To sit with old friends around a campfire as twilight fades and the sky grows dark and starry is to be blessed by the gods. Among us sit the ghosts of friends and family who have already gone west. To mention their names is to summon specters and grant them the power of speech. But this is no seance. No, the faces of our departed ones dance in the mind's eye, and their voices pierce our hearts. Our eyes see only embers floating upward, our ears hear only the chorus frogs and crickets. But we know we are in good company.
Five of us gathered in the muted wilderness of a state park in Wisconsin last September. We sat on logs in a landscape gouged and scraped by successive glacial tides. These had advanced and retreated in the epic past at a pace that mocks any human endeavor. The campsite is a clearing in a second-growth forest. Around us bend a whispering legion of oak, maple and birch, the older and weaker trees already half-naked, but all affording us a measure of privacy, even as they soften the scars of icy conquest.
Strip the land of this legion and a riot of moraines, kames, drumlins and eskers emerge, carvings of an indifferent sculptor. Here and there among the eskers lie the isolated pools of water known as kettles, which any but the most foolish of fools can see and feel are the homes of spirits. No one who steps to the edge of such a pool will not wonder at the power that made it and the magic left in it.
Here in this remote clearing, gathered around a campfire, we witnessed a conversion.
We can't say any of us planned this escape. Mandy and Pete made the invitation at the last minute, an afterthought, they said. As each of us arrived we were greeted with hugs and laughter. Nearly four decades had passed since we had all first met at a sprawling, cavernous high school, to be indoctrinated, processed, “educated” in the boomer-child fashion, and warehoused until a portion of our adolescence was behind us. We had survived, scarred but stronger for it, and the sight of old allies with beaming faces awakened the teenagers that still live within us.
So for a few hours that evening we abandoned the petty and transient distractions of career and commerce to talk of old friends, of our own parents and our children, of the strange, happy, troubled journeys that had pulled us apart, of the mystery that lay beyond every ensuing breath.
The kind of happiness and candor that attends such a gathering is a gift borne of long association. Families camping in adjacent clearings might hear our words, might even discern the emotions, or the wisdom or the foolishness that color them, but they would not, could never, remember the events that spawned them.
This kind of intimacy is a feast for the soul. For decades we have gathered once or twice a year for such sustenance.
Pete and Mandy had remained a married couple for nearly thirty years, while Dan, Jake and I had each stumbled through the hell of seeing our own marriages dissolve and die. In hindsight, I married too young, as did Jake. We had leaped from our families of origin, troubled boys from troubled families, into marriages doomed to fail. We might escape our parents, but not the baggage they saddled us with, nor could we escape ourselves. Joined to women from similarly troubled families, the biological imperative, driven by peak hormone levels, could not prevail over deep psychological wounds we failed to see.
Our ex-wives, to their credit, would later express similar sentiments when time and distance made it easier for us to forgive each other and say goodbye. Our children, my daughter and Jake's son, were each confronted with the baffling, frightening and incomprehensible necessity of traveling between two households, and seeing their once-loving parents now grown strained, seething and distant in each others' presence.
When my daughter was in her late twenties I apologized for this toxic legacy. The miracle that is her alone, that essence which is neither her father nor her mother but something new in the world, forgave me. Pausing to tell you this is, in part, a continuation of my own forgiveness. I can only love her more wholly when I forgive myself, even as I forgive my own parents.
Dan had wisely married much later, in his thirties, but he had not married well. Jake and I soon noticed the subtle harshness of his fiance, and felt the sting of her passive-aggressive rebukes. In time we learned of her diagnosis: borderline personality disorder. Dan stayed with her through therapy, through seeming improvements and breakthroughs, but the damage her damaged parents had done was thorough. Dan married her a few years later, they bore a son, but our friend awakened to the resilient nature of his wife's malady and filed for divorce.
For a time we three had bonded as single fathers, a support group of sorts, as we each slogged through career convolutions and bumbled through the social minefield of dating women who found themselves in circumstances equivalent to our own.
I took a long hiatus from marriage to learn how to live single and be happy. Call it a continuation of the transition into adulthood. Jake did too. He eventually remarried and with his second wife had another child, a daughter who bears a haunting and beautiful resemblance to Jake's late mother.
I stepped back from what I realized was workaholism in a new career and accepted an invitation from Mandy and Pete to go out dancing one night. I found the crowd at their favorite haunt, an Irish pub, surprisingly friendly. I had always shied away from bars, finding the crowds too hard-edged, the meat-market conversation dull and stupid, the extroverted company of alcoholics annoying and self-congratulatory.
The company I kept that evening was a lifesaving blast of fresh air in my stale social life. I resolved to return the next week, and that's when I met Jane.
She was brunette, green-eyed and slender, moved with grace, and when she joined our circle we all took turns introducing ourselves. The moment she turned to greet me, she smiled as our eyes met and I nearly fell over. A wave of energy, some strange force, swept through me. My eyes held hers a moment longer, and her smile grew, her face brightened. I knew then what people meant when they said that someone's eyes sparkle. Jane's eyes sparkled at me. I was hooked.
I became a regular Wednesday night patron, taking advantage of every opportunity to dance with Jane, to hold her close, to take her left hand in my right, to put my left hand on her right hip. If I met her eyes I got lost in them, and she added two special tortures to these moments. Her eyes took on a different luster, a teasing invitation, a dare, accompanied by a wisp of a smile. But the other gesture was equally intimate and taunting. Beneath my left hand her hip would swivel as we moved across the dance floor.
My eyes and face betrayed the effect of this come-on, and I drew her closer, telling her to stop, hoping, of course, that she wouldn't. She feigned innocence, would then squeeze my hand and claim I was out-of-step, but her eyes continued to invite, to tease me.
I courted, wooed and married this woman, and I have Mandy and Pete to thank for the invitation that brought Jane and I together. Their invitation bears on the scene that unfolded, years later, on a September evening, around a campfire in a clearing in the woods.
You turn to old friends when you are joyous, when you fall in love with your newborn child. You join them to celebrate the death of some demon that has held you back, some belief that blinded you, some roaring giant, real or imaginary, who now squirms beneath your heel. You bring old friends the burden of your sorrows, and they share the weight until you can slough it off and stand again. We had been these kinds of friends.
Pete could not have warned us in advance about what he was going to say. He didn't know in advance that he was going to say it. But beneath the wry, humorous and capable facade he presented to the world, he was troubled, didn't know how to make sense of what he knew and saw, and had to unburden himself. I doubt that even Mandy knew the full extent of what her husband was about to share.
Several hours into our tales of recent events and fond recollections, Pete must have sensed that the time was right to broach the topic of state politics. Some of you readers from out-of-state may not fully appreciate how risky this is in Wisconsin. To describe the political atmosphere here as polarized is an understatement. Recall the tales of families torn asunder when sons decided to serve on opposing sides in the American Civil War, and you begin to conceive of the atmosphere here.
The Badger State is withering. Socially and economically, Wisconsin and its citizens are suffering through a bizarre, regressive transformation. Only the wealthiest Wisconsinites, many of whom instigated, aided and abetted this slow-rolling crime, are insulated from the effects.
We now have a Republican Governor, and both houses of the legislature are Republican-dominated. But the label “Republican” is misleading when describing the fringe-element ideologues and misfits who rule this sociopathic assemblage. These are not social or political conservatives. A review of their speeches and “legislative activity” dovetails nicely with the definition of Fascism.
Dan, Mandy and Pete are long-time Republicans, Dan extremely so. Jake and I are Democrats, my leanings distinctly Progressive. We all know each others' political bent, and had tacitly agreed that political discussion is only touched upon obliquely and briefly. None of us harbors any delusion that we can, will, or should try, to change each others' political allegiance. As sharp as some of our differences may be, we have never let them rent the bonds of old friendship.
So Pete took a risk, one we now know he had long considered, when he began to talk about the current Governor and the state Republican Party's lock on power. Pete's son-in-law is a teacher, and Pete was hearing firsthand from him and from his own daughter what was happening in the school and the district where his son-in-law taught.
For those of you who aren't aware of recent political infamies that have discredited the state, the newly elected governor and new Republican majority in the legislature began their “reign-of-error” by shoving through a scurrilous piece of legislation, Act 10. It greatly weakened the power of public sector unions by severely limiting their collective bargaining rights. Pete's son-in-law is a unionized public school teacher, new to the profession, earning a modest salary for long hours of work, and the passage of Act 10 hit his pocketbook by compelling him to pay higher insurance premiums out of his modest salary. And where formerly he could have increased his salary by pursuing advanced degrees, such effort is no longer acknowledged and so compensated.
Passage of the law gave school district administrators more power, which they eagerly and quickly began to abuse. In some school districts, teachers had to take on higher work loads without additional compensation, and watch their pre-tax salaries drop $5000.00 or more. Similar abuse dumped on members of other public sector unions led to mass retirements among experienced personnel, who took priceless skillsets out of circulation and abandoned mentorships, leaving new hires without the guidance and wisdom acquired through decades of service.
The cost to Wisconsin? Far above any short-term monetary savings realized, “savings” that amount to a shell game. And with a decidedly supply-side mentality dominating the legislature and the governor's office, this and other subsequent legislation are routinely shaped to benefit a minority of corporate and already-wealthy benefactors who funded Republican campaigns.
This Republican steamroll over middle class public sector employees was not, not, not accompanied by any effort to correct decades of corporate welfare now so long-entrenched that it is invisible, mere status quo, in Wisconsin. There has been no correction to the tax code, just a demonization of public sector employees and the use of divide and conquer tactics which distract ordinary citizens from continued wage theft and declining living standards.
The usual rationalizations and misrepresentations used to justify the need for Act 10 were blared over the talk radio airwaves in a massive misinformation campaign: teachers only work nine months of the year, their pay is too high, they're not accountable, student test scores aren't competitive, graduation rates for high school students in urban schools are too low. Conspicuously absent from these rants was mention of the decades-long decline in family income and buying power wrought by supply-side economic policies, and the resulting loss of family-supporting jobs, especially so in the inner city. The stress this placed on families helped to shatter many households.
But Pete began by talking about how sad and angry he was to see his son-in-law excoriated by right-wing talk show hosts and self-righteous callers to such shows, people who had no idea how challenging it was to teach physics in an underfunded urban high school. Pete's anger flashed a few times as he spoke of how wrong-headed the governor was, the governor he had voted for.
That governor and the Republican party that Pete had long praised were now attacking his family, his family. He had been blind-sided and was seething.
Dan, the ardent Republican in the group, said nothing.
This was Pete's expanding awareness, in progress and finally spoken aloud. My instinct told me to let it unfold without interruption.
Pete said he would not vote to re-elect the governor, that he was now skeptical of any statements made by Republican state legislators, that his family was more important than the Republican party. Republicans had betrayed him. The statement caused him evident pain.
All talk ceased for a moment.
“Pete, Mandy, Dave,” I said, “Jane is a public school teacher. You might not have remembered that. She's felt the sting of mistreatment at the hands of these fools.” I paused. “Mandy, Pete, you know I only met Jane because I accepted your invitation to that Irish Pub all those years ago, right? You might say it was the two of you who brought Jane and I together. I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am to you two for that. I love Jane. And Pete, I really do understand how you feel about Walker's attack on your family. My family is under attack, too.”
“Jane is writing lesson plans and shopping for school supplies. That's why she isn't here with us tonight. Many of her students come from families who are struggling to keep food on the table. For them, buying school supplies might also mean having to skip a meal. So she keeps a supply of pencils, notebooks, glue, etc., on hand and tells her students she's trying to get rid of the stuff because it's cluttering up her crowded classroom. She has over thirty students. And over a third of them have special needs.”
“Imagine that. She tells them that they're doing her a favor by taking those supplies, so that no student who really needs them will feel ashamed that he or she can't bring his or her own supplies. All of you know Jane. You've seen our house, our cars, the way we live. Do you think she's overpaid?"
I continued. “It's very hard for me to resist launching into a list of reasons why Walker and the Republican majority are so misguided. Just...please...consider this. Any man or woman elected Governor assumes an awesome responsibility. A Governor's first duty is to serve the citizens of the state, all of the citizens, not just that wealthy minority who funded his campaign.”
“If I were Governor, I'd ask a fundamental question. ““Given this economy, one damaged and hobbled by decades of supply-side policies and pro-business, pro-corporate, anti middle-class legislation, given the unsupportable, nonsensical shift of the tax burden from the wealthy and the corporate-class to the middle class and small business owners, what can I, as Governor, do to raise the standard of living for that middle class?””
“It seems to me,” I said, “that everything a Governor says and does should spring from that question. Instead, Walker's actions have been a sustained attack on public sector employees, on legislative transparency, on middle class families, on the unemployed and the elderly. Look, he and the Republican-dominated legislature have done nothing, nothing, nothing to raise the standard of living for employees in the private sector. Instead, Act 10 lowered the standard of living for unionized and non-unionized public sector employees. What kind of “improvement” is that?”
“If public sector employees now have less buying power, less discretionary income, how do they contribute to economic growth? What's the rationale for this wage and benefit theft?”
“Let me paraphrase Reagan's question. Are you better off now than you were before Walker was elected? Before the Republicans took control of state government? Has the higher level of supply-side-inspired corporate welfare led to a boom in the state economy?”
Jake spoke up, reminding us that his wife, too, was a public school teacher, that they lived modestly and that they too, were putting off home repairs and saving more slowly now.
“We've pretty much avoided talking about politics when we get together,” Jake said. “Maybe that needs to change. Maybe the status quo has gotten so bad that we actually need to talk about what to do, how to get this state government working for our benefit again.”
“That's risky,” Dan piped in. “Could lead to some heated arguments.”
“Look what's happened to our state because we didn't talk about politics,” I said. “Is that better?”
“We'll need some ground rules,” Mandy said. “Knowing your tempers, we might even need a moderator.”
It was, as we look back now, the kind of problem-solving we had done to protect ourselves from aggressive, sadistic jocks back in high school, from disengaged or damaged parents, from dishonest classmates or adults. We became our own support group, the wellbeing of each member more important than incidental differences in our outlook.
We didn't know this would happen, that because Pete spoke aloud his feelings about a great wrong, we would once again combine our talents and work toward a common goal. Our challenge is far greater now. We not only decided to once again support each other, we decided to reach out and support every individual and organization dedicated to restoring sane, accountable government in Wisconsin. Dan exempted himself from the politically-tinged component of our slowly-evolving pact.
Dan, I'm sad to say, clings to his delusions that the Walker regime is a good thing for the state. You might say he claps every time Nero finishes strumming a tune, and can't see the flames consuming his environs. Yet I'm an optimist. He may prove to be a Saul on the road to Damascus...
But this tale is one of hope. Pete, one of my oldest friends, opened his heart and his family to a son-in-law and accepted the consequences. He could not have foreseen this act would affect his political perspective, upset his uninformed political fealty, explode his notions of good governance. He has embraced inconvenient truth, sees the world with fresh eyes, and grows more inclusive in his concern for others. He is becoming his brother's keeper.
The campsite is blanketed in white now, visited only by squirrels, chickadees and the occasional deer, fox and coyote. The bare trees cannot hide the scars of glacial invasion that contorted and scarred the land long ago. Winter's robe reveals a different beauty here now, austere, pitiless, even frightening. Here, in the spring, we will gather again, in this wilderness that we now know is our common ground, perhaps with a few more old friends and siblings, and begin to plan and work for the Wisconsin our children and grandchildren deserve.
I hope they can forgive us for what we let it become...