The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski was born in what was, at the time, the Soviet Union. In his poem "Self Portrait," he describes the life of a writer: Between the computer, a pencil and a typewriter. Half my day passes. One day it will be half a century.
I'm a writer. I spend my days with a computer, a dog and two children. Sometimes, during the rainy season, I work on top of my bed, the way I did decades ago, when I had a room in Berkeley, in an apartment I shared with other students. I close the door and a day, many days, pass. I write about people and how they love.
If I become sad or worried, I work in public places. For a whole winter, I took up residence at a long table in the Santa Monica Public Library. I wrote most of a draft of a novella there.
Many days, I don't open the newspaper until just before preparing dinner. Some days I don't open it at all. So the news of the world sometimes seems to echo from far away.
"30,000 Additional Troops to Afghanistan" was a headline that trumpeted itself. The day I saw it, I read and listened, switched on the television commentaries.
Though my inclination is not to vote, I do vote, and this last time I brought my children to work at a phone bank near the end of the campaign. Some of the people on the list I was given had moved away. Most had died.
I live in this city, where I spent half my childhood, but I rarely see people I knew then. Before I moved here, as a child, I lived on a dead-end road in the country, outside a small city in the Midwest. The children I played with lived across the street. Four of the five joined the service. All of them came home alive, although the oldest killed himself a few years after returning from Vietnam. Some people said he was never right after his term in the Army. Others said he'd never been quite right.
His sister married a career Navy man and the service became for her the life the ROTC posters offered, a chance to see the world.
Not one of them was drafted. Each enlisted. Their father worked for what we then called public service, which meant he climbed to the tops of poles that lined the country and, with gloves on, repaired the humming black electric wires. The one who didn't enlist worked at RadioShack after high school.
Though we were as poor or not poor as the kids across the road, I always knew I would go to college.
I have a son who turned 16 this year. He thinks about getting his license, about Prop. 8, about gay rights and racial stereotypes, about his math teacher and what movies open this week. He occasionally talks about Iraq and Afghanistan but it's never crossed his mind once that he might go.
My Syrian first cousins -- naturalized U.S. citizens who are Muslim enough to don scarves and shun life insurance -- feel embarrassed by the Arab faces attached to Al Qaeda and would never think of sending their children to war. Though all their children speak fluent Arabic, careers in the war effort do not appeal. Their two oldest daughters will follow in their father's path: medicine.
I teach. I ask my students about Afghanistan. I ask on a day we have been talking about a story by Chekhov. They blink, to accustom themselves to the new century in question. Though it is a loud, busy class, there is silence. Finally a tall young man shrugs. I guess I haven't thought about it much, he says.
I'm reminded of the end of Zagajewski's "Self Portrait":
My country freed itself from one evil. I wish
another liberation would follow. Could I help in this? I don't know. I'm truly not a child of the ocean,
As Antonio Machado wrote about himself,
But a child of air mint and cello
And not all the ways of the high world
Cross paths with the life that -- so far --
Belongs to me.
I find myself hesitant to voice a strong opinion. But I do wonder how many Americans, like me and like my students, don't spend much time thinking about this war and whether we should be doing something so dire without thinking about it. Isn't such a state of semi-awareness often depicted as the origin of acts that later provoke great shame?
Simpson's fifth novel, "My Hollywood," will be published next summer.Copyright © 2015, CT Now