Personal Pieces postsSunday May 22, 2011
It was 20 Years Ago Today...
...that I first landed in Seattle: May 22, 1991. Let's just say things didn't go as planned.
I stayed with friends of my sister's in the Ravenna neighborhood, hoofed it around town looking for work, got a job filling in for the friend of a friend at the Chukar Cherry Stand in Pike Place Market, then lost it when the owner of the Chukar Cherry Stand came around and wondered who the hell this guy was selling his product. Hoofed it some more. Keep gravitating to bookstores. Look, books. I know those! Bad idea. I was impressed by the lush landscaping around the city and depressed by the weather: 50s and overcast. By mid-June I wondered if this damned city ever warmed up.
Found a place to live with a couple of art students in a dilapidated house in the University district ($120 a month for a basement room), and a job at the University Book Store nearby. Bought a word processor and wrote and wrote and wrote: short stories, novellas, essays. The personal essays got published on the back pages of Seattle Weekly. The first was about looking for a place to live:
[Shared-housing folks] seemed to be looking for someone who was self-confident but not overtly so, someone who would be involved in the house but not take it over; a clean person but not anal; a funny person but not crude; a person without eccentricities who would tolerate theirs.
I tried to review books at the Weekly, too, but the books editor there, after several months of silence, turned me down. “Your aggressively captious voice,” she wrote, “while it suits your personal essays, would, I feel, overwhelm a book review.” I had to look up “captious”: Overly argumentative. For a book reviewer? My intro to that kind of Seattle disconnect. “If you can't say anything nice...” Why so few people in Seattle ever say anything.
One of my new roommates got a cat who got fleas all over my futon. I went from part-time to full-time at the bookstore. I bought and read Paris Review. I kept re-reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I kept writing. I kept pressing my nose to the glass.
Anyway, that was 20 years ago today.
Like this, but darker, colder, more crowded, and I was a dude rather than a chick.
My History of the U-S-A Chant: With a Benediction from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
I'm not much of a fan of chants. On the left we have this old chestnut: “What do we want? X! When do we want it? NOW!”
On the right there's “USA! USA!”
It didn't used to belong to the right. In the winter of 1980 it belonged to all of us, all of the new hockey fans around the country watching a team of college kids beat the best players in the world, a Soviet machine who had dominated everybody, including U.S. professionals. The Olympics were imbalanced back then, restricted, as they were, to amateurs, to non-professionals, when non-capitalist societies had nothing but. Their players were state-sponsored non-professionals, trained since infancy, drilled daily, while ours were college kids: Mike from Minneapolis and Mark from Madison and Mike again from Wintrop, Mass., and Neal from northern Minnesota. Guys. As in: Hey, why don't you guys get together and play some games?
I'd followed their run through the Winter Games peripherally but was assuming the worst when, flipping channels one Friday night (literally: hand on the knob, kids), I came across a newsbrief informing us that the U.S. hockey team had beaten the Russians. Immediately I flipped back to the Olympics, to the tape-delayed game, just in time to see Mark Johnson (from Madison) slide between two defenders and flip it in the goal with one second left in the first period to tie it, 2-2. Holy crap! We win this? I watched the rest of the game on tenterhooks even though I knew its outcome, then went out into the night pumped beyond belief. It was an odd sensation. I'd grown up in unpatriotic times, when patriotism was the last refuge of squares rather than scoundrels. I'd watched the country fall apart militarily (Vietnam), politically (Watergate), economically (OPEC, stagflation). We had gas lines and hostages. Now we had this. What was this? It felt good. USA! USA!
Four years later the chant was already the province of louts. In the interim “USA Today” had been published, full of its dull news and patriotic charts, and capitalizing on the acronym “USA” as much as possible. Then we heard it all the time during the '84 Summer Games in Los Angeles, which the Soviet bloc, responding to our boycott of the 1980 Summer games in Moscow, boycotted. So we weren't going up against the eastern bloc's professional non-professionals; we were going up against ... Trinidad and Tobago. We weren't underdogs anymore, we were overdogs, beating our chests and reveling in our expected triumphs. Why chant for that? You'd hear it on the campaign trail, too. Ronald Reagan would reference the Olympics and get the chant going. Eventually the chant became his. And theirs. It turned my stomach.
I thought Homer Simpson killed it in 1993. I really did. There was an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer and Marge, driving to a parent-teacher conference, argue over who gets Lisa's teacher (an easy gig) and who gets Bart's (trouble). Homer, who had Lisa's teacher the previous year, whines and wheedles his way into getting Lisa's teacher again, and when Marge finally capitulates he does this:
Brilliant, I thought. That's that. They'll never be able to use it again.
Wrong. Too many scoundrels in this country. Too many louts. Now we use it to cheer on death rather than college kids.
I don't know if there is a proper response to bin Laden's death. Mine is, as I wrote yesterday, muted. I'm glad he's gone, glad he was killed in the way he was killed, applaud the men who did it; but I assume someone somewhere will take his place.
I suppose the response closest to mine comes, ironically, from the website of David Frum, the right-wing originator of the phrase “Axis of Evil,” written by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, a man of God 11 years my junior, in a piece entitled “Is it Wrong to Feel Joy at Bin Laden's Death?” Rabbi Herzfeld writes:
First there is recognition that even when our enemy falls, this does not signal an end to all our troubles. Just because one enemy or one army or one threat has been removed does not mean we are entirely safe.
Second, we must acknowledge that the destruction of the enemy did not necessarily arise from our own merits. We are perhaps not worthy of the good fortune that we have received and so we do not want to tempt God, as it were, or remind the Angel of Death of our own defects.
At the same time, I can't admonish those who have the impulse to chant “USA! USA!” for the death of the man who perpetrated this. Herzfeld again:
The Talmud tells us that “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.” As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the Children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy.
The chanters are in good company. It's the impulse even of the angels.
Osama's Death Certificate
In June 1989 I was 26 years old, recently returned from a year in Taiwan, and driving around at night with some friends in an unfamiliar warehouse district north of downtown Minneapolis when the news came on the radio: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, was dead at the age of 86. We were a fairly liberal group in a very liberal city but a spontaneous cheer went up in that car. Khomeini had been a thorn in our country's side for 10 years, we'd been hearing about him for 10 years, and it was nice to know we wouldn't be hearing about him much anymore. A minute later we sobered up. It felt classless, cheering for death.
Last night Patricia and I had some friends over for Sunday Movie Night. We used to do this fairly often but got off course this winter; but some of our members, who've been through hellacious springs, needed it again, so we gathered in our living room for homemade pasta and wine and salad, to watch Martin Scorsese's “Goodfellas.” Afterwards, before going to bed, I checked my email and received one from Ward, the man who made the homemade pasta:
FW: BREAKING NEWS: An AP source says Osama bin Laden is dead
See what we miss watching movies?
I immediately went to the New York Times site for confirmation, then Andrew Sullivan to read his thoughts, then Salon to read their headlines (which were already aftermath headlines; “And now what?” headlines). I looked up Abbottabad on Google maps. Finally I went to Facebook. “Oh right, Facebook,” I thought. I scrolled backwards to see who posted the news first. It was a friend from Delaware who referenced, obliquely, how happy Wolfie B. had made her with “those five words.” Two people had already posted this photo, which made me smile, since it encapsulated the seriousness of one side of our political debate versus the decided lack of seriousness on the other:
Someone wrote “The world feels better tonight.” Another: “I wish I had some fireworks to set off,” to which her friend, our mutual friend, replied, “I just heard one go off in my neighborhood.” People were gathering at the White House, and in Times Square, to cheer. A local journalist admonished his readers: “I hope people (esp. liberals) don't overthink this. Bin Laden dead is a good thing.” A movie critic wrote, “If you're in Times Square in a Navy uniform tonight and don't kiss a nurse, you have no sense of history. And no game.”
There were also the usual status updates about weekend trips, Sunday concerts, and funny things the child said.
Despite the wine, I stayed sober. I didn't disagree with the local journalist—“Bin Laden dead is a good thing”—I just knew the world wasn't much of a changed thing. Bin Laden has been a thorn in our country's side for 10 years, and it was nice to know he was gone, but there will be others, because there are always others. I simply hope he was the worst of it. In this way, and perhaps only this way, Osama bin Laden and I were in accord. He wished to be the western world's greatest enemy for the 21st century, and I sincerely hope, when the century's history is written, he's gotten that wish.
- Today's front pages via Newseum
- David Remnick on Obama vs. Osama
- Also from the New Yorker: What did Pakistan know and when did they know it?
- Via NPR: The Pakistani who tweeted the news without realizing it
- David Weigel on the gathering outside the White House
- ABC News footage of the bin Laden compound
- One more time: Andrew Sullivan liveblogs the news of the death of Osama bin Laden
“This Isn't Me”
Heading home from work through downtown Seattle the other day, I biked, for the first time in two weeks, up that steep hill under the Convention Center that places you near Town Hall. I usually do this hill every day, or at least every weekday, but a few weeks ago we'd had some snow and I don't bike in snow; then I caught the crud that knocked Patricia for a loop at Oscar time and was knocked for a loop myself for about a week. So I was not only out of practice, but, thanks to the lingering cold in my chest, out of breath. I'm sure my face exhibited strain. And near the top I caught sight of a pedestrian looking at me and smiling.
We tend to project our feelings onto the world, so I assumed she was smiling at the strain I was exhibiting. I assumed the smile was slightly disparaging. And I thought the following in response:
“This isn't me.”
I'm usually better than this. I usually make it up this hill a little more quickly and a little less out of breath. Come back in two weeks. You'll see.
Even as I thought that phrase I knew it was only partially true. I also knew it wasn't my phrase. I associate it with a friend's mom, 88 now, who often held forth at parties, martini in one hand, cigarette in the other. I knew her as fiercely independent, a voracious reader, a lifelong Republican who turned against the party when George W. Bush began his shenanigans. But life closes in. Macular degeneration took away much of her eyesight, and thus her beloved books, and thus a great aspect of her independence. She has balance issues now. She falls a lot. She's confused by the telephone. Last year, at a family gathering, she motioned me close, and, holding onto me with the strong grip of the elderly, told me the following in relation to almost nothing going on:
“This isn't me.”
In Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Slaughterhouse Five,” Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, is captured by an alien race, the Tralfamadorians, who have a different perception of time. They see it as we might see a mountain range. They look at a being and see all the various beings it's ever been—all the limbs and eyes and mouths and all the different heights and weights.
It's Vonnegut's most famous novel but I read it late, after most of the others, about 25 years ago when I was in the midst of pining for a recently ended relationship. At the time, the notion of time as a mountain range gave me comfort. If it were so, the relationship that I wished hadn't ended, hadn't ended, the way the peak of a mountain still existed. You just looked over there. See it? Why would you feel sad, or cry, over that mountain peak. It's right there.
Someday I would like to live into the wisdom of that view of life and time; but I know me, this constantly changing me, all too well.
Frontier Airlines: New Babysitters Club
Do airlines no longer handle suits? I mean the clothing kind. Just last May, on a Delta flight from Seattle to Minneapolis, the flight attendants took care of my suit—hung it in a closet—but this past week, flying to a memorial service in Minneapolis, both US Airways (to) and Frontier (from) had nothing for me. “You can lay it on top of the suitcases in the overhead bin,” I was told. “If there's room.” On the last leg, I didn't even get this option. I was told, because I had a bag in the overhead bin, to stuff my suit under the seat in front of me.
This wrinkle, so to speak, fits the way airlines increasingly treat customers: as children rather than suit-wearing adults. The Frontier flight attendants in particular, on both legs of the journey, had a kind of hectoring, head-shaking attitude toward its customers. Listen people, keep moving. Stay in your seat. Hey! I said stay in your seat, young man!
Admittedly we're an unruly crew in this country. Admittedly it's a tough, cramped job. But is it necessary to resort to the methods of the worst babysitters? We were given a single chocolate-chip cookie and essentially put in front of the TV set. Each seat, on that final leg of the journey, came equipped with a TV screen, which you could dim into nonexistence, but which few people did. Thus everywhere you looked: a multitude of screens watching a multitude of shows. I know Louis CK has mocked modern complaints; but that last leg of the journey, stuck on the Denver runway for an hour before takeoff (de-icing), with a baby wailing and 180 people channel-flipping and landing on crap, well, it felt like a new circle of hell.
My own fault. The book I brought (“Freedom”) was digital, on an iPad, and had to be powered down for the hour we were on the runway. I'm sure my report card would've read poorly: “Erik tried to read while we were on the runway and he refused to watch TV. Plus he brought a suit along. But he did eat his cookie.”
Finally makes sense why they keep showing us how to use a seatbelt.
Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.