Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saturday Musings, 12 February 2011

Good morning,

One sentient being has gone off to take a standardized test; the other, to swing a small, stringed racket at a ball, with the intent of catapulting it across a net. I can more readily understand the first undertaking than the second.

I've had my 180 calorie breakfast and two cups of stout coffee. I've perused the Wall Street Journal and the Star, glad of the first while lamenting the second. I've no beef with the Star except bad writing; otherwise, they have shown more than expected generosity towards me, publishing nearly all of my letters and providing for ease of attainment by virtue of their "disabled" list, which requires their carriers to gently set the plastic-wrapped paper on my doorstep.

Both papers carry banner headlines about the ouster -- call it what you will -- of the Egyptian president. I read the WSJ article out loud to the tennis-player before he went off for his morning activity, marveling at the thought that a protest of 200,000 in the city streets, whether it is or is not properly called a revolt, was built and sustained in large part through the marvels of modern technology. I cast aside the dusty newsprint and poured another cup of coffee, and thought about my life.

I stood in a crowd of thousands once. I wore a tie-dyed T-shirt with the emblem of Walk for Development, the fund-raising venture of Young World Development. We claimed to be the inventors of the genre, and we might have been. In those days -- the early 1970's -- I still had waist-length hair and still wore blue jeans. I still had dreams, and ideals, and still believed that I could make a difference. I still aspired to nothing less than publication of one of my poems in the New Yorker. And yes, Virginia, I still believed in Santa Claus.

I took a train to Washington D. C. to the office of the American Freedom From Hunger Foundation as our local delegate. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't what I got: a nondescript, one-room shoestring outfit with a rotary-dial phone and a Radio Shack answering machine. I sat with the two wild-eyed hippies who ran the program, which had youth groups under its auspices across the country. They couldn't have been more than a decade older than my 15 years. Earnest and over-worked, the two had gotten grant after grant to address hunger in America through the efforts of American youth. They pushed their stringy hair back on their brows and stared at me with fatigue. I glanced about the room, at the dented green filing cabinet and the grey metal desk. They gave me some literature and thanked me for coming. They ushered me back downstairs, and left me to make my way back to my sister's apartment. I watched them walk away, down the streets of D.C., tense-shouldered, thin, sincere.

I went to the bootheel of Missouri one weekend, and stayed in the wrong side of town, where the streets had not been paved, and electricity had not been strung, and plumbing had only recently begun to find its way inside the half-finished, tar-paper homes. With a handful of other teens, I took the undesired residents of those mucky streets into the town's restaurants. We silently dared them to refuse to seat us. They sullenly dodged our dare. I suppose they must have spit in our food, judging by the rolled eyes, and the smirks, as we paid and left. We stepped off the curb and a car careened around the corner. Our host grabbed my arm with his strong black hand and pulled me to safety while the others in our group jumped out of the path of jeering teenagers. Let's go back, the man gently suggested. We're not really welcome here. Disgust rose in my young heart, bile in my belly. I stomped to the police building and filed a complaint. The clerk let me write it out, and put it in a folder on her desk. Uniformed officers stood nearby, silent, raising heavy, chipped china cups from which the smell of over-perked coffee wafted. I got their license, I repeated. You can find them, I got their license. The clerk nodded, never rising from her chair.

In a dented blue pick-up, we drove to a small canyon in the sweet, low foothills of the Ozark mountains outside that shabby town. I lay in the bed of the truck, feeling the sweet breezes of the cool night around me. I covered myself with one edge of a sleeping bag, and watched the stars, searching for something that might tell me what the future held. When I couldn't sleep, I stumbled over to the edge of the canyon and sat on a large rock, listening to the sounds of settling creatures, and the shrug of the trees dancing in the wind. I wrote a poem, which years I later entitled "Missouri Mourning" and dedicated to a man who did not love me. But when I wrote that poem, I only felt the draw of unsullied nature, and the allure of altruistic undertakings. I felt virtuous. I felt clean.

A social worker on that trip told me about his father's death at the hands of Idi Amin. Gazing across the expanse of the parking lot outside the extension office where the local workers welcomed us, this man must have been recalling a far different sight: his father's body, riddled with bullets from the death squad, his mother's slender, sobbing form, the terror in his younger siblings' eyes, his own posture of helplessness. He left his family to come to America, where people are not, as a general rule, killed for their beliefs -- at least, not by the government, or not if their beliefs are consistent with something close to the generally accepted mores.

As this dark-eyed, quiet fellow told me about his life before emigration, I stood, in a T-shirt, a windbreaker, and bell-bottom blue jeans, reflecting on the differences that a few degrees of latitude can make in one's life. Whatever I might suffer, I have yet to feel the impact of a dictator's bullet through the unprotected body of my beloved parent. On a scale of Nirvana to Uganda, I'm somewhere in between.

I can't quite pinpoint the moment when I stopped espousing causes. I can't put my finger on the precise second in my life when I abandoned my belief that I could make a difference, when the depth of my social contribution plunged, until it reached the stage of shallowness where it now dwells, amidst the ragged seaweed of unfulfilled ambitions. My only contribution to the social fabric consists of a ten-dollar-monthly contribution to the local public radio station, and the occasional thrusting of crumpled bills out my car window at the homeless standing at the corner of 47th and Main.

Perhaps it is a generational malaise. I close my eyes, and, when I have stilled my inner soul, I can summon a vague recollection of the bold feeling of power that I once possessed, when I stood in that crowd of thousands, waiting for the first Walk for Development to begin. I gazed across the expanse of the park at which we gathered, and met, with decided and conscious deliberation, the long lens of a photographer. Slowly, deliberately, I turned to face his camera, letting my jacket fall open, to reveal the emblazoned Walk symbol on my shirt. I set him up. He took the bait. My picture, standing in the determined throng of YWD Walkers that day, made the newspaper and I became the poster child for our movement. Not bad, I told myself, considering I didn't even Walk.

Forty years later, I fold the Wall Street Journal, and toss it on the small pile of paper destined for the recycle bin. My day holds nothing more challenging than laundry and dust patrol; and later, my beloved and I will be the guests of honor at a dinner given by his tennis group and their wives. While the people of Egypt rejoice, I will be obsessing over the proper attire for such an event. I won't even have the decency to be ashamed.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.