JMHS Hall of Fame Speech, in the cyberflesh

Way back in 1996 I graduated from John Marshall High School in Cleveland. About six months ago I found out that this year I was among the honorees for the school’s Hall of Fame. It seemed unlikely that I’d be able to make it to accept the award in person, but I wrote a speech for my sister Dawn to read at the ceremony.  Now I feel inspired to post it here, in part because I’ve been far too quiet in the cyber-place, in part because it serves well to illuminate my brain space. Despite the obstacles of the past three years I’m infused with surprising optimism and creativity, and I suspect I’ll have a lot more to share with all of you in the coming months.  Thanks again to Dawn for reading this, and to my mom for attending the ceremony alongside her.

“It’s a great honor to be part of the distinguished (and growing) list of John Marshall Hall Of Fame honorees. I’m also grateful that my sister, Dawn, volunteered to serve as my stunt double for the purposes of this speech. As a teacher, she still goes to school every day, so this is kind of her thing. Organizing myself into a speech is a challenge for me, since my preferred topics are rarely casual fair. My favorite subjects in seventh grade were the first Gulf war and pandas. In fourth grade, it was the Holocaust. Once a year I get an email from one former classmate or the other that begins, “remember how you used to always talk about Hitler and the holocaust?” Yes, I remember. Dawn probably also remembers, which is why she’s standing in front of all of you and I’m safely tucked 3,000 miles away.

Still, the instructions on the paperwork indicated that this is an audience that “will be very receptive to almost anything that you may say.” This is a dangerous statement in the wrong hands, and I happen to have two of them.

On one hand: In 2016, after riding on a boat for three shivering hours to the borders of Vancouver, BC, I had the honor of observing the unexpected formation of a super pod of orcas. The resident whales of Puget Sound joined with transient whales from two other pods for socialization; this event was closely supervised by the resident pod’s matriarch, Granny, who patrolled the waters with two sister whales that mirrored her every move. The Pacific was alive, with bold males performing stunts Sea World isn’t ready for, and with baby orcas surfing waves in perfect sync with their mothers, one giant, bold head breaking the surface next to a smaller, rounder head. The orcas surrounded the boat, communicating through sighs and clicks and whistles and sprays of water, and every human fell silent and lowered their cameras and phones to honor this sacred moment with our ancestors of the sea. And I wondered what their means of recording was, what allowed the patterns of sound to be passed on from Granny to the small round babies, and whether their brains preserved and transferred things in a way our brains also could, if we simply lowered our gadgets.

a wee orca sprout sneaks to the surface

The other (wrong) hand: This year I observed a total solar eclipse through paper safety glasses on a tulip and filbert farm in Woodburn, Oregon. Just before the ring of fire the sky took on a green-grey cast, and every insect and bird fell silent. The absence of buzzing and chirping made space for other sounds that usual serve as static underneath the chatter, like the whisper of wind across grass, the plunk of a dew drop splitting earth. There’s no way to record this lack of sound; you have to simply sit in it. The sun was nearly swallowed and it was safe to remove our glasses, and my eyes searched the ground for the promised shadow bands, and instead I found a bee, unmoving on my sleeve. It was possible to pet it, so I did, before returning my focus to the sky, for the remaining minute of totality. When the sun returned the bee flew away, and silence sunk into noise. Later, a gentleman from the Astronomy Society heard me talking about the bee, and told me, “Oh, that bee was asleep. During eclipses, they go to sleep.” A bee dreamed on me. This is amazing.

the most beautiful thing I’ve seen

 

Both hands are to tell you what I do: observe and record and dream. These are the ingredients of a writer, to me.

The third hand (when you are the wrong hands, you can have as many as you want) is insomnia, without which I’d be a completely different well-rested person observing different things.  Not sleeping creates this black mirror of time where the brain has the ability to notice things, but lacks the faculties to make complex decisions or perform physical labor. Sufferers of this affliction know that 4am is a beautiful hour to craft unrealistic goals that can only be achieved with the full cooperation of a large bank, several startled friends, and the department of public works. 5am is the crossroads, where you either dive deep into a haze of coffee and grumbled conversations with imaginary demons at bus stations, or you like, watch TV or something. My first stint with insomnia happened when I was seven, when I waited until my parents went to bed and then went downstairs to watch televangelists weep and plead with viewers for big dollar donations. The theater of the whole thing was fascinating, the rhythm of their language, the way repeating key phrases functioned as a drum beat to soften the skulls of listeners. I waited for it to seem convincing, and it didn’t come, and I couldn’t tell if it was because they didn’t pick the right word or because they didn’t mean it. So I decided to observe and record the televangelists themselves, and their perceptions about the fate of my immortal soul. I wouldn’t call it journalism, but I would call it my first personal essay.

When I went to school to share these opinions with a teacher who always seemed startled by me, she told me that she could see me getting somewhere, but that I wasn’t going to get there in a straight line – it would have to be spirals and circles. And insomnia is what coaches me through the spiral, because at 6am you are back where you were at 1am, and by 1pm, there you are. Tired.

My senior year at Marshall, which was also my only year at Marshall, was heavily defined by insomnia, which directly informed decisions to leave early or not enter the front doors at all. There was a lot of eating sloppy breakfasts at Denny’s, wandering around city parks, and then watching Gullah Gullah Island and napping. Sometimes I talked to my Internet boyfriend, who I only knew as Hideo723. It should go without saying that I did not go to prom. All this behavior might have been acceptable if we were stoners, but we were just tired nerds.

The only thing that startled me awake was Mr. Wasowski’s European history lectures, which included a lot of detail about Katherine the Great’s questionable romantic decisions. Mr. Wasowski was also the basketball coach, and had an animated teaching style that was half on the court, half in the classroom, which meant he was basically yelling historic anecdotes at us for forty minutes a day. It was awesome. An extra credit question was introduced with “ding ding ding ding dong dong” which seemed to activate some dormant brain chemicals capable of immediately producing the desired factoid. I salivated over the return of my papers and tests, which would serve as evidence that I remembered everything this dude said. I wanted to be his history MVP. My final grade in the class bordered on absurd, since I scored 100% on every test and also managed to snag every extra credit point. At the year-end award ceremony, Mr. W gave me a trophy for this, and let me tell you, the best introduction you could hope for comes from someone with a gravely voice who shouts as their default communication, grasping the podium and leaning forward to emphasize the spectacular nature of your academic achievement. The only thing missing was a drumroll; I wanted to run down the aisle like Rocky with my fists in the air. Instead I just walked up and accepted the award, and spent the evening pleased that I was graduating from a high school that actually gave awards for such things.

In fact, I often tell people that I only really had one year of high school, and that was my senior year at JMH. My original high school, John Adams, closed at the end of my junior year, and even though I felt connected to the people there, it had a puzzling way of operating, and if there was any encouragement to pursue academic excellence, I never saw it. I arrived at JMH having been in the top ten of my class, and had no idea. JMH never let me forget I was in the top ten, or that I wrote for the Plain Dealer, or that the SATs were coming up, or that a scholarship application was due. If I was willing to walk a little, they were going to push me to run. So I did, all the way to a full scholarship I never would have received if not for the assistance of the guidance counselors and teachers.

And I never would have survived college at all if it wasn’t for Mr. Lakovic (sp?), the first English teacher to ever give me a C on a paper. He told me in terse language that my writing was overly emotional and that I’d failed to answer the question. He asked where my thesis was, and I asked him, “what’s a thesis?” Then he threw my paper in the air. That’s my kind of teacher. A surge of glee rushed through me as it dawned on me: my writing was going to improve, and this guy was going to help me. He did, and my work in that class crafted a strong foundation for my future academic writing. And he did not get in the way of my preferences to observe and record and dream.

I live in Portland now, but when you grow up in Cleveland and attend Cleveland Public Schools, you never forget where you came from. For these reasons, I’m probably the least passive aggressive person in the Pacific Northwest, which is useful when bargain shopping and in parking situations. I can see Cleveland in my Polish nose, my suspicious eyebrows, and my affection for the underdog. Continuing to create, to achieve, to help others, feels like a commitment I agreed to honor a very long time ago. Again, I think of the pods of orcas, joining together from three different places, whistling and chirping and groaning to one another, each asking to be witnessed. Language and story reaches all of them, generation after generation, while every human witness takes a different something from the collective agreement to simply listen, and watch, and wonder. To observe and record, or just remember.

This is story. And it’s 3:15am, and I am tired, but not sleeping.

Thank you again for including me in the Hall of Fame. Buy thousands of copies of my book. (I really mean this part. We all need to get paid.)

 

 

Fallon Smart, one year later

On August 19, 2016 I was driving around aimlessly — something I never do. It was Friday, I hadn’t slept the night before, I was restless, so I cancelled my plans and meetings for the day, and waited. For a few red minutes I considered going to the bubble tea spot on Hawthorne in Portland to write, but instead opted for drifting. This decision had two results:

1.) I did not see Fallon Smart get struck and killed by a car.

2.) I was able to head directly to the scene when I was called.

One of my oldest friends is Fallon’s stepfather; I refuse to write ‘was’ when that role is still active. We’ve known each other for 20 years. I’m also close with his wife, and am godmother to their two youngest children. After my younger sister Rachael died, my presence in their household tripled, since it was a safe haven where I could fall into crying fits, and where I could remember that life is constantly renewed in the company of children. Grief has many unexpected spasms that can’t be anticipated till it pies you in the face, but can perhaps be summarized with, “It’s a beautiful day, I wish it were raining, I hate myself, fuck you.” Rachael’s death also brought my steady undercurrent of rage to the surface, because when someone dies at 34 and you are the older sibling and you were supposed to enter the ugly terrain of middle age together, and now you’re not, goddammit. I’m still angry, even as I type this, even 18 months later when I think of the fact that she never even knew the non-event of 35, let alone the sad trombone of 40.

When the phone rang on August 19th, I didn’t answer, because I don’t answer the phone, so if someone calls me then something is wrong. This time it was Fallon’s mother, screaming. Someone took the phone from her, and told me that Fallon died. My first thought was that I brought death through their doors with all my thick black grief; my second thought was that I wasn’t breathing.

Looking back, I was in shock. I gave the person who took the phone too much robotic information, the immediate to-do list generated by my brain to keep my body in motion: “I will go there now. I will take the back roads, since it will be quicker. I will avoid the main roads. I will be there in ten minutes or less. I’m on my way. Right now.”

There are so many scenes that follow this introduction, scenes of a life torn short by a reckless driver. If one day in the throws of dementia all these scenes are erased, I’m confident that two things will cling to me from 2016: 1.) Looking at Rachael’s blue, cold corpse, and asking for a lock of her hair. 2.) Running from my car to where Fallon’s mother was sitting in a chair with her two youngest children on her lap. Each one looked pulled from Pompeii, a portrait of a family frozen under ash. When I close my eyes, both of these scenes are vibrant in a way images only are when the chosen filter is death.

If you ask me about Fallon herself, the best I can offer is a handful of memories that illuminate me being an adult terrified of teenagers, not Fallon being a colossal young person who could cosplay and stitch story with the best of them. And Fallon was extra terrifying, because she had a sophistication and compassion that I didn’t have at 30 at 15, which always seemed to underscore that her time on earth would be short. She had ideas, dreams, ambitions, and the best an adult in her company could do is wait on baited breath for her to introduce them. I do not have the special misery of knowing her from her point of entry; I don’t have to wrestle down images from her toddler days, her first birthday, her first day of school, all of her firsts. This was my slow torture when Rachael died, choosing pictures for her memorial from every age, every first, that always included the three of us, the three of us, the three of us. There were four children in Fallon’s house, now three. How do you talk about your family when there’s one less? Does it ever feel like only one less?

This was a year ago. This was a year ago.

What am I doing? What am I working on? I’m working on grief. I’m working with grief. Grief is working me over.

*

I’m a writer, and I write about the contents of my heart that I don’t feel comfortable owning audibly. Very few people come to know me through conversation, where I’m mostly analyzing the environment and trying to decode what people want from me and each other. In most contexts, people are hunting for a listener who can witness their experience, an observer willing to see their truth even when they only talk around it. I can’t bring this same vulnerability; the room would get too crowded and the windows would fog. People learn about me through email, public posts, text messages, short stories, novels, because that’s where I’m comfortable gutting myself. So, in the middle of all this grief and support of others’ grief, in my wading through scenes and violent dreams and the changing faces of mothers and fathers and children, I wrote this about Fallon:

“Today’s dead includes a beautiful teenage girl with eyes that never settled on a single color. I know this girl; I don’t know this girl. So many of the living demand another round, many other rounds, the full exhausting route of nearly 100 years of life, to circle the drain of existence before a black hole exodus leaves them scrambling for a description more inspired than wow. She didn’t need that. She was lavender and grounded in an ancient way, her feet sunk so deep that they tickled the core fires, and now she has no choice but to climb skyward to spare herself the burn. Fallon is a redwood ascender, an upper canopy organism that can only be understood by those dedicated to climbing. An earth mother without the anchors. She was a girl who said I love you first, who answered the door without knowing who knocks, who got the haircut that startled her face bolder. I am 70% certain that I am alive and she is dead, but I’m adjusting percentages even as I write this. And I know that if I were an alien on a ship I’d lower my ladders for the likes of her, and let the orb spin right by the rest.

I didn’t know her, I know her, I didn’t know her; this is the record, this record is words and number and dates and names and photos and needs to be forever, even if it isn’t. The record says she was intelligent and science-minded, says she loved to draw and read and write, that she was part of a choir that is now collecting donations in her name. Her voice trails through a description that flails at flesh and blood; this is a resume that leaves out the mistakes and bandaged humanity that churns a person loved. I can see her laughing through braces, debating the most efficient organization of a dishwasher with her stepfather, working language around her mouth to filter out offense. I can see her wondering who amongst her friends might help her field the halls of high school, wondering if it will ever feel less like a lonely maze of bodies and smells and books that won’t matter in ten years time. I can see her standing in a church with her girlfriend singing the opening verse of a Tegan and Sara song that begs, “I want you close, I want you,” adding fist-bopping dance moves that barely escape the bulk of a leather jacket worn over a dress, an elven warrior ready for a sci fi future of bleeps and clicks. I can see her gaze chewing me as I try to carve out a complimentary sentence that translates to teenagers, when in my core I know that my hodgepodge of experience can only help with scholarships and taxes and 90s era music and bail money.

And now, in the mirror is the self that saw her as dying, simply because some people don’t get stuck here, because they don’t need to be, they don’t need to circle the drain when it’s perfectly possible to jump right down the center and skip the hairball, the grease trap, the cap.

Still, I never wanted to see her lying beneath a sheet in the street.

And now, I can see the Buddhist monks blessing the crosswalk with flowing chants and graceful gongs, promising to pray for her for days upon days, suggesting that a short lifetime means good karma, without considering that this suggestion means nothing.

And now, when I close my eyes I see a purple orb balanced between her hands, the faces of her family aglow, the sad siblings and lost parents she left behind. There’s no fear, no demand for one final slide. What did it taste like to arrive?  I say goodbye, hello, goodbye, and I ask her ghost to speak, but it doesn’t, because she has something so many other dead don’t, and that is closure. Her final look was into her mother’s eyes, where she saw her beginning all over again, the first face, the last face, her first hello, her last goodbye. And that goodbye will circle and strike, circle and strike, until her mother’s face is bruised and bloody yet incapable of turning away from the next violent blow.

Still: I want her to be alive and choosing electives. I want her to be fretting over whether college is right for her, and deciding whether or not the arts are as intriguing as science. I want to hear more stories about how every teacher is her favorite teacher. I want to monitor the rise and fall of her face in and out of awkward until it settles into something adult at 25, and simply accommodates new sags and wrinkles. I want to follow her electric current to another end, one with a little more kindness, one a little less lavender and a lot more green, tucked into a cabin in the woods with two doors and great windows and a giant skylight she can’t reach with extended fingers. I want to see her partner emerge from the muddied place behind her, and wrap a warm arm around her to hold this rustic space in beauty, at once, forever.”

I want all of this for her, but what I want doesn’t matter.

Wander freely, Fallon Smart, and know that you are loved and beloved.

 

this is what I’m doing

The quiet of this cyber space should not be confused for an absence of activity. I’ve been working, working, working on a stand-alone novel that includes some of the characters you might already know. It’s an exorcism (or maybe an announcement?) of the ghosts that have been trailing me, as more and more important faces in my daily life vanish from earthly existence and leave the rest of us flailing and floundering about the earthcraft. I’m not sure I can write anything else until I finish writing this, but I’ll set it to print the moment it’s finished, or finishes me (whatever comes first). Until that moment I’ll remain a quiet sort, save for the obligatory social media raving about political discourse, and the occasional coffee shop observation. Which brings me to an important point: the gentleman to my left raises his cup, and then loudly slurps, once, twice, three times, before he sets the cup back down. It’s kinda like he’s racing the coffee. What. Is. The. Finish. Line? It also smells like burning bagels in here, which would be my personal perfume if it was available at the neighborhood drugstore. This is not Electric Youth. This is Blackened You.

2020 Campaign Slogan: Vote for Indifference

I think I’m going to run for president in 2020. By then I’ll have over 15 years of nonprofit experience, and a whole lifetime as a writer to buoy that resume. I’ll kick things off by walking across the stage and announcing, “As a woman, I hate myself” which should snag the interest of 20% of registered voters. I’ll then follow up with lightning fast twitter disses of all the candidates. My taxes will be so released, and will raise a lot of questions. How did she survive in 2012? for example. Why don’t writers get paid for anything? You paid that much for healthcare? Are you okay? I’ll be ready to answer those questions. My theme song choice will not earn a stern reprimand from Fleetwood Mac. I will not wear pants, let alone pantsuits, which will leave my vagina vulnerable to grabbing, but I know how to stand now. Instead of having points or ideas at the debates, I’ll have charts and graphs. They won’t be charting or graphing anything, but I want to be able to go, “Boom! Chart! Boom! Graph!” I think Americans will appreciate my use of Boom! When I need to respond to my opponent, I’ll just go with, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.” Then I’ll lick the Doritos dust over my fingers and take a quick selfie. If they ask about foreign policy, I’ll just say, “I really like tacos. What’s your point?” The economy? “You said I had two minutes. It’s only been fifteen seconds. You said I had two minutes. This is maybe 30 seconds.” Now all I need is a logo, a slogan, and people to support me no matter what I do with cult-like fervor.

Eulogy for Rachael

Rachael's memorial card
Rachael’s memorial card

Rachael hypnotized everyone upon arrival. Adorable, red-haired, cherubic Rachael was the only reason my older sister Dawn and I ever got to enjoy free baked goods. Between Dawn’s lazy eye and pigeon toes, and my freakishly large eyes on a tiny head, we failed to attract the cooing attention that so effortlessly fell upon Rachael. Her curls inspired the women working behind the counter at the bakery to offer her flat sugar cookies stuffed with M&Ms, and then me and Dawn, once they realized we were with her. Both parents were out-gunned by her wit, and she could cut off my mom by simply burping into her hand and blowing it at her, or wagging her finger at her in a parody of parental meltdown.

 

Initially, my approach to her cuteness and humor was psychological warfare. It seemed an injustice that she was so easily adored and even-tempered. I’d hide her toys in the back of the closet, aka the toy graveyard. When she asked me where they were, I’d say, “I don’t know. Where do YOU think they are?”

 

Her retaliation was carving the letter A for Amanda into my father’s guitar. Despite the telltale-looping scrawl of a five-year-old, I still had to make a case to my parents like a tiny attorney. To the bitter end, they were reluctant to concede something could be Rachael’s fault – and Rachael just sat there, quiet and blinking underneath her red curls. I would never beat her.

 

It was more interesting when we worked together, anyway. I wrote songs and poems and plays and then talked her into performing them. Our first and finest production was Hansel and Gretel, with Rachael performing as Hansel and our dog Pepper making a special appearance as the hungry birds. We rehearsed for days and then presented two performances for the family, with her comedic delivery stealing the show. We also sang weepy, desperate, Suzanne Vega inspired power ballads about dead flowers and nonspecific pain, and pressed the pause button while recording our voices to get slowed down versions of 80s classics like Careless Whisper.

 

By the time we hit high school Rachael emerged as oddly good at everything she attempted, but reluctant to get attention for it. She had awards for dozens of perfect scores on calculus tests, earned trophies for every racket sport, wrote with humor and grace, memorized whole books of sports trivia and statistics, and somehow managed to be the extremely rare combination of funny and empathetic. In high school she joined the literary magazine since I was her ride home and the editor, and Rachael provided crucial feedback for each submission so that the magazine included only the best.

 

And speaking of rides home: no one was more surprised that my driver’s license was legal than Rachael. She saw plenty of evidence that it should have been revoked. In one of many minor accidents, I was staring down a bus driver to my left when I smashed into a car in front of me. My glasses and shoes popped off, and the frame of the radio ended up around Rachael’s wrist like a bracelet. I rolled out of the car (no shoes, glasses askew) to ask the other driver if he was okay. Instead of responding, he asked for directions to the airport, while Rachael reported she’d also punched a hole in the heating vent. After this event she started collecting photos of people who fell or got injured and lost their shoes in the process. In another incredible feat of dumb, I somehow managed to get the car stuck on one of those raised gas station islands. For several minutes I drove back and forth, back and forth, and a couple of guys inside the gas station came out to marvel silently, their hands in their pockets. As I reversed and finally freed the car, I screamed, “Does my life ever stop sucking!” Though later this became a popular family catch phrase, somehow Rachael’s expression never changed. No, the accident where she completely fell apart and unleashed her trademark Rachael cackle was when I attempted to pull into the drive thru at Burger King and ended up a full car length away from the speaker. Since reversing only caused me more problems, I decided to put the car in park, open the door, and lean over while shouting my order into the speaker. I asked for a “chocolate shlake” instead of a shake, which unleashed the force of her first guffaw, and I lost my grip on the door and fell face first onto the concrete. As I hand-walked my way up the door and back into the car Rachael laughed so hard the whole car shook, her face red, tears running down her face, and she kicked her feet while the hapless drive thru worker repeatedly said, “hello? Hello?” I don’t remember her ever stopping, but I remember tapping out a beat on the car horn to salute the worker who had to deal with us, and then spraying shake all over my windshield. Even though I’m a better driver now, after leaving her condo to continue a road trip in 2011, she sent me a text that said, “my driver’s side door and window are broken, and I know it’s because you were here, you walking calamity.”

 

Over the past few years we traded text messages for hours late at night: a direct result of her night owl status and my own chronic insomnia. She suggested that I consider watching her favorite murder shows because, and I quote, “There’s nothing more soothing that partially submerged corpses.” Then we traded texts about what the various cats on the APL website must be thinking, before returning to arguing over which one of us had greater potential to be a character in the next Harmony Korine film.

 

The last time I was in Cleveland we explored thrift stores, and Rachael attempted to refuse a gift her nieces, Rayne and Simone, selected from the piles of miscellaneous merchandise: a sad wooden napkin holder dubbed Burglecut the Duck. When she intentionally left it behind at Dawn’s house, we hatched a plan. At Rachael’s condo, I was lookout while Simone planted Burglecut the Duck under Rachael’s bed blankets. When Rachael walked into her bedroom to discover what was happening, I had my camera ready to capture the exact moment of discovery. It was classic, and she finally accepted Burglecut into her home. Later that night we talked about having a slumber party with Rayne and Simone and our mom, with Burglecut supervising the shenanigans.

 

I am sad that the slumber party as imagined will never happen, and even more sad about only having one sister. Two sisters doesn’t sound nearly as good as three. And it is even more rare to encounter a person who is truly good people to the core – and no one will dispute that Rachael was a truly good person. And I’m certain that she’ll still be around in some way, laughing at everything, burping and blowing it at me for writing this, and beaming at every brilliant moment her spirit won’t allow her to miss.

Me and Rachael
Me and Rachael

an apple for the grave

My great grandmother Stephania Pocztarska grew up in Julianowo, in Russian dominated Poland, and left the port of Bremen on the SS Cassel on Nov 22, 1902. She arrived at Ellis Island on December 8, totally alone, at the age of 16 and with $4 to her name. Since she didn’t speak any English she was detained until her sister arrived from New Jersey to accept her. Eventually she met and married Michael Sledz, a saloon and soda shop owner in the Warszawa neighborhood of Slavic Village in Cleveland. After he died she became a shrewd landlord and savvy business woman, while somehow raising five children on her own. Michael’s parents immigrated in 1881, during a time when Poland was part of Prussia, and they helped establish Slavic Village, with Joseph Sledz operating successful businesses. Joseph was also the first elected councilman of the Warszawa neighborhood, and helped construct St. Stanislaus Church in 1886, which still stands today. My father’s side of the family fled Russian and German domination, to send clothes and money back to Poland during more periods of Russian or German domination. They took great risk to be here, and could not return to Poland to visit until living in the United States for 30 years and thus achieving naturalization. Knowing your roots encourages empathy. All land is borrowed or stolen. Families who built something didn’t build the last thing. There are more innovations to be mined by unfamiliar faces. If your gut reaction to refugees from struggling nations seeking new opportunities in Europe or the US is to tell them to go home, consider your own ancestry carefully, and whether your world would even exist if sanctuary had been denied.

hiatus from white male words

I cannot read white guys for awhile. It’s not that I dislike white guy writing; some of my favorite writers are fellows of the pasty persuasion. George Orwell. John Milton. That other dead guy; that one who lives forever. Doesn’t mean I haven’t had my fill of hard drinking, working class men with surly dispositions, fretting over the women who’ve done them wrong…written by tender guys living off trust funds in Brooklyn brownstones.  Had enough of five o’clock shadows and fifty-yard stares, emotional detachment and simmering resentment, unions that unraveled and road trips to nowhere — nobody consults a map, unless there’s a woman in the car, in which case that’s exactly what she’s doing. I’ve had enough of cops on the other side of the law and misunderstood criminals, corporate executives ducking out of afternoon meetings and into bars, marriages forever tense and inscrutable with no notion of tenderness beyond thank you, goodnight. These white men don’t recover from the backslap of romance, don’t enter into the soothing space of just knowing someone and relaxing. They are too busy drinking, divorcing, finding themselves, which usually means another woman, in a bar, in an office, in a car opening a map while he’s driving.

And speaking of this particular sort of writer, I’ve had my fill of female characters that place phone calls about child support payments and scream across the street about when he’s coming back, and never have ambitions beyond Lady Macbeth. This type of male writer never writes women thinking like they do, wondering like they do, plotting like they do. No, this white male writer makes women thin and demanding or fat and sorry, hunting for a hero or fulfilling childhood fantasies of sparkling eyes and inspired statements released as riddles. He will meet her in the park, he will meet her in the bar, he will meet her in the office when she comes in late and dressed inappropriately and unwilling to file anything alphabetically. Women described as “used up” and worn down by life, permanent mothers flanked by angry children that spit at each other across the dinner table, wild women whose only rebellion involves sexual promiscuity and growing their hair long and white and tangled.

In their interviews they will wear beards and soft sad eyes and tucked in flannel shirts and talk about the loneliness of writing. They will talk about adopting children from foreign countries as the long drunken route towards empathy. They will talk about their mothers, the abortion their girlfriend once had, their trip to Africa/Malaysia/Thailand that was totally different from the other white guys who were there for worse reasons. They will talk about the disappointment of their fathers, how they will never receive tenure; they will not talk about their trust funds. They will rattle off lists of other white male writers writing about divorce and murder and dogs and strippers and guns and rivers, and talk about their next book that will cover more of the same. In six weeks the black cover will promise a something-something “tour de force” and I will wonder if that’s a bicycle tour in France.

Too small, too drunk, too troubled, too on-to-something, too lost. This is too small, when a world of other worlds lies waiting.

Observation #9: Yarn

There’s a long yarn unspooling from his jaws, and there’s still a whole lot to untangle. A giant box of cds leaves him doing double duty as DJ, laser-spinning Marianne Faithful and the Cocteau Twins and a whole lot of troubled women that might find me fair company. This CD of Ms. Faithful was recorded when she entered her silver-haired years, and she sounds like a chain-smoking blue collar coaxed toward the microphone by her drunken karaoke counterparts. It’s not nearly as sad as younger Marianne trapped in a black and white time-machine, prisoner of evening variety shows and hair spray, posed for a portrait by stony hands. This isn’t loneliness; this is nostalgia. As her throat reports fire I’m thinking that there’s also something within me burning to the surface, a remake. Something that cannot be sorted clean. It’s then that I think he needs to play “Horses” in honor of Patti Smith’s prophecies, but that yarn has filled his cheeks and tied me and needs a pull to unwind.

Observation #8: Air-conditioned

Human contents of air-conditioned pod of refuge: man with a tribal wreath tattooed all around his leg, reaching up towards his knee. Despite sitting his bag remains draped over his shoulder, his eyes on his phone, his hands pulling at the pubic remains of a soul patch. “Nothingman” by Pearl Jam launches in the background, which inspires him to get up and take his shoulder bag and cell phone with him.

Six feet away, a man who has been stared down by grim shades: black hair, black shirt, grey pocket, grey pants, black shoes. He’s folded into a question mark to accommodate the chair and table, his shoulders sink low, and stickers cover his laptop and scream LA DISPUTE. I google it and discover a band from Michigan and suspect that we should hate each other and blame it on sports teams.

Three seniors crowd around the comfortable easy chairs, and when they ask to borrow the extra chair across from me I hope one of them uses it for feet, or as a makeshift card table.  Instead the older man sits himself between the two women, as they remove lids and fuss with sugar packets and plastic cream cups and don’t say anything. A table opens up, and they take all their cups and containers and bagels and the chair that once held a ghost across from me with them.

Directly across from me: an older Asian women with threads of silver dancing down her scalp. The only skin I see is a patch escaping her sleeves, red roads traveling two inches down into elbow. There is book opened flat in front of her, and she tracks words with a highlighter between long looks out the window at the man with the leg tattoo and too many 90s adornments, avoiding Pearl Jam and pacing.