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.