Spanish Guitar

It’s after 10:00 p.m. I let the dog out briefly and noticed how quiet it is outside. The recent frost likely silenced the crickets for good. I heard them slowly winding down only a few nights ago and marveled about how they were able to survive into early November. Climate change, perhaps?

Joni Mitchell wrote a song, “Hissing of Summer Lawns” in 1975. I was fascinated by the imagery of that title. I now know what the sound refers to. Our little parcel of land has a certain sound to it on summer evenings as the accumulated heat seems to make the ground exhale and the night creatures emerge from it: Ssszzsssshhh. Yeah, something like that.

The summer sounds have now disappeared with the falling leaves. Instead, this evening, I hear the baseboard heater switch on, making its own type of hiss, and the dog is snoring softly. I am sitting at my computer and I catch Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Tipico Brasiliera” playing on a YouTube music channel I recently discovered. It’s a digitized version of an old recording by Julian Bream, one of my father’s favorite classical guitar performers.

The hours after dinner in my childhood home were rather ritualized. We kids would settle in with our homework. Our father would write speeches. He often wrote way into the night, banging away at his big, black Royal typewriter, page after page being flung off into a pile, words that would be put into some bureaucrat’s mouth the next day.

His office smelled like used typewriter ribbons, an odor I can recall instantly. He had a rack of cassette recordings and many of them were of classical Spanish guitar. I can picture him typing away, music playing quietly in the background. The tape with the Villa-Lobos piece was a frequent selection. He had probably discovered what we now know to be true: music helps people concentrate better.

In his later years, he had switched to a computer and a collection of DVDs, but the habit of writing after dinner, sometimes late into the night, stayed with him. In the months after my mother died, I’d get to work, open my inbox, and find emails he’d written at 2:00 a.m., when he was too lonely and agitated to sleep, the guitar music his only companion. He once told me that he had imagined my mother standing in his office doorway, telling him it was time to go to bed.

Now, when I write late at night, it’s not speeches or essays. It’s committee correspondence or cold email inquiries or maybe a Facebook posting. When my husband pops into my office doorway and announces he’s going to bed, I turn off the computer and join him and the dog, grateful not to be left alone with only music to drown out the awful silence.


The Remedy

We had finished dinner early, lost patience with finding something to watch on television, and the endless rain had dampened our spirits a bit. As a remedy, my husband located a treasure trove of Jean Shepherd recordings on the internet and downloaded one to play for us. He did this using his cell phone connected to our Bluetooth speaker. The reason I specifically mention this technology should become evident in a moment.

As the theme music from Jean Shepherd’s show, the Bahn Frei Polka, faded in, accompanied by kazoos and the added sound effects of horse’s hooves clop-clop-clopping, I began silent giggling that soon overtook my body so completely that I could no longer contain it, and I let out a huge guffaw. My husband smiled. The spell was broken.

That theme music transported me back to childhood, when our local public radio station rebroadcast Jean Shepherd’s shows. They were originally broadcast by WOR in New York. Even one silly variety of the station’s call-sign jingle was enough to bring on a chuckle or two: W-W-W-W–Somebody-Stop-Me!–O-R!

My parents had given me a bedside radio when I was young. It was sky blue on the front with sections for the clock, the speaker, and the radio dial. The slats protecting the speaker were white plastic, as was the casing. No doubt it was a cheaply made radio, but it was one of the most valuable things I ever owned.

That radio was my constant friend throughout childhood and into adolescence, seeing me through many quiet evenings and weekends when all I did was read or write or daydream; it entertained me, inspired me, and kept me company when I was alone. I listened to WPGC, WEAM, and “The Young Sound,” which was a novelty at the time but paved the way for commercial-free blocks of contemporary pop music.

We lived in a three-story townhouse. The dining room, kitchen, and living room were on the first floor, our parents’ bedroom and the study/guestroom were on the second floor. My kid brother (an appellation I would never bestow on him, except that it’s perfect for this story) and I had bedrooms on the third floor, which were separated by a short hallway and a bathroom. Sometimes we’d shut our doors at the end of the day and just go to sleep; sometimes we’d keep the doors open and slide toys and other stuff back and forth across the smooth wooden floor of the hallway until our parents got annoyed and chased us back to bed.

We were known to quarrel sometimes or call each other names, but we usually got along in our castle in the sky at the top of the townhouse. We usually minded our parents, but on Sunday evenings, we conspired to disobey them because that is when WETA played Jean Shepherd’s show. We’d dutifully wash up and dress in our pajamas. Then we’d leave the bedroom doors open and get into our beds, shut off our lights, and turn on our bedside radios.

The polka music would start and then the show would be on. It was usually 45 minutes of a stream-of-consciousness narrative—a combination of childhood reminiscences and social commentary—frequently punctuated by silly music and even sillier kazoos or nose whistles. The nose whistles were guaranteed to incite hysterical laughter.

But here is my fondest memory of those evenings: At some point I’d hear my brother chuckle or snort, which made me laugh, which then unleashed a nosier-than-expected fit of cackling between the two of us, and that is what would filter down to the lowest level of the townhouse. Next, we’d hear our father shout up the stairs at us, “Turn off those darned radios and go to bed!”

We’d ignore him and sometimes he’d yell upstairs again, but I think he knew we just had to listen to the whole thing. After all, he was the one who had introduced us to Jean Shepherd’s show, and he knew we couldn’t turn it off in the middle of one of his crazy stories. That would just be cruel!

When I met my husband, we got to talking about listening to the radio late at night. At the time, I was the only other person he’d ever met who had also listened to Jean Shepherd. The match was meant to be! So, on that recent evening after a trying day, he knew exactly what would bring some silliness and cheer into an otherwise gloomy evening.

We’ve come a long way from old plastic clock radios. However, Jean Shepherd’s timeless and familiar humor is a soothing balm. He’s been gone a long time now and his show even longer, but thanks to the internet, he can still provide belly laughs whenever we need them.

Adam Theodore Elizabeth Cron 1966


The Doorbell

On a cold winter day in February, my husband and I finished lunch at one of our favorite spots. We’d missed dining there since we moved away, so we combined some errands and finished the morning slurping noodle soup, perfect for a mid-winter day.

“We really should check on Harry,” I said to my husband as we finished up. “Maybe he can’t hear the phone anymore.” “Or, maybe he never fixed the doorbell,” replied my husband. We had not been able to connect with Harry for about a year. We called every so often and had gotten no answer. I had met his daughter once under tragic circumstances and couldn’t remember her married name.

This is a story about how someone can become so isolated that no one cares if anyone else knows what happened to him. It’s also a story of how people hide information that is simply too painful to talk about.

We met Harry almost 30 years ago. My husband was assessing a problem at Harry’s mother’s house and they met there. He did some work for him, and they hit it off. Soon after, I met Harry’s wife. She was a warm and welcoming person and soon we became a foursome.

While pregnant with our daughter, we invited them on a boat trip. In the warm, shallow water on a late summer Sunday afternoon, we floated on rafts and tubes and shared our nervousness about becoming new parents with two people who had recently become empty nesters. Their easy manner and gentle encouragement erased our fears. The following winter after our daughter was born, his wife cooed over the baby and got great enjoyment over holding her and trying to get her to smile.

About a year later, we received the news that his wife had arisen in the middle of the night, gone out in the backyard in her nightgown, and shot herself. Harry, who was partially deaf, had not heard anything. Their grown son located her early the next day when he stopped in and found Harry still sleeping and his mother nowhere to be found inside. Harry had been a firearms instructor; there were guns in the house and she had made use of one.

Immediately, the irrational thoughts plagued us: How could we have not detected that something was wrong? She was eternally cheery in our presence and always ready for a night out or a visit with the baby. We even had tickets to a show together the following week–why didn’t she look forward to that as a remedy for whatever was plaguing her thoughts? We were naive.

Then came the clues. She was a human resources officer whose large facility was going through a reduction in force. Her job was to sit with each employee, explain that they were being laid off, and provide them with resources. She never mentioned this to us; it was something I found out by talking with her friends later. Worse still, Harry told us that her father had also committed suicide. At a family gathering, he had risen from his chair, excused himself, went down to the basement, and shot himself.

At the cemetery, his daughter clutched her mother’s sweater in her hands and wailed at her grave, shouting at times, “Why? Why? Whyyyy?” I’ve never been able to shake that scene from my mind.

The years went on. His son became a missionary worker and was out of the country most of the time. When he finally returned to the States, he settled in North Carolina and started a massage therapy business, rarely visiting his family. Harry was a regular visitor to our house, though, where he and my husband would talk after dinner about almost anything but his family.

Then, Harry lost one of his legs. An unrepentant smoker, the blood clot that led to the amputation was the thing that finally convinced him to stop. He was only in his early 70s at the time and insisted on staying in his home. At some point, his son bought him a King Charles Spaniel to keep him company and Harry rented out the basement. He spent all day sitting in one spot in the living room very close to a large TV that was tuned mainly to nature shows.

We moved over an hour away. When we visited, the clutter of his surroundings and the stench of the dog were overwhelming. He would indicate that the doorbell was still broken and chuckle under his breath. During one visit, he told us the telephone handset had been in need of a new battery for a while, so we went out and found a replacement.

The next crisis was a series of phone calls where Harry confided that he believed his son was stealing from him, forging his father’s name on stolen checks. He intimated that his son was in trouble, but provided no details. Where his son was at this time is unclear, but there was probably a lot Harry did not know or did not want us to know. Several times we urged him to call the police or at least get to the bank and open an investigation. He talked about doing this, but we are not sure that he ever followed through.

His son finally moved home around 2015, remorseful and unemployed. He asked forgiveness, and slept on the floor at the foot of Harry’s bed for months. Soon after, we received another tragic phone call: his son had arisen in the middle of the night, gone downstairs to the utility room, and hung himself. He was 48.

The funeral was packed with his son’s friends and their families. Harry sat in the front of the chapel in his wheelchair, looking straight ahead. I looked for his daughter and her family. They were sitting on the other side of the chapel. Harry’s son-in-law was dressed inappropriately for a funeral, in bright casual clothing, and he was loud and obnoxious. As the service started, the family made no move to sit closer to Harry. I thought, “What is going on here?”

The service was filled with fond remembrances of his son, eulogies given by a childhood minister and high school buddies. Many recalled how Harry’s son had been very giving of himself and his time and helped people with their problems. After the service, the chapel emptied out. We sat and watched as people exited until almost everyone was out in the parking lot. Not one person went to Harry to extend their condolences. We quietly approached him. He was dry-eyed and calm. He let us hug him and say a few words, and then we left.

It was only later that we reflected on the scene and came to the realization that probably no one knew how bad things had become for his son, or they knew and were in denial. It was clear that Harry’s daughter and her husband were angry at Harry (thus the obnoxious clothing and behavior) and blamed him, and that’s why they refused to sit with him or offer him any comfort. Somehow, it seemed that everyone in the chapel except us was in on this judgement of Harry.

We continued to check up on Harry every few months whenever business brought us to his town. The house decayed. The renter moved out. He seemed to be completely alone, but he told us Meals on Wheels brought him hot food. When we asked about his daughter, he was vague.

And then it was winter of this year. We pulled up to the house and tried the doorbell. Of course, it still wasn’t working so we knocked on the door. There was no answer, no dog barking, no loud television. The car sat in the driveway, but it was obvious that it had not been driven in a while. We decided to see if any neighbors were home and knew what was going on.

After a few tries, a woman three doors down appeared. We asked if she knew Harry. “Oh my,” she said, “you haven’t heard.” Harry had died just a few days before, and the funeral was in two days. He had been taken from his home by his daughter and placed in a nursing home closer to her about six months earlier.  She shook her head, “There were so many troubles in that family. Years ago, I would go outside in the evening. I’d see Harry in his car, drinking. I told him he needed help.” It turns out that this kind neighbor had been watching out for him over the years and checking up on him after he lost mobility, but we had no idea.

At his funeral, his remaining family sat quietly. There were no personal stories or fond recollections from anyone. The minister delivered a harsh eulogy about how Harry was not an easy person to live with, how he had caused pain to his loved ones, and then made reference to Bible passages that were meant to comfort us somehow.

I was shocked that a minister would refer to the deceased with such condemnation. Was the minister really talking about our friend? Were we in the wrong chapel, perhaps? We knew Harry as a troubled man; the scepter of death hung over him every day, but we could not imagine him being a purposefully cruel person as a result, ever.

Something had nudged at us to check up on Harry on that cold February day, otherwise we would never have found out that he had left us. I have a feeling that we and his neighbor were his only real friends, but that he subconsciously shared with us only what he thought we needed to know. He was more private than we ever realized, not because he was manipulative, but because he just couldn’t cope with his losses. He didn’t get the doorbell fixed because he didn’t know how to deal with whatever walked in the door with a visitor. You think you know a person, until you don’t.


Time Travelling with Chopin

This morning, I am sitting at my desk trying to clear out my email file. As usual, I have WETA on the radio. Chopin’s Scherzo #4 in E Major is playing, and I am transported back to Boston in 1979.

Although I was a student at Northeastern University, I lived closer to Boston University and used their library almost every weekend. It was quiet and there was a large selection of geology journals and reference texts to use. In the process of finding a good place to settle in and write papers or memorize paleontological species, I stumbled upon the best place for deep thinking, ever.

BU’s library had heavy wooden desks and tall windows overlooking Commonwealth Avenue through which the sunlight streamed, making it a delightful place on a cold winter day. The desks had headphone jacks embedded in them because BU also had a large selection of vinyl LP records (that I even have to qualify the type of media makes me laugh) to listen to while there. One could browse the records, hand them to the student DJ, and hear them through the headphones plugged into the desk. My study atmosphere was complete.

Being a former music major, I was delighted to discover plenty of favorite music there, but I also discovered composers that were new to me. The music of Ravel, Debussy, Satie, and others, all part of the Impressionist Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, was as emotion-evoking as the paintings of Monet and Cassat. Their pieces instilled a deep yearning for home and sense of nostalgia in me, but none more than Chabrier’s “Pièces Pittoresques.”  I was perplexed that I enjoyed them because they were not the orderly pieces of Mozart or the Rose’s Etudes that I’d played as a teenager.

Almost every weekend I checked out the same album to start my afternoon of studying, and it started off with Chopin’s Etude #4 in E Major. Whenever I hear it on the radio now, one of two things always seem to happen: I am transported back to those simpler days of studying at the library before computers and cell phones, and I am called to attention to get back to the tasks at hand and quit procrastinating.


Room 801: A Place Where Hope Resides

I’ve been a contract worker for a few years and recently took on some freelance clients, but I have always wanted my own business identity.  I started attending some workshops offered by the Maryland Women’s Business Center and began to feel more empowered. Last week, after chasing my tail a few times, I finally felt possessed of enough energy and motivation to get my writing and editing company off the ground.

I began with establishing a limited liability company, Koozmin Enterprises LLC,  that would cover both my and my husband’s businesses. I drew up a standard operating agreement and filed it away.

Next, I filed Articles of Organization for the LLC with the State of Maryland and obtained an Employer Tax Identification.  Both steps were simple and done completely online.

Then I got a bad case of schpilkes. Having received instant gratification for the preceding steps, I was not willing to sit patiently for approval of my individual business name. So, I jumped in the car and drove to 301 West Preston Street in Baltimore.

Room 801 reminded me a little of the Motor Vehicles Administration office, except it was a bit smaller and the atmosphere was quite different. There was one long counter divided into eight sections, behind which were clerks who worked for the Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Nervous excitement filled the air. People came in, their arms loaded with briefcases and stacks of files. They filled out forms, joked with the clerks, and talked with each other about their businesses while they waited. Yes–people were talking with each other instead of staring sullenly at the floor or fidgeting with their cell phones. No one was complaining, at least on the day I went.

Many were people like me. They had an idea, they’d laid the groundwork for making that idea become a reality, and now they were ready to hit the streets and they were unstoppable. Nothing was going to ruin their day or their future–not politics, not their status in life, not anything, it seemed. They were so filled with hope and the vibe was contagious. I gladly paid my fees and received approval to do business as Catoctin Editorial Services.

The last steps were anticlimactic compared with that day. I filed for a home-based business permit, started building a web site, and ordered business cards. I know there will be many ho-hum days ahead or days when I am glued to my computer in order to make a deadline. However, I am committed to remembering the great energy I discovered in Room 801 whenever I feel mine sagging.

Memorial Day, 2018

Today, some of my Facebook friends have filled their pages with images of American flags and quotes from former leaders. They all mean well, of course, but I can’t abide; I am not proud of my country right now. Our current leader has made the day all about him (no surprise there), or as CNN’s Chris Cillizza so aptly put it, “Donald Trump just put the ‘Me’ in his Memorial Day tweet.” (

Those in the current administration or Congress sit quietly and do nothing when such statements are made by the president. I question their allegiance to this country’s principles and feel they make a mockery of the deaths of our soldiers by remaining silent. They are corrupted by their power. Corruption is a common characteristic in tyrannical governments, and our soldiers have died freeing other countries’ citizens from these types of regimes. Do they not see how culpable they are in the erosion of democracy?

I suspect that many who gave their lives to save our democracy and to free others from a life of tyranny elsewhere would not recognize the United States of America today. I’m thinking mainly of soldiers who died in World War II, who were both protecting us from invasion and trying to free Europe, Asia, and northern Africa from tyrannical rule, but these thoughts could apply to those who died in the numerous conflicts elsewhere since then. Don’t get me wrong, I honor the complete sacrifice of our fallen soldiers. I mourn the lives cut short and the promises of who they could have become had they survived. That hurts to think about.

No one in my large extended family lost their lives while serving. I cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak of families who lost soldiers, whose last embraces on the airstrip tarmac were the very last ones, who yearn for the presence of lost loved ones year after lonely year as they are left to cope with their absence. I can feel that pain in the pit of my stomach, or the lump in my throat, but it will never be as severely felt as for those families.

Flash forward to our world in a few years. Imagine the conflicts we could be involved in. Imagine future Memorial Days–that is, if we are lucky enough to survive future wars. Will we honor the soldiers who die while invading Iran or North Korea for regime change, or who die once again in the deserts of the Middle East to protect oil wealth?  Will we have become so desensitized or numb to global conflict by then that we won’t care? Will we be so suppressed by authoritarian rule in a dystopian society that we will not feel free to speak out against conflict? Will the dead soldiers of past conflicts have died in vain?

“I tell you, war is Hell.”–William Tecumseh Sherman (1870)

Two Books That Saved My Sanity: “On Tyranny,” by Timothy Snyder (2017) and “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018)

During the 2016 presidential campaign, I sometimes felt as if I was relearning world history only through the frantic and chaotic filters of CNN commentators or the measured and concerned columns written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and other venerable news outlets. It took me a while to realize that reteaching people like me wasn’t all that was going on. I also was being whipped into a frenzy by fearmongering on the right and angst on the left.

I was a bored student of history when I was younger. There were so many other things I was interested in. I learned the bare minimum, sat for my exams, and moved on to music, then geology, and then maps. All three were far removed from the dusty study of history.

The exception to my dissing of history was my intense study of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was personal and the stories coming out of it were so horribly compelling that an impressionable younger teenager like me easily got sucked into all things Holocaust. There was a wealth of books written for young adults about victims and survivors and life in concentration camps or in hiding. The most absorbing were the personal accounts of people (some my age!) who endured unthinkable violence, yet still hung on to their humanity.

What I remember most of my studies of the Holocaust in the 1970s is that they were focused mainly on the victims: their lives before the Holocaust, their communities all over Europe, the horrors they endured at the hands of the Nazis, and their eventual freedom and resettlement if they survived. We studied Jewish victims almost exclusively, although peripherally we understood that other populations were treated just as badly.  What was left out of these teachings for the most part were details about the political and economic setting of Europe after the devastation of World War I, the rise of extremism and the use of scapegoating, and the other societal woes of the times. I don’t blame my teachers, I just don’t think there was that much written yet about the rest of that catastrophe that was suitable for younger readers.

Now we are 70 years past that awful period in world history. Other nations have fallen under authoritarian rule, some have endured civil wars, and large populations continue to be decimated by genocide. The United States, however, has experienced none of that since 1945. Yet.

We have now witnessed three years of norms being turned on their head with no repercussions. I fear that democratic institutions are being eroded away, that we are undoing decades of social progress, that we are too politically polarized, and that we are running the risk of a civil war. I’m worried beyond what might be considered reasonable.

At some point late last year, I could no longer tolerate being yelled at by TV commentators and wished they would focus on solutions, not finger pointing. I wanted a factual explanation of how we got into this mess and a road map for how to get out of it.

Just as I thought my anxiety was going to get the best of me, along came professor Timothy Snyder and his short but stunning book, “On Tyranny; Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” I devoured it in a day or so and almost immediately felt my cortisol levels decrease as I realized that his book was a cure of sorts.

The “lessons” are actually 20 action items that any citizen can implement (once you calm down and start taking care of yourself again by eating, exercising, and sleeping normally, of course). Don’t worry, you won’t be performing them in a vacuum; Snyder provides a brief context and background for each one so that we do not blindly put trust in his instructions. We need to understand the backgrounds so that we are not destined to repeat history (as Edmund Burke warned).

I found that I was already doing some of what Snyder instructed. Consider “contribute to good causes.” Like many Americans, after a disaster, I identify credible charities and contribute to them. I also have some ongoing favorites that I’ve donated to all my life. Now I have an even more important reason to do so on a regular basis: preserving the democratic value of freely choosing where to donate. Citizens in oppressed countries don’t have that luxury; in the twentieth century, authoritarian leaders suppressed institutions of civil society such as charities.

Another instruction is to “make eye contact and small talk.” As the governments of Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union became more brutal in the early twentieth century, citizens went from point A to point B and tried not to interact with anyone in between because they feared each other. A smile or a gesture of kindness can go a long way toward preserving civil society. I find this easy to do now, even under stress.

Part history book, part self-help guide, I refer to this book often. I remind myself that even as I go about my day, I can still do something to help preserve our democracy.

That book, however, inspired me to learn more about how democracies failed in other countries and how their failures compare to what might be starting to happen here. My thirst for history lessons was growing! “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, was published just a few months ago and has satisfied my quest for historical and current international examples.

The authors focus on the failure of democracies in countries such Argentina, Hungary, Peru, Venezuela, and others, in detail. These are countries we haven’t heard much about, either during our school days or in discussions of current events, because news of their demise has been overshadowed by other things.

It’s important to note that Nazi Germany is also mentioned frequently and is given equal treatment as an example of failure. Whereas comparisons between the United States now and Nazi Germany then are useful and must be made, if we include the stories of other countries and their fates, then our current cause for alarm is more clearly validated. If you fear that our country is in huge trouble, this book will certainly feed your narrative and give you the proper historical context to argue with others who are in denial.

The authors also make good use of imagery. They portray our democracy as a highway spanning over 200 years and constrained by political norms in the form of guardrails. The political norms of mutual toleration (Republicans and Democrats working together on behalf of the country despite their philosophical differences) and forbearance (Republicans and Democrats exercising restraint despite their philosophical differences) have previously kept our democracy from crashing through the guardrails at perilous times in our history.

The authors discuss periods of our history when the guardrails have been weakened by figures such as Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and Newt Gingrich, but they held, and we are reminded about the hows and whys. They devote just one chapter to Trump and the rise of extremism in this country. The current polarization we are experiencing over race issues and economic disparities, fueled by Trumpism, has significantly weakened the guardrails and it will take all of us from keeping our democracy from going over a cliff. The final chapter counsels us on how to prevent this from happening and reminds us, sadly, that we are no longer the envy of the world.




Book Review: There Must Be Some Mistake, by Frederick Barthelme (2014)

I first read Frederick Barthelme’s short stories in the New Yorker many years ago. I was captivated by them. He painted pictures of ordinary people in ordinary situations. Although they were fiction, they seemed to be gently commenting on middle-class society in the 1970s. It was fine with me if there were no gripping plots or twists to the storylines. I loved his writing.

I was so happy to rediscover Barthelme and this novel was a great welcome-back present. Like the protagonist, Wallace Webster, I am recently retired and still feeling my way through unstructured days, learning not to get up at the crack of dawn for work, and still adjusting to not being part of a workplace. I can relate to Wallace in that respect, except I’m not a night owl the way he is. Like him, though, moving away from my former community and retiring has meant a change in the way I socialize and learn to make new friends. Breaking into new social situations is markedly different in one’s fifties compared to one’s twenties. Happy hours, volleyball games, and loud music are replaced by dinners with other couples, midmorning coffee dates, and long walks.

Wallace’s awkward forays into a new social environment are the focus of the book. A series of strange events in his neighborhood is merely the backdrop against which this adjustment plays out. I found that I cared more deeply for the characters than finding out the causes of those unsettling events. Just as in those early short stories, these are ordinary people dealing with ordinary issues: annoying homeowners associations, nosy neighbors, aging, loss, insecurity.

The reader is either privy to Wallace’s first-person thoughts as he navigates both old and new relationships and tries to make them all mesh together, or we are treated to delightful dialogue among the various characters that ranges from playful banter to rapid-fire interviews to sarcastic commentaries. Barthelme adds so much detail to these conversations, which include nuances in speech and mannerisms that probably were carefully captured and curated over the years.

I imagine Barthelme as a patient and careful observer and listener, going everyday to his favorite coffee shop to eavesdrop on the simplest of stories, collecting and storing them for later. It’s a nice image to have of a writer whom I admire, even if it’s not accurate. Maybe it’s what I hope for myself some day as a writer. I’m looking forward to catching up on several decades of his books.

April 5, 1968

Fifty years have passed since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was young, but the anxiety and upset of that time have been seared into memory, influencing me in so many ways. My father remembered 1968 as a time of near anarchy when society was splitting apart over the coming election, the Vietnam War, racial issues, and civil rights.

Let me set the stage. We moved to Washington, D.C., because my father was offered a job as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. We lived in the Southwest quadrant of the city, then called “New Southwest.” Before the 1960s, this part of town had become rundown and impoverished, thus making it a target for urban renewal. The mainly black residents were displaced to other parts of the city, homes and buildings razed, and thus began a great experiment.

The new brutalist concrete, glass, and aluminum-trimmed apartments and townhomes became populated by mostly white, young professionals and families who had also moved to Washington, either as part of the government or in support of the growing government-centric economy.  Delaware Avenue separated us from the remaining housing projects, a world very different from mine.

There were three elementary schools within only a mile or so of each other. Syphax and Bowen served the children in the projects to the east of us. Amidon served New Southwest. The racial divides between the three were starkly obvious. Recognizing the need to remedy this inequity, my father and some others convinced the school board to pool resources and Tri-School was born: 1st and 2nd grade in Syphax, 3rd and 4th grade in Amidon, and 5th and 6th in Bowen.

The plan was for black and white children to learn together and for black and white teachers to learn from each other. Some white parents, however, soon pulled their children out of public school or moved away. By the time I was in 4th grade, I was one of only a few white children in my classroom.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on the evening of April 4th. On April 5th, we went to school as usual, but then the city erupted in violence and fire. At some point during the day, our teacher, Evelyn Smith, pulled us all into a close circle around her and told us that Dr. King had been killed. She then gently told us that school was closing and we were to go home for our safety because people were angry. There were tears and nervous chattering.

She then said that all the white students were going to be driven home by the teachers because blacks were very angry at whites. My friend Malcolm, the wisecracking goofball of the class and a resident of the neighboring projects, swaggered over and said, “That’s all right, Mrs. Smith, I’ll walk ‘Lizabeth home–I gotta knife!” after which he quickly whipped it out of his pocket. Not missing a beat, Mrs. Smith replied, “Umm, that’s OK, Malcolm, we’ll take her home.” It was not a time for admonishment.

At home, my brother and I watched the city burn from his third-floor bedroom. It was fascinating and frightening all at once. Our family did not own a car back then, but later that day we were whisked out of the house by a friend who drove us to his home in Bowie. As we traveled out of the city eastward to the suburbs, we could see the fires and smoke rising to the west.

Thinking back to that time, it occurred to me that the lives of the black children were in just as much danger as those of the white kids on that awful day, if not more so. Some had to walk several blocks toward burning neighborhoods, by themselves. Some probably had no parent at home waiting for them. Being that young, they were not prepared to protect themselves from the rioting.

The following month, the Poor People’s Campaign set up Resurrection City, populated by thousands of poor Southern blacks who came to Washington to lobby for their economic rights–better jobs, higher wages, safer communities. It rained constantly for weeks that spring, and the encampment became flooded and mired in mud. Despite the conditions, my father insisted that we go and visit with the poor; it was important to him that I witnessed this moment in history.

In the years that followed, we white kids endured backlashes from the project kids. I was mugged once and had my glasses stolen, a gang of boys threw rocks at our house one evening, and one afternoon I was chased home by a large group of kids who began screaming at me “Hey, white girl!” after I was caught walking home alone. I learned to run fast that year.

We had a tall peach tree in the back patio. Every spring, the project kids would raid it in plain sight, climbing the tree and stealing almost all of the ripe fruit. “Forget about it,” my father said, “they need it more than we do.” After four years, we, too, moved away.

I’ve wondered about my classmates over the years, hoping they survived being poor and black and going on to much better lives than the ones they endured as children. The Black Lives Matter and Showing Up For Racial Justice movements have brought my past experience into even sharper focus. Despite my upbringing in a household where fighting for social justice was modeled every day while I was a child, I still have never understood what it is like to be black. Despite the hard work of the civil rights movement, some things have not changed.

I have taken my whiteness for granted. I have never had to worry about how to act in the presence of police. I’ve never been watched carefully as I browse for items in a store. I’ve never been ignored while trying to order a meal. I can’t imagine moving about in the world ever mindful that someone might decide that I looked suspicious or that I didn’t belong there–isn’t that what living under an authoritarian regime is like?

Friday Nights

Skipping down the sidewalk ahead of our parents on the way to temple, innocence.

Pizza and music with good friends, maybe some Frisbee in the dark, elation.

Loud parties, immersed in new wave, blues, and rockabilly, reckless.

Wine and cheese and light jazz and lively conversation, loneliness.

Candles and challah and card games and reading, satisfaction.

Football games and marching bands, shivering, selflessness.

Waiting past midnight for the sound of the front door opening, trusting.

Savoring the quiet after the evening news, smiles and bursts of laughter, fulfillment.