I am an Earth Ball, also known as a cage ball, a large inflatable ball residing in junior-high-school locker room in suburban Baltimore.
Let me waste no time in introducing her. She was a sleek retractable ballpoint, the kind of pen I had always dreamed about. Ballpoints that did not retract were too aggressive. They intimated me. And felt tips tended to be promiscuous and faithless; not to put too fine a point on it, but they were whores. A sleek retractable ballpoint, though, that was heaven to me.
One afternoon, Coach Parker hosted a faculty meeting. Two-dozen unfamiliar faces came and went. When they were gone, I saw her there on a small side table: silver case, black ink, a perfectly smooth and crisp clicking motion: I felt something throb deep within me.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello hello,” she said.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Juanita Juanita,” she said. This is how pens speak: they say each word twice. It is similar to the way some shuttlecocks speak, which is to say each sentence twice, but more musical.
Juanita wasn’t the only new arrival in the locker room. An aged retractable, had also been left behind after the meeting. He was called Loany because he had been loaned so many times. Like many elderly pens, Loany was failing. His case was chipped. His ink flowed fitfully. And while Juanita said everything twice, Loany could not say anything at all. He had lost the power of speech and communicated instead by humming − specifically, he hummed while he was being used to write a word that conveyed his thoughts. For example, if Loany was tired and Coach Parker was using him to compose a note to the mother of a player, he would hum on “not,” say, and then on “stand.” Not stand: a request to be set down.
Juanita was devoted to Loany, who she treated like a father, and the three of us spent our time in the locker room feeling the warmth of companionship and, thanks to Coach Parker, listening to Sean Hannity. Sean Hannity is a conservative talk-show host who explains each day (on the radio) and each night (on television) how conservative principles are being disrespected and America dismantled by President Barack Obama, his operatives, and the media. Juanita was not familiar with Sean Hannity, and while she did not have strong political opinions, she noticed something about his debating technique. “He he really really repeats repeats himself himself,” she said. I do not think she was being ironic.
I did my best early on to contain my romantic interest in Juanita But then, one day, Coach Parker picked her up and used her to sign a form, and I felt a pang of jealousy − though I am not ashamed to admit that I also experienced a little thrill. The next day, I made my move. The edge of Coach Parker’s desk was near enough to me that I could roll toward Juanita and nudge her slightly, and the resulting wobbling transported her in short order from what she called “a a nice nice feeling feeling” to what appeared to be the highest ecstasy. She said “yes yes” and clicked out her own point. This was the pen equivalent of an orgasm. Those of you who have followed my correspondence from the start may be surprised to learn that I am familiar with the concept of orgasm. You should not be. For starters, I live in a boy’s locker room. In addition, I have closely observed Coach Parker with Coach Ortega, his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Sometimes in the afternoon Coach Ortega arrived for a session with Coach Parker. The first few times they locked themselves in his office and repaired to his couch. “I’m coming,” she said, even though she was already here.
So that was how the summer went, the four of us listening to the radio, the two of us stealing away when we could find the time. For much of July, Sean Hannity was preoccupied with the President’s proposal for national health care. He claimed that it was a step toward socialism. He warned that insured Americans would lose their private coverage. He asserted that the President was encouraging “death panels” that would save money by speeding the death of senior citizens. Then in early August, the conversation shifted, thanks in large part to a series of town hall meetings in which attendees began to angrily protest the proposed legislation. Some Democratic politicians expressed their belief that these disruptions were not the result of grassroots anger on the part of individuals but had in fact been organized by the Republican party. Sean Hannity responded to these charges with self-righteous outrage. When Nancy Pelosi said that she saw a protestor carrying a sign emblazoned with a swastika, Sean Hannity accused her of calling all Republicans Nazis. When Pelosi said the protestors shouldn’t act like an angry mob, Sean Hannity recharacterized her comments so that it seemed as though she had called all health-care opponents “mobsters.” These attacks masquerading as counterattacks infuriated Loany, who hummed over words like “wrong” and “foolish” and “ass,” but they left me cold. I had, over the months, acquired a thick skin in the matter of his titanically deceptive rhetoric. And besides, I was in love.
Then, one day, a man called into Sean Hannity’s show and said that he felt that town halls had fallen to the level of “barroom brawls or Jerry Springer.” Sean Hannity objected. The protestors, he said, were simply exercising their American right to speak. “This is not about left versus right for me,” Sean Hannity said. “This is not a political battle for me inasmuch as I do not want this country lurching left.” These two sentences followed one after the other in some burlesque of logical progression. The man on the phone went on to make a broader point about incivility, and to say that he had noticed a sign at a protest that included racist language. Sean Hannity did not immediately condemn these signs as offensive. That would have been too much to ask. But he also didn’t accuse the man on the phone of tarring all protestors as racists, as he had when Nancy Pelosi reported seeing a sign with a swastika. Instead, Sean Hannity attempted a different argument. He said that these kind of racist signs were possible indicators of Democratic tactics. “I don’t know where this is coming from, left or right,” he said.
“Uh oh,” I said.
“What what?” Juanita said. Sean Hannity explained. According to him, the Obama Administration was beholden to the theories of the activist Saul Alinksy, a community organizer who helped devise tactics for political action in the mid-century. Even earth balls − even pens like Juanita − have heard of Alinsky, whose influence is vast; in 1961, he bussed 2500 black Chicagoans to register to vote, demonstrating to the city that organized minorities were a powerful political force. Hannity honed in on one specific strategy Alinsky used to undermine his political opponents. In 1972, at Tulane University, Alinsky supposedly encouraged students to disrupt a speech by George H.W. Bush, then the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, by dressing up as Ku Klux Klan members and pretending to support Bush. This, Hannity said, was what he believed the Democrats were doing: the signs with racist or Nazi implications were planted by the Democrats to discredit Republicans. “You cannot isolate one single individual and say that it is representative of little old ladies, veterans, stay at home moms, and others who are showing up at these Town Halls,” he said.
This second comment seemed laughable coming from Sean Hannity’s mouth. You can’t isolate one extreme behavior and use it to define a broader group? If that were the case, Sean Hannity’s radio show would last for three minutes each day, not three hours; how would he make sweeping generalizations about “liberals”? But the Alinsky argument seemed more sinister, and then, all at once, I saw it. Sean Hannity was an Alinsky acolyte himself, and he was raising the boogeyman of the “Alinsky playbook” so that he could keep hiding in plain sight. Of course the protestors were planted, but maybe Republican operatives were even hiring counter-protestors to shout them down and make it look like the Democrats were intolerant of dissent. Many things came to me in a jumble, but one with particular clarity: the reporting of a disputed story regarding George W. Bush’s National Guard service in 2005. The papers that supposedly proved that Bush had not served were exposed as fakes and four employees at CBS news were asked to resign. At the time, people wondered if a Republican operative like Karl Rove might have leaked the documents himself. Was Karl Rove, who always seemed upon closer inspection to be closer to these kinds of decisions that he first admitted, a modern-day reverse Alinsky? And if so, shouldn’t I tar Sean Hannity with the same brush? A bolt shot through me. A tiny squeak of outrage escaped my nozzle. That night, I nudged Juanita until she clicked off but my mind was elsewhere.
A few days later Loany died. Coach Parker was using him to write a note, and he kept humming over the words “goodbye” and “end” and “close.” When Coach Parker set him down, he was gone. “It was his time,” I said. “It happens to everyone.” Juanita wept all afternoon, so much so that Coach Parker thought she was leaking and almost threw her out. “Stop it,” I pleaded. “I don’t want to be here to be at all without you.”
“Okay okay,” she said.
She stopped leaking, but something else happened. She started drifting toward Sean Hannity. When we listened to the radio, she no longer snorted in disbelief, and she wouldn’t listen to me when I began to dissect his arguments. She even accused me of being complicit in Loany’s demise. “You are like one of those death panels,” she said. “Was he too old for you? Would it have cost too much to keep him alive?”
It was our first real fight, and then I said something that made sure it was our last. “You are acting like a felt tip,” I said.
She clicked herself shut.
“I’m I’m going going,” she said but she was already gone.
When Coach Parker picked her up the next morning to write a note, I felt nothing. I could not speak but hummed on “black” and “heart.”