Dressing for the Afterlife (A Short Story)

“I’m not cut out for kids, Mother,” Tracy said. “I’m not nurturing.”

“You don’t know that. Besides, children change you. They make you nurturing. And I would like to see at least one grandchild before I die.”

Her mother was 57 and being melodramatic, which is how Tracy justified her next comment.

“Mother,” she sighed into the phone, letting derision coat her voice before continuing, “if only grandchildren will give your life meaning, maybe you should reassess whether your life is worth continuing.”

Tracy’s phone beeped three times in her ear as her mother ended the call.

 

Five days passed and they did not talk.

Sunshine led Tracy to the botanical gardens after work.

Her phone rang near the dahlias and she answered it.

Her brother’s voice: “It’s mom.”

She drove fast and parked in the multi-level garage. She followed the red line on the linoleum floor.

 

In the ICU, Tracy’s father and brother stood together on one side of her mother’s bed, a doctor in a white coat stood on the other. Between them, on the bed, lay the tiny figure of Tracy’s mother. A tube in her mouth, taped in place, her eyelids closed, her arms wilted leaves at her sides, her palms turned up toward the ceiling. The hiss and click of the oxygen machine kept time with the forced rise and fall of her chest under the white sheet.

The doctor started over when Tracy walked in and stopped at the foot of her mother’s bed.

“Brain aneurism,” he said, looking at Tracy and letting the words sink in. Did she know what that meant?

It meant that somewhere in her mother’s brain, a blood vessel had burst and her skull was filling with blood, the pressure flattening her brain.

“She said she had a headache,” Tracy’s father said. “I made her take a nap.”

“That was probably the moment,” the young doctor said. He turned to Tracy again. “If she had come in right then, we might have been able to release the pressure on the brain in time. As it is…”

“I made her take a nap,” Tracy’s father said. “She slept for two hours. I checked on her, but it was two hours.”

 

The doctor left them alone. Giving them privacy to make their decisions, he said.

“What are they doing for her?” Tracy asked when the doctor was gone. She stepped forward and stood across the bed from her father and brother. She picked up her mother’s hand. It was hot as a stove burner, but it flopped like an empty glove.

“There’s nothing they can do,” her father said. “This,” he said with a gesture toward the tubes and the machines behind the bed, “is life support.”

“Can I talk to her?”

“They say she’s gone already.” David turned away from the bed.

“We have to decide,” Tracy’s father said. “Do we keep her on this? If she’s gone? If she did survive she wouldn’t be her.”

“She’s not her now,” David said. “She’s gone already.”

Tracy dropped her mother’s hand and crossed her arms over her chest. She looked at her mother’s slack face as she spoke to her father. I’m not cut out for this.”

“Nobody is, Trace,” David said. “But we have to. Dad wants to know what you want to do.”

“I want to talk to her.”

“She’s already gone, Trace.”

“You decide.” Tracy looked at her father.

“She’s already gone,” her father said.

 

Back at her parents’ house–the house Tracy and David grew up in–they sat in the living room as it went dark outside.

Tracy’s father and David sat together on the couch. Tracy sat in an office chair rolled into the corner. They looked at the carpet. Tracy thought about getting up to turn on the lamp. They sat with only the light from the street and lost sight of each other’s faces.

 

The next day, Tracy’s father drove them to the funeral home. Maybe he had cried all night, but he was in control now. He parked the car. “Let me do all the talking,” he said. Just like when they were kids.

“You don’t have to do everything, Dad.” Tracy put a hand on her father’s arm. “That’s why David and I are here.”

“Let me do all the talking,” he got out of the car and walked inside and Tracy followed behind David.

The man in the silk tie spoke just above a whisper and pointed them toward coffin options.

“We’re cremating,” Tracy’s father said.

“Of course, I should have asked. Urns then.”

Her father liked the urn with the cherry blossoms (“white petals on a wet black bough,” Tracy remembered that but she didn’t know where from) even though her mother would prefer the one with the seabirds in flight.

“I think mom would prefer the birds,” Tracy said.

The quiet man was pushing papers for Tracy’s father to sign. He stopped.

“She’d want the flowers,” Tracy’s father said. He reached for the papers and signed, one last time buying his wife the wrong gift.

“I am sorry for your loss,” the silk tie whispered, gathering the papers in front of him. “It was sudden, was it?”

“Aneurism,” Tracy’s father said. “She said she had a headache. I told her to take a nap. I checked on her, but it was two hours.”

David drove when they left the funeral home.

 

For two days Tracy’s mother lay in a viewing room so friends could visit the body. Tracy didn’t go in. She’d already seen her mother dead in the ICU. It was too hard to think about looking at her now, remembering their last conversation. Anyway, she was already gone. Whatever lay in that room was just an abandoned shell, a molted skin.

Tracy’s father put in hours beside the body like it was his new job. 9 to 5 in a suit and tie, hands clasped in front of his groin as he yielded the room to each new visitor and stood beside Tracy in the hall. When the visitors left, he went back in. This way, Tracy’s mother was never alone.

“Why won’t you come in?” he said near the end of the second day.

“I don’t want to see her like that, Dad.”

“She’d see you if the roles were reversed.”

“I know it. But I can’t. Anyway, it’s not really her.”

“Of course it’s her.”

“It’s just a shell. She’s already gone.”

“That’s callous, Tracy. Hard. You’re not hard.”

“I think I am. I’m trying to be.”

“Don’t.”

“I said some things, Dad. Last time I talked to her. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“She felt bad too. Hanging up on you.”

“You knew about that?”

“You know there are no secrets between parents. We talked about everything. Right up to that headache she got. I got impatient with her. I didn’t want to hear about the headache if she wasn’t going to do anything about it. I told her to stop complaining and just go take a nap. ‘A damn nap,’ is what I said.”

“Oh, Dad.” Tracy stepped forward and put her arms around her father and pressed her cheek against his chest. He rubbed her back.

“Even if it’s not all her, it’s what we’re left with and after today you won’t see it again. Come in.”

Tracy nodded against her father’s chest. When he turned to go in the room, she went with him.

 

Tracy’s mother lay in a lidless casket on a table surrounded by flowers and candles.

“Jesus Christ, Dad. Who dressed her?” Tracy covered her face with her hands. Her mother wore a long red taffeta gown with a heavily ruffled bodice, a deep tear-drop neckline exposing her bosom, a gold linked-chain belt rounded her waist. She wore flesh colored pumps with five inch heels. Tracy almost laughed but she began to cry. “She looks like Aphrodite or a bad hooker. Dad?”

“I don’t know how to dress her! I picked what I thought was nice. I always liked that dress. She used to wear it when we went out before you kids.”

“That’s thirty years ago! People have been seeing her this way?”

“What does it matter? People didn’t come to look at her clothes.”

“Dad. Mom’s a classy lady. She looks like a joke. This can’t be how people remember her. She would hate it.”

“I always liked that dress,” her father said.

 

Tracy drove fast and made it to her parents’ house and back in under an hour. She came into the viewing room with the clothes folded over her arm. Her father was standing beside the body, his hands clasped in front of him.

“Daddy,” Tracy said. “I know you love her. She loves you. But she would want me to do this for her.”

Her father nodded and backed away from the body. Tracy handed him the arm full of clothes. He lifted them to his face and smelled them.

Tracy pulled a pair of sewing scissors from her purse. She stepped to the bottom of her mother’s evening gown and began to cut up the middle of the dress, along the valley between her legs. The scissors moved quickly through the thin fabric, over her waist, between her breasts and done. Tracy put the scissors aside and peeled the collapsed fabric aside, exposing the naked flesh of the body beneath. It smelled like chemical cleanser, but it looked like her mother. And it looked like Tracy. There was the same uneven hip bone, jutting out farther on one side than the other. There on her mother’s stomach was the same triangle of moles Tracy could now feel like burn marks on her own stomach. The body was stiff, the skin without temperature, like rubber, but she recognized it.

“Help me roll her, Dad. This way first. We’ll put the blouse on one side at a time. We can slide the skirt up pretty easily I think, if you lift her legs.”

Tracy’s father stepped forward and gave the clothes back to Tracy. She unfolded the blouse and threw it over her own shoulder. She took her mother’s shoulder in her hands; her father grabbed a hip. Together they rolled Tracy’s mother toward them, onto her side and Tracy draped the blouse over her mother and eased one frozen arm through the sleeve. They laid her flat. Tracy directed her father to lift her mother’s shoulders and she pulled the blouse under her mother’s back and eased the other arm through.  There were tears in Tracy’s eyes now, but she could see what she was about.

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The Homeless Are Just People Without Permanent Homes

This is a follow-up to my last post “Drive-by People“, call it “No more driving by”. Scroll to the end to see my “Buy a Book, Save a Foot” idea.drive_by_people_3

I met Chris under the freeway on Jackson Street. A year ago, he could have been me. Middle 40’s, successful business owner, had a house on an acre of property east of Seattle, wife, two kids, dog. But when I met him he was living under the I-5 freeway on Jackson Street. Why? He told me. He was an alcoholic and that had ruined his first marriage. But he got sober. He built a life that worked. He built a family. He built a construction business. Then one day he injured his back working on a construction project. He was prescribed opiates for the pain and it triggered his addiction. When the prescription drugs ran out, Chris turned to heroin and cocaine.

When I met Chris he was months into a downward spiral. I noticed he had two large, dark scabs peeling from his cheeks. I thought he might have fallen or been in a fight. I asked him what the scabs were from. The reality was far worse than I could have imagined: the cocaine Chris was still doing was laced with a veterinary drug–levamisole, a pig, cattle and sheep de-wormer. It’s a common and terrible additive in much of the cocaine circulating these days. Levamisole causes the skin of the face to begin rotting away and that’s what was happening to Chris. He knew it, he hated it, he wanted to stop doing the drug that was causing it. “But,” he said, “I know I won’t if I don’t get help.” He told us he had an appointment at a treatment facility in Renton the next day. He was worried he would sleep too long and miss his bus to Renton. He knew which bus to take, just not if he would be on it.

I was with a group from Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission rescue van program. A week after we met Chris, a couple of the others in my group called the Renton treatment facility to see if Chris had made it there. They had no record of his arrival. The group members went back to the spot under I-5 where we’d met Chris, but they never found him.

In my first post about drive-by people, I admitted I was annoyed by the presence of so many homeless because I didn’t know what to do about theDriveby_people problem. Since then I’ve decided the most important thing I can do about the problem is to stop judging it from the outside and, instead, get inside of it. My friend Larry Snyder (author, charity auctioneer, philanthropist extraordinaire) invited me to go with him on the Union Gospel Mission rescue van. I went. I’ve been multiple times since. I’m going out again tonight.  What I’ve learned is that the problem is huge, but it looks bigger from the outside when I’m doing nothing. On the inside of the problem are people who are suffering. People who need. They need supplies–dry socks, clean underwear, toothbrushes, gloves, hats, blankets. They need food. They need shelter. They need a system that better supports them. Many of them need drug treatment and they know it. They need a lot of things. But most importantly, they need three things: 1) They need compassion, just as we all do. 2) They need the experience of being treated like people–you don’t have to give them money, give them a moment of your time and a “hello, what is your name?” 3) They need us to not give up.

No one person can solve the problem and even collectively street-level action is not going to reverse the tide. But we individuals can ease suffering and though the individual action is small, it is important

*****

Buy a Book, Save a Foot

Here’s what I’m doing right now:

The first time I went out on the van I was amazed to see that, yes, the people were happy to get some food, and a warm drink and a blanket. Those things got them excited and it didn’t surprise me. Something else that got them excited and was a big surprise to me was socks and underwear. I thought about it afterwards and realized it shouldn’t surprise me. Of course! If you’re cold, wet and dirty from the skin out it just compounds your suffering. colorstoriesfinalcover2016_irontwinepress_300dpiUndergarments are often overlooked when we’re thinking about what needs we can address. And I’ve heard it said since that first outing that, when you’re homeless, “if your feet go, you’re in really big trouble.”

I have a publishing company, Iron Twine Press. We’ve just released a new book: Color Stories: the Short Fiction Coloring Book. It’s a lot of fun, this new book. Thirty-two flash fiction stories paired with coloring pages inspired by the stories themselves. It’s the coloring book for lovers of story, the story collection for lovers of coloring books. You can find it on Amazon and Elliott Bay Book Company and read more about it on the Iron Twine Press site.

From today until the end of the year $1 from the purchase of each copy of Color Stories will be used to buy new socks and underwear which Iron Twine Press will then donate to The MORELove Project for Seattle’s Homeless. This organization directly supports the Union Gospel Mission rescue van program and can get the supplies to the people who need them. I know, socks and underpants are funny…unless you don’t have them when you need them, then they’re kind of serious.

This is just a first step. In January 2017, I’ll assess how this is going and either continue it or try something else.

Please consider buying a copy of Color Stories. And even if you don’t buy one, please spread the word about this, lets see how big an impact we can make together. If you do get a copy, I know you’ll enjoy the book and you’ll have the added enjoyment of knowing that you’re helping ease a little of the suffering around us.

Drive-by People

drive_by_people_5I call them drive-by people because that’s what I do. I drive by them, unsure of how to help or even if I should at the individual level.

They stand at all the freeway off-ramps in my neighborhood with cardboard signs. They haven’t always been there, but they are now. Evidence, I assume, of the growing humanitarian crisis in Seattle and King County: the Homelessness Epidemic.

One man sits all day at the exit from the Starbucks parking lot. He has a large backpack and a few plastic bags; I don’t know where he goes at night. I’ve seen him decanting cans of Coors Light into a Nalgene bottle. I’ve seen him asleep in the planter bed next to the sidewalk. Yes, I admit, I am made nervous by his presence. If that was me in the situation he’s in, I would want people to see me as more than homeless, I would want them to treat me with humanity and not to be nervous. But they would be nervous, despite themselves, just as I am. The visible fraying of social fabric puts a person on guard.

At the grocery store, yesterday, as I was waiting for the light to turn green so I could leave the parking lot, I watched an old man in a dirty winter coat standing at the curb with a cardboard sign declaring that he was a homeless veteran and anything would help. Behind him another man wearing several sweatshirts, two stocking caps and sitting in a wheelchair berated him. I don’t know why. Had I stumbled on a turf war of some kind?

Driveby_peopleIn Woodinville, the upscale, Washington-wine-country, shopping village not far from my home, there is one man I have seen many times. He paces back and forth along a 20-yard stretch of sidewalk at the stoplight next to the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant across from the athletic fields. One day when I was at the fields to watch my 8-year-old son play a Little League baseball game, I watched the man from across the street. He walked as though his legs were broken, knees knocking together, ankles collapsed–to call it walking is to overstate it, it was more of a scuffing back and forth over that stretch of sidewalk next to the cars stopping at the light on their way to Top Foods, Panera, Ross Dress for Less, PetsMart, the movie theater, the wineries. Like all the drive-by people, he held a cardboard sign detailing his plight and his need for assistance.

No one gave him anything. He was pathetic. I don’t mean that as a put down or a rejection. I mean what the dictionary tells us pathetic means: “Adj.– Arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness.” I was moved to pity (strangely, I am hesitant to admit to you that I acted because of pity–we live in an age that, I fear, has politicized pity so that when it comes from the “wrong” groups or individuals it is seen not as an act of selfless compassion, but, too often, as an act of judgment, as an act of patriarchal imperialism…or maybe I’m making that up…but I don’t think so). So, anyway, I pitied the guy and I wanted to do something for him and I was standing there with my older son while the younger one played baseball and I knew my older son was watching the guy too and he could see that no one was helping and I wanted him to learn that, when you can help a person in need, you should. So I told him to come with me and headed across the street and approached the guy as he scuffed back toward the crosswalk.

His face had been ravaged by some skin disorder, a good portion of his nose was gone. He had a scraggly red beard. Under the beard his skin was red, flaking, looked infected. Honestly I thought the guy looked like he was probably going to keel over dead sometime in the next 30 minutes or so.drive_by_people_3

I do not know how to help homeless people, I’ll admit it. I want to help, but there are too many voices in my head debating what is the right and wrong thing to do — one group of voices says don’t question, just give. Whenever you can, wherever you can, these are the socialists in my head; another group of voices says don’t give money directly to the person on the street, they’ll use if for drugs or booze…they’re not really in need anyway, they’re faking to take advantage of your compassion or affluent guilt, these are the country-club Republicans in my head, I try to shut them up because they discourage compassion and I can feel they are one breath away from asking are there no poor houses, are there no prisons to handle the surplus population or from declaring Let them eat cake.

In this instance, I listened to the moderate in my head and I split the difference. I decided not to give the guy money, but I asked him if I could buy him some food from the Jack In the Box next to his sidewalk. He paused and thought about it for a few seconds and then said, “Maybe an egg and sausage breakfast croissant?”

I was surprised by that. So very specific. I wondered if maybe I wasn’t the first person to offer to buy him food at the Jack In the Box. My son and I went in. I bought him the croissant. We took it out and handed it to him. He said thank you and pushed it into the deep pocket of his oversized coat. He said thank you, but he didn’t act like I had done him much of a favor. I have to be careful that the pursuit of appreciation is not my reason for helping when I do.

“I don’t know if that was the right thing to do,” I said to my son as we walked back across the street. “But doing nothing didn’t feel right either.”

drive_by_people_2That was last spring. I’ve seen that same guy on the same street corner in Woodinville almost every week since. Others have come and gone, but he’s always there. I’ve wondered if there is a homeless camp somewhere in the trees at the edge of the Sammamish Bike Trail. I’ve wondered how even an affluent town like Woodinville can now have a problem with homelessness. Then last week I rode the bus into downtown Seattle–a 20 mile trip one way. I went to a business meeting and then I rode back. In the front seat of the bus heading out of downtown and winding its way 20 miles to the moneyed suburbs sat the man from the Jack In the Box corner. He wore the same oversized coat, his beard was scraggly still, his skin flaking and red. He held on his lap a plastic milk crate and on top of that his cardboard sign detailing his plight and his need for assistance. Does he commute? Maybe his strategy for survival is to go where the money is. My question is how do we get money–enough money–to go where he and others like him are? Clearly that’s not happening yet.

Homelessness is not something I’ve seen a lot of in my life. I’m naïve and sheltered. It’s always been at the periphery of my experience. If I went into the city, I encountered it, but I could always drive away from it, back to the suburbs and there I could stop thinking about it. And I did. But the suffering went on. Homelessness is spiking in this region and now the problem has grown to the point that the suffering is visible in neighborhoods where we used to think of it as someone else’s problem. I don’t yet know how best to help.

But doing nothing doesn’t feel right.

Knocking at the Door In the Middle of the Night

I was sixteen and out of gas on the side of Van Lanen Road and it was 1:3o in the morning. This was long ago in the 1980s when the world was new, before cell phones, when if you ran out of gas there was no easy way to contact anyone and you had to save yourself with just your wits, of which I had few. I had miscalculated how far the 1972 Chevy Impala station wagon I shared with my brother could travel with the needle on E. I thought I could make it all the way home, park the car in the driveway, go to bed, let my brother discover its need for fuel tomorrow on his day with the car. I was fifteen miles short. And now I was on the gravel, sitting in the dark, beside a fence, a farm, fields running off in every direction leaving me alone under a very big, black sky.

It didn’t occur to me to be worried. I got out and started walking. I knew where I was: when I was very little, my father would put me in a tiny seat on the back of his bicycle and ride up this Van Lanen hill I was walking down at 1:30 in the morning. He huffed and puffed and called it heartbreak hill.

I got past the farms and their endless corn fields and I saw a few houses. But they were all dark, shut down for the night. Back then I was very careful not to believe in God, but I suppose I was making some requests of the night and whoever or whatever might be listening: thanks for the houses, but could you show me one with a light on? And then there was one: a little place, rambler, one of the first of what would become many new suburban houses built on a tiny piece of what used to be cornfield. One window was lit.

Middle of the night, on silent feet, out of the darkness I stepped to their door and knocked. At the time I thought nothing of it, other than to hope I was knocking loud enough, hoping they could hear me. Now, thinking back on it, I wonder what I would do if I was the one inside the door at 1:30 in the morning and suddenly comes a stranger knocking out of the darkness. They opened the door.

They were a young couple. He stood at the door. She remained on the couch under a blanket. The light I had seen was somewhere in the back of the house, the living room was lit only by the television set, her face was blue in the glow of a paused VCR tape.

I explained the situation. He offered their phone, led me to the kitchen where it hung on the wall above the counter. If he suspected me of anything other than the truth, he didn’t let on. He watched me dial, listened to me tell my brother he had to come get me, then left me sitting at the counter alone in his kitchen while he went back and got under the blanket with the woman and started the VCR tape again. Sometime later my brother arrived. I said “Thank you,” they said “OK”. I walked out the front door into the future.

A lot of that future has become the past. I think of that couple. They might have been 30. They let me in and we paused together briefly in that house of theirs like strangers waiting at a bus stop for our different busses to come and take us wherever we were going.They lived their own lifetimes while I lived mine. If they made it this far, that young couple of my memory is in their sixties now. They were just starting out, now they’re starting the wind down. An old couple. Maybe sitting together on a different couch. Maybe not together anymore but thinking of one another sometimes. Maybe gone altogether.

 

 

Introducing Iron Twine Press

LB_website_versionI’ve always been a jump first, learn later risk taker. I know the situations I want to see myself in and when the opportunity presents itself, I’m willing to go in ignorant and learn my way out. As long as I have me with me, I know I can do it. All the best things I have done, gained, experienced, learned in my life have come to me this way.

Now, in the immortal words of Shania Twain, I have again “doggone gone and done it”. And that’s the point of this post today:  In October of last year, I started a small, independent publishing company, Iron Twine Press (if you’re a follower of this blog, I invite you to click over and follow the Iron Twine Press blog too and follow @irontwinepress on twitter). At the end of March, we published our first book The First Honeymoon: New and Selected Stories, by Lyn Coffin.

I’m very proud of the book. A lot of effort went into it—obviously, and most importantly, Lyn’s writing, but also custom design by a great photographer, Mariana Jasso. And for me it was a fascinating experience to receive more than two dozen short stories from Lyn in Word document format, then to read through all of them, curate the best of them into a collection, then reformat, edit, arrange according to themes and tone (much like putting together a musical album I’ve decided), then to send the collection out to readers to get feedback, reviews, back cover blurbs, then to publish and now to pursue the daily task of marketing the book, building awareness, arranging readings, placing the book with bookstores…all while also starting work on three new books that I hope to bring out in the next year (one of which will be a collection of my own writing). Even as a lover of books—both as collections of art, and as objects of art themselves—I’m more appreciative than ever of the painstaking work that goes into making a book of quality. I invite you all to go check out the book (it’s available online at Amazon and Barnes&Noble; or if you’re in the Kirkland, WA area you can buy the book at Kirkland Parkplace Books, and if you watch the Iron Twine Web site or sign up for the Iron Twine newsletter, I’ll keep you posted as it becomes available in other locations).

Here I deliver copies of The First Honeymoon to Kirkland Parkplace Books with two Iron Twine Press staffers.

Here I deliver copies of The First Honeymoon to Kirkland Parkplace Books with two Iron Twine Press staffers.

Now some words about Lyn Coffin, because knowing her and working with her has been an inspiration to me. I started out by telling you that I am willing to jump into situations guided only by intuition. That’s true. But doing that requires courage and, being human, as I am, my courage sometimes falters. Then I look at Lyn Coffin:  award-winning writer, 16 volumes of poetry, drama, fiction and translation, her writing selected for publication in The Best American Short Stories by Joyce Carol Oates, honored by the country of Georgia for her work translating their beloved native poems and children’s stories, her work appearing in journals and anthologies, Time Magazine, an honorary PhD from the World Academy of Arts and Culture for “poetic excellence and her efforts on behalf of world peace”, teaching literary fiction at the University of Washington. She’s one of the most accomplished people I have ever met. And she’s done it, as far as I can tell, by only pursuing what is interesting to her. Sometimes that leads her onto the well-lit red carpet of recognition and opportunity, but more frequently she has moved through pathless frontiers of obscurity. But she has just kept working, just kept accomplishing and just kept true to an idea I’ve heard her repeat many times: In life, don’t wait to be invited down the path, don’t wait to be shown the way. “Make the way by going”.

It’s a philosophy I admire and one I feel deeply akin to. There is nothing that can kill you except death, and, it’s going to get you when it’s going to get you. Until then, keep yourself interested, keep yourself inspired, enjoy the way you burn off your finite resource of time. That’s why I started Iron Twine Press.

I don’t know what comes next. But I do know this is the first step down the next way I want to be going.

And so I go.

The Games Are the Same, I Have Changed

This is the very gym in which I soared to basketball mediocrity in the 1980s

This is the very gym in which I soared to basketball mediocrity in the 1980s

It’s March Madness time again. For those of you not in the United States, or those of you who are my brother, let me explain: March Madness is the nickname given to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual basketball tournament that occurs in March, involves 64 teams and results–at the end of a madcap two week flurry of high-intensity games–in the crowning of the NCAA National Champion.

If you like college basketball, you go mad for the excitement of this time of year. If you don’t like college basketball, you look at those of us who go mad this time of year like we are mad.

When I was in high school–which was certainly the height of my interest in the tournament–I watched the games as a dreamer. I was on the basketball team at my school (just barely) and I was only a few years younger than the young men playing in the college tournament. They inspired me; I thought there was an outside chance I could, if I worked hard, be one of them. Their bravado, their swagger, their alpha-male charisma–it all made them pretty popular and that was appealing to me. It looked like a good thing to aspire to. Even if I couldn’t be one of them, I could be like them.

I didn’t make it past my junior year of high school basketball. I destroyed my knee. But I wasn’t going anywhere anyway–the knee injury was just the universe saying “since it’s a foregone conclusion that basketball is not your future lets end this here. Can I interest you in a clarinet? How about writing?”

Now I am a generation older than the young men playing the tournament games. I still watch. I like the excitement of the underdog team upsetting the favorite; I like the human drama of the close games; I like to see the perseverance and mental strength required to perform at a high level under the highest pressure; I watch to see evidence of commitment and dedication; I feel for the losing teams when they are gracious losers, if they congratulate the winners despite their own sadness. As I watch now, I find the bravado, the swagger, the alpha-male posturing and chest pounding an annoying distraction. Now I watch looking for good sports, for good citizens. My kids are watching: I want them to see good role models.

Maybe I’m on my way to being a cranky old man, though I will point out I have not yet used the phrase “In my day…”. But I will admit to a significant change in the desires these tournament games stir in me. When I was a kid I watched and wished I could be more like the players. Now I watch and hope the players will be more like me.

 

Book Review: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

WhiteWomanGreenBike“It’s a woman’s curse to love bad and foolish men, even when they fuck up miserably.”

So says Sabine Harwood, the white woman of the title in Monique Roffey’s exciting political-historical novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. Her curt words sum up her decades-long experiences in post-colonial Trinidad, the setting of the novel.

Sabine and her husband George arrive in Trinidad, newly married and very much in love, in 1956 at the tail end of British colonial rule and the dawn of Trinidad’s Peoples’ National Movement, a grassroots political movement stressing independence and self-determination and led by a charismatic young iconoclast, Dr. Eric Williams. Sabine is immediately disenchanted with Trinidad – the heat, the rawness, the shameful history of racial oppression – but is just as immediately enchanted and charmed by the dashing Williams. She hears him speak, watches him move his masses of followers with his words and she is inspired to begin writing him a series of intimate letters she keeps completely secret from her husband.

Centuries of British rule have created layers of privilege and the opportunity for whites to exploit the native people and resources of Trinidad. George embraces his privileged position and begins using it for his own gain. Sabine grows to resent him for perpetuating the inequality she cannot tolerate and focuses on Eric Williams as the antithesis of her colonialist husband. Williams is lauded as the father of the country (followers call him Papa) and he embodies a hope and a promise of a better future for Trinidad’s black population. The historical facts of the novel are accurate and well-documented , so I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that Williams disappoints Sabine – and the Trinidadian people – when he fails to live up to his revolutionary promises and, instead, settles into the structures of privilege abandoned by the British. He abandons nothing and ends up, in behavior, the twin of Sabine’s husband George, not the antithesis she had imagined he would be, and, therefore, just another fuck-up. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

trinidadTo say that Sabine is an idealistic character is to severely understate the facts. Perhaps she is all-to-human and makes the mistake of believing people will do exactly what they say they will do. When they fail her, she is quick to condemn them. I found her quite a bit slower and less harsh in turning that judgmental eye on herself. Though I would argue that if inaction in the face of inequality is the sin for which Sabine is quick to condemn, she is equally deserving of condemnation. It is not until the very end of the story that Sabine does much more than complain about conditions and corruption in Trinidad and finally takes action herself. When she does act, her actions are significant and dramatic, though you’ll have to read the novel yourself to determine whether you think they will be effective at bringing about the change she desires. Suffice to say that, agree or disagree with her, you will be effected by Sabine – her actions and attitudes will lead you to question your own attitudes about the issues at play in the novel – and that is a primary pleasure of reading this novel.

Cleverly structured, the book covers fifty years in the lives of its characters, but not in a straight line: it begins at the end, middles in the beginning and ends in the middle (opens in 2006, middles in 1956, ends in the 1970s). It is, despite the political tensions driving the plot, a tragic love story. Beginning the book by showing us the end outcomes for its characters lends a deeper poignancy to the latter half of the book when we see the characters at an earlier time full of hope and untrammeled idealism. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is an exciting, passion-inducing, deeply engaging book. After reading it, you may be moved to learn about the post-colonial history in Trinidad. I certainly was, and found that the country presents complexities that far surpass its physical size and are still far from resolved.

In a 2010 interview, Roffey revealed that the Trinidad Tourist Board wants nothing to do with her book. That’s a shame, as I found that, in addition to feeling for and pulling for Sabine and George and the other characters in the book, I finished the book, like Sabine, pulling for Trinidad too. The country has badness in it, though it is not bad. It has foolishness in it, though it is not foolish; it has fucked up miserably at times (as many countries have), but as we both witness and experience while reading this novel, it nonetheless inspires deep love.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

By Monique Roffey

Penguin Books, 2011

437 Pages