I just read the Jill Lepore essay in the January 18 issue of The New Yorker, “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work.” It’s yet another semi-sweeping assessment of the sort I get to see and choose to read periodically about what has decayed about the relationship of Americans – ordinary Americans, the 99% – to work. The conclusion I reach is always the same.
We are doomed. Increasingly, moment to moment, day by day, and it’s been a fate imposed for some time now, at least a half century. It would appear from the way Ms. Lepore has structured the factual underpinnings of her thesis that 1970 or so is a watershed in the turning of a delicate balance between the rewards to management and owners of business off the sweat of their workers whose wages, and mixed ragged assortment of benefits, they paid, and the just compensation that the workers received in this transaction that permitted them to feel like they were supporting themselves, not just by way of scant and necessary sustenance, but in such a way that there was sufficient surplus that there was a basis for feeling like they were thriving, or at least leading productive and satisfying lives. I’ve avoided the use of the word “meaningful” for the reasons that Lepore examines, wherein during the history of radical deconstruction of the relationship of work to the sense of the quality of life enjoyed by the people, that is, the preponderance of the working population, who do the actual work. As here:
“Meaningful work” is an expression that had barely appeared in the English language before the early nineteen-seventies, as McCallum observes. “Once upon a time, it was assumed, to put it bluntly, that work sucked,” Sarah Jaffe writes in “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone” (Bold Type). That started to change in the nineteen-seventies, both McCallum and Jaffe argue, when, in their telling, managers began informing workers that they should expect to discover life’s purpose in work. “With dollar-compensation no longer the overwhelmingly most important factor in job motivation,” the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange wrote, “management must develop a better understanding of the more elusive, less tangible factors that add up to ‘job satisfaction.’ ” After a while, everyone was supposed to love work.
That is, there was a shift in the basis of perception and the value of work was transmuted into an assessment of how meaningful the work was to the person who performed it, with the suggestion that such a value transcended and superceded the actual emolument in material forms, such as wages and benefits to which a dollar value could be attached.
In other words, we are doomed because somehow a great grift was performed whereby the American worker was not merely in some blunt, if not brutish, way traduced, but subtly and slowly, to most people imperceptibly in real time, induced to accept – not to believe necessarily, but to accept as an ineluctable quality of the nature of work in the larger fabric of their day-to-day existence – an abstraction, hardly provable, and always elusive, dependent as it was on a too-often fleeting and evanescent sense of their internal state of well-being, as a substitute for the hard material reality of adequate compensation in the form of sufficient coin of the realm to meet their needs for subsistence, plus something else, also usually in the form of abstractions, that allowed them to feel that life is “worth living.”
We are doomed now, because we have systematically, if obliviously (which is a polite way of saying being willfully unheeding of what is as plain as the most stark quotidian realities, like whether the sun is shining, or the color of the sky overhead during daylight hours – probably not for the sake of plausible deniabiity, because there clearly are no penalties for the omissions, transgressions, and impositions put in place, each another brick in the wall, a small brick, always, but many of them, and relentlessly and unceasingly being laid which resulted in a barrier to the kind of former life enjoyed by workers, who had secure jobs, with regular and predictable hours, and whose wages were not some egregiously monstrously tiny fraction of the compensation of their bosses. One of the more repugnant testimonies provided, involuntarily, as a quote by Lepore of the CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts, whose compensation was doubled to over 10 million dollars a year, yet who called the proposed rise in minimum wage for salaried and hourly workers in the organization to $15 an hour, “outrageous” (easy for him to say, computing as it does, absent any other benefits, to an annual wage of just over $31,000, that is, 3/10 of one percent of his income for that same year).
These would seem to be inequities that will be hard, even over a long period of time, to bridge to a condition that approaches being called egalitarian by reasonable human beings, who might still posit some faith in the economics of capitalism in a true democracy. Not without punitive (and doubtless insupportable by the current crop of legislators, who would have to craft the political and legal and economic apparatus necessary to effect such a change, even incrementally) sanctioned measures to bring down the highest allowable income level of American executives (in the way that certain other Western democracies have instituted, especially in the Scandinavian countries), even while raising the minimal salaries, and other necessary paid benefits, like sick leave, universal health insurance, parental leave, and job stability (though I’m not sure what this would mean in a way that is conceivable in an economy now largely based on service-related jobs within the current management apparatus designed to provide predictable just-in-time efficiencies while also optimizing the level of profit potentially to be derived, that is, in a labor market that has been gutted of any structure that supports the needs of the workers, except in the form of what we now glibly, if not merely unthinkingly – see notes on “willfully unheeding” above – refer to as a “gig economy.” It always seemed to me long since that the more apt term would be a gag economy. In every sense: it’s a joke of universal proportions, and it’s designed to keep workers in a state of perpetually feeling like they’re just short of being choked to death.
It often happens that, like any number of people, I wonder what it’s like to be insane, to see and be conscious of the world as someone who is undeniably unmoored intellectually. Even retaining the power of intelligible speech is not a validation of rational thought going on. Nor that perceptions are accurate. The “reality” of the insane is what is in question.
It takes a village to make an idiot
It occurred to me the other day, as a thought experiment more than as a test, surely the seemingly held beliefs of our president, his version of the world we inhabit that we have categorized and organized and attempted to manage as a societal and political construct of significant complexity, is reducible to a limited set of conditions, controllable and manipulable. By the right management practice, our complex world can be regulated – though ironically, one condition of his stated universe is that the unregulated freedom to act, for individuals, but especially for organizations, and especially those that have, through some kind of evolutionary inevitability, aggregated vast amounts of wealth and power is a fundamental condition to sustain not just permanence, but healthy growth with no calculable end point.
The upshot of this baseline set of conditions, the result of it, is allegedly to be prosperity for all, invulnerability for our nation in a world that vastly outnumbers us and encompasses a far greater share of the planet’s land mass, and preeminence as a leader by example for our collective moral and ethical universe. I stand ready to be corrected in this encapsulated summary.
Now my thought experiment consists of this: imagine believing not only the premise, as I’ve summarized it, and interpreted through your own understanding of our president’s utterances on a range of topics, but the many manifestations of how the premise applies to the great variety of human endeavor, affecting our daily lives, our ability to govern ourselves, our ability to live with and work with our fellow citizens productively, and our ability to exist on the same planet with upwards of 190 other nations and over seven billion other human beings, never mind the vast natural habitat, the fauna and flora that exist on earth. How we conduct ourselves, and how we relate to our fellow citizens and the citizens of all other places on earth where they reside, can be deduced, though sometimes through tortured syntax, seeming internal contradictions, through the provable lack of logic, through the defiance of generally accepted scientific fact, through tautology, and through a form of perseveration.
Imagine you believe all that in the same way and to the same degree of certainty you believe in certain basic ineluctable verities, let’s say the daily cycle of 24 hours, the 365 day annual passage of the planet in a more or less regular orbit around the sun—or any other small set of verities of similar ilk you’d rather as a point of reference—and imagine thinking that, and all of it true, without cease, and despite arguments to the contrary that might break through some threshold of awareness of the world and other people, and channels of communication, you maintain to sustain your sense of well-being. Does it feel normal? Putting your everyday fears, anxieties, uncertainties, pent-up feelings of anger and resentment – things we all feel, likely – and concentrating on this core of belief, do you feel it’s sane to feel what you believe to be so. Do you think it would be safe for everyone to believe it? Can you live with that going on in your head?
It is only in my lifetime to my knowledge, and largely restricted to the Anglo northern semi-continent of North America that individuals with Jewish forebears have relaxed a vigilance that most Jews of the modern era have instilled in them from birth. Having been born only within about a year after the ovens of the camps in Germany and Eastern Europe were extinguished, and as the first generation son of a couple of immigrants from that same enclave — whose families were tormented, if not outright killed, by their gentile neighbors in Russia, and whose immediate relatives sought refuge with them to the West – I was regularly, if passively and, so to speak, tenderly made mindful of the threat, however covert, “out there.” Whatever the outcome in terms of my faith, and in time I repudiated the religion of my fathers, I was never allowed to forget I was a Jew. Someone intent on making me suffer, if not worse, for that sole reason, would not care how devout or heretical I might be.
Blacks, I always understood, would have it worse throughout their lives, as they each wear their identity on their skin, and I have never encountered anyone of African descent, however remotely it could be traced, who, in some part of their conscious minds, was not aware of being the subject of a potential hostile gaze. At the very least.
Periodically, and it is happening again now, at this moment, because of the massacre of Squirrel Hill, Jews remind themselves of what too many are lulled into forgetting—a state of mind few African-Americans seem to allow themselves to indulge in. So vast is our country, and so large is our still growing population, that it has happened for virtually every identifiable ethnicity or sect or nationality that has found shelter in it that seemingly for them, if not ever for all, and never all at once, there is no longer a cause for alarm. No longer a need to fear bigotry, oppression, bodily injury or mortal danger.
However, it seems necessary every time there is an unexpected upheaval (and doesn’t a lack of vigilance, or a mere lack of staying alert, a lack of mindfulness, necessarily determine the condition of shocked surprise when it happens?) suddenly that group under attack, in however focused and localized a way, is reminded of the difference between true neutrality and dormant hate. With sufficient empathy, anyone among us, especially those who can discern some substantive and differentiable marker in their biological being that, under the malevolent scrutiny of an authority would define them as some alien “other,” will, like those once again active targets, realize their status as prospective prey – simply for being who they are. Of course, if the bigotry is overt, there is no mistaking it for disinterest.
But even in America, the friendliest of nations, how often is prejudice left wholly unmasked? How often is what at bottom can only be called hatred made naked, actively so, for anyone to see?
I’m not saying that the alarm and dismay, the sadness and grief, the unremitting emotional anguish of hearing of and seeing the victims of violence borne out of hate is inappropriate or serves no purpose. I am simply reminding all of us of the virtues of being mindful, if not consciously in a state of vigilance. I mean, whatever the level and degree of guardedness we exercise – and it should always be within the bounds of reason – complacency that is the yield of a false sense of security is likely not a rational way of carrying oneself through a world, and everywhere within it, that every day provides savage testament to the still untamed facets of human nature. There simply is no utterly safe enclave anywhere.
And a little more red…
Blue blue blue blue
Blue blue blue blue
Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Color and light
There’s only color and light
Yellow and white
Just blue and yellow and white
Look at the air, miss
See what I mean?
No, look over there, miss
That’s done with green…
Conjoined with orange…
—Stephen Sondheim, “Color and Light”
In that great mythology of the self with which we burden our subconscious, we are like the heroes of an ancient Greek epic. Adorning ourselves with self-appointed epithets of valor, during the course of our lives we accrue certain attributes like the swift-footed Achilles, or the brave Ulysses of Homeric tales. Not to suggest that these qualities dog us top-of-mind – or in any way consciously – during the flow of our quotidian.
In moments of stress, perhaps in moments, now so rare, of quiet contemplation, we may comfort ourselves with thoughts of the more sterling of our virtues. Or, depending on the nature of the moment, we may suddenly find ourselves confronting our baser degraded nature: the less noble of what we shamefully confess as our faults to ourselves, if no one else: those things we insist we shall correct before we die. For sure we all mean to reconfigure our selves in the course of time into better and better creatures.
In the meantime, as best we can, we joust with our enemies, and wrestle our demons. And maybe we, in those moments of the secret contortions of doubt and that rare sense of worthlessness that threatens to topple our sense of balance we falter. When the equilibrium that permits us always to move forward on the currents of existence wobbles, we feel that somehow our fate has been mysteriously, but above all incomprehensibly, cast into the depths.
In now ancient habits of perception we speak of fortune “not smiling upon us” at those times. And the chief challenge is somehow to find the way, a method, or a strategy, a tactic, some deft set of moves, that will resurrect our spirits and set us once again confidently on our usual path forward. If not, strictly speaking, upward as well. Of course it is.
To the ancients in fact, as part of the cosmology, fortune was not an abstraction, formless and indistinct. They imagined a god or, often in the case of Fortune, as a goddess – and not some inchoate force or tendency of the universe, but a being purely existential, and embodied, like many other incomprehensible forces with no corporeality or substance in our world of solids and flesh, of reality. Perhaps it was because of the very fickle nature of the ways and acts of Fortune, raising some up even as she cast down others, that ascribed this indubitably unfair gendered identity on this capricious deity. But whatever the reason, and however unreasonable its ascription, there was no doubting the actions she imposed on humans.
The trope was powerful and basic and universal. Fortune puts us on a great wheel, and turns it. The ferris of Fortune. So, with each revolution, some were raised up, to view the landscapes of life, if not of the firmament as well, from the highest vantage, even as others were lowered, down and down, perhaps to tumble off the wheel on the hard surface of a too too solid earth. With such a view of human prospects at the hands of such a mercurial deity, philosophy evolved with a predictable tone or cast.
How often do we believe we will not merely tempt the fates, but overcome or outsmart them – if not, more humbly, somehow merely even out the odds? Some regimen, or regular habits of being, any actions other than the unwavering and unresisting submission to the vagaries of existence seemed likelier to be redemptive. And, indeed, it seemed to work for some. Except when it didn’t.
An old saying, in one form or another, has persisted since those days of antiquity. The Greeks and Romans embraced the notion of defiance. “Fortune favors the bold,” is how it goes, or the “brave” or the “strong.” You get the gist. Words to that effect are what Pliny the Elder is recorded to have said to his nephew, also Pliny – Pliny the Younger – as the older gent set sail in his fleet to inquire into this Vesuvius business; eruptions, destruction. He was helping a friend. He lost his life in the undertaking.
We call that irony. However even if we do not call it that, there is an inescapable fact, not ineluctable for each of us with regard to ups and downs, except that we are all doomed eventually to prove our mortality. The fact is, irrespective of how we choose to conduct ourselves, fortune will reign as it will. And the virtues of boldness or resolution, or strength or courage may have value, but not by way of altering the unpredictability of the specific course of our lives.
In 2002 my wife Linda and I managed to realize a dream we shared over the course of the first ten years of the life we had agreed to have together. We bought a medieval maison de village in a tiny hilltop hamlet deep in rural Provence. In February of that year we accepted title in the office of a French official, a special kind of lawyer, called a notaire. We proceeded from the legalities immediately to begin to furnish our new second abode. We visited again in the warmer months, for a longer stay, and commissioned some needed repairs and remodeling to be done, and returned home to spend an uneventful fall and a chilly winter in Boston.
In January of the new year, she was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of breast cancer, hard to identify and almost indistinguishable from other common ailments that are eminently treatable. It can only be diagnosed by biopsy, and by the time taking such measures seems prudent it is usually well advanced, and requires radical treatment. Inflammatory Breast Cancer, so-called because it masquerades as an infection, it turns out is one of the most aggressive forms of the disease, and is indiscriminate as to age of the victim.
Nine months later, after chemotherapy, radical surgery, a recuperative holiday in our beloved French village, and then a course of radiation, Linda was well enough to return to work, which she did. Then, in October, during a routine colonoscopy another cancer was discovered, completely unrelated and requiring the initiation of a separate course of treatment. Because the cancer had already metastasized to her liver, she was scheduled for two more major surgeries – the first, highly successful, prior to the start of chemotherapy, and the second, seemingly successful at first. Its complications persisted through the remainder of her life. Why did she get two cancers, unrelated? According to her oncologist (well, one of them, and he a world-famous clinician and researcher of breast cancer), “bad luck.” No more. No less.
We endured together, for five and a half years. I cooked our meals. I cleaned her constantly draining wound from the liver surgery (which cost her ⅔ of that organ, but prolonged her life). I injected. I swabbed. I bandaged. I took voluminous notes of every consultation. I kept the world of her numerous friends and relatives abreast of her condition. I arranged our travel. And did all the driving, across town, or across Provence, as we made numerous trips. And, to our surprise only once, the first time we asked, her doctors always assented to the idea of another visit to our serene paradise.
Linda worked until she couldn’t. Her employers, IBM, were magnanimous and accommodating. Money was never a problem. Insurance was never a problem. There was never a problem, except for what stared us in the face every morning when we woke up, and it was the same world with the same prospects. And there was no sense there was anything bold, or brave, or strong, or noble, least of all, about how we conducted our lives.
Early on, she had said, I am still me (and she was, minus some parts in time, and a couple of times, minus her luxuriant hair, which always grew back, though greyer each time, and curly or straight as the whims of the hair gods willed it). I am not going to be defined by a disease. And she wasn’t. Two weeks before she died, she was out until one in the morning, because a friend, the widow of a colleague, a subordinate of hers who had died of cancer a year before, had scored tickets to the playoffs for the Celtics. And would she like to go? Are you kidding? She tried not to wake me up when she got home. Almost made it.
We went to France right afterward. And yes, these latter trips required the hire of a wheel chair (fauteuil roulant) on the other side, but she eschewed its use unless absolutely necessary. Usually walking up the stubborn hills on which the whole province is built.
On the day we were packing to leave for Nice, to take the first leg of our usual route back to Boston, her legs wouldn’t support her, and she collapsed to the floor, very slowly. Twice. “That’s funny,” she said, “that’s never happened before.” I helped her into our bed, freshly made, in anticipation of some future return, and I called the EMTs.
In France, ambulances under such circumstances arrive with a doctor on the team, and they made short work of determining she had to be transported to the local hospital. I followed them in our rental car. She was admitted. And I drove on to Nice to drop off a friend who had been visiting with us, to assist somehow, though never clearly how, and who was nervous about making her connection to Italy. I drove back to Draguignan, and saw Linda, now admitted to a private room in the ICU connected to the emergency service. She was sitting up and eating apple sauce, and very tired. I said I’d go home and change and eat something, and return to spend some more time with her. But she demurred and said there wasn’t much point, as she was going to crash for sure, and she’d see me in the morning. I kissed her and said good night, and that was the last time I saw her conscious.
The hospital woke me the next morning at 6am and informed me her organs were failing and to come back to the hospital as soon as it was convenient. I spent that day, contending with my halting French, trying to help resolve the question as to whether she was sufficiently stable to be medivaced back to Boston. Suffice it to say she wasn’t. The physicians speaking for the insurance company wouldn’t have it.
I slept in her room that night, trying fitfully actually to sleep in two chairs pulled together seat cushion to seat cushion, with my ears stoppered with ear pods and the Beatles faintly playing, mainly drowned out by her struggle to breathe. She died with me alone in the room with her at 5:45 the next morning.
I wasn’t able to return until a week later, her cremated remains installed in a place of honor in our little house, and utter uncertainty about anything leaving my mind blank, and my path forward equally uncertain. All I knew about Linda, after speaking long distance to her oncologist at Dana-Farber was that it was amazing she kept going on her own steam for all but the last two days of her life. “Her body was totally full of cancer for the last two years,” he said. All they could do, which they did, was keep it at bay, and keep her out of pain. For those last few weeks, she walked around with a crack in her pelvis, because the bones had been so weakened by radiation they couldn’t stand up to the cancer in them.
When I got back home, my life and attention were completely filled with the administrative demands of tending to her affairs and her estate, and my own meager business matters.
Tending to myself was easy enough. I had long since learned, during her long decline, that unless she was at home, I never saw the need to prepare and cook meals for myself. And I lost the habit of doing so. It was simply less demanding either not to eat, or to satisfy the rare pangs of hunger by going out. I was a ten minute walk from some superb places to eat in our neighborhood of Harvard Square. And there were bars, which sometimes held a greater allure for the usual reasons.
When even the presence of other people – because after all, I was not particularly disposed to be much of a social animal – I simply stayed home and slowly enough depleted our well-provisioned stock of liquor. Not wanting to neglect my needs altogether, I would make a quick run to that paradise of hipster victuals – a super-size Whole Foods. The greatest treasure among its indulgences for those who they were more than happy literally to cater to? The sushi bar, manned, it seemed, from the moment the store opened to the time they shut off the lights, by diminutive chefs always bowed over their bamboo mats. Roll after roll.
I preferred sushi, or, even better, sashimi. It was light. It was minimal. It was the most direct intake of the food I preferred, and seemed to need. Protein. In a form that provided one step or two away from live flesh. From life itself, or so it seemed in my philosophical purview, stripped away as it was to the barest existential facts.
But more than anything else, what appealed to me, what was compelling, was the Tao of it. What was stripped away more than anything else, as in so much of the Japanese esthetic entailing food, its preparation, and its presentation, were all nonessentials. The food was raw and edible with the fingers. Utensils? None, though if you wanted to be that fastidious, nothing is more fundamental than chopsticks. And the food appeared before you, declaring some innate order, and yet bespeaking the most sophisticated if minimalistic of intentionality by way of the design of it. Everything squared up. Everything on a single plane. Spatial relations all orthogonal.
It forces order on the patterns of your mind as it scrambles to think, and escape the sheer desire to emote. All animal, you are reminded you are also human. Brutish, you are reminded that social custom and basic austere order are the the foundation of an organizing principle. That where death imposes decay and chaos, life will prevail if only through the imposition of order and balance, of symmetry, of design, and composition.
And in all of these reside the only hope for an ultimate and prevailing sense of peace.
And I discovered, that indeed, with all of that, and a shot of 90 proof whiskey, and a Tsing Tao beer to wash down the fish, I had the first inkling of a sense that rebirth is possible. And though I wasn’t quite up, I no longer despaired of being down.
Dom, my very good friend after what is now more than 50 years, is about to embark voluntarily on an automotive adventure. It will be the second of what he, in what is to me characteristically droll usage, calls an “existential auto trip.” Indeed, so inspired has he been since his first such trek, he has created an entire website, now clearly a personal calling, a vocation, which he also entitled “existential autotrip.” The second word of the title, at least in the Capossela lexicon, is a portmanteau – appropriately enough – that is, a single word.
Our hero – here, closer in age to Lewis & Clark on their Expedition than he is to the age he is now (H. Dinin)
He means these trips, solo flights into the heartland of our great nation, and I mean that in the classic sense of that phrase, “once great nation, still great nation, always great nation,” to be an adventure, an exploration, and a journey into the self as much as it is a bold foray into what William Gass called “the heart of the heart of the country.” In short, Dom is leaving quite soon, that is, two short days from this precise moment of my composition, to drive from Boston, Massachusetts to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and back again. All during the course of a month.
He has been preparing for this escapade for months. As much as he is bound up in the increasingly complex business of posting a daily blog, with the attendant responsibility of being the editor of what he now calls his magazine, he must attend as well to the minutiae of assuming responsibility as what he has styled himself – again, drolly – and that is, “Web Meister.” Quite a bit to juggle, especially as he traverses tens, did I say “tens?” when I meant hundreds of miles of U.S. Interstate, not to mention whatever by-ways and diversions he may discover en route.
Lewis & Clark (public domain)
The occasion for my writing is not to announce this trip, as he has already broadcast it and adverted to it—even beyond the scope of his domain name being eponymous with his periodic peregrinations—for the edification of his followers. In fact, unless I miss my guess, and I also somehow have missed the intent of his asking me to assume some autonomy in posting relevant material to his blog as I see fit (in order to relieve the burden of his providing daily material, even as he logs his diurnal ration of miles), these words will appear sooner than later on said blog. Rather, as is my wont, being a curmudgeonly sort by nature, and a worrywart, I want to provide at the least a cautionary note to the expectant and triumphant melody it is his wont to warble as he speaks, always with a full heart, of his expedition. Speaking of which, part of his strategy is to emulate, if not literally to track portions of the trail, the expedition of two of his personal heroes, Lewis and Clark.
My note concerns coffee. Coffee, not surprisingly, was just one of the provisions that the original Lewis and Clark included in the seven tons of dry goods provisions they packed for their trip (cf: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/what-lewis-and-clark-ate/). But, despite the auroral status in our history as a nation of the Lewis & Clark outing, coffee was already sufficiently American to demand a place of that most American of beverages in the diet of those stalwarts. Imagine trying to map the origins of the great Missouri River without starting the day with a full ration of (presumably) hot java. As Vizzini lisps, “inconceivable.”
It is of at least equal moment to me that, according to the PBS food historian, the daily consumption of animal meat on average for each man traversing the Louisiana Purchase to the shores of the Pacific was nine pounds. Nine pounds of meat a day, my friends… However let me note that this is not the occasion to ponder the characteristic American appetite for protein in mass quantities. Rather, I’d suggest it is of equal significance that such an atavistic impulse — and a need that could not possibly be provisioned in advance in Saint Louis; they expected to hunt and kill their daily meat ration live — was rivaled by the need to make sure they packed coffee. The existential elixir!
But I am here not to laud the heroic virtues of my friend. Suffice it to say that in many dimensions he dares to go where I would prefer not to. Not at our age, not alone, not over such distances, and not in a vehicle with no driver other than myself. Not to mention the vagaries of internet connectivity in the hinterlands of our expansive mainland. And there is the perpetual, the daily, question of what to do when, long about three or four o’clock in the afternoon somehow the cells of my body are utterly aware that it is more or less 12 hours since I lay, suddenly, broad awake, and that it is now time, regardless of what I may be doing, and succumb to their imminent depletion of all energy – a compensatory metabolic state to balance all that bright energy in the middle of the night. In short, it turns nap time long about the same time each day. I’m not saying there are no remedies, even on a lonesome highway, even on the “blue highways” of that famous book of William Least Heat-Moon of 1982.*
*A book that also tells of a journey, if I might digress for a moment, though in fact the substance of this diversion is eminently apt, as you will see. Before you get too far into his book-length journey Heat-Moon shares this trenchant exchange:
… It was cold and drizzling again. “Weather to give a man the weary dismals,” Watts grumbled. “Where you headed from here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Cain’t get lost then.” [Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, Little Brown, New York, p. 35 (1982)]
I hasten to add that I am also not in the least concerned that Dom will encounter the young man’s plight in this encounter (which takes place, charmingly, in a town called Nameless in Tennessee, under the smiling gaze of a poster of Senator Al Gore, Jr.). In addition to planning and organizing down to the last pair of socks his solo expedition’s provisions, with the same fastidious care, down to that last pair of his socks, that the Lewis & Clark escapade required though the one is outfitting himself in the space afforded by the trunk and backseat of a Honda Accord of late vintage and the other is, well, seven tons my friends, and not one ounce of it, we know, was meat. Well, maybe a little beef jerky. But I am getting beside myself, and there is no passing lane here.
No, Dom will always know where he is, as he has AAA triptychs, a GPS device, an iPhone, maps, and a destination. What’s more as I infer from our conversations, he has a strong sense that there are no detours or blind trails where one loses one’s way, but in life, with the right attitude, there is only opportunity.
However, what he also doesn’t have is a particular article of travel gear – though I am not confident of this, as I have only anecdotal evidence on the strength of his testimony regarding his most recent road trip (hardly existential: it was only from my house just across the city line from Philadelphia to his condo on Boston’s waterfront) and concerning a recalcitrant, not to mention, in his word, “flimsy” coffee cup. Well, actually, there’s no reason to beat around the coffee bush.
What he said was, and I have it on record, “hot coffee in well of car cup too flimsy to pull out w one hand,” and, further along, “must bring solid cup w you.” Which tells us two things. He’s got some last minute shopping (or a last minute scouring of the kitchen) for one of those insulated travel mugs. What I call “adult sippy cups.” Which, let me add, in case you don’t immediately infer this, I hate.
And, two, he intends to drink hot coffee (or something hot, and I think he’s ambivalent about tea) while engaged in the operation of a moving motor vehicle.
Duralex “Gigogne” Mug
To be honest, I don’t hate coffee. It’s one of my favorite beverages, hot or cold. I suspect I don’t love it quite to the extent of my friend Dom, who seems to love the aroma and flavor well enough, but nothing on the passion with which he loves the temperature of it freshly brewed. I have now witnessed him dispense, from an insulated carafe, brewed minutes before (by me; just so you know) into a very hip glass mug (Duralex, very French) and proceed to zap said portion of existential elixir for 30 seconds on high in our prosumer-grade General Electric microwave oven. This man likes his coffee hot. In case you missed that part of his blog, way back at the beginning.
All well and good. I don’t begrudge my old friend his pleasures. His coffee. The temperature of his coffee. His quest. His dreams. It’s his life, not mine. Existential indeed.
What I am not ashamed to set down and admit to, here, after all this verbiage, are my fears concerning hot coffee (he mentioned Starbucks, so I know he has go-to suppliers on the road, and I happen to know that Starbucks serves coffee that is, in the American style, freaking hot). And so even with his sippy cup, Dom is disposed to try to handle his cup o’ morning joe while also engaged in other activities. Could we imagine he will quaff while driving? He did imply a requirement of one-handed stability in the vessel containing his coffee while in his car. I can say no more.
It could be said I have, possibly, too strong an imagination for someone of my delicate sensibilities. And I have my own take on existential questions – which, even at this late stage, still far outnumber the answers. So all I will say is, knowing Dom will barely have time to have these words register, I think he might consider the pace of his journey yet again. Consider the virtues of starting the day with a quiet contemplation, lingering over a light repast, whatever the resources of Nameless, Wherever can offer for one’s roving petit déjeuner out there somewhere on the prairie or in the inspiring vistas prelude to a view of the Grand Tetons themselves. Consider a nice quiet cup, even as the scalding infusion of Coffea arabica burns your lips, even as you feel the tug of the open road, before you can sense the blistering qualities of the decoction cooling all too quickly under your fingertips.
So my final advice my venturesome friend (and to all who would listen). For the road, a nice cold bottle (preferably with a narrow neck and a replaceable cap) of something refreshing; might I suggest water? And for those intervals of contemplation, coffee as hot as you like in a durable container, while seated in a comfortable chair, or chaise, or lounge, a loveseat, maybe, or a sofa. We don’t want that steaming tincture of java to turn (as in overturn) suddenly from being a philosophical lubricant of deep thought to a truly existential rupture providing a gateway to far deeper places in the cosmos.
Normalization is a problem of the past, not the present
I have said repeatedly, usually, I admit, to no one in particular, from the first time I heard the usage as a warning, usually screamed (figuratively) in my (virtual) face from a (virtual) hysteric in that inevitable nearly impossible place, all too real, for all its virtuality, Facebook: “Don’t talk about normalizing Trump!” There’s no danger there. It too is impossible. It’s not entirely what the word means anyway.
What we have to fear is an adjustment and periodic readjustment in our perception of all that has come before, which was never normal at the time (and the farther back you go, the farther goes one’s sense of the craziness of the errant behavior). As Corey Robin points out in his essay “Forget About It” in the current Harper’s [paywall], though it’s here, if you want to take a shot at getting access (see below), it’s our constant reassessment upwards of the assault on our notion of normal during the administrations of Richard Nixon, and then later George W. Bush – “Hey those guys weren’t so bad, after all, were they?” – that is the real danger. And it’s a danger not because of the infamous reality distortion field identified by Steve Jobs in one of his P.T. Barnum moments. We’re not likely to accept anything that happens today, that is, any time at all during the tenure of the current incumbent of the White House, will register as normal, not to anyone with any vestige of sanity. It’s the extent to which by comparison some future rough beast (to use that particular, but miserably and perpetually apt trope) may make today’s beast look not half bad to our future selves. Or whoever has managed to replace us.
In short, the dangers of normalization are not to the future or even the present. We like to think we are always capable of vigilance, resistance, and clear-headedness. The danger, because we are never sufficiently in possession of those qualities, is to the past, where we think some pastoral and salubrious notion of normal resides. After all, it’s to that instinct that Trump so scurrilously adverts with his now patent cynicism of a slogan about what we can make of America. What we are making of it, because we suffer the distortions of sensibility that alter our notion of what is normal. And as we seek our way back to some semblance of it, we discover, as we have done repeatedly, that we have lost our way. Possibly irrevocably.
‘“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually [Philip] Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.’ — Corey Robin
Forget Walter Cronkite. The best we’re going to do these days about truth from behind the curtain are Rex Tillerson and Steve Bannon.
We all look to heroes in the form of truth-tellers when our lives seem imperilled, especially by the larger, the more global, forms of threat. When mired in the disorder and chaos of war, or epidemic, or the greater natural catastrophes, we have always found in their words a kind of anchor for our fading sense of security and some glimmer of a chance at survival – if it’s not existential continuity that is jeopardized, too often the threat is to our apprehension of the decay of any hope of the feeling, vague, surely inchoate, but always real, of well-being. This notion that life, despite its hiccups and glitches, its disappoints and frustrations, will somehow overall be OK is possibly as essential to our will to go on as is being free of real and immediate palpable dangers to our lives.
In the past, especially during what is now effectively a two-hundred year epoch of accessible mass communications, first with pamphlets and broadsheets printed cheaply on paper, and more lately with instantaneous digital emissions that appear in the cold glow of our portable screens, we’re turned to those who somehow establish for themselves a quality that goes by various labels, but all of these amounting to some warrant of credibility and trust. With the shaming and exposure of the last crop of avatars of a semblance of truth, maybe better understood as “brands” of what passes for truth – hoist on their own petards of randiness and an arrogance of power; in case I am being too allusive here, I am speaking of the ruined careers of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose (not to show any political bias in pointing at skullduggers) – we are losing even the sense of some remnant of the kind of trust that not too many decades ago we placed in the hands and velvet delivery of such seemingly noble individuals as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
Not only have we been steadily trading down in what we find acceptable to label as “truth,” with some of us exercising even lower standards, and lesser indices, than others of us. Concommitantly we have obviously demanded less and less of our public seers and glorified towncriers, even as we’ve rewarded them with higher and higher emoluments for their ability to draw and keep a loyal, and preferably unquestioning, but certainly not taxing audience of followers and adherents. What we’ve lost with the downfall of this last crop of exposed sexual predators is not so much a reliable source of truth, sometimes not comforting to hear, but reassuring for its show of courage in the form of veracity. We’ve mainly lost the comfort of a familiar and expected face. In the end, I suspect, it may be no worse than the adjustments required of us when death strikes a celebrated and popular figure prematurely, not to mention unexpectedly.
Some of us may feel there’s not much lost at all. The greater loss is something more abstract. It’s the loss akin to the loss of reason. Even as reason and logic are thrashed, as a manifestation of the age, along with their greater, if more abstract, sibling truth. I’ve long since convinced myself that the result is that even greater loss: a reluctance to accept the truth in whatever unexpected form we find it, perhaps sealed in a shipping carton, like an Amazon reward, or perhaps a bomb, or perhaps merely a load of horse manure right on our front steps when we open the front door of a morning.
What I’m getting at with all this is that we must cling to whatever shreds of truth we discern whatever the source. We may have to credit that source with whatever tatters of humanity necessary to honor in them as a sign, indeed, of some vestigial humanity of their own. It’s a bestowal of recognition we may be reluctant to extend, for any number of arguably good and justifiable reasons given their apparent characters and past behaviors. There is something to be credited though, if there is any hope of America (and Americans) for survival as a respectable political entity in a world where this is still the first best way of establishing bona fides in the commmunity of nations.
It’s possible that one unseen benefit, an artifact of some still nascent healing process, will be to tune our instruments for eliciting compassion and empathy by conveying the smallest necessary bit of credibility – as I say, where we can find it – on those whom otherwise we might cast utterly into a state of non-existence simply because they are not so much evil as hideously inconvenient to our own possibly too rigid sense of the proper constituency of an acceptable world order. We are all fragile vessels, and perhaps it is true that in the language of such a trope their fragility is greater than ours, but we must acquiesce I’m afraid, if there is to be any real hope of progress, in the recognition that even these are humans after all.
And of course, there is that sought-after solace, and that comforting sense of security, and that hope, however vague and evanescent it seems at the moment, in accepting that, despite the messenger, there simply is a certain stubborn immutable truth in the pronouncements of Rex Tillerson, a few months ago (concerning the effective cerebral competence of our president), or of Steve Bannon, just yesterday (concerning the dire insinuation of incompetence, and worse, into the administration in the characters of the president’s own offspring).
I personally am reassured in persuading myself there is sufficient credibility to build on, and see these provocative pronouncements as more than transitory, possibly even involuntary, utterances of a kind of rueful humor. As merely that, they get us nowhere.
It’s very attractive. Right up my gadget alley, and just barely, at 600 bucks, within the scope of my nearly impulsive acquisitiveness. In other words, I’m surprised I haven’t sprung, having only learned of this device as long as an hour ago, because of an ad, God help me, on Facebook. The only rueful feelings I have are connected with wondering why I wasn’t contacted by any means with some notice as to the usual crowd-source spiel and pre-order ritual. This would apparently have saved about 40%.
I like paper and ink. The attestation simply enough is that I keep collecting writing instruments, including fountain pens and artisanal pencils (often in dozens at a time). I now own them in quantities that likely—with consultation of actuarial tables and an analysis of my actual usage needed to confirm—will never be depleted. I have myriad paper tablets mainly in a size I will readily, and do, carry around with me, usually in the left rear pocket of my trousers. I have smaller ones, for occasional notes and for when I am, for some reason, not carrying my current usual go-to notebook in that pocket. I have larger ones, of the octavo size that most people think of when they think of personal notebooks (approximately the template for the iPad mini).
Frankly the latter are preferable, even if I write in the same size characters, usually in pen and ink, which I do in the smaller index card sized notebooks that fit in my jeans unobtrusively. I can fit that much more in a line of writing, and that much more on a page. It’s easier to make the larger notebook lie flat, and easier to draw on the page for that rare occasion that I’m inspired to sketch something rather than try to capture the thought in words.
I have just spent about 20 minutes taking in the promotional copy from the vendor that developed and produced this new product, and I’ve read some of the review literature in the gadget press. It all sounds quite propitious, except for the usual and expected delays in manufacture and fulfillment that I have experienced first-hand with all the crowd-sourced products that I have bought, a long list of which I am still waiting for; products that were a lot simpler technologically than this tablet.
I gather that had I been alerted somehow when they began their campaign for funding and had elected to be an early adopter (and it’s quite likely, given my history and the price discount, that I would have), I would be very very frustrated by now. I infer that their first orders from supporters were collected in November 2016. Which means they are now a full year into the first release product cycle. According to the vendor’s online blog, they still haven’t shipped to all of their early adopters.
This makes me wary, more than anything else, about ordering the device now, this early in the product life. It seems to do what is promised. There are no words of disparagement or about shortcomings in performance in the reviews of the product’s actual performance. It seems to hit all the right marks in terms of design in all senses, from their graphic design of marketing materials, to the industrial design of the product, to the technology (insofar as I am versed in it well enough to understand it) under the hood.
However, there may be real world performance failure, and it will be another gadget cluttering up my office and studio that simply stopped being useful through literal lack of support from the vendor (a small startup in this case, which means if they stop supporting the product it would probably have been because of a failure in the marketplace altogether for the company). I have a small helter-skelter museum of such ultimate product failures – at least one of them, the Apple Newton, having gone through billions in development and marketing, through several iterations. A number of them have quite viable companies’ brands on them, like Apple, or Amazon, or Logitech, and some of companies now defunct or absorbed into some larger entity only to disappear like a single microbe in a biome in some conglomerate corporate gut, like Palm. Many of these obsolete devices still work, at least a few with only the least encouragement, like a new battery or a recharge. Some are dead in the water. All equally useless, and each of them out-of-fate, their functionality displaced by more reliable, better designed, functioning up-to-date replacements.
There is also the resistance I feel, knowing myself as a consumer, both with my idiosyncratic quirks and my behaviors as a typical consumer with a routine honed through years, if not decades, of employing technological tools (caveat: I consider a graphite pencil on paper a technology) to get done what I have to get done. Some products I’ve acquired with a great sense of potentiality and promise at the start, only to be disappointed after a fair game try at introducing this new “tool” into the mix of things I use in the course of a day. And I am a gadget freak so there are a good number of them. Some products have become an integral part of some routine. I have now gone through four generations of the Apple iPad, and two generations of the Apple iPad Mini. I have owned six successive generations of the Apple iPhone, starting with the first one ten years ago this past summer. And I don’t regret (not very much) the thousands I’ve spent on simply these associated “mobile” gadegts. For one, almost none of these devices, when replaced with the latest spiffy version, brimming with technological advances, has gone into disuse, or even into my involuntary museum of such devices. They have been passed along to eager and grateful users not so particular about deploying only the latest, lowest latency gizmos.
Even with lesser, or at least less glamorous, products, like the variety of cell phones I owned before adopting the iPhone as my standard, I passed along the obsolescent products so they could be used productively by needier consumers with some want for the technology. Several phones were donated to organizations, including the local police, who gave such phones in working condition to, for example, women at risk. The graduation from flip- to iPhone was made a great deal easier by the generosity of a friend who bought my first iPhone for me as a gift, allegedly to signify his appreciation of my “coolness” with what was then the coolest gadget out there. He had done the same with the iPod, the first one, six years earlier, which I used for a couple of years, and retired for a more sleek, smaller, higher capacity model, though it still worked perfectly; as it did when I traded it in at the Apple Store several years after that to defray the cost of what ultimately proved to be the last version of this product with a mechanical hard drive before Apple concluded that the technology had to be declared extinct.
It has only been in rare instances that I have taken a product out of use that was still working as required. I am loathe to dispose into the waste stream any product with hard technology (plastics, rare elements, electronic circuitry, toxic chemicals) whether it is working or not. If it does still work, I try to find a new home. But there are few. Using services like Craig’s List and eBay, which I’ve tried, is only asking for more trouble and aggravation – or at least a much higher chance of it, and the monetary return would be negligible and not worth the effort. And most of the devices, gadgets, and gizmos that I have hung onto do work, or did when taken out of service. This phenomenon, of functional obsolescence, is one of the huge deficits of life in a first world country, especially the United States.
The fact is, however, that the entire planet is awash in the detritus of last year’s tech. Spanking new and shiny and enviable only months ago, a product that has been superceded in the marketplace, either with a competitive brand’s product, or a newer model from the same parent company, or an altogether new technology, quickly loses its luster and seeming usefulness. It hasn’t, of course, but we are many of us hostage to having bought into the mythology of the ways in which progress manifests itself. Or the reflexive, and I think self-protective, systems of establishing a sense of credible self-worth.
I don’t bother myself with the vagaries of philosophical inquiry about the ways in which so many of us are equally prey to having our values skewed, or possibly even utterly subverted, so that we end up in the habit of spending more time fulfilling the need created within us by innumerable cultural forces – being materialistic, being acquisitive, being in terrible need of signifying our sense of worth to ourselves with a constant stream of gifts, and those largely items that have been rooted in the apparent esteem, deservedly or not being no matter, of our peers. And we concomitantly spend that much less time being mindful of what comes with existence in this life in this world on this planet largely for free. Until that turning away becomes not just quotidian habit, but a disposition of mind.
I don’t bother myself overmuch about these things, not because I think I have vanquished that grasping, acquisitive, covetous urge within me characteristic of this stage of the Anthropocene – that is, not to make something grandiose out of this. Rather, I am sufficiently mindful (and if I have to, I force myself to be, consciously; silently it’s true, but this is not the kind of thing to make any noise about—if I did with any regularity, and poked you in the ribs before I did so, it would be a giveaway that in fact my objectives were somewhere other than in the sphere of ethics; I am humbled by my own sense of humility and, uh, self-abnegation) that I can keep myself in check, and not run away with any facet of my personality that derives from genes that determine one’s role as a Master of the Universe. This means I will, among other things, and I am trying hard not to trivialize this, but these are real signifiers that real people actually do, never own a brand-new (or even a “pre-owned” – god, I love that phrase) Patek Philippe watch. Their clever ad people assure us, anyway, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” I will never own a fleet of cars, or even a two-stall stable of a Tesla (for town) and a hybrid Range Rover (for those forays to the north country). I could arguably do so, without putting a significant dent in my ability to ensure a diet of healthful, good-tasting foods for myself and my little family, or necessitating a move from our spacious and airy, but hardly grandiose, home to a more efficient condo downtown, along with an annual travel pass on public transportation vehicles. And I wouldn’t do the latter, not because I feel I live a fretful encumbered existence as the epicenter of an object-cluttered way of life. Much of the detritus with which the house is burdened (in its less accessible storage areas), especially as I described the abandoned technological flotsam in the foregoing narrative of my life with tech-y gadgets, is there because the world does not care to make it easy to dispose of such artifacts of our quest to escape the insuperable inevitability of our mortality. Climate change, after all—if we are to believe the thrust of belief of a third of the U.S. electorate—is definitely not in large part the result of human behavior.
Yes, it can all be left in barrels for the Lower Merion Township Refuse and Recycling trucks to carry away, as they do, virtually without fail, every week of the year. But then it becomes the burden – and no less poisonous or detrimental to succeeding generations – of a much wider expanse of my fellow citizenry, silently and with only their tacit permission, given that I am bound only by my conscience. Curiously, I have no confidence that my neighbors, equally, that is, no better or worse, are bound equally by theirs.
So, in the end, I’ll take a pass on this latest toy, reMarkable™ as it alleges to be. It may be like paper, but it isn’t paper. eInk® is a brilliant achievement, but it’s not ink. Life-like is not a choice I care to make yet.
from notes for my memoir, Curmudgeon: A Grudging Look Backward
My attitudes toward certain significant aspects of human development were predictable from the start. If people had been prescient enough to ask the child me how I felt about certain tasks, they could have paved my path to adulthood so it was not the rocky road I experienced.I was just reading, for example, of Calvin Trillin’s sentiments regarding what I know to be a source of great pleasure for a majority of people graced with offspring. He writes:
There can’t be many summertime activities more satisfying than foraging for wild blueberries with your grandchildren in the same place you foraged for wild blueberries with your children.
I know for a fact that this is a pleasure of which I would have had no appreciation whatsoever—in fact, in my mind, even now, I am already forming thoughts as preposterous as feeling unease at the mere fantastical prospect of having grandchildren left in my care when I have, clearly, so many other, better things to do at the moment. When I was a child, who could have, should have, screamed with delight at the idea of foraging for wild blueberries, or even taxed with the lesser task of visiting a pick-your-own farm in the wilds of New Hampshire armed with a little plastic bucket, I would have bristled, as an indubitable fact, at the mere prospect. My usual reaction to the suggestion that anything that, to my still nascent sensibility, smacked of labor was to grimace, and begin scheming to formulate reasonable objections that would disoblige me from participation. No squeals of joy at the prospect, no screams of delight as I galloped through the shrubs, or among the vines, or snaking through the orchards. Whether gentle exertion or hard punitive taxing labor, to me then, as it has always been since, work is work, and I’ll have none of it, if I can get away with that little.
As a child, I preferred to read, quietly somewhere, conserving what I already suspected was a restricted amount of energy meant to last my entire existence. And as for that, my lack of any otherwise natural enthusiasm for the pleasures of youth, was reinforced by a precocious dread of some unknown threat to the normal course of my life, which I had already come to expect, even at the age of eight (sentient enough for the biblical phrase to be correctly construed and to stick in my conscious mind), to last a measured ration of “three score years and ten” and not a day more.
Running around, mindlessly (to me), in the throes of some abandon and utter obliviousness, seemed not only degrading, with some premonitory understanding of the concept of dignity being compromised, but would draw down on the precious allotment of time I had. To me it was already dwindling at a pace that caused me great disquiet, which I could yet not express.When my parents called on me to prepare for bed, their gentle reminders, which in time grew less tranquil and increasingly martial, were only a signal for me to cavort, suddenly filled with the energy that, presumably, I should have expended on some theoretical berry patch, and shrilly declare that I wasn’t tired, “see?!” Even then, in some vague way, every moment surrendered to sleep was a moment stolen from consciousness—the one thing I knew was assurance I was, in fact, still alive.
There is a paradoxical tendency wired into the American ethos to venerate sacrifice, loss, and grief and yet, in the end, to exploit it, often to dubious ends.
The myriad victims of war too often provide a catalyst for the cultural and political phenonomena that distract us. And it’s not a great insight to note that these currents in the national continuum are now cojoined, almost indistinguishably: in our ordinary lives, we are, in fact, hardly touched by the touchstones and personalities of our culture and its actors and enactors, no more than we are in any direct way by our politicians; yet our discourse and preoccupations are pervaded by them.
The latest, and unexpectedly long-lived, focal point has been the appearance of the Khans at the DNC convention last week. Their comments, offered civilly and yet forcefully, made emphatic by the silent mournful presence of Mrs. Khan, were made to protest and highlight the insensitivity of the Republican nominee and its inherent defilement of the death of the Khans heroic son in the Iraq War ten years ago. Their point was about Trump’s vile degradation of a whole people, believers in a religion, but the issue has become utterly something else because of the typically maladroit narcissistic reaction of the offensive mogul. We cannot ignore either the contributory efforts of the media, the established political apparatus, and the chattering masses to amplify the increasingly garbled points of conflict and to feed the flames that have now engulfed a full week’s worth of daily news cycles.
It hasn’t been lost on the reporting machine, or those jaundiced observers of the sordid machinations of the entire political apparatus the similarities, though there are vast differences as well, between the current unfolding situation, and the efforts of Cindy Sheehan, also a Gold Star parent, who lost a son in Iraq, and used her status as an enabling tactic to attract more attention to her efforts as a full-time anti-war activist, camped on the Bush ranch in Texas, where the President at the time, would repair as a retreat and a respite from the increasingly restive public and media as the war dragged on long past his “Mission Accomplished” aria as alleged coda to that conflict.
One difference is, of course, that President Bush had already successfully run for re-election a year before, and Cindy Sheehan, collaborating with the Democratic establishment, is alleged to have been promised an end to the war if she agreed to work on behalf of the party in its pursuit of regaining the House in 2006.
There is obscurity of motives and duplicity going all around in both stories, and doubtless others, though none spring to mind as prominently as these most recent events centering on the status of ordinary American citizens who have made what many consider the ultimate sacrifice of life in terms of the loss of a loved one.
I suggested that this is an endemic feature of our culture, and indeed it seems to be, but I would guess as well that it has its roots in other cultures, other contries, other civilizations in history, if it is not, in fact, an intrinsic and unresolved potential tragedy in every family. The very first story in the Bible, after that of the expulsion from Eden, is of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel by his brother in his wrath. We can only infer the immensity of the impact on the original mythic parents of all of mankind, as it is not described, and the ensuing chapter in the Bible, an account of the “line” of Adam, begins with his son Seth—whose birth was a divine grant clearly in compensation for the loss of Abel.
There is no such silent solemnity as a mute regard for the grief of parents losing a child in our culture.
We, at our worst, tend to spotlight such mourning, no doubt, in some perverse way to show our reverence, but as well, and inevitably, to exploit it one way or another.
The novelist Philip Roth, with a sensitivity and a sensibiity at once grim and mocking—how else can we react sometimes to such monstrous behavior as we see regularly, but with humor to penetrate and dispel our dumb horror?—alluded to the phenomenon. He did so first, in an extended satiric introduction to a speech he gave in 1960 he called “Writing American Fiction,” in which he mainly spoke of the challenge to the imagination of any fiction writer by reality itself, as evidenced in the kind of story that graced every tabloid newspaper, even as it still does today, and the way it is treated by sordid attentions paid by that press and its readers.
He did so again, en passant, with a passage in his infamous novel that showcased and lampooned the psychopathology of American life, Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969. Here is a passage. The stakes have gotten higher, clearly, than the award of kitchen appliances to this most shameful category of exploited victims—their possible willing and mindful participation notwithstanding.
“A Gold Star Mom,” says Ralph Edwards, solemnly introducing a contestant on “Truth or Consequences,” who in just two minutes is going to get a bottle of seltzer squirted at her snatch, followed by a brand-new refrigerator for her kitchen … A Gold Star Mom is what my Aunt Clara upstairs is too, except here is the difference—she has no gold star in her window, for a dead son doesn’t leave her feeling proud or noble, or feeling anything, for that matter. It seems instead to have turned her, in my father’s words, into “a nervous case” for life. Not a day has passed since Heshie was killed in the Normandy invasion that Aunt Clara has not spent most of it in bed, and sobbing so badly that Doctor Izzie has sometimes to come and give her a shot to calm her hysteria down…
—Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969
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