily Show with my dad in 1998, when we got cable and Comedy Central for the first time. My father, the funniest and smartest man I’ve ever known personally, was channel surfing for some late-night stand-up and instead found a young comedian in a big suit with a Carlinesque wit. The Daily Show became an instant household habit, overtaking The Tonight Show, the nightly news, and even SNL’s Weekend Update in our esteem. The madcap antics of the Stephens (Carell and Colbert) and the other correspondents during the hanging chads of Indecision 2000 had us hooked. I remember thinking John McCain was cool because he was willing to joke around with Jon and Stephen Colbert at the New Hampshire primary (McCain, what happened?!). My dad was a Catholic atheist, and my mom a Jewish agnostic, so my family especially enjoyed Colbert’s “This Week in God” segments and Lewis Black’s rants about the “War on Christmas.” I identified with little things like when Jon asked Israel or Iran tomeet me at camera three” for a personal appeal/take-down or remarked during an interview: “I’m Jewish, and my wife’s Catholic. We’re raising our children to be sad.”

In college, especially during the War in Iraq and Indecision 2004, my classmates and I crowded around the TV in the dorm lounge to watch Jon every night. We would usually talk politics and joke around afterwards, ignoring Crank Yankers or whatever bullshit Colin Quinn show filled the 11:30 slot in the years before The Colbert Report. During Spring Break in 2004, my roommate and I introduced her parents to The Daily Show, and both her liberal mom and conservative dad became regular viewers of what they called “the Funny News.”

When I moved to France after college in 2006, discovering Daily Show episodes at Comedy Central online felt like a small miracle (streaming was still pretty new then). Jon Stewart was my cure for homesickness, where I turned to find out what was really going on back home. It was worth all the buffering and watching the same Chevy commercial ad nauseum to hear Jon joke about the man who apologized to Dick Cheney for being shot in the face by Dick Cheney, or try fruitlessly to convince Bill O’Reilly that a stuffed teddy bear he’d offered him was definitely without a doubt NOT a panda bear, or hone his spot-on George W. Bush chortle.

Several of my French colleagues eagerly professed to me their love of Jon Stewart, as if confirming their proud membership in a secret, international club. For them, if I was a Jon-Stewart-style-American, then I must be OK. I must be a rational, thoughtful, balanced, healthily skeptical, 21st century American– not like the gun-toting consumer of Freedom Fries, the Mormon sister-wives, the Amish school-shooter, or the cowboy president featured so heavily in French news media at the time. These were the darkest days of the War in Iraq, when I preferred to hear George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on the French news because at least their overconfident, misleading, folksy, swaggering speeches about “smoking out evil-doers” sounded more sophisticated dubbed in French.

My personal life was unsettled as well. I’d just started my first job out of college, teaching middle school English with no training whatsoever. I was living on my own in a foreign country, renting a tiny apartment from an eccentric, racist landlady. She certainly was shocked when I began dating an Algerian Muslim grad student!  We were falling in love, but I agonized over our long-term prospects and compatibility. Was I concerned because he was Muslim and I was Jewish? Because his family lived in Algeria and mine in Wisconsin? Because my French wasn’t yet good enough to win arguments against him? Nope. I wasn’t worried about any of that. The existential fear that tormented my young heart was: “What if he can’t understand Jon Stewart? Our relationship is doomed!!!”

American satire was so important in my family, to my sense of self and of humor, that The Daily Show became a litmus test for my friends and lovers. Liking Jon Stewart was a sign that someone shared my American values: absolute free speech, informed skepticism, talking truth to power, standing up for the rights of women, minorities, LGBT folks, and the “little guy”–yet not above making Arby’s diarrhea jokes, covering “cooter racing,” or shooting a segment from the point of view of Ed Helms’ balls. I couldn’t imagine spending my life with someone who couldn’t watch Jon Stewart and laugh with me every night before bed.

Cultural differences aside, we got married in 2010 and moved to New York. And there came a day in 2011 when my husband laughed out loud at The Daily Show without me having to translate a joke into French or explain some cultural eccentricity first. I believe it was Jon’s impression of Senator Mitch McConnell as the Looney Toons Turtle. Pretty soon, my husband was eagerly awaiting Jon’s coverage of the Arab Spring, the 2011 Wisconsin State Capital protests, Hurricane Sandy, and Aasif Mandvi’s hilarious reports on race and religion in America. When Jon Stewart took time off to make Rosewater and appeared on Bassem Youssef’s Egyptian Daily Show, Al-Bernameg, it was my husband’s turn to translate for me.

This past February, my husband was studying for his U.S. Citizenship & Naturalization exam. Quizzing him from the study guide, I asked: “Who is the speaker of the House of Representatives?” He replied without missing a beat: “Orange Face! John Boehner! And the majority leader of the Senate is McConnell, the Turtle-Man.” There really is no better American civics education, nor a better test of American cultural fluency, than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I no longer worry about our compatibility as a couple, culturally or comedically.

So in lieu of sweeping commentary about the end of an era or this wider cultural moment, let me just end with a personal thank you from an anonymous fan.

Jon Stewart, please meet me at camera three:

Thank you, Jon, for being part of my political and comic education dating back to the first presidential campaign I closely followed, Indecision 2000, for making my father laugh so hard every night he spit out his toothpaste, and for showing my Algerian husband the true meaning of free speech in a free society. Even when our leaders abused power or failed to live up to our ideals, you were there to pull back the veil on the hypocrisy, the propaganda, and the chronic tools of oppression used by regimes the world over.  Just by bearing witness and poking fun, you remind me and my husband that America’s strength lies in the voices of its people and in the ability of sane, rational people to see each other’s humanity. Other jesters may come and go, but none will hold court like you, Jon Stewart.

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Where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog

A few weeks ago, my mother sent me a picture of a poem by Charles Wright, America’s (previous) Poet Laureate, about the writing down of Blues Music, which supposedly happened at the junction of the Southern and Yellow Dog railroads in Moorhead, Mississippi.  She had visited this site and bought me a bright yellow tee-shirt to commemorate it, only a few weeks prior. The photos don’t really do the poem justice, so I’ll just post a final excerpt and link to the poem in Google Books, “Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner” found in Black Zodiac. 

screenshot of end of Charles Wright's poem

from Charles Wright’s poem “Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner” in Black Zodiac

And here was my analysis and poor reply…

5.23.15

Dear Mom,

We can all be thankful Dad never had an iPad but instead had the patience of a secretary. When a poem struck his fancy, he would type it out for me in Word and attach it to an email. Not in courier–that was his font, for his words–but in Geneva or Palatino. Something lightly serifed to give it a touch of published authority, but not as pompous as Times New Roman. Transtromer was a favorite. And Szymborska. For a while it was Merwin. I miss those words even when they weren’t his, or when his well was dry. This is not intended as a slight to your pictures but I think typing out a favorite poem helped him hear it and filled the void of a blank slate.

Sometimes he would look for a word, a key, the unexpected word like a foreign rock planted in a corn field, to unlock the poem. “Nightwash” does that here. Other times his message would be unrelated to the attached offering, a riff on coincidence and memory. “Leland” would be that here: Leland, Mississippi of Wright’s mother’s origins echoes unknowingly of Leland Avenue in Visitacion Valley.

Then on ornery days, like the one I just got out of, Dad might find the fatal flaw, the line that shouldn’t be. For me that’s this one: “Poetry’s what’s left between the lines…it’s all in the unwritten, it’s all in the unsaid.” But to write that makes it too obvious, no? The line negates itself. Like a character in a movie insisting out loud that the shadows we have all been suspending in our disbelief are “real life.”  If poetry is all that’s left unwritten, then unwrite. Let it be unsaid and silent. Why write anything at all? Art shouldn’t tell you what art is, it should just BE.

And after drawing some wise and obnoxious conclusion like that, Dad might turn it all on its head with a dirty joke or self-abnegation. What WOULD Robert Johnson say? What a crossroads they must have faced, those men who rode the rails, between the Southern and the Yellow Dog, between the blues as sung and the blues as written, between folk culture and popular culture? And we and WC Handy and Charles Wright are caught between two yesterdays. One remembered, and one dreamed.

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lost keys

I’m giving up too easily on friendship, on dancing, on writing, on my so-called dreams.  The word “dreams” never used to bother me as much as “goals.”  Goals sounded so corporate, even in 4th grade when my teacher who told us she was 28 (only twenty-fucking-eight!) asked us to write our goals down for reasons that still remain mysterious.  Dreams were like asking what you wanted to be when you grew up.  They would happen in the future when I would be as tall and as smart as my parents. Dreams and growing up would take care of themselves.  But goals?  It sounded like sports or  business. “Goals” was a term for the News and the school psychologist, like “self-esteem” or “believing in yourself.”

I had good self-esteem as a kid. It didn’t occur to me to dislike myself or compare myself to others or focus on outer beauty instead of inner beauty. I was good at school, I had friends, I lived in a world of dolls and books and stories.  I felt that way for a long time, even when most middle school girls were falling apart, changing everything about themselves to fit in with other girls who were equally inventing & altering themselves.  The emphasis on self-esteem and goals and believing seemed babyish, a lesson we were supposed to have learned a long time ago from Disney films and picture books: be true to yourself,  what’s inside is what really counts,  judge not by outward appearances, everyone is special. 

What were goals when we had dreams to follow?  Dreams were magic carpet rides, astronauts, becoming the First Woman President. What goals did I have at 9? I’m not sure.  To be a published author was surely one.  It was nebulous but inevitable in my mind.  I would write stories and people would read them. That would be my career, my life, my calling.  It wasn’t about being famous. Being famous was cool to daydream about, but was never my motivation. I just wanted to share all the stories that came from inside. I assumed the general public would read them with the same rapture and pride that my dad showed.  I wanted to live in words and in worlds wholly invented by me. I wanted to be able to write a great sentence,  a great paragraph,  a great chapter.

But writing wasn’t “where I saw myself in 10 years” (another inane exercise my 4th grade teacher made us do, because I guess it’s never too early to start training elementary schoolers for corporate job interviews).  Writing was not a goal.  It was simply who I was.  What I did.  I took for granted that growing up was a process of unlocking one’s inner, truest self and actualizing it.  I didn’t think it in these terms, of course. But I knew that I was a writer and would grow up to be a writer, and if I wasn’t a very good writer yet, that was because I was only in 4th grade.  Growing up would take care of learning to write, getting smarter, knowing what to do.  Just like my parents were much taller than me, they were much smarter than me. Brains, like height, logically came from age and experience.

I’m not going to end this by saying how I’m no longer so innocent.  How I realized grown-ups were just figuring things out as they went along. How I learned that my parents became so smart from deeply reading books, most of which I have still only read about.  I’m not going to write about the compromises of adulthood, the concessions to stability and money.  Money, that whore.  I won’t share my private excuse that I pursued the more stable profession of librarianship because I needed predictable health insurance.

I’ll just say that I know there is still a writer locked inside. (Just west of the duodenum perhaps? East of the pancreas?). I can feel it lodged there. That writer-tumor. My own beating soul.  That’s who I am, who I was, who I was meant to be.  I was right about that in 4th grade.  I was wrong about growing up being a key to unlocking it.  Instead, growing up has been a series of lessons in constructing padlocks and locking up my talent in a safe, only showing it to a select, trusted few.  Safety is overrated, so all the great artists say.  But safety is so hard to let go.  You think, “Maybe I can just hide the key, misplace it for a while.”  Maybe I can bury the nagging urge to be this thing I always wanted to be, but that seems so impossible, so ineffable now.  But then I’m stuck with a keyless box locked away in my heart.  The truth is still the truth.  Talent can whither away, languish like an abandoned weed,  but it cannot disappear entirely.  There is still a bone inside that atrophied limb.

In his melancholic years, Dad called writing his “phantom limb.”  He tried to amputate that part of himself but he could still feel the missing arm tingling, throbbing, from time to time.  Must I emulate this too?  I’d have given him my arm to see him write again. Maybe I did.  Maybe this locked up dream is all I have left of him, and that’s why it hurts so much to open it up again. And that’s why I cannot let it go.

 

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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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Oscar Thoughts

Birdman and Boyhood were the two favorites at the 2015 Academy Awards this year, a year with relatively few surprise nominations or wins. I saw and enjoyed both films but found myself in the middle of social media flame wars claiming Boyhood was “overrated” and “gimmicky” or, conversely, asking why Richard Linklater and the film’s editors were overlooked by Oscar (“12 years of footage doesn’t edit itself!”). Birdman was adored by film buffs and several different kind of nerd, including the comic book nerd, cinema nerd, Broadway nerd, and American Literature nerd. (Yes, I count myself in these nerd demographics.) Yet the average movie-goer either didn’t see it or, like my grandmother and my department secretary, saw it but “didn’t get it.” Rather than write a movie review on my friend’s Facebook wall, I thought I’d work out some thoughts here. The longer I tried to capture why I liked both but why I thought Boyhood should have won “Best Picture” instead of Birdman, the more it seemed like the two films represented opposing but complementary diodes on the spectrum of cinema, making them very difficult to compare “pound-for-pound.”  (The one consolation here: at least another imperfect biopic didn’t win.)

Birdman is a postmodern whirlwind about fame, suicide, and the nature of art. Boyhood is a cinema-vérité meditation about unfamous  people and the nature of day-to-day, anonymous life.

What makes Birdman great are the lofty moments of fantasy that interrupt and enhance “real” life. What makes Boyhood great are the grounded moments of realistic banality where the film resists going for a melodramatic “Hollywood scene”: there is no fatal car crash (despite believably reckless teen driving), no teen pregnancy (the sister has a hangover, it turns out, not morning sickness), no arm cut off after playing with a sharp tool. The gun given to Mason for his birthday does not go off in the “third act” with tragic consequences. I found Linklater’s resistance to high drama refreshing and, more importantly, central to the message of his film.

Birdman goes the other way to the nth degree: the gun we see in Act One has to go off in Act Three to fulfill the “meta-ness” of Birdman’s narrative. The viewers, like the Broadway audience on screen, are horrified and satisfied when it does. Birdman both attracts and mocks its audience for relishing its most flagrant action-fantasy sequences (“This is what you really want, isn’t it?”); it makes the audience stare critically at itself, as well as at showbiz, the two complicit engineers of the demon Fame. During the denouement, the camera shows only the Broadway audience’s reactions to what has shockingly played out onstage; we, the “real” audience in the movie theater, are forced to see ourselves through the mirror of the screen as part of a mindless collective, so blood-thirsty for entertainment and jaded by reality TV that we can no longer tell fantasy from reality.

Boyhood, in contrast, makes the audience look inward at our individual, interior lives; it asks us to find the art inside everyday living, the value in anonymity. Audiences leave the theater contemplating those simple moments of living that are private and our own.

Birdman is about how fans remember a star, and how artists want to be remembered. Boyhood is about all those little moments of life that you forget even as they form you.

I’m not surprised that Birdman won the Oscar, in the end. Hollywood is obsessed with fame and backstage dramas and, like a narcissistic masochist, likes to be shamed & scolded and then to commend itself for being so self-aware.

Boyhood set out to change the mold, not just rail against it, to tell an untold but common story in unusual way. Instead of calling out Hollywood for its comic book films and fantasy-action “porn” and mocking Broadway for its pedantic pretensions (an easy enough target), Linklater resisted both by telling a story of family life as simply and realistically as possible. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, attention must be paid to such moments and such lives. In a way, Birdman understands this deeply, through its failed but earnest attempt to bring Raymond Carver to the screen/stage; even as it revels in its own layers, Birdman laments that a film like Boyhood cannot fly in Hollywood anymore.

 

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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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