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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Why Paris?"

In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, France, talking heads keep asking, “Why Paris?” They ask if the reason is this or that or the other thing, everyone looking for a simple answer. But the world is complicated, not simple.

France, like the United States, has long been a nation of both native peoples and immigrants. Both countries also have legacies of imperialism, France with official colonies, the United States with de facto cheap labor satellites in service to American capitalism. In both countries, the past haunts the present, and the present in one place on earth touches the present in other places. 

France and the United States are very different when it comes to geographic area and neighbors. The U.S. shares borders only with Canada and Mexico, and the contiguous states between those two borders is immense, while France forms part of a much smaller continent, divided into numerous smaller nation-states, with much more porous borders since European Union.

Terrorism attacks, it should be remembered, have not been confined to France and the United States. They have taken place this month in Lebanon and Jordan; the bombing of a U.S. embassy in Kenya in 1998 killed 247 Kenyans (20 for every American who died); nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls between the ages of 16 and 18 were abducted in 2014.

Historically, “war” has meant the clash of armies. Sending troops to war meant they would go into battle against other armed troops. American troops in the Revolutionary War and Vietnamese troops in the last century adopted techniques of guerrilla warfare, rather than charging at each other across open fields, but they were still armed troops engaging other armed troops in what could be recognized and called battle – a deadly game, to be sure, with civilian casualties, but still with a few recognized rules.

No more. No rules. When and how (no doubt gradually) the changes came about can be argued, but the fact is indisputable.

Do we in the West care more, care disproportionately, about “our own” and ignore terrorism elsewhere? One Facebook post decried the lack of posts on Beiruit, at the same time Paris postings were everywhere. One reason for that, I think, is that we share the news we hear, and what we hear on American radio and read in our newspapers is by and large the news that touches Americans most directly. When I want news about Ethiopia, I have to seek it out; what’s happening in Paris is on the radio 24 hours a day. But I agree that it is important to look beyond the headlines to the rest of the world.

To the original question, “Why Paris?,” however, there is no simple answer. But after September 11, 2001, did anyone ask, “Why New York?” It seemed obvious, didn’t it?

Paris is obvious for the same reason.

Paris, like New York, has long been a dream city for people all over the world. It is a center of art and culture, of business and finance, of fashion and of government. It is, if you will, New York and Washington, D.C., combined. And it is beautiful. Many who live elsewhere hold it in their hearts as a second home, and many who have yet to see it for the first time hold it in their dreams.

It is important that we not forget victims and grief and fear in other parts of the world. Did you know that Beirut was once called “the Paris of the Middle East”? Even had it never been called that, the people of Beirut are as deserving of compassion as the people of Paris. At the same time, it’s only natural that our hearts are drawn to what is familiar, to the country President Obama rightly called “our oldest ally,” the city that welcomed American GIs and artists and writers and students, following World War II.

Paris, c’est une phare. Que la lumi√®re sois jamais √®teinte.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Dear Young Ones

Parents, step-parents, and grandparents, we have come to an age where the greater length of the path lies behind us. It is a strange realization, one that prompts me to tell you a story. Isn’t that what old folks do? Tell stories to the young ones? Here’s mine, and I make no excuse for its rambling nature or scanty conclusion.

A couple of decades ago, David and I made an expedition to the other side of Michigan, “the sunrise side,” where both his parents were born. Out in the countryside beyond Tawas we found his father’s old one-room school. We explored on foot the nearby area where his grandfather’s farm had been, though no trace of it remained. A short drive away, we found his grandparents’ graves in a little country cemetery. 

By chance, also, in a restaurant on the shore of Lake Huron , we ran into one of his distant cousins, a bald man with the unforgettable name Waldemar. He was sitting in a booth next to ours, and when the waitress addressed him by name, David said, “I wonder if that could be my cousin Waldemar.” It was, conversation ensued, and in the end Waldemar gave us directions to the homes of a couple more cousins on nearby farms. All these cousins, I should say, were of the first-cousin- once-removed or second-cousin relation.

The first old farmer we tracked down, Howard, lived with his wife at the end of a tree-lined dirt road in a most picturesque setting. Their farmyard featured among its outbuildings an old log barn like nothing I’d ever seen before, and to the north of that barn, concealed by a pretty line of trees, was a charming small brook. Howard and his wife make us welcome, and Howard climbed up into the loft of a newer barn to retrieve a piece of furniture put aside for David years before, a rustic twig table made by David’s paternal grandmother, who died before he was born. (We still have that table. You all have seen it.) I always thought we might return to Howard’s farm, so steeped in family history. We never have, but we sometimes speak of it, and David tells me stories of going there as a little boy, stories of fish-head skulls nailed to a shed wall, of driving a horse-drawn sulky (is there another kind?) down the dirt road when a wheel came off – but those are not my stories, not what I want to tell you today.

The other old farmer, Herman, a man well into his 80s, lived at the end of a long driveway going straight south off the east-west two-lane highway. Herman’s house and outbuildings sat out in the open, exposed to the sky like farms on the central Illinois prairie. We were not invited into the house but kept standing outside to talk with Herman, who stood on the stoop, just outside the doorway, his wife standing behind him, inside the door, silent. Herman might have invited us in (or he might not), but he was on his way out, hot on the trail , he told us, of a neighbor’s spotted pony he wanted to buy, and so we took our leave.

Our memory of Herman and the spotted pony entertained us for years. We would laugh and shake our heads and ask each other what that old man in his 80s thought he needed with a spotted pony! Lately we understand better and no longer laugh, although we still smile.

And this is what I want to tell you. It will probably come as quite a surprise, and you may have trouble believing it’s true. No one , no matter how old, ever gets over wanting that spotted pony.

David watches the special features that come with movies on DVDs , telling me, “I learned a lot,” as if he will be directing a movie in the near future, and I read farming magazines as if I’ll very soon be bringing worn-out soil back to fertility and breeding livestock. When we travel together, we assess strange towns and wild landscapes as if we might start new lives there. We picture to ourselves and to one another the wilderness cabins where our novels will be conceived and birthed. In conversations in strange motels we imagine the furniture re-arranged, paintings and bookshelves added, picturing a whole life we might put together in that one room. You have no idea how many parallel lives we have going!

No doubt you see us as completely settled into our chosen grooves, the dreamy painter and bookseller, content to be what we are and as we are for the rest of our lives, not at all busy launching new careers or building new houses or setting off for distant parts of the country. (Maybe even another country! A houseboat on the Seine!) Not very likely, is it? After all, how much energy do we have to make serious changes, to make new beginnings? How much savings do we have socked away for acquisition and startups?

We’re not deluded, young ones. We know what’s real and what’s feasible, and we do not regret the lives we have made. At the same time, our fantasies continue to blossom in ways that would astound you. It’s a jungle in there, fertile and crowded with possibilities of all kinds, and in that largely shared space – because a shared life is built on conversation -the two of us are still young and vibrant and full of dreams.

You cannot fully grasp what I’m trying to tell you, never having been as old as we are now, but I thought I should give you at least this little hint. It will better explain, perhaps, my excitement over that old scythe from the farm auction and David’s satisfaction in buying the bright-orange rowing scull. In his mind, he is skimming over Lake Leelanau, you see, and in mine I am mowing our back meadow by hand, like one of Tolstoy’s peasants. And it goes way beyond that! In imagination we are writing and directing movies together and applauding one another’s published novels. Every road we drive down leads through towns and past houses we look at with an eye to their possibilities for us. Can we see ourselves there? Could we make a life there? What would that life look like? He envisions a smooth, empty road in front of his Hayabusa as he cruises at 100 mph, and I become the world's oldest jockey on my lightning-fast Apaloosa.

Our projects at home may appear small to you these days – insignificant and barely there. You may puzzle over my modest pile of old bricks and David’s four stout wooden posts and wonder, if you even notice them, what we hope to make of such small beginnings. Ah, but if you could only see our future with our minds’ eyes!

Spotted ponies! Spotted ponies by the thousands, still out there on the horizon, thundering along the ridge, raising clouds of dust!