The Past is a Foreign Country


(*L . P. Hartley, The Go-Between 1953)

The old year closes, a new year looms. I start my 74th year thinking about the previous 73. I come across L. P. Hartley’s observation, above. If the past were, really, a foreign country, how might we get there. The technology may be within our reach, if the folks at CERN are clever enough. But what about the bureaucracy of travel into the past? Let us consider…

L. P. Hartley

Burrow House



Dear Mr. Hartley,

Thank you for inquiring about travel to Hastings for 1066. We have attached a list of small Saxon H&Bs in the area but if a hovel is not what you are looking for, there are some keeps and a few wattle and stick single occupancy huts still available for April.

If you don’t mind, we’d like to know what interests you in southern Angleond these days. We haven’t had much travel, although there has been an increase in cross-channel day trips of late. Yours is the first inquiry we’ve had from the twentieth century. Let me remind you that a visa is required for travel from any date later than 1105. Forms may be requested from Harald, Scribe, Weir-next-to-the-Suge-Brush, Essex 20012.

Hope to see you soon,

Aethelred the Ready (lol)


Hon. Anthony Scalia


Washington, DC 20543

Judge Scalia,

Matters here are running ahead of our ability to keep account but your request to attend the Constitutional Convention has been forwarded to me here in Philadelphia. As you may or may not know (I see your letter is dated January 1, 2014), 1787 has been an hectic year and to tell you the truth, our “national State Department” exists in name only; the “states” are fairly jealous of the right to control traffic in and out of their borders. So, if you wish to come to Philadelphia from 2014, I will have to ask you to submit proof that you are a white male landowner born on the continent of North America (excluding Canada and not in any land claimed by the French or Spanish crowns).  And could you perhaps give us some account of the origins of the name “Scalia”? You are not a Papist, are you? It would be good if you are a Quaker or a slaveholder in 2014.

As trade relations between the twenty-first and the eighteenth centuries are still in negotiation, I have to ask you the extent to which you intend to engage in commerce or labor while in the state and whether you intend to reside permanently. If the latter is the case, please give the names and addresses and titles of three (3) white male landowners who can sponsor your residency here.

Please apply for a visa for Pennsylvania, 18th Century, tour or guest worker as the case might be, at our office in the National Archives, your city (Washington? Really!?) and include the information and documents requested.

Please study the enclosed list of items not provided by the state and come prepared.

Hasbrouck Hollingsworth

Sec’y to the Undersecretary for Foreign Times and Places


The United States of America (more of less—lol)


Phillip Roth

c/o The Wylie Agency

250 W. 57th street

Suite 2114

New York, NY 10107

Dear Mr. Roth:

I’m afraid this office must deny your request for a visa to conduct research for a novel in Newark, 1933-35. We are aware that you have visited Newark in memory several times but that is just not the same thing, as I can imagine you already understand. Merely remembering a time and place does not establish permanent residency or right to re-entry. You are no doubt aware of the “Madeleine” case (documents attached). I am sure if M. Proust can make do, so can you.

We do not like to appear arbitrary, so let me remind you that certain protocols were established between the twenty-first century and the twentieth century, protocols that are designed to protect, in this case, Newark during the Depression, from exploitation and from unanticipated claims on our already strapped resources. It IS the Depression, after all, and if every son and daughter of old Newark rushed back here just as soon as technology allowed, how could an already distressed infrastructure manage the increase in demand for services?

On a personal note, let me just say that I know your folks and I remember you from temple and I was disgusted that day on the bus with you and the baseball mitt. I am sure you must have retired by now; you should leave well enough alone.

Elizabeth Slipmann (I’m not laughing)

Assistant to the Supervisor

Port of Newark

New Jersey



As it’s Christmas Week, it seems fitting to tell as much as I understand about my parents’ changing relationship to Jesus or Christianity or religion in general. It’s an unusual odyssey.

 They were both raised as Protestants, my mother from a long line of Methodists who brought their somewhat dour practices from Maine through Illinois into pre-Civil War Kansas. My father’s people were more fundamental in their beliefs, foreshadowing today’s evangelicals. They were poor white southerners the rigors of whose trek from 18th century Georgia to early 20th century Texas were ameliorated by a more demonstrative, Bible-centered belief.

 When they married, my father followed my mother’s Methodism and when I was born, albeit somewhat problematically and in a Roman Catholic hospital at that, it was into Methodism that I was baptized. I grew up, then, in a church-going family; we went together to Sunday morning services, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer meetings. I spent even more time at the church, whatever town we were in, at Methodist Youth Fellowship.

 In Shreveport, Louisiana, we attended Mangum Memorial Methodist Church and my father served on the Board of Stewards there when I entered high school. My mother taught adult Sunday School there and much of our social life revolved around relationships formed there. In my senior year of high school, however, my parents left Methodism.

 I had already decided I was an atheist but my parents were not interested in my arguments about the existence of God. Theirs was a social problem, a very real social problem. Sometime in 1957, two Black families appeared at the church to worship. They asked to enter and to join the membership of the congregation. This was still the Jim Crow South and our church was made up of white, mostly lower middle class and working class strivers, men and women unsure of their own place in a changing America. The Board of Stewards met and denied the Black families’ request and added a section to the church’s bylaws that not only set down a rule of segregation but suggested in its rhetoric that African Americans were not fit for God’s love.

My father was angered by this and resigned. My mother was less incensed (she had voted for Strom Thurmond on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, but that sort of political and racial myopia was pretty much in her past by 1957; she had resisted efforts by the local White Citizens’ Council to organize teacher resistance to desegregation in the school for the deaf where she was, at that time, an uncredentialed but skilled teacher) but she supported my father’s decision even though it sundered almost all of their  social ties in the neighborhood.

They had other friends, however, John Wray and Margaret Mary Young in particular, who supported them. John Wray was the director of the local little theater group to which my mother had dragged my father two years previously as she rehearsed a small role she had got. As it turned out, they both became stalwarts of the theater and acted in almost every production for John Wray. They also became quite close to the Youngs and when Dad told John Wray and Margaret about his decision to leave Mangum Church, they, Roman Catholics, invited my parents to come to church with them. Before long, my parents began to take instruction in the Church and formally converted just after I graduated from high school. Their respective families were surprised and disappointed. My maternal grandmother told my mother’s siblings that my mother had “turned” Catholic.

 They remained in the Church for many years, as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. My father loved the ritual and the physical beauty of the church but my mother was only lukewarm. The reason, I have come to believe, was that the church was too institutional and too much focus was on the priest, not enough on my mother. I know that sounds like a harsh evaluation, but subsequent religious events may support my sense of things.

Many years passed and one year, when my parents were almost desperately poor and caring for my mentally ill aunt in Denver, my father decided to go up into the Rockies with some Jesuits for a retreat to seek guidance, to make a novena, a specifically targeted series of nine prayer regimens. When he returned, he had no precise plan but felt God had heard his request. My mother assured him that indeed He had and she knew just what was to be done. While he was gone, she had met a woman who introduced her to Buddhism and in a few short, intense days she had decided that their lives would change if they embraced Buddhism. That, she convinced my father, was God’s plan.

 My parents remained practicing Buddhists until their deaths. I told them that I hoped this would be their last conversion because the only step left was some sort of pure evanescence, some translation of selves into essential smoke. My mother did not think that was funny; in fact, she was quite angry with any of us (me, wife, children) who would not follow her into the Lotus Sutra and she would cry and express her sense of filial betrayal when I would refuse to teach my children her beliefs or let her do so. I know she did so despite my disapproval.

 My sense of my mother’s religious practice was its centeredness on her presence. Somehow she appropriated every part of the ceremony and it was her performance of it that was crucial to its authenticity. Every refusal to participate was not a loss to the reluctant one but a betrayal of her; if you did not accept her offering of this treasure, then she was diminished, invalidated. She was trapped and yet owned her own trap.

My father, I came to see, took the path of least resistance, as he often did, and practiced with her, celebrating her excesses of piety but shrugging ruefully to me on my visits home when I asked if he were happy in his belief. So when he came to die, I was not surprised that my father asked me to see to it that he had a Roman Catholic death—priest, last rites, a funeral mass. He missed the Church, he told me, had never lost his affection for it, and had tried to make my mother happy by following the forms she set for their Buddhism but at heart, at 84 he was the Roman Catholic he had become at 39. He told me he had told her this just that day and I promised I would talk to her about it.

 My mother assured me she understood my father’s feelings and so I left Kansas and returned to New York. A week later he was dead. I returned to Kansas with my family and found, of course, that there were no priests, there had been no last rites, and there was to be no funeral mass. She had no intention, my mother told me, of letting a priest anywhere near my father.

 I confess that I did not make an issue out of any of it. After all, as an atheist, I realized there were no consequences to any of these decisions. As my father was dead, he most certainly was not disappointed and the Buddhist ceremony was no more exploitive by my mother than many other of her religious impositions on us all. As for the competition among the gods for my dead father’s soul? It already belonged to my mother.

 Too grim, so let me say that I enjoy Christmas, enjoy the memories of crèches and carols and trees and I do not feel conflicted about having those memories. 

Race, Class, Family in the Movies

A time to kill adams ribATTK BwayThe closing a month ago of the Broadway stage version of John Grisham’s novel, A Time to Kill, as well as the recent wave of films starring the reconstituted Matthew McConaughey, bring to mind some strange correspondences between the dramatization of that novel and an iconic movie from the 1940s:

Those old liberal softies Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, were probably grinning in paradise as they read accounts of the attempts to make a stage vehicle out of John Grisham’s entry in the “sensitive white man in Mississippi saves the Negro race” narrative sweepstakes, A Time to Kill. Maybe there is a heavenly version of Netflix and they even got a chance to stream the 1996 movie version, anticipating each echo.

After all, the writers and producers of ATtK (both versions) simply took the premise, conflict, and climax from one of Gordon and Kanin’s finest comedies to build their own scripts. Give up? It’s Adam’s Rib, the 1949 classic starring Katherine Hepburn in the Matthew McConaughey role of liberal defender, Spenser Tracy in the role of the DA with political ambitions taken over by Kevin Spacey in ATtK, and Judy Holliday in the shooter’s role taken by Samuel Jackson in the film.

Those of you who are insomniacs will remember that in AR, Holliday shoots Tom Ewell who was cheating on her, Hepburn takes her case while film hubby Tracy is assigned to prosecute it, and in the film’s climax Hepburn delivers a clever summation that wins the day and the case. Along the way we learn that Holliday planned her assault and knew what she was doing, that Hepburn intends to plead her as temporarily insane, and that there is an issue at stake larger than the issues of fact in the case: the unequal treatment of women before the bar.

In ATtK, Jackson shoots two men who have raped and almost killed his 10-year old daughter, McConaughey takes the case although he is lined up against a spineless judge and a conniving DA, and in the film’s climax delivers a clever summation that wins the day and the case. Along the way we learn that Jackson planned his assault and
knew what he was doing, that McConaughey plans to plead him temporary insanity, and that there is an issue at stake larger than the issues of fact in the case: the unequal treatment of Blacks before the bar in Mississippi.

There are other fascinating little parallels, most of them attributable to conventions of film plotting: in both films the defense lawyer and spouse separate because of the stresses of the case; in both films a feckless and entertaining comic relief who drinks a lot provides companionship to the defense; in each film a brief romantic moment looms on the horizon but is rejected by the defense.

But the most fascinating parallel has the most interesting implications for the representation of how the law is portrayed in American popular culture. It involves a basic conflict in legal ethics: in any given case, may a lawyer place her belief in a cause over and above her client’s case. In AR, Hepburn comes to realize that she must find
a way to free her client. Originally, her interest was in the larger political implications of the case, which she saw as embodying the sexual double standard as it was applied in the law: no man, she knew, would go to jail for doing what her client had done. The case offered her an opportunity to showcase women’s inherent
constitutional right to all justice, however twisted it might be; if men could assault for love’s sake and go free, so could women. But although Hepburn’s cause could be served just as well, if not better by Holiday’s conviction, an argument by Tracy reminds her that as a lawyer, she cannot put a cause before the welfare of her client.

McConaughey’s problem in ATtK is identical to Hepburn’s and his position in the problem is similar but also different. There is a certain amount of bravado in both characters’ decisions to take the case, youthful in his and messianic in hers, and a certain affection for publicity in each’s early pursuit of their clients’ interests. But the over-investment in the cause Jackson represents is not McConaughey’s, despite the fact that he took the
case to expose the problem of justice for Blacks in Mississippi, but that of the NAACP and a local Black minister. Together, Jackson and McConaughey fend off an attempt by the NAACP to co-opt the case with its own lawyer, one who, it is hinted, would be willing to let Jackson get the chair if it suited the political moment.
Nevertheless, the cause has its own life and drives actions outside the courtroom that have effects on McConaughey’s efficiency in the  case as riots and racial conflict as well as motives of revenge bring the KKK into town and into the case. When both sides have rested, McConaughey, as was Hepburn in her case, is far from a victory and he has no new ideas. It looks as though the cause will be served by Jackson’s conviction.

Hepburn’s summation is clever and blithe, until she turns to the narrative device she has fashioned to win the case for her. She abandons the insanity plea; she abandons the apotheosizing of women every bit the equal of men in public and private life. Instead, she asks the jury to listen again to the story of the spurned and
heartbroken spouse, the heartless lover, the straying marriage partner but this time, she insists, the jury must look closely at the defendant and at the victim and at his girlfriend and imagine them changed! Imagine them, she insists, as a heartless male home wrecker, a bored, straying wife, and a jealous husband with too much honor and a gun. As she does this, film magic turns Holliday into a middle-aged man, Ewell into a homely woman, the girlfriend into a handsome rake. The lesson is driven home and the jury acquits Holliday because they have seen her as a man in their mind’s eye, with a man’s prerogative of honor.

McConaughey’s summation is absent any ornamentation. He declares that he is abandoning his prepared summation to tell a simple story. He asks only that the members of the jury close their eyes while he does so, and that they listen closely. The jury complies and McConaughey tells a story of brutal rape and torture of a small girl
by two men, of their attempts then to hang her and of her body thrown from a bridge to a creek bed 30 feet below. Imagine all of this, he asks, and then, imagine the child white. The lesson is driven home and the jury acquits Jackson because they have seen him and his daughter as white, for one moment, and realized that they would have done exactly as he had done, had they been in his place.

I have no insider’s knowledge that the writers and producers of ATtK dug up an old print of AR and sketched their outline from there. There may be good reasons why issues of inequality before the law almost cry out for race and gender border-crossings, for exercises in the development of moral imagination. It is certainly the case in
both of these examples that the judge would have been quite justified in criticizing the jury for its failure to adhere to the points of law he had laid out for them. Both films, it must be noted, leave a close observer with the impression that a lot of legal work can go down the drain in a hurry if one lawyer shows up for closing arguments with a better narrative hook than the other has at hand. And this is despite the common legal wisdom that most
cases are won or lost in the opening statement, not in the summation, Johnny Cochran’s performance in the “O. J. Case” notwithstanding.

The films do part company, however, at the point of just how much ambiguity the law will be allowed to tolerate. In the 1949 film, Tracy is allowed to lecture Hepburn several times on the absolute solidity of the law as a response to human behavior. Assault is assault, whoever attempts it. In one of the longest denouements ever filmed, after he has lost the case Tracy surprises Hepburn from whom he has separated as she is fending off the advances of their
feckless neighbor. Pulling a pistol from his coat, Tracy pretends to be on the verge of homicide when Hepburn argues that he has no right, that no one has the right to take the law into his own hands. Tracy smiles, places the weapon in his own mouth and… bites off the barrel of his licorice-flavored .38 police special. Having fallen into his trap, Hepburn still refuses to apologize for having lured the jury into what was patently an act of jury nullification and the couple squabbles on to the end of the film until tax law reunites them. But the forces of case law win
over those of cause law rhetorically.

In ATTK, however, the denouement is a simple visit by McConaughey to Jackson’s house for a cookout. There is no insistence in the film that McConaughey’s appeal to the moral imagination of the jury, causing them to ignore the legal definitions given them that would determine Jackson’s sanity under the law, is in any way to be deplored or guarded against. The “Tracy” arguments from AR are given early in this film to Spacey, in whose character’s mouth the very word “justice” must sit like a cheap cigar, and the film never even bothers to answer him, except with the verdict of the climax. Even McConaughey’s wife, in a partial “Tracy” space, returns to him and forgives him for spending too much time on the case, absolving him and the verdict itself by telling him that he took the case because if their daughter had been the victim, she knows, he would have killed those men himself.

What has changed in sixty years? Have we come to accept that the law is not what Tracy saw it to be, a rock of surety in a sea of complex social relationships, but rather another narrative of our life, with its own aporia, its own conventions, its own highly-developed tolerance for ambiguity? Gender/race, case/cause, law/fact, story/story, options and choices all the way around? But did we believe, sixty years ago, that gender was a social construction? Do we believe now that race is so? Do the dramatists, stage or film, rightly assume we accept race/gender transgressions for the right cause? If the story is good enough? Or maybe it’s something else.

Maybe the mechanism of AR were appealing to the producers of ATkK because the films are really about the same thing, seen through the lens of the law, but still seen the same. Maybe the films are both about family, for one. Both defendants were on trial for acts they undertook in defense of family; the subplots of each were about the
families of the lawyers, at the end of each film the defendants are reunited with the loving members of their families, just as, in the denouements, the lawyers are reunited with their families. And here the differences are informative. The gap between Hepburn and Holliday, class, is larger than their gender affinity can bridge. After the trial, Holliday, et al, vanish from the screen and we are treated to another quarter hour of Tracy and Hepburn making up. But the gap of race between McConaughey and Jackson, so carefully limned by Jackson when he tells McConaughey that he wanted him for his lawyer because McConaughey was one of “them,” a white man, and a
racist by default, may be bridgeable, if the film has its way. When Jackson says McConaughey and he aren’t friends, don’t live in the same part of town, that their kids don’t play together, he challenges the fiction of equality even under a system of law. He impresses us with the fact that law is just one more story about how folks live, and maybe not the most accurate one. So he wants McConaughey because he figures McConaughey knows what kind of story a white man would want to hear to let Jackson go free. And he needs McConaughey as a lawyer because it has to be a story told within the conventions the law privileges.

Jackson has no illusions, about whites or about law; McConaughey has no illusions either, but neither has he any insight, until Jackson explains things to him. So, in the film’s final scene, when McConaughey, his wife, and his
daughter drive up to the cookout going on at Jackson’s house, they are clearly not invited guests. There is some momentary confusion, but they have brought some strawberry shortcake for the table and McConaughey says he brought his daughter so she could play with Jackson’s. Families, smiles all around; pull back, fade out.

Class insurmountable in 1949; race transposable in 1996/2013; families reconfigurable always. Class in 1996/2013? The dead rapists were white-trash morons. The film doesn’t even make a half-hearted gesture to them or their families. Family ties there lead only to the Klan, violence, and lawlessness. McConaughey is “U” to be sure,
blond, fit, handsome, married to a sorority girl. And McConaughey has legal class as well; he’s the protégé of a famous old civil rights activist whose practice he has taken over and whom he considers to be his father in every way but blood. Even the mystery girl of the picture is upper-class. She appears out of nowhere, a
third-year Harvard law student, a genius whose father is filthy rich. She has come because she heard about the case and wants to assist, without pay, of course, because, has she mentioned it, her father is famous and rich. Needless to say, she is beaten by the worthless surviving brother of one of Jackson’s victims.

In Hollywood, and in at least some instances on Broadway, social justice is a zero sum game. Poor woman defendant, rich woman lawyer. They meet on the relatively level playing field of the court, but not outside of it. Poor white trash or poor Black worker. Rich white folks can’t save them both. So these are really two/three versions of the same film, and they’re not that different, even with sixty years between them. Americans still cling to family and class and still love to tell stories about both, in the movies, on the stage, and in the courts.

There are no Metaphors for Pain

There are no metaphors for pain

Pain is our cabin
our table
the paper we take up
the pen point
the so dark ink
the tear that falls at
the end of this line.

ride on pain
harness it
force the bit into its mouth and
jerk its savage head
from side to side until it goes where we want it
to go.

We ride pain
late into the night
until it drops from
at our insistence that it talk to us
as it runs under our strong hands.

We need no metaphor for pain
we poets.

We own it

THAT NIGHT WE DIED (well, one of us)

Reading a book review in this Sunday’s New York Times (Jane Smiley on Ronald Frame’s Havisham), I was struck by the thought that I had almost killed my mother. What is compelling about the thought, for me, is not the expected; after all, I’m not talking about homicide. No, it’s the reversal. You see, I was born dead in a Catholic hospital. That’s the way I’ve always understood the story.

Her pregnancy had not been a particularly difficult one physically, but my mother had had a hard time emotionally over the nine months. She and my father had been married for two years before she became pregnant, unusual for young couples at the tail-end of the Depression. She had, by her account, enjoyed those two years; they were an attractive couple and had a good time going to dances and bars. (One night, three years before they were married, they had gone to a dance marathon over in Bossier City and found themselves sitting in the same bleacher seats around the dance floor with Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Later that night, Barrow and Parker were shot to death on a country road by deputies. My father told me he recognized Barrow because one of Barrow’s gang was the son of a friend of my grandfather and they would come by the house late at night to buy the bootleg hooch my grandfather made.)

My mother was what we might today call a narcissistic personality. She not only enjoyed being at the center of things, she was, as far as her sense of responsibility to the world around her was concerned, the center of things. Going from favored youngest daughter  to adored wife was just fine for her (although she didn’t enjoy having been upstaged by the baby brother that came along ten years into her reign, thirty-five years after my grandmother had given birth to her first child). Her own baby business was another matter and the build-up to my appearance was fraught with depression and anger. Physically, matters were complicated by a thyroid deficiency which added to her weight gain, no small problem for a vain girl just turned twenty, and a car accident in her eighth month scared both her and my dad.

But the real problem was the physical reality of me. Somehow, I got caught in the canal and my shoulder was misaligned. Even more dire was the fact that I had an unusually large head. That night hours went by and I am sure we both suffered a great deal. Finally, forceps were used with only one thought, to get me out in whatever condition. And they did. The forceps tore a long gash from my chin to my forehead on the right side, ripping through my mouth, my cheek, my eyebrow and into my skull. A similar path, somewhat smaller, was traced on the back of my head. My left shoulder was twisted toward my chest. And I was dead. The surgical nurse put my body in a basin and returned to the operating table. The problem was to stop my mother from bleeding to death or dying of shock.

At that moment, one of the nursing supervisors came in. She had heard there were problems. “The child is dead,” said the doctor. “We’re trying to save the mother.” The priorities here are important, I think. This was 73 years ago in a Catholic hospital. Policy was then, as perhaps now in some places similar, to concentrate on saving the life of the child, even at the cost of the mother’s life. Only when I was pronounced dead could attention be redirected toward my mother….well, I suppose at that point she wasn’t my mother because there was no “me” in specific terms.

I don’t know what was done to save her, but it was done. I was, for the moment, a footnote. But the nursing sister picked up the basin with me in it and walked out of the operating room to an adjacent one. There she slapped me around, breathed into my lungs, massaged my chest, and I came alive. The rest, as they say, is history.

But I’m intrigued by the possibilities for writing history that escaped us all that night. What if I had stayed dead and my mother had survived? Would she have eventually had a child? She never had another after me. And if she had died and I had lived? How would my father have coped with the loss and the responsibility? Who would have loved him, raised me? What if we both had died? What would he have done? Where would he have gone? It strikes me, for example, that without a wife and child he would have been moved up in the draft and instead of going off in 1945, arriving off the shore of Japan to await the invasion only to witness the cataclysms that were Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he might have died himself at Normandy or in the Ardennes. And me, what about me, the one who died and came back to life? I’ve been pretty ok most of my life. I’m considered smart by some. But what about all those minutes (how many?) of no oxygen? How many brain cells did I lose? Would I have been brilliant? What did I forfeit? Or, maybe, the effect is the reverse. What if I am only as smart as I can manage to be because of some rearrangement of my brain cells that early morning of December 28, 1940, some synaptic reshuffling so I could play with a full deck, some lucky roll of the dice that came up seven, for the moment?

I’m not sure she ever forgave me for almost killing her, my mother. Then again, I’m not sure she ever forgave me for surviving. I think there is nothing a narcissist hates more that sharing the universe. But such thoughts might be unfair to her. “Hate” is probably too strong a word for what I think she felt over the years. I, and my father, were just obstacles in her daily struggle to reveal herself to the world, to have it pay attention. To her, adoration was a zero-sum game.