Maybe This Is Why …

Guest Essay by Mary Fish Arango –

I am grateful for whatever led this video to my FB feed this morning. It helped clarify some of my disorganized thoughts about assault, truth telling, sharing one’s story, resentment versus gratitude, addiction and alcoholism, entitlement and privilege, courage and cowardice, wisdom and stupidity, aggression and kindness. The video makes the important point that one of our president’s core qualities is that he flips the tables, making the accused seem like victims.

I have super-developed sensitivity to people who cultivate resentment. It goes along with a childhood spent living with an alcoholic and a rage filled dry drunk, both of whom abused prescription drugs. I am wary of people who go out of their way to feel resentful or create situations that promote resentment. In my experience, people who cultivate resentment do it in order to justify acting out, whether that be overspending, overeating, binge drinking, gambling, drugs, rage, or some other addiction or problem behavior. I can’t trust people who cultivate resentment, because they put blame on someone else in order to dodge their own responsibility and give themselves permission to act out. I am like the dog under the table waiting to get kicked: the sound of fostered resentment makes me want to leave the room to avoid what inevitably comes next. The overeater is gearing up to consume the chocolate cake. The alcoholic is gearing up for bourbon or beer. The gambler is gearing up to put the house mortgage at risk.

Our current president is exceptionally talented at stirring up resentment cultivators. You speak loudly, you exaggerate, you repeat an untruth for effect, and resentment cultivators like having someone nurture and support their resentment and stir up anger. It entitles them to acting out and not being accountable. Giving it air time on television repeats the message like a hypnotic suggestion and collects more and more followers who wish to be unaccountable and entitled to acting out.

Not all people who have been sexually assaulted are women. If you think it’s rare for women to report sexual assault, consider the likelihood of a man or boy reporting sexual assault or sharing his story. Ask yourself how many people have shared their personal stories of assault with you. Is it because it hasn’t happened to people you know, or is it because you are not a safe enough receiver of that story? Would you believe the story if it were told to you? Would you shame the person for their experience? Would you end a friendship over the telling of the story? Would you marvel at the courage and endurance and emotional strength of the person extending trust enough to tell an excruciating story? Do you wish they wouldn’t change your world by sharing something you can then not un-know?

For an assault survivor, the events of the last several weeks have been triggering in a way that cannot be overstated. If “triggering” is a word that doesn’t have intense immediate impact for you, it may be because you are not a safe enough receiver of someone’s devastating story. Rage and bullying are triggering in themselves. Hearing someone claim, “She must have been mistaken,” when she says she is 100% certain….. Having someone discount the emotional impact or challenge the veracity of a compelling and detailed account…. Blue eyes and gray hair…. Responding to a question with redirection and the insinuation that the questioner is in the wrong…..

 

Someone who has been sexually assaulted will never question someone else’s waiting 36 years to relate the story. If you’ve never been molested or tortured or brutalized or assaulted, you may have the luxury of wondering why someone would wait to tell their story. If it has happened to you, you know exactly why someone would wait and you feel it in your core. You know exactly what it is to feel threatened and overpowered and unable to protect yourself. If you have been bullied or harassed or intensely and aggressively intimidated, you probably don’t wonder why someone wouldn’t relate their story, either.

 

I had been afraid of the dark for my entire life — not just kind of afraid of the dark — panic-stricken, stomach-clenching afraid of the dark. Afraid of things that might be under my bed, afraid of closet doors that were a tiny bit ajar, afraid of dark spaces behind hallway doors, afraid of turning on lights in a darkened house that I returned to at night, afraid of getting into a dark car on a dark street…. I got a puppy right after I graduated from college, and the dog was my constant companion for 14 years, my protection from gripping fear of the dark, a living thing making noises in the silence. Several years after his death, I walked down the wooden stairs at night into our basement family room, during a storm that had knocked out power in our neighborhood. My hand on the railing, I paused at the foot of the stairs and realized I was no longer afraid of the dark — for the first time in my life. In the same moment, I realized it was because my aggressor could no longer be a threat to me; his brain was strangling with dementia.

It takes courage to hear people’s anguished stories, whether they are stories of grief or loss or anger or despair. Their stories might change you, might affect you, might refuse to be forgotten or put aside. If you have the courage, ask the people you love to tell you theirs. If you hear enough of them, you may join those who understand why someone would wait so long to tell their story.

The cure is not in the disease

The cure is not in the disease

This piece is about the cure and the disease, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but I need to present something like reasonable context for using that particular language, the identification of contemporary events as diseased, not that the events of the past week have failed to slam the reality of a nation in peril down our throats.  I follow the news, shudder, and retreat to books seeking reassurance that there is some abiding commonality in humanity somewhere.  These are ugly days, but I’ve seen some remarkably encouraging days in the course of a lifetime; I’d like to think we might find our way to decency if not to kindness.  So, I read.

I recently read The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to friends;  it’s an important book, devastating and challenging.  King’s first thought was to entitle the book, Those Pesky Redskins, an impulse he barely contains in wryly presenting the continuing disenfranchisement in America’s incomplete genocide.  Like Killers of the Osage Moon, King’s account is a painful read;  justice is not served and will not be served.  King’s outrage is understated, unadorned description of callous mendacity delivered in plain language.  Inescapable past, inescapable legacy of injustice, inescapable evidence of systemic inhumanity.

That’s pretty much a fact.

I found the cure is in the disease concept in The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. The difference in tone between the two books is obvious, and it is odd that one should speak to the other, but there is a moment in The Music Shop in  which things have gone terribly wrong.  Desperately wrong.  No way back wrong.  Desperate times call for desperate measures; a character attempting to rebuild the world in which she lives suggests that the cure for a friend’s hopeless discouragement is in honoring the loss that has broken his spirit.  The cure, she believes, is in the disease.

There’s enough disease  to go round.  I’d like to think there’s something in the nature of our collective illness that could be restorative, and yet…

It’s been a tough week as the presumptive appointment to the Supreme Court has shown himself to be yet another blustering, entitled bully, certainly a liar, possibly guilty of assault.  Bad enough, but the partisan fury with which his behavior is defended reveals the bald self-interest of politics and party.  My spirit is not quite broken, but with each day’s revelations, hope is harder to summon.  The disease I see in this country is malignant, virulent,  venomous, and deadly. Contention is one thing; warfare is an entirely different experience.

Contending forces have been in play here from the start, which is testimony to the difference between this experiment and the history of other nations, almost all of which came into being as accidents of geography or topography; our founding was intentional and intentionally celebrated institutionalized contention, checks, balances, made possible under the rule of law.  Contention is not easily managed in the best of situations; toss in irreconcilable convictions and dangerous atavistic forces, racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and contention gets truly ugly.

The idea back at the start, remember, was that the will of the majority would serve the greatest number, preventing the acquisition of absolute power by the wealthy and powerful.  It hasn’t quite worked out that way.  Wealth and power aside, the rule of a majority has proven to bring some unexpected complication.  Travelling the new nation in 1826, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that the greatest threat to democracy might finally come at the hand of a tyrannical majority.

“The moral dominion of the majority is based as well on the principle that the interests of the greatest number must be preferred to those of the few. Now, it is easily understood that the respect professed for this right of the greatest number naturally increases or decreases depending on the state of the parties. When a nation is divided among several great irreconcilable interests, the privilege of the majority is often unrecognized, because it becomes too painful to submit to it.”

De Tocqueville wasn’t wrong and was proven prescient within fifteen years of the publication of his analysis.  The abolitionist movement, preeminently a cause championed in the free states, accepted nothing less than the abolition of slavery in the United States.  Abolitionists saw slavery as an abomination, a crime against humanity.  The slave states believed themselves to have been accorded the right to conduct themselves as the majority in their state decreed.  A last-ditch bitterly negotiated effort to keep the Union intact, the Compromise of 1850, protected slavery by enacting fugitive slave laws, brought California into the Union as a free state and postponed civil war for a decade.  But only for a decade.  The free states could not allow slavery to continue; the slave states could not allow free states to dictate morality.

The election of Donald Trump startled those of us who had become used to the notion that progressive humanism, inclusion, and social justice  were priorities held by the majority of people in the nation.  It turns out that we were wrong.  There were folks at every point along a continuum, from eager partisans of nasty Trumpist tribalism to moderate conservatives, for whom the social order had changed too quickly or too radically.  The election was a referendum on progressivism, the same sort of referendum brought to Great Britain with Brexit.  Our situation is the more dangerous because, at the heart of the divide, is not globalism or even immigration, but the question of abortion.  A voting majority, supported by a court largely seated by that majority, ruled that women could legally seek an end to pregnancy; the minority found that an abomination and a crime against humanity, its implementation tyrannous.  Both convictions claim the moral high ground, and as was the case in 1850, there is really no room for compromise.

Majority rules, and today that means a majority in the US Senate, voting on principle or with regard for the political reality that brought them to Washington, will confirm the appointment of a judge who will accede to the dismantling of Roe v, Wade.  Although there are any number of conservative judges more than ready to carry out that function, some in the Senate, perhaps a majority, will vote to confirm the appointment of a man who has revealed himself to be lacking in the qualities of temperament or character expected of a jurist in the highest court.  They will vote to confirm because they can.

There have been other voices in the past who have spoken when holding power in victory: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”.

The wounding disease, I think, is malice.  The cure, charity.  Today, the odds seem to favor malice, but we are charged to finish the work we have been in all along, the only chance we may have to bind up our wounds, and that will take a truckload of charity, charity I’m not dredging up very successfully this week.

 

 

Serena

Serena

It’s hard to find language to describe the moment in which one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era was penalized for code violations during the final match of the US Open Tennis Tournament.  The sequence of events that led to Naomi Osaka’s controversial victory revealed a great deal about the autonomy with which a chair umpire manages play in tournaments at the highest level, autonomy which allowed the decisions made by umpire Carlos Ramos to overshadow virtually all play during the tournament, certainly overshadowing Osaka’s victory and Serena Williams’ return to the finals of an US Open.

In the weeks following the Open, Ramos was vilified and congratulated, Williams was vilified and embraced, and Osaka, once again, overshadowed.  Partisan cultural responses were emphatic as the event was characterized as feminist implosion or sexist/racist injustice.  Billie Jean King, whose career is testimony to the difficulties facing female athletes, wrote in the Washington Post:

“The ceiling that women of color face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did at the women’s U.S. Open final on Saturday. Ironic, perhaps, that the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed for the championship match. What was supposed to be a memorable moment for tennis, with Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest player of all time, facing off against Naomi Osaka, the future of our sport, turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power. ”

The issues for tennis, for sport and for society are profound and profoundly affected by the reality of injustice stretching centuries behind a tennis match in September, but I’m meant to be writing about sports, so I’ll approach the conversation by reminding readers that much of the idiocy in the sporting world has to do with our schizophrenic view of athletic competition.  On one hand, we believe that sports inspire virtue – dignity, humility, generosity, selflessness, resilience, courage, craft, and skill.  On the other, we have created a professional class of gladiators whose only purpose is to beat other gladiators.  Amateurs are not expected to humiliate opponents; professionals are not supposed to display personalized emotion.  Let’s call them warriors rather than gladiators for the moment, recognizing that it is only football and boxing that invite athletes to dare brain injury as the last reward for their service.

So, warriors, and warriors don’t mess around when it comes to competition.  We pay them to entertain us, and a certain amount of heated emotion often adds some spice to our enjoyment of the spectacle.  Bench clearing brawls, fistfights on the sideline , smack downs under the basket – all good fun.  OK, less fun when women are involved.  OK, not fun in those sports that are not deemed warrior sports but which pay like warrior sports.

Manny Machado throws his bat, charges  the mound, slices up Dustin Pedroia sliding into second.  He gets fined, pitchers throw at his head and knees and America’s pastime, “a game so fine it’s played on diamonds”, enjoys yet another classic summer.  Phil Mickelson stops a ball from rolling off the green and, in the words of Brett Cygalis reporting in the New York Post,:

“Phil Mickelson executed one of the most shocking breaches of the rules and etiquette in recent major-championship history, and the fallout from it is hardly over. That includes for Mickelson’s reputation as well as that of the USGA.”  The article is entitled “Phil Mickelson’s defiant defense of his shocking rule breach.”

See, slightly crazy.

Phil’s a good golfer; Serena is the greatest female tennis player in the history of the sport, and at thirty-six years old and a recent mother fighting to win every match she enters while continuing to represent female athletes, and mothers, and women, and women of color.  She is a warrior, and in the last set of a highly significant match that was not going her way, an umpire decreed that she had been cheating by being on the court when her coach made a hand signal to approach the net in playing Osaka.  Williams’ “implosion” was no more dramatic than Mickelson’s, but it was personal.  Apparently that’s an even bigger deal than throwing a ball at a batter’s face, certainly bigger than Mickelson’s shocking rule breach.

We have seen anger in sports and frustration.  I can’t think of another example, however, of the kind of confrontation we saw at Forest Hills.  The greatest athlete in her sport, a woman who had beaten the odds in becoming the greatest in her sport, refused to be called a cheat in the middle of a match in which she had not gained traction.  Serena is an emotional player and one who uses emotion to stoke her game; she had plenty of fuel before Ramos made the decision that she had been cheating  and that he needed to call her on it.  There was racquet smashing as there has been in many, many matches, but the significant difference between this moment and any other in the history of televised sport was that we saw both the human being and the champion in the same moment.

A major title was in play, but for Serena, it was her character that was at stake.  Her first responses to Ramos were not confrontational; they were plainspoken and courteous.  The most influential female athlete in the world did not pout or flounce or kick dust; she told the judge that she doesn’t cheat.  He didn’t care.  We saw Serena unable to return to play until the question of character had been addressed.  It wasn’t.

Every athlete has her day; that was Osaka’s.  She played well, better than Serena had played up to that point.  Tennis fans can appreciate a hard-won victory over a favorite, but we witnessed a man in a chair taking a game from a champion.  It was ugly.  Both Williams and Osaka were humiliated.  The fans were cheated.  Later Williams was fined for her behavior and Ramos was endorsed by the USTA.  Roger Federer who was not humiliated reminded us that, “… they have their job to do and that’s what we want them to do.”

 

 

 

 

TV Dads

TV Dads

“Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver.”

That’s all it took to kick world-class TV dad Ward Cleaver into gear.

Let’s say that Beaver and his brother Wally order a baby alligator through the mail and keep it in the bathroom sink until it grows too large and is transferred to the toilet tank, an unsatisfactory home, and so is transferred again to the laundry tub in the basement, where it is discovered by the Cleaver’s  laundress (I know).  All is revealed, the mystery of stolen eggs solved, but Ward has to break it to the boys that Captain Jack (the alligator) belongs with his own kind.  The boys protest; they love Captain Jack.  Their love may be mixed with some slight entrepreneurial impulse as they have charged their friends to see the alligator, but let that pass.  In any case, it is up to Ward to have explain the facts of life as they extend to alligator adoption.

Does he slam down his fist and scream, “You put a filthy reptile in my laundry”?  No, he calmly explains that alligators grow and need to have the freedom to move as alligators should.  He goes on, “Take you fellas, for instance.  Now, some day, you’re going to grow up and go off and leave your mother and me.  You’ll get married and have a home and family of your own.”

Beaver is seven and responds, “Captain Jack’s gonna get married?”  At which point, dads I know might stumble.  Not Ward; he sets a reasonable boundary, supports the kids as they turn Captain Jack over to the local alligator ranch (I know), and surprises them with a puppy

The TV dads of my generation always knew the right thing to say and the  right way to say it.  Later on, when my own kids came along, TV dads became figures of fun, beginning with Archie Bunker, lumping along to Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and eventually Frank Gallagher, and Frank Reynolds, dads who made Fred Flintstone seem enlightened.  My TV dads, Ward, Ozzie Nelson, Mike Brady, Danny Thomas, Andy Taylor, Dr. Alex Stone, did for me what humans in what we call the real world could not.

The shows I watched were situation comedies, and the situations which allowed comic resolution often involved kids messing up in some fashion then making that mess dramatically messier by inventing elaborate schemes to prevent parents from discovering what was clearly going to be a mess in plain sight.  One of the lessons I suppose I could have taken from the genre, that lying makes everything so, so much worse, was apparently too tough to swallow.  What did stick was an appreciation of measured, calm response to crises engineered by the unpredictable vagaries of kid brain.

We know more about the brain than we did when mine was sputtering most disturbingly; apparently, brains have differing sorts of competencies at differing ages.  I’d like to say, not better, not worse, as the vivid imagination of childhood is pretty much extinguished by the teen years in my experience, but I am aware that judgment, which is to say, good judgment, doesn’t really kick in until much later than we might expect, in my case at age fifty.  I may have been judgmentally delayed, but let that pass as well.

In any case, and the word case is appropriate because this distinction has been significant in the sentencing of teens who have committed major crimes, I am assured that the betraying brain (not a scientific term) just doesn’t have the equipment to inhibit impulses, even really unfortunate impulses.

This is not good in most instances, but was great fodder for the situation comedies I knew so well.  To be clear, even when skipping school or reading a sister’s diary, the youngsters on my screen were far more responsible and reasonable than I and my footloose cohort.  Adopting an alligator is dicey; dropping a wastebasket on fire from a window, on a teacher?  Hardly the stuff of conversation at the Cleaver household.

All of which is to say that I was impulse deformed for years and very much in need of counsel and correction.  From what I saw on TV, there was room in the world for kids who messed up.  A lot.  I didn’t make much use of the advice so kindly offered by Andy Taylor or Mike Brady, not at the time.  Much later, as a father, I found myself calling on the examples of fatherhood I had admired.  They were virtually faultless; l I still messed up, even as a dad, but there were moments of grace in which I actually listened and found words that did no harm.

A crusty curmudgeonly tv dad, Herbert Gillis, grocer father of endlessly besotted romantic Dobie Gillis may have offered the best advice of all:

“Once you bargain with the devil you are in trouble.  Oh, you can twist and squirm, but you can’t get off the hook.”

Wish I’d listened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s sarcasm and then there’s ….

There’s sarcasm and then there’s ….

I would rather eat flypaper than get into it online or in the twitterverse, but my wife’s profession demands that she stay current with issues in the local community, and so, she inevitably comes up against surprisingly rabidly held differences of opinion.  A recent post in response to a well-meaning piece of advice (she reads me the good ones) uses the phrase “in a perfect world” with venom and sarcasm dripping in equal measure each time she uses the phrase, and she uses it in every sentence.  In a perfect world, the writer intimates, the suggested idea might be of value; in our world, no blinking way. With each repetition, however, the sarcasm increases in intensity, aggressively crossing a line somewhere around the fifth or sixth iteration. However obliquely crafted, this is an attack on the person offering a suggestion. It is not uncommon to find a writer in opposition to an idea, but why angry?  If angry, why sarcastic rather than directly confrontational?

Sarcasm interests me because it allows both injury and deflection: ” I never called you a drooling idiot.  I just suggested that there does not exist a universe in which your pathetic inanity might be remotely worth considering.   Have a nice day.”

Of course, there’s a lot of sarcasm out there, most of which is simply part of contemporary habits of language.  Some studies have found that sarcasm is almost a second language, occurring in about twenty percent of conversations, hardly noticed and virtually inoffensive.  “Yeah, right”, “Nice try”, “I’d love that”, and hundreds of other statements are sarcastic in that they are insincere, but so commonly used that they’ve lost most of their sting.  Most of us meet sarcasm often and early on and come to understand that while it is insincere and occasionally confusing, it’s a language we had better learn to negotiate if we want to fit in.  We use it without thinking, often as a comedic counterpoint to conversation, although even sarcasm  used to humorous intent can backfire at times: “No, you look fabulous”.  That might fly as bros shop for tee shirts, but fall flat at a fitting of a wedding dress.  In some instances, we had better mean that the person looks fabulous or keep our opinion to ourselves.

That’s all transactional sarcasm, give and take, sarcasm lite.  The darker, heavier, more bruising brand of sarcasm takes two forms.  The first, and the most confusing is intentional insincerity deployed to create emotional confusion, awkwardness, or embarrassment.  The second is the “perfect world” kind, anger passed off as humor.

To be clear, both of these more damaging forms of sarcasm are about power.  The origin of the word is with the Greek for stripping the flesh, and sarcasm used to exert power is intended to cut.  Anger thinly disguised as sarcasm is an expression of contempt, bullying to create injury.  My powers of diagnosis are fading by the minute, but the link between insecurity, defensiveness, fear, and angry sarcasm seem pretty clear.  Clumsy exertion of dominance is part of the sarcastic attack, but there’s fear at play as well; anger expressed directly takes a stand, is willing to be seen for what it is, and accepts accountability.  Angry sarcasm wears a shabby mask.

Intentional insincerity is harder to deal with.  This is trap-door sarcasm.  A person you think of as reasonably decent asks what you think about the food served at a party.  You answer sincerely, but are met with, “You didn’t think I actually meant I wanted to know, did you?  That’s funny.”  Trap door.  The bottom falls out.  You are made to feel stupid, or hypersensitive, or conceited, or thoughtless in responding to what you thought was an honest question or statement.  There’s no room to respond without playing into the trap.  This is condescension, manipulation, contempt, and cruelty hiding as a joke.

In a perfect world, to borrow a phrase, we say what we mean and mean what we say, and even in this imperfect world, it’s never too late to do better.  Language re-training in our house started when our kids were small.  We saw how the ordinary sarcastic joshing,  teasing, what was essentially sarcasm lite presented by friends, grandparents, strangers who meant no harm, confused and injured our children.  Yes, the occasional sarcastic comment slips out, but not often, and not to manipulate or dominate.  For example, I am baselessly accused of snoring when I drop off while watching television.  I jolt awake and ask, “was I snoring?”  I think you can guess what comes back.

Never too late to do better, family.

 

 

 

Trying to read harder

Trying to read harder

Relax.  There’s nothing in this piece about testicles or their removal.

You’re welcome or I’m sorry,  whatever.

I had been looking for a particular sort of book cover to illustrate my reading assignment over the past few weeks, one that presents a book with a cover I find objectionable; this one pretty much fits the bill.  To be honest, I haven’t actually read the Whitman Tell-A-Tale, but I get the jist, as it were.  To return to the reading assignments, I’m not terribly far along in meeting Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge; I’ve just finished White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, the fourth Oyeyemi novel I’ve read in the last year and one that met the category, “a book with a cover you hate.”  Since finishing the book, I’ve found that the more recent editions (2014) present the cover I dislike, whereas, the earlier edition (2009) actually has a pretty snappy cover.  In any case, given the disparity between Oyeyemi covers, I thought I’d entice the casual reader with the portrait of an pre-operational puppy, pretty much a sure thing in the cover trade.

Why read harder?  It all starts with my eldest son, a better person than I from the start and a much more disciplined reader.  He reads the big books, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest for example, and sticks with them.  I think he’s actually read these two more than once.  To further establish his moral superiority, he refuses to drop a book one started, no matter how onerous the reading of the book may be.  He’s waded through books that caused him real pain, and yet persists.

I’m a less patient, less disciplined, less ambitious reader.  I’ll bounce from novel to novel, dropping those that seem tedious or just not quite right for the reading mood I’m in.  I’ll circle back from time to time to give a book a second chance, recognizing that the moon and stars may line up differently the second time around.  With some goading I did finish Infinite Jest and found myself quite taken with the novel in the end.  Gravity’s Rainbow is on a shelf somewhere.  Maybe someday.

So, my eldest is taking on the Book Riot Challenge, determined to attack every category by reading only female authors.  This is the guy who decided he needed to read a nineteenth century novel by a female author, deflecting cautionary advice and picking Middlemarch and finishing it, so I’m a relatively lazy piece of flotsam by comparison.  Thus, the challenge to prod me into some sort of direction.

We started in the middle of the year and have only five months to sock away the entire list, but even if I come up short, I will have read more deliberately than I have in a long while.  I began with a slight evasion, re-reading Henry V and Loves’ Labors’ Lost, both plays  I’m working with at the Shakespeare Festival.  All of Shakespeare’s work was published posthumously, which is kind of a weasel choice, but I’ve only got five months so I’m going to grab shortcuts where I can.  I’ll double up a few as well when one novel meets more than one criterion.  Five months and I still have my ordinary undisciplined reading to do as well.

The toughest nut to crack, I knew, would be in reading an assigned book that I hated or never finished.  The list was not all that long even though I majored in Medieval and Early European History.  I actually enjoyed The Nibelungenlied and The Song of Roland.  Enough to finish in any case.  No, the novel to be picked up again after all these years was The Scarlet Letter.

The slog was notable at the outset, but as I clambered through Hawthorne’s dark romanticism and randomly digressive style, I found myself warming to him as an author even as I anticipated the heaviness of narrative at the novel’s end.  It’s considered one of the truly great and thoroughly American American novels, and the characterisation of Hester Prynne is more psychologically complex than I had expected, so I am pleased to have spent some time in Hawthorne’s company.  I am not sure I’d like to spend a moment more with Hester’s feral daughter Pearl and Hester’s demon-husband Chillingworth, although each in her/his distance from the norm in any age would have made for a stirring tale of active witchcraft and satanic possession.  Ah, well.

I’ve read The  Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, a terrifying account of how the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway began a process by which lampreys, alewives, zebra mussels, and a host of other non-native life forms have transformed the lakes entirely.  It’s a cautionary tale and one I won’t spoil by ham-handedly describing what Egan presents with such clarity.  That was my book about Nature, so on with the parade.

My book of Social Science was every bit as disturbing, perhaps signifying that the current  graceless epoch is simply a continuation of bad behavior that arrived with the first colonists.  Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann describes the murder of at least twenty members of the Osage Nation who held title to oil-rich land that Texas robber barons felt should be theirs.  Twenty is a conservative guess; there may have been hundreds of murders.  It is hard to know that genocide was still a matter of fact in the 1920’s (as were lynchings, of course), but important to put names to those who carried out genocide for profit.

I’ll be cleansing the palate by turning to my celebrity memoir, Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher.  I’ve got a slew of books associated with recovery from a slew of addictions, so the response to Fisher will likely appear in the wider context of recovery literature (Infinite Jest, Girl in Pieces, etc).

Meanwhile, nineteen books left.

Tick, Tock.  Here’s the list:

  1. A book published posthumously
  2. A book of true crime
  3. A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance)
  4. A comic written and drawn by the same person
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa)
  6. A book about nature
  7. A western
  8. A comic written or drawn by a person of color
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color
  11. A children’s classic published before 1980
  12. A celebrity memoir
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection
  14. A book of social science
  15. A one-sitting book
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author
  18. A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation
  20. A book with a cover you hate
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author
  22. An essay anthology
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished)

Checking Out

Checking Out

A friend of mine is dying.  The news came in the morning’s mail, not surprising, but still terrible.  A fair number of friends are already gone.  Others are fighting hard and some are easing on.  It’s not the only subject of conversation, but it comes up a great deal more frequently than it did even a year or two ago.

This is not entirely unexpected.  Apparently we who make up the first bulge in the population that began booming in the late 1940’s have reached what manufacturers like to call the expiration date, although I prefer to think of myself as perhaps Best Used By 2018, still reasonably safe to have around if properly refrigerated.

All the same, my existential warning system has kicked in, the relentless ticking countdown has moved from background to foreground, and time’s winged chariot has begun hurrying more insistently near.  All of which is to say that I think about checking out a good deal more that I once did, and with a good deal more sticky emotional bounce around.  The bouncing is actually profound as I am intermittently at ease with the operation of the universe in whatever fashion it operates and  determined to place an ego-bound headlock on that universe.  I’d use the phrase, “death grip”, but that’s actually… you know… a contradiction of terms in this case.

It may seem a digression at this point to admit that I have an unfortunate inclination to actually read the information people give me about themselves in sporting the t-shirts that they wear, but one hit home the other day and provides a neat transition from wallowing to wondering.

I live in what my children call a “blue hair” town, a town more crowded with retired folks of my generation than most.  One of my generational cohorts, a not particularly well-preserved representative of the tribe, lounged comfortably in a coffee shop wearing a declaration that may be shared by others of my ilk — “I Intend To Live Forever —  So Far, So Good”

Really?  How good?

Well, although the present is always tough to evaluate, it’s clear that we live in troubled and troubling times; humankind taken as a whole appears to be less kind and unfortunately more human, and trusted institutions seem less trustworthy.  At least, that’s the way it seems to me from what I know is a very insulated and privileged point of view.  I suspect that for most of the world daily life has had more to do with struggling to find security than with anxiously observing the loss of treasured beliefs. and practices. I  have been moderately aware that the chunk of history – the speck of history – that I have lived in has known troubles, but for the most part, I have lived in cheerful oblivion decade after decade; fate plunked me down on a continent that has not seen invasion, plague, and pestilence, and in a relatively small and absolutely insulated corner of that continent.  It all looked very Mickey Mouse Club, American Bandstand, and Yankee baseball to me.  Yes, I saw the horror of war in Vietnam, and yes, I saw the legacy of slavery and racial violence in the United States, but from a distance and with an unshaped conviction that the sweep of progress would inevitably correct inequity, poverty, and the few unfortunate remaining flaws in a nation conceived in liberty and justice, in a nation destined to shine its light on the rest of the world; I believed this good nation would correct itself naturally as reasonability overcame self-interest.

Ignorance was comfort if not bliss, and I regret having plonked along so blithely unaware of the hardships of others and, more notably, feel foolish for believing that civility, tolerance, the celebration of progress and inclusion was inevitable and universally admired.  Having seen behind the curtain in a nation I no longer recognize, I’m also in danger of feeling simultaneously responsible and entirely overwhelmed.

I’m stuck.

I don’t know everything, never have, and that’s been ok as long as I felt certain that enough bright people knew enough and enough generous people gave enough, and enough brave people did enough to keep the world from skidding into chaos.  I trusted science and the rule of law, which in hindsight was an abdication of my own responsibility for environmental crisis and the perpetuation of a discriminatory system of justice.  And now …?

I didn’t intend to give up the reins; I look around and, with the exception of the usual cast of imbedded plutocrats still mucking around, impossibly young people are bright enough, and generous enough, and brave enough to try to pull the tattered fabric back together.  I don’t quote Satchel Paige very often, but his question rings through the decades:  “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”

Old enough to know I’m old enough.

I have always been moved by the last scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play that has fallen out of favor but which speaks to the human condition in a way that resonates with my own experience in the world.  It’s a play that breaks the fourth wall and operates without props or scenery.   The various characters have contended with the things we contend with and have celebrated the things we celebrate.  At a funeral, the living stand and speak; the dead sit  in rows facing the audience.  They observe the living and respond with pleasant objectivity to all they see.  What strikes me is that in this moment a group finds itself made up of whoever happened to die within the same era.  They may not have had much in common along the way, but end up in the same place.

I’ve thought of this process as similar to my experience in the supermarket.  I walk through the door, others are there or enter later, and at some point, we all stand in the check-out line.  Let’s assume I’m in the express line (15 items or less) with a loaf of bread and a can of soup.  The person in front of me has piled the conveyor belt high with produce, soda cans,  slabs of bacon, candy bars, deodorant –  obviously waaaaay more than 15 items.  Life as it is.  What to do?

Higher life forms than myself have suggested that choosing not to object or express annoyance is acceptance; not noticing is serenity.

Life is happening all around me; I’m delighted with much of it and on the verge of despair with much of it.  I summon my inner Frank Costanza and shout, “Serenity now!”, but the reality is that I’m in the check-out line, however fervently I wish to be somewhere on Aisle 12 looking at hamburger buns.  My job today, I think, is to look around and actually see the people around me.  They may be in my line; they may still be cruising the school supplies.  No matter.  I’m pretty sure we are all in this together.