Groucho Marx once said, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have someone like me as a member.” When I graduated from high school, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pattyrae Busic, gave me a beautiful edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and I believe this quote was one of the first I happened upon.
It obviously spoke to me, as I have straddled the barbed-wire fence between skepticism and outright cynicism about groups of all kinds ever since. I like people just fine one on one, but when you get more than two of them together at any given time and for any given purpose, the seeds of treachery and corruption are already sewn. Three is a crowd and four is a mob. I don’t think that’s in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but it ought to be.
It could be that you think on groups more favorably than I do. You think of the Girl Scouts, and I think of Hell’s Angels, the American Bar Association, and the Miami Heat. Even if I did think of the Girl Scouts, I am more apt to think of an unscrupulous mother dipping into a trust fund to buy four truckloads of Girl Scout cookies so her precious daughter can win a month’s worth of horseback riding lessons and get her picture in the paper in the same section with the newly engaged. Treachery.
Of course, I know there are worse groups than the Girl Scouts. I have nothing specifically against the Girl Scouts — my daughter is one, at least intermittently — but can they really be completely trusted in those cute little berets with their satchels full of Thin Mints and Peanut Butter Crunch patties? Along they come every year, the little diet shatterers.
As I said, there are worse groups, much worse. In fact, perhaps no single group better illustrates the wisdom of Groucho Marx than politicians. I know, I know. I can feel 20,000 eyes rolling at the very mention of politics. Easy target. Low hanging fruit. Scooping fish out of a bathtub. Etcetera. But really, just when we think the fruit can’t hang any lower, along comes a John Edwards, a Newt Gingrich, or an Anthony Weiner to remind us of just how much we may have overestimated politicians, despite our best efforts to suspect the worst.
Edwards, of course, is really a peach, and a home-grown one at that. Here’s a guy who cheats on his wife, a wife who has battled cancer, and then tries to get points back because she was in remission when the affair occurred, according to him. He fathers a child with his mistress while running for President of the United States, blames it on one of his aides, and is ultimately indicted for using campaign money to cover it up. Yet, he certainly used his wife in the campaign while vehemently denying all of the allegations. Now he is finally admitting to most everything he had formerly denied except using the campaign money to cover it up, because that would be, you know, illegal. And he claims he did nothing illegal.
If he seems a little familiar, it may be that you knew a guy like Edwards in high school. Come on, you remember: He was the smarmy tennis player/student council president with perfect hair and no blemishes who used his older sister’s James Taylor records to seduce your girlfriend while you were out of town with your parents, later claiming “it was all her idea,” “he didn’t really want to,” and that you really ought to thank him for exposing her as a cheat now, before you go off to college and find out the hard way.
Then there is Gingrich, who has admitted cheating on his first two wives and seeking a divorce from one while she was recovering from cancer surgery. Nice. This is the same Gingrich who ran on a platform of “family values” while having an affair all the while during his 1992 campaign of terror against the Clintons. You probably knew a guy like Gingrich in high school. He was the preacher’s son who went to church every Sunday, but had a fifth of Jim Beam under his front seat and a stash of homegrown in the glove compartment. He may or may not have slept with your girlfriend, who may or may not be a lesbian, at the river party last weekend. Nobody can remember now, but the important thing is that he repented on Sunday, and he’s forgiven now, and, say, do you want a snort? He’ll skip history class if you will.
Finally, we have the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner (cue the Beavis and Butthead laugh-track), who just a week ago admitted sending lewd photographs of himself to various young women, even though he is still a newlywed and these young women barely knew him, if they knew him at all. There are poses of Weiner in his underwear all over the Internet, and earlier this week, President Obama suggested that he probably should resign, which Weiner said he would not do just before checking into a treatment facility, ostensibly for troubled, partially nude narcissists with uncontrollable impulses to photograph themselves for strangers.
Of course, you probably knew a guy just like Weiner in high school. He was the wrestling coach’s son, but also third in his class. He had a high IQ and 3 percent body fat and an ego about the size of Jupiter. All of this was a front for his terrible insecurity with women, which at least prevented HIM from stealing your girlfriend, who was too old for him. No, your little sister was more his speed. He would send her pictures of him wrestling, or photos of his ‘chiseled sixpack,’ impressive to some, but perhaps merely confusing to an eighth-grader.
Your sister: “Why is this guy sending me pictures of his belly? Gross!!!”
Gross indeed, all of them gross. Any one of them, you could probably handle, but get them all together and what do you have? The United States Congress. You want to be in that club, you’re welcome to it. I’ll take the Girl Scouts any day.
(Atlanta, GA) — We don’t get out much. Unless “getting out” means running out to Taco Bell because the fish we were going to cook has gone bad and there’s nothing left to eat in the house except half of bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and an 8-ounce can of water chestnuts. Unless “getting out” means going to Taco Bell one night and the grocery store the next, we really don’t get out much.
We get out so little, in fact, that about a month ago, I decided that we had to do something about it, something pretty grand, at least by our standards. We would have to rearrange our hectic work schedules, carve out a 48-hour swath in one of our endlessly booked weeks, and go somewhere to do something. We had been promising the kids that we would take them to the aquarium in Atlanta for, oh, three or four years, and with my son, Jack, now heavily into the new baseball season — his team this year is the Braves — I thought we could work a little Major League baseball game into our trip.
The next thing you know, I was on eBay buying tickets for killer seats down the third base line for a day game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field, while Tammy was working on a package deal for tickets to the aquarium and a nearby hotel in downtown Atlanta. Within an hour, we had tickets to the game, tickets to the aquarium, and reservations at the hotel for the following weekend.
We left fairly early on Saturday morning to make sure we made it in time for the first pitch a little after 1 pm. Tammy and Kayden were going to drop us off near the gate on Henry Aaron Drive, and then go to the mall for manicures, white chocolate, and other mallstuffs. In particular, Kayden was keen on going to the American Girl doll store to look at American Girl dolls, and Tammy was keen on going anyplace where she would not have to watch baseball being played for three hours.
We made it nearly an entire hour early, time enough for Jack and me to eat a couple of $8 hotdogs and watch a little batting practice from the outfield bleachers before heading down to our fairly remarkable seats about 20 feet behind the Cardinals dugout. Jack was decked out in his Braves jersey and cap, and we settled in for a pretty exciting pitcher’s duel. Two older guys next to us had just returned from Afghanistan, and one of them, a youngish grandfatherly type probably in his late 50s, befriended Jack by feeding him peanuts and teasing him about not catching foul balls that landed nowhere near us.
“You should have got THAT one,” he said, as a ball off Matt Holiday’s bat landed three sections over and about 20 rows behind us. “You gotta reach higher if you want to go home with a ball.”
The Braves took an early lead, but the bullpen squandered it as the Cards broke through for two runs in the top of the eighth to win the game 3-2. Jack didn’t care that much. He got to see “the big guys,” and as the crowd began to clear out, he made his way down toward the Cardinal dugout looking for bottle caps, loose change, or any other exotic souvenirs of his first big league ballgame
“Hey, little buddy,” I heard a woman’s voice call out. She was sitting directly behind the dugout with four or five other elderly fans, possibly connected with the team in some way, from the looks of it. “Come here. I’ve got something for you.”
Jack walked over and she promptly handed him a baseball, one that had actually been used in the game and tossed up to her as the teams changed sides between innings. Jack accepted the ball as if an astronaut were handing him a moonrock. We thanked the nice woman profusely, and finally made our way outside to take pictures of Jack standing with the statue of Hank Aaron in front of the stadium.
The cell phone rang. I told Jack before I answered the phone that his mother and sister were lost.
“We’re completely lost,” said Tammy. “I’m pulling off to figure out where we are, and then we’ll be there soon, OK?”
With a bit of time to kill, Jack and I wandered around Turner Field until we saw a small group of people clustered at the back, evidently waiting for the players to appear and sign their pennants, programs, and such. We just missed catcher Brian McCann, but when starting shortstop Alex Gonzalez came out, I grabbed Jack and hoisted him up among the throng, and in just a few minutes, his ball was autographed.
“I guess we’re lucky your mom got lost,” I said. “But I wouldn’t say that in the car, if I were you.”
Tammy and Kayden had as much fun at the mall as we did at the game, and the aquarium was an even bigger hit the next day. We got home pretty late on Sunday, exhausted, nearly broke, and pretty far behind on our work. It would take us days and a series of late nights to catch up, and we knew it. By the time we crawled into bed, we could barely form a coherent sentence.
“We need to get out more often,” Tammy mumbled, before nodding off.
The crane games are beautiful beasts, shiny and brightly lit, with a glass belly full of forlorn and lonely stuffed animals waiting to be rescued by obsessive 9-year-old girls with a pocketful of quarters and reasonably good aim. My daughter literally cannot walk past a crane game — not at Shoneys, not in a grocery store, not in an arcade or a Laundromat — without plastering herself like a sheet of badly laid wallpaper against the crane game, her nose pressed to the glass, looking in at the sad assortment of captive creatures, any one of which would be so very grateful to find its way to a little girl’s bed come nightfall.
“Oh daddy, oh daddy, oh daddy,” she half sings, half pleads.
How much is that doggie in the window? About $17, most likely, maybe more. I’m pretty sure that the crane game — or the claw game, as some people may call it — is fixed, set on some mysterious device deep in its internal organs to grip firmly enough to extract an animal from the teeming pile about one out of every 10 or perhaps 20 tries, and that is if the crane has been perfectly positioned by the victim, I mean operator, who has been feeding the crane game beast quarters like Ritz crackers for nearly half an hour.
More often, the crane attaches half-heartedly and very briefly to an extruding foot or arm, pulling it upward gently for just a moment so that the animal seems to be waving to the child, “save me, save me,” only to release the animal back to the pile, while the crane returns mechanically, even coldly, to its original position, waiting to be fed again.
My daughter, bless her, believes she has the game figured, the beast tamed. She doesn’t. She’s a 9-year-old version of Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman.” Willy figured he was a great salesman and couldn’t figure why he was having such a hard time making ends meet every month. In the end, he relied on his neighbor Charley to pay his bills, essentially to subsidize his illusion of success.
In our version of the play, I am Charley, paying for my daughter’s illusions and obsessions. On her bed are approximately 65 stuffed creatures of various species. Of these, I would say about half of these are the spoils of victory from the arcade and carnival game wars. She has taken in these orphans, made them her children, arranged them in a community in which she is both mayor and head nurse, tending to them and their unpredictable and never-ending assortment of ailments.
I look in on them at night when she is fast asleep, surrounded by them, submerged in them, a foot poking out from under an alligator’s snout, one arm around a koala bear with one ear. Now I find that I am the one with my nose pressed against the glass. Believe this: I’d scoop her out of there and keep her if I could. I’d use all the quarters I could find, all I could afford or borrow, play all night if necessary. But there is no crane above her bed — just a ceiling fan, marking time. I know all too well how this game is rigged. She’s growing up too fast, and there is no rescue I know of for that.
“Oh daddy, oh daddy, oh daddy.” Those eyes.
“Here, baby,” I mumble, fishing out whatever quarters there are in my pockets. “Are you going after that turtle?”
“Nope, the yellow bird.”
She feeds the beast, and studies the bird, moving the crane past it, and then back, a smidge too far, and then over just a sliver. She studies it some more, looking first on one side, and then the other. Perfect. She pushes the button and the crane descends, its massive jaws closing over the bird’s head and upper body, pulling it just slightly before letting go.
It’s the not the letting go that bothers me, I don’t suppose. As I said, I know the game’s rigged. It’s how easy the crane makes it look to let go. It’s infuriating, maddening. My daughter isn’t fazed in the least. She’ll get ‘em next time. She has it figured out.
“Wait right here,” I tell her. “I’ll get change for a dollar.”
We’ll play all night if we have to.
One of the advantages of getting older is that you learn a few things if you pay attention. For example, when I was younger, I hid certain things about myself when I met someone I thought I might be interested in dating. My dislike of cheese of all kinds. My knobby knees. The general slovenliness of my apartment and car. My ability to recite entire episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” from memory. My crush on Stevie Nicks.
I thought that disclosure of these quirks was best saved for later, perhaps quite a bit later, after we had had a kid or two and it seemed a bit safer. Of course, there is no such thing as “safer” when it comes to the minefield of relationships, where failure to disclose even the most seemingly harmless of quirks can be and often is interpreted as a form of manipulation, if not outright treachery.
“Yes, I appreciate that you are sensitive and know the right temperature for Petit Syrah,” she will say. “I don’t mind that every time you see Terry Finger, you start quoting lines from Ernest T. Bass or “Green Acres” and then laugh like a drunk hyena. That I can live with. But I will not spend my life with a man who will not eat lasagna as God intended it to be eaten, WITH cheese.”
That is why I told Tammy on our very first date about my fantasy sports thing. We were at a Chinese restaurant, where she pretended to enjoy Chinese food and I pretended to understand portion control. Otherwise, I intended to come clean about my fantasy sports thing.
At first, she was just confused. She thought I was saying that I fantasized about playing professional sports, something I have not done since puberty, when Stevie Nicks booted Steve Garvey out of the ‘obsession room’ in my brain — and believe me, it’s a pretty big room — taking up residence there for about the next four years, until I met a girl named Kim on a school trip to Washington, D.C. By then, my gargantuan baseball card collection had been collecting dust in the attic for some time.
Anyway, at the age I am now, I am more apt to fantasize about getting out of the bed in morning with no back pain that I am to fantasize about roaming center field for the Dodgers.
I explained to her that I am part of a group of guys who get together two times per year, every year, to draft teams for our fantasy league, which has been going on for better than 10 years now. Every October, we meet in Raleigh to draft our basketball teams, and every March, we meet here in Western North Carolina to draft baseball teams. I told her that these two days of the year were sacrosanct and were a non-negotiable part of any relationship we might (or might not) be having. Except that was not exactly how I put it. What I said was, “This really means a lot to all the guys, and I don’t have that many friends, and I want you to know right now how important it is to me that YOU have friends that you can do things with and I especially want to stress how welcome your parents would be if they ever wanted to come visit us.”
And then I gave her the last fake crabmeat wonton.
In our seven years together, she has been great about my fantasy sports thing, tolerating the glossy $9 magazines with Albert Pujols on the cover, smiling patiently when I am late to the table for dinner because I am still on the phone with my friend, Tim, debating the merits of choosing a shortstop with some pop or a five tool outfielder in the upcoming draft.
For the last two years, she has even agreed to let me host the draft at our home. She and the kids make plans for the weekend, get out of Dodge, and give us the run of the place. The draft takes just about an entire day, with guys sweating out each pick, looking up statistics on the Internet, contrasting those notes with their own notes, flipping through magazines and injury reports, comparing this player with that player. The intensity is maddening.
The beer helps some. And the NCAA tournament, which we either watch or keep one eye on, depending on whether somebody’s team is still alive and playing. By bedtime, we have our teams, which we study and analyze like a teenage boy looking at his first car, with a sense of awe and wonder and rich possibility. This team could WIN. This could be the year. I think that shortstop was the right pick.
As this pertains to relationships, I would simply say this. We are all complete weirdos about something. Along with “for better or worse,” the phrase “for normal or weird,” should be added to the marriage vows. I’ve got fantasy sports and my record collection. She’s got the Dave Matthews Band and reality shows about wedding cakes.
‘Til death do us part.
It was not my best day. I had just got home with the kids, who seemed a little grumpy because they forgot mom had to work tonight and probably because this meant Hamburger Helper or chicken with mushroom soup over rice for dinner, neither among their favorite meals. I elbowed open the front door, my arms filled with a stack of papers and my laptop, somehow managing to get the key in the lock to nudge open the door. The kids burst through in a dash for the video game bonanza downstairs, still pretty new from Christmas.
“Let the dog in!” I yelled after them.
I had no sooner walked 12 steps to turn on the coffee — blessed coffee! — maker than our dog, a miniature dachshund came bounding up the stairs, tearing around the corner like a car sliding sideways in a movie chase scene. He had on that ridiculous burnt orange and brown autumn sweater that Tammy bought for him at one of these boutique pet stores, and he was yelping as if he hadn’t seen a human being in two years.
Before I could get the coffee on and the dog settled down, the kids suddenly materialized in the kitchen as if teleported from downstairs.
“Daddy, I’m hungry,” said Kid One.
“Daddy, come downstairs and play Wii basketball with me,” said Kid Two, more or less simultaneously.
Before I could answer either kid, before I could calm the dog (who would continue yelping until petted, regardless if it took 10 seconds or 10 hours to do it), before I could press “start” to get my hazelwood coffee brewing, someone knocked on the door. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. The dog was absolutely nuts now, projecting his eight-pound body at the front door like a furry dart, scratching over and over to get at whatever lurked outside.
The kids whined. ‘Hungry!’ ‘Won’t somebody play with me!!’
“Go downstairs for a minute,” I said, barely able to be heard above the chaos. “I’ll get you a snack in a minute, and then I’ll come play Wii basketball.”
I scooped up the yapping dog in one arm, and opened the door with the other. I can only imagine what a picture of pure frustration I must have been. It was Donna, the next-door neighbor. She and her husband, John, need to use our driveway on snowy days, because the only other way out of their driveway is down a very steep slope. We had sorted all this out last year when we moved here, when they explained the situation and asked us very kindly if we would be willing to share our driveway with them in bad weather. Of course we would, we had said.
While it wasn’t snowing on that particular day in January, it certainly had been in days previous, and their driveway was still completely covered in snow and ice. In my haste to get home and get dinner on, I had simply forgotten about the driveway and left my car parked right in the middle, blocking access. Donna needed to go somewhere, and couldn’t get around. Would I mind moving it, she asked.
I am not sure exactly what I said, but I know it was something along the lines of, “Just a minute. Give me a minute.” I walked back to our bedroom, tossed the dog on our bed, and shut the door, then pulled back on my boots, not bothering with a jacket, though it couldn’t have been much above freezing out.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, finally appearing outside. “I completely forgot.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” she said. “So sorry to bother you.”
I jumped in the car and moved it, feeling like an idiot. Later that evening, when my wife got home from work, I told her what had happened and said I probably needed to call John and Donna and apologize, not only for forgetting to leave the driveway open, but for my irritable demeanor.
A couple of days later, there was another knock. This time Tammy was home, and the waters in our home were much calmer. It was Donna again, this time bearing a basket filled with all kinds of goodies, including a nice bottle of wine, truffles, chutney, and a number of other bottles filled with various treats. Not only was it obvious that each one had been carefully handpicked, each of the items had a Post-it note attached with a brief description or suggestion, handwritten by Donna.
“We just wanted to give you this to thank you for letting us use your driveway,” she said.
We thanked her, and spent 15 minutes looking through the basket, remarking at what an amazing and kind gesture it had been, especially in light of my poor response a couple of days before.
I had been thinking of some gesture of our own in the days following, even though we didn’t see them for a few days. Then, one night, we got a call from another neighbor, one across the road. She told us that while John and Donna were on vacation in some tropical place, Donna had complained of weakness moments after scuba diving, and then died suddenly.
We couldn’t make sense of it, not at all. These were retired people, but young, active, retired people, always on the go, always doing something outside. Donna in her flower garden, John in his workshop.
We had just seen her a few days ago. She had brought us this wonderful basket, filled with stuff, marked with personalized notes. You have seen those bumper stickers, the ones that say, “Commit random acts of kindness.” Well, Donna committed a specific act of kindness, where others might have complained about the neighbors’ lack of concern or tact.
She left the neighborhood much too soon, but we’ll never forget her kindness. We will surely miss her. I can’t help but notice that the flowers are blooming early this year.
My epiphany occurred on a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, the snow having momentarily given way to a stray and fleeting glimpse of the actual sun — lately as rare as a celebrity sighting at Ingles. I was outside doing my best to break up the thick ice underneath two or three inches of packed snow in order to make a couple of pitiful tracks to the highway from the church parking lot, where our Camry was trapped like a kitten in a wet bathtub, unable to climb out regardless of how furious the spinning, how desperate the need.
Perhaps I have been softened by years of creature comforts — jet tubs, fleece blankets, microwave popcorn — but let me tell you, I was one miserable sight out there in my mismatched gloves and old workboots, nose raw and running, eyes squinting, teeth chattering like dice in a Dixie cup. Again and again, I attacked the ice with my big silver shovel, and about every third or fourth strike, I’d get through to pavement, then wedge out a heavy piece of snow-crusted ice about the size of a pumpkin pie — or maybe half a pie — an excruciating, slow pace. I tried not to look toward the road, to see how far I had to go. It was a long way, and my back was already screaming at me.
“CHIROPRACTOR,” it yelled.
“GROCERIES,” I yelled back, and kept digging, remembering the stale graham cracker I just had for lunch.
The wind kicked up suddenly. It felt like opening a jar of bees, stinging everywhere at once without pity or remorse. I tucked my chin like a concert violinist, kept digging, trying to position my back to the wind, which seemed to be blowing from all directions at the same time. I was getting tired, and I paused for just a moment to catch my breath. My wife had joined me, offering to take turns with me battling the snow and ice.
And that’s when it happened. A silver Subaru came around the curve, plowing through the snow like a pack of teenage girls going through a mall. We stood there and watched it in sheer astonishment as it crested the hill and disappeared.
“We have to get one,” I said. “We have to get one now.”
I stood there and looked at my Camry, to which I have an attachment that is both sentimental and practical. I took my Dad with me to buy this car in 1998, two years before he passed. My father was to buying cars what Stephen King is to horror novels or Peyton Manning is to football. I vividly remember him reducing a cocky Toyota salesman to a small puddle of frustration years ago when I bought my first car. This time, he let me do the negotiating, said very little to nothing during the test drive, just nodded slightly when I got the price we discussed on the way. Afterward, we went for Chinese, and I remember sitting there over my egg drop soup, looking out the window at my shiny new Camry, thinking, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels fall off.
Until my epiphany, 13 years and 170,000 miles later, that was still the plan. The Camry actually does pretty well in moderate snow, but you may have noticed that our past couple of winters have been lacking in moderation. Last year, I had a couple of close calls in her, but I chalked it up to an historic winter, the likes of which we wouldn’t see again until our children had children, when we’d haul out the pictures and laugh at the memories of it on holidays.
A year later, it is apparent that this was a profoundly foolish notion. You know what we call a snowstorm packing a foot of snow these days? Wednesday. It’s not historic. It’s just the latest snow. Ho hum, another foot of snow, another week out of school, another few days before we can get the Camry out on the road again, another round of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, another few hours of fantastic cardiovascular exercise shoveling snow.
I knew I would have to work a bit on Tammy, who is so frugal she is sort of an anti-Kardashian, unwilling to spend a nickel unless it is absolutely and utterly necessary. I reminded her that during last winter’s storm when a twig lashed open a two-inch gash just above our son’s left eyebrow, we had to get a neighbor to drive us to urgent care because — dramatic pause — we couldn’t get our car out of the driveway to take him ourselves. What if the neighbor had been unavailable?
A week later, we were test driving Subarus, and now there’s one in our driveway. From the kitchen window, I can see it out there all shiny and new, just daring the snow to fall, and I think to myself, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels come off. I’m pretty sure my dad would be cool with it. He loved buying cars.
Just as I was sitting down to write my column on the controversy surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which an Auburn University professor plans to publish with the intention of replacing the “N” word with the word “slave,” news of the tragedy in Arizona began to break. Even before the horrific facts of the tragedy were fully established — six dead, a congresswoman shot in the head and fighting for her life in the hospital, 14 injured, the suspected shooter in custody — commentary began to appear on the Internet ascribing blame for the shooting on the vitriolic tone that is so pervasive in modern politics, particularly from the right wing.
“I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what (we) see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in,” said Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at a press conference within hours of the shooting. “And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching.”
Sheriff Dupnik’s comments have touched off a national debate on the power and influence of language, which is more or less the thesis I set out to explore with the recently censored edition of Huck Finn. Advocates of the new version of the book point to the potential harm to self-esteem the repetitive use of the word “nigger” in the novel might cause for young, vulnerable readers. Others fear that exposure to the word might result in its continued use as a racial slur among students looking for a way to justify bad behavior.
In both of these cases — different as they are — the issue seems to be the power of language to inflict damage, and what measures we, as a society, are willing to go to as a possible remedy. As ugly as the ‘N’ word is, are we ready to accept the censorship of what many consider to be the greatest of all American novels in order to avoid exposing students to it, even taking into consideration the context in which the book was written and the word used, not to mention the major themes of the book, not least of which is that the institution of slavery was profoundly wrong and immoral? Twain used the ‘N’ word, at least in part, to demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man. Remember, in helping the slave Jim escape — in learning to see him as a human being and not “property” — Huck becomes an “outlaw” and believes that his actions will cause him to “go to hell.”
When the “N” word is “erased” from the book, the power, context, and authenticity of the novel are severely compromised, and the lesson lessened, if you will. Censorship is not the answer; understanding is.
On the other hand, there is perhaps no way to understand the mindset of a 21-year-old man who goes on a killing spree on sunny Saturday morning in Tuscon. I have not read any conclusive studies done on these mass murderers, but doesn’t it always seem as if they are cut from the same piece of cloth? Invariably, they are young male loners who have struggled to fit in anywhere or find a coherent meaning in life.
In this latest instance, the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had posted messages on YouTube in which he rambled on about issues he had with “informing conscience dreamers about a new currency.” According to friends and teachers, he had a tenuous relationship with reality, at best, and had been kicked out of a local community college until he agreed to seek psychiatric help.
All of this makes it difficult to draw a straight line from the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh to Jared Loughner. On the other hand, when Sarah Palin has a Web site with a map in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of the victims in the shooting, is listed as a “target” — complete with crosshairs — and when Palin tweets inane messages that exhort her followers, “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD,” it is fair to debate how much of this kind of rhetoric adds to a climate in which violence is perceived as an acceptable solution to political disagreement.
As with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the answer is not censorship. It is taking responsibility for one’s actions — and words. And it is holding those who do not act responsibly accountable for their actions, rather than remaining silent.
“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
So Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1927. True then, and true now. Whether or not Jared Loughner shot a bunch of people because someone told him to reload rather than retreat, we must stand up and speak out when the Sarah Palins of the world use the threat of violence — even if it intended as a lame metaphor — in an effort to incite their followers. The remedy is not censorship. It is telling them their 15minutes are up, and showing them the way off of the American stage.
When I was in the fourth grade, some dirtbag stole my hat. But it wasn’t any old dirtbag, and it wasn’t any old hat. The dirtbag was a kid named Terry, a garden variety bully with no manners, questionable hygiene, and no regard for people’s personal property. In other words, he was the kind of dirtbag who would steal another guy’s hat, and then wear it proudly the next day, as if it were a trophy, as if he were daring the victim to do something about it.
Under normal circumstances, I would have probably just let it go. A hat is a hat, not worth fighting over, and a dirtbag is just a dirtbag, no shortage of those in the halls and on the playground. However, this was not just any hat. It was a brand new Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap that I had just got as a birthday present from K&E Sporting Goods. I still remember the day I picked it out, tried it on, felt the stiffness of the bill as I began shaping it into a curve. I was a big Dodger fan, as was my dad. I thought that there was no blue like the blue in brand new Dodgers baseball cap, not even the sky.
I wore it all the time, to church, to school, even to supper, where my mother patiently let me eat my fried perch and mashed potatoes without making me take it off. Unfortunately, my fourth grade teacher would not allow me to wear my hat in class, so I had to put it in my locker, which was not really a locker but a little wooden cube barely big enough to stuff a windbreaker into, a cinch for even the most dull-witted thief, and Terry certainly was that.
When I discovered my Dodgers cap had been stolen, I had a feeling that I am not quite sure I can adequately describe. I felt angry, yes, but more than that, I felt confused and violated, as if the natural order of things had suddenly come undone and I had not been alerted to the new way of things. What if Monday suddenly followed Friday and someone had taken the weekends? What if someone had removed all the tater tots in the entire world? What if someone took all but three days of summer vacation?
Something important had been taken from me, by someone who had no business or right to take it. It was mine and now it was gone. I remember looking at the empty “locker” for a long time, as if looking hard enough might somehow force the hat to materialize right before my eyes. To be honest, I felt more sick than angry.
That was a long time ago, but I still remember the feeling vividly. A couple of weeks ago — on Black Friday — my wife was shopping at Belks when someone stole her pocketbook. She was looking at shoes, and had maneuvered her cart between two nearby rows of clothes so that it would not further clutter up the area. She had turned her back for just a few minutes, only to find when she turned back for the cart that it was gone … along with her pocketbook and everything in it, including her wallet, credit cards, license, photographs, whatever money she had, her keys, cell phone, and assorted other, more easily replaceable, items. When she looked at that space where her cart had been, I imagine she felt very close to how I felt when I looked at my empty locker all those years ago. I know she did, because I could hear it in her voice when she called me at about 5 a.m. on Friday morning, her voice trembling and frail.
It wasn’t just that her pocketbook had been stolen. We were able to cancel the credit cards, contact the bank, replace the cell phone and keys, and change the locks on the house easily enough. Luckily, she hadn’t been carrying much cash, so it turned out that the monetary loss was fairly minimal. The bigger injury by far was that feeling of violation, that the natural order of things was out of whack, that at any minute for no apparent reason someone will take what’s yours when your back is turned. She’ll get over this, of course, but it will take her longer to get over the sense of violation than it will to get over what she lost.
I ended up getting my hat back, by the way. And, years later, Terry ended up dropping out of school and going to jail. The moral? Sometimes, the natural order of things may be temporarily upset, but in the end, it’ll kick your ass. I think Aristotle said that, probably after some young Athenian stole his sandals.
It was a perfect day for baseball: blue sky, a crisp breeze, the sun still hanging like a pop fly above the horizon. There were ducks on the pond. Runners on first and second, and just one away. Two runs were already in, and the blue team was threatening to break this thing wide open there in the top of the third inning.
The next batter was a hot shot rookie recently called up from Tee Ball. At the tender age of 5, he was called up along with his buddy, Charlie. They figured that together they would weather the inevitable hazing from their older teammates, as well as the rough adjustment to machine pitching and hard baseballs here in the big league, both a far cry from the hitting tee and rubber ball world of last spring. Alas, Charlie was traded from the blue to the red team before the first game due to some tricky carpooling issues negotiated between the mothers, and now the rookie was left to sort out his own place among the 6-, 7-, 8-, and (gasp!) 9-year-old boys.
Yes, there had been ups and downs. The pitching machine, which looked like a giant metallic grasshopper, had proved to be an intimidating foe on the mound, and there had been several strikeouts before his timing improved. The strikeouts finally evolved into foul tips, which in turn evolved into bunt singles, lazy grounders, and ultimately sharp base hits into the outfield. The metal grasshopper still racked up its share of strikeouts, but the rookie had learned to stand in the box and take his cuts. He had shown he could hit in this league.
Still, he had never been up in this situation. In the first game of the season, the blue team had scored a few runs and jumped out to an early lead, only to see the green team rally for a big 12-7 victory. Apparently, based on some scuttlebutt I heard from some scouts in the stands, the green team had a couple of nine-year-old ringers minivanned in from Sylva. One of them was nearly big enough to be a sheriff’s deputy, and both looked like they might be shaving by next spring. Never mind.
Today was all that mattered, right now, this at-bat, with ducks on the pond and the metal grasshopper winding up to pitch to the rookie. The first pitch looked a little high, and the rookie swung at it much too late. Strike one. The coach clapped his hands twice and said, “Shake it off, rookie. Go ahead and take the next pitch. Watch it across the plate.”
The rookie nodded, stood back in, and took the next pitch right around the letters.
“Now you’re ready,” said the coach, optimistically.
The next pitch was right down the middle, and the rookie took a good cut at it, fouling it off the screen behind home plate. The runners had broken to run, and were forced to return to their bases.
Now there were two strikes, and just one more chance. The pitch came, and this time the rookie hit the ball right on the nose. It shot between the first and second basemen into right field. The runner on third scored easily, and the third base coach waved in the runner from second for the second run. The rookie pulled in at second base with a stand-up double.
The coach was so excited he ran out to second base and patted the rookie on his batting helmet. The rookie smiled and said something, which we could not make from the bleachers. Whatever it was caused the coach to give him a high five with both hands and then come sprinting toward the bleachers where the 12 or so fans of the blue team were sitting, still buzzing with excitement over the growing rally.
“He told me, ‘I’ve never been this happy before,’” said the coach, still laughing.
The next batter added another single, and the rookie scored the last run of the inning. The blue team went on to win 10-1, and the rookie collected two hits and three runs batted in.
A private post-game celebration was held at New Happy Garden, which seemed only fitting. The rookie ate only two bites of an appetizer before moving on to an array of desserts, including ice cream, M&Ms, and cake. Fortune cookies were opened and read aloud, and then a final toast to happy days, to being happier than you’ve ever been before.
James looks at me, briefly averts his eyes, then looks at me again, this time with a purpose and a certain intensity, as if I am an algebra problem he’s about to solve. There is a flicker of recognition, a slight smile beginning to form. He knows me.
“James,” I say, relieved, sticking out my hand. “It’s so good to see you.”
But even before he takes my hand, I see that the flicker is gone, the tiniest ember of recognition turned to a cinder. Now he is looking for my nametag, a white sticker with my name Sharpied on it in capital letters. I see this, and quickly pull aside the lapel of my jacket and thrust my chest forward like Wyatt Earp showing his marshal’s badge.
“Oh, Chris,” he says, nodding. It’s the nod you give when you look up the answer to the algebra problem in the back of the book, and it comes to you in an instant how you missed it, how close you were, but not really. “Good to see you, too. Do you know my wife?”
There is surreal, there is just plain weird, and then there is your 30-year high school class reunion. Salvador Dali never painted anything stranger than a group of people bearing down on the age of 50 gathering in a place called the Silver Dollar Saloon to compare notes, photographs, memories, and a rather acute sense of shared disbelief. We are like survivors of a plane crash, walking around in our pressed shirts and khaki pants to see who made it out alive, and what they remember about it. Our wounds, if not mortal, are crow’s feet, a few pounds here, a few more pounds there, male pattern baldness, and the hair we do have touched with gray, some of us a little more than others. It’s fitting, I guess, that we’ve chosen mid-October, as the leaves here are beginning to turn, just as we have. Nobody wants to say so, except in a variety of jokes and jibes, but autumn is upon us.
Some of us really have not changed all that much. Others need their nametags. But one thing that is abundantly clear is that we are all still so profoundly us, which will sound insane to many people, I realize, but not to people who have just attended their 30-year class reunions.
If you are a younger reader, I will let you in on a little secret, one you may find liberating, reassuring, or terrifying, depending upon your circumstances. The secret is, you are not going to become a different person when you reach middle age. You are not going to suddenly become someone else, losing all of your interests or your personality quirks. You are not going to become your parents, as you have been warned that you will. You are still going to be you, through and through, and you’re going to have a hard time believing that 30 years could pass so quickly.
Yes, I am well aware of the cliché there. I also know that there is change, most of it for the best, if you don’t count the aches, pains, and assortment of “mechanical problems” that factor into 30 percent of our conversations at this reunion, compared to, oh, zero percent of our conversations at our 10-year reunion. What can I say? We’ve got a few miles on us now. Every so often, the “check engine” light is just bound to come on.
Otherwise, we are doing pretty good, maybe better than ever. By now, we know who we are. We’re more comfortable in our skins, wrinkled or not. We don’t have to impress anybody. We either drive nicer cars or don’t give a damn if we don’t. We’ve learned a few things, among which is not to say, “I wish I could go back to then with what I know now.” Most of us are pretty happy right where we are. If we could go back, it would be only for awhile, just to check in and say, ‘hi,’ but certainly not to stay.
If I could go back, it would be to tell my 16-year-old self, “Hang in there, buddy. It’s going to take awhile, but you’re going to have it all, everything you ever wanted. You’re going to know love, know happiness, know contentment. You’re going to love and be loved. You’re going to like your life and not wish it to be any different. And, oh yes, you’re going to have a hot wife and a kick-ass stereo!”
By the end of the evening, dear readers, we took to dancing. I had made a mix-tape CD of some of our old favorites for the occasion, a soundtrack to the late 1970s in a small southern town, mixing in a little disco on the off chance somebody might want to shake it to “Brick House” or something. Well, someone did, and before you know it, the dance floor was full. We danced and danced, partied like it was 1979, and at the very end, everyone remaining at the Silver Dollar Saloon danced to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” as required by law in all southern states. You may not believe this, but after a verse or two, we spontaneously formed a giant circle, everyone holding hands, old friends bonding again after three decades apart. It sounds unbearably corny, the very kind of thing that would cause most people to cringe and our children to die of embarrassment, but as I may have mentioned already, one of the perks of being this age is not caring about any of that.
I think my 16-year-old self would have grimaced at this news, but I also like to think he would have smiled just a little, maybe recognizing himself well enough not to have to look up the answer in the back of the book.
(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville.)