Ash Lange, Prose Editor
Gianna Sannipoli, Poetry Editor
Peter Berard, Ph.D., Book Review Editor
Watertown, Mass., USA
Chris Manno, Editorial Cartoonist
Fort Worth, Texas, USA
William O. Pate II, Founding Editor & Publisher
Austin, Texas, USA
Always read free at sareview.org.
© Copyright 2020. San Antonio Review. All rights reserved.
The moral rights of the authors have been asserted.
Cover art by Alexandra S. Machuca.
Designed and published by William O. Pate II in Austin, Texas, United States of America.
ISSN: 2692-0565 (print) | ISSN 2692-0611 (online)
Access online at DOI: 10.21428/9b43cd98.ecf29403
U.S. COVID-19 Cases:
U.S. COVID-19 Deaths:
Texas COVID-19 Cases:
4th globally (behind California, Maharashtra, India; and all of England)
Texas COVID-19 Deaths:
2nd nationally (behind New York)
Out of the 20 U.S. counties with the most COVID-19 cases:
Harris County, Texas (Houston):
Dallas County, Texas (Dallas):
Tarrant County, Texas (Suburbs north of Dallas-Fort Worth)
El Paso County, Texas (El Paso)
Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio)
Source: Dong E, Du H, Gardner L. An interactive web-based dashboard to track COVID-19 in real-time. Lancet Inf Dis. 20(5):533-534. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30120-1 as of 2:oo PM CT on 26 December 2020
El Paso County was so hard hit it was paying county jail inmates $2 an hour to move bodies. The jobs were later hired out at $27.20 an hour. See: Rocha, Alana. “Incarcerated Texans Enlisted to Work in County Morgue as COVID-19 Deaths Overwhelm El Paso.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 15 Nov. 2020, www.texastribune.org/2020/11/15/coronavirus-texas-el-paso-inmates-morgue-deaths/. Borunda, Daniel. “COVID-19 Crisis: El Paso County Seeks Workers to Move 200-plus Bodies at Morgue, Trailers.” El Paso Times, El Paso Times, 20 Nov. 2020, www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/local/el-paso/2020/11/19/el-paso-covid-19-crisis-county-hiring-workers-move-bodies-morgue-trailers/6351130002/. ↵
The massless particle
which passes through vacuum
without encountering any resistance at all,
does not differ from the one
that does not pass at all
Loneliness is self-sufficient,
as they say and,
etc. . . .
You’re the last dark matter
from another outgoing night
but why don’t you come with me, why
don’t you come in me
to see that there’s nothing
I will fall asleep now just to wake up
in your life—
We’ll not remember how we die,
just as we don’t remember our birth.
After Salvador Dali’s “Sueno causado par el vuelo de una Abeja,” 1944
Dali’s goddess of fecundity floats
On the rock of nudity like a pomegranate
Bursting open with lucent crimson seeds.
She is dreaming of Bernini’s celestial elephant,
Levitating between Dali’s earth and the cerulean sky
On the lithe arachnid legs of her own wishful memory.
Now a bee buzzes inside the canvas:
A pomegranate spawns an orange fish
That begets a predatory feline suspended
In mid-air. With drawn-out claws, a tiger
Leaps towards her and touches her arm
With the surrealist painter’s phallic bayonet.
Yet, still sleeping, she dreams of Bernini’s Obelisk –
The emblem of Dali’s inspiration, his solar libido
To which she’ll respond when the bee stings her breasts.
does more than look;
it watches with
in the hollow
of its wing
disguised by a hot pink hood
and in my case
a men’s visor
turned bright petals
after five p.m.
when we come home
a helpless wild
crawls up its stem and
my face when I look
in the mirror
by my own wilting
fills the view;
it watches with
turned pallid palms
we drop ice cubes into its vase
how fast they melt
we watch it watch
put their groceries away
sound of pond
outside our living room window
sound of hose
children willingly unshielded
living room window
to let orchid
sit in light
outside our living room sounds
could make an orchid shimmy out of its vase
late for greenery
outside in our chairs
when you ask
what I’m staring at so reticently
a hummingbird’s back.
After “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing” by Richard Hamilton”
In 1956 a dinosaur returns from the dead
and enters our post office. Has he eaten
the letters we never wrote?
Tonight you and I discuss ottomans.
You like them small, I like them large,
and divorce hovers over us
like a honeybee above clover.
We change the subject. We do that a lot.
Subjects have sharp teeth. It’s best
to leave the room when they’re hungry.
Outside our house, no grass blade
grows higher than another.
An egalitarian lawn. We’re having
a baby soon. Despite being two men.
It’s a new time. We have good levers.
The lights go on as if by magic.
And stay on. Darkness
leaves the piano bench — we never see it again.
All liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. — Rev. 21:8
I puked my prayers
sweated in tangled sheets,
Shadrach & Meschach’s sister
alone in my white bed
unafraid to burn, unafraid
of bones consumed by fire
asking only to be free
of the saints
whose cardamom syllables
stained your vampire’s
teeth, to be free of you.
Five hundred times
I penned my sin
on wide-lined paper
before dinner, wrote
my death over and again,
let the e and a
loop and slip
like stones skipped
across the lake,
let the rise and fall
of the hard th swallow
the lump in my throat.
I pinned my hungers
in folds of flesh too thin
to bite, fire and brimstone
my obloquy, the wages
of my wishes shipwrecked
on some Canaan’s shore,
a promised land
of milk and honey
you said I’d never see.
I tasted the fat on your fork
tongued the cold curd
of self-denial on bare
plates, cut my flesh
100 times unclean,
by erasing me.
O, Ugly, returned
from your temporary leave,
come closer. Come
with your catastrophic
weapons — vandal
of love — loot
this heart, tear
with shrapnel hands
from their skin graves,
in massacres of crying.
O, Ugly, plunge
your orders inside
this bombed mouth.
Ugly, you are a soldier,
battle to reclaim
of their guilt;
these troops of
praise, hollow praise.
Let hate behold the grimace
of plush lipstick,
of pouting kiss-lips,
puncturing dimples, shrouds
of smiling, terrible
lies. O, Ugly, broken fool,
unleash your assaults,
loaded, pointing, firing.
Ugly, where is my war?
I am armed.
Before it rains in Langtang, the rain dolls pucker
their cotton lips, the satin-ribbed curtains blow
with the rumbling thunder, the shutters
of Sherpa lodge pull their cords and the windows
are discovered open.
The river of the sky lagoons between
two clouds, its many-colored reefs
sweep around in their downward journeys
until, at last, they plough the fragranced soil
and become mushroom, hibiscus, strawflower—
even Java plums and lychees.
Birds and beasts
lash and jump like whales upon puddled water,
macaques and snowmen become pilgrims
along trails of waterlogged rubble,
the rain dolls sway with beads of glint
in their matte eyes, a slow spread
of their tangerine mouths, a promise
of resurrection to maples and pines
from tremors and losses from the year before.
Our mothers worked in
soot furnaces late into nights
until their skins became
reflections of the fire
They patted their blistered hands
with lavender oil and honey
before the morning began — yet again
they would disappear into their
like little glowworms
in the sun-streaked woods.
Our mothers chopped and cooked
pots of curry in the hours between.
They tied our hair up in petite buns
as their own so they would not
fall when we snaked around
the banyan tree or tugged at
its upturned roots.
They hung smoked lanterns
wrapped with black wires
against the brick walls.
Our mothers were jeweled
in nose pins and brass hoops
that weighed down their
thinning ears — they glinted
in the hot sun
like burnt sienna
on their ashen skins,
their bangled hands still chalked
with white carbon
off bundled lilies they wore in their hair
on another day.
A late September Saturday afternoon. The sky godless and electric blue and filled with trumpet blast and statistics. What a tiny scab on this roadmap Touchdown is, but would you look at that stadium! Worthy of the vilest gladiator games. And, now, a crowd of townsfolk appears, a sweaty biological mass of many moving as one, willing itself towards relevancy. They scuttle past in a harsh slanted light. Their mouths snap open and shut like sea turtles. They say — Go State. Snap. They say — Beat Tech. Snap. They say — We’re number one and so on and so forth. Snap snap snap.
The town, having been founded by some fur trapper of dubious French legend way back in the buck-skinned year of eighteen and blah blah blah— did you see that monster truck yonder?! Covered in State stickers and flags. Horn blaring the State fight song. Go State! Muffler blast of yon truck. Beat Tech! Rat-a-tat of marching band snare and tom. Hot-white flash of damp cheerleader panties. Sacrificial teenaged flesh, sweaty and bare. Old men devouring their young with gauzy-going eyes.
And look! Right there in the shady square beneath granite Jeb Stuart upon his horse — it is the town derelict, standing atop a park bench and shouting.
He makes a bullhorn of his filthy hands and shouts, “Hypocrites on parade! Love thy enemy!”
His beard a tangled owl’s nest, his face the texture and color of oak bark. Townsfolk shuffle past, oblivious. Glances here and there. Gravel and hard candy cast upon him by trailer trash children, then snickering. The derelict continues. . . .
“Oh, the poor shall always be among us! Poor in health. Poor of mind. Poor in the Holy Spirit!”
The derelict’s name is Gaylord Gunn Godd, Ph.D. Long ago, this man, a much-lauded thinker and writer, with an East Coast doctorate in Ancient Rhetoric or Meta-Religious Studies or Philosophical Poetics or some such horseshit. Upon retirement, he gave up office hours and tramped abroad for several years (war-torn Latin America, drab Eastern Europe) only to find himself returning to Touchdown and squatting in the back room of a meth lab ranch-style two miles out on the highway. Doctor Godd, the hick tenants call him. He hath blessed us, they say between pipe sucks. Fits of sick laughter and wet coughing. Godd be with us, har har.
Sky a softer blue now, with high wispy cirrus in the north. The marching band townsfolk parade has moved on down Champion Street and now fills the stadium with such Old Testament noise. Sun dropping behind tall pines. Far-off hum of the highway. Nighthawks zigzagging above.
There is no one left in the square but Doctor Godd. He still stands atop the bench, stroking his tangled beard, huffing and puffing. The air suddenly reeks of papermill, of popcorn, of sad-eyed surrender. He turns slowly around to face the stadium and shouts.
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth!”
He shouts, “Faith without works is dead!”
He shouts, “Beware of false prophets!”
A rumbling now from down the street, overtaking the game noise. His bench is quaking, but Gaylord stays put, still staring at the stadium. Like riding a surfboard, he is, laughing and pointing now as the giant lights flicker and go out. He can just catch a multitude of screams on the wind. A weeping and gnashing of teeth. Again, he shouts.
“And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it!”
A pause. A nighthawk keers overhead. Then, a prehistoric boom, and the stadium collapses in on itself like in some motion picture nightmare. Champion Street crumbles into a gaping maw. A crevasse to hell. Doctor Godd screams his laughter now. Screams to the silent heavens. He places his filthy hands together in prayer, and then drops like a stone with the rest of Touchdown into the black and unforgiving earth.
In the time of the Pentarchs, toward the end of the first summer, when his mother lay sick of a fever, they arrived severally in apprehension and wonder, he from the west or from Airyaneum Vaejah some say and she from Ur as it is written in the prophets and they came to where now we gather at the water for healing and to glean grain from the fields and harvest of the maples and the catkins of the alders there, as has been our way since that time.
Of their first meeting, little has come down to us and yet less is known for certain. That they arrived we know, and that they departed three days onward, we learn from the items in the cloudregisters and from their exchanges afterwards which had in that time begun to archive, though during the days and nights themselves, all record has been lost, or rather was never made, scorched to untelling by what came to pass there. Whether by cataclysm of flesh or divinity or by a minerology or a tectonics now unknown to us, the old screens melted and the old drives fused hopelessly in ports. All seems to have been burned to vapor and then beyond vapor to evanescence, no trace found even on the walls or in the dirt or affixed in the latesummer pollen as was often detectable by the forensicists of that age who were trained exhaustively in the recreation of lost things.
And so also the second, a year after, when rains drew channels in the mud there that then filled with the glittering dust that settled after their collision and that became the crystal branches of the Labyrinth of Pau that we walk today in solemn prayer. And yet still so little is known to us of this, the second September, despite the obstinate, cloistered study of our sages and academicians.
Between times, from the first to the second, it is known that in the loam surrounding the cottage had bloomed whole gardens of improbable things, blood oranges and cherimoya and enigmatic persimmons and ranunculi of colors unknown there before, each drawing from the streams and the alteration of the sunlight, wrought by what may have come to pass, some finding their place in the shade near the red dwelling and others splaying fully in tendrils and vines to the sun, forward from its porch in crawling branches and rays, so that where once the land had been barren and broken to all but corn and soy, fertility yet remains to feed and delight our encampments of pilgrims and prevail upon those of unbelief.
And as before, how they arrived and what happened there can be surmised but not known, though of this their second visit, augurers and auspices in dominions as remote as Uaxactún and Luoyang reported and enregistered in their cloudworks, a furnace gust on their faces at the moment it may have begun, while others in regions still more remote, whose names are now lost to us, record that the air of their cities and freeholdings and heaths and marishes became redolent of warm almonds and sage.
Still no voice or image or even written record has come down to us, though it is recounted that women barren to childbearing became fertile the night of the onset of the second September and men whose limbs had withered and eyes had become sunken with defeat and sorrow became handsome again to their wives and to the women of their youth they had wished but failed to marry.
And so unto the third, while yet no eye might see nor finger record the things that happened there, the scriptures tell of coveys of birds bursting like hydrangea petals into the sky by the thousands, chanting mysterious tidings to the sky. And among the Athabaskans of the north, and the Samoyed also, it is said their dogs took no soothing from the scraps of the children’s tables and began to howl piteously one for the other, both the dogs of labor, thick of shoulder, and alike the dogs of the hearth, which they called klee kai, who were their companions and listeners.
And yet after, in the libraries of Svartálfaheimr and Themiscyra were found new typescripts and unorthodox scrolled pages in tubes, previously uncatalogued with markings and schematics that seemed to point toward a knowing deeper than could be uttered aloud by human voice or sung even by the cantors of the their age or ours.
And last, the effect of the third arrival upon the children of their time is well recorded — children, who together those nights, though in countries far separate from each other, indeed in dominions which in those times were believed to have in common no travelers or commerce, began of single expression a hymn of exaltation that haunted and fulfilled them for the rest of their days. And the song, though nearly unpronounceable and in their several languages now lost to us, each so different from the other, upon study and reflection by the gnostics of those days were found to have been wrought to the same simple melody entreating a promise, translated to us from the scriptures as:
The wind, the wind, the wind blows high,
Blows Abigail Plover through the sky.
Abby is fair and Abby is pretty,
The loveliest girlbird in tin can city.
She calls the animals one, two, three.
Abigail, Abigail, who is she?
She calls to her bear friend, sweet and low
And waits for him in calico.
Bear enters with a bearly bellow
And Abigail, “Bear, please be my fellow”
And she gives her bear a tickly kiss
And shows him where the candy is.
Then out spill jellybeans and out spill chocolates.
Cup your hands and fill your pockets.
One two three four jump your turn high,
Abigail Plover, her bear, the sky.
Then all the animals, five, six, eight, nine,
Were free again. The goose drank wine,
The lion took up aquarelle, the monkey wrote,
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat.
And so, only by the time of the fourth, were the particulars of their union recorded by any means transmissible and archivable, as among the people of those days, devotions might be recorded to be heard and others to be read in solitude or aloud and others to be gaped at in stunned wonder, some fragments recounted in loops that repeat indefinitely.
Of the fourth, all agree he found her there, in the bedchamber, wrists bound with vines above her head to the mullion between the windows above the bed, twisted one half turn so that, though while the vines had been set while she arched to him from behind, she was now on her back, her wrists above her head, her knees drawn back to him and wide.
Some say she entered the dwelling imperiously, others that she came as a supplicant. The Chronicles of Zerzura say she had bound herself, harvesting the ones from the dirt upon her arriving and bringing them with her into her chamber, still alive and writhing and dripping liquor from the cut ends, that she bound herself to the window in anticipation of him, completing the final ties with her teeth and pulling with her strong and graceful neck until they snaked through her fingers, green leaves through the warm earthbrown of her fingers and wrists. The Codex Xantusia says she lay in enchantment for her beloved and as she dozed and roiled to thoughts of his approach, the vines themselves quickened and rose up the wall of the dwelling and in through her open window, threading in sympathy and mischief through her limbs.
As it may be, when he found her, his eyes at once glazed and brightened and he reached for himself and she began speaking to him, saying I can barely even and he responding No, I know, yes, we, hers pants of breath and guidance and invitation, almost no language at all, and his of affliction and questioning and arrival and retelling as we read in the scriptures.
Then to him, she said,
— Look at what has happened again. I was worried.
And to her, he,
— I’m sorry, sweet. Dead stop at Berea. It’s all torn up.
— I mean, you could have.
— I did.
And he showed to her the glow of her own device and she smiled and him and drew her thighs back, her wrists and forearms still entangled in vines above her head. She hummed a dizzy hum and rolled her hips and abdomen and craned her neck forward as if to watch herself move, though her heavy lids were almost completely closed.
— I’m so happy you’re here now. So happy, Bear. Do you remember?
— I think maybe I can remember. I always remember eventually, muffin. I will muddle through.
Then she flicked his torso lightly with one foot and laughed again until her laughter fell into a spiral of breathing and she rocked and her eyes rolled back hazily into her skull.
Then, as he climbed onto her body, she enfolded him into her as cicadas began a roar outside, and he bore down on her with kisses to every part within the reach of his mouth. She rocked her scent against his clothes until they were darkened with wet and bit down on his beard, painting the scent of her breath on his livid face.
She drew her knees and feet back as far as she could, until she could push either heel into his mouth and thus guided him off her to kneel on the bedding where her hips were now the farthest point forward toward him and in her pleading instructed and guided until he was exposed to her, rigid and desperate as he stared into her face, each mirroring the same look of simple questioning, in the way of children asking please? until she rocked herself in waves near him and finally on him and he disappeared partway into her body. They were still for some time, her wrists bound high, the vines seeming to writhe and tighten and relax with the flexion of her arms, and her body open to him and long, straining her neck forward to see him, his back tall and his shoulders taut and clenching halfway inside her as she made the ancient noises and crying.
He collapsed onto her in a slow frenzy of pushing and pawing until his own hands found the vines enwoven around her limbs and he pulled at them until they untangled and gave way, some tearing in shreds and dripping their clear, resiny fluid onto their faces and skin. He rolled her free and she wrapped her fists in his hair and pulled as she kissed, as if the pulling drew them from him, each humming and grunting into their kisses. And later, when she brought herself forward and neared to lower onto his mouth, the cicadas fell silent as though enrapt with the music of wet skin and hair and the claws of one on the other announced to their legion in a way as yet unknown to their kind.
And in the unbroken winding of their eight limbs together, in tenderness and refinding, the room became redolent of each of their bodies in each particular until it flowed in vapor and foam and liquid into the hallowed dirt beneath the floorboards of the dwelling and thence into the lands that thereby became consecrate to the apostles of that time and through them by succession of retelling and revelation down to our own time. And though not the text of our canon, the teachings of the fourth September are familiar to us in the shape of their meanings, as after that time enregistered and encoded, speaking to us, according to the sacraments of our tradition, of redemption and return, and of a gnosis occult in its particulars.
Under the auspicious gaze of the Minerva statue in their living room, Phyllis and Florian were preparing their trip to the Montréal botanical gardens. They were retired botanists.
Florian remembered his botanical mission to Taiwan and said:
“We could re-design our garden with the waterscapes of the Japanese gardens.”
Phyllis continued: “The exotic exhibit of orchids, irises, and amaryllis should be a treat of colours.”
He added: “The arboretum with its pine, and maple varieties and the medicinal plant garden with its rows of lavender, sage, and milk thistle will be splendid.”
Enthused, Phyllis, then, decided to go to town. She kissed Florian goodbye and took the car. She parked in Exchange Street. Along the avenue leading to the stock exchange, she crossed the bronze statue of blindfolded Themis holding her scales of justice.
In the shopping mall, she bought a lottery ticket, knowing it was inflated to thrice its price. It would be drawn tonight. Walking away from Thetis towards her car, two masked rascals grabbed her bag and ran away quickly. Phyllis collapsed on the concrete pavement. Shocked, she asked a passer-by to call her husband.
She straightened up, realizing she had spent too much saved money on a lost lottery ticket. Florian had arrived with a surprise. He had reserved dinner-for-two in a Taiwanese restaurant with mottled carp ponds lit with red lanterns. He took her hand. Phyllis began to cry like an inconsolable little girl who had broken her favourite porcelain tea set.
I crawled up the driveway, worn tyres intruding upon a practical marriage of concrete and moss. As I came to a halt, the burnt glare of headlights, filtered through thick yellowed plastic, illuminated the formerly-white workshop door. In the thick dust that clung to it, I could still make out the path Jimmy’s finger had followed four weeks earlier, ‘ Clean me.’
Silence suffocated the car, sinking into tan leather seats and brown carpets, threatening to stop my breathing dead, holding me in place. I reached down for the silver handle and turned it until the silence finally seeped out, displaced by the real, the tangible — wind delivering the smell of rain drying on warm tarmac. As I thought about getting out, the up-and-over door slowly rose before me, revealing white Reebok trainers and stonewashed 501s.
”You coming in Dave, or you gonna sit there playing with yourself all night?”
I appreciated the effort.
With his milk bottle glasses and twelve-hour shadow framed by the same long greasy hair he’d had since we were at school, Roger looked ten years older than his 45 years. Sandra was always on at me, desperate to give him a makeover and get him online. It didn’t matter how many times I tried to say, “He just doesn’t give a fuck, Sand.”
I wound the window a bit further. “When are you gonna get a haircut, Rog?”
”Fuuuck off,” he said, a grin breaking out over his face as he turned and walked back inside, only to look round and cast his eyes over the old Ford Cortina, my pride and joy held together with spit and polish. “When you get a new car, mate.”
”It’s a classic,” I muttered under my breath for the hundredth time.
♦ ♦ ♦
I stepped inside, pulling the door down behind me. The dull thud sparking neurons that didn’t fire like they used to. I wouldn’t ever admit it, but this place, this glorified shed on an industrial estate in the arse-end of Warrington, it was everything to me. As much as Sandra. As much as the kids. It all brought comfort, I knew as much as that.
In the middle of the floor sat a large wooden work bench lit from above by two rows of fluorescent strip lights, and surrounded by a hodge-podge of stools, salvaged from skips and charity shops and from our own homes as they’d fallen out of step with progress. The three walls were lined with wooden cabinets and steel tool holders and pigeon holes, above them sitting proudly but without fanfare, on reinforced shelves, were the miniature steam engines.
Emily. Oliver. Spirit. Lucerne. Deacon. Tilly. Guinevere.
I pulled a stool out over the polished concrete. Roger was bent over in the corner, working on something held in the vice. Next to him was an iPad propped up against a book, zoomed in on a schematic. I stared over at it. It had been my idea, but now I saw only unwelcome evidence that new gods had replaced the old.
”You gonna make a brew or what?” Roger said, without looking up. “I’m parched.”
♦ ♦ ♦
We stood together silently, lost in the steam until I cast the spell away with the stiff zip that groaned down my leather jacket. The one Sandra told me I was too old for, despite my protestations that it still fit just fine.
Roger looked me up and down.
”For old time’s sake,” I said, running my hand over the embroidered name badge on my navy blue overalls that said, simply and truthfully,
David Holt Chief Engineer.
“You remember when Sandra made me these?”
”Yeah,” Roger said with a wry smile, “Jimmy never let you live it down.”
”Did you sort the paint in the end?” I said, remembering suddenly why we were here.
”It’s so old I had to get it colour-matched. Bloke in B&Q called it Persian Indigo, like he was mixing for Picasso or something. Dickhead.”
I laughed, for the first time in six days, as together we eased Guinevere down from the shelf and set about her with screwdrivers and masking tape and dirty cloths soaked in white spirit.
”Remember when Mr Deacon first brought Jimmy in?” Roger said, looking up. “He was fuming, thought we were all total saddos for building her. Took him what, three months to get sucked in?”
”Jimmy’ll be made up when he sees her,” I said quietly, trailing off as my phone buzzed against the table. It was Sandra.
”What’s up, love?”
”Are you with Roger?”
”Dave. I’ve just had Sheila on the phone. They’ve found someone. On the marshes by the estuary.”
”Is it Jimmy?” I said, without skipping a beat.
”They don’t know, Dave.”
”It’s Jimmy,” I said, my free hand suddenly not knowing what to do with itself.
”Dave. . . .”
”I’ll be home soon, love,” I said, barely whispering now, “I love you.”
”I know, love. Drive safe, OK.”
I put the phone down on the table and looked up to see Roger’s eyes asking all the questions I couldn’t answer. We embraced for the first time in 28 years. Awkwardly. With meaning.
”Fucking hell, Dave.”
♦ ♦ ♦
I pulled the door down on cold Sunday afternoons giving rides to kids, long nights wrestling with difficult builds, coal dust that got in every nook and cranny imaginable. Both of us stood for a moment, wondering, I think, if maybe this was the last time we’d be here. The last time we’d really be here.
”We need to clean this door,” he said, squeezing my shoulder.
“Not yet,” I said.
They passed a law over a decade ago in our state permitting us to marry, but we never did. To my Liza, marriage, organized religion and hypocrisy are human institutions to be abhorred. I was buttoning my shirt this morning, contemplating the peculiar technology of the button and wondering at its history, how it evolved and such, when Liza came in to kiss me goodbye. She hesitated a moment, taking in my contemplative aura. I told her what I was thinking and she commented it was going to be that kind of day. She was letting me know that I felt out of reach. In a certain frame of mind, I have a tendency to turn inward, not so much away from her, but that is the effect. She could say things like that with such affection. In the years we’ve been together I’ve learned to relax and enjoy myself under another’s gaze, not something I knew about before.
I drank my coffee on the couch with Shookah, the elder pit bull, at my feet. The other two lay beside me on top of one another. They took up more than half the couch and I was pushed over to the edge where I sipped my coffee and listened to them breathing and to Liza paging through the Times at the table where we eat our meals. She was driving down to the city to meet her sister and then on to visit their mother for lunch in what the old bird referred to as “the home”. She had a place up in river country, as well as an apartment in an upscale desert town outside of Los Angeles, and she still drove back and forth among all those places and others visiting friends, so it was a pointed humor, some kind of admonishment, that thing about “the home”, even if she moved in there herself for her own reasons with no counsel from her daughters. I was not invited to today’s get together. She didn’t like me much. She hadn’t had a drink in about thirty-five years but you always got the feeling that the next thing she might say could have that disemboweling vigor mean drunks seem to get away with. There was just something of the hovering and lying-in-wait about her. It made Liza’s kindness all the more astonishing coming as she did from this type of mother. We may be shaped by the parenting we receive, but some of us — and Liza is a shining example of this — take the damage as a cautionary tale and become people who will never perpetrate like that again. She’s a buck stops here kind of gal, my Liza, one of the many things I love about her.
The pit bulls and I kissed her goodbye and watched her trundle down the long driveway. Then we headed out for our morning walk. For most of the fall I had enjoyed taking the steep climb up to the ridge and then walking along the spine to the gap and that’s what we did. The rains had made a mess of the cut that got us up the first half of the slope and we had to pick our way through the eucalyptus grove and then cross a shallow gully that had become a good size stream. The dogs took the occasion to drink and I worried for a moment about giardia, but decided that we would face that if we had to and for now lapping up cool, running water was a pleasure too great to be denied. I pulled a bottle of Boost from my knapsack, gave it a good shake, and drank about half in two gulps without a breath. It tasted better that way, although the strawberry flavor variety wasn’t too bad. I screwed the cap back on and put it back in the sack for later.
We climbed the steeper side of the gully and from there picked our way across a field of blown-down Bishop pine to the fire road that took us to the top of the ridge. We followed the fire road then, a nice three mile ramble to the gap where we stopped to look at the valley to the east, fruit orchards and lakes and horse pastures, and I finished the rest of the Boost. Then we wound down the gentle slope to the foot bridge over Fennimen’s Creek and into the wooded neighborhoods north of town. Once we were within city limits I put the dogs on leads and they were happy to let me at that point having already walked the five miles through rugged terrain and now ready to slow down a bit.
We always stopped at the bakery on Main Street and that’s where we were headed. We ambled past the park and fell in behind a mother with an infant strapped to her chest and a toddler in tow. The toddler was bundled in miniature outdoor gear and crying in great heaving fashion, one long howl after another. This put the pit bulls on high alert. Babies leaking salt water demanded to be soothed and revived with vigorous licking and intense stares. Their dog brains would have it no other way. Shookah, the grand dame, led the way, and the boys were all in. I had seen this mother just about every day for the last two months and she was familiar with the dogs and their gentle manners. I had never seen the father or other mother or whatever they had going on, but I was pretty sure there was a father in the picture. I imagined he was slim, obsessive about what he ate, and thoroughly distracted by his work, which would be something requiring a great deal of education and not much to do with his hands. For some reason I didn’t like him. There was something about the mother, a kind of loneliness. I imagined she had been wooed, wed, impregnated, and then the couple’s paths diverged. She was at home with children while he spent more and more time pursuing his career. She was quite beautiful, in her late thirties with an ample, athletic body and a focused, intelligent gaze. The dogs stood wriggling in front of the toddler. Look who’s here, said the mother, but the child kept crying. Shookah licked her face once, wriggled some more, then licked again. There was a hitch in the crying, then some more licks, and the boys got in on it, and then the little girl threw her arms around Shookah’s stout neck and lay her cheek on the dog’s wide, blocky head. I watched as the mother’s exhausted face relaxed. She was beautiful indeed. I had the thought that she had not been seen in quite a while. I’d seen it in so many marriages, a failure to preserve the awe of truly seeing one another. It’s why we fall in love, I think, when we actually do, becoming awestruck by the power and beauty of the human standing before you.
At the bakery the dogs drank water out of a bowl the owners kept out front while I sat at a cafe table in the sun and sipped my second coffee. Brewer’s blackbirds were hopping around under the tables and I threw down crumbs off a biscuit before slathering it with butter and homemade jam. I ate and thought about a letter I’d been composing in my head to an old friend. He was becoming an even older enemy and the thing that blew us apart seemed still sharp on some days. He sent a letter last winter soon after the new year saying how he had been reading his journals from the last decade and it made him think that ten years ago he would never have thought that he and I would be estranged. His tone was one of bewilderment and it insulted me anew, because it was his doing, his rough treatment of me coming out of the blue that created the rift in the first place. I wrote back to him and reminded him that I was open to talking it through, with a mediator if need be, and had already said that to him more than once. He responded saying he would look at his calendar and get back to me with some possible dates. Then I never heard from him. He knew about my diagnosis and treatment and the aftermath. Not so much as a get well card.
I buttered the second biscuit and loaded it with jam and ate it, too. It was still hard to keep weight on. Dr. Kohn said she was certain that was because of all the exercise I was getting, and that all my numbers were good. Excellent, she would say. Exactly where they should be. My hair grew in quickly once treatment ended. I went from Yule Brenner bald to baby fuzzy within days. The soft bristles stage lasted a few weeks and I got in the habit of stroking them with the tips of my fingers. There was something very soothing about that. Then there was a weird bed-head phase where my hair stood up in tangential planes, like a cubist version of a crew cut, but that only lasted a week or so, before it settled into a super short wavy crown that looked great on me, nothing I would ever have thought to do, but it looked good enough that I went into the hair salon in town and asked the owner if she could keep my hair looking just like that. She said no problem but I’d have to come in every three or four weeks and I thought that was a good deal. She had baked me three angel food cakes back in the spring when that was all I could eat for a while. That’s how it went, the eating, one thing at a time for a few days, maybe a week, until I couldn’t stand it anymore and I’d settle on the next thing. For a while it was blueberries. Then water crackers. There’s an angel food cake in the freezer still but I don’t think I’ll ever eat one again.
After my second biscuit, I decided that once again I just didn’t know what to do about my lost friend and whistled the dogs out of their sit-stay. We walked down the block to Holsten’s Variety where I wanted to buy a few greeting cards and maybe a set of tea towels to replace the stained ones that hung from our oven handle. The proprietor was a woman in her seventies who had run this store for decades. She lived on a ten-acre spread north or our place and I occasionally ran into her when I was walking the dogs up on the ridge. We’d also sat next to one another over many a mostly taciturn lunch at the cafe over the years. She was a good neighbor. She’d brought our youngest pit bull home when he made a break for it his second day after we rescued him from a shelter in the valley. One year we doused a grass fire that had jumped past her defensible space. There was a long list of that kind of thing between us. I’d reached a point last summer when I was so weak I had to use an aluminum walker to stay upright. I made Liza drop me off in front of Holsten’s and then had to lean on the walker to rest a few moments just from getting out of the car. Liza knew to leave me be, and then I shoved the walker in front of me into the store and caught the edge of a Monopoly box, pulling it off the shelf and dumping it on the ground. Betsy Holsten was behind the counter and asked if I needed help. Do I look like I need help, I asked, and she gave a wry smile which I had never seen before or since, keeping her eyes on a stack of mail she was flipping through.
I lined the dogs up on the sidewalk outside the store and made them sit while I went inside. Shookah kept her eyes on me as I walked away and the younger bulls kept their eyes on her. I said hello to Betsy behind the counter and she nodded. I had talked to Dr. Kohn about my irritability which landed hard after my first round of chemotherapy. It wasn’t natural for me to be so short. I had mostly controlled it but it was getting hard and I really didn’t want to take it out on anybody, especially not on Liza, who was taking care of me in ways you just wouldn’t imagine an adult would need. She did it with such graciousness. Loving tenderness when I needed it. Efficient dispatches when my dignity was at risk. In all the years we had been together, I had never heard her raise her voice in anger. Never. And that’s saying something. So I told Dr. Kohn I was worried about being irritable, and she said that getting angry was a natural response to the whole thing. I knew what she was getting at but I didn’t feel angry about death. I mostly felt simultaneously calm and alert, and sometimes sad that I might have to leave my life earlier than I wanted. I was especially sad about leaving Liza, having found her late in life and already sad that I had missed her youth and her mine, and in some romantic way sad that we wouldn’t be able to celebrate a 65th anniversary, which I was certain we would have had had we met back when.
The walk home was shorter than hiking up the ridge. We walked to the edge of town and then followed a foot path through the woods into a pasture that abutted our property after a mile or so. When I got back to the house there was a text message on the cell phone. Liza was coming back that night, with her sister. They had been planning to stay in the city overnight and maybe see their mother tomorrow, too, but something must have gone wrong. I could imagine any number of ways the mother would have burned through the good will and longing of her two magnificent daughters.
I called Liza and she picked up.
“Can you talk?” I asked.
“Just a minute,” she said, and I could hear their mother’s voice, strident in the background, and then a door opening, and then the mother’s voice dropped out and in its place the shushing of traffic. Liza had stepped out onto their mother’s balcony.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She bemoaned Ann’s not having a husband, she bemoaned me having you. She accused Ann of coming only to check on her inheritance which she’ll surely squander on her drunken vets. Then we had lunch.”
“She invited her art dealer to join us at lunch and he blew in like the crown prince and they kissed each other on both cheeks. Both cheeks. She held Ann and me off with both arms when we arrived claiming she was coming down with something.”
There was more, and I listened. I was glad to have Liza coming home. And her sister, Ann, was an added treat. Her sister was quite a bit older, fifteen years, and had blazed the trail that Liza perfected. Ann was a brash, hysterically funny woman who had joined the army as a nurse lieutenant, and retired to a life in the country running a treatment program for returning vets. She used horses and a four acre garden to treat their PTSD.
Liza and Ann wouldn’t be home until late. I was on my own for dinner and decided to drive out to the organic farm where we bought our produce and eggs and chicken. I filled a thermos with coffee and put the dogs in the truck. Bouncing down the driveway, about half way down, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I cut the engine and rolled down the window. A Swainson’s hawk was quartering the field between our place and Betsy Holsten’s. I pulled my field glasses from under the passenger seat and watched for a while. The dogs sat up and sniffed at the air when I first stopped, but had since settled back down and now I could hear their quiet breathing as they slept as well as the rustle of dry winter leaves from the trees above the spot where I was parked. The Swainson’s hawk glided close to the ground, with occasional beats of those broad wings, which were maybe four feet across, a stunning width. The bird was approaching a rise about a hundred feet from the truck and I wanted to see this maneuver, which was to approach the hill stealthily and surprise any bird or mammal coming up from the other side. The hawk dropped low to the ground and skimmed the contour of the hill to the top where it hovered a moment, wings fully spread apart, its tail down and talons forward ready to strike, but to no avail. It rose up, turned, and quartered back toward the truck. From its underside I could see light feathers across the shoulders and the dark hood covering its throat and chest and then it floated down into the grasses where I could no longer see it. It must have caught something because it did not rise again.
I suddenly felt chilled from having the window open, which I shut, and drank some hot coffee. Liza does not share my love of birds. When we were first getting to know each other, I thought her attitude was one of indifference but it became clearer to me that she was almost hostile to birds, a fact that seemed out of character for her otherwise serene curiosity for most things. Then she told me casually that their mother went through a phase of birding, which was a popular activity among people of a certain age in their hometown. After meeting the woman, I could imagine their younger mother, drunk and chain smoking, and torturing her girls with her new interest, forcing them to feel competitive with the flighty feathered creatures that their mother found fascinating and interesting. Far more so than her own youngest daughter with whom she would be walking and then no longer talking while she scanned the trees with an outrageously expensive pair of field glasses that were far above her skill level and called out the names of birds as if putting a firewall between herself and any emotional connection between them. I only imagined this scene, and Liza was careful not to tread on my passion, but I was equally careful never to let Liza feel that she was excluded or less interesting to me than the birds I had studied my whole life and instinctively noticed and thought about whenever I was outdoors.
The organic farm was run by a group of young people, all in their 20’s and 30’s, and as far as I could tell all college educated given the book groups and workshops they offered and advertised in town. Some were interns that the farm took on for a year-long program in organic farming and permaculture. The gossip in town was that they were polyamorous — a word I loved to hear coming out of the mouths of my wizened country neighbors — and that maybe they were a cult, although a cult of what no one quite knew. It made no difference to me, any of that. I liked going out there and perusing the farm stand. And they liked my dogs, so that sealed the deal for me. It was winter so the choices at the farm stand ran to kale, and squash, cauliflower and broccoli and Brussels sprouts and beets. There was a bin of onions, and one of potatoes. Some apples they pulled from cold storage and a few very ripe persimmons which were good and sweet. They ran the farm stand on an honor system. I chose a dozen eggs, and a couple of the sweet, meaty squash that I preferred. There were loaves of fresh baked bread, and I chose a challah thinking I would make French toast with it in the morning for Liza and Ann. I had to go back into the barn for chicken, which was kept in a cooler there, and called Shookah out of the cab, but made the boys stay. She was a better guest on the farm, and more patient than the boys, and I was hoping to chat a bit with the young woman who was in charge of the barn and who was a birder of some renown, it turned out, in local circles. But I couldn’t find her, and it surprised me to feel as disappointed as I did. I chose a plump chicken from the cooler and stuffed money into the wooden box nailed to the barn door. Birding was common among the grey haired, always, but there had been a surge of interest among a young crowd and I liked to hear what they were doing and seeing and thinking, poised as they were in an apocalyptic moment in human history. The young people I meet birding rattle off data describing the encroachments on birds from pollution and pesticides, road and housing construction, and, the banner of their time, climate change. At their age, we serious birders regaled one another with our knowledge of species habits and regional differences. The best among us could bird by ear as well as by sight and could identify what amounted to local dialects of birdsong as well as distinctions that were down to sex differences. The young people I meet now have all that as well as theories about evolution of a species, descriptions of species from places they’d never been because they can read the data on the internet, and tallies of endangerment and near extinctions as well as their putative causes. When I was young, I identified with the power and freedom of birds, feeling the lightness and release that came with the fantasy of flight. Young people today seem to identify with the fragility and helplessness of birds, which will be wiped out if we don’t change the course of cultural development. I am old now, and I won’t be here for the very hard times ahead, and I feel tenderness toward the young people and the birds that I once thought of as the future, the ongoingness of being. I had thought of my life as something like a long drive in the truck, a slow roll through a changing landscape I would study and know until one day I would be dropped off at the side of the road and I would know that this is where it would end for me. But the road went on, and I would watch others slip past into their futures full of wonder while the sound dropped out and the sun slowly set on my own journey. But now often in my imagination what had been a quiet, solitary parting from this world becomes a dotting of traffic jams, some small, some immense, while all our vehicles are stopped at the same time, and no one gets to go any further, and we all stand in awe, overtaken and confounded, car doors open, sharply focused like herd animals scenting the air, but with no instinct to run, no where to run to.
Back at the house, I baked squash and roasted the chicken and fed the dogs each a handful of the breast meat, which they gulped down in their sit stay. Then I released them to the couches where they curled and slept while I ate my dinner at the table. The house was quiet, the kind of quiet you can feel like a weight on your shoulders and pressing against your ears. Time lost velocity, just spread around me like thick jam, holding the shape of this moment, this perfect moment.
After I ate I made coffee and carried it out into the back yard because I wanted to look at the sky since it was a new moon. I sat on the stump by the barn and leaned back against the wall wrapped in a Pendleton my father had given me when I was in my teens and which I had slept under camping hundreds of times. As my eyes adjusted to the dark I began to see more and more stars, depths and degrees of starlight that shifted from a two-dimensional tableau to three dimensional space flowing out from me, and the dogs, and the enormous live oak that canopied the yard. Shookah slowly rose from where she had been lying, stretched a bit, and came to sit at my side. I reached my hand out from under the blanket and was absently stroking her ear when a sudden hot grief overtook me. It shook the air out of my lungs. Breath and tears and the endless night. I held on to Shookah’s ear and the old gal wriggled and gazed and I leaned down to let her lick my face.
Just after midnight, 2019, a metal object with roughly the size and proportions of a grand piano drifted by two enormous rocks fused together in space. It would take months for the images gathered by the satellite dish of the New Horizons probe to reach earth, four billion miles away. When they did, scientists would still debate the optimal name for what the images revealed: a shape like two desiccated cookies, one larger than the other, twenty-two miles long in total, twelve miles wide and six miles thick.
The body was just one among many thousands of icy worlds beyond the solid planets like our own, beyond the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, in the Kuiper Belt, the vast outer region of our solar system. It was not until November of that year that NASA’s New Horizons team would agree, with the permission of Powhatan Tribal elders, to name the heavenly body Arrokoth, a Powhatan/Algonquian word for sky. It had taken the New Horizons probe thirteen years to travel from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral in Brevard County, Florida to the Kuiper Belt – even with the added momentum of a gravity boost as it zipped by Jupiter in January of 2007. No manmade object has traveled further.
But perhaps the part of the scientific endeavor that garnered the most popular press coverage was the presence on the team of an astrophysicist with a head covered in silver curls that trailed down his back, not unlike those of another great man of science, Isaac Newton. One could travel to the outer reaches of the solar system several times in the years it took Doctor May to complete his doctorate at Imperial College London – thirty-seven years and eight months. During those years, he recorded some of the most beloved guitar work in the history of popular music, earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and acquired a couple of hundred million dollars. In the time between completing his Ph.D. and receiving the images from New Horizons, while he served as vice president of one of the largest charities in the United Kingdom, an asteroid and a species of damselfly were named after him.
In February of that year, the movie Bohemian Rhapsody was released. May consulted on the movie, along with his bandmate Roger Taylor. The movie would collect four Oscars and 850 million dollars at the box office.
In July of that year, prior to playing an arena in Toronto, May would receive a medal from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. It was a stop on the well-planned North American tour of Queen, the band Brian May co-founded at the age of twenty-three.
A casual consumer of the news might assume that there are two Brian Mays, one a guitar hero and one an astrophysicist. How else can one reconcile such accomplishments with the frequent failures and mediocrities associated with an ordinary life? But no, one man did it all.
In fact, one might argue that Brian May’s success is greater than a resume and a few numbers suggest. Many successes in the sciences are predicated upon accidental discovery. Many successes in the arts are predicated upon a departure from artistic sensibilities to gain popularity, oversimplification, dumbing down, selling out. No one could accuse Brian May of either tactic. New Horizons may be one of the most deliberate endeavors in scientific history and one of the longest in its execution. A Night at the Opera, the album that began Queen’s global success, was a brazen departure from the popular conventions of the time. Knowing that radio stations demanded tracks no more than three minutes long, the band released the highly experimental album with a six-minute epic compilation of three motifs, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as the single, and one B-side track that clocked in at eight minutes and twenty-one seconds. Moreover, May’s three-part layering in the studio, his tasteful weaving of embellishment and memorable themes endeared him to fellow musicians, critics and the public alike.
Of course, all great success requires great timing. If Brian May had expressed his love of astronomy four centuries ago, he would probably have been burned at the stake like fellow cosmological theorists of the day. If Queen released A Night at the Opera tomorrow, the best they could hope for would be some income from well-attended live shows and a tiny fraction of the financial success they might provide for the stockholders of social media corporations. Their longevity would be measured not in decades within the pantheon of rock and roll, but within the context of internet sensations — a ratio not unlike the lifespan of a human being compared to the lifespan of the damselfly which bears Doctor May’s name.
May’s journey is worth considering because he reminds us of how often we sell ourselves short. As consumers of art, we tend to assume that the artist has no more to offer than the glimpse of work to which we are exposed. We distrust artists who explore more than one medium, even more than one style, even more than one instrument. It is unsettling to consider that Van Cliburn’s first love was singing because we picture him at the piano. Once we go beyond the arts, it’s even more tempting to be dismissive. Condoleezza Rice is a politician, a former secretary of state. Could she really be an accomplished musician? Yes, she performed with professional orchestras in her teens. She hails from a musical family, and her name is a variation of the Italian marking “con dolcezza,” or “with sweetness.”
May’s relationship with academia through the years is illuminating. A boy, still in grammar school, builds an electric guitar with his father, teaches himself how to play, and performs with local bands while he goes on to earn his Bachelor of Science in Physics. Three years later, he drops out of graduate school to dedicate himself to a band, only to resume his studies many years later. He would have been a very different player had he taken a more academic path towards music. He would have stood no chance of success had he completed his studies directly and first dedicated himself to music in his thirties or forties, and he would be viewed quite differently in the scientific community were his knowledge of astrophysics entirely self-taught.
Brian May reminds us how much we limit our own dreams and visions. We see paths as mutually exclusive. We take no chances. We do not persevere. We stagnate. We believe that to commit to a path is to conform to it, to commit to our image of it, narrow and confining. We fear spreading ourselves too thin because we have seen mediocrity spread thin, but mediocrity is always ubiquitous. It is the humble beginning of every brilliant success.
If Brian May’s success in such unrelated realms seems maddeningly beyond the expectations of a single human life, he recently revealed that he is all too human. Two days ago, the seventy-two-year-old acknowledged that he suffered a heart attack this month while undergoing treatment for a sciatic nerve impingement. Ironically, the outspoken May had expressed outrage at England’s poor preparedness for the outbreak of Covid-19, citing insufficient supplies of protective equipment just weeks prior to his own hospitalization. He’s home and recovering well now after receiving three stents in lieu of open-heart surgery.
This past summer, white parents across the United States repeatedly asked the same question: “How should I talk to my white child about race?”In response, parenting magazine writers, bloggers and newspaper columnists framed article after articleas responses to this question. Again and again, social scientists who study families were bombarded by mainstream media requests to respond to this same query: “What advice do you have for white parents on how they can talk to their white kid about racism in America?”
The reality is that the question about how to talk about race consistently emerges in the aftermath of racial violence in America. In fact, I keep a collection of these essays, articles, and blog posts to use when I teach my college students about how kids learn about race. I have a whole PowerPoint slide with headlines from my collection that I use when I share my research on white families with public audiences. The reason I use this collection is to demonstrate the pattern I see of an overwhelming focus on talk rather than action.
I am a sociologist who studies how white kids learn about race, racism, racial inequality and privilege in the context of their ordinary, everyday lives. As detailed in my book, White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, I spent two years with 36 affluent, white kids aged 10-13 and their families, listening to their ideas and observing them as they encountered their social worlds. I went to country clubs and Boy Scout troop Laser Tag events, birthday parties and soccer games. I helped kids with homework, drove them to piano lessons, and ate dinner with their families.
I found that the well-intentioned and popular question of “how to talk to white kids about race” is not the question white parents should be asking—or at least not the only one. This is because the white kids in my study did not learn about race primarily through conversations with their parents. Rather, the kids’ ideas came largely from the observations they made about the social environment around them—an environment their parents strategically designed for them using available resources. And this was true whether their parents talked with them about race or not.
Social Environment and Racial Learning
In a segregated and racially unequal society, racial patterns do not go unnoticed by children. Much like similar research conducted with Black children, the white kids in my study developed understandings about race through their observations of how things are organized around them. What kind of people live in the “nice” houses? What neighborhoods do parents lock the car doors while driving through? What kind of kids get in trouble the most at school? The children in my study interpreted messages like these as they interacted with teachers, peers, coaches, strangers, and their parents’ friends in a variety of social settings. Their ideas about race were thus shaped in large part by what I call the “racial context of their childhood.”
For example, in my study, 12-year old Edward’s family did not talk openly about race. However, one afternoon as we waited in a McDonald’s drive-thru, he observed a group of Black kids playing and laughing in the snow, just like he and his friends did all the time. Edward asked me, “This neighborhood isn’t really all that good, is it?” Despite not talking openly about race at home, and despite telling me only a few weeks prior that “race doesn’t matter anymore,” Edward had clearly internalized the idea that Black people and neighborhoods are bad.
I also found that even if critical conversations about race happened in the home, the kids in my study still interpreted many messages about race outside the home, too. And often, the environment outside the home was shaped by choices their parents made about where to live, schools they would attend, which friends to have and so on. As scholars like Karolyn Tyson, Amanda Lewis, and Carla Shedd each illustrate, kids learn ideas about race through interpreting patterns they see in their everyday lives, including at schools and in their local communities.
In the case of the affluent, white kids in my research, this included learning what it means to experience the world from a position of privilege. For instance, 11-year-old Aaron attended a predominantly white private school where he was told by his parents and teachers that he attended this school because he was “special,” “better” and “smarter” than the kids at the local public school. It was commonly held knowledge that in this particular community, the vast majority of the Black and brown kids attended public school.
As a result of this pattern of school segregation, Aaron developed ideas about what kinds of kids are “special” and “more deserving” than others—and he learned where he is situated in social hierarchies. Ironically, Aaron was able to talk in sophisticated ways about institutional racism because of the conversations in his home. We talked at great length, for instance, about the racial wealth gap. Nevertheless, the broader context in which Aaron lived, including the schools his parents chose for him, played a powerful role in convincing Aaron that he was superior to “other” kids at the public school. And this is what he told me he believed to be true about himself: he believed that he would go to a school like Harvard someday and become a leader, because that is what people like him do.
Peers and Media
Over the course of my research, it became very clear to me that many of these white kids had a lot of questions about race—and found answers to these questions by talking to other kids. Sometimes they would tell me about things they learned about race from watching movies, television program, and even the local news.
One afternoon, I observed Carly, age 12, her younger sister, and a friend discuss musician Rihanna’s racial identity. The girls disagreed about her racial classification. One girl thought Rihanna was Black—“or at least a mix”—while another girl argued that Rihanna was white but wearing a lot of bronzer makeup. The girls discussed rubbing bronzer makeup on their own white arms to see if they could get their skin to look like Rihanna’s. Carly told the others that she really wanted Rihanna to be “white with bronzer like me” rather than Black.
Another afternoon I watched two boys debate whether Black athletes have an extra muscle in their legs that allows them to jump higher and run faster. I listened as the boys argued back and forth about this while eating string cheese. In the end, they wrongly concluded that since race is “biological,” it must be true that these fundamental anatomical differences exist.
Overall, although these kids had questions about race, most did not talk with their parents about the topic. Some told me they didn’t think their parents would listen to them anyway. One child even told me, “My mom just hates talking about that stuff.”
Raising a “good” white kid
Many well-meaning white parents tell me they do not want to raise “a racist kid.” They say they want to raise a “good” white kid. But parents who see the world this way accept a logic that there is such a thing as a “good” white kid who is not racist and a “bad” white kid who is.
Of course, there are children who use racist insults at the interpersonal level, like chanting “Build the wall!” in the faces of their Latinx peers or posting racist content on TikTok. There are even examples of young white people who join racist white nationalist groups. These acts must be addressed.
But as sociologist Crystal Fleming explains, when we identify racism as “individual attitudes, prejudice, or the actions of a few extremists” alone, we collectively deny and miss the reality that white supremacy is a “system of power”—it is about far more than an individual kid with racist ideas.
Focusing on whether a kid is racist or not ignores the reality that racism is deeply embedded in our society’s institutions and has been for centuries. It ignores the ways that we are all actors in a racialized social system, or a society organized fundamentally by the socially constructed concept of race.
Collective Decisions of White Parents
Thinking about racism solely in individualist terms also denies the fact that white parents often act in collective ways to maintain structural arrangements that work well for them. This can be seen historically in the formation of segregationist academies throughout the U.S. South, an effort led by white parents, or in white parents’ opposition to desegregation efforts in Northern cities.
But this can also be seen today. When the school district in my study considered redistributing resources to support students at the public high school who were struggling academically, and who were disproportionately Black, white parents banded together, and used various forms of capital to ensure that their children’s extracurricular opportunities remained intact. “We chose this school because of these opportunities, and we expect them to be available for our kids,” was the viewpoint shared with me.
These were the same parents who also told me that they believed in racial justice.
When white parents use what Amanda Lewis and John Diamond refer to as the “symbolic capital of whiteness” to ensure that the school practices that serve their children well do not change, they engage in what sociologist Charles Tilly defines as “opportunity hoarding.” Evidence of opportunity hoarding can be seen in micro-level interactional processes between parents and teachers, in practices of how kids get sorted into Gifted and Talented programs, and through racialized tracking practices in general. These practices can also be seen when parents like those in my study use their social networks to get their kid a coveted summer internship or moved into the “best” math class.
Although parents do not view their choices as attempts to sabotage others or reinforce inequality, their actions contribute to these consequences nonetheless. And when parents engage in these behaviors in patterned ways, their individual actions become collective and ultimately reproduce the unequal racial status quo. As Lewis and Diamond powerfully write, these white parents are “not just advocating for their own children. They are also advocating for the maintenance of the structures of inequality that facilitate their advantage.”
Of course, it does not have to be this way, as Brittany Murray et al. illustrate in their recent research and as organizations like We Stories and Integrated Schools demonstrate in practice. Solidarity can instead be built across all parents in a school or community so that everyone is invested in everyone else—but that requires a different way of thinking about what it means to advocate for children than what I commonly observed in my research.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Some people believe that the recent uprising in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor will become a racially transformative moment in American history. Perhaps this is will be the case. Certainly, we have seen some meaningful changes this summer, like reforming the police force or removing police from schools, an action for which Black youth activists and scholars of the school-to-prison pipeline have long advocated.
But will white parents who attended Black Lives Matters protest marches back in June with their children do more than talk to their kids about racism in the months ahead?
If living in a future society with deep racial divides and continued racist violence is not what we want for the future, white, affluent parents need to do more than talk to their kids about racism. White parents need to ask different questions that lead to different behaviors.
Based on my research, the question white parents should be asking is, “How can I align what I do with what I say I value?”
Certainly, white parents have a role to play in changing the institutional drivers of inequality. And often, race and class privileged people like those in my research are positioned such that they themselves can powerfully influence and shape institutions directly. For example, as Jessica Calarco illustrates, due to current school funding practices, U.S. schools are “privilege-dependent organizations.” These institutions depend on and cater to affluent white families, selectively enforcing rules about homework and giving those kids more leeway. What if privileged parents used their position to disrupt these unfair practices rather than participating in them?
Whether or not white parents are influential members of their communities, they can support policies, practices and laws designed to create big, broad changes. They can vote for politicians who will write new laws and enact policies that support the redistribution of material resources in society across the board. For example, they can support changes to how public schools are funded.
White parents can also think more about the racial context of their children’s lives. They can think more carefully about the messages they are sending their kids when they opt to live in an exclusively white neighborhood, or when they volunteer in or travel to communities different from their own. And perhaps they can make different choices in the future. White parents can think more deliberately about the kinds of social settings they enter and make different choices about which soccer teams they select, what kind of media they consume, or how they engage with their peers. They can model what it looks like to stand up to racism in private white spaces, like when an extended relative makes a racist comment at a family dinner.
Prioritizing the Common Good
But perhaps most important, white parents can also make different collective decisions on a regular, everyday basis—decisions that bring their actions in line with what they value. For example, white parents can make the decision to support public schools and integration efforts through the choices they make about neighborhoods and schools. White parents can reject practices of school discipline and tracking that are shown to perpetuate racial inequality. They can advocate for more material resources channeled to children from marginalized groups, even if that undermines the advantage their own kids might otherwise have had. White parents can learn to listen and partner with Black and brown parents rather than dominating spaces like PTA meetings. These are just some examples of what white parents can do differently.
As a friend put it to me recently, white parents do not need to give up the idea that their child is special to them. They just need to accept the idea that other children deserve just as many opportunities to grow, to learn and to flourish as their own kids.
Talking to white children about racism is an important start. But white parents cannot simply change what they say—they must also change what they do. If white parents really want to teach their children that Black Lives Matter, they must make different decisions that prioritize the common good.
One such example, from Motherly, may be found here: https://www.mother.ly/child/talking-to-kids-about-racism-age-by-age/how-parents-of-teens-and-tweens-ages-11-and-up-can-talk-to-their-children-about-race-and-racism. ↵
A further example, by Sasha Emmons, writing for Today’s Parent, can be seen here: https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-racism. ↵
As evidenced by this special report from Michigan radio, which concluded in 2017: https://stateofopportunity.michiganradio.org/post/here-are-few-ideas-how-talk-kids-about-race-police-and-protests. ↵
Hagerman, Margaret A. White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. NYU Press, 2018. ↵
Underhill, Megan R. “Parenting During Ferguson: Making Sense of White Parents’ Silence.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 41, no. 11, pp. 1934-1951. Abstract available to view here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01419870.2017.1375132?journalCode=rers20. ↵
Winkler, Erin N. Learning Race, Learning Place Shaping Racial Identities and Ideas in African American Childhoods. Rutgers University Press, 2012. ↵
Tyson, Karolyn. Integration Interrupted: Tracking, Black Students, and Acting White after Brown. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011. ↵
Lewis, Amanda E. Race in the Schoolyard Negotiating the Color Line in Classrooms and Communities. Rutgers University Press, 2003. ↵
Shedd, Carla. Unequal City Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice. Russell Sage Foundation, 2015. ↵
Oliver, Melvin and Thomas Shapiro. Black Wealth / White Wealth A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. Routledge, 2006. ↵
Jacobo, Julia. “Students Chant 'Build the Wall' at Middle School Cafeteria the Day After the Election.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 10 Nov. 2016, abcnews.go.com/US/students-chant-build-wall-middle-school-cafeteria-day/story?id=43451771 ↵
Magsino, Isiah. “Teens Won't Stop Posting Racist Videos and Challenges on TikTok. Experts Explain Why the Problem Continues.” Insider, Insider, 11 May 2020, www.insider.com/tiktok-continues-to-have-problems-with-racist-videos-2020-5. ↵
Miller-Idriss, Cynthia. Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right. Princeton University Press, 2020. ↵
Fleming, Crystal M. How to Be Less Stupid About Race: Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide. Beacon Press, 2018. ↵
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2014. ↵
Feagin, Joe R. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2013. ↵
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 5th ed., Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. ↵
Roberts, Dorothy. Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century. The New Press, 2012. ↵
Andrews, Kenneth T. “Movement-Countermovement Dynamics and the Emergence of New Institutions: The Case of ‘White Flight’ Schools in Mississippi.” Social Forces, vol. 80, no. 3, 2002, pp. 911–936. Abstract available to view here: https://academic.oup.com/sf/article-abstract/80/3/911/2234435. ↵
Delmont, Matthew F. Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation. University of California Press, 2016. ↵
Lewis, Amanda E. and John Diamond. Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools. Oxford University Press, 2015. ↵
Tilly, Charles. Durable Inequality. University of California Press, 1999. ↵
L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, R. Inequality in the Promised Land Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. Stanford University Press, 2014. ↵
Roda, Allison. Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs: Parental Choices about Status, School Opportunity, and Second-Generation Segregation. Palgrave, 2015. ↵
Tyson, Karolyn. Integration Interrupted. ↵
We Stories, http://www.westories.org. ↵
Integrated Schools, http://www.integratedschools.org. ↵
Willis, Jay, et al. “Minneapolis City Council Members Announce Intent To Disband The Police Department, Invest In Proven Community-Led Public Safety.” The Appeal, 7 June 2020, theappeal.org/minneapolis-city-council-members-announce-intent-to-disband-the-police-department-invest-in-proven-community-led-public-safety. ↵
Kamenetz, Anya. “Why There's A Push To Get Police Out Of Schools.” NPR, NPR, 23 June 2020, www.npr.org/2020/06/23/881608999/why-theres-a-push-to-get-police-out-of-schools. ↵
Petrovic, Phoebe. “Student Activists Call On Lawmakers, MPS To Break School-To-Prison Pipeline.” Wisconsin Public Radio, 1 May 2019, www.wpr.org/student-activists-call-lawmakers-mps-break-school-prison-pipeline. ↵
Meiners, Erica R. and Maisha T. Winn. ‘Resisting the school to prison pipeline: the practice to build abolition democracies,’ Race, Ethnicity and Education, vol. 13, no. 3, 2010, pp. 271-276. Introduction available to view here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13613324.2010.500832?journalCode=cree20. ↵
Harmon, Amy, and Sabrina Tavernise. “One Big Difference About George Floyd Protests: Many White Faces.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/us/george-floyd-white-protesters.html. ↵
Calarco, Jessica McCrory. “Avoiding Us versus Them: How Schools’ Dependence on Privileged ‘Helicopter’ Parents Influences Enforcement of Rules,” American Sociological Review, vol. 85, no. 2, 2020, pp. 223-246. Abstract available to view here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0003122420905793. ↵
Morris, Monique W. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press, 2018. ↵
Oakes, Jeannie. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. 2nd Ed., Yale University Press, 2005. ↵
Ray, Ranita. The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City. University of California Press, 2017. ↵
Posey-Maddox, Linn. When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools: Class, Race, and the Challenge of Equity in Public Education. University of Chicago Press, 2014. ↵
Black Lives Matter, https://blacklivesmatter.com. ↵
1921:Nearly a century ago, in Tulsa, the city where I grew up, a Black man allegedly assaulted a White woman in an elevator downtown. In the following days, White rioters reacted by burning and destroying city blocks of black-owned businesses in the Greenwood District on the north side of Tulsa. Countless African-American residents were senselessly injured and killed. Their homes and businesses along what was known as “Black Wall Street” were destroyed.
1954: After the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, formerly racially segregated schools across the country became integrated. Tulsa Public Schools bused African-American students over from Tulsa’s north side to attend classes at more centrally located schools, including my elementary school, Patrick Henry, and my junior high and high school, Thomas A. Edison.
1985: In high school, I knew some Black students from class and cross country and track. But, except for the time we spent in classes during the school day, we did not interact much outside of class and after-school workouts. The distance and railroad tracks between the “north side” and “south side” of town still presented a geographic hurdle.
At the end of the school year, Edison’s track team had an out-of-town meet. Everyone on the team took a bus ride to and from the meet. My White teammates and I shared one motel room. While my Black teammates had their own room next door. Voluntary segregation persisted.
I got back to my room late that evening after visiting a senior with her own room who invited me over to meet some boys. Like much of my youth, I did not know what I was getting into. When I returned to our shared room, my knock knock knocks went unanswered. My White teammates would not let me back in. But my Black teammates next door heard me knocking and opened their door. In that moment, they did not judge me. They just knew I needed sleep.
The next morning, I ran a heavy eight laps around the track for the longest, slowest race of the day, the two-miler. In my memory, the track was right next to our motel, although it was probably another bus ride away. I did not perform up to my potential that day. The talented African American girls swiftly sprinted shorter distances. All these years later, their kindness has stuck with me. Going to an integrated public school allowed me to meet African American and other students of color. We were all classmates, runners and friends. Some kinder and more forgiving than others.
2020: Tulsa’s Northside, the Greenwood District, is now revitalized. New restaurants, art galleries and other businesses stand on Black Wall Street’s ashes. Many people now identify themselves as more than just one race. In 100 years, Tulsa’s racial divide has diminished. Small acts of kindness like the one I experienced are behind that subtle shift. However, there is still stark economic disparity among Tulsans and others in this county.
On the Southside of Tulsa, at the Southern Hills’ Country Club, there is a dessert buffet like no other. But just across Lewis Street, at CVS, a “no handbaskets” rule to prevent shoplifting echoes that in a land of plenty some people do not have everything they need. My racially diverse high school class of 1986 stays in touch on Facebook because not everyone lives in Tulsa anymore. There is still work to be done.
Hannibal B. Johnson, “Greenwood District,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GR024. ↵
Scott Ellsworth, “Tulsa Race Massacre,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=TU013. ↵
For more on the Tulsa race massacre, see “1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.” Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/. The Tulsa World also offers good coverage and looks at the current Greenwood District. For more on white violence against Black people, see Moore, A. “8 Successful and Aspiring Black Communities Destroyed by White Neighbors.”, Atlanta Black Star, 4 Dec. 2013, atlantablackstar.com/2013/12/04/8-successful-aspiring-black-communities-destroyed-white-neighbors/. ↵
For more on Brown v. Board of Education: “History - Brown v. Board of Education Re-Enactment.” United States Courts, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on Behalf of the Federal Judiciary, www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/history-brown-v-board-education-re-enactment. ↵
A while ago I was at a party when I saw a stranger’s lock screen from across the room. It was a picture of a man with a receding hairline wearing aviator glasses and sitting, slouching, in a red chair. I asked, though just to confirm what I already knew, “who’s that on your phone?” It was David Berman, mercurial frontman of the Silver Jews and then, for a short time, Purple Mountains. I’ve been a fan of Berman’s work since 2008, when I was sixteen years old. I bought the Silver Jews’ CD Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea and listened to it endlessly for months. Then I went back and got all their other albums, and then I looked on in horror as David announced he was retiring from music to take up “muckraking.” There was a time when I would have told you the Jews were my favorite band, or maybe second favorite, after The Hold Steady, or third, after The Mountain Goats. But no, in the summer of 2008 they were my favorite. I loved them better than anyone else. This is the kind of thing you tell yourself when someone you loved dies.
“Someone you loved.” Typing that phrase feels melodramatic, but it’s also true. The Silver Jews were one of those bands that inspired fanatic devotion. At that party, the stranger and I talked about David Berman for a long time, until, eventually, the conversation devolved into both of us just quoting our favorite lines back and forth, feeling good to be feeling his words in our mouths. Silver Jews songs got scratched into our souls, and it felt good to run our fingers over the grooves. David’s lyrics were weird, surreal, often intentionally dumb. David Foster Wallace wrote a lot, before his suicide, about how depression feels like being trapped in your own head. And Berman had a way of trapping you in there with him. This sounds very un-fun, but it wasn’t. What I mean to say is something like this: David Berman wrote lyrics that sounded like the thoughts you think when no one’s listening. I’ve read that he never quite believed he had fans, and I get this. How could you write like that if you knew you had an audience?
I had a friend, his name was Marc with a C. His sister was like the heat coming off the back of an old TV.
And I want to be like water, if I can, cause water doesn’t give a damn.
Like like the the the death. Air, crickets, air, crickets, air crickets, air, crickets, air.
What kind of animal needs to smoke a cigarette?
And of course, the one, the line people talk about, the one they get tattoos of:
In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.
Why does that last line cut so deep for so many people? I think it has to do with its surreality. Berman took ordinary objects and experiences and made them weird in a way that felt true. This is what art is, some people say. “I was hospitalized,” the passive voice never clearer. People don’t say, “I was hospitalized,” when it’s kidney stones. But the last part, “for approaching perfection,” captures a certain euphoria that characterizes suicidal ideation. If nothing else, suicide promises an end to pain (for you, at least, a distinction Berman was keenly aware of.).
If it’s not clear by now, David Berman killed himself. I’m trying to figure out what this means for me, and what it means for his music. Is it possible to separate the artist from the art? If so, would we even want to? And if not, have these songs become suicide notes? Were they always that?
It also occurs to me, writing this, that this isn’t the first time I’ve written about David Berman and depression. In 2018, Scott Hutchinson died, and I wrote a post on Facebook that included this:
It’s also important to remember, though, that depression isn’t a story with only one ending. Not everyone with depression will try to kill themselves, and not everyone who tries will die. One person who didn’t die was David Berman.
I wrote about his song “There is a Place,” in which he sings,
There is a place past the blues I never want to see again.
The context of the song is that David tried to kill himself in 2003. He didn’t die, and the experience brought him closer to God. David became a serious practitioner of Judaism. In the song, he sings, “I saw God’s shadow on this world” over and over again, like a prayer, like there are no words that more closely express what he’s trying to say. He’s trying to say that mystic experiences don’t change the world, but they do change you. The scales fall from your eyes, and you see the world anew. You see, for the first time, God’s shadow.
Part of what David Berman’s music meant to me was that you could be severely depressed (David called it “treatment-resistant depression”) and somehow still . . . not die. With the right combination of religion and art, you could beat depression. There was something bracing yet comforting in listening to lyrics about “smok(ing) the gel from a fentanyl patch” and knowing the guy who sang it was okay. Alive, at least. These stories were compelling to me because they let me get close to the void without getting sucked in. It took David’s death to make me realize how selfish I had been. I had used someone else’s pain to make myself feel safe. If he could make it, said I, dumbly, then obviously I can.
This would all be easier if David didn’t release an album last year. The last Silver Jews album was in 2008, and if he’d then died eleven years later, there would be a certain plausible distance: a lot can happen in eleven years. But he didn’t just fade away. His album Purple Mountains, his first with a new band, came out on July 12th, 2019. His body was found on August 7th. I had tickets to see him on September 1st.
This album is, and I’m just going to stipulate this, his masterpiece. His lyrical skill is completely undiminished, but he’s gone through a transformation common to many songwriters approaching middle age. He got simpler, more direct, less clever. It’s the difference between Born to Run and Born in the USA, between Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Or, if you will, and David was a poet, between The Waste Land and Four Quartets. At the same time, his rhyme schemes become knottier and more virtuosic, his singing better, his arrangements gorgeous and grand. It’s also impossible to deny that this album was written by a man in pain.
The album starts like this:
Well I don’t like talking to myself
But someone’s gotta say it, hell,
I mean things have not been going well
This time I think I’ve finally fucked myself!
His voice jumps several steps on “fucked myself,” and it’s funny, and you laugh, and then you stop laughing.
You see, the life I live is sickening
I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion
Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in
I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been.
The backing band is doing a sort of Stones-in-’68 country stomp, and there it is again: depression and euphoria, both at the same time. It’s thrilling to hear writing that good, to get hit with unexpected mid-line rhymes. “Sicken” is rhymed with “chicken” and then almost with “oblivion,” which makes you think he’s paid off the rhyme, but then he brings it back again, playing off the “eck” sound in “neck and neck” and “same old wreck” while returning to the “sickening/oblivion” slant rhyme for “giving in” and “always been.” It’s the kind of verse that would sound good to someone who doesn’t know a word of English, the rhythmic density reminding me more of The Notorious B.I.G. than, like, Bonnie Prince Billie.
This combination of lyrical virtuosity and soul-baring confessionalism characterizes the whole album. Formally, its a rebuke to the idea that honesty has to mean long shapeless lines that eschew rhyme, enjambment, assonance, or metaphor in an attempt to make a song sound like a monologue (looking at you, Mark Kozelek). On a song called “Margaritas at the Mall,” he sings:
How long can a world go on under such a subtle God?
How long can the world go on with no new word from God?
See the plod of the flawed individual looking for a nod from God
Trodding the sod of the visible with no new word from God.
It reminds me of San Juan de la Cruz, who wrote:
¡Oh noche que me guiaste!
¡oh noche amable mas que el aluorada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!
In both, the same delight in technique, the same over-powering darkness. Juan’s “night more lovable than the dawn” would have been familiar to David Berman. But so would his “lover and beloved, beloved in love transformed.”
The thread of love runs through Purple Mountains. There are a few songs that seem to be about his disintegrating marriage. Some have complained that his wife Carrie comes off one-dimensional in these songs, and maybe that’s true, but I prefer to think of these songs as intentionally iconographic, the “beloved” of de la Cruz rather than Carrie Berman specifically. Maybe I’m fooling myself. David sings:
The light of my life is going out tonight,
as the sun sinks in the west.
The light of my life is going out tonight,
with someone she just met.
Berman guides you toward the double meaning of “light of my life,” both an expression of inner happiness and a cliché term of endearment. Upon his death, I heard a third meaning, not the light that illuminates my life, but the light that is my life. In this reading, “going out” can only mean one thing.
There’s one song in particular on the album that encourages you to read it as a suicide note. On “Nights that Won’t Happen,” he sings:
This world is like a roadside inn and we’re the guests inside
And death is a black camel that kneels down so we can ride
And when the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.
The second time he sings that last line, he hits the words particularly hard, like he’s trying to shake his listener off of him; like he’s trying to insist, a little cruelly, that you let him go. When I heard the news of his death, I immediately thought of this song. “He told us,” I said.
But in an interview before his death, Berman explained the song another way:
Vish Khanna: I view this as your philosophical take on death. “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind / All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” This song is related, I assume, to the loss of your mother.
David Berman: Yeah, yeah, her and a few friends. It’s a burn-the-bridges-type song, and there’s probably some anger in it too. But it’s like the early years of your marriage, when you have all of these hopes and dreams, and then thinking about what won’t happen with someone because they’re dead or you’re separated.
So, at least in Berman’s telling, it’s a song about his own grief, not his depression. When he says, “The suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind,” he’s comforting not us but himself, telling himself that wherever his beloved mother is now, she isn’t in pain. But then, why does he mention his marriage (clearly his, not “your” marriage)? The darkest reading of this song is that it’s written specifically to Carrie Berman, telling her that he’s not long for this world. Even this reading, though, opens the possibility of some compassion along with the admitted anger. After all, he’s telling whoever the song is addressed to that, as he says elsewhere in the song, “the dead will be all right.” If it’s a suicide note, it reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s note to her husband Leonard. She writes:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer.
To live with severe depression is to live in constant fear of yourself. Appearances to the contrary, most depressed people, even the ones who die by suicide, don’t want to die. They just don’t want to live in pain. It shouldn’t take suicide to make us realize that someone is suffering, especially when they tell us, time and time again, for decades. When I was in high school I kept a morbid mental list of which of my favorite songwriters had killed themselves and how: Kurt, gunshot to the head, Elliott, knife wounds to the chest, Nick, overdose of antidepressants (that last one, I mean, dude). All of these people wrote songs that sounded different to people after they died, but they really shouldn’t have. It was all there: the pain, the despair, the rage. We should have listened. And not because it’s our duty as fans to save our favorite rock stars, but because it’s unhealthy as depressed people to pin our hopes for recovery on musicians we don’t, in the end, actually know. David Berman’s death shocked me, but only because I had come to rely on his survival as a sort of talisman. As long as David Berman was alive, I could believe that depression wasn’t a death sentence. Berman’s music encouraged this sort of too-close identification. I felt like I was inside his head, but I wasn’t. Art is only ever a third thing, an artifact placed between two people. It’s never actually what we want it to be, a way for two people to become one.
Did David write the songs on Purple Mountains knowing he was about to die? I don’t know. We can’t know. But we can know this: those songs were written by someone struggling mightily against despair. That was as clear on July 12th as it was on August 7th.
Now, in the heat of summer, isn’t the best time for this metaphor, but soon enough it will be: the New Englander walks through dead histories the way they walk through leaves in the autumn, whether they are conscious of it or not. I don’t mean the remnants of the past, though I guess I mean that, too. I mean dead historical projects, the wreckage of teleologies and of ways of organizing experience into meaning, from Puritanism to the upper-middle-class suburban liberalism with which many of us grew up. Fragments from these projects exist everywhere from our spacial arrangements to place names through political structures and culture.
How is this different from anywhere else? How much does it matter, even if it is different? Well, for most people, it isn’t and it doesn’t. I would argue that while many, arguably most, regions of the country and the world are haunted by the past, relatively few have New England’s background of abortive historical and social experiment. But white settlement is white settlement, whether under socially/theologically ambitious Puritan auspices or relatively lackadaisical Virginian ones. And how much does any of it matter now? We’re all under capital’s domain. Regionalism is a dead end. I don’t even really have any heritage connection with New England’s first and most ambitious telos, that of the Puritans. I am descended from a rogue’s gallery of the sort of Catholics the Puritans feared and loathed most, and from Jews, who the Puritans thought they had replaced. So . . . what are we doing here, talking about New England like it means something?
Well . . . I think historical consciousness is a recursive process. It’s not the dumping in of information and correct opinions into one’s head. Historical understanding changes you as you understand historical change. Especially when a history is something other than facts on a page, but leaves an imprint on lived experience, it enters into you and becomes a part of you. It comes in through the things you see every day, the structures of space, childhood perceptions and memories, on and on.
In short, I think I’ve taken on New England-ness, whether I like it or not. And though my interest in New England has bored many and may yet bore you all if it hasn’t already tonight, I don’t think I’m the only one. More than any particular New England project — Puritan or Transcendentalist, the politics of white ethnicity or of suburban liberalism — I identify with the long history of dead projects itself. Something has made the people here look at the world — a world they see as bound by forces much larger than themselves — and say, “we’re going to do something different, here, and that different something will reverberate throughout the rest of the world.”
To make myself perfectly clear, I don’t really agree with or look to pursue any of the projects with which historical New England is broadly associated, with the exception of abolitionism, which was really a national project. My project is a radical anti-capitalist project. Most of the projects that define New England history have been pretty pro-capitalist, whatever else they’ve been. Moreover, the major New England projects have by and large not been about redistributing power downward but instead about creating systems of power that elide and short circuit power struggles. This is true of the most proximate project, suburban liberalism, with its notion that class conflict can be solved through expanding the pie of prosperity and education, as much as it was true of the granddaddy of them all, Puritanism, which sought to make a literal contract with God to fix the theologico-political problem — the original in “solutionism,” looked at in a certain way. Still, I can’t help but see something in the extended history of patient but defiant world-reconstruction that’s important . . . somehow.
One thing about New England-ness that differs from, say, Southern-ness, is that the various projects of New England have aimed themselves at the universal. If there’s a central paradox to New England identity, it’s that we’ve built a particularism out of being fixated on the universal (you can say that Southerners have built a universalism out of being fixated on their particulars, but that’s outside the scope of this birthday lecture). What we do is meant to ramify outwards, from the City on the Hill envisioned by the Puritan fathers to the standardized American canon enshrined by the people who decided the Puritans were a big deal in the first place (New England is also recursively self-reflective). This means, among other things, that New England intellectual products are meant for export, so much so they turn into kitsch when restricted to the local. How much would the work of Melville and Hawthorne mean had the early American Studies scholars who brought them into the canon not made them into broadly American, even international, literary figures, not just New England ones? It’s an open question and not really one we can answer. From where I sit, the best we can do is hope that through diligent application of ourselves — the usual New England answer — we can produce a worthwhile circuit between the New England-ish and the global that gets past the ways in which New England-ness has been willingly incorporated into a provincial/imperialistic American project of state-building and culture-construction.
It’s not all a matter of high culture, either. Tonight, we’re going to discuss two New England writers with a broad impact on genre culture. One is Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the architect of cosmic horror as we know it and of much of nerd culture in general; the other is Dennis Lehane, a contemporary figure who looks to play an outsized role in the shaping of crime fiction as a genre. As writers for a popular audience (though Lovecraft was famously indifferent to who was reading him), both constructed a picture of New England for export — Lovecraft’s spooky, haunted New England of ancient port towns and isolated rural valleys hiding dark secrets, Lehane’s gritty blue-collar neighborhood Boston as site for crime dramas. Both deal in themes mooted by many other New England writers — fear and evil. Neither set out to be philosophical or political writers, but I think both construe and export New England-ness in ways that are indicative of the larger contradictions at work in living in the region in a historically-conscious way.
Let’s get one thing out of the way briefly before we proceed: say “New England genre writer” and probably the first name that comes to mind is Stephen King. I’m not going to write about King beyond this paragraph because I don’t find him interesting. He’s written so much there’s probably examples of his work where this isn’t the case, but it largely seems his New England is there for local color, a little spooky-dead-tree action of the sort inspired by what any idiot who looks outside around here on a late autumn afternoon would see. I don’t hate Stephen King, he seems like a decent enough guy, but his work never grabbed me, and I’m already dealing with one writer — Lovecraft — who I don’t love and another — Lehane — who has written his share of turkeys, too. Write your own birthday lecture if you want one on Stephen King.
That out of the way, I guess it would be a good idea to give the introductory version of our two subjects for those who might not be familiar. H.P. Lovecraft lived in the early twentieth century and wrote short horror fiction. Never a success in his relatively short life, his works were collected by a small coterie of avid fans and published and promoted in speculative fiction circles, where they eventually reached a degree of success that made Lovecraft an icon. Chief among these stories are the “Cthulhu mythos,” stories of a set of “elder gods” (like the titular Cthulhu), monstrous immortal beings that exist outside of historical time and occasionally come around to terrorize humanity. Lovecraft’s themes include the smallness and insignificance of mankind in the face of the vastness and coldness of the cosmos, and the connected idea that rationality and sanity are but a small island on a vast sea of the irrational. He was also, as I’m sure many of my listeners are waiting for me to point out, a cask-strength racist. Like many white men obsessed with decline and irrationality in his time (and ours), he racialized his fears, projecting them onto a racial other of people of color and immigrants. Many of his stories and even more of his voluminous letters reveal a rancid and febrile racism that even his various defenders can’t quite justify or explain away. More than his stories, the tropes Lovecraft bequeathed to horror and speculative fiction (and nerd culture in general) are his legacy — and people have been battling with the racism embedded in those tropes for some time now.
Dennis Lehane is still with us and relatively young — born in 1965. Starting in the early nineties, he’s written a series of crime novels, most of them set in Boston, which became best-sellers. Several of his books — Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island — have been made into successful movies. I would say if there’s a center of his work it’s the adventures of his two Boston private eyes, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, who starred in a series of novels in the nineties and oughts and who roamed Lehane’s Boston landscape in a Balzac-ian span from the lower depths of the slums to the heights of corporate and political power. Lehane is also a screenwriter and TV writer, having written for The Wire for instance (I get the idea — I haven’t been able to confirm — that the “McNulty as fake serial killer” bit might have been his). More than any particular theme, I think Lehane’s contribution to the genre has been setting and mood — the popularization of “gritty,” “authentic,” working-class and generally white spaces as a setting for contemporary crime fiction, and the actors in this space as conflicted, morally and ethically compromised, given to earthy fixations, but basically good, and confronting evil sometimes in the form of societal corruption but more often in the form of individualized pathology and innocence tragically corrupted. Like Lovecraft, more than anything Lehane lives through the recognizable tropes he gave to his genre — once you learn to recognize them, you see them all over the place on TV and in the movies.
With similarities, come contrasts. Most notably, Lehane has been a success in this life, a bestseller and Hollywood resource, whereas Lovecraft lived in genteel poverty with his indulgent aunts. Lovecraft came from the Puritan-descended upper crust of Providence society whose family lost all of its money. Lehane’s parents are Irish immigrants to Boston and their family story seems to be one of upward mobility. Along with racial and ethnic minorities, Lovecraft also feared and loathed sex — he was married for a little while, to a woman most of his biographers agree was too good for him (and a Jewish lady, go figure, considering Lovecraft’s ideas on Jews), but it’s not certain he ever consummated the relationship and in general, treated the body as a source of horror and contempt. Lehane, for his part, is pretty horny, and has, if his writings are an indication, a quite bodily idea of love and pleasure. Seemingly every book has a designated lust object, Kenzie and Gennaro spend a few volumes in a will-they-won’t-they (they do, then they don’t, then they do again, if I remember the books right), and Lehane’s male perspective characters are generally suckers for the dames, though not so much they can’t recognize a bad one when they see one . . . eventually.
Both write about New England with a profound sense of place. It goes beyond “local color” and you can tell because they do indulge in mere “local color” when writing about other places — Lovecraft’s occasional dip into orientalism, Lehane’s periodic excursions into Florida, his second home and another frequent recent crime fiction setting. New England is something more than that for them.
For Lovecraft, New England was the place for the “searcher after horror,” “the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence.” “. . . for there, the dark elements of strength, solitude, and grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.” All this is from his 1920 story “The Picture In The House,” wherein an unsuspecting traveler happens upon an old house in way out of the way Massachusetts inhabited by an ancient man who turns out to be both a fan of old, unwholesome books about cannibalism and the practice itself. Lovecraft followed up his own advice, setting many of his stories in what has come to be called “Lovecraft Country,” a fictional swath of New England encompassing towns like Arkham, home of Miskatonic University, with its faculty penchant for prying into things man wasn’t meant to know, and Innsmouth, the fishing town with some fishy secrets. Other stories are set in actual New England towns, like Brattleboro, Vermont, near where I went to college, Salem with its famous witchy associations, and of course Providence, Lovecraft’s beloved hometown.
What Lovecraft valued about New England, both as a site for horror fiction and as a place to live, is the thickness of its history and that history’s visible traces. Lovecraft was obsessed with eighteenth-century architecture and city design, touring the New England seaside towns and his own native Providence to find examples of colonial architecture unsullied, as he’d put it, by such modern gaucheries as Victorian houses or modern constructions. He insisted that the eighteenth century was more real, more alive for him than the present. This, of course, did not help with the declension narratives that he embraced which, in turn, led him to bigotry towards those he could regard as the visible agents of degenerative change — recent immigrants to New England, many of them Catholic or Jewish where his ancestors were Yankee Protestants, and people of color.
Lovecraft’s life took place during a long shift in emphasis in the historiography of New England. Some of the first real historians America produced were New Englanders praising their Puritan ancestors as the architects of what would become America — they call this the “filiopietistic” school of New England history. Almost immediately concurrent with this, you got histories, including some by other New Englanders with equally solid Puritan-descendant bona fides, writing about how the Puritans were nothing but bigots and cranks, and arguing that America as a civilization emerged out of dissent against the Puritan theocracy. I could bore you with a play by play, filled with those triplicate Yankee names that once dominated American academia, but I’ll spare you. This back and forth went on for decades. The skeptical side, helped along by Jazz Age critics like H.L. Mencken who used the term “Puritan” for anything that threatened their good time, from Prohibition to any whiff of social conscience, was winning by the time Lovecraft was doing most of his writing.
What did Lovecraft think of the Puritans? Well, he was an atheist, and sometimes, like Mencken, used “Puritan” to mean outdated, old-fashioned, unscientific. But Puritans definitely made up part of Lovecraft’s idea of New England-ness, and not simply as antagonists, either. It was Puritans and their descendants who reached into the outer darkness Lovecraft depicts as being the baseline reality in stories such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Dreams of the Witch House,” etc. Something compelled them forwards, and if Lovecraft doesn’t quite praise the inclination to press the cosmic envelope, he also clearly relates to it — he would have much less to write about if he didn’t.
Perhaps his most interesting comment in this vein was in one of his many letters to a friend, where he writes that the Puritans were “the only really effective diabolists and decadents the world has known; because they hated life and scorned the platitude that it is worth living.” By “decadent,” Lovecraft is referring not to just moral decline, in the pejorative sense of the term, but to the artistic movement of Decadence, which reached its height of popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Decadence emphasized the beauty of the artificial, the sickly, the decayed, the dream-like, in opposition to prevailing Victorian tropes at the time.
This doesn’t sound much like either the filiopietistic version of the Puritans, who were above all else standard-bearers of virtue, or the skeptic version, which held the Puritans were fraudulent pious hypocrites. Lovecraft elaborated in the vein that the Puritans in New England sought to create a totally new and artificial reality. To Lovecraft, it was more important that this reality be a “gothic” chiaroscuro of divine light and infinite human depravity than that it be a novel attempt at reconstruction of society from the ground up on largely new premises. He was, after all, a horror writer.
But around the time Lovecraft was writing that letter, a new generation of historians were rethinking the Puritans. They did not have Lovecraft’s aesthetic commitments to the Gothic but their thought did share certain structural elements with Lovecraft’s depiction of the Puritans. These were the early American Studies scholars, and lead among them was historian Perry Miller, who wrote a two-volume intellectual history of Puritanism in New England, The New England Mind, the first volume of which appeared in 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s death. Like Lovecraft, Miller emphasized the world-building element of the Puritan project, the construction of an intellectual (largely theological) scaffolding for a new way of living on Earth and in relation with a transcendent and unforgiving universal order- the pattern for New England’s projects ever since. The conflict between the filiopietistic and the skeptical school of Puritan historiography was largely over whether it was ok for people to tell you how to live your life in the details of things like drink, dance, cards, theater, etc. — culture war stuff, basically, avant la lettre. Miller insisted that what made the Puritans special wasn’t their morals (which weren’t that different from prevailing seventeenth century ideas, if somewhat stricter) but their challenge to the prevailing solutions to the theological-political problem and matters of the relationship between God and man and man and man. Instead of ticky-tacky judgments over this or that Puritan rule, Miller focused on the intellectual, social, and political dimensions of Puritan belief, how it changed over time, and how despite Puritanism largely guttering out by the end of the seventeenth century (with a grisly death spasm in the Salem witch trials), it’s that intellectual — not religious or moral — lineage that makes the Puritans relevant to Americans today. Fun fact — The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated in part to Perry Miller. Margaret Atwood studied with him at Harvard, sometime before Miller drank himself to death in 1963.
So, in a weird way, the horror writer and the historian converged on their judgment of the Puritans and their legacy in New England. In many respects, Miller and his cohort fought hard to avoid the conclusions Lovecraft came to regarding Puritanism and New England. The American Studies scholars saw New England as the seedbed for a larger American project, not as a region unique in and of itself as Lovecraft did, and they saw the Puritan/New England project as basically wholesome (if tragically flawed) and world-building, not as gothic and world-negating like Lovecraft praised it for being. They came to dissimilar conclusions about what to do about it, but both Lovecraft and the American Studies scholars that Miller stood among and taught saw the Puritans as their figurative ancestors (if also sometimes incidentally their literal ones) in a project of taking a world that wasn’t quite right and . . . here they depart. For Lovecraft, there was no solution to the not-rightness of the world. New England became a site for fear in part because of the mismatch between the heightened ambition of the Puritans to shape the world and the world’s indifference to human effort. The American Studies scholars largely elided the philosophical question in favor of literary-critical, historical, and political ones, which in a way is as much of an answer as any.
Dennis Lehane is, at least from what I’ve read of him, which is most but not all of his work, fairly quiet on the subject of the Puritans. Indeed, his New England and his writing in general seems to locate what transcendence is to be had not in any kind of larger social project but in individual romantic and familial love. I say “his New England” but really, his locally-based novels focus fairly strictly on Boston (except one, the last of the Kenzie-Gennaro novels, which has an extended excursion to, of all places, my dear hometown of Foxborough, Massachusetts, which he depicts as a suburban hole in the ground, fairly enough). And his Boston is no shining city on a hill, as I’m sure he or his marketing people would assure us. There’s no grandiose political-theological ambition to places like Lehane’s old neighborhood of Dorchester, at least not for a long time. Lehane’s Boston — which became the Boston or (insert postindustrial city here) of many another popular crime novel or tv serial — is, to use the now somewhat cringeworthy term, “gritty” and blue collar. The locals manufacture things and the locale manufactures childhood trauma, not abstractions about god and man or man and man or whatever.
In fact, the Boston historiography often specifically aligns “ethnic” (usually meaning Irish) political and cultural styles against Yankee/Puritan-descended ones, with the ethnics slowly but surely winning out. The Yankees represent politics understood in an upright, elitist way in the service of a transcendent project of civic virtue- the Irish represent mass politics in the service of the material succor of a poor people- the end. This is the explicit framing of such works as J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, on the Boston busing crisis, and of Jack Beatty’s The Rascal King, a big life-’n-times biography of James Curley, the flamboyantly corrupt Irish-American politician who has come to memetically represent white ethnic politics in twentieth-century Boston.
Both of these are good books, well worth reading. But . . . I think there’s more to it than that. I actually think that in its own way, ethnic politics as pioneered in Boston and practiced in much of urban America in a rough century between the eighteen-seventies and the nineteen-seventies was also an ambitious project of reconstruction of the boundaries of the political in the face of dire structural constraints. I don’t mean to say here that I think it was a good way of organizing politics, anymore than I would want to live under the rule of Puritans or think that Transcendentalism was really that much of a philosophy or any more than I agree with any number of other New England projects and movements. What I think is that ethnic politics, even at its machine-driven nadir, had a content and a pedagogy to it, a problem — the reordering of boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in a republic bounded by the power of racialized capital.
Dennis Lehane engages this past in some of his detective novels. Machine politicians and their police loom over the proceedings and contribute to his detectives’ sense of ennui about changing anything structural. His first novel, A Drink Before the War, also gets the most into the dynamics of race and politics in Boston, where his white ethnic detectives come across collusion between similarly white ethnic political bosses and black gangs, and Lehane opines somewhat racistly about the differences between said black gangs and the white teenage gangs of his youth. Lehane has also dabbled in historical fiction, most prominently in The Given Day, a panoramic novel of the first Red Scare of 1919-1920, set in Boston. There, the Irish and Yankee power structures combine to crush labor militancy and anarchism — listeners might find some amusement in Lehane’s earnest but cack-handed attempts to grasp the differences between leftist groups, echoing the frustrations many a Red Squad cop has probably experienced.
When asked in interviews about what events influenced him growing up, Lehane cites the Boston busing crisis. Being a Dorchester native, he was not directly affected by the court-mandated integration-by-busing between South Boston and Roxbury, but it shook up the city’s neighborhoods and contributed to a general sense, in the 1970s and 1980s, of decline and change. We haven’t the space to get into a dissection of the busing crisis here, but I would describe it and its aftermath as a political cascade failure. Begin with the failure of mid-twentieth century consensus liberalism — which can’t in fairness be called a New England project, being national in scope, but which certainly had New England DNA — to meaningfully confront racial inequities in educational funding and outcomes. This lead to a band-aid Potemkin solution in the form of busing for integration which failed in its stated goal, which was insufficient to begin with. You also had the failure of urban white ethnic politicians and the newer type of urban politicians raised up by the black freedom struggle to come up with meaningful solutions, and, in the case of white community leaders, prevent their communities from embracing racist violence. There were also little epi-failures like that of much of the Boston left at the time, for what it’s worth, failing to recognize the savage dynamics of white racial revanchism leading to the violence that accompanied busing and instead focusing on what today would be jeeringly referred to as “economic anxiety.
The neighborhood sectarianism reinforced by the busing crisis and deindustrialization’s economic fallout form the background gestalt of much of Dennis Lehane’s fiction (and, implicitly, the genre it has come to influence). In the foreground, Lehane often cites the unlikely-seeming but seemingly-inevitable follow-up: gentrification, emerging threat to the blue-collar authenticity Lehane’s detectives love and which Lehane himself sells in his books. This glorification of white urban authenticity, in turn, probably helps drive white audiences to seek out places like Dorchester and South Boston — I wonder if you could graph sales of Lehane’s novels (or, probably more pertinently, rentals of Good Will Hunting) to real estate prices in the neighborhoods affected. After his first novel, Lehane mostly leaves black people alone, and their neighborhoods too, so the impact of gentrification on them goes unnoticed. Lehane’s not a political writer, as he would probably tell you.
Once Lehane made the decision to leave aside black gangs as villains, he placed great emphasis on that other specter of evil characteristic of the end of the American twentieth century: the sexual abuser of children. In most instances, in Lehane’s fiction, this takes the form of a stranger in a van. This is how it is in Mystic River, which became a briskly-attended, critically-acclaimed Clint Eastwood movie, and his second Kenzie-Gennaro novel involves a literal van-borne squad of kid-diddling serial killers who sometimes dress up as clowns. To the best of my knowledge, there were no Satanists or day care attendants in Lehane’s rogue’s gallery, but otherwise, his work is very much a product of the child-abuse panic of the eighties and nineties.
To be fair to Lehane, he sometimes gets that child abuse most often comes from within a circle of trust, not from strangers in vans. Inter-family abuse comes up quite often in his work. More importantly though is the way in which childhood innocence stands at the center of what Lehane sees as good in the world, and childhood innocence corrupted as, essentially, the root of evil. Kids get abused and that turns them evil and hence into abusers themselves and so the cycle perpetuates. This, more than the downfall of blue-collar Boston, is the tragic element driving much of Lehane’s work — essentially, a local news theory of evil. There’s always someone out there lurking in a van to, one at a time individually, convert the normal into the abnormal and evil. Sometimes, you don’t even need the intervention of an abuser — I don’t think I’m spoiling a twenty-year-old book and blockbuster film when I say the conclusion of Mystic River is, the autistic kid did it, essentially because he was abnormal and hence lacking in the magic of childhood innocence. This, more than his occasional lapse in racial sensitivity, is where I see Lehane converging on Lovecraft’s xenophobia.
Sometimes, though, Lehane upends his own ideas. In what I would argue is his best work, Gone Baby Gone, also made into a movie, after slaying a physically grotesque gang of stranger-kid-diddlers, Kenzie and Gennaro come to find out the real villains are those posturing as protectors of the sacred family circle, leading to a profoundly ambivalent conclusion that fits the book’s larger autumnal mood. It’s pretty good, in case you thought I’ve been shitting on the authors unduly this lecture. The thing to keep in mind, I suppose, is that both Lehane and Lovecraft were/are writers who sought to entertain, more than they sought to make the sort of points I’m trying to suss out here they made these points largely by implication, whereas the imperative to entertain (which generally involves novelty, finding new ways to express things) — encouraged change and mixing things up. Some of Lovecraft’s later work, like At the Mountains of Madness, evinces much less xenophobia than his earlier stuff, something of which his defenders make much.
What does the protracted struggle between Lehane’s heroes and the greater Boston area’s child abusers (though not, weirdly enough, the Church, as far as I’ve seen) have to do with New England’s history? I would say like a lot of narratives going around Lehane’s hey-day in the nineties and early aughts, it’s (indirectly at least) about the decline of hopes for radical transformation promised in the 1960s and 1970s and disenchantment with the largely hollow replacements late-twentieth-century America provided instead. It doesn’t matter how much social justice you win if a stranger in a van can just do his thing and spread evil like so much coronavirus. I would argue that Lehane, a Gen-Xer, was reared deep enough into the collapse that the possibilities of radical change are so much science fiction to him (a genre he has shown no sign of interest in), as it is to so much — not all! — of his cohort (a potential topic for next year’s birthday lecture- we shall see). This was a national phenomenon, not a specifically New England one.
I think what is characteristic of New England is the recursive nature of these failures of ambitious social projects and their self-reflexivity. To live in New England in a historically-conscious way is to know that you live among the remains of dead historical projects where the participants in which were, in turn, all too aware of their own failings. Lovecraft’s dread of an indifferent cosmos and Lehane’s existential disappointment at the inevitability of individual evil exist against the backdrop of belief in the ability to make the cosmos a place of hope through fulfillment of a contract with the Almighty — Perry Miller referred to the Puritans as “cosmic optimists” — or a belief in the amelioration of human violence and harm via social rearrangements of either a liberal or radical variety. Lovecraft and Lehane’s fears and loathings are dark-mirror reflections of the hopes of transformation on which New England was built and which it continues to generate. What’s more, similar dark forebodings existed within the hearts of the promulgators of these transformational projects themselves. The Puritans began thinking the project was doomed more or less straight off the boat. Philosophical pragmatism, developed down the street at Harvard, is all about the failure of people’s perpetual apparatus and working with and around it. The early American Studies proponents thought their project to create a positive, thoughtful monoculture for America was deeply unlikely to succeed. Ethnic machine politics and suburban liberalism, opposites in many respects, both understood democracy as a system given to going off the rails and requiring constant input to make work. Hope and fear — both are part of the New England inheritance. It’s something of a package deal, it seems.
I think this hope and fear combo should resonate with many of the people hearing and reading this. The New England pattern of daring to construct something new for the world pre-dates the revolution-counterrevolution cycle that defines so much of modern history and which most historians date to the French Revolution, by which point the Puritans were already a memory. This probably has a little to do with why New England intellectual-cum-political projects so often seem to elide and evade the dynamics of revolution and settle into a kind of tepid liberalism. The many failures of projects to change the world collectively are fecund in their own right, producing the cultural humus from which sprang, among other things, the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the crime fiction of Dennis Lehane. The New Englander lives with these failures as surely as they live with the cold and the humidity and the insufferable sports fans. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to think these failures are better tonic than a record of easy successes. They’re a reminder that, as inevitably as the leaves come down, it will soon enough be our turn to stand before the implacable universals, however we conceive of them, and see if we have the mettle to go our own way.
Digitally enhanced photo
June 8, 2020
“2020 Presidential Debate”
“Election Day 2020”
“The 2020 Vote”
“After the Election”
“The Royal Review”
“Wendy, Nayarit Mestizo”
16×20 acrylic on canvas.
Alexandra S. Machuca
This portrait was based on a photo taken of Wendy after her first performance of Nayarit Mestizo.
“Jemzi and Tony, Colima”
Acrylic on canvas
Alexandra S. Machuca
Jemzi and Tony are a couple from UCSC who performed the region of Colima, Mexico in 2019.
“Gen and Hung, Chihuahua”
Acrylic on canvas
Alexandra S. Machuca
Genesis and Hung were two UCSC Grupo Folklórico students and dancers who performed the region of Chihuahua, Mexico.
Acrylic on canvas
Alexandra S. Machuca
Based on an image from Amalia Hernández’s Ballet Folklorico de México (revolución), the piece was created as a healing process regarding the political situation of the United States at the time.
Acrylic on canvas
A friend of mine randomly asked me to paint a picture of his girlfriend’s cow. She wanted the same design as a similar picture with a fluffy cowhide. I love painting pieces that take time and focus to make it look the best it can whenever it comes to detail and realism. It challenges me.
Acrylic on canvas
During practices, meets, and anything I would compete in, I would always remind myself that it’s just me and my lane. The only thing I should worry about is finishing my race.
“Walk in the Park”
Acrylic on canvas
I was walking my dog one day during the fall and the scene was very pleasant. It was about 70 degrees with a cool breeze and the color of the grass and leaves were so vibrant that it almost looked fake.
Acrylic on canvas
This was just a thinkpiece on how the world has changed so much with technology and corporations that we’re starting to separate from the beauty and natural energy of the earth. We grow tired of each day because we can’t take a moment to ourselves. With how competitive humans have grown, everything is “the next day” and never “for right now”. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty in the world when we move too fast.
Midway through the book that bears his name, Jack Boughton confesses his sins to a Black preacher, saying, “I’m a bad but confirmed drunk. I have no talent for friendship. What talents I do have I make no use of. I am aware instantly and almost obsessively of anything fragile, with the thought that I must and will break it. This has been true of me my whole life. I isolate myself as a way of limiting the harm I can do. And here I am with a wife!” This is too much even for the preacher, who exclaims “Good Lord.”
A reader of Jack might have a similar exasperated reaction to its central character, asking, why’s it so hard for Jack to act right? But Marilynne Robinson is asking a different question. Instead of investigating how Jack became the reprobate he is, she begins the novel from his rock bottom and asks whether it is possible for a confirmed sinner to truly repent. Jack concludes that repentance is possible, but not through sheer will. Change comes through love rooted in the very fact of the beloved’s humanity. In other words, through grace.
Jack is the fourth and likely last entry in a series of novels that began with Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 book Gilead.Gilead introduced us to Jack through the perceptions of its narrator, Rev. John Ames. Jack, whose full name is John Ames Boughton, appears seemingly out of nowhere as the lost-sheep son of Ames’ oldest friend and fellow pastor Robert Boughton. Ames is wary of Jack, especially after Jack begins spending time with Ames’ young son and wife, Lila. The source of his wariness is made clear late in the book when Ames tells Jack’s story, or what he knows of it. When Jack was still a young man, he impregnated and then abandoned a desperately poor girl. She gave birth, and the child lived for three years before dying of an infection from a cut foot. Jack left the town of Gilead, Iowa shortly after, and hasn’t been seen since. Now he’s back, to the delight of old Robert Boughton and the consternation of John.
But this turns out not to be Jack’s whole story. Jack is back in Gilead not to atone for his past but to plan for his future. He tells Ames that he has a wife and a child, and hands him a photograph. Ames is surprised to discover they are Black. Would Gilead, Jack asks, welcome his interracial family? Jack’s story causes Ames to feel genuine compassion for him for the first time. Reconciled with his namesake, Ames prepares to die.
After Gilead Robinson published Home in 2008, telling the same story from the Boughtons’ point of view. Then, in 2014, she published Lila, which told the story of Lila’s life prior to the events of Gilead. Now, in 2020, we have Jack, the latest and probably last book in the series.
One central belief of Christianity is that no person can adequately judge another, both because we are all sinners and because our knowledge of someone else is always partial. The novels that followed Gilead broadened the reader’s understanding of the characters introduced in that book. Part of the pleasure of Gilead had been getting so close to Ames we felt his thoughts were our own. But part of the pleasure of the other books is getting to know him through the eyes of his family and friends, so that upon returning to Gilead we’re able to understand aspects of Ames’s personality that even he isn’t aware of. For example, when he says in Gilead that he had almost forgotten about Jack, we know he’s lying. With Lila, too, Robinson deepened our understanding of that character. Ames’s love of her is so clear in Gilead that he refuses to divulge any of the more unseemly aspects of her past. But Lila shows us how precarious her life had at one point been, how truly close to destitution she was before happening upon Ames’s church. We see her find a kind of family among the whores in a brothel, who allow her to earn her bread sweeping up and cooking once they realize she’s too depressed and needy to be any good at sex work. We understand that the same desire for a home that brought her to the brothel also brought her to the church. In Gilead we understood why John loved her, but in Lila we understand why she needed him just as much. These books are not merely additive, they are multiplicative.
In contrast to these earlier books, Jack does not significantly revise the reader’s understanding of its protagonist. Robinson makes no attempt to explain Jack’s behavior through reference to his past. If Jack can be taken to illustrate a theological principle it might be that of The Fall. Jack is bad simply because he is human, and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But the squalid condition of his life is in marked contrast to his intellect, his love of poetry, and his eye for beauty. Robinson has great respect for the human mind, and even at his worst we see that Jack’s inclination towards The Good is not totally extinguished. Robinson is less concerned with adding to the facts of Jack’s outer life than she is with adding to our sense of his inner life, of his soul.
She does this especially through his relationship with Della, Jack’s wife. After a few short scenes, Robinson gives us a sixty-some page conversation between Jack and Della that takes place in a locked cemetery at night. He has been sleeping there, and she wandered in looking for poetic inspiration and lost track of time. Filled with angels and the decaying bodies of the dead, this cemetery is a clear metaphor for heaven, a place where “every debt was to be forgiven.” Jack recalls a favorite Bible verse of his father: “Night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.” In that place, earthly distinctions, even between good and evil, would fall apart. This one-act play in the cemetery is a prefiguration of that heavenly kingdom with neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, Black nor white, and it’s important that it takes place at night, when sight is rendered useless and a mere visual distinction like skin color loses all meaning. “He and Della had been there, in that luminous absence of distinctions, in that radiant night.” It’s certainly true that two lives can change over the course of a night, and Robinson is persuasive in describing how this can happen.
From that night, their fate is sealed: they are to be together, even when apart. Jack tries to avoid her and fails, tries to scare her off and fails. He asks her why she is so loyal to him, and she tells him it’s because “once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery – you’ve seen what life is about.” Christianity at its best encourages these moments of vision, moments when we see someone as God sees them. And through God’s eyes everyone is lovable. After Della sees Jack in this way, Jack’s sins don’t seem to be essential. In a real way, they are not him. That luminous, numinous core of Being called the soul is all she sees. There is a similar moment described in Gilead, when John writes, “If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the extraordinary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?”
Robinson’s project in Jack isn’t to provide exculpatory evidence in the case of Jack v. World. It’s to put the reader inside his head. Robinson understands that it’s very difficult to judge someone once you’ve made this switch, once you’ve seen into their soul from the inside. She understands that the novel is the art form most able to provide access to another person’s interiority, and she uses that privileged access to widen our capacity for empathy, no matter the facts of the case. This is what’s quietly radical about Robinson’s fiction. What if we looked at every homeless person, every addict, every prostitute, every sinner, as a child of God? What if we saw their souls? What would we have to change about our society to properly honor them as the height of God’s creation? Everything. The first would be last and the last would be first. Of course this is just Christian dogma, in the Year of our Lord 2020 certainly a cliché. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The Last American Aristocrat:
The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams
David S. Brown
A certain kind of American pedant — and it’s hard exactly to define, but it is definitely a type — will, given long enough leash, inevitably find themselves (himself, usually, but not exclusively) staring down a Henry Adams preoccupation. The old prick practically lurks in the shadows of eaves in back alleys of American intellectual life, going “Psst! Hey kid! Wanna try some historical pessimism?!”
Like most retail dealers, he’s a lonely type, and few want to linger long with him, even if they take him up on his various offers. From the time of his death in 1918 to our own time various people have taken their shots at defining Adams’s work, his limited but enduring appeal, what the whole artifact of “HENRY ADAMS” means. Arguably, the first intellectual who took the diversion into Adamsiana (a used bookstore in Boston has a section called “Adamsiana” — sure, you can get your Johns and John Quincys and Abigails there, but the real star for the sort of people attracted by that kind of thing is invariably Henry) was Henry Adams himself, as he self-consciously constructed the edifice of HENRY ADAMS.
Perhaps some biography is in order for those who have not made the life choice to learn about this particular intellectual figure. Henry Adams was born in 1838, scion of the Adams political dynasty of Massachusetts which produced two presidents. He had the sort of career made possible by money, pedigree, and the openness of the nineteenth century to men with both (he came to despise money and his times and was quite ambivalent about pedigree, ironically). He assisted his father, who served as ambassador to Britain during the Civil War. He became an important reformist journalist, a novelist, a historian, and an all-around cultural critic. His general theme became the tragic degeneration of American institutions and personalities due to the advance of capitalism and industrialism, which he tied in with the political decline of families like his. He produced his magnum opus, The Education of Henry Adams, a decade before his death — it was only published for mass release posthumously. A statement of historical pessimism and an ambivalent monument to his generation, it entered the American canon.
A little over a century after his death, what does Henry Adams have to offer us? Any intellectual’s legacy risks becoming a whited sepulcher over time, an edifice, an unliving thing. Henry Adams was in the habit of referring to himself as a dead man twenty years before his actual time, and much of his legacy takes the form of unmoving artifacts with few obvious entry points. These include the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery, his contributions to the design of the legendarily unchanging exhibits at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and The Education of Henry Adams, distributed to a handful of friends before his death and published posthumously, to be taken or left as it stood.
For an intellectual who came to disdain the academy and made nothing easy for critics, Henry Adams comes to us heavily filtered by generations of academic and critical interpreters. There are not one but two three-volume biographies of the man extant, the first by Ernest Samuels (published between 1948 and 1964) and the second by Edward Chalfant (published between 1982 and 2001). On the opposite end of the reading-time-investment scale, many contemporary readers will have first encountered Adams by seeing his name atop the Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books list, released in 1998 and still circulated around today. The mid-twentieth-century historians and critics of the Consensus School and early American Studies departments, figures like Richard Hofstadter and Digby Baltzell, whose books still bob on the surface of the pond that is the used book market, treated Henry Adams as a touchstone, a symbol every serious reader knew about.
Like many artifacts of American intellectual life, especially those that don’t exactly “move the needle” of contemporary sensibilities, much of what is known about Henry Adams today was handed down directly from the midcentury Consensus School. There’s a vague aura of literary greatness, a remnant of when Henry Adams was a major part of the American answer to early high literary modernism, still around him . . . and a not-so-vague, quite concrete memory of Adams’s bigotry, especially his antisemitism. Midcentury American scholars squared that circle by making Adams a symbol of resistance to modernity, the sort of attitude that could create cultural artifacts of notable depth and power of expression, but that would be undone by its own inflexibility.
David Brown, author of this, the latest biography of Henry Adams, is also something of an expert on those midcentury scholarly types, having written a biography of Richard Hofstadter, the dean of the Consensus School of American historiography that reigned over the profession between the 1940s and 1960s. The Last American Aristocrat is agenda-light. Brown doesn’t seem to be selling much other than that you, the reader, might be interested in this Henry Adams fellow. This reviewer found that position refreshing, but then, he has already invested hours of his life in learning about Henry Adams. It’s hard to tell how much interest this will spark in those coming into the topic cold.
Brown attempts to generate some interest in Adams by presenting him as a prescient contemporary. There are a few pieces of evidence for this. Some are less than persuasive, notably Henry Adams’s late-blooming interest in Russia as a major power and spiritual rival of the west. Arguably, this congrues with contemporary Russophobia (or the minority trend of Russophilia on the far right), but the cultural contexts Adams worked in were so different from Twitter-borne Russiagaters that the prescience involved is trivial. More relevant to the present are the ways Brown presents Adams as a persistent and intentional inventor of a public self. For a person who insisted on privacy as much as Henry Adams did, he went through a number of public personas: the shy inheritor of the family mantle, the rebel against the family mantle, the in-the-know cynical reformer, the amateur man of culture, the bereaved world traveler seeking oblivion, finally the unwilling sage, as presented in The Education of Henry Adams.
Contrasts between the way Adams would retrospectively describe events, especially in The Education, and the way they played out at the time, are a throughline in Brown’s biography. This is perhaps most notable in the way Adams described his time as a history professor at Harvard, where he made an indelible stamp on the institution, as a pointless waste of his and his students’ time. The temptation to ironize a figure like Adams, irascible, self-mythologizing, given both to his own ironization and to ugly blurts that call for retorts, must have been overwhelming for Brown, indeed for any modern who spends much time with the old man, and he admirably resists the urge to overdo it.
This emphasis on self-creation constitutes a relevant take on Henry Adams and an exploration of a notable aspect of his intellectual journey, but Brown’s work shines brightest in illuminating Adams’s world, as opposed to attempting to transpose him into ours. Brown is a deft navigator of Adams’s voluminous correspondence and has an acute and economical way with characterizations of the many characters in his subject’s life: his parents, his brothers, his wife Clover, friends like John Hay and Clarence King. The author describes the political situations in which Adams found himself — Civil War-era Britain, the reform efforts of the “mugwumps” — in ways that break little new ground but that convey the complexities involved, and the ways in which personalities impacted situations in this era of elite politics, with notable aplomb. Readers who enjoy biography as a form will greatly enjoy The Last American Aristocrat irrespective of any previous investment in Henry Adams. He had an interesting life, and Brown captures it well.
It is a happy coincidence that the joys of biography — the immersion in another’s life and times — align with the historiographical lessons Henry Adams still has to impart on future generations. Adams immersed himself in other times and places, most notably in Mont St. Michel and Chartres, his examination of the Norman Middle Ages, a work that still holds value after a century of changes in the historical profession. The great cathedrals of the period he obsessed over were efforts at permanence on Earth. Arguably, so was The Education of Henry Adams, but in only in the most ambivalent way possible: a monument to impermanence. It is an invitation to ponder the universal, the changing, and the interrelation between the two in the scale of a human life. More than any effort at up-to-the-minute relevance could, The Last American Aristocrat delivers a fitting entry point to Henry Adams’s life and intellectual project simply by inviting the reader to engage with — and enjoy — the contrasts and contradictions of one man’s life and work.
We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
The following review-essay is the result of the combination and reworking of an address given by the author at Friends University on October 26, 2020, and a follow-up blog post.
On the evening of Saturday, November 7, 2020, President of the United States-elect Joe Biden had this, among other things, to say:
My fellow Americans, the people of this nation have spoken. They have delivered us a clear victory. A convincing victory. A victory for “We the People” . . .
I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify. Who doesn’t see Red and Blue states, but a United States. And who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people . . .
[T]o those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.
The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season — a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.
Some of this is the obvious kind of rhetoric which we have long come to expect in the speeches of victorious presidential candidates — indeed, maybe using such rhetoric is exactly part of the calming, “back to normalcy” feeling which Biden wants to project. Of course, we all know that Biden didn’t really receive a “convincing victory,” much less a victory on behalf of a united people. He won at most about 51% of all the votes for president cast, roughly (at the time of this writing, on Sunday, November 15), 78 million votes out of over 151 million. The distracting and undemocratic mess that is the Electoral College can make things seem a little more decisive than they actually are, but rest assured: Biden’s victory emerged from a very divided electorate, not remotely a united one.
Yet there is every reason to assume that Biden, on some level anyway, truly believes in his rhetoric about healing, about seeing and hearing one another again, and ceasing to treat one another as enemies. Should we believe in that possibility too?
It’s not an easy question to answer. For many of us, in many of our workplaces and neighborhoods and churches and families, the evidence of any possibility of unity over these past four years has been slight. Instead, we’ve seen constant argument and mutual incomprehension, with Trump supporters constantly obsessing over fake news and elite disrespect and various conspiracy theories, climaxing in Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the obvious Electoral College vote results and his filing of one frivolous lawsuit after another. As for Biden supporters (or, more broadly, just Trump opponents), we’ve been tearing their hair out (I’m not going to pretend to be neutral here, folks) over what seem to us to be stupid denials of obvious facts, and profoundly irresponsible dismissals of rhetorical practices and procedural norms that have served this country well (or at least mostly so), and which we’re certain would have been, if they’d been committed or disregarded by President Obama a mere five years ago, a source of screaming rage on the part of our Trump-supporting friends and relatives. It’s hard to imagine a “time of healing” in a context like that. More like a time of anger, all the way down.
A couple of weeks before the election I was asked to give a presentation at my university about this broad topic — that is, about compromise, tolerance, accepting differences, working across the aisle, that sort of thing. But in my preparation, I couldn’t get all the angry accusations and assumptions mentioned above out of my mind. I talked with my wife about it at length, and she put a scriptural story into my mind. To her — someone whom, since the killing of George Floyd last summer, has carried an acute sense of disbelief and despair about her country with her almost constantly — Jesus’s cleansing of the temple is the emblematic story of our moment, and I think she may be right. But what kind of guidance does it provide, if any, when we (or, at least, Christian believers like myself) think about a Savior who called all who aspire to be servants of Him to love one another, without reservation? A Savior whose most loving words, to those who served Him best, was to call them friends?
Exploring that idea led me to my old friend Michael Austin, now the provost at the University of Evansville in Indiana, who wrote a whole book about friendship in the midst of political disagreement. He began his argument in that book by considering Aristotle’s philia politike, or “civic friendship.” Drawing on the work of some other scholars, Michael defined it as the fellow-feeling that any self-governing community depends upon as a very particular kind of friendship, one characterized by a sense of both the mutual self-interest which exists within a shared community, as well as a degree of goodwill. He quoted the philosopher Sybil Schwarzenbach, who once wrote:
“Aristotle is not saying that in the just polis all members know each other, are emotionally close, or personally like each other. . . . Political friendship is evidenced, rather . . . in the legal and social norms regarding the treatment of persons in that society, as well as in the willingness of fellow citizens to uphold them.”
Schwarzenbach’s point about norms in Aristotle’s account of how citizens are to be friends struck me as greatly important. Norms are social and historical constructs, assumptions about and expectations for the community systems within which we live; they are essential components of any social organization which exists over time. It is reasonable, therefore, to see the violation of a norm as a form of betrayal, or an act of injustice: that is, of someone taking advantage of the civic friendship — or, rather, of the historical assumptions we all have regarding what we may expect from others and that which they may expect from us — upon which all of ordinary life in a community requires.
We can all think of examples of politicians violating what many would rightly consider to be crucial constitutional norms. (We have an occupant of the White House continually to do so right now.) But social assumptions and expectations function in our lives beyond the level of party politics. For some, there are norms involving the trustworthiness of the police; for others, there are norms which assume the stability of gender. The fact that there are always subgroups within our national community for whom these and other norms were not only not recognized, but about which it would have been considered the height of naiveté to take seriously is, I came to believe, part of the whole point: a feeling of betrayal doesn’t only come from violations of norms, but from the discomfort which a shifting understanding of norms entails as well.
This is now my armchair hypothesis: that one major source of the anger that so many of have been carrying around and seeing in one another, all year long, is that we have constantly had forced before us — thanks to a callous president regularly inventing and condemning enemies, thanks to lock-downs that exacerbated economic difficulties and shut down spaces of social escape, thanks to an omnipresent social media ecosystem which rips context from every story — the fact that the norms held to by one, or some, or all of the different subcommunities of this country (norms about respectful political compromise, about the equal treatment of the races, about the integrity of law enforcement, about the predictability of gender identity, about the functioning of the economy, or even about the place of God in our lives during a time of pandemic) have been, or are being, challenged, upended, revealed to be otherwise than what we believe, or maybe just simply betrayed. And so our anger at — and, sometimes, our hysterical insistence upon defending — the invariably flawed systemic assumptions we thought we knew flows ever stronger.
To be sure, a social media civil war isn’t remotely the same as a real one (which, again, as of the moment of this writing, still hasn’t actually broken out). In his book, Michael made use of Abraham Lincoln as well as Aristotle. Focusing on the great call of his First Inaugural Address — “We are not enemies, but friends . . . . We must not be enemies,” which President-Elect Biden was obviously borrowing from — Michael looked closely at how Lincoln’s choices as a political figure reflected his understanding of civic friendship, something which he called for even in the midst of a level of anger that far exceeds anything we’ve seen yet this whole, terrible year. Interestingly, he pointed out what Lincoln, to use the terms I sketched out above, pretty explicitly did notthink embracing a sense of mutual self-interest and goodwill towards those whom you may fundamentally feel betrayed by requires. He did notthink it requires us to deny or hide our deeply held beliefs, even extreme ones. Also, he did notthink it requires us to believe that all sides are equally at fault (if there even is a “fault”) in the violation or upending or simply the changing of norms and that the best compromise, therefore, will always be found in the mushy middle, as we are so often condescendingly told.
What did Lincoln think civic friendship in the face of the systemic collapse — or at least the feeling of norms collapsing all around you — requires? On Michael’s reading, it requires one to operate on the assumption that everyone can change their mind; that no one’s position in the midst of the fraught debates all around us is absolute. It also requires us to prioritize fairness — not the abandonment of one’s beliefs, but a fairness in the expressing of them, always allowing others to express the same. Most of all, it requires us to be willing to play the long game, to patiently accept the legitimacy of small steps. Patience, incidentally, is one of the key themes of Compassion & Conviction, a book some colleagues and I read together with a group of students over the semester as the election approached. At one point the authors — all of whom are long-time activists and pastors in African-American communities — observe that:
Patience is often in shorter supply for the zealous convert to a cause than the long-suffering laborer for justice. It is not usually the most vulnerable who are the most vitriolic, nor is it usually they who have persevered for what they believed who are most bitter. Instead, often the people for whom these issues are primarily emotional are trying to prove their commitment rather than just being committed. Those who have advocated for an issue for a long time, on the other hand, are able to track progress, are respectfully aware of the various points of disagreement, and understand the terrain.
That impassioned call to patience, and Michael’s reading of Lincoln, are both powerful, I think. But I can also think of reasons to dissent from them. What if the very idea of “fairness” is part of the norm that appears to have been systematically broken or never consistently applied in the first place? What if cognitive research and social science and long hours of arguing with people on Facebook have proven to you that, actually, people never really do change their minds? Most of all, what if the patient long game which Michael embraces has already been intolerably too long? (Keep in mind here that Martin Luther King, Jr., himself wrote a whole book titled Why We Can’t Wait, addressing all those annoying calls for civil rights protesters and demonstrators to be “patient.”)
I can come up with no easy solution for how one is to deal in a friendly with one’s fellow community members when dismay or confusion o.r consternation or anger over the breakdown of systems and assumptions and norms dominates. So instead I come back to Jesus cleansing the temple — not just overturning tables, but taking a whip and driving those who were collecting and changing money at those tables out into the streets. I have no idea what kind of mental state we are supposed to understand our Savior to have had in this story. Was He sorrowful? Or was He, actually, angry? Angry, perhaps, at the realization that the system of sacrifice under the temple priests and Levites had become so exploitative, that the norms by which poor Jews were given access to temple rites had become so warped, that there was nothing left to do but take direct confrontational action, and literally upend them all? I don’t know, and I doubt any believer can know. But believers can and should, at least, recognize that even while the call to love and friendship–to say nothing of the minimal civic application of such — remains, it remains, at least if we include this scriptural story into our understanding of Jesus, in conjunction with both a recognition of the legitimacy of feeling betrayed and a recognition that our responses to perceived violations of or confusions over norms and expectations will not always be eternally passive.
At one point in his wise book (wise in terms of political ethics, certainly; whether it is wise in terms of addressing failed political systems and norms is something that remains to be seen), Michael frames civic friendship as a hope. That, I think, is the only true point I can conclude with. The civic friendship which can exist in a community is fundamentally always going to be an act of faith, a holding onto a “conviction of things not seen.” We don’t know — we can’t know, until it actually happens — if the norms and assumptions and expectations whose seeming collapse angers us are final; we don’t even know if some of them might not be opening up a window for systemic change that might appropriately be described as providential. In the meantime, so long as this community that we know is still here when we wake up in the morning, the call of Jesus can, I think, be at the very least expressed as a continued hope to be able to treat our fellow community members as friends. As Michael wrote:
We exercise civic friendship, or fail to exercise it, when we decide what kind of society we want to be. We vote on this question every day – occasionally in a formal election but more often through the purchases we make, the people and institutions we choose to associate with, and the things that we give our attention to. No law can force us, and no syllogism can persuade us, to care about other people; only friendship can do that. But when animated by a genuine concern for the well-being of others, we can find waysto make our society more just.
I ended up voting early this year for the very first time, as a way to support an advance voting site that was set up on my campus two weeks before the election (before I even gave the presentation that was the genesis of this whole essay, in fact). So Election Day morning came, and it was the first in my whole adult life that I, political nerd that I am, wasn’t at my local polling station early. I felt a need to go down the street a few blocks from where we live anyway, and thank some of the volunteers. They were appreciative of the thanks, but not, it seemed to me, surprised. Election workers, poll observers, really everyone involved in the mechanics of making representative systems work: they may not see themselves as avatars of civic friendship in their commitment to this very ordinary, in many ways very boring work which they do, but, nonetheless, I think they embody exactly the low-level, even humble hope which Michael called us to. Maybe they’re personally religious, or maybe they’re not, but one way of speaking of the civic conviction which brings them out to volunteer is a kind of civil religion. They really must have — as most of us, most of the time, I am confident, similarly have– some kind of faith that people can govern themselves, and that people like you and me and all of them and all of us can be trusted, whatever the legitimate and even necessary extremities of our different views, to go through the electoral rituals of American democracy, and not just overturn all the tables without cause.
I am haunted by the possibility of that cause, though, and in the wake of this norm-shattering year (in so many ways beyond just the big one elected to the presidency), we all should be properly haunted by it as well, I think. The social life within which civic friendship arises always involves expectations and assumptions, and to be robbed of those, or to be others ignore them, or to be called a fool for believing in them, is a properly angering thing. If even the model of Christian friendship which believers are called to can accommodate a moment of anger, a moment when the continued patient endurance of a flawed and perhaps even essentially already abandoned system seems both dehumanizing and wrong, then I don’t think I can use the notion of civic friendship to condemn anyone who chooses to call out evil as they see it. I guess I continue to hope that, should they choose to overturn tables, that they’ll do so in a civil way, if that even makes sense.
I know that I am a profoundly privileged person; I recognize that, though I also recognize that my articulation of that privilege–which mostly has to do with matters of sin and grace — likely does not operate the same as that which most of those who have engaged with intersectionality might assume. The point is, though, I know that I’m blessed and lucky, and that those blessings and that luck are significantly a function of my position in the various communities I am a member of. So having emphasized that I nonetheless say: my experiences with civic friendship, limited as they may be, have convinced me it’s an accomplishable goal. Unlike many others (including my wife, and more than a few of my university colleagues who listened to the original version of this essay), I do not think I have lost any friends over the past four years. Maybe I have; it honestly wouldn’t surprise me to learn that my privilege has blinded me to evils that have been done through my friendliness to people of radically different political views than me, my wishy-washy willingness to simultaneous call Trump-supporting friends desperately, even wickedly, wrong but also to continue to consider them a fellow community member. If that is true, then I need to repent — but of course, I need to repent all the time of basically everything anyway (as, I think, does everyone else). In the meantime, I continue to have hope that, beyond all my unseen failures, those community connections, even if only performative, will have some real civic meaning, and thus amount to a real, however small, civic accomplishment. Which, honestly, is just another way of expressing the same civic faith, the same hope for something unseen, which is nonetheless real, that I mentioned above, and that which Biden called out to in his victory speech as well. If I’m wrong, well, at least I have an Electoral College winner on my side.
“13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’” Revised Standard Version, John 2:13-16. ↵
“34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Revised Standard Version, John 23:34-35. ↵
“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Revised Standard Version, John 15:15. ↵
Austin, Michael. We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America's Civic Tradition. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. ↵
Lincoln, Abraham. “Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States : from George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989.” Avalon Project — Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp ↵
Giboney, Justin et al. Compassion and Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Civil Engagement. IVP, 2020. ↵
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. Harper & Row, 1964. ↵
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Revised Standard Version, Hebrews 11:1. ↵
Fox, Russell Arben. Three Quick Addenda on Civic Friendship on Election Day , 3 Nov. 2020, inmedias.blogspot.com/2020/11/three-quick-addenda-on-civic-friendship.html. ↵
George Kennan to Members of the Policy Planning Staff, September 6, 1950, file Policy Planning, 1947-52 (NAID 3562197), Entry A1-1583G, Policy Planning Council, Executive Secretary: Subject Files, 1935-62, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.
my raincoat it’s been
a wet spring
flood of synthetic dancers
raining down shoddy
coins pour from
hell’s own slot machine into
the lap of the world
this is a
near miss comedy
but yesterday’s cold coffee
and raw injustice
burnt windows nailed shut
strings pulled tight
our one brief
in petty squabbles
the dark efficient
emerge from the wood armed with
the cross and the sword
i flirt with
the thought of being
but there will
be no medals awarded
for speaking truth now
an intractable blue
promises nothing but
a night of bitter cold
i’m not deceived
by the brilliance of fall
it’s nothing more than a trick of nature
all the warmth implicit
in those redgold leaves a lie
the smile of a serpent
cloaked in temporary beauty
about to strike
delivering the deadly kiss of winter
I live atop a smoldering volcano,
always rumbling and threatening to erupt.
I’m used to the smoke,
my skin so grey on cloudy days
I melt into the landscape.
I’m used to the noise;
it’s my lullaby when,
having exhausted myself in the balancing,
I finally collapse.
Why, you wonder, don’t you climb down?
Oh, I’ve tried standing tall,
surveying the pitted surface
that slopes to civilization,
but acrophobia grips me,
talons relentless, sending me spinning
into such mindless panic
I’m dizzied and must sit, trying my best to breathe.
The devil you know, you know…
It may seem an odd request,
but I pray for a pyroclastic flow.
There on the map but vague in my mind.
Blurred through the window
As we touch down in rain.
Rain like some shroud to be lifted.
A rain ancestral
And singing of pity.
This is the dream that will happen.
This is how it will all play out.
There will be seagulls
And pints of stout and my face
Around every corner.
There will be you in the air
And you on the ground.
There will be us in our cups
At the end of the bar. Sad ballads
To drink in the lingering light.
Welcome home, perfect strangers.
Welcome the heaven of peace.
Hear Harold read this poem on sareview.org by scanning this QR code:
Once again the wide river recalled. A story, a song
An artery of memory.
Coffee-colored from summer floods.
Meandering west, as I did long ago.
I hear waves lapping from a barge passing.
I hear that sucking sound
In the shallows, in the shoals.
I hear Granddaddy plucking an old Martin
On Birmingham radio, his high tenor warbling
Inside the wax of a warped 78.
I have never heard this, yet I can hear it.
I have absorbed it
Like the grit and sediment of tap water.
I have inhaled it
Like some Main Street fellow’s cheroot smoke.
I strum those three chords
The river taught me. Over and over and over.
I have lived the river beyond its banks.
I have kept 4/4 time to the river’s current.
I sing myself to the edge of the sea.
Hear Harold read this poem on sareview.org by scanning this QR code:
A coworker says blackberries and I’m ten again
In that bramble beside the pasture.
Tom is barefoot and giggling.
Our lips purple from the ripe fruit.
I carry daddy’s binoculars
And his sense of impending doom
Around my sunburned neck.
Mosquito hum. Meadowlark mantra.
Far-off rumble of the Memphis train.
Our sticky fingers. Our aching bellies.
That sky a blueline map of forever.
Tom pulls a pocketknife to swear an oath
For all gods listening or not.
He slices our palms and we touch
For the transfusion. We touch
To mingle meanings. We touch, then let go.
Decades have passed, that pasture
Now a neighborhood,
Yet I can still taste the tartness
Of a childhood Saturday. I can still hear
Those meadowlarks, the mosquito hum.
I can still see the scar,
And feel that faintest pulse
Of a dear friend’s summer heartbeat.
Hear Harold read this poem on sareview.org by scanning this QR code:
Something went wrong beside the dry creek.
A late winter sky reborn in its own image.
The neighbor’s radio buzz, the four-lane drone,
Etcetera. Hallelujah. I have my soul pressed up
Against the cracked living room window,
Seeking out that shaggy buffalo vibe.
I’ve made friends here in the temporal world.
I’ve heard ghosts down inside the stereo.
The past is not your friend, somebody sang,
The future not your enemy. And my hair
And my fingernails of late have grown longer.
There’s a tang of prairie upon my tongue.
Nai’a / Photo courtesy the author
(by Nai’a, a German Shepherd)
Slow and docile, friend of the sun
more sleep than wake
sluggish, mellow, stupid as a stone dreaming
the hot blood of lobos-pack quickened by the chase
as mighty antlered stag and sleek doe flee
leading panic-stricken squirrels by the score
SQUIRRELS . . . oldest frenemies,
I chomped and gobbled ONE TWO THREE of thee
as thy puny cousins
fled and scurried and worried
YES, these pearly sharpened fangs
will strike thee anon!
ah, the pain again
The ancient grace fades, how opaque I grow
cancer-stiff with this new solitude, as you alone
ponder our love.
Stop! Stop! I am still here. Walk now. Walk again,
for the hunt burns keen
Touch my ears and know
the wind’s rise, my hackled-back bristling.
Bark first, whine after . . .
It is Earth’s wish, not mine — my little death is not yours;
not yet. You live long two-legs, but too often poorly.
Yet the rich splendor of yonder pine grove covets and stirs.
Let us dream
Smell what Gaia gifts
Test the breeze, hunt, eat
and know the long quiet sleep
will come, soon
but not just yet
Come now, let us walk . . .
Nai’a / Photo courtesy the author
We put the dog down yesterday
Cancer in the gut ate her up
Slowed only by CBD, the miracle elixir
that gave us six moons more to howl with gusto and glory
Nai’a was she, “dolphin” in Kamehameha’s tongue,
a name we learned in Fiji, and liked and would have named our daughter
a child who turned out to be a boy named Milo
a name I chose a dozen years before his birth
and eventually convinced my woman was just right
In the hours before the vet arrived
Nai’a watched with sad tired eyes
as I dug the grave, in her favorite spot
next to the fence near the Pelican Gate and beside the bottle brush tree
who’s ruby blossoms gave her just enough cover
to jolt the mailman and other passers-by
with a bark that would wake the dead
as only a German Shepherd can make
She sighed with gentle approval as I shoveled dirt, sitting awkward, uncomfortable, the bloat of her belly and swell of her right front paw giving truth the state-of-affairs we could no longer deny
It ended well, or as well as can be, no dry well in this tsunami of tears
This morning I woke before dawn and ventured outside alone
Decided to write a poem, but no ink would flow. Decided to read a poem,
But Robinson Jeffers’ The House Dog’s Grave was just too damn sad,
the oration of William Carlos Williams’ Track jarring my soul’s need for quiet,
and even Billy Collins could not lift my spirits or hold my eyes
which kept glancing at the corner where she preferred to rest
wondering if maybe it all might be a dream
No dream. Nai’a is dead and gone
A spirit now, in the wind, in the starlight, in the halls of our memory
Forever young in our eyes.
Slow down aggressively.
Do nothing and rest afterwards.
Sit, stare, and move the wall.
You have the right to remain silent.
Nothing-happening is not a threat.
Revel in redundancy.
Put all your goals in a box and burn that box.
Love to do what’s now.
Quiet your mind, hear your soul.
Embrace the lean elegance of choice.
Trick yourself into happiness.
Cultivate primordial confidence.
Revel in the groundless paradox of ambiguity.
Ponder: Where does “it” take “time”?
Be proud of your humility.
Celebrate a chasm’s closing.
Peel off the remnants of demands.
Remind yourself: Nothing is as good or as bad as you anticipate.
Believe Truth will find you and make you beautiful.
Stand outside yourself and revel in the ecstasy.
The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom.
However, experience has taught us that action in the now is also necessary, always. Our children cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different than ours? “If you want us to change the world someday, we at least have to live long enough to grow up!” shouts the child.
— Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” Sister Outsider, 1984
To be born with both beauty and self-respect in the Negro ghetto of Baltimore in 1915 was too much of a handicap, even without rape at the age of ten and drug-addiction in her teens. But, while she destroyed herself, she sang, unmelodious, profound and heartbreaking. It is impossible not to weep for her, or not to hate the world which made her what she was.
— E. J. Hobsbawm, “Billie Holiday,” in Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion, and Jazz (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), 294.
One general possibility for solving the overgrazing problem — beyond the enclosure of commons — seems to be nationalization of cows.
— Mattei, Ugo, and Mark Mancall. “Communology:” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 118, no. 4, Duke University Press, Oct. 2019, pp. 725–46. Crossref, doi:10.1215/00382876-7825576.
We don’t believe what they say about us.
— Italian feminist slogan, qtd. in “The Virus Is our Idea of Ourselves,” textz.com, accessed September 4, 2020.
To investigate the genealogy of the state is to discover that there has never been any agreed concept to which the word state has answered.
— Skinner, Quentin. “The Sovereign State: A Genealogy.” Sovereignty in Fragments, edited by Hent Kalmo and Quentin Skinner, Cambridge University Press, pp. 26–46. Crossref, doi:10.1017/cbo9780511675928.002.
It is not a matter of asking whether but of determining precisely and to what extent the stories engage colonialism. The work of interpreting the relation of colonialism and science fiction really gets under way, then, by attempting to decipher the fiction’s often distorted and topsy-turvy references to colonialism. Only then can one propet ask how . . . science fiction lives and breathes in the atmosphere of colonial history and its discourses, how it reflects or contributes to ideological production of ideas about the shape of history, and how it might, in varying degrees, enact a struggle over humankind’s ability to reshape it.
— John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction as qtd in Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, NYU Press, 2020, pg 126.
The recent history of education reform is also the recent history of the centralisation of state power. Another bleak irony: the Conservatives like to present themselves as the party upholding the general libertarian values of freedom and democracy; in practice they have actively disempowered local democracy because of the potential challenge posed by councils to their political authority.
— Robb Johnson, The People’s Republic of Neverland: The Child versus the State, PM Press, 2020, pg. 90.
A dog’s obeyed in office.
— William Shakespeare, King Lear
The laissez-faire is also a mode of state regulation, introduced and maintained by legislative and constraining means. It is a deliberate policy, aware of its own objectives, and not the spontaneous and automatic expression of the economic events. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political program.”
Gramsci, Quaderni, qtd. in Empire & Imperialism: A Critical Reading of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri by Atilio A. Boron, pg. 52.
A come. consisting of Mr. Madison, Mr. Mifflin & Mr. Williamson reported in consequence of a motion of Mr. Bland, a list of books proper for the use of Congress, and proposed that the Secy. sho’d be instructed to procure the same.8 In favr. of the Rept. it was urged as indispensable that Congress sd. have at all times at command such authors on the law of Nations, treaties Negociations &c as wd. render their proceedings in such cases conformable to propriety; and it was observed that the want of this information was manifest in several important acts of Congress. It was further observed that no time ought to be lost in collecting every book & tract which related to American Antiquities & the affairs of the U.S. since many of the most valuable of these were every day becoming extinct, & they were necessary not only as materials for a Hist: of the U.S. but might be rendered still more so by future pretensions agst. their rights from Spain or other powers which had shared in the discoveries & possessions of the New World.9 Agst. the Report were urged 1st. the inconveniency of advancing even a few hundred pounds at this crisis; 2dly. the difference of expence between procuring the books during the war & after a peace. These objections prevailed, by a considerable majority. A motion was then made by Mr. Wilson 2ded. by Mr. Madison to confine the purchase for the present to the most essential part of the books. This also was negatived.
— The Papers of James Madison, vol. 6, 1 January 1783 – 30 April 1783, ed. William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp. 115–117. “Notes on Debates, 23 January 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-06-02-0032.
Since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future, will one day take arms and hang the traitors to this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.
— Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year old pensioner who committed suicide in Greece’s Syntagma square on April 4, 2012, as qtd. in Social Movements and Solidarity Structures in Crisis-Ridden Greece, pg. 73-74.
Dr. Emily Bilman is London’s Poetry Society Stanza representative in Geneva. Her doctoral dissertation, The Psychodynamics of Poetry: Poetic Virtuality and Oedipal Sublimation in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot and Paul Valéry, was published by Lambert Academic in 2010 and Modern Ekphrasisin 2013 by Peter Lang. Her poetry books, A Woman By A Well (2015), Resilience (2015), The Threshold of Broken Waters (2018), and Apperception(2020) were all published by Troubador, UK. Poems were published in The London Magazine, Poetry Salzburg Review, Offshoots, Poetics Research, Oxford School of Poetry Review and elsewhere.
DA Borer roams the shores of the Monterey Bay in California. His creative writing appears in The Write Launch, Montana Mouthful, Sonder Midwest, Dragon Poet Review, Rise Up Review, Coffin Bell Journal and Poetry Now.
Andy Boyd is a playwright based in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate of the playwriting MFA program at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Arizona School for the Arts. His plays have been produced, developed or presented at IRT, Pipeline Theatre Company, The Gingold Group, Dixon Place, Roundabout Theatre, Epic Theatre Company, Out Loud Theatre, Naked Theatre Company, Contemporary Theatre of Rhode Island and The Trunk Space. Andy is the primary host of the New Books in Performing Arts podcast, and his essays have been published in HowlRound, US History Scene and Canyon Voices.
Patty Contaxis is a marriage and family therapist, musician and amateur naturalist living with her family in Northern California.
RC deWinter’s poetry is anthologized, notably in Uno: A Poetry Anthology (Verian Thomas, 2002), New York City Haiku (NY Times, 2017), Cowboys & Cocktails (Brick Street Poetry, April 2019), Nature In The Now (Tiny Seed Press, August 2019), in print in 2River, Adelaide Magazine, borrowed solace, Genre Urban Arts, Gravitas, In Parentheses, Night Picnic Journal, Prairie Schooner, Reality Break Press, Southword, and Variant Literature among many others and appears in numerous online literary journals.
Chris Frank is a self-taught artist from Taylor Texas. He graduated from Texas Lutheran University where he ran track (Hurdles and High Jump). His preferred medium is acrylic on soft canvas.
AN Grace is a writer from Liverpool, England.
Margaret A. Hagerman, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University. She is the author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America (NYU Press, 2018).
Ying Hsu uses photojournalism to tell stories.
Peycho Kanev is the author of six poetry collections and three chapbooks. His poems have appeared in Rattle, Poetry Quarterly, The Evergreen Review, The Adirondack Review, and many other literary magazines. His latest chapbook, Under Half-Empty Heaven, was published in 2019 by Grey Book Press.
Avram Lavinsky has been published in Strings magazine and was a semifinalist in this year’s VanderMey Nonfiction Prize competition. He earned a gold record for his work with Blues Traveler. He lives on Boston’s South Shore with his three sons.
Maeve McKennais from Dublin, now living in Sligo. She has been writing poetry and short stories all her life. In 2018, her work was shortlisted for the Red Line and highly commended in the iYeats International Poetry Competitions. In 2019, she was highly commended in the Frances Ledwidge and longlisted in the Over The Edge Poetry competitions. She was joint runner-up in the Trim Poetry Competition, 2020. Her work has been published in Mslexia, The Galway Review, Boyne Berries, Fly on the Wall, The Cormorant, Skylight47, Mad Swirl and Sonder Magazine. Her poems have appeared online in The Bangor Literary Journal, Bonnies Crew, The Ink Pods, Blue Nib, I Am Not A Silent Poet, Live Encounters and many others. She has work forthcoming in 100 Words Of Solitude, Bloody Amazing Anthology and Black Bough Poetry.
Alexandra S. Machuca is a Xicana artist who lives in Bakersfield, California. She recieved a BA in Studio Art from the University of California Santa Cruz and is in the process of applying to law school. Predominantly an acrylic painter, the subjects she chooses revolve around individual members of communities whether they are of her own or admired in their own. None of her pieces are commissions and are often made dedicated to those whose image is presented on the canvas/paper or for friends and colleagues. She expresses that each piece is made with love and an anticapitalist spirit.
Chris Manno is a freelance cartoonist in Texas. His work has been published in magazines, books and digital media worldwide.
Carolyn Martin’s poems and book reviews have appeared in publications throughout North America, Australia, and the UK. Her fourth collection, A Penchant for Masquerades, was released in 2019 by Unsolicited Press. She is currently the poetry editor of Kosmos Quarterly: journal for global transformation.
Kenneth Pobo has a new book out from Assure Press called Uneven Steven. His work has appeared in: North Dakota Quarterly, Hawaii Review, Atlanta Review, Nimrod, and elsewhere.
Janet Reed is the author of Blue Exhaust (FLP, 2019), and a multi-year Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web nominee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sow’s Ear Review, Emry’s, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. She began writing knock-off Nancy Drew stories on wide-lined notebook paper at age 11, taught writing and literature in a community college until retirement and is currently enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing at University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Jeannie Ricketts is a Staff Attorney for the Texas Department of Insurance in Austin, Texas. She takes classes and writes in her spare time.
AS Robertson paints and writes. Her prose can be found in Prairie Schooner and Cherry Tree.
Greg Sendi is a Chicago writer and former fiction editor at Chicago Review. His stories and poetry have appeared or been accepted for publication in a number of literary magazines and online outlets, including recently Apricity, CONSEQUENCE, Plume, Pulp Literature, upstreet and Master’s Review.
Anna Ter-Yegishyan lives in Los Angeles with a background in English. Outside of pursuing her MBA, she writes whenever she can. Her poetry has appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Westwind and FORTH Magazine.
Anannya Uberoi (she/her) is a full-time software engineer and part-time tea connoisseur based in Madrid. She is poetry editor at The Bookends Review, the winner of the 6th Singapore Poetry Contest and a Best of Net nominee. Her work has appeared in The Birmingham Arts Journal, The Bangalore Review, The Loch Raven Review and Tipton Poetry Journal.
Harold Whit Williams is guitarist for the critically acclaimed rock band Cotton Mather, and he releases lo-fi home recordings as Daily Worker. He is a 2018 and 2020 Pushcart Prize Nominee, and also recipient of the 2014 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize. His collection Backmasking was winner of the 2013 Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize from Texas Review Press, and his latest, My Heavens, is available from FutureCycle Press. He lives in Austin, Texas.
“The ethnography of good machines,” Ken MacLeish, Critical Military Studies, 1:1, 11-22, DOI: 10.1080/23337489.2014.973680
The Injustice Never Leaves You by Monica Muñoz Martinez (Harvard University Press, 2018)
Subterranean Fanon: An Underground Theory of Radical Change by Gavin Arnall (Columbia University Press, 2020)
War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan edited by Catherine Lutz and Andrea Mazzarino (NYU Press, 2020)
What Comes After Entanglement? by Eva Haifa Giraud (Duke University Press, 2020)
Critique & Praxis by Bernard Harcourt (Columbia University Press, 2020)
Bolivia in the Age of Gas by Bret Gustafson (Duke University Press, 2020)
Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press, 2020)
The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (Oneworld Publications, 2015)
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (Penguin, 2012)
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (New Directions, 2020)
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (Harper, 2020)
Good Music to Save the World Vols. 1-2
Daily Worker: SHELTER IN TAPES Vol. 4 (Lo-Fi quarantine recordings)
Richard and Linda Thompson: Hard Luck Stories (1972-1982)
Ghosteen, Nick Cave
Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer
Peter Berard, Ph.D., is San Antonio Review’s book review editor. He is a writer, organizer and historian in Watertown, Mass. Read more of his reviews at peterberard.substack.com.
Ash Lange serves as San Antonio Review‘s prose editor and lives outside Glasgow, Scotland.
Chris Manno is San Antonio Review‘s editorial cartoonist. He teaches English at Texas Christian University and lives in Fort Worth.
Gianna Sannipoli is San Antonio Review‘s poetry editor.
William O. Pate II is the founding editor and publisher of San Antonio Review. He lives in Austin with his wife, four dogs and parrot. Learn more about him at inadequate.net.
John Bonanni, Danbury, Connecticut
Deborah Marie Dera, Runnemede, New Jersey
Stan Gunn, Charlottesville, Virginia
Melody Klinger, Austin, Texas
Carolyn Martin, Portland, Oregon
Ashley Sommer Lange, Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, Scotland
Barbara Elaine Leeper, Georgetown, Texas † 7/23/1940–2/8/2020
David Matthews, Kerrville, Texas
Sandeep Kumar Mishra, Ashfield, New South Wales, Australia
Mary Ellen & William Pate, Leander, Texas
Mary Jo Pate, Georgetown, Texas
Misty Cripps, Austin, Texas
Paul Peterson, Austin, Texas
Teri Martinez Pitts, Frankfurt, Germany
Richard Stim, Sausalito, California
Rex Wilder, Los Angeles, California
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Always avant-garde. Pirate library.
MasterClasses — free.
Pirate library. Free books and articles.
Pirate library: Books, comics, articles
Pirate Care is a research process – primarily based in the transnational European space – that maps the increasingly present forms of activism at the intersection of “care” and “piracy”, which in new and interesting ways are trying to intervene in one of the most important challenges of our time, that is, the ‘crisis of care’ in all its multiple and interconnected dimensions.
Monoskop is a wiki for the arts, media and humanities. Pirate library.
the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers
Open Media Library
Open Media Library is a local web application that lets you manage and sync digital media collections. For now, the focus is on books, but music and movies may be added at a later point. We’ve heard it being described as “something like iTunes for books, with other libraries instead of a store, running in your web browser”, and that’s not too far off.
Pad.ma – short for Public Access Digital Media Archive – is an online archive of densely text-annotated video material, primarily footage and not finished films. The entire collection is searchable and viewable online, and is free to download for non-commercial use.
Racism in America: A Reader
Excerpts in this volume—culled from Harvard University Press publications in history, law, sociology, medicine, economics, critical theory, philosophy, art, and literature—are an invitation to understand anti-Black racism through the eyes of Harvard UP’s most incisive commentators.
Free, open-source video recording and livestreaming software.
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Encrypts your data quickly and easily — for free. Afterwards you upload them protected to your favorite cloud service.
Pet Food Recall Alerts
Get lifesaving dog food recall alerts by email anytime there’s a recall in the U.S. or Canada.
Free file-sharing, password generation and other tools.
Manos de Cristo
Provides emergency food assistance to individuals and families. Also has a low-cost dental clinic for uninsured patients that SAR’s publisher highly recommends.
Meals on Wheels Central Texas
Offers a variety of food assistance programs.
Caritas of Austin
Runs a food pantry for those in need.
Texas Health and Human Service
Administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and helps people buy the food they need for good health.
Each week, publishes curated syllabi featuring pieces that cut across text, video and audio. The curation runs either along thematic lines – e.g. technology, political economy, arts & culture – or by media type such as Best of Academic Papers, Podcasts, Videos. You can also build your own personalised syllabus centered around your interests.
Privacy-focused browser allowing web access to censored countries and used
OERTX Repository is a public digital library of open educational resources for higher education. Search collections or create and collaborate to improve instruction.
The Radical Database
Privoxy is a free non-caching web proxy with advanced filtering capabilities for enhancing privacy, modifying web page data and HTTP headers, controlling access, and removing ads and other obnoxious Internet junk. Privoxy has a flexible configuration and can be customized to suit individual needs and tastes. It has applications for both stand-alone systems and multi-user networks.
Find more resources at sareview.org/resources .