It was the fall of 2014. I had returned from a delirious trip to my first writer’s retreat in North Carolina, not knowing that my mother, Carolyn, had dementia. I had clues, two of her siblings had already died from it, but denial being the stock and trade of the human race, I gallantly did my best to ignore them. Then, I smacked into convincing evidence.
I crashed a confab that Carolyn and Mariya, her caregiver, were having in her bright, sunny kitchen. Even when she had seen me the day before, she always exuded joy and delight at the sight of me as if I was the prodigal son at long last finally coming home.
“Oh, John,” she said, “it’s you!”
She very cheerfully started to sing,
No, you can’t chop your mother up in Massachusetts.
Not even if you’re tired off her cuisine.
Now, I had it, finally. Proof. Mom was losing it. That song was whack.
“Mom, what’s the song you’re singing.”
“Oh, we’ve got it right here on a CD.”
“Oh, yes. I’m sure.”
There were stacks of CDs in her kitchen, elbowed in next to China plates and spices in cupboards. But I needed to know and started to dig. Mariya joined me in the hunt. We went through all of them. Truth of it was, I really didn’t know what I was looking for.
There was a pause for lunch. I confessed to Carolyn that we couldn’t find the song she’d been singing on any of her CDs. It seemed grim, like her sanity was hanging in the balance.
“It wouldn’t be on a phonograph record? The one’s you left behind at your old place.”
“No, it’s right here in the kitchen.”
“Are you sure, mom?”
“Oh, yes. I saw the musical with your father on Broadway in 1952.”
What was she saying? This could be a story to fill in the gaps in her memory. Carolyn permitted nothing, NOT even dementia, to catch her out without a story. Her nature abhorred a vacuum, a narrative vacuum most of all. There was always a story to tell.
I was panicked, not prepared to face the idea that mom had a brain disease when the name “Lizzie Borden” came to mind. Searching the web, I found that a film had debuted in 1954 starring Eartha Kitt and Paul Lynde among others.
But I had trodden a long way down the path of proving mom nuts—why, I wonder, there was no profit in it—and now I clung onto this pathetic shred of evidence that she was mistaken and there had never been a musical, as she had claimed, but a movie instead. Why she was WRONG!
None of this stopped my eye from trailing down to the bottom of the Wikipedia page, explaining that the film was based on the musical, also starring Eartha Kitt and Paul Lynde, which was first performed on Broadway in 1952. And that musical had a song in its repertoire named “Lizzy Borden”.
And the lyrics to that song went like this:
But you can't chop your momma up in Massachusetts Not even if you're tired of her cuisine (Her cuisine) No, you can't chop your momma up in Massachusetts You know it's almost sure to cause a scene
Later I learned that mom had served on the board of a local charity with Sheila Mack, another go-getter like mom, adored by many. A few weeks before the CD hunt, her deranged daughter and daughter’s boyfriend had bludgeoned her to death, stuffed her in a suitcase, and left her body in a resort hotel in Bali before lighting out for a casino.
If the cruelest circumstances are those that tempt us to abandon our ideals, this was a cruel circumstance. Sheila Mack had adopted a mentally damaged daughter with different skin tone. I wondered briefly if mom was ever tempted to blame the murder of her friend on so-called race. Carolyn had fought for over fifty years for civil rights and mental health with unfailing tenacity. Her causes were as vital to her as breathing. Instead, as on this occasion, she found solace in song. This reflex came very naturally to my mother not just to sing but to know exactly the right song to sing and to remember all the lyrics.
When Carolyn was in hospice, at home, shortly before she died, I found the CD. It was a typical score. Southern mom: 1, Yankee son: zero.
The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.
Aristotle from the Poetics
During a rare reunion, an old girlfriend tells me I have chronic foot pain because I’m going in the wrong direction, elevating figurative thought to the same plane as medical diagnosis.
Durable truths are couched in myth and metaphor, not science.
Eve’s so-called choice when she chooses to bite into the apple captures the paradoxical experience of free will and determinism better than anything in the thousands of years that have passed since that story was first told.
So much of the language we use is metaphorical, it’s easy to forget by how much or how pervasive it is.
Some of our most cherished beliefs are metaphorical (rebirth, the idea that in marriage which two organisms become one, a person with many gifts)
The quality of the metaphors we use affects the quality of what we experience (life itself really).
Metaphor and figurative speech are the go-to “tools” for poets and writers to broach transcendental topics including God.
If ever I break up with a woman, I will call up my college sweetheart to ask her if she’s still dating that guy. When she says “yes” I am elated because Gene’s the one guy I wouldn’t dare trample over trying to get her back. Gene is her chosen one because he’s just that lucky and deserving.
Leigh and I have had a face-to-face reunion once since we dated in college. It transpired in Chicago outside a favorite bar, the “Hideout”, where all the cool alternative music acts come to play. Robbie Fulks, a comically embittered singer/songwriter refugee from Nashville and a native of North Carolina, is my favorite. Neko Case used to tend bar there.
Back then in the summer of 2013, I was vexed with chronic neuropathy and foot pain. That’s when Leigh made an out-of-the-box remark that it was a sign that I was going in the wrong direction. I was struck by the brilliance of elevating figurative thought to the same plane as medical diagnosis. Nobody had ever once suggested to me anything like it. The shame of it was I was already calling myself a writer.
In the years following Leigh’s pronouncement, my awe for the figurative imagination has—let’s just say—blossomed. I have learned that the most durable truths are couched in myth and metaphor, not science. I have learned that gospel truth—the truth that emerges from gospel—has very little if anything to do with historic events and is instead rooted in stories that allude to transcendental themes.
You will not acquire better insight into the nature of free will than you can by contemplating the image of Eve chomping down on that apple. I mean that whole thing in the garden and the serpent looks totally like a setup. How much of a choice did Eve really have when she “chose” to take the first bite? It’s a paradox, perfectly articulated, and nobody in the thousands of years since that story was first told, though many philosophers have tried, has advanced the debate on free will versus determinism.
At the start of Cratylus, a dialogue written by Plato, which seeks to discover how words signify, i.e., accrue and acquire meaning, a thesis is presented that words are tools in the manner of awls and anvils. It is pleasant to think that just as awls and anvils are used to create halters and horseshoes, words create meaning.
But it is also clear that Plato—feeling compelled to use metaphor to get at how words work and perform their magic —has flung us so to speak headlong into the thicket.
It doesn’t take us long to sidle up to the suspicion that we are trapped in metaphor and get queasy about feeling caught in a trap. It is a little too much like an Escherian staircase.
Maybe already we’re starting to think that the quality of the metaphor colors the quality of experience. Or let’s just say, life itself.
The prosaic, secularist way we describe a moment with profound transformative potential is a “midlife crisis”. But if words are tools and all we have to work with is this pallid phrase “midlife crisis”, woe-betide our forlorn souls. I mean, damn-it. How does that help a person to cope?
The concept of liminal space gives us something slightly more useful than midlife crisis to reckon with. Moreover, it is faintly metaphoric.
Dante’s dark forest (selva oscura) is the metaphor par excellence of a midlife crisis. We see the figure of Dante, the pilgrim, paralyzed by terror and fear in the very first canto as he is thrust back twice by allegorical beasts in his approach to the gate to hell until Virgil, his spiritual and poetic mentor, comes to his rescue. In the 1st canto, Dante already has us immersed in metaphor: sleep, hell, dark forests, mentors, and above all a “journey”, the metaphor supreme for spiritual growth.
Rebirth, replete with spiritual and religious connotation, trumps midlife crisis for utility. You can picture it. You can go to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and, on any given day, see unborn chicks under the plastic dome of a huge incubator trying to crack through their shells. You can see with your own eyes the struggle to survive begin at the very instant of birth. The rebirth metaphor comes with pictures. It’s very easy to understand what it’s all about. Try coming anywhere near as close with “midlife crisis”. Who invents such phrases? Milquetoast sociologists?
A legend exists that the protean mind of Goethe was so vast and domineering that it sent many a would-be poet scurrying to seek refuge of as philosophers in the halls of academia. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, so saturated intellectual thought with doubt that, by the time Kant came along, it was fashionable to doubt the existence of God. When Kant promoted the distinction of the palpable world and a world beyond sense, which he designated the phenomena and noumena, it was hypothesized that the noumena was radically unknowable and by corollary God. Then for decades, guys who might have made decent poets dashed their brains out trying to invent a logic that could punch a hole through the invisible wall between the noumena from the phenomena just to rescue the idea of God and prove that He exists. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer built a career out of mocking these attempts, knocking them down like a Stanley Cup goalie knocks down pucks.
But any half-baked, warmed-over Calvinist could tell you that we are too puny and insignificant to apprehend anything so luminous as God. And the poet William Carlos Williams would exude “No ideas but in things.”
So, the only way to approach transcendent objects is with transcendent tools and the go-to transcendental tool of poets and writers is metaphor. This is why fundamentalists are so fundamentally frustrating because they insist on the historicity of things and nothing that the imagination can produce.
From the Greek, the word metaphor breaks down into the components: “meta”, meaning near to and “phorein” meaning to carry.
The iconic New York City coffee cup, the amphora cup, is so named because it has a picture of an amphora on it, the Greek name for a two handled vase. In Greek an amphora means literally something that is carried with two hands. The “phor” suffix is the same as in metaphor. It too derives from the root “phorein” to carry.
I like to imagine that metaphor is like an amphora, or James Bond’s briefcase, or the so-called football in which are carried the nuclear codes. Only the codes are all forgotten. What’s inside is unknowable (the noumena in Kant’s nomenclature) and the only evidence we have of it is by the case we carry it in (the phenomena). Whereas science constantly frustrates itself trying to get closer to the root of all things, poetry takes a different tack and says this is close as you can get. It is ironically far more practical when it comes to spiritual truth.
A good metaphor is the airplane rule, the one where people remind you to put your mask on yourself first. How many lives have been improved by this metaphor? And what is it really other than an apt retelling of the old admonition to love your neighbor as you love yourself?
When I went to the doctor for a checkup some months ago and we were discussing the obstinate nature of the injuries to my left foot, she turned to me and pointed, “this foot is a metaphor you know.” My doctor was schooled in the Western tradition and though she is less occidental by the day, I smiled. Inside though, I was laughing my head off.
Carolyn Poplett died on May 18, 2022. This is the eulogy I gave for her at First United Church in Oak Park on July 23rd, 2022.
Years ago, driving my parents out to O’Hare, suffering the critical presence of my father, who for some obnoxious reason had decided to sit in the back, positioned to keep an eye on the speedometer as I drove, a driver shot into traffic from an on-ramp and cut me off. I found the brake pedal just in time to avoid plowing into the back of his car.
Preempting the unhelpful words that my father was bound to issue, Carolyn blurted out, “Why…why, he’s just contributing to world rage.” To my teenage ear, that sounded like crazy talk. It would take decades before it occurred to me that this incident, as much as any other, typified a person with a profound conviction in the interconnectedness of things.
As far as people were concerned, my mother, your aunt, your friend, and your co-conspirator, was a connection machine. She made connections out of her abundant grace, reflexively, as it was utterly and thoroughly integral to her being. Going to the farmer’s market with mom felt like we were campaigning for an office she had already won. It very often went like this. “Oh, John, you remember so-and-so”. And I cringed. Of course, I didn’t. If Demosthenes knew all the names of all the citizens in the ancient city-state of Athens, Carolyn Poplett knew all the names of all the people living in Oak Park. It was just one of those things a connection machine does.
Carolyn, as her beautician friend, Carol, can tell you, was “magnetic”, the perfect word for mom if ever there was. It was easy to imagine, how when they went together to Parker’s restaurant, a shared favorite, men would abandon their spouses to see Carolyn safely to her car.
On her last visit to Ravinia, no doubt perfectly coiffed, lipstick carefully drawn, elegantly attired, nails painted a dark and alluring shade of red, Tony Bennett fell into a conversation with her that carried on so long his manager had to pry him loose. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how those two persons found each other even at a crowded, sprawling venue. Two magnetic people, their polarities lined up, a gentle, summer night, Sir Isaac Newton could have predicted it.
The most spectacular results to come out of AI, feats such as malignant tumor detection and self-piloting helicopters, come from so-called artificial neural networks.
How does a machine with a pittance of crude, imitation neurons so often outperform and outsmart human beings? Artificial neural networks don’t sleep, don’t get bored, don’t get distracted. They don’t take time off for meals or sex or watching Law and Order SVU. They don’t have attention deficit disorder. Above all they, never suffer trauma or its pernicious, crippling after-effects; they don’t have rage.
Carolyn Poplett was engaged in the most interesting piece of that conundrum. If the average human brain has 86 billion neurons, an almost infinite capacity for connectedness, why aren’t human beings more deeply connected to their humanity?
I think she understood how trauma damages the soul and when persons damage each other emotionally or rob a person of their innocence, neurons are damaged. Our capacity for self-love, a healthy autonomy, self-actualization, our capacity to love others, is cut back, diminished, compromised. The human connections we need to thrive become more tenuous and fragile, unstable, more difficult to maintain.
In Dante’s Paradiso, the poet postulates that it is God’s love which makes the world spin round and that love is the prime mover
The nature of the universe, which holds
the center still and moves all else around it,
begins here as if from its turning-post.
This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.
Sometimes towards the end, I whimsically began to think of Carolyn as the prime mover. I mean, there she was, sitting in front of the television in her jammies, content to watch reruns of Gunsmoke or the cable series, Mountain Men, yet there was always a fantastic swirl of energy around her. And when Georga Parchem called, and Jim, Allison, Mary Ann, and Erin got involved with this year’s spring benefit at the 19th Century Club, where Carolyn would be the guest of honor, she barely moved but seemed to be the force of a great national convergence that brought friends, nieces and nephews, fellow club members, colleagues from Thrive, in brief, an adequate sample of all the people she had loved, together in a single ballroom.
Fully three years after her husband died, Carolyn confided to me that she had decided to live. That revelation came as a total shock. I knew that she was grieving, I could not have guessed she had gone fully to a “to be or not to be” level of despair per the soliloquy. Well, now, finally it is obvious. The high cost of being a connection machine is that when you lose connections you cherish, the suffering is magnified by this cultivated knowledge of their value. And Carolyn I wager had plenty of her neurons, a healthy swath of her 86 billion neuron allotment, devoted to her husband, Ray, probably more than any other person.
Human neurons do not observe the boundaries of the human skull or body. They are promiscuous. They interconnect with neurons in the minds and bodies of other people. That is a trick that artificial networks haven’t quite learned yet. The two flames merging into one metaphor, that charming trope of youthful weddings, actually happens at the level of synapses and neurons. So, the loss of a loved one, a significant other, is exactly the same as the sturdy chop of a cleaver slicing through a bundle of nerves. That is why it took Carolyn three years to decide she wanted to carry on. Half of her, it must have seemed, was gone.
Yet we know that the human brain is plastic and that neurons can eagerly repurpose to new tasks. So, the only adequate answer to grief is to do as Carolyn would have us do. Maintain as many connections as diligence allows and whenever possible, form new ones.
It was in the seventies. Bart Simpson was not yet a sparkle in Matt Groening’s creative eye. I was on a landing at the front of a large house, a landmark Prairie School architecture home in Oak Park, Illinois, restored by my parents, a few stair rungs below my mother who had come charging down the stairs from the second floor to engage me in an epic war of words.
I was seething with rage, pimples, and hormones, a product of age (I was a teenager) and disposition. Whatever we were arguing about is long since forgotten.
What I said in that instant, I will never forget. I said, “Mom, don’t have a cow.”
It was the wrong thing to say to a mother who grew up in the country, on farms. Carolyn erupted. I only remember anger and fury so intense it felt like I had swung a steel door open on its hinges to stick my head in a furnace. I’m not even sure she was forming sentences. The white heat of anger was all I felt.
Then, she calmed herself enough to explain the exact source of her anger. The mood was different. She was still seething but she wasn’t quite as much angry as she was appalled.
“Why, John,” she said, jaw tense, “if I had a cow, it would split my sides open.”
Which describes what happened next because, in about seven seconds, we were both doubled over in side-splitting laughter at the image of my mother birthing a cow, though, I suppose, in fairness to me, it would have more probably been a calf.
This was my introduction to the figurative mind of Carolyn Poplett, long before I had ever heard of Joseph Campbell and his demonstrations of the power of myth. This deeply figurative way of thinking was strange to me for most of my life.
To a cocky Yankee lad, her hyperbolic flights of the imagination seemed like a deficiency of intellect, somehow tied to her Southern roots, as if my grandmother had weaned her from the breast with moonshine or she was a cousin of the Clampetts on The Beverly Hillbillies. Bless her heart.
But mom’s way of thinking is commonplace to me now: the paradox that you must take metaphor, figurative language, as literally as you dare. I do not know how to emphasize how strange it is to look back on how I used to think, before having adopted Carolyn’s wisdom. All I know is that the urgency of plumbing metaphor to its absolute depth now daily confronts me.
That’s not a bad frame of mind to work yourself into if you are a writer. But it is not a bad frame of mind to work yourself into if you wish to have a richly-rewarding, bountiful life no matter what you do.
A couple Sundays ago I had a misadventure that beat-up both of my feet to the point that I had to put myself in a wheelchair. The trigger was honorable enough. I received a call early in the AM from a caregiver. Unbeknownst to us, Carolyn was having a gout attack. Even with the caregiver’s help, she couldn’t rise to get dressed. I came over to help lift her. Stayed to lift her later in the evening to get her into bed. There were so many unusual circumstances piling up, I didn’t guess I would wake up the next day in agony. A few days later, I visited a foot doctor to learn that a pernicious wound had re-opened on my left foot—it took six months to close it the first time—and the right foot though not broken was at risk of collapsing from a condition known as Charcot’s foot. Both feet threatened to take me down long torturous paths with iffy chances for full or partial recovery. There was a chance that I’d have to have surgeries on my right foot as I had done on my left. There was and remains the fear hovering in the air that, having already given up playing basketball, riding a bicycle might come next.
I was too emerging from a hypomanic episode, which, without correction, I suspect, can lead to bipolar disorder. These are warnings to pull my life into order with maximum urgency. Yet, it is hilarious that the solution is to laze around and just be ridiculously kind to myself. How should that ever be a challenge? It is, but I am committed to reform.
If you take your metaphors seriously, the world starts to make sense in uncommon ways.
This was my frame of mind when I called mom two days ago. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t go over to see her unless I took an Uber. I tried that once but there was too much banging around getting in and out of a car on the to and fro. I no longer wanted to risk any effect the journey might have on my recovery.
I called Carolyn instead. I didn’t know what to say to her. It occurred to me that we had never talked about religion. Not once. I do not recall seeing her upset or expressing her displeasure, when, as a boy, I was caught ditching Sunday school once out of the dozens of times when I didn’t get caught. Hey, I ditched bell ringing class too.
Carolyn’s dementia often seems so well advanced that it fools you. I determined, as I often do, to engage her intellect. If it’s philosophical or deep, anything about man’s place in the universe, it will snap her mind into focus.
On our phone call, I provided her with details of my physical and mental condition.
I omitted relating to Carolyn an incident, which ended on the last day of February in this, a leap year. On that night, was awakened by the sensation of a hand on the back of my neck before I decided to crawl across my apartment from bed to kitchen sink for a glass of water. As I traversed the tile in my kitchen on my knees, I started speaking to God and laughing. That sounds like madness, which is why I demurred from relating this story to Carolyn. Prosaically, speaking it is certainly easy to cobble together an explanation that a recent increase in my medications triggered it. I have every reason to believe that it was a catalyst. But I was laughing for the figurative significance of it. That God, providence, the universe, or whatever else you might want to call it had somehow arranged for me to be in this fix. I knew that the word human stemmed from a Hebrew word for “ground” or that it was related to the Latin word “humus”, which also means earth, ground, or soil, and is also related to the words “humiliation” and “humble”. There was no doubt in my mind—psychotropic drugs notwithstanding—that I had been brought down to this posture by the Supreme Being or a supreme force, again, take your pick, and so I was laughing with God as if to say “touché”. There was just no way in heck I was going to try to explain all that to my mother.
“You’ve really been through the mill,” she said. On cue, I thought about two millstones grinding grain into powder. “Not bad, mom,” I thought.
“Mom, have you ever noticed the difference between secular and religious speech? I’m starting to find religious speech much more expressive than secular speech. In a funny way, it’s more accurate. Doesn’t the expression “midlife crisis” sound bland, so bureaucratic that it makes you want to cringe?”
It was a softball question. Carolyn has the mind of a poet. She used to adore Emily Dickinson. I could sense her revulsion in the silence between words.
“So, mom, I like to think that I’m going through a rebirth. It’s the only way I can make sense out of what is happening to me.
“We’ve been to a lot of Christian weddings. Most of them that I remember had the ritual where the newlywed couple takes two candles symbolizing their former lives as single people so when they merge the two flames to light a third candle, it symbolizes the effect they hope to achieve by marriage.
“I always found that to be so charming, mom, but I must admit. I was charmed by it, I grasped it intellectually, but I didn’t really get it. I didn’t understand that marriage makes a couple symbolically a single item and that the symbolic unity runs way ahead of that ever coming to pass. I could never tell the difference between the starting gate and the finishing line. Marriage just makes it possible to become one and the goal of marriage is to make it so. It’s not given. You have to make it that way. And once you do, I believe, everything starts to make sense. Isn’t that how it was with you and dad?”
“Well, we had to work through a lot,” she said.
“So, in secular speech you have a “midlife crisis” but in religious speech you are “born again” with a lot of struggle along the way. Does that sound about right, mom? When I think about it, there is a gestation period, labor pains, the extreme life or death struggle of evicting the baby from the peaceful warmth of the womb. Only with a rebirth, there are contradictions. Who is the mother? Yourself? Of course, it is. It must be so, but how is that possible? You are no longer innocent as you were the first time. But isn’t the promise of rebirth, the promise to recover your innocence with the full benefit of keeping every scrap of knowledge you learned losing your innocence the first time?
“That’s what I think is going on with me, mom. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” she said. And as I was explaining this to Carolyn, as I had rehearsed these thoughts with a friend a week or so earlier, it struck me anew that it was mom who had given me this sensitivity to metaphor, language, and a zeal for figurative intelligence.
Come to think of it, what could be more difficult in the undertaking than birthing oneself… unless it is “to have a cow”?
Originally posted March 30, 2022. Last revised April 1, 2022.
 We can decide later how easy it might be to follow both feet along two separate but equally torturous paths simultaneously.
I can take you down to Goldy’s a neighborhood pub that hasn’t changed since Mike took over the business in 1986, famous for its Goldyburger, where on Fridays they serve deep fried perch, and there introduce you to Una the handsome Irish barkeep with the handsome Irish lilt. I can show you the barstools where my brother Jim and I most often sit, where he is most prone to bust out an imitation of the banter of two stalwarts of Chicago sports, the late, legendary Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray, and his still-living color man, now announcing on the South Side for the White Sox, Steve Stone.
The two provided running commentary from an open-air booth at Wrigley field to Cub fans over radio and television for fourteen years. My mimic brother does both parts, the slurred speech of Harry, masking a stroke that didn’t keep him out of the booth and Stone’s more nasally intonations.
Certainly, they announced the game in 1983 on a day when the New York Mets came to town. Frank Howard was coach and the starting pitcher for the Mets, Walt Terrell, hit back-to-back home runs in that game. It was a phenomenal feat, as any baseball aficionado can assure you, based on the stats alone. I was there with Arthur Russell to witness the whole thing. Ferguson Jenkins, starting pitcher for the Cubs, lost the game. Wait a minute, back up! Fergie Jenkins lost the game. His consolation for the loss was his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown eight years later in 1991.
The point is my brother is an excellent mime, especially when he’s relaxed, among good people, and drinking Harps from a glass served by a handsome Irish lass. Under those circumstances, his pitch is perfect. The dial is set to ten.
On Christmas Eve, the family, Jim, Carolyn, my daughter, Allison, and mom’s caregiver, Mariya, crowded into the den to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve heard Jim imitate Jimmy Stewart many times over many years. The way he enunciates George Bailey’s words in the line “You’re nothing but a scurvy spider, Mr. Potter” captures that signature sound in Stewart’s voice, which sounds like his jaw is still mending after somebody busted it open.
If you know the movie, the person most likely to bust his jaw open would be the misanthropic bar owner, Gus, who appears in a dystopian Bedford Falls, a doppelganger for the bartender, Gus, who appears in the everyday “real” Bedford Falls, where George Bailey already has a wonderful life but is far too stubbornly willful and confused by a mind fogged up with vague “worldly” ambitions to see the wonderful life that God has already granted him. At great peril, he does not realize that the world of Bedford Falls is utterly sufficient. All George Bailey ever has to do is see it that way. It’s like Dorothy and her shoes.
Like his Caray / Stone voices my brother’s Stewart can be pitch perfect. Only on this night, he did not settle for ten. He pushed it up that tiny little bit, all that’s required, to beam a masterful performance into the thick weeds of cornpone. He maxed out the dial all the way to eleven. Carolyn had the prime spot in the den, seated on a chair straight in front of the television. Jim was off on her right-hand side. She leaned to her left, as would a comic on stage breaking the fourth wall to whisper a question to the audience, “How’d I get mixed up with him?”
I was in the perfect spot to pick up her aside, perfectly positioned as her other son to think how ridiculous that sounded, the brother’s mother pretending she didn’t know how it all began. Good thing she wasn’t on a real stage; she would have brought the house down.
It’s a Wonderful Life is my all-time favorite movie. I marvel how it folds in the mood and imagery of film noir into a perennial candidate for feel good movie of the year. I marvel at its durability. How it continues to teach me things. The premise that people routinely, tragically underestimate their influence on others, disparage or are blind to the good they dole out and that this failure might cause them to give up in one way or another has held me in its thrall for most of my life.
Our capacity for blindness is immense. Here’s George Bailey itching to get out to see the world, his idea of heaven, when right around him, right under his nose, is all the world, all the heaven he can handle. It’s literally there at his feet. And he can’t see it. Who is sent to point this out to him? Clarence, a goofy second-class angel.
Only George to the credit of his stubbornness doesn’t go down without a fight. He is brought down to his knees on that icy bridge where, on the brink of despair, he has returned to the scene where he tried to kill himself, for a second time.
As illustrated in this parable, unless you have a profound sense of your connectedness to others in your community, your life is literally hell. Hell on earth. You don’t have to wait for the afterlife. You can start that gig right away.
As George prays on the bridge, a miracle happens. His prayer is answered. And the astonishing thing about this is that the miracle was always present in himself, his spirit, and his mind. It happens perhaps only when the human spirit intersects with divine will.
This wondrously cheerful movie gleefully takes on the wondrously Quixotic chore of demonstrating to a theoretically very thick-headed audience exactly how thick in the head a human being can be. We’re all running around with logs in our eyes, it tries to tell us.
No wonder I missed some of the other things that movie wants to convey. But for this viewing I was seated next to Carolyn, the woman who uses grace in its most simplistic form, the most commonplace, daily expression we use to express gratitude, which are the words “thank you”. With a zest for candor that comes from grace, Carolyn Poplett is weaponized for love. These days she delivers “thank yous” rapid-fire until you are riddled with them, powerless, forced to relent, and love her back.
Jim and I choose caregivers for competence but mostly for how quickly they surrender to an infectious barrage of love bombs. This explains exactly why Mariya and Lyn have remained in her employ for so long. Carolyn and these amazing women love each other.
If the good people of Bedford Falls were more like my mother (or Mariya or Lyn), you wouldn’t have had time to finish your popcorn. If everybody in Bedford Falls had thanked George Bailey with a measure of her grace, George Bailey would not have gotten anywhere near that bridge and Clarence would have to go elsewhere to get his wings. Carolyn is a woman who at the age of ninety-two, a woman deep into her dotage, is still powerful, more powerful than a baby who can coax grandpa to play on the carpet, because her innocence is recovered innocence and brings with it a deep-seated wisdom that not even dementia can uproot.
Well, something must have rubbed off. Before Carolyn got too far down that slippery slope, I started to ask her for advice. I figured that fierce instinct of maternal love would reel her back to a lucid state. With back-to-back failures in love and marriage, I wasn’t done with the old girl yet. I had plenty to talk with her about. I appealed to her for advice.
That it could almost instantly yank her out of the fog was astonishing to behold despite my confidence in the theory. When I tried it again and witnessed her mind snap back a second time, this tapping into the bond of mother and son, astonished me more. It seemed we were tapping into something close to the center of life itself.
This is the meaning of that Barbara Streisand lyric in the song “People” which asserts that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. I never understood that. Never. Not even when I started writing this article. I get it now. It only took me 57 viewings of that movie and 64 years of my mother’s sturdy example to reach this point. God spare us all if there are people out there thicker me.
Acknowledging need of others is as simple as saying “thank you”. The rest you leave up to sincerity and intonation. Then, join the luckiest people.
Now finally at long last I have a useful clue to my failures in marriage and love. I was unlucky. I was unlucky because I didn’t acknowledge how much I needed a woman. And a world class, George Bailey worthy stubbornness kept me from seeing how subtly the quality of independence shifts from a virtue to a corrosive, slow-acting poison. This slow-acting property makes it worse, crueler and more difficult to detect. It is insidious like neuropathy or diabetes. Only it attacks relationships instead of the body. I explained this all to my mother this evening. I called her by phone and gave her a condensed version of my theory on need and my failures in relationships.
“That’s right,” she said.
“So, I need to explain this to my friend,” I said. “Even if it doesn’t bring us close. For the sake of doing what’s right.”
In my excitement, I exclaimed, “See, mom, I still need you as my mother? I just called because I had to tell you that,” I said.
“Thank you. Thank you very much,” she said. Then she told me her body was exercising inside and that it was full of joy.
“This is my son, John. He’s the one who incarcerated me.”
Imagine that the person making this introduction was your mother in an assisted-living home. Imagine you were standing next to her, and this is how she chose to introduce you to her fellow inmates—very cheerfully and void of foul intent, venom, rage, or any other more moderate form of ill-feeling. Just, you know, cheerful.
Now imagine that her words, despite the hyperbole—a classic Southern trait—were almost entirely true. Well, not almost true. Actually true. In that moment, she introduced only me though she could have indicted David Strom, her attorney, had he been present. But David had the good sense not to be present.
The truth is David Strom and I did put her in prison, then known as Holley-Court, an assisted-living high-rise here in Oak Park, Il., about two and a half blocks from her longtime townhome residence on Kenilworth Ave., the same street she lived on for 40 years, the same address I came home to from college on Christmas break, the same street upon which my father’s ashes are buried, etc. But David and I only did it because she had fallen several times and I was frightened and concerned that I might lose my mother and my fiercest ally and David was frightened and concerned that he might lose a client and one of his fiercest friends. How fierce? Ask my brother.
Carolyn was and remains fierce, despite dementia, though she cloaks it in beguiling and innocent sounding expressions like “This is my son, John. He’s the one who incarcerated me.”
The truth is I endured more than one of those withering introductions. And if you were in my shoes, like me, you would have wanted to crawl down into them. No! You would have wanted to collapse into them and vanish completely, as when a crew sends a spark to a sufficient charge of dynamite, placed at the foot of a vacant high-rise building, so that the explosion causes the building to implode and crash inward, down in on itself, and fall into a cloud of cinder and ash, its own pulver, its final violent state. This, I hope, affords a tiny sense of how that felt. Did I mention that Carolyn is fierce?
So, the greater truth was that David and I together conspired to incarcerate Carolyn, guilty as charged, on the pretext of concern for her safety and well-being but the ugly truth is that decisions such as these are always a little self-serving. She had every right to call me out. How David emerged unscathed I cannot say.
Somehow and to this day not all the details have come to light, for the guile of a Southern woman is as deep as it needs to be, she engineered her escape in the classic style of a flamboyant felon given to panache: entirely within the confines of her cell. It’s a safe bet that she required only two ingredients, guile and smile, and mixed those together in the proportions required by alchemy and dark science.
But the one other ingredient that has come to light was “girl power”. Carolyn wanted to bust loose, and she quickly conceived that men, her own son among them, were her enemies. She therefore rallied forces—the only forces she could trust—viz., other women.
Somehow, with her private army and sleeper cells, she located a condominium, entirely situated on a single floor to remove the greatest dread, the consequences of a fall down a staircase, and ordered David to assist her in its purchase. She forthwith made David promise, fiercely I imagine, never to move her again, a promise that he, and I by proxy, have so far upheld.
The condo she purchased was a rebuke to another totem of the patriarchy, this time her late husband, Ray E. Poplett, who fifty years ago had vetoed a chance to purchase a unit in the same building.
Diana Ostreko combined forces with her and figured out a way to get every carpet, a baby grand piano, and precious curios out of a three-story townhouse and into her new home. The only complaint of her many doting nieces and nephews is that, in the transfer, the vinyl record of that Christmas classic, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, went missing.
They outfitted it exactly to her wishes as a place for hospitality and where great parties were likely to erupt. I do not think it was entirely an accident that her new home became the birthplace for a new cocktail, the “Moonhattan”, which uses all the same ingredients as a conventional Manhattan, except that bourbon is tossed fittingly in favor of moonshine.
The moral of this story is that two Yankee men can’t outwit a Southern woman. In fact, three can’t do it and, if you’re going to try, I advise you as a friend to start out with somebody other than my mother.
 I am sure that if we could have him back, Carolyn would restore him his veto power, albeit with a few Ts and Cs freshly amended.
Time and time again, Carolyn has proven—thirty years beyond the death of her spouse, through a stroke, day in and day out after the onset of dementia, right up to last evening—that now no matter how many times the disease shaves off another thin slice of her mind, all it succeeds in doing is to expose another vein of precious ore that it might shimmer in the light.
I have followed the Chicago Bulls since Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker, Bob Love, Tom Boerwinkle, and Norm “Stormin’ Norman” Van Lier were starters in the early seventies. I have seen the Bulls put together many entertaining teams, yet the team has never been more charming than in this 2021-2022 NBA season. We’ve had characters and “greats” but never a team so inspired by love.
With this team, the shop-worn metaphor of chemistry catalyzes into magic. The players do not always succeed in hiding the joy and delight that wells up inside them from the chance to exercise and display their God-given talents, believing in the brotherhood of their team, and seizing on the potential for love in what—as former Bull player and current Bull announcer, Stacey King, routinely asserts on air—is “a simple game”. It seems like when they’re out on the floor they’re always smiling.
Carolyn played ball in high school and college. She coached ball in her first years of teaching in Scales Mound, Illinois, after graduating across the Big River in Dubuque.
At ninety-two, Carolyn enjoys watching the sport not a little but a lot, almost too much. Her eyesight is preternaturally acute. To this day, I believe, she could count the veins on a dragonfly’s wing. I imagine it makes it extra tiresome to see things that keenly. And people who know my mother, knows she does not get half-way involved in anything.
Earlier this year, DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls’ leading scorer, treated Carolyn, me, and other fans to two back-to-back buzzer beaters where he won both games in dramatic fashion in the closing seconds. Two of them! Each behind the three-point arc! Fully engaging in the drama from tipoff to dramatic or disappointing finale, as Carolyn does, no matter how old you are, is going to wear you down. That she has the stamina and is even eager to watch—after four high scoring quarters, half-time, and 1,400 Geico commercials—the post-game show amazes me. Sure, the analysts, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue, have stepped up their game but, they could walk on balls while juggling bowling pins, it’s still a post-game show. I don’t get it. Maybe Carolyn needs it as a diver needs a hyperbaric chamber to decompress and stave off the bends.
And this happens regularly even after her sons and her caregivers cruelly, surreptitiously like cowardly thieves switched the grounds used to brew her late-night cup from regular to decaffeinated.
Last night I dialed to ask her permission to visit and watch the game. Usually, I don’t dial. I just drop in, often bringing soup from Panera or rice and fish from home. I take my laundry with me and then I attempt to inveigle Carolyn into watching a game.
“Inveigle” is mom’s word, not mine. The word amuses or charms her in some way that I don’t completely understand though I have observed its effect on her many times. It is perfectly apt for my purpose. To say, “Mom, can I inveigle you into watching a Bulls game with me?” is the quickest way to “yes” or “sure that would be fine”.
Most doting mothers, I imagine, don’t need inducement or any inveigling. Whatever the reason when I called, I didn’t resort to using the mantra word, inveigle. Maybe I thought unleashing it between mother and son was dirty pool, in violation of the Geneva Convention, or merely a sad example of unsportsmanlike conduct.
I asked her meekly instead “if it would be alright to come over and watch the game”.
“Oh, son, it cheers my heart to hear your voice and receive your call. Nothing in the world makes me happier to be with you and my other son, Jim. And I’ll look forward to hearing from you again tomorrow when you call,” she said.
“Yes, mom. I love you too,” I said.
“Oh, how I love you!” she said.
“Good night, mom,” I said.
“Bye,” she said cheerfully on a rising Southern note.
That’s how Carolyn Poplett blows off her son. She’s been doing it for decades.
Returning from a road-trip that kept me away for two weeks, I knew to expect that my mother, Carolyn, who is fast approaching her 92nd birthday, would impress me with how dementia had robbed another tiny piece of her mind. It’s hard to go away without some dread of the return, knowing how she depends on the society of her two sons.
If nothing else, our company and a steady stream of visits retard somewhat her decline. My brother, Jim, and I will swap turns watching Gunsmoke with her, the longest running show in television history, co-created by John Meston, a screenwriter who authored 379 Gunsmoke episodes himself some time after riding broncos in Colorado and attending Dartmouth, Harvard, and the Sorbonne in Paris. If you want to know why that show is deep, John Meston and an envious liberal arts education had something to do with it. It’s a good thing since Carolyn has undoubtedly looped through 379 episodes more than once, while the rest of us, her caregivers, Mariya and Lyn, and two sons could only claim the half.
I’ve watched all six interviews of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers, a TV series called The Power of Myth (which you can buy on Amazon Prime for the princely sum of twelve bucks). Campbell was caught up with mythology early as a boy when he saw a live performance of Buffalo Bill at Madison Square Garden. It sealed his fate. He dove into Native American mythology, rites, and religious customs and didn’t stop until he had canvased the globe.
Carolyn and I have viewed each episode in that series together at least once, some two or three times. Even when she can’t remember my name, a narrative as profound and abstruse as Campbell’s survey of world cultures, religions, and archetypes and myth which, he argues, ground all of human experience, inching us closer to the edge of what is humanly knowable and therefore to God, and Moyer’s dogged persistence in fully animating Campbell’s explanations and replies, grips her mind and reaches deep down inside her to find a place where her intellect remains vibrant and intact. I’ve seen this reawakening many times. To experience it feels akin to a miracle like a flower unfolding before your eyes with the trick of time lapse photography.
Emerging from the bathroom one evening at the one of these episodes, after a change into her pajamas, adorable in her stockinged feet planted on the foot rests of a wheelchair, Mariya paused briefly to give Carolyn a chance to bid me good night.
“You know that man on the show we were watching?”
“I sure do, mom.”
“What he’s been saying is important. You need to tell other people about him.”
“Yes, mom. I agree. Believe me. I’m trying.”
I needed to make that trip though. I had friends to visit and the honor of an all-expenses-paid artist residency at Wildacres in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. My fears of how I might find my mother were soon realized.
I gave her the briefest of rundowns on where I had been and a few of the places I had visited. It was difficult for her to understand what her Yankee son was doing galumphing about her beloved childhood state. It must have been confusing. Why was I there and not her?
Carolyn no matter how much difficulty she’s having in the moment with her memory, refuses to come up short in conversation. I am utterly charmed by her strength of will. This time she decided to co-opt my story and turn it into her own.
I explained how, on the way down, I passed through the area around Boone, NC and saw some friends in Deep Gap.
“Guess where I went on the return trip?”
“Burnsville?” [Burnsville is one of the many towns in Western North Carolina where Carolyn and her siblings shared a home as children.]
“Not this time, mom. But I do go there a lot. I grabbed a bite of dinner next to The Boone Tavern Inn and Berea College where your sister Ginny went to school. I always like to go there. It feels like I am saluting your sisters. Didn’t Aunt Mary Lib and Sally go there too? You always liked to talk about how Ginny had one of her paintings on display for years in one of the campus buildings.”
[And here’s where the conversation went slightly off the rails.]
“Well, I think your mother would be proud of you,” she said.
“You do? Mom, I thought you were my mother. Who do you think I am?”
“Well, I think you live in a lot of people’s minds.”
“I see. I love that thought, mom. I love that idea. I believe it is true and I have similar thoughts all the time. [And here again was yet another time where I got a hard glimpse into how much she had informed my being. It was like opening a closet and seeing a ghost.].
“How about if we talk about going out for a little supper?”
“Well, I just got back from… uhm, Boone and then I went to Berea after that,” she said.
“Mom, we don’t have to talk about our travels. What I’m trying to talk about is super banal. We’re just discussing where we should go to get some supper.”
[Hell will freeze over two or three times before she will concede her part in a conversation or come up short without a repartee.]
“Oh, well, I think that’s very important. I like that idea. Let’s think about that instead. I don’t know any of the places around here like you do, George,” she said. [George was one of Carolyn’s beloved brothers].”
Then, with hilarious cunning, “Where would you like to go?”
[Leaving me to wonder, how many times she had pulled a like ruse on me before, a Southern gal trumping her dim-witted Yankee son, feigning to graciously relinquish the prerogative to me, in this case, the choice of restaurant, though at this stage I could see clear through her deception: that she couldn’t think of a dining spot, not even her long-running favorites, Citrine or Hemmingways, in our hometown of Oak Park, to save her soul.]
“Well, we we could go to Citrines. You might not remember. We went there the week they first opened. You liked it so much you wanted to go back the next night.”
“Did I really?”
“Yes, I reminded you, at the time, that we had just gone there but we decided to go back anyway. That’s how much you like it there. And we always share the beet salad.”
“Mom, I want to watch a baseball game when we get back from dinner but I don’t want to watch it if you don’t want to watch it. All I can tell you is that playoff baseball is like nothing else. It’s operatic. A slow-paced drama only there are charges of dynamite hidden all over the field. You never know when one of those charges is going to go off. A game can lull you while the pitchers engage in a subtle duel for innings and then, out of nowhere, kaboom! One of them goes off. It could be a play at the plate, a double play, a home run, a stupendous catch to keep the ball from going over the fence, stolen bases. Playoff baseball is unpredictable in every way except that it is predictably amazing. And the camerawork nowadays is better than ever.”
“How do you know so much?”
“Mom, I don’t. My knowledge is about half a centimeter deep. It’s your other son, Jim, who knows baseball. How could he not? He’s a Cubs fan.”
“Is he really?”
“Yes, trust me, mom. When we watch a game with Jim, you’ll see. It’s a lot of fun. Wait till he mimics Harry Caray and Steven Stone. You know what a good mimic he is.”
“Can I pay the check now?”
“It’s already paid. You can hold your head up high. You don’t have to worry about your son going home malnourished or fainting on his way to the car.”
“Oh, that’s good. We wouldn’t want that.”
At home, that evening, Carolyn had a conniption, a series of rapid fire angry, almost rageful outbursts of an intensity that hasn’t visited her in years, maybe even since she faced the humiliation of having to use a walker for the first time (it’s a wonder she didn’t hurl that thing through one or many walls). She refused to join my brother and me in the den (highly unusual) and instead inexplicably insisted on returning to the bathroom. Popping out of the bathroom a little later, there was nothing left for her to do in there, she avoided the den, more strangely than the first dodge, going to the kitchen to avoid us. She was—to use her own expression—”so mad she could spit bullets”; those that she did spit were aimed at Mariya.
I went in to back her up. “Mom, this is not like you. What’s the matter? This isn’t you. What’s bothering you, mom? Do you know?”
She didn’t. I couldn’t figure it out either1. I didn’t expect her to. I just wanted to jog her out of her upset. She calmed down. People who know her know her know that she cannot stray to far from grace. The instant she started to recover. She apologized to Mariya, the ease and naturalness of it utterly familiar and yet at the same time a display of character to excite wonder. It happens quite often—albeit with less drama—and I’m always quite amazed. A moment or two later, after Mariya moved away, she looked at me and said, “I love you and Jim more than anything in the world. You mean so much to me.”. It was sweet and sincere but also was here apology and way of saying “I know I kind of lost it; please don’t runaway.”
As if, my brother or I could ever entertain such a thought.
Jim later figured out that a reduction in strength of a medication triggered the upset. She’s back on a full-dose now.
Routinely in the sixties and early seventies my parents would load me up with my kid brother in a borrowed station wagon and buzz down from Chicago to Asheville, NC as fast as centrifugal force and the likelihood of sliding sideways over the edge of a mountainous road would allow.
Dad always drove and he always seemed to be in a hurry, my guess, now with the benefit of hindsight, is that vacation didn’t quite begin for him until he had dumped his offspring off with his parents-in-law so that he might slake his thirst for alone time with his young and pretty bride.
He was not a hover parent. Hover parents had not yet been invented. Nor for that matter was there such a phrase as free-range parents though that expression retroactively comes much closer to describing our parents’ parenting style. Nor were they overconcerned with the quality of the quality time we might be having with the grandparents in their absence.
I don’t recall mom and dad dallying long enough to take the grandparents out to supper. They didn’t linger, not even briefly to pause on the front porch. It was magnanimous of them really to slow down and stop the car long enough for us to step out onto the curb with our belongings.
The trip down in consequence was a blur. Dad didn’t believe in stopping anywhere. Certainly not at Stuckey’s to get one of their pecan logs made famous to my brother and me by their billboards which popped up every fifty feet or so along the side of the road for the whole trip south.
He didn’t believe in stopping at trading posts either where one could purchase a leather jacket with fringe just like the one Tonto wore, sparklers, black cat firecrackers, cherry bombs and M-80s, in case you had an urge to see if they were as potent as your cousins had bragged about and you really could blow up a porcelain toilet. We didn’t stop for arrowheads, rubber tomahawks, bow and arrows, postcards of virgin Indian maidens, beads, moccasins, bears in cages, any of that cool stuff.
These roadside attractions were “tourist traps” according to our father. We always passed by the Gap and only heard of a mythical location where three states converged to a point. Even as young children, we understood that a point was a mathematical concept, an abstraction more than a location, but we wanted to see it anyway.
So, the myth of the three states converging to a point survived those many trips down south. Survived my childhood, survived my grandparents.
As an adult, while on my own pilgrimages to Western North Carolina, I sometimes took a side excursion to Cumberland Gap just because I could, to enjoy the cozy nestled-in feel of the place, a tiny hollow snug with the mountains with a population that dares not exceed 500 persons and a tiny white clapboard chapel which for decades has wed elopers darting in from neighboring states.
This year I was zooming past on my return from the 2021 edition of the Wildacres Writer’s retreat, it was a fabulous and productive time (if you’re a writer you need to check it out), when my eye caught a sign for the Gap, I gave a whimsical flick of the wheel and steered my van in the indicated direction. Only I forgot that it begins with the apprehension that you are traversing the parking lot of a coin-operated laundromat before the road starts looking like a proper road with a lane in each direction for traffic.
Once the road starts looking like a road, it is a charming little descent into town. I had a sandwich at a pub before driving to a trailhead, remembering that while I had been to that spot before I had no recollection of hiking the trails. The only way to remedy that was to hike up one and settle it for all time.
I left the lot briefly to tank up on coffee at the Gap Creek Coffeehouse, two blocks into town before returning, parking again, and starting my ascent.
If you travel the U.S. a lot on roads, you will pass by dozens and dozens of small towns with “historical” downtowns and districts. You will rapidly conclude that we, as a nation, are historically addled. I wonder how Europeans might take it if they ever toured the states by motorcar. Three burgs into it and they would be convulsing with laughter if not peeing in their pants.
It would be ironic enough for a person coming from Paris or Prague, imagine instead a resident of Athens who can look out a window to see soaring above the fence in his backyard, the Parthenon. Yet, despite the relative youth of our nation, we have our sites that can inspire awe. (If you have any doubts, plan your next trip to the civil-war battlefield of Antietam in Maryland.
On the trail, I quickly came to a sign explaining that Daniel Boone and some others had pioneered the gap as a passageway that broke through the Appalachian Mountain range permitting settlers to reach deeper into the interior of a vast, untamed wilderness in search of a new life. Their feet tread where might feet tread. They brought their families, the more privileged of them might have a horse to share. They came over in the gap in the winter DELIBERATELY so they could be ready to plant at the first sign of spring. You quickly formed the idea that these people were desperate in a way we’ve lost a knack for grasping, who must have had stories of hardship like the people who brave the Rio Grande and at great risk come over the border from Mexico.
When it staked the all-too-familiar “historical” claim, I was all in. The legend had already convinced me that I was on hallowed ground.
I turned to the fork that put me on the trail to the three-states peak, which immediately took me past the ruins of an early iron foundry that looked more like a grain than a steel mill. The remaining structure could have been part of a Mayan ruin.
The trail turned sharply up hill. A signed promised me it was 1.2 miles to the peak. Peak makes me think of a bald surface with a crown of snow around it like the head of a monk. It also makes me think that there was a bit of a climb in store.
I greeted a young couple coming down the path toward me with the question, “was it worth it?” only aiming to tease out a little encouragement, an old, usually reliable trick. The girl assured me it was a challenge and gave me a winded look to back it up. This put her guy friend in a quandary. How could he encourage me but not encourage me at the same time? What if I had a heart attack half-way to the top—in part due to his dubious advice—that would saddle his conscience for the rest of his breathing days? I could see the gears turning inside of his skull. Then, he said if I was in good hiking shape it shouldn’t be too much of a struggle.
It made me wonder, did I look that old and fragile? And then I thought that I had just come from a few moderately strenuous hikes in North Carolina, a pair of them along the length of the Deer Lick Trail, all uphill up until the turning point, a scenic overlook by the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with friends Art, Tucker, and Jane, and that people tended to underrate me anyway. I left them feeling freshly emboldened.
The next couple was more encouraging but left me with the ominous warning, “when you see a bench along the side of the trail, use it.”
It took me what seemed like a long time to reach the bench and when I did, I didn’t feel like stopping. I pressed on with the immediate effect of wondering what level of bone headedness caused me to ignore well-meaning advice and pass up on a chance to collect myself.
For most of the climb, I enjoyed the foreboding rumble of thunder from distant mountains. Now somewhere past the half-way mark, it started to drizzle. The trees on the side of the mountain mostly protected me from the rain even as it picked up tempo. Instead of moisture, doubt started to seep in. I had visions of breaking out into the clearing of the mountain peak in time to get skewered by a bolt of lightning.
I pressed on. My interior monologue of braggadocio alone would not permit me to slink down the mountain now. The rain picked up, turned into a downpour. I didn’t exactly see the point of running out to expose myself. I could see light from a break in the trees ahead indicating I might be coming toward the peak. Then I saw a gazebo roof! What was a gazebo doing way up here? I broke for it. If need be, I could weather the storm under cover. Then, I realized the gazebo crowned the peak. I had made it.
Looking down at my feet, there was a marker put there by the United States Geographical Service marking the exact spot where the three states came together, a casual affirmation of a boyhood fantasy. Woohoo! Sometimes dumb luck is the cleverest thing going.
Inaugural East Coast Cascade Campers Owners Convention
I was among the privileged few, there were ten of us in all, to bring my Cascade Camper campervan to Western Virginia to convene for a few days of birds-of-a-feather style camaraderie combined with interludes of revelry. It was—to be precise—a “hoot”.
The Cascade Camper van is a modernized reimagining of a Westfalia camper, sporting damn near identical features—birchwood paneling, a stove, a sink with running water, and on-board “house” power—combined with features VW microbus owners could only dream of—passing power, anti-lock brakes, A/C, seat belts with shoulder straps!, .etc.
In the last few miles before reaching the meeting place for our shindig just outside of Glenville, WV., I got lost. It wasn’t the first time I had invested too much trust in my GPS in a rural setting. In fact on both occasions, the GPS tried to guide me down roads which narrowed to a point so fine it would make a tight squeeze for a salamander. Only this time I came upon a private property / no trespassing sign. I stopped immediately, taking it as an omen. I was starting to turn back when two men in a short bed pickup truck with a lift kit pulled up in front of me. I put down my window to exchange a friendly greeting. Instead the driver, whom in retrospect, I think, either suffers from paranoid delusions or was trying to hide a meth lab, or both, told me I was on a private road. I explained that I was lost and apologized. When I attempted to drive off, he feigned to back up his truck to block me and barked thunderously, “No!”. My friend forced me to explain every detail of how I got lost, frequently stopping to editorialize and let me know how stupid I sounded. For example, I told him my destination was Little Bull Run Road. He asked me if I saw the sign at the start of the road we were on. I said, “Yes”. He said, “Did the sign say Little Bull Run Road?” I acknowledged it did not. It was a hollow or a holler, depending on your pronunciation, something like Bloody Possum Holler, though I forget now. This pattern of interrogation dragged on for quite a while. If it was only intended to make me feel like a jackass, I’d deem it a wild success.
I’d also deem it a nasty way for one fellow to treat another fellow.
I yearned to say to him that, if he was Christian, this must be an off-day. Instead, with the tiny bit of good sense God blessed me with, I reeled it in. I simply repeated that I was lost and told him he wasn’t being nice. He took down my name, my number, the name of my host, and his number too. He claimed to know everyone in the region but didn’t recognize the name of my host, the the family has been there for generations. It was every kind of awful. He was so angry and pissed off, I felt he could turn to violence. When he threatened to call the police, I said I told him everything there was to know and he would be just wasting his time. He said he had all the time in the world.
He seemed so intent on detaining me I was surprised when he let me pass. Even now, I get a pretty big shot of adrenaline describing this.
Free, I shot off in a new direction and prayed that the GPS would find a different way this time. It did. I met the host coming out to look for me just short of the camp site. Seeing friendly faces around a bonfire under the stars with a bottle of bourbon to pass around was such a relief and blessing, it made my moment of terror, believe it or not, seem worth my while.
From that point onward, I met scads of West Virginians who met my expectation for Southern manners and hospitality, and confirmed what I wanted to believe that my first acquaintance was an anomaly, a sad person who did not represent much if anything of the Mountaineer state.
This is not to say that my encounter didn’t continue to disturb me. It still does. Not for how he behaved but because I didn’t want to pin it all on him. I don’t want to judge him. I don’t want others to judge him because I tell this story. I have Scotch-Irish blood. I’m part hillbilly, descendants of a clan loyal to William of Orange (where the “billy” comes from). I don’t want this to go down as a story about stereotypes.
Today I read this quote from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.
A man’s character is his fate.
Now there’s something. A man’s character determines what will happen to him next and where it all leads to. The Greeks were all amped up on this idea. Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex is a story about a king who has a premonition that he’s going to sleep with his mother. He goes way the heck out of his way to avoid his fate, but winds up sleeping with her anyway. Only that SO never happened. It’s a myth after all, a fiction, and more powerful for it. But, brother, does it drive home the idea that our character is our fate.
It’s a deliriously curious thought. Normally, we’re used to assuming that “[certain] things happen to us”. Yet Heraclitus is saying that certain things happen to us because of who we are. That’s a very different idea. We attract events that match our personalities. That’s just wild.
As I drove home from the Inaugural East Coast Cascade Camper Owners convention, it struck me clearly: I’m adventure prone. Yes, it’s punning on the phrase “accident prone” but it really is it’s own thing.
I started looking back on it and it is something I simply “do”.
It is part of the reason I own a van. I don’t like threats but I’m okay with challenging circumstances. I think they breathe life into me. I guarantee just anybody who owns a Cascade Camper is adventure prone. Bully for them. It’s a marvelous thing.
Below are a few typical adventures that came while traveling in my van, Atma, excerpted from the current draft of the The Unofficial Cascade Camper Campers Owner’s Manual, which add credence, I feel, to the adventure-prone hypothesis.
The quad on the college campus where my friend teaches English literature was eerily pristine. The grass was uniformly clipped, uniformly green, uniformly void of thatch, dandelions, brown patches, or weeds of any kind. It was kempt. Nobody walked across it. Nobody played Frisbee or Hacky Sack upon it. Its prissiness was a warning sign like the skull and crossbones on a jar of arsenic.
I took my hat and shirt off discreetly at the foot of an array of pillars, tall, fluted marble columns rescued from a failed regional bank, repurposed to symbolize the schools ten most cherished principals. Pillars as “pillars”, get it?
The concrete stairs at the base of the pillars dropped down onto the grassy edge of the quad. I slunk down toward the grass and rested my head—with my book bag for a pillow—on the bottommost stair. Short of freckles and a straw of grass to suck on, I was Huck Finn.
I had barely relaxed when a menacing shadow passed over me, my own personal eclipse of the sun, provided by the burliest of three, armed campus security officers. Uncomfortably supine and vulnerable, I scrambled to get on my feet.
The burly officer with practiced calm ordered me to move slowly and keep my hands fully in view. The officers had snapped into positions relative to each other at odd distances from my body: the burly one, closest to me, another a short distance behind his back while the third, a female cop, hovered a longer distance away from me, perhaps ten feet on the opposite side.
Somewhere there was a chart in cadet school that defined this formation, its exact angles and officer-to-perp distances.
I was aware at a level just beneath articulate thought that they were enacting a protocol for handling armed and dangerous individuals and obligated to treat me as an agent of death. The officers all packed heat on their hips whereas I did not possess anything capable of generating deadly force, not even a peashooter. I was the only person in this ad-hoc congregation who had a statistically significant chance of getting shot, tazered, or thrown to the ground with my chin grinding in the dirt. It seemed like an extreme response for a guy whose most egregious act on that day was pulling off his shirt.
The female cop in the backup position explained that, once somebody on campus had “phoned me in”, regulations required them to investigate and file a report. She asked me if I could understand how a person might be alarmed to see a half-naked man on the campus.
I sympathized. It sounded bad to me too until I realized she was lumping me in with all those half-naked people who remove their clothes from the waist down.
Perspective mattered. I was tempted to ask her if I was half-naked or half-clothed. But Wisenheimers are always the first to wind up with their chins in the grass.
They wanted an alibi. I fumbled for a long time with my phone dreading what might happen if I failed to find the number.
When my professor friend picked up, I was relieved to hear her tell the officer, ‘Tell John to put his shirt back on.’ Maybe now they would not handcuff me to a hot water return pipe in the boiler room.
The next day I had a peek at a million-dollar painting in the campus fine arts museum right next to the quad and the scene of the crime.
It is a rare painting, I am told, of John the Baptist, a fantastic prize for a Christian university. Only this John is buff, slender but ripped, looking like a New Testament Adonis in a robe that is teasingly about to slide off his hips. He is not half-naked, more like three-quarters going on full. If there’s a parable there, I’ll be damned if I know what it is.
On Atma’s maiden voyage, after stops in the Sonoran Desert and the painted rock national monument and the Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico, I took a short detour outside of Austin, Tx to visit the Longhorn Cavern State Park on my way to my destination in Houston.
On the approach, I made note of a turn-out to a scenic view, vowing to investigate it out on the way back. The entrance to the cave itself was shrine like and spectacular, a nature-made atrium of boulders weathered smooth over millennia, some vast period of time. I shrank from the opportunity to go into the cave. I wanted an excuse to come back and bring a friend.
I drove back to the turn-out that had promised a scenic view. The best spot to access the view was in the fat center of an elliptical loop at the end of a short drive, past a stand of brush and trees. It was desolate with an air of abandonment and neglect. On the return side of the loop was a car pulled completely off the road into rough grass. I thought whoever came along with that car was up to no good. The view stretched out over a valley to distant hills with an easy, self-satisfied bucolic splendor. Hill country.
I spent some time getting Atma parked off of the road so the passenger side sliding door would open up over the vista. As I circled around the van to get to a steel garbage can and its chained lid, a disembodied voice rose out from the vicinity of that car. It was a man’s voice and he was saying that he couldn’t move and needed help.
I decided immediately that there was a fifty percent chance that this guy really needed help and the other fifty percent was that this was a setup and the guy or a few of his buddies lurking nearby were armed with guns.
Still, it seemed like bad form to refuse a person help when he asked for it so plainly.
I decided to circle around his car so I would come up on him from behind and get a look inside the car on my approach.
“I’ve got a bad back and I need my paints from the back seat,” he said, flicking his head towards the back. It was a four door. I was going to have to open the rear driver’s side door to fetch him his paints.
“I’m Tommy. I come up here every day. I drove all the way out here from Myrtle Beach, Florida to be with my husband. He’s the only man I trust. It’s a long way to go in a condition like this. See that tree over there. I come up here every day to paint that tree. I talk to that tree. And you know what? The tree talks back. I know I’m crazy. Don’t let me scare you because I’m crazy. I’m a painter. I paint signs and sometimes take along a helper to carry my supplies. One time a man come up to me outside a little place I had where I kept my supplies and hit me over the head with a pipe. That’s the reason I’m all bent up like this. He destroyed the nerves. It’s why I can barely walk. It took a lot of surgeries to put me back together. And you know what? I knew that man. A long time after I got out of the hospital, I remembered his face and knew who he was.”
“Did you confront your attacker?” I asked him. I felt like I already knew Tommy well enough to guess the answer.
“Yes, I did. I asked him why he did it. And you know what he told me? He said he needed $500 to pay a gambling date. And I said, ’man, you should have told me. You know, I would have given you the $500. You didn’t have to do that. He said he was sorry.”
Then, I asked him if he forgave him. I felt like I knew the answer to that too.
“Yes, I did.”
I marveled at Tommy for having no hint of resentment in his story, neither in the words he chose or the timbre of his voice, even though the guy who attacked him had left him unconscious and crippled for life. Tommy could still walk but just barely. It was a courageous feat for him to stand-up just so he could take a few paces to keep from getting stiff.
I still didn’t know what he meant when he declared himself a painter. I knew he came out to paint this one particular tree and the result was a bit like a Van Gogh with the shape of the tree described in vertical lines made luminescent and wavy by a mysterious internal source of electricity. It wasn’t a mighty oak or a redwood. Its trunk was no bigger than a man’s thigh. It stood in among a stand of others. Yet, it was the tree that spoke to Tommy.
I guessed Tommy painted houses in his spare time to fund his artistic study of this tree. Then, he got me to pull out a portfolio of his paintings from the passenger footwell in the back of his car. They were amazing.
Notes on the Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 6-hour documentary on Hemingway
The documentary aired over three days from April 6 – April 8, 2021 on PBS.
Moral of the story: don’t drink alcohol (straight or in any of its diluted forms), a tendency for ideation and alcohol don’t mix. It is—at the very least—a cautionary tale for male American writers and anybody who might wish to date or marry one.
Papa was a war profiteer. He too much used it as a way to generate new fodder for his stories. He didn’t write against it hardly at all let alone strenuously like Rita, O’Brien, Vonnegut, or Heller. Instead, his exampled seduced J.D. Salinger to volunteer. In his tour of duty, he permanently and severely scrambled his brains. It was at least part of the reason he was unkind and such a creep to so many women. That’s part of Papa’s heritage too.
Papa created innumerable “echo” traumas like this.
The persons (more particularly, male writers) who profit from Hemingway’s example—either as a man or as a writer—and come out of it unscathed are scant in number. Tim O’Brien could be one. Salinger, most definitely, not. Elmore Leonard, for sure. Elmore Leonard copped Hemingway’s telegraphic writing style but recognized and avoided the deadly humorlessness in Hemingway’s writing. The emphasis here goes on “deadly”.
Hemingway did not die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound as has generally been reported; he died of conjunctivitis. (Ha-ha.)
Elmore Leonard, as a writer, is a stunning omission from the Burns / Novick series as is the impact of his example on other writers who drew inspiration from him or attempted to emulate any aspect of his persona. Mostly, he is a pathetic sot, boorish and abusive. It doesn’t look like he knew how to do anything with his hands other than work a fishing reel, fire a gun, clean a fish, lift a highball glass, or run his hand up a woman’s skirt. Could he cook, hang a painting, mow the lawn, change out a set of spark plugs, or unclog a sink? Naw.
If the series seems too quick and too laden with adulation, sympathy, and praise, it is also—it seems— part of a profiteering enterprise: the Hemingway industry. I know. I live in its midst. My apartment is on the same street, just a few short blocks away from his childhood home. His birthplace and a museum in his name are equally close at hand. Last night, in the early evening, I went to Hemmingway’s [sic] Bistro with my mother, Carolyn, to sneak in a meal before the final episode in the three-part, six hour series aired. The owners, Chris and Lucia, old friends of the family, dropped by to say hello. It was our first time back since the pandemic scared us off over a year ago. The bistro is an oasis in Oak Park, one of its finest eateries. We had escargot and whitefish. For a long time it has served as my—to borrow one of Papa’s titles—”clean well-lighted place”. Chris (who is also Hemmingway’s chef) reminded me how he was forced to bung an extra “m” into his restaurant’s name to evade further lawsuits emanating from “the estate” which owns the trademark for Papa’s surname. As the boxing promoter once said, “Only in America”.
Tobias Wolff’s rearranged the furniture metaphor, evoked to emphasize just how extensive Ernest Hemingway’s influence is on American arts and letters, doesn’t get the job done. It is far too gentile. Hemingway re-arranged the furniture, sure. But he busted up a lot of it, left a lot of broken glass on the floor, and a fornicating brood of six-toed, Lucifer worshiping cats overrunning his little hacienda.
Fighting, fishing, and fucking, the 3Fs, a couple of my college chums liked to call them. It’s too bad that “wallowing in self pity” doesn’t start with an “F”. Then we would have the 4Fs.
So, in addition to rearranged furniture, there is the broken glass, the devil’s brood of six-toed cats, the compromised or destroyed lives of his many wives and children and generations of poor dumb male writers who were seduced into adopting his idea of self-destructive “manhood”. (Man-hoodwinked is more like it.)
It is astounding—watching this series—how infrequently the word “pathetic” is used. Astounding how little misogyny—as a profound piece of his legacy—is dug into. Astonishing that the question is not even raised why, if we want an equanimous cancel culture (and I’m not saying that we do), his books aren’t getting chucked out of public libraries at a rate that does not equal or exceed the rate we are pitching out copies of The Cat in the Hat. Theodore Geisel mostly trafficked in unseemly imagery. The Hemster trafficked in, as the series reveals, liberal unironic use of the “N” word. Hell, we have trouble keeping copies of Papa’s beloved Huckleberry Finn in libraries, in which Mark Twain solely used the “N” word in an essential, historic context and in the interest of illuminating racial injustice and social hypocrisy. Why Hemingway should get off so lightly, the documentary never explains.
My father went to Oak Park River Forest High School where he took classes with the same teacher who taught English to Ernest. Dad liked to repeat the story of the day when his teacher pointed to the desk where Ernest Hemingway had sat, it was in a room called “the English room”, and boast that Hemingway “didn’t get any of those words from him”. After watching the documentary, I realize Dad’s old teacher might have been referring to Hemingway’s use of the “N” word.
It’s astonishing to see an image of Ernest Hemingway unfold over three days and six hours as a war profiteer, a person whose personal gain is so grossly tied to pain, suffering and death. The documentary makes it clear how much he reveled in the image of a hero but how little he lived up to the mark. It is difficult to associate his courage with sacrifice, the essential stuff that makes heroes.
“Isn’t it pretty to think so” is still a great line. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” is still a brilliant line of dialogue. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is still my favorite Ernest Hemingway short story.
The opposite of willful denial is willful fantasy. It is the idea that we can exert mind over experience so forcefully that experience starts to conform to the fantasy. The practitioner is constantly aware that what he wills is fantasy and its discord with things as they otherwise seem but is charmed by his fantasy anyway.
My first best friend, Tim Leonard, a boy wedged in the middle of a pack of ten siblings, grew up a Catholic in a big, rambling house that teemed with life and always felt more crowded than any scene in a Bruegel painting. My parents, then youthful and aspirational white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs!), moved in across the street.
I was born with at least two—nobody counted; there were almost certainly more—silver spoons in my mouth. The Leonard kids had to share the spoon, which was not made of silver but of some other dubious ore.
Mrs. Leonard and Carolyn Poplett were also best friends: Mrs. Leonard, a devout, mass-attending Catholic of Irish descent, and Carolyn, a migrant rebel from North Carolina, from a family of hillbillies, of Scotch-Irish descent, who by an abundance of natural grace, grew into her full promise, a great Southern lady dwelling comfortably among Yankees.
While rearing two sons, Carolyn also wrote books about the formative years of feminism, in eras before feminism got its name. She wrote a book about the early 20th century suffragist Grace Wilbur Trout. She wrote another book about the women of the Nineteenth Century Club, women who pioneered America’s first social safety net when men of station were too busy trying to invent new businesses and too little concerned with the social consequences of building business empires. They mostly cared about their image and their families and were otherwise willing to exploit anybody and everybody except possibly people who attended the same church or were members of the same country club.
Carolyn was and—at ninety years of age today—still is an exemplary model of femininity who also happens to be a second-wave feminist, albeit a feminist who never once dreamed of burning her brassiere.
As a young child growing up, my mother endured poverty which is unimaginable to a great many people in America today, at least, any family or individual blessed to have a home and to live outside of poverty or suffering from the trauma of sudden or extreme, intimate losses of life or dignity.
Carolyn came of age in the great depression. She and her surviving siblings moved from home to home, forced to move most likely because my grandfather was perpetually broke or out of work. My grandfather—I imagine only out of sheer necessity—inadvertently embittered his eldest son, almost for life, when he took my uncle Bob’s pet dog, Jake, a bluetick hound, a breed prized for its fearlessness (mountain men used them to hunt black bears), to sell it for cash. Uncle Bob and my mother and most of my aunts and uncles, then children, were living in the mountains or likely a “holler”, in a cabin, when two of their siblings starved to death for lack of food.
She reached her maturity as did all of her siblings with the burden of survivor’s guilt. I am sure it was very much intact by the time Carolyn and Mrs. Leonard bonded. I am sure it was an essential fact for the tightness of that bond.
For, you see, Mrs. Leonard herself birthed two children, her two eldest boys, Bill and Mike, who died from the complications of muscular dystrophy by the time they were twenty.
That alone was sufficient to explain why Carolyn might sometimes cross the street to the Leonard’s to wash dishes after the family assembled together and had their meal. The Leonard’s had it rough. It resonated so deeply with my mother that of her the neighbors said:
Even the nuns gave up on the Leonards.
Meaning, pointedly, that my mother never gave up on her friend.
From Mrs. Leonard I learned one of the most abiding lessons in my life. As the bratty WASP kid with the two spoons, I complained to her one day that her entire brood had decided to pick on me on one particular lazy, hot summer day, merely for the sport of it, the kind that sheer boredom inspires. We were out of school; we had all day to play and get into mischief; there was no reason to have a single concern. Mrs. Leonard was lugging bag after bag of groceries out of the back of a full-length Buick station wagon into the house with indifferent help from a few of her children.
I uttered my complaint while she crossed over the front porch to enter the house through the front screen door. Without breaking stride, she answered, “That’s too bad.”
That was it. Many years later, decades later, when I remembered that incident, I had to smile. Fundamentally, it was hilarious. Mrs. Leonard with a passel of daily challenges could hardly feign concern. I doubt she had even a fleeting impulse to console me. I am in fact quite convinced she did not. For this Thanksgiving, I vow never forget that sometimes all an adult should tell a child, whether their own kids or the child of their best friend, whether their spouse, another adult, or a co-worker:
That’s too bad.
God bless you, Mrs. Leonard. Thank you for schooling this punk.
 According to Carolyn, “you rear children and you raise cattle”.
 The 19th Century Club is a short block and a half walk from my current residence here in Oak Park, Illinois
 Cast your mind back to the age of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and General Motors, people and institutions which were not always “nice”.
 An outstanding fact of their bond was that neither my grandparents or Mr. and Mrs. Leonard practiced birth-control.
When you get the chance, treat yourself to Bo-Diddley’s heart-thumping rock ‘n roll rendition of the Willy Dixon song, You Can’t Judge a Book by The Cover. Enjoy Willy’s lyrics.
George Eliot originated the expression in her 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss.
I don’t know where or when or how I got it into my head that another lyrical mind, Oscar Wilde, contradicted the original expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover” by saying “you can judge a book by its cover”.
So far, copious searches on the Internet have yet to bail me out. It could be that I made it all up, propelled for some dark reason to invent a Wildesque fictional quotation, aided by the observation that Oscar Wilde loved nothing better than to flip conventional wisdom on its head.
I do know that many years ago, on break from college at home with my parents, I was having a meltdown reading The Price of Power, Seymour Hersh’s deeply-researched book that shreds the reputation of Dr. Henry Kissinger, when he served as Secretary of State under President Nixon’s administration during the Vietnam War. It zeroed in on his efforts building backdoor communications to our armed forces in Southeast Asia. It included a vignette of him personally picking out targets on the ground in the illegal bombing of Cambodia.
It was the same bombing campaign that triggered protests across the United States which sparked the tragedy at Kent State University in Ohio, when, on fifty years earlier on May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen pulled the trigger and shot four unarmed protesters dead. If you want a shining example of the “deep state”, there’s a real good one, documented in excruciating detail by a bonafide journalist, the same journalist who exposed the horrors of the Mai Lai massacre and helped turn the tide of public opinion against that particular pointless and as-it-turned-out unwinnable war.
Carolyn Poplett (AKA “mom”) is a North Carolina belle who married a Yankee lawyer. She managed to join the feminist movement in the 70s while hanging onto her femininity (she never burnt a single bra), author a pair of books on women power, and twice over a 50 year span rescue the local mental health agency from financial oblivion.
I was venting to Carolyn about Dr. Kissinger with steam gushing out of my ears. I was trying to summarize in words exactly how the secretary’s actions were so unfathomably reprehensible.
“Oh,” she said, “I knew all about him the minute I saw his picture posing naked on a bear skin rug on the front cover of a magazine. What does it say about a man that ugly posing naked on a rug?”
What she didn’t realize and I didn’t realize, up until I started this essay, was that the cover was Fake News—before we knew what to call it—manufactured by Harvard’s Lampoon. Only it was the good kind of fake news, which is otherwise called satire, a form of humor where as my father liked to say “many a truth is said in jest”. It captured the essence of the man and his boundless sense of his own self worth. Fake news or not, it was all that Carolyn needed to get a glimpse into his capacity for delusion.
Her remark served the magnificent purpose of suggesting the opposing notion, that sometimes you can tell a a book by its cover. If Oscar Wilde never said it, I transfer full credit to my mother.
So here we are, a scant few weeks from the 2020 Presidential election, when it would be most timely to have this knack Carolyn Poplett postulated, when last the United States was in a deep spiritual crisis, “to tell a book from its cover”.
Or, in paraphrase:
To judge, you sometimes have to cast a keen eye on the surface.
I have invented ways to follow my mother’s precept. It’s not always easy and I still get fooled but with practice it gets easier. Here I provide you with a few examples:
Bill Clinton boards a plane with Jeffrey Epstein not once but twice. Next!
Hillary Clinton receives a fee from Goldman Sachs for delivering a speech behind closed doors. Next!
Sean Hannity hid the fact that he used Michael Cohen as his attorney while reporting on the whole Stormy Daniels thing. Next!
James Comey, as head director of the FBI, used his personal email account on the job. Next!
Chris Wallace, on the other hand, gets a pass. While our national attention was still focused on Black Lives Matters, he called Dr. Cornel West onto his show because Chris Wallace is comfortable in his own skin, comfortable calling in a Harvard professor who is an expert on the racial divide. It is something that Sean Hannity, that other Fox News commentator, would never do for fear of making himself look bad. Chris also is amused by humankind. Watch the airing of that show and you will see Chris Wallace, smile and enjoy his conversation with Dr. West. You will see Dr. West get Chris to crack a smile. Sean, on the other hand, sees evil everywhere he bothers to look. He rarely smiles.
Fortunately, for persons who purport to follow the Christian faith, the litmus test is easy. Jesus Christ made it easy.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies…
In the sphere of politics, the energy a candidate throws into casting shade on or disrespecting an opponent is the extent to which the candidate is “not loving the enemy”. In short, violating a fundamental Christian precept. That’s all you need to know. And you can make that judgement in less than eighteen seconds. When you do, you should have seconds to spare.
So, why are people so hopelessly bad at telling a book by its cover? My guess is that we neglect another adage, the adage to “heal ourselves”. I cannot think of a more frequently overlooked admonition than this piece of sound advice. Healing yourself, as any self-respecting psychiatrist or therapist will tell you, takes years of will and dedication. In other words, more of us are full of shaving cream than any one of us would care to admit.
Engagement in the lifelong process of healing yourself is a prerequisite for citizens who wish to make good judgments, sometimes snap judgments, effortless and confident judgments, like the ball coming out of the hands of Ray Allen late in the fourth quarter for a three-pointer. If you haven’t already set out on a journey of spiritual self-improvement, you’re too late for this election. Maybe you need to think about it. Maybe you need to sit this one out.
To the confusion of a few of my friends, whom other friends of mine might crassly dub “libtards”, I took my adult-age daughter to a shooting range a couple of times earlier this year. It’s not like I keep up on my NRA membership dues. It’s not that I want her to be a gun-toter. It’s only that I want her to make choices for herself. And if she enjoyed it, maybe we would bond by taking self-defense or concealed carry courses together. I want her to know that her father doesn’t pull favorites when it comes to the Bill of Rights.
We had fun. She shot better groups than I did with a 22 long-rifle revolver. I got the better groups with 9mm Glock, a pretty important result for my frail male ego. As far as I know right now, she’ll never go back to a range. At least, she had the experience.
Earlier this same afternoon, a driver came within a fraction of an inch of running over my toes. I had flatted on my bicycle and decided I would rather hoof it—two miles from a dry apartment—rather than try to inflate the tire adequately with a minuscule 6″ long emergency pump.
As I was passing by a hospital, walking across an apron connecting one of its many parking lots to the street, a man in a car pulled in front of me. I was traveling all of 2 MPH. Feeling no immediate sense of danger, I continued—assuming, albeit warily—he would see me in my bright yellow rain parka, apply his brakes, and yield to the pedestrian wheeling his bike across the village.
Well, nope! He only brought his car to a stop when it was directly in front of me about six inches from my body. If he had rolled straight through, his tires would have rolled way too close to my toes. I did the prudent thing and stopped my forward advance. Actually, I had no choice.
Then, for the sake of all cyclists on the road now and all cyclists who might venture out on the road in the future, who someday might encounter this same guy on any given day for as long as he legally holds a driver’s license, I barked out, with hearty vigor, “HEY!”.
His face was not that far from mine. It was only separated by a plane of glass, the driver’s side window. I succeeded in exciting him from an evident stupor and for a brief moment I watched as he turned his head and expressed unrehearsed shock to find me there. He had (obviously) not looked both ways. He had no idea how close he came to hitting me. I mean, what if I was going 3 MPH? It could have been all over (for my toes, at least).
On another day, if I was feeling particularly icky, I might have reasoned—as I have done many times in the past—that this guy was assaulting me with a deadly weapon. This is, in fact, a fact. I could have also reasoned that he would do it again (another fact). This is the reason why I don’t pack heat. It’s a short jump in logic, distorted by the heat of outrage, to want to plug that guy in self-defense. Worst case, I’m sure my attorney could have gotten me off on temporary insanity. It’s not like this hasn’t happened to me roughly three hundred times before in a long career of city and suburban cycling. It’s not like I’m not reasonably cautious and don’t try to ratchet up my caution year-after-year. It’s not like I wasn’t exceedingly visible in my bright yellow, reflectorized cycling costume. It’s not like I want to die pointlessly at the hands of a booger-eating moron (sorry, sir, at least I didn’t shoot you).
For the time being, I’m going to leave the guns at the range. If I was married, I would put a gun in a locker and hand the key to my betrothed. As a bachelor, no way.
Or, I might join the Quakers so I could be like that old Quaker, who padded down to the kitchen, found a robber already on the inside of his backdoor, and lowered his blunderbuss in the direction of the intruder.
Friend, he said, I would not harm thee for all the world, but thou standeth where I would shooteth.
Choice. That’s a good motto for any parent. Let them choose. Or risk, as Mark Twain once observed, they’ll go for forbidden fruit.
Authenticity is the absence of any difference between persona, the way we project ourselves, and our internal state of mind. It has to do with not just how we project ourselves but in how much our projections are reflected back to us from others. When that is achieved, you have a perfect example of success.
On the surface, authenticity seems to place a person at a far distance from the ten personality disorders identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
In any event, authenticity seems like a worthy pursuitKernis, Michael H., and Brian M. Goldman. “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38:283–357. Elsevier, 2006. … Continue reading:
In his work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasized the importance of actions. Aristotle viewed ethics in terms of people’s pursuit of the ‘‘higher good.’’ Specifically, he proposed that the highest good is ‘‘activity of the soul in accordance with the best and most complete virtue in a complete life’’. Such pursuits are intimately tied with people’s well‐being (eudaemonia) which is attained by performing activities that reflect one’s true calling (self-realization).
Artists and writers eagerly strive for authenticity as an essential and unavoidable part of their craft. It is probably true—to riff on the bard—that if you were not born with authenticity, you have to achieve authenticity, and, if you cannot achieve authenticity you had better hope it is thrust upon you.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
In the case of any kind of artist, a writer, a poet, a potter, or a a glass blower, you want all of them: to be born authentic, to achieve more of it, and to have it thrust upon you (to riff on Joseph Heller). Yet, teachers, lawyers and mothers are artists too. All of us are artists in our own way. Authenticity is always in short supply.
In the case of avowed artists, we find many fine examples having to do with “putting yourself out there”.
Lou Reed is an artist I admire for pursuing authenticity with extreme angst, costs be damned. He kept on remaking himself with almost every album he produced, paranoid that popularity was death to his artDeCurtis, Anthony, and Hachette Book Group. Lou Reed: A Life. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2017.. To be a “sell-out” is the rock star’s favorite damnation.
If you are a country music aficionado, you know there is an evergreen sub-genre dedicated to the defense of “real” country. It is legitimately an industry obsession. Country My Ass is Dale Watson Jr.’s lament with a not-too-subtle dig reserved for Taylor Swift. In Dark Bar and Juke Box, J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters, protests that “you won’t find no country on country radio”. This time the digs on Toby Keith:
Give me a dark bar and a jukebox over that radio.
Yeah, Toby just don't cut it, give me Haggard, give me Coe.
And i'm tired of watching Nashville and it's washed up fashion show
Cause you won't find no country on country radio
I muse a lot lately about Justin Townes Earle and his utterly professional demeanor on stage for a performance, handling two hecklers while continuing to tune his guitar and preparing for his next numberJustin Townes Earle – Silencing Heckler – Slippin’ and Slidin’, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXD-Qwt11PQ.. It is a master class in authenticity for a guy who is stoned out of his mind. He was utterly and completely “putting himself out there”, spilling his guts on his checkered history with drug addiction. Check it out on Youtube and the comments that follow, speculating whether there are two guitars playing on stage or just one. It is just one, Justin’s. It is his technique that makes it sound like two.
A dear friend turned me on to Steve Hely’s novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, a case of “imagining the future you want for yourself” if every there wasHely, Steve. How I Became a Famous Novelist. 1st ed. New York : [Berkeley, Calf.]: Black Cat ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2009.. Every line in it will make you bust a stitch until you’re in an ambulance on a gurney on your way to the ER where you will get new stitches just so you can go home and keep reading. It is that hilarious.
The other funny thing about How I Becamea Famous Novelist is its relentless skewering of the million and one ways authors go about being not wantonly inauthentic but rather ever… so… slyly… inauthentic.
The protagonist, Pete Tarslow, is more of the wanton kind. He is trying to make the jump from one fraudulent career, penning college admission essays for foreign students as a meretricious ghost writer, to a tonier and ideally more lucrative form of fraudulence: writing novels for fame. His motives are pure; among them, he wants to humiliate the gal who jilted him at her wedding.
So the author, Hely, in his bid for novelistic fame, invents a protagonist, Tarslow, who in his bid for novelistic fame, goes about it by filching tricks of the trade from already famous novelists. Meta enough for you?
Tarslow studies with keen desire the whole pantheon of published authors in search for clues to their success, every time turning up fraud. He zeroes in on “Preston Brooks”, a John Irving doppelgänger, novelist, director of a creative writing program, and author of Kindness to Birds (don’t you love it?). Of the novel Kindness, Tarslow observes:
One could spend hours parsing that intricate latticework of literary sewage: the cartoon bayou dialect, the touches of “realist” detail, the labored folksy imagery, the vague notes of spirituality and transcendence muddled together to make it palatable to anyone.
Tarslow excerpts Kindness which I repeat here so you can see what he’s talking about:
“Is they chickory in that coffee?” she bellowed, in a tired voice that still shook like a thunderclap, a calling-hounds voice.
Need I go on? Okay, I will:
“No, ma’am,” Gabriel hollered back, steadying himself against the buckboard of the Tidecraft Firebird, swaing in the swamp water that swelled and fell like the breast of a mother asleep. “No chickory, but you sure a Cajun woman asking for chickory coffee when you stuck on a patch-tar roof and more water coming up, they sayin. Now reach out your hand Mez Deveroux.”
It would be wrong were Hely not to acknowledge the self-mythological prowess of some successful authors (Hemingway and Kerouac come to mind). He doesn’t disappoint. Again the understudy, Tarslow provides an example from his mentor Preston, who has his obligatory “birth of a writer story” in the can:
Then one morning I woke up in an alley in Minot, North Dakota in the snow. I rooted around in a trash can, hoping to find an old jacket. And I found a tattered copy of Of Mice and Men. Maybe from an angel’s hand. Maybe just a lazy schoolboy. But I read it. And John Steinbeck showed me there was stronger stuff than whiskey.
Once you start to read How I Became a Successful Novelist as satire or as a lightly veiled critique of the United States Creative Writing Industry, Hely’s book reveals how—even if you look like an author, swim like an author, walk like an author, and quack like an author—underneath it all, you’re still very probably just a duck. His book freaks you out by showing you the very subtle ways we can undermine an otherwise genuine mission to achieve authenticity.
If I taught writing, I would start my class with Steve Hely’s book. I would encourage the class to write parody, heaps and heaps of it, so my students could learn what it feels like to be even every so slightly inauthentic.
For Hemingway, they might write:
A goose, separated from the flock, damn-near skimming the flat mirror surface of the lake, flew low and straight and true, in a line so straight it might make an arrow quiver.
The hope would be that, if they did enough of these, they would learn to avoid inauthenticity like COVID-19.
Kernis, Michael H., and Brian M. Goldman. “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38:283–357. Elsevier, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38006-9.
At least, that’s what Adam did in a moment which we could reasonably call without melodrama the birth of consciousness and self-awareness. It was a brief instant thereafter when God said to Adam (in the greatest rhetorical question of all time)
Who told you you were naked? ~ God
A question that begs another rhetorical question.
Who, indeed? ~ John Poplett
Right away we see that in the very beginning, the very first story in the very first book of Scripture, the Book of Genesis, has Adam—and all of us by proxy— start to look inward, study ourselves and wonder what “makes us tick.” At least, any second now, Adam—conscious of his brand-new conscience—will formulate the question, “What compelled me to cover my private parts with a fig leaf?”.
Beyond question that is a fine opening for a book about the creation of the universe, man, and the rest of God’s creatures.
The next thing that comes to mind whenever I brood on the curse of self-awareness is a complicitous curse, like two dogs who form a pack to kill a squirrel or a chipmunk, that the human animal is complex. I am complex, you are complex, and everybody else I have ever known is also similarly complex with the exception of brain-damaged children who—by some providential accident—were spared their loss of innocence and—despite the stigma of their affliction—possess talents of charm and wonderment that the rest of us tortured souls might have the good sense to envy.
The idea that human most often have conflicting or paradoxical motives simultaneously active and influencing our behavior is exactly what I believe the Roman Catholic religious philosopher Blaise Pascal intended when he wrote:
If he exalt himself, I humble him; if he humble himself, I exalt him; and I always contradict him, till he understands that he is an incomprehensible monster. ~ Blaise Pascal, Pensée #420
It was part of his long meditation on how man can be both simultaneously God-like and a “monster” (in French, Pascal uses the word bête, more like “beast” in English) at the same time. These conflicting, active impulses are what make him “incomprehensible”.
I brood on this so often that I have formed a rule-of-thumb which goes like this:
By extension, this rule also applies to things you are thinking of doing but have yet to do. It applies to the behavior of strangers and enemies, too. Only recently did it occur to me to put my fancy rule into practice. Yes, I’m that stupid. I thought about it for one or two eternities before I came up with the boffo idea of actually trying it.
In practice, there’s every reason to believe that this rule can pry open a view into your behavior, your spouse’s behavior, or your enemy’s behavior and make that person more real, more dimensional, a person who, by dint of this exercise, is now less of a cardboard cut-out, somebody you might see in a new light with compassion.
For example, as a teenager, I carried a mock coffin, a symbol which represented “our boys coming back in boxes”, in a local protest of the Vietnam war, a gesture that was captured by a television crew and broadcast on a local news station that same evening.
My motives in that moment included at least the following:
moral: register my opposition to a war that defied the admonition “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
adolescent: get a girl
social: look “cool”
self-preservation: end the war before I was inducted
Okay, four out of five just one shy of my arbitrary dictum. Not bad. All of those I am sure were active when I acted as a faux pall bearer in a bit of street theater. In hindsight, I could add a fifth, which was probably somehow astir in my mind even back then:
civic: exercise my right to freedom of speech as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Right now I am preparing for a nine hundred mile bike ride around Lake Michigan. Since that is one heckuva trek, I deem it prudent to identify my motives and expose them to you (whoever you are and whatever brought you to this page) if nothing else as a mild form of entertainment (emphasis on mild).
Here goes. On this ride, I intend to:
test my mettle
raise money for charities to benefit people who are suffering on the west side of Chicago and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota
promote the idea of a different kind of U.S. Corporation, a “virtue-forward corporation”, which is aggressively kinder and aggressively more patriotic than corporations are typically today in America (say, for example, Monsanto, Google, BP, and Nike)
demonstrate that Black Lives Matters does not necessarily involve Marxism or violence or even “blacks”
assert a vital connection between black lives matters, blue lives matters, teachers lives matters, Scotch-Irish lives matter, First nation lives matter, etc.
make a pitch for unity and an end of this era of crippling divisiveness
signal my virtue
discover things about myself I currently don’t know
assert the primacy of action over protest
manage my fear of sitting home alone in a responsible way
find a path to reconcile with friends, among them my dearest, whom—in this era of division and the “fog of protest” which still shrouds the BLM movement—I injured or insulted
That’s twelve and still counting; any one of which is motivation enough in itself! Well, subtract virtue signaling and that’s still nine out of ten.
Nine hundred miles is a long way. I made a similar trek twelve years ago. For that trek, I raised $20,000 for a local mental health agency. Only on that occasion, I was extremely fit and only logged a scant six hundred miles. My left foot was pristine and had not been operated on three times. I was taller and had brighter teeth.
Can I make it? I honestly don’t know. Today a minor drop in daytime temperature and gusty winds made me feel a micro-fracture in my resolve. At least we know, I have motivation. At least we know, I’ll be making my attempt under open skies, right there, as my father used to say, “in front of God and everybody”.