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I Did Not Know Her Then

February 22, 2013

I did not know her then
but i’ve seen pictures
once or a dozen times
her in her young days
sometimes more clear
in my imagination
a tale my mind keeps tripping over
by mistake, on purpose


looking at the arc of her years
and the stories she traveled
i listen, imagine
my head leans to my friend
as the episodes fall from her lips


so fast
like she has never had
a chance to tell them to another soul
and i am glad to hear each word
because i love a good story?
because she tells them so well?


because i want to hear her secret
the one she will never tell
the one i will never ask
and the ones she does tell
and the ones that are not really secrets


stories from which i leave out names
and even many details
to protect the innocence
and protect myself
as if that this camouflage would ever work


stories of kids, stories of marriage
stories of pets, stories of siblings
stories of her parents
i remember years later
in jogged memories along paths
to which i am supposed to be a stranger


or a spy
to these long yarns, cool on the outside
i listen like the fast-made, new old friend
for whom she forgets to hide the dangling edges
of the secrets, or simple safe words
whose heart mate wandered
like a child looking for a buried treasure


i am coy, even to myself
as she tells me of the boyfriend
the love of almost a quarter century ago
imagine the pictures, try not to look
see them in my mind, by mistake, on purpose
even though i did not know her then
i listen
and wonder why i am so jealous


Love as Wind-Tossed Paper

December 7, 2012
“I love you,” she said.“You don’t even like me,” I said.

the recipe for the perfect argument

worth its furry

both of us wrong.


beautiful lovers,

short-lived friends—

no heart to be an enemy

but sometimes i wish


passing glance

subdued by passion spent

long ago that brought

the blindness of fools


that cannot hide us

from daylight

the not-quite lies

now illuminated, I can’t bear to see

we squint, grasping for

the word that makes us win


hollow prizes

with hands coming up empty

why won’t she listen

why can’t he hear


“If I didn’t love you…” I say.

“If you really loved me…” she says.

Copyright © 2013 Clarence White

Thanksgiving Tradition

November 23, 2012

We set out, this year for Thanksgiving, just the two of us, Sid and me. Sid was sad that his cousins would not be joining him this year. He was glad to hang out with grandma and grandpa, especially in the kitchen.

We arrived on the holiday eve. Leaving town amid the last remnants of the day’s rush hour, mixed with other holiday travelers, leaving the city for regions closer to Lake Wobegon in geography and spirit. Watching a steady stream of tail lights I wondered if travelers are headed home, to a relative’s, and of the stories of the people inside each vehicle. I cannot keep track. I cannot ponder each set of lights. It is enough to contemplate the stories that put my son and me in our seats that late afternoon.

It’s a matter of perspective. I can look at the faint images of drivers and passengers in the early dusk as we pass. I cannot tell if they are headed someplace happy or a place of annual or daily obligation. I don’t know the nature of the commotion that ensued prior to them getting into the car, if it was wrapping up details before the long weekend, organizing small children and the things they would need to survive four days at a relative’s, fits of loathing that often accompany times with family that are aggravations of the dysfunction and ill health that plagued their developmental years, or the greatest of joys that comes with the prospect of spending time with the most favorite and precious people in the universe.

These trips matter and so do the histories that lead up to them. We all have history that makes the days what they are, the day-to-day reality that created the relationships we encounter most intensely on a holiday as well as what those days looked like in years past.

The story of our preparation was marked by excited anticipation. Sid asked if we could go up to grandma and grandpa’s a bit earlier than I suggested.

This year, Sid spent hours in the kitchen entertaining grandma and grandpa with long discussions about China, school and the finer points of learning grammar and the teachers who were as entertaining as the escapades of pedagogy. I sat in a spare bedroom, listening to quick wits and luscious stories. Mother, who was always a good speller, the kind of smarts that helped her graduate from high school at age 16, traded her knowledge with Sid about the finer points of English–alternating that with her well-remembered math anxiety that made itself known as she entered college. Dad, the great story teller, compared his college French class with Sid’s experience. Even coming from New Orleans and French heritage, we do not maintaining much French language, but dad retains the stories, especially of his professors, as a language no one teaches as well as himself.

As I sat resting, I could hear each of them laugh from at each others’ stories and their own. Teachers are the same from generation to generation and, at the same time, so different today than the days when high school graduation was little more than behaving well enough to convince the teacher to give students a C and then to march them capped and gowned into an arbitrary adulthood. They were full of conversations, most of which I have had over the past years and recent weeks with each of them, in smaller bits and pieces. Sid’s monologues were enough to wrap grandma and grandpa’s attention. He looked forward to this trip as well for the stories he learns, as well as the grandkid attention.

I knew there are more stories. I hear them. As many stories that get shared, there are long, dark afternoons endured with the aid of the second or third drink. Off in a corner with a concocted fetish of a tumbler and melted ice. So much easier to peer slightly over the lip of the glass than directly into the eyes of past shames that the relative does not want to let you forget, the in-law who still dreams of the other woman for their son and the failure after failure to conform to something that is less about virtue or morality than it is a struggle to keep family members corralled in a cage of a family secret.

History, however you define or identify it, means something. Some we carry from our childhood. Some, we carry from generations. Americans have a short history and even shorter memories. Even the short 400 years since English separatists arrived and nearly all perished in the new elements is played out with most of the details mostly forgotten and lived through a fiction of harmony that masks the genocide that makes the losses of the initial losses of the first immigrants look like the loss of one nonagenarian relative whose suffering warranted moving on into the next world.

A friend, thankful in her own rights, shared a piece written by Dennis W. Zotigh in Indian Country Today Media Network, “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?“ The present-day follies that dress children in garb to play Pilgrim and Indian mark our history better than we remember it. Was it so necessary to insult Native identity as it is to insult our children’s intelligence? For some purposes, yes.

We are making new traditions. Some fitfully. While some school children’s are led in rituals that still mock native peoples, but more people are interested in accurate and respectful representations of history, story and the people who lived and perished in those stories. New traditions.

I have often said that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is that day, for me, that has been about getting together with people who I care about. Little obligation other than to enjoy a mean and share it with great people. Okay, there’s more than that, especially if you are making a big meal. I’ve shared a few green bean bakes over the years. It is the day when mom and dad usually invite other company, student strays and need the card table to fit everyone.

In years past, we would always have snow for Thanksgiving. There would be snow on the ground, almost every year. Even if the day before had none, it was sure to snow before dinner was set on the table. Two families in St. Cloud, the Statzs and the Opatzs, would hold a touch football game between the families. It was always held in a field covered in snow. But in recent years, climate has brought us something different. I have gotten used to brown Thanksgivings. Things change.

This year, it was only Sid, me, and mom and dad. Without his cousins, Sid gets more attention from grandma and grandpa, but he said, “It’s not the same without Kamarah and Nyah here.” Mom turns from the counter and says, “What are we missing?”

My impulse was to say, “Your three other children.” I was silent.

My siblings and my nieces are having a great Thanksgiving and we are looking forward to Christmas together. Traditions.

I had mentioned to a friend that I might bring baseball gloves. She was excited to hear this, surely missing her father with whom she shared a love of baseball and the misery of the Cubs. I might be able to give mom and dad’s neighbor Thom Woodward a call: a former baseball coach, he has expressed a desire to join us, having seen Sid and I and often his cousins at the park across from his home. The gloves sat idle as the morning sun became lost behind solid clouds and the wind picked up enough toward the end of our walk. Later, it would snow. A historically accurate Thanksgiving.

Shyly Peering Down into the Writer’s Abyss

November 16, 2012

Two years ago, this week, I wrote my first blog post. It snowed that night. I remember well, wondering if the many treacheries that lay outside matched that of the act I was about to commit by posting the first piece, not so safe, alone, inside my warm home.

I have not written poetry for a long time. I could give a lot of explanations, excuses or tell you that I have decided that I a not a poet, in spite of what people have told me. Maybe it was the election and much of what has occupied my thoughts, feelings and experiences does not translate well into verse. I mentioned this to my friend Julia, who said that she, a poet with a greater reputation (that includes being the most published writer in the seven-year history of the Saint Paul Almanac) had not written much either.

She soon wrote a poem and sent it to me. I still have come up with nothing.

I don’t know what to do about that. I am supposed to create something, produce something. At the same time, inspiration and motivation seem pretty important. Are they not?

Living in a lull that seems similar to the one that comes with the end of baseball season. This year’s World Series went only four games. It was a letdown. Daylight savings ended not long after, and we are, without baseball and longer days, in the dark days, waiting for the spring of hope when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in Florida and Arizona.

And maybe my poetry will be revived, with the same beauty contained in one of Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catches, the flare of Roberto Clemente’s wild dashes around the bases and nabs of fading line drives to right field and the effortless, majestic swing of Harmon Killebrew. Maybe the next poem will be as hard to figure out as all the curve balls my eye sight was not good enough to see during my baseball playing days, but will be glad to bask incomplete in the spring sun and on the green blades that will stain my pants as I pretend a simpler version of that glory.

Or maybe I will take life too seriously to eek out a poem. Or not seriously enough.

It has been a season of politics and politics is an earnest row to plow, even if too much of it is less elegant and more unkind than any genuine emotion that colors any roll of poetry off the pen.

Or maybe it is that I do not want to hide any any secrets, nor give any up, or ignore the truths behind them. I am thinking of others’ secrets. I am thinking of mine. I am thinking that they might not be secrets—that they need not be hidden or maybe too many already know them, either implicitly or in full fact.

I have suggested to my son, maybe too many times, that he write something before the upcoming deadline for the Saint Paul Almanac. He says that he does not want to write anything. He is a good poet. He is also recently a teenager. There are things that people just don’t need to know about. There are things he just does not have to tell—if he can help it. Maybe I am the same way, today.

Maybe tired of the intimacies. Maybe experiences or maybe just the vulnerability of letting them show to the world. Seeing my funny bone sticking out, some might find it funny to give it a wrap. Or maybe too many have given it that wrap recently and that I am letting it heal.

So, as I sent the boy out to the bus a few days ago, the snow fell, the first sticking snow of the season, the annual snow that leaves us forgetting how to drive in this weather, the one that jars us from our insane hope that the welcomed round of unseasonably warm days will be visited again any time soon; the sign that tells me the baseball gloves I have sitting in my living room are not going to get used and may as well be put somewhere mercifully out of sight.

My son and I went to hear Sherman Alexie, my (and maybe his) favorite poet last night. It was a great reading. Was it inspiring? On one hand, yes, but then I think, “Man, Sherman already said it.” Besides taking all the good ideas, he is also much funnier than I.

Last night, I heard Nikki Finney say something that she got from one of her mentors. She said, pretty words are not enough. It is not enough to write down wonderful words. You have to make the pretty words do something. Maybe it is that I am not sure what I want the words to do, who I want them to touch, and who I am protecting, besides myself, in the relative silence.

What should I write? Love? Is there anything else? Politics? No. Anger? Always. Illusive and found joys? Too intimate, all of it. Too infinite, this writer’s abyss.

It has been two years since I began this journey, this blog on a snowy evening, not so safely tucked inside my warm abode; not so safely tucked inside my thoughts, emotions and taunting my aloneness by getting ready to tell the world a little bit more than I had been taught to share. We got another show this year, almost two years to the day. Treacheries. Cars into cars, into ditches, guard rails, walls. Maybe this year, I am just treading more carefully, and inching along the pathway of words, not wanting to slip into a wall of literary irrelevance. I will write soon.

Obama’s Hand of Cooperation

November 3, 2012

In the week before the election, much of the eastern seaboard was hit by Hurricane Sandy.  Republican New Jersey Chris Christie was faced with the devastation left by Sandy and millions of people suffering in pretty harsh conditions.  He responded to his constituents’ emergency swiftly.  He also worked with FEMA and President Obama, setting into motion the pieces of our national infrastructure that was designed to enhance safety during such disasters and provide a backstop when the critical means for survival have been wiped out.

There is a photo that has circulated widely of the President, getting off a helicopter and being greeted by Gov. Christie.  They are shaking hands as they walk to their task of responding to the disaster.  Gov. Christie is quoted as saying much in praise of the President including, “The president was great last night.  He said he would get it done. At 2 a.m., I got a call from FEMA to answer a couple of final questions and then he signed the declaration this morning. So I have to give the president great credit. He’s been on the phone with me three times in the last 24 hours. He’s been very attentive, and anything that I’ve asked for, he’s gotten to me. So, I thank the president publicly for that. He’s done — as far as I’m concerned — a great job for New Jersey.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie greeting President Barack Obama to lead the storm response effort in the wake of Sandy.

This is not just refreshing because it is an act of bipartisanship that everyone talks about.  At this point, I am not so concerned about bipartisanship as much as I am impressed with this act of non-partisanship that President Obama marks the extended hand of cooperation that Obama has been extending for over four years. Too many Republican partisans have been terrorized into ignoring it or vociferously opposing, not Obama’s policies but the mere act of coming together at a “Team of Rivals,” as Dorise Kearns Goodwin phrased it.

It took Sandy to get one to honorably accept the invitation to make our county better.

This response to dire need is an example that Obama has tried to share with Republicans and show to Democrats.   It has been especially disappointing that Democrats at least didn’t pick up on it. It could have quelled the crass opposition. The message of cooperation over compromise is a winning one.  Still, it is even less rare than the partisanship of half a generation ago.

I don’t know anyone else who could have a chance at really has the vision that gives anyone a chance of pulling this off, besides Barack Obama.  Like Lincoln, his team of rivals is key and goes deeper than his appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton (who grew up in a Republican household) and gaining the confidence of a statesman of the integrity and character of Colin Powell.  When Obama appointed Republican Ray LaHood to the cabinet, it was one smartest appointments that could carry this cause. LaHood is a very good guy and well respected. There are some good men and women in Congress, but there are still too many in DC for whom it is not a life-altering tragedy if stuff does not get done. When it’s staring them in the face, they can lend a hand to each other.

Today, Gov. Christie has the real lives of real people staring them in the face.  I did not like to dwell on the chorus of arm-chair pundits who’s clamor sang of politicians at the Capitol who are out of touch with “regular people.”  I still believe, basically, that politicians are not much different from the rest of us and their shortcomings are triggered by the same things that trigger ours.  But there is a privilege that got most of them there that is accentuated by their “honored” status.  It sometimes makes most of us invisible.  And like any of us, when we act in arenas where others or invisible or the day-to-day realities of existence for a lot of people.

This is especially apparent with the current Congress.  The Republican leadership and loyal minions decided early on that they could sacrifice the lives of a public desperately in need of economic recovery, community and personal health and acknowledged civil rights and the political and electoral gain would be justified.  They are far enough to not feel the pain that comes from not blocking Obama’s policies but the invitation for unprecedented cooperation.  Democrats showed their distance by not even having the words or message to respond.

This brings me back to Doris Kearns Goodwin and a story I related a couple of years ago. (See “Celebrity Crush” from November, 2010.) AT a booksellers convention, I had the honor of sitting next to her at the convention dinner.  She said something that shocked me.  She said, You know who I think should be the next President of the United States?  Paul Wellstone.

I smiled to myself.  Two thoughts crossed my mind.  The first was that she was just saying this because she was in Minnesota amongst a crowd that almost certainly loved Paul—unconditionally.  This may have been true, but I did not quiz her on this.

The second thought was, Oh, here we go again.  A well-off, out-of-touch elite who is going to go on about how wonderful and liberal Paul is and “don’t you just love him?”  But what she said surprised me.  It was smarter than a knee jerk and was what I now see as a distinction that, today, is fading: that distinction between liberal and progressive.

She said something like this:  You know, Paul and Sheila (Wellstone) are just about the only people on Capitol Hill and maybe the only ones in the Senate, who, when they go out, have to pay attention to how much they spend.  She reminded/pointed out that the Senate was a club of the very wealthy.  As such, most of them had little perspective on what it meant for most Americans to live day to day, make their way through the mine field of common economic and social realities.

I think it is why Obama and Bill Clinton make much better presidents than Republicans Bush, McCain, or Romney or Democrats Kerry or Gore.  Being a fortunate son is not what it takes to understand when to cooperate, compromise and build consensus.  The value the lessons of having a tough life growing up are showing, and there are many, not just politicians, who do not get those realities.

But Gov. Christie cannot ignore the reality of Sandy, nor the fact that much of the media if focused on neighboring New York and not his state–his people who where hit much harder.  News reports say that when Christie was asked if Romney would be joining him to tour the storm damage, he responded, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested.”  He added, “I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power, I’ve got devastation on the shore, I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about Presidential politics then you don’t know me.”

Well, I think he is concerned about Presidential politics, now.  I am.  He was interested enough to consider running for the office, or at least bathe in the attention amid such speculations–and we were interested enough to give him that attention.  But maybe this is that place where Christie can swallow Romney’s pride and Obama the Democrats’ and get a chance to show America what real pride is made of.  And maybe the next four years will look more like the shining example streaming through the storm clouds.

The Grace of George McGovern

October 26, 2012

I met George McGovern during my stint as the media person for the National Farmers Union (NFU) in their Capitol Hill office in Washington, DC.  I met him twice, both brief encounters, so brief that left surprisingly strong impressions.  Listening to others’ experiences and their knowledge of the man, my honor was not so exceptional.

It still makes me smile to know that I had his home phone and cell phone numbers.  I needed to call because Farmers Union was making a video to commemorate the years of service for the outgoing president of the organization.  The Senator would be in town the next week, and we had to schedule a series of taping sessions with dignitaries who would give kind words for a kind send-off to NFU president Lee Swenson.

For this, I had the number of a man who was a major party nominee for the Presidency of the United States, U.S. Senator and United Nations Ambassador.  You might imagine that I was timid about calling.  Even thought I was told to call, it took a few moments to not see myself like a telemarketer intruding on the evening dinner of royalty.

The first time I called, and his wife Eleanor answered. She said that the Ambassador was not in, but gave me instructions to call back like I was a neighbor who needed a little favor.  I could feel a bit of a hearth of “farm home,” not one unlike ones I called during my Central Minnesota youth.  I could sense that supper was stewing in the background, and that the gracious people on the other end of the line were not too put out by the fact that they were asked to accept a stranger into that place made comfortable by its inhabitants  precious souls.

For the second call, I got Senator/Ambassador–George got on the line.  He made me feel so comfortable, it was almost impossible to get tongue-tied.

The call itself was quite simple, making arrangements to meet at our offices not far off Capitol Hill, a floor above C-SPAN and a floor below NBC News.  We made the appointment and I spent the next week anticipating George McGovern.

When the day came, we were scheduled to tape both the Senator and the former Secretary of Agriculture.  That morning, I stood in the lobby of our building, a little bit in awe over the fact that I had George McGovern’s cell phone number.  He had my cell phone number and would be calling it in a matter of moments from his taxi cab.

My phone rang and was relieved that it was George’s number and not someone else who might have interrupted the Senator’s incoming call.

When I picked up, he said, “This is George McGovern.”  Of course, he didn’t need to.  He didn’t need to do much of grace, respect and kindness of the rest of his visit.  He said that his cab would be in front of the building in a matter of minutes.  He said to be on the lookout for him and then began to describe what he looked like.

I could not help but to give off the most sheepish smile.  I KNOW WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE, I wanted to say.  Are you kidding?  You’re George McGovern!

I am not sure what I said.  Maybe something like, “Yes, Mr. Ambassador.  I will see you soon.”  Maybe.  Whatever it was, it was few enough words to keep from tripping over them.

I met him and efficiently whisked him up to the room where we would record his greeting where I had earlier set up the videographer and his equipment.  I don’t know what I said.  I don’t know what the Ambassador said, except that he asked me a couple of questions about myself.  He listened well.

The taping session was brief.  We did two takes, I think, but needed only one.  (You think I should I do it again,” he asked, “or is that one fine?”  I was inclined to let the Ambassador do whatever he wanted.  We did two.)

As we wrapped up that taping, the former Secretary of Agriculture walked in for his taping session.  A brief handshake from the Secretary before he started bending McGovern’s ear.  It was an odd transition in which I suddenly became invisible, and the Ambassador seemed bothered by the hard-press lobby on the Secretary’s behalf.  George escaped.  I did not.

The other time I met George McGovern was during a press conference we held outside the Capitol.  It was a warm spring day.  There several members of Congress there, and some former members as well.

I passed one former member from my home state and said, “Hello Congeressman.”  He looked through me like a distant swarm of gnats.  When George McGovern arrived, he greeted everyone, including lowly Capitol Hill staff.  I remember a couple of our Farmers Union staff, both long-time veterans of Capitol Hill, wanted to be sure that I got a picture of them in conversation with McGovern.  Neither was the type to be star struck, but amid the luminaries and wanna-be luminaries hovering, George was the one with whom they wanted to be documented.

This is a week when we remember two great men who graced Washington, DC in unique ways.  McGovern and Paul Wellstone, who passed ten years ago this week.  Both were friends to the family farmer and Farmers Union and the political landscape is different because of each of them.  I an glad that I knew Paul, and glad that that Midwestern fields were paved by George so that we could never be seen as fly-over landscape.

How to Win a Political Campaign

October 5, 2012

“He actually sounded like a not-so-bad guy,” said a friend after hearing the concession speech of one of our least favorite politicians, years ago.  There is that moment of “If he would have sounded like that on the campaign trail” that comes–and goes after the votes have been counted.  But how come most candidates can’t be that person during the campaign?

One of the reasons they can’t is because of us. A lot of people say they are tired of campaigns and politicians.  I am tired of a lot, but most of all people complaining about politicians.  One of the things I am tired of is the complaining.

When you get down to it, politicians are pretty much like us, not always in the “regular guy” sense, but with principles, morals and  integrity much like ours.  When we see politicians behaving badly, they are acting like us, only in public.  They are acting like we want them to, encourage them to and reward them.

We don’t want humility.  We want them just as they are–only better than us, but one of us.

Campaign attack ads bother a lot of us.  We ask, why do they do this if we don’t like it?  But I don’t recall seeing many attack ads that are worse than common barbs and insults that many of us live with on a daily basis.

Or maybe someone could take to the campaign trail with that strong, humble integrity.  But that’s not the conventional wisdom. It is not what we ask for.  But for all the pins and needles on which we sit, it is hard to go an entire campaign season before we get a sincere “Thank You.”  Maybe we need to do a better job of asking for that, a better job of giving that and a better job being the people we want our politicians to be.

Then, maybe, we’ll win.