We Fly Kites on Derry’s Defensive Walls

Derry, an ancient and storied town on the extreme western edge of County Derry, Northern Ireland is a border town with a border mentality.

I love Derry because of its literary and historical position on this island, and I think that if you really want to understand Ireland you have to, in some way, come to understand Derry.

Back in the U.S. I teach a course on the literary responses to the Irish Troubles with my friend and colleague, David Hicks. Derry, because of its literary and political history, plays a significant role in the course so I was excited last weekend to take the Regis students and my family to Derry for the weekend.

The old city of Derry sits on a high hill overlooking the River Foyle and its seventeenth-century walls are still intact, so you can walk the perimeter of the old city and gaze down at the picturesque Foyle river valley below the city.

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West side of Derry’s defensive walls, looking down onto the Bogside

 

Derry is a plantation city that was established by James I in 1613 to essentially provide London with a plentitude of Northern Ireland’s natural resources like salmon and timber. James called the town Londonderry and if you are loyal or sympathetic to the Crown you would, to this day, refer to Derry as Londonderry. If you are Catholic or a nationalist you drop the London and call it Derry. The road signs outside of the city read “Londonderry” although, as is the case with many of the signs, they have been defaced so they read “Londonderry.”

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Two years ago, when David Hicks and I took the train from Belfast to Derry, the conductor would switch back and forth between saying, “This is the train for Derry,” and “This is the train for Londonderry.” Even the train tables referred to the town as both Derry and Londonderry. That’s just to say that the city is so politically and culturally fraught that even the name illustrates its conflicted past.

In 1689, one of the more dramatic scenes of Irish history (and there are many) took place here in Derry. James II, a Catholic, took over the English throne and subsequently invaded Ireland. This was good news for the Catholics, who were a political minority on the island and very bad news for the Protestants, who controlled the island. James’ forces sailed down the Lough Foyle and laid siege to Derry. The gates of the city were shut in December of 1688, the siege began in earnest in April of 1689 and it was finally broken in July of 1689.

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Scene depicting the closing of the gates of Derry by the storied Apprentice Boys

The breaking of the siege of Derry is to (some) Protestants in Northern Ireland as the battle of Gettysburg was to the Union army in the American Civil War and the battle of Stalingrad was to the Russians in WWII and the end of the siege of Derry is still celebrated every August in Northern Ireland.

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There is a good deal of heroic depictions of the ending of the siege of Derry

The best way, perhaps, for an American to understand the modern town of Derry in Northern Ireland is to imagine this scenario.

It’s April 1865 and you are one of the many abolitionists living in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Confederacy has won the Civil War and the new political border that’s been drawn to separate the United States from the Confederacy runs west along the Ohio River and then just a before Cincinnati, the border juts northward and wraps around the northern side of the city and then continues westward. Cincinnati, a solidly Union town during the war, becomes a Confederate city and you find yourself a member of a nation to which you are radically opposed. 

What’s more, the town of Cincinnati remains solidly supportive of the Union. A full 2/3 of the citizens of Cincinnati remain loyal to the Union. However, the new Confederate government redraws the district voting lines so that that Union supporters can never win back political control of the city. As a result, the 1/3 of the population of the city loyal to the Confederacy controls the judicial, legislative and executive decisions for years to come.

This fictional scenario is not dissimilar to what actually happened to Derry.

In 1920, a year before the end of the Irish War for Independence, the Government of Ireland Act created a political border in Ireland that separated the six northern counties from the other 26 counties on the island. (See the map below for the full visual effect.) This didn’t cause too much of a stir until after the Irish won the War for Independence and the six northern counties were given the choice of joining the Irish Free State or aligning themselves with Great Britain.  They chose the latter, of course, and set in motion a century’s worth of trouble and conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in the six northern counties.

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Derry is at the very top of the island, just to the east of Donegal

The six northern counties choose to go with Britain because the majority of its citizens were loyal to the Crown. This was not the case, though, in Derry, where 2/3 of the inhabitants were Catholic and would have preferred to align with the Irish Free State. To make matters worse, the Unionists in Derry (who made up less than 1/3 of the population of the city) set up judicial, administrative and legislative norms and practices that discriminated against Catholics who, as a result of the institutional discrimination, found it difficult to find housing, jobs and a decent education.

I should say, too, that it’s easy to characterize the Protestants of Northern Ireland as intolerant and unjust but that position it mostly unfair. Protestants in Northern Ireland aren’t any better or worse than people anywhere else. Their loyalties and their culture has, for centuries, been associated with Great Britain so it makes sense that a majority of them chose to maintain those ties. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland some very bad actors on both sides had their way and basically held the entire region under the sway of their cultural and ideological demands.

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Unionist mural on the east side of the old city: “Londonderry Westbank Loyalists Still Under Siege No Surrender”

When you stand on the west side of the old city of Derry, you can look across the Foyle River onto the green, rolling hills of County Donegal, the extreme northwest county of the Republic of Ireland. For centuries Counties Donegal and Derry had more in common than not and aside from the political border that separates them, they are still nearly indistinguishable.  Imagine, if you can, what it might have felt like to be a Catholic and a supporter of a united Ireland and to stand on those ancient walls realizing that your gaze fell on soil that didn’t discriminate against you because of your faith tradition. It wouldn’t have been unlike the fictional abolitionists of my scenario above looking across the Ohio River at the Union state of Ohio.

Things simmered in Derry throughout the 40s and 50s and then at the end of the 1960s, they came to a boil. The situation for Catholics in Derry for most of the twentieth century was not much different from that of blacks in the American south prior to (and after) the American Civil Rights movement.

Catholics and Protestants in Derry and Belfast joined together to begin a civil rights movement modeled after the American Civil Rights movement, but violence erupted on the streets pretty consistently and it all culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1972 (the historical basis of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday). At that point, the Northern Ireland civil rights movement effectively died and the militant wing of the IRA, the Provos, basically took over. The whole country, then, devolved into 25 years of communal and state-sponsored violence that simply devastated Northern Ireland.

Nothing good came of all this violence (nothing ever does). Even after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the IRA didn’t secure a united Ireland–the very thing it had been waging war for 30 years. But, there were a number of literary figures that chronicled these dark times in thoughtful and lucid ways. Ireland’s greatest poet, Seamus Heaney, hailed from County Derry and attended St. Columb’s College (it’s a high school) in Derry city. Many of Heaney’s most profound poems use the Troubles as foreground and background and it’s safe to say that reading Heaney’s generous and humanistic poetry about the Troubles is one of the best ways to understand that dark period.  One of Northern Ireland’s greatest politicians, John Hume, is a Derry man as is the writer and critic Seamus Deane. The same goes for the great Irish playwright, Brian Friel, who was born in County Donegal and who wrote a number of plays that take up the topic of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Deane and Friel were the creative forces behind the Field Day project, a literary and historical movement committed to viewing the Troubles through a nationalistic and post-colonial framework.

 

Halfway between the old city walls and the River Foyle is a neighborhood called the Bogside, so named because the land was reclaimed from the Foyle before houses began cropping up in the area. The Bogside is the working class, Catholic and nationalist neighborhood of Derry where much of the communal and State-sponsored trouble took place in the later part of the twentieth century. The Bogside is unique for its many public murals which have become sites of public memory regarding the Troubles and the 30 years of conflict that transpired there.

If you ever have a chance to visit Derry, you must visit the Free Derry Museum. When we visited Derry last weekend, the museum had just opened so I was excited to be one of the first patrons. I’ve visited a lot of museums over the course of our past ten months of our journey and I’d say the Free Derry Museum was one of my favorite. It’s collection mostly commemorates the horrible events of 30 January 1972, otherwise known as Bloody Sunday and there are artifacts and video footage of the massacre that I had never seen so I found the whole experience moving.

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Sports jacket worn by one of the 13 marchers killed by British forces on Bloody Sunday. The yellow arrow marks where the bullet left the body of the young man who wore this coat.

Derry is a complicated city and in a short blog post I can’t do justice to the historical and cultural circumstances that have gone into making it the city it is today. If you are interested in learning more about Derry, I suggest reading Eamon McCann’s War in an Irish Town, Seamus Heaney’s early poems, my friend Andrew Auge’s very good book on Irish poetry, A Chastened Communion or Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows On Our Skin. And, by all means, if you ever find yourself in Ireland, take the time to visit Derry.

On our final day in Derry, we woke up early and walked the perimeter of the old city walls. The children brought along the kites they made the previous day and flew them as they walked the walls. Children flying kites on militarized walls. I can’t think of a better image.

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Flying a kite on Derry’s defensive wall

 

 

Before you post that photo . . .

Last week one my students, Brianna Barkocy, wrote a blog post about some questions that she’s been struggling with over the course of her time here in Ireland. To my mind, it’s a profound piece of thinking that asks difficult questions about what happens when we remove ourselves from the familiar and how social media allows us (if we let it) to inspire misperceptions of others as well as ourselves. I encourage you to read Bri’s piece.

Bri’s piece is interesting and useful because she gets underneath everyday life and she questions practices that are so quotidian that they seem normal. Upon closer inspection, though, these practices actually reveal something about our inner lives.

Bri describes a condition that she terms ‘social media travel.’ As she explains it, the social media traveler posts photos on her Facebook feed that show ‘ceaseless adventures into new landscapes.’ Here in Ireland, it’s the inevitable drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub, walking along the Cliffs of Moher or kissing the Blarney Stone.

Bri cautions us to ‘beware of the social media traveler,’ because behind that veil of good times is oftentimes someone who is homesick, bored, lonely, tired and afraid to show the world the challenges anxieties of traveling abroad.

On the surface, Bri’s piece is an honest look at some of the pitfalls of living and studying abroad. What it really does, though, is lay bare some essential and difficult questions regarding the nature of our lives, especially what happens in those moments when things get really quiet, our minds start to wonder and we are left with ourselves alone. Travel does that to you, if you let it.

We enjoyed a robust conversation about Bri’s blog post in class the other night. At one point in the conversation, one of the students, Molly, raised her hand and said, “Bri, this is a really important piece and I think everyone who studies abroad at Regis should read it.” As Molly was finishing the sentence, though, her voice trailed off, she paused and then concluded, “No, never mind, you know what, I don’t think it’s possible to understand what you are saying until you have been abroad for a while. People will just have to figure this out on their own.” I loved Molly’s comment for its pure phenomenological insight: you have to experience the world on your own terms to really understand it.

I suppose that the phenomenon of the social media traveler that Bri identifies is shared across nations and cultures, but I don’t know enough about the minds of people from other places to say whether that’s so, or not. I do think, though, that there is something terribly American about Bri’s piece and what I perceive as our dread of quiet, of being alone and of loneliness. As Bri so eloquently writes, social media travel allows us to fill a void and to do it in a rather unconscious manner. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course–travel in particular and life in general should be joyful and exciting so by all means, keep posting those shots of you skiing through powder, enjoying a cocktail on a beach and hiking through the woods!  But, as Bri notices, social media often acts as a cover for our fear of making ourselves vulnerable, of telling people things they might not want to hear and of revealing our anxieties and second thoughts.

I appreciate the unvarnished honesty of Bri’s post and it highlights of the reasons I still enjoy teaching after 22 years: I find myself continually inspired by young people like Bri, who is just one of twelve wonderful Regis University students studying here at the University of Maynooth this semester. They are all writing blogs and they are all producing thoughtful and entertaining vignettes of their lives here in Ireland.

You can find all of their collected blogs here on our class blog spot.

We Attend the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin and Stop in at the Maynooth GAA Club

We woke up this morning, ate breakfast and took the early train into Dublin. We met Andy at the Hodges and Figgis bookstore on Dawson Street, stopped in for a nice breakfast at KC Peaches Cafe and then found a nice place on Dame Street to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

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Spending time with Andy in Dublin before the parade
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The only flag Sujata will ever wave

After the parade, we said goodbye to Andy (see you tomorrow for the Ireland v. England rugby match!) and took the Sligo Express back to Maynooth. On our way back home from the train station, we stopped in at the GAA Club in Maynooth. The place was lit up with families enjoying St. Patrick’s Day and we were happy to run into some of the families from the children’s school.

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Impromptu soccer game outside the GAA Club
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We feel like welcome visitors in Maynooth

The parents waved Sujata and I over, we pulled up chairs, ordered a few Guinness and spent a delightful two hours socializing. The kids went off to play soccer on the fields and an hour later, they came back, soaked, thirsty and starving. I enjoyed spending time in Dublin and watching the parade, but sitting in the local GAA club, chatting with parents, watching kids run in and out and all around, sipping Guinness and munching on crisps . . . feeling and being treated like a local, really, was the highlight of the day.

We walked back home in lashing rain and wind, tumbled through the front door and all of us agreed that we couldn’t have had a better St. Patrick’s Day.

The only thing that could possibly make this day any better would be a Spartan win tonight, but I’m not holding my breath.

On a final note: our children are attending Irish schools this semester. Gaelic is a required part of the curriculum in all the national schools so both of the kids are learning Gaelic. Yesterday, my son came home with a bi-lingual handout of Irish aphorisms. Here are some Irish-isms you all might enjoy spouting off tomorrow. Let me know if you have an opportunity to use any of them and extra points if you say it in Gaelic!

Nior bhris focal maith fiacail riamh. A good word never broke a tooth.

Ni deanfaidh smaoineamh an treabhadh duit. Thinking will not do the ploughing for you.

Is maith an taniann an tocras. Hunger is a good sauce.

Is fearr rith maith na drohsheasamh. A good run is better than a bad stand.

Giorraionn beirt bothar. Two people shorten the road.

March Sadness, then Gladness

Today begins the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

A year ago, almost to the day, I did what I normally do on the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; namely, ditch work at noon, head to the basement, turn on the television and watch basketball games until deep into the evening.

Michigan State had the first game of the day and they were a #2 seed playing a #15 so in my mind, I’d calmly sit there and maybe even grade some papers and catch up on some emails. There were a couple of loads of clean laundry on the floor and I figured I do some folding during the second half. Instead, I found myself pacing back and forth in front of the television, reading frantic texts from my MSU friends and staring wild-eyed at the screen.

By 2 pm the game was over, MSU was out of the tournament and the laundry remained scattered across the floor.

I walked upstairs, put on my shoes and went to collect the kids at school. When they came bounding out of the schoolyard, I leaned down and delivered the news as if a favorite pet had died. They looked up at me a bit incredulously but then shrugged their shoulders and asked, “Can we go play?”

I, on the other hand, didn’t take it so casually. I sulked for the better part of the weekend and I couldn’t bring myself to watch another game of the tournament. It wasn’t until the beginning of the NBA playoffs that managed to go back downstairs to watch television.

Over the course of the spring and summer, I’d occasionally check the MSU Athletics website and ESPN to read about the latest recruit and to check on the pre-season rankings (okay, I check it ever week). This, by the way, is really depressing because ESPN keeps the scores from the previous year’s tournament on the NCAA Men’s site so every time I check in about the latest news I’m reminded of last year’s fate. By October, though, I was feeling optimistic: the Spartans were ranked #12 in the pre-season coaches’ polls and they picked up a number of strong recruits.

When we were in Romania this past fall, the first thing I did was sign up for a VPN service so that I could watch college basketball while I was in Europe. MSU played its first preseason game against Arizona at the end of November–the game started at 2:30 am Romania time and I stayed up and watched the whole thing.

They lost at the buzzer.

We are in Ireland now. Last time Michigan State won the national championship was 2000 and I was living in Dublin then. This was before satellite television and the internet so I couldn’t watch the game.  That still hurts. I’d be lying if I didn’t note that I’m hoping for some magical, symmetrical turn of events where every time I am on Irish soil, the Spartans win the national championship.

Michigan State is a #9 seed this year and they play Miami at 3 am Ireland (GMT) time tomorrow. I’m telling myself now that I won’t watch it, but I probably will.

Anyway, I feel like maybe last year’s curse is lifting.  Last night, my sister-in-law’s UC-Davis Aggies won their first ever NCAA men’s basketball tournament game. I stayed up to watch it and we were texting back and forth during the whole game.

I realize that this magical, obsessive thinking about sports in general and my alma mater in particular can seem ridiculous to most well-functioning adults, especially among my academic tribe. God knows, I’ve been on the receiving end on more than a few eye rolls and face palms from Sujata.

But this is as much about memory and personal history as it is about anything else, and memory can cut different ways: it can haunt your present or it can help you feel safe and connected to your past. In that regard, then, my passion for Michigan State basketball is the better part of memory.

It reminds me of those cold winter afternoons when I was a boy in the 1970s and I’d huddle in front of our black-and-white television to watch the Spartans and then go outside and try to shoot jump shots like Greg Kelser and drive to the bucket like Magic Johnson.

It reminds me of those short winter afternoons or long, bitter cold nights in East Lansing when we’d meet in crowded bars where everyone was watching the game together.

It reminds me of watching MSU games with my children back in Denver and it reminds me of the three of us, after the games, heading up to the neighborhood basketball courts to shoot jumpers like Denzel Valentine and box out like Matt Costello.

It’s your life, man, so turn on those games this weekend . . . and remember.

 

 

 

 

The Academy in the New America

I’ve always had a kind of lover’s quarrel with the American university and it seems to flare up in times of national crisis.

During the fall semester of 2001, I was teaching in the American Thought and Language department at Michigan State University. The day after 9/11 I walked into class and stared at a class of dazed 20-somethings. We did our best to try and make sense of what happened the day before but mostly, we just shook our heads in disbelief. Toward the end of class I asked the students what professors in their other classes were saying about the terror attacks. Most of the students replied that their classes were going on as if nothing happened and most of the students were disturbed that some of their professors pressed on with their lectures in the face of the attacks.  I know that wasn’t true for all classes across American universities, and I’m not judging the professors who chose not to discuss the attacks.

I think it’s pretty clear, though, that as a whole, the American university did basically nothing to deal with the national trauma of 9/11 aside from capitalize on the billions of federal dollars dedicated to the construction of the surveillance state by launching programs in Homeland Security and National Defense. There’s a legitimate argument, of course, that those efforts have paid off. Still, beyond some bells tolling on campuses every 9/11, can we honestly say the American university effectively responded to the crisis (and its aftermath)? The current generation of college students know virtually nothing about what happened on 9/11, why it happened nor the subsequent war(s) America has been waging in the middle east.

And it does raise the question about the role of the American university in times of national crisis.

Like the one we’re in right now.

I’ve been teaching abroad for nearly a year now, but I keep wondering what it’s like to be in a university classroom in the States. Are professors changing the content of their courses in order to reflect the seismic shifts taking place in American politics and culture?

Should we?

Are the shelves of university book stores filled with Orwell, Huxley and Hannah Arendt? (To my mind, science fiction is the only thing that really speaks to what’s happening right now.)

Are faculty and students talking about and reasoning through about what’s happening in America? Or, is Allison Stanger’s description of the recent mob violence that erupted at Middlebury College over a lecture by the controversial political scientist, Charles Murray, evidence to how far civic discourse has devolved, even in academia?

Are there newly-formed ‘task forces’ and ‘steering committees’ charged with developing university responses to the threats to the republic or even just helping ordinary people understand that it’s the rich white billionaires and not the blacks and the Indians and the Muslims and the Mexicans who are the problem?

Or, are things pretty much as they’ve always been, aside from some sarcastic remarks at the beginning of every class about the latest tweet?

I love my academic ‘interests’ just as much as any other professor. Reading and talking with young people about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lincoln’s speeches, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and the songs of Nina Simone and Woody Guthrie is an abiding privilege and joy for me, and I never take for it for granted. But I realize, too, that my work in particular and the work of the American university in general is a part of something much bigger than narrow academic specialization and knowledge production. As a professor in American higher education, I have, in other words, a duty and an obligation (however ill- and nebulously-defined) to write and educate for the common good. I know that sounds idealistic (forgive me!) but I also know that most of my colleagues feel the same way, more or less.

I don’t, however, know how to move forward with my teaching and scholarly life in this new American any more than I did in the aftermath of 9/11.

If you do, or even if you disagree with that premise, I’d love to hear about it.

In Which We Decide to Move to New Zealand for a Year

We were somewhere in southeast Asia last September–I think it was Cambodia. I was perusing the U.S. section of The New York Times when I looked up from my computer and said to Sujata, “You might want to see about getting a job abroad, just in case.” She looked at me slightly incredulously and said, “Are you kidding? He’s not going to win,” but then she thought better about it and said, “Okay. I’ll look into it.”

A few weeks later, Sujata called a headhunting firm that places American doctors in New Zealand hospitals. There were emails and phone calls and then family conversations about what it would be like to live in New Zealand for a year.

New Zealand was our first stop after we left the United States in July of 2016. We spent a week there hiking and cycling on the North Island.  To my English major mind, continuing and extending our journey where it began felt apt. Returning to the beginning to assess the past and move forward into the future made sense and felt right to all of us. “We shall not cease from exploration,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Still, New Zealand remained a poetic abstraction until we woke up in Budapest on 10 November, the day after the American election. The political and cultural unravelling of America quickly accelerated. We didn’t like what we saw, so Sujata put her foot down a little harder on the New Zealand pedal.

One day, the headhunting firm called to say there was a position open in Whakatane, a small beach community on the North Island’s Bay of Plenty.

Was she interested?

She was.

The interview was conducted, a contract was sent and signed and, just like that, our year-long adventure turned into a two-year expatriation.

I thought the children would chafe at the thought of being away from home for another year. They have thrived this year, but they miss their friends and their life in Denver. At the same time, they have embraced the excitement of life on the road. They especially love the freedom of living in Ireland where they can walk to and from school or the public library on their own or wander around the estate gathering up their friends for a soccer match on the nearby pitches.  No matter how or when we broached the issue, they consistently said they wanted to keep rolling and landing in New Zealand for a year was quite alright with them.

Of the four of us, I was probably the most ambivalent. I have enjoyed traveling and teaching abroad for the year, but I was looking forward to getting back to Regis, getting the band back together and picking up our life in Denver.

That said, I’m looking forward to slipping into a lower gear for a year. Preparing for and then actually accomplishing the Fulbright and the semester in Ireland has taken the better part of three years, so for my part, hanging out on the beach in New Zealand seems splendid. Regis gave me a leave of absence and there aren’t any universities near Whakatane so, unless Sujata is keeping something from me, I’ll have a relatively unencumbered life. And, I’m not at all worried about feeling bored or isolated: I think I secured an unpaid internship at the local newspaper in Whakatane, so it’s shaping up to be a year of writing, reading, swimming, cycling, and running on the beach.

We may very well have packed up and gone to New Zealand apart from the results of the American election. Our year abroad has been organized around my professional life and Sujata, who is a talented physician, has been Travel Guide In Chief. I’ll let her write about how she feels about going back to work, but I do know that the prospect of working in Whakatane where she will be primarily working with the local Maori community felt like a professional opportunity that she couldn’t pass up.

Still, when I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that our decision to go to New Zealand is as much a political decision to stay away from the United States. I realize that despite the political and cultural turmoil, things go on as usual for most Americans. Ordinary Americans wake up every morning, kiss their partners and children goodbye and walk out into their communities to do their work and to live their lives. At the same time, it’s hard to read news reports of white Americans shooting and terrorizing Indian Americans, defacing Jewish cemeteries and threatening people of color and feel excited about returning.

Why would we bring our kids back to that if we didn’t have to?

Would you?

We have every intention of returning to the States in July of 2018. I’ve got a job that I love, we all miss our friends and even though we’ve travelled all over the world for the past eight months, Denver still feels like our home and we miss our life there.

That said, it’s strange to think about being away from home for the space of two years. And it’s even stranger to realize/admit that a significant reason for not returning has to do with the political and cultural dynamic back in the States. Since we left the States in July of 2016 we have been ‘traveling abroad.’ When we leave for New Zealand, though, on 1 August 2017 we’ll be expatriates, a romantic and provocatively ambiguous word.

Over the course of my life, I’ve certainly harbored fantasies of leaving the States, but even now, as those fantasies become a temporary reality, I feel more American than ever. I hate what’s happening in my country and I am appalled by the level of vitriol, duplicity and arrogance that is emanating from the Twitter account and executive orders of #45. At the same time, I realize, more than ever, that American ideals are worth keeping and fighting for. My America is still the America of compassion, beauty, plurality, moral bravery and imagination. It’s the America of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. There’s serious damage being done in the States right now by low-minded people, but they will never overshadow the people and the work of the greatest American minds.

My Record Collection and How I Lost It

My college friend, Andy Devos, recently published a lovely Facebook post on LPs and it got me thinking about my record collection and how I lost it.

When I was a boy, we lived across the street from the Gray family. The Grays had two boys, Richard and Jim. By the time we moved to the neighborhood, Rich, the eldest, was out of college so I never really got to know him. The younger boy, Jim, was about 10 years older than me. I was around eight when we moved into that house on Lilac Street and Jim was a junior or senior at a boarding school in the upper northeast.  Jim was tall and lanky, and he played on his school’s basketball team so when he came home on the weekends he’d often be outside shooting hoops in his driveway. I had a basketball hoop in our driveway as well and I spent an inordinate amount of my time out there so when Jim was home he’d often wave me over to his house and we’d shoot hoops together.

I was in awe of Jim Gray. He was a good basketball player, he got to go to high school away from home and he treated me like his kid brother. Jim nicknamed me “Star” and even now forty years later, I recall how proud I was when he’d saunter over to our driveway and casually say, “Hey Star, take some shots and I’ll rebound for you.”

Jim was also into rock and roll, big time, and when we weren’t talking about the 76ers and their chances of winning the NBA championship, Jim was introducing me to the depth and breadth of rock and roll music.

Jim had a pair of three-foot tall Altec Lansing stereo speakers that he nicknamed “Allison.” He’d haul the speakers into the garage from his bedroom, plug them into his parent’s hi-fi in the living room, place the speakers in the middle of the garage and then crank up the volume! With the garage doors open the sound shot outside so that it almost blew your hair back. Some of my fondest memories growing up took place out there on Jim’s basketball court shooting layups and jump shots to “My Generation,” “Born to Run” and “After the Goldrush.”

Jim’s tastes were slightly off the mainstream of 1970s FM rock and roll. His favorite band was Santana so, naturally, Santana was my favorite band as well. For my ninth birthday, Jim gave me the first rock and roll record I ever owned, Santana III, and that record, then, became a touchstone for my future musical tastes.  The deeply percussive polyrhythms, the Latin claves, the singing and chanting in another language (!), the long, ecstatic guitar solos–I had never heard anything like that before. I spent hours sitting cross-legged in front of my record player watching the record spin, reading the lyrics and the liner notes over and over again and studying every inch of the album cover.

santana 3 inside
The inside cover of Santana III

From Santana III I steadily began to build up a collection of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll LPs. When my mom would go to the mall, I’d sidle over to the record store and look for the albums I was hearing on the radio. The Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes, The Beatles’ The White Album, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Graham Parsons’ Grievous Angel. If I had a bit of money in my pocket, I’d stand there in the middle of Sam Goody’s, a record in each hand, trying to decide which one I wanted to buy.

By the time I graduated from college, I had a sizable collection of LPs that included a first press of REM’s Gardening at Night, the UK pressing of The Clash’s first album, a special edition (purple vinyl!) of The Pogues’ Red Roses for Me, just about every Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan album, a collection of English folk rock bands like Fairport Convention and The Strawbs and a small collection of Philadelphia new wave bands like The A’s, Robert Hazzard and the Heroes and the Hooters.

I lived at home for two years after college so I kept my LP collection on a shelf in my bedroom. When it was time to pack up my things and move to Michigan for graduate school, I needed something to transport my albums so I made a large wooden box from white pine board. I neatly arranged the albums according to genre and artist, lifted the box into the car and drove off to Michigan.

At Michigan State I became a regular customer at the local used record store, Flat Black and Circular. This was the early 1990s so cds were a relatively new technology and everyone wanted them so they were expensive (at least relative to my graduate school stipend). Records were cheap so my LP collection grew significantly over the course of my graduate school years.  My musical tastes, happily, evolved during this period as well. My jazz collection expanded to include Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s Blue Trane and I spent many a late night reading nineteenth-century literature and history with Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies and Maurice Ravel’s piano concertos spinning on my turntable.

I left Michigan State in 1995 to take my first teaching position at a college in Iowa, and the wood box full of my LPs was the last thing I put in car before I optimistically slammed the trunk and drove west. CD prices fell significantly in the late 1990s and the town I lived in in Iowa was without a record store so my record collection stagnated and my turntable became a place to pile the new plastic jewel boxes. Five years later, I was packing up again. After a series of failed relationships and what seemed at the time like a failed career, I was heading back to Michigan State to pick up the pieces. The LP box came along, but as I lifted it into the trunk of the car, I felt like I was picking up a succession of losses.

I rented a crappy apartment in a crappy apartment complex and quickly realized that I was broke. I sold a couple of pieces of furniture and then one day I looked at the box LPs, loaded it into the back of the car, drove Flat, Black and Circular and sold the whole box for $150.

So it goes.

I sometimes wonder what became of all those records. I like to think that they went out into an LP diaspora, scattered and dispersed across the country and tucked up alongside other people’s records. Some of them, I’m sure, gave people the same kind of wonder and joy that they brought me. Others, like the LPs from the obscure Philadelphia bands, probably ended up in trash bins. It’s hard to make it through half a century and not have any regrets. You could shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, they were just records and what were you going to do, carry them around with you the rest of your life?” I mostly wish I had them so I could share them with the children, but, what’s to say that they’d be interested?

In his FB post, Andy writes eloquently about some of the albums that had an influence on his life. He mentions Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On? and Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (LPs all I had in my collection) and he writes movingly about listening to these records as a young man and what they have come to mean to him over time. One of his friends asked Andy if he still had the albums and if he still listened to them. Turns out he does and that his son and his friends listen to them on their turntable.

What goes around . . .