Saturday, September 26, 2020

US vs THEM, AND WHY WE SHOULD FEEL GOOD

 



The smart people seem awfully smart this morning. There’s a lot of writing in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, Slate, and the Atlantic – not to mention all those other publications I land on as a result of clicking on articles based on other articles I’ve clicked on – all about the end of American democracy. Even the National Review. Who knew?

And these articles and editorials contain even more circular sentences and qualifiers and caveats than usual, so it must be getting pretty bad out there.

I’m getting pretty sick of myself for reading this stuff.

I’m also starting to wonder how I let this happen. How did I allow my life to be consumed by wandering around in this particular Dante’s Inferno, led not by Virgil but by Frank Bruni of the New York Times? Or maybe it’s Michelle Goldberg. Whoever it is, I know that I don’t belong here, because I am, at the end of the day, an Us and not a Them.

Yes, there really is an Us vs Them. A Division of Humanity. We’re not supposed to say that but I’m telling you such a thing exists. That’s why I put the D and H capital letters in there.

This Division of Humanity is something I woke up to around the age of ten or eleven, and I have held to it since, with more less intense belief depending on how stupid I was at the time.

The Division of Humanity (Us vs. Them) transcends all nationalities, races, genders, who you want to have sex with, who you don’t, yadda yadda yadda. It is All Powerful. It is also, as the name suggests, the All Dividing Force Between Peoples on the Earth Since the Beginning of Time (no acronym).

So what does it divide? Well, on one side of the line we have Donald Trump, almost all rabid business types, stock traders, bankers, certainly every evangelical leader I ever heard of, and pretty much every single teacher and administrator at Milneford Junior High school when I was there from 1977-1979.

On the other side we have an understanding of pie. Etsy. The ice man. Charlie McCarthy recordings. Paintings. Gene Krupa. Poetry.

And let me be clear: the fight isn’t even fair. The Trump guys and Business Types will be clobbered. They always are. It’s just that right now, for some reason, humanity seems to have slipped on the curb, and while trying to clear its head, has forgotten just how powerful the forces of “Us” are against the forces of “Them.”

If you want, you can call the “Them” totalitarians or autocrats. I think of them as the Humorless Sure. As the name suggests, these are people who are almost entirely humorless and yet absolutely sure of themselves. A terrific example of this would be the current Attorney General of the United States, William Barr.

In addition to his spooky resemblance to the Burgermeister Meisterburger in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Barr is the living embodiment of Humorless Sure. As the name suggests, he is utterly humorless and absolutely sure that he is right. He is unwilling and unyielding. He just knows. Trying to imagine this guy chuckling and laughing at his own past mistakes (“Boy, did I make an ass of myself that night!”) is impossible. Trump is another living embodiment of this principle, although his drives are slightly more desperate and vaguely human: money, power, controlling and exploiting people, humiliating women. Trump’s minions and winged monkeys popped out of the same gross mold: Stephen Miller, Chad Wolf, Peter Navarro, and so on. All soldiers of the Humorless Sure. Certainly every banker I ever met comes from this world, and places like Fidelity Investments actually breed these people in the back room.

Unfortunately, the Humorless Sure are not only legion, but due to their slow-witted doggedness, they usually wind up running most of our public institutions. They also usually wind up the first guest on “Meet the Press” every week.

So, if that’s “Them,” then who are “Us”? And why should we feel good and all powerful against such a seemingly indomitable foe? And where does Charlie McCarthy, a ventriloquist dummy, fit into all this?

Well, Charlie McCarthy fits into this because somewhere in the early 1970’s someone in charge of audio-visuals at the North York Public Library system (someone who was, certainly, an “Us”) ordered up Vintage Classic Radio albums. Two albums I laid my hands on were 1938 transcriptions of “The Chase and Sanborn Show”, starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. It was a radio comedy variety show and it had celebrity guests and yes, the absurdity was that it was a ventriloquist on the radio, but an important fact is that it was funny and the most important fact is that I loved it. I was ten. It was 1974. In the real world, Watergate was consuming the Humorless Sure, but I was upstairs in my room with the door closed, drawing pictures or playing with G.I. Joes and listening endlessly to Charlie McCarthy.

There is no sense to this. It was just a passion, and it grew into other passions that in time overwhelmed me: books, theatre, movies, arguments, paintings, travel, you name it.

In direct corollary, there exists on this planet a guy who, also around 1974, was getting his PhD in geology. I have seen this man on many a science-based documentary show. He lives in the Arctic and measures ice flow and sediment so that he can determine – from one six- inch sample of ice – just what the weather was like for our dinosaur friends 65 million years ago. Okay, that’s pretty spectacular and mind boggling, but what’s most exciting is just how excited he is by the fact that he’s able to do this. I mean, you watch him explaining to David Attenborough just how ice particles can give us insight into weather conditions millions of years ago and you know you are looking at an obsessive, crazed, irrational person who is 100% alive.

Now let’s go back to 1938, the same year that the Charlie McCarthy shows were recorded. In that year, jazz clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman performed at Carnegie Hall with some of the finest musicians in jazz, essentially shattering the classical ceiling and legitimizing the form. But that’s not what’s great. What’s great is that after Teddy Wilson does an astonishing piano run, drummer Gene Krupa comes in out of nowhere and “kicks” the entire performance into some other stratosphere – it lifts my heart to even think of it – and at the end of Krupa’s run, Benny Goodman shouts, I mean shouts, in front of all those swells in tuxedos, “YES!” Benny can’t control himself. He is so excited by what his fellow musicians have done that he is 100% alive.

There was a wonderful woman at the church I used to attend who was so serious about baking pies, so proud of the sheer artistry of it, that she took a whole week off work to get ready for the fete, then stayed up the night before because she knew – knew – that the rhubarb hadn’t come out right, but if she stayed up and could finish it by 6 a.m. she could get it right. She dragged herself in at 8, with her boxes of pies, as alive as Benny Goodman, or the ice man, or me.

I knew of a guy who went to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art every weekend to look at the same painting. Just that one.

Masa Takayama is a famous sushi chef who says he goes to bed dreaming about sushi. He wants to perfect it, and he has yet to do it. He gets up at 4 every morning to greet the fresh catch coming in off the dock in San Francisco.

On Etsy, people are selling the most amazing jewelry they have made with incredible love and devotion, or clothing, or artwork. But the best part is, they want to hear from you, and they want to know that you love what they made.

Painter Tom Tomson kept painting the same shoreline.

This is the “Us.” We must cherish the power of "Us", because it is all powerful against “Them.” We are the ones who believe in pie and love, the magical rise of the clarinet in “Rhapsody in Blue” and that heart-stopping descent into the melody; we read the same poem over and over to people we love; we are awed by the Northern Lights, but are just as staggered by the light behind the tree in our backyard during a summer sunrise and the miracle of the first magical snowy morning in winter. There is a global unity between those of us who are able to tune in to this particular radio station and lie by water somewhere and read a book and disappear from this earth - versus those who can’t.

I don’t know why they can’t. I wish they could, because the people who can’t tune in to our particular bandwidth create most of the problems in this world. They certainly create all the war and devastation and famine, usually in the name of some completely idiotic cause. We must watch out for these people, the Humorless Sure, and pay attention to what they are doing, but we must never allow them to trip us up and distract us from our God given, or Nature Given, or Mother given, insight into what really matters in this life.

I once watched a woman walk straight down Fifth Avenue after a New York snowstorm had left the streets barren of all traffic. She was a black dot against the white snow. She twirled her umbrella. I never thought I’d seen anything more beautiful.

This, in the end, is what matters.




Saturday, September 19, 2020

AMERICA HAS TO GET RID OF ONE GUY



If this country is to continue in any form worth living in, Americans -- the most privileged, hopeful, ill-educated, industrious, ingenious, and prejudiced people in history – are going to have to do three things that seem beyond them at the moment.

1)    They are going to have to learn about the actual political structures which rule their lives.

2)    They are going to have to fix them.

      3)    They are going to have to be less naïve.

The last one is going to be the hardest. The naïve thing. 

Go across America. Talk to real Americans. I don’t mean people who read or are published in the New York Times, I mean people at a gas station or at Subway. Here’s the truth: if you scratch any American, they bleed the flag. If you ask them how the country is going to overcome some terrific challenge, the solution is, "But this is America.” And when presented with ugly truths about how the nation treats its people, the defense is almost always, “But this is greatest nation on earth.”

The country has to get rid of this bullshit. Especially that absurdity about the greatest nation on earth. As if there’s a contest going on. Like Ford vs. Ferrari. 

Most importantly, I think, America has to reckon with the ugly reality that for a nation that touts its democracy, it is ludicrously susceptible to what I consider the “one guy” killer bullet. Which isn’t democracy at all.

Here's what I mean.  Ask yourself if this makes sense:

It’s possible the rights of all women are going to be pushed back more than a generation and even the reasoning of basic judicial liberalism. Why? Because Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.  One guy.

Who is going to decide if a new Supreme Court nominee goes to the Senate floor and when to bring about these draconian changes? Mitch McConnell.  One guy.

Prior to Ginsburg’s passing, in the almost sure event that the Presidential election is challenged and it winds up in the Supreme Court a la Bush v Gore, who would decide who should be the next President of the United Sates and determine the future of the nation? John Roberts. One guy.  (By the way, we used to think these decisions belonged in the House, but screw that, let’s go for the one guy thing; it’s easier).

While we’re at it: the Supreme Court did indeed put George Bush in the Presidency by a 5-4 vote. Meaning, one guy. This gave us the two longest and most mindless wars in American history, along with all sorts of other atrocities based on sheer hubris and incompetence. Caused by?  One guy.

And, most obviously, who has effectively – and purposefully -- ripped the country apart in the last four years, while allowing his psychopathic selfishness and sheer incompetence to kill more than 200,000 Americans thus far (along with his other crimes)? Donald Trump.  One guy.  

Why wasn’t this mentally ill man stopped by anyone in, say, the Senate? Mitch McConnell.  One guy.

Why hasn’t the Justice Department done anything? William Barr. One guy

We can’t we even run across the border and escape to Canada or hop a plane to Europe to escape all this madness?  One guy.

I ask you, is this any way to run a railroad?  

So why doesn’t anyone jump up and down? I don’t mean just about Trump or McConnell or Barr per se, but about the very system that would allow so very few to run roughshod over the chances of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for so very many?

Well, obviously because the very many don’t realize that the system itself is the problem. And it was from the very beginning.  Like the Pinto, this thing was built with some really fundamental problems.  

But the reason they don’t know this is because Americans are taught -- from the moment they enter kindergarten – that the American system is the greatest system in the world bar none, end of discussion, nothing more to say, put a cap on that one. 

And if you doubt what school taught you, no worries: later in life you’ll get historians like Jon Meacham or Michael Beschloss to assure us all that America has faced much worse than this and everything is going to be okay.  Usually this is delivered with a smile and a twinkle and an indulgent chuckle because, after all, having read so many books, they know and you don’t. (You know, I like Meacham, I’ve read his books, but is he paid a nickel every time he tells us all that the misery we’re living through is nothing, nothing, and when does he start to wonder if maybe he’s wrong in this post nuclear age or perhaps insensitive?)

I’m telling you, it’s a country of the naïve and hopeful. And those who are supposed to give us the goods are among the most naïve of all.

Naive: how about the Mueller Report coming to save us all?

How about Senator Susan Collins’ explanation for her voting against Trump’s impeachment? “I believe has learned from this case. The President has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.” 

Let's go back a few years, so this doesn't all become Trump era centric.  

Who said this, right before the Iraq War?  Question: “What if we go into Iraq and there are no Weapons of mass Destruction?” Answer: “I think the chance of that happening are about zero.”  Bob Woodward. Yes, that Bob Woodward.

While we’re on life right at the start of the Iraq War, who made this cringe-inducing statement?  "George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where and he'll make the call." Answer: Dan Rather. Jesus, Dan.  What did you even mean? (And yes, he was the CBS anchor at the time).

How about NBC's Chuck Todd’s 2019 astonishing admission to Rolling Stone that he recently realized he’d been wrong in his assessment of how politics in general works in Washington? The article was clear: “Republican strategy, [Todd] now realized, was to make stuff up, spread it on social media, repeat it in your answers to journalists — even when you know it’s a lie with crumbs of truth mixed in — and then convert whatever controversy arises into go-get-em points with the base.” Todd admitted he was “naïve” about this kind of disinformation campaign.

But it isn’t just Chuck. It’s everyone. Witness the shock over Trump’s statements about the military and his lies about COVID weighed against his core and basic indecency. Why in the world is anyone surprised?

Bringing it back to my three points about what America is going to have to do if it’s remain relevant, or even alive, in the next generation:

Learn about its structures.

Fix them.

 Be less naïve.

To fix this, I’ve invented a couple of basic solutions everyone should consider in order to fix this busted hot water heater of a country.  In no particular order:

1)    learn that the President of the United States is not supposed to be a King or Daddy.  There are three equal branches of government. And get rid of the plane and the song when he enters a room. 

2)    admit that all three of these branches are hopelessly corrupt and broken.

3)    the Supreme Court, in particular, is one of the most political bodies imaginable. Get rid of the 9 Justice nonsense and give the House a role in advising and consenting on judicial appointments.

4)    teach civics in school.

5)    consider that people on TV might be full of shit.

6)    read.

If the people of the United States took any of these five ideas to heart and acted on any of them, imagine how things might change.  For one thing, people might stop jumping up and down and screaming like hyenas at rallies while wearing red Maga hats; pundits on cable news might stop fear-mongering over “the end of democracy” because one small, powerful, admirable, but not irreplaceable woman died at 87. 

Oh, and we might stop stumbling around and actually do something about the 800-1000 people dying daily and a case-rate of 30-40,000 a day becoming infected with COVID 19. 300,000 by the end of the year.

But we won’t do any of these things.  And you want to know why?  Because “greatest country on earth.”

 

Monday, September 14, 2020

A NICE READ, ABOUT BEING A BOOK WHORE AND ITS VALUES


As we continue to slodge our way through the Lovecraftian horror that is 2020, and as I idiotically continue to watch cable news, my fascination with being able to see inside the homes of news pundits grows. This fascination, though, isn’t limited to their living rooms, too-neat kitchens, or spookily exact décor; I’m into bookshelves. Everyone, it seems, wishes to be photographed in front of a bookshelf, presumably to show just how damned bookish they are.

They are right about one thing: bookshelf set-up tells us a lot. I have divided the people on TV into groups.
 
1) “Books as Decor” book people. These folks have bookshelves that seem more like décor than a place to store books that have actually been read. Usually vases and knick knacks share the shelves with the printed volumes. Worse, books are neatly organized by size, sometimes only six or even or eight to a shelf. This is absurd.
 
2) “Too Neat” book people. More books here than the décor people, but things still look too uniform and there is no spillover – meaning, no books that had to be stacked horizontally on top of vertical books due to just sheer unwise accumulation.
 
3) “Promoter” book people. I admire this! These are folks who have clearly decided to kill two birds. If you’re going to be on MSNBC or CNN, may as well turn your own book cover out to the camera, and if one copy, why not two or three? All good. And, if they haven’t written a book themselves that must be plugged, sometimes it’s a social agenda. Talking about Black Lives Matter often means the viewer peering at book covers of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, MLK. This is laudable.
 
But sometimes the pundits reveal more than they probably wish to, their very bookshelf choices giving us greater insight into their insecurities – or their misunderstanding about what being a book person is -- than their intellect.
 
I’ll go a step further. I think their book choices tell us exactly why we are all currently starring in the political, sociological, economic, and medical shitshow in which we find ourselves. Here’s why:
 
The great political movers and shakers out there, the commanders of our legal system, the chroniclers of our moral dilemmas, the journalists and social philosophers and economists, are all reading exactly the same things.
 
Don’t even think of challenging me here on the question of proof. I have what many loved ones have said is not just a photographic memory (not true), but also a wickedly sharp eye for book art. I know my spines and covers. If I own it, I know it; if I’ve taken it out of the library, it’s seared in my brain.
 
So I can tell you that everyone on cable news – everyone -- owns Robert Caro’s three exhaustive explorations of the character of Lyndon Johnson, just as everyone has a tastefully laid out copy of David Blight’s book on Frederick Douglass. This is a fine book, but I’d literally play Russian roulette against odds of anyone having read it all the way through. I guarantee you I’d be standing at the end of it.
 
It appears everyone also owns a copy of “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and there is a surprising amount of interest in Eisenhower, but only tastefully so, and occasionally Winston Churchill walking with destiny. Bob Woodward has never written a book anyone has read all the way through, yet his last book, “Fear”, is exceedingly well represented. And so on. My point is this:
 
It’s all one subject.
 
Seriously. Is this all our social architects read? Or buy?  Wait. The rub may be even worse than that. Consider that most of them know one another, so half of the books on their shelves are probably freebies from their also-author friends, or sent by publishers looking for a blurb. You add that calculus in and things start to look very bleak indeed.
 
I hope I’m not taking potshots unfairly, but the uniformity in bookshelving and books themselves and the uniformity in our social thinking suggests something to me.
 
For this reason, perhaps, my favorite bookshelf by far belongs to – of all people – Robert Gates, ex-Secretary of Defense, Air Force, Republican, super straight establishment dude. And yes, he has the same books as everyone else so yes, his club membership in The Club is solid, but there, over his right shoulder, yes, is a book on W.C. Fields. Not one, but perhaps two! How fascinating is that?
 
Therefore, as a result of all my biblio-voyeurism, I’ve invented a theory that goes something like this: the state of the world is due not to dummies who don’t read (we have always had dummies who don’t read), but due to smarties who don’t know how to read. I propose that their lack of understanding of reading, in fact, of the very joy of reading, has led to where we are today because their tastes and insights just aren't broad enough.
 
To be clear, I’m guessing that the joy of reading is like hardcore drug use. Those who know how great it feels are in a sort of brotherhood the rest of us can’t imagine. Sadly, more and more readers are having to come to grips with just how similar and exclusive our little club – which once ruled the world -- is becoming. Like the Masons.
 
In his terrific book “Deep South”, Paul Theroux chronicles his journeys through the towns and homes of the pre-Trump American South. One of his side observations is just how few bookshelves he sees, with even fewer books. Then, when Paul comes across a fellow writer and visits his book-challenged home, they immediately launch into a language which Paul suggests a non-reader simply can’t comprehend or even appreciate. Not particularly high falutin stuff, Paul points out, but a shared language some of us simply learned and others didn’t.
 
I was given this language from birth. I grew up in a world where everyone read as a purely utilitarian function. My grandparents read sitting side by side in their over-stuffed den chairs; crappy romance novels for my Nana and impenetrable Scottish history or political biographies for Papa. My mother seemed to read every paperback the convenience store or drugstore offered. She literally bought a book on her way home from work, and as a result read a lot of lurid crap. The most important thing, though, is that I saw her reading. She even set her alarm in the morning so she could read for an hour before going to work. In winter this meant she had to turn her bedside lamp back on.
 
I got extremely lucky in my own life. I wound up with a childhood and lifelong friend who read just as much as I did. Joel and I would pass companionable afternoons or whole days reading comic books or novels or whatever was at hand. By the time we were teenagers and had a social group, this made us different: we knew the language others did not, and if I was more of a traditionalist in my literary tastes and he was more adventurous and erudite, so be it. We were readers. Often we wound up reading the same book at the same time, and our back-and-forth on these are some of the best memories I have.
 
It must be clear that from this background, books were not a reflection of one’s intellectual adventurism or aspirations, but a tool. A screwdriver. Simply necessary, and so central that it wasn’t worth commenting on.
 
It would be inconceivable, for instance, to leave the house on any mission without a book. I would not head off to see a baseball game without a dog-eared paperback, simply due to the lineups and pitching changes; going to the bank (back when you did, and back when their were lineups) certainly involved a book, as did going to doctor or dentist. Subway journeys without a book would be absurd.
 
Once I had kids, books became even more important. There was, for instance, “the car book” jammed into the driver’s side door. This was hauled out while lounging in parking lots waiting for kid’s soccer games to finish, or dance recitals, or any after- school activity. The car book often stayed jammed in there for years. For a long time it was the life of Benjamin Franklin, then it was Ludlum’s “The Scarlatti Inheritance” – why that book? Who knows? Where did it come from? Who knows -- and currently I think it’s one of the Bourne books. I will neither finish nor get very far in these very poorly treated paperbacks; they are there to massage the time away.
 
And cottage books? Honestly, is there anything better than the water-puffed paperbacks discovered at the cottage?  Anne Rice, Colleen McCullough, or Ken Follett?
 
What all this has led to is a sort of catholicism about the printed word, particularly fiction. “Catholicism” may be too grand a word. “Whoredom” might be more like it. By and large, I think biblio whoredom is good for you, although sometimes I worry about the depth of my own weakness. Years ago, for instance, I did a book purge which haunts me to this day; worse, not just that I anguish over having lost my copy of “Airport,” but that I despair having lost my copy of “Hotel”!
 
My friend Joel says that the best time to read is when you’re eleven, your feet up on the wall. While this is hard to argue, I might go back further and say that being under the covers reading “Charlotte’s Web” on your own is pretty dammed solid, as was being ten, reading teenage hotrod novels (they existed). Later came tomes that ate away whole weekends of my teenagehood. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve read everything Herman Wouk wrote before 1980, and not just “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” but “Marjorie Morningstar”!  How can I explain this, really, to anyone? 
 
Well, I can say that it’s core to my belief that there should be no good taste or planning in reading. While I can claim truthfully that I’ve read all of Hemingway and all of Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Poe, and huge swathes of 19th century English literature and plays galore (I once wondered if I’d read more plays than novels) how do I justify having read all of Sinclair Lewis but also such a staggeringly unhealthy amount of Hamish Macbeth?
 
Well, I do have a justification. I came up with it years ago when school and teachers first began to suck my kids into the vortex of “these are important books” and “these are not important books”, the means by which American educators destroy the notion of educating. I invented a rule which goes like this:
 
What kind of books should your kids read? Answer: any damned book they want.
 
Looking at the miserable mess of the world around us, I can’t help but wish that our supersmart leaders and the pundits on TV had subscribed to this rule, and without shame.  Yes, put that Frederick Douglass book up there, but don’t feel bad about putting the Sidney Sheldon collection up beside it. We learn and expand from the breadth of our reading choices, and our comfort with reading, not just the titles. And by the way, if everyone had read Nora Roberts series “Year One” we might not be in this pandemic mess to begin with! Check it out and you’ll see what I mean. (Nora and Stephen King, by the way, seem to have nailed the twenty-first century pretty well so far).
 
So here’s where I stand: God bless Robert Gates for his W.C. Fields books. On that basis alone, that is the man who should be President of the United States. Certainly I would sleep better at night, after, of course, having closed my book and turned out my light.




 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

THE CONTINUING STORY OF THE DEATH OF JEROME AND RUSTY, PART 1:

 

Astonishing picture of my sister circa... 1970?  As unearthed and sent by our wonderful neighbor just this year!


THE HEROINE

When I first heard the reports of what George Floyd said while he was being murdered by Minneapolis law enforcement, a lightning strike went off in my head. In that strike I saw in perfect detail why the nation of Canada was able to feel sad about my father’s passing and even grieve for him, while his own children were unable to do so. And still can’t.  Today is the anniversary of his death.

Then, as is the nature of lightning strikes, everything went dark again. Which meant I was stumbling around in confusion, wondering how in the hell I had managed to link the enormously significant and politically charged national tragedy of yet another Black man in his forties being coolly murdered by the cops to my 89 year-old father, Rod Coneybeare, puppeteer and writer-performer, the voice behind Rusty and Jerome on CBC’s “The Friendly Giant”, who died a relatively good death after an entirely privileged life.
 
I literally had two months or so of trying to find the answer to this puzzle, fumbling around like you do when you’re trying to remember a dream. But then, when I heard about another Black victim crying for his grandmother while he was being murdered by cops, it came to me. Embarrassing or even blasphemous as it is to make such connections, I’m going to offer it up:
 
It’s about decency in this most indecent age.
 
George Floyd calling for “Momma” as he takes his last breath is a plea simple and clear; it’s poetry, not prose. You know what it is without being able to explain it. Most of us can picture Momma without needing the details.
 
And don’t kid yourself. George Floyd’s plea made a lot of men wonder privately who they would call out for when someone is killing them. Certainly, I pondered it. Sadly, my own mother – lovely as she was in so many ways – didn’t make the cut; her alcoholism and many other problems didn’t make her that kind of savior. Her mother, however, might make the cut. I wondered; would I call out for Old Nana as a representative of the justice system cut off my last gulp of air for all eternity?  (I excuse anybody I’ve met as an adult; I think that primordial cry is a little boy’s cry and it’s yanked out of us by the time we’re about ten).
 
And that got me thinking about Momma in general. I am nine years older than George Floyd, and I know nothing about him beyond what I’ve read, but I am absolutely sure I know Momma. I think I grew up with her, if you exclude certain cultural contrasts. And I suspect that while she still exists now, she will soon be part of a lost breed. So I want to say something about her before she goes.
 
I grew up in an immigrant family, meaning my grandparents were off the boat from Scotland.  We spent a tremendous amount of time with them. Mathematically and sociologically that means - as I’ve pointed out to my kids - that my two brothers and one sister and myself were pretty much raised by people who were born almost one hundred and twenty years ago. Think of that. They moved to Canada after the Great War (before we numbered them; think of that as well).
 
As hip kids born in the 1960’s, we of course were hugely embarrassed by them, even as we loved them without question. Their accents were thick and their manners were old fashioned and courtly. My Papa (pronounced Pup-AH) collected coins; Nana ruled the kitchen and, far as I could tell, the household in general. The rules were very set, although to my amazement, Papa learned to cook - albeit under Nana’s watchful and distrustful eye -  after her heart attack in 1977.
 
We, of course, were very far removed from these working-class Scots in our manners and behavior. My sister, Susannah, would seem the most removed. First, she had dead straight long blonde hair which resembled no one else in our family – kind of like the girl in Poltergeist. And she had all the groovy stuff a lucky girl born in the early 60’s had; a fun-fur rug in her bedroom, a peace symbol necklace, and most prized, a suitcase record player that rang out with “Yo Yo” by the Osmond’s or “ABC” by the Jackson Five. This was happening stuff.
 
And yet... And yet.
 
My image of my sister as a girl of ten or eleven or twelve is how she helped the ladies pour tea at those interminable wedding anniversaries (of relatives we’d never heard of), or at funeral receptions of those we knew all too well. A few years later, she knew exactly how to graciously greet the grieving and make the oldsters feel better in general. She knew what size to cut the cakes and crustless sandwiches and how high to fill the teacups (not too high, because folks were getting on in years, and a rattling teacup means embarrassing splash).
 
This was not unique to my sister. All the women in my family seemed to do things like this. Our cousin Judy almost surely did the same thing; in fact, even though I haven’t laid eyes on her in forty years, I’ll bet the farm that Judy knows exactly how to manage a funeral reception, tea cups, and sandwich sizes.
 
And, perhaps most importantly, with some sort of weird super timing, these women seemed to know when they were ‘needed.’ This was a mysterious phrase, but everyone knew what it meant, and it usually applied to older women in the family. Aunt Meg Dingwall – who I swear was 112 when I was born -- ‘needed’ visiting or caring for, and of course the ultimate needing was when someone was medically infirmed. At these times, the Army of Capable Scottish Women moved pretty much like the 82nd Airborne, and care and the protective cordon were put in place. And somehow they all knew exactly what to do and did it without question or thought of self. And everything was taken care of, particularly in the area of mysterious (and to we boys, gooshy) things such as getting new nighties at Eaton’s and hot water bottles and medicines I don’t want to consider even now.
 
I watched my mother care for her Aunt Mary when she got sick with cancer, and for two miraculous months my mother didn’t touch a drop of liquor but instead slept in the hospital to be with this terrified woman in her 80’s – who as far as I knew hadn’t really done much in life but twitter like a Monty Python guy-in-drag character and read Harlequin romances. But my mother, of course, saw a different woman; smartly dressed, capable, holding a job in 1942 and taking ten-year-old Beth on the streetcar to the Palace or Oxford movie theatre on the Danforth.
 
My mother’s cousin Mary did the same, and in fact I believe she made sure that her own mother lived with her until the day she died, despite all the challenges you can imagine that involved. But she did it. This is remarkable.
 
My sister was, of course, my sister and a terrific companion she was; I think we are the only brother-sister I ever heard of who left home and moved into our own apartment together. It was the early 1980’s so we partied, drank, listened to Let’s Dance and Cyndi Lauper over and over again, and yet.. And yet…
 
Our Great Aunt Meg fell and broke her hip, age 80 something. I got to the hospital before my sister (I can’t remember why) and found a circle of relatives around Meg’s bed. Meg looked rough. Her eyes were bruised, and she had a kind of palsy and she looked very confused about where she was. She thought my Papa was the cab driver, which was kind of a bitter pill for a man who had driven his wife’s sisters around his entire married life. But the most startling thing was that some candy-striper (did they exist then? I think they did) had put a pink bow in Meg’s iron grey wisps of hair.
 
Now, Meg was not a pink bow kind of gal. For one thing, she cackled and hit. A lot. She was crafty and paid we teenage boys to walk her up the icy sidewalk to her apartment house door – but she only paid you after you got her up there. A character, but not a pink bow character.
 
So, we were all standing around like idiots not sure what to do and suddenly in strode my sister, full of 22-year-old energy. “Aunt Meg, what’s going on here??” And without blinking an eye, Meg suddenly snaps into coherence and says, “Susie, get this bow out of my hair!” 
 
Which, of course, Susannah did.
 
Just as she went running off to our Nana and Papa’s apartment when they began to fall. Just as she went to The Bay to get nighties for Nana once they moved into the old folks home they swore they’d never need (“it has to be the Bay or Simpsons, she’ll know the difference if I try Zellers”); just as she went with our own mother to all those appointments that, in time, spelled the death knell of cancer. She and my wife, born the same year, took charge of my mother and once again it was all about taking care, nighties (again!), overseeing medical care and medication, diet and comfort. I watched them do this with a kind of wonder, and yet it didn’t occur to me – for one second – that I was watching a dying breed. My wife, my sister, my cousin Judy, my mother, my Nana, Aunt Meg and Mary, Judy’s mother Mary, all a dying breed. And this year, I was to learn, I fear a misunderstood breed.
 
That scene with Meg and the pink bow must have been in the mid 1980’s. Aunt Mary dying of cancer was a few years later. My own Nana was mid 90’s and my own mother died in 2002. A lot has happened since then, and much for it for the better. Certainly society no longer expects women to fit into such rigid roles, and what we expect and don’t expect from women has become, I hope, a hell of a lot more realistic – although I’d like to point out that my own wife, as a result of caring for both my mother and her own mother through terminal cancer, came to the conclusion that “what I’m really good at is taking care of people”, and thus this year, after half a decade at UCLA and California State, works as a cardiac nurse at Cedars Sinai Beverly Hills and just graduated as a Nurse Practitioner.
 
But still, something has shifted. There is no better proof than the death of my father last year, which garnered national attention and national applause for his accomplishments. The applause, of course, should have gone to my sister, for not only did she see my father through his own illness, but she took my dad’s wife of forty years – her stepmother – and saved her life. It turns out my stepmother was seriously ill on a number of fronts, and my sister did what her lifetime had told her to do without question: she rolled up her sleeves and booked doctors appointments and got a hip replacement organized and negotiated residency at one of the finest seniors homes in the province and took over all of my stepmother’s business affairs which she clearly couldn’t manage on her own. Again, of course, ‘nighties’ came into the picture somewhere.
 
As it turns out, however, in 2020, these actions were a mistake. Today, in reward for this care, my sister is the subject of all sorts of threatened legal action and is being drained dry financially. Her name has been impugned, and my stepmother – who, despite being legally declared incapable of handling her own affairs – has a lawyer, perhaps hired by, of all people, her neighbors!
 
The sorrow for me isn’t in this madness per se – although it’s pretty “Stepford” on the part of the neighbors -- but in what it has done to my sister. She knew exactly what to do under the old rules, but the cruelty, character assassination, and presumption of venality under the new rules are something she really can’t get her head around. Nor can I really, and that’s saying something. But here’s what it comes down to: at one point in this world we assumed that family rallied around its most troubled members as part of duty; now our society assumes that if you’re helping out Aunt Sadie it’s for money or some other gross gain.  It’s like Trump standing at Arlington Cemetery, literally unable to fathom why people would commit to something larger than themselves, when in fact the answer is right before him: because it’s the right thing to do.  
 
And that’s when the lightning struck about Momma. George Floyd was crying out for the woman – or women – who cared for us without thought of reward and loved us and were the backbone of our families; who made our last names mean something and our sense of duty selfless. I know George Floyd’s Momma because I know my sister, just as surely as I know whose name I would call out in desperation as someone tries to take my last breath: my sister, with the astonishingly straight long blonde hair, who knew exactly where to buy the right nighties and how to plump the pillow and how much to fill the teacup.

We are losing a lot in this COVID world, and one of those things is the ability to imagine that we might be wrong.  We so want to be right that we are warp speed fast at suspecting and condemning.  And why not?  Just about every institution has let us down. But we ought to be careful about our actual people. Momma.  My sister.  People who take care of us, who have chosen by tradition or by sheer decency of character to do the real work no one else will do.  They deserve at least our consideration, even if we can no longer muscle up basic respect. After all, these people will not be with us long. 

 

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