Platoon (Special Edition)

New Price:
Used Price:

Mentioned in:

Paris, Wikipedia, and My Middle Age Crisis

Each man’s middle age crisis begins at an indeterminate age and offers a peculiar window into the architecture of masculine decline. In this respect it mimics death, which is both punctual and ruthlessly efficient in its demolitions. For many men, the crisis begins with the fear that your Emersonian Self-Reliance is spent, or even worse, you’ve sucked so deeply on the marrow of life that you are now as penniless as Henry David Thoreau.

In my case, the crisis has arrived at the age of 39 with the realization that I’m numerically closer to 48 than I am to 29. Now this isn’t to suggest my twenties were a time of wine and roses, but simply to make the point that 48 is old—crotchety old in my book, as in Mr. Roper the curmudgeonly landlord in Three’s Company or the portly short-order cook Mel Sharples from Alice (I’m painfully aware that younger readers may find these 1970s references both dated and horridly nostalgic). And the reason that 48 is old, of course, is that it is two steps from 50, which is not the new 20 or the new 30, but the old half-century mark, period.

I proudly note that my crisis has not involved acting out cultural stereotypes — there have been no impulsive trips to the Corvette dealership or expensive gym memberships — but centers instead on Wikipedia entries and male celebrities over the age of 40. It plays out like this: night after night I Google celebrities as they flash across my television screen, not only looking up their age, but trying to get a handle on what they’ve accomplished by 40 — and even more importantly — what great achievements are possible in the 5th, 6th, and even 7th decades of one’s life.

I quickly realized Wikipedia was indispensable for such queries, for its entries list a person’s date of birth up front, along with paragraphs on the celebrity’s early life, professional career, and personal life. Armed with accurate chronologically-based facts, I learned how little I’d accomplished by 39 in relation to say, Charlie Sheen, who though he is clearly in a class by himself when it comes to the middle age crisis, did have impressive films like Platoon and Wall Street on his resume years before tiger blood and Twitter.

Over time my Wikipedia research has uncovered the dark underbelly of my own crisis, which isn’t that I fear death to be imminent, but that I regret the years I squandered in my twenties and thirties loitering through time and space. As a result, my non-existent Wikipedia listing has nothing about the spellbinding novel I’ve written, the legendary appearances on the Charlie Rose Show, the critically-acclaimed performance in Sofia Coppola’s recent dreamy bio-epic on Morrissey or my special friendship with writer Christopher Hitchens.

Speaking of Charlie Rose, I know from Wikipedia that he was born in 1942, which if you do the math makes him 69. From my crisis point of 39, I can comfort myself by thinking, “Okay, after the age of 40, Charlie lived 29 more years where he did some of his best work.” I scan down to the “Career” section of his biography where I find the real gem in his entry: he didn’t begin the Charlie Rose Show until 1991 at the mature age of 49. This means I still have 10 more years to finish the novel and/or bump into Sofia Coppola on the streets of Paris.

Watching the news over the last two months I’ve become curious about former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK). It turns out that DSK is 62 years old, seven years younger than Charlie Rose, but arguably less attractive, although we’d need a woman between the age of 35 and 50 to confirm this. And although he’s shaped like a beet and not particularly handsome, it was a revelation to learn that he was an infamous ladies’ man in France. I began to wonder: will I still be attractive to women when I’m in my 60s? Being happily married I will never find out of course, but men — like their female counterparts — like to think they remain at least plausible to the opposite sex.

During a typical night of TV I come across CNN’s Piers Morgan, he’s probably about 50, but I’m not that interested in Mr. Morgan so I don’t Google him. I flip from channel 702 all the way up to 790 and then to the chagrin of my lovely wife — who is not in the least alarmed I will soon be 40 — I descend back to 702, pausing briefly on ESPN to marvel at men who are forever in their prime. This pause gives rise to guilt that I’m not reading volume two of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by the fabulous Spanish novelist Javier Marias, who was born in Madrid in 1955 and is now 56. I learned too late that Marias is precisely the kind of person you do not want to look up on Wikipedia, because he published his first novel when he was 20, speaks English flawlessly, and because he’s European, does not have the kind of American habits that give rise to middle-aged bellies the size of the Iberian Peninsula.

The crisis goes on like this night and day. It matters little whether I’m on YouTube, watching television, flipping through my wife’s magazines or churning through RSS feeds and Twitter updates, there are always endless amounts of famous, middle-age men to look up. There is the former Connection radio host Christopher Lydon (70), my favorite literary critic Harold Bloom (80 — which means I could double my life, if I shared his longevity), former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer (51), British rocker Morrissey (52), and on and on it goes.

In addition to my Wikipedia obsession, it has also been impossible to ignore that something new, and very French, is happening to me: I’ve been reading and talking far too much about Paris lately, which is significant because I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a Francophile. A sudden interest in Adam Gopnik’s (55) book Paris To the Moon, a yearning to watch Juliette Binoche (47) movies on Netflix, and the serendipitous connections involving Frenchman DSK, Sofia Coppola (39) who lives in France, Charlie Rose who is a well-known Francophile, and Christopher Hitchens (62), who used to be a Marxist (Okay, I admit that one is a stretch).

Having read the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, I was immediately concerned that like the character April Wheeler, I was fantasizing about a magical life in Paris as a form of escapism. It worried me that it was possible to quit my job, sell the condo, move to Paris (I’ve seen it done on HGTV’s House Hunters International after all) and start working on a novel while my wife spent her days buying fresh-cut flowers and baguettes. But before I could become too anxious about what it all meant, a factoid from the book hit me. The characters Frank and April Wheeler weren’t going through a middle age crisis — they were no more than 30 in the book — but a metaphysical crisis, which I wrapped up way back when I was 35! No need to worry.

Relieved that the Wheelers’ crisis wasn’t my own, I started thinking that living in Paris for a few years might not be the mark of crisis at all, but an opportunity. That’s what Gopnik did, not to mention the novelist Paul Auster (64) who lived in Paris in the early 1970s. They did not move to France permanently, for that would be rather clichéd, and let’s face it, slightly pathetic. I’m talking about a few years, five tops.

I can picture it now: my wife and I are lounging at a café in the 6th district. I’m scribbling away in a notebook as my wife raves about how fresh the arugula is. All of a sudden, we look up and see the lithe figure of Sofia Coppola and her husband, Phoenix front man Thomas Mars (34), standing directly in front of our table. “Are you an American by any chance?” she says. “Why yes. I sure am,” I respond.

We invite them to sit down and Sofia explains how her next film is about an American in Paris. She describes the project as a “kind of Henry James meets Quentin Tarantino (48) type of thriller” — and I’m instantly intrigued. Within minutes Sofia presses a script into my hands and declares I’m perfect for the role. We decide to move the feast to Sofia’s penthouse where everyone kicks back, while I rework her script on the fly. I hand the manuscript back to Sofia with red slashes and scribbled words. She pauses to scan my edits and is dumbstruck at my narrative instincts and ear for dialogue.

“You’re a writer too?” Sofia says.

“Yeah, I’ve written a few things,” I say modestly.

“How is it that we’ve never heard of you before,” Sofia says. “With all this talent?”

I shrug my shoulders and wink at my wife.

“You must be one of those, how do you say in English, late bloomers?” Thomas asks.

“That’s it,” I say, downing a glass of wine. “I’m a late bloomer.”

 

Image credit: Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray (60) on set via orangeintense/Flickr

Watching Cuba Watching

1.
I am in Havana, sitting next to Pepé on the seawall of the Malecón. The news tells me that Cuba is changing, but the sun still looks like a tangerine soaked in blood. We watch it sinking fast into the ocean.

My traveling companion KC had asked Pepé to take our picture because he looks to be in his eighties, and we don’t think he will get the wrong idea. At twilight the Malecón, a sidewalk running between a busy boulevard and the sea, is where lovers stroll, teenagers fight and prostitutes prey. We have only been in Cuba for a few days and still don’t fully understand the dual currency system and public transportation, but we know the pervasive hiss of a Cuban man.  A hiss seems to mean anything from a catcall to a simple hello, yet it sounds menacing in our ears.

“Are you going to stay for the cannon show?” Pepé asks, after KC explains how to work her digital camera. “There is a cannon show at 9 p.m. every night.”

Pepé takes our photo and then sits between us. His face is tanned dark and is wrinkled like a raisin; his light blue eyes are filmy with cataracts. KC’s red curly hair and white freckled skin look exotic next to his. Our six legs dangle above the rocks and water. The night is warm, and we drink pineapple juice mixed with rum, tasting a little salt in each sip from the sweat on our lips.

Pepé tells us what the houses lining the Malecón used to look like before 1959. He braces himself on the seawall with one hand while sweeping the other across his body with a flourish. “They were beautiful,” he says. “They were the most beautiful!” I think I can imagine how they might have been, tall townhouses with ample porches and breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. But now the homes are hunched over, with sagging roofs, broken windows and peeling paint.

“Was it better back then?” I ask. I assume Pepé would have been around our age when Batista was still in power.

He shrugs his thin shoulders.

I still haven’t learned that questions like this make some people uncomfortable. I check KC’s watch. It’s forty-five minutes until the cannon show. Pepé’s loafers dangle higher than our flip-flopped feet; like his body has shrunk from too much heat in the dryer. My heels have been beating against the wall to a rhythm I can’t place. I will them to stop, to just dangle. I breathe in the salty air, in through my nose, out through my mouth.  I press my heels together, my ankles, my knees, my thighs, and release.

“I am retired, but before, I worked at a store,” Pepé says softly. His Spanish is hard to understand.  It comes out when he exhales, in phrases bunched into what sound like single words.  “When he came to power,” Pepé scratches his chin to make the sign of a beard, “I worked on the roads, construction.”  He pauses. “The roads are nice, si?”

We nod and know that scratching his chin signals that he is referring to Fidel. I had read about the thousands of neighborhood watch teams that Fidel employed, not to protect the streets from drug dealers or burglars, but from dissidents, counterrevolutionaries.

“But yes,” Pepé says quietly, “it was better before.”

We continue to sit, and I stretch my legs long, trying to touch my toes to the water. “Ten cuidado! Be careful!” Pepé says. “When I was a boy, I once saw a shark when I was swimming out there!”

“What kind of shark?”

“Do you think I waited around to see?!” Pepé cackles and slaps his knees.  He looks at KC’s watch.  “It is almost time.”

We sit up straight. It is dark now, but I get my camera out just in case.  I strain my ears to hear and my eyes to see.

A single cannon goes off, we hear it in the distance. Pepé swings his legs around the seawall. “I am going home.”

“Is it over?” we ask.

“Yes. And it is time for me to go to bed.”

2.
I am sitting in a health clinic in Cienfuegos, a town off the southern coast of Cuba. Dr. Mario grasps the flabby underside of my right tricep and presses it to his face. “Do you know Gary Cooper?” he asks me in Spanish.

“No.”

“You have never heard of him?”

“Is he an old movie star?” I guess, vaguely remembering my mom telling me that one of her girlfriends named her new Mini Cooper “Gary.”

“He was very famous,” Dr. Mario says. He speaks slowly and is easier to understand than most Cubans we have met, perhaps because the clinic I have come to is designated for tourists. “He came here once.”

It is stuffy in the clinic, and I’m feeling self-conscious about Dr. Mario’s face so close to my armpit. He looks to be in his forties, and I wonder if he knows his name reminds me of a Nintendo video game character.

My arm is covered in red welts that look like a topographical map of volcanos.  He raises my tricep to a 90-degree angle, and presses my elbow away from his face. I wince because this is the movement that makes my shoulder roll out of its socket.

“Am I hurting you?” he asks, looking puzzled.  My shoulder has dislocated two other times I have traveled outside of the US.  When it springs from its socket, my tendons release and only a doctor is able to put it back in.  In Spain, I became fluent in ways to explain my shoulder in the sling.  But that was years ago, and I have forgotten the conjugation.

“A shoulder I have is bad,” I tell Dr. Mario.  “At times it hurts me.”

“Oh, I am sorry, I will be more careful.”

I smile and try to relax my shoulders to prove that I trust him.

“Does your arm itch when it is wet?” he asks.

“Yes.” After leaving the heat of the interior of Cuba, in Cienfuegos we had chosen a casa particular, a home with a license to rent bedrooms, near the water. We have been swimming in the ocean ever since we arrived.

“Does your arm itch when it is dry?”

“Yes.”

“Would you say that this thing is spreading?” Dr. Mario asks.

“I think it’s spreading a little.”

“Have you seen Back to the Future III?”

“Yes.”

“Did you like it more than the second one?”

“Not really.”

“It’s on TV right now.” Dr. Mario’s nurse turns the TV on. “Some Miami channels come in right here.” Dr. Mario’s nurse wears a tight white blouse that shows her deep cleavage, and her skirt ends a foot above her knees. She wears white fishnet hosiery and a little white hat with a red cross on it. My sister received the same outfit as a gift at her bachelorette party. We have found in Cuba this is not just the uniform for nurses though. Every woman in uniform, from teachers to policewomen to shopkeepers, wears a similar variation of short skirt, tight top and fishnets in eccentric patterns and colors.  KC and I call them the naughties and delight over pointing them out to each other.  The naughty nurse was earlier acting as a receptionist.  Now with her in the room with Dr. Mario, KC has wandered in too and is standing by the doorway.  The health clinic for tourists is otherwise empty.   I see KC fingering her camera in her pocket, dying to take a picture of the most perfect archetypal example of a naughty.

Dr. Mario and the naughty nurse have become engrossed in Back the Future III.

“I have noticed a bit of bumps on my side too,” I say to get their attention.

Dr. Mario turns back to me, puts on his glasses and looks again.  “I think it is a rash. Yes, it is a rash.  I’ll give you some cream.”  He gives me calamine lotion, the same stuff I have been using.  My visit is pointless, but it only costs $25 dollars, the same as Dr. Mario’s monthly salary, if he is lucky.

“Have you ever seen Platoon?” he asks as we walk out.

“No.”

“It’s a good movie. You should see it.”

3.
Tony instructs us to find big rocks.  He wants to place big rocks behind the tires of his tiny red car so it does not roll down the road.  The road is black asphalt which is cracked and frying under the mid-day sun.  The road goes straight up the side of a tree-covered mountain, and the mountain looks steeper than a black diamond ski run.  Tony is old and rusty like his car, but he’s squatting in a sprinters pose behind the bumper as if he’s about to spring off the blocks.  He has all 130 pounds of himself pushing against the car, waiting for KC and me to produce rocks.  For the first few minutes of rock hunting, we have avoided the woods running alongside both sides of the road, but now I am starting to panic; I am starting to envision Tony’s car flattening him, so I run into the woods even though the grass is as tall as I am and the snakes are waiting to eat me.  When we find four big enough rocks and bring them to Tony, he talks to God as he places each rock behind each tire. Tony tells us that he thinks it’s the caja de cambia that is broken in his car.  Caja de cambia means box of change and at first I think he means a piggy bank, but then I think harder. It has to be something with the gear shifter, the transmission?  I look to KC, who doesn’t understand very much Spanish, but has a penchant for memorizing bizarre vocabulary.  She shakes her head no; she doesn’t know what it means either.

Tony’s car is a red Russian Lada that was probably built in the 70’s.  The cars in Cuba are either American and built before 1962 when the full embargo started, or Ladas from the 70’s and 80’s when Cuba was on good terms with the Soviet Union.  Seeing old cars zoom through Cuban cities has made me feel like I am magically living in the past, but right now there is nothing supernatural about a car in the middle of nowhere that won’t start.

Tony tells us to sit on the edge of the road and stop hovering.  KC gingerly extracts our water bottles and towels from the back seat.  The sun is directly overhead and her watch confirms that it is noon.  To cool down, we debate taking off our t-shirts and shorts and just being in swimsuits, but we decide that being hot is better than being sunburnt. We hide under our towels instead, marinating in our sweat.

We have hired Tony to take us to El Nicho, a set of waterfalls hidden in the forest 90 km inland from the southeast coast of Cuba. Public transportation and car services won’t go to El Nicho because too many vehicles break down going up and down the mountain and then can’t be rescued due to lack of traffic and portable phones.  Even though Raul Castro has just allowed Cubans to own cell phones, people are still without enough money for food.  Several Cubans we have stayed with have insinuated how they find the futile freedom insulting.

KC and I continue to sit under our towel tent as Tony continues to curse at his Lada and God.  There aren’t many cars to be had in Cuba and they are expensive to maintain because they’re so old.

The owner of our casa had arranged a ride for us yesterday.  When the driver arrived, KC left for a minute to buy more water.  The driver just saw me, a blonde wearing sunglasses, sneakers, a tank-top, and running shorts, waiting in a rocking chair with my bottled water, camera, novel, and sunscreen.  He turned his car around and left.  “That’s what I was afraid would happen,” our casa owner had said.  “You look too foreign.  Being caught driving a foreigner when you don’t have a license is a crime.  If caught, his fine could cost him many months salary.”  We hadn’t realized riding in a non-licensed taxi was a crime.  I felt embarrassed we had put him in that position, yet if car owners don’t get caught, their payoff is a small fortune.  This morning our casa owner called his friend Tony.  We are paying Tony $50 to take us to and from El Nicho, where we will get to swim in secret waterfalls at the top of a mountain, a magical experience we expect to talk about in tones of reverence for years to come.  For this trip Tony will receive the equivalent of almost five months’ salary.

Tony tells us the car is dead and KC and I confer as to whether he used the permanent or temporary verb form of to be.  “We will have to just sit here and wait for another one,” he tells us in Spanish.  And I want to tell him what a terrible idea this is.   Obviously no one will be driving by in this remote part of the country and even if they are, who will want to risk putting foreigners in their car, and how are we supposed to walk somewhere when Tony’s so old and it’s so hot and his caja de cambia, essentially his 401K, is broken, all because we wanted to swim in a waterfall and see places others can’t.

I say nothing and tilt my bottle of water his way.  He waves it off and says he will try the car one more time.

He turns the key, and the engine sounds like shoes in a washing machine, but at least it’s making noise. Tony yells for us to get in, “The car has started! Run!” He reaches over and opens the front passenger door, and we throw ourselves in.  We squish into this one seat, afraid to move, afraid to let one of our legs accidentally touch the gear shift.  We hold our breath and suck in our stomachs. From the way the car is bucking and inching up the hill, it looks like a low-rider with massive shocks.  I whisper that we are in a rap video, we are video vixens, and we start to laugh. Tony hears us laughing and he laughs too.  “Gracias Tony,” I say.

“Me? Thank Cuba!” he replies.  He starts to chant “Cuba.” Starting low and slow and getting faster, “Cooooooooooooobaaaaaa, cooooobbbbaaaaa, coooobbaaa!” he commands us to join. “Cooooobaaaa! Coooooooba! Cooooobbbaaaa!” we shout over and over, and the car doesn’t stop until we get to the waterfalls.

4.
I am running in the sand shouting to a boy named Manny to pass his soccer ball “aqui, aqui! Here! Here!” My voice is loud and there is no inflection of a question in the words that come out of my mouth for I am feeling confident.

For three weeks, KC and I have been seeing boys play soccer in every city and town we visit, and I have watched with unfettered envy, having played soccer since I was five and desperately wanting to join but feeling too shy.  Besides, being foreign women traveling alone has created more attention than we have wanted or expected.  Playing soccer in the streets wouldn’t help our immersion. Yet the longer we are in Cuba, the more I have been fantasizing about a stray ball coming my way, and kicking it back with perfect precision and the eight-year-old boys cheering and begging me to join their team.

While KC and I are walking along the beach in the small town of Playa Siboney, the stray ball finally rolls my way. I kick the ball back firmly and with precision.  He kicks the ball back to me, and therefore I love him. Manny tells me in Spanish that he and his friends are seventeen and recently out of school for the summer holiday. He asks me if I am a professional soccer player and I am flattered, even though he only asks me this because girls in Cuba don’t play sports; he assumes I have to be.

“No, I’m not a professional.” I laugh.

“You don’t play?”

“No. Well, yes, I do.”  There was the rec league I joined in NYC the previous year, where our forty-minute games revolved more around the post Happy Hour spot than the actual soccer.  “I am on a team, but it’s not professional.”

“So you’re a professional?”

“No.  I’m on a team of people my age and older, people who have jobs, so yes they are called professionals, but they are not professionals at soccer. Just professionals at work.”

“Jorge ven aqui!” Manny shouts to his friend.  “La rubia es un jugador professionale!” The blonde is a professional soccer player! He turns back to me.  “Are you here with your team?”

Deciding I love the sound of jugador professionale, I relent. “No, It’s off-season right now, so I’m on vacation.”

We decide to play an actual game with the boys but opt to go back to our casa particular first to change into t-shirts and shorts.  We tell the boys that we will  be back in five minutes, and Manny and Jorge tell us to put on shoes too because once out of the shade, the sand gets so hot that our feet will burn.  They show us pieces of cardboard duct-taped to the pads of their feet.

As we jog to our house, I thank KC for humoring me.  “It will be good practice,” she says, “for when you start your job.”   Before leaving for Cuba, I had accepted a coaching position in NYC that would entail coaching high school boys around the same age.

“I know! Maybe they can give me some ideas.”

After changing, we race back to the beach only to find that the boy who owns the soccer ball has left.

“Do you want to go swimming with us instead?” Manny asks.

We look at the ocean. “Swimming in the ocean” for Cuban teens involves throwing a bottle of rum from person to person, and couples groping each other underwater.  “No,” I say.  “I think we’ll just read.”

We settle down on our towels and open our books. Moments later six of the boys are back, making themselves comfortable in the sand next to our towels.  They speak in rapid-fire Spanish. We had been able to hold our own when it came to soccer, hot sand, and my professional status, but now, we struggle to understand.  For a while we ask them to slow down por favor or we simply nod, “Si, estoy de acuerdo.”  Yes, I agree with you—something we have picked up when the owners of our casa particulars vent about the Cuban economy.  Eventually, Manny stops and slowly repeats himself.

“So you want to buy me?”

“What?” I say.

“Buy me. For the night. Or one hour if you like.” He shrugs one shoulder. “But you might want two.” Manny’s skin is tanned dark, he has floppy brown hair and looks to be too thin for his age. I want to take him to get his hair trimmed so he can see better and then buy him ice cream.

“No! No! I don’t want to buy you.”

His face falls and I look to KC as I feel myself blushing and talking faster and faster.  “Thank you for the offer.  It’s just that I don’t buy people. I don’t need to buy people.  In the States,” I jab a finger toward the ocean, “We are doing just fine, you know, without buying people.” For once, it’s the boys who are looking confused as I continue to babble.  “We don’t buy people.  You are not for sale.”

I have read about the Cuban sex trade.  We have seen older European men with Cuban girls whose little bodies barely fill out their bikinis. But we have watched from a distance.  Seeing the girls had sickened and saddened me, but I still felt like I was the observer, a sociologist of sorts.

“Yes, we are for sale,” Manny restates.  “Older women like to buy younger boys.”  He speaks slowly and deliberately so nothing is lost in translation.  His friends, who all look to be even younger, nod. “We pleasure them, and they buy us presents.”

“Listen,” I try again. “We can’t buy you.  I taught boys your age in school about books, and grammar and poems—”

“We can teach you too.”

“No, no.” I am feeling flustered.  These boys who were jabbering about how to make shoes out of cardboard are now asking us to buy their bodies.  Maybe these boys were just joking with us, maybe they thought we were somehow their age too.

“How old are these women who buy you?”  I ask.

“All ages. Some 75, others younger.  They like us young boys. You would too, yo prometo, I promise.”

5.
KC and I are wandering down the beach, looking for a hidden path.  That morning the couple we were staying with told us about a hidden path off the beach which led to a wooden bridge and across the bridge, there is a village, and somewhere outside the village, there is a road and off the road there is a section of jungle and through the jungle there is an underwater cave that sometimes people lead you to for a small price.  But seeing as I still got confused when people directed us to go straight, derecho, versus turning right, derecha, and the air in Baracoa smelled like chocolate no matter where we walked, I didn’t have my hopes up for finding the cave.

Already the town of Baracoa had seemed mysterious, a city on Cuba’s easternmost tip— closer to Haiti than to Havana.  It was discovered by Columbus in 1492 but remained, essentially, only accessible by boat until 1964 when Che Guevara presided over the opening of a chocolate factory and a highway was built.

We spot the path and cross a river by walking across a bridge made of wooden beams.  Beside the bridge, shirtless men drag nets along the bottom of the river.  Small sail boats are tied to the edge of the river and on the other side is a village, just like we were told.   In the village we wander along a dirt road but then we don’t know what to look for.  Wandering has taken on a new meaning in Cuba; every day we wander, waiting for something to happen, hoping what happens will be good; it usually is.

An old woman beckons for us to enter her home off the dirt path. Her house is a small hut with an earthen floor.  Several rats as big as cats stare at us from the inside of two wire cages, while the woman cuts up mangos with a machete.  She hands pieces to each rat and to me and KC. She asks us if we have come to see the underwater cave.  She says, “We give tours for not much money.”

We see an old man sitting in a chair who looks to be the woman’s husband.  There are also two girls who look to be in their teens.  Each of the girls is breastfeeding an infant.  While the women speaks to us in Spanish about the underwater cave, the old man sits motionless in his wooden chair.  His chin rests against his concave chest and he appears to be sleeping.  The chair looks like it grew around him and if you cut him he would have rings of age too.  Yet when we agree to go on a tour to the cave, he quickly stands.  His puddle of wrinkles loosens and he looks younger, now maybe seventy years old instead of 1,000. Without speaking, he motions for us to follow him to the back yard.

Behind their house is a grove of very tall coconut trees.  A few giant hogs and a trail of piglets follow us through the grove and a younger man appears from behind one of the trees.  The younger man welcomes us and knocks coconuts down by throwing his machete at the high branches. He cuts the tops off the coconuts and gives them to us to drink.  When we are finished he tells us we can give our extras to the pigs.  “Are you ready to see the underwater cave?” the younger man asks.

The old man, still having not spoken is standing next to the younger man.  Again he motions for us to follow him. Then he starts to sprint, straight into the jungle.

KC and I run after the old man who is weaving through the jungle.  The path is narrow so we run in single file. While running I glance back at her while trying not to lose my footing.  She’s still there—she smiles.  The old man wears sandals and loose pants.  He sidesteps every tree branch, but they scrape across my face and when I look down I see that my arm is bleeding.  The blood looks burnt, and I wonder if my face is bleeding too, but I can’t stop because I can no longer see the coconut grove behind us, and we don’t know where we’re going.

After twenty minutes of weaving through the trees, the man stops abruptly in front of a tree with branches stretched like octopus tentacles.  I bend over and breathe hard, asking my heart not to explode. KC catches up, and we look at each other with big eyes. The man reaches for one of the branches and pulls down a rope ladder.  He mimes climbing and points at me to start.  My legs are shaky as I slowly move up the ladder.  At the top is a platform the size of home plate balanced between two branches. KC and I grasp the tree trunk between us with both hands as we both tentatively place our feet on the platform.

Wow, I try to say as I open my mouth wide, but no sound comes out.  It’s as if the man’s silence has rendered me mute.  I can see green mountains.  I can see El Yunque, a mountain with a flat top that Columbus had thought was a floating island over 500 years before. I lift to my tiptoes and I see the ocean; I think I see Haiti. We are on an island in the ocean, on a tree branch with an old man.  I look down the tree, and the old man has disappeared. Magical, I think. I am experiencing magic.

A moment later, I see that the old man has not ascended into heaven, the old man is removing rocks from his sandals.  He is breathing hard from running too, and I am looking at the top of his head.  When he looks up at me, I point out to the horizon, I point to our vista and call down the tree. “It’s amazing!” I say.  “Que bontia! What beauty! Is this all yours? Is this land in your family?”  He doesn’t answer.  Later that day, after we swim in the underwater cave, after more mango with his family, after holding the babies, I remember stupid, stupid, none of this is his.

6.
I am standing in a bus station trying to see Raul Castro.  He is on a small, dirty TV hanging from the ceiling. The TV is on mute, but I can still hear his voice projected by loudspeakers across the city.  I am in Santiago de Cuba and Raul is making his first public speech since being appointed president.  He is 300 yards from the bus station, but he is in a park surrounded by tall yellow walls that make it impossible to get inside.

We have been in Cuba for 22 days.  It is July 26th.  On this day in 1953, Fidel and a group of 82 revolutionaries attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.  The attack failed, but the group later reorganized in Mexico. On New Year’s Day in 1959, when Batista and his family boarded an early morning flight to flee Cuba, Fidel and his revolutionaries had officially overthrown their government. It is the failed Movimiento 26 de Julio that is  celebrated, however, because it marks the first act in the ultimately successful revolution–a pre-pre-triumph. For many years, this was the only holiday that Fidel allowed to be celebrated. This particular July 26th is being hailed as the 50th anniversary of the final victory of the revolution.

The TV shows me that Raul is wearing the same Army green hat and jacket that he and Fidel always wear in public.  But he looks nothing like Fidel, besides being old.  He is shorter than Fidel and wears glasses.  A moustache has replaced the beard.

The reception on the TV is bad and lines run through Raul’s face.  Also, the bus station smells like mold, so I leave and try to get closer to the voice.  It has grown dark while Raul has been speaking, and from the way the stage is lit, the yellow walls now appear gold. I am alone because KC has a stomach bug and is trying to get some sleep in the casa where we are staying.  Outside the walls, I still can’t see Raul, so I leave to check on KC. The hilly streets in Santiago de Cuba remind me of San Francisco.  From every angle, I can see the Sierra Maestra Mountain range looming over the city, the mountains which Fidel and his men hid in before their final triumphal entry.  There is a soft breeze tonight, and I am enjoying the solitude.  I decide to walk the long way and buy KC lemon soda for her stomach before returning home.

Our only plan for our time in Cuba was to be in Santiago de Cuba for July 26th.  We left the US on our day of independence and wanted to get, on time, to the city where Cuba celebrated theirs. Since the day we arrived in the city, we have been asking official looking people when Raul would speak.  What time? What place? But no one seemed to know or care.  “In the morning?” a policeman would say.  “Late at night,” another would answer.  Maria, the woman whose casa we were staying in, explained that people were not very excited about Raul.  “He’s just the same,” she had said in Spanish.

“But what about the DVD players he is allowing and the cell phones and how you can go to the hotels?” I asked.  Under Fidel, Cubans had not been allowed in any hotels. Fidel hadn’t wanted his tourist base to see the hunger of his people.  The people still couldn’t afford a hotel, but I thought that the added freedoms must be a step in the right direction.

“He is just the same,” Maria repeated. “They make promises they can’t keep.”

To celebrate the Movimiento 26 de Julio, there has been a weeklong carnival with parades every day and parties every night that have lasted until six in the morning.  But now as I walk to buy KC the soda, for the first time I have been in Cuba, or any city for that matter, the streets are empty.  The emptiness feels eerie, as if the city has been raptured to somewhere else.  I hear no hissing, no rubia, no questions of where I’m from, no begging, all I hear is Raul’s voice.

Even though I can’t understand what he is saying, I can hear the rhythms of his oration, the rise and fall of his speech and the volume growing softer and louder.  During my time in Cuba I have understood a large amount of Spanish, but the voice filtered through the loudspeakers, his thick accent, the night, I can’t comprehend a word he says—as if he’s only telling Cuba his secrets.

Houses line the streets and the windows and doors of every house are open to catch the breeze.  I can see inside the homes because they are lit by Raul’s face.  In each house, families, couples and friends are gathered, their faces also illuminated by Raul.  Some of the homes are nice by Cuban standards with a couch, tiled floor and a fish tank on display, whereas others have dirt floors and plastic chairs, but almost every home has a TV.

I walk slower, unnoticed.  I watch a city watching Raul on the night of the anniversary of the revolution.  I watch a nation with the potential for magic, broken but tied to an event so many years before.  I watch Cuba watching for its demise or its triumph, afraid to admit its hope.

(All photos copyright the author)

Down by the Riverside

I.
Having failed to convince friends to join me, I went alone to Riverside Church the night of November 9th for Mary Travers’ memorial service. On my way in, an usher handed me a program with a black and white photograph on the cover of a bombshell with long blond hair and blunt bangs, a straight nose, almond eyes staring at the camera, and a sensuous mouth. I opened the program and scanned the pictures—black and white and color, aesthetically delineating eras—on the inside flaps: that same blond bombshell performing at the Lincoln Memorial (black and white), smiling at her husband (color), doing presumably good deeds in a presumably third world country (black and white), and with her two bandmates, smiling and bald from chemotherapy on what looks like the stage at Carnegie Hall (color).

Inside the sanctuary, the pews were packed with the predictable sea of gray hair, sober colors, practical sweaters and comfortable shoes. (Two thousand people, the paper reported the next day.) I slipped into a seat three rows from the back between a man my father’s age and a woman my mother’s. At 29, I was at the youthful end of those who had read the small notice in the Times that morning: “A memorial celebration of the life and music of the folk singer Mary Travers will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday at Riverside Church. Ms. Travers, who with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey formed the renowned trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died on Sept. 16. Besides Mr. Yarrow and Mr. Stookey, participants in the celebration will include Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton… Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Moyers, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Senators George S. McGovern and Max Cleland.”

A video montage of Peter, Paul and Mary concert clips featuring “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” was code for “Please turn off your cellular devices,” and the service began. Cameras on mechanical arms manned by a PBS film crew patrolled the airspace above the gray heads like giant disembodied insect legs. As it goes with memorial services, a parade of people—many famous—from Travers’ life then began filing on and off stage to lead the audience in song and to recall and applaud her beauty and talents and hobbies and temper and quirks and grace in the face of illness. November 9th would have been her 73rd birthday. I thought about how somber parades like this of personalities and anecdotes ask us, “Remember this time? Remember that time?” and how we in the audience then say to ourselves, “Yes,” even when the truth is closer to, “No, but I believe it.”

Veiled cell phone warnings notwithstanding, for the duration of that first half hour, a man in the pew in front of me held his phone in the air so that the person at the other end of the line could hear what she was missing. I pictured that other person on a couch in a comfortable living room somewhere sitting alone with the phone to her ear, her face quiet. I wondered whether she was his wife, daughter, or granddaughter and whether she could hear a word of what was being said or sung through the earpiece, or whether all she heard was the occasional garbled lyric of a well-known protest song and the static of periodic applause.

I preferred to imagine her as woman of about my own age and the man in front of me as her father. He had probably told her about the car he drove in those days, about the time he took it to the record store to buy his first Peter, Paul, and Mary album, about how he had taken the record back to his house, put it on the record player and promptly developed a crush on that blond bombshell. Maybe he had told her how he had once seen the group in concert and been close enough to see that the buttons on Mary’s shirt were made from mother of pearl. Speaking of mothers, he may have then said, your mother has always been very patient with me. Sitting behind him that night, I wondered whether holding up his phone was this man’s way of asking his daughter to remember the things he had told her about who he had once been in another time and place. I wondered whether the she in this equation was sitting wherever she was sitting with the phone to her ear for his sake or hers.

II.
As a teenager I watched the movie Harold and Maude thinking what an eccentric hobby it would be to spend one’s spare time attending strangers’ funerals. That’s what you are supposed to think when you watch that movie; its eccentricity is the engine of its charm. Yet in the past year, this extracurricular activity seems to be one I’ve begun cultivating. Last February I braved an hour and a half in the bitter cold outside Riverside Church in a line that wrapped around the corner and reached to Broadway to attend Odetta’s memorial service. In May, I finagled prime seats to Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Bash at Madison Square Garden. The concert may have been billed as a celebratory extravaganza but it resembled a memorial service in that the celebration was one of a life nearing its end, and Pete was more the theme of the evening than the primary performer. And now, the Mary Travers service, back again at Riverside. I plan to keep going as the services keep coming, which they will.

So far, the events I’ve attended have shared traits: length (they have all been at least four hours long), singing, the singing of specific songs (“This Little Light of Mine,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Amazing Grace”), references to Selma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Dr. King, the Kennedy brothers, Nixon’s List of Enemies and Greenwich Village in the fifties and sixties, and famous faces on stage or at the pulpit podium (Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem, Peter Yarrow, Bill Moyers). The crowd always knows the words to the songs, as well as to clap reverently while nodding knowingly at the mention of key cultural touchstones. To watch a crowd like this respond to the word “Vietnam” is akin to watching more traditional evangelical churchgoers respond to a particularly resonant passage from The Book of John.

I went with friends to the Odetta service and to Pete Seeger’s birthday concert, and socialized with them throughout both, so sitting alone through Travers’ service was a new experience and one I intend to try again. All around me was a burgeoning community of mourners coming to pay their final respects and say goodbye to all that. The pews have been full thus far, but looking at that sea of gray hair I have begun wondering whether this Riverside pew community will begin to thin out as the services reach a fever pitch, then slowly fade to nothing. I keep picturing myself among the stragglers at these final services and us stragglers—us Harolds and Mauds—getting to know each other, making the pews a good place to be as our own hairs begin to gray.

A fair number of the people there had probably been at Odetta’s service and Pete’s birthday as well. Many were the same people who had celebrated life in a different way fifty or sixty years ago, doing their small parts to imbue the words “Selma” and “Vietnam” with the meanings they have today. Many, but not all. Some were also young, some middle-aged. These are the ones I will sit with when the pew population thins out. I looked for them now and then among the faces in the crowd that night. I wondered whether one day one or more of them would confide to me that the same things that brought me to these pews had brought them as well.

When I first took my seat that evening, I noticed those around me taking stock of my person—my age, my moderately expensive handbag, my iPhone, my fur vest. Throughout the service the man on one side of me would occasionally lean over and quietly ask me a question. In each case, I couldn’t tell whether he was hard of hearing or whether he was quizzing me on my place in that pew. If it was a quiz, I failed. The woman on the other side of me would wait for my responses before correcting me.

“Who’s that?” he whispered, as a man with white hair in a grey suit took the podium.

“McCarthy?”

“McGovern,” corrected the woman on my other side. I flushed.

As a string quartet played Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” he turned to me again and whispered, “What movie is this from?”

Apocalypse Now?”

Platoon,” hissed the woman on my other side.

I wanted to apologize for getting his questions wrong even when I knew the answers. Instead, I smiled as I stood to leave five minutes early. For the past half hour people had been slipping out and I had begun to feel as if I had stayed too long at the party. I was neither family, friend, nor peer, after all. I wished them a good night, hoping that next time, I would answer their questions correctly, that I would know my history, for their sake and mine.

III.
Goodbye to all that. You can’t write that phrase and not name-check Didion, who earned her reputation as the observer in their youth of the generation I was now observing in their age. In her famous essay, she explains how over the course of a decade, she fell in and then out of love with New York. She flew into the city at 20, a girl with all the time in the world, and she flew out of it at 29, a woman aware that neither time nor life were what they had been when she arrived. The essay is a memorial to a time and a place, and to a girl who had been and who that girl had become. It is melancholy and wry and wise and tender and bitter and sweet.

As it was beneath the arched stone ceilings of Riverside Church, beneath the strict architecture of Didion’s sentences, there is a great deal of emotion churning that people understand. Sitting in the church that night with nearly 2,000 people who remembered where they were and what they were doing on those days in 1968—more than a decade before I was born—when the gunshots sounded in Memphis and Los Angeles and their youth ended, I realized that just because these people had said goodbye to all that does not mean they ever let it go; that’s what memorial services like this were for. While some of the famous folkies may have lived fast, that was not the image they were projecting. The movement’s breakout stars were people who resembled, at least superficially, your average guy and gal who wanted to change the world and make it a better place back in the day; the folkies most resembled the everyday members of that generation. The ones dying now are not dying young, troubled, or tragically; these are the ones who have just gotten old and sick.

I never worry much about the fate of classical music or the novel when I catch talking heads bemoaning their imminent demises. I have a feeling both will find ways to weather their current and future storms with an audience to support them spiritually if not financially. I don’t know if I can say the same for folk music. It rose to popularity as a single generation came of age. It fell from grace when that generation got its rude awakenings. It has been growing old ever since alongside the people with whom it blossomed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it dies with them, too.

When Pete Seeger took the stage at Mary Travers’ memorial service, the entire room rose to its feet, a single organism, to give Seeger a standing ovation before his name had even been announced. Everyone in that room knew who the stooped old man carrying a banjo in the plaid shirt was. Last year, when I told friends—well-educated, left-leaning, socially-conscious individuals—I was going to Pete Seeger’s birthday concert, more than a handful had responded saying, “Wait, that name is familiar. Who is that again?”

IV.
There’s a Tumblr site called My Parents Were Awesome where people can submit old photographs of their parents when their parents were young. The site is like a photo album for a generation, not the public face of that generation, but a more private one. There’s Jim with his long hair and beard smiling at Elaine with her long blond ponytail and paisley shirt. There’s Vilma bearing her middriff at a dancehall. There’s Karin and Gary snuggling on a lime green beanbag chair. There’s Jim, hairy and shirtless, standing in the doorframe above Sue in her swimsuit on the steps of a wood-framed cabin. There’s Bob sucking on a hookah at the dining room table, and a smiling David embracing a smiling Norma in a peasant shirt that billows over her pregnant belly.

My parents were awesome once, too. My mother left the chicken farm in Maine where she had grown up for adventures in rent-striking, a summer on a Massachusetts naked commune during which she ate a naked dinner with Taj Mahal, and a failed-yet-eye-opening attempt at group-living in Haight-Ashbury; and my father, the architect and painter, who escaped the stifling atmosphere of country club St. Louis life for Cambridge and the offices of Hugh Newell Jacobson and Jose Luis Sert. They weren’t exactly hippies or fervent subscribers to any particular counter-cultural trend, but they were young and open to experiences and taking chances with their lives.

For years, there was a large painting of a suitcase hanging in my parents’ living room in Virginia. When I would ask about it my mother would respond, “Oh, that’s just by an old girlfriend of your father’s back in Cambridge.” I always wondered why my mother was okay with the fact that this strange still-life hung in our family living room, but it seemed to be something I would never understand. I’ve seen too the clothes my mother wore then. I fit into them in high school: the pink Mexican dress that ended halfway down my thigh, the brown and white striped Marimekko shift cut for a stick figure. I remember when she first brought them out of the attic for me to try on. “You look beautiful,” she said, looking at me in the Marimekko. “It fits you perfectly.” I continued growing, of course, and the dress hasn’t fit me for years. I don’t even know where it is now—whether it’s packed back away in some attic box that I will find when I have reason to go through those boxes, or whether I forgot it at a friend’s house or left it behind in a hotel room somewhere along the line.

There is a photograph I have on the refrigerator of my Brooklyn apartment that I think illustrates a moment of transition in my parents’ lives between who they were once and who they are now. It’s a family portrait taken on my mother’s childhood farm. My mother, in oversized sunglasses and her long hair pulled back, is beaming and holding the reins of my grandfather’s appaloosa. My father, in his aviators and chin-length hair, is standing behind the horse. You can’t quite see it, but you know his left hand is supporting me at six-months-old perched in the western saddle in front of my sister, who was seven years old at the time and who has her arms wrapped tightly around my babyness to make sure I don’t tip over and fall off. My parents are still relatively young here, they both look young and as if they might still occasionally act young around their friends. When my own friends come over and notice the picture, they often do a double take between me in real life, and my mother frozen in time. “You two look exactly alike,” they say.

The photograph, snapped in 1980, is in color, but the color wears that yellow coat of time. It is maybe the only photograph I have of my family in which I can see, for my parents, the continuity between their youth and their age. That said, I write this in a moment that I recognize as yet another time of transition in all our lives. The baby in the picture has just turned 30 and my father celebrates his 70th birthday in May. The hand holding up the baby in the photograph is slowly being lifted up and away from horse, saddle, and the blond seven-year-old as well.

My father, who has taught architecture at the University of Virginia for more than three decades, has been trying to pin down his retirement plans for years. He would habitually drag his feet when the topic came up, but this past summer, he set a date: May 2010. Two months later, the 36-year-old who was once the blond seven-year-old was diagnosed with cancer. There’s still the four of us for now, but there are also other things.

V.
I discovered the music of the folk revival movement after watching The Eyes on the Prize PBS series about the Civil Rights Movement in my eighth grade civics class with Mr. Moore and wondering about the soundtrack. Mr. Moore wasn’t crazy about getting up to the blackboard to lecture us, so he showed us movies instead. The Eyes on the Prize series took up a good two weeks of class time and by the time we had finished it I had decided I wanted to be a folk singer when I grew up because that was an effective way to change the world. I remember coming home each day after school and asking my parents about whether they had been to Selma or the March on Washington or where they had been when Dr. King was shot and how they had confronted their own parents about politics and whether they had ever seen Dylan in concert, or Odetta. To some questions they answered “Yes, and he was rude,” and to some, “No,” sometimes adding, “but we did watch on television and were of course sympathetic.” I was disappointed that they hadn’t been more politically strident, but was glad they hadn’t been boring either.

I don’t know if folk music is still an effective method of changing the world, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for it and for the sincere singers who popularized what became anthems for my parents’ generation. That said, I’m not and never have been a huge fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary. For all the individual strength of Mary’s vocals, I’ve always thought of the group as a little bland. Although my parents know all the songs and have memories of the group from when they were young, they feel—and felt—the same way; my parents and I have always preferred Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Arlo and Joan and Joni and Dylan. I did, however, at some point during my adolescence buy a CD or two of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s music that I would listen to occasionally. The first (and only) time I ever tried to add my own verses to a folk song was in ninth grade after repeatedly listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “500 Miles.” “If you miss the train I’m on,” the song goes, “you will know that I am gone…” I cannot remember what new stanzas I wrote down in the song notebook I kept, but I do remember how encouraging my parents both were when I came downstairs to sing for them with the guitar they had bought me.

I went to Mary’s memorial service, not for Mary so much as for my family. These days, when I talk to my parents on Sunday evenings as is our routine, we ask each other what we’ve done during the week. I tell them about the parties I’ve been to and the music I’ve been to hear and the museum exhibitions I have every good intention of attending. They tell me that the dog is well fed, that they talked to my sister a few days ago, and that things in general are just fine. But more and more, they’ve been telling me, too, about who doesn’t know how he hurt his back and who is feeling sad about her childrens’ life choices and who needs a hip replacement and who died quietly from a heart attack the day after he had gone out and bought himself a new computer. Every six weeks or so, we’ll go through the “What did you do this week?” routine, and they will run through the typical list of responses before I will say, “What else?” and they will then hesitate before elaborating: “Well, we went to so-and-so’s funeral. It was nice.” Most of the time it’s just an acquaintance or neighbor they have lived down the street from for 35 years, but sometimes too, and with increasing frequency, it is a beloved old boss or friend. I think then about Mom and Dad coming home from these services, my father calling to the dog and retreating to his studio, my mother going to her computer to see if there is a new email waiting for her in her inbox from either me or my sister. I can only hope we don’t let her down too often.

I knew when I told my parents over the telephone I had gone to Mary Travers’ memorial service that—even though they hadn’t been fans per se—they would want to hear all about it, just as they had wanted to know every detail when I told them I had gone to Odetta’s service and Pete’s birthday. I could hear it in their voices as they asked me questions—Who spoke? What did you sing? Did many young people go? Did you have a good time? Who went with you?—that they wished they could have been there. In each case, I tried to tell them everything I could remember to make what I had seen come alive for them, but I am a poor storyteller and I know my paltry accounts left them unsatisfied after we had exchanged “I love yous” and hung up the phone.

VI.
Riverside Church it is not yet a confirmed venue on the old folkie memorial service circuit, but my money’s on the likelihood of it becoming one. It is an interdenominational church with a liberal tradition. Martin Luther King spoke there, Nelson Mandela has too. The walls soar up past scenes in stained glass from the life of Christ to a domed ceiling. Church acoustics are always tricky, especially when the place has to accommodate more than a single voice. Sounds bounce from wall to wall to wall so that when you are singing as part of a group you can never be sure if you are singing to the intended beat or to your own imagined tempo; it’s nearly impossible to discern whether what you are hearing and following is coming directly from the choir and choir director, or from an echo across the room. Not even Pete Seeger, the master song director himself, can overcome this technical glitch. That night, my corner of the room reached the final line of “This Little Light of Mine” at least a measure ahead of Seeger and his banjo that “surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Outside, the church dwarfs the other buildings on its quiet Harlem corner and opens onto Riverside Drive. Unlike the great cathedrals of Europe, it does not open onto a city square in which pigeons beg for birdseed, men with carts sell postcards, and enterprising artists sell watercolors to tourists. Instead, it opens onto a scene that at first appears more modest but is really just more American. From the front steps you look out not at other buildings enclosing you inside the city, but to Riverside Park, the Hudson, and across the state line to the trees of Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Even the church’s name reminds me of its political and social allegiances. It was probably an unintentional allusion, but nonetheless when I think about the church I soon find myself humming an old Baptist spiritual co-opted by the folk revival movement: Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside…

I met the first boy I ever really loved during our first week of college in 1998. We sat next to each other at a lecture being given by the Reverend William Sloane Coffin. It was a small lecture hall and only half full. Coffin had been the outspoken and progressive chaplain at Yale during the Civil Rights Movement and then served as a senior minister at Riverside through the late Eighties. He retired to Vermont, not far from where I arrived that September, more than a decade younger than I am now. I don’t remember exactly what he lectured on that evening, but I do remember his thick white hair and how whatever it was he was saying was what I wanted to hear when I was scared and lonely, missing home and my parents intensely: stuff about taking on the world and doing the right things and making our families proud and one day, too, ourselves and our own children. Coffin died in 2006 at age 82, two and a half years after the boy I met that night when I was 18 years old broke my heart.

The boy and I didn’t start dating immediately as I had thought we would when we said goodbye to each other that night in the chilly New Hampshire darkness outside the lecture hall. In fact, we didn’t even know each other until we met again and started dating a couple of years later. We were a case of opposites attracting. I am highly sensitive and impulsive where he was (and is) analytical and methodical. It took me a long time to understand him, but my lack of understanding never meant a lack of sympathy, respect, or comfort. I always remembered how something had brought him to that auditorium his first week of college, how he had been there, his knee touching my knee, as we forgot—temporarily—our anxieties about our new lives. When we were together, I would sometimes ask him if he remembered that night and he never did. “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember?” I would ask. “We went to see William Sloane Coffin. We sat next to each other. I knew then that everything was going to be alright so far away from home.” In response, he would smile and shake his head. “No,” he would say, “I don’t remember, but I believe you.”

Image credit: Fabian

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR