Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Valentine

My wife Nikki and I have been together since we were kids and grew up together into the people we are today. I am certain that Nikki would have become the strong, inspiring person, teacher, mother, and artist that she is today in my absence. I try not to worry about what kind of cad I would have ended up being without her and instead count my blessings.

Below is an excerpt from a chapter of my forthcoming book, Put Away Childish Things.

Happy Valentines Day.

A handful of months earlier I met Nikki Page, now my wife, who is neck and neck with John for the most morally serious person that I had ever met. I met her sitting with a mutual friend in a student lounge. She was wearing a kelly-green polyester wind breaker, a white t-shirt, blue corduroy pants, and Converse All Stars. I was wearing a kelly-green polyester wind breaker, a white t-shirt, blue corduroy pants, and Converse All Stars. She was small and athletic with choppy, crazily pinned short brown hair, a wicked jaw, a button nose, light blue eyes, and an exceptionally large chip on her shoulder. “So I heard about you . . .,” she said. She had started at St. John’s a year before me and was in the midst of a year off following her freshman year. She was living in the Maine woods at her mother’s house while substitute teaching at the local public school. With a faint drop in her r’s, she explained her place of origin, “Its not the Maine where you went on vacation with your family. I hate it when I tell people I’m from Maine and they say, ‘I love it there. I go to Booth Bay every year.’ I live in the Maine where people don’t go on vacation. Ever read the book The Beans of Egypt Maine? Anyway, that’s my town. Trailers, pregnant teenagers. and pine trees. My dad was a drug dealer and his best friend down the mountain was hiding from the law for killing someone in a bank robbery and blowing up buildings. Not ‘Vacationland.’”

I had never been on vacation to Maine but was fixing to after that diatribe. I saw her again before she went home to Maine and we sat and talked for hours. I asked her why she had taken a year off of school and she told me matter-of-factly, “My sister Meg died right before I started my first year. I wanted to get the fuck out of Maine so I came anyway and thought I could handle it. But then, that year, my friend committed suicide. He walked deep into the woods in Maine and shot himself in the stomach with a shotgun, bleeding and in pain until he died. He wanted to feel something. It brought everything back about Meg’s death and I needed some time to deal.”

When she was back in Maine, we started exchanging letters and talking incessantly on the phone. I told her everything I could about myself, about how I was a drug dealer until the bust less than two years earlier, about my mean cop stepfather, my dad’s dogging around with women, my own dogging around. A few years older than me, she was also more than a couple of steps ahead of me and was deeply unimpressed – and called me out on it – when I took a bragging tone about dissolute youth or unhappy childhood. And besides, the things she told me about her own life – the things she had seen - made me feel like I had been raised in Paradise by angels. She beatings that she had witnessed her father, a drug addicted Vietnam vet, inflict on her mother. How, as a really little girl, she would try to intervene only to have the violence turn against her at the hands of both her father and the mother who she had tried to save. About how she and Meg, a couple of years apart, really only had each other and how, with Meg’s death, she had lost the only witness to the nightmare that unfolded daily in her life until her parents got clean when she was in middle school.

She wasn’t bragging that she was badass who had lived through all of this and gotten herself to college from nowhere, with no support, despite a childhood that was so ceaselessly violent. So when she said, “If I had been a boy, I would have ended up a killer,” she was just saying something that struck as her as true like if one of the other kids at our school said, “I come from a long line of attorneys.” As I got to know her better, I began to see that she wore all of this awfulness on her sleeve so no one would have any reason to be scared off down the line. She was letting me know, telling me, like she told everyone, I am not like the other kids at this college and if you cannot deal with that it’s not my problem. Like someone telling you everything that could possibly go wrong with the car he was selling so that you couldn’t come back afterwards and complain.

The more she told me about all that was wrong with her life, the more perfect I thought she was. And I could see that she wasn’t at all attracted to the eighteen year old who was impressed with himself for selling drugs in New York City, getting in trouble with the law, smoking dust in the bathrooms at clubs – which, though ambivalent, I sometimes was. She was attracted to the kid who was struggling to turn the corner, to figure out what was right with whatever little scraps were around.

I made my first trip to Maine a month or so later. For me, we were flawed, beautiful, desperate. Nikki brought urgency to my desire to my desire to be a better person. I wanted everything that had ever happened to her, every sadness that she had ever felt, every terrible thing that she wished she could forget to be vindicated by the fact that we had found each other, that we were perfect together. She wanted to take things slowly, to become friends, and for me to watch her cat, Bitch, while she taught high school students at University of Virginia to earn money before returning to college in the fall.

In the early days of sophomore year, when our romance was still very new, we trudge through the Bible in class, I averred to the truth of the preacher in Ecclesiastes – “Better is he, than both they, which hath not been, who hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun” – and listened compulsively to Bach’s depiction of Christ’s death march in the St. Matthew Passion. When Pontius Pilate offered the people a way out, after Christ’s betrayal, and allowed them to either pardon Christ or Barabas, I was horrified but unsurprised when Bach’s chorus responded Barabas in dark, discordant cries. After clarifying my views over long conversation with Nikki, I argued stridently in class that we were the rotten chorus, the thieves crucified with Christ, the Pharisees. On a trip to Washington D.C., in the Northwest mansion of a friend’s godfather, a man who walked through the National Gallery to get ideas for art that he might buy for his home, I argued these points with the powerbroker: “Life is vanity and wickedness and those things that we gather around ourselves are dust. Given the chance, we will do wrong. We even killed Christ.” He was unusually patient but countered that there were earthly goods to be done, people to feed, medicines to invent to save lives, beauty, love. I countered that there was no altruism, only selfishness, but just could not argue against beauty or love, with these so vivid in my life at St. John’s. Instead, he showed me a large Greek urn in his parlor as an example of such transcendence.

During the next three years at St. John’s, Nikki and I read the books together, trying to figure what they said about the world and how we should live our lives. Aside from negative examples, she hadn’t been given any guidance on that front and I had rejected, not bothered listening to, or was incapable of following whatever moral education I had been offered to date.

Nikki and I had to St. John’s with the same fundamental question: How could there be so much misery in a world which had either God or some other central force at its center? For both of us this question was personal. But Nikki need some cosmic order to make sense of her life. She had seen things that shook her. She had been awoken as an eighteen year old by a phone call from her father who mistook her for her sister and explained that Nikki had been in a fatal wreck, believing falsely his daughter on the phone was the daughter who had made off with Nikki’s car hours earlier without telling anyone. She had been raised in a home where, until she was twelve, her parents were so consistently drunk, high, and violent to one another and their children that she still cannot understand why no one ever put a stop to it, took them from this daily nightmare, stopped the beatings, the hunger, the terror. So when Nikki read about Job’s needless suffering in the Old Testament, puzzled through Kierkegaard’s meditation on God’s directive to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, or pondered Roskolinikov’s murder of his innocent neighbor in Dosteyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, her concerns were not merely academic but were instead primarily personal. Why do people do evil things? Why does God tolerate, indeed promote, what can only be characterized as cruelty? On the other hand, especially with Nikki, because of her approval, I felt a gathering sense of goodness inside me, a stamp of decency amidst all of my corruption. Why, otherwise, would she love me? So my questions were framed somewhat differently focusing instead on the possibility of divinity within the hearts of grievously flawed. Is there a possibility for atonement for Judas, like there was for one of the thieves crucified with Christ, like there is for all of us, all sinners? Is there any possibility that we can ever discern what is right when we are so weighed down by the flesh and sin, when we allow ourselves to be so easily fooled about what is right and wrong to satisfy our interests and passions?

While translating passages by Blaise Pascal, the gloomy French philosopher and mathematician, in a language tutorial, I wrote an analysis for class that typified the struggle that I saw everywhere:

The weight of Hell and Sin seem to weigh heavily upon the shoulders of man. Romans 3:23 offers and explanation, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Blaise Pascal, in his Pensees, seems to live with this. He lives with it, not as a simple thought, but as a condition. All too aware, he seems, of his sins, the sins of others, and of the vast distance between himself and his creator, God. Pascal describes man in the following manner, “Dependence, desire for independence, needs.” Pascal sees the fulfillment of independence and the negation of need and dependence as being the sole motivations for man’s actions. Unfortunately, the state of dependence and need coupled with a desire for independence will necessary lead man into folly.

Unsurprisingly, really wanting answers for these questions was not sufficient to bring one about and we were left to, and remain, struggling with the problem of evil and how to live our lives. But we made some progress and especially during Nikki’s reading of Dostoeyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, she was came up with a description of man that integrated all of our worries but expressed some of our optimism, our hope that the world had some good in it.

The Brothers Karamazov is a vast and sprawling story about Karamazov family. The eponymous brothers are Alyosha, a young, na├»ve man set on becoming a monk, Ivan, the middle child, a hyper-rational atheist, and Dmitri, the oldest brother, a dissolute pleasure seeker who hedonism matches that of the family patriarch, Fyodor, their father. Along the course of the book, we see Alyosha disappointed that the divine corpse of his role model monk stinks upon decomposition like everyone else’s, we hear Ivan spin a tale of Christ’s subsequent persecution at the hands of the Fifteenth Century Spanish Grand Inquisitor who felt that Christ’s actually presence was problematic for his brand of Christianity, and we see Dmitri’s trial for killing his father, the central drama of the book.

Nikki was found of characterizing the book as an existential “who-dunnit” novel. Boiling it all down, she would explain, “A murder is committed, and one person is found guilty, but that’s not the who-dunnit. The who-dunnit is all of us. We are all guilty of the crime. Why? Because we are all criminals – every single one of us. But guess what, we are also all beautiful, like Alyosha’s beloved Zosima, who is good but not perfect. We all have some stink on us.”

Trusting Nikki’s superior moral judgment, seeing the truth of her analysis, I adopted it as my own. From then on, whenever I heard about people who were “evil”, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, right wing terrorist Timothy McVeigh, or who were so very good, I’d think of Nikki’s edict and shake my head. Still, I thought of her as good, so good, and still had some clear reservations about myself. To add to the drama – and the confusion of being twenty-one years old - I persisted on thinking of us in a grandiose manner, as some combination of Bonnie and Clyde, Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra, Christ and Mary Magdelene (with the genders reversed). We are partners in crime. We travel together on a spiritual and intellectual quest. We are doomed but strong and beautiful. And, of course, despite everything, you are perfect and I am so very deeply flawed.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

America's Team

Two weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints played the Minnesota Vikings for the National Football Conference Championship. My wife and I couldn’t watch the game alone – we didn’t want to bear the burden of defeat or experience the thrill of victory alone. Near kickoff, we drove the city’s streets just before the game started and they were eerily void of people just as I remembered them when I returned to the city days after Hurricane Katrina struck. We arrived at the uptown home of some friends, just blocks from quarterback Drew Brees’s home, and nervously ate the food and drink of this town. Our host had made a pot of gumbo, using a chicken he had fried and a dark roux. I separated yolks from egg whites, poured in gin, heavy cream, simple syrup, and orange flower water into my cocktail shaker and shook like crazy for a full minute to confect a round of Ramos gin fizzes, a drink invented in New Orleans more than a century ago. Despite our efforts, things looked grim in the fourth quarter. With the score tied and very little time on the clock, the Vikings had the ball, were in field goal range, and could take the game with a decent field goal kick. But we sipped our fizzes for good luck and a flag was thrown against the Vikings for something called “twelve men in a huddle,” an unlikely mishap for the polished team, driving the Vikings back beyond field goal range, which forced overtime, where the Saints won possession on the coin toss and took the game with a field goal.

We ran out onto the streets and our cries of “Who Dat!” – the cry of the Saints fan - were answered back with who dats from neighbors engaged in their own celebrations. We drove home through streets rich and poor that were now filled with revelers spilling out of bars or screaming from their front porches. We honked at cars, families, and jovial street mobs to share our joy. When we got home, the honking, yelling, and fireworks (or were they gunshots?) were audible for hours. The New Orleans Saints had defied expectations and were going to the Super Bowl for the first time ever.

The winning field goal occurred in New Orleans’s emblematic Superdome, a giant concrete spaceship that landed in New Orleans' business district a few decades ago and which had been, up until Hurricane Katrina, principally indentified as the home field of the hapless Aints, as the Saints were known during their early history of defeat and disappointment. The city of New Orleans has, as observed recently in the New York Times, been in a simultaneous struggle since the team’s inception. It lost two hundred thousand residents during the team’s first four decades, huge areas of the city were surrendered to blight and crime, the city lost almost all of its big businesses, and racial divides cleaved the city’s residents and divided the mostly black city from its mostly white suburbs. And this was all before Hurricane Katrina when the Superdome became the site of one of America’s biggest failures when desperate, mostly black citizens, abandoned in a city which had succumbed to catastrophic flooding, due more to poorly maintained and engineered levees and infrastructure than to the storm’s might, gathered for the world to see. Rumors of murders and rapes among the masses in the Superdome circulated quickly. By the time FEMA and the National Guard arrived and evacuated the entire city, the Superdome was no longer a sports field, it was a memorial to America’s persistent failure to address racial inequality, human misery and civic collapse.

I have beat this drum for almost five years since the storm, trying to tell anyone who will listen that the things that they saw after Hurricane Katrina, the things that disgusted and disappointed them, were not created by but were exposed by the storm and that similar ugliness existed not far from their homes, in forgotten cities from Richmond, California to Camden, New Jersey, and everywhere in between. And I still insist that New Orleans’ recovery is a bellwether for American Democracy and, as New Orleans goes – good or bad – so goes the country. All of this is why it is difficult for me to say that a winning field goal kick in a football game has changed things at all. But it has. The kick brought the citizens of this city and region together in a way that the common experience of displacement and loss following Hurricane Katrina had failed to do.

Whether you are listening to the black talk radio station, WBOK, where hosts are apoplectic about the possibility of the election of a white mayor, as seems likely, or WWL radio, whose white flight listeners seem to never tire of calling in to disparage the city, everyone comes together about The Saints. The Times Picayune, where the politics of the “white vote” and the “black vote” have been written about a lot recently, ran the headline, “New Orleans Saints fans build color-blind bonds in Who Dat Nation,” with the lede,

In a place where music and food can break down racial barriers but true dialogue between the groups is rare, nearly universal joy over the Saints' newfound success has created a new common language and solidified a shared identity.

The entire region coalesced this week in mass, populist, anti-corporate mania when the NFL tried to claim that “Who Dat” was the intellectual property and registered trademark of the NFL and threatened several New Orleans retailers who sold Who Dat merchandise. After receiving nothing but bad press and condemnation, summed up by a smart blogger’s exclamation, in perfect French, “Hey NFL, Bleaux Me,” the NFL backed down and local t-shirt shops sold out of anything with the word “Who Dat” on it.

Hurricane Katrina exposed our deepest divides and the “recovery,” such as it is, has in many ways only heightened the balkanization of this town and region. Things are not “better” here. The murder rate remains out of control, the city’s coffers are empty, the levees remain questionable, the wetlands that buffer the city from hurricanes are deteriorating, and the viability of many of the city’s neighborhoods is very much in doubt. But The Saints have, at least momentarily, brought us together and given people a sense of common purpose.

After the game, on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or whenever the postgame celebration or sad hangover of loss ends, we all know that the city and region will still be laden down with problems and animosities. But on Sunday, the streets of New Orleans will empty again and people will huddle around televisions in the company of fellow Saints fans, people of all stripes including old school Who Dats and recent convert New Dats, like my wife and me. Our team, like our city and its people, are the underdogs in the game. So we will eat gumbo and hope. And if we are lucky, if we get another good coin toss after all of the bad ones for so many years, we will drive home again watching strangers hug in the streets, seeing everyone joyous and together, without regard for the usual divides, and the city can shake off some small part of what it struggles with and what has so fractured it. As with all the tragedy here, if some measure of unity and recovery can happen in New Orleans, it’s possible anywhere in this country

So forget the Cowboys, these Aints turned Saints are America’s team. Root for them and root for yourselves.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

'N Things

Nikki told me this morning that my old nemesis, Linen 'n Things, had gone out of business. Does this not prove, once and for all, that "'n Things" has no place in retail. ("And things" would be bad enough.) Now if we can rid Maine of stores names "Mainely . . ." (Mainely Hair, with its double play on words, being the worst offender), my work will be done.