I’ve witnessed with anxiety the outpouring of emotions surrounding the protests after George Floyd’s death and the re-arousal of the Black Lives Matter movement. I confess I’ve found myself thinking, why can’t you put all that anger aside, however justifiable, for the larger cause of removing a corrupt and divisive president from office? But then my experience at a friend’s wedding in 1982, all of thirty-eight years ago, came to mind.
Watching the Democratic Convention in August, I felt uplifted by Biden’s speech but sent almost to despair by other presentations. Barely below the surface rippled the anger that has been in full voice in the streets through the summer. The reaction was understandable after the video of George Floyd’s killing, along with videos and reports of other violent deaths, as were the expressions of determination that we get past the violence that bedevils our society. The trouble is that while society periodically responds sympathetically, waves of public emotion invariably fall back like the ebbing tide. I worried that this focus on the anger of a minority would generate its own angry reaction and undermine Democratic hopes to take back the White House and Senate. Sure enough, sympathy for the BLM movement has dissipated. As just one sign, on Sunday the New York Times carried an article about how Minneapolis’s City Council has retreated from idealistic promises of police reform.
Tom Meyer (as I’ll call him) and I were friends through much of college, and we regularly saw each other in Boston during the next three years. The summer I took a job in Wisconsin, I flew down to spend the July 4th weekend with him in his hometown, St. Louis, where he was recuperating from a vicious bout of hepatitis. I joined him in smoking cigars (one of the half dozen in my lifetime), but his caused him to throw up from his balcony over the trees below. We both found it somehow funny. An evening out during one of his visits to see me in Brooklyn ended when the restaurant stopped serving us drinks after Tom, sprawled on his banquette with his feet sticking out, tripped up a waiter. It was an accident, for what it’s worth.
He met a woman I’ll call Anne. Writing from Florence in July 1982, he was overjoyed at how well their relationship was going. Here’s most of a paragraph from that letter in which his wonderfully convoluted and self-ironic voice comes through. It follows a passage of introspection. The grammar in this transcription is off because the handwriting isn’t clear:
A year ago all that made sense to me, usually only however after a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes, as to my work and my strange contorted sense of written art, novels mainly but I would have included my letters as well. I would be reading a novel by Saul Bellow and suddenly decide on the basis of what I read to change something in my life. Having no solid or enduring sense of self, I would shape a new set of values around the mold of anything a literary character shoved in front of my face. This still happens, but now my urge to change the tint a bit on my palette rather than throw away the whole damn painting and start anew. In other words, Meyer has passed the formative Wonder Bread years finally at the age of twenty-eight and is proceeding to develop a style somewhat his own. Not exactly newsworthy for trans-Atlantic transmission, but perhaps the long-suffering Spratt will find in it some cause for quiet celebration.
With what to me now feels like surprising alacrity, Tom and Anne decided to marry. Although I’d used to write poems nearly every day, by 1982 the spigot had pretty much run dry. But on hearing that news, I was inspired to write one that I aptly called “Epithalamion.”
Tom asked me to be his best man, and I was honored. Why honored? The obvious, and correct, answer is that he was a great friend. The embarrassing, less obvious one, which I kept to myself, was gratification that he hadn’t thought twice about having his disabled friend in such a public role on such an important occasion.
In truth, I was privately nervous about the logistics. How would I walk up the aisle with suitable dignity alongside Tom? What if I reduced myself to a slapstick comedian by tripping or wandering off-course? When I tried to hand him the ring, would I drop it? Would I require verbal assistance from the wedding’s officiator? Any of that would distract from the significance of the occasion and the focus the bride and groom should have on each other. But experience had taught me that potential pitfalls would be overcome, between unobtrusive help I would, indeed, get from the officiator and my own ability to make on-the-spot adjustments.
However, a few weeks into the wedding planning, Tom changed his mind. He told me Anne wanted another mutual friend of theirs to be his best man. I knew the man’s name, but I’d never met him. From pride and joy, my feelings turned to anger and resentment.
I have some distinct memories of the two-day event in northwestern New Jersey, during which I stayed with the program but wasn’t my spontaneous self when I’m happy. A lasting regret is that I did voice my distress and thus contributed something negative and dark to the occasion.
At the rehearsal dinner the day before the wedding, the second best man gave a speech with the recurring phrase “rape and pillage” that was met with uproarious laughter. The next day, my then girlfriend, Jane, came out by train to join me, and her presence helped. Tom had asked me to read “Epithalamion” at the ceremony. It felt like a consolation prize, but naturally I agreed. I can’t remember if it was someone at the rehearsal or Jane who helped me figure out in advance the way from the pews to the podium. Either way, when the time came, I navigated the way there and back on my own without a hitch. Such choreography takes up a disproportionate amount of my stress quotient, but it confirmed that I always got past such obstacles.
Later, Tom and I must have expressed each other’s anger over the phone or by letter. I don’t remember. Twelve years further on, as a pair of letters reminds me, we tried to reconcile, but in vain. Yet I think of Tom with amusement and affection.
Looking back with a mix of clarity and forgetting, I wonder whether I only assumed that, under Anne’s influence, Tom became uncomfortable with the idea of accommodating my limitations. I don’t remember what explanation he gave me. Perhaps disability had nothing to do with it. Perhaps I only reveal a deep insecurity.
But even if I was right to infer that my disability lay behind Tom’s change of mind, didn’t they have a right to make all the decisions for their special day?
As soon as I write that, I leap to my own defense. If Tom hadn’t asked me to take on that role, I’d never have been offended. But asking and then reversing himself made me question exactly how he thought about me.
The idea for this post came from my recognition that these memories of Tom’s wedding, which I hadn’t thought of in years, must have been triggered by my concern that the Black Lives Matter movement could work to an aspiring tyrant’s advantage. But I can imagine readers seeing my account of the wedding as revealing mere sour grapes. That may be the point.
Each of us finds ourselves categorized into this or that group. The word “minority” is typically used for this phenomenon, but it isn’t accurate. Women are a group, and as everyone knows, they’re the majority. White men are a “minority,” though rarely defined as such. Each of us falls into several groups: white immigrant women, Hindu Asian-American men, and so on.
I fall into the white, male, immigrant and disabled categories. But addressing each of these labels in myself, I immediately take issue. Okay, yes, I’m a man. But when I say “white,” I’m not, for example, from southern or eastern Europe. It’s also too general to say I’m from that northwestern European category that genealogy websites assign me to. I’m from a particular part of the world that has a distinctive history. This leads to my discomfort when “immigrant” is applied to me because, unlike the standard American immigrant story, my family wasn’t pushed out from our home country by poverty or politics: Rather, my father was given an even better opportunity in New York.
“Disabled” is the label that causes me to identify most specifically with a particular group. One way we might define this use of the word “group” is as a part of the population some of whose experiences are different from those of other groups and whose feelings are thus harder to understand. It’s a part of me I both honor and mock. When I recognize I’m overreacting to this or that seeming slight, the word “victim” comes to mind. I hate to see myself as a victim. Then a version of Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song” starts in my head, even though “lumberjack” has three syllables and “victim” only two: “I am a victim, and I’m okay, I sleep all night and I work all day.”
The white, male and even immigrant group members in me believe that at Tom’s wedding, I should have evinced no resentment at his change of mind. All that mattered was that the event be joyful, above all for the bride, the groom and their families. Moreover, Tom’s change of mind needn’t have led to a rupture in our friendship. He could have said, “Spratt, you’re a great guy but not a great speaker, which in your shy heart of hearts you know. Speaking is my other friend’s talent.” Knowing I could never have given a “rape and pillage” speech, I’d probably have concurred and gracefully accepted my and my poem’s smaller, but still special, role.
But the disabled group member in me persists in contending that the reason for Tom’s change of mind was anxiety that I might cause distraction at the wedding. This part of me appears to be more agitated than the white male immigrant parts. The reason seems obvious: Coping with disability and with society’s reaction to it have been more of a struggle. At times, I’ve had to fight to assert myself. I’d concede that it can be a defensive part of me. It isn’t always as rational as I’d like. It isn’t always as dignified, though it tries and, I think, usually succeeds.
Here’s where I return to my opening about the Black Lives Matter movement and my conflicting worries that it could undermine the defeat of a corrupt president. I have no doubt that the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death and the other news this summer turned violent mostly due to the unwanted help of apolitical looters and right-wing extremists. Even so, demonstrations imply crowds, and crowds notoriously bring out acts of recklessness that individuals wouldn’t engage in on their own. The “peaceful” in protests is a relative term. They are agitating, and agitation begets agitated reactions.
The white, male and immigrant group members in me want to urge the protesters to hold off so as not to give the president’s allies an excuse to escalate matters, actively turn them violent, and thus create an opportunity, however fraudulent, to promote themselves as advocates of law and order. It’s a rational, persuasive argument.
Meanwhile, the disabled group member in me recognizes the depth of feeling expressed by the black demonstrators and appreciates the support given by other groups, including whites. I want African-Americans to get the relatively fair treatment I get as a white male. Lyndon Johnson started the process in the sixties, but got derailed by Vietnam. Progress has been made since then, but much less than we need.
There are times when “good trouble,” to quote John Lewis’s now famous phrase, has a chance to make a difference. All four group members inside me say, “Hallelujah! Let my fears be misplaced. Let this moment be the right time to make good trouble.”
Because I refer to it, and even though it isn’t really relevant to the theme of this post, I reproduce the poem here.
They were amazed that something so abstract
As a contract carried so much joy,
That something less perceptible than mist
Would so affect their separate lives.
But they thought lightly of it when they met
And eased themselves toward it through the months
With afternoon walks and drawn‑out dinners.
One day he proposed and she accepted:
The contract drew around them like a spell.
A man who wedded years ago—
Knowing marriage is a monument
Exposed to passers‑by and weather,
Whose mortar threatens to crumble, its bricks
To dislodge, its beams to creak,
And knowing its constant need of restoration—
Said that couples only start to love
Ten years into marriage.
A lovely thought‑‑that something beautiful
Sometimes becomes still more,
If differently, beautiful.
Here, at this consecration,
On an ordinary summer’s day,
These two people want us to affirm
Their submission to authorities
Beyond our understanding.
Let him ask once again
And let her answer
To cast the spell forever.