Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Lament for the Republic



Dear old Republic
dream of the philosophes, utopia made of compromise,
how I miss you!
You gave me hope, a dream I could cultivate,
An insignia, a sign towards the future.
I nursed on you, I grew in you,
I wriggled around your warm cocoon.
But now as I sit, anxious for tomorrow,
I remember the betrayals, the lapses, the cruelties.
Your Dred Scotts and Fort Sumters,
The Bay of Pigs, Guadalupe Hidalgo—
A Trail of Tears, a rebuff to Ms. Adams,
Tuskeegee, zoot suits, the Chicago Eight,
Fred Thompson, Haymarket, Watergate.

The Republic is gone—
It died long ago.
Now it’s out in the open,
Now everyone knows.
I was told as a boy, by my dad,
“America is great!”
I agreed; there was no doubt.
But as I learned more and shaped my own mind
I saw some of the cracks, some of the flaws,
Some of the lies.
Yet I know, those dead white men,
Many who would abhor a black man as president
Or a woman, or a Catholic, a Mormon, a Texan, a guy who grew up poor,
Even though those same hypocrites
Would fear what we’ve become,
In their sincerest dreams, envisioned a better place,
Regardless of our flaws and our differences,
They knew the dangers of opening the gates
To the rabble, the unpropertied, the uneducated,
Some at least, were still able to concede the possibility,
That it might work.
Maybe we are not perfect—but we can try.
Maybe the irony was lost on them (maybe not) that
When they claimed, “All men are created equal,”
They didn’t see the myopia of using the word, “men.”
Or the hypocrisy of slaveowners including, “All men,” in that phrase,
But does that matter when the record can be corrected within the same framework?

But the damage has been done.
It’s no use pretending our original sins have yet to be tamed.
It does no one any good to act as if we are still a Republic.
We have been trapped by the worst foe of all—success.
We can ignore our bigotry and hatred by pointing to our global dominance.
We can delude ourselves into thinking we are all autonomous citizens with inviolable property rights, guarantees against surveillance without warrant, limits on government encroachment.

But rightly or wrongly, we’re down the path of Empire.
--were we built for this?
--no, not exactly
We must reshape our structures
--chip away at the walls
--weaken the checks
--put the thumb on the scale
You can’t rule the world with a nation of laws, and justice, and compromise
You must be strong and firm and unswerving in your goals.
You must not allow critics to dampen your dive.
And you must always remember to give people dreams
Of living a safe and secure life without crime or conflict or offense
Please don’t think at all, we’ll take care of you, don’t worry.

And now we’ve come to this.
Are the hysterics justified?  Is it all too much?
Does it even matter anymore?

I can tell you this:
The Republic may be gone, but the dream doesn’t have to die
We can get along
We don’t have to collide
We’ll have to be open to compromise and change
We’ll have to live with those we don’t like or consider our own
If we truly are a force for the good
We can’t go back to hating each other or killing
Maybe it’s not the best of times
But we don’t have to, in fear and anger, vote for the worst of times.

There must be a way to save what we’ve got
To keep the dream, the myths, the heroes
To keep the dream that Jefferson had;
That gave Lincoln hope, Benito Juarez, Simon Bolivar,
The dream that marched with Martin Luther King, and Ira Hayes
--and my fathers

I know I get maudlin
I know I’m old fashioned
But we all want the same things
And you can’t turn back the clock to move forward.

--Nov. 7, 2016

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Ambivalence (aka Fatherhood)

There are plenty of horrible fathers out there.  I've met quite a few and am even related to some of them.  But my father was amazing. 

My biological father died when I was 4 years old.  But he never got much of a chance to be a father to me, unfortunately.  That's not who I'm talking about.  I met my stepfather when I was about 7 or 8 years old.  I think he had been partying all night with my mom and friends.  His white Maverick was parked outside in front of the house with a friend passed out in the passenger seat.

My cousin and I went out and said hi to them.  He wore a cowboy hat, boots, long sideburns, long mustache.  (This could be a false memory of him after years of seeing him in this get up all the time).  He took us swimming that day wherein I refused to swim because I was so terrified.

Dad grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin--the eldest of 15 or so.  He joined the Air Force during the Vietnam war and was stationed in Hawaii.  He married his high-school sweetheart, had 3 kids, moved about the country, then divorced.  By the time my mom met him on a blind date he was living in Midland, Texas.

As well as I remember Dad was a trucker, a contractor, a supervisor in various positions, worked for landscaping companies, helped to build water towers, knew how to operate various tractors and other heavy machinery, he could sew, cook, fix anything in the house, build anything for the house, built cars from scratch, was great with children and animals, loved to camp, could probably patent some of the stuff he built for us, and defined himself as a mechanic.  He loved Fords and couldn't stand the color yellow.

I used to tell my wife that I wished people would talk more about the stupid or petty or bad things my biological father did.  I don't like hagiographies.  Stories of saints don't interest me; stories of people do and I wanted to know what he was really like.  Well, I grew up with my stepfather and got to see his other, human traits.  He had some problems with alcohol and drank a little too much sometimes.  He was known to break a window or a wall in anger (especially when drinking).  He could be pessimistic and brood on minor clashes at work or with my mom.  He would get overly emotional and demonstrative when drinking and I recall thinking he reminded me of the elder Karamazov.  After his divorce he didn't see his kids for a very long time and I'll never know how he could've done something like that.

But what makes a good father?  He always worked, and loved working, so he could take care of his family.  If I ever messed up I didn't feel I'd ever be alone and without support.  I wasn't much trouble but when my brother would get into trouble there was my dad--bailing him out or giving him direction.  Dad taught me to fish, helped with homework, showed me a lot of little creatures so I could see them up close, taught me to be a decent little boy who wouldn't do stupid things or harm others. 

I must've weirded him out.  He was a pretty traditional Midwesterner.  He loved his country, the Green Bay Packers, a good steak, country music, and really corny Disney movies like Old Yeller or The Apple Dumpling Gang.  I guess it must've been odd when I would blast Metallica, read Faulkner or Dostoevsky, while drawing Eddie from Iron Maiden.  I'm not sure he understood my desire to understand other cultures or my penchant for painting bleeding American flags.  When I grew out my hair he would call me, "Ma'am."  But I think he realized I was still essentially the same goofy, shy kid who would laugh at all his jokes. 

Around Christmas-time, 2010, my mother called me to tell me Dad was in the hospital.  He hadn't been feeling well and eventually couldn't go to the restroom and he started turning yellow.  About two weeks prior to this call my 6 month old daughter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  Because it was holiday time the hospital Dad was at was understaffed and they weren't getting too many answers.

Around the turn of the new year I was at a restaurant with my family when I got a call from my parents.  Dad was out and was diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer.  He was told he had 3 to 6 months to live.  I went to Texas for a week to see him.  We cleaned up some of the scrap metal he had in the back.  He told me about some of the jobs he had been working on.  Even though he could be very emotional and sensitive he wasn't necessarily the type of man to talk to his son about his feelings and fears.  Mom told me she'd catch him crying alone sometimes then he would look at a picture of my daughter and smile.

June 2011 I was back in Texas.  Dad wasn't doing well.  I was there on Father's Day (my second as a father).  He looked tired and frail.  I felt odd walking him to the restroom or cleaning up after him--inadequate.  My first memory is of being 4 years old, visiting my biological father on his death bed as he died of skin cancer.  Now I was watching my stepfather, the man who raised me to be a man, the legend who was (at least to me) like some hero of American folklore, barely able to get out of bed.  I was happy there were so many people around who loved him in his final hours.  A week later he was dead.

One day at work I spent all day in the corner crying, thinking about him.  He probably would've thought that was odd too.  I find myself thinking of him a lot lately.  Pride, nostalgia, guilt, fear...all kinds of emotions well up out of nowhere.  I'm not sure if I was a good enough son to him sometimes.  I'm not sure if I can manage to do all that he did for me for my own child.  I can't build anything or fix a car.  I don't really care about sports and I'm not always proud of my country.  But I try to be decent and want to do right by my family.  He had a great work ethic and I'd like to think that I try hard when I care about something. 

I wish I could have a beer with him.  I wish he got a chance to know my daughter.  I've seen fathers literally beating up their kids over the stupidest things and fathers who were more interested in chasing women or buying drugs than in taking care of their families.  My dad took two little boys he didn't know and helped to raise them, loved them, and prepared them for the world.  I wish there were more dads like him.         

Friday, May 31, 2013

Why Music Sucks

Right before we started dating, I and my wife took a drive up to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. We were already good friends and heavily flirting so we decided to take the day off one morning, leave at the crack of dawn, and take the 3 hour drive from El Paso, Texas to Carlsbad Caverns.


We spent all morning and much of the afternoon out there and I drove her green Honda Civic with the Smashing Pumpkins decal on the back window back to El Paso. I remember her dozing on the passenger seat while I was listening to a CD I brought. I was already a Beatles fanatic and had bought the Anthology 2 CD back when people still bought those. It included a track off the sessions for Revolver—“And Your Bird Can Sing.” The version on Anthology 2 is an earlier take with much laughter from the band throughout the singing of the song. The official version on Revolver is already quite merry and has that driving rhythm and crazy guitar riff. The take on the Anthology is even crazier and merrier with all the stoned-seeming laughter throughout the track. Perfect driving music.

My wife was lying on the seat. The sun was pouring down on her beatific face. I was driving along down the highway in time to the Beatles. A very nice little memory. Now every time I hear that particular version of the song I’m brought back to that specific moment in time (changed by nostalgia I’m sure but precise in the essentials). It’s hard to listen to that song and think of anything else.

There are many songs I hear that evoke moments in time. And whether those memories are good or bad I’m always slightly uneasy and sad. If the memory evoked is painful, I remember the painful times and re-experience, if even only slightly, that feeling. Now when I hear “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” by Johnny Tillotson (and many other permutations) I’m reminded of my aunt telling me she used to cry to this song after my father died. Or if I hear “Amor Eterno” (Juan Gabriel’s song) I can feel the sun beating down on me at the cemetery when a Mexican trio were singing this at my grandfather’s funeral.

But I also feel a little melancholy in remembering good things. The Doors’ songs make me wish I was back gallivanting around the desert at night with my buddies under the influence of various interesting and amazing substances. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring makes me want to be back climbing Mt. Cristo Rey in my zarape as if I were going to some sacrificial slaughter. Or listening to the Smashing Pumpkins fills me with an urge to be dating my wife again, in the halcyon days, before I got older and fatter and more responsible….

Maybe it’s just my own disposition to turn melancholic and nostalgic when listening to music. I don’t suppose I always do that. I really do enjoy music and if it always brought some feelings of loss I wouldn’t enjoy it too much. I wonder if those melancholic feelings are actually pleasurable. Maybe there’s something in the human psyche that seeks out a feeling of wistfulness and a glorification of our past. It’s almost as if I’m recreating a past whenever I listen to these songs. I can view events from a distance and observe and contemplate the passage of time. Maybe it’s my mythologizing of myself.

Something about music seems to bring the past, my own past, vividly alive. And although I appreciate the present and still have hope for the future, it is hard not to seek some meaning or nourishment from that past. And although I’m excited about moving on to new career opportunities and seeing my child grow up and making new life decisions with my wife as we get older and try to get wiser, sometimes I just want to be driving down a desert highway with my beautiful and close friend with whom I just finished having an amazing walk under the earth and flirting all morning with, listening to an early take of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing”. Maybe I’ll go hear the song now.