I guess it’s not going to work out. I guess this is goodbye.
For 20 months now, since a few days after the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl and Gov. Scott Walker moved to crush public unions in Wisconsin and the protests began at the state capitol building in Madison, we have argued nearly every day of the week. We have argued late at night, in our underwear, with you full of Evan Williams and me full of French red wine. We have argued during your son’s football games. We have argued when my daughters have been playing Monopoly with me. We have argued at the mall, at the grocery store, out for dinner, out for a stroll with the dog, at work, at ballgames, at weddings, at funerals, in the sunshine, in the rain, in the snow, in sight of the beautiful summertime dew that clings to the grass here in Wisconsin, way early in the morning, even during that long drought in July and in August when rain was as scarce as good will toward people whose political views are not the same as our own. We never stopped, Rick. We never surrendered.
I should give you credit for being as tough and as unrelenting as you are, and I should give myself credit for hanging in there with you for as long as I have, but honestly, the whole thing, well, neither of us should feel proud. Maybe we have fought because our love is so intense, because is it not true that people with the most profound love generate between them the most inextinguishable hate? Maybe we should have stayed away from each other in the first place? Or at least, if were unable to contain ourselves, we should have argued in private?
As it is, each and every one of my Facebook friends thinks you’re a boorish, one-minded, undereducated asshole with no feelings for anything but numbers. At least 10 of my friends have blocked you and won’t allow me to mention you, ever, no matter the context, because they think you are embarrassing and a demeaning waste of my time and that the constant bickering makes everybody look bad. Same works the other way around, I am absolutely sure. I know your friends think I’m a jackass and a pompous, foulmouthed, rude prick who thinks way too much of himself. Lots of your friends have blocked me, too, and have no doubt told you to stay clear of me. People avert their eyes when we strike up the band, Rick. We are, in everybody’s estimation, a disgrace.
Look, I know I never should never have mentioned – on your Facebook page, in front of all your friends – those standardized tests we took in the sixth grade together and how my scores were almost twice as high as yours. I know that sounded arrogant, Rick. I am so sorry. I did not mean it that way. But if you’re suggesting that the taxpayers are paying too much money for public schools and that lots of teachers are worthless and that the only way we can determine the effectiveness of teachers and schools is through scores on standardized tests, well, goddammit, I whipped your fiscally conservative ass, big-time, on those standardized tests way back in the day.
Does this mean I’m smarter than you? Does this mean my teachers did a better job with me than they did with you? Hell no. It means I am better, by nature, at taking standardized tests than you are. It means all people have different ways of learning and getting through the world. It means numbers, Rick, are no measure of the worth of a human being. A test is a test. A person is a person. That’s what I’ve been saying all along, Rick. Are you ever going to get that?
Sixth grade. Remember that summer, when we used to fish below the lower falls on the Menomonee River? Sure, the river was narrow and was only 35 miles long and smelled like a canal full of motor oil and piss on its brief way to Milwaukee and then into Lake Michigan, which, for us, was the same thing as the Atlantic Ocean, all that possibility out there on the watery horizon, all those shores to which, if we ever grew up, we could travel and maybe make a life there. We caught bluegills and chubs and suckers and the occasional largemouth bass, none of them big and none of them safe to eat because of the pollution in the river. We were good kids, too. We laughed about lots of things. We loved the Milwaukee Brewers, who didn’t win much back then. We loved the Green Bay Packers, who didn’t win much back then, either. We played drums in the Thomas Jefferson middle school band. We had lots of the same friends. We didn’t get in fights at school or cause serious trouble. We lived in a great little town and were very happy there and never disagreed about one thing. We wouldn’t trade that marvelous childhood for the world, right? Isn’t that how the story went?
I left Menomonee Falls after high school and went to college and worked in a factory for a long time and then went to graduate school in English and lived in lots of places around the country and read lots of books – novels, books on social theory, volumes of poetry, and so forth – and have lived a life of the mind, or at least it may seem that way to you. I have become – despite how many times your Facebook friends have suggested this makes me a blowhard – a member of the liberal educated elite. You went to college not far from Menomonee Falls and studied occupational therapy and lived for a short period in Chicago but then returned to Menomonee Falls, and because of the nature of your work and of your mind, you think about the world in a numerical sense, a businesslike sense, a way of solving society’s troubles not with the heart but with logical, fiscal answers to human problems. You have become – despite how many times my Facebook friends have suggested this makes you a person without feelings – a member of the conservative, educated middle class. You mean well. I mean well.
I can’t be you. You can’t be me.
But the nature of our disagreement lies in a notion neither of us seems willing to abandon: The idea that you have to become me, and I have to become you. Love, built on that model, will always fail.
Maybe now is a good time to patch things up. I could promise to do my best to respect your views and do everything in my powers for us, in our 49th year on this earth, to bury all enmity. But it’s not going to happen. I want to make a joke out of all that’s happened between us, too, and I’m trying the best I can to be funny about it. But it’s not funny.
How many hundreds of thousands of people in this country have come to this same place? How many people like us have had all positive connections between them destroyed? Close friends from childhood or from college or from the workplace or immediate family or distant relatives or husbands and wives and neighbors and strangers – all of us fellow citizens of the same two-headed empire where both heads want to chop off the other.
We have become estranged from each other in legions. We dismiss people as freely as we pitch our Taco Bell bags into the trash. We rage and hate and loathe and fester and pick fun and bully and take constant offense and always refuse to concede that, just possibly, the other side may have a meritorious point. Can you see a way to fix this? Because I sure as hell can’t. Actually, I will almost certainly disagree with whatever you propose to fix this. So I take the question back. I want to take everything back, almost all the way to the beginning.
So last Tuesday, Obama won. I’m happy about that, I guess. I mean, I’m not as happy about it as you think I am or as happy as I’m going to seem on Facebook, where I will be doing high fives with all my liberal friends and driving with them by your imaginary Facebook house in an imaginary school bus, and we will pull down our imaginary britches and moon you and your family and shout, “How do you like that, Fleabagger! Fuck you! You lost!” That’s the Facebook way.
You are sad that Obama won, and as with me and my happiness, you may not really be as sad about it as you will present the matter on Facebook: how democracy as we know it is doomed and how America won’t last out the decade under this fraudulent system of government with its charlatan liberal leadership and lazy-ass writers like me asking for handouts just so we can keep playing with ourselves in the name of art.
Last Wednesday, clouds hung over Wisconsin. Occasional drizzle fell. People removed their yard signs. Nobody in public places seemed to lift their eyes toward the people they passed. Even on Facebook, the usual chatter on the feeds was subdued for a long, long time. I’m guessing everybody was up late watching the election, and the next day, no matter the outcome, maybe we all felt shame at the lengths we had gone to achieve an outcome.
A week later, the clouds still linger. Two great storms have ravaged the East Coast and ruined who knows how many people’s childhood memories. A sex scandal at the CIA has turned the public’s eye away from the larger, everyday horrors over which we argued during those 20 months leading up to the presidential election. Facebook is back to life in all its name-calling, angry-meme-disseminating, sharing-invective splendor. We carry on without shame there.
Elsewhere, our leaders, our politicians, carry on without shame, too, never bending, never deviating from the party line. Our lives seem to have no value but the ideas they may represent to the broader culture and how they may be packaged into something easily analyzed in a demographic, something that can be translated into our vote and into our money. Even our ideas, Rick, are most certainly not our own. We have read everything somewhere or have heard it somewhere. We’ve got nothing, really, except each other, and we hate each other.
I’m trying to chuckle now and think of something happy. I remember one time hanging out with you at the fishing hole next to the lower falls on the Menomonee River. This was a June morning in 1976, a couple of weeks before our nation’s Bicentennial, late in the morning, not a cloud in the sky, not the slightest puff of wind rushing through the riverbank willows. I had arrived there before you but hadn’t yet started fishing because I had heard the Bic Pen commercial with Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” on TV when I was still at home in my Sears Husky pajamas. I liked that song on TV, and I really wanted to have some Bic Banana Markers, so I was standing next to the river singing “Come, mister tally man, tally me bananas. Bic Banana Markers for the office or home.”
You were standing there then, almost as if you had materialized from the remote corners of my imagination, and you said, “Yeah, I wanna get some of them, too.”
Who didn’t want some Bic Banana Markers? Who didn’t want to have friends?
We caught lots of fish that day. We were happy. You remember that? Was that love? Was that a nice thing about which we both can agree?
Probably not. I may never see you again, buddy, but I worry that when I do, it will be in hell. I hope there’s time, before we get there, to change our ways.