NOW ON THURSDAY, DECEMBER 14, 7 PM
Maybe it's just the end of the year, a time when all kinds of sordid trash is tossed out, but I came across two articles in the newspaper this morning that really made me scratch my head and wonder what kind of planet we're living on. The first story had to do with the response of a white high school teacher in Ohio, who, after hearing one of his African American students say he wanted to become president someday, replied, "We don't need another black president." Now, this teacher has been suspended over the remark, which is why it became news, I suppose, but the larger question is how does a person like that, someone who is ostensibly charged with fostering the hopes and dreams of students end up in a classroom in the first place. And I can only imagine what a gratuitous slap it was to that high school student. The fact is, we do need more black presidents. We also need Latino presidents, Jewish presidents, female presidents, gay presidents, atheist presidents (by the way, turns out we've had a few of those already, though they were rather mum about it). We need all kinds of qualified people to be president. That's the promise of American life, that anyone who works hard enough can rise to the top of the heap. It's not, or it shouldn't be, at any rate, a private club for white Protestant males. Up till now, there have only been a couple of "gate crashers"-first John F. Kennedy, and now, Barack Obama. That's good, but it doesn't yet reflect the broader demographics of this country. As for me, I'm wishing that kid in Ohio who wants to be president good luck; he'll need it with teachers like that.
The second strange story I read concerned a young man in Texas who was arrested and jailed for failing to return an overdue library book. Honest. They put him in jail. Apparently, this is one of the many creative ways they define "theft" nowadays in Texas. Not to get too far into the weeds about this, but the book was three years late. The young man had an excuse, of course, which was that he couldn't return it any earlier because he checked it out just before starting a three year prison sentence for robbery. Okay, this fellow is no peach, and he's probably not aiming to be a future president, but sending someone to the slammer for a library book seems, well, excessive was the word that first came to mind. But really, the correct word should be (and I say this with all due respect to librarians everywhere) "crazy." By the by, our literary felon has learned a valuable lesson from this experience: he says he will never again set foot in a public library, that if he ever wants another book he will buy it from Amazon (Congratulations, you won another convert, Mr. Bezos!).
To me, the real kicker in this story is that the book he "stole" was a study guide for the GED. He was just trying to graduate from high school. That was his crime, but who knows, maybe in the great state of Texas that's exactly what it is. I give up.
One of the last phrases my dad said to my mom before he drifted off forever in his hospital bed was to "be brave." I've been pondering that for over ten years now. Did he really mean, be brave? Or just act brave? And is there a difference? Was "be brave" some kind of secret expression between them? He and she came out of a different era, of course, when times were tough and a big premium was placed on character and bravery and such. That's how they got through the Great Depression and World War II, by being brave. That's what we believe.
But what does that mean? I've concluded, after much thought, that being brave, or acting brave, which is just pretending to be brave, has a lot more to do with enduring. Bad things happen and you soldier on. And you do this not because of some mystical inner quality of strength you possess, not because you're an American and Americans are rugged individuals, but because, in the end, you have no choice. Oh, you could curl up and die, I suppose, and there are a few very frail souls who do that when they lose their dog or their spouse or the stock market plunges. Most of us though, thankfully, have enough moxie to still get up the next morning; we drink our coffee, glance at the newspaper, go about our lives. Are we hurt? You bet. Is there a hole left that will never be filled? Probably so. But we trudge on, and that's a blessing, not just for ourselves, but for civilization at large.
Whenever I consider bravery I am reminded of that glorious passage in Catch-22, where Captain Nately (I think that was his name), a 20-year old pilot, a kid from Yale, is sitting in a whore house in Rome, talking politics with a 107-year old Italian gentleman. The old guy says he is a very moral man, that when Mussolini came to power he was all for him. Then, when Hitler's tanks rolled in, again, he raised his arm in salute. Now that the Americans have liberated us, he shouts "viva America!" Nately, the idealist, thinks this is appeasement, opportunism, or at best, mealy-mouthed double talk. Don't you stand for something? Wouldn't you rather die on your feet, he asks, than live on your knees? The old man gently corrects him. No, no, he says, you live on your feet and die on your knees. And right after their chat, Nately strolls out the door and gets killed by a sniper.
Bravery is what gets you through to tomorrow. We can stand for all kinds of causes, but bad things happen all the time, and life, as any alcoholic can tell you, is a day by day event. In that sense, we are all brave, I suppose. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is just keep your head down and dig a deeper foxhole.
My pal Audrey, who works
hand in glove with the astrology community here in Sonoma, has told me
that while this past year was turbulent for many folks, the coming year
is slated to be an even wilder ride. Lots of change, lots of tumult,
some good, some not so good, she is predicting. Hold onto your hats.
And she's right, in the
large sense, at least. The stars don't lie. Why would they? Most
certainly there will be change: famous and not so famous people will
die, some of them in strange and sudden ways, and others will be chosen
to replace them as pop heroes or nobodies, all depending. There will be
coups and revolutions, and the planet will suffer droughts and
hurricanes and tornadoes. There will be a bumper crop of (take your
pick) wheat, corn, sugar, rice, coffee, cocoa, soy beans. And, on the
downside, somewhere in this world there will be an utter devastation in
one or more of the above commodities. In the midst of smoke and war,
people will still smile and laugh and find time to fall in love, and of
course babies will be born out of all of this-- wonderful, pink, black,
brown, yellow, adorable, brilliant, precocious babies (are there any
Years ago, when I lived in
New England, the idea that I knew folks who made a living charting the
movements of stars and extrapolating what the future will look like
tomorrow, well, let me tell you, those rational ladies and gentlemen
would harrumph me out of town if I ever said something as unscientific
like that. And they are right, too. God doesn't shoot dice, and I would
probably not be alive today if I lived by superstition alone, if I
didn't take my pills when I was sick, if I refused to pay attention to
the lesson learned by touching a hot stove.
And I would also be remiss
if I paid no heed to the wisdom of stories and great literature. I don't
know whether I would have died earlier, but surely my life would be
greatly diminished, worth little or nothing. What I'm trying to say is,
if you believe in astrology, it's okay. And if you believe in science,
fine. And if you believe in anything at all you're better off than those
poor souls who have nothing but their wallets and credit cards to cling
to. Me, I believe in every bit of it--words and science and stars and
myth and music; it's what makes my world go round; it keeps things
vibrant and beautiful.
Let me be the first then to
wish you all a happy and sane 2014. It's right around the corner. And
unless something goes dreadfully wrong in the physical universe between
now and then you can bet on it, just like the next hurricane or the next
We've raised enough money to install a lovely bronze plaque in the Reading Garden in honor of our dear, departed friend, Reva Metzger, who was so instrumental in its creation. Reva loved art and literature and beauty. Even more to the point, she loved independent bookstores like ours, and was determined to do something tangible to see that we were an enduring presence in this town. Reva organized, schmoozed and wrangled an intrepid band of our customers and friends into building the Reading Garden. Without her heroic efforts our back yard would still be a desolate patch of mud and weeds. Now it's an elegant space with a gurgling fountain and flowers; and as long as Readers' Books is still around, it's open to the public to enjoy. Next time you're in, we invite you to step into the Reading Garden and look at Reva's plaque. We think it speaks to who she was and what she cared so much about, and we're proud that we got to spend a little time with her on this earth.
If you're like me (and I can't imagine you are) then about now you're fretting over the future of work. Work is something I've largely taken for granted all these years, perhaps because when I was young my mother was always creating strange and onerous tasks I could do to obtain my allowance, and now at the bookstore it is just a given. I have no need for schedules: every day I get up, put my pants on, and go to work. Then, when I feel like I've done enough damage-usually after 8 or 10 hours-I turn around, go home, and collapse. For me, at least, it's simple. I have work, or the illusion of work, which keeps me happy and provides something useful to the public in return.
But for many others I know it isn't simple at all. They struggle to find enough work to fill their days, something that will pay the rent and put food on the table. Never mind about "meaningful" work; it doesn't matter that you have a master's degree in economics or mass communications. No, what counts is you're fast at bagging groceries or blowing leaves off golf courses. This isn't to demean those jobs; someone has to do them and I suppose one can glean a certain amount of pride in a job--any job--well done. I get that. In fact, some of the best moments I have at the bookstore involve taking out the trash or sweeping up the Reading Garden. But we seem to be edging closer and closer to a brave new time in which there simply isn't enough work to go around. Then what?
Jeremy Rifkin probed this phenomenon years ago in his book, The End of Work. Automation was not nearly at the flood stage that it is today, and Rifkin envisioned a world in which, although many fewer people had traditional jobs, lots of other folks could find satisfaction doing social good--planting forests, picking up litter, caring for the elderly, being foster parents, etc. These activities would have to be funded by governmental agencies, naturally, because the chief element of capitalism--profit--would likely be missing. Of course, the doers in society would have to acquiesce in this arrangement, because they would be taxed more heavily in order to afford this caring society, which, when you think about it, looks an awful lot like Sweden.
Maybe we're headed that way, but it would require a lot more Americans to get along with one another than there are at the moment. We'd all have to wake up one day and acknowledge what we have in common, which is tricky in a place where so many people are so estranged, where there are so many different drummers on cable TV and the internet, where ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation are all over the map.
Personally, I have no problem being Swedish. But then I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a job.