My Empress

In the arrogance of youth, I once remarked to a science teacher that science had yet to explain the wind. He replied with a not overly detailed but thorough explanation of basic meteorology. The distortions of the atmosphere, responding to tectonic movement, create the wind. So as the earth creaks and bulges to contain its own pressures, the windows of my house follow suit. I’m thinking about that, as an unseasonal tempest outside rattles said windows, and strips the beautiful, trumpet like purple flower petals off my empress tree.

I didn’t always think of it as “my empress tree.” Before it bloomed, I considered it a rather ugly addition to my property, and a potential litigious trap: the roots are pushing up the sidewalk; if someone trips and falls, I could be in trouble. In those days, of distrust and distaste, I thought of it as “that tree out front” or simply, “the tree.” I didn’t even bother to identify its species until the week the flowers appeared. Its name only appeared when it became beautiful. So too, the genitive “My empress.”

I have always cherished my relationship to beautiful, precious things. For many years and in many cases, simply being in relationship, knowing that such a thing was in the same world as me, has been enough. To know where the Mona Lisa is in relative distance to oneself, to see the Chrysler building in the skyline, to peer through glass at the folios of Shakespeare; that suffices. That fulfills.

But sometimes I need to possess an object, be possessed by it. So collecting begins. I won’t say much about the theory of collecting. If you’ve read “Unpacking My Library” by Walter Benjamin, he comes very close to a capital-T Truth on the nature of the collector. But deep within the mysterious relationship between person and object, I hope to still find something to say.

When I was a child I’d collect playing cards and fortune cookie fortunes, circuit boards and tchotchkes. A child’s collecting, like much of a child’s life, is about exploring and differentiating. I wanted to know the wide world of the objects I collected, and I wanted these objects to set me and themselves apart from the other objects around me. My mother, herself an avid collector, encouraged me to read about my objects, to learn how to seek them out in odd corners and memorable places. So books became added to my collections. Books about beetles, about history, about books. My knowledge of the world blossomed through my knowledge of the items around me. The world was explored as it entered my little room by the stairs.

Differentiation, the process by which my objects would set me apart, and my interest in them would mark them as special, proved trickier. My mother’s patronage had a price. Anything that took up space in her house, bought with her or my father’s money, was, by her accounting, hers to do with as she wished. I could defend my possessions while I lived with them, but when I left home at 16, I learned the great grief of the collector, bereft of his collection, starting from scratch.

Even in adulthood, to differentiate my individual self by my objects, while building collections of clothes, books, shoes, chess sets, records, has been difficult. Due to my ongoing struggles with debilitating anxiety and depression, I don’t work. My father and mother provide me with a generous allowance on which I live. A pleasant problem to have, and you are right. I am very blessed and lucky. But what, precisely, do I own, bought, as it is, with my father’s money?

Perhaps this is why I prefer the neutral grammatical descriptor “genitive” over the more capitalistic “possessive.” When I speak of my tree and my house (a mortgage my father cosigned) and my books and my records (bought with my parents’ money) or my clothes (gifts from my mother), am I truly in possession of any of them? Or am I simply in relation to these objects, that swirl around me in an intimate way?

In any case, I’ve just had to make some big decisions for “My empress.” Over the summer, she has grown bushy and inconvenient. Her shade starves the grass and flowers in my front yard. Her branches makes walkers on the sidewalk duck. So I’m getting men in to cut those branches, strip them, open up a little more air.

What do I owe this tree? What does this tree owe me? I trim it back, it lives another day. I collect it, in the sense that it is one of my things, a bauble I have control over. Or perhaps I collect it, in the sense of “collect your relatives.” I call it back, I rein it in, I am in relationship to it and when it is out of line, I need to do something.

And then there is one more way it is mine. As I look out over the tree in its splendid morning light, it is golden and emerald, it is shady and glorious. Perhaps it reproaches me for shaving off a branch or two here or there. But it defines my house in its regal bearing, its preening branches. I am its, as much as it is mine. It reigns supreme over me. My empress.

It Does Not Matter

I wrote this piece two years ago on a different platform, and have decided to share it here on the anniversary of Allende’s death.

Today, on the 45th anniversary of the United States backed military coup that toppled his democratically elected socialist government and ended his life, I read the last public speech of President Salvador Allende of Chile. It can be found in Spanish and English here. The speech was delivered as the military battered down the door, and in recordings of it, you can hear the hammering, and the shouted instructions to Allende to open.

I was struck by one phrase in particular, where Allende regrets that the “calm metal of my voice” “el tranquilo metal de mi voz” will no longer reach his beloved Chileans. It is a stunningly beautiful phrase, a stunningly modern one. What do these two values, beauty and modernity, have to do with the moment they were spoken in?

Beauty has many political uses, not all of them trustworthy. A stirring song in one quavering brave voice, a flag in the breeze, the precision and repetition of a military march; all these tend towards unity, and the aesthetics of unity, tend towards fascism. The goal of a single purpose, a single will, behind the actions of many, is ultimately authoritarian, and can not be trusted to have the interests of those many in mind. But beauty can also create depth of feeling, true empathy, and thus lead to the compassion and solidarity of a just community. Seeing the pain of another distilled to its essence, and knowing you must rise up to their aid; seeing the love between neighbors, friends, lovers; one man’s struggle to do what is right, all these bring us together in remarkable ways. I choose to believe that this is the purpose of the beautiful in Allende’s speech.

As for modernity, there is the sad possibility that Allende, in alluding to “the calm metal of his voice,” was acutely aware of his existence in the lives of the people he served, led, and died for. The only way Allende reached Chile, reached the campesinos and trabajadores who peopled his political hopes and imagination, was as a calm, metal voice, a radio signal. In his last moments, it is achingly clear that Allende was aware that a modern leader is, ultimately, not much more to his people than a tinny voice in a box and a series of images in the newspapers.

What of the calm -or not so calm- metal and digital voices in our own lives? We are 17 years past our own historiographically significant 9/11, in the heart of the empire that reached out and squashed Allende like an annoying insect. Our own politicians are experts in manipulating the series of images and sounds that attest to their existence in our lives. President Bush was a masterful performer and stager of state theater. From his Mission Accomplished landing in a flight suit, to his Texan growling that he wanted Bin Laden, “dead or alive,” Bush and his team crafted images that dominate our senses to this day.

There is a certain anarcho-cynicism in my thinking, and there are days when I wonder: was Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” any more of a ridiculous posturing, a Big Man swaggering above the heads of us little people, than Allende’s calm metal voice? But ultimately, I have to pay attention to context, not just of Bush and Allende’s relative political positions and actions, but of the words themselves. Allende follows his regret that he will no longer reach the Chilean people through their radios with two simple words. “No importa.”

“No importa.” “It does not matter.” By dismissing his own sentimental longing to be able to go on, to keep talking to Chile, Allende makes the most radical point of his whole speech. The radio, the newspaper headlines, the armies marching in the street, the American Empire: they do not matter. Only you matter. You, el campesino. You, the woman worker. You, the youth. You are Chile. You are the People, El Pueblo, and you will go on, forever, in glory and strength.

A Question About The Past, In Search Of The Future

You have a miraculous machine, a machine that does wonders. You turn it on. The machine welcomes you, it knows you, this is one of its wonders. You ask the machine a question, and the machine shows you a magical space. In this magical space, you can see and speak with your loved ones, no matter how far away they are. For this the machine extracts a terrible price. You try not to think about the terrible price the machine extracts as you talk to your loved ones. They are so dear to you, you are filled with joy at the mere knowledge that they still exist, that they are here, that you can reach them, talk to them. Sometimes, you talk about what a terrible price the machine, which they also have, is extracting from you. You say, how can it be so terrible? It is merely what is required by the machine.

Then you remember the evil men. These are evil men who also have miraculous machines. They have done and said terrible things, and the machines have learned from them. Learning is the most marvelous, wondrous thing that the machine you have does, and it is the terrible price that it is extracting from you. Every day, the machine learns, and every day, you speak to your loved ones, and every day, it knows more and more. The machine tells the evil men what it has learned, and the evil men now know you, better than you know yourself. They do their evil with their machines and their knowledge of you. Every day your loved ones grow more and more frightened. Every day you grow more and more frightened. When you turn on the machine, when you go to the magical space, you speak with your loved ones, you discuss their fears and yours. The evil men know this, as they know everything that your machine knows. The evil men speak amongst themselves, in their own magical spaces. They quite like being feared, they agree. It suits you, says one evil man to another. Likewise, he replies.

Remembering the evil men, remembering the magical place, remembering the miraculous machine, it all hurts. You wish not to remember. This is the machine’s other wondrous trick. You do not have to remember when you use it. It can take you away from so many memories, it can ease and soothe and calm. This is yet another terrible price that the machine extracts from you: your pain, your memories.

If you were allowed your memories by the machine, perhaps you would remember when it was a simple machine, a tool like many others. Could it do wonders then? Yes, of course. All tools can do wonders. Let us imagine the early days of this miraculous machine, since we can no longer remember them. The days before you asked the machine a question, and it would respond with a magical space where all your loved ones gather. If I said to you simply, there is a machine, and it does wonders, what would you imagine it could do?

Kill the Dog

Content Warning: Animal cruelty, Nazism.

A friend’s great uncle killed and ate a German shepherd that belonged to a Gestapo officer; he butchered and ate it with his fellow prisoners. By depriving the Nazis of a weapon, he provided a meal for his Jewish brothers. He consumed that which would have destroyed him. With his teeth he rent apart the flesh that would have, with its teeth, rent apart his flesh. Perhaps this is what is meant by justice, and perhaps this is what is meant by “We cannot destroy the Master’s house with the Master’s tools.” He did not train the dog to attack its master. He could not do that, could not turn the living tool on its original holder. He could only kill the dog and eat it, gaining strength to survive the long war.

Have I ignored the life of the dog? I remember reading the work of a German writer, who said he turned against the Nazi regime as a child because his Jewish neighbors’ dog was killed when they took the Jews away. His Nazi nurse tried to comfort him by saying, “Don’t cry, it was a Jewish dog.” The ridiculousness of this response was the beginning of the end of this German’s Nazi education; he was, forever after, subversive in his heart. What would this tender hearted child have thought of Jews eagerly slaughtering and fending off starvation with the meat of this other dog? Would his sympathies have become muddled? Nazis kill dogs. Jews kill dogs. Aren’t we all just dog-killers?

We are not children. We know context matters. The shooting of a dog, pathetically barking as its masters are dragged away to a concentration camp, that’s a tragedy that ends our infatuation with power. Once that infatuation is well and truly dead, we can rejoice in the idea of a starving prisoner rising against and eating a dog who tormented the prisoner at the end of its master’s leash, a dog who probably had eaten better than the prisoner. We have journeyed from the soft heart of childhood, to the cold fury of an adult longing for Justice.

What we can not account for, is the dog. We can not know the soul of this creature whose natural loyalty has been abused, turning it into a weapon. We can not know whether the dog, under a better master, would have been faithful and kind. In the world the Nazi builds, we can not question whether the dog is a tool or a living creature, with thoughts and feelings of its own. Do dogs love? Do they care? We can not pet the dog, can not sink our fingers into its fur until our hands stink of dog, look into its tender and soulful eyes, and wonder how like us it is. We can only kill the dog, and feast.

On Home: Letter to Alexis, a German friend, June 2020

Dear Alexis,

Well, as it turned out, I owed you a letter about home anyway! So let us talk home and house and heimat und die unheimlich. 

When I was a boy I read a wonderful children’s book called the Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Pinkwater, in which Mr. Plumbean lives in a beautiful house next to several other, uniform beautiful houses. They all look alike. Everyone praises this “neat street”. But one day, a mysterious pelican carrying a can of paint drops said can on Mr. Plumbean’s house, leaving a wild orange splot. Instead of submitting to his neighbor’s demands to restore the house to its suburban conformity, Plumbean paints his house additional wild colors to match and accentuate the splot. Then, when his neighbors come one by one to remonstrate, he convinces them all to make their houses look like “where they like to be, and make it look like all their dreams.” So the street grows heterogeneous and not neat. Lovely little moral about resisting conformity, no?

I am at home in the Northeastern United States, specifically in what we call the Midatlantic states and their coastal cities. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. This part of the world is known by its people, its original people, as “Lenapehoking” or “Lenapehawken”, the Place of the Lenni-Lenape, the Real People, also known as the Delaware tribe. I have read that other Algonquian-speaking peoples sometimes referred to the Lenape as the Grandfather people, some idea of them as progenitors of the other indigenous peoples of the Northeast. I’m not too well informed on that. Unfortunately, the life and history of the Lenape is not integrated into the curriculum of local studies that I was subject to in my youth on their land. They themselves are mostly distantly displaced, largely on reservations in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario.

My house is situated on a sedate semi-affluent street in a sedate semi-afflutent part of northwest Philadelphia called Mt. Airy, one neighborhood south of the truly wealthy and White neighborhood Chestnut Hill, and one north of the more impoverished and working class and Black neighborhood of Germantown. We chose the area for its unique history of housing integration, and the role the Jewish community we joined played in that history. The Germantown Jewish Centre was a leading voice in the neighborhood’s efforts to resist blockbusting and redlining and all that racist real estate garbage that is one of the more recent chapters in this nation’s shameful history of discrimination and cruelty. The synagogue is often proud of that history, and sometimes I worry it rests too much on its laurels. Then again, my inbox is full of calls to actions for Black Lives Matter from the indefatigable community listserv, so maybe the kids are all right after all.

What seems to impress most of our visitors are the colors we chose for the house. A lovely sunset orange for the dining room. Bubblegum pink for the stairwell bannister and our bedroom. Purple for the office. It was important to me that the house be colorful, almost garish. I took inspiration from our time in Atenea’s Mexico, which I think flattered and satisfied Atenea. I have lived so much in institutionally grey spaces, spaces where I was not encouraged to think of the walls as my own, spaces where the walls did not cheer me. Now my walls encourage and gladden me, they do not just constrain me, and I am grateful to them.

This house is a product of my father’s wealth, which is, of course, a product of his father’s. The United States was unique in its early permissiveness towards Jews gathering familial wealth. My father is a doctor. His father was an engineer, and claimed once he could have made a fortune if he had invested, as he was invited to, in prefab housing. Are you familiar with the concept? Basically mass produced houses, produced in slabs and easily transported by truck or train to their location, where they could be simply assembled. This sort of housing became hugely popular in the fifties and sixties, leading to a millions of “neat streets” where the houses all looked the same, and a massive housing boom which the population could keep up with but the market couldn’t. But I digress. In any case, I never met a Jew of my grandfather’s generation who didn’t miss out on a fortune if they’d only invested quickly enough, and they all seemed to turn out fine, and their sons turned out fine, and their grandsons turned out like me. 

I think I am beginning to write to you of Heimat, that mysterious notion that could, if possible, answer the question “Where are you from?” Do you see where I’m from? Lenapehoking, where the houses all look the same for the last 70 years. All neat in a row, we go about our lives, which are deeply divided and different from each other. We are suburbs grown wild, a massive pastoral fantasy inflicted on the City. My homeland is this sprawl and contraction, sprawl and contraction. Tsim tsum we call it in kabbalistic Hebrew. The contraction of God to make space for what? For all. For home.

What I like most about the wikipedia article on Heimat was the observation that Martin Luther used the word in his translation of Bereishis 24:7, that is, of the words מֵאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתִּי, “from the land of my nativity” which goes to show how little Luther knew, both of Torah, and of what the word Heimat would come to mean a mere handful of centuries later. History and Judaism have made a fool of Luther and a mockery of his translation. Why would Avraham avinu, our father Abraham, refer to his birth place as his “homeland”? He does not long for it in a romantic sense, he does not construct it as any more of a pastoral fantasy than his current lived reality, the nomadic life in Canaan. If Avraham has a homeland, he is in it as he speaks, in Canaan which will be called Israel, the land he was promised by the God he believes in unerringly. Stupid Luther. 

So tell me Alexis, what does Heimat mean to you, as a German? To me, German Heimat will always be shadowed by the death of the 6 million Unheimlich, my beloved fellow Jews, who are stubbornly not part of the concept, just as they inhabit it fully and beautifully. I’d say forgive the invocation of the Kollectivschuld, but like, we both know that that’s not how this works. This works where I get to talk about losing a world, and you sit there and wonder how to prevent the nation you were born in (your heimat?) from sinking back into that kind of cruelty, which robs people of a world. You are a person of good conscience, and I believe in your ability to make the world a better place.

Together, me with my unheimlich lost world, and you with your collective guilt in heimat, we’ll find a way forward. 
Love, Mordecai

On Jews, Looting, and Whiteness

As the George Floyd protests spread across the country and the world, my social media flooded with protest news, infographics about police brutality, and calls for solidarity. But there was a note of hesitation, primarily from older white Jews, uncles and bubbes and synagogue friends, commenting on my friends’ posts. They wanted to support the protestors, they really did. But what was all this looting? Why couldn’t the protests proceed “peacefully”? While my wife sent resources explaining the problems inherent in judging Black reactions to police violence, I thought about what in the history of my elders could be causing them so much concern. Too young and too American to be personally haunted by Kristallnacht, I wondered if they were perhaps thinking of a very different night of broken glass.

In the wake of the 1977 New York City Blackout, there were many questions. Con-Ed and the city wrote reports about why the grid had gone down, what could be done in the future to prevent such widespread outages. Grandmaster Caz and countless other DJs wondered what kind of music they could make with the new advanced sound equipment that had been looted from the stores. Sociologists and historians asked why there had been so much looting, especially compared to the similar Blackout of 1965. And one historian, Herbert Gutman, in the New York Times asked, “What about the Kosher Food Riots of 1902?

Despite his example’s specificity, Gutman’s point was broad, and nuanced. He notes the dehumanizing nature of the widespread animal metaphors in the editorials and magazines after the Blackout to discuss the majority Brown and Black looters. Gutman points out that in 1902, contemporary newspapers and commentators used such metaphors to describe the Jewish women who protested sky-rocketing kosher meat prices, many of whom were beaten and arrested. Gutman’s view of history vindicates the Jewish rioters, and by extension the Blackout looters. “Now . . . we know . . . about the world of our mothers and grandmothers. But do we understand enough about ourselves and the world in which the contemporary American poor live to comprehend the pained message that came to us [during the Blackout]?”

If we take Herbert Gutman’s argument at face value, we could see it as a particular tendency of post-Holocaust anti-Fascism. Gutman’s condemnation of the language used by commentators foreshadows Dr. Gregory Stanton’s classification of dehumanization as one of the Ten Stages of Genocide. But if we look closer, we can see an urgent racial message for White Jews that was ignored in 1977. 

Gutman’s empathy was not widespread. The Times ran a series of letter responses to him that howled “How dare you compare my mother and grandmother’s Lower East Side to the Bronx of 1977?” Later that month, Ed Koch would pull ahead in a contentious Mayoral race by condemning looting and crime, promising to campaign for capital punishment in New York state, in an audible racist dog-whistle. Gutman published a response to readers, further equating the Jewish rioters with the struggle of Black looters, citing the history of Black protest contemporary to the kosher meat riots, and comparing a quote from a Mrs. Ablowitz to a line from Langston Hughes.

Arrested during the 1902 disorders, [Mrs. Ablowitz] told a magistrate: “We know our wounds. . . We don’t riot. But if all we did was to weep at home, nobody would notice it.”

The black writer Langston Hughes would have understood Mrs. Ablowitz, and she would have understood Mr. Hughes when he wrote: “Seems like what makes me crazy has no effect on you/ I’m gonna keep on doing until you’re crazy too.”

Mrs. Ablowitz and Mr. Hughes did not share a common history. But a thin line connected them. A space filled with animal metaphors did not separate them.

Gutman speaks to Jews who had immigrant mothers and grandmothers in the riots, 2nd and 3rd generation American Jews, largely White and Ashkenazi. He draws an explicit line between their economic struggles and their insurrectionary politics and the poverty and rioting of Black and Brown New Yorkers in his time. In doing so, this middle aged White Jewish labor scholar showed himself significantly to the left of his community, who roundly rejected the comparison he was making.

The truth is, we are in a similarly divided position today on the Jewish left. Race remains a deeply controversial issue, with some of us examining our privileges as a community, and others wondering, what privileges? The shades of post-Holocaust leftism in Gutman’s argument may be less resonant to us, but the six million remain ever-present in our organizing. 

Karen R. Bodkin, in her insightful “How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America” looks at the evolution of Whiteness to include the waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who came over in the so-called “Golden Age” of Immigration. She posits this process was completed with the cementing economic advantages of the G.I. Bill and redlining post World War II, the exact generation Gutman addresses in his New York Times op-ed. In light of her work, Gutman’s op-ed takes on a very different mission. 

Gutman is asking White Jews to remember the bad old days, when a Jew had no business talking to the police. When hunger was everywhere, and the prices climbed higher every day. Remember the fury, remember the insult, Professor Gutman seems to say. Remember the pain. And let it explode, outward. Now do you understand? Now are you with them, or against them?

In our grandparents’ day, Whiteness called to us as a safe haven, a place of rest and prosperity. Never mind its obvious contradictions and ambivalence towards us. We could make it here, in this country, if we played along. The George Floyd uprising, and the increasingly frequent cries from Jews of Color, demand our attention as White Jews. Every moment of Black insurrectionary violence is an invitation to all Americans but particularly to those of us with our own histories of suffering and struggle. We can remember the Jewish revolutionary program, the calls from within the tradition for Justice, our martyrs, our heroes. We can join our fellow Black Jews and other Black comrades in the street. Or we can continue accepting the dubious promise of White Supremacy that if we ignore our neighbors’ suffering and stand by the authorities, then we will stay safe.

Amy Cooper in the Ramble

Currently on twitter, and maybe elsewhere, a video is circulating of a white woman named Amy Cooper. Cooper was walking her dog without a leash in the Ramble in Central Park, when a Black man named Christian Cooper approached her to ask her to leash her dog. At this point, according to Christian Cooper and his sister, who posted a video of the encounter, Amy Cooper almost immediately turned hostile. The video that Christian Cooper shot shows Amy Cooper threatening to call the police and to tell them that “an African American man” is threatening her life.

It is frightening, although not shocking, how quickly Amy Cooper summons a vulnerable tremor to her voice. Likewise her confidence that she can call the state apparatus’ violence to her service is terrifying but expected. All this has been written about more eloquently by other commentators.

I’ll just add a little historical and geographical perspective. The Ramble was created by Frederick Law Olmsted as his touch of “real” wilderness to a Central Park that he was constantly tweaking to make less “artificial”. It is located roughly 4 blocks south of the southern bound of Seneca Village, the first settlement of free Black New Yorkers on Manhattan.

Seneca Village, of course, was claimed by eminent domain and dynamited to make Central Park. The stones of the AME Zion church of Seneca Village, which was built in 1853, just 4 years before the evictions and razing, might be repurposed in the wall bordering the park around 82nd. No one knows for sure. Twice in the history of the Park, some graves have turned up. There’s a small plaque, put up in the 90s, after Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar’s book, The Park And the People “rediscovered” the history of the Village. That’s about it.

Amy Cooper, and all white Americans, including me, are allowed to forget what land they walk on, the people it belonged to or who belonged to the Land. They guard that ignorance with threats of violence, which the state, which exerts authority over the land and its people, is happy to back up. Memory and history are powerful tools that can make a deep contribution to justice, but ultimately, they are not enough. We must dismantle the systems that are built on these graves.

Coney Island and Washington Heights, circa 2015

I have an unfortunate tendency to refer to the nearest large body of water as “an ocean.” It’s unfortunate, because sometimes it is inaccurate, but much more unfortunate because it is not always beautiful. I find it much lovelier to think of all water as “the sea.” And how much more bountiful! There are only four oceans, but there are famously seven seas. To sail them was to know the world.

I used to attempt to know the world from the bottom of my foot up. I would take long, meandering walks in my city. Flanerie is the term, derived from the French Flaneur. To wander, to peruse, to aimlessly loiter. To know the sea from the bottom of your foot up is tricky. The sea erases what you learn as your foot wiggles down, down, into the sand. The waves are crashing and pushing you back, your foot and the sea bottom, the mud, is holding you in place, you may break in two!

But of course my city is the same as the sea. Sometimes the waves are history, sometimes the waves are money. You wiggle your toes against the wet pavement in summer, and you can almost feel the city pushing you, trying to rob you of this memory, all memories and time in the city. For now, the asphalt is hot, the water is cool, the spray of the fire hydrant, that crystalline fount! In French, the bottom of an ocean is a fond, which sounds quite similar to fount, although instead of water springing up, it is water pushing down, the underneath of water, what your feet move in when you are in the sea, what you must push against to get out of the sea. 

But of course my city is different than the sea. To leave, to be moved out of my city, you don’t need to push against anything, you just lift your feet, and let the waves of money and forgetting push you right out.

Our Plague Year: Dreamland

It was getting easier. I’m very lucky, and have a good home, a wonderful wife and even a companionable cat. Some friends live in the area and can pay visits on our porch, where we sit at a medically recommended six feet distance, with masks on. Groceries come by delivery, and the occasional necessary trip to the grocery store was getting, if not less harrowing, then at least, more predictably frightening. The diseased world turned, and we were getting on with life. But then the dreams started.

Each day was survived, and put aside. At night, I first quiet my thoughts, sanding the sharp edges off them as best I can, and then I let them tumble around a bit, before falling asleep. Whatever comes up is allowed to come and go, and overthinking blends seamlessly into sleep and dream. But now, I find myself in a different world every night.

In this dream world, I parade down streets, as bold as brass, face uncovered. I meet friends and family, and I embrace them. I go to restaurants and eat delicious food. I sit in quiet contentment as I watch my niece and nephews play, my sisters chatting with me about this and that. I am free to go where I like when I like. And there is no virus.

I wake up terribly heavy, if not sobbing. Sometimes, I resist waking up at all. I stay in the Dream world, the COVID-19 Free World, for hours. I wake up at 11:30, noon, 1 pm. I have been asleep for 13 hours, and my wife is worried. I can not ease her worry. I miss dreaming, and wish to return. I walk through my life, thinner and thinner. I wonder, will I be here at all in a few more weeks?

I call my mother to tell her I miss her. She seems tired too. I talk to my friends, and their own sadness mingles with mine. Finally, I ask, what have YOU been dreaming?

“I eat at restaurants with friends,” sighs one friend.

“I’m in the park, having a picnic,” says another.

We’re all of us sliding away into fantasy. This world can no longer engage and fascinate as it could. It is a dull landscape in the newspaper. Just deaths and political incompetence. Dreamland looms ever larger. I’ll meet you there.


I have a cat. The phrase “I have a cat” shows the utter paucity of the current idiom in expressing the nature of relationships between the human and the non-human. What do I own, in this cat? His comings and goings I have asserted some say over, through the perplexing technology of doors and windows. His food and water I pay for and distribute. This is the summation of my proprietary claim. His passions and internal life are his own – as are mine. His motivations and desires are intensely private, I have no notion of them. He is, in every sense, his own cat. In what sense is he “my cat”?

Perhaps it is better, than saying I have a cat, to say that I am in relation with this cat. Our lives are intertwined, in this house, in this world. I own his food, which is to say, my food is his. I own this house he lives in, which is to say, my house is his house. He is my guest, and as such, we are bound by a complex ritual of gifts and respect. Pharaoh is the name of my cat.

Even his name-which he does not respond to reliably, as if to say, “is it my name? How curious.”-is not mine, or not exactly. This cat came into my life by way of a neighbor named Jane. Jane’s lot in life was a tragic one, and I do not feel comfortable telling her story for her, but suffice it to say our paths diverged when she was evicted from the building next to mine. But before that, most spring evenings, Jane would come to her porch and scream for this cat to come inside. She would bellow . . . something.

When Jane was evicted, and the cat was abandoned and then adopted by me and Atenea, my wife, it turns out that we couldn’t agree on what it was that Jane would shout every night. I had heard “Nero,” Atenea, “Pharaoh.” We agreed, either way, it boded ill to name a cat after a tyrant. We settled on updating his full name to “Pharaoh-Let-My-People-Go the cat” and called it a day.

There is a long tradition of writing about cats, and I’m afraid the majority of it is rather twee. There is a tendency toward tongue-in-cheek descriptions of them, or worse, writing from their perspective. “My human” makes a jocular appearance. The phrase “feline grace” tends to be abused. I struggle to understand why this should be so. Obviously, one of our main reactions to cats falls under the heading of cuteness. We are filled with the warm feelings of protectiveness and joy that fill us when we look at a baby. We want to cuddle them. I’m not denying that warmth of feeling, but I still think that reducing the relationship between humanity and their domesticated companions to cuteness is missing something.

There is some writing about cats that I enjoy. The Old Irish poet of Pangur Bán seems to me to have struck a lovely note of equanimity with his cat. Together they stalk through the night, him with his books, the cat with its prey. This, to me, gets much closer to the heart of the joy of living amongst animals, high above the simple adorableness of any given creature. We see ourselves in alien forms. Watching Pharaoh, I am lithe and listless, or I am curled and at peace, or joyfully leaping from perch to perch. He is my soul in miniature, seeking warmth and curiously exploring.