So yesterday I set up — for the first time in about 20 years, before a CD player arrived in my house — a record player. I was so excited. I would introduce my daughter to all the songs I used to love. It would become a new tradition: listening to records Mom loved in the living room. As it happens, my daughter enjoys music; she even makes it herself. I was not disappointed. She liked my records. For a few glorious minutes — and I hope unobserved — we were both doing the twist in the living room. As we were twisting vigorously to music recorded before I was born, I felt especially young. Just one more song! I begged. You have to hear this!
I knew better than to expect her to love the Smithsonian collection of early American ballads like I did when I was twenty-five, but to hear Mavis Staples sing ‘I’ll Take You There’ for the first time on a record, with the crackling that sounds like applause before the song, the crackling that introduces any record and makes you hold your breath before the music — and to see my daughter break into the smile I have loved since I first saw it on her — this kind of joy, I knew, would be worth all the heartache or existential perplexity that ever filled the hours’ of listening to the records, or the time in between. I kept twisting. The more I twisted, the younger I felt. Lulled by the some kind of powerful nostalgic euphoria, I kept yanking records out of their jackets to play one song. But people, I was living on borrowed youth. My daughter had homework to do.
I’m having fun and I don’t want this to end. So naturally I’m thinking: tomorrow I can listen to my heart’s content. I can play my favorite records while sifting through my ski-hill of mail. I can play my favorite songs while cleaning the refrigerator! But the pairing did not work. For whatever reason, hearing them made me sad. Most of the records and more of my favorite songs were scratched. I realized that neither they nor I were as young as I was imagining us to be. Some songs I had to admit I had already heard enough for one lifetime, if not two. I felt like a piece of warped cardboard.
I wanted nothing more than to helicopter myself to therapy, and keep the kleenex box close. I tried to console myself, for which the sound of wind in the trees was better than anything. I was here. I am here. Before this moment I loved my life with some kind of crazy passion. And now, four minutes before my daughter is likely to walk through the door, our living room floor is littered with records and the whole experience was kind of surreal, like bringing home a baby and realizing: there’s a baby in the house, and now it’s crying.
But you can always twist.
Yesterday my daughter and I were catching dinner on the fly at a new franchise which was different from other pseudo-Mexican franchises in the scale of its logo (larger, much larger and flatter; colors bolder and more dated), the size of the chunks of meat slapped into the bowl of rice and beans (smaller, much smaller) and that like a sports bar it had two (big, really big) TVs propped up in each corner so we were kept company by the evening news. Does not everyone watch the news? Should not everyone watch the news? The TVs presented the unfolding of the latest small-scale American massacre, which – sadly, viewed from this angle – felt like a bad franchise: imitative, poorly conceived, repetitive and dreary.
We did not used to have shootings like this, I said to my daughter. What do you mean? she asked. I mean, people used to shoot but not so many people at a time. You mean, like, one at a time? she asked in wonder, as if she were hearing about knights jousting, hoop skirts, or people gathering in the parlor to listen to the radio. Yes, one at a time, and not all that often, I said. We were watching the line of small children step carefully away from the school, hands on each others’ shoulders, led by teachers as if they were on a field trip crossing a busy street except that their eyes were closed. Against my will I found myself reading the crawl: a parent wondering if her two children who had escaped murder while witnessing their classmates killed could be in shock. Really? In unison my daughter and I picked up our trays and tossed our plastic bowls into the trash. Those were the instructions. The tortilla chips were thin, brittle and overly salted; they gave them to you, like they gave you the news, whether you wanted them or not. The décor was cheap. The lights were brash. Everything, even life, felt cheap under these lights. The people were nice, said my daughter. She did not mention the news. Yes, I said, they were nice. My daughter is used to this. My daughter, who would weep at the sight of a possum crushed by a car, is used to this.
Now, schools are enlisting workbooks written by psychologists to help children understand how to cope with living in a world where violence often surprises us. They talk about how adults can help children to feel safe. Really?
How do we explain to children that it is OK for people in certain costumes to visit certain places and attack people wearing other costumes who may be children, parents or grandparents; that your President is endorsing and your parents are paying for this whether gladly or reluctantly; that — risking I may sound prim — in the realm of entertainment it is OK to imagine, construct, fund, direct, produce, distribute, show, sell and watch spectacles of people wearing matching and non-matching costumes, slinging assault rifles and attacking other people wearing matching and non-matching costumes – that the TV stations and your parents are funding this; but that it is NOT OK for people to visit certain other places with real weapons and open real fire on real people? That is a lot to ask of parents and their children. It could take all day.
The reality of it, the particular wrenching awfulness, does not belong to the spectators. The endless presenting and commenting by newscasters, the talking about what we saw and read in the news, feels like a dismal cultural habit of poaching on the tragedy of someone else’s life. Public outrage in the wake of these events is always brief, reform is thwarted since we live in a country of such rugged individuals none can agree on what to do, and commentary is diluted to a thin stream of gossip.
The news makes it seem as if watching the news is doing something. TV makes it seem as if watching TV is doing something. If I were President I would take a page out of the pacifist book, suspend broadcasting for three months and draft a bill banning gratuitous violence. Take away violence-for-consumption, and guns would begin to seem pointless. Disable the franchise, disable the heroicizing, disable the poaching on tragedy, make violence as unglamorous as reclining in a stupor on the couch with a bag of flimsy tortilla chips and guns – like the networks that profit from stoking fear and depicting violence real and imagined, and the addled souls who take up a sorry weapon as a path to glory in the news — may have nothing to do.
America is going to be fine. I know this because I have just gone to a county fair. Tell anyone to visit the craft exhibition hall at the Berrien County Youth Fair if they have any doubt. I can give directions. Tell them to make sure and see the layer cakes and yeast breads laid out neatly by ages 8-12 and perhaps their parents in the home ec hall, or the marigolds in floral, milling around in vases on the white painted shelves like teenagers at a grange-hall dance, and wilting as it is the fourth day of the fair; make sure if they can spare the time that they stroll down and visit the fairy-size rosebushes tucked into tiny fern embankments in “miniature silk flowers, ages 9-15.” They must not miss the carrier pigeons, the speckled bantam roosters and the signs above the poultry cages written in careful script: “Thank you River Valley Custodian for buying my rabbit.” Or the book bag sewn out of John Deere fabric by the youngest sewing contestant, an eight year old boy with an eight syllable name, or the sandblasted mirror that broke in the car on the way to the fair but was entered anyway with the note “This broke on the way to the fair but I am still proud of it so I will enter it anyway.” Imagine the tears. I am pretty sure anyone who looks at this mirror will agree our country is going to make it and make it well not because of our prowess in innovation but because we still make stuff with our hands, and make it well. We are never going to stop doing this because it is part of what makes us happy. And for every cake someone baked, for every goat that got a ribbon, for every dress someone cut out and sewed, for every cactus that was placed in a dish with sand and rocks, someone had to put it in a car, drive it over, steady it, take it out and set it on a shelf, or in a crate, or behind a fence, and before that happened someone had to decide they were going to enter it in the fair, and before that happened someone had to offer to help the child do something, and that was the start of a very small dream and after that someone had to see it through, and all of that takes heart, and gives it back in spades. I never thought I would write a paean to 4-H life but people, here I am. Next year at the tail-end of summer you might find make your way over the fair to find me judging layer cakes because I believe I would be good at it and I hope you are right there with me, hanging little prize tags on the floral arrangements, or at least admiring the roses.
My grandfather used to say his best time in school was spent staring out the windows, which he said were tall like doors and thrown open to passing clouds and the alluring gossip of birds. Having placed first in the county, my grandfather quit school at 8th grade to support his widowed mother by working as a teller at the bank, and then as a soldier. A few houses over, his future wife, my grandmother-to-be was selling scissors door to door to buy medicine for her mother, who had been supporting the family by taking in mending and ironing after her husband died, until — in the melodramatic fashion of the time — she too became ill and died. At sixteen, my grandmother went to work for a milliner to support herself and her sister, and took part of her pay in hats. My grandmother was a soprano and when she wasn’t stitching hats, sometimes she sang as a soloist in a cathedral. One would think neither my grandfather nor my grandmother would have much time for dreaming. But still they dreamt. I do not mean the kind of dreaming one does at night, but the kind that happens in the day, in the absence or even in the presence of other kinds of noise, like teachers writing on the board and whirling around to see who is and isn’t listening, or hat-makers telling you to work faster: the kind of dreaming that blurs the sound of their speaking, that walks over your consciousness with silky feet, murmurs to you like a siren, and winds you up like a top. I mean the kind that makes you believe you might go places such as you have heard about in books, and see wonders that shall not be named, at least not here, the kind that happens as you are stitching a cluster of violets onto a hat and your hand is moving so fast you may prick yourself. One glorious thing after another lays itself down like a path and you walk along until you run out of thread. That is the point of dreaming. Then there comes a moment if one is living in this world that dreaming closes up shop and gives way to doing something, anything, that can be named without yearning. This is what is usually called life, is sometimes referred to as work, and is to play what east is to west. Much of it is wonderful, and most of it is forgotten. After seventy years of bending to the necessity of work and circumstance, what my grandfather remembered acutely and without regret were the moments of abandon, of looking out the window and watching the birds.
After eighty years of housekeeping, what my grandmother remembered was hitting D over high C in the vaulted church, and how it felt to make a hat with a clutch of violets, a bird of paradise and a cluster of grapes, and how its very heaviness made her feel lighter than air, walking down the street.
En route to the Paris airport a week after Bastille Day, my cab driver asked if I’d heard what happened the night before in America. No, I said, I had been enjoying our last day in Paris. I had been eating the foie gras and the chewy bread, and drinking the wine. I had been crossing the bridges, gazing at the rooftops and listening to the accordion players. I had been strolling around the city and noticing – among other things — I saw no people bent over laptops in cafes. Mostly, people were talking to one another and watching other people walk by. Stores were closed at noon for two hours while everyone ate lunch, presumably together.
Well, my driver said, there was a big shooting in America. Why do you have so many big shootings? Here we have shootings, but not like that. A person shoots one or two people, and then they stop.
That sounds so reasonable, I said. As violence goes, it sounds almost civilized.
No French people are allowed to own guns, he said. I am glad of that.
In our country we allow people to own guns so they may protect their family and property from intruders, I said. In our country we are also allowed to buy and sell enormous soft drinks.
That is not good, he said. The large drink in our McDonald’s is the small in yours. Why?
I don’t know, I said. There are many things I don’t understand about my country. Everyone is allowed to own guns and therefore many people are terrified. Everyone is allowed to eat or drink whatever they like, much of the food is unhealthy and many people are sick. And when they get sick, they must pay for it on their own. This is a lot of freedom.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has recently become notorious for taxing the sale of enormous soft drinks in his city, is now asking our presidential candidates what they will do to protect our citizens from the guns, by which they are presently outnumbered. The candidates are squirming.
Perhaps you have too much freedom, my cab driver said. I kind of wanted to tell him to turn around and take me back to Paris, but then again I like my country.
So we are about to return to our lives in America, where I will now and then worry whether to send my daughter to the cinema with her friends, about whether we both should enlist in target practice and purchase twin revolvers so as to defend ourselves from lunatics who may, on an ordinary day, waltz into our public space and open fire.
And I am wondering what the freedom to buy and sell enormous drinks and semi-automatic weapons has to do with liberty, in its strict sense. With the bemused cab driver I am wondering what freedom is worth without a sense of the whole.
for complaining about what amounted to a small bit of inconvenience at the end of a lovely trip I was lucky to take, thoroughly enjoyed, and during which I was protected from harm. I like to spread cheer. I did not mean to be cranky.
Dear Blank Airlines,
I am returning to you the unused vouchers for lunch, dinner and breakfast at the Hotel M. in Roissypole, France, issued by your company after canceling our return flight to Chicago. Thank you for treating my daughter and me to a bed and three meals at the Hotel M. We slept in the bed but did not partake of the meals. Having given us one thing we didn’t want, in the guise of compensation you gave us a few more: an offer of three meals and a day-long stay at an airport hotel, bringing the total to five unwanted things brought to us by your friendly skies.
Thank you for giving your flight attendants at CDG a slip of paper containing the email address of the PR department should I wish to offer additional feedback beyond my first response at the airport to hearing my flight was canceled, not for reasons of weather or mechanics, but – according to these same attendants — because the plane never left the ground. Thank you for giving your representative in India the same email, which he advised was the only port of call. Thank you for assuring him it would not be possible for a customer of Blank to speak to anyone by phone, but that I could address any correspondence it to the public relations department and perhaps receive a word of apology, or, like pennies tossed from a carriage window to the destitute, a couple of Blank Miles toward my next voyage.
I am not a preferred customer of your airline. I am not a Frequent Flyer or whatever is your endearment for the faithful. When you can cope with me as deftly as you handle baggage and turbulence; when you are as friendly on land as you are in the sky, then will I consider making Blank my special airline.
Until then: Have at it, Chester!
Your Bread if not your Butter