Paris, Brussels, Lahore, Ankara and all the other cities where bombs or shootings have ripped through airports and train stations and parks where children and their families gather: These are the places and images that flashed through my mind when, suddenly, a normal moment morphed into an emergency response to an immediate threat. Normally, I would make a selfish joke about my bad karma about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but these aren't normal times and, since I escaped any harm, I'm just counting my luck, if not blessings.
Soon after arriving at Miami International Airport on Monday, March 28, me and my family were in Terminal H, waiting for our Delta flight home to New York. We were half an hour from boarding and were sitting near the gate when, suddenly, a thundering commotion could be heard. A pack of people came running down the terminal. My partner and I looked at each other in that instant and wondered: It must be a group running to make a connection. Were they laughing? We could see high emotion but it wasn't clear -- until the blue-shirted TSA agents started shouting: "Everyone run, let's go!" It took a second or two, which seemed longer, for it to sink in. What was happening in the terminal was now cause for everyone to get up and run for an exit.
This was the second time in the past three months that I've been in this situation. A day before Christmas, I stopped at Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island to pick up a last-minute gift for our daughter. The mall is, once or twice a year, a necessary evil and I planned to be in there for less than 15 minutes. Five minutes into my shopping run, I had a few shirts draped over my arm as I hastily perused some pajamas. Then I noticed out of the corner of my eye a line of people running for the exit. That's weird, I thought. Maybe they're going to catch a bus or something. It didn't make sense, but in that split second, it didn't effect me, so I continued what I was doing. Then people kept coming down the aisle, running faster in thicker clumps on all sides of me and now they were shouting. Something about a shooting, that there was an active shooter in the mall.
In both the mall shooting and the airport evacuation, there came a strangely time-distorted period of time -- a second, two seconds or three -- that it took for my ears and eyes to transmit to my brain that the normally routine activity of shopping or waiting for a plane was turning into situation that demanded an immediate shift to reaction mode. And not just any reaction, but a response to what was in reality, or being perceived as, an immediate danger. In both these instances, the most surreal sensation was how the animal reaction to flee when faced with out-of-the-blue circumstances and events had to win a fast battle over the mindset that public spaces in this rambunctious, consumer-based, free-traveling society are here for our use and pleasure.
In the case of the Roosevelt Mall shooting, the seemingly slow realization that I had to get out of the mall saw me turning my head several times as people flew by me and grew increasingly louder and more panicked in their call for everyone to run. I remember having time to wonder what I should do with all the specific shirts I had picked out and was almost ready to go pay for. Do I put them down in a place I can find them for when I can get back in? That was weird, but I was still thinking: I made this effort to get here and I "needed" these last-minute Christmas gifts to make sure there was enough under the tree for our teenage daughter. Then, getting closer to finally reacting, I wondered: Should I just run out with the clothes, not to steal them but just to have them all in one place so I could pay later but not leave empty handed. Again. Weird. Finally, after clicking through options, I transitioned from American Mother Shopping At The Last Minute In A Big American Shopping Mall i.e. What Is More Normal Than That to ... a potential victim that needed to get the hell out of dodge. Finally, I ran for the exit and, as I got to the door, I just heaved all the clothes near the register and ran out into the parking lot.
Hundreds of other people were flooding the parking lot , too. Police cars and emergency vehicles came screaming in from all angles. People on cell phones were confused, crying, scared. There had been shots: I heard one as I ran for the door. If a terrorist attack was taking place in one of New York's biggest symbols of American consumerism, no one would be surprised. Yet, it was still a shocking feeling to suddenly identify with other people around the world who face this kind of threat, who have to be prepared at any given second to switch from citizen doing normal, daily tasks to part of a pack of people targeted by madmen and terrorists. The hair-trigger response by law enforcement was reassuring, yet also an alarming realization that, at any given moment, our normal lives can be ruptured by violence. It takes another few seconds for the mind to go from fright/flight mode to wondering what ends are the perpetrators seeking to achieve? The active shooter, it turned out, was a burglary gone bad. So the threat of gunmen mowing down dozens of people to make some twisted point turned out to be non-existent, though that was the image I took with me as I ran out to the mall parking lot. Did the dark fight of Jihadist terrorists come back to New York? Was this the time and place where, like 9/11, we were going to be brutalized by a war that will never be won?
At the Miami Airport yesterday, that same strange transition took place. After hearing the TSA agents shouting for everyone to run, I stood bolt upright and looked around, seeing that the terminal was now the scene of a mass evacuation. Some people shouted "What's going on?" to try and help summon the reason to jerk from gate-waiting somnambulance to action. I looked at my partner, made sure my daughter was right next to me, and we grabbed at our small suitcases. Scrambling, deciding, adrenaline kicking in so hard my stomach muscles flooded with tense buzzing, the three of us started running wildly down the terminal until, about 100 yards down, short of breath and wondering what good it was going to do to run wildly, I told my partner and daughter to slow down. We can't outrun a bomb, if that's what they're talking about, especially if we wind up making a rash move or get caught up in a stampede. "We're going to go at a good pace, together, and not panic,'' was our decision. We kept moving fast, and instead of being shoved into an elevator, we decided on a wide stairwell to take us down and out to the tarmac, where emergency and police vehicles were flying in from all over the airport runways and terminals.
Was it unattended luggage that spooked someone? Was it TSA agents seeing something on an x-ray scan that alarmed them? We heard different things as we waited in the thick Miami humidity, the heavy fragrance of jet fuel hovering over us. People were on their phones. Some were crying. It was certainly surreal, but after about 15 minutes, the situation seemed to be no longer a threat. Police and airport security were not boosting their response, but preparing to get us back inside. We never found out exactly what set this evacuation in motion, even as we stood back outside the terminal and had to be processed through security again. By then, the visceral images of Brussels or Lahore had dissipated, then vanished. We were not facing that today, after all. We were facing air traffic delays due to high winds into LaGuardia Airport, the place politicians call a Third World airport when, in the news, Americans disagree about how to tax and spend money and lift our society forward. Everything was back to normal, though, not really. One day, the ending may not be so good. I'm not sure if the threat of something horrific happening will, right now, shatter my sense of freedom and use of public spaces. We're creatures of habit. We want to move around, buy things, see places. We surrender or suspend certain feelings in favor of other, more immediate needs and desires. I will say, though, that the second time I had to run in fear of something horrible going down, I recognized a strangely now more familiar, sinking feeling of fear and sadness and sobriety about the world we're living in. More to the point, will my 17-year-old daughter factor this threat into decisions she makes? There's no amount of usual assurances that can take back that alarm and fright and rush of almost crippling adrenaline. It starts to get coded into your psyche, even when the threat was shown this time to have been a false alarm.
After a year as the women's soccer writer for Fox Soccer, I got the call last week that the gig is up. In the sweeping way that media sites stop and start initiatives because it costs so much dang money to produce content, my contract was canceled. For me, it was a blessing in disguise, because after a year of amazing travel covering the U.S. women's national team, I had written just about everything I cared to write about this amazing team. Also, as a contract writer, my termination was far less painful than the layoffs of my boss, Jamie Trecker, the soccer guru who had worked for Fox 12 years, among others given their pink slips.
In the past year, I covered the U.S. women as they played through and won the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada, and then stayed on to write about their Victory Tour. Having covered the team in 1996 during the Atlanta Olympics, and during that amazing 1999 World Cup win at the Rose Bowl, then in 2004 in Athens, it was very interesting to see the U.S. women finally regain their footing as the No. 1 team in the FIFA rankings. The world of international women's soccer has nipped the U.S. in the heels, but the U.S. women's national team program has all the ingredients to stay ahead of the world, especially now with amazing, technically skilled soccer players. The knock against the U.S. has been that they relied on athleticism and size and sheer competitive determination to dominate. Now they have youthful talent like Mallory Pugh and Lindsay Horan to add a new dimension for the next era.
But creatively and journalistically, it was time to move on. It's been one week or so since I got the call from the Fox honchos. In that time I have started to realize why this past year has seemed very hectic -- a literal whirlwind. (aka: world wind) Here is where I traveled since January 2015:
San Jose, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, Lisbon & Algarve Coast in Portugal, St. Louis, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, back to Vancouver, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Chattanooga, Birmingham, Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle (again!), Orlando, Portland, Hawaii, Seattle, Phoenix, New Orleans, Dallas, Austin and Houston.
That is merely a list of cities. There is no way, sitting here after this is all over and done with, to begin to describe the hundreds of experiences I was able to have traipsing around the country and world. Travel is both immeasurably enriching to the human mind, eye and palette, and challenging to the central nervous system. I tried to make the utmost of every place I visited and feel pretty good that, with all my experience over my many years as a sports writer, that I made some pretty cool decisions about where and how to explore each place I went. But I feel grateful to be back home, with my family, and have a new sense of calm about creating a schedule and work life that is not so far flung.
What I loved about the travel, in addition to seeing things, was coming home with something new to think about or try. In Houston, my last trip, the art museums, barbecue and southern Texas culture turned out to be a lot more compelling than I had imagined. I fell hard for the West Alabama Street Icehouse, among other icehouse beer joints that dotted street corners in Houston's outer ringed neighborhoods. Like New Orleans, where the weather and climate dictates lifestyles so different from New York, it was a revelation the way people slowed down and weren't all hyped up like the way they are up North. I brought that feeling home with me, and a new obsession with how those Texans can smoke their brisket and turkey to taste so much like, well, Texas!
My life on the road is over, but so far, I have already turned my Weber grill into a Houston smoker. On the first 68-degree day of 2016, I procured some lump coal and applewood chips and lit the thing on fire. If I can't go on the road anymore, the road has come home. Hopefully, the neighbors didn't mind the smell of woodsmoke firing up the Long Island evening sky.
Sitting in the LaGuardia Airport waiting area among the throng of Passover and Easter travelers heading out of town from New York, from Long Island, where I was born and where I grew up and where I spent countless hours if not years trying to figure out why my grandmother was perhaps one of the more classic human contradictions to have ever lived, I realize it was April 2 and the next day, today, April 3, would have been her 94th birthday.
Maybe she looked ahead and clearly saw this collision of her birthday and Christ's death as some kind of sign. She did have a personal relationship to the Lord, which she would often talk about after taking a predictable tangent in conversation with me or others. I think it was her main preoccupation to see all of us saved. And she had a cunning way of lapsing into the realm of discussion that she preferred to our family's preferred topics about politics, food, books, sports or free-range gossip and hyperbolic speculation and proclamations. But we tended to listen politely and give her some respect for her deep personal relationship to the Lord before we steered talk back to the land of the profane and the living.
So maybe she did see April 3 was going to land on Good Friday this year. Her birthday on the day of the crucifixion. She could escape this realm, this reality, this Earth and all its pain and suffering and profanity and reach for the white light of salvation, exactly what Jesus the savior promised in all those iterations of the New Testament, which was for my grandmother the living word. So in a bit of torment and defiance she bowed out before this strange confluence of dates, and as a I sat there in the airport terminal, about to fly over Long Island and Manhattan and off to the midwest, it made perfect sense.
I can picture my grandmother sitting at the table at her kitchen in Levittown all those years ago, when I was 9 or 12 or any age, really, since my grandmother decided I was a good conversationalist and, after a day of railing and grimacing and at times raging against the daily siege of meal preparation and laundry, I was the perfect candidate to be taken aside in the low light of the evening. The house would be quiet. And she had a different tone, too. It was as if all her jaw-cracking and arm-waving tirades throughout the day had never happened; as if her obvious frustration at having to manage and handle the activity of a house filled with her three adopted children who were the same age roughly as us, her grandchildren, was forgotten. I think this is what intrigued me most. To see a person flip from barely contained rage to an assumed air of calm. I would listen but inside I was trying my best to understand the ways in which people can present in such different demeanors.
She was the first person and such a fascinating example of the way people can have dueling natures and I kind of felt like a big shot, since I was the candidate chosen by her to be the witness to her "other" side, the person who wanted to be understood, to talk it out, to get to that place that really meant something to her. This happened often enough to be a big part of my life, since me and my siblings stayed at my grandparents during the times my parents traveled, or over a weekend or during the summer, since my grandparents had a boat and they had a lot of kids in the neighborhood and public pools all over Levittown that made it good.
Invariably, in the work of a seductress, my grandmother would reward me for my listening skills, my questions, by telling me how precious I was, how smart, how grown up and ... it worked. It created a bond of love or something between us that prevented me for almost the entirety of her fraught life to try and reconcile the conflicting sides of her personality. She was deeply religious, born out of a Quaker family that dates back to the 1640s when the pilgrims settled Connecticut, and yet no matter how much faith she had, she was a peripatetic figure who could not be alone, could not settle, could not live without prescription medication because there was always intolerable pain.
My grandmother was just one of those unsolvable dichotomies of people who bears deep religious conviction yet whose every mortal action defies the alleged peace and strength and grace that God is supposed to give.
Still, of course, I think about her very often now that she is gone, especially today. Good Friday. Her birthday.
The day she died, on February 1, my parents called to tell me she was gone. It was a very strange sensation of deep sadness, for her death and also for all the tumult she experienced in her life, especially after my grandfather died and she seemed to cast herself into a series of moves and marriages. Nothing ever quite worked.
But then the strangest thing happened -- the kind of event that has no explanation and has to be accepted for the sign it was. About an hour after I learned about her death, I got a notification on my cellphone that a photograph I had taken and posted on Instagram had been "liked." It was just a notice without specific details about what photo.
When I clicked into the Instagram app, and went to the top of the list of photos that had been previously "liked," I saw that the one that had just been liked was of my grandmother. It was a photo of her that I had taken almost exactly a year prior. In other words, it was buried in my Instagram photo feed. It was probably 400 photos down in the feed, yet someone, somewhere, had clicked THAT exact photo at nearly the exact moment that I got the news of her death.
It is impossible to describe the sensation that came over me as I called up that photo, to see her sitting in front of me, staring out in the photo. After a few seconds of shock, I tried to figure out WHO and WHY this photo, out of ALL the photos I have ever posted, made it into this position. It turns out that the person or Instagram account that had "liked" my photo was from a cafe in Melbourne Australia. Completely random. Completely inexplicable. Or, maybe, completely explicable.
For the entire day, in fact, for a few days, I had a strange sensation that my grandmother had come not just to me, but through me, on her way out of the world. She was right there, even though she was technically gone. I'm still not exactly sure what to make of it, or what to do with it, but it was and remains a very quietly powerful sensation, and it did the work I needed it to do-- affirm to me our connection and, despite my own sense of dis-ease about her life, how much we did love each other.
Behold, Ichiro. Then notice the puss that the wily man from Japan is sporting in this picture that signals his new deal with the Marlins. This is not the look of a man who is HAPPY about his new $2M deal. It is the look of a future Baseball Hall of Famer who is doing what he must to extend his stellar career and rack up those hits/milestones. Kudos to the Marlins for flying to Tokyo for the press conference. We just want to know right now what the Hall of Fame officials have in store for Ichi-balls' induction plaque cap. Yankees or Mariners? It better be the M's!
7:58 p.m. January 26. #JUNO -- Port Washington, NY -- It's early yet, but a creeping sense of disappointment might be setting in. A few good, solid inches of real snow has fallen. We have shoveled our walkway and driveway, vowing to keep ahead of the historic and record-breaking snowfall. The plows of the Town of North Hempstead have cleared our street not once, not twice, not three times but four! Our tax dollars so efficiently at work -- whoops -- here they come! Five times! Five times now the plowman has come barreling down our street, gamboling 57 mph, running stop signs as the driver howls into the wind. Sparks fly from the lowered blade into the luminous night air -- a feat only possible when the asphalt of the road has already been rendered bare due to overzealously clearing. My friends in Seattle and upstate NY are posting on Facebook how the Mayor of New York has preached pestilence and fear all in the name of shutting down all transit in order to preserve life and liberty. Grocery stores are scenes of great rioting and blatant disregard of the surgeon general's warnings about daily allowances for fat, sodium and microbrews. Meanwhile, back at home here in the Little Town of Port Washington, the household lights are all on, the computers and laptops and TVs are all ablare and ablaze. The microwave and stove are churning out for us hot plates of storm-night obligatories -- beef chili, no-bean chili and turkey chili. Candles sit squat and new on the counter, forlorn and cold and dark. We all had such great expectations but so far ... (to be continued)
10:54 p.m. January 26. #JUNO -- Port Washington, NY -- It is now officially six minutes before the government shutdown of our streets clicks into place. No one's on the road. Not even -- the snowplow! A great lull has come over the town. You can't hear anything, nothing, except a faint spin of wind occasionally scattering some of the frozen kernels of snow that are almost as restless as us! Where is our storm? Given the lack of speeding SUVs and the silence of police and fire sirens and the absence of train commuters who normally shuffle down our street, we have been left here to confront the glaring truth that we really wanted a lot more ... drama. Like, the kind of natural drama that exceeds the collective entertainment and "wow" factor of "Empire," "Idol," "OITNB," "House of Cards" and "Property Brothers" mixed in with a little "Transparent." We stocked all manner of snack foods in our shelves, our pantries, our 4K Liebherr fridges and our larders -- as if we even know what a larder is! This is Port Washington 2015, not Dickensian London. We have come a long way from larders. The point is: We did everything everyone told us to do in order to SHELTER IN PLACE ahead of this vast, east-coast weather conspiracy. We did so in the expectation (given the SALES PITCH) that we would be "rewarded" with a broken branch to take down a power line; a gale-force wind to shimmy Infinity Triple Play On Demand for $139 a month for 2 years into submission. We would settle for a ruptured water main pipe that would transform Irma Ave. into an Olympic luge run. This was the bargain in exchange for our reading tide charts and graphing the areas where the so-called coming storm surge would eat whole other sections of the Atlantic seaboard like it was a big, sandy piece of New York cheesecake. We have been prepped for an End Times N'or Easter; we have been commanded to heed the warnings of state, local and federal officials; we have been told the National Guard and extra technicians from National Grid are ON THE SCENE, at the ready. But for what? Not much. And instead of being grateful that we have not been assigned a night of shivering discomfort and of wandering the halls by candlelight in search of a half bath complete with Scott's toilet paper, we continue to feel slightly played. ...
8:01 a.m. #Juno Port Washington -- Andrew Cuomo on the radio speaking in that strange cadence and elocution of his that is almost like his father's speech pattern. Cuomo telling us travel ban over. So, everyone better get the hell ready to get to the office by 11:47 a.m. The guilt tripping by employers and scrambling by employees now set to commence. And oddly this is the only press conference where Gov. Cuomo is taking questions. Someone ought to ask him about the Port Authority. Now he's justifying his call to shutdown transit due to the obliteration of Buffalo a few weeks back. He will not criticize weather forecasters.
12:43 p.m. #JUNO Port Washington -- It is my belief that all across the Northeast (i.e. New York City media outlets) the second-guessing has begun. DeBlasio and Cuomo getting hammered with great rounds of skepticism and snark for their decision to SHUT DOWN the Empire State. Despite my own sense of disappointment that the winds did not howl and the snow reached only 9 inches and the lights never flickered, I have moved into a new phase of pleasant afterglow: This was rather quaint. Granted, some will rip the overreach of our GOVERNMENT officials (ie Democrats and the RINO C. Christie in Jersey) who took the exceptionally cautious route on calling this storm preparedness. And others will grouse that when you shut down one of the biggest metro areas in the world, it takes a lot to crank it all back into gear. But guess what? So what?! From what I hear, only one person died, and he was an unfortunate teenager in Huntington who slammed his sled into a telephone pole. The storm moved east, and north, keeping the worst itself for Montauk and New England. In the scheme of things, a day off and all the shenanigans it took and takes to stop and start a city ... it's good to know it can be done. Despite my own bitter tendency toward skepticism and snark: The next time the situation calls for a NYC Storm Shutdown, I am going to take it just as seriously. Sure, I find the snark kind of amusing. I personally posted one of the pathetic Internet meme photos of a ruler standing on bare asphalt under the headline "Never Forget." But that was a fleeting tilt towards immaturity that, while I don't regret, I will over-ride with more MATURE take-away. Besides, we already have the extra, unused candles and a few extra bags of potato chips.
So within hours of becoming the new governor of Pennsylvania by defeating one-term Gov. Tom Corbett, Tom Wolf has done what everyone was hoping would not be done. He started a fight that appears to be about politics when, in fact, Wolf might have been trying to make a statement about his commitment to ethics and transparency.
To which anyone sick of politics trumping governance and/or policy says "Ugh."
Now everyone is scratching their head, or, if you're a Senate Republican, you're calling bullshit on Wolf's apparent decision to try and retroactively govern. That IS the problem that Wolf has created for himself, and it's kind of a big one, given that first impressions mean a lot. No wonder Sen. Jake Corman and other GOP legislators are wondering how come Wolf thinks his term started the day he won election and not the day he was sworn into office. In between those few weeks, Corbett surprisingly announced that former Open Records Director Terry Mutchler was out at the office she helped turn into a national model for governmental transparency and that Erik Arneson was in.
This is standard-operating procedure among all kinds of executive governmental leaders. Most governors or presidents or mayors attempt to extend their influence into the next administration, especially if the new administration represents a party change. But it appears Wolf not only thinks this is not moral or ethical, he is willing to test the legality of the appointments in order to make a bigger case. I suspect that case is one about transparency, about not shoving things down the throats of the electorate, or about doing shady things behind closed doors where no sunshine falls.
I suspect Wolf thinks that in some way there is no better venue to challenge politics as usual, because the Office of Open Records is the only place in state government where the sole mission is to keep things open and honest. It's like ... META! A fight about transparency in appointments and government in the very office that champions that cause. Wolf said he is eager to have this fight and who knows, maybe he has the kind of wisdom and verbiage to convince a majority of people that this action he took was for a greater cause. I think that is what he's trying to say.
By firing or rescinding the appointment of Arneson as director to the Office of Open Records just hours after he took office, Wolf appears to have wanted to make a statement that the last-minute appointments made by Corbett were not ethical. Hence, he has said he also will pull back the names of 27 other last-minute appointments made by Corbett but as yet unconfirmed by the state Legislature. In the case of Arneson and Open Records, the courts are now going to have to decide the fine points of whether or not the director is an at-will employee or whether changes in status about directorship appointment is beyond the control of the sitting governor. And the taxpayers will pay for all that legal wrangling, thank you very much.
What makes this fight more difficult is that the Office of Open Records was created in a way to firewall its director from exactly the kind of political retribution that would have a governor fire the director for disagreements. To gut that aspect of the set-up almost eviscerates the power of the Open Records office. That is not really a fine point, which is why Wolf''s decision to go Rambo on Corbett's appointment power wont sit well with many people, even his own champions.
What is hard to understand is why Wolf and his administration would want to start a fight that on the surface and by any measure can be painted by the Republicans as political on Wolf's part? Was there another way for Wolf to make the point that what Corbett did by making 11th-hour appointments was sleazy and piling on of the same tactics we've come to expect from power-hungry politicians who care more about protecting their turf and ideology than handing over the reins in a transparent fashion. Wolf is trying to UNDO the poor ethics of Tom Corbett and fix the ethics that existed prior to Wolf's swearing in. What he should have done was denounce the Corbett's methodology, and promise the people of Pennsylvania that going forward, he is going to act differently according to his moral code.
This is not about Terry Mutchler, whom Wolf could have more heartily endorsed and championed all during his campaign, this delivering a warning to Corbett that given a Wolf gubernatorial victory, it would be Wolf's intention to retain Mutchler. But the campaign did not do that, so Corbett was even more emboldened in the 11th hour to make the change. Then again, this is not about Erik Arneson, who is a respected and fair Republican legislative director who helped author the Open Records law during his time with former Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.
This is Tom Wolf's fight to show people he wants to do things different from the inscrutable and politically-gamed ways they have been done. Unfortunately, while making his case and taking what he must believe is the moral high ground, he may lose the legal battle to rescind the other guy's sneaky appointments. What's worse in the meantime is that Wolf's moral high ground is very easily obscured in the blur of political name-calling and power-broking. Wolf has not earned the right, not yet anyway, to just DO things because he thinks it's right. That comes with time and some trust. And that is why squandering the goodwill and political capital he earned this campaign season is alarming to anyone who really DOES want change to come to Harrisburg.
Wolf may be right. But his actions were, in the dawn of his own reign, difficult to differentiate from the wrong way things have been perpetrated in the past.
Who's The Next Poet Standing Whose Work Has Been Broadly Influential Beyond Diehard Readers of Poetry?
It has been a brutal year for deaths among the most decorated and published poets. Maya Angelou, Mark Strand, Carolyn Kizer, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell and, most recently, the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner Claudia Emerson, who succumbed to cancer last week at age 57. Some of the air has been sucked out of the atmosphere -- a void that sparked a question for me about the state of American poetry.
When Kinnell passed away in late October, The New York Times ran his obituary on the front page. Not only was Kinnell's death a sobering bit of news, I found myself struck by the fact that Kinnell's poetic legacy was so potent that he merited front-page treatment by the paper of record. To me, the front-page story was also news. The Times efficiently laid out the case for why Kinnell had surfaced for air, and a resounding public airing, upon his death at age 87 from leukemia.
Kinnell had established himself as a key figure in the lineage of American poets whose work represented, if not an entirely new canon, at least a significant turn and shaping of the art form.
His front-page obit followed a little more than two years that of Adrienne Rich, pictured right, whose own front-page remembrance on March 29, 2012 by The New York Times was titled "A Poet of Unswerving Vision at the Forefront of Feminism."
In addition to the obituary, the Times took Rich's passing as an opportunity to review her work and place in the literary canon with at least two other pieces, including the obligatory investigation by David Orr of how, given how politics influenced Rich's work, one was supposed to read her poetry.
American poets rarely become public figures, and those who do --Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost — usually pay a price for it. Sometimes that price is measured in a temporary decline in their literary reputation (other poets find fame hard to forgive), but more often it’s a simple matter of becoming papered over with expectations. The more the public looks at a poet, the harder she becomes to see.
Adrienne Rich was an accomplished and important poet from early on in her career, but her turn toward her own voice and vision left critics nowhere to turn except the inevitable comparisons to Sylvia Plath and the poetry of feminist rage -- a box that Rich more that adroitly defended by refusing to be defensive.
With Rich and Kinnell gone, and their posthumous places a little more fixed in the galaxy of poetic stars, I found myself wondering who among the living poets would, upon their deaths, merit similar levels of commemoration in the more mainstream media outlets.
It was a question fueled by a sense that poetry, as an art form, had been blown up and sent scattering to various niches and corners in part by the very likes of Kinnell, Rich and other poets born in the 1920s whose work was "radicalized" by the explosive changes that took place in this country, particularly in the 1960s, when these poets were gaining the height of their creative power. Civil rights, anti-war protest, post-war urbanism, post-modernism, confessional poetry, post-confessional, politics as personal ... poetry was blown to smithereens by these formidable writers who worked in these combustable times, leaving the next generation of poets to wander down so many forked paths that assessing different schools, let alone individually great poets, has become far more challenging.
Naturally, the most keen critics and keepers of poetry took me to task for framing the question about poetic lineage and legacy as I had, especially the notion that outside of Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, it was difficult to foresee who next might merit front-page consideration by the Times or other major mainstream publications.
"That's a little bit morbid,'' was the pointed rebuke I got from Robert Polito, president of The Poetry Foundation, who pointed out that in the three generations of poets now working, we haven't come to the end of anything when it comes to who are the next standard bearers or gatekeepers or game changers in poetry.
Polito questioned the premise, and gave a wide-ranging survey of the writers and reasons why poetry is as vibrant today as it ever has been: Louise Gluck, Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Collins, Natasha Threthewey, Mark Doty. There are three million unique users to the Poetry Foundation website. Book sales and web-based publishing has broadened the audience. Universities are enrolling large numbers of poets in MFA programs.
Those sentiments were echoed by Pinsky, who all but lamented the premise that with Kinnell's passing we'd be hard pressed to identify another singularly important poet whose body of work would stand up to time as a game changer.
"I revere Galway, Adrienne, others, but -- I suggest you take a look at Joan Shelley Rubin’s book Songs of Ourselves, an historian’s meticulous, lively history of American readership of poetry.
She tells how when the Fireside Poets began dying off, many many public forums featured laments that the great age of American poets was ending. (Whitman and Dickinson had no such role.) Then, among others, the college classmates Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams . . . I repeat— I mourn these recent losses of poets I esteem highly. But . . . " Pinsky said.
Pinsky also rejected the idea that poets like Rich and Kinnell were as important as they were because they set up real work for themselves to write against tradition.
"As to 'urgency to break the mold,' the first books of that generation— Rich, Wright, Levine, Merwin— were mostly in rhyme and meter,'' Pinsky said, implying that it is way too early, or impossible, to determine in real time those poets whose work and legacy will indeed stand up to generational scrutiny.
For some moral support, I called Alan Michael Parker, a poet who I grew up with in Port Washington, NY and who has gone on to publish many critically acclaimed books as well as hold a prestigious teaching post at Davidson College in North Carolina.
"I'd say John Ashbery, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins & Mary Oliver all still enjoy the kind of affection that subsequent generations might still consider life-changing,'' Parker said.
"Nonetheless, I'm intrigued by the notion that the radicalization of the aesthetics contributed to the cultural sway of these poets. Perhaps that's the moment that's passed, when the avant-garde offered a legacy that cut across disciplines within the arts. Perhaps, too, the poets born in the 1920s reached the peak of their powers during a radical moment in the culture—the 1960s—when art and politics dovetailed more conspicuously, or when artists had more to contribute to political discourse,'' he said.
Poetry may be alive and well and enjoyed if not written by more people than ever, but the question wasn't really one about popularity so much as it was about ground-breaking, about a poet who, as Ezra Pound implored, makes poetry truly new.
Polito agreed that there are certain new categories of poets these days. The confessional and experimental or language poets have given way to "anti-creativity" poets like Kenneth Goldberg, or "documentary" poets. Fitting into this category these days is Claudia Rankine, whose new book "Citizen: An American Lyric" is garnering a great deal of appropriate acclaim. In the opening paragraph of The New York Times review of Rankine's National Book Award finalist entry, the very question of the state of American poetry is characterized by its "lack of urgency." Rankine brings that to her work and this new text, but is urgency, or an identifiable breaking of the mold, really being executed by another living poet who is aiming to seize the medium, if not the day?
Perhaps it's unfair to try and find identify the next Kinnell, just as it is to try and find the next Walt Whitman, who seized upon poetry as nothing less than a tool to not reflect America, but to save her.
As a 53-year-old, apparently unemployable woman who once traveled all over the country and world to write about sports and later became a political writer who rubbed elbows with Ed Rendell, Arlen Specter, Sen. Bob Casey and had worked in cities like Baltimore, Seattle and capital cities like Harrisburg, PA and Albany, NY, the perfect article showed up this month in The Atlantic called "The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis."
The piece airs extensive research and anecdotes about this thing called the U-Curve, a documented swing into unhappiness, or dissatisfaction about life, sometime between 39 and 57. It's a story with a happy ending, of sorts, in that emerging from the U-Curve shows how people settle into lesser expectations about life and therefore find their satisfaction levels rise. Family, friends, more centered and wise choices make for a more realistic and rich experience going forth in the later years.
That was good news, considering that one researcher found that the U-Curve showed how much more difficult it was to feel satisfaction during the middle years of your life, and another found that the U-Curve brought on feelings equivalent to about one-third the feelings brought on by involuntary job loss. For a 53-year-old with no prospects for ever working again in journalism, I could more than relate to what this article was presenting. It also made me realize more clearly why, somewhat unexpectedly, we have just moved from Seattle back home to my home state of New York.
Seattle is a great place to be older, with its easy day-to-day living, accessibility, walkability, low-key access to theater and the arts, a great university, low taxes and an array of cheap and not-so-cheap eats. But it wasn't a good place for us to get older, for a few reasons, mostly the fact that our families are all back in the Northeast and, more glaringly, the tech business boom via Amazon and Google and Facebook and Microsoft and several other new-era startups (Zillow) that has flooded the city with more and more younger people. Millenials, I think they're called. Or, as they say in Brooklyn, hipsters.
Was it a midlife crisis that drove us from Seattle? That notion, in itself, would seem to be the ultimate admission of such a predictable and lonesome human condition. But at age 53 and 58, me and my partner had grown increasingly aware of our middle age, especially in a city brewing with 20 and 30-somethings, many of whom make no bones broadcasting their belief that us oldsters should just move out of their way. What we see as experience, caution, historic or at least institutional knowledge that helps stake out a broader view, especially in the workforce, is seen by the new generation as millstones of time hanging around their line-less necks. The new generation, blessed with good brains stuffed with all kinds of Information Age input, wants a clear lane to exercise their free will unencumbered by anyone who might protest grammatical errors or lack of historical context.
While a job opportunity was the impetus for the move, the underlying sense that a shift was taking place for us had been brewing for a few months, if not years. Our relationships with friends -- many of the primary ones based on the fact that we all had had young kids in school together -- changed. So did our sense that the city and the world was a great, unopened oyster. In recent years, the generation gap between us and the newcomers to Seattle widened. We went out to restaurants or music clubs and felt not so much like we were out of touch, but that these younger people were out of touch, and yet they seemed to rule the world with their styles, attitudes, trends and habits.
Perhaps the epiphany took place when we dined with a friend of ours, a beloved 77-year-old neighbor with hearing loss, in a very popular restaurant. As cool and welcoming as Seattle had always seemed, and really IS at the heart, the new breed and greater density of young people had done its part to push us to the margins. At least that's how we felt.
In an act of defiance, the last tickets we bought to events in Seattle were to the play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" at Seattle Rep and a concert by James Taylor at Key Arena. In the crowd among the other 50- and 60- and 70-somethings there was a palpable and victorious air that we the oldsters had won the night. This in the city of Mud Honey. In the city of Grunge. In the city of too cool for school and best places to live and ...
So what if Albee's play is dated and nowhere near worth watching without Dick Burton and Liz Taylor! So what if James Taylor presents his great American songbook in rather dull and predictable fashion. The U-Curvers were out on the town, trying to get through this difficult passage of life, free of the reminders that our time has allegedly passed.
The new lesson is not how to keep up. The new lesson is how to scale back, settle down, settle in.
Literary pilgrimages are best saved for internal musing, since the drive to go stand inside the homes where the great poets or other artists lived stirs up deep sediment that doesn't really serve anyone else except the primary visitor. It is a personal matter. I mean, which writer among us can really properly convey the feeling and meaning of just being there in the same room where Walt Whitman was born? Hell if it's going to be me.
However, I would like to just note it for the record: Standing in the room where Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, which is the downstairs bedroom of the farmhouse Walt Whitman's father built in the West Hills area of Huntington on Long Island in 1816, exceeded my own expectations.
I've stood in front of or been in houses where Edgar Allen Poe lived; where Emily Dickinson wrote in genius seclusion; Hawthorne was born Salem; where the poet Charles Olson pumped out his Gloucester poems; where James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein and Anais Nin worked in Paris ... but there is something more fundamental about Whitman, at least for me, not only because of his humanism, progressiveness and his marriage of personal and political, but because he hailed from Long Island, my birthplace.
That the farmhouse still stands is the first miracle. What was once a 60-acre farm in the middle of other farmland is now one acre set inside high fencing to secure the historical site from the suburban sprawl of shopping centers and housing development. Another part of Walt Whitman's legacy, among the most seminal and iconic and landmark artists in American or literary history, is that his name is born on the shopping mall that stretches down Route 110 (Walt Whitman Road) in Huntington across from the poet's birthplace. Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Williams-Sonoma: These may not be any of the things Whitman catalogued in his newspaper accounts or verse, but there these big box stores sit, surrounding the sedate grounds where the Whitman house stands.
And while it's definitely weird trying to find the Whitman Birthplace site amidst the clutter and clatter of modern-day (i.e. car-addled/store-riddled) Long Island, it turns out to be OK.
For the poet who celebrated himself and gave ample, sprawling voice to the burgeoning song of Democracy, the scrum and mess of society blithely whizzes around and past the former pastureland where Whitman was birthed. Thanks to efforts in 1949, when the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association was formed, and continued advocacy and fundraising via former Newsday newspaper publisher Alice Patterson, the site was preserved from the fast-encroaching suburban development. The state of New York helps administer the site along with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which has erected a statue of the poet and a modern loft-like building that houses a shop and reading space.
The entire site and experience is worth the trip and the $6 for the guided tour of the house. On the crisp November day I visited, an enthusiastic guide led me across the lawn and into the home, which Walt Whitman Sr. grandly built as a model home to show prospective clients just what he could build for them, too. We entered the foyer, then the parlor, with its wide-plank wood floors and custom, built-in cabinets and large windows. Then, we walked through to the bedroom where, the guide said: "And this is where Walt Whitman was born."
Whatever sense of being in a semi-sacred space that I had had just walking through the front door of the home was, in that instance, amplified. Most of it came from the striking realization that for everything Whitman did, everything he became and remains, started in one room. I was in a real place that stands in concrete confirmation against the decades and centuries of the Whitman who became the poetic father and god and enduring definition of a hearty, heralded strain of the new American poetic canon.
In a world of shopping malls and cars and democracy under siege, the sanctuary of the Whitman home was palpable. It was made even more so by my profound sense that, stripped of the noise and the Internet and the virtual world I have come to inhabit for great chunks of time, Whitman walked from Long Island to Brooklyn to Washington to the Civil War battlefields and hospitals to Camden, NJ and witnessed his world, his America, unfolding in real time. Our songs of ourselves these days ... hard to not see them by comparison as wanting. But at least the visit got me reconnected to some time and some place distilled of distraction, distilled to its essential point and purpose.
I Pity The Poor Fool Who Tries to Sing The Judy Collins Cover of Bob Dylan's Song Because Her Lung Capacity is Sick
I challenge anyone to try and hold the notes as long as Judy Collins does at the end of the lines of this Bob Dylan cover of "Pity The Poor Immigrant." I think this is one of my favorite Bob Dylan covers, so when I'm driving and it comes on and I try and sing it, I almost pass out from depleted oxygen supply. Not sure there is another Judy Collins song in which she seems to so deliberately demonstrate that she has the biggest pipes of any singer this side of the Metropolitan Opera.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.