Photo Credit: Natalie Lape
A glint of light reflected, for a split second, off the belly of the Freedom Tower underneath an otherwise overcast sky. Such is the tenuousness of human life. The sun rose behind us and, while our conversation was held in abeyance, Richard Thompson strummed to a set of lyrics about music, about Amsterdam, about Rembrandt and Anne Frank. I thought about—as I often think about—globalization, but also the ubiquity of tragedy and human suffering, and what we do with it. And I thought about Anne Frank and all she has come to represent, the consummate will of the Jewish people specifically and, more broadly, the triumph of the human spirit.
I looked on as the glint of light faded into the clouds and wondered what Jacklyn was thinking about, and how many of the 600,000 others commuting into the city still actively remembered the HaShoah (the Holocaust) or 9/11, some 70 and 14 years later. I and even my parents have the luxury of having lived through only one of those terrible moments that peel back the veneer of civilization and put on display the evil of which some of us are capable. How many, for better or worse, pondered the realities of this highly globalized society in which we all exist? The Twin Towers seem to me to have been a sort of double vision, a symbol of our taking for granted the semblance of peace we enjoyed. The Freedom Tower is a singularity, the clarity that comes when one’s world changes irrevocably and we have taken the proper time to process and channel the chaos. A chance to start over. A reminder to take care, to be more empathetic, more loving. To appreciate the important things in life.
We ate breakfast at Penelope at 30th and Lexington. I asked her what color the walls were painted and she said blue, baby blue, and I said okay. This was September 11th, 2015. Four days later Liam was born: 12:39 PM, 20 inches long, 7 pounds and 13 ounces. Pale pink skin, near-black hair wrapped around his head, shoulders, and back. A truly beautiful boy with gray-blue eyes. And hydrocephalus. He was born on Rosh Hashanah—an anniversary of sorts—in the shadow of the anniversary of that horrible day from my adolescence, a day that will not, thankfully, live in the memories of my new son. And I thought about the nature of human tragedy; about the anniversary of nine-eleven; about the Holocaust; about Anne Frank’s diary (Het Achterhuis. Dagboekbrieven 14 Juni 1942 – 1 Augustus 1944); and about Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, one of histories most well-known artists, and whose first three children all died within two months of being born.
These referents got me thinking about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a novel about a Gatsby-style Dutch immigrant named Hans van den Broek, a man who, living in New York in the stygian wastelandish residue of the attacks of September 11th, becomes a man suddenly without a home and family as his wife Rachel absconds the city with their son Jake for London. She flees, significantly for the problem of American identity that I frequently discuss with friends and family, because of what she calls our nation’s “ideologically diseased…mentally ill, sick, unreal” condition. It is a beautiful and harrowing tale that asks us to question the notion of the American dream and what that dream means in a global sense. It is novel, not about loss, but about what possibly we stand to gain when we lose everything. For Hans, this means injecting himself into the West Indian-dominated cricket culture on Staten Island. This gesture expands O’Neill’s incredible novel beyond the simple 9/11 tale. As Hans enters the cricket world, the novel necessarily comments on the history of colonization and the long-term ramifications of same, which merely include the disaster at the World Trade Center.
Cricket in the United States has not enjoyed mainstream success since around the time of the Civil War, as we have since the turn of the twentieth century preferred cricket’s cousin sport, baseball, as our national pastime (and even that doesn’t matter anymore, since in the twenty-first century, football has usurped baseball as the undisputed king of the American sports universe). But it is the remaining locations of cricket’s popularity—Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, England, India, Ireland, Kenya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, and Zimbabwe—that raise the interesting cultural questions offered by O’Neill’s narrative. Hans notices early the global makeup of the sport: “My own teammates variously originated from Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka…I was the only white man I saw on the cricket fields of New York.” The locus of his novel on the cricket field is one of extraordinary cultural significance; it exposes the outer limits of the displaced immigrant and the archetypal postcolonial subject. Both the game and its players are in their entirety un-American. That the novel takes place in New York during what many consider to be America’s greatest tragedy exterminates the myth of the American melting pot. Instead, the symbolism has a more nihilistic flair about our country, that American is what it is not. It exposes what for many is an existential homelessness, an often violent taking away of the notion of home that we finally experienced on that horrible September morning, but that countless others have felt throughout the history of civilization. The field provides a pointedly foolish way at looking at un-America:
What all these recreational areas have in common is a rank outfield that largely undermines the art of batting, which is directed at hitting the ball along the ground with that elegant variety of strokes a skillful batsman will have spent years trying to master and preserve: the glance, the hook, the cut, the sweep, the cover drive, the pull, and all those other offspring of technique conceived to send the cricket ball rolling and rolling, as if by magic, to the far-off edge of the playing field.
Hans laments the unplayability of cricket in New York, considering, for example, the un-grassiness of the “weedy ground” that bastardizes the carefully honed batting and fielding skills of the game’s players. He derides baseball penchant for “going deep” and that this urban version cricket seems to have adopted some of the less sophisticated techniques found in baseball. The language reveals some postcolonial tropes: the seeming “skill” and “magic” of the colonized, the authenticity that comes from generations of practice, the care required for proper cultivation of native lands, and the counterfeit of colonial alterations of old world cultural artifacts transformed to the American landscape and its largest metropolis. Which brings me to my newborn son, who has no authentic culture to call his own.
Liam has a varied heritage, more diverse than most, although the more I ask around the more common this phenomenon seems to occur. There is no greater testament to the progressivity of our culture than the expanding diversity found within our families. On his mother’s side Liam is very European: Irish, German, English, and French (the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 9th largest ancestry groups in the United States); this, in a way, makes Jacklyn the consummate American and our son half-consummate American. My side of Liam’s heritage is a bit more complicated. His great-grandfather was of Greek Jewish (likely Romaniote) descent, and his family likely emigrated to the United States as refugees who married an Irish (or Scottish—long story) Catholic woman. The tagline of his other pair of paternal great-grandparents’ story goes like this: an American soldier stationed in Okinawa during the Korean War returns to the United States with a single Japanese mother of three. For the record, my grandmother’s harrowing story from the island of Okinawa is absolutely fascinating and I will tell it at some point.
For my son, I worry about this world. In all its tragedies and all its violence, I have yet to determine whether or not this is a good place. I have long struggled with the question of whether not it is ethically the right thing to do to bring a child into this world. I mean for the child in question, rather than in terms of his ecological footprint or some other external issue. Most of the people I talk to say, well, of course it’s better for the child to have been born. All the joy and good memories and family bonding make life worth living. The problem is that we all experience pain and trauma. These two facets of existence are almost completely unavoidable. And, there are too many complications to the logic of having children to expound upon, here. Obviously, Jacklyn and I decided having a child was a move for the greater good or Liam wouldn’t be here right now. But I wonder if that fear will always be pulsating in the background, that all the pain and hardship and sorrow he is forced to witness and through which he struggles can somehow be brought back to the crucial decision of his ever being brought to this universe from the void of un-existence. I suppose I have to borrow from the wisdom of Anne Frank, who demanded of herself not to “think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
One of the national dishes of Trinidad and Tobago is callaloo. It has a well balanced combination of sweet, savory, and spicy ingredients…