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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Enemy of the Good – and of Community

Once again, for the umpteenth time, I’ve been obsessing about the notion of ‘community’ and whether or not community – coming together as one -- ever exists in human societies, except as an ideal. Maybe now and then, briefly, in experiences of celebration or mourning, but day to day? Even in groups of like-minded individuals, it seems, those individuals are constantly testing one another to answer the question, Are you really ‘one of us’?

Once again, I’m feeling there is nowhere I truly belong. This morning, in fact, I woke up with a French song in my head, a song by Alain Souchon expressing modern alienation so beautifully that if you didn’t know French you would never know it for a sad song. And I would keep these negative feelings to myself, except that I’m pretty sure a lot of other people feel the same way.

Where do my feelings come from this time? I can tell you. Lately I’ve been saddened, in exchanges with people I know would be ashamed to exclude or stigmatize others on the basis of skin color or religion or ethnic background, to find that they have no problem excluding or stigmatizing on the basis of gender or association. A liberal mind, whether possessed by man or woman, recoils at male dismissal of “women writers,” and yet a woman writer friend of mine says she has no use whatsoever for anything written by a “dead white male.” Anything? I am stunned and speechless. This friend is willing to read books by living white males, but another rules out all men, white or otherwise.

Then there is Facebook, sometimes fun, sometimes torment. In the past few days, it has been the latter.

Imagine yourself a famous person. Wherever you go, people want pictures of themselves with you. Imagine yourself with friends in Hollywood. You go to parties and have your picture taken with others there. Imagine yourself running for high political office, with supporters contributing to your political campaign. Do you vett each contributor? Refuse contributions unless a contributor’s values, personal and political, align completely with yours? How can you know?

Well, well now! Isn’t this wonderful? We have found a way to discredit individuals we could not sufficiently condemn any other way: guilt by association!

Somehow for most of my life I had missed a saying that has recently grown to have enormous meaning for me: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” All through last year’s campaign cycle, one dear friend posted one link or comment after another showering Democratic candidates and office-holders with scorn for their failings. I know this person did not support or vote for the current administration in Washington. But wait! Is that correct? I say “did not support,” but he could hardly have worked harder against the Democratic ticket had he been wearing an elephant costume.

I’ve never been a loyalist of any party and would never claim any candidate or office-holder beyond criticism. No human being is perfect, after all -- and that's exactly my point. No politician will say precisely what I would wish or do exactly as I would hope. Sometimes we will disagree on certain ends, other times on means, and often compromise will be necessary to get anything done at all. I did not understand this at age 18, but I understand it now. I don’t expect perfection, either from friends or from politicians.

But that doesn’t mean anything goes or that there are no standards. There are better and worse choices. Bad-mouth the better at every opportunity, and you give ammunition to the much worse. Throw away the better because it isn’t perfect, and you pave the way for enthroning the much worse.

If the views of my friends can be attributed to me by association, then am I too guilty of hating male writers and condemning imperfect liberal politicians? Does that make any sense whatsoever? And where, then, would you find a single not-guilty person in the world?

Is there an alternative? Should I un-friend everyone who disagrees with me on anything important? Cut off dialogue? What a dilemma!

The dilemma is wrenching. On the one hand, liberals are urged, and even urge one another, to listen to those with different views and values, however violently opposed to their own. On the other hand, it seems that the closer those liberal values align to anyone in politics, the more we are urged, by the same people urging listening to the opposition, to condemn any politician who falls short of heroic perfection.

The hell with it! Life is too damn short to spend it wallowing in negativity, and I found a way to cheer myself up today. BeauSoleil, the Cajun band, is coming to the Dennos Museum Center, and I’ll be there in the front row, lettin’ the good times roll!

People come together in music like nowhere else.

P.S. 10/13/2017 - You think I was pissed off and sarcastic? Read what Rebecca Solnit has to say. Man, she is the greatest!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What Is Patriotic?

The words on this discarded beer can are familiar. “Land of the Free” is proudly proclaimed, along with “Home of the Brave” and “Indivisible Since 1776.” Indivisible? Well, the attempt to divide was certainly made in a bloody conflict that dragged on for years, but in the end the political entity known as the Union held.

Near the top of this recyclable (but no returnable; was it brought to Michigan from another state?) some of the words of the national anthem appear. Only the first few lines, and even those are incomplete, as the lines were made to arc upwards toward the pull tab, cutting off all but “Oh say can ... proudly”/”we hailed at the ... Whose broad”/with two remaining lines appearing in full, ending with the words “so gallantly streaming?”

Against a red background at the bottom of the can we may read “LIBERTY & JUSTICE FOR ALL.”

I found this beer can at the side of one of my favorite walking roads, presumably thrown from the window of a passing car or truck.

Is littering less objectionable if an empty can is emblazoned with patriotic sentiments? Are customers for this product more patriotic than drinkers of Canadian beer? Is the company more patriotic for using the national anthem to promote and market its product? The Budweiser company calls this beer “America.”

Respect. Disrespect. National symbols. I’m thinking about it all.

Friday, June 9, 2017

What Is the Appropriate Response to Inappropriate Speech or Behavior?

You don’t expect it. That’s the first thing people have to understand. It’s the freak event that arrives without warning in the middle of a clear, blue sky day.

We expect certain behaviors from others. What we expect varies from situation to situation, but at work and in our social worlds, our expectations are largely determined by the recognized roles those others play in our lives and the greater world. What do we expect of a friend? A teacher?A priest? A policeman or a judge? A boss?

Whether the other is someone we consider a friend or is our host in his own home, whether he’s someone we look up to as a mentor, a teacher or a priest, or he’s just “the boss,” we can’t predict every word of the other ahead of time, naturally. But certain utterances, when we hear them, are so freakish, such outrageous departures from any role-appropriate conversation we might have expected, that we can hardly believe our ears.

Stunned. That’s what he said. Former director James Comey says he was stunned, and that’s the word, all right. Think, as we say here Up North, “a deer in the headlights.” Momentarily paralyzed with disbelief. Your mind, supposed to interpret and tell us what to do, can say little beyond “This can’t be happening. This can’t be real. He couldn’t have just said [or done] that.”

You get out of there as fast as you can, saying as little as possible. Your mind whirls. Let’s say this is someone with whom you work—for whom you work. Whether you’re well along in a professional career or just starting out in one or you’re just in some low-level, minimum-wage job you can’t afford to lose, what do you do now?

Some people quit, but most continue to try to do their jobs.

 “Why didn’t you tell him he was being inappropriate?”

“Why didn’t you tell this story sooner?”

Why didn’t you do this or say that? In other words, what’s wrong with you that you did not give the appropriate response to the inappropriate observation or request or touch?

Because you couldn’t believe what was happening.
Because you couldn’t believe what he just said.
Because he made sure there were no witnesses.
Because you just wanted to do was get out of there.
Because you still had a job to do.

So you put it aside and go on, protecting yourself as best you can from any future repetition of the situation.

“Why did you continue to take his calls?” Comey was asked.

He was doing his job.

Abuses of power are not always about sex, and abusers do not target only women, but the basic scenario has the same familiar ring. There are no witnesses. And you just can’t believe it’s happening.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mom and Pop Dive Into Another Season

Mom: Another season! It’s almost here!

Pop: Does it make you all verklempt? I know how you can get about things like that.

Mom: Things like what?

Pop: Things like everything!

Mom: You mean like life?

[Mom is hosting a world premiere book launch in Northport on May 9, and sometime before the end of June will be the opening of Pop's one-man exhibition at the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City. We are gearing up for a very big season this year! Hint: Join Dennos Museum Center and receive automatic invitation to members opening reception.]

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Two Different Worlds

These thoughts were inspired by reading as much as by memory but are not focused on a book, so I'm putting them here, rather than on my main books blog. Also, they follow, at least partially, in some fashion, the previous post on this blog.

*  *  *

Again and again, reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I re-experienced scenes from childhood as memories surged forth. When Isenberg noted that gardening as recreation was an acceptable part of postwar middle-class life, but growing food on one’s small plot of land was not -- right there, in a single sentence, I saw again the contrast between my two sets of grandparents—my father’s father and stepmother in Columbus, Ohio, and my mother’s mother and stepfather on the edge of Springfield, Ohio.

Springfield grandparents and baby me

The Columbus grandparents led an urban life, the Springfield people rural. Well, kind of. In truth, both were in-between but in different ways. The Columbus neighborhood had probably been a suburb in the city’s early days, and the Springfield neighborhood was more a hodge-podge of poor folks outside the city limits. Lots in both places may have been forty feet wide, but the Springfield lots stretched back a long way from the road, and livestock and poultry were abundant.

In Springfield, the neighborhood had obviously grown up higgledy-piggledy, and the streets – roads? -- were still unpaved in the 1950s. Clay dust squished like talcum powder, deliciously, between bare toes. All up and down the road, in white families and black, the children went barefoot. Some may not have had shoes. I shed mine eagerly to be like the rest.

My grandparents’ street in Columbus was paved, and there were concrete sidewalks, too. Children did not go barefoot in public.

The house in Columbus was solid and, to my child’s eyes, stately, a two-story brick house with a painted concrete front porch the width of the house. The porch featured a rolled bamboo shade for privacy and was always cool in summer. Elements of the backyard were a luxurious lawn, a swing hung from another large shade tree, a hammock, my grandmother’s riotously colorful flowerbeds, and my grandfather’s prize tomatoes, of which he was inordinately proud. In the bathroom, tile gleamed and sparkled. Bedrooms upstairs on the second floor were filled with massive, dark, polished furniture, the beds so high we children had to mount them with footstools. Everything in the house bespoke solidity and respectability.

The frame house in Springfield was a single story and very plain. Originally only a large kitchen, small parlor, and two bedrooms, it had been expanded with a newer, smaller kitchen built around the water pump (thus bringing water into the house), but there was no bathroom at all. We washed at (or were washed in, when small) the kitchen sink, and an outhouse reached by a brick path, laid herringbone style under a long grape arbor, served other needs. The side yard was given over to chickens, the back to fruit trees, raspberry patch, and Grandpa’s large garden. Once the iceman came with his horse-drawn wagon and stopped in front of the house. Slivers of ice for all the children!

My Columbus grandfather was a high school graduate and a union member, engineer first on a steam train and later driver of a diesel engine. His job paid well. I remember my mother remarking once that my father’s family had had meat for dinner every night through the Depression. My father’s sister never had to go to school dressed in a flour sack. Sometimes cousins visited while we were at the Columbus house, but no one ever dropped in unannounced. Visits were arranged.

 My Springfield grandpa worked in a factory, and Grandma trekked to the farmers’ market in downtown Springfield to sell what food (eggs, fruit, vegetables) the family did not need or put up for winter. Their house had no bedroom doors, only sheets hung in the doorways, but their big dining table always had room to accommodate neighbors who dropped in around dinnertime, and my grandmother always found an extra plate and food to fill it.

I loved all four of my grandparents, blood and “step” relations, and did not, when small, differentiate between them on that basis. The differences in the way they lived, on the other hand, were obvious from the start. Both households had enough to eat and to share with grandchildren. Both grandfathers had jobs, and both grandmothers kept house. Still, even as a child I realized they occupied two very different worlds, and experiencing different ways of life from childhood is something I value in the way I grew up. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Ladies Bountiful and Women in Need

Women's Health Day, up at the old hospital in Northport, started as an ordinary, pleasant, welcome annual event. It filled an important need. On that day uninsured and underinsured women in Leelanau County could receive a free health checkup, including mammogram. Health care was the object, but somehow it was a fun morning! Half the town was there, all ages, and it felt very egalitarian and social. There was nothing embarrassing about it. It was like going to vote, except that people had time to chat in the waiting room.

Then one year it was taken over by a large group of volunteers, women who had no need of the services but a great need to be needed. They put on a big brunch spread and then, having really nothing more to do but not wanting to feel useless, went around the room urging the women who had come for their checkups to avail themselves of the buffet. They themselves were not going to the buffet; nor were they in need of free checkups. Medical attention and food were for the others

For the first time, the event was structured by class: on one hand there was the host of ladies bountiful, on the other a crowd of women in need. Those of us who came for the checkup, the supplicants, were dressed casually, many in blue jeans, while the ladies bountiful were set apart in dresses and heels. The fun was gone! The following year I skipped the whole thing. Now the hospital is gone, and so is the event.

I bring it up because of something that concerns me with many do-good projects. So often, in a way, the volunteers are as needy as the recipients of the bounty to be distributed. The givers need projects and purpose and meaning in their lives. They need to feel needed and need to give and need to be recognized as givers. But they don't usually see themselves as needy. They do see themselves, in a helping context. Do they, I wonder, always see those they are so eager to help? 

I don't mean to ignore or deny the genuine humanitarian impulse. It's good to want to do good in the world, and doing good probably needs to be encouraged and, yes, rewarded, too! I'm also sure it's easiest for all of us to see ourselves in positive roles, wherever we are in life, and hardest to see others differently situated in as positive a guise. I don't mean to point fingers. Really. 

But if you think about it for a minute, you know, whatever your station and condition in life, that it can be a lot harder to receive than to give. And when only one group is acknowledged as givers, the other defined as beneficiaries, a dynamic set up: the first group is one-up, the second one-down. And so, while what's given is helpful in one way, it can be destructive in other ways. 

This is a digression, but one of the most memorable lessons life ever gave me was in the example of a friend who suffered severe physical trauma, losing much of the ordinary health and strength the fortunate among us take for granted every day. After the incident that nearly took her life, and after a long, painful period of recuperation, my friend, unable drive a car and without not stamina to walk to and stand at a bus stop, was dependent on friends to drive her to the grocery store. Once there she needed to tour the store in a motorized chair. She needed someone to carry her groceries out to the car and into her house. She needed a lot of help. And yet – this was the miracle and the lesson – she never expressed pity for herself, never apologized for needing help, and neither did she demand assistance in a resentful or autocratic way. She was natural about it all, graciously graceful. It was just the way things were, and we were friends, and we did things together. That was all. And so the way she received the help she needed was a gift she gave to us, her friends. Not many people could pull that off! I doubt I could ever do it with her grace, but if I am ever in a similar position, I hope I will remember her example and try!

I feel uniquely positioned in Leelanau County, with a foot in each camp, not a full-fledged member of either group. For twenty years, before eligible for Medicare, I went without health insurance (Women's Health Day was a godsend to me!), and I have no retirement pension waiting for me down the road. But by education and as a local business owner for nearly a quarter of a century, I am at least a nominal member of the privileged group. 

I understand the desire to help and to give, as well as the need for recognition. My own charitable giving means a lot to me, I am very careful about causes I choose to support, and I wish I could do more. At the same time, I also know, from not having had health insurance for so long and being still unable to sign blank checks for expensive health care, the sting of being designated as "needy," when I work very hard to be independent and provide for myself!

None of this is meant as criticism of any individuals or groups. I “bring it to the table” because the people around the table are generally in the bountiful givers group, and that's no accident. They are the ones with free time, and they are also the ones who feel comfortable and welcome at the table. They are seen as – and feel themselves as -- belonging there.

But those not at the table are "stake-holders," too. They have a stake in the economic wellbeing of their community, in the education provided for their children, and in being recognized as community members.

I don't see inviting the two groups to the table together, however, as the solution or even the beginning of a solution. 

So what is??? 

I suspect a "solution" to the gap in class and need may be something no group can invent, regardless how many hours are spent brainstorming. Maybe it just takes one-on-one conversations, in casual encounters, with a lot more listening on both sides. It might also take, for every single one of us -- me, included! -- looking into our own hearts and being honest with ourselves about what we see there.

What will we find? Then, what will we do with what we find? I don't know.

Sorry this is inconclusive. I have no recipe to offer, only my perspective from the gap, from the social chasm, between rich and poor.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Opposing Forces: Battling the ‘Other’

“I don’t like ‘us vs. them’ talk,” she wrote. Nor do I. Yet there are times when the world seems to array itself into opposing sides.

Does it have to be that way? Couldn’t we all just get along? Be respectful, listen to one another, consider the possibility that we, our side, might be mistaken – or at least that there’s more to think about?

I’m not willing to give up on facts, i.e., that they exist and need to be faced. Does that alone put me on one side of the current political battle?

One undeniable fact seems to be that many human beings (though not all) thrive on battle. Whether the fight is physical, intellectual, emotional or commercial, warriors would be bored without it. They push away the sweet, smooth custard of civility and demand raw bones, with plenty of gristle – your bones, if you’re available for enemy status, that is, if you question their authority or rank or opinion or course of action. Because someone has to be the enemy. A warrior will happily risk breaking his own teeth for the pleasure of a chance to sharpen them on your bones.

When a warrior declares you to be the Other and refuses to acknowledge or admit commonality, and when the stakes of the disagreement are high, what can one do but join in battle?

I’d rather not. Despite a background in academic philosophy, adversarial as it is (arguments, objections, refutations, etc.), I am happier not having to fight for a place to stand. Living is hard enough without that! There are plenty of struggles inherent in daily life: age, cold, ice, gravity, survival!

Even if one looks at contest in terms of excitement and stimulation, something one desires rather than desires to avoid, battling the Other is not the only possible way for human beings to challenge themselves. Other ways to look at self-challenges might include:

Self-improvement: This can mean anything from education to overcoming a weakness or moral flaw to building body mass. Possibilities are endless, and challenges can be as difficult as you want to make them.

Wilderness challenge: Into this category would fall projects like hiking the entire Appalachian Trail or climbing a mountain or surviving alone in the desert for a predetermined length of time. Again, endless possibilities.

Personal best: In whatever a person already excels, there is usually a chance to improve, and when age rules out marathon running, substitute endeavors can be found.

In short, we can challenge ourselves rather than an Other. ‘Challenge’ does not have to mean getting in the ring and punching another person. Pursuit of an elusive ideal can be a lifelong challenge.

Why, though, might this not inspire a pugnacious warrior?

Well, some of the challenges I’ve suggested are invisible, and meeting them brings no medals, no ribbons, no applause. Often no one else will care at all, even if the struggle is visible in principle. (Climbing a mountain is not an invisible inner struggle, but the mountain is indifferent to the climber's success. The mountain does not applaud the climber.) If someone is after purely extrinsic rewards, recognition will always be essential to satisfaction.

Moreover, even where there is a cheering audience – say, for the successful marathon runner -- certain kinds of personalities will only be satisfied when able to dominate other human beings. In “the thrill of victory,” for many, half that thrill is reducing the Other to “the agony of defeat.”

And so, reluctantly, against my burrowing, bookish, retiring badger nature, I find myself this already difficult winter season enjoined in a battle I never chose. I am part of the Other, because almost every public good I hold dear is under fire – environmental protection, public education, equality, workers’ rights and protections, freedom of speech and assembly, legal precedent. The very idea of a common good is held in disdain.
And I am not going to “get over it,” not going to shut up and retreat and listen and watch quietly from a corner while the values I love and dismantled and the country I love rebuilt to an ugly blueprint I never thought I’d see here. 

If I did not stand up against what’s going on now, how could I claim to be for anything at all?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Always Good News -- Something New from Wendell Berry

Please see here for more.

Look Out Above For What's Coming Down!

When I was in high school, about 14 or 15 years old, I went on my first date that was not a double date with some boy’s father or mother doing the driving, and the evening should have been memorable for that reason. The boy who asked me out had his driver’s license and picked me up at home, all by himself, after my parents gave permission because the boy and his family were members of the church we attended. Wouldn’t you think I would remember what I wore and what kind of car the boy drove, if we went out for ice cream after the main event and, if so, where? But I don’t recall any of that, because the main event was a stage play and that evening the first time I ever saw live actors on a stage. I I was powerfully stage-struck!

“The Curious Savage” is a gentle comedy with a quiet message and a touching conclusion. Other inmates of the cozy insane asylum where the main character is committed for the period covered by the play cannot tell her in so many words that they love her, but each of them has some indirect means of expression, and she understands them all. I still remember that she is told by one of them, in the last scene, to carry an umbrella, in case of rain. Hardly King Lear, but it moved me deeply.

The performers were high school students, mostly juniors and seniors. This was not a professional production, by any means. Nevertheless, as the final curtain fell, after the cast took their bows, I sat transfixed, unwilling to acknowledge that the magic spell had come to a close.

Inspired, I soon began to try out for one-act plays and to discover the intoxicating world of backstage. The focus of that monumental, hundred-year-old, three-story, limestone-block castle of a school, two or three blocks long, a school with tall Gothic doors and inner stairways of solid marble -- the focus for me became the auditorium with its heavy proscenium curtain, orchestra pit, onstage trap door in the floor and soaring space above for flying rigs. The smallest bit part sufficed to fuel my dreams or, failing that, a place on the props crew.

My theatre love persisted, and in my senior year our cast of “El Camino Real” (I played the old gypsy, mother of Esmeralda) climbed successive levels of competition to first place in the state of Illinois. Heady stuff! I then began a checkered undergraduate career -- three schools, three or four successive majors before graduation 20 years later -- in speech and theatre at the University of Illinois. “Read plays!” urged professors of acting classes. Fine! I would read plays! No one needed to twist my arm to make that happen! There were also technical classes, such as costume design, and challenging beginning work in directing. All the world may be a stage, but it’s just as true that the stage itself, wherever it is, is its own world, with its own language, traditions, and a history going back at least to ancient Greece. And I loved every aspect of it.

I’m getting to my point, truly I am. If I were younger, I would have gotten to it sooner, but at my age memories take up more and more of my conscious mental life.

Look up the phrase deus ex machina, if it is unfamiliar to you. The idea dates back to those early Greek and Roman dramatists and had originally a material reference. Even that long ago, you see, staging (think “production values”) was sometimes elaborate and complex. For example, marvelous machinery could bring a “god” down, unexpectedly, from on high, to thrill an audience and resolve dramatic action. Like all special effects, however, after a while it was no longer surprising and began to be seen instead as rather a cheap trick. Was the playwright unable to wrap up his plot no other way? Too bad!

As audiences, along with critics,  became more and more sophisticated, the term deus ex machina came to be more generally applied, as it is today, to any last-minute introduction of a new, often unconvincing character or development brought in near a story’s end to bring an otherwise hopeless mess to a tidy conclusion. Moderns use the phrase in literature discussions as well as in drama, and film criticism in our household is particularly scathing when we feel a scriptwriter or director has resorted to a deus ex machina resolution.

I approach my point ever more closely.

The now-familiar insomnia, waking not from but into a nightmare, recognizing inevitability but being unable to believe completely in what is clearly coming down the tracks – the overwhelming experience of the last two months and more – waking, that is, into a new world that has become frighteningly unreal, I thought in the dark of one recent morning of the deus ex machina, and my first thought was, isn’t that just what we need? There is no other way out, is there? We humans have made a horrid, irresolvable mess on our world stage, and no playwright on earth, no team of the wisest of world leaders can possible sort us out at this late stage. Not in my lifetime, surely.

Quickly, however, a second thought followed: wasn’t it precisely the irresponsible longing for outside rescue . . . combined with the emergence of someone claiming to possess the godlike powers of a world rescuer . . . combined with a fearful audience desperately willing to believe, desperately longing . . . that brought us to this state?

No, we should not wish for it, and we should not allow the cheap trick to be put over on us. There is no way around this mess other than through it, and through it we must slog, one foot in front of the other.

Do you need a weatherman to tell you there will be storms ahead? Take an umbrella. Someone else is sure to need it if you don’t.