Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Are we doomed to repeat history?

Entitlement: this is what passes as a “Constitutional Right” even as we, as a nation, confront potential existential threats to our “pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  The threats seem to be ubiquitous. Ones such as environmental degradation, political divisiveness, income inequality and racial injustice are long term, systemic, and need to be dealt with through legislation, the courts, and at the voting booth.  But another is immediate and it is a behavioral issue: COVID-19.  Changing behavior is not something that can be merely legislated or policed. It is more of a matter of acting with an esprit de corps.

During the Spanish Flu of 1918 there were no antibiotics, steroids, ventilators, and no “Hail Mary” prospects of an effective vaccine or even a therapeutic.  Some 675,000 people died yet that number would have been much higher had not certain measures been widely adopted.  Which ones?  You guessed it, wearing a mask, social distancing, use of disinfectants and cancelling schools and large public gatherings. It was proven then that social distancing works. 

Even with the advantage of modern medicine, we have more than 125,000 deaths in the United States from CV-19.  This tally is already approaching 20% of the total of the Spanish Flu 100 years before, but we’re only four months or so into this pandemic.  And, the United States seriously trails other developed nations in controlling this, proving our utter ineffectual leadership.  One only has to compare our curve (which is really not a curve, but a flattening out and now another peak) to those of Europe, South Korea, Japan, and China.  No wonder we are now on the EU list of countries whose citizens are not welcome.

There are those who claim their right to not wear masks and to congregate in large crowds as being their “constitutional” right to do so (even our Vice President implied the latter last weekend).  In an embarrassing video of a recent Palm Beach County Commissioner’s meeting where they voted for mandatory face masks (as if there was any question), impassioned opposition comments included one woman saying it was equivalent to her being denied her individual freedom not to wear underpants.

No, lady, that is a false equivalency as not wearing underwear does not endanger anyone else. Perhaps she’s never heard of the “promoting the general welfare” clause which IS enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution. (Indeed, there is nothing about wearing face masks or panties for that matter.)

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The point is, in order to secure the common good in this pandemic, we all need to work together.   How in the world did we conflate not wearing face masks with an “individual liberty?” Perhaps it can be traced to our President’s statements and his behavior which his sycophants (such as our Florida Governor) mimic.  Our President even implied that some Americans might wear face masks not as a way to prevent the spread of CV-19 but as a way to “signal disapproval of him.” It’s always about him, not about our welfare. 

During WW II Americans had to sacrifice for the common good.  Ration cards were given out for virtually every commodity.  Imagine if this generation was asked to sacrifice their “right” to fuel and sugar?  We would have lost that war and we are going to have more and more needless deaths in this CV-19 war because our lack of national leadership and thus our failure to pull together as a nation. Those who refuse to follow or deny scientific advice on attacking this critical threat are not patriots, but traitors.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Anne Tyler’s works could be described as being from the school of the comedy of manners, and I’ve made many comparisons in the past of her work to Jane Austen’s penchant for dissecting societal foibles.  Tyler’s writings also embody the mysterious, the light within her characters, very in keeping with her Quaker upbringing, and bringing in a touch of magical realism in the dreams of her characters, including daydreams.  Redhead by the Side of the Road has all those elements.   Here are people we all know and their quotidian lives are ones most of us share in some way.  Tyler knows how to engage us.

The life of the protagonist, Micah Mortimer, is yet another diorama in the Anne Tyler Museum of Damaged Men.  He’s an inherently good man but flawed, essentially a loner, a man of routine. Tyler establishes that right out of the gate: You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer.  He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

That routine involves his three jobs, his work as the super of a small apartment house for which he has living space in a basement with a few high windows, his work as the sole proprietor of a computer repair business, aptly named “Tech Hermit,” for which he has a magnet sign he slaps on his KIA, and his day to day “work” of living, provisioning, cleaning, dressing, eating, and a run in the morning. He has a system for every such task, even commenting out loud in a foreign accent on his housework and having a running dialogue as he drives with an imaginary “Traffic God” who normally will compliment him on his prudent driving.  Indeed, you “have to wonder.”

As a computer nerd, he gets business from Google searches and the notoriety of his one and only published book, First, Plug It In. It was one of Woolcott Publishing’s better-selling titles, but Woolcott was strictly local and he didn’t have a hope the book would ever make him rich.  Micah Mortimer is a variation on Aaron Woolcott of Tyler’s A Beginner’s Goodbye. 

It is Tyler’s hat tip to that antecedent novel and character who is the publisher of Woolcott Publishing.  By the way, the firm’s best seller is Why I Have Decided to Go On Living.  Indeed, the sort of book Micah might have read!

His girlfriend, if you want to call her that as we’re talking about people in their 40’s, Cass, is an elementary school teacher, and they’ve lived together on and off for more than three years.  One can understand that a person such as Micah Mortimer is comfortable with an arrangement that seems to be going nowhere, but Cass? As Tyler comments, they had reached the stage where things had more or less solidified:  compromises arrive at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked.  They had it down to a system, you could say.

Part of his routine is a run in the morning.  All of the action in the novel is in the familiar territory of most of Tyler’s novels, Baltimore, although I have come to call her sense of place, ”Tylerville.” He follows the same path on those runs, out so early in the morning that there is no one around.  He likes it like that and finally people begin to emerge by the time he’s heading home.  It is on such a run, early in the novel, that Tyler departs into the realm of magic realism, from which the novel derives its title and thus endemic to the theme.  His vision is not very good so things take on different appearances: On the homeward stretch this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up.  There was something about the rounded top of it, emerging bit by bit as he descended a slope toward an intersection. Why! He always thought to himself.  What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road? Because even though he knew by now that it was only a hydrant, still, for one fleeting instant he had the same delusion all over again, every single morning.

Indeed, why that vision, and why does he have dreams while he sleeps of a baby beckoning to him in supermarket?

Suddenly, the first complication in the novel arises, Micah finding a young man sitting on his step, Brink Adams.  He is the son of a former girlfriend, Lorna Bartell, from college.  He thinks Micah might be his father.  Seeing Brink, who is really not his son, he remembers that dream:  The image rose up in his mind of the baby in the supermarket, watching him so expectantly. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that prophetic dreams were not much use if their meaning emerged only in hindsight. 

He feels, however, a certain responsibility towards Brink and allows him to stay overnight, Micah urging him to call his mother.  He does not.  So Micah says call or leave and leave he does..  Micah immediately suffers regret:  He had handled this all wrong, he realized.  But even given a second chance, he wasn’t sure what he’d do differently.  Tyler cuts her protagonist some slack.  She does love her characters, even those who might not act on a second chance.

Allowing Brink to stay over, while Cass was having apartment house difficulties, creates the next complication, her sudden decision to break up with Micah.  Cass calls and drops that bombshell because he didn’t offer for her to move in with him while she was having those apartment issues, and instead, briefly took in this stranger, Brink, in the office bedroom.  This stuns him, never associating the two. “That never even crossed my mind! I didn’t even know you were willing to move in!  Is that what this is about?  You all at once think we ought to change the rules?” “No, Micah,” she said. “I know that you are you.” Indeed, a revelatory statement by Cass. He meekly accepts this judgement putting his phone into his pocket and staring out into space.  He confesses to himself though that he hated it when women expected you to read their minds.

He remembers when he first met Cass.  He was making a tech call at an elementary school where Cass taught.  The class was not happy that they had to go to a retirement home to Christmas carol, objecting that the residents “smell bad and the old ladies keep reaching out to us with their clutchy, grabby hands.  And here Tyler shines in her narrative, showing her increasing sensitivity to the matter of aging as she has in her last few novels, as Cass says: "I'd like you to look at this from another angle. Some of those people get to see children only once a year at Christmas, when our school comes to carol. And even the grown-ups they knew are mostly gone. Their parents are gone, their friends are gone, their husbands or wives gone-whole worlds gone. Even their brothers and sisters, often. They remember something that happened when they were, say, nine years old-same age as you all are now-but nobody else alive remembers it too. You don't think that's hard? You'll be singing to a roomful of broken hearts, I tell you. Try thinking of that when you decide you don't want to bother doing it." Ridiculously, Micah had felt touched, although in his own experience most old people were relentlessly cheery.

On the spot he asks her out to the movies.   She searched his face for a moment.  She seemed to be trying to make up her mind about him…”And I do like going to the movies,” she said. ..”Well, then,” he told her. And he couldn’t keep from grinning.  It was her speech to the children that had won him. “A roomful of broken hearts”! He liked that phrase.  And so does the reader.

Is it no wonder they then get together? Cass “completes” him.  He just doesn’t really know it, yet.  But his family does, all his sisters wondering where Cass is at a family gathering, vintage Tyler, everyone talking over everyone else. Tumult, the opposite of Micah’s ordered life. They were really looking forward to Cass’ appearance as much if not more so than brother Micah.  They are incredulous that Micah doesn’t grasp the issue.  So, Cass broke up with you because you gave your guest room to the son of an ex-girlfriend that you don’t even see anymore?”  This leave him with the thought: he liked his family a lot, but they made him crazy sometimes.

And now Tyler has Micah dancing to a cacophony of complications, guilt over throwing Brink out, guilt about not trying, yet, to find and contact Brink’s mother, Lorna, guilt about not being sensitive to Cass, and feeling berated by his family.  He starts first by trying to contact Lorna to let her know her son is safe, tracing her via the Internet and then emailing her. 

The next morning he’s out for his daily run, again noticing that that early no one is out, and daydreaming what if a neutron bomb made it permanent?  No one for him to deal with.  How idyllic that might be?  No complications.  No effort to live. He runs in a trance.  Until, once again, the hydrant which he mistakes for a redhead appears, his giving his usual shake of the shoulders at how repetitious this thought was, how repetitious all his thoughts were, how they ran in a deep rut and how his entire life ran in a rut, really.  And really they do.

Lorna does not email or call but arrives, finding his address by Googling “computer repair” in Baltimore and found “Tech Hermit…it was what the girls in my dorm used to call you.”…”I guess I’m pretty predictable.”  She didn’t disagree.

After discussing the matter of her son with Lorna, she leaves with her contact numbers if Brink shows up again. He goes out on a computer call, but returning to his apartment, the place gave off a kind of hollow sound, it seemed to him.  Nobody said “You’re home!” Or “Welcome Back.”  He finds some of Cass’ overnight clothes and goes into a reverie about her and her clothes: “The sweater matched her eyes exactly, but when he'd once  pointed that out she had said it was the other way around; her eyes matched the sweater. "Whatever color I wear, my eyes just go along with it," she'd told him, and then, nudging him playfully in the ribs, "You should see me when I wear red!" Remembering that now, he smiled.

Maybe red was a premonition all along?  Or the red fire hydrant?  And the baby dream?  Micah’s sister Ada has an opinion on that one: it’s a sign from your subconscious that you’re ready for the next stage of life. But, is he?

Brink indeed returns to Micah’s apartment, agrees to be picked up by his mom and step dad.  Micah has filled his obligation.  Good man. He and Lorna have a heart to heart about Micah’s opinion that he turns women off, “it’s like all at once they remember somewhere else they’d prefer to be. But in discussing this with his ex-girl friend from college, it begins to dawn on him that even their love was not the perfect one he imagined it to be, and Lorna delivers one of the themes of the novel: “Sometimess..you can think back on your life and almost believe it was laid out for you in advance, like this plain clear path you were destined to take even if it looked like nothing but brambles and stobs at the time.”

With Cass, Lorna and her son gone, Micah is dreaming more, becoming more disheveled and Tyler moves into the novel’s denouement with a gathering momentum as Micah goes through the motions of his Tech Hermit calls, his apartment house responsibilities, with an inner dialog underway which is disturbed only by Tyler making a rare departure to the other reality as he listens to talk radio in the car discussing police violence.  It is a brief foray outside the terrarium of Micah’s world as he struggles with his very identity.  The last chapter inexorably, powerfully moves him towards a resolution, but is it one in which Tyler pushes him further into damnation or into the light of redemption?  As I was reading this suspenseful chapter, I thought it was going decidedly in one direction, and I’ll have to leave it there as it would be a spoiler to reveal my expectations or the reality. It is a remarkable piece of writing.

Tyler never fails to engage and delight.  As I said at the onset, she is our very own Jane Austen, but with a modern sensibility, and now that both John Updike (who admired her writing) and Philip Roth are gone she is indisputably one of our leading writers of fiction. Redhead by the Side of the Road is vintage Anne Tyler. Her, now, more than twenty novels a treasure trove of American life observed and deciphered.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Inevitable Year of Reckoning, a Year That Never Was

A contradictory heading.  How can both be true?  How can a year be and not be, or should not have been but is?

The answer lies in one’s perspective, and as I am now entering the outfield of old age, the game has been called.  It’s a matter of simple math.  Removing a year from your life when you’re approaching 80 represents a huge fraction of one’s remaining life.  So, waiting for COVID-19 to abate or to be solved is tantamount to a kind of purgatory, a state of being between life and death.

Purgatory implies some kind of judgement.  I’d say we are among the fortunate who can afford to stay in our house, surrounded by our books and streaming choices of theatre and  music, and for me my precious piano,  Judgement day is looking up, if you believe in religious fabrication.  I don’t; and have always argued that we make our own heaven or hell right here and now.

At first we hung onto every word of Dr. Fauci, for guidance and for any hopeful signs of a vaccination.  Any good news would release us, the most vulnerable, from being confined to our home.  Instead, what we feared, a therapeutic and better yet, a vaccination, will be a long time coming.

Ok, “normal” life will continue without us.  As “reopening” occurred, we watched boats pass by our house, their Trump flags flying, celebrating reverence for their King releasing them from bondage, going right back to their previous ways of ignoring social distancing, just making it more dangerous for the rest of us, but, hey, it’s their “freedom” not ours.

Until the thunderbolt of America’s original sin struck in Minneapolis of all places.  Racism, lack of opportunity, income inequality, white privilege, police violence, and the message that black lives really don’t matter, came crashing down on the country’s collective conscience with the murder of just one black person, George Floyd, by an imperious white policeman, Derek Chauvin, filmed for all the world to see.  The country burst into the same Chicago flames as in 1968 after Martin Luther King’s assassination.  Then too we had another elephant in the room, the Vietnam War which had fomented its own trauma.  There were also the Watts Riots of 1965, involving the police and a black man and they foreshadowed the 1992 LA riots which were sparked by the arrest and beating of Rodney King, all of which was filmed.  Cell phones were not around then, but a TV cameraman captured the gruesome details.

But the killing of the seemingly gentle giant George Floyd was different.  It came soon after filmed killings either by police or white vigilantes of other blacks and, over the past years hundreds, more like them.  It came after Dylann Roof’s mass murder in a Charleston black Baptist Church.  It came immediately after the filmed confrontation of a black man who was bird watching in Central Park and a white woman who felt entitled to call the police when he asked her to put her dog on a leash in an area where birds were protected.  But she chose to turn the call into a racial one, saying "I'm taking a picture and calling the cops, I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life."  It was an open invitation for the police to take action which would not have been justified.  The mere fact that he was black gave the woman a sense of entitlement, the power, to make such a call.  Had she had a gun and was in Florida she might have shot him and been vindicated under its racially charged “Stand Your Ground” law.  It reveals the basis of a problem which has existed forever in this country, remaining unaddressed.

We all know the systemic basis for it all and this country’s failure to do anything while propping up the stock market to benefit the few is a sin.
Its failure to address gun control is just another, but related, sin. 

Its failure to invest in education as part of the long term solution overarches the entire topic. 

Hopelessness breeds a certain kind of despair which can burst into flames when a match is thrown into the kindling.  But this is no mere match, as the video of the white policeman shows him kneeling on the neck of this poor man, suffocating the life out of him, the half shit grin knowing he was being filmed, the casual hand in the pocket.  It had the characteristics of the hunter proudly dominating his dead prey.  Like the ones of the Trump brothers grinning over their dead leopard, elk, elephant, or endangered sheep, the same shit eating grin of domination by gun or authority.

Many knew that with the election of a sociopathic reality TV star a Trumpocalypse might result.  Being so close to the election now, I was starting to think we might escape with merely part of our world being dismantled but COVID-19 gave him another way to pursue his egotistical ends, forcing himself into our homes each day with frequent preposterous claims about the virus, not giving the experts the floor, and refusing to wear a mask although that is the guidelines our health experts advocated.  Nothing applies to him and it makes him look weak.  One must wonder how he felt when he had to be taken to the bunker in the White House because of protests.

Well, he decided, I’ll look strong by clearing a way to St. John's Church across the park from the White House to pose for photos holding up a bible, as if he has spent his Sundays in church.  If this photo op meant pepper spraying protestors or using rubber bullets against them, so be it.  He wants us to know he’s a tough guy.  It invites commentary, the absurdity and the arrogance of it all and it would be funny if it were not so tragic, that that is the action our “President” thinks meaningful in light of this wake up moment in our history.

It is more than ironic that George Floyd’s brother, Terrence Floyd, was the one who took the conciliatory Presidential fork in the road, exhorting the crowds to not turn to violence and looting, urging protests in a peaceful way to honor his brother.  He also asked that the crowds turn to the voting booth to make their voices heard.  "Educate yourselves. Don't wait for somebody else to tell you who's who, educate yourself and know who you're voting for. That's how we're going to help. It's a lot of us! ... Let's switch it up and do this peacefully.''

Trump, meanwhile took the low road, urging the Governors of those States to “dominate” with force, warning that if they didn’t do it, he’d call up the military.  He said "I’m your president of law and order.''

It would have been an ideal opportunity for a normal President of the United States to show empathy, compassion, urging Congress to bring a bill to his desk to ensure a massive investment in education and in the short term economic relief for the most poverty stricken and unemployed.  But we know that this President was not born with an empathic bone in his body, only bone spurs.

He is like CV19 itself.  It knows nothing about empathy and only “thinks” of its own existence by replicating through infecting others.  It is not an “equal opportunity” infector, more seriously impacting those without access to good diets and medical care as well us elderly.  It ruins lives.  It kills.  And once a large number of unprotected citizens are infected, it leads to disastrous societal and economic consequences. Trump’s strong-arm behavior only exacerbates an already incendiary situation.  I fear it will worsen.

Yet, this is our moment to stand in solidarity with all people of color, to work towards an election of bringing people to Congress who will work together to find solutions to the systemic problem of racism and income disparity and full employment for all.  If we can afford to go to Mars, we can afford to do this. And it is time to remove the virulent President.  Indeed, make this a year of reckoning, one that might have been a year that never was, but now can count for something constructive.