We were half a mile away from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, descending Route 340 into those lower depths where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac, when my seven year old son Julien asked from the back seat, “Is Donald Trump a douchebag?” It was one of those questions to which an average parent might respond by scolding or, at the very least, by recommending a change in diction. Heather and I, however, aren’t those parents. Which isn’t to say we didn’t answer swiftly and firmly.
“Yes,” we said right away. And then, in case Julien needed further affirmation, we said it again: “Yes.” And, “he is a douchebag.” Not that we thought Julien wasn’t clear about it, but sometimes, for the sake of what’s good in the world, one will repeat things. Like Molly Bloom, at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, repeatedly saying “Yes.” There is, of course, a measure of poetry in this.
As it was, this was a nice change from the previous day when, driving to pick up our daughter Maggie and Julien from school, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car ahead of me. On it were the words, “Real Men Aren’t Afraid to Show It,” and what these words were printed above was the Confederate Flag. The first thoughts that came to mind were, “How can you even begin to have a discussion with someone who expresses this so proudly and so publicly?” And then came the usual string of imprecations directed toward the driver of the vehicle bearing this sentiment. The imprecations are, certainly, a different kind of poetry. But they are poetry nonetheless.
That afternoon, we continued past Harper’s Ferry on up to the outskirts of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Heather’s parents’ house. We stepped in for a while, then Heather and I left Maggie and Julien with Heather’s mom and her sister Kara, and took Heather’s dad Gary with us. We drove into town where the writer George Saunders was doing a reading at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore. In this photograph, taken at the bookstore that evening, the look on George Saunders’s face is the same look I had on my face when I saw the “Real Men Aren’t Afraid to Show It”/Confederate Flag bumper sticker—the difference between George Saunders and me being that while he was about to tell a funny, illuminating story, I was about to shout obscenities toward the driver of the car in front of me. I gather that this isn’t the only area where George Saunders comes out way ahead of me, but it’s a start.
After the reading, we went back to Heather’s parents’ house. Julien got to spend some time playing with his two year old cousin Lochlan, while Maggie spent half the time hanging out with her grandmother and the other half of the time reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was more than halfway through college when I read Crime and Punishment, while Maggie is just fourteen years old. Which means that, like George Saunders, she’s way ahead of me—but that’s fine with me. In fact, that she’s ahead of where I was at her age pleases me to a level higher than Elon Musk could ever imagine. That because of this she has opportunities I never had pleases me even more.
The other night, Julien said “newspaper, newspaper” in his sleep. I wondered what it was he was dreaming about. Just as I wonder about the spinning of the earth, and the ways we might measure our movements against those of the universe and all those objects that are faster, stronger, bolder than we are. And, I wonder about the ways I might illuminate the smallest details to the point where everything is significant and nothing can ever be lost.
Photograph by Jose Padua