Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Flagrante Delicto

When I was nine or ten years old, growing up in suburban Kansas, I used to wonder where Andy Philman disappeared to, and why no teacher ever noticed he was gone. I would sit in math or social studies or religion class, crunching numbers, pondering the divination of the corporeal form, counting down minutes on the clock. I hated school the way most kids did. I paid attention, made up games, and eagerly competed at whichever task was set before us. It terrified me to think I might not be the smartest person I knew. A few years later, this got me into serious trouble, when I laughed at a teacher for asking me when Malcolm the Tenth (X) was Pope. She stood a different friend and me against the wall in the hallway, pointing at the ceiling and shouting that we thought we were up there and everybody else is down here. Her hands shook as she closed the gap.

Andy Philman was small-framed, pale-skinned, crafty, and very clever in a quiet kind of way. He always knew the right time to go to the back of the room, sign for the hall pass, and climb out the bathroom window. It seemed to me, at the time, that no one could possibly leave our school. Surely, there was an alarm rigged to the latch, or a laser, and didn't the principal keep vigilant watch for trespassers? The hill outside the bathroom window was sloped and gradual. It opened onto the teacher's parking lot, a stone's throw from the crossing signal on 95th Street. Get across there, I used to think, and the world was your oyster. Hardee's. McDonald's. The card store with the big candy bins in the back. Andy Philman never got that far, but he got away, or at least he got out, and when he came back into the room, signed back in the pass, and returned to his seat, there was a hitch in his step. If we doubted him, he would pass around a handful of grass, then later, during recess, show us the patch where he had pulled it up.

It's a minor memory, and one that hadn't come to mind for years, until yesterday, when my infant son tumbled off the bed. I was running the bath at the time, Cait was at school. I had left Walt sitting on the middle of the bed, with some toys. All that makes sense to say now is that we just didn't think he was crawling yet. I had gone into the bathroom, turned on the water. What I remember is that suddenly everything was very quiet in the bedroom, and how strange that was (Walt babbles a lot), and when I went back out, Walt was face down, just off the bed. Which at first I thought was a good thing, because he was so quiet, but when I picked him up he was beet-red, building up steam, just getting very, very ready to go off.

I took Walt upstairs, found my mother-in-law. She gave him the once-over. No bruises, no cuts, no blood. Lots of color in the face, thriving. Good sound. Take him outside and stand in the garden a while, he'll calm down. He's just scared. He had a good fall. It happens. So we went outside and stood in the garden, and sure enough, he calmed down. We walked around the garden and I made up the names of all the flowers. Oooh, snapper's pendulum! Dog-whisker! Cait came home a few minutes later and I gave her the update. And then I broke down. Which, I knew at the time, was pretty stupid. It wasn't like I had fallen off the bed, precognitive, without the capacity for language or object permanence, trusting that big guy because I didn't know any better. And also, it was on my watch, so who was I trying to kid? Wasn't it enough that Walt was fine? We were standing in the garden, naming flowers neither of us knew we'd ever seen before.

I have been thinking a lot about Chicago recently. Cait and I watched a couple of episodes of The Chicago Code, and I was surprised to recognize a bunch of the locations. Chicago occupies a strange middle ground in my mind. On the one hand, it is where I went to college, then lived after the Peace Corps. It is where my brother, my sister, and their families live, as well as some good friends and, further north, most of Katie's family. I have these great memories of running along the lakefront with Katie, out to the edge of the pier near North Avenue Beach or further north past our old place in Uptown. We had two apartments during our three years there, a bunch of friends, regular hang-outs--Carol's, Nookie's, The Old Town School of Folk Music, The Music Box Theater. We went to local theater, shows, walked everywhere, took public transportation to our jobs, ran a bunch of road races.

But then there is the figurative Chicago, the one that broadly means something, even if it isn't exactly, you know, Chicago. For example, I often tell people when they ask that I am "from Chicago," which is much tidier and simpler than "I grew up in Kansas, moved to New York when my dad took a new job right before high school started, went to college in Evanston, then came back from a Peace Corps stint in Bangladesh and lived with my girlfriend for three years in Chicago before we got married and moved to Miami, then Romania, where she died." Or, I say, "I am a die-hard Cubs fan," which really means, "when I lived in Chicago, I couldn't freaking stand Cubs fans, especially during the 2003 run when I secretly rooted against them, thinking all those loud and drunk fans were kind of irritating, but then when the whole Bartman thing happened, and they improbably blew the series with the Marlins, I felt really bad, like maybe my rooting against them had messed up the city's karma, so when I moved to Florida, I became a long-distance Cubs fan, which is easier to manage than rooting for the Cubs in Chicago, anyway--have you ever been to Wrigleyville in the summer?--and now, what the heck, I mean, it's been 103 years, right?"

I have been listening to Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" recently, that magnificent tribute to the idea of Chicago, the stripped-down genius of Tweedy mixed, mashed together, orchestrated and elevated by Jay Bennett, before they had their big falling out. You get this terrific effect completely if you watch the opening credits to the documentary about the making of that album, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart": the eponymous opening track stripped down to acoustics and lead vocals, the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Chicago in the late 1990s. It looks better than Manhattan in "Manhattan," more imagined and gray and rainy, the way good Chicago days somehow make you happy about it getting dark and cold so early.

The first instance of anyone saying "caught red-handed" comes in Ivanhoe, when a minor character who commits murder is discovered later with blood on his hands, where as the Latin phrase "in flagrante delicto," adapted to mean roughly the same in contemporary law, does not translate exactly. It is more subtle and suggestive, some cross between "caught in blazing offense" and "being found having sex." I am very good in crisis situations. I may fail spectacularly, but I do it with a really calm head on my shoulders. No panicking, screaming hysteric, me. But I hate to not have control, or worse, to miss things. It terrifies me to understand and witness limitation. I think that, for a while, Jeff Tweedy got around this by surrounding himself with smarter and more talented people, and just slowly learning the moves.

I haven't yet figured out how to explain the sense of obligation that accompanies survival. It is a kind of nostalgia, a fear of things long since passed. When I lived in Chicago, I missed Bangladesh. When I lived in Miami, I missed Chicago. In Romania, I didn't miss Miami, but I think a lot now about Indiana, and I still have a hard time looking at photographs of Bucharest. Even now. It's such a common phrase in poetry, implying simultaneous surprise and resignation. “Memory revises me. / Even now a letter / comes from a place / I don’t know, from someone / with my name / and postmarked years ago.”

I don't suppose that Walt is ruined forever on beds, or me, though I'm sure at some point down the road he will remind me, conveniently, that whatever he has done, he isn't the one in the relationship who let the other crash bodily to the ground. And, he will be right. Perhaps then we will still live in California, or somewhere that a few days each year resembles California. I suppose if the point of reference is made broadly, anywhere resembles someplace else. Chicago is a convenient shorthand for a former life, a place where I never felt completely comfortable or wanted to live long-term, but that is nonetheless a place I know a lot about, and can navigate my way around pretty easily. When Walt fell off of the bed, I swore it was my fault, which is a careless distinction. He is my responsibility. Nostalgia and obligation are two common variations on regret, an emotion that prepares one well for absolutely nothing.

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