Why do we tell stories? Why do we read stories? Why do they enthrall us still?
For sure, they’re entertainment; they help dispel the dullness and the lack of action in our regimented daily lives.
They help us while away the time around the campfire and the dark, and scare away the wild animals out there — or in here, in our breasts, where the wildest animals of all cavort and claw, including the sneaking suspicion that our lives mean nothing at all.
Last night, about 11:00, I got a call from an old buddy from long ago in graduate school days, in Austin, Texas, which he calls “Critterville.” Tom regaled me, and bored me, for a half hour with a long-winded story about the time he was confronted, and damn near killed, so he said, by the Bandidos, a motorcycle gang, somewhere behind a strip club. Ah, yes, these critters sucker-punched him, surrounded and cocked their guns at him, all but put a salvo of bullets through his brain, blah blah blah blah blah.
And yet, can you believe it, he lived to tell about it!
It still gets the adrenaline going, I guess, at least his adrenaline, though he now weighs about 400 pounds, I swear, and lies abed all day with multiple afflictions, including now prostate cancer.
I tried to interrupt Tom and direct the conversation to his cancer, something I have experience with, but he said, “Wait, let me finish this story.” So, yes, he finished the bullshit story, which showed among other things his grace under pressure, his luck, his wit, his quick thinking, his involvement in real action at a real point in his perhaps pointless life.
And isn’t that the point of narrative, as I say? To give point to that which is otherwise pretty pointless? To push back the curtain of night and despair, and suggest a myth by which all of us cavemen and critters can live?
And if these are all motives for storytelling, then isn’t storytelling, whether personal or artistic, a lie? Isn’t there a strong motive, in other words, not to tell stories, which seek to memorialize, to justify, to raise up out of the dust, but to tell anti-stories?
Challenging the traditional conventions surrounding the concept of a narrative, an antinarrative makes use of those conventions to call attention to itself and the practices and modes being used to convey meaning to an audience. Many times ironic, antinarratives implicitly question the validity of conventional narrative logic and the structural aspects and strategies of a narrative in general.
To use an example from real life, as we call it, James Holmes, the Joker of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings, wrote his own antinarrative in a notebook that he, like many other mass murderers, kept. Besides doodling and scratching out maddeningly repetitive pages full of “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?,” trying to make sense of his “broken brain,” Holmes pinpointed the motive of his story:
Terrorism isn’t the message. The message is, there is no message.
If you were telling Holmes’ story, how would you do it? Whether a conventional murder mystery, a detective story, a thriller, or a literary effort, you’d use the events of his story but not necessarily put them in conventional chronological order. If your message included Holmes’ own nihilism (“there is no message”) you’d probably shake things up in many ways.
What kind of Christmas theme is this? The dear dead ones!
But isn’t it precisely this time of year we think of them when we’re gathered around the giving tree and seated at the groaning board?
Oh, we think, just one more chance to see them, hear them, touch them as gifts are exchanged and platters passed around the table. Just to listen, quietly, to what they might say at such a momentous time as this, the time of sharing and forgiving, when past wrongs and slights, real or imagined, are forgotten and forgiven, when the family coheres.
I think of James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” in which the protagonist, Gabriel, presides over a Christmas gathering of family and friends, proud of his oratorical abilities. He makes a sentimental speech to great applause but, once back home, sees his wife, Greta, whom he desires, despondent and apart. Stirred by a song she heard at the party, she is thinking of a young boy she used to love, who died when he was just seventeen. Gabriel tries to be ironic with his wife, but his egotism is deflated. Then this final glorious paragraph:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
A time now, this holiday season, to be unironic in our relations, to look each other in the eye, listen eagerly to what the others say, and offer a toast to the living and the dead. What would they be saying, the dear dead ones, if they could? What would we say? Na zdrowie! my Polish father might say. To your health, brothers and sisters, and ours, as long as this enterprise shall last.
This last year has offered many lessons, or opportunities for same, on the civic virtues. Or, more basically, the virtues of civilization, if they still exist.
Without getting into the unseemly mess of American politics, and no doubt annoying the conservative brethren among us, I’ll just say that rowing the boat together seems to me not a bad idea, since we’re in it together and it’s leaking. We might try pulling together in the same direction more than we have, and arguing less over who’s working too hard and who hasn’t worked a lick, and who’s to blame and who gets to steer the craft.
Off by ourselves in a reflective corner, we might, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, begin to dwell a bit less on our own misery, real or imagined, and more on that of people who don’t have nearly what we do, or have lost what they had. We might think of Syria, for example, which has seen untold suffering lately, and Iraq, and any number of other places on the globe where our action, or inaction, might have contributed to suffering.
Thankful for our comfort, ease, and affluence, we hold up a holiday candle to the world and send bright thoughts and a bit of money, if we can, to those near and far who suffer privation, want, cold, and hunger. (International Rescue Committee is one good choice. Doctors without Borders is another.) Jennifer gives to Bridge of Peace Syria, a charity headquartered in our home city, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and working even now inside that wartorn, miserable country.
And charity is the greatest of these
And we think of St Paul, could be, who, though no merry old soul like King Cole, was a droll boy in his own right. That line about better marry than burn, for example! Was the gent never married? Did he never marry AND burn? (Jen and I have been married, and burning, 45 years as of this Dec. 19!)
And what about his Paul’s riff on faith, hope, and charity?
For if faith is lacking in this idol-worshipping world (consider Baal and Mammon, to name just two, and throw in Beelzebub for good measure) … and hope is a speck in the farthest starling’s eye … then charity, it could be, is all we have left and what we have, and need most, to give each other.
Is it possible, brothers and sisters, that the charity that begins at home and flies through the world like the truest arrow, will make a luminous mark where it alights? And that it alights on and in us?
In this year of upcoming elections and crazy national politics, we could use a bit of charity, couldn’t we? More light, less heat? More embraces, fewer pointed fingers.
In this season of cheer and plenty, it’s not just about stringing out Christmas lights and planting Santa and reindeer on the lawn.
Or pouring eggnog into our neighbor’s cups, spiked or not.
But looking around and contemplating, for the time being, which is all we have, what our relation is to our fellow man.
God rest ye, merry gentlemen and -women, and nothing you dismay! This is our fondest, most peaceful, and most charitable hope for the New Year.
Exemplars & examples
Every year at this time, I have cause to think of my wife Jennifer’s marvelous generosity, which began in her home and then began to define ours when we married 45 years ago. My own family, like hers, had two parents and seven kids, but Jen’s parents were, frankly, more generous and giving than mine could be, with their background and temperament. I don’t mean merely in material terms, for I think my father Bob the lawyer (RIP) and Mary the housewife (RIP) made more than Jen’s father Max the pastor and Vi the secretary (RIP). It’s just that whatever they had, Max and Vi were willing to share, on every occasion, with the family, and even if family grew to include (if not comprehend) such dubious and unbelieving outsiders like me the charity extended that far and beyond.
Baa baa, black sheep, Max and Vi might say, we too had wool.
And the greatest of these woolly virtues was, and is, charity.
So here’s to Jennifer, and the generous souls in her family and circle of friends! Let’s lift a glass of eggnog (spiked or not) and celebrate the flowing from these welling sources onward and outward into the desert world.
Lindo Mexico, here we come again
Jen and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Mexico this October and November, for 2 1/2 weeks, the first visit in four years. We flew to Guadalajara, the country’s second biggest city, with a metro population of maybe six million, but spent most of our time in the much quieter retreat of Ajijic, a cobblestoned village of about 10,000 on the shores of Mexico’s largest lake, Chapala.
We met a few old friends, both gringo and Mexican, including Randall Lankford, a North Carolinian hippie in Tlaquepaque, an artsy enclave of Guadalajara, and Claudia Nery, a miraculous painter who lives on the lake and whose website I keep. (See www.claudianery.com. I also keep a site for Pepé Orozco, a tour and shopping guide whom we saw, at www.guideworksorozco.com.)
Bitten anew by the Mexico bug, we are returning, in January, this time to Mazatlan, the northernmost commercial port city. Mazatlan is special because it is such a working city (a fleet of about 600 shrimping boats, for example, the largest in North America) and yet a typically charming Mexican city too.
The commerce includes fishing, brewing (Mazatlan is home to the Pacifico brewery), and tourism (largely located in the new hotel strip or Golden Zone). All this business means that Mazatlan is pretty prosperous, and there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, museums, and other sources of fun and reflection for tourists as well as paying jobs for the locals.
Charm? It’s not mostly in the commercial part of Mazatlan. Look rather to the old city, its churches, squares, restaurants, and unfranchised amusements like
The malecon, or ocean walk, which features, as one reviewer says on TripAdvisor, “Great walk, ocean breezes, sunsets, people, bikes, roller blades — it’s all here. Plus you can stop for lunch or a refreshment!”
The Plaza Machada, or square, of the old historical section, with cathedral on one side, plus plenty of shops, restaurants, and outdoor seating.
The El Faro lighthouse and the view from the top of the entire harbor and beyond.
The Olas Altas beach (High Waves), which was once the only beach, and act, in town.
The return of the prodigal son et al.
In July, this year, our son Gabe and his family returned to Fayetteville, after an exile of two years in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis–St. Paul.
Gabe is working from home, as a computer programmer, for a New York City firm, and Heidi is once more working as an adolescent psych nurse. Ruby, we’re proud to say, is now eight years old and enjoying second grade at the local Happy Hollow School. It was hard for her at first, as she left behind many friends in St. Paul, where the kids were living, but they all seem to have adapted well once more to the Ozarks. (They moved down here originally in 2010, and are the reason Jen and I retired here the following year.)
Like his mom, Gabe is a good cook, the principal chef in the family. Like his dad, he bought a new bike this year, and has done some biking with him on the wonderful Razorback Greenway, which goes north from Fayetteville almost to the Missouri border, about 40 miles. (I’ve done 60+ miles at a time and am aiming, next year, for 100 miles.)
Moderation in all things (or Facebook anyway)
At the tail-end of the year, I took a break from Facebook for a while, checking into the FAC (Facebook Addiction Clinic), where I stayed for observation and therapy. Most of this, understand, was self-induced, and I could recommend it to you heartily.
You simply lie about and watch yourself, out of the corner of your eye, noting shifty and desperate shifts toward the keyboard and monitor … or extra time peeking at your smartphone or tablet. You observe the desperate longing and the panting, yet somehow they pass, a bit, with each passing day, and you find yourself busy with more important things, it could be, or more outward things.
A novel event
In my case, most of the action, this coming year, may take the form of a novel I’m researching — on gun violence, of all the Yuletide themes. I’m learning fascinating things that psychologists and sociologists, among others, have discovered about mass murderers, of whom we have had way too many recently.
The novelist, of course, is more than the sum of his personal prejudices, but he can turn them to fictional account. He can invent characters inflamed with passions, sadness, violence, benevolence, you name it, and cover the whole panoply of human emotions and ideals. And still, to some degree, stand back, as if from a cosmic and comic distance and watch the human ants build and destroy.
Whether you sling a gun or hash, whether you’re wholly sane or certifiable, we wish you here from the heart of the Ozarks a merry holiday season and, oh yes, hugs, kisses & big bags of charity, which is the greatest of these and, like sugar, sweetens the cookies.
Made my final direct entry in Facebook for a while: “Checking into a Facebook Addiction Clinic for observation and therapy. See you later.”
So I’m checking in to this clinic (in the skies, in my mind) and hanging out there a week or two. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? And do without me for a bit? Thanks for understanding. I have to shake my head clear, that’s all, of the fog of argument and inanity that Facebook has become for me.
Because most of Facebook is inanity — urgent and infantile pleas to “like” my latest dog or baby picture, or agree with a political or cultural position that’s self-evident to the poster and should be to everyone who reads it — I tend to take the opposite tack — and attack what I see as superficial and sentimental positions. As a provocateur, I’ll make statements that even I don’t necessarily believe in or subscribe to. Anything to get people’s goat, really — and they’ll generally let me know where they’re keeping the beast.
In my last issue-oriented post, I poked and prodded and trolled, you might say, for snapping fish, writing simply or not so simply (ha ha):
So I see that “Gun Rights” has become “Gun Pride,” under the aegis of the NRA and its allies. Oh what a laugh. LOL. Laugh silently. Co-opting political slogans like “Gay Rights” doesn’t hide the fact — just the opposite, in fact — that these brave bucks and bravos go out into the woods with their rifles in order to jerk each other off and slaughter Bambis.
And soon I got a response from a friend, not a good friend but a friend, that I might have anticipated but, with my lack of emotional IQ, did not:
Greg you have always been quite an edgy person with your comments but as a hunter myself you have crossed the line with this comment.
I do so enjoy crossing the line! It’s not the same line that George H.W. (Papa) Bush drew for Muammar Gaddafi, I know. Or even the line that Barack Obama drew, with less point and success, for Bashar al-Assad. Comments like my friend’s are not bombs, after all. They don’t take me out for good or behind the shed for a beating. I’m still here, you see, fat and sassy and ready to put up my dukes, aren’t you? For sticks and stones, and bombs and guns, can break our bones, but words will not dispatch us.
We all define lines and edges differently, could be. My friend, if not good friend, has always drawn back from provocative statements I make in person. I see him shrink back, physically, and frown, for he’s a good Methodist boy and bible believer, far as I can see, and would like us, evidently, to stay within the bounds of proper deportment and conversation, as John Wesley and brethren might have defined them.
In fact, I don’t care if he’s a hunter. I certainly knew that Facebook harbors hunters, among others, with or without secret blood and lust for deer, turkey, bobcat, wild boar, you name it. I know that not all Facebook readers have my literary education, and are not trained, or tainted, in rhetoric that’s hyperbolical, in your face, smack up against your gob. I was out for blood, could be, if only literary or literate blood. I wanted to taunt and dare the comfy hunters among us, the gunslingers, to question why they used guns and how they enjoyed them.
(Someone even reported me, for this post, to Facebook as being in violation of its standards — lax and pliable as they may be. In its message to me, Facebook cited a complaint about references to “nudity” but followed up with a second message, shortly afterward, judging me not guilty of inciting prurient interest. After all, I didn’t describe and linger deliciously over sexual organs or a particular sexual act. If I had, how scary would that be in America, land of the free and the home of the NRA? We know what’s right, after all, and what’s too filthy for words!)
No, I don’t literally believe, of course, that hunters are jerking each other off in the woods. But I certainly strongly feel that among male hunters out in the woods, without women and domesticating restraints, with booze and bullets and London Bridge and boundaries falling down, there’s a homoerotic impulse. (As there is in football, or boxing, or just slamming down a few brews at the bar.) And I wonder if this impulse is part of the desire to kill. In other words, if lusting for the blood of an animal and lusting, at whatever level of consciousness, for another male aren’t intertwined.
I’m no psychologist, or psychoanalyst, though I have dabbled in the literature. I have also read scores of sophisticated literary works that take up, and consider, extreme positions on social and cultural problems. If artists don’t do this, who will? Without shooting, I mean? Without enforcing their ideas with lethal weapons? Words are simply words, with no power to kill, or maim, but some power, it could be, to challenge and change.
You’d hope so, anyway, though here and now in America we seem to be convinced of the rightness, and righteousness, and inviolability of our own positions. No one will tell us what to think, or what to do. We know, by god, what we know. So we go to Facebook, among other places, armed with conviction in our position, our a priori rightness. And if someone challenges this cherished position, we lash out, bellow, jump up and down and stomp on the questioners and nay-sayers.
So, friends, Romans, countrymen, I’m checking into the Facebook Addiction Clinic for a while. You won’t hear from me anymore for a bit, boo hoo. You won’t have to “like” or hate my comments. You won’t have to challenge me not to cross your lines or violate your boundaries. I’m outta here for the time being. I’m grabbing a beer, and communing with the better, and worser, angels of my nature; I’m continuing to research, and reflect on, a novel on the problem of mass murderers and the guns they use. And if I can achieve this, devoting myself to the craft, I will have saved both you and me a lot of grief and a lot of wasted time.