Have had occasion to think, re politics and culture in general, about how we might divide ourselves not into sheep and goats (baa!) but abstract and concrete people.
I don’t mean precisely what the great philosopher Madonna might have had in mind near the start of her career, as she sang “I am a material girl, / And this is a material world.” I’m not talking material vs. spiritual, really. (Many people who profess spirituality, sometimes hysterically, are oddly very material. They are set in the material world and yet profess to be acting and yearning for heaven.)
I mean when we meet and socialize, we tend to talk in concrete terms. Mostly, we tell stories — what we did today, what so and so said, how our best friend is feeling blue. We pile up evidence for the story — data, you might say; concrete and empirical facts; sensory details. For this is the world we live in (thanks, Madonna) — both concrete and material. And what are we ourselves if not material creatures?
Well, many of us begin and end there. We are concrete, set in concrete detail; our feet are set in concrete, like a mobster’s. We talk about the sensory world. We act and work in it, pouring foundations, fixing machines, tuning automobiles, sweeping the floor.
We may rarely if ever make the jump from these concrete details, or data, to abstract conclusions — the kind of thinking, or reasoning, that leaves the physical world and enters the metaphysical or more-than-physical. This is just too big a leap for most of us, who remain moored to our particular time, place, and circumstances.
A good friend from Minnesota, who visited recently, talked about the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis. He was incensed not with the protests themselves, he said, but with their method, for the protesters blocked traffic on the freeway and prolonged rush hour.
He was fastened to the facts, fascinated by the facts of the case, and they incensed him. He did not, could not, make a leap from the facts, the phenomena, to all the possible causes or consequences of this political act. (He only knew that blocking traffic delayed arrival at work and pissed people off.) He said nothing about the oppression of the black community. The violence of white cops. The terrific fear and hatred of the black man that the mere sight of one must inspire in too many of those who “protect and serve.”
Had my friend ever protested in public? I doubt it. He was part of what used to be called “the great silent majority,” who bitch to each other and complain but don’t make a concerted, organized public effort to change things.
But why change things when you have ’em good? The friend is retired from 3M, has investments and a pension, a very healthy retirement income, no wife or kids to look out for. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, or his world anyway.
But thinking about his world would propel us into abstractions, true? A metaphysical, philosophical world where the air is rare and most of us go about gasping. Help, help, help!
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.
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.
In Atlanta recently visiting my wife’s family and a nephew and niece of my own, I encountered a waitress named Tristan at a sandwich shop.
Tristan! I exclaimed. How did you, young lady, get a name like Tristan?
Well, she explained — a chubby, blond early-twenty-something — my mom saw Brad Pitt in a movie and his character was named Tristan.
Certainly, Pitt starred in 1994 in Legends of the Fall, where his character sports the name Tristan Ludlow. He is one of three brothers who grow up, in early-20th-century Montana under a father who detests the government and its wars. The youngest brother brings home his fiancee, and the others fall in love with her. One not very helpful user review, at the Internet Movie Database suggests that Tristan is “A guy who does the frickle frack with the lady they kiss and stuff.”
Apart from the grammatical and analytical deficits of this demotic characterization, the movie does involve themes of loyalty and betrayal, which are what the first famous Tristan had to contend with. In Arthurian legend, the knight Tristan is the nephew of King Mark of Cornwell, charged with bringing home to his uncle as bride-to-be the beautiful Iseult from Ireland. In transport, however, a magic potion makes Tristan and Iseult fall in love. Their scandalous affair sets up tragedy, as surely in the Arthurian original as in the Wagnerian opera based on it, or the Brad Pitt movie, for that matter.
If you believe, as I do, that a name carries with it certain suggestions, even burdens, then naming a girl Tristan is a heavy load for the girl to carry. Should she grow up to act more like a man than a woman, whatever that means? Be dashing, passionate, and adulterous? Be in thrall to a Hollywood role or pop-culture expectations?
Of course, it’s our parents who name us, and they may have in mind, in naming, ideas or ideals or feelings that will not be our own. (If they don’t merely admire the sound and shape of the name, its heft, its euphony.)
In any case, my name, Gregory, is from the Greek, meaning a watchful person or guardian. The name James comes from Hebrew Yaakov, or Jacob, meaning “at the heel,” since in Genesis Jacob is born immediately after his twin brother Esau, with his hand holding Esau’s heel. My wife’s name, Jennifer, comes from the Gaelic, and it means the fair one: the fair one that, again in Arthurian legend, betrays King Arthur when she takes Lancelot as a lover.
Not to make too much of names or naming, but don’t we wear names as we would wear a coat or mantle? Don’t they cover us, like suggestion, and speak to us as if propelling to a certain end? We needn’t take them literally, of course, if we take them, consciously, at all, but when Jennifer and I named our son Gabriel, or man of God, from the Hebrew, didn’t we wish to usher him along a path of glory? Certainly, not a path of shame. Certainly, not a path trod by Hollywood stars.