Some of you might remember Jean-Marie Colombani’s heartfelt headline and editorial in Le Monde, on September 12, 2001: Nous Somme Tous Américains (We Are All Americans). Later, in an interview with NPR, Colombani was asked how conscious he was of the American reaction to that headline. “I don’t know,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of nothing. I was just conscious that we were entering a new period of our history so we had to be strong in the way of expressing it.” And it is with that same spirit of strength, passion, conviction, and awareness that we have clearly crossed into a new period of history, that I am proclaiming, one day before my 51st birthday: We Are All McEnroe.
I’m not referring to the more ridiculous McEnroe, and he could certainly find ridiculous in his repertoire of tantrums, but rather the righteously confused McEnroe. This is my favorite McEnroe, who could argue with a chair umpire when he was actually right, and display for all of us some of that purest New Yorker apoplexy, only to be warned that his 30 second clock was ticking and points were on the line. It seems clear to me that our collective clock is ticking, that points are on the line, that Count Lendl is on the opposite side of the net, and we’d all be better off if we just shut up and served.
That’s true because not a lot of things are making sense in this game. For instance, men can’t have babies, but if you refuse to pretend that they can–say, just for the sake of science–you run some real risks. That’s less true if you aren’t actually in the arena, lobbing some shots here and there, but if you are down there on the clay with dirty socks saying “men can’t have babies” things can get dicey quick. It also doesn’t make sense that, two nights ago, the United States of America came as close to a John Brown moment as we have since John Brown, and the newspaper of record, the NY Times, buried the story on page A20. I think, when that happens, it’s fair to approach the chair umpire and belt out a couple of questions. Are you serious?
It’s hard to make sense of a President who would go on a talk show the same night, talk for 24 minutes and not be asked about, nor offer to mention, the attempted assassination of a Supreme Court Justice. Somehow that seems obvious. And important. And so like McEnroe on a ball that raised chalk as it hit the line, I remain perplexed by the call.
I had a professor named William Wilborn who wrote an excellent book of poems called Rooms. He published in all the right places and was fond of saying: “Hey, is this art, or life, or what?” By the time I was a student in his classroom he had given up entirely on literature and was usually found toting around an Agatha Christie caper. It was the only thing, he said, that could hold his interest anymore. He once called a painting I had completed “primitive” which was generous at best and only possible with a wry smile. Wilborn might be dead now. I don’t know. But I wonder what he would make of these things that want to hold our interest. The prime-time dropping of January 6th hearings, for instance. There is entirely too much theater involved, like the post George Floyd foot washings, for me to take any of their “findings” too seriously.
Wilborn had two posters behind his office desk, one of Bjorn Borg smashing a wooden racket, the other a primitive rendering of Last Stand Hill by some hand other than mine.
It’s confusing to me that entire city blocks were burned down during the summer of George Floyd, and this is considered permissible, but if you happen to refer to January 6 as a “dustup”, as did Jack Del Rio of the Washington Commanders, you will awake to find yourself fined 100k by the team because saying that was “harmful to so many in the community.” The Commanders used to be known as the Redskins, but that was harmful to so many in the community it needed to be changed, even if it only briefly took the limelight off of the hostile-work-environment lawsuits filed against Dan Snyder, the team owner. Still, it hasn’t been harmful to a single one of my Indian friends I’ve asked about it–their words, not mine–but I suppose the wounded and aggrieved are out there somewhere and probably safely ensconced in the Faculty Senate of Georgetown University.
I would also like to ask the chair umpire to explain how the United States, sitting on some pretty unbelievable loads of energy–whose uncorking would greatly assist those commuting soccer moms in their daily to and fro–and even help all of us pay less for groceries in an inflation environment the worst it has been in over 40 years–is no longer able to use them for the benefit of its citizens. I realize it’s all Putin’s fault–what with his extraordinary powers over everything on earth (he’s much like Peter the Great, just ask him)–but some days it feels as though we have entered into some great national suicide pact.
I used to run a lot. I preferred to run in the heat of the afternoon. I can’t explain precisely why I craved that heat–maybe it was just some deeply rooted asceticism–but I do know that was my favorite time to run. A colleague, now an excellent screenwriter named David Hedges, and I used to run together quite a bit through the Santa Ynez Valley. Our favorite run looped near Jimmy Connors’ place in the golden hills and the steaming oaks of a last remaining slice of old California. On a good day, in the heat with no wind, when it was just the sound of our feet on the asphalt and our labored breathing, you would suddenly hear Connors in an outburst–just over there– in some deep rage, with stuff crashing about in a sudden violent flurry. We’d give each other a knowing look, and then run on into the scorching silence.
I’ve begun development of another film, which I’m calling Snowcock. A big-game hunter and a journalist travel deep into the Ruby Mountains of Nevada in search of the elusive Himalayan Snowcock. This seems generative. This seems like a better expenditure of energy. This seems like something I can control given the proper understanding, which is that the chair umpire clearly has it out for us McEnroes. I’ve got the cast and crew lined up. We begin shooting in September, and hopefully before the snow falls because the Rubys at those altitudes are not friendly. The larger point is that poetry can no longer save us. Not the old Seamus Heaney reading Beowulf kind of poetry, at any rate. The warrior heart has gone out of the nation. It’s been replaced by something else, something flimsy and whimsical. Children are showing up to school dressed like cats and dogs, and we are meant to pretend there is nothing wrong with people who decide to identify as sea turtles. If you refuse to play make-believe, well then it is you, and only you, that owns the delusion. I’ll admit I’m struggling with that.
I’m struggling with it but I’m also aware–and in some ways grateful–that I’m slipping toward the back of the herd where the wolves prey on stragglers, and where we all — even once great nations– eventually find ourselves cut from the herd and entirely alone, dipping our horns at the snarls and the flashing teeth, completely surrounded on the dark and frozen plain.