my kind of patriotism

i love it

i love it

Have you seen the most recent discharge from WalletHub? (I am NOT calling it “news.”) Apparently, according to their latest Ranking of Things That Don’t Need To Be Ranked, the #1 most patriotic state in the country is Virginia! Yay for Virginians! Clap clap clap clap. Maine is sixth, New Hampshire eighth. Well done, neighbors! New Jersey is wayyyyyy down there at 49. Oops. Coming in dead last? You guessed it: New York State! Yep, fellow Empire occupants, we are THE  least-patriotic Americans in the land.

In case you’re curious, and of course you are, the WalletHub methodology took into account military enlistments; veterans per capita (New York is 50th); Peace Corps volunteers; percentage of people who voted in the last election (46th); and volunteer rate (49th). I don’t aim to pick this apart nit by nit, but two thoughts. 1) Aren’t Peace Corps volunteers sort of, I don’t know, globally minded? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And 2) Isn’t it possible that New York boasts a lower rate of election participation because it’s home to so many recent immigrants who can’t yet vote? Who come here because they love the spirit and principles of this country and want to make themselves a part of it? Isn’t that patriotism, too?

Beyond that, the list cracks me up. When it doesn’t make me cry. I’m exaggerating; it does neither. Instead, it makes me slap my little wormy-squirmy un-American hand (which is free because it’s not waving a flag) against my pasty forehead at this simplistic definition of patriotism. Guess what, O Wise Ones at WalletHub: Just because I never enlisted in the military or fought in a war doesn’t mean I don’t love my country. And just because cranky-ass New Yorkers complain a heck of a lot more than people from other states doesn’t mean we’re not happy to be in this big, bubbling pot o’ diversity that we’re grateful to call home.

Yesterday, driving back from the Women’s World Cup in Montreal, I pulled up with my son at the border and readied our passports for inspection. Looking out at those gigantic capital letters proclaiming UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, I felt a shiver of thanksgiving.

You know, I said to my kid. You know, I love my country.

“Me, too,” he said.

As much as I complain about its screw-ups, I love it, I said. And you know why? Because here we’re ALLOWED to screw up. That’s the whole idea. We can be stupid and wrong-headed. We can make mistakes and stumble forward. That’s the beauty of it.

“Yeah. We get to vote. There are countries where people can’t. And we can say what we want about anyone, even the president.”

And not get arrested. And not get killed.

“And not get arrested. And not get killed,” he agreed.

I thought about this some more. About checks and balances, and Congress and SCOTUS, and the arguments over gay marriage and Obamacare that probably didn’t just end. Arguments never end in this country. We are, all of us, always free to get into a lather over anything we like. To speak out against injustice, however we define it. To be utter disagreeable ding-dongs. To bump the country in this direction, then that direction, then maybe the wrong direction without some patriarchal, dictatorial hand swooping in to save us. To have faith that we’ll right ourselves, sometime.

I remember my mother talking about this — the genius of America being just this openness to making a hash out of things. “Democracy is messy,” she used to say. This is what the Russians failed to realize after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This business of freedom isn’t easy.  It isn’t perfect. You can’t just shut people up. I love my country precisely because it’s as complicated, imperfect and loud-mouthed as everyone who’s lucky enough to be here.

And think about it: which state is more complicated, less perfect and louder than New York? I love my country, and I rest my case.

that’s not right

no no no bumper sticker

Not too long ago, I got into a shouting match with a guy over a racist bumper sticker. Where, I won’t say. But it happened, and it happened suddenly, and by the time it was over I felt shaken, frustrated and foam-at-the-mouth angry at the refusal of this or any person, anywhere at any time, who insists on displaying a racially loaded image that causes people pain.

I’ll confess I did most of the shouting. I started out talking, then got interrupted, then talked a little more loudly, then got interrupted again, and then I talked even more loudly, then got accused of yelling, at which point I agreed to pipe down if the guy only listened to what I was trying to say. When he replied by loudly revving the internal combustion engine he was controlling at the time, I, in turn, responded by shouting some more.

It was a futile conversation, if that’s what it was. It felt more like I was slamming my forehead against a steel wall outfitted with spikes. Nothing moved, and it hurt. My initial stab at communication began when, after seeing this bumper sticker that made my eyes bleed, I decided to pen a note of dismay and leave it on the windshield.

The sticker conveyed a message I’d seen before, on other bumpers. It was political. It was also stupid. Normally the sentiment just makes my eyes roll, not bleed. But this time, it was accompanied by a cartoon image that recalled age-old racist stereotypes going back to Stepin’ Fetchit.

I wanted to say all this in my note. What I wrote instead was this: “Your bumper sticker is an offensive racist caricature. Please remove it.”

I slipped the paper under a wiper blade and walked away. Less than a minute later, I turned back and saw the guy reading the note. He yanked his head up. Looked around. By that point, I’d already decided to walk over and talk to him.

ME (waving my hand): Excuse me, sir!

HIM (waving my note): Did you leave this note on my windshield?

ME: I did! You need to remove your bumper sticker, sir! It’s really offensive. And if I think it’s offensive, then imagine how it —

HIM: You have no right to leave a note on my windshield.

ME: — if I think it’s offensive, then what about all the black people who —

HIM: I can’t believe you left a note on my windshield.

ME: Listen to me! You’re hurting people with that! It’s the same old caricature from history that —

HIM: You’re yelling at me! And you left a note on my windshield!

ME: I’ll calm down and say this quietly, then. Please, sir. Listen to me.

HIM: Stop yelling at me!

ME (yelling at him for real): Sir! Sir! Listen! Please! It’s so offensive, and you can’t just —

HIM: A note on my windshield. You have no right. (Revving engine.) VROOOM VROOOM.

ME (still yelling at him): Please listen to me, sir!


And that was that. He VROOOMED away.

I’m not saying anything about the guy’s beliefs. I’m just talking about his bumper sticker. I know nothing else about him, unless you count his disaffection for windshield notes and shouting women. Maybe, if I’d taken a different, friendlier tack at lower volume, he might have listened. He might have questioned the picture on his bumper and realized the hurt it caused. Then he might have said, “Oh my God, that’s awful,” and removed it then and there. Maybe this was my lost opportunity to sway a mind.

And just to be clear, I wasn’t outraged by the politics on the sticker; I don’t care. The marketplace of ideas. Freedom of expression. God bless America, etc., etc. But the drawing that accompanied it offended me deeply and, I was sure, directly injured any and all African-Americans who happened to cross paths with his bumper. If my eyes were bleeding, their hearts would be, too.

I recognize that this guy has a protected Constitutional right to display such a thing. But the right doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean it’s okay in basic human terms for him or anyone to display anything, a bumper sticker or a Confederate flag, that wounds a segment of the population. Symbols matter. They have weight and meaning beyond their shapes and colors. If they didn’t, would you be reading and understanding these words of mine right now?

And what about the guy that day? Would he understand me, if he listened? If he even tried?

Maybe he’d listen to someone besides me. I hope so. Whoever it is, I hope that Someone sees the sticker and asks him to remove it.

into the crawlspace


Lately I’ve been trying to organize the attic. Emphasize “trying.” As I’ve said before, and I will say again, I am NOT the world’s neatest and most organized person, but my heart is in the right place, even if my flannel sheets and table settings are not.

In the attic, everything is even less organized than in the rest of the house, principally because I feel more empowered to be a slob there, but also because so many people have died and left me boxes and boxes and boxes of things that I have then proceeded to cram into shadowy recesses and ignore and/or contemplate and/or weep over as the mood struck. No matter how hard I try to catalog and winnow down these boxes and boxes and boxes, there always remain yet MORE boxes and boxes and boxes, which seem to reproduce and spread all over the attic floor like mating horseshoe crabs or some asexually reproducing giant fungus.

This past weekend, I began to combat the fungus. I started by squeezing my body into a horrific nasty dusty crawlspace along eaves that my late husband devised for the storage of fans in the off-season, fan boxes in the on-season, and which I had lately used to shove bags of Christmas wrapping and bins of all sorts of old and vaguely disturbing shit, including a broken electronic keyboard and my now-grown-up daughters’ naked weirdo Barbies. You know about naked weirdo Barbies, right? That’s what happens to Barbie dolls after being played with for years and years and then, through no fault of their own, suddenly abandoned: they shed all their clothes in grief and congregate in clear plastic containers for yet more years and years of silent mortification. They are the Byzantine hermits of plastic playthings.

Also shoved into that horrific nasty dusty crawlspace were several massive pieces of luggage dating from the Eisenhower Administration, probably earlier, perhaps dating to the nation’s genesis (or at least the genesis of Naugahyde), each individual piece filled with roughly four tons of my mother’s, father’s and sister’s papers. Because I, too, am a Byzantine hermit bent on mortifcation, I crawled inside, scraping my bare kneecaps as I went, and then crawled back outside, again scraping my bare kneecaps as I went, hauling each 8,000-pound bag with a mix of stubbornness and delusional conviction that I was actually accomplishing something. I scraped my kneecaps again in pursuit of the empty fan boxes, which I then crushed swiftly and mercilessly. Yay for me. I was cleaning! I was organizing! I was proud!

After dragging all the pulverized cardboard and weirdo naked Barbies to the curb on garbage night, ignoring the all the blood and pus oozing from my saintly lower limbs, I then amused myself by opening up each four-ton piece of luggage and weeping a little over some of the contents before closing it and shoving it back into the crawlspace. I then amused myself further by hauling 16 boxes of my late husband’s papers and books from the main attic storage room, weeping a little over those, too, and then shoving them into the hole with my parents’ and sister’s stuff, scraping my kneecaps as I went.

So now every piece of paper collected by my late loved ones — Mama, Daddy, Lucy, Chris — is collected in that one handy (if horrific nasty dusty) attic crawlspace along the bookshelves. I like that they’re all together there, holding fort in a corner of my house. (JUST FOR GOD’S SAKE, NO ONE ELSE DIE, OKAY?) Someday I’ll go through it all. Someday I’ll organize it. Someday I’ll make sense of everything in my life, all of the boxes, all of the luggage, all of the vaguely disturbing shit. After my kneecaps recover.



nothing and everything happens

number 16 needs a haircut

I love soccer. I played it for eight years. I LOVE SOCCER. I can’t play it any longer, because my knees are now decrepit, but I love love love it. I love it so much that one season, I think it was my sophomore year at Hamilton, both my big toenails fell off for reasons that shall remain unspoken (chiefly because I don’t remember) and I TAPED THEM BACK ON TO PLAY SOCCER. I’m not kidding. It’s really totally insane, isn’t it? Like, bonkers. I have visceral, vivid memories of sitting there in my dorm room every day with white athletic tape, binding my feet like some 12th-century Chinese lady from a Division III school in the Song Dynasty.

Now that the Women’s World Cup has started in Canada, I love soccer even more. As a Title IX-er who played the first year Hamilton fielded a women’s varsity team, I’m thilled that anyone anywhere is paying any attention at all. At the same time, I’m baffled by certain people who claim not to like the game (AND THEY KNOW WHO THEY ARE) because apparently nothing exciting happens for looooooong stretches of time, just a lot of running around by squat, fast people doing pretty things with their feet, until BOOM BOOM BOOM, something actually does happen, and then the squat, fast people jump and strut fiercely in celebration or shock for about eight seconds before they all go back to running around and doing pretty things with their feet.

I hear these sorts of complaints, which are supposed to explain for me why soccer’s so boring, and in turn I attempt to explain why this is exactly why it’s NOT boring. Why stuff is happening ALL THE TIME, because all that running around with all that pretty footwork actually constitutes stuff happening! It’s not the OPPOSITE of happening. It’s NON-STOP HAPPENING! What’s more, it’s happening so intensely and continuously and suspensefully and beautifully that those of us who like and appreciate soccer (i.e., we who use our heads to view and think, not sit on) can barely tear our eyes away, knowing that the whole thing could suddenly and ecstatically break into one of those BOOM BOOM BOOM moments that change the score.

This is why I love soccer. It feels like living. It feels as though nothing is happening when in fact everything is. Friday night’s 0-0 draw between the U.S. and Sweden, for instance — I was riveted to the screen, knowing that any given pass or feint or cross or shot might put the Americans behind or ahead. Soccer is 99 percent anticipation: There’s always the promise, the tension, the fear, that something explosive could happen on top of everything else already unfolding. And when it happens, it might change everything. It might cause shock or celebration. And then all the squat, fast people, adjusting to this new and weirdly altered reality, will regroup on the field, take a deep breath and go back to running around. Just like life.

awe, part two

yosemite, view of half dome
The mountains. The valley. The scored, striated, soaring granite cliffs. The falls crashing between them. The thinness of the air, the precipitousness of the drops, the windiness of the roads — the way you round a bend or come through a tunnel, then look up and gasp with wonder, then look down and gasp with fright. The world feels bigger in Yosemite. Older. It feels more present. Its time is eternal and immediate, because you can see those millions of years within the rock. You can feel those thousands of years inside those yawning glacial chasms.

My dad brought me and my kids on a nine-day trip to Yosemite, and I’ve already written about our first day there and my first encounter with the ancient and majestic giant (they’re not kidding!) sequoias. But it’s hard not to write about them again, because I fell in love with them, and once you’re in love, all you can do is yammer on like a ninny about your infatuation and infatuee, right? I WANT TO MARRY THOSE TREES. (No. Not literally. Go away.)

Clearly, I was gobsmacked. I continued to be gobsmacked as we explored the park, hiking and snapping pictures that I knew would fail to capture the scope and scene. We saw Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and its towering crags. Lembert Dome and its breathtaking, high-altitude, low-oxygen views of the snow-capped Sierras. Yosemite Valley and its massive bluffs and falls (El Capitan is IMMENSE). Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome, where we summitted with two friends from Fresno, and one of them, hearing me gasp at the view, turned and asked: “What do you see?”

I tried to explain it: how the mountains were different from my relatively cozy Northeastern ranges, which were stunning, yes, but a little smaller and a whole lot more familiar to me. And greener.

These mountains are mostly bald, I said. You can see the time etched in their sides. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s somehow foreign. Alien, even.

Later on, I thought about this a little. In part I was blown away by Yosemite because, OK, I’m just a farty old Northeasterner who doesn’t know the West and its landscape that well. But I decided that wasn’t all of it. I decided that in Yosemite I collided with beauty, fell into it, yielded to it, in a way I’d never quite done before. And I came away changed.

I’m not sure how. I’m not sure I can put it into words just yet (though obviously I’ve been trying pretty hard). Sometimes life alters us in ways that are obvious and immediately graspable; sometimes it alters us without our even knowing; sometimes it WHOMPS us with such thundering force that we know in an instant we’ve been changed, though we can’t say how. In the past I’ve been mutated — keelhauled, more like it — by loss and grief, forces I know and recognize as powerfully transformative, even when I don’t know how and why and what I’m actually becoming.

But this was different. This time, the transmogrifying forces were the opposite of death — or no, not the opposite. Something more. Something closer to everything: the epochal hugeness of it encompassed life and death and creation and decay, all of it, every resounding tear and crash, since the broken earth first spat up magma three million years ago. What terror! What violence! And it’s still there — a window into the trauma that made our world. Because I believe in a creator behind the creation, I looked out at Yosemite and saw a wild genius at work. But even if I didn’t, I’d still be faced with the brilliant, beautiful, savage ingenuity of the natural world. And I’d still be awed.