Friday, February 2, 2024

No Matter From the Heart

“Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day.” 
-- William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act III, Scene 2

Books die. Damned, damaged, abandoned, ruined, waterlogged, molded, abused, burnt. They go out of print, go unread, unremembered. Some survive. Most don't. Most don't deserve to survive anyway. Just think of the forests of antiquated manuals, promotional tie-ins, faded popular fiction, junk porn, Reader's Digest Condensed, Disney dreck. Requiesce in pace, forgotten bestsellers et al. Few published books survive a season let alone a generation and frankly even fewer should. Most books, like all authors, like all of us, like all things -- spoiler alert -- die. "Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die." (Okay, maybe not Charo. Charo will never die. Besides being a great classical guitarist and perfect wig-stand, she's changed the year of her birth more often than her lip color, so I'm pretty sure she's actually H. Rider Haggard's She. Day that woman finally grinds out her very last "cuchi cuchi" -- watch out! The stars will go out one by one.) 

Cicero insisted that the memory of a life well-spent is eternal. Oh? Okay. Maybe. Nice thought. Though eternity seems an unrealistic expectation for anything, Earth for example, or humanity certainly, let alone the good name of dear Aunt Gladys. Also -- remembered by whom? Should such a thing as remote posterity still even be a possibility hereafter, ours would seem just as likely to remember Ted Bundy as Fred Rogers. Philosophers can get a bit wishful with the absolutes. In particular I don't know that Cicero is to be trusted on this subject. A bit smug, Cicero, bless 'im. He was always sending billet-doux to posterity-- pretty successfully, as it turned out -- confident we'd want to know his every thought on nearly everything, including death. Not wrong as it turns out but a bit overbearing at the best of times. Personally I've never gotten over learning that the great stoic was in fact a fat gambler who repeatedly married for money. No Cato he. Very much a do-as-I say-not-as-I-do-kind of guy. Stoics and stiffs of all sorts in my experience tend that way. The person who publicly disapproves of your second doughnut privately huffs nitrous while watching Punishing Step Mom porn. Trust. (One of the closeted gay boys I was boning in high school was from a relentlessly and very publicly pious family. I will never forget the afternoon when a bunch of us skipped school and he decided to show us the drawer his parents kept their kink in. SO many toys. SO much porn, just as Father God intended.) But unlike even the life very well lived indeed and more like good furniture, good books are built to last more than a day and mostly do. Not all. Some are lost -- see Homer's Margites, or damaged -- see Sapho's output all but entirely lost, or just stripped for parts like all those ancients now known only for quotes. Think also of the poets remembered now for the one anthologized example of their work, or even a line because you know only God can make a tree. Or so at least we thought before DNA and 3D printers. The fact is that there is plenty of stuff we admire now simply because, against all odds, nobody broke it. So, in addition to being the final repository of humanity's highest hopes, greatest achievements, and most enduring monuments, posterity turns out to be a bit of a junk-shop.

Don't know that I'm the person to weigh in on what should or should not survive of the great western canon.  In my lifetime I've seen any number of immortals shunted from the Pantheon, mostly for cause and or limitations of space. Can't argue with the need for a more representative selection, and there have been a number of "new" candidates for whom I've cheered most heartily. I've also witnessed some pretty rum characters put forward as worthy of recycling for reasons not altogether persuasive, at least to me, but then I'm not on the committee -- any committee. I have however been on committees just often enough to know it is not work for which I am much suited anyway. Not that anyone's asking anymore.  Turns out that the obscure-old-white-gay-guy is pretty well represented already in cultural matters across the board (see also: church music, community theater, library art-shows, local orchestras, western swing dancing, etc.)

Actually, I think we are living in something of a golden age of the reissued book. Publishers like NYRB and the Library of America, -- created within my memory -- have led something of a revolution in the rescue and reprinting of often neglected classics. The opportunities to read great books from less familiar names, periods, and places has never been so great. This has been one of the primary reading pleasures of my recent life, and a lesson to me as well; never assume there are no more great books yet to be read, no more great names among the dead of whom I have yet to hear. Happens all the time. Honest.

Translation is another deep subject for another day and dive, but it too seems to be booming, thanks largely to smaller presses like Archipelago Books, Pushkin Press, etc. One wonders if translators are any likelier to eat any better than they used to. One do hope so. They are certainly doing  hard and admirable work. I never thought someone new would take on the whole of Chateaubriand's Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, but some good soul named Alex Andriesse is doing just that. And the great Russia scholar and historian Douglas Smith is likewise engaged with the whole massy weight of Konstantin Paustovsky's autobiography and we are all better for it, friends.

I'm curious to know more of the process of selection and resuscitation. How is it that I could sell books for a living for thirty+ years and never have heard of, let alone read Benito Perez Galdos until just a few years ago? Makes me a little ashamed of my narrow provincialism, frankly. More though it makes me glad to be reading now. So how did new translations of "the Spanish Dickens" happen in just the last decade? Who financed that? Who decided to publish Tristana in English again? And why that novel? I should very much like to know.

Back in the bad old days of hierarchical criticism, before the French so kindly taught us that road-signs, matchbooks, and symphonies were all just "texts," I had a snobbish taste for what were then called "minor" writers; important enough to see reprints, but never so important as to sit with the Gods on the syllabi. These tended to smaller oeuvres, shorter or unfashionable forms like personal essays or poetic dramas. My minor masters were all about aesthetic fuss; style over subject, le mot just more than all the words until we run out. Think Leigh Hunt and Max Beerbohm and Harold Acton and Siegfried Sassoon. Nowadays my minors are mostly ghosted -- as in gone --the boys anyway. Some of the ladies have had a better afterlife, say Ivy Compton Burnett or the English lady novelist with the movie star's name, Elizabeth Taylor. My idea of a good minor time may not be yours, but there are plenty such still to be had on the shelf at the bookstore, from Fleur Jaeggy to Robert Walser, just to mention the Swiss.

All this thriving and surviving can not hide the fact though that in America at least books are in danger yet again. The shrieking harpies of Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and other far Right misnomers and intentional antonyms are padlocking public libraries and burning PTAs to the ground as I write. Same mob as always, same lies, same agenda to "save the children" from the queers and the commies and the colored. Now the yahoos are chasing drag queens out of story-times and silencing women and the differently gendered, and yes, of course these same self-righteous primitives are banning books.  Always just a day or so away from burning books, and then people, this crew.* 

The other threat is of course the ironic triumph of thumb-typing. If everything one might say in a TikTok caption is just as important as every and anything ever written, then it is harder and harder to justify Shakespeare. 

And the Bard, he is very much on my mind:

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by. 
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Milton, an old friend and coworker, long retired from the bookstore, died recently. Presumably named for that other English poet, Milton was nonetheless a Shakespeare man, through and through. Read Shakespeare. Studied Shakespeare. Worshiped Shakespeare. Wrote about and thought about and talked about and quoted Shakespeare.

Sad story. When it came time for Milton to retire from the Receiving and Tagging Department where he'd worked for ages, he decided to have a bit of a splash out and give a public reading from the critical Shakespeare manuscript he'd been working at for decades. If you knew Milton at all you were at least a nodding acquaintance with his great unfinished book. It was part of his person and always on him in one form or another; usually in his tote as part of the unsorted shock of newspapers, random clippings, free magazines, old books, whatnot and jetsam that he lugged everywhere. (I was privileged to read a very brief bit of something to do with Iago once. Well beyond my critical faculties.)  Milton was not a bold person, in the time I knew him he never struck me as the type to stand up and address a room. Nonetheless he decided before he left the bookstore for good that he would give a lecture on Shakespeare.

The Events people put Milton's Shakespeare lecture on the schedule and promoted the lecture on the website and such, the way they do. I was closing the evening of Milton's event, but still planned to attend at least part of his presentation. Come the day, two people had called in sick and the phones were busy. Events were upstairs in those days and Milton came down twice to check in with me. Nervous as anything, he was. When the event was scheduled to start I was on the phone without a hope of getting free anytime soon. When I finally managed to end the call it was a good fifteen minutes after he was meant to start. Milton came back to the desk. No one came. I told him I still wanted to hear what he'd planned to read but he decided to just go home. He did.

Saw Milton at the bookstore no more than a week or so ago. He looked fairly hale and hearty for his age -- at which I can only guess. I'd seen him in the bookstore regularly since he'd retired, though it did take awhile for him to drop back in after the night of the reading that never was. Always had his bag with him full of papers and notes and this, that, and the other and presumably at least part of his unpublished, unheard Shakespeare book. We still talked about the book occasionally. He still worked at it. Usually we spoke of other things.

When a mutual friend announced on social media that Milton had died, I was shocked. When I returned to work I mentioned his death to some of his surviving coworkers, to his old boss, to the company's CEO. Asked if anyone knew any next of kin. Records were checked. None on record. Nobody knew. Someone recalled that Milton had had a brother? Didn't know the man's name or frankly if he was still alive. Hadn't Milton owned a house? With Tenants? Nobody knew who they might be now. No one knew who to offer our condolences. It happens. Death doesn't always leave us convenient means to mark the passing even of people we knew, and in the end how well did I know this old man? Don't know that I knew him any better than the people with whom he worked every day for years.  Would not presume to say that he intended that I should, but he did like a quick confidence, did my friend Milton.

I hadn't know Milton that long before I learned, I believe all in the same brief conversation, that Milton was gay, that another, very quiet elderly man who worked in the Fiction Department had been his lover for some time in the seventies, and that the great love of Milton's middle age -- a different fellow altogether, not at the bookstore -- had died years before in the Plague. Milton was quick to confess, at least with me, presumably because I was obviously gay in a way he'd never really been at work, but he tended to be a bit sketchy about the details. I pressed him occasionally to expand on his autobiography, but he never seemed terribly comfortable sharing anything he couldn't frame as an anecdote. He liked a bit of shock as well. He would tell me something he thought fairly scandalous, and then grin through his bushy moustache in a way that suggested one had been shown something secret and frankly naughty, and then he would laugh -- too deep a laugh to be described as a giggle, but in that range emotionally. I was asked more than once by Milton if indeed he wasn't rather a dirty old man? I was always quick to agree and to suggest that he was soiling the innocence of my otherwise untroubled mind, and then I would giggle with him. That was very much our routine. We both enjoyed it enormously.

A number of people at work with whom I shared Milton's passing mentioned his many eccentricities and traits, thrift being chiefly notable among the the latter. More than one person mentioned Milton's lunch. This usually consisted of whatever canned goods were on sale at the Bartell's Drugstore up the street, and I do mean anything: cold canned beans, yes, but also cold canned pasta, green beans, and at least once a can of cherry pie-filling. Saw that with my own eyes. Milton also brought back even less likely cans from his visits home to his natal place in Virginia. I won't say canned possum, but only because I never personally saw these things, but I am reliably informed that some of that shit was particularly disquieting. His lunches were mentioned pretty consistently by everyone who remembered him. One friend told me that that phrase, "Milton's Lunch," had actually become a family catchphrase for anything rather unsavory being served.

Another indication of the strength with which he held onto a nickel was his aforementioned collecting of any and all printed matter so long as it was free. He was a great one for coupon books, free newspapers (remember those?) free magazines, Xeroxes  -- if free. He liked free. Milton amassed the written word as birds feather nests; he took what he found, kept what he chose, clipped and bent all those words to some secret purpose, and mixed in many words of his own. I was never in his home. No idea what that looked like so I won't indulge in speculation beyond saying I assume his living spaces looked very much like his canvas and plastic travelling bags. I'd bet good money. 

He did share one secret with me that I've kept until now. I've debated divulging this information even here, not because I think it either shameful or wrong but simply because I don't know to whom he might otherwise have confided this part of his life and again they may know more than I. Still, I offer what I know in anticipation of someone else actually coming forward with what I would hope to be some tangible part of the record. 

Milton spoke regularly about both the Oregon and the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festivals. Not sure how many performances he actually attended, presumably "for lack of purse," but he knew all the personnel past and present and followed seasons closely, particularly the Canadians. He loved Canada for a number of reasons, Shakespeare being just the most obvious. In fact he went North just as often as he could. Many of his best stories had their origin there.

 I think he was probably retired before Milton told me specifically that he was an amateur photographer. I'd no idea. He seemed almost entirely a man of words, "Words, words,  mere words, no matter from the heart; th' effect doth operate another way." (Cymbeline.) This does not preclude an interest, even a preoccupation with images. Quite the contrary in my experience. All means of making beauty and making it to linger, no? Well, Milton it seems had very specific beauties in mind, and these he found mostly in Canada, first in the classifieds and later online. The reason other than Shakespeare or poutine for his many trips across the Northern border was to visit his beauties.

I understood his hesitation even if I didn't share it. He was of a generation born before decriminalization, before Stonewall and Gay Liberation and Marriage Equality and all the other advances that have allowed us to live less in fear and more in our own skins. Milton's life was a very quiet one to begin with, and what he himself called his "private life" would remain largely that until the end. I do not believe he was at all bothered that other people should know that he was gay, I just think his life was such that the subject tended not to come up most of the time, with most people. Worth remembering that he brought it up to me. I was glad of the connection to his life and experience and I firmly believe he was glad of a knowing audience.

And so, his pictures. On the face of it there isn't anything very novel or inspiring about Milton's pictures. He hired good looking young men, hustlers, and had them pose in various stages of dress and undress. He took pictures in parks and amusement arcades and in hotel rooms. He took what I would estimate to be many hundreds, perhaps thousands of photographs across a number of decades. When he finally showed me a few pages of this from an album, I was struck by how much of what I saw was surprisingly candid, even casual. There were plenty of obviously posed shots, but there were half again as many of men drinking, smoking, laughing, sitting on a motel chair, or a bed, or a park swing, a bench, on the grass. Some of the pictures had a quality of Nan Goldin's work about them, nothing like the aesthetic sophistication of her work but that same sense of close observation of an intimate but not necessarily erotic or dramatic moment. The most striking thing, other than the repetition of subjects over time, was the sense of familiarity. It actually felt as if the photographer knew these men.

From what Milton told me, he did, some of them anyway. And that was the most interesting aspect of Milton's hobby, of his secret. He was genuinely curious about these young men and their lives, often spending whole days with them, doing tourist things, visiting local landmarks (free,) having not very expensive meals together, talking. No idea how much if anything of what they told him about themselves was true. Sex work does not necessarily thrive on veracity. Milton's curiosity though seemed to me, and evidently to a number of them, quite genuine. He developed relationships with a number of these men, relationships that may or may not have involved physical intimacy other than that mediated by the camera. When we last talked about this part of Milton's life he lamented that he could not manage to maintain contact with a number of his Northern friends, first during a long illness of his and then during the pandemic. He was quick to express concern about how they were doing. He was not, it is worth noting upset that he hadn't had the chance to see and photograph them again. 

"We've become friends," was the phrase Milton said often and with the greatest satisfaction. I believe he meant it. He came to understand something of addiction, and homelessness, and mental health issues none of which he might have understood had he not made friends with his subjects. That he both objectified and shared history with a number of these men was less a contradiction that a cliche I suppose. Don't doubt it happens all the time. An acquaintance who did sex work in San Francisco years ago once told me how much he genuinely came to care about the men he saw as his "regulars." Makes sense. Fundamentally Milton was kind, offered kindness and had it back, not always but often. 

Only once did he show signs of having had a violent encounter. I asked him how it had happened and he told me.  It was unusual. Understandably it had frightened him badly and left him deeply depressed. Touchingly, some time later he told me one of his friends from Canada had made a point of getting in touch after he heard what had happened and made a point of telling Milton it would be okay and that he hoped to see him again.

I decided to tell this part of Milton's story because like his book of essays on Shakespeare, I fear this part of Milton's life will now be lost. It mattered very much to him, whether he told anyone else about it or not. It mattered because he mattered, his life did, does. I've no idea if any of Milton's pictures survive. No idea if his book ever became a book or even enough of a book as to be recognizably a book. Maybe it is still somewhere in his house, in a trunk full of notes, like Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. Perhaps there is someone as I write organizing Milton's effects, sorting through his papers, arranging his photos, preserving his past. Maybe not. It is entirely possible that we have seen the last of my old friend Milton and all his works and deeds, his art, his mind, his hobbies, his lovers, his friends. 

And that would be a shame and a loss. 

Some of the books that die were never really born and no one to mourn them save their authors and sometimes no one left to mourn their authors either. "I'll note you in my book of memory" then. I'll note the loss of all I knew and all I did not, all he never let me read, all he never showed me or told me or confided in me. I can still hope he had kept those confidences elsewhere. 

Whatever else, he is not unremembered. 

"Remember thee!
Aye, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe."

*Hardest lesson of my adult life: evil, ignorant fuckers seemingly never sleep let alone die and their fascist fuckery abides. Fight the Right -- 'cause Lord knows they are still trying to erase us.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A Brief Sermon in Soda Cr*ck*rs


To My Fellow Saltine Americans:

Aren't we sensitive nowadays?! For the descendants of a mongrelized amalgam of western European peasantry we would seem to be terribly uppish about perceived putdowns nowadays on the Internest. It seems we can't use the C word -- as in Premiere Saltines, Ritz, Club, Krispy, Zesta, In a Biskit, etc. -- anymore. The ever vigilant algorithmic robots may allow hair-raising postings from all sorts of face-ists, kite-nationalists, and gnat-sees, but not one little saltine? Suppositories of the Former Precedent Bump can post seemingly endless crude memes defaming VP Hairpin or Joe Vicodin or former Sprecher des Hauses Fancy Pillates, but I call Virginia born writer Tom Wolf a saltine on the Placenook and the Instagrump and I get threatened with virtual exile for violating Impunity Stanfords?  Really?! Has it come to this? 

I must tell you, my fellow breadnecks, we have a problem. When no arrangement of asterisks, no clever substitutions and near-rhymes can save my post, there's nothing for it but to delete the thing and resort to other means. Thus my present plea.

It's my day off and so with my late breakfast/early lunch of corn chips, salsa, and leftover refied beans, I decided to watch a new Netflix documentary. Here's what I originally posted with a photo of the subject:

"He is the American Waugh and the greatest cracker to write politically reactionary modern English since Faulkner. Watching the new Netflix love-letter/doc Radical Wolfe -- Tom, that is, stinging prose, fancy threads. One of the truly ruthless bastards who turns out to have been nice to his wife and pleasant at dinner. Well, bless his heart."

Did you catch it? The saltine that spoiled the dish?

Before it was nuked, the post generated quite a lot of interesting chat about how good the streamer is at this sort of thing, various opinions about the writers mentioned, some of it from folks who had met Wolfe and found him warm and charming, etc.* It was all fairly lighthearted and good natured and literate and nobody, including me was really looking to pick fights or spit in the eye of the late writer, his people, clan, or countrymen. Shame then to see the whole thread burnt to the ground over that one word.

There is a larger point to be made, if not in that wisp of a social media post, about America's ongoing love affair with dapper little bullies who invariably punch down rather than up, while insisting the opposite is true. (See for example most of the boys in the current roster of the NYT opinion pages.) 

It's also true that there was meant to be an implied criticism of both the documentary and its subject in what I wrote. I am not subtle. I meant to flick a bit of the gilding off of the lilies so reverently laid at the great man's tomb. I enjoyed the film as I've enjoyed reading Wolfe my whole adult life, with the knowledge that for all his linguistic refinements and modern flamboyance he was an all but wholly reactionary thinker and a fierce advocate of the most repellent kind of cultural and social conservatism. He regularly and consistently used his wit to hurt the well intentioned and the progressive, to argue again diversity, the empowerment of the disenfranchised, and artistic, cultural, and even scientific evolution, and very much in the service of bad ideas, worse politics, and anti-intellectual barbarism. 

That's what made him such a favorite, particularly in later life, with so many people who might never otherwise be heard to ever mention a book.

It is true that as with Evelyn Waugh, my admiration of Tom Wolfe as a writer (mostly) is tempered by my sincere belief that both gentlemen chose to be on the wrong side of history nearly every time they put pen to paper. I have in my library a whole raft of such writers from Chesterton to Zizek whose work I continue to read and admire and who have nonetheless held opinions I find both offensive and wicked. In Wolfe's case I should think a very convincing case could also be made that as an American prose stylist of the first rank he is best remembered in shorter forms and nonfiction. Despite their enormous popularity, I've always felt that his gigantic novels exposed the exhaustion of his sound-effects, adjectival superabundance, and the surprising narrowness of his soul.

The one thing I can guarantee Wolfe would have hated worse than wearing sneakers would have been any attempt to suppress speech on the interwebs or elsewhere. He was an absolutist when it came to the defense of free and unfettered speech. Again, I would not entirely agree, but there is an obvious irony here that I got in trouble with our billionaire media overlords and their mechanical Cerberus for affectionately calling a fellow breadneck a saltine American, for calling a cracker a cracker. Might be the only thing I might ever have to say with which the Great Man may not have taken issue.

(See if I can post this without being banned.)

*I've heard similar anecdotes about the late Justice Antonin Scalia and the equally deceased William F. Buckley. I don't doubt they were all delightful at table and just as adept with expensive flatware as they all were with pickaxe or stiletto. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

What there is of

 My mother's house is dark and quiet. The roof of her house is shaded by the trees my father planted fifty years ago. Even in broad day unless you are at a window the room is likely dim. This suits Mum, mostly. She has a sensitivity to light and has learned, it seems, to see in the dark. My brother calls her, "Owl Lady." She turns on the standing lamp to read her paper and her mail. (She also drapes a kerchief over her bosom so as not to get inky from the cheap newsprint.) She balances her checkbook and such on the kitchen table, in her add-on laundry room. Sunniest room in the house. Always smells good too, like fresh towels and clean sheets. At ninety one she doesn't iron everything anymore but the board's right there if she needs it. The quiet in her house was always there, but we never used to hear it. My folks were never people to run a tv or leave the radio on all day. Busy mostly. Things to do. He worked, she worked, they raised children, they went, they did, they were doing every day. There were always other people to be looked after; old people, other people's kids, strangers, friends, and animals to be seen to, and places they had to be or meant to go. Once a week they went out to eat. Every Friday. Usually had fish. Used to order black coffee, then water with lemon. Then that stopped.

The quiet settled on the house for good when my father died.  

Now widowed, my mother must occupy her own time as best she can. She paints a little. She collages. A week or so ago she "put out Christmas" which means that her little house is now decorated to within an inch of inaccessibility. (If you should go to visit, mind how you go as there will be very few flat surfaces that have not been made abundantly festive. Even without the holiday displays the house is well packed. I joke with her that there is nowhere to fall all the way to the floor.) 

Every day now my mother gets up and makes her breakfast now rather than his. Instead of sorting pills into two little porcelain dishes, she puts her pills into just the one dish the night before. She takes the insulin he gave her for many, many years. She eats her toast, drinks her coffee, and watches the morning's local news (her choices are Pittsburgh or Youngstown, neither of which is actually all that local -- which says something about life in rural America.) Even in her nineties and alone she dresses every day and "puts on her face." She is not to be caught out in her pajamas should anyone come to the door -- so long as no one comes at some unreasonable hour before noon.

And now an assertion I believe I will be allowed as soon as it's made with or without concrete evidence. 

I know I am biased, nonetheless I genuinely believe that my mother is now an entirely admirable person. Which is not to say that she used to be a bank-robber or someone who kicked babies. (And now I feel I've rather painted myself into a corner and so I ought to say, no, we neither of us kick babies, dogs, or other people potted geraniums -- and what a dark and dire world in which you must live if anything I've said led you to think we did. But then my fault as I'm the one who may very well have just put that idea in your head. Apologies.) To re-state the obvious, my mother was always a good person and a good mother. I intend only to add that what there is of her now; what is left after illness, loss, survival, resignation, loneliness, love, she now seems to me to be just the essential of what she has always been. My mother has been winnowed but has neither bent nor broken. 

Doesn't make her a saint, mind. She still gets irritable, still worries like old bones things she ought not to worry at all, still gets blue, and still snaps now and again. She can still wither your soul with a surprisingly sharp, "Not really" in answer to what may have seemed a perfectly innocent question. There are times now talking to her on the phone when I still can find myself no longer entirely adult. Happens. Say the wrong thing the wrong way and I'm nine. She's still Mum. We both try very hard now not to disappoint, though I know I regularly do, as I always have and inevitably will again, though she'd deny it. We usually laugh quite a lot when we talk, but not always in the nicest way, or at the most harmless things.  We can be a bit catty the two of us. We giggle when she's not altogether nice, particularly when she's seen some nasty piece of work at the Walmart or spoken to some mean biddy at the market. Love that. A phrase from my grandmother comes to mind, "piss and vinegar," and yeah, she's sweet, my Mum, but that's still in the mix as well.

For example we both find it funny that when the irascible, the unpleasant, and the mean, the miserable, the stingy, and the gawd-awful-genuinely-bad people die -- and it's never soon enough, is it? -- and before you can say "good riddance" they are instantly beatified by their survivors. Go to any funeral, read any obituary. Doesn't matter that you know better. That wretched woman who used to wallop her kids in the Kmart? Dead? Best. Mother. Ever. Deadbeat Dad? Dead? A Faultless Father. That grandmother you remember shouting racist nonsense at the common-room tv now Sits At the Right Hand of a Loving God. When the teacher who tortured us in Algebra class died she became a "devoted educator." That brute who beat the tar out of anyone in arm's reach, he dies and we are shocked to learn that he was in fact, "a gentle giant" who "loved the Lord." Did he now?  It's hilarious. Dark, but funny. We have both, my mother and I, known enough old people to know that old age, in mother's words, just makes one "more so." Whatever you were at forty, sixty to eighty won't fix. "Nobody stops being a jerk," she's told me more than once, "just because they've slowed down." (Only she didn't say "jerk." P&V, remember? When she wants to, that dainty little thing curses like a pirate's parrot.) Neither of my beloved grandmothers was ever less than a handful when they got old. She took good care of both of them by the way. Nobody ever called either an angel, even at their funerals -- and we really loved both of those bossy old ladies, honest. (And no, we didn't always say "bossy.")

As for Mum, it is not to say that she cannot still worry a thing to tatters when she is of a mind, or that she can't be suspicious, short-tempered, or sharp. But remember what she said about getting old? What she is and has always tried hardest to be is kind and at the very the least never intentionally unkind. She loves who she loves, good and bad, and that's not easily undone, try as anyone might. To be happy is what she intends for us all. To be kind was however very much more to the point. That's what she taught us. Can't control happiness. Can always be kind. And I try. Mostly. Still.

She has always been stronger than she looks, in party because she's always been well over four feet tall and usually quiet. When she was younger she was rather unkindly dubbed, presumably by one of the crazy sisters, "Stella the Stone," for her personal stoicism. That hurt her feelings I know, obviously disproving the premise right there, though she only told me so years later. Nevertheless, when we were kids it did seem to us that she could and would decide when she would and would not be moved to reaction, unlike my father who raged and wept with equal abandon nearly all his life. Did not want to ride alone with him in a car after you'd misbehaved. That was bad. He was also always the first person to sooth an injury, but there was something distinctly masculine about his public access to emotion. (Still true generally, my fellow men. Ponder that.) My Mum was taught to be a woman of the Eleanor Roosevelt type; if you're going to cry, go to bathroom, lock the door, and turn on the tap so no one can hear you. Probably why she seemed the least sentimental of all the adults in my childhood: always present and practical of necessity, the one to be counted on in any crisis, the one who invariably got the call to help, the one least likely to lose her shit no matter what. She did of course, lose it, but my father lost his with predictable regularity, as did both of their sainted mothers, his especially, whenever the wind blew the wrong way or the mood came upon. I've inherited some of that temper too. Has to be fought. There were also a lot of demonstrably mad people in my mother's life at one time, including both her sisters, and sincerity could sound harsh when it had to be put so often to practical effect; when someone had to be committed or made to see a surgeon and so on. (I've some experience of this now myself and it is frankly impossible. No idea how she managed.) She could love you and make you listen, check yourself in for observation, clean up the mess you'd made, settle what needed putting down. My father it was who obviously felt bad and sympathized. Mum it was who told him "do something or I will," and did. They were a good team. They took good care. (Just as my brother and sister-in-law take care of her now.)

Stones of course wear away in the stream and nearly all of my mother's edges have been rounded. She can still make you watch your step now and again, but as I've said, mostly what we do together now is talk and laugh and pass the time whenever I can find the time to do so. She is still funny, self-deprecating, and occasionally forgetful. Still forgiving always but only so far. She remembers some grudges better than what she had for lunch or when we last talked. Still bright as a penny though. And sharp as a tack. All those. She also stubbornly resists being made harmless. She now suffers fools better than she used to, but she is no more fond of them than she ever was. She is also now shameless when it comes to reminding anyone who needs to hear it that at ninety-one she doesn't have time to listen to any nonsense she finds unsupportable, though she is still more tolerant of other people's nonsense than I am likely ever to be. And she freakin' loves that nobody believes she's ninety-one from the look and sound of her. Loves it. She looks great. She's always been cute, always stylish, but new drugs made her lose quite a lot of weight and now she's slim as a girl again. She wishes my Dad had lived to see her so little. She's 'bout as big as a sparrow now.

That makes her adorable, though that's not what I'm on about.

What makes me particularly proud of her just now, what's set me bragging that my Mum is better than she ever was has all to do with her pickin' fights and saying "NO" real loud. Just lately she's made a renewed commitment to a rather gentler, elderly version of kicking' ass and takin' names. Seriously. Stella the Stone is now rather her wrestling name. Immovability her super-power. Will not be budged, this one. Because it seems some bad guys decided to do a bad thing and she was not having it. Not going to have that nonsense. Oh hell, to be honest she called it bullshit and the lady was not wrong.

When I say my mother reads the local newspapers I mean all of it, every inch. Some corporation puts an itty bitty notice the size of a stick of gum in there somewhere on a back classifieds page (they still have those in small town newspapers, the classifieds, which is why there are still some small town newspapers) and this little squib is the only notice of a public meeting, trust me when I tell you, she's reading that. The meeting turns out to be with her Township Supervisors. Soon. Also turns out the corporation is ramming through a new industrial gravel pit just up the road, a gravel pit that threatens to ruin local property-values, wreck the water-table, despoil the air with noise and dust and dirt, bring a a fleet of noisy, road-wrecking trucks up and down the road, and probably make a couple of greedy bastards richer at the expense of everyone else who lives there.

Well, my brother, who reads the paper after her but just as close agrees and the two of them go to that meeting. It is infuriating as all three supervisors insist that their responsibility is to remain "neutral" which is obviously "nonsense" again. The representative from the corporation turns his back on the public and refuses to talk to them. The supervisors do nothing. Everybody goes home mad.

My mother calls both local papers and the nearest news stations trying to get someone interested in this story but no one writes or says a thing. She even plays the "I'm ninety-one" angle -- human interest, see? --  but for once it does no good.

My mother and brother put signs in their yards and tell their neighbors to go to the next meeting. There are people actually organizing the resistance to this insanity, the same brave people who've kept out a "garbage mountain" for years. Next meeting there are more locals. The company lawyer has bodyguards to keep the rednecks from beating him up in the parking lot. My brother notices that those boys are packing heat and they get put out or have to turn in the guns, I forget which, but that had to be good moment. One of the neighbor's has hired his own lawyer now.

Another meeting and some of the local merchants have finally heard about this ugly business and they show up and kick. Now the place is pretty full. Lots of folks get up and raise polite midwestern Hell. Nobody fights the lawyer or his bodyguards. (Everybody but the lawyer finds those boys hilarious.) The tide would seem to have turned. Finally after hours my mother decides to speak. This is not something she has ever done, public speaking. Not her at all. But she does it.

They tell her she needs to walk down front but she tells them straight up: she's ninety one years old and she's been sitting there too long and so that is not going to happen and they can just bring her the microphone and she talk right where she is. People smile and laugh. 

By the time I hear this story she can't remember a damn thing she said. A week nor so later we piece it together from my brother and other sources, plus now it's over she remembers it better. She told those officials and the rest that she was a nice town girl when her new husband moved her out to the middle of nowhere. Just the one corner store then, one gas pump, and fields. Sixty five years she's lived there and she has watched a whole community grow there: families and new businesses and good neighbors. And now they were going to throw all of that away so some greedy men could come in and ruin the land and spoil the air. It was not, is not right. She told them, in her quiet way, no.

And then the corporation quit. They insisted in the paper that it was nothing to do with the locals. But the bastards quit. No gravel pit. The good won.

I'm not saying she did this. Collective action, resistance, and a functioning democracy did this, but even my elderly, adorable little mother knew it doesn't happen unless you show up. And she showed up. 

That's what I'm talking about. She always shows up. So long as there's breath in her, she will show up. That's the lesson.

And that's my best gift this year. I'm pretty sure everybody's scheming to get me some new overalls that fit better than the ones I bought myself and that's fine. I will still be surprised. But honestly, my mother's gift to me I happily now share with you. She used to make fudge this time of year and give it to everybody. She made excellent fudge. She'd send some to me in a tin the size of a suitcase, and I shared some of it too because she has never understood portion control or discreet servings. And now she's given me another example I will try to follow and will try to persuade you all to follow too.

Show up. Resist the bullies. Save what is good. Find your voice and raise it when you have to. Make our democracy work. Be kind.

Her name by the way is still Mrs. Gerald Craft, and I call her Mum, or course but you can call her Stella or Mrs. Craft when you meet her and she'd be glad of the company, or you can find her on "the Spacebook" and tell her you're proud of her too, if you are so moved. Feel free to remark that she can't possibly be ninety-one and look that good! That won't do a bit of harm either because it's true. Say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Happy Chanuka as you choose because I'm pleased to say she not one of those assholes either, as she'd be the first to tell you in just those words and then we can all have a giggle because it really is awfully cute when she curses. 

What there is of her now? It's all good.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

One Must Have a Name


“In this world one must have a name; it prevents confusion, even when it does not establish identity." -- Ambrose Bierce

I have been thinking about names, our names I mean, not just the names of things. (Thanks, Adam.) And I don't mean surnames or names in the old world sense of a Name with a capital N. I can't imagine why anyone still cares if you are in fact an indirect descendent of Wilda, Princess Royal of Knuckleball-Streusal-Top or that your great, great, great grandpa carried the tent-spikes of Confederate Major General Gideon Pillow at the Battle of Little Cat Box. The only thing more boring than ancestry frankly is someone eager to explain it at dinner. No, I'm thinking of names as something altogether more common.

I realized the other day that as the parents of my generation pass away, I may well be the last person to call certain grown people of my long acquaintance by the diminutives under which I first met them. It was very much a fact of my time that all the boys rather lazily named for The Apostles became in my childhood Petey, Jimmy, Johnny, Andy, Taddy, Matty, Tommy, Simon and Phil -- and I don't remember a Simon or a Phil (and be honest, how often have you remembered those Apostles, Simon and Philip, outside of Sunday School?)  As a Brad and or Bradley, I was something of an anomaly. All of my little friends had diminutives.  True of some of the girls too. I know at least one distinguished professor of French and French Literature who I'll call "Becky" and who recently informed me on social media I may be the last person on earth not to call her either Rebecca, Professor, or "Mom." Could name an equal number of other "girls" I still think of as Katie, Betty, Kathy, or Kimmy. Seems the whole Baby Boom ended pretty consistently in a "Y." 

Until I was grown my father affectionately called me "Shorty." My mother and protector who knew me better always called me by my name and only used "Bradley Richard" when I was insufferable -- which was not infrequent. Some years ago, when my father lay dying, he woke one night while I sat beside him in the dark and called to me by my old nickname. I don't remember what I answered, only that I did and that as I did the last light of my childhood guttered and died and somehow that was of course heartbreaking but also fitting and right.

My parents' names, Jerry and Stella, despite having other more famous folk associated with either, will never mean anyone other than Dad and Mum to me, particularly when mentioned as they usually were for better than sixty years in one breath. 

Other names are just as clear, and more universally recognizable. Cher. Madonna. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, sometimes Zeppo, and even less frequently Gummo.


I'm not really old enough to feel any particular way about the insipid Debbie Reynolds hit song with that name -- "The  old hootie owl hootie-hoots to the dove / Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love" -- and I don't really remember the hit movie or the three sequels (!) with I think -- Sandra Dee, was it? 

Not my Tammy.

For me there will only ever be the one. Only Tammy who comes always first to mind is now, has been, and will always be Wynette. (Rest in power, Ms. "Tammy" Virginia Wynette Byrd Chapel Jones Tomlin Richey.) That's my Tammy. In country music they hand out titles like old Italian aristos looking to marry off their useless nephews and unload their decayed palazzos. Everybody not born yesterday is a Country Music "legend" or worse, "royalty" -- which is just silly on the face of it. Real royalty hasn't had hair 'at high in three hundred years and that Charles III never wore nothing near so nice as a Mr. Nudie suit. Now jazz had just the one Duke and the one Count and the first Earl to come to mind will always be Gardner, but Klugh would also be an acceptable answer. Whereas Country Western music must have had at least three Queens and half again as many Mothers, etc. I love them all, them ladies, but Tammy was the One. No one better personified the ache of our Pennsyltucky soundtrack when I was a boy. Beyond the song everybody knows about Standing By your piece-o'-shit-no-account-mean-as-a-wet-rooster-cousin-husband, Tammy sang every song a sad and or sassy gal could need: from I Don't Want to Play House, Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad, to Something to Brag About, to say nothing of her D. I. V. O. R. C. E. And with her sometime husband and the greatest Country singer of all goddamn time, Mr. George "Possum" Jones, Tammy sang every love story from Golden Rings to We're Gonna Hold On (which they sadly very much did not.)  Miss the fucked up pair of 'em still.

The only other Tammy to come to mind will always have the two names, Tammy Faye, like all those other double and triple named belles before and since, like Peggy Sue or Norma Jean or that nice lil' Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon. With her first husband and down-low-friend-of-Dorothy Jim Baker, Tammy Faye was a joke and scandal and the very personification once of greedy, golden-calf worshipping, Evangelical, prosperity gospel, snake oil television vulgarity, and dumb as a goat playing checkers, bless her heart. (That runny mascara! That goosey vibrato! That paint-by-numbers mug! And those horrible, nightmarish puppets!) But then Tammy Faye talked on-air to a gay man with AIDS and was briefly the personification of kindness and sympathy. Remember that? That was confusing. And then after The Fall, it turned out that once Tammy Faye was free from the moral sinkhole of her closeted husband, she actually had a very good heart and a surprisingly wide view. Actually got be very fond of that messy bitch. And when she died? Who knew we would shed a tear over her?! But we did, and not just Jim Jay Bullock but nearly the whole lot of us sentimental old things. Tammy Faye?! Still miss that little confidence drag pixie for Jeebus.

Not so much Jan. Remember Jan?

For some of us that name doesn't conjure the middle sister on the Brady Bunch, but rather that human haystack of pink wigs and mop-lashes, Jan (Janice Wendell) Crouch, Know her? She and her Assemblies of Gawd-awful golf-hustle husband Paul ruled the Trinity Broadcast Network. That circus was actually founded by the Bakers, as was Pat Robertson's fief, by the way. And like Robertson, the Crouchs kept their boondoggle going years after the Bakers' PTL empire got sold for parts. One may have to have had a trailer park somewhere in one's family-line to remember the Queen of TBN. Some of us will never entirely shake her. Stuff of nightmares. Jan made Tammy Faye look like Georgia O'Keefe. Picture Dolly Parton drawn by a five year old with neon magic-markers. Jan was Tammy Faye without good gay friends. Jan was Tammy Faye with considerably less ruth. Among the things Jan had that Tammy Faye lacked -- besides a long if creepy marriage -- Jan hilariously had an Honorary Doctor of Humane Lettres from the Oral Roberts University, which is just like having a chocolate souffle from a gas-station vending machine. Also unlike Tammy Faye, Jan was about as bright as a pit-bull and far likelier to maul anyone who got too close to the bookkeeping, or her wig budget, or the actual state of the charity missions she flew to on her private plane. Her husband Paul was supposedly the preacher in the family (as the God of the Smug Literalists, as you doubtlessly know, ordains only persons with penises.) Paul dressed like a casino pimp, talked like a carny, and had all the charisma of  tax-attorney. It was really that technicolor tornado of false hair, fake boobs, crocodile tears, and blinding white veneers, Jan who kept the ballyhoo going day after grinding day. It was Jan who was under constant threat from demonic forces and liberal journalists. My land, the woman almost died hundreds of times! She sang, she cried, she begged, she gave dolls that looked just like her to mystified African children. I would miss her too if she hadn't been such a poisonous presence on televisions across my youth. The pair's been dead for a long time now, but the mortifying legacy of  their brand of charismatic clown show also left lasting scars on the body politic among other horrors. (Their own granddaughter sued them after her rape at TBN was covered up.) The youngest Crouch boy, Matt now runs the considerably reduced empire and hosts with his own shaggy blond, Laurie, but she ain't no Jan, sure enough. Wouldn't even look up if you saw them buying the big jug of Ranch Dressing at the Walmart.

I wish I could forget Jan Crouch.

So some names kinda get ruined. Sorry, potentially harmless baby Adolf. You have bad parents. 

Other names, often fictitious, like Ahab, Sherlock, Scout, Jem, Dill, and Atticus aren't so much spoiled as made a bit embarrassing after attaining specific immortality, a bit like calling a new baby Beyonce now, or naming your dog Rin Tin Tin. Really? Who can live up to such a name?! Terrible idea.

Buddy and Sook are two other such for me -- not spoiled or even so very famous but very specifically characters I can't see anywhere but in the story I read every Christmas time. Well, that's not strictly true. I do have an old friend who calls me "Buddy" like we're in a black and white road picture or riding the rails between Hoovervilles, so maybe there's nothing quite so distinct there, but Sook? None other. 

And rereading that story yet again, I am reminded not just of those names but of the above referenced novel by Truman Capote's great friend, Harper Lee. It would seem that immortality ain't all it ever was nowadays. Much to the shock and chagrin of the generation who once had a "Y" at the ends of their names, my generation, younger readers it seems have little need of fictional little white children to explain racism to them anymore and little or no use for Atticus Finch. (I'll let you all catch your breath.) I fear the day may come when certain aspects of my favorite American Christmas story will soon enough condemn it to a similar fate. If and when it does, those new readers will not be wrong. Don't be upset. I imagine I'll be gone by then. Maybe not. We'll see. Meanwhile I'll go on with it. There will be other books, other authors, other stories as good as these. We needed these. Our children and grandchildren may not.

It is a loss I already knew something of, having long since abandoned recommending A Dissertation on Roast Pork, by Charles Lamb, or The Merchant of Venice, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Puddin'head Wilson, by Mark Twain. Do I not now think all of these great? I do still and they are. There are however other books, other novels, other essays, other Shakespeare. There will be other readers. Those that know already do, those who are curious still will find these books without me. My endorsement is not required. 

And no one need like everything I like nor love who and what I love. Neither need you. 

Another thing about names, not the ruined ones that haunt us or the ones we hate, but rather the names we keep with us for comfort, for love, our own and others. There is a numeric value to these as well. I don't mean that mystical bollocks beloved now of the Q cult and the Trumpers. Nope. Just... nope. I mean how many now remember the name? My grandmothers, Lella Belle and Minnie Mae, for example. How many still know those names? A dozen people? Fewer than that? More? How many will remember Truman Capote in one hundred year's time? Who will remember me?

Matters not a whit. Not to me, honestly, and certainly not tonight.  The only numbers, the only names with which I am at this moment concerned are the ones necessary to me, perhaps to us now. Posterity will see to itself. Our only job is not to burn it all down, to love one another, and to read A Christmas Memory again. And when we've finished if you've stayed, tell me your name again, lest I forget.

Friday, October 13, 2023

An Enemy to Civil Liberty: Unicorns


Where I grew up everyone believed in unicorns. The only people who didn't were Soviet Communists who wanted to infiltrate and destroy our American way of life, the bastards. I can honestly say I never heard a single person I knew even suggest that unicorns were not real until I was actually in high school. By that time I'd seen people on Donohue deny the existence of unicorns. I believe it was a taping in a huge auditorium in Dallas or somewhere and I was astonished the disbeliever wasn't lynched there and then. On reflection I'm not at all surprised. The audience was being watched, so they responded the way all unicorn-loving folk do, with acrid condescension and pity at the woeful and fallen state of man and the sure knowledge that someone was never going to get to ride a beautiful horned horse across rainbows in the sky, etc. The average American follower of the unicorn almost never meets disbelief with overt violence, at least when being recorded. Derision, bullying, sarcasm, tears, even screaming rage, but seldom physical violence; unless it's late enough, dark enough, isolated enough, and you know, maybe a very special day in the unicorn calendar.

That's the thing about the unicorn lovers. They will tell you straight up that they are all about the rainbows, peace, and pretty ponies. They are shocked and horrified that anyone has ever done violence in the name of unicorns, any and all unicorns. Shocked. And horrified. If pressed, most good unicorn lovers will admit that there are folks who follow the wrong unicorns and that they do all sorts of unspeakable things, and the most progressive unicorn folk will insist that any true unicorn believers are fundamentally sweet natured sweetie-pie cutie-patooties and no one should judge unicorns or the genuine believers therein by the behavior of just a few bad horse-apples, as it were. 

And really, it is the unicorn lovers who are oppressed nowadays, if you hadn't noticed. The unicorn haters have an agenda you know. It's Soviet Communism all over again! Corrupting the innocent love of unicorns in our children with their perverted anti-unicorn talk and describing their filthy non-unicorn sex practices in classrooms and those unisex bathrooms and putting secret messages against unicorns in their fancy children's books that they hide in our libraries. 

I don't believe in unicorns myself. Simple as that. Never seen the slightest evidence of 'em. Don't find I need 'em, never really think about 'em, could not care less about unicorns if they played golf or danced on the head of a pin or vomited skittles because unicorns don't exist. You want to believe in unicorns you go right ahead. You do you. I've had my run-ins with the unicorn crowd, and so I generally just avoid the topic altogether. None of my business, really. You "know" unicorns are real because you walk with unicorns, not with sight and so on. Okay. I know that's nonsense, but I don't want to fight. You enjoy your unicorn stories and your unicorn art and your unicorn stickers. Wear your unicorn shirts and crocs and trot on, unmolested by me, to frolic in happy meadows. Would that we could all just get along.

I personally almost never bring up unicorns. Maybe when I was younger and still finding my way in the world, but now? Trot on. I see your unicorn lawn flag, or your unicorn post on Facebook, I don't have to like it, right? That's how this is supposed to work in a democratic plurality. 

But some of you unicorn people just can't help yourselves, can you? You just have to talk shit about us nonbelievers. Oh, I don't mean the hardcore unicorn fanatics of my rural American childhood. Those unicorn ladies are still out there burning books and takin' names, I know. No, I mean my unicorn loving friends, some of 'em anyway, acquaintances really. Not all. Never all. Some of these just can't help speculating about just what would make some poor, benighted soul like me reject the Truth and Beauty of unicorns. Not the old school, western unicorns you understand -- how vulgar! how stupid! -- no, these more sophisticated, meditative unicorn believers follow altogether different trails; up and down the Himalayas for instance, or into ayahuasca retreats deep in the rain forest. I've just been sucked into a series of these unicorn conversations on social media, all of 'em with terribly smart folk, who just can not frame an argument without a unicorn or address my disbelief without being exactly as smug, pompous, humorless, and narrow as any of the unicorn ladies of my youth. Worse, by way of justification for all this wrong-headed twaddle about we who do not believe in unicorns, these believers only bring it up because (you guessed it) the anti-unicorn people are just so mean to the unicorn people!

And why am I getting so angry? Doesn't that just prove I need unicorns in my life? Do admit.

It is just so depressingly familiar, isn't it? 

I did try to crack a few jokes, lighten the mood. I tried to frame the whole thing as a friendly disagreement. I spoke from personal experience. I tried very hard to be respectful of other people's feelings, but I could not convince these otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, indeed creative men (all men, always men) to maybe not be such complete dicks about people who don't believe in unicorns. That was it. That was the whole deal. I wasn't trying to talk anybody out of their unicorns. I wasn't calling anybody names or saying that unicorns are responsible for an unspeakably awful and unrelenting history of violence and oppression and war -- though they absolutely are, the freaks. No. I was just telling these guys to ease off explaining me to myself and others from the enlightened unicorn point of view as if that was not only the best way to do that but the only way, which is just insufferable. I don't believe in unicorns, any color, stripes or no stripes, virginal white or midnight blue, so no, I do not see the point of your insistent invitation to ride yours. It's not there. That's all. Can we talk about something else?!

This morning I came perilously close to calling a online friend a pompous ass. Instead I deleted the conversation, my part anyway. I mean look at the problem logically for a moment. If he is, nothing I say is going to change that. I actually like the man and respect his work. He seems genuinely kind and he is a very clever fellow, if a bit stiff and occasionally humorless. I've been way worse. I wish he wasn't talking -- we'll say "through his hat" shall we? nicer -- but why go on when it's clear there's nothing to be accomplished beyond hurting one another's feelings?

That would be the point. 

Fucking unicorns. Ruin everything. 

Saturday, September 9, 2023

To an Online Acquaintance On the Loss of a Difficult Parent

Dear ______,

Have you ever noticed that there are quotes that stick all over the internet like burs? No one seems to know where they come from or who put them up in the first place or why they go on and on like that song by Celine Dion (and that tells you my age if you didn't already know.) Some of these quotes are attributed, or not, or misattributed, but almost always posted without reference to the work from which they were supposedly taken. I don't mean the obvious stuff that Oscar Wilde said or might have said, or Dorothy Parker, the stuff so familiar or famous it doesn't really need a more specific source -- because who is going to check the page number in The Critic as Artist, etc.? I'm talking about all the stuff that might or might not be Sylvia Plath, or that maybe Anne Tyler wrote somewhere maybe, or that Cicero said in a letter or didn't. Some of these things look good, these feasible quotations. I see them and think, "I could use that." But then who wants to use something that might be a great quote from a great writer's great book -- or not? What if it's just copy from a greeting card that somebody thought would sound better coming from Mark Twain? How embarrassing if I then quote the fake Twain. (I would be discovered and then people would wonder if I'd actually ever read a book and then I would be exposed as the barely literate fraud my brain is happy to remind me I probably am. You don't really need to know how my brain works, but there it is.) 

Wherever these quotes start, in actual books or out, they all seem to end up online in the same soft, white, cursive font superimposed on a forest scene, or maybe the ocean or the sandy shore, anyway some tranquil shot of nature -- or stars because everybody loves stars! -- but calm; a notably calm cosmos, calm forest, calm seas, calm sand. That would seem to be the unifying theme, whatever the actual sentiment expressed in the quotation; the point would seem to be -- calm the fuck down -- you will be okay. Breath. Contemplate the infinite. Read just a smidge. Must say I rather resent the insistence that we would all be better off if we just sat down and took a deep breath. I like a good sit as much or more than the next person and since I finally quite smoking I can now occasionally draw a deep breath, but doesn't solve every problem now does it, sitting and breathing? If it did I'd be slim and rich and wouldn't need glasses on top of my glasses and I wouldn't worry about being rebuked and exposed and unloved and dying in a dumpster.

And here I am trying to think of comforting things to say. Apologies. Not as easy as it seems, which is why I want other people's better words. That is very much how I've survived to me present age, by calling on other people's good words. Books, yes? But also just sentences. Sometimes one just wants a sentence or two, no?

Have you seen these floating, seemingly indestructible internet quotes? They're the digital equivalent of sampler-pillows or those calligraphic barn-shingles white women with highlights hang in their kitchens. Big fan of the quotation myself. Better said by better writers seems a legitimate rule of thumb when writing or speaking aloud. Since I was a teenager I've kept commonplace books to record choice bits from my reading. And now there are actual cornucopia of quotation organized by theme and keyword and writer all over the web. I do wish that most of these sites were better vetted, but they exist and they very much didn't when I was young. I still own reference books, and books of quotation in particular, but how wonderful is it that someone has done all this glorious data entry? Still, I am just old-fashioned enough to want to know at least the book if not the page from which the quote was plucked. You're a real writer so I assume this sort of thing bothers you even more than it does me, if in fact you've paid it any mind. I should think writers would prefer that their work be remembered with them; the work as they wrote it, in the context they created, to whatever purpose it was written. Would have thought that was the goal. I suppose there are some writers who probably wouldn't much mind being immortalized as just so much disembodied internet wisdom, so long at least as their names were spelt correctly and they got paid. (What else could a Tony Robbins or now a Dr. Brene Brown hope for after one has bought that second house in France or one's fourth Ski-Doo or whatever one orders online between Hilton seminars? Is there a statue anywhere to the memory of Dale Carnegie? Must look that up. ((Sweet Jesus, there is.))) 

Most of the writers I've known tended to be quite proprietary about their work, and rightly so as it is not just their art but their job. (Though nowadays I know very few writers who live exclusively by the pen. Most teach. I assume you do too?)

I was put in mind of this business of internet-attribution when I saw a quote online supposedly from the poet Anne Sexton. I've tried to track it down and may have come close. It could be from her journals, or a letter, but that's as near as I've come. All told, over two or three days I'd have to say I wasted the better part of an hour on this -- not a huge measure of time, but still -- in part though because I was sure I had a physical copy of her journals but then that may not even be a thing and I might have been thinking of a book called A Self Portrait in Letters which I don't have anymore anyway if I ever did. And that is the way memory works or doesn't altogether, isn't it? Mine anyway. Yours may be better.

Just to have it, the sentence which may or may not be a quote is, "It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was." It's good, right? Possibly even applicable to your own circumstances. Might be a useful thought for you right now with the loss of your parent. It seems to me that this quote could be Anne Sexton, as it seems to suit the voice I remember, but that could be wishing making the thing so. Whatever the merit of the thought, the problem of attribution rather spoils whatever usefulness it might have in general because not knowing if it is "real."

By which I mean that it takes away the weight of the poet having said it -- if she didn't. Not an entirely happy source for familial wisdom at the best of times was our Anne, but for the power of memory and art to both preserve and distort our personal histories, who better really? I assume you're acquainted with the poet, possibly, probably better than I, so I won't explain other than to suggest that the very label of a "confessional poet" brings an expectation of both great burdens and self-assertion, doesn't it? How I remember them anyway, all those gloomier granddaughters and sons of Whitman.

Typically I came across the Sexton "quote" when I went hunting for something entirely other. My specific intent was to offer an appropriate quote by way of consolation on your announcement of your father's death. I can't now think for what it was I went looking when I was distracted by the possibly fictitious Sexton quote. I'm going to guess that I was probably hunting for some consolation offered by Dr. Johnson on the loss of a parent. Don't know. Doctor Johnson is rather my go-to. Mightn't have been applicable even if I'd found whatever it was. Turns out, there is considerably more in Johnson et al on the death of a child than a parent. Odd, that. Common as the death of a child sadly once was and may still be some places, most people outlive their parents, right? One would think there'd be all sorts of literary consolation online for that. I of course can't know all the particulars of your loss, and I wouldn't think to ask you for more detail than that provided in your original post. Suffice it to say that having described your relationship as difficult and the news of his death as something less than a shock, most of the usual things may not have been quite right. So I thought at the time. Still. Not my place to suggest how you were meant to feel and or mark the event, of course. Not as if you were soliciting comment come to that. I just wanted something to say better than anything I could think to say, you know? 

That's the thing about condolence, form very much follows function, tradition, convention. So let me say again here that I am sorry for your loss, complicated as that may be and predictable as that response obviously is. Still a loss, whatever the particulars. Maybe that's the point -- if I'm going to get to one. That would seem to me to be the one safe thing to assume given the circumstances. From what you wrote you know that the loss isn't all to do with the man's death, and yet the finality of that would seem to require acknowledgement. That's where the stock phrases of grief and remembrance serve us best, in reducing everything to basics. Mark, a man has died. I offer his son my hand.

There's more good in that than in most things we say without thinking. 

Why say more? Why indeed, other than the custom of talking to those in mourning as one would the ill? The thought with either presumably being that we might offer what? Company? A bit of distraction from the pain? Some comfort? "I should be sorry to think that what engrosses the attention of my friend, should have no part of mine," says Johnson. The impulse is good. I don't really know you for instance though we are friends on social media, and yet I want to offer some consolation for your loss. I lost my own father a few years ago. Still feels not so far from me. I don't equate the two, your loss and mine, anymore than I could or would want to compare our respective fathers. I think my father's death made me something other than I was before. Perhaps the death of a parent always does? That's more an assumption than an assertion. Feels true.

So other than the custom, the habit of it, why console the stranger? What solace for those with whom we are little more than acquainted? Perhaps this question can distract you for a bit. No harm in that now. 

Johnson describes himself after the death of his wife as, "broken off from mankind." Seems an obvious thing to say and the usual thing to be in the circumstance, at least once he's said it for me (power of quotation, mister.) But death doesn't just separate us from the person who has died, does it? That may already have happened one way and another well before that person died. I have lost friends after I lost touch, alas. Happens. Relatives I knew and never felt I knew really or well also die. Where I'm from one sends flowers if one isn't to attend the services. Far enough from my immediate family and I will still send a card. One that happens more and more as I age is the death of the parents of my friends. This seems, at least when it reaches me to most often be addressed online. This has the advantage of being more immediate and more diffuse, particularly as geography is eliminated as a barrier to condolence. Don't always know quite what to do in this wider and yet strangely more intimate world, but this seems right, doesn't it? Feels strange though just adding an emoji on a post when the post is about death, doesn't it? May depend on how one was raised I suppose. For instance, we sit with the body. Not everyone does, as I was at some point shocked to learn. Your family, your traditions may be different. Makes it harder to judge the right thing at this new distance/familiarity. One may obviously still be "broken off from mankind" by a death, but are we not all connected in ways now that Johnson never foresaw? Tap a few keys and "post" and the world floods in with all the consolation -- and banality -- that is implied in public mourning in a virtual space. I know that I took it all in gratefully. Doesn't mean you should or need to, just my experience.

When my father died, I must tell you I found the banalities just as welcome as the more thoughtful responses. How expressed doesn't necessarily indicate how things were felt, or received. (I'm a redneck. Even being gay and literate can only do but so much to overcome generations of emotional embarrassment. Rage. We are allowed rage. Otherwise taciturnity is still one of our very few self-assessed virtues. That and misdirected class resentments, Jell-O salads, and country music would seem to be our only real contributions to the cultural resources of the Republic. Sorry about that.) I was glad to hear from those old friends who may have known my father, but I was likewise glad of all the people who never met the man, or me come to that, at least in person, who also expressed their sympathy for my loss. Odd, isn't it? Couldn't hear it enough somehow. Not something I knew until then, about myself I mean.

I spoke at my father's funeral. Got through that. People were unwaveringly kind. Posting about his death online was different though. To some extent I might have done so without thinking. Never would have predicted this, but I do spend a surprisingly large part of my life online. To do with work and selling books, much of it, but by no means all. It's meant for instance staying in touch with my high school boyfriend. Kept up with former coworkers. I've even gotten to know, at least a little better, writers I admire like yourself. That last has been particularly unexpected. I do meet authors at the bookstore where I work. I've even had opportunities to interact with particular literary heroes of mine. I should never have thought to call most of them "friends" but then that became a legitimate designation on social media and who am I to not be flattered by the idea of that? Was I a friend to Howard Cruse? I am now friends with Hilma Wolitzer?! Indeed, I like to think I genuinely am. Would not have made sense, in a way, to not say something to my friends when my Dad died. Likewise wouldn't seem right for people not to have taken note. As I said, more did than I'd ever have thought and it meant something to me at the time -- and more since.

That's the surprise. Whatever I remember of my father is my business, as Anne Sexton may or may not have suggested already. Good and bad, the man I knew is who I couldn't forget even if I wanted to. Weirdly, I find I can now put things out of mind in a way I haven't since I was a child. At sixty, I am now nearly as easy to distract as I was at six. One of the great virtues of having the habit and presence of books. Not the same thing as just reading. Nearly everyone nowadays reads, even if it's just text messages on a phone. Books as physical objects on the other hand have the same solidity as food, flesh, persons, pets. My hand can find a book nearly everywhere I am likely to be (some might call this hoarding.) I find that books can be put in the way of so much: the past, time, hurt, hopes, longing. Books give me somewhere to stand against what Churchill dubbed, "the black dog." Gives me a place to stand still. As a child books took me up and out into the world; down the Mississippi, out to the moon, back in time to the court of Louis XIII. Now I find I can rest on them, sometimes hide in them. Books take me not out of myself but rather to places of greater safety, clearer thought, rest. The act of reading -- not the consequence -- is however isolating. I am usually content so. But in grief? Smack dab in it? I don't remember if I ever finished the book I was reading when my father died, Stendhal's The Red and the Black-- which was fine as I'd read it before. The point though was that rather than books at that moment I needed some sense of other people -- living, breathing, actual people 'round me, if only virtually. Ironic that.

You may not have found this to be so, but I wanted the sight and sound of sympathy around me, but perhaps not always actual people, if that makes sense. I wanted community, but also control of my environment and to not wear shoes, and not to talk, as I remember. Having people say kind things online felt right to me and just enough. The more folks the better, which is not something I ever say otherwise. I went up and down those comments. I checked in. I liked everything. Because I needn't look unless and until I wanted to and as I didn't really want to do anything else, I think I looked more than I might have done. No one thought me rude for walking away, everyone seemed glad to hear from me. 

I haven't looked at any of that in years. I shouldn't think I ever will again. Knowing however that it is there, that I was given that sympathy when I asked has made me feel better ever since, about people generally and or about the world, frankly. I can't say that I will ever reconcile with everything my father was, or with my hometown, my past. (Do people do that? Is that an option?) I've heard so many people, overt Christians mostly, who make a point if not a show of forgiveness, often in circumstances far worse than any I experienced: people forgiving the murderers of their loved ones, forgiving bombers, and war criminals, belligerents, the obviously unforgiveable. I don't pretend to understand that process or the point of it. I see no evidence that carrying resentments or hurt or hate harms the people it ought. Maybe it only negatively effects people for whom it is largely alien anyway, who have had so little experience of antagonism, violence, and the arbitrary as to have built up no immunity, or so much as to to have learned long since to lay down what can't be carried. I am not such a one. Meanwhile we have seen too many hateful bastards go contentedly down to die in the sincere conviction of heaven that we would, I think, have to be fools to imagine a universe anything but indifferent to the fate of humans. But don't let let me presume too much. You may feel differently. Perhaps my somewhat jaundiced view of universal justice is why a uniform expression of sympathy on the loss of my father meant all the more to me. As you probably experienced yourself online, people were genuinely kind, I found. I wish you something like and the comfort of that hereafter, whoever the man who occasioned it. 

One other thought before I stop shuffling along here, uninvited if only remotely or metaphorically beside you. The usual complaint is that death has cut off the last possibility of dialogue, but that's nonsense, isn't it? Since his death I have engaged more sincerely with my idea of my father than I might ever have managed were he still alive. I know that. My father was a friendly fellow but typically shy of certain conversations. The opportunity truthfully has been made less complicated by the now finite nature of the information available to me. The man was who he was and what I know of him now I know. Actually I was pretty lucky in my father -- not always perhaps, but in the end. Your experience being different, I have tried to avoid making too much of that here. Can't really avoid mentioning it now if just to say it is unimportant to my point. In my life, as I would hope in yours, I am lucky to know love and to have known it even when its absence was all I could feel at the time. I have a better standard by which to judge now, having found someone good with whom to share my life, as my father did, come to that. Even if I had never found my husband, I like to think having found my friends and my community and my family of choice I am in a better place -- to use a phrase usually I find insufferable in talking of the dead. (Nowhere is not a place by definition, no?) Life has shown me love in greater variety than I ever anticipated as a child, as a son. Nothing I did, I don't think, but ask. 

Also?  Perhaps only old men can forgive their old men, if we want or need to. Doesn't mean you need to of course. I only say I did whether I intended to, or needed to, myself. Perhaps pardon is a better word here, less bedraggled by religion and popular psychology. Like forgiveness it is something asked for and given, but with I think less expectation of admiration for the exercise of it. Think of what we pardon most days -- wind. What could be less invested with moral pretention?! So here's another of those floating quotes I mentioned at the start. I've seen it attributed online to both Shakespeare and St. Francis and I've no idea if it's either or neither: 

"It is in pardoning that we are pardoned."

Pretty, i'n't it? Again it may be perfect nonsense, and not at all to the point in your case. It appeals to me really because it suggests so little effort, yes? Forgiveness seems to me a very weighty business full of theology and all sorts of oily blessings. Beg pardon sounds more me -- common as dirt but fundamentally decent. That's at the flat and steady how I hope I am. That's the process I've undertaken with my father's memory and much of it funny when not embarrassing or rude and even when it is. Pardon. All there is to be hoped I suspect other than or as a consequence of love. The thing to be asked if we haven't understood. Pardon? 

What I ask of you now if I've gone on too long and said too little. May he rest in peace, your father. If I offend, I ask also pardon of his shade, and I remain at whatever distance

Your friend,