Am reading John Armstrong’s book Life, Love, Goethe, whose short, swift chapters seem to be organized around themes in Goethe’s life, as well as chronology. Ch. 8, “Boredom,” explores how the great writer, in the company of convivial but conventional people, as at the home of a friend, Fritz Jacobi, was bored by the conversation. It was the usual stuff, full of fine and uplifting sentiments — in short, the usual views of the usual people.
Goethe explains what he did in response to such tedious twaddle:
… I was in the habit of making outrageously paradoxical statements in order to provoke the narrow-minded disagreements that people normally get themselves into, and to force them to extreme conclusions. This was, of course, usually offensive to the company and annoying on more than one count….
How often have I found myself in the same position! That is, to stir things up in company, or on Facebook, I’ve taken extreme positions, paradoxical positions, standing or claiming to stand for both A and Z, in order to shake people up, to shape their opinions away from the more tried and true extremes of reactionary self-interest, on the one hand, or PC rectitude, on the other.
Sigh. Provocation is a tough business. Why don’t I let well enough alone and let people ply their dreary platitudes? Maybe because I think that well enough isn’t good enough? Doesn’t provoke interest or thinking of any kind? Or modify our stable, staid, unchallenged opinions?
Because, finally, there’s a value higher than harmony and concord, going along and getting along, for going along and getting along’s sake?
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.
Here in Mexico (we’re in Ajijic, Jalisco now), they are getting ready to celebrate the Day of the Dead, November 2, or All Souls’ Day on the Roman calendar. But yesterday, as my wife Jen and I strolled around town, we experienced a foretaste of that public mourning and celebration.
We walked 2-3 miles down the carratera, or highway, to see if Jesus and Teresa, a couple we became friendly with, were still running their little restaurant, called La Cocineta (the little kitchen), which offered fresh, handmade ingredients and local fare. We found, in fact, that someone else had taken over and changed the name to El Verde (the green place). After two fresh fruit drinks (30 pesos, or about two dollars), we went across the street to a gated community called El Parque (the park), where we stayed one August a few years back and befriended several of the guards.
We asked after one of them, an amigo named Felix, who was quite a colorful and comical character. He was always ready with a bawdy quip and a friendly hand. He invited me one day to come down the highway to a pasturage he had there, where he kept a cow, a horse, and other animals, and experience the delights of the pajarete. What the devil is a pajarete? I asked.
Upon arrival I soon found out. Felix was milking a cow, squeezing its teats while the beast was shitting. Not to worry, he suggested. The cow was still cleaner than the putas (whores) in the town. I took video of this entire transaction (can’t find the file now, but will look), laughing all the time, it was so hilarious. (See this article for a discussion of the custom of the pajarete.)
A pajarete, it turns out, was a magical morning drink that included, in Felix’s recipe, fresh cow’s milk, chocolate, coffee, and tequila. Down the hatch! Felix and his compañeros and I drank readily. What a way to start the day!
When we asked yesterday about the man, the guard on duty told us that Felix died about a year ago, just north of town on the highway, in a motorcycle accident. Our hands went to our mouths in shock. We stood stock- or shock-still for a moment, unable to believe or comprehend.
But it made sense after all. Felix was not the kind of guy to go out quietly. He was married a couple of times, I believe, and had kids with several women. (His son Antonio, who worked as a guard at El Parque, too, has a family of six kids.) He swaggered about, telling jokes, laughing and making a merry demonstration of the gold in his teeth. Life was a comedy, no, señor? A divine comedy, if you will. Or a tragic one, if that makes sense.
So as Ajijic gears up for Halloween (celebrated by the gringos, and extended now to Mexican kids) and then the Day of the Dead, we remember our friend Felix, the happy one, as the name suggests, and his short and blazing time on this earth. Salud, Felix! As a happy cat, you may have another life or two coming.
On Facebook it’s easy to “friend” someone, as you know. Apart from the grammatical solecism (what’s wrong with “befriend”?), this process may simply mean you have a six-degree-of-separation friendship. It’s “virtual,” “remote,” “online,” and, typically insubstantial.
In the “real world,” as they say (some of our worlds may be more real than others), friendship comes harder, especially as you age. If you think about how you acquire friends, or how they acquire you, you’ll have to admit a great deal of serendipity is involved. You meet someone accidentally, that is. He or she bumps into you. You go on a hike together, or he tells you to take a hike. She says something funny, charming, odd, or tells you to fuck off, and a bond is made or not.
Sort of like romantic relationships, which start with a sighting (strange new bird there, what species might it be); grow with a joke or two, or a brushing up against a sleeve; and deepen with a meal or drink.
As you age, you acquire friends more slowly and lose them more sadly. You are set in your ways, after all, which may be real or unreal, according to others, and may not accommodate just anyone that comes along with a smile or handshake. You form impressions, or judgments, more readily, which may open up the door to friendship or slam it shut.
Mysterious how the process works, and how, if at all, we can hurry it along. As we age, after all, we have less time for friendship as for everything else. We pick and choose more carefully, and so are picked and chosen. If someone invites us out to coffee, do we go? To a hike? To a bar?
In just the last year or so I formed a good friendship with a guy whom I met on a hike or a bike ride, and who happened to patronize the same gym I do. He would show up regularly at the gym for a workout. I would see him hiking or biking. Like me, he liked to drink (how about that!), liked to laugh (what’s not to like about laughing?), and had a sardonic disposition. Soon we began talking anything and everything, and one of the big reasons I took to him is that he didn’t moralize or criticize. Oh, sure, he thought I was nuts, but that was part of the attraction too. Pretty soon he was partying with Jen and me, at our house, breaking bread, and meat, and veggies for that matter, sharing wine.
When he returned this summer from a family reunion, however, he was changed. Something was working in him, like a worm in the craw. Not that he was unfriendly, just less available, and suddenly he announced that after almost 20 years in Arkansas he was moving back East. In fact, he put his house on the market, sold it in a day, packed up and was gone within three months.
He said he was going back to his family, who live in Pennsylvania, his sisters and nonagenarian dad. But I strongly suspect the driving force was a woman with whom he was set up by a sister. My friend had been married twice; neither marriage took. But here was another chance, wasn’t it? At true love and understanding, not to mention sex? When I first heard about her, I asked, thinking she might be attracted here, Didn’t you tell her about the wonders of the Ozarks? I showed her the wonders of the Ozarks, my pal replied.
Sadness then, as he’s up and gone. I know he doesn’t write. I know that I don’t call. I helped him pack and he left me with all sorts of stuff he didn’t want to take with — buckets, bike stand and carrier, tools. Things that I’ll associate with him as I use them. But to lose him is not something I can appreciate.
We get over losses, don’t we, though less resiliently as we get older? We form new friendships, don’t we, just as we might find new romantic partners? And we certainly, at last, have to work at friendship and can’t afford to simply let it find us out.
Today a friend with breast cancer is entering the hospital for a mastectomy. This is a cruel development in her life, as it would be in anyone’s, though it is precisely a development. Our bodies change as we grow older — aging, augmenting, strengthening, declining. And illnesses and setbacks are part of the process, too, however unwelcome they might be. Seems we cannot rise without a fall, in our little corporeal empires as in ancient Rome (sorry, Edward Gibbon), no matter how much we might cry out in protest and sorrow.
Which is not to diminish the terrible costs to anyone suffering from a disease like cancer (think Jimmy Carter, think your friends and relatives). As old as we are, we don’t want to exit this life through excision, whether the surgeon’s knife or a switch blade in a dark alley. And how do we learn, in this fraught time and place, to resign ourselves to our fate? We are a youth culture, and will live forever, won’t we? That’s the message of the pop media, anyway.
What we can do as we go along, mere mortals rising and falling, is help each other up. It’s a hike, after all, isn’t it, this via dolorosa et jocundissima? And if one falls, we help her up. Gather her up, in our arms and help her stumble on and straighten up.
So here’s to you, brave friend and fellow sufferer. (Raising a cup of wine red as blood.) We’re with you, don’t you know, all the way?