Tuesday, February 26, 2008


After the divorce Rachel, at fifty, patronized a few of the new speed-dating services in the city. She had made up her mind how to handle these. She was going to tell the truth.

"I should tell you this up front," she said matter-of-factly, the good and unflustered businesswoman she was. "I don’t travel. Not ever. I don’t have to travel for my business, thank God, and I don’t travel for pleasure. Not ever." And she laughed, and said, "I get this out first thing. My daughter thinks I’m nuts."

By this time, the man was usually gazing at her and half-grinning in mild perplexity. Some were fascinated. Then she would sip her wine or coffee. "Tell me about yourself."

Usually the man said, "Uh ... wow. That’s interesting. Why don’t you travel?"
She stared out of hard, bright brown eyes. "Because nothing about it is pleasurable. Not the anticipation, the planning, the expense, the packing. The commute. The anticipating going home. Not being able to go home. All it is, is one long, glorified commute. You go someplace and look at people who are home." Once, the man was so quiet that she went on, looking out a window into a tree-filled courtyard as she spoke quietly. "I have this deep urge to put my fingerprints on things, on hotel light fixtures, to go for a walk in someone else’s neighborhood and pull up one weed in somebody’s yard, or see the waitresses after hours when they’re home relaxing, just see what they do. I want to make myself felt somehow, I want not to feel like a ghost in someone else’s world." She turned back. "I don’t travel. Not Paris, not London, nothing. It’s not worth it."

"Have you ever been to Paris or London?"
"No desire to go?"
"To go and have a good time in a perfect universe, if that were possible, yes. But to go knowing what I am? No. I’ll look at pictures in books. All I can think of, when I travel, is that I can’t be home now. That, to me, is too freakish for words."
"You’d make a lousy pioneer."
"No kidding. I’m a lousy traveler. I don’t know how anybody does it. Sometimes I think we just do it so we can tell combat stories afterward. So we can be like everybody."
"So obviously you’ve traveled."
"Sure. My parents took me lots of places when I was a kid. Florida, California. I went to Europe on a cheap-o tour when I was seventeen. The Caribbean for a honeymoon. Iowa, to visit family. San Francisco. I know whereof I speak."
"There are marvelous things to see in this world."
"Who ever really sees them? I overheard a black guy once in a waiting room tell somebody not to go to Paris because ‘ain’t nothin’ there.’ Go to the Riviera, he said. I know a guy who was charged one fee to ride a camel up the Pyramids and then another fee to ride the camel back down or something. You’re in these people’s world."
"That’s just one ignorant person, and one person who wasn’t used to the Middle East.."
"Who needs to get used to it? How is that pleasurable? I’m fine with books."
"Some people would say that’s kind of sad."
She shook her head and sipped. "Tough. I know myself. So. How about you?"

Oftentimes it happened that at this point, time was up and everyone moved on to the next prospect. She shook hands with a new man and sat down to tell her story again. In this way Rachel learned very little at first about any of the men she met, but was herself the most memorable woman in the room. Men gathered afterward to talk about her.

One weekend at a speed date she met Richard, and something new peered out at him from behind her bright brown eyes. The proverb says women choose men who choose them. She liked the way he looked at her. She had known two kinds of love, apart from the early love of having been raised and spoiled by four adoring older brothers. She had known the excited polite and disbelieving love between twenty-year-olds, amazed at handsomeness and physical pleasures, amazed at being considered grown-ups by the adults, and at being able to summon them to the wedding. This was the love of sweet and inexperienced people, deeply alike, not daring to fight and hurt each other’s feelings – deeply wise, in its own way – spending the decade of their twenties growing up all over again. This was the love she had spoiled, at thirty, because after the birth of one child and the attentions of new men at work, she had reflected one day that it was almost as if she was sitting around her husband’s house, waiting to fall in love the real way. Like in pop songs. She forgot the times she and Hank sat together on the porch, laughing, while Jennifer ran laughing between their knees. She forgot the nights when they were finished, and whispered things into each other's ears that no one else in the universe would ever know. She forgot all the good times, or wondered what they would have been like with the perfect man, really. The pop songs about fire and desire, and missed perfection, annoyed and alarmed her. Hank was a good guy, but was one man among millions. She knew him through and through,as he knew her. She forgot that he made her happy, and wanted instead the lightning bolt, the rescue, the sureness – the dark and handsome and almost but not quite fatherlike stranger who commands armies, ignores other women, and is putty in her hands. "It is hard for me to give up the sweetest dream I had," she wrote primly in her journal, while Jennifer played, and Hank mowed the lawn.

She felt the dream with a man at work, a dream safe and sweet and snug as wrapped candy, ready to be unwrapped and savored at leisure. He reciprocated -- it was so exciting, so proud -- and then she confessed to a girlfriend who advised her she had better tell Hank, because half her life was over and the time was now to decide whether or not she wanted to be happy for the rest of it. Hank wasn’t sweet and forgiving. He was devastated but retained the strength to leave her before she left him.

She married Dennis, and felt for a while that thrill of effortless triumph that skims love’s golden surface but doesn’t bear roiling too well. The moment they came out for their first dance at their wedding reception was the highlight of Rachel’s life. Love: he wants me, even though I came into his life and upset it. He threw over things for me, he hurt people, his children, for me. I worship him. I’m the one he was really waiting for. My knees got weak once, in the early days when he approached me and asked me out. That’s the way it should be. We weren’t shy good kids living almost as brother and sister, but grown people who smashed up the world and remade it in our image. My daughter has had the example of seeing a woman totally desired. Nothing he says or does embarrasses me.

In a few years the age gap alone told. She found that another proverb was true, the idiotic one about the man who marries his mistress creating a vacancy in the position. She had not been Dennis’ mistress and he did not take one now, but he liked and approached women friends, at work, at parties, at gas stations. "My gaggle," he called women friends sometimes. When he became a grandfather and men and women who were his contemporaries embraced him at parties, she felt sick and desperate. She found herself having imaginary conversations with Hank. For his part, Dennis had no interest in training another wife to put up with him, all his half-swagger and half-kindness. Because Rachel had been the new one, the desired one, she had no interest in being trained. He was supposed to be perfect, to have been stunned by her, to want only her. He was supposed to have changed.

They hung on for close to ten years, while Rachel persuaded herself that they would soon be middle-aged together. Then they split up and she lost weight, fought off bitterness, and moved into a town home with her daughter. The salon was doing very well and she and Jennifer were surprisingly well off. She tried not to "overthink" things, because her therapist had warned her against it – why is the tape playing so loud in your head, he asked – but sometimes, at odd moments, phrases of blackness and desperation came to her. Spoiled time. Spoiled blessings. Regret, stupidity, inanity. There were people in the world with real problems, people starving or in prison. There were people creating art. As for her, she was learning what it meant to have a lot of her character and, worse, memories formed by crappy choices that had been all her own and all, she had believed, to the good. A lot of them had been terrific fun at the time. When most of that changed, it was like having a new person inside you who was ill and petty and corrupted, and only at best recovering. There were times, alone in the bathroom especially it seemed – bright domain of filth and a mirror – when she was sick to death of being herself. She hated her own hands and arms even as she looked at them. Didn’t maturity mean you became selfless and peaceful, and thought more about other people? Weren’t old people, doddering about in the grocery store, calm and untroubled? When a girlfriend invited her on an Alaskan cruise she declined. Thoughts had jelled, and she decided she hated travel.

After a long time in solitude, and a few bright brittle attempts at speed dating, she met Richard, who saw what was glancing out at him, as it were, from behind her eyes. What might have been the soft or comic look of his bright bald head and blue eyes was hardened by a hook-tipped nose and stocky figure reminiscent of some anonymous general in a crowded Renaissance painting. He looked as if he had just dismounted and taken off his armor. He looked at her in public in that way women love and women choose. Here was love, again. Love for the third time, the love of a man who had met her after she had survived, who looked and seemed to say, I can make you want to travel. I’ll take you to Paris, and it will be as it is always for everyone, the City of Light. She understood him, and was thrilled in a tiny spot way deep down in her insides. She waited.

He planned a trip to Paris for them, and she allowed herself to become excited by it. Maybe she could do it. Maybe Paris could be magical after all, change her and make her better, more normal. He mentioned places which she then looked up on maps and in books. The Place des Vosges, the Musee de Cluny. Vaux le Vicomte. She saw herself as beautifully relaxed and having what everyone called "a good time," strolling across bridges and so on, in the city that all civilized people must see, must want to see, at some time in a life. Maybe Rome after that, maybe Venice.

Richard and Rachel went so far as to make hotel reservations and buy airplane tickets and talk about it to their various friends. She marked it on her calendar in red. The night before, she lay in bed thinking in terms of hours. In a few hours, we’ll be on our way. It’s morning there now. We’ll arrive this afternoon, their time, or will it be tomorrow? We’ll eat, and see the palaces and streets where historic people lived intensely, suffered and killed kings, never knew if they’d be guillotined the next day. She thought ... what if I should run into Dennis and a new woman in Paris? She smiled a little. He liked Paris, it’s possible. He may even be back with Sheila. Imagine it. Or what if I met Hank?

In a flash a scene played out in her mind. She and Richard ran into Hank in Paris, and the spoiled blessings of her whole life flooded into her and turned everything inside her skin to water. She saw herself running down a Paris street, sobbing, out of control. It was possible. She began to sweat and had all she could do to struggle out from underneath the blankets and stumble in the dark to the bathroom. She almost didn’t make it. I can’t go, she thought as she sat there. Relief and incoherence battled within her. Of course I’m not going.

Richard came to pick her up. She had been up since midnight. To her, it was still yesterday. She told him. It was ghastly and humiliating but the sweet relief was worth it. All her possessions and furniture, the suitcase, unneeded now, the very walls of her home seemed to look at her and breathe, it’s all right. He’ll soon be gone, and you can stay here and not have to wander Paris, smiling and counting hours.

He was furious, of course. He tried to josh her out of her panic but she said something bitter to make him understand. The look of love in his eyes died away. It might come back, who knew; she didn’t care. She quoted Dodsworth at him. "You know Dodsworth?" she asked. Again she was the businesswoman with hard, appraising eyes.
Don’t give a fuck if I do, he thought, looking at her with clenched-mouth patience because he never intended to see her again. He also didn’t want to miss his flight.
She raised a glass of orange juice poured at one in the morning and warm now, which she had loaded with gin, and assessed it as if it were a prize. " ‘Since the days of Alexander the Great there has been a fashionable belief that travel is agreeable and highly educative. Actually, it is one of the most arduous yet boring of all pastimes.’ "
"I gotta go."
"I’m sorry. But I did tell you this on our first speed date. Remember?"
"Whatever." Her door slammed.

In another thirty seconds he was gone. He peeled out of the parking lot below in his new black BMW. Rachel finished her drink and added this to her life’s store of crappy memories, things that formed her that she wished did not. The store seemed to be piling up so. Now she understood people who wished they could be eleven again, forever. That bright simple confidence in an eternal summer-world, that feeling of loving oneself because one is naturally marvelous. The future stretching out forever, clean and perfect. At eleven, you don’t even put it into words. You simply know you’re a god.

She picked up the phone to call Jennifer, to tell her she would be home for the week after all. Then she remembered, Jennifer was spending the week at her dad’s house anyway. So Hank couldn’t possibly be in Paris. What a fool. That still left Dennis, but still, what a fool. She replaced the phone, and bent her head and laughed softly. Then she put her empty glass in the sink, took a shower and got dressed for the day. Planes flew overhead as she was out and about in town. Her lack of sleep didn’t seem to affect her. She wore a low-cut blouse.

That weekend she gave herself a long-deferred treat, and went to the local animal shelter and adopted a little dog. She named him Dodsworth, and bought him dishes and a leash and toys. She took him out to the park and sat on a bench, while he leaped about and panted happily into the breeze, or squirmed in her lap. The whole story lay rehearsed, on the tip of her tongue, ready to be told to anyone.

The End

Friday, February 22, 2008

Unsweetened Condensed


My dear,

I’ll be brief. If you come from a Christian background – and you do – you’ll come expecting to find all the private excitements and joys of your new theology in a building, when in fact the Jewish community is a social system much more akin to a local park district than anything else. Services are provided under the headship of a hired director; individuals who have known each other for years do one thing, perhaps serve on a committee or teach Sunday school, plus socialize, and that is practically the extent of their involvement in what you consider a faith. It still leaves them Jews in a way you will never be, and in a way that does not interest you.

Meanwhile, Orthodox-style observance will be impossible for you. You are going to tire of doing it in a vacuum. Don’t beat yourself up over this.

Remember that the holidays are bound to be intellectual abstractions because they come from the ancient Near East, which had no change of seasons. Then perhaps, like me, you’ll have or witness experiences which prove prayer-as-words -- even community prayer-as-words, which at least has the dignity of a joint effort -- is less to the point than, say, prayer-as-doctor visit.

Finally, be aware that if you are a remotely youngish woman – and you are – the attentions of older, fairly educated and fairly wealthy men will become part of your "religious" life, whether you realize it or not. The eventual effect of this is quite embarrassingly inane and sterile.

When all this becomes clear to you, you may simply decide that God is everywhere, and leave it at that. Far healthier, really.

Your very loving

The Secular Funeral

Having been to many funerals and memorial services in the past two or three years, and having found several of them unsatisfying, it occurs to me that there should be some sort of ritual of mourning for people who are not religious. There ought especially to be some kind of funeral or memorial ritual for those cases in which the deceased himself was not religious.

But what to do? My parents thought they had eliminated unwanted things when they left instructions that at death, no funeral mass should be said over either of them. They arranged for the simplest type of coffins and they bought and paid for their plot years ago. They arranged that there should be no wake and no visitation. But, when death came and something had to be done, all those arrangements still left little problems to be decided on – shall he wear his glasses to meet his maker, what color shall the flowers be, shall there be a military salute, shall there be a banner attached to the flowers and what shall it say – and it left the problem of who shall speak a few words in the chapel before burial. We are not the sort of family in which one of us would be comfortable getting up to describe Dad’s life, in a speech full of eloquence and humor. That seemed to leave responsibility for words of comfort to the one of us who has a religious leader, willing to talk, whose denomination would make his input appropriate: "Say, what about your pastor? Could he speak a few words?"

Certainly he could, and it was very nice of him to agree to it. But this pastor was no better acquainted with the family than any other. And the words he spoke were what would have comforted his parishioners, not my father, nor us. Certainly they were no comfort to my mother. "We know that we shall rise in Jesus, and we know this pain we feel is passing because the pain of Jesus’ death was conquered by his resurrection in love." And so on. About halfway through this sermon, my father would have been looking surreptitiously at his watch, and peering sleepily over his glasses.

A memorial service hosted some months later by the hospice which had taken care of him proved to be not much better, for us. It was held in a Catholic chapel and conducted by two priests. But it was also little more than a country music concert. I counted at least eight songs in an hour and ten minutes, plus a long musical interlude while people in the auditorium filed up to hang symbolic ornaments on a Christmas tree on stage. (This was after, incidentally, an almost-comical moment during which we all extended our right arms in a congregational blessing that looked terribly like the Nazi salute. My father the veteran would have clapped his hand to his forehead in speechless derision.)

I suppose the good people who put these things together must reason that lots of music will render any type of religious service safely ecumenical. After all, not every one in hospice care is Catholic. Nevertheless, the lyrics to these songs could only make one shudder. "Poor sinner, when you find yourself in dust and filth, fly to Jesus," and so on. Just when it seemed there could be no more singing, the very good guitarist began yet another song. Toward the end there was one was about a boy lost in the woods one evening, who was led home by an old man who turned out to be an angel. As soon as she recognized it, a lady behind me breathed to her friend, "Oh God, not this one. It’s country." And tasteless.

And I have been to Jewish memorial services recently in which the lady behind me also breathed discontent with other people’s choices, official choices about what shall comfort us in mourning. On a gorgeous afternoon in May a relative at a woman’s memorial read the "who shall find a more valiant woman" passage from the last chapter of the book of Proverbs. Behind me I heard an elderly female voice whisper, "Now that means nothing to me." And indeed why should it mean anything to a modern woman? It is a litany of praise for ancient types of housework that nobody does anymore, and it ends with "let her own works praise her in the ‘gates’" that modern towns and suburbs do not have. If that lady had spent a lifetime listening to her husband speak the passage to her every Friday, as very traditional Orthodox Jewish men are reputed to do, she might have felt differently about it. So might we all.

Nitpicky, to be sure. Perhaps the modern soul is too flaccid, too deeply secular, to get any comfort from grand old sources. I have been to funerals done in the grand old way – a full Mass, thundering organ, songs like Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art – and I have heard the dead eulogized by a Father who knew him well, who nevertheless explained to everyone how Christlike the dead man had been. And I have wondered how on earth the mourners can listen to this and keep their countenance. The dead man was indeed very very good. He worked hard and loved his family, and loved to be with his friends and watch football on Sundays. But he would not have known or cared a straw about the kind of theology that permits a clergyman to say "Fred taught us about Christ every day of his life" after his death.

Were Fred’s mourners comforted? What comforts mourners? At my local library I happened to come across a CD called Music for Queen Mary. It contains mostly Henry Purcell, and includes three magnificent marches, all played on muffled drums, from the service at the queen of England’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1695. Ten minutes of disciplined drumming, very dignified, surprisingly military. "The Queen’s farewell," each was called. Each was composed by a different man, and Purcell’s plays last. In these drums was everything that the modern funerals and memorials I have been to lately lacked: the emotional acknowledgment that death is farewell, forever. Farewell: as if the dead were wishing us a good journey, as if they had been called away unwillingly. Which they are. The repetitiveness of the drums spoke of loss, better than words could have done. It’s over, it’s over, it’s over, they might have said. And yet they said it with dignity, as if one could also hear – she was a human being, all humans suffer this, and yet all never ends. The drums spoke of group mourning, which is what a funeral is, better than all the guitars and speeches and poetry have done. (Haven’t we all been to services in which somebody in the family stands up, bravely gulping, and recites something of their own which rhymes "joy" with "boy" and "day" with "called away"? Haven’t we all lied through our teeth and told the poet how beautiful it was?) They were relentless, the drums, they were unified and inescapable in their sound. They seemed to pound out the savage awareness, as drums used to call men to war, that yes, this is a disaster, this is the end of a world; don’t be comforted, not yet, rather mourn. Anonymously, like humans.

There may have been some people in Westminster Abbey that day who were not impressed by the drums, and the celebrants at that funeral may have described Her Majesty as Christlike in ways that would not have made sense to her or her friends. Possibly a funeral is, as the hard-bitten hero complains in Winston Graham’s first Poldark novel, "‘indifferent entertainment.’" Or, maybe it is a part of the human condition that nothing really comforts or even expresses anybody’s grief, and everything connected with death rituals is a mummery that just keeps us busy and employs the clergy. Or maybe not. Maybe people three hundred years ago simply had a more religious view of the world (for better and worse), and funerals were therefore very different things then.

In any case I wonder if something cannot be done today to create a funeral for secular people. I have many siblings, secular people all, whom I do not like to think of as being laid to rest amid somebody else’s choices, somebody else’s sentimental, pop-crossover shrieking about the woods and sin and Jesus. I also do not like to think that they will all opt for cremation, which is exactly what my sister said she wanted as we got ready to put up some sort of lacy plastic bell, with my dad’s name on it, on the hospice tree. "Either that, or shoot me out of a cannon," she joked. Cremation seems to be an increasingly popular choice. Is it the modern person’s way of saying, I want a secular funeral? Or, I want nothing?

What would a secular funeral include? I am at a loss. Purcell’s drums? Nice readings from lofty classical sources that are no more meaningful in daily life than the pearl-and-ruby housework of the book of Proverbs? "Life’s but a brief candle"? "I am the beauty of woman, whither do you think to fly from me, senseless fool?" (Thais) "And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mold a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when ‘tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain ...." (Antigone). I have been to funerals at which the deceased’s favorite music – secular – was piped in softly through the speaker system, which at least gives a personal touch, but also seems empty and, what else, irreverent. Why listen to what he liked now? Besides, shouldn’t we be listening to something more, you know, religious?

Many people would say that whatever comforts the mourners is what should be, and usually is, done. Religious people would probably say that secular people still turn to religion’s customs after a death because they realize, even only instinctively, that they must have religion’s resources to cope with death’s mystery and tragedy. I think it is more likely that secular people turn to religion after a death because religion still overlays the only professional institutions that still know how to cope with death and have the staff to cope with it, from the handling of the corpse to the hiring of musicians and the bother of setting up a Christmas tree on a stage three months later. I also think that if some other huge milestone in life, like a wedding, left secular people as unsatisfied as funeral customs must do, people would do something about it. Since we are all sad and dumbfounded at a funeral, but happy and prepared at a wedding anyway, we let things go on. And we even have the pre-formatted and exciting choice of elopement, to replace a wedding if need be. In death, there is no such equivalent. Religious ceremonials are the things we put up with, possibly because we sense that they are right, or because it seems that good people feel the comfort in these things, so maybe if we were better people we would feel them too. Even the tackiest songs can make you cry. Perhaps it is good to get that out, and is the best comfort secular people can expect.

If I could conjure up a vision of a secular funeral in my mind’s eye, I would see a group of people who know what to do to mourn as a group. I would hear dignified, familiar readings. I would not hear theological pronouncements that the dead most emphatically did not believe in, in life, and quite possibly had never heard of. I do not think I would hear too many funny speeches. I would like to see some sort of physical gesture, done to express the anger that comes with death. The old custom of a monarch’s officials or guard breaking their staves of office and throwing them into the tomb is a good one. So is the Jewish custom of the mourners helping to cast earth into the grave, and then not visiting it for a year. People do go to the cemetery far too much. Stay away. As the drums will tell you, it’s over. There is no second chance to find the comfort the funeral didn’t give, nor to find him.

And would I hear the drums? Frankly, if I had my choice, yes. But of course one can hardly hire in, on short notice, the sorts of professionals who could play that, and to pipe in the music over a speaker system seems as tacky an idea as anything. Everybody would look at each other uncomfortably. What we want on top of everything else in a funeral is one last expression of the dead person’s being – his tastes, his past, his loves – and of our having been shaped, partly, by him. No wonder ancient, barbarous cultures sacrificed concubines and horses for him, or carved his face in stone. It’s what he would have wanted.

The Biblical Hebrew word for the underworld, the next life, Sheol, is said to come from a root meaning "to ask." As if the underworld is a gaping maw, never satisfied, and never ceasing to ask for more. (One wonders if this reflects some point in remote prehistory when mankind, perhaps just learning how to speak, realized with a slow shock that death would never stop asking for more.) I don't know why secular mourning customs seem so hard to arrange, the right mourning customs, new, perfect, comforting, appropriate, -- but it seems we at least have plenty of time to think about them.

The End

The Soldier's Story

Kyle worked on the student newspaper in college and parlayed this into a full-time job as a staff writer for the local paper as soon as he graduated with his degree in Communications. After he had been hired, his first assignment was to drive down to Crown Point, Indiana, and find a story there concerning the funeral of a soldier who had been killed in action in Afghanistan. The assignment made him so nervous he felt sick to his stomach, and then sick in his throat as he drove the old, hot car through a shining green and blue, hot summer day. Go "find a story," he had been told. It was almost exactly what he had dreaded when he thought about going into newspaper work. He had dreaded being stuck in the mailroom or writing obituaries, which he had heard were the places where everyone started, but he had also dreaded having to interview the bereaved. And now here he went. Find the grief, find the people milling in the sun around tragedy and sacrifice, and "find a story" encased in that, the way a pit is encased in fruit.

Kyle parked his car in the courthouse square and noticed there were already people milling about, a lot of young people, and there were flags all around. He picked up his notebook and tape recorder from the front seat of the car, turned off the engine, and got out. He took his time locking up, looking all around as if he were an ordinary tourist or businessman, rehearsing again
in his mind what he intended to say. "You know I feel terrible to intrude on your grief, but if you’d care to ...." No, that wasn’t it. "I work for the Courier and my editor wants me to ...." No, that was worse. "Did anyone know the dead man?" Worse and worse, like a "dick" from an old black and white detective film. "Don’t worry," Karen, his editor, had actually said. "Once people know who you are, you’ll find generally they are delighted to talk to you." And she had smiled. "People love to tell their stories. Even when they’re sad. For you it’s the best part of the job."

He remembered he had brought his own digital camera with him, and took out his keys again and unlocked the car to get it. Finally turning out toward the world laden so, camera in a neat little black pack slung easily over one shoulder, notebook and tape recorder and pen balanced in one hand, the other hand shoving keys into his jeans pockets and nearly dislodging the little black pager at his hip as he did so, he had, even for the unpracticed eye of young men as young as himself, the look that screamed "reporter." Despite his nervousness he remembered to glance around for approaching cars before he crossed the street and walked toward a large group of milling people with flags. They no doubt saw that, too.

He was just about to say "Excuse me" to one middle aged lady among all the young – he loved middle aged ladies, they seemed so motherly, you could depend on them to take care of you if you threw up – when a middle aged man he had not noticed spoke up. "Can we help you?" he asked.

Kyle turned to him with relief. He smiled and spoke with an assurance that surprised him even as he listened to his own voice. Maybe I like this job, he thought wildly.
"My name’s Kyle Holleman, I’m a correspondent for the Courier," he said. "I saw all these crowds of people and wondered what was going on."
"It’s Sergeant Oake’s funeral this afternoon," the middle-aged man said.
Kyle nodded, took out his notebook, and clicked his pen. "I heard. Did you know him?"
"I was his high school weight lifting coach."
"Can I have your name?"
"Joe Johnson."
"How long were you his coach?"
"One semester. Great kid. I coached his sister here, too."

Kyle glanced over at a young woman dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, who appeared to be about nineteen or twenty. She was small and solid, and had the flat face and high cheekbones of a Maya carving. Knots formed in his stomach. "Oh, yes?" he answered pleasantly. "I’m sorry to hear about your brother. Do you want to talk about him at all?"

"Sure," she said, the practiced family spokesman already. "But he was in Special Forces. There’s not much we know. Except it was a roadside bomb. They’re good at that."
"Okay," Kyle said, scribbling. The crowd of people still pressed in around them; it seemed worse, and larger, than it actually was. He ignored them all and concentrated on the girl, his source. "Do you have time to go sit down somewhere?" he asked.
"There’s benches over there in the shade," she gestured. He noticed she had one strand of hair plastered, forgotten, to the side of her face. Plastered there by tears, he assumed.

They left the crowd and walked across the street to sit in the shade of the trees, which were themselves in the shade of the big red brick courthouse building. He saw that the cornerstone of the courthouse had been laid in 1910. On the four sides of the square stood shops and restaurants and lawyers’ and dentists’ offices, all occupying two- or three-storey brick buildings with decorative crenelations atop their walls, or old forgotten businesses’ names carved above the second floor windows. At a stoplight on his drive into town Kyle had noticed a Carnegie library, another handsome solid red brick building, now given over to some other use. The bronze plaque embedded in a rock outside announced that it had been dedicated in 1903. Here he was, interviewing the sister of a dead soldier. Except for the modern traffic and the modern clothes, this might have been Crown Point, Indiana in 1903, or 1910. She would be wearing buttoned black silk in another era, and he would be wearing some sort of hot, itchy suit and a straw boater. They would be talking about ... what? Cuba, or the Phillippines? Central America? A case of measles in an army camp in Oklahoma somewhere? A few years later, and they would be talking about France, and the Western front.

They sat down and he asked if she minded if he used a tape recorder. She said she did not mind. Rather than risk her crying again, Kyle decided to venture right in without preliminaries.

"So how can you not know what happened? What’s the deal with Special Forces?"
"We only ever knew what he was doing after the fact. He’d come home after weeks or months on duty and tell us he’d been in Afghanistan or something. One time he was in Africa. That’s the way that job is."
He nodded. "So – a roadside bomb?"
"Yep. He used to say he could talk when he retired." Her lower lip began to pull down, helplessly, as if it were being controlled by an unseen hand, or a medicine too powerful to resist. He knew the feeling.

"What made him choose Special Forces? He must have been in good shape, that’s a pretty elite unit, isn’t it?"
"Oh yeah. They’ll put you in good shape if you weren’t before. I think he chose it – kind of – to prove he could. He was the skinny kid that everybody laughed at. He’s like me. We’re half-Irish, half-Mexican, we don’t like to be laughed at. I went into the army because people thought I wouldn’t be able to take it."
"Really. You’re in now?"
"I’m done. Six years. I’m in college."
Cripes. That made her twenty-four. "Really. What made you – "
"People thought I couldn’t. Because I’m a girl. I made up my mind in seventh grade and everybody laughed. So I did it."
"That’s kind of young to know. What happened?"
"An army recruiter came to our school and asked for a show of hands of how many people thought they might like to go into the military for a career. This was after he made his speech. I wasn’t even listening but nobody else put their hand up so I did. And everybody laughed and said I would never stick with it. So I did."
"No kidding. When did you go?"
"I enlisted in the December before my high school graduation. I was their dream recruit – an ethnic woman."
Kyle looked up sharply, almost grinning. She shrugged.
"They say they don’t have quotas, but they do. In DEP they start getting you ready the summer before your senior year."
"Delayed Entrance Program. You go to parks and do push-ups and rifle practice. I was on the bus to Chicago MEPS two days after my graduation party. My graduation party was on a Saturday night, the recruiter was at my parents’ house before dawn Sunday and I was on the bus at two in the morning on Monday. That was it. Never looked back."
"Wow. MEPS, what’s that?"
"Military Entrance Processing Station," she said. "They measure you, tape your neck, your upper arm, your thigh, they get your height and weight and body mass index and stuff. They test you for color blindness, they test the women for pregnancy. You squat-walk across the floor, and they i.d. you in case of death."
Kyle was scribbling furiously. "They i.d. you, how?"
"Birthmarks, anything weird about you. It’s kind of eerie."
"I’ll bet. So then what?"
"From MEPS I went to the airport. I was put in charge of 7 guys and told to get them to O’Hare, find the gate, and get them to OSUT at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri."
"One Station Unit Training. They train everybody in one place for six weeks – engineers, MPs, people going into chemical or biological warfare. I did it. I got ‘em there. Pretty soon there were forty of us on a cattle truck in Missouri, holding our duffel bags in front of our faces and singing the Star Spangled Banner. We had no clue where we were. Shakedown."
"What does that mean?"
"You arrive and your drill sergeant is screaming at you. I got put with the men by mistake because we all had haircuts by then. They make you drink so much water you throw up. I puked on the drill sergeant’s boots before anybody realized I was in the wrong place. He said ‘you’re in.’"
"So this was boot camp."
"This was boot camp."
"What goes on? Did you stay with the men?"
"No, I was with a six-female unit. They separate you for the showers. I was going for combat engineer. Women can’t get into artillery, infantry, or Special Forces, but engineering was opened to women in ‘96. I wanted to be somewhere near combat, and being an engineer is basically a combat position. When I was building bridges in Iraq, my life expectancy was twelve seconds. The recruiter didn’t tell my parents that."
"I’ll bet. Why the desire to be near combat?"
"I just wanted to be where the action was. So did my brother."

By now the interview had so far ceased being about the brother that Kyle passed over her reference to him with what he hoped was a sturdy, sympathetic, professional look, and carried on learning about her.
"So after shakedown, then what’s next?"
"Learning UCMJ – "
"Uniform Code of Military Justice. The first stage of boot camp is ‘red.’ Sleep deprivation, no phones, no sweets, no mail, running every day, going into a tear gas chamber, getting your body fluids out, learning UCMJ. In ‘white’ you start learning to fire weapons and you can go to church and the PX. In ‘blue’ you do BRM – basic rifle marksmanship, obstacle courses, urban warfare. I spent eight weeks learning how to build bridges, how to handle the boats, learning explosives, mines, booby traps. Drownproofing. And in ‘blue’ you get personal time. You can go off base."
"Treading water for twenty minutes."
"Because you were going to be building bridges on rivers in Iraq."
"Or wherever. It’s just good to know."
"So what was your day like? I mean, what time did you get up, stuff like that?"
"Your day is from four a.m. till nine or ten at night. You rotate fire guard duty, from one a.m. to five. You shower twice a day, mandated, and the last thing at night, you line up at the toe line."
"What’s that?"
"The sergeant comes with a flashlight and inspects everybody’s toes."
"You’re kidding."
"Why would they care about your toes?"
"They don’t want anybody getting an ingrown toe nail."
"All that marching and running."

He nodded and kept on writing the most atrocious scribble, just trusting that he could decipher it later. She talked so fast. "So after boot camp, then what?"
"I had thirty days’ leave to go home and do some home town recruiting – "
" – oh yeah. And then I was off to Korea for a year."
"What did you do there?"
"Active duty. Maintenance, physical training. We were about twenty miles south of the DMZ – "
"Demilitarized zone."
" – right. I competed in Soldier of the Month."
"Some kind of contest?"
"Uh-huh. The Motivation Boards run it. You compete for Soldier of the Month, and Soldier of the Quarter and Soldier of the Year. I got every one."
"Really. What do you do for it?"
"Your physical training scores go into it, weapons scores, random knowledge."
"Random knowledge of – "
"All kinds of things. The five Fs of field sanitation." She counted them off on her fingers. "Fingers, flies, feces, food, and fluids. And then every night I was off duty and could use the phones and socialize like civilians."
"So do you have a rank?"
"I’m a sergeant, E-5."
"What does that mean?"
"Soldiers are either private, PV 2, PFC, or Specialist. The E ranks go from one to nine depending on what you know. So a private is an E-1. NCOs are Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Sergeant First Class, Master Sergeant, First Sergeant, and Sergeant Major. So I’m the lowest rank of being an officer."

Kyle didn’t know what NCO meant. Nor could he translate ‘PX’ earlier. But he didn’t want to be ignorant about everything. His dad could decipher NCO for him, and he was pretty sure PX meant kitchen. He could check them both later. "But still an officer," he said. "You had guys under you."
"Yeah. I had six in my squad."
"What’s the E rank again?"
"It stands for your MOS."
"Which is?"
"Military Operations Specialty. I was a combat engineer."
"Life expectancy, twelve seconds."
"You got it."

She went on. She had gone from duty in Korea back to Ft. Hood, Texas, and had gotten married to another soldier. It didn’t work out. "Too much everything," she said, and Kyle didn’t press her on the subject. Then she had spent time trying to get herself stationed in Germany, and trying to get into West Point, a place which forbids its cadets to be married. She kept on learning to build bridges in Texas, and then she was sent to Kuwait for a month and then, in March of 2003, to Iraq. "The kitty litter countries," she called them. He looked blankly at her. "All that sand," she explained. Women sergeants, she said, were exceptionally hard on other women, because if the men are hard on women, they’re "sexist" – and the women soldiers have to learn the ropes from somebody. The men don’t like the women at all, and after witnessing their weakness, she learned not to like them either.

She went on, racing through a recital of her time in Iraq, and as he scribbled Kyle marveled at how little the public knew about any of this. Perhaps it was because a volunteer army didn’t touch the millions of lives that a draftee army used to do, and so people couldn’t know. Perhaps soldiers didn’t write letters as they used to do, and families didn’t pass them from hand to hand anymore. Perhaps it was because the Media had a Left Wing Bias – his grandfather was forever writing angry letters to the editor on just that theme – and journalists, even the "embedded" kind, weren’t interested in relaying G.I.s’ exploits, but only in reporting absurdity and failure and, with luck, atrocity. Battles didn’t have names anymore, why? Because not enough time had passed for Hollywood to absorb all this information and make movies about it? Because it’s hard to name another hill of sand? Or because to name a battle reflected some kind of orderliness on the events of war, and journalists didn’t like that? If battles have no names then war is all chaos, and thinking people can reassure themselves that "No one wins a war." To this girl battles, events had names, and one side won and one lost.

She raced through them all so fast. She and her fellow soldiers were among the first into Iraq, "task force Iron Horse." They built the longest combat assault float bridge across the Tigris River, and they built it on Saddam Hussein’s birthday and so called it the Birthday Bridge. They built four more, two in Tikrit and two in Mosul. If Kyle understood her correctly, it involved racing around the river in what amounted to armored speedboats, often at night and under a smoke cover. Naturally, exposed on a low-lying river they would have been easy targets without those precautions. Saddam was only one mile away some of the time. The heat was so extraordinary that the soldiers had to have their nostrils cauterized to prevent nosebleeds. They didn’t get mail for the first four or five months of their tour of duty. And there were roadside bombs, and instructions on what to do if their compound was attacked. "Get dressed, get to the perimeter with your ‘battle buddy,’" she said complacently. Later as Kyle looked over his notes he read "take bridges with you" here, but could not remember how she had explained that. It seemed incredible that it could mean what it seemed to mean.

Then there was R and R in Saddam’s palace, and boat rides on his ponds and swimming in his pools. Reading Stars and Stripes, absorbing greedily any dose they could of American culture. She and the other soldiers won home leave by lottery. She got two weeks one Christmas. After a year and a month in Iraq, she was back in Texas, "waiting for her stuff." Then discharge, with a promise to be available for re-enlistment for two years if needed. (You sign on for that right away, when you are eighteen and the recruiter sits with you at your mother’s kitchen table.) They give you a few last medical tests, and a phone number to call and a place to go "if you’re going crazy or think you are." She was discharged in January of 2005, six years after signing up, with $50,000 at her disposal for college. Kyle couldn’t know that in class she wore gray t-shirts proudly emblazoned ARMY. When other students asked her timorously, as they inevitably did, "Did you get shot at?" she answered "Yes." When they asked, "Did you shoot?" she said "Yes."

The entire interview had taken about forty-five minutes. Toward the end she seemed impatient, as if she was tired of talking to a child who didn’t understand. Kyle had forgotten his nervousness, as well as whatever physical attraction he had first felt for this girl. Far from feeling childlike, he felt instead like a middle-aged reporter; he would not have been surprised to look down and see a respectable pot belly, or to catch a glimpse of himself, balding and pasty, in a large, sunny store window. He wanted to sit and think, chin in hand, and he wanted her to stay with him while he did so. There was something comforting about her. The breeze played over them, lifting their hair. Traffic and people moved all around, and the trees shook softly in the wind. It was a beautiful day. The crowds with flags had dispersed. In a moment of panic he wondered if he had kept her talking and made her miss the actual funeral. He became freshly professional.

"Okay, I think I’ve got enough for now." He closed his notebook and clicked his pen.
"Okay," she said.
He looked for the first time fully into her wide, flat face and large, glistening brown eyes. Again she reminded him of something Maya. Those were Indian eyes, the kind that gleamed with wary, simple hauteur in warriors’ faces in nineteenth century photographs. He spoke slowly. "I’m sorry. I realize that the point of all this was to learn about your brother. I obviously got caught up in your story, instead. The eyewitness perspective is ... it’s something more to the point of what the reader wants."
"It’s okay."
"And you’re a woman. We, uh – we don’t have quotas, either."
She smiled, and became almost lovely. "That’s fine."
"And it would end up being a tribute to your brother and to your whole family in a way. Obviously I would mention him. And everything."
"That’s fine, I understand."
"Can I call you if I need more details about anything?"
"Okay." Kyle took her phone number, and they shook hands and parted. As he got into his car and drove back to the newsroom, the summer sun blazing down as always on men at war, on handsome red-brick buildings dedicated among straw-hatted crowds in 1910, his middle-aged confidence evaporated a little. He began to worry about what Karen would say. He hadn’t really followed her instructions. She might even send him back to do it all over again, correctly – "what about the brother?" he could hear her asking. He began to grow pleasantly furious, imagining scenes. Honestly, he would probably be more wanted, and better taken care of, in the army. As he merged onto the expressway, half-snorting at the rearview mirror, he noticed a simple sign at the entrance to a strip mall parking lot, among the marquees for dollar stores and factory shoe outlets, there above the sea of sunny gray parking lot. Armed Forces Recruiting Center. Plain black on white.

When, the following weekend, his story did not run, he imagined more scenes, he prepared to be righteous and look daggers at Karen. But it turned out that a night editor had only bumped the story temporarily to make room for an ad. "I wasn’t there," Karen assured him. The struggling paper needed revenue, and features often gave place to an ad. She promised him it would appear in the next week, or two at the latest.

In two, it did. His e-mail address followed as usual in the tagline, but no reader contacted him about it, not even the girl to say "Great job." He was disappointed, until he remembered a professor at school who once quoted Qui tacet consentit in another context. Silence gives consent.

The End

Shakespeare in Purgatory

I watched the passing of a cultural torch not long ago. I saw a group of about thirty high school kids perform an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet, complete with excellent costumes and pretty good sword fights, before a theater half-full of family and friends suffering the purgatory of Shakespeare. By the second half of the play, the teens in the audience were text-messaging their friends, and the adults, slumped in their seats, had ceased troubling to stifle enormous yawns. "Oh, I don’t understand a word of it, and I’ve heard him practice for a month," Romeo’s father confessed cheerfully to friends behind us during intermission. "All these words I don’t know, and the way they’re put together. Nobody would ever talk like that."

Too true. There were some fun bits, like when Mercutio mentions "‘the prick of noon,’" and there were plotlines that even those of us watching the play as a pantomime could understand. Gangs of teen boys fighting on sight in the streets: not good. Teens in love, and keeping secrets: also not good. And what’s in a name? Who am I, and to whom do I matter?

Otherwise, it was a purgatory. Theater-going has changed in 400 years, of course. We are not content to pop in anymore to look at an act or two, while girls sell oranges in the aisles and factions hoot at a bungled soliloquy. We treat it as a job to be done. The job is stuffed full of incomprehensible language and references. Even Samuel Johnson remarked, elegantly, that Shakespeare was out of date, and complained specifically about his puns – his "quibbles" he called them (I am not I, if there be such an ‘I’/Or those eyes’ shot that makes the answer ‘I,’ etc., etc. (III.ii.48).

I finished the evening wondering why anybody bothers with Shakespeare. I think it’s because authority tells us to. This may not be a new idea, but seeing it played out was startling. The Bard is not popular, he’s taught. The school’s playbill claimed that his "themes transcend the centuries," a compliment frequently paid him – almost as frequently as the compliment that no one else so understood all humanity. That’s why we love him, we’re told. That’s why we go.

But it’s not enjoyable. Given that, why should the themes and understandings of an English playwright of 400 years ago happen to outrank those of a Greek one of 2500 years ago, or of an Italian painter or a German composer? They don’t, but large groups of young people can’t dress up, and kiss and fight, to act out the perfections of Italian art or German music. Even Antigone has only nine speaking parts. Shakespeare is a training arena of fun for the kids and, when their families come to show their support, for his own imposition on placid and obedient us. Move the routine to a big city and you have a larger pool of people to recreate the high school experience – the trained young, and the support networks having a good time in fair purgatory, or claiming they do.

Of course, he is very beautiful, with his long jewel-lists of beautiful words. A professional big-city performance might be riveting, and of course we all should read the play first. Glancing through a few generations’ worth of old newspaper articles, however, I find hints that Shakespeare productions, and their audiences, may have looked for a long time like the humble passing of the torch I saw. Shakespeare is a money pit (he "‘spells ruin,’" as one sponsoring Chicago industrialist and ex-student actor was warned in 19291 ). He’s hard to understand. He is very much the domain of students. Adults don’t much like buying tickets for him; those who are excited about imposing him met him in school.

Naturally enough. The kids who tackle this may get big ideas about what to do as a teacher, or with a possible philanthropist-level, theater-founding income. Interestingly, Romeo and Juliet’s director would not permit her actors to say that Shakespeare is difficult. Apparently to admit so is to begin to put him off limits, and for the civilized young that is not to be thought of. We supportive audiences must shift for ourselves.

We only woke up for the sex and laughs. When I came home that night I watched an episode of Will and Grace revolving, as usual, around gay love and men kissing. Very funny. It occurred to me that possibly good theater does not change. Sex and laughs give us a fun time, we enjoy them as if they were spotlit, while the story, great, dumb, or middling, difficult, half grasped or not grasped at all, whirls in and out of the pale circled margins of the light.

Shakespeare’s devotees would answer that he foresaw all that, and treat me to a pitying look. I suppose I’m a groundling. But I’m only interested in witnessing what people actually like, and what they don’t like. The passed cultural torch is a good thing, but I wonder, whose would be the torch if Shakespeare hadn’t written big plays in (steroidal Renaissance) English full of parts for young people? We’d be sitting through the interpretations of some other master knower of all humanity, but who? And would we be having fun?

1 "Shakespeare is on paying basis at Civic Theater," Chicago Tribune, Nov. 25, 1929.