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.