Friday, September 29, 2006

Moving violations

It occurred to me the other day, as yet another Range Rover (or was it an Expedition?) breezed through yet another four way intersection, that there must be a new traffic law in force on Nantucket. The idea of this one is simple: any vehicle whose MSRP exceeds forty thousand dollars can ignore all traffic laws. It explains a lot – The BMW SUV roaring through the cross walk scattering dogs and children in its wake while bemused rent-a-cops look on; The Lexus SUV casually double parked, blocking the street for half an hour at a time; the Mercedes SUV cruising the wrong way on orange Street, ignoring the screams of pedestrians and the horns of other drivers (How could they be expected to hear anything over the twelve speaker sound system blaring out I Did It My Way into the climate controlled leather interior?)

At first I didn’t think much of the new rules; they were roughly comparable to our new legal system where the litigant with the most money wins the case. But recent developments in the larger world have given a sinister connotation to the antics of our Humvee and Suburban owners. A number of the corporate criminals responsible for the collapse of trust in the stock market, bandits who sold out their worthless stocks and escaped the economic catastrophes that followed, leaving their shareholders and workers to face ruin and bankruptcy, own houses right here on Nantucket. Many of them are driving the gas gulping behemoths that wreak terror and havoc on our narrow roads. It makes sense. The same attitude of entitlement and superiority, of oblivious greed and patrician contempt for the lower classes, inform both the corporate behavior and the driving habits of the nouveau royal. Despoil the retirement hopes of a whole generation? Force a moped off Hummock Pond Road? Who cares - as long as you exercised your stock options in time and you get to Bartlett’s before the cilantro runs out.

My private fantasy is that some disgruntled cop who has just watched his 401 k retirement fund disappear will pull over one of these trophy cars with the “I got mine - up yours” bumper sticker and do some vigilante economic re-education. Until then – put your money under a mattress and look both ways when you cross the street.

9/11, Five Years Later

I wrote this as a letter to my local newspaper, on the day after the attacks. I was furious and slightly unhinged at that moment. The local red-neck bigots all loved the letter; my friends hated it. I wrote another letter in the next's week's paper addressing that anger. It was meant partly as a gesture of concilliation, but mostly to enlarge, qualify and examine what I had been feeling in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The sentiments in the first letter are raw and harsh; those in the second are more considered and complex. I stand by them both. It was a situation where almost any response seemed valid. Unfortunately, the events of the last five years have rendered the optimism of the second letter poignantly naieve.

The first letter -- dated 9/12/01

I don't know what this makes anyone else feel, but I'll tell you what I'm feeling tonight: sheer red-eyed rage and fury. The amputation of the World Trade Center, the violation of my home town, the sheer senseless, blood and cant-soaked religion fuelled hatred of the act make me feel about the whole world of Islam what they have been feeling about us for decades. They want a religious war? I say give it to them. I say let them find out what happens when they awaken this sleeping giant. I say carpet bomb the whole middle east -- every one of those countries, with all the innocent people in them. This has to be a calamity for them, an act of God, a typhoon, a tidal wave, a rain of toads. They have to learn that they cannot let their lunatic fringe declare war on the most powerful country in the world because if they do we will reach over and crush them like the puny desert bugs they are.
What no American politician has ever understood is that you cannot fight these people in a civilized way. Jimmy Carter never grasped this. He tried to negotiate with a culturally institutionalized mass psychosis. He talked about the energy crisis as the 'moral equivalent of war' and then failed to notice when the real thing actually happened. Iran declared war on us, and we refused to fight it. That sent the terrorists a message they've never forgotten. George Bush Senior only made things worse when he refused to deal decisively with Saddam Hussein. And the same thing is happening again.
George W. is talking about 'hunting down' and 'punishing' the perpetrators. This is just bombastic noise: The ones who committed the act are dead. The ones who gave the orders are impossible to hunt down. It's like finding the one mosquito with the West Nile virus. You don't capture a million mosquitos and give them each a blood test -- you wipe out ALL MOSQUITOS .. or at least you do the best you can. You spray. That's what we have to do.
The sad fact is there's no middle ground between the pathetic nothing of the President’s rhetorical outrage and the ruthless everything of total war. To fight terrorism effectively, innocent people will have to be killed. Beautiful historical sites will have to be destroyed. A whole sick culture will have to go down in flames. It's our God against their God, and Jesus can warm the bench on this play, folks. Because we need the Old Testament God now. We need someone in the White House with the guts to enact the towering rage that is exploding in the American people tonight. If Bush and his geriatric cold warriors can't do it, I volunteer.
It wouldn't cause world war III -- Putin is ready to fight and that's one thing the Russians are good at. If there is a World War III, it will be the whole civilized world united to wipe out this insane cancerous society which has been mestastacising for a thousand years. And we can take out the Taliban while we're at it, and take over the Saudi Oil fields, too.u Those towel-heads have been robbing us blind for decades.

The thing that really broke my heart was watching those towers collapse. I know that the actual crash was the true tragedy; the explosion killed the people. But the utter destruction of the buildings just levelled me. It was like ... the terrorist killed your lover, but before that he yanked out her two front teeth. The death is horrible, but the brutalization and disfigurement is worse somehow. That's the thing that gives you the rage to kill in your turn. And I'm in a killing mood tonight. I just wish our President felt the same way.

The second letter, dated 9/19/01

Several people have told me they thought last weeks’ letter in the Inquirer and Mirror was “insane.” They couldn’t believe I was advocating unilateral military attacks against civilian targets in the middle East. Perhaps I was insane when I wrote those things. But to take a reasonable position on the most appalling attack on our country since the war of 1812 at that moment, before the dust from the ruined towers had even settled on lower Manhattan … that would have been a different kind of insanity. Obviously, I have nothing to do with making military policy in this country. That gives me the luxury to vent my feelings. We all expected Colin Powell and the President to be more measured and – gratefully – they were . But in raving at this murderous outrage I was also trying to articulate feelings that many people shared. My hope was that seeing those raw emotions clearly stated in print might allow others a moment of relief – and a sense of perspective. An aggressive “Right on!” followed by a flinch reaction of “Oh no.”, hate and horror separate but profoundly connected – the lightning flash of bloodlust; and then the slow thunder of rational thought.
I could have written a letter with the opposite viewpoint the next day, and twenty others in the days since. Like everyone else I know, I have felt every possible emotion from helplessness and fear and guilt to the indignation and anger I described last week. The situation is too large and evil and unprecedented for any single reaction, and no one would want the snap-shot of one instant’s emotion to stand as a permanent record of their grief. Even the media, with their relentless ability to hype and exploit and over-dramatize any event, have been outstripped by the reality here.
The tactics I suggested were impractical as well as draconian. We need to find the actual culprits; killing thousands of innocent people in senseless bombing raids would please the terrorists more than anything else we could do. They would love to see us reduced to their level of bloody-toothed grinning barbarism; and even more than that, they would love to see us diminished in the eyes of the world. Because the fact is that we hold the moral high ground against them, for the first time in decades. Even Yassir Arafat is on our side. We have the chance to literally unite the entire globe in a confederation unparalleled in history and unimaginable before the eleventh of September. There might even be greater benefits to be gotten from this alliance than the eradication of terrorism.
Looking up from the smoking rubble of an insane act of war, we can see – if we’re willing to squint through the smoke – the astonishing possibility of a world at peace.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Old Friends and Ordinary Shoes

It's strange to think of Paul Simon as sixty four years old; no doubt it will be
even more 'terribly strange' to be seventy. I trail him by ten years, leading a far less accomplished life. But the two lives do seem to intersect from time to time. The most critical occasion happened fourteen years ago, as I was lurching through the first months of an ugly divorce. There's a line from Maugham's THE CONSTANT WIFE, where the heroine comments that she and her husband had a lucky marriage because they happened to fall out of love with each other at exactly the same moment.

I had no such luck. I was unceremoniously dumped and it took a while to appreciate my good fortune. At first I was miserable. I experienced authentic insomnia for the only time in my life during those cold autumn nights. Reading didn't help; talking to people didn't help (I was talked out and they were bored senseless by the same old primal whimper). TV grated on me. I tried long walks but the small island where I live seemed more than deserted on a midnight in November. It had an interrupted, concluded quality -- a town after the evacuation, but before the bombs start falling. The silence felt like a preview of annihilation; or maybe it was just my mood.

The only thing that helped was the moment when the guitars and drums kicked in on DIAMONDS ON THE SOLES OF HER SHOES. Some reviewer said that the song 'lilted to the stars' and I couldn't agree more. The charge of sheer energy and joy as that song took off never failed to quiet my jangling nerves and release my clenched spirit. By the time the time the characters in the song were 'sleeping in a doorway /by the bodegas and the lights of upper Broadway', I was fast asleep, also.

I often speculated about what the song might mean. Paul Simon said in numerous interviews that he wasn't sure himself and in any case, lyrics were less important than the 'track' -- the beat and the melody. That may be; certainly this song makes a stirring case for the primacy of rhythm and music over the word. But I couldn't help pondering it anyway, and it occurred to me one morning after a startlingly good night's sleep, that the diamonds represented a state of grace, an incalculable wealth that didn't need to be flaunted, that turned walking into a mystery and made a kind of secret society out of everyone who understood that sorrow is incidental and joy is within your grasp.

I still feel that way when I hear the song -- despite my ordinary shoes -- remembering how it floated me over a shallow patch by a rocky shore during the lowest tide of my life.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Another Rite of Passage

My son went off to college yesterday. I left him at the airport feeling proud but lonely and oddly bereft. Obsolete; but as my Mother often points out, that should be any parent's ultimate goal. It made me think of something I wrote on the day he graduated from high school, which is worth posting here for the record:

My son Nick graduated from high school today, and I was stunned by the ambush of emotion. For years it seems I’ve known every possible sentiment ahead of time, shrugging as they trundled towards me: this is going to make me angry, that will be fun; whatever. But this came at me from too many directions at once. It was strange and troubling to have a feeling I couldn’t identify.

I grasped just bits and pieces of it at first. I felt a tug of genuine suspense when Nick was crossing the stage to pick up his diploma … as if something might happen to screw it up, as if the diploma itself might be blank. I know other people felt the same way: I made the joke with a few of the parents I knew, and saw the nervous smile of recognition on their faces. Then came the relief. It was over, we did it, he made it.

I called my ex-wife and we talked for a while. Later, I said to my Mom, “No one else knows what this feels like.” And she said, “What about me? I’ve been through it, too.” We hugged and I found that I was crying. She said: “For twenty years you’ve been putting yourself last; now you can finally put yourself first. You can finally do what you want. But what is that?” And I really had no idea. But I feel like some huge changes could begin now; as if I had graduated, not Nick.

But even that isn’t all. Nick’s graduation unplugs me from a whole community that I didn’t even know I cared about. I wasn’t really part of it, in any big way: I didn’t volunteer, or chaperone or substitute teach. But I knew these kids, and through them their parents and through those families the real life of the island I lived on and the town that had somehow, almost against my will, become my home. Now that living connection is gone, too. The next bunch of kids will be strangers to me; the next crazy teacher won’t be my problem. So this rite of passage isolates me. It makes me feel my age. I finished my fiftieth year, my first real novel and my children’s high school careers all in the same week. That’s a lot of endings.

At the senior ball a few days ago I looked around at the kids dancing and felt so much like one of them. My own delirious prom – on a different continent, almost a third of the way back into an earlier century, in a long-extinct world of bell-bottoms and LBJ - was so close it seemed like it was still happening. Then I looked around at the baggy, graying adults jostled by the vivid pulsing life around them, shaking their heads and taking pictures … and I realized with a thud, it was actually as if I had dropped something, that I was one of them: I was just another beloved but marginal Dad, too old to matter at that moment, on my way out, letting them have the night to themselves.

It had happened at last: they were all grown up.

It was disorienting: something huge and minutely detailed, a whole world, really, had disappeared in an instant. The secret core of my identity had become a technicality. Of course I’m still a parent and always will be. But my job is complete. This is the moment we were striving for. And I’m happy about it, just like I’m supposed to be. Still, the sadness under that triumph is all around me, pervasive as the weather. This moment feels like a picnic in the rain, and it’s raining hard on Nantucket today, in the middle of the wettest late spring on record. Despite the joy, I feel displaced, like an executive forced into early retirement, but given a seat on the Board. My status may be the same, but my daily life will be permanently diminished.

My brother Peter came to Nantucket for the graduation, and he walked into the house with a bag of groceries a few minutes ago. Mom stood up as he came in – cutting me off in the middle of a sentence. I asked her, “Why did you get up?” She said, “I thought Peter needed help.” He just looked at her with a patient baffled smile (he has no children). He said, “I’m fine Mom,” and started unpacking the food. She sat down again, and I said, “I guess that’s a look I’m going to have to start getting used to.”
She nodded a little sadly. “Yes,” she said. “But you never will.”