No one needs to ask the origin of my neighborhood’s name: Deer Park. Deer walk the streets of Deer Park, Ohio, like humans have yet to take over. They are the living ghosts of nature, sleeping in front yards, staring at you with a tense readiness when you walk past.
The penance the deer enact for our trespass is targeted at the neighborhood’s green thumbs. There is not much deer won’t eat. My wife has had to go through many different iterations of plant life around the exterior of our house to find the concoction that the deer are only mildly interested in. We feel it is only a matter of time until they pull a Jurassic Park and pick the locks. The inside plants do tremble so.
When my wife first moved in and began converting our house from a plant-less bachelor pad to a greenhouse, she would routinely sift through the exterior flower boxes below our front window, scrutinizing the damage from the deer and plotting her rebuttal. When she finally came back inside, she would say something like, “My [insert destroyed plant names here]!”
Then, one summer day, the deer changed tactics to what seemed like a form of terrorism.
Upon leaving the house for a walk, we noticed that a small clay pot with some sort of succulent was no longer perched on an outdoor table situated below our porch. It was now innocently upright, 3 feet below the table and 3 feet away from the table, in the middle of our concrete driveway. If the pot had fallen, it would have shattered, even if it had landed right side up.
Whatever had done this was interested in the leaves of the plant, as clippings lay all around the pot, like cut hair below a barber’s chair.
“Well, perhaps the deer picked it up by the stalk and then kind of realized that the plant was not coming out of the pot and then set the whole thing down on the ground and munched on it there,” I said.
This is how conspiracy theories start. What were the other explanations?
Seconds later, my wife found a clipped-off stalk, belonging to the newly repositioned potted plant, re-planted in one of our window boxes at the front of the house, the same boxes that served as deer feeding troughs.
I started to create the complicated rationale necessary for a reasonable explanation, but my internal logic shut down. What the heck was going on here?
Unsure of what to do, we went on our walk, putting the incident behind us. By all accounts, we should have been furiously googling or interrogating neighbors about changes in deer behavior in the area. Perhaps we felt too safe amongst the deer, these innocuous seeming suburban cows that munched on people’s gardens and were sometimes seen walking nonchalantly down sidewalks.
When we got back to the house, it was our next-door neighbor who finally offered an explanation from a Facebook investigation she had done.
It was “anarchists,” apparently.
The night before our discoveries, these anarchists were placing stickers on Black Lives Matter signs around the neighborhood. This was back in the summer of 2020, sometime after George Floyd’s death. I don’t recall what the stickers said, and I never saw these stickers myself, but they were meant to rebut the sign they were placed upon.
It was an eerie thing. In this political atmosphere—the elections just months away—this moment of general solidarity behind the injustice of what happened to George Floyd, and then all the things that came from it: the well-intentioned protests juxtaposed with the looting and destruction of property. It was response after response, twirling off into complexity. Regardless, simple explanations reigned; grey areas dwindled. In Deer Park, like around the country, the nuanced and confusing bickering between the difference between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” became solid here, the portents grave.
As of any transgression, your mind reconstructs the events until you feel you’ve guessed the sequence and the rationale or until the process turns into anxiety itself: There these marauders walking around our property in the middle of the night and seeing the potted plant on its café-like setting and thinking, this order right here, let’s take it down. Let’s spook these suburban adults for they truly don’t see the world. We shall add this to our palette tonight.
The vandalism of our plant was capricious yet disturbing. I can only imagine what those whose signs were targeted with stickers were feeling, their homes now a known target of active antagonism.
Unfortunately, this level of mischief did not last.
And so fall came, and Deer Park’s streets mellowed, even for COVID-19 standards. The anarchists had made their move, and now they were probably starting school.
That fall, my wife and I went camping. We left our dog in the care of our next-door neighbors.
On the morning of our return, I saw a text from our neighbor that said to not be alarmed if our dog’s head was still wet when we got back. They had been out for a walk, and our dog was sniffing the leg of their dog when their dog decided to mark our dog’s head as territory. Our neighbors would have caught this, but something else had captured their attentions: a burned down Black Lives Matter sign.
Months later, a day after the election of 2020, I went on a run and happened to spy the subtle remnants of a Black Lives Matter sign in the next-door community of Amberley Village. The sign, juxtaposed next to a pristine Biden/Harris sign, was a skeletal “H” of wire with blackened fragments yet clinging to it. Why hadn’t they removed it?
A block down, now back in Deer Park with my mind primed to notice signs, a replacement Black Lives Matter sign was set into a large potted plant on a porch, safely placed next to the front door.
Not everyone practiced such evasive maneuvers. Many burnt signs had simply been replaced, poked into the same spot in the ground.
There were surrenders too: blackened slivers of metal simply removed. As someone who has had their house burglarized, I could identify with this. It’s hard to maintain courage when there is the fear that your house has been marked for possible return.
I continued my run up a hill and in less than one mile I noticed a new entry into this odd neighborhood fray. All throughout the pandemic, there seemed to be two types of yards: ones with BLM signs and ones with signs supporting the local police and fire department. Rarely were these two types of yards combined into one.
But one yard was different. The difference resided near the sidewalk: a white homemade sign with large stenciled lettering said, “All Lives Matter.”
As I ran past, I noticed that, in red spray paint, someone had written over the “All” part with “Black.” Above the sign, a response to the graffiti in taped-together poster paper said, “Only Biden supporters would do this.”
I looped through another neighborhood, Silverton, and found myself in Amberley again. There, the same red spray paint crossed out Trump’s name on several political signs. Who was fighting this inter-suburb battle?
Back in Deer Park, one neighbor responded to the destruction of their BLM sign in the most modern of ways: they put their BLM sign closer to their house and, in front of the sign, placed a camera designed to look like a single eyeball to warn off would-be offenders.
Before my teenage years, I lived in new houses derived from the suburban neighborhood boom of the late 80s and early 90s. Such dwellings afforded my parents a calmer middle class sort of child-rearing.
In Rochester, Michigan, I could roam around and catch frogs and tadpoles in a creek abutting our backyard and the hilly woods beyond; in nearby Troy, Michigan, I could bike an expansive neighborhood that included undeveloped, forested land; and, in San Roman, California, I enjoyed climbing up and down secluded yellow hilltops, feeling impervious to the rattlesnakes that routinely played the part of local roadkill.
One time, in Troy, my friends and I had a rock fight in and around an unfinished house that was being built right across from my own house. The construction crew had gone for the weekend, and we wandered over to the house to explore this wooden cave. There was no drywall, no windows. The exterior shaped; the bones waiting inside.
I don’t know who threw the first stone, but I remember heaving stones at my friend, him running through the house, me outside, like I was storming a castle. He was more bold than I was, trouncing around the house, peaking out of windows. Soon, we exchanged places.
We didn’t throw to hit; these were big rocks we were throwing, in accurately thrown with our tiny arms. But we threw nonetheless, laughing, and easily dodging the potentially harmful missiles. In some sense, I knew this was stupid. I remember being scared of the consequences of a direct hit. But we did not stop.
And then we heard a crash.
I remember finding the cause in what would become the garage. One of the rocks had gone through a stack of maybe 8 windows, all waiting to be installed. It was akin to making an unintentional three point shot off the backboard.
On Monday, I waited for the construction crew to knock on our door and implicate me. No one came. I was terrified for a week. I told no one.
I still wonder what the builders’ reactionary procedure was. Who foots the bill? Insurance? Was it just shrugged off, a zone of mystery attached to it and forgotten as the work went on?
(And to further the feeling that mysterious history lies all around us: those potential owners of that house, whoever they were/are, will never know that two boys had a rock fight in their house, that the evidence of such a rock fight still lies on the nicks and dents in the wood underneath.)
The beginning of my teenage years were spent in England. At this point, I was in the thick zone of teenage gossip and antics. I was enthralled with the extent of what other daring teens, known or unknown to me, were capable of.
On October 30th, the night before Halloween, our dinner was interrupted by loud knocks. My mother answered the door.
“Trick or Treat!” I heard from the dinner table.
“First of all,” my mother said, winding up to berate, me grimacing at her bombast, “it’s not Halloween. Second of all, even if it were, I wouldn’t give you candy because you are not dressed up!”
Having firmly scolded the British trick-or-treaters on an American tradition, my mother shut the door and walked back to the dinner table.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said before she could sit down.
My mother did this Midwestern thing, this mix of a growl and a gurgle that comes from the back of the throat that eventually transforms into an “Ohwhwh,” a Midwestern precursor to a response in the negative, a dismissive grammatical punctuation mark. And then she followed it by a denial; it would be fine.
As soon as she gathered her fork and knife, we heard the splats of the eggs hitting our front door.
My mother’s head went up to look at me, any sort of parental authority or control of the situation gone, face contorted to that of one receiving surprising and serious news. She ran to the door and jerked it open. But they were gone, leaving the door covered with yoke.
It wasn’t like kids in her day didn’t TP houses or put feces in paper-bags, light them on fire on people’s doorsteps, and conclude such an action with a ding-dong ditch. Adulthood severs the access to the gossip and fads of the youth, along with that feeling that comes with youth’s loose relationship with the laws of the land. Teenagers know that they are, in some ways, above societal norms or constraints, that things aren’t serious yet. My mother had forgotten. And I’m sure, now, I have too, even as a high school teacher. My thumb is not quite on the pulse, even if hovering just above it.
The anarchists weren’t throwing eggs. The empathy behind egging—damaging though it may be to paint and wood and the egos of those who live in the targeted house—is far more harmless of a signal, perhaps made less violent by movies, than burning a sign. Especially when the sign is not a “For Sale” sign but a plea for racial equality. Burning such a sign means very different things depending on the race of the homeowner.
One cannot really believe that a rational thinking person would see the burning of yard signs as a win. As if those who chose to replace their signs had learned their lesson. The result can only be psychological violence.
When teenagers play against the grumps of the neighborhood, we can all laugh at the cycle of life, the way it molds us in our various ages, like to like. Teenagers like to pull the mask off adulthood as if to say, “You are playing a game too, you know.” But when teenagers brace their inexperienced and not-quite-developed brains toward troubled ideals or troubled means of worthy ideals—in effect, to seek adulthood through their actions—they can affect the adult world in ways that both reflect and spin forward the actions of our times. When one’s powerlessness drives one to be creative, the substance of such an act could very well be antithetical to the ends. Terrorism never converts those who are opposed to a terrorist’s credo.
When teenagers finally cross into adulthood, they realize their former shelves are largely the product of biological and regular old impatience. Teenage minds live in the “now,” yes, but they also live too far into the future, forsaking the enjoyment of the present, of this particular biological and cultural stage of life. Instead of accepting their lot, they live as adults inside their teenage bodies, living through a farcical lens of grey area, a teenage reality.
And here lies the teenage blend of idealism.
Teenagers are often accused of having the strongest predilections towards idealism. It is an honest reaction to the seemingly simple solutions seen from the beginnings of adult experience. Adults, having witnessed the intricacies that sometimes propel life unfairly know idealism to be a wonderful sentiment but hardly reality.
And yet, despite this, the hardest pill to swallow as an adult is compromise. It requires humility and the trust that an ideological opponent has the same best intentions for the future. To most idealistic notions, compromise may be considered a failure, a non-realization of the dream. And here, adults in this era seem to still operate as if they do believe that ideals can be realities.
And so winter of 2020 went. Turned into 2021. January 6th came and went.
I wasn’t going to watch the Senate hearings for Donald Trump’s second impeachment. But it was hard to ignore. It was in my social media feeds, on the radio when I turned on the car after work, and in every headline of the news sites I frequented.
I found myself at home, smartphone in hand, the raw feed of the hearing on the screen, munching on snacks and walking around the house. When I retreated to my recliner, I set the phone down on the side table and gave it my full attention, feeling exhausted both from my day of work and from seeming crises that America has sloughed through in the years I’ve been alive.
There was one thing I put off: the 13 minute video the House managers showed that had new and raw footage of the storming of the capitol. I found the link, saved it, but it took me a couple days to gain the willpower to watch it.
But the truth of it all seemed important; to see it and then to make an evaluation upon the severity of what had happened.
Later in the day, my curiosity caved, and I watched footage of the January 6th rioters with the senators and I noticed that there were those in the mob that tried to look military and serious, but most looked unkempt, normal, ready for a shopping mall instead of ready to storm an institution and do violence upon it.
I was searching for that feeling, that understanding of how the Senate should feel about a mob’s intent on their will. A sense that the threat lingered, as it surely did in my neighborhood. The tumult still hung in the air, even from my living room.
As an English teacher, it behooves us to see the extremes of power, to see its effects on people. To see how radicalism can strip humanity from those with radical beliefs and those who are their perceived enemies. All conflicts are research cases in empathy. I do not have evidence that reading literature increases empathy in the reader, but seeing divergent views and perspectives in my classroom, and the normal people behind them—with their own families, childhoods, and everyday fears—that is vastly more instructive than an internet comment section.
There is this moment I had, some minutes into the footage, where I remember looking at a weapon that was being swung at the Capitol police. It was the context that confused its identification. Then it’s not-quite-hook shape ignited a familiar synapse in my brain: it was a hockey stick. Someone was swinging a hockey stick at police officers. Someone had brought a hockey stick to a protest.
Now, when I think of the so-called anarchists of Deer Park, I wonder whether I was right to have them pegged as teenagers.