Last week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, I posted my poem "Our Money's Worth," based on the story of trading in my aging Honda Civic for $1,500 credit. On this blog, I wrote about how I felt mostly indifferent to letting the car go, and how I viewed that reserve as a sign of hard-won wisdom. And so it was, maybe. But then, as Walt Whitman wrote, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" There is a part of me that still clings very fervently to possessions. And that was the part of me that, despite a skin hardened over decades, embarrassed itself by weeping openly in the theater at the end of Toy Story 3.
Oh, man, that scene. There may be no other five minutes in recent cinematic history more notorious for reducing grown men (and possibly a few women) to lachrymose puddles. Owen Gleiberman, a critic with tastes so rugged that he named Natural Born Killers the best film of the 1990s and criticized The Silence of the Lambs for not being dark enough, responded so emotionally to the Toy Story 3 finale that he wrote an editorial urging fellow alpha males not to be ashamed of their blubbering. If you've seen the movie (and you might as well skip to the next paragraph if you haven't), you know that I'm talking about the moment when Andy, the boy who has come of age over the first Toy Story trilogy, drives to the house of neighborhood preschooler Bonnie and leaves Buzz, Woody, Jessie, and their comrades in her care before heading off to college. It's easy enough to explain the audience's tears as Andy lovingly hands over each toy -- the end of childhood, neatly encapsulated in one gesture! -- but I wonder if that scene taps into a deeper longing for many adults. Perhaps we mourn not just the end of childhood (ours and Andy's), but also the end of the time when we viewed objects as able to exert a mystical pull?
There was a time when I found at least some toys to be enchanting, and that time is long past. I abandoned my playthings at a much earlier age than Andy does, and with no sorrow that I can remember. There is very little in my house today that resided there thirty or forty years ago. But there are a few things: old books on the bookshelf, old school papers tucked into filing cabinets. This summer, when my family did an extensive housecleaning, I found myself weighing the CD collection that I began assembling at the age of 11: several impressive pounds of jewel cases and box sets, many of them arranged in chronological order by artist, packed with memories of elementary school through graduate school and beyond. This collection is technically useless at the moment -- I don't own a CD player -- but no matter; when faced with the choice of what to do with those old-school discs, I opted to preserve them in the attic rather than throw them out. Wait, the attic: that's exactly where Andy plans to stash his toy collection before a series of mishaps eventually leads him to Bonnie's house. Those geniuses at Pixar know how to tap into our weaknesses.
Perhaps, one day, with the gift of an antique CD player that I bought on eBay, I will pass that collection on to a mesmerized younger person. ("This is Johnny Cash, the roughest, toughest cowboy in all of country music...") Perhaps my sentimentality will run out and I will simply dispose of the collection one day. Then again, perhaps it will reside in the attic until I pass on -- in which case its subsequent fate will be an intriguing mystery. My poem this week in the Journal, "Salvaged," is about a scenario of this kind. A great-aunt has died, her husband having gone before her, and her three grand-nieces peruse her old belongings in the house. The oldest sister tells the younger two not to touch anything (maybe out of respect for the dead, maybe just for tidiness' sake), but the other girls pick through the items to see what they might spirit away for use. As the question toward the end of the poem asks, are they committing theft by taking what isn't theirs? Or, since everything in the house needs to be taken away somehow, are they simply helping the movers?
The sisters aren't movers, at least not professionally. They take only what looks appealing. By the end of the poem, the youngest has swiped a teacup -- maybe for play (we don't learn her age), or maybe for actual tea-drinking. The cup can hold liquid, in either case. The middle sister extracts the old Al Jolson records, partly for social media and partly because vinyl is popular among her friends. With a turntable, the records may still play. They will liven a new room, charm a new listener, implant words and music in a new memory. "All art is quite useless," Oscar Wilde once wrote. The human race has continually disagreed with that.
My second car was a white 2001 Honda Civic, and I got it weeks before my senior year of college. My first car, a Mercury Sable that I inherited in high school, had gone to pieces before it reached 100,000 miles, and its replacement proved much more durable. I drove that Civic for more than a decade, took it cross-country once and another time to Santa Fe and back, learned how to fit it with snow tires in Connecticut. During those years, it endured a couple of minor accidents but never had a breakdown, and I used it during a number of milestones in life: college graduation, first full-time job, first condominium, marriage. It logged more than 200,000 miles before my wife and I reasoned that it might be approaching the end of its prime. One day, then, we drove it to the dealership, exchanged it for $1,500 in credit, and abandoned it in the parking lot.
I realize that the above paragraph may come off as unemotional. That's the point, really. My poem this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder is "Our Money's Worth," which tells the story of trading in the Civic with only a few details changed. It's kind of an anti-poem, if your definition of a poem is one that infuses a moment with dramatic epiphanies. In truth, I felt very little when I brought the car into the dealership; as the opening stanza notes, it was one of multiple errands that day. I had memories of the car, but those memories resided in my mind, not the car itself. "Our Money's Worth" appeared in the book Angels in Seven, which came out in my mid-thirties, right before my daughter was born, and serves as a farewell to a great many things in the first three and a half decades of life. The title poem is about outgrowing baseball fandom. Others are about the deaths of older family members, the passing of high school and college, even the burning of unfinished poems. "Our Money's Worth" is about resisting the impulse to view life as an epic journey and accepting that a car is simply a car. When I wrote it, almost a decade ago now, I took that indifference as a sign of wisdom. Ask me how I feel again in ten years.
So the poem is not about nostalgia. That doesn't make it cynical, at least to me. (I am acutely aware that my reading of my own poem may be very different than another person's.) Up above, I mentioned that I felt little when I brought the car in. But the little that I did feel was luck, and rightly so. I have come to understand that there are two levels of bliss in life. When things are normal, we want them to be sublime. When things go wrong, we want them to be normal. Think about your circumstances right now: Does your car have a leak under the hood? Is there a lightbulb out in your kitchen and an overdue bill to pay? If so, very likely the first three things on your mind are fixing the leak, replacing the lightbulb, and paying the bill.
Once those things no longer occupy your mind, you may begin fantasizing about taking the car on an exciting road trip or hosting a party in your kitchen. Efficiency gives us room to dream, and the Civic gave me that opportunity. Throughout all those uneventful drives and routine oil checkups, I got to mull over manuscripts, plan vacations, and otherwise make room for thoughts that engine trouble and astronomical repair bills might have crowded out. I also got the gift of life itself, which a safe and dependable car helps to provide. So I was lucky, and I had the car to thank for that.
But here's the other thing, and one that I didn't realize as much when I was younger: You can't thank a car, only a person. Someone -- some people, I should say -- did a good job of putting my Civic together. Others did a good job of repairing and servicing it over the years. I'll never know who those people were (as the poem says, "no Jim or Luke or Pedro / here in factory clothes to thank in person"), but they had a positive impact on my life. I appreciate them doing their job well. The backside, of course, is that if the car had given me years of misery, it might have been equally hard to pick someone to blame.
Every year in class, I share with my students the Grateful Dead song "Ripple." The verse that always haunts me is the one that the song's lyricist, Robert Hunter, said he was most proud of: "Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. / If your cup is full, may it be again. / Let it be known there is a fountain / that was not made by the hands of men." Perfection is usually out of our hands, which is why we reach out our cup hopefully. If we're lucky, we get it filled. In my case, I got more than a decade of luck with the Civic that I got at age 21, and then the car and I parted ways. I have no idea who got it after I did. By now, I am sure that it's been retired or scrapped. If the next owner had an easy time driving it and left it with minimal pain, then I hope that he or she felt blessed, not to mention thankful. Cars, unlike fountains, are very much made by the hands of men.
In 2020, during the onslaught of COVID-19, Time magazine published an op-ed by Rutger Bregman titled "The Moment to Change the World Is Right Now." The logic of that headline may seem suspect -- when is it ever not time to change the world? -- but the writer made a compelling case that the circumstances were ready for a tectonic shift in human priorities. "The age of excessive individualism and competition could come to an end," he proposed, "and we could inaugurate a new age of solidarity and connection."
Three years later, I'm not sure what the status of that new age is. For sure, the world changes all the time, and many of those changes bring hope, but they take on a patchwork quality -- individual victories rather than a full-scale annihilation of aggression and greed. A social movement garners more prominence for Black actors in Hollywood; Native Americans remain mostly invisible. A regime change topples the dictatorship of Iraq; North Korea continues business as usual. More than 10 million people buy electric cars to curb air pollution; relatively few of them also give up beef. There are any number of advocates for Native American representation, North Korean freedom, and veganism, but their causes have not reached the tipping point in society. Not yet, at least. We often celebrate our heroes in hindsight.
My poem "The Activists," which appears today in the Journal of Radical Wonder, is about two people who belong to that frustrated group. I have known the type. Around the time I wrote this poem in 2010, I was acquainted with a pair of animal-rights crusaders. Both belonged to tight circles of fellow believers. One struggled to reconcile her own vegan diet with the fish she had to buy for her pet cat. The other said she often felt nervous among other animal advocates, since they often attacked her beliefs as not progressive enough. Both of them had difficulty agreeing on restaurants with friends. Supporting a cause is often bleak and unglamorous, not to mention unapplauded. Every so often, a Rosa Parks or Malala Yousafzai provides a galvanizing face for a cause, one that can be mass-produced on T-shirts and marketed as a story. Those faces are exceptions. The unheralded crusader, who boycotts selected companies, signs petitions, and declines invitations on principle, is the more common profile of those who sacrifice comfort to make the world a fairer place.
The poet Robert Hayden wrote about "love's austere and lonely offices." Activism must be one of those offices, at least sometimes. The man at the center of "The Activists" is lonely. He may be an activist by marriage; his wife seems more dedicated to their numerous causes than he is. His mind fixates on her body as much as on social justice, to the point where he keeps count of the blemishes that protesting has left on her. When she leaves for work, he smells the clothes that she dropped in the hamper. He shares a bed with her, but it can be a cold bed, even as he steels his resolve by remembering that their love centers on what they stand for.
Most of us are not activists. At UCI, I had a classmate -- a devout Christian -- who told me that he dreaded walking through a section of campus where student groups habitually set up booths to petition for those in need. He only had so much money and time, and every booth that he passed reminded him of what he wasn't doing. Even the most socially minded of us tend to pick our battles; not every feminist is a vegan, just as not every antiracist drives a Tesla or avoids Walmart. We can bond easily over shared comforts. But if you know someone who checks the country of origin on shirt labels or bypasses Amazon to shop at the neighborhood co-op, ask that person what he or she has learned. You may get a lesson in how to be less "nice." You may also get a lesson in how to be a better person.
My latest feature in the Journal of Radical Wonder is "Barnstormer in Tulsa, 1928," a persona poem spoken by one of the barnstormers -- or aerial stuntmen -- who thrilled crowds during the days when air travel was new and exotic. Nowadays, we watch in-flight movies to give ourselves a show while flying. Once, flying itself was the show. This poem, along with several others that have appeared in Radical Wonder, is part of my manuscript in progress.
Here are some other recent highlights in the magazine:
Poet Abigail Thomas has a new recurring feature, with a poem slated to appear each Wednesday for the next 19 weeks. First up is "good evening," which serves as an introduction of sorts to the reader. The poem works basically as a stream of one-liners, most of them starting with the word "I." A couple favorites of mine are "I have not tried imitating snapshots for several years now and am pleased with the results" and "I require neither reasons nor the absence of reasons from those who love me."
Journal co-editor John Brantingham posted an insightful video interview with Gretchen Primack, a poet and animal rights activist who shares her thoughts on vegetarianism, her experiences teaching incarcerated students, and how our treatment of other species reflects our attitude toward compassion and empathy. "We have tremendous hubris as a species," she says at one point. "When we question that hubris, when we say, 'Why am I better, who decided that I was better, why does that make sense for me, and why should I question it?' -- that would completely transform the world." Primack also has a similarly themed poem, "Because You Are Silver," posted on the site.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.