Friday, March 26, 2021

Letter from (FaceBook) Jail

 


Dear Fellow FaceBookers,

There was a picture of big dill pickles stuffed with Snickers candy bars -- so yes that's a thing. I didn't post the photo. I merely commented, "Americans are terrible people." And that, dear friends, was that. Within minutes I received a notification that I had "violated community standards" and was banned from FaceBook for 24 hours, effective immediately. I read my way through the notification. I objected. There was no response, no appeal. Done. Well.

I've known lots of people serve time in FaceBook jail. I know a number of artists, many of whom have been put away multiple times, usually for male nudity. I also know a number of activists on various fronts; LGBTQ rights workers, defenders of sex-work, free speech advocates, all sorts, some of whom have been booted from the platform temporarily too. I know at least one photographer who has been fighting the good fight for a very long time, and one delightful provocateur who's been canned nearly as often as he's been out. Never happened to me before.

Shocked? Why I nearly fainted.

I am among those who have supported efforts to hold social media platforms accountable for policing their content for hate-speech, racism, and the like. They have none of them done a very good job of this. At least since the Idiot Insurrection of January 6th, 2021 and the storming of The Capital, a token effort would seem to have been made on most of the major sites to address the very worst of the knuckle-dragging Nazis, supremacists, and radical whack jobs by closing some of their accounts and blocking certain purveyors of hate.  Pretty small beans, as I understand it, other than kicking the Idiot in Chief off of Twitter and Facebook, at least temporarily. I still support this new found acting out of social responsibility on the part of the Billionaire's Boys Club and hope to see more, and more substantive change. 

If I buy a pair of slippers online and ten minutes later all my social media accounts offer me more slippers, how hard, one has to ask, can it be to track actual Nazis and klansmen? If I "like" someone's photo of a pound cake and then get flooded with ads from Goldbelly for Carla Hall's 5 Flavor Pound Cake...? (It was good, by the way so thank you, Ms. Hall. A little dense, very expensive, but delicious.) If these miraculous algorithms -- which in my head is always pronounced, "Al Gore Rhythms," -- can track my every consumer impulse and quite rightly offer articles from The Washington Post in preference to The Washington Times, ask me to donate to Stacey Abrams' Keep Up the Fight and John Fetterman's campaign for the Senate, and avoids invitations to Mar-a-Lago, then surely...? No?

And yet. 

On reflection, I shouldn't be surprised to learn that Mark Zuckerberg does not quite ken irony. In case any others might be confused, let me just say that I do not believe that Americans are terrible people. Or, to put a finer point, I don't think we are always. Our history is short by the standard of human civilization but fair is fair and we have done a remarkable job for such a young country when it comes to terrible things. I do think we have done and continue to do some considerable good in the world. At least we've proven ourselves capable of doing both, which is both disappointing and predictable in almost equal measure. This does not, to my way of thinking and according to my reading of the Constitution and our history make me either unpatriotic or in anyway nuts. Indeed, when one thinks of the levels of undisguised villainy and stupidity immediately accessible on the internet, I am downright upright. 

So, how then did I end up in the virtual clink? See: irony, Zuckerberg of course, but also please note, in the absence even of the obviously harmless context of that comment on that post, just what the sentence was that silenced me for a day.  Isn't it fascinating that this was what tripped the trigger? Who would have guessed? Evidently a Georgia Deputy Sherriff/racist spokesmodel can share giggles at xenophobic  misinformation and go on to speak not just for his department but his type when describing a murderous  goon as having had "a bad day," but me suggesting in good fun that "Americans are terrible people" is just that little bit too far for the mechanical censors. 

I am not outraged -- at this temporary suspension from FaceBook, at least.  Nor am I fishing for outrage on my behalf. When it happened I admit to being taken aback and very confused. Took a minute, honestly. When I finally tripped to the truth, I was very disappointed (how parental that sounds) but I felt no urge to mount a boycott or swear-off social media or write to my Congressperson. Perhaps I should be up in arms, but I confess to a certain amusement at the absurdity of my example, or rather this example being made of me. Programmers can be such clumsy fuckers, no? And who exactly was the management genius who had to sign off not only on this ruthlessly silly new software but also on the endless stream of potentially punishable variations of the shocking indictment of the American Character with which I tried to crash the internet? Makes one question our  technological hegemony, don't it? 

Stupidity is always shocking, however familiar. Never underestimate its infinite variety.

I would hope that there are any number of busy little tech dudes (and a still unfortunately smaller number of women) working to refine this, some of their first crude attempts at virtual civility. After all, it took them years to stop trying to pitch me a membership in Christian Mingle and skinny jeans. 

For all the recent hue and cry -- to say nothing of the bellow and screech -- over "cancel culture" and the supposedly unprecedented reach of the rising generation's "woke-ness," I will not offer my brief exile as an example because that would be both silly and wrong. In the time it has taken me to write this little bit, I could easily have gone online and found example after example, many of them still being trumpeted on the Right, of the so-called "canceled" whose behavior and opinion absolutely deserved to be censured, and an almost equal number of propertied victims of cancellation who are still, unsurprisingly employed, publishing, recently hired elsewhere and or still living comfortably if not on their royalties (who does that?) then certainly on their continued commissions from The Weekly Standard, The American Scholar, and or  their advance from Regnery Publishing.  I do not deny that there have been and continue to be sincere and honest people being unfairly targeted for ridiculous offenses against the new community standards at, for example our universities and colleges, among other places. Nor would I willingly be lectured about my biases by teenagers, even admitting I got 'em and that they would be right to call me on 'em. That must be hell. It is the job of the young to discomfort and disabuse their elders. Did it myself in the day. Doesn't mean I want to hear from them personally, you understand. Please, no. (SO typical of my generation.)

If I wanted to provoke some of my friends, I might mention my complete collection of the essays of Joseph Epstein. I could admit that Vivian Gornick's infamously homophobic essay from nearly my whole lifetime ago has not kept me from reading every word she writes. I wouldn't dream of defending the behavior of Charles Dickens with his much maligned wife, but neither will I stop reading and recommending his novels. I still read Jefferson's letters with John Adams every 4th of July. If I can't bring myself to read overt antisemites like Celine, I should quickly admit that it was "..." that defeated me before I even knew what a shit he was. I might even go so far as to suggest that mine may not be such an untenable position for others, even persons younger than myself. I would naturally not insist because, well -- to whom on earth would I be in any position to do that?! 

I offer this as at best a mildly cautionary tale. That's all. Hope it might amuse as well, though if it makes anyone angry I must say I would not be entirely disappointed by that response. Unless you're mad at me. Then I am sorry, And please don't feel you need to explain. I'm sure you're right.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Good People

 


When something catastrophic happened, they'd have a supper. Church needed a wheelchair ramp, they'd have a supper. Someone's house burned down? They had a supper. Somebody's kid was diagnosed with leukemia? They had a supper. Motorcycle accident? Supper. All sorts: pancake suppers, corn suppers, ice-cream suppers, chicken dinners, fish dinners, game suppers, whatever was in season, whatever could be got up quick to raise money. Went to suppers at firehouses, the Grange, churches, Elks Lodge, Knights of Columbus, Masons. 

There would be a notice in the paper and flyers on telephone poles. You'd see a hand-out in the vestibule at church. There would be an announcement at the PTA, something in the lobby at school, or a can for donations at the diner. Hand-lettered mostly, with a photograph maybe if they had one, date, time, place, and a suggested donation to be collected at the door.

And we went. People did. Strangers mostly, to the extent that small towns had strangers. Friends and family and the family of friends went of course, but many times if not most it was just folks going out to eat something nice and for a good cause.

The Grange Hall was a good size, with a large kitchen. Put up enough tables and chairs, you could get one hundred people in there, I should think. My Grandmother Craft went to a church so small it didn't have a proper kitchen and only a privy out behind the parking lot. In summer though, they'd have picnic tables and the women would bring in the dishes and tureens and sheet-cakes and set up by the basement door. They mixed punch -- always nonalcoholic -- in bowls so big men had to lift them. Every church, every hall had those big coffee pots with a tap at the bottom. There'd be iced-tea in the summer too. At the Elks they'd have bottled beer.

Cheerful as the atmosphere might be, the purpose was serious and I never saw a man get drunk at a supper or send back anything they didn't think good. Most of it was good, come to that. Not exotic certainly, nothing unfamiliar, and if the green beans came out of a can and the potatoes weren't quite the way mother made them, well, don't go back for seconds then. People smiled as they came in and smiled as they went out if they smiled at all. You went, you said hello to this one and that one, you sat with someone you knew or you sat where there was a chair, you ate and you went home.

I don't remember much in the way of speeches. Somebody would ask for the attention of the crowd and explain why we were there. Someone said grace. Might be a preacher or just one of the cooks. Nobody begged and nobody shamed anyone for need. Give what you can, eat what you were given and thank the volunteers. 

I worked every kind of supper at the London Grange #1492. My Grandma made pancakes and buckwheat cakes on big griddles, cooked Salisbury steak in huge white enamel cookers, mixed hamburger with her hands and argued with the women next to her about how much mustard was too much in potato-salad. Grandma argued easily, but laughed that way too. I turned ice-cream churns, husked corn, poured tea, set silver, and cleared tables, almost before I could see over the tops of them. Later I carried plates and just like in a real restaurant when somebody broke a glass, everybody would audibly gasp and then everybody'd laugh. The steam from the kitchen made everybody hungry and everybody in there would sweat like they were shoveling coal. It was hard work but cheerfully done, mostly.

I do not describe all this from any sentimental longing for a time gone-by or a place I left willingly forty years ago. I don't know that it is right to celebrate the memory of other people's hard times -- because that was what brought every one out to suppers. These were not picnics for the 4th of July, or graduation parties, nor even organized charity, though the same people worked at those too. The purpose was different even if the means were familiar. No one was proud because these were and are times when pride was something in the way of what needed to be done. Good people don't brag about the little they can do to make someone's burden lighter.

The frustrating thing was then and is now how often we can only do but so much. In the absence of a rational and compassionate health care system, when stockholders profit from the illness and tragedies of working people, when too many preachers teach their flocks that God wants them to be rich, and when charity is made a show, and necessity seen as a shame and a scandal, good people will still do the little they can to supply what the rich assume as a privilege of their rank and dispense as an exercise of power. Too many of us in this country, in the West and in the world, believe that want comes from the want of will, that poverty is sly, and that people work at what they choose and do only as well as they do according to their gifts, make their own circumstances, and that we all might be rich if we only did as the rich have done. Balzac may or may not have said that "behind every fortune was an equally great crime," and he may or may not have been right if he did. The champions of contemporary capitalism still tend to dismiss even the idea of criminality in any profitable enterprise whose beneficiaries send their children to "good" schools, have bankers and brokers to manage their money, and support cultural, religious, and political causes conducive to the maintenance of their privileges. The ruthless corollary to this is a deep suspicion, sadly shared by many without the means to support such pretensions, that respectability is conformity by just another name, that poverty breeds criminality rather than the reverse, and righteousness is best measured in a bank-balance. In my personal experience, people more concerned with being taken advantage of by the "undeserving poor" than they are with taking care of those in need do so for fear someone may rightly question how they got all they have.

My parents were born into the Great Depression. My mother remembers when men came to the door for food and work and my grandmothers both gave the first because they hadn't the other to give. My father's family knew genuine want, and they all of them knew the bitterness of poverty and what it was to work harder for less than I can now imagine. Retrospectively, collectively we like to imagine that this, and war, made them better. Perhaps in some ways it did, but it also made them want nothing so much, at least my own, as to want their children and their children's children to never know the like.

All my life I have known work and seen want and sadly I have too often seen when the one was not enough to relieve the other. Someone got sick. Someone fell. Someone had to tend to someone because there was no other way and perhaps did so gladly, but also because there was no dignified way otherwise. Someone did well until they didn't, or couldn't anymore. Someone lost a husband or a home or all that they'd saved. Someone lost his mind, or her health insurance, or their child's hope of a cure for want of the money to treat the disease. Anyone who sees the divine in such suffering stands in a place I've never been and where I would not wish to be seen, though I can't begrudge them whatever comfort they find there. Anyone who sees in such suffering the just punishment of sin or the absence of initiative I would pity if I could, but it seems that likewise is beyond me.

Pride comes into this at the last. Help is not something easy to ask for, where I am from and when it is offered it takes real effort to accept. There is an irony in this not lost on me now. But as we cannot seem to fix the systems that fail us all but a few -- at least not today, at least I can't -- all I can do is ask others to help now as best they can.

Can't have a supper, and a hundred suppers may not be enough. Suppers seldom were. Something though, the something we can do, the help we can ask, we must when the need arises. I must.

My sister's son has been hurt seemingly beyond repair and needs help. If I haven't talked much about this before now it was because it wasn't my place and my sister, her husband and their sons are proud people. They have worked all their lives, worked hard, my sister Sue and her husband Ty, and they do still. Their eldest boy, Dillon, works harder than any man I know other than his father. And now the youngest boy, my nephew, Cole is in a nursing home after sustaining catastrophic injuries when he was struck by a car while crossing the street on foot. He is a new father. He is a beautiful young man not untroubled in the past, though that hardly matters anymore. We would hope to see him cared for and his needs seen to as best we can. The state will not do this and those that might with a wave of the hand cannot be made to, so I would only ask that any that can might do so insofar as you are able.

I can only thank my many friends for their good wishes and be grateful for the help.

As ever, I am humbled by the generosity of those that work, and those that may not have even the means, and angry that so many should want in the midst of so much, but let that pass. 

We do what we can. I am glad of the good people.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

For My Teacher

 


She is the reason I can write more than my name. If that seems both too much and too strange to be entirely convincing, I understand. She might well have challenged the sentence, and the sentiment herself. The woman was not one for rhetorical flourishes or fanciness generally. Sense, that was her singular goal and from that should come everything else: meaning, purpose, expression, emotion, possibly even art -- however doubtful that outcome must have seemed considering the raw materials with which she had to work for forty years, like me, for example.

Her name was Miss Joan Stuck and she died recently. (I don't think she would have approved of saying she'd "passed." She would have acknowledged the social convention, but she disliked euphemisms. Imprecision even in the service of social convention, while understandable, ultimately does none of us any real good. She died at the good age of 91. That's a simple sentence.) She was my ninth grade English composition teacher. I will never forget her. I would like to be able to say that I've never forgotten all she taught me, but that can't be true. I'd be hard pressed just now to describe all the syntactic functions (adjunct?), but I remember that phrase at least.

I learned this morning from her obituary that she retired not long after I graduated. I do not mean to suggest that the two events are related. She'd been a school teacher by then for decades. She taught in the place she was born and where she herself went to high school and to college. Imagine that. Her mother was a school teacher. They looked just alike, according to my mother. When back home in later years, I would occasionally see Miss Stuck on Broad Street, or meet her by chance at County Market. Often as not she was still wearing the same sensible cape and vaguely Tyrolean hat I remembered, a pheasant feather tucked in the band. I see in the picture featured in her obituary that her hair though long since gone white as snow was otherwise unchanged. (She might have forgiven me the cliche, but not I think the personal familiarity. Apologies to her shade.)

On the board in her classroom there was always a quotation. These changed regularly, though I suspect their sources and the schedule on which they were added to the chalkboard did not. I learned years later that one of the first duties of her many student-teachers was to recopy the index cards from which she ostensibly taught, though I do not remember her ever making reference to these when she taught, and I doubt her lessons changed from year to year. Of the quotations she put up I can remember none, though I do remember writing down more than a few and in so doing managing to misspell both Emerson and Carlyle despite the uniform clarity of her hand. I know that I misspelled their names because, first it is a safe assumption that I misspelled most things even as late as my freshman year in high school and second, because I remember I later had trouble finding either gentleman's books in the school library.

"Work alone is noble," said Carlyle.

"Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee," said Emerson.

Miss Stuck was not the sort of teacher one might call a friend. I was blessed with a few of those; kind souls who kept me alive, who comforted and counseled me, who opened my eyes and ears to art and philosophy and life. To them I hope I have expressed my gratitude already and elsewhere. Miss Stuck was of a different school, as it were. There was little of the maternal in her nature, at least as exhibited in her rather cold classroom. She was older than most of my teachers, of an earlier and more formal generation and not one for informality or nonsense. She was not, I should think entirely popular, or better say she saw no reason to cultivate popularity. She was there to do a job, do it well, and to some extent, Devil take the hindmost. Not the stuff of annual Christmas cards and Valentines. To be fair -- another of her absolutes -- she was invariably kind, specially when met in later life, and always eager to hear from former pupils what they may have done since. She must have grown used to disappointment there, though she would never have said so if so. (That sentence smacks of showing off, of which she did not approve, though I remember her smile when she quite rightly called me on just that, more than once.)

She taught me what a sentence was; it's parts and how it worked. She taught me that above all else and despite the thickness of my skull and my ignorance of my own language. She taught me that in the structure was the purpose. She taught me that the intention, my intention meant nothing unless it was expressed in the best selection and order of the words. From her I finally learned why paragraphs happen and why they end (properly) when and where they do. She taught me that an essay was not a task but an attempt. She made me write, and write as well as I might because even I might have something to say. She made a revelation out of rules and rote and work. How hard a thing that must have been to do!

I will not say I was altogether ignorant of grammar and the like when I met her. I'd been instructed in much of this before I came to her class, how could I not have been, even in a place like Grove City? So what then was so different in what she did from what had been done in all the classrooms through which I had already passed? That is a question I cannot satisfactorily answer even now. Perhaps it was simply time I leaned something that would really matter to me thereafter. I was already a reader. Perhaps she gave me the tools to do more and somehow convinced me at last that I might. Others had told me I was clever. Other teachers had encouraged me to write and praised what I'd written. Of praise she was sparing so maybe it meant more. All I can say is that somehow, from that unchanging lesson-plan on those unalterable index cards, she managed to open my eyes to the workings of something I assumed I either already knew or otherwise had no right to. She taught me what I owed to the words I used and to the language that might make of me something more than what I was without it.

For four decades then she went to work with an enviable optimism that into even the hardest heads she might pound a little sense. How did she not despair of the task?! I think she was confident of the soundness of what she taught. That may not be so easy nowadays, for good and bad. Teachers now, as I understand it, learn more of theory and methods and perhaps less of grammatical rules and the benefit of offering "Thought of the Day" quotations from great, white, dead men. I can't now imagine what might be involved in telling a student to memorize "The quality of mercy" and be prepared to recite it by the end of the week.  In many if not most ways the why of what she taught must by now be nearly as old fashioned as the what and how. There are those I do not doubt who benefited little or at least less than I did from her class. Certainly there was even then reason to question some of what she did and what she believed she was doing. I am glad she never did, or that if she did, she nevertheless still saw the sense in it.

Life requires change. A good life also requires that which does not. It is good to know that we are loved and to be told so. It is a joy to read and to own books better than we've any right to by income and formal education. There are things that it is simply good to know and things without which we could not learn anything new. I said that if I can now write anything more than my name that I owe this to Miss Stuck. I meant it. What she taught me has proved to be the means of every thought and sentiment I have expressed since and if I am not yet the writer she would have had me be, it is no fault of hers.

I wish her rest well earned and send after her my love, and no apologies for the noun. It is not, as she might have thought it, too strong. 


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Beloved Old Goat


 

"They that enter into the world are too often treated with unreasonable rigour by those that were once as ignorant and heady as themselves; and distinction is not always made between the faults which require speedy and violent eradication, and those that will gradually drop away in the progression of life. Vicious solicitations of appetite, if not checked, will grow more importunate; and mean arts of profit or ambition will gather strength in the mind, if they are not early suppressed. But mistaken notions of superiority, desires of useless show, pride of little accomplishments, and all the train of vanity, will be brushed away by the wing of Time."

-- Samuel 4Johnson: Idler #25 (October 7, 1758)

She was kind to me, to us, even when she probably shouldn't have been, certainly when kindness was more than we deserved. She was the mother of my friend and as such just one more I might have meant to charm. I was good with mothers when I was young, fathers not so much, my own or others'.  Mothers liked me, always did. Most of them loved me sooner or later. Some of them I came to love back, but not all. One or two never liked me much despite my best efforts. Disappointing but understandable really as I was having sex with their sons. They must have suspected this even if they didn't know. I was obviously an influence at the very least, and not always for good. Her daughter was my best friend, never a lover, so that is why it probably mattered more. She was kind to me, the mother of my best friend then, to all of us, and so I have loved her ever since.

Forgive me for not using their names. It was only a day ago, at 2:12 in the morning that my friend's mother died. And yes, she died of what you'd assume given the times, and you're right to think that she needn't have if people weren't so selfish and stupid but we are. We do not listen and some of us think we know better when we don't and so people keep dying. It's horrible and infuriating and the woman who's died would not have disagreed I think but she isn't here to say so and it isn't my place to speak for her even now she's dead. It isn't my place to announce her death either.

Please forgive me then for writing in this awkward way-- without names -- about my friend's mother. Those who knew her will recognize her in this, I hope, but I speak here only for myself.

 When I was young I believed that the mothers of my friends liked me because I wanted them to, and more, because I needed them. It wasn't that I didn't or don't have a mother of my own, and a good one too, in whom I am lucky. Wasn't why. From a very early age I preferred the company of women, saw more of them and admired them more than men. Men were fascinating, but more as a matter of reverence or study. Men confused me. Still do, often as not, and I've been one and lived with another now for a very long time. Women were more interesting, had better conversation, better manners, and paid me more attention. I liked that. Women did more of the things in which I was interested and they ran most of the things in which I came to be involved; whether it was church or theater or politics, education, books, gossip, art -- it was women who could help me. It was women I could make laugh without malice. All the women I knew when I was a child, the women who weren't related to me, and who weren't my teachers, were either the friends of my parents or grandparents or the mothers and grandmothers of my friends. Children are selfish creatures and are meant to be I should think. I certainly was. If I needed something as a child, I learned quickly if not from birth that it was better to ask a woman, they may even have taught us that now I think of it. Lost? Ask a policeman -- or a lady -- for help. So I did, and they do, still.

Mothers liked me because I was helpful just as I'd been taught to be and polite. I was clean and well spoken and my people, if not well off, were nice. This may matter more in a small town where everyone pretends to know everyone else, or at least everyone else's business. It may still. I was not altogether unsupervised or wild. Working mothers like my own didn't much like it when we ate up all their food before they got home, but other than that they didn't mind us much so long as we weren't too noisy and later they hoped we weren't getting drunk or too high. When I met really middle class people in their very nice homes with very nice furniture on which one did not sit and with more forks than were needed on their very nice dining tables, I did not embarrass myself too much or presume too much on their civility. I didn't goggle when the mothers of my new middle class friends drank cocktails at lunch or when middle class fathers got drunk over dinner and flirted with the girlfriends of their sons. I admit I found them all quite fascinating, like characters in a book, which my middle class friends found mystifying I'm sure. (They, I remember were generally astonished at how much my mother tried to feed them at a sitting, that my father gave me money without being asked when we went out, and that no one in my family seemed very interested in where my friends intended to go to college or what my friends intended to do for a living when they grew up.)

My best friend's mother was different from all of these other women, or so at least she seemed to me at the time. She was a single mother, a divorcee at a time when that word was still exotic in the place where I grew up. She was a beautiful woman, always in some ways younger than her years, with stylishly short hair and simple make-up, a trim figure and tasteful business clothes. She supported herself and her only child without help from her ex-husband who I never met and wouldn't want to and her home was modest but modern and chic. All of the women I admired were smart and most of them were kind but she was tested in ways that most of them weren't, and not just by her daughter's strange little friends, and she seemed to me even when we'd made her most angry, entirely admirable. I don't know that we ever made a joke at her expense, any of us ever. Imagine that.

It would be years before any of us ever called her by her first name or anything other than "_____'s Mom" even to her face which quickly became something of a permanent endearment even after her daughter's friends were all grown. (The last time I had a meal with her I had to make myself use her Christian name, even then, all these years later.) Her daughter would occasionally and jokingly address her as, "old goat," as in, "hey, you old goat, we're home," but the joke was only funny because it was so obviously ridiculous. The very last person to be described as such, even when she did in fact grow old. She always laughed at this -- I think -- and we certainly did. She was frankly too glamorous to me, and too sophisticated in my eyes to take anything we said to shock her entirely seriously. (Perhaps she should have, as some of the things we told on ourselves were true.) When we were grown and kept only in imperfect touch, my friend and I used "The Old Goat" as a kind of shorthand for asking or telling after this woman we both loved.

I did love her, and always will. She was genuinely funny, in her own sometimes acerbic way and more often than not in her willingness to play along in almost any silly thing we played at; childish noises, mock fights, outlandish stories told on each other. Constant companions in high school and into college and even now on the very rare occasions when we communicate, my friend and I are still very silly with each other. Grimmest tragedy, which we've both known, she more than I, failures and disappointments, romances gone awry, deaths, addictions, loss, we've never not been able to talk about these things eventually and we still always come back at some point to the awkward goofs we were as adolescents. We find it strangely reassuring. My friend has always been a bit butch, even when she did her hair properly or wouldn't go to school. I've always been rather... theatrical. We always made each other laugh. Her mother must have found us quite alarming. We gave her cause. Still, at least in retrospect she was always willing to laugh along with us, despite our appalling behavior separately and together and with our weird need to be boorish with each other and joy in embarrassing ourselves, in public and private. We behave like fools, my friend and I, because each recognized in the other something of the same foolishness and to make it all if not better, then bearable; anecdote as antidote. Let's tell that terrible story again! At least "_____'s Mom" will laugh. It's always worked for us, if not always for her, poor woman.

 I sought tolerance and found it from more than I'd been led to expect. Got a little older and I sometimes succeeded in bullying or shaming into silence some of the people I could not convince or charm. But my friend's mother was different in so many ways from most of the women I then knew, and in this most particularly. When she loved someone, as I believe she loved me, it was unconditional and considered and sincere. I was not unloved otherwise, but I at least had the sense to recognize what love looked like as it was given to me and I hope I was grateful.

Of all the women I've ever wanted to make laugh, none was a better audience than "_____'s Mom" from the day I first met her to this. She was a smoker back in the day when that could still be elegant and between the two of us, however bad we'd been or however late I'd shamelessly waited to be driven home, etc., the common goal was to make that woman laugh until she couldn't breath. She would laugh until she cried and swatted us away. She would laugh until she told me I had to leave -- and when would I see her again? She laughed at herself and her own bad choices and she laughed even when I know we broke her heart. Later I suspect she laughed less. A second marriage. Jobs at which she was better than she needed to be. Widowhood. Loneliness. Illness and frailty, disappointment and pride, worry and wandering, and yet she laughed when I saw her, even when we cried for cause and not from laughing. 

I've always thought that phrase, "indomitable spirit" absurd, and not just because it is usually deployed by persons looking to benefit by standing next to rather than in the shoes of the person thus described. It's a verbal decoration, like pinning a medal over a wound and then moving on down the ward. "Aren't you brave. Where next?" Besides, it simply isn't true. There is no spirit which mayn't flag, no one who might not be beaten if by nothing less than time and death. I know nothing of eternity, but something now of this life, if less than I ever thought would be possible at my present age. What I know now is that spirits can be broken and can mend. That is our salvation and our hope. I have seen it. My friend and her beloved mother are among those who have shown me the possibility of this even in their darkest days, together and separately they have come back from places I would be too terrified to even visit. I do not say that either was "indomitable." Buffeted and bruised, certainly, dominated, even broken, but always they've come back and together we have somehow always still laughed.

My best friend's mother was kind to me when I was unhelpful and lied, when I was took advantage of her generosity and abused her hospitality, when the whole unhappy gang of her only daughter's only queer misbegotten friends broke her lamps and spoiled her rugs, disappointed her and failed to protect her child. She was kind to me when I had no right to further kindness, when I was really no friend to her daughter just as when I was. I learned very early that I might ask of her anything in her power to help me and that is a rare thing to know of someone else's mother. She was kind to me because she was kind. She liked me because I liked her. She loved me, present and absent, when I deserved it and when I didn't not because of who I was then or might be now but because, like her, I loved my friend. She was an admirable person, a good mother, a good friend. 

I cannot even offer my condolences in person. I do not know if or how there might be a funeral. I cannot send flowers even with a card addressed, "In Memory of The Beloved Old Goat," in the hopes of making my friend laugh.

Her death shocks and horrifies me and as a nation we should be ashamed to let such people, and so many people die. I am so furious just now, and so sad. 

I trust she would understand and forgive me even for going on and on about myself, even now. I like to think that if she were here, my friend and I might make her laugh. I'm glad the person she loved best in the world was with her. I sent my love. I send it here again, to that silly, extraordinary woman I count my friend still, and to her surviving family likewise always kind to me, and to the memory of "_____'s Mom," my friend likewise, and me so much the better for it. I'll remember. I've learned. Thank you for the lesson among so many.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Gnawed and Mumbled



There should be a rule about how they load a church van. There isn't, but there should be. In my time I crawled into and out of many a one and it never went well. Generally the people with the greatest flexibility and the smallest bladders tend to rush to the back and as the load increases, stack and fold themselves into the available space as best they can in order to accommodate the slower adults to follow. Heat and hilarity ensues, though genuine discomfort soon follows. Now, this seems only polite but it proves impractical as soon as it comes to unloading since upon arrival wherever, the oldest and slowest, being the last loaded in, are then called to be the first out, with usually only the driver to help see them safely to the ground. All that pent up energy buzzing and bawling behind, and nowhere to go until the substantial person of Mrs. Whomever can be un-wedged from a bucket seat and lowered less than gracefully down, while the bum knee of Mr. Bucket needs straightened gently before he can be dislodged from space between the driver's seat and gearbox. And all the while, like a loaded cannon, kids trying to rush the exit.

"Can't you wait a minute? Wait, I say, damn you. Oh, not you Mrs. Whatsit, my apologies."

This is a mere van, mind, nothing so grand as a bus. Mightn't be from an actual church, or it might be, but borrowed. Might be a delivery van of some sort or a panel truck, come to that, commandeered into temporary service for the occasion, but nothing so roomy or regulated as a bus. (I sat many times on an ice-cream freezer, or on the open bed of a pick-up truck in the winter wind, and more than once sat in the open stairwell of a moving vehicle.) Like the conveyance, the contents varied according to the occasion, but generally there were one or two functioning adults; organizers and acting chaperones, a driver not altogether happy and probably scared out of his or her wits, and then entirely too many cub scouts, or members young and old of the Grange, or 4H, or some other country fraternal organization, stacked less like cord wood than a load of noisy, wet gravel, every icy road and or sharp turn eliciting a loud and unhelpful, "Whoaaaa!" Unruly bunch, cheerful but not helpful, all smelling of damp wool and farm boots, rarely uncorked scent bottles and fresh baking, and not a drop of drink anywhere to take the edge off the enterprise.

I speak, just here, of country carolers, not the kind in a proper chorus, not so much as rehearsed, circa somewhere between say 1968 and 1976, my best remembered childhood. These would not be singers necessarily, mind, and not so much organized as randomly gathered. That would be the point.

I'm put in mind of this when I finally considered hauling out my Christmas music, and then didn't. Two big moving-boxes of the stuff just sitting in our garage, gathering dust the year 'round until normally some day soon after Thanksgiving when I drag the lot of it upstairs, spread jewel-boxes over the floor, and fire up our now much neglected stereo system.  But this year? I certainly had the time. Lord knows I love the stuff; the season, the bells, the carols, the songs, the choirs, the kitsch, the lot. But then I found even as late as this week, Christmas all but just around the corner, I could not quite rise to the occasion. Wasn't in me. Where the happy, off-key caroler of Western Pennsylvania childhood?

"The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas Carol: but at the first sound of

God bless you, merry gentlemen!

May nothing you dismay!

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost." 

Stave One, Marley's Ghost, roughly a dozen pages in, that. Oh dear, am I Scrooge now?

Short of the thirteen surviving minutes of Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, the first extant film adaptation from 1913, every version stage and screen of the immortal Dickens' story that I've ever seen -- and I swear I've seen them all --has unsurprisingly featured carolers at whom the old wheezer might sneer. Yet another of the Dickensian reinventions of Christmas; that tight quartet in the full Victorian, harmonizing heartily on the cobbles. Easiest thing in the world to establish period, place, time, antagonists, and an appropriately festive atmosphere. Often as not, right under the credits or first across the stage: enter caroling.

I know it's not to everyone's taste. There are those who can't abide so much as the tinkling of jingle bells, fellow retail workers ruined in their seasonal joy by the too oft' repeated loop of saccharine inanities, persons of refined opinion who shiver not in anticipation but disdain at the first hint of Tchaikovsky's nutcracker. I sympathize with but have never shared their pain. It isn't all Luciano Pavarotti's Gesu Bambino and cathedral choir soloists calling oh, O for the Wings of a Dove. Hell, it's not necessarily even Miss Brenda Lee. 

As someone who has amassed a considerable collection of Christmas recordings, I feel fully qualified to say that not all all of it is anywhere near good, and that some of it is frankly dreadful. Further, I will admit to taking a perverse pleasure in not a few records the value of which is largely in their un-self-conscious awfulness. (Not the dreaded novelty numbers I mean so much as the full-throated sopranos mit orchestra yet, assailing a simple tune as if it were an aria from Norma, and or the various attempts by well meaning or greedy producers to bring a bit of contemporary pizzazz to old chestnuts with misjudged arrangements borrowed from 80s exercise videos to gangsta rap. Shivers. Good shivers, you understand, but in a bad way.)

But I think what I most want just now and cannot have, is something like the sound of the caroling I remember being carried from nursing home to shut-ins and on to isolated farms in those steaming vans of my youth. 

Don't misunderstand me when I tell you it was not good. We sang as I remember from mimeographed pages, often impossible to read in dim porch-light, or limply wet and runny in a snow storm. We sang, if you can call it that, crowded in the front of community rooms and fidgeting in drafty halls, to audiences often smaller than the crowd from the van. Our put-upon listeners were expected, not unreasonably I think, to appreciate our enthusiasm and the effort made, rather than the resulting noise.

There were always good natural singers among us, adults and children, but even their best could not always rise above. I remember there were always ladies -- seldom but occasionally gentlemen -- who would try, bless their memories, to get or keep us on pitch and in tune, and some brave soul would even try to keep time for us, when there wasn't an upright piano to follow. It all in the end usually came to almost nothing very nice, but at least we were cute, as I remember us then, and it was over soon enough.

I do remember one such performance in particular, not because of anything we did, but for a moment after. Might have been at The Odd Fellows Home, or somewhere like. Sad, sometimes frightening places for the smallest children, nursing homes. Not then so sad as they seem now, for reasons we were then blessed to never have anticipated, but sad nonetheless. Unhappy, mostly as I remember them, with crepe paper bells and sad strings of saggy tinsel, the inmates often decked in small tokens of better memories: Christmas broaches and garlands draped like scarves, perhaps a Santa hat on some stray staffer.

The moment I mean to recall came after we had finished our "program" and had gone at our minders' insistence out among the occupants to offer season's greetings individually before we fell to on the cookie tables and watery punch. It wasn't me who heard her first, nor do I know who or what may have prompted her. But somewhere in that painfully bright recreation and assembly room, one ancient lady decided to sing. Seemingly unbidden by anyone or anything but memory, without accompaniment or the slightest encouragement, perhaps not even altogether aware of what she was doing, a very old lady -- sang.

I wish I could tell you that her voice was still thrilling and strong. It wasn't. I wish I could remember what language she sang in, or that someone present could later identify the song. It wasn't English I know, might have been German, Italian, Polish. Somebody would have said that much at least, but I do not remember. All I remember is the quiet. I remember there the sudden hush and that all of us, even the evil-minded teenagers stopped what we were doing, stood still and listened. The carol she sang, if carol it was, couldn't have lasted more than a very few minutes but it had the shape of something beautiful still, something familiar even in its foreign language, something sacred. It rose and fell to nearly a whisper, it broke going up and shook when it had ascended and it was everything but pretty or professionally done. And while it lasted, the little time it did, it was beautiful. It was Christmas, hers as she remembered it if she remembered nothing else, and wherever it came from, however she came to be there, in a small country place, among people who barely spoke the little English we used, it was a gift.

And when she'd done, when what she'd done trailed away to nothing, we did not applaud or shout or make much of her really. As I remember it, some adults made a point of going to wish her well. I saw her then, as some attendant wheeled her back no doubt to her bed. She was no more awake or aware of us than a sleepy baby. I cannot say I remember her face, let alone her name if I ever heard it.

When she'd gone, we went back to our happy buzz, now somewhat subdued and soon after it was back to the van. I believe we were done for the night. Going home people said nice things about what they'd heard. Somebody probably picked a fight when somebody else shifted and crushed a toe or kicked an elbow away. Come the first hard turn, we all shouted, "Whoaaaa!" and were told yet again to shut the hell up, it was hard enough trying to see in such weather, hard enough not to kill us all such roads.

Right this minute, that's the carol I want to hear. I wish I knew what it was. That's the music for this moment and all I can do is tell you to listen to it however it comes to now, in the quiet hereafter, come the stille nacht, heilege nacht, and wish us all happy holidays, better days hereafter, and a very good night.



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A Brief Introduction to an Old Friend



Some of us didn't die. That's obvious now, but it wasn't at the time. Far too many people -- a generation -- did die as a result of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome: friends, family, lovers, strangers, artists, innocent babies and villains like Roy Cohen. People still do die of it, but for gay men of our generation, there was an agonizingly long stretch when it felt like we all would sooner than later. Then a lucky few lived long enough to just survive. New medicines, new hope. New lives? Well, sorta. Pleasantly surprised doesn't do it justice, but calling it a miracle still sounds unseemly when we think of all those for whom it came too late. As Browning said, “how sad and bad and mad it was - but then, how it was sweet.” 

Brian Bouldrey's novel is that rarest of fictions that tells the ever-after. I can't really think of another in this context. There were tragedies of course, tributes, valedictories, memorials, memoirs, politics, yards and yards of poetry, and fiction long and short. Much of it was good, all of it was necessary and some of it should last. But who tells us the story after the surprise party, the days, weeks, and years after the happy ending? And who on earth would read it?

Well, not nearly enough did. By the time The Boom Economy, Scenes from Clerical Life was originally published in 2003, the fashion had changed, the news had cycled on, and the market for gay fiction was not what it had been, or so we were being told all the damned time. And this story? 

It's 1999, in Vancouver, BC, and three unlikely friends, Isabelle, Jimmy, and Dennis are sitting in a most unlikely bar, and no-one is having a very good time, except us:

"They studied the menus, full of too many choices that tried to span the cuisines: chop suey, burritos, spaghetti, hamburgers. Dennis felt queasy around such icky heterodoxies, common along the Pacific Rim. In San Francisco there were at least four shops called 'Chinese Food and Donuts,' and other stores sold Indian Food and Pizza,' 'Deli, Ice, Bait, and Liquor.' Was there nothing pure left in the world? Sex and food, both nice ideas, but not together. Even if he were his old self, unvested."

Come on. That's delicious because nothing sounds good together except those sentences. And did you catch that last word? Sneaky.

Our hero Dennis Bacchus has not died and neither has his best friend, Jimmy but that is not the story, though it would seem to be the point. Seem. Dennis has decided to become a priest. Of all things. The world is new. And yet, old friends and old habits -- made with every expectation of mortality -- carry on. And maybe that's the point? Remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the ride is starting again, so hang on. Bouldrey is a traveler of the best kind; excitable, brave, peripatetic and genuinely good company even when or specially when things are not altogether as they should be. Life happens in his fiction and as in life, real life, some of its pretty ghastly but even the worst of it can be entertaining and the best of it quite moving when it is written this well. Even the simplest thing can be beautiful and funny, as when we first meet dear Isabelle, very French, on a train six years earlier: 

"Out on the platform, he saw a girl get on, maybe twenty years old at most, in a short skirt that was pink with white polka dots. She had no hat, but she should have had one, to match her little brown suitcase. She was not sacking Europe."

As George Eliot says, "Nice distinctions are troublesome." I would just add that here is another writer who knows how to make the most of trouble. Dennis, our hero, the survivor and would-be priest, is trouble -- also troubled, troubling, and distinctly unsuited for either sainthood or Hell. Asceticism seems to suit him, but then so did being a bit of a sybarite, back in the day.

"He'd been trying to get away from all his stuff for years now, the things, the friends, the sex, the freedom burdens all. But oh, the pleasures (...) Dennis loved the pleasure and its attending pain: the bee's sting that is the price of honeycomb, tickling, the rose and its thorns, attempting to tell a joke to Isabelle in French, buttfucking, a productive cough, horror films, cracking walnuts to get their meat, the goofy, funny last words of a dying friend, the spectacular crash to the floor of an ornate dish."

Perhaps that's another reason this particular novel was denied a proper audience back in the day. Perhaps we were all still a bit too tender? Maybe we weren't quite ready yet to have our assumptions about romance and death and the nobility of our poetic cliches mixed quite so barbarously and brilliantly up and dropped like a sack of angry cats on our doorstep?

Why we should want to read it or reread it now. The spiritual journey of a man redeemed from death would be about as interesting as it sounds. It happens. Meh. But this isn't that novel. Yes, it's about a man in search of all sorts, from assignations to abjuration, from God to guide-books. And yes, Dennis is in flight from his past, from the jokes and the friends and fun that may not have been (poor Jimmy), but that isn't the point of reading it now. It's the voice. That's the point of it now. There hadn't frankly been anything quite like it then and there hasn't really been since, alas. 

And the times described, and the characters met, can now be read without the burden of our aching self importance then. Sad but true. Surely the world would note? But, no. There were very few writers of Bouldrey's generation who entirely escaped that rather formal, almost Cornelian hauteur and nobility of profile in the face of you know what. For all his generosity of heart, and the accuracy of his time-keeping, Brian Bouldrey takes everything so seriously that he can't help but occasionally laugh. It is redeeming. Poor, dear, benighted Dennis! Perhaps if he got a decent haircut? 

"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." So said the very lamentably long late Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. I wouldn't know. Theology is not my subject. Maybe Brian could explain that to me, though I wouldn't dream of asking. Questions are better than answers anyway, particularly and perhaps peculiarly in novels. For me, having read my friend's novel again after nearly twenty years, the question he asks is better than the theologian's mystery because the paradox makes me smile. What happens when a man is called to live? No less profound, I should think.  The answer, if there is one, is up to you, dear reader, to find or not herein.

I can't think of better company on the way.



 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

My Dear Clerihew


ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

Sherlock requiring a foil,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Slots in Watson --
To tie knots in.