Last night was a perfect night for baseball, the heat of the day rising from the concrete stadium and seeping into my bones as the Spring sun turned pink before it disappeared. Good therapy for a body confined to a windowless office and forced to spend too many hours in a posturepedic chair.
The happy crowd murmured and shifted, settling into the top of the first inning. A mocking bird sang its three-species medley and flitted from a guard rail to the top of the protective net and back again. I tried and failed to remember the year they strung the net wide enough to shield the entire grandstand and not just the narrow section behind home plate.
I walked quickly so I did not obstruct the view of the people above me and thought briefly about the years my dad was in a wheelchair, his assigned space and its companion seat just behind home plate. We took turns sitting there, keeping him company, in awe of how close we were, how centered.
“I think we can actually spit on the umpire if we want to,” he said to me and winked. I knew that would never happen – he was the one who taught me you never argue balls and strikes.
Back in the present, years after his death, I reached our seats and my neighbors patiently stood up to let me pass. She greeted me, cheerful and welcoming, but he just nodded briefly and kept his attention on the visiting team at bat – one out, no one on base.
I was late again. Part of this was a karmic lesson, I’m sure, to help me overcome my years of annoyance at people who showed up halfway through an early inning, shuffling past most of a row of seated spectators and blocking my view of the batter.
But mostly I was late because since the November 2016 presidential election I couldn’t stand to stand for the national anthem and I was not yet brave enough to make my problem public.
The Highs and Lows of Grad School
In the late 1990s, in graduate school at Florida State University, sometimes I went to baseball games high on marijuana. It was more fun than I can describe while we’re both sober. I learned about the energy of competition and cooperation; saw living numerology and sacred geometry in action; and witnessed the quantum mechanics of momentum, why in baseball it really is true that any team can beat any other team on any given day. I observed body language and friend and foe relationships, details I might never have observed without drugs or a baseball guru sitting beside me.
I always tried to be in the grand stand before the players took to the field to stand at attention with the rest of us for the national anthem. I stood up joyfully, I put my hand on my warm heart, straightened my spine, regulated my breathing, and sang the holy hell out of that song, rockets’ red glare and all.
I loved that moment, but I would not describe what I felt as patriotism. The romance of our revolutionary beginnings has always been my favorite thing about the U.S.A. With rare exceptions I was never impressed with our contemporary history. But I did feel inspired by the potential of this country and by some of the things I told myself were its tangible achievements.
And I felt connected to all of those around me. I felt like we were standing together in gratitude, appreciation, and maybe even hope.
But the problem with marijuana is that while one green hand slows down the world and shows you its wonders, a darker hand camouflages the complications. Pot makes you feel better than the situation calls for. It creates fun and frolic where there is only duty and drudge. It makes you optimistic when you shouldn’t be.
And then in one awful November cascade of purple states turning red, your illusions are ripped away and you cannot understand why anyone would stand up and sing that goddamned song. You are late to every baseball game in an effort to avoid that communal moment altogether. If you do arrive on time you end up hiding in the bathroom, breathing stale air and listening to the tinny radio broadcast with your head in your hands, feeling like a coward, but certain if you go out there and sit in your seat while everyone else stands they will think you are an ungrateful apostate.
But you betrayed me first, America.
Be Careful What You Chant
I chanted the Pledge of Allegiance for my entire childhood without qualm or question, one small child among many as we stood together, our gazes, cadences, and postures equivalent, and said the same words day after day.
In high school saying the Pledge gave me a kind of mental and emotional itch. I became impatient with the ritual – I didn’t like the power of the rhythm of the words or how chanting along made me feel part of a cohort of zombies. I don’t think I had any intellectual concept of what indoctrination might be, but I did start to listen to what we were saying and I started to question if any of those praises rang true.
And so when everyone else stood up I sat down, tapping my foot impatiently, glaring at the crisp red, white, and blue flag high in the corner of our classroom. That worked for about three days, and then some homeroom teacher I cannot remember stepped in and forced me to pledge. I wasn’t allowed to stand silently either; I was forced to say the words. She watched my face to make sure I was chanting them.
I wasn’t much of a rebel then – I did not choose to refuse. There was no public scene, visit to the principal’s office, or detention. The one small, snide rebellion I allowed myself was to change the words to match how I felt about my country – I pledged allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for some.
And maybe we are born who we already are, and the work I do in this blog just proves how little has changed with me.
But if that’s the case, why am I now afraid for you to see me refuse to stand?
Are You a Patriot or a Bully?
It started in my body on the way to a baseball game. Driving into the parking garage I heard the amplified litany of names of the players as they took the field and knew the anthem came next. I had a visceral reaction that turned my ass into lead; I could not get out of my car and walk to the stadium until the last violins were silent and I heard the signal that the anthem was over – the cheers of the tepid crowd (their lack of enthusiasm for the 2017 FSU baseball team, not for the song itself).
I was not inspired by Colin Kaepernick, whose compelling story I somehow managed to surf without opinion until it became, in small part, my own. I’m not African-American, although I am a sympathizer. I did not feel like I belong to an oppressed group until recently. My problem feels entirely personal and not at all public – my relationship with my country feels broken.
I’m not used to being secretive about my beliefs. I’m not shy or easily bullied and I have been accused of being fearless. But right now people hate other people over these public displays of rebellion. When I picture myself sitting in my chair, I can feel the weight of thousands of eyes. I can feel people judging me, or sneering at me, maybe looking over my head to agree about how awful I am. Before the election I experienced the hatred of several Facebook friends who shared a photograph of a woman wearing a hijab absorbed in her phone, sitting in an amphitheater while all the white people around her stood with heads lifted toward the pixelated image of the Stars and Stripes faux-flowing on all four sides of a scoreboard. Get out of our country, someone had photoshopped onto the photograph, if you can’t show our flag respect.
In the spirit of discourse and dialogue, in the happy pursuit of free speech, I have no advice, no action plan. All I have are questions.
Why does it matter so much to you if I sit or I stand? Why do you need me to be just like you? Why do you need to control someone else’s behaviors and beliefs?
We are not talking about someone trying to tax your income, talk your daughter into having an abortion behind your back, force you into joining their weirdo religion, stop you from building your dream home or making money at your small business, rob you, rape you, beat you, subjugate you, convert you.
We’re talking about allowing someone who doesn’t feel that connection to country and kind space and respect. This is someone who can’t pretend the words of the song make sense to them. Someone who wants to avoid hypocrisy more than they want to pretend to be patriotic for you.
Ask them why, don’t hate them. And listen to their story, don’t force yours upon them. Because America, maybe if you get better at dialogue and discourse, I can stand and sing with you again.
Art Works Cited
I have an epic life and get to take epic pictures. My mother is a gifted nature photographer. I have smart and talented friends who lend me their images. I work for an organization with 200,000 digital images of Florida and Florida history available and in the public domain.
But in this blog I used a lot of other folks’ images. I’ve cited you, linked to you, and given you credit, but if you contact me I will take them down immediately.
- With Liberty and Justice for Sale, © Clay Bennett.
- With Carnage and Blood for All, Cagle Cartoons.
- Who’s That?, Claytoonz.com
3 Replies to “Star-Spangled”
Love this, and you! Thank you for opening this difficult dialogue and sharing your experience.
I understand. I also understand a biracial man making a statement about inequality that has caused too many deaths in the last few years. And NOTHING changes.
Thank you Kym! Too often shows of patriotism feel unpatriotic to me. I truly want a place where there is lovey and justice for ALL!