For instant gratification, though, Chapter 6 of Broom of the System is probably the funniest chapter I've ever read. It deals with a conversation held in a restaurant next to a glutton that the characters cannot ignore, despite their efforts to concentrate on their own issue.
Get it from the library and give just that chapter a shot. Maybe it will give you enough encouragement to read the whole thing straight through. There aren't that many other hilarious entire chapters from Wallace, but once you feel like you're sharing a humor gene with him, it might work.
Also, getting into his essays might make you feel more in tune with him.
I killed a dog once, with my car. I didn't know it at the time. When it happened, the car bumped slightly, and I heard a sound that I likened to hitting a small bag of dry concrete with the tire. Ka-thump. That was it.
The sound and bump was enough that I stopped the car within a block and pulled over to the curb to check it out. I opened the door, took a quick look and got back inside. I would have had no idea that anything else had happened, except I saw a frantic girl back down the street, running toward her house. Ahead of her, the black flash of a big dog headed toward the open front door, disappearing soundlessly before I could really process what had happened. I wondered if something was wrong...
Rewind two days.
I was driving from Denver to Maryland to visit my best friend. I visit her every year or two, and when I do I try to give her some help with household projects if she needs it. This particular visit, she needed to rebuild a railing along the stairway in her house. I had her send me some pictures, and I drew up a plan. So in the truck with me, alongside my bag of clothes and toiletries, was my miter saw. I had placed it in the passenger seat, wedged up against the dashboard of my truck.
I left in the middle of the afternoon, January 11, 2005. My friend and I planned to attend the inaugural parade of Bush's second term, furtively talking of throwing eggs but more realistically thinking of just taking in the view and being disgusted. I had plans to stop first in Chicago to stay with two friends in Ravenswood before moving on to Indianapolis for a day to see another friend.
The weather was clear as I entered Nebraska, but the night grew dark and cold and the snow began to fall. One driver had been following me for miles, and I could see his headlights in my rear view like a constant. Just before Grand Island I began to see more regular flakes in the freeway lights and decided to get a room for the night. The drive had been smooth till then, but at least once I thought I felt something of a skid and slowed my speed to around sixty.
Coming off an overpass, the rear end fishtailed a bit. I corrected and slowed, expecting to come back to true and take it slow until the next exit, but the correction took me past center again. I corrected once more but could feel the heat of adrenaline surging through me. The fishtail swung back a second time -- farther than before -- and I knew it was past my ability to save. As I swung around and pointed the wrong direction I just hoped that the freeway shoulder would hold me.
My skid took me backward over the white line onto the shoulder. There wasn't enough friction between my tires and the road to so much as slow me. The back side of a large highway sign flashed past the driver's window on my left as I heard the whack of a mile marker obliterated by the truck's door. I knew at that point I wouldn't be stopping on the asphalt, and I told myself to hold on.
When my tires left the blacktop, all the sound stopped. At first the tires just glided over the snow, but as the slope dropped off and the weight of the truck shifted, the outside tires bit hard. The first roll was jarring but silent. I couldn't really understand what was happening except for feeling the shock of ice cold against my head on the window side. The scenery rolled in my windshield until I came to a rest.
The truck was still. I was alive. But things were somewhat upside down.
I could move my arms and turn my head and, except for my body hanging awkwardly in the seatbelt, things seemed OK. I turned off the key (though the engine had stopped anyway) and tried to get my wits about me. I had no idea where my cell phone was, having laid it loose in the console before the crash. And my driver's window was pushed pretty deeply into about two feet of snow. I realized that I wouldn't be getting myself out of the wreck alone.
And then there was the issue of the saw. The miter saw, about seventy-five pounds of cast aluminum and motor, had somehow stayed in its seat during the rolls and was essentially suspended directly overhead, held up by... what? It had been sitting in the seat next to me, kept in place only by a bit of friction against the dashboard. Concern number one: Was it going to hang there much longer? Concern number two: If I needed to get out the passenger door, that saw was in my way.
Something in the back of my mind recalled the driver who had been following me along I-80 most of the way into Nebraska. He had been maybe a half mile behind -- surely he saw me, especially when I yawed backward, my headlights shining directly at him at least for a moment. But I didn't know how far off the highway I had slid and rolled. Was I right near the shoulder or tucked into a ravine somewhere beyond the sight line of the lanes up on the road? I switched on my hazard lights just to be sure... and waited.
It took about three minutes or so until I heard the sound of a vehicle slowing to a stop somewhere back on the interstate, wherever that was. Then a shout and the sound of someone bounding through the snow. He crouched down as near to the driver's window as he could get. (I imagine he was nearly lying on the ground to do it.)
"Are you OK?"
"Yes, I'm fine. But I'm stuck."
"Let me get up on top and pull you out. Do you need a cell phone?"
"No. No one to call -- but, wait! You'll need my keys."
I found my keys and wondered if I'd be able to roll down my window to extend them to the guy. I was surprised but kind of relieved to find the window gone, shattered somewhere along the way. I pushed the keys through the missing driver's window, down into the snow and back up again so he could see them outside of the truck. I heard him climb up along what had been the bottom side to the opposite door, clambering up on top. But he was unable to open the door, which was probably a lucky thing, since I had forgotten to tell him about the saw -- and that opening the door might release it from whatever held it in place.
He climbed back down and told me he had already called for help. I caught him before he left the window and asked if he could hear me well. I told him about the saw, and how whoever opened that door needed to be concerned first with grabbing it, in case it wanted to fall on me.
Sirens sounded up on the highway, coming to a stop where I first heard that guy's truck. Again, I heard footfalls in the snow heading down the hill, but this time a lot more of them. And as I listened to the murmur of the guy giving a quick overview of my situation to them, I braced my arm against the miter saw's frame, hoping I'd be able to hold its weight with my elbow, should it start to drop when they opened the door.
(part one ends here, because it's long enough already...)
There are few things I can say with precision about much of my youth. The years are a blurred mess of jumbled memories and flashes -- themes more than scenes.
But the years when my family lived in California in the 1970s stand out to me more clearly than any others. Perhaps it was because of the change of scenery, perhaps it is because with less time to make friends I remember better the ones I had. Or perhaps -- and this is what I'd argue most strongly -- the abrupt shift of my life to California is cemented in my mind along with the equally abrupt shift back because it had a defined beginning and ending.
Dad moved us to California because his job as an aerospace engineer took him to Vandenberg Air Force Base when the Viking lander was nearly ready to launch. He was on the project at Martin Marietta in Colorado during the early stages, but for the lead-up to launch, he needed to be in California. We left on a beautiful January day from Denver, snow on the ground but blazing sun above in blue skies, and arrived in California a few days later. He and Mom bought a home in a development fairly separated from any other neighborhoods in an area outside of Santa Maria.
Our subdivision was surrounded on all sides by agricultural land. Highway 101 ran by a couple of miles from our neighborhood, but other than that we had vineyards and avocado fields forever. It was ideal for kids, because as long as we didn't stray near the freeway, our parents were content to let us wander and come home on our own.
Two recurring things stand out to me when I look at my activities and behavior back then. One, my friends and I were astoundingly good at taking reasonable, fun, creative activities and getting them banned by authority figures. Two, I did so much stuff at age nine that would have gotten me arrested had I done it when I was sixteen.
At school, we had a component of the curriculum that was apparently meant to teach us the value of money. Each student had a "job" in the classroom, for which he or she would earn fake money. Jobs were transferable, so someone could switch with someone else after consulting the teacher. But each job paid the same, so not many people swapped out of the swanky tasks. The money was only good for one thing -- placing bids at a weekly auction in class after Friday lunch. Students could bring in anything they wished, and after presenting it to the class, they'd take their seats and have the teacher begin the auction. At first, it seemed like a treat. Kids would bring in old books or toys they no longer wanted, and everyone else would bid on them. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, the only really good stuff cost way more than a week's wages. To get something really neat, you had to resist the urge to buy a trinket every week and save your money. The problem was, by the time you'd saved a good wad, someone might not have good stuff to auction. My friends and I wondered how we could make sure to have cash on hand for the really good stuff all the time. We began bringing the junkiest crap you could imagine -- castoff jewelry and glorified chunks of wood, half-toys that had no value on their own but at some point belonged to something much cooler. We would bid up each others' crap, often just trading our dollars back and forth. But every now and then some sucker in class would join in the bidding on something worth nothing, and we would let them win the auction, adding their money to our combined pot. After just a few weeks, our collective had enough money to outbid anyone when something really cool was brought in for auction. And the pattern repeated -- we'd bring in our crap, inflate the price a bit, and soak the other kids for their hard-earned fake money. Eventually, someone figured it out, and the auctions were shelved in favor of using the job money for small, individual treats available from the teacher at the end of each week. And those treats weren't really that cool, certainly not worth wasting the efforts of an ingenious economic bloc.
My friends and I were avid maze-drawers as well. I'd guess there were four or five of us who drew them for each other the same way some kids doodled hot rods or spaceships. It became a contest to see whose mazes were the most difficult to solve. I remember the utter admiration I felt when one of my friends realized that, with a complex enough maze, he could run his lines right to the page edge, inserting an exit to the back side of the paper, then entering again somewhere else. Without that secret path, the maze was unsolvable. Brilliant! It sparked an evolution in maze creation, and before long we were more excited about presenting to each other our mazes than we were with schoolwork (or, I'd wager, that crap auction stuff we'd managed to ruin for everyone else). We were shocked and left feeling completely empty one morning when the teacher announced that our fun was so much of a distraction, mazes would no longer be allowed. Neither drawing them nor solving them. Crap.
We still had our marble games to keep us going. The schoolyard was divided into three areas: The hardtop court nearest the building, with basketball courts and lines painted for other activities; the sand-filled playground with climbing equipment and swings; and the athletic fields beyond that, mostly covered with grass and well worn in areas where games were played most often. It was at the edge of the grass area, near the property fences, that we played marbles. The ground there was worn so hard from use that the soil was essentially solid. We'd dig our holes into the ground, trace our circles in the dust, and shoot marbles before school, during recess and after school for as long as we could. Every kid worth his salt had a marble bag with him at all times, and we played for keeps. There were days I went in to class at first bell nearly in tears from losing one or more of my favorite marbles. Likewise, there were days I beamed all day at capturing one I'd had my eyes on. Apparently, we got a little obsessive about marbles too, because before the end of that school year, the teachers school-wide had banned marbles.
Don't get me started about what happened when one kid came to school and told us that there was a thing called a "bajina," and all girls had them. The reaction from the recess attendant when one of my friends worked up the courage to ask her about it was priceless, and yet it confirmed for all of us that bajinas were real, and they were not to be taken lightly.
That kid, incidentally, was most famous for burning his house down. We had all shown up to school one morning and, with no marble games to play anymore, stood around waiting for the bell. "Where's Jamie?" one of my friends asked. It was odd that he was late, not because he wasn't the kind of kid not to be late but because he lived only a couple blocks away. None of us knew, but before the class bell rang, someone noticed a plume of dark smoke rising from behind the trees near his house. We heard the sirens as we ran inside at the sound of the school bell. Jamie didn't show up for class until much later, and he was notably quiet and a little bit freaked out. We all learned later that he and his two younger brothers had been playing with matches (how cliche!) in his attic after his single mother had left for work. No one really mentioned it out loud, but I think we all secretly loved the danger in the story and the monumental scale of his mishap.
Oddly, my family lived far enough away from school that most of my school friends were not my hanging-out friends when I was home. Instead, I hung out with the kids from my neighborhood who were in different classrooms than me or even different schools altogether. But the one thing we all did was ride our bikes, and everywhere. Mom and Dad let us go as far as our legs would take us, which often meant our getting deep into the nearby vineyards or up to the chain-link fences that surrounded the oil pumps that worked up and down in the fields. For some reason, tree houses were hugely popular around there, and you often couldn't pass a grove of trees without seeing a structure of some kind. We didn't think of them as someone else's territory, just as we didn't think of our own tree houses as "ours." So we had a sort of mental map of the land, with tree houses etched in our minds as forts along the way or great spots to hide and confer. We even had code names for them, which we'd use for confidential meeting purposes. And we'd plot away the afternoons there, which is where the criminal activity creeps in.
It doesn't take long for nine-year-olds to go from plotting an imaginary dirt-clod raid on fake enemies to devising an assault on real property. The odd thing is, we were almost always caught and yet never really suffered any consequences. Perhaps that's the charm of a nine-year-old?
I remember planning a foray into the yard of a girl we thought of as particularly stuck up. In our minds, the best way of striking back at her attitude was to rip up the garden her parents kept. We dropped over her fence from a tree, pulled greens like we were finding gold under each of them, and hopped out of there before the father had time to yell out the door at us. We heard later we had been spotted, identified and warned. We apologized at the father's front door, rather than risk his telling our parents.
That, apparently, didn't stop us from planning a similar raid on a tool shed a few blocks away. My friend, who was a huge Roger Staubach fan, had peeked in through the cracks of the wallboards and spotted a Texas license plate hanging inside the shed. The door was held shut by a combination lock. That license plate was such a magnet for him, we hung out by the shed every afternoon for what seemed like a week, wondering how to get in. All that time hanging out led us to explore every inch of the shed, and finally he saw a series of numbers scratched into the wood. The combination? Indeed, the numbers worked, and we were inside!
I was terrified, probably too aware that we had ratcheted up our liability, but I agreed to stand lookout while he got the license plate loose. Plate in hand, we sped out of there back to our main tree house, where we stared in awe at the thing. But, really, a license plate isn't much. There was a lot of other cool stuff in that shed. The adrenaline had us feeling braver than we should have felt, and we went back for more, taking tools, hardware, string and chain, and pretty much anything we could gather and sprint with. We scraped away the gravel at the foot of our tree and dug into the hard ground with rocks, making a cache for our loot. We didn't know when to quit, though, and our next trip turned into our last. We were nabbed by the teenage daughter of the family as soon as we entered the shed. She said the thing we feared more than anything: "I'm going to tell your parents." But she promised to let us go if we'd apologize to her folks. We marched up to the house with her behind us, and we almost tearfully told her dad what we had done. He made us promise to bring back everything we'd taken and leave it in the shed, and then had us further promise never to do anything like it again.
We never really did do anything like that again, but not for trying or lack of opportunity. My family moved away at the end of that summer.
I'm not sure what happened to most of my friends. I traded letters with a few of them after my family moved back to Colorado, but the correspondence habit dies quickly when you're just ten years old. I heard that one of them went on to run competitively at UCLA. Another attended UC Santa Barbara and really got into surfing. As for me, I kind of became the kind of kid I'd have never hung out with at that age. Maybe it was getting caught one too many times, or maybe it was just that special place where we lived. Trouble didn't find me so easily back in Colorado, but perhaps that's also why those couple of years on the west coast stand out to me so brilliantly.
Posted by InternalDialogue in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Sun Nov 09th 2008, 12:48 PM
My mother's dad joined the Army because all of his friends did. It was less out of a sense of duty than a wish to fall in with the crowd. It's not that he wasn't a patriot, but joining wasn't his idea, just one to which he subscribed.
He was sent to Europe and fought in World War I. My mother doesn't know too many details; the war was long over by the time she was born, and the stories she passes on to me were mostly passed on to her in the same way, remotely and with an abundance of vagueness.
My grandfather's experience in the war came to an abrupt end. Well, it seems abrupt now, looking back on it. At the time it was probably a tortuous eternity. He was pierced through the leg with (depending on who tells the story -- different family members relate different details) a bullet or a bayonet. When I hear the story, I feel conflict in that detail. I can't believe that either item entering and exiting my knee would be preferable to the other, but the trauma of being run through at close range with a bayonet is far more horrifying to me than that from being punctured by a bullet. (The psychological implications of the former conjure nightmares of close combat while the latter strikes me as at least emotionally manageable.)
The Army surgeon insisted on an immediate amputation, but my grandfather refused. He was going home with his leg, goddamn it. The wound was apparently sufficient for the surgeon to presume that, without an amputation, my grandfather would die. He was placed against a wall with the other soldiers who were also expected to die or who had already expired. Essentially, the man who had not yet become my mother's father was, by the wartime standard of the day, a goner.
Needless to say, he did indeed survive. The joke passed around to my mother by all her relatives (and there were many -- the man left for dead produced, with his wife, eleven daughters and two sons) was that the Army had run short of blood for transfusions and relied on mule blood, hence her stubbornness.
My grandfather, whom I met only as a toddler and whom I remember only because there is a photo of me on his knee -- perhaps even the one wounded in Europe -- never sought further medical attention for his injury. He hobbled the rest of his life, trying to accommodate the handicap with custom shoes and determination. Mom can remember seeing the wounds when she was still very young. He'd show the kids the holes on either side of his knee, one for the entry, one for the exit. Beyond that, he didn't say much of it.
Mom told me this story again today because I called her after running some errands around town. Outside a store in the suburbs I was approached by two men handing out cloth poppies for Veterans Day. I greeted the man closest to me but told him immediately I had nothing in my pockets to contribute to his collection pot.
"That's all right," he said. "We don't need your money. Just take a poppy now and think of us on Tuesday."
I took the flower and wound the wire stem through a buttonhole. When I got home, I called her just to talk and because I knew her father served in the Army, just as my father/her husband served in the Air Force.
"You know, during World War II, my mom would go out and sell poppies by the side of the highway," she said, recalling her childhood in southern California. "One day, she collapsed from heat stroke because she refused to take a break."
Had I heard that story out of context, I'd have wondered what my grandmother's obsession was. But knowing the history of the man she married, it makes all the sense in the world.
"I never knew what the poppies were all about," Mom told me. "What's the significance?"
No one ever taught me this fact, and it never even occurred to me until she asked the question, but I immediately replied, "They were mentioned in the poem 'In Flanders Fields,' which was written to commemorate the Belgian countryside that holds so many dead soldiers from World War I." I recited the few lines I know by memory:
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The lines came to me so easily because they are part of a song I've long adored, but I don't know how they came back at that moment to me or how I associated them so quickly with her question about poppies. But through the stories about her father and his flirtation with death -- the very real possibility that he may have easily been among those for whom the poppies are given today, and the fact that he was not killed being quite directly responsible for the existence of my mother, me, and our conversation today -- I don't doubt that the connections I made were not my own, but rather were merely the result of ninety years of fate, guts, determination, and common history.
Bless you, veterans.
That's when I first heard of Wallace, via a clipping sent to me by a friend in Chicago. It was an author profile written right after Infinite Jest began catching on in a big way.
Coincidentally, this morning I was sorting through old office papers and personal letters and came across that 1996 clipping. I wouldn't have remembered it at all but for the fact that I had chosen to start that chore yesterday.
The original article is archived at the Tribune and available for a price, but the author of that 1996 piece kindly reposted it in his blog Sunday.
The novel's melancholy tone grew out of observations Wallace was making as he looked outward and inward. "It seemed to me that there was something sort of sad about the country . . . that at a time when our lives are more comfortable and more full probably of pleasure, sheer pleasure, than any other time in history, that people were essentially miserable," he said.
"I went through a real bad three years," he said of the late '80s/early '90s, when he lived in Boston (enrolling briefly in Harvard University's Ph.D. program in philosophy) and Syracuse. He even once checked himself into a hospital to be put on a suicide watch.
"In a weird way it seemed like there was something very American about what was going on, that things were getting better and better for me in terms of all the stuff I thought I wanted, and I was getting unhappier and unhappier," he said.
The profile hints at (or, in many cases, overtly describes) all sorts of depression symptoms and observations that Wallace experienced. But it's obvious from his life that he didn't ignore them and in fact actively fought them.
What strikes me most is his comment about being extremely unhappy at a time when his life was growing increasingly better or more successful. In fact, for the entire country, we were on a roll. It was the start of the dot-com explosion, the national mood was high, and yet he still sensed a materialistic malaise -- both in himself and in the country as a whole.
Take that outlook at a time when things in general were extremely positive and switch out the "extremely positive" part with "unbearably disastrous." It's one thing when a country is suffering and acts like it -- look at the masterpieces produced by Dostoevsky -- but America wants to ignore those warning signs, and the denial creates a wholly unhealthy climate. Just as with an individual depressive or suicide, that willful ignorance in a citizenry is an invitation to death and despair. Instead of observing our society and undertaking a healthy scaling back of our consumption, expectations, bravado and attitude at the same time we express our depression and discontent through productive artistic avenues, we pretend everything is fine -- or going to be fine, without any effort on our own parts -- and we unconsciously absorb the disappointment and burden of responsibility for change without a rational system for adequately processing it. We basically make ourselves vessels for unmeasured sadness when we should be checking ourselves into a hospital.
Grandpa was a farmer, and for the first part of his life, so was my father. His side of the family is pure Czech farming stock, through and through. And the town in South Dakota where they lived was populated by families just like theirs, lots of them directly and indirectly related.
By the time I was born, my father had moved away from the farm and into a significantly different life, from the Air Force to college to an engineering job and finally to marriage and four kids. By the time he had a growing family in Colorado, he didn't have the time or resources to visit South Dakota much. I specifically remember visiting there just twice -- once when I was very young and still focused on finding the sole toy box in the farmhouse (hidden in a closet up at the top of the stairs, out of sight until the rare occasions that we grandkids visited), and once when I was probably twelve or thirteen, a trip my father and I made without my mom or siblings, just to check up on Grandpa.
By the time of that second visit, Grandpa was living alone. His wife had died in the late '70s, leaving him to run the farm and house by himself. Dad was worried about him all the time, but not so much because he couldn't do the hard stuff, but because he wouldn't do the easy stuff. He'd grow the crops, fix the equipment, manage the grounds and all that, but he probably didn't cook well for himself, and he probably didn't pay enough attention to his hygiene or his health.
That second trip stands out in my mind because I had decided to cook a full meal for my dad and grandfather one evening. I planned for fried chicken, rice, gravy, and fresh green beans. I had made all of those things at one time or another at my own house, and I felt confident I could pull it off without Mom's help. The only part of the menu I'd never made on my own was the gravy, but I remember watching Mom mix flour and milk, stir it into the pan after the chicken had been removed to cool, and season it as it warmed and thickened.
I told Grandpa and Dad to hang tight and let me put everything on the table. It all seemed to be going smoothly -- chicken brown and crispy, cooling on a platter, the rice perfectly cooked and pulled off the heat to serve, and the beans warm and still firm, waiting in a bowl. The gravy seemed to be coming along, too. As I called Grandpa and Dad in to the kitchen for dinner, I was stirring it in the pan, watching the swirls grow more solid as the color turned deeper beige. When it seemed right, I ladled it into a bowl of its own and served it.
At dinner, we all dug in, loading our plates. I felt so proud at having put it all together by myself, proving a little bit to the two men I most admired. But as the gravy came around to my side of the table, I noticed that it had changed. As it cooled, a thick layer of fat on the top had congealed. It no longer looked like gravy at all, but rather something you'd find in your kitchen drainpipe. I couldn't believe I'd forgotten to skim the grease from the chicken pan. I quickly told them not to eat the gravy, that I'd really messed it up, but Grandpa, who had already covered his food in it, told me there wasn't anything wrong with it. I was completely embarrassed, but he dove right in and told me it was perfect. I knew otherwise, but still he made me feel like I had done him the favor.
That's the last real visit I remember with Grandpa, although I know that at some point I saw him again, when he had moved from the farm to a nursing home after a fall broke his hip. Any memories I have of that are vague and too fuzzy to pull any details from.
No matter how I recall Grandpa from those last visits, he's always in my mind the way I saw him when I was just a child. His face was all bones -- jaw, nose, forehead -- and his creaky Czech accent was foreign but, at the same time, the most friendly sound in the world. I don't think I can imagine him wearing anything but the gray cotton shirt and dusty dark pants he always wore, and even when he was relaxing in his living room, he sported the polished black shoes that went on when his work boots came off.
Since Grandpa died, more than fifteen years ago now, I haven't thought much about him, except to smile when I see how much my own dad resembles him, how much he still carries with him from the South Dakota fields.
But this Father's Day, when I called to offer my best wishes to Dad, he brought up Grandpa. He mentioned that the two of them had never been really expressive or emotional. After all, when you're a farmer, there's work to be done. The seasons come and go, you make the most of what the weather brings, animals live and animals die, and there's not much to be done about any of it, but to move forward. So Dad had left home knowing how much he loved Grandpa and knowing how much he was loved. As Dad put it, "No one said it, but we just knew. It wasn't something you had to say." When Dad's kids were born he discovered, as he told me, how much more love he had inside him than he ever imagined. The longer he raised us, the bigger his love became, and he regretted not having said "I love you" or hugging his own dad before then.
On one of his trips back to South Dakota after his mother had died, Dad said he remembered driving in through the nearby small town, then through the smaller town closer to the farm, then finally off the highway onto the dirt road that cut between the fields. He got nearer the old house and saw Grandpa in the field by himself, working the land on a tractor, still a quarter mile or more away from home. Rather than drive to the farmhouse and wait, Dad said he pulled over at a spot close to the field, hopped the fence and flagged down Grandpa. When Grandpa climbed down off the equipment, Dad just hugged him and said, "I love you." He said Grandpa was shocked, completely unsure of what to do. But it wasn't really about what Grandpa needed to do, but what Dad needed to do.
I don't expect I'll ever be so far from Dad as he was from his dad. But when he told me the story on Father's Day, it didn't take me but a second to tell him I loved him. And when I wished him a final "Happy Father's Day" before hanging up, he laughed and said he could never have done it without his kids.
Posted by InternalDialogue in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Tue Mar 06th 2007, 09:48 AM
You captured an essence of a mentality I've been trying to put my finger on for a while -- the Republican trait of always claiming to be at the mercy of government or public opinion or whatever. They present a distinct sense of lack of control over one's own life. I've seen it in crystal clarity in both of Ann Coulter's most recent outbursts, the 9/11 widows situation ("They can say what they want, and you can't criticize them") and the John Edwards "faggot" swipe ("If you say 'faggot' they put you in rehab"). In both of those situations, she's using the device of some unseen monstrous force that limits her behavior or speech. Ann, you and every other Republican is allowed to say whatever you want -- be ready to deal with the backlash of public opinion if it's unpopular -- but for goodness' sake, it's your life, you make your own choices, you decide what you want your government to do, not the other way around. It's a concept that resonates with Republicans who seem so susceptible to the authoritarian crap. Hollywood, liberals, elites, college professors, communists, terrorists -- "they" all have dastardly plans and unexplainable powers.
Posted by InternalDialogue in General Discussion (01/01/06 through 01/22/2007)
Wed Nov 22nd 2006, 09:34 PM
The issue of being pro-life in practice only with regards to one issue or being pro-family only so far as the family fits a 1950s stereotypical suburban white family--all of this brings up one of the things that I feel underlies any number of problems... or if not problems, then complications when it comes to political and cultural issues.
To digress just a bit, I'm a systems nut. It's not what I do for a living really, but the whole idea of procedure, system design, and efficiency play into my work, and it's something that grows a little deeper in me each day. And it's personal too. It's not the idea of designing a machine, really, but the theory of having a system that accomplishes all that it's supposed to while running as smoothly and with as few contradictions as possible. So that's sort of what drives my worldview--I want to feel like I have a system of beliefs (spiritual, political, personal) that explain my perspective of my world as clearly as possible. When something I thought I believed contradicts with a new piece of information, I look at my set of beliefs, my system, to see whether it disagrees with the new experience. If my belief system is challenged, I see that I need to change the system, to incorporate the new information, check the rest of what I believe and see if the system still holds together.
(and now back to your thoughts)
So the idea of people who proclaim themselves to be pro-life, or pro-family or pro-Jesus or pro-whatever you want to throw in there, but who clearly are ignoring that their credo applies to only one facet of society... well, that bothers me. It feels wrong, deceptive -- like you wrote, "and yet they don't." That little phrase is the problem, it's the indicator that words and deeds don't match up when it comes to politics. Some people will argue that's what politics is all about. But what kind of ideal are we holding up as an example if we willingly accept that we can order a la carte from a menu of ethical and moral decisions? They say they value life, and yet they don't. They say they value family, and yet they don't. They say they value freedom, and yet they don't. They say they follow Christ's teachings, and yet they don't. To me, that's a system that doesn't work. It's full of problems, full of inefficiency -- it's a broken machine. When it happens to me, I check the machine, sort through the code to reconcile the problem.
The hypocrisy blows my mind too. Sometimes I'm comfortable just pointing it out. Too often, though, exposing the hypocrisy seems to mean something only when talking to a fellow liberal. It's those times that I wonder what in the world I can ever do to make a difference. Is there a point where we reconcile the gap between deeds and words? Realistically, no. If you ask me, it's possible in theory the same way that eradicating racism is -- it's a matter of raising a generation, just a single generation of children, to be color-blind. Problem fixed. Same thing with the issues you raise. The contradictions are invisible to those people who have fostered the rationalizations within themselves, but to fresh eyes and new ears, the differences might be drastic. When you value life, you value all life, not just those of the unborn or those of white-skinned people. When you believe in Christian values, you believe in all Christian values, not just the ones that protect your property and keep your wallet full.
But that's not going to happen. It's too hard, too complicated, too pie-in-the-sky, and new contradictions will arise all the time. And the defenses such people build around their beliefs is reflexive. The harder they feel their ideas are being attacked, the stronger they hold to them. So I think the answer lies somewhere surrounded with patience. We can't work past the contradictory beliefs and actions without exposing them, yet we can't change the people who hold them unless we do so in a way that doesn't seem like an attack.
I don't know that there are really many people whose minds I've changed, but I have plenty of friends and relatives who I don't necessarily agree with politically or culturally, and yet they respect me and will come to me for information or advice. It's not because I've ever convinced them that I hold the more "correct" worldview or beliefs. If anything it's because they see that I am honest, that I live my life truthfully and with compassion, and that I seem to be at peace with myself. Do those actions overcome someone's hypocritical beliefs? I'm not sure. But if someone can come to me for my opinion and learn what I believe without feeling like I'm challenging them, I think that's the crack in the dike. One heart, one mind at a time.
Posted by InternalDialogue in General Discussion (01/01/06 through 01/22/2007)
Mon Nov 13th 2006, 12:58 PM
that has become part of our societal thinking to a point that its existence is taken as a given, that it's a reasonable option for the resolution of certain crimes. But such thinking ignores a valid discussion on whether it's humane, whether it effectively serves any deterrent value, and whether it really helps crime victims and our society to deal effectively with violent crime. Not to mention the very idea of whether we, as a society, should even consider killing as a reasonable, civilized tool.
On the most basic level, we have to recognize that we're born into a social contract with other humans, grouped in various sets -- humanity, nationality, region, local community -- and that social contract is sometimes codified in law, sometimes not. When someone breaks that social contract, what happens? What should happen?
Beyond the emotional, sometimes vengeful reaction that victims might have, I think civilized society needs a rational, unemotional response. When a violation of the social contract is so severe that we feel the perpetrator cannot live in our society anymore, what do we do? Is it valid to remove that person from society by ending his existence? That may satisfy an emotional need for revenge, and it certainly removes the person from society, but what residue does it leave behind? What legacy do we create when we say that we as a society believe that a valid punishment is the ending of another person's existence? Are we erasing that person because it's the most appropriate punishment? Do we feel that it's a punishment worthy of the crime? Does it ignore the complex issues of whether we really have the right to do so, and if that is the case, when does that discussion take place?
My instinct tells me that more advanced societies would be able to seek closure from violent crime by effectively banishing from society perpetrators, not by inflicting another violent act. Ironically, it was earlier societies that may have taken the most humane and thoughtful action, banishing their criminals to other lands, though even a few hundred years ago there were really no uninhabited lands to send criminals to. Given the understanding that there's no uninhabited physical place outside our society to which we can banish people, what are we as a society willing to accept as substitution for banishment? Lifetime incarceration? Extradition to another country, leaving a different society to deal with the criminal? Ending the person's life on earth by killing him?
The death penalty is not a deterrent, it is not painless (on many levels), and it institutionalizes a behavior that, ironically, would earn the death penalty if prosecuted by an external party. I think it taps into a very primal urge to kill those who would kill us. And that, at its most basic level, prevents us from evolving past tribal politics and toward a higher state. The excellence of a society should be judged not by how well it accommodates the lives of those people who follow its rules, but by how it deals with those who break them.
Posted by InternalDialogue in General Discussion: Presidential (Through Nov 2009)
Wed Nov 08th 2006, 11:07 AM
Regardless of the undotted i's and uncrossed t's in the election, overall I'm encouraged that reason's heart still beats in America. I knew there was a glimmer of common sense still alive in this country.
Not quite as important as the restoration of balance in Washington, but still critical, is an opportunity for America to examine exactly what our media have been doing for twelve years. The apparent shock and dismay among some of the talking heads on cable news last night leads me to believe that not only have they been misinforming the citizens for years, but they've fallen under its spell too.
If all the spin--from the White House and Pentagon briefing rooms to the newsrooms and think tanks--had been true, Republicans would not only have held their majorities, but they would have picked up seats. I hope in the media triage to come over the next few days, sensible thinkers will look not toward what "went wrong" in some of the races, but what has been going wrong in our media.
The shout heard across the country last night was as much an accusation of incompetence and lies among a media that drowned out America's voice as it was a call for change in Congress.
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