Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Sounds, Not of Silence

This morning I hear cicadas in some brief mating sojourn. I cannot see them, for there are few trees in Tucson, and this is where I would have looked for cicadas were I in the Midwest. Not that I want to see them. I have a real “poison-them-all” attitude toward flying things with hard shells. I hear the swamp cooler and two fans, whooshing. Occasionally, a bird, and Bodie, the cat, adjusting his position in a chair before the screen door. My fingers beating at the keyboard. Every fifteen minutes, the clock tower on the university campus, a mile from here, announces itself, so that it is difficult to lose track of time. I’m sure if I listened closely enough I could hear traffic from a few blocks away, but the cicadas rule.

It is strangely quiet in this flat, spare town. Or, it is strangely quiet in this neighborhood. Most of the students have not yet returned from summer break. Even when they return, quietness tends to prevail. I’ve noticed it more since joining the neighborhood listserv after burglaries began to increase here last year. Sometimes burglaries are reported, but most discussion of thievery is characterized by its possibility and emerges from the paranoia of two old women who cruise the alleyways in search of criminals (which they claim almost always wear hoodies and carry backpacks) and refuse to open their front doors if someone knocks, their fingers perpetually poised over 911. At least this is the way they report it on the listserv.

The quietness of this neighborhood is different than the tableau of silence I imagine at my parents’ house in Illinois. It wasn’t long ago that I thought of that place as perfectly silent, almost motionless, for, when I moved to my first real town, Decatur, the city sounds punctured, as did the city light, and I found it difficult for a while to sleep and focus. Of course, the silence of this countryside is a myth, for there is always at least the rustle of leaves, the buzzing of insects, the plethora of bird calls, not to mention the farm equipment and the trains in the valley, which pass at least once an hour.

This morning, I started to read Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage. It opens with a description of her childhood in a Cairo not yet populated by the eternal honking variations of vehicles. Rarely does she hear a car horn, and the family dog always hears a vehicle coming before she does. She describes sounds both invigorating and spiritually lonely – from a reed piper to the greetings of people on the street. In spite of the absence of cars, which are so prevalent in the Egypt I knew, I can relate to the feelings of life she captures – the hearty greetings, the bustle of small business – even individual – commerce, and the growth of plants and animals encouraged by the proximity of the Nile. But mostly, a sense that life was present and acknowledged, a feeling that the existence of others mattered. I don’t want to exaggerate since the Egyptians I knew often complained that people were just not as friendly or helpful to strangers as they used to be, and there were plenty of moments in Cairo where I felt like either just another anonymous part of the hoard or just another foreigner waiting to be parted from her riches. But these moments, in my memory, are counterbalanced by acts of kindness, not only those which happened to me but which I observed from a distance, moments that I think James and I have recorded quite often in this blog. And a texture to those acts of kindness that I haven’t often met back in America.

Silence is not really about absence as much as presence and acknowledgment. I could be silent in Cairo, where “noise pollution” is deadly high, in the sense that I could feel life. I don’t know if that makes sense, but this morning in Tucson I do not feel life, and the silence feels less like silence than something palpably sinister. Where are all the people? Why aren’t they calling out to each other, talking? They know each other, some of these people who have lived here for years, but there is a lifelessness, a huddling that too easily translates to suspicion. I see this in many places in America, even the place I am from, the place that I in most ways love the most, and it makes me wonder about the ways in which Americans are destroying the capacity to love each other. This sounds dire. It is dire. When we can be suspicious of the people across the street, how can it be possible for us to cultivate the capacity to know and understand someone who lives across the ocean? I know this feeling. I live behind a fence, and it is difficult to see my house. I enjoy that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with privacy or solitude. And I stood at my window in Cairo and looked down at the street far too often to claim that I was immersed in Cairene street life. But I admired many parts of that life. I am envious of it. I wish I knew how to live like that. I wish I could be more like the man I passed in Cairo one morning, eating a sandwich, who casually offered me a bite.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt Sans Internet

Word is that Egypt has not simply shut down Facebook or Twitter, but that the Egyptian government took the bold step of actually shutting down the Internet. I was in Egypt for a few days when a ship had dropped anchor on the Internet cable buried in the Mediterranean. That's right, there is actually a cable buried in the Med upon which entire swaths of the Middle East depend for Internet access. The government hasn't cut the cable (yet). The country faces potential financial ruin if businesses open on Sunday without access to the Internet.

I know that Egypt has advanced under Mubarak. I know there was a controversial liberalization of the banks, unpopular with many, and an increase in tourism. And I know Egypt is better than a lot of other despotic regimes. There are institutions of government, and those do operate, even if they are riddled with petty bureaucrats who work an average of 15 minutes per day, the tasks of governance squeezed around Al Arosa tea and Cleopatra cigarettes.

All the same, I know about a police state that crushed dissidents, stifled political opponents, and robbed the democratic process of any integrity. I know basic goods and services haven't always been provided. I witnessed some of this (when I wasn't finding my own little things to complain about). But I also knew that public apathy wasn't the same thing as private discourse, of a talk among friends at the Horreya or the ubiquitous, tiled sheesha cafes. After all, Egyptians are famous talkers. They are lovely, social people at their core. I think they love the world, I really do, despite what you're seeing now, the pent-up anger blasting. They have their thoughts about Hosni Mubarak, as we can see by now. But there has always been a reticence to address it publicly, perhaps because no public platforms existed. So you would see frustration manifest in other ways--the physical assault of a former student, an attack on women by a mob at Eid in 2006, bread riots and strikes in 2008, silent protests in Alex last year when a young man was allegedly beaten to death by police. I wondered how a populace absorbs these blows, absorbs the attack on Christians (by the way, Christians have been protecting Muslims who are praying in the face of police, literally bowing to the illiterate young men wielding batons)--how it maintains its equilibrium in a city that is already tilted sideways, veering on a fine brink. These blows matter. They are felt. They reverberate. They are remembered, and they return when called upon by events like those in Tunisia.

I think I knew this could happen. I remember reading about revolutions in undergraduate history classes, from the brutal tyranny of the Soviets in Hungary and the Chinese in Tiananmen, to the toppling of the Soviet bloc. The governments ignore, then try to appease. Do they wait too long to appease, allowing a fire to go unchecked? Or does appeasement only elevate their opposition, embolden it? What happens when appeasement fails?

We are at that point now. The protestors may be happy with Mubarak's false promises and go home. They may rail until he finally rescinds the emergency law under which he has governed since 1981. They may go home when free and fair democratic elections are held, and the unpopular Mubarak is voted from office. They may not wait for any of this, believing it will never materialize, and continue pushing. And then what happens? I remember that from my history classes too. What happens? Who fills the void? What will result from the scrum? Could it be worse than what they've got? Mubarak seems to be betting so, by trying to drive a wedge between sympathetic but housebound middle class families and those who have taken to the streets.

In the meantime, I have colleagues and former students there. I wonder about them, worry about them. We've heard reports from them downplaying the riots. One colleague breezed through Tahrir Square, seeing nothing. Another, who lived in Lebanon during their bloody civil war, puts the Cairo riots in context: they are nothing in comparison. AUC students sequestered in Kattameya wonder how the events "way in Midan Tahrir" actually impact them. Some don't see the relevance; perhaps they have not yet realized that their ways of life will be altered if regime change comes. They might view it as suffering, or unfair, if this happens. But it's not. As I've learned of late, fairness is about knowing simply that it is possible that you may or may not get your way, and that if you live in a place where the same people get their way all the time about everything, then you have others--most of the people--who never get their way about anything. I think that is how Egypt has operated. It's perhaps why we've seen a conservative backlash during the Mubarak years, a holding dear of celestial justice for a lack of the temporal variety.

That may be beginning to change. 


Monday, January 03, 2011

On the January 1st Bombing of the Coptic Church in Alexandria

It was the first time I cried about something that happened in Egypt. It was the first time since moving back to the U.S., too, that I wasn’t there when it happened.

When Khan il Khalili was bombed (again), James and I were a fifteen minute drive from it. I felt…sad, of course, but had a sense of clarity that such bombings – the kind that don’t come from war-planes - are reckless and random. You can’t hide from that. It didn’t stop me from going to Khan il Khalili or from taking my parents there months later; it didn’t stop me from doing anything I would have normally done in Cairo.

There are badges each nationality wears, each belief wears, each history of nationalities and beliefs. We can express our sorrow for these badges; we can lay our fingertips on them and try to give solace. We can’t claim events if they aren’t seen as ours. Still, I cried on January 1st. And I knew that, if I had still been in Egypt, where, just a short while before, it had snowed in Alexandria, the texture of the experience would be completely different. I cried, and I missed Egypt.

I watched on facebook that day as Egyptians who were not in Egypt expressed their grief, changed their profile pictures to the intertwined symbols of Islam and Christianity. I watched (or “creeped”) as expatriates still living in Egypt claimed the event, furrowed out their own tears and pain.

As the days pass, one of the overwhelming messages on facebook is that Christians and Muslims are in this together. A Muslim student posts that he will be attending church now in solidarity with the Copts. The Copts post about peace and about the light of God; many of them post about forgiveness. These are the kinds of messages that my tears, as I read the objective BBC news story and watched the gruesome video that opened the story, might have been connected to.

Amidst this outpouring of solidarity, why is it, then, that I keep coming back to this: another former student posts a political cartoon in which a sheikh and a Coptic priest are reaching out to each other from a minaret and a church steeple. Below them is a hulking shadowed man with beady eyes and a cowboy hat pushing the buildings apart, doing his best to keep them separated. The man looks like a bandit or an American cowboy, and I think that this is what he is supposed to be, but the black and white picture appears to have been doctored. A yellow Star of David has been photoshopped onto the bandit’s chest. Yellow. This is the one that really gets to me.

In the comments about the political cartoon on facebook, another Egyptian says, “Oh, so now it’s Israel’s fault?” Good for you, I think. Even as she is answering, the student says she refuses to answer; she posts a link to a photo of a runner in the Special Olympics that has also been doctored with a caption about how arguing on the internet is “retarded.”

I started to write an email to my former student. Often, I craft emails to people that I never send. And what do you think I said? I didn’t say, That Star of David? It’s YELLOW. Yellow. Have you read anything about the Holocaust, about stars pinned to clothes? And that joke about the retards, about the Special Olympics? Retards were also killed in the Holocaust.

Maybe my student was right – take out the ignorance about retards and you have a point about people arguing on the internet – it becomes less the democracy computer scholars hope for and more a series of incomprehensible shouts that no one is invested in listening to. We are all so busy shouting and staking identity claims.

Still, that cartoon she posted is such bullshit - a cruel misrepresentation, a red herring – we know this. She probably knows this somewhere in her young heart and head. Don’t blame her, teacher. That is important. Do not blame. She is young. I am getting to a place where I can say that. What did I think when I was 18, 19, 20? How did I think? What will I think when I am 40? 50? I know a little more now about the ways in which she may have been indoctrinated to think about Israel and the ways in which she may have a right to think that way. I know too some of the ways in which Americans tend to be blind about Israel.

I am quicker now to pull back from being that condescending adult who wants to tell it like it is. That doesn’t mean I am successful since I have always been pretty self-righteous and am sitting here writing a blog entry, which is an indirect confrontation. But I know, too, that I am no longer her teacher and that I should not presume otherwise. Even if I were the teacher, the subject is delicate. The context must be understood and discovered. As her teacher, I would have to respond in a way that didn’t shut her down, in a way that encouraged her to think and that only hoped that one day she would broaden her thoughts and develop a more critical perspective. I see around me many teachers who block their students at the most crucial moment; I do not want to be like that.

Most importantly, I do not know what it means to be an Egyptian who was a child on September 11, 2001, who may have been told that it was the Jews who brought down the towers, that it was the Jews who killed JFK, that it was the Jews who have created a plan to destroy Egypt by sending foreigners with HIV to spread throughout the land, that it was the Jews who recently implanted GPS systems in the heads of the sharks who showed up in the Red Sea and killed a German tourist. I have to hold this in my head. I have to hold it there and not dismiss it even as I find it ludicrous. I have to remember the Gulf War and how the only thing I understood about it was the racist shirts depicting Saddam Hussein that I saw in my junior high. I have to remember that we all knew who the Jews were in my wasp-y school. That some jackass tried to run down a half-black kid in the high school parking lot. That my town, for a while, was dubbed Kluxville, and this was in north-central Illinois, nowhere close to the South. I have to hold in my head the image of the kid on my high school band trip to Washington, D.C., who wore a T-shirt depicting a confederate flag with the caption “The South Will Rise Again” and taped a piece of paper to the bus window that said “Show us your tits.” We all come from broken places and carry fucked-up notions.

Whenever I see news footage of Egyptians, they do and do not look like the Egyptians I know. I know more about the Muslim world than I otherwise would have, but I do not understand what it is to be an Egyptian, or a Muslim, or an Arab, or a Coptic Christian in Egypt this week. What is depicted has edges that confine, like a picture frame – even as there are inaccurate expressions forced by the imposition of the camera, there are things outside the perimeter that we cannot see, or know, or come to understand. We could try harder, though.

Friday, September 24, 2010

It used to be that the strangers who looked at me were women, and they did so—what few did so—because they found me worth a lingering glance, perhaps a smile and a hello. Like most men in their early twenties, I completely ate it up. This began to change when I first started graduate school ten years ago. The reasons are partially having to do with meeting the other contributor to this blog. But even my interest in her reflects, in part, a shift I began undergoing as I was first meeting her.

In truth, the waning attentions of young women (and the value I placed upon it) were also caused by weight gain and general disregard for my personal health and appearance, a graduate school-induced downturn which reached its nadir just as I was submitting my insufficient fiction for a drubbing at the conclusion of my MFA. Literally and figuratively, I had taken on baggage.

The shift also had to do with taking on young women as students. The student-teacher relationship was new and strange territory for me in 2000, in terms of being the teacher in that equation. I knew very little about it except for what I gleaned from a crash-course pro-seminar in composition theory and teaching. Still, I understood instinctually that the dynamics I shared with that first group of 26, young men and women alike, were different than anything I had experienced before. I possessed some measure of authority, and I didn’t want to use that authority in petty ways or for personal glory. I recognized this as a generosity in myself that I didn’t know I possessed until I stood before students. I began to think about what I wanted from my interactions with students. It’s like entering graduate school was like going into a giant cement mixer; I emerged, fat and exhausted and confused, four years later. I survived it, lost weight, took better care, read and wrote to tried to right what had become a bewildering pursuit for competency as a writer of fiction. Then I went to Egypt. Four years passed. I think I handled those four years so well in part because of the hardship and confusion of graduate school. I also had time in Egypt to hone my teaching persona and think more about the type of relationships I wanted to have with students. There are many AUC students for whom I feel a genuine warmth and hope for the future, a personable interest in their well-being, their education, their futures. I hope very much that those who wish to pursue writing will continue to do so despite the inevitable disappointments to come. And I want to do nothing to violate what I see as a special relationship between a student and his or her teacher, especially one, like me, with an interest in mentoring.

The reason why I write this now is that, in the two months I have been back home, I have recognized that I crossed some age-related threshold while I was away. To the undergraduates at UCSB, who do not know me as a teacher, I am invisible. I am happy about this, by the way, even as invisibility feels so conspicuous after life in Egypt, where my fair skin and green eyes were the cause of countless stares. Another group of humans stare at me now: older men. I’ve felt them watching me when, as I did today, I walk along a path that runs alongside a dog park. A man sat in the shade and watched at me. In his eyes I saw bewilderment, confusion, memory—where had the time gone? I have seen this expression a lot lately. They were once my age—in the full glow of prime adulthood. This all transpired while I was away, as if in secret. Quite suddenly I find myself not the “mere child” that a dear AUC colleague liked to call me, but a man careening toward middle age.

I had difficulty remembering that time kept passing while I was in Egypt; I didn’t believe the calendar. I believed I was still 30. But it seems that the time passed, after all. A transformation instigated by my entrance into graduate school in 2000 feels, if not complete, then at the end of an act.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Relief Map

I remember standing around a relief globe in some elementary school classroom or other. Aside from outdated textbooks, the relief globe was my portal to the world, the real world, beyond the confines of New Carlisle, Ohio. Was it really confining, did it seem that way to me at the time? I suppose not. I remember the physical symptoms of anxiety and dread I associated with the raw social environment of public elementary school in my small Ohio town, the vice around my throat, the fluttering in my chest when I would awaken and, knowing the walk to school, wonder which portly bully would accost me that day. They never harmed me physically, they just liked to intimidate. I was an easy one to intimidate because I was smart but not a good student, small, not really good at things I had been told I was good at. I found a kind of solace in books, from Time Machine adventures to the Hardy Boys. My parents bought me a Hardy Boys mystery novel for Christmas in 1983 and my father read a chapter every night for 20 nights (each of the 58 original adventures weighs in at 20 chapters, 180 pages). I resolved to read all 58 books and so I did, out of loyalty to the gesture of my parents and because I liked what I was reading. At my peak, I would read in classes, in empty periods, shuttering away the down time that never led anyplace good. I could read a book in a day.

The relief map was different. I could run my fingers over the Himalayas and try to make sense of Nepal, a country-sized cliff. I could see such bizarre countries as Jordan, named perhaps after the basketball star just then ascending, or Niger, which caused my classmates to giggle (and me, too, because I was immature and possessed no spine), or puzzling Chad. We joked about other names that might pass for countries. James. Matt. Jon. Charity. Nighthawk.

I remember actually trying to imagine life in those places, and I remember wanting to see…life, in those places, in all sorts of places, all around. I remember feeling, for the first time, the swelling of the world. It was large; I was a pinprick. I wanted to spread myself around. I remember wanting to live in one of these places—I sensed somehow, without any context I can call my own, that visiting was one thing, and taking up residence completely another. It dawned like I say as a sense, but today I can give words. I wanted to see the day to day, the way things worked in a place like Jordan or Chad, how the people went about their days. Their days must be so different from mine—the world was not New Carlisle, right? And I didn’t and don’t hate where I’m from, I’m not ashamed. But it was confining and constricting. Like a depressed person, I would fake an illness to convince my parents to let me stay home. They weren’t fooled, but often they relented. I loved the mornings alone, before the day aged and I began to feel the tug of company again, the weight of the next day, the obligation to act as though I’d recovered from an upset tummy. I always felt the nagging question of what the world held in its palms between fingers with pinpricked tips.


Friday, July 02, 2010

Where I Was on December 31, 2009

I’ve always been a sucker for anniversaries, key dates, passages through time. Of a certain variety. I can’t tell you when my parents were married or when they divorced. I have a hard time remembering if they split in 1984 or 1985, and, for reasons that probably reveal a lot about me, I’ve never asked either of my parents to clarify.

For me it’s birthdays, New Year’s Eve. The trite rituals of reflection, the year-end People magazine best-ofs, the montage of celebrities dead over the past year, set to a string quartet. These appeal to me. I like my own trite rituals of reflection, the sucker they reveal me to be, the boxed-in, unimaginative thinker attached to a cultural nostalgia he didn’t invent and doesn’t understand. That’s me.

Take New Year’s Eve 2009. I felt connected that night to every other New Year’s Eve I could remember. I thought about the turns and twists and circumstances within and beyond my control that had brought me to the Ace Club in Maadi, Egypt, to the Scotch in my hand, to the tableful of Irish and British acquaintances with whom I was seated, to Amanda, my companion for almost ten years and my constant companion in Egypt (except for the sunset weeks of summer 2010). It’s hard to explain how the Brits of Egypt celebrate milestones, except to say: hard, with lots of sun-seared faces, garish mascara, Asian trophy wives and imported spirits. The air stunk of smoldering woodchips and the hint of gasoline, as it always does around Cairo, but this air was redeemed by the alcoholic smells of perfume, beer, Scotch. We were seated in a darkened corner near the brick wall that separated our party from Midan Victoria and the rest of Maadi; we watched a cat slink along the fence and leap onto the branch of the tree under which we sat. The cat came to rest where the trunk held the branches; he looked like he was caught in an alien’s palm, clutching digits. Across the dark rows of tables, wedged between the toilets and the door to the inner bar, a deejay spun and spotlights transformed a concrete terrace into an impromptu dance floor. Our hosts, Vicki and Neil, were there, dancing slowly, chatting with other dancers as their orbits overlapped in the packed space. The Sudanese men who operated the kitchen and the bar slithered between the revelers, holding aloft trays of drinks. It didn’t worry me that they might graze a dancing couple, that the drinks might topple and crash on the concrete. I have learned in Egypt not to worry about such things; or, if I do worry, to create a new space for that worry, a special burden between the shoulder blades that you can learn to carry without even noticing.

And so I actually felt self-satisfied to be there with Amanda, with our friends, and with a bunch of British folks finding extroversion through alcohol. I enjoyed sitting in the dark and murmuring beneath the music. I liked the subterranean feeling; I wasn’t entirely there. I was thinking 10 years earlier. No act of imagination at that time could have placed me in Egypt, in suburban Cairo, in a nest of drunken, reveling Brits counting down the final minutes of the best decade of my life so far.

At the end of 1999, I was only a year and a half out of college and the ceremony that had branded me “educated.” I remember walking with a now ex-friend on the Wittenberg campus in May 1998, as he proclaimed that we would now and forever have B.A. attached to our names. He liked that sort of stuff, perhaps more so than me, but his observation had resonated, first as a thrill and then as a burden. In that moment I felt a tremendous levity; I was ascendant. I was engaged to be married; I was coming back for a year to work at the campus where I had earned my undergraduate degree; I was going to apply to M.F.A. programs in creative writing and, naively, I felt certain I would be accepted.

None of that happened. By the end of 1999, I was renting a room in a house in a village outside my hometown. Grad schools that year wouldn’t have me. One school had taken the extra measure of personally phoning in my rejection. This experience had engendered the suspicion that I was a pretender, a writer of some consequence for a few years in college, but nothing more. I was learning a hard truth. I was being weeded out. I would become one of the legions of undergraduate writers who abandon the enterprise after college—and I can say, twelve years after graduation, that a lot of artist friends have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. I used to hold their choices in low regard, seeing them as defections, but anymore I don’t do that. Everybody makes choices; I’ve made mine and they bring their own risks.

There had been other spectacular flame-outs that year. There had been a disappointment in love, so to speak, and so I was single. I had flailed around looking for purpose, leading to a botched journey to England on a work visa. I traveled all the way to Ambleside, thinking what I needed was the Lake District’s idyll to salve my wounds, to recover and rebrand and return home with shaggy hair, a beard, confidence restored, a one man Peace Corps operation. Unfortunately I ran out of money. And so I returned home and had to ask my father to borrow his rickety Dodge Caravan, powder-blue with wood paneling and a non-functional heater. This is the car I would drive throughout the winter from my waiter job in Yellow Springs to my rented room in North Hampton, shivering beneath an insufficient coat. For this privilege I had to submit to a berating lecture from my father, who also did not quite know what I was doing with myself. And anyway he had problems of his own. I felt keenly his lack of confidence in me, for it combined with my own lack of confidence, compounding into something near panic. My ex had moved on, and in a few months she would marry someone else, begin a real career. She just seemed so together, so composed. And I seemed so fractured, disassembled. How had this happened, and with such speed? I don’t compare myself to her very often, but at the time I saw all this as evidence that our split had been a great development for her and a disaster for me.

What I remember thinking on December 31, 1999 was trying to come about, to steady myself. I would reapply to grad school, but with an adjustment, adding a couple of M.A. programs. The ex-friend from earlier spoke highly of his current program in Ames, Iowa, and so I would apply there and be admitted and eventually earn my M.A. from Iowa State University. And this choice would bring with it a fresh round of disappointments, of a different variety: the disappointments associated with getting what you want. But it would also transform my life in incalculable ways. I would make new friends, work with a writer I admired, know my own limitations in starker ways than I knew them in 1999. But I did not know that then. I knew that I would apply to grad schools. I did not know that the parents of my roommate, the Boop family of North Hampton, would generously allow me to enter their home when it was empty in the afternoons so I could write, and print, and prepare my applications. The actions had seemed so futile at the time, signifying nothing, without possibility. I falsely believed that this was no legitimate path. If I learned anything in 10 years, I learned that I know how to blaze a path and I learned about the power of small generosity. But I did not know that on December 31, 1999; I did not know that yet! It’s hard for me to conceive now what I did not know then, how nascent I was. It’s almost an embarrassment to admit, until I remember that generosity can extend to the self and keep you from feeling shame and disappointment all over again, and that you can forgive your past selves for having been so dumb.

On December 31, 1999, I made a few basic decisions. I remember pacing around the North Hampton house, spelling them out. In a year, I would be in a better location, one that believed in the things I believed in, that had a literary community that I could join, that gave me a chance to make my way. A friend had offered to share his Portland hovel with me, to help me relocate on the cheap, and I was going. If I got into grad school, then I would go. But I was not going to wait until April or May, until admissions committees had made up their minds about me, again. I would be in a better place a year from now. I would set up shop in Portland, if necessary, and make my way from there.

It was a small decision, but I remember the shift in thinking, the moving ahead with plans and not waiting. I remember how dispossessed I felt and how my choices seemed to lack consequence. I feared that they didn’t matter. I feared that I was not at the right platform and that, because of this, the choices I made were not going to matter. But they did matter, for I went to Portland in March, taking the Greyhound to Portland via Charlotte and St. Louis, to visit friends. And in Charlotte a friend was having his own difficulties, and in St. Louis I said goodbye to a certain way I had been friends with another person—and then I went to Portland where I slept for ten weeks on an air mattress and worked 38 hours a week at a Plaid Pantry convenience store, at a location where a cashier had been murdered the year before, right where I stood for all those hours, alone and unguarded and worth $6.50 an hour. And then I came back to Ohio, because I was admitted to Iowa State and I needed the summer to move. And I went to a bar near campus with a new friend who had taught me a kind of aggressive generosity of spirit, and I remember feeling, if not restored, then relieved. As I told him then, all I wanted was a chance. And now I had the chance.

I didn’t know that on December 31, 1999, but I remembered it on December 31, 2009, as I drank in the sordid air and watched Neil take the microphone and count down the final seconds of the decade. I was among strangers, in a strange place, well beyond any setting I could have imagined for myself a decade earlier. How unlikely, I thought. So I kept close to Amanda, experienced the satisfied warmth in my mouth and my belly from the Scotch, mulled over it. At heart I’m very much a golly-gee Midwestern rube, mouth agape in wonder when I encounter strangeness, a sense of being far away. My childhood voice had the soft edges of Appalachia like my parents, but now the soft edges have been ground out. They return in modest ways when I go home, and, on a night like tonight, when I am half-drunk and warm and glad and happy and relieved, thinking of ten years ago to the day and the years of mediation between, I find myself thinking in that voice, dropping my g’s, compressing my sentences by a half-breath, like an accordion player practicing a provincial anthem, getting it wrong, trying again.