I didn’t celebrate holidays as a kid–well, my parents’ wedding anniversary was cause for a special dinner out–but none of the others, no matter if they traced their origins to ancient Roman festivals or the Hallmark offices. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses. So Father’s Day really didn’t hit my radar until after I’d left the church, and for many years, I always felt awkward during it for some reason. I took to Christmas and Halloween and New Year’s Eve right away, but not the parental holidays.
No doubt that had something to do with the fact that, by leaving the church behind, I’d left my family behind. That’s how they see it, anyway, that I left them. I have a different take on it, as you might expect, but really, it depends on what you consider more important–family or church. Regardless, I left the church–there is no question about that–and the result has been that I’ve had almost no contact with my parents in the intervening 16 years.
Add in that for about half of those years, my daughter lived with her mother, which meant Father’s Day, as far as immediate family went, often consisted of a phone call. Which was nice. I don’t want to make it sound like I was miserable or anything. But I never really felt in the swing of the holiday, I guess, even though I was usually surrounded by many different dads in various stages of dad-hood.
This year was different, for two reasons. One is that my daughter–grown now, almost 23–is near, and our relationship is pretty good. The other is because of this:
Those are two blastocysts that were implanted in Amy today. This is our second time through IVF, and the odds are much higher this time that it will work. We had 6 embryos total, 5 of which continued to mature. These were the best 2 of the bunch–the other 3 are taking another day to mature and see if they’ll become viable to be frozen.
It’s a very strange feeling, trying to become a dad again in your mid-40′s, especially when you have one already done, so to speak, and when you feel, as I often do, great distance from your own father (which is complicated by the fact that he suffers from dementia). Part of me is nervous as all hell about this, because I know the kind of work that a baby entails, but a bigger part of me is excited, and hopes this all turns out. I’ll keep you posted.
A couple of weeks ago I got into a minor dustup on a friend’s Facebook page because I dismissed as irrelevant to me a piece by a writer (who has a reputation as a fairly antagonistic reviewer–I’ve never worked with him and likely never will) who was talking about politics and yet who, in his opening section, acknowledges that he doesn’t vote. I didn’t flesh out my response beyond that at the time because 1) the discussion was happening on a friend’s Facebook wall and not my own, and I hate it when people do that to me, and 2) there was no way to really dig down into my feelings on the matter in that format. And I’ve avoided it since then because, well, I had more important things to deal with. But it’s been nagging me ever since, so I’ve got to get it out.
A little background: I was raised in a faith which believed some curious things about the world we live in. They believed that the kingdom from the Lord’s Prayer would have a physical manifestation on earth at some point in the future, and that at present, it exists in heaven, and further, that true Christians (which consisted of them alone, naturally) owed sole allegiance to that kingdom, and no earthly kingdom. They were required to show obedience to earthly kingdoms so long as those laws didn’t violate heavenly law, but not allegiance, so no saluting of the flag, no serving in the armed forces, no belonging to political parties, and no participation in government, whether voting or running for/holding political office. The trade they made was that they didn’t criticize government policies or decisions, the idea being that if you’re not taking part in a system, you don’t have the right to criticize it.
I want to be clear about something up front–I don’t feel that way. I think the right to criticize is fundamental, and I resist any calls to silence protest and dissent in our society. However, I do think that criticism that comes from a person invested in their society is of greater value than that of a person who stands outside the system and rails against it, especially in one where citizen input is (at least in theory) a necessary part.
So what do I mean by “invested in”? At the most basic level, I’m talking about voting, because that’s the most visible way that the majority of individuals can take part in governance. And it’s a right that a majority of people in the world still don’t have in any real way, and which more than half of the citizens in this country didn’t have at the federal level until 1920. Let’s go farther with this. African-American males had the right to vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment in theory, but were regularly denied the vote after the end of Reconstruction until the federal government stepped in with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and even then, it’s not like a switch was flipped and people of color suddenly had an easy go of it at the ballot box. Even today, we see attempts by the Republican party to suppress the votes of people of color at the state and local level. Obviously, the vote matters if one party is trying to limit who wields it. It’s incredibly arrogant, it seems to me, to brag about deciding not to vote, given the sacrifices that certain groups of people still undergo today in order to have their voices heard. It strikes me as the kind of thing a person who’s never had to worry about disenfranchisement might do.
But when I talk about voting, I’m talking about more than just big elections. Local elections–for city council and school board, for state senate and judge–these affect our day-to-day lives in substantial ways, so even if you believe (mistakenly) that there’s no real difference between the two major party candidates for President in any given election year, you have a responsibility to the people in your community to not only know what’s going on around you but to help make decisions about what’s going to happen. Are you worried about whether teachers will be able to sneak creationism into your child’s curriculum? Then you need to vote in school board elections. Do you want a better public transportation system or less urban sprawl? Then you need to vote for the people who control zoning. And you need to vote for your state legislators as well.
And mind you, this is the least you need to do to be a good citizen. Voting, as Howard Dean put it, gives you a D for Citizenship. It’s passing, but only just. You have to do more in order to be a good citizen–you have to aggravate your elected officials, talk to your neighbors about issues that matter to you, organize and agitate both in person and online, protest if you need to, and call out the powerful when they offend you. That gets your grade up. But voting is the most necessary part of that process of being a citizen, because unless we’re going to simply give up on democracy as a fundamental part of our governing structure, that’s the way we pick who’s going to hold office, whether we’re talking locally or federally.
When you vote, you send a message to your fellow citizens, even if the candidate you support loses–even if you’re writing in a protest vote because you think all the people running stink out loud. You’re saying to them that you care enough to at least do this much. Maybe you’re not willing to do more, but you at least give this much of a shit.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this piece, where I said I found this particular writer’s opinions on politics irrelevant because he bragged about not voting. I actually should have said, “irrelevant to me,” because that’s what I meant. His arguments are relevant to him, and to the editor of the piece, a dear friend who I respect tremendously, and to the number of other people who praised and shared his piece around the web. They don’t matter to me, not because I find them repulsive or even disagree with them, but because I can’t bring myself to care what a person who refuses to take part in the merest part of our form of self-government has to say about it. If you, as a citizen, can’t bring yourself to do the bare minimum of citizenship, why should I care what you have to say, no matter how erudite or well-thought out it might be? You’re not involved. I’m more interested in hearing from people who actually do things that impact this society on the local and global level. I’d rather talk politics with my neighbor down the street who only took down his Ron Paul 2012 sign a month ago than argue policy with a non-voter who agrees with me on pretty much everything, because that neighbor? He’s involved. I’d rather talk with the woman four blocks away who had a Michele Bachmann sign in her yard, because she’s invested in her community, and maybe we can find common cause on some local issue in the future.
Like it or not, this is the government we have, and I’d sure as hell rather have a representative democracy than a lot of the other crap out there (though a parliamentary system might be interesting). I’m sure not looking for a dictatorship–and if you’re of the mind that we’re living in one now, I suggest you speak to people who have come here from places that have had real dictators, and then please to be shutting your mouth–so as long as I have the ability to cast a vote, I’ll be doing so, and I’ll be engaging with the other people who are doing so, because I’m not up for a coup at my age, and that’s about the only other way you get a change in government. And those of you who can’t be bothered to get involved, well, I can’t be bothered to care about what you have to say on politics.
I’ll be happy to talk about beer or poems or the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation or Aston Villa’s chances of staying up next year though, by which I mean to say that I don’t have any personal dislike for people based solely on their lack of political engagement. I’m sure there’s something we have in common. I just don’t want to hear about how taxes are too high (or low) or the problems with the schools or potholes or immigration or abortion or anything political, not if you don’t vote. On that subject, your views are irrelevant to me.
It seems proper to me to come back to personal blogging after nearly two years with what’s basically a gripe. That’s the blogging tradition, right? Find something marginal to complain about and focus too much on the minutiae? So yeah, that’s about to happen with this piece by Paul Theroux in the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed page. And not even with all of it–just with one minor point he makes.
Theroux is talking about the importance of taking notes, and I am fully on board with him. I’m reading this piece and I’m like “yep, yep, of course, yep” and then he writes this:
No electronics, you see. No Palm Pilot, no Memo app in an iPhone, no voice-recorder, no video, no contraption, no wires—just ink and paper. A computer is useful for putting the notes onto a file, but the road—at least the ones I find myself on—is no place for anything breakable. Drop a notebook and you only need to dust it off; drop an electronic device and you’re sunk.
And then I sigh.
I’m never going to be one who denigrates writing in a notebook. Doing so this year has helped me start writing poetry again after a scary-long hiatus. And I’ve crashed enough hard drives and broken enough electronics in my life to know the unique pain of data loss. But I’ve also dropped enough notebooks in puddles and toilets, sinks and streets, not to mention just plain leaving them on coffee shop tables and park benches to know that notebooks aren’t a cure-all for data loss. Personally, I’m more likely to lose a notebook than I am to break an e-device so badly that the data is lost, mainly because I’m also a spaz about backing stuff up–to the cloud or to another device.
Besides, when was the last time Theroux dropped an e-device? They’re not the fragile little things they used to be. You’ve got to work to break some of them. My iPad has taken a pretty harsh beating over the last two years and it’s still going strong, and we won’t even talk about what my phone goes through daily.
Which is not to argue that Theroux is wrong here. He’s right when it comes to his own writing practice, and given his success, it’s obvious his practice works really well for him. And if he’d stuck with that talk, rather than going off on this claim of the supremacy of the notebook, I probably wouldn’t have decided to start blogging again today. So thanks Paul Theroux. You helped me delay the work I need to be doing for a precious few minutes.
“This is the real drama for me; the belief that we all, you see, think of ourselves as oe single person, but it’s not true: each of us is several different people, and all these people live inside us. With one person we seem like this and with another we seem very different. But we always have the illusion of being the same person for everybody and of alway being the the same person in everything we do. But it’s not true! It’s not true! We find this out for ourselves very clearly when by some terrible chance we’re suddenly stopped in the middle of doing something and we’re left dangling there, suspended. We realise then, that every part of us was not involved with what we’d been doing and that it would be a dreadful injustice of other people to judge us only by this one action as we dangle there, hanging in chains, fixed for all eternity, as if the whole of one’s personality were summed up in that single, interrupted action.”
–The Father, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, translated by John Linstrum
I wonder if Joe Paterno ever saw this play, or ever read it, and if he did, whether or not he would recognize himself in the Father. In the play, the Father finds his moment unbearably shameful, so much so that he twists himself in rhetorical pretzels in order to lessen the impact. He is caught in the act of visiting a prostitute who happens to be his stepdaughter (they don’t recognize each other), and when she tells him she can’t accept his gift of a hat because she is in mourning for her biological father, he responds by suggesting that she take off her little black dress. It is a callous moment, shocking in fact, and the first time I read it I felt great loathing for the Father, not because of the incident itself, but because of his unwillingness to simply accept his punishment and move on.
Of course, the problem is that the Father isn’t a real person–he’s a character in an unfinished play, and so can’t move on. He really is trapped, “dangling there, suspended,” doomed to constantly relive this moment. All the audience will ever see–if this play is actually finished–is this moral weakling caught in an intensely awkward moment.
Most of the reactions I’ve seen to Paterno’s death have struck me as extreme. Many point to his long years of service at Penn State, his football team’s graduation rate, the large sums of money he donated to the university and so on. Many of his former players talked about how he influenced their lives for the better. Other reactions point to his inexcusable failure to act when he was told about his long-time friend’s abuse of young boys. As a survivor of molestation myself, I relate to those reactions–I wrote about it for The Rumpus back in November when Paterno was fired.
This is perhaps where the comparison with The Father breaks down a bit. We only really see one compromising moment on the stage–the moment in Madame Pace’s shop when the Father tells the Stepdaughter to slip off that little black dress–though others are hinted at, alluded to. But with Paterno it’s not just one event. What’s the moment which leaves Paterno “dangling there, suspended”? Is it when Mike McQueary steps into his office to report what he’s seen? Or when Paterno decides all he needs to do is tell his athletic director? Or every time after that when he sees Jerry Sandusky on the Penn State campus and wonders if he’s still molesting kids? What haunted him in these last months of his life, I wonder?
But then again, one conceit of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” is that these characters are unfinished, incomplete, abandoned by their author because he couldn’t figure out how to make them whole. All they have are two scenes, both intensely tragic, that they are forced to relive, over and over. Perhaps this is the difference between Joe Paterno the man and JoePa the symbol, the legend, the abettor of child molesters. Joe Paterno is not like the Father–he had a full life, with all the complexities and ugliness and glory that entails. JoePa is–he dangles, suspended in time in one of the more horrible moments of his life. And no one can save him from playing that moment over and over. Not even death.
Before I begin here, I want to compliment the NY Times headline writer for slipping “testy” (testes?) into the title of this post from the Caucus on Rick Santorum’s set-to with some college kids in New Hampshire over same-sex marriage. Well played.
To the point of the post, if anyone out there ever comes in contact with Santorum (jump here for some quick hilarity in the wake of the Iowa caucuses–sorry, I can’t help myself), and he’s talking about same-sex marriage and goes off on this bridge metaphor, here’s how you respond. First of all, here’s what Santorum apparently said (it’s not in the clip):
First, he compared changing marriage laws to building a bridge. You have to have a reason to build the bridge, he said.
Now when cultural conservatives go down this road, they generally have one argument in mind. To his credit, Santorum swerved here and took the polygamy turnpike, but if he tries this again, it’s incumbent on the questioner to ask him what the reason for heterosexual marriage is. And he can only really give one answer, based on his other stances (and based on his journey down the polygamy turnpike here), and that answer is “procreation.”
Why procreation? Part of it has to do with Santorum’s Catholicism, which he takes very seriously (unless it interferes with sweatshop workers in the Marianas Islands being forced to have abortions, natch), especially when it comes to the whole birth control thing. Procreation is the end-all for his marriage, and he thinks it should be for all marriages, which is why he opposes contraception even for married couples.
Cultural conservatives like Santorum also love to fall back on procreation because they think it gets them out of the “you’re just a religious bigot” argument. (It doesn’t, but that’s another story.) They think it throws them into the “natural world” arena (which is a bad place for people who generally disdain science, but again, I digress) but what it really does is point out just how much of a social construct marriage is, because as we all know, you don’t have to be married to procreate, and what’s more, you don’t have to prove you’re able to procreate in order to get married.
And that’s the question the next person who gets Santorum in this position needs to ask him. Get him into the reason for heterosexual marriage, and when he goes for procreation, then ask him if that means he thinks sterile men and women should be disallowed from marrying. And he won’t have an answer that isn’t immediately recognized as bullshit, because there isn’t one.
If procreation is the reason that the heterosexual marriage bridge gets built (to use Santorum’s metaphor), then there’s no reason why people who are unable to procreate should get to use that bridge–unless everyone is allowed to use that bridge. And everyone includes homosexual couples as well as sterile hetero couples.
I feel I need to add, as a footnote of sorts, that Santorum does have a point (other than the one atop his head) about polyamorous relationships and whether or not they should be legalized. It’s not a discussion he really wants to have, I suspect, but it’s one I’d be willing to talk about at some point, because I think there’s a place for them in our society, with some pretty heavy caveats thrown in, the first being that polygamy as it is practiced currently in this country would be wholly unacceptable for reasons relating to the autonomy of the people involved in the marriage. We can get into that later. I need to go wash my hands now. I’ve typed Santorum too many times in one night.
But I repeat myself.
A friend of mine posted this on Facebook. At first glance, it looks like it makes sense, but it really falls apart with even a little bit of thought. Here’s the text.
Checking out at the grocery store recently, the young cashier suggested I should bring my own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. I apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.” The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.” She was right about one thing — our generation didn’t have the green thing in “Our” day. So what did we have back then…? After some reflection and soul-searching on “Our” day here’s what I remembered we did have…. Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles repeatedly. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day. We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day. Back then, we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right. We didn’t have the green thing back in our day. Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right. We didn’t have the green thing back then. We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the green thing back then. Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint. But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then? Please post this on your Facebook profile so another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smarty-pants young person can add to this
The ending gives it away, if you hadn’t already gotten it. It’s just another “things were better back in my day, get off my lawn” rant. But how much truth is there in it? Not much, but enough that some people will repost it and get lots of thumbs-ups along the way.
So here’s a bit of a response. When I was a kid, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire because of the pollution in it, and major lakes had large areas where you’d get sick if you went swimming. Locally, you couldn’t eat anything you caught in Bayou Bonfouca because the fish were contaminated by the runoff from the local creosote plant. Acid rain was common, and there were days in major cities where it was impossible for asthmatics to walk outside and breathe because of the smog. Today we’re debating over how much our pollution is changing the atmosphere as a whole–back then, we were worried that the air was giving us cancer.
Those single tv’s and radios that the above author is extolling? They used more electricity alone than the gadgets we use today combined, because we’ve found ways to make them way more efficient. We use as much fossil fuel per capita today as we did 30 years ago, but we do way more with it. (Side note: the fact that we’re still using fossil fuel is a major problem, but we can’t ignore that we’re much better at using it.) Would it be better if we had a working public transportation system in this country that would make it possible for more people to live without cars? Absolutely, but that doesn’t negate the incredible gains in efficiency we’ve seen in cars over the last 40 years, especially when it comes to emissions.
And then there’s some stuff that’s just ridiculous. People haven’t used refillable pens in any large way for 50 years. Same goes for refillable razors. And to suggest that cooking was somehow better in the past because the people doing the cooking (note: almost always women) had to spend way more time preparing food with all that chopping and stirring and blending instead of, oh, having careers or expanding their minds is frankly insulting.
The world was not better in the past, not for anyone. The only reason it might seem like it is because the past you remember is your childhood, when you weren’t having to deal with the shitty things. Your parents did. And at some point, your kids (if you have them) will talk about how awesome things were back in the old days, by which they’ll mean their childhood, and you may be tempted to strangle them as they recall a world you don’t remember. Don’t do it. Look at your grandkids (if you have them) and think about how much better the world they’re living in now is, compared to the one you were an adult in. And then roll with the changes.
I was brought back to my blog by comment spam, believe it or not, so I decided to do an update post.
So I’m in Des Moines now. It was 8 degrees when I woke up this morning, which has me googling questions like “can contact lenses become frozen to your eyeballs?” (apparently not) and learning just how much I don’t know about the world of wine (thanks to my current job). I’ll be teaching a class on literature and culture at Drake in the spring, so preparations are well underway for that.
In other news… I’ll be reading at The Rumpus fundraiser for 826 Chicago at AWP next year–Thursday March 1. Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote a really nice review of A Witness in Exile for Rattle (copies still available! Makes a great gift!), and Alan Ackmann, who I attended the University of Arkansas with, also wrote an extensive (and generous) review for Relief.
I’d like to start posting here again regularly, but finding time to fit it in wis always a problem. I’m doing more quick hit stuff about Des Moines and my life here with Amy over at my Tumblr site, New in Des Moines, so you can follow me over there as well.
Obviously I’m not great at keeping this blog updated, but if you’ve been following my work over at The Rumpus, you’ll know that a piece that ran on Monday titled “A Note To My Fellow White Males” has gotten a little attention. It was picked up by Jezebel and mentioned on Slate.
But the big hit came yesterday when I got a phone call (ten minutes before I had to teach a class) from Talk of the Nation asking me if I’d like to be on today’s show. So here I am, stressing hard, trying to prepare myself to talk to Neal Conan and whoever calls in about white male privilege and writing and whatever else comes up.
I’ll link to it once it’s available online (assuming I don’t make too large an ass of myself).
Update: Here’s the link to the audio. Hope you like it.
When Amy and I were in Party City a few weeks ago being overwhelmed by the wedding aisle, we came across a CD of wedding songs, mostly sappy love songs. There was one really bad choice on the CD though–Extreme’s “More Than Words.” If you were alive in the 90′s, you probably know this song–sad guitar, mournful singer harmonizing with mournful backup singer, hints of power-balladism that never quite come through. Here’s the first verse(?):
Saying “I love you”
is not the words I want to hear from you
It’s not that I want you
not to say it but if you only knew
How easy it would be to show me how you feel
More than words is all you have to do to make it real
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
‘Cause I’d already know.
Not exactly the sentiment you want to hear at a reception, right?
So I decided to make my own CD’s worth of songs you really don’t want played at the reception. Feel free to add selections of your own in the comments.
1. Golddigger–Kanye West
2. Thank Heaven for Little Girls–Maurice Chevalier
3. Billie Jean–Michael Jackson
4. I Will Survive–Gloria Gaynor or Cake (I prefer the latter)
5. Leaving on a Jet Plane–John Denver
6. I’m Not a Player–Big Punisher
7. Me and Mr. Jones/Fuck Me Pumps–Amy Winehouse
8. Willow Garden–traditional, but I like the version by Big Smith
9. I Heard It Through the Grapevine–Marvin Gaye’s version in particular
10. Hey Hey What Can I Do–Led Zeppelin
11. Every Breath You Take–The Police
12. Divorce Song–Liz Phair
13. Bad Romance–Lady Gaga
14. Stand By Your Man–Tammy Wynette
I could do this all day, I think.