Monday, February 21, 2011

Of barricades, and dreams

Things seem to be happening so fast of late -- governments falling, state houses under occupation -- that it can be hard to know what to make of it, let alone what to say about it in a space like this, which has by intention never been particularly directed towards politics or news. And this at a time when, according to an article in today's New York Times, blogging is itself apparently passé in any case, displaced in the attentions of the young (though not those in my age bracket, I note) by services such as Twitter and Tumblr. As one adopter of the latter explains:
"It's different from blogging because it's easier to use... With blogging you have to write, and this is just images. Some people write some phrases or some quotes, but that's it."
God forbid you should have to write! -- but then the practice of teasing one's thoughts out of the written word isn't for everyone, as much as I remain devoted to it. (In fairness, I also use Tumblr on occasion, as an adjunct or when I have images to share about which I have nothing momentous to say.) Mindful of short attention spans (including my own), I tend to keep these pieces short, except when they insist otherwise. But in a world of Tweets perhaps even three or four paragraphs are too much to expect someone to read.

In one sense I don't consider myself a "political person," in that I don't get a thrill out of the sport of politics the way some people do from basketball or football. And yet I follow political events with some degree of attentiveness and even passion, when they touch on things that I think matter to me as a citizen. Other than voting and shooting my mouth off, here and there, about this and that (most of which comes down to preaching to the choir), I'm not particularly "active" politically. (There is one exception which I won't go into but which some people very well might not even recognize as activism.) But I do believe that as a citizen I have a responsibility to be informed about public affairs, to attempt to make reasoned judgments about what I see taking place, and, to the extent that I'm able, to take at least some small steps towards advancing the prospects of the kind of society I want to be a part of. To dismiss politics altogether is, in effect, to renounce part of one's self, because politics, for all its well-known sordidness, is nothing more nor less than the practice of arranging how we as human beings manage our interactions with each other. Pace Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as society, and most of us have no choice but to live in it. How that society is organized isn't something that just happens; it's something that is negotiated by its members. Some are stronger and exercise great influence; others are weak and exert barely none at all. But we are all affected, and we are all, in one way or another, implicated.

Nevertheless, I don't write a political blog, because, for one thing, many other people already do so and I'm not at all convinced that, however much attention I might devote to it, I have much to contribute in that format that isn't already being said better and with more assurance than I could. Also, frankly, because politics is not a particularly restorative avocation. I have sought in this space, quite selfishly, to create a small opening for things that I believe in that give me joy and that I think would interest the like-minded, things that might otherwise be lost in the noise (and there's plenty of that). So this blog remains my indulgence; with minor exceptions, its only political aspect is perhaps to imagine the vague tentative contours of what might be a better world if we ever able to lay aside our bad faith and trust each other enough to work in common instead of clutching desperately onto our own little piece. Whether, in the midst of all the upheavals and revolutions, what I do is of the slightest significance, whether I am what Katya Princip in Malcolm Bradbury's Rates of Exchange called "a character in the world-historical sense" at all, I leave to others to judge.

Illustration: Delacroix, Freedom at the Barricades

Monday, February 07, 2011


She never knew her mother's family and had few memories of her father, none of them distinct. When she was four years old he had walked out of their rented clapboard house one morning carrying a suitcase. If there had been a fight or other preamble she must have slept through it, but in any case he never came back, and since as far as she knew her mother never inquired after his whereabouts she assumed that his departure had been at her invitation. Somehow her mother made ends meet until Adele was old enough to go to school and she could return to work and begin to bring in a little money. They moved with regularity, almost every year, usually in the summer, until her mother remarried. She didn't particularly care for her stepfather -- he was aloof and heavy-set and smelled like hair tonic -- but no longer having to be the one girl in her school without a father came as a relief. She suspected it was mostly her mother's fault when he too decamped, but Adele never forgave him anyway. When he appeared at the house, now and then, to visit her much younger half-brother, she usually managed to be out.

When she was sixteen she left home after a row with her mother. It wasn't really such a big deal -- they'd had worse -- but she was fed up with school and just didn't feel like going back. It was the sixties and it was what the people she hung out with were doing. She didn't exactly "run away." Her mother knew where she was living and Adele went home once a week or so when she wanted some of her things, but after she started traveling and later wound up on the West Coast eventually she just stopped coming home. She hated writing letters but kept in touch, at least sporadically. The years went quicker than she thought. She worked in a fish hatchery and a bar and a doctor's office and even in a factory once for a couple of weeks, then she got a GED and bought a camera and started taking photographs for a local weekly. She got to be good enough at it that after a year or so someone gave her a lead to some magazine work, and after that she was on the road a good part of the time. She sent her mother postcards. There were men in her life and they were decent guys for the most part but she somehow never wanted to settle and one by one they moved on or just stayed friends.

Her little brother, so unlike her in this regard, thrived in high school; when he was accepted to Stanford he came out to see her. They were all but strangers at first but he was a good kid and they wound up hitting it off. For a couple of years he spent part of the summers with her -- that is, in her house, as she herself was often elsewhere -- but when he graduated he went back east. When she returned for her first visit in twenty years she found her mother remarried again, older than she imagined, and not well. After that she made a point of coming back as often as she could get away, but when her mother entered her final illness she was in Mexico and didn't get word until it was too late.

Her mother's widower was a gaunt, quiet older man who treated her without reproach. She felt guilt-ridden and terrible but his kindness and her brother's affection and surprising level-headedness -- where had he gotten it from?, she wondered -- carried her through the week after the funeral. Her mother had left her a little money in her will. It wasn't much and she certainly hadn't been expecting anything, but the last maternal gesture touched her more than she expected. As a keepsake her stepfather offered her a photo album she barely remembered from her childhood. Except for a few pictures of a smiling Adele riding a hobby horse or building sandcastles all of the photographs were from the years before her mother first married; the few blank spots, Adele surmised, were the ghostly traces that were all that remained of her own father. The little album with its pale blue faux leather cover held a few score images, all of them black and white. There were a few images of typical if unidentifiable scenic New England vistas, but the rest were of Adele's mother, groups of smiling young women who must have been her friends, and a few shots of a stout older woman in white gloves, stiffly posing next to a man in a summer suit and boater. None of the snapshots had captions and Adele never could find out who any of them were.