Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why I Won't "Leave the Country" if "X" Gets Elected

My older son, Joe, is, as all young people must, finding his intellectual way into the world. He is extremely inquisitive, very philosophical and he is creative in ways that make me exceedingly proud. But, as a young man, he is, of course, apt to latch on to things he has heard that stir passion in him. The other day, he echoed the ubiquitous "If Trump wins, we should leave this country."

It just so happens that this was said two days ago as we were walking away from Sankaty Lighthouse in 'Sconset, on Nantucket. Only a few minutes earlier, we had passed "Footlight," the home where my favorite writer, John Steinbeck, had written East of Eden. I had completely forgotten he had written the book on Nantucket until the tour guide pointed out the house. Of course, my heart leaped with delight and I quickly took a blurred picture as we drove past...

...but only a few minutes later, there was my son talking about "leaving the country." The proximity -- in not only inches and feet but in my heart -- to my most beloved writer caused a discordant resonance for me. My son had rung a bell that a thousand people a day ring...but this time, it sounded rattled, like I would imagine the cracked Liberty Bell would. And like the Liberty Bell (rung-again) would, it made me feel pride in a country with a deep history and with a roll-call of fine human beings who did things both great and unknown.

I saw Steinbeck, silhouetted in a window in Footlight and recording his self-doubt (someday they will figure out I am not as good as they say I am) in his journal as he wrote East of Eden. I saw Lincoln in dark meetings, his soft voice urging his cabinet to fight for the Union above all else. I saw a simple, courageous man from Philadelphia, in 1866, driving his family in a covered wagon, out past the Mississippi, to claim the land offered by the Homestead Act (an act that encouraged African Americans and single women to apply, by the way). I saw Aaron Copeland at the piano adding notes to his manuscript for "Appalachian Spring"; Elie Wiesel exorcising his demons at the typewriter; Dr. King, his tie slack, his eyes watering, pondering the next line of a famous speech. I saw boys from my generation playing dusty baseball on a weedy infield on a summer day just for the joy of it -- no thought of scholarships; no travel teams to keep up with; no pitching and hitting lessons on the schedule -- just playing until the light was too low, a prelude to the night's dreams of the big leagues. I thought of newly-married couples, with no money, making love because they had to; because love and family were a need, not a business proposition. I saw a line of heroes and inspirations: Leonard Slatkin with his baton; Barber penning the notes of his adagio; Mike Schmidt, confident and almost defiant at the plate; Vinnie Colaiuta in complete command the drumkit; my own father sitting center-chair in a big band with his magical silver trumpet; Dr. Robert Ryan, his voice cracking with emotion as he read Keats to our little graduate seminar class; my wife, Karen, exercising every single dark morning at 5:30, to stay strong; my sons growing into fine, sensitive and moral young men...

...I saw all of this as my son and I walked a gravel path under a hot blue sky, just after I heard the words: "leave this country." And it occurred to me: hell, no.

I told Joe that I am too proud of the real great people of this country to abandon it, either physically or mentally, just because of the behavior of high-profile creeps. I'll never give up hope for America. There are too many good people living good, just and sincere lives, who are the blood in the veins. The President is not the country. The loud-mouthed flag-wavers are not the country. The Tweeters and Facebookers who spend their time spreading their political agenda and un-researched claims are not the country.

We are the country. "We the people" -- the ones going to work for others or for themselves; the ones cutting grass on Saturday; the ones trying to get better at golf or music or writing or dancing or fishing or at just being people; the ones who are trying to teach their kids to be good men and women; the ones who have no time for politics and angry online arguments; the ones who would rather read a book than a meme; the ones who walk their dogs, rain or shine; the ones who stand comically in bathrooms with their spouses, brushing their teeth before bed -- we are the ones who make this country what it is.

No politician; no president, good or bad, can take that away from us or "bring it back" to us. I understand how those in charge can change our circumstances, but they don't shape our American-ness.

I have very little respect for many politicians, but they are just some of the many pimples on the beautiful face of a great country. Yeah, the Liberty Bell is cracked. It has to be. It tells the truth in its silent sound.

My son's response? "Good point, dad. Can we get lunch soon?"

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Doubt and the Human Spirit

I realize that, most of the time, when I write things with the purpose of changing people's minds, that I will fail. Those who like what I have to say will praise me; those who don't will generally ignore me. I'm just not very influential.

But, at the same time, if I didn't want to have an effect, I would just keep my writing bound to a journal. Why put it up online? Why publish? Clearly, I want (need?) to affect people in some way.

If my hopes are too high, I am bound for disappointment. (And they are always too high.) In a way, now that I think about it, having really high hopes as a writer pretty much amounts to narcissism. To hope is to assume that I have something worthwhile to say. Who, exactly, do I think I am?

I think, though, that I have found a realistic, non-conceited, practical goal as a writer -- as a teacher, even. I think a worthy goal is to just try to make people less sure of themselves; to make them doubt their hardened concepts...

It seems to me that doubt, to the human spirit, is as water to the plant.

Too many people are too sure of themselves. Only two results can come of two groups of people who are completely sure of themselves: dangerous clashes or turned backs.

But I'm tired. Whatever the reason for having tried so hard to affect people -- vanity or altruism -- it has made me very tired. I feel like like Jem, after having seen the racism in his town. He says this to, Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird:

"Scout, I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time... it's because he wants to stay inside."

I'd better either shut up about things and go all Boo Radley or keep my expectations low. At the very least, "affects" and "effects" aside, maybe I could just introduce a little beauty, from time to time, in a very, very ugly world. The human spirit can be such a light. Just lift away the shade and it can chase off a deed-dark forest full of demons...

But the shade does need to be lifted. Another worthy goal. I hope. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Beauty on the Boardwalk

My family made a quick trip to the Jersey shore a few weeks ago. While we were there, I saw a beautiful display of human goodness. It wasn't what you think -- not some kind of gesture of charity; nothing about old ladies crossing busy streets; not a hero jumping in to the fracas to defend a lady in distress. This was more about three teenaged kids who sort of just...stood there.

My boys were using the restroom on the boardwalk and I was waiting outside and there were three early teens in front of me -- maybe fifteen -- a boy and two girls. The boy was skinny and shirtless, with blond/brown hair and two earrings; a handsome young man who did a lot of smiling. One of the girls was blonde -- his sister, maybe? -- and she wore a white cover-up over her bathing suit. The other girls had dark hair in a ponytail. and she wore a pink cover-up. They were either close friends or cousins. They had that blend of closeness and comfort.

The girls were as beautiful as the boy was handsome. Youth almost always equals beauty, but these kids were attractive enough to have had "attitudes" about it. Somehow, though, their smiles seemed to negate any possibility of narcissism. They were not too cool to smile, as many young people seem to be.

They were approached by an Asian boy wearing one of those string backpacks and his friend, a Irish-looking lad, who a wore a matching pack. The packs had crosses on them.

"Hi," said the Asian kid to the three teens. "Can I ask you a question?"

I don't know how it goes around the rest of the world, but in New Jersey, on the boardwalk, that pretty much means you are about to be accosted by a Christian on a mission. I'm a man of faith, but of a faith that is based on private meditation and private prayer. I shy away from flagrant displays of faith. Flagrant displays of faith strike me, I might add, as fundamentally wrong...maybe not wrong for everyone but truly against what feels right for me.

As a kid, I used to figure out ways to freak these teen crusaders for Jesus out. I'd tell them I worshiped Beelzebub or that I was a warlock or that I was a gay Zoroastrian who dabbled in voodoo on the weekends. Sometimes I would flat-out tell them to get out of my face; I had my own Catholic faith and didn't need to be them telling me it was not good enough. (Back in my teen days, a friend of mine once did all the work by saying, "Go away. You people are more annoying than burlap underwear." [Which, I think you will agree, would be pretty darned annoying.])

But these three happy teens were better than I ever was.

"Can I ask you a question," the Asian kid said.

"Just a few minutes," the Irish kid said.

"Sure," the blonde girl said. Her friends smiled.

"It's like a quiz," the Christian lad said. "Number one. On a scale of one to ten, how curious would you say you are about knowing God?

"Um," the girl said, biting her lower lip in earnest thought. "Ten, I guess."

"Ten," said the other two.

"Oh...okay. Great," said the quizzing boy, obviously surprised by these nice kids in a day strung with kids like me. "Great. So, then, on a scale of one to ten, how much would you say God loves you?"

"Oh...that's def'nly a ten," said the skinny boy, his forehead creasing a bit with concentration. The girls nodded, smiling with sincere eyes. "Ten."

This went on for about three minutes and they answered question after question in the same way. The Christian boys handed them some brochures and left the three friends in peace. What I expected next were rolling eyes and crumpling brochures. Surely these kids were just being polite. They'd start making fun of the two boys as soon as they were out of sight.

But, no. You could tell from their conversation that these kids were not particularly religious, but they showed no sign of disdain. The girls had nowhere to put their brochures, and one of them said, "I don't just want to throw it out..." The boy offered to put them in his backpack (his had no cross on it) and they did and the three walked off to enjoy the rest of their day.

These kids struck me as so heart-breakingly nice that it made me well up a bit. There was no cynicism; there was no judgment; there was no stereotypical teenaged role-playing; no air of intellectual superiority.

As a teacher of high school students, I often find myself noticing the best in humanity. Sure, I get frustrated, but, in the end, I find that working with kids makes me feel better about the future. These three moved me with their sincerity, their openness and their manners. They were beautiful humans.