Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Et tu, Yu?

I am unable to write for several reasons, the first being financial stress. I’ve always lived hand-to-mouth, but the bills from my angioplasty and my surgery came due. Any conservative will say that state employees are coddled by their lavish benefits, but show me a corporate middle manager who pays higher deductible that us State U proles. Many of my older MFA students, returning to academia to pursue their youthful dreams, have earned more over their lifetimes than I have. One fellow who fashions himself the next Chandler (God, do we really need another?) worked his whole career as a telephone lineman, getting out just in time before cell phones and the obscene corporate practices of our new Gilded Age began the new war on the middle class. He was the union rep of his shop, a relic of a happier time when a blue collar fellow could send his kids to college, buy a house, a speedboat for the weekends, a trip to Hawaii or maybe Las Vegas. In any case, he shared with me his salary upon retirement over drinks one afternoon, and I was not so shocked to learn that it was more than I’d ever earned in a one-year period, even when my books were selling. He saved his pennies while I spent mine on wine and gourmet groceries, and now he was pursuing his writing ambitions in retirement, living on his pension. Good plan. I always stress to my students that they’ll need to find a means of sustaining themselves and their obsessions with the writerly calling. I usually suggest they study oenology or viticulture, but that’s just projecting my own interests. In my case, I married capable and well-heeled women as my means of sustenance. Thrice.

Ruth, the second of my happy ex-brides, has been much on my mind lately. This has been another cause of my literary impotence. It’s hard to write when your past has you by the horns. We’ve spent hours talking on the phone since our reunion tryst in D.C. I’ve been dreaming about her. I feel like a teenager in love, though as we can never return to our youth since we all know we can never swim in the same river twice. My age and life experience has left a bitter and sick coating on my emotional equipment. My mind tells me that it won’t work. You can’t return to your past. My heart is afraid.

Finally, a third contributor to my period of unwritingness, beyond the fact that it’s finals week and I’ve stacks of projects to grade, is this phenomenon of our immigrant rising. This is a good reason. It has me exhilarated. Finally I feel like an American again. I feel that swell of pride, a whisper from those hot summer afternoons back in Wisconsin when I stood on the Main Street sidewalk for the Fourth of July parade watching the WWI vets march past, holding aloft the flag, the swagger gone from their step but replaced by a specific dignity that resonates with a young boy. I also remember standing on a street corner in my mother’s lovely Berlin in ‘89, talking to an old gentleman in a brown suit too big for his wizened, shrinking frame. He was flushed with awe and respect for my American-ness. He was reverent from the recent crumbling of the Berlin Wall and still earnestly grateful for the Berlin Airlift. Good God, how far we’ve fallen in the eyes of the world! I always wonder if my daughters will ever know such a conversation with a foreign national as I had that afternoon. I returned to my hotel room and wept with joy. I even forgave Ronald Reagan his transgressions, but only briefly. All’s it took to ruin our stature was one more stupid war, and a group of oil execs creating for our nation’s presidency a fake, illiterate cowboy to bully the leaders of the world on their behalf. Not even a real cowboy, mind you! Just some well-heeled bumpkin from New England old money who spent a year or two of high school perfecting his fake western accent before returning to Yale.

But excuse my tirade. Back to the marching…I talked to my daughter Ella, who was in Chicago on Monday for a cooking clinic. She participated in the rally in Union Park. Though she has no interest in the Foreign Service, like her sister she’s good with languages. A hobby. At the demonstration she was able to use her Greek, some Russian, German and of course Spanish. Those who see this current immigrant rising as primarily a Latino movement are missing the point entirely, and to their peril. It’s a social movement. It is more American than a billion of those “Support the Troops (by keeping them in Iraq)” bumper-sticker displaying, flag-wrapped, Dixie Chick-bashing nincompoops could possibly understand. These immigrants represent the soul of our troubled nation trying desperately to right our ship of state. When they wave the flag, it is done with a combination of defiance and love. This is not as stupid as singing “God Bless America” at a baseball game. This is true patriotism. They are the rising tide that has the potential of lifting us all, if we allow it.

I marched, too. My mother was born and raised in Germany, only gaining her citizenship in my teen years. As a half-Jew, she had no qualms giving up her German citizenship for obvious reasons, thought she still loves specifics from her native country. My father was half African American…that 25% of myself that defines me upon first glance. Anyone pointing me out nowadays wouldn’t say: “that tall German guy,” or “that portly Jew.” They’d say, “that black guy with the beard.” In any case, we’ve all got immigrants in our heritage, whether we crossed the Bering Straight forty thousand years ago, or whether we came illegally, unwillingly, or by patiently following the archaic, inadequate and confounding legal process. Our march here in Campustown USA was pathetic but heartfelt. I cancelled Monday’s grad seminar, but the only members of my class joining me at the rally were the delightfully round and pregnant Miss Puppycute, and then Yu, my best student. The other students seemed disappointed that I called off the session. We marched with a scraggly band of peaceniks, a number of the campus international students, the Turkish family that owns the World Deli, a dozen tattooed field hands and day laborers looking squinty-eyed and amused, and the entire extended family that runs the town’s best Mexican restaurant, all twenty-five of them. Each of us carried an American flag passed out by the local Progressive Democrats group.

After the march, several of us went for beers. The party dwindled to just Yu and me, and I was surprised by her ability to hold alcohol. She did get teary in the end. She confessed that she was “basically illegal,” which was why today’s march meant so much to her. She’d married her computer science professor simply to get residency in our fine country. She’d grown estranged from her family back home because she switched from engineering studies to fine arts and they felt betrayed and enraged. Being married to a professor allows her to stay in country while also receiving a discount on tuition, necessary now that her parents in China have cut off her funding. “He not so interested in me,” she said of her young husband-professor, “He just play board game with friends on weekends and write computer program all night. I keep him happy with sex, but I neverless feel like a whore.”

I studied her face with interest. Tears hung in her honey-brown eyes, though she restrained them with her will. She smiled sadly, raising freckles on her rounded cheeks. She is beautifully complex, I realized. She is conniving, sacrificing her happiness and using this poor fellow simply to be able to pursue her writing. I instantly saw a kindred spirit. We talked for a long time amid the smell of stale beer and the “bleep bleep” of the electronic dart board. She sat with her hand on my knee. “Thank you for this day, for marching with me,” she said as we left. I wanted to kiss her.

Now I’m wondering again if a fourth marriage is such a good idea. Nothing happened between Yu and me that shouldn’t happen between a professor and his student, but still I feel like I’ve betrayed Ruth already. I’ve always had issues with fidelity, often a primary cause of the collapse of my various marriages. If the notion strikes me, I might pursue a girl like Yu as desperately as I pursued Shirleen Tomasetti.

Still, despite everything, there’s gladness in my heart. The people are marching again. On Mayday, of all days. They are standing up for all of us. I finally heard that controversial Spanish version of our anthem. It’s lovely.

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