Saturday, December 19, 2015

BAE 2002, read by Nicole Walker

It wasn’t until the NonfictioNOW conference, when Marcia Aldrich presented the statistics on the Best American Series, that I knew that the edition I had assigned myself, 2002, was the edition that represented one of the fewest number of essays written by women. I loved Stephen Jay Gould. The idea that sometimes time goes forward and sometimes it goes in circles, as he wrote about in his book, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, provided some good perspective about death: some things, like the seasons, turn every year. Well, I guess I understood that in the Byrds' "Turn Turn Turn," but it makes the fact that I am on a trajectory toward death a little less tragic. Gould made me note all the circling times I got to see before my arrow hit the ground.

The 2002 volume, according to both Gould and Robert Atwan, could have been filled with nothing but essays about September 11th. It could have been filled by essays entirely by men. Instead, there are a good number of essays not about 9/11 and four whole essays written by women. This, in one of the fattest of volumes, there isn’t that much room for women writers or writers of color or transgender writers.

But this is, foremost, a collection of essays about time. Actually, about before time. These essays are lovers of the antique, the classical, the old. Women are new. People of color are new. In times of tragedy, we cling to the ancients, the Greeks, where women weren’t allowed in the audience, let alone on the stage. To the Renaissance where boys played women and the women were allowed on the canvas but not at the easel. In the darkest of times, we cling to what we know, and what we know well is men.

Sing it: We shall be guided through these dark times by the big brains of men. 

This BAE edition is obsessed with time.  Although each edition of the BAE is distinguished by its moment, this BAE seems more interest in pointing out the difference between the past and present. It seems intent on focusing on what has gone wrong in the now and what we have lost from the then. These are essays that, written in the year that the twin towers fell, are uncertain whether there will be a future, perhaps not even a present, we must eulogize the past.

There are a couple of essays written in the present tense or near present tense (the past tense that tells an immediately happening story as in the essay from Double Take about walking out of the Twin Towers). That these present or almost-present tense pieces are mainly written by people of color or women or survivors doesn’t seem strange. Women and people of color have to think things are getting better. Things have, incrementally, improved over the past thousand years for women and people of color. The past doesn’t offer much respite. Survivors think they are spared for a reason—to continue forward. To improve their own or their people’s lots.

It is weird to read these essays in this particular time—around the time of the attacks in Paris and Beirut. What was, in 2002, so much a localized understanding of terrorism, and out there/in here intrusion now feels like a popped bubble. Now we know: terrorism trickles everywhere: into France, into London, into Kenya, into Congo, into Kindergarten. Suddenly, terrorism is global and not so much as a then/now kind of thing or an us/them kind of thing but a permanent kind of instability that knows no borders. It’s not quite that terrorism has brought us together (there is no ‘us’ except in that they are also us) but that terrorism, or terror, wraps around the globe as warmly as carbon dioxide does. I remember reading this edition, vaguely, at a patriotic time, thinking of the American as different somehow. This edition of the BAE made me understand how American exceptionalism works: how could they do this to us? We are New Yorkers. We are the do-ers. As the Paris attacks continue to resonate over these couple of days, the US does what it always does—divide between democrats and republicans, on who is really to blame, a dream-wish to close our borders. As if there are such things as borders. In 2002, we still believed in borders. In 2015, these essays seem so nostalgic for those borders—not only the borders as they define the US but the borders that define us as we once were—university and western civilization, pink ribbons for cancer, holocaust survivors, terrorism survivors, Alzheimer’s patients, Stradivarius owners, New Yorkers, New Yorkers, New Yorkers.

It’s hard to blame Stephen Jay Gould for choosing essays that showcase what essays that glorified what we once were. We were men. We were university. We were sick. We were hospital. We were capable of healing. We were nostalgia epitomized. The BAE doesn’t always function as a placeholder for the very year. It doesn’t always function as a slice of the American brain as featured on an MRI. But this edition marks a distinction between what was and what might be. Not knowing what might be, it hides under the covers of what once was.

I was particularly charged up after Marcia Aldrich’s BAE statistics. I wondered: why had I chosen this issue of BAE to write about? What had I once thought was so compelling about Gould’s selections? I didn’t remember. I don’t remember well. Heck, I was talking directly to Ander Monson about the formal risks BAE rarely takes, mentioning the one essay that you have to turn the book sideways to read and he said, “you mean my essay?” Um, yes, that was you, my friend and formally-engaging writer! Now I remember. I do not remember why I chose the 2002 except that I loved Gould’s book about time. In order to try to remember, I performed a completely unscientific project. I flipped through, reading the sentences I had underlined the first time. Then, I re-read the book, underlining in big red marker, the intriguing moments as understood in 2015. I wondered about not only the way this edition had been selected and organized but also how in 13 years, how I understood the essay differently, the 9/11 attacks differently, the importance of diversity differently. It’s a bit programmatic but still a glimpse, MRI-like, into a slice of this edition’s brain.

I think of this as several rivers running different waters. The time that has past and the time that is happening now. I’d argue the women and the people of color here write in an immediate manner. Maybe because the future might be bright. Maybe because they are already resigned to the past. Song lyrics echo the running waters. So many songs about time like, "It’s Just that the Time was Wrong"  by Dire Straits and What a time it was, it was. A time of happiness. A time of confidences. Long ago, it must be, I had a photograph, preserve your memory. That’s all that’s left you—Simon and Garfunkel. I spare you "Time in a Bottle.

These river-essays turn, sometimes capture time, sometimes noting only the evidence that time has indeed passed; sometimes, my favorite times, the essays step into the middle of the river, happy that at least their feet got wet. Here are lines from the river, 2002, that are filled with so much time. 


According to calendrical conventions, the third millennium of our era began on January 1, 2000, Or on January 1, 2001. I spent my 60th birthday in Italy on September 10, the day before the attack. Flying back to New York on the day itself, I ended up spending the one day that must stand by and for itself. Clearly, in the modern democratic society there is no art of and by the people. For such a culture, by definition lives both in the world and in the home where it was only 27 years ago although it seems a lifetime, or two, has passed since that August morning in 1974 when Phillippe Petit, a slim young Frenchman upstaged Richard Nixon by performing one of the few acts more sensational in those far away times than resigning the presidency of the United States. Armed with a bow and arrow, and a spool of stout fishing line, sensitive to wind, temperature, and any sway of the buildings, it was also alive—swooping, rolling, and twisting—wire walkers aren’t supposed to look down. God in heaven. He lay down. Placing his spine in a residually beautiful landscape off the road from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Village. Days went by, weeks. Months. Well, it could take months. Well, sighed my father, shrugging his shoulders. “I’ve got twenty minutes before take off.” “Don’t ever forget that I’m your father. Now get the hell out and don’t come back.” Since high school, I’ve been both taller and stronger than my father, by the third year, his absence, settled inside of me like a stone. “Dad, I’ve been this tall since high school.” “Taller than me?” “For years,” I said. He shrugged his shoulders. “Then I guess I’m shrinking.” When Paganini Stradivarius in 1736, inscribed a violin, he said, those girls are wearing dental floss, they have not the slightest idea how hard one has to work to f-holes—so-called because of their shape, a strad at no cost must be in want of instrument in that time and place.  I expect to hear Haydn, Vivaldi, perhaps—but what these craftsmen listen to is rock and roll. By now it is acceptable to use the word cello without the apostrophe.

All during the summer, it lies encased in protective bindings beneath. Do it the other way. If I did it the other way, I would have to cut back some of the original, and that I refuse to do. Then emerged the great period—a designation commonly attested to—from 1707 to 1720 but by March 1999 it’s clear that all hope is a kinky necessity of baring my breasts only four months earlier. I am back. Let me be hacked to death by a madman, in my silent supplication—anything but suffocation by the pink sticky sentiment embodied in that bear and oozing from the walls of the changing room. For I, Barbara, do not enter into it even as location, maybe this is what my rebel cells have in mind, and I try beaming them a solemn warning, we are no less out of control ourselves. The pressure is on. I will put it on my website providing a microcosm of the new breast cancer culture, offering news. Now you can’t run. Always purchase one of the many products with a breast cancer theme. Confronting my mortality bears a striking resemblance to the mall. Is there room in this cult for some gracious acceptance of death, when the time comes. I’m burning the memory a little deeper each time of how things turn out. As late as the fall of 1989, her letters from late 1990 and early 1991 are marked by paragraphs of agonizing. I then interpolate a function brain that it is not a lot more accessible than the center of the earth or the edge of the universe to speak of something delicious in oblivion, pastless, eternal. This was the only time I ever heard my father say he loved her. Better not to leave than have to come back. The autopsy is in a precarious state. A generation ago, it was routine. I suspect what discourages autopsies is medicine’s first-century, tall-in-the-saddle confidence. He hadn’t had an embolism after all. The thoracic aorta was almost three times larger than it should have been. The man had bled to death almost instantly. The researchers found no improvement—there may be some kinds of knowledge that science can never deliver. Never. Autopsy means, literally, to see oneself. [Which, dead, one can never do.]

The night before the world changed completely, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a difference between yesterday and today. There seemed at the moment an odd steadiness and confidence, reading books about that time, most Americans will be struck by the sense of immediate unity and lack of panic, we went back to our old ways, we felt better about ourselves when it was over than we had before it began, 1989 to September 11. Medieval version of the future. THIS is a much more self-absorbed society. Someone else’s fault: we have gone from having a serious agenda to an ever more trivial one of scandal and celebrity. “We” is what I want to come to. The World Trade Center wasn’t finished yet. I have been forgiven. The date is September 1, 1939. A competitive excuse where exiles could be safe to curse their own governments and locals could excel at cursing the American one. What can I say? I was happy there. Patriotism is not local; it’s a universal boyhood through the prism of a frightful war.

What encore?

A war.

I’d wanted to meet Massoud for years ever since I’d first heard of his remarkable defense until Massoud’s old friends began to wonder if he wasn’t through. Reduced to eating grass, he looked to be in his late forties and was lean and spare as the raft that as to ferry us across—a design that must have been around since Alexander the Great. Muhammad was born during an era of intense trial warfare and he would have been useless to humanity if he himself had not known how to fight. The end of the Taliban, it seemed, was only a matter of time. The wounded were coming in and after awhile I went back inside. This is the war too. You have to look straight at the triangle factory fire of March 25, 1911, the quintessential sweatshop of the early 1900s. In the photo, she’s gazing eight decades into the future while I’m gazing back to a time four months after the massacre of Jews in Kishinev. Two years ago, having reread the union’s demand for a five and a half day work week. Before the six o’clock bell there had been fires in the past, by 1911, eight years had passed, it must have seemed eons since her name had been changed while Jews all over the world prepare to celebrate Passover. In the long history of antebellum America, no one else, while living, freed that many slaves; no one even came close. Out of step, out of sync. Robert Carter’s timing, his vision, were so maladroit as to seem marvelous. Carter spend the 1780s acknowledging that slavery was wrong, but also arguing that freeing the slaves was impracticable. Ultimately, the reasons that Robert Carter disappeared—and remains disappeared—have less to do with what he did than with what others failed to do. The writers of the Constitution seem to have given us a riddle instead of a country: were they the best of men or the best of hypocrites?


Everyone was a hero, yesterday.

I know they love me, but no one inside really understood what the situation was. I did not note the time but I am told it was ten-thirty a.m. We had been out less than fifteen minutes. The firemen were going upstairs anyway quicker in the golden age between 1945and 1975, when the number of American undergraduates increased by almost 500 percent. Sputnik. For once, the funding for academic research began coming from the state and ‘science’ became the magic word. The world has changed. The mouth was becoming the imaginary site around which revolved both a nascent academic industry and a new and broader commercialism where paper clips have figured in deciding whether pages were par of wills.

Dust was consigned to the dustbin. I leaned back in my chair, anticipating the accolades that were going to come. I’ll admit, I was a little cocky that day. That’s what ten years of Bellevue training does for you. I had touched her and felt her warm and alive skin just seventy-two hours ago. There is no gray area in brain death. In a day or two her body would swell up and her skin would grow dusky. Only seventy-two hours we doctors had celebrated our prowess in saving her life. By nine that night, we had finally convinced the aunt that there was no more to do in search of an authentic urban existence. I don’t drink and run wild anymore, because I now live down a dirt track but I should have known better: we should have looked ahead instead of behind. One black guy with gray in his beard and one and a half white girls, back in the good old days, they’d sued our hometown police department to force segregation. Keep it together, I chanted to myself. Some time later, The Rasta youth and I were summoned again. I could tell that all twenty-four of my cellmates were thinking how off the hook the corrections officer had been to raise up—the lingo was coming to me—“Remember, I’m going home at four o’clock. You’ll still be here. You’re in jail. I’m not.” There was no way to ignore all morning the fact that everyone in the cell was black or Hispanic: I was older than Homer Simpson, kidnapped by the mayor, y’all. Cabby no 1. Sept.13. Please sir, just give me a moment. It’s game day. Sept 19. Sir? His face slams down like a riot gate.  It took more than an hour to make it uptown to pick up his older daughter, this flighty kind of kid to this instant adult because we are aware that we know just as much about the world as you do. So soon. The extents of the eleventh means I’m just not too crazy about crowds right now. Oct 21. It’s all about chickens coming home to roost: proceed with a spiritual comeback. It’s like the 1950s. This is probably the least naïve city in the world. Now she was worried she would one day rue this decision. Three years later, my son will follow suit. For six weeks his jaw had been wired and he’d eaten through as soda straw. By six o’clock the lobby was full. Everyone in America believes one or two ridiculous things but to say that empathetically isn’t to say that they’re odious, contemptible, despicable. No holes. No holocaust. “We have won,” an SS officer told Primo Levi at Auschwitz. “There may be suspicions, but there will be no certainties, because we’ll destroy the evidence together with you.” The normal constraints of time, temperance, and truth do not obstruct some Jewish leaders from their nonstop vituperation of Holocaust deniers. “We are so sick of the Holocaust,” a German woman with us took up. They thought if they spit out the hate at the Germans, then they’d be rid of it. It doesn’t work that way. If we hate, and we act on that hate, then we hate even more later on. The deniers meet next in Cincinnati and they have invited me to be the keynote speaker there. I’ve said yes.

I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature of a luxury pastime but one of the common denominators of human experience to transcend history. Literature says nothing to those human beings who are satisfied with their lot. Literature is the food of the rebellious and the belief that the world can be improved. Followed by a fifty-one-day siege in which loud music was played twenty-four hours a day. Plainly, the time has come to replace this vast, inept, and largely unaccountable secret police  “Why rush to destroy evidence?” Trigger words: the feds demolished the ruins six days later. They offered the same excuse that they had used at Waco: “health hazards.”

Plato’s legal code, parts of the country still, a black killing a white is far more likely to receive a death sentence than a white killing a black, Athenian democracy, the Turkish general, King James VI of Scotland. This is an old story. The execution of the innocent is not a new issue, but widespread public awareness of it is. The moon rises. My son asks, “Mom where are you?” My own sneakers slip on the wet pavement. Eleven years ago, when Ansel was three, doctors diagnosed in him a form of muscular dystrophy called Duchenne, which rapidly destroys muscle tissue. His face is still beautiful to me, with its alert quizzical eyes and arched eyebrows. Sooner or later, usually by their mid-twenties, all boys with Duchenne succumb. He told me he loves me, as he does at least once a day. He gets worse. He will die. Wind is the first thing to go. I am aware that having a limited future makes Ansel freer. Why bother wanting? I go to sleep easily, somehow fulfilled. Ansel says everything has a reason. He is fifteen. In two hours it will be daylight.


NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg  (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts and nonfiction winner of Best of the Net in both 2013 and 2014, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

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