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 streams of visits retards somewhat her decline. We’ll watch 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, I think John Meston had something to do with it.
I’ve watched all six of Bill Moyer’s interviews with Joseph Campbell—you can buy them on Prime for all of $12—with Carolyn each 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 and religions grips her mind and reaches deep down insider her to find her intellect intact. Emerging from the bathroom one evening after a change into her pajamas, she and her caregiver briefly stopped to bid me good night.
“You know that man 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. I’m trying to do that.”
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 your sister Ginny’s college in Berea. 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 the years and 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. That’s a lovely thought, mom. I love that idea. I believe it is true and I have similar thoughts all the time. How about if we talk about going out for a little supper?
“I just got back from… uhm, Boone and then I went to Berea after that. I don’t know any of the places around here like you do, George [George was one of Carolyn’s beloved brothers]. Where would you like to go?”
[And this is what I love about my mom. Even when here mind is letting her down in a big way, she refuses to come up flat footed and she’s going to have something to say at any cost, even if she has to steal my story wholesale. She simply can’t conceive of not having a part in the conversation.]
“Oh, well then. I just came back from Boone myself. And then I was in Berea to see that painting my sister has on display there.”
“Mom, I’m not trying to talk about our travels. What I’m trying to talk about is super banal. We’re just discussing where we should go to have some supper together.”
“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. Where would you like to go?”
“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.”
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.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (HRC) deplorables remark from way back in 2016 is—even more obviously today—the most deplorable blunder that ever shot out of her mouth.
As utterances go, it was the most like “the shot heard round the world”, the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand which triggered a sequence of events that led to World War I. It had the same impact as a bullet shot from an assassin’s gun; only Hillary’s bullet wasn’t heard around the world as much as it went around the world, like a space capsule or a weather satellite, and kept going until it lodged itself into Hillary’s backside1.
It was a self-inflicted wound, a point of fact that nobody can deny. Hillary’s shot, in the scope of U.S. and world politics, was every bit as monumental as the original shot, the one that started the first World War, for the magnitude of its effect. A terribly savvy or perspicacious person—not necessarily clairvoyant but prone to gamble—could have dashed out to a betting parlor on the day Hillary blundered with her deplorable “deplorables” remark, put her life savings all on the Donald winning in 2016, and, on that single bet, would have earned enough of a bundle to retire on (in the Hamptons).
We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic [sic], you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?
The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric2.
Excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s “Basket of Deplorables” Speech on Sept. 9, 2016
From that teensy, weensy, phrase, “basket of deplorables”, unmistakably hearkening back to the day when Romneys “binders full of women” became a viral sensation3, politically, HRC was dead, hoisted by her own petard as people like to say, more dead than Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Only poor, old Hillary, bless her heart, lacked the presence of mind to realize how defining a moment that was.
Sadly, her second deplorable act was to not exit quietly from political theater because dead is a very difficult state to recover from. So, like any old fighter past his prime who just can’t give up and keeps foolishly returning to the ring for one more bruising, Hillary did just that: she placed an appearance at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, tainting the proceedings with her washedupedness and making it a billion times worse by bringing her husband, William “Can’t keep his junk in his pants” Jefferson “Never met a pedophile whose plane he could board only once” Clinton. Unfortunately, that made a LOT of people think, maybe the Donald ain’t so bad.
It’s not right to call anybody a name, ever, not even if you are Hillary Rodham Clinton. It’s not Christian to judge according to the Bible:
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
Romans 12:19, King James Version
It’s not even good Buck Owens:
Human beings are not—to the extent it concerns the moral condition of the soul—supposed to get into the judging business. Hillary judged (or just as badly strung together words in a phrase that sounded like a judgement) and that was her sin.
If Donald Trump is re-elected, it won’t be entirely his fault. Hillary Clinton, by refusing to ride off into the sunset and instead turning up at her party’s national convention, reached over the aisle to President Trump to lend him a hand.
The DNC apparently was okay dragging Hillary and Bill, two relics of a fallen dynasty, out onto the virtual stage of its convention. For that, it is implicated, also reaching over the aisle when instead it should have relegated those two to Madame Tussaud’s.
Hillary’s not a bad egg, no worse than you or I. The thing that should strike terror in our hearts is that anyone of us—including all of us who vote—could chillingly have a myopia as great as or greater than Hillary’s.
In Scripture, you find passages that refer to blindness both as a medical condition and a condition of the soul. It is a powerful metaphor used in different ways at different times. Sometimes, often, the eye is not directed at the world but inward. Sometimes the eye represents feelings as in envy (a little bit like the expression, “to be the apple of someone’s eye”). There are several instances of the phrase “scales falling from the eyes”, which gives suggests that one might have unwittingly walked through life blindly only to suddenly “see the light”. So, in that instant, only then does a person realize that while they may have had physical sight, all the while they lacked knowledge of one’s self in relation to the world. In the Book of Matthew there is this:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Matthew 7:3 King James Version
The thing about the Donald is that he is every bit as blind as dear old Hillary. Undoubtedly much more so5. The thing about us is that we have a lot to account for ourselves. Otherwise, how else can we explain how we, Democrats and Republicans, are on the cusp of re-electing, Donald “Moved on her like a bitch” J. “She was married.” Trump? I cannot say in good faith—despite the conversation recorded on the Billy Bush tape—that Donald’s a pussy grabber. I’ll tell you what though. He sure does brag a lot.
The way I was brought up there was always a taboo against any kid perceived as selfish. I’m not sure what other options existed or if the idea of enlightened self-interest had already shot across the horizon in an arced, meteoric trajectory, flamed out, and reduced itself to half molten rock.
Even when it wasn’t spelled out, everyone knew, a selfish kid was going to hell. It might take sixty years or more of walking to and fro upon this earth for his fate to unfold but he was going to hell sure as shootin’.
It had every bit the aspect of a scientific fact. Stories of this ilk were prevalent. A child who put his hand in the cookie jar and tried to grab too many cookies, would get his hand stuck, and only get it back after an an embarrassing intervention by fire fighters who arrived at the kid’s grammar school in super exaggerated fashion riding on an enormous, glowing red fire engine, if not a hook & ladder, their sirens wailing, to free the kid’s hand with hog grease or a precision tap on the glass surface of the jar with the dull end of the axe head. A selfish kid who got caught like this—not with his hand in the cookie jar but with his hand stuck in the cookie jar—could literally die of embarrassment.
You didn’t want to be a “ball hog” or take too many swings at the plate. You didn’t want to be the kid who was raised his hand in class so often he had to brace the one hand with the other. You didn’t want to chew a stick of gum on the sly; either you had a stick for every person in the whole dang class or the teacher was going to find you out and pillory you with a tongue lashing in front of your peers that would make you wish you could roll yourself up into a ball of spit and dehydrate.
From as far back as 1945, science started to toy with the idea of a “selfish gene”, a gene whose behavior imitates the human psychological attribute of “selfishness”—inasmuch as it privileges transmission of its genetic material to the fitness of the host organism and its species. By this definition, a “selfish” gene is not a good gene, not a team player, so to speak.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the most influential reference text for the treatment of mental illness in the United States—identifies narcissistic behavior as a personality disorder. In other words, it is a malignancy and detrimental to individuals and society alike. It lists among its traits1:
Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
Exaggerate achievements and talents
Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
Believe that they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
Insist on having the best of everything – for instance, the best car or office
There are numerous psychiatrists who have spoken publicly about their belief that our 45th president suffers from Narcissitic Personality Disorder.
The mental condition he suffers most from is formally known as a severe instance of “narcissistic personality disorder,” which is well established in the psychiatric literature. The core problem in this disorder is the failure in childhood and beyond to develop an inner sense of worth or self-esteem. This makes one’s worth entirely dependent upon admiration from others2.
Dr. John Zinner, psychoanalyst and clinical professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine
Dr. Zinner goes on to explain why the president might deserve our pity.
To cope with the resultant hollow and empty feelings, he reacts with what is referred to as narcissistic rage. He is unable to take responsibility for any error, mistake or failing. His default in that situation is to blame others and to attack the perceived source of his humiliation.
These attacks of narcissistic rage can be brutal and destructive, for reasons that are also part of his disturbance. Especially, these include an extreme lack of empathy, compassion, authentic guilt, remorse, or, fundamentally, caring about the other person(s). Donald Trump genuinely cares for no one but himself. He lacks the capacity to feel regret or to avoid the harm he can cause to others. He can derive a sadistic pleasure for the hurt he may create.
Yet there is nothing that makes President Trump so utterly different from ourselves. How often have we heard the expression that people “vote their pocketbooks?” And what does that mean? When we vote our pocketbooks our voting choice is dictated by our best guess of which candidate will benefit ourselves exclusively, irrespective of how it benefits our neighbors.
Even with my patchy understanding of the New Testament and a patchier understanding of Corinthians, it is clear in Corinthians 1:12 that the metaphor of the body—and more particularly Christ’s body—with its complementary members (eyes, ears, hands, feet) insists on the idea that all of these members have an essential and distinct role to play. They are integral and without them you don’t have a whole and complete body. So, by the same token, the spiritual gifts that God gives to man are all pieces of a common organism.
This vision postulates a radically different notion of self. For example, we might say that the self is Christ’s body, something much bigger and more worthy of esteem than the life of any person on its own. With this notion of self, my self interest is in the vitality of all the parts that make up Christ’s body. It invites me to replace the idea of my body parts for the body parts represented by the image of Christ’s body. Once I accept that invitation, my concept of self changes utterly; it is no longer restricted to my physical self. To the extent that I subscribe to this vision, I am profoundly transformed.
A funny thing about this interpretation is that it serves to demonstrate how perfect a document is our Bill of Rights, especially if you are inclined to interpret it as a bold embodiment of the best of Christ’s teachings, stripped of ecclesiastical taint, off-putting to some, in purely secular terms. That is what makes it a masterpiece. What is the fifth amendment’s protection of a citizen’s right to due process if not a secular expression of the Christian ideal to “Do unto others…”?
More profoundly, the Bill of Rights enshrines the complex notions surrounding freedom of will and the necessity to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, preserving for us the choice to do good and the choice to serve others. For if good will was mandated, what could it possibly mean? Instead it reserves for each one of us the right to seek our own salvation.
This is delightfully in evidence in the formulation of an enlightened self-interest, an idea which came fast on the heels of the Enlightenment and was perfectly expressed by the famous observer of early American culture, the Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville3.
The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville
Enlightened self-interest is a brand of selfishness well established in this country. It is based entirely on the notion of volunteerism. Thankfully it is alive in America today. I think of former president Jimmy Carter, for example, his wife, Rosyln, and their committment to Habitat for Humanity4.
And here is Jimmy, at the age of 95, reminding us:
One of the things Jesus taught was: If you have any talents, try to utilize them for the benefit of others
It provokes an interesting thought. When President Trump retires, one wonders what he will do. Play golf, build casinos, or build houses for the needy?
Roman Catholics were only given sanctuary in this country through the glorious, magnanimous vision of tolerance advanced by Protestants, the founders of this country, starting with the Pilgrims, those outlaws who broke away from that other high-ceremony faith, the Church of England, whose faith created the intellectual nexus for the U.S. Constitution.
It was the Puritans, a Protestant sect, and the Calvinist tenets that they brought with them to the New World that informed it.
Calvin’s tenet of the “total depravity of man”, for example, bolstered a wariness of absolute power (later formulated by Lord Acton with the expression “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) and is precisely the basis of our system of checks and balances. It emphatically did not come from a high-ceremony branch of the Christian faith.
This brief history goes a long way to explain why the word “protest” is so unessential and foreign to a man like Attorney General Barr because the word “protest” is not part of his faith, the Roman Catholic faith, at least not in the same way it is literally built into the (Protest)ant faith.
How else might one explain why at Hillside College a scant few weeks ago in September, he felt “at liberty” to diss the Bill of Rights and suggest that it was a lesser part of the constitution—it is not—and perhaps even expendable. Observe his choice of words below, particularly “more important to securing liberty than the Bill of Rights”. Says, who? And secondly, “the Framers did not think it needed an express enumeration of rights.” Perhaps not, but the thirteen colonies had to ratify the U.S. Constitution to enact it and the colonies only ratified it with the inclusion of the Bill of Rights.
The Attorney General’s point of view is heretical. To place less emphasis on the Bill of Rights ignores the essential fact that amendments have no second-tier status and are immediate, legitimate, and integral components of the Constitution.
To suggest otherwise, especially for an Attorney General, mocks the rule of law which the AG identifies in the same quote as “the lynchpin of American freedom”. The rule of law very certainly means that the entire contents of the Bill of Rights, as much as any other part of the constitution, takes precedence over any ideas a Federal official, the Attorney General especially, might wish to impose in the name of good government. Conventional wisdom credits the Magna Carta as the preeminent legal precedent establishing the rule of law. Conventional wisdom credits the Bill of Rights with enshrining the rule of law, most particularly in the fifth amendment concerning due process.
How does our AG reconcile his haughty attitude to the Bill of Rights with his lynchpin remark? You can’t. Attorney General Barr is first and foremost our country’s protector of the Constitution yet he believes in some parts of it more than others. That’s like a baseball umpire saying, “I believe in first base, and I believe in second base, but I really don’t think third base is any way near as important.”
The other issue that our Attorney General has with the Bill of Rights is the issue of “choice”. Not just in the extremely narrow sense of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade but in a sense of choice with vastly broader implications. It is impossible to understand a single thing about this nation without choice. Choice is our national obsession. We were fated to fret about it from the time these words—attributed erroneously to Thomas Jefferson—were first recorded:
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Thomas Jefferson or not, we all believe in this concept of “eternal vigilance”. We find evidence of it all around us, the extreme zeal with which gun owners react to real and perceived encroachments on the right to bear arms provides one shining example.
The right to vote is arguably our most sacrosanct right. It is all about choice. There is no democracy without it.
Relative to his concern with the same old bogeymen that kept J. Edgar Hoover awake at night (communism, Marxism, terrorism, ism, ism, ism) the attorney general is completely unconcerned with our guarantees to peaceful protest and freedom of speech. This is baffling beyond words. The whole point of our country was to secure these freedoms, the right to free speech, freedom of the press, and protest.
So I’m afraid it really is true, the authoritarian aspect of his Roman Catholic faith blinds him to the virtue of our “sacred” personal freedom rights. There is simply no other way to explain how he could authorize law enforcement officers in riot gear to clear Lafayette Park in advance of President Trump’s photo opportunity (pardon my French but that looked an awful lot like pandering) in front of St. John’s Church. One officer attacked a defenseless journalist close to where the Attorney General would soon witness the President hoist up the Bible.
Choice is also a hellish thing. A perfectly good idea of hell is to stand in the refrigerated aisle of a grocery store and try to decide which carton of orange juice to buy. Or do you always know you want the one with extra calcium and no-pulp?
We engage so passionately in the protection of our freedoms, the mere idea of choice starts to look like a national addiction.
As an addiction, if you accept the hypothesis, it makes the U.S. voting public extraordinarily vulnerable to manipulation. This is a consideration for every voting citizen. The idea that a fixation on choice can and will turn us into useful idiots.
It is easy to understand why “Obamacare”, a word invented to inspire contempt, is frequently spoken of at least by vote-seekers as though the word itself connoted pure evil. Part of that animus, you can bet is that “Obamacare” took away a choice: get on health care or pay a penalty.
The contempt for “Obamacare” highlights the deeply curious oddity of the American obsession with choice. On the one hand, the U.S. voting public acquiesced a long time ago to Federal and state laws which obligate every driver living in the country to purchase automobile insurance. Yet, “Obamacare”, though it has succeeded in reducing the number of persons in the United States who live without coverage in the country today, is reviled. This is the American viscera at work.
The good thing about visceral reactions is that they often play out. As often happens, more Americans will eventually come to regard “Obamacare” more generously, as having succeeded in forcing more individuals to take responsibility for their health, the same way we force motorists to purchase automobile insurance. It is not unreasonable to argue that forcing people to take better care of themselves (so the rest of us don’t have to) is a rational compromise, not so much a capricious abrogation of individual freedom, possibly a reasonable if not great precedent for democracy, especially when democracy itself only improves when voters are physically and mentally fit not just to cast votes but with their vote to make informed and reasoned choices.
 “Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Liberty (Spurious Quotation),” accessed October 2, 2020, /site/research-and-collections/eternal-vigilance-price-liberty-spurious-quotation.
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.