Serious Literature and Me

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The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to read “serious literature”–nongenre fiction. I find it full of people whose problems seem to me ones that could be easily solved by a bit of rationality, a soupçon of imagination or thinking outside whatever box society or they themselves have put them in, and application of the maxim “It’s not all about you.”

I have always been interested in psychology, and quite good at it in an amateur way, but I would be a terrible therapist. After two or three sessions, all my professional knowledge probably could not keep me from slapping the client upside the head, and, like Cher’s character in Moonstruck, shouting, “Snap out of it!” Here’s your problem, here’s what you can do about it, now go and do it or not, but don’t come back to me.

Or maybe not. I’m usually able not to do that to my friends and acquaintances who confide in me. And they do confide. When I was 14, my boyfriend said, “If everyone was a body part, you’d be a shoulder”–because everyone, even my mother, leaned on me and cried on me. (My mother told me when I was an adult, regarding this, “You were always such a certain little thing.”) I have a strong component of what some women complain is a male characteristic: tell me a problem and I immediately start trying to solve it. I try to control that since becoming aware that some people just want to be listened to, but for myself I have usually not told people my problems unless I would welcome their suggestions.

My spouse and I are far from perfect people and we have flaws and problems like most, but we often agree that people make things unnecessarily hard on themselves, and others, by failure to use the three tools listed in my first paragraph (rationality, imagination, it’s not all about you, repeat as needed). We humans are puny little creatures, and the universe has so many ways to make us suffer, to kill us–why do we do it to each other?

So when I try to read nongenre fiction, I often want to throw the book across the room–the reading equivalent of Cher’s slap–by the third chapter. Yes, these books often reveal the human condition, near-universal truths about us puny creatures, and that’s why I can’t read them. At least with real humans, should the right situation arise, I can say some kinder version of “Snap out of it!”



Child development, critical thinking, parenting

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From my reading of history–the history of ordinary people living ordinary lives–and my own observation and experience, and contrary to what many “experts” claim, I think that teens of at least near-normal intellectual development would be capable of some basic critical thinking if it was introduced to them and expected of them from the beginning of their lives. But the fact is that the vast majority of authority figures–parents and teachers looming large among them–don’t want critical thinking from kids; they want kids to take what the authority figure says as gospel.

Our society has this utterly bizarre concept that kids can suddenly step into adult roles at some arbitrary point–all of them at the same point for the same action, the points for various actions having no relationship to each other, and in many cases without their ever having any preparation. I have encountered parents who make virtually every decision of any significance for their kids, then send them off to college with the expectation that the kids can suddenly make good decisions. I have encountered parents who never allow their kids to say ”no” to them under any circumstances, then expect the kids to be able to say ”no” to peers, older predators, bad influences. We say that kids have the maturity to understand and form intent to commit murder and should be tried as adults, but they don’t have the maturity to understand and consent to sex.

You don’t learn to make good choices, to say ”no” to pressure, to handle money, to control anger, to responsibly judge whether sex is right in this situation–to do any of the things we expect of ”adults”–overnight, as a function of going off to college or turning 18 or 21 or whatever. You learn those things day by day over many years. You don’t learn critical thinking overnight, and you don’t necessarily learn it in four years of college–or else every college-educated person would be good at it, and we know that isn’t so. You learn critical thinking by, well, learning to think critically, and that can be taught, in an appropriate context for the child’s age and development, from babyhood on.

But teaching a child (in a development-appropriate way) critical thinking involves something that many parents and (in my sad experience) most teachers are unwilling to do: tell the child, openly, clearly, sincerely: ”I might be wrong.” We told our kids we might be wrong throughout their growing-up years.  And we also told them that other adults might be wrong, or in some cases, certainly were wrong (which did not endear us to some of their teachers). The benefit we’ve found is that our kids (now well into adulthood), even during their teen years, have been rather more willing to trust our word on things than seems the average. They know that if we say, “I think that…,” ”I’m pretty sure that…,” or ”Everything I’ve experienced tells me that…,” we mean exactly what we say, no more and no less.

(This previously appeared in part in my Live Journal.)

Reflections on “A Christmas Carol”

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“A Christmas Carol” is my favorite story. The following  combines some earlier writings with new thoughts, and particularly reflects the politics of this year. I publish it with hope.

Scrooge is an Outsider who has let his perception of that control his entire life. He has let it shrivel his soul. And he is redeemed. He is given gifts that the rest of us can only imagine: a second look at the moments that made him feel an Outsider, a second look at the moments where he chose the path of Outsider even when another path was open, and perhaps most important, a look at the lives of people who have chosen not to live as Outsiders, even though poverty or lack of social status makes some others see them that way.

These people are Insiders, not by being taken into others’ lives but by giving themselves to others–every one of them: sister Fan, “who had a large heart”; employer Fezziwig, who “has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil”; sweetheart Belle, who releases him from their engagement, “with a full heart, for the love of him you once were”; the Cratchits, who celebrate the mother’s cooking of what little they have and the father’s earning of his pitiful salary and their all being together; nephew Fred, who gives his uncle “the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not,” not in hopes of fortune for himself, but “if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you. If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that’s something”; the men who spend their Christmas Eve soliciting for the poor, because “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

Once when four old friends and I talked for hours, one of them, a hospice nurse-counselor for the terminally ill, asked us some hard questions. One was “What is your purpose in life?” We all answered as honestly as we could, and at the end, I observed that the common theme I heard from us all was reaching out from ourselves to “do” for others.

“‘It is required of every man,’ the Ghost returned, ‘that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!'”

That’s the only kind of afterlife that makes any sense to me–one in which, as Marley says, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

And the only kind of LIFE that makes sense to me is one in which we do “walk abroad among” our fellow humans, making them happy, rendering their service (of whatever kind) light; in which we truly say, with Marley:

“[Humankind is] my business. The common welfare [is] my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, [are], all, my business!”

Grade School Christmas Pageants

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When I was in Catholic grade school, we always had Christmas pageants. The spectacular was the year I was in eighth grade. Our parish hall had a stage at one end and a kitchen at one side. All parish and school activities took place there if they weren’t held in church or outdoors: enchilada dinners, volleyball games, basketball games, PTA meetings, plays, everything. Mother Mary Scholastica, who in another life might have been a Marine drill sergeant or a diva of some art, directed. The girls’ choir stood on risers at the back of the stage, with screens in front of us, singing appropriate carols while the Nativity was acted out in front of the screens. At the dramatic moment, the curtains closed briefly, the screens were quickly removed, and the curtains swung open to reveal us, in white robes and gold tinsel halos, singing the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” chorus of “Angels We Heard on High.”

I’m sure that the impact on the audience of our parents was powerful. This was a working-class parish in the barrio of Westminster, California. Our fathers had built the school buildings mainly with their own hands. At the end of every summer, we students came to help the sisters clean the classrooms for school. Possibly no one in that hall had ever been to a professional live concert.

Then the “Three Kings” came walking through the hall: three eighth-grade boys who, incredibly, were not afraid to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” all by themselves. They were dressed in all the velvet and glitter the sisters could come up with; I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Scarlett O’Hara, they used the drapes. I don’t remember the third king, but one was my dear friend since-first-grade Jimmy Ristrom, who, already at that age, had a big bass voice, and a second was Richard Martin, with whom I was madly in love as only a 13-year-old can be. (The universe has blessed me with reconnection with both of them these past few years.)

I can still sing–and sometimes do when I’m alone–the alto parts to “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and of course “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” singing along with a CD or the radio. I no longer believe in the religious underpinnings, but I still believe–as much as I believe in anything–that we can be better than we are, that we can make things better for others, that honest and unselfish love matters. I still value being open to whatever life brings, as was Mary in the Christmas story; seeing the possibility of greatness in the meanest surroundings, as did the shepherds; caring for those who need us, even if we don’t understand, as did Joseph. I still try to live by the best of what I learned in those days.

Look before you leap

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One of the smartest people I have ever known believes there is no significant difference between thinking and feeling.

I strongly disagree with this. It may be true for some tiny minority of humans–those whom Anne Rice has a character refer to in Interview with the Vampire as “detached persons in whom emotion and will are one.” But for nearly all humans, I think that emotion and thought can be distinguished by something that can direct the latter but not the former: reason.

You are experiencing the emotions of anger and fear as a result of the 2016 election. I understand that. Experience them, process them, express them, work through them. 

But PLEASE don’t act on them. Let them motivate you if it helps, but act on reason. THINK about what you’re going to do. UNDERSTAND the other side’s viewpoint. KNOW what the likely consequences of your potential actions are. DECIDE whether those consequences are worth whatever price you and others may have to pay.

Acting on emotion–primarily anger and fear, also hatred–is what brought many to vote for Trump. Meanwhile, many of us on the left bemoaned the right’s unwillingness to look at facts, to reason, to consider consequences. Let’s not follow in those footsteps.

Where do we go from here?

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I can speak only for myself, but I invite anyone like-minded to be part of “we.”

We pull up our big-girl and big-boy pants, we put on our ass-kicking boots, and we stand up for what we have always stood up for, though now we may feel more threatened in doing so. Those of us who are white put ourselves on the line, in danger if necessary and we have the courage, to protect the lives and the rights of people of color. (I can’t speak for those who aren’t white, and too many of them already have to do this every day.) We risk being uncomfortable, being outside our comfort zone, to step up, in whatever way we can, when someone is mistreated or bullied or harassed.

We don’t let friends or relatives or neighbors or coworkers go unchallenged when they repeat lies and bigotry. This is not the time for peace at any cost, for not losing friends over politics. If a “friend” supports policies that endanger those we care about, that person is not a friend. If we have to, we say that we respect the bond of family, but we can no longer appear to support (have contact with, communicate with, etc.) someone who cares so little about others’ welfare.

We donate what we can to the ACLU, because it stands for everyone’s rights, which is the only way anyone is safe.

We smile at and are pleasant and respectful to those in service industries. We nod to people on the street, or say “Good morning,” whatever their race, ethnicity, or gender. We open doors for everyone, and we say “thanks” enthusiastically when they open doors for us. We don’t take out our frustration with company or organizational policies on people who have no control over them. We give what we can, when we can, to help others. We pay attention to the human beings around us, and make their lives better when we can, if only for a moment. In a country that at the moment seems overrun with assholes, we aren’t among them.

This country has survived a Civil War, numerous other wars, the Great Depression, numerous other depressions and recessions, an era of lynchings, protesting students shot by their own government, corruption in high places, presidents who were inept or dishonest or maybe even evil, and more. It will survive this. But some of its people might not, and that’s where we must look.

And we must look to two years from now, when those who voted him in have had a chance to see what Trump has done. We can sign up for campaigns, we can donate if possible, to take back seats in the House and Senate.

There is work to be done.

Halloween, death, and also life

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I have always liked Halloween. I grew up Catholic, and Halloween is followed two days later by All Souls’ Day. That time also includes El Día de Muertos. It is a time for thinking about death and those who have gone into it.

I have been aware of mortality–my own, and everyone’s around me–from a very young age. A cousin died at 10, when I was 2; I don’t know when I first became aware of it, but I was pretty young. (My earliest memory is sitting in our car and seeing her come to the hospital window to wave.) My grandfather, whom I loved dearly, died when I was 5. My newborn baby brother died when I was 6. (I have a photo of him in his coffin.) A classmate and her younger sister and another child were killed in a car accident the summer after we were in fourth grade. My best friend’s 16-year-old brother was killed in a diving accident when we were about 12.

When I was 5, and again when I was 7, I was seriously ill. I didn’t, I think, know at the time that I might die, but I wasn’t much older before I did realize that I could have. In a way, I think of every day I have had since then as lagniappe.

Death and the possibility of what comes after has always interested me. Being raised as a believer, I envisioned heaven, but I gave that up along with everything else theistic decades ago. The idea of some kind of “survival” after death, however, has continued to fascinate me.

I like cemeteries. So does our younger daughter. Both of us are interested in death, and neither of us fears it. She was quite young when she first told me she wasn’t afraid to die. (This isn’t “nature,” as she is adopted, and while I “nurtured” her interest and acceptance, I don’t think I initiated it.) For me, cemeteries do represent a kind of afterlife; as long as someone, even a stranger taking pictures or doing genealogy, recognizes one’s having existed, one is still “present,” in a sense, in the world. I acknowledge the reasons for not continuing with the burial-and-monument tradition, and I specify cremation for myself for those reasons, but I deeply regret the loss.

I mentioned genealogy there–that’s another of my interests. One of the commercials for Ancestry has a young man saying that you start to feel that you know the people you “meet” in researching, and I agree. For me, it isn’t just knowing “where I come from” except in a very general sense of coming from every human who came before me. The story of how we got to where we are has given me many of my other interests and hobbies throughout my life: studying California history, collecting old bottles (and especially digging for or otherwise finding them in situ), joining historical societies, visiting historical museums, collecting old things in general, exploring ghost towns, reading about the Old West…endless.

In a real sense, the dead are not dead to me, because I picture them (sometimes with literal pictures), I imagine their lives (from their writings or things they left behind), I treasure possessions they once treasured or maybe just used in daily life and discarded. This has helped me, I think, to see a common humanity in everyone–something I have felt from a very young age.

I neither believe nor disbelieve in ghosts. The word “ghost” can mean many things. Energy of some form that can be sensed by some living people under some circumstances–I think that’s a possibility. I have experienced some sensitivity to certain places and one very early odd experience, and people whose reports I trust have had experiences that hint at something we can’t otherwise explain. I don’t think that entities conscious of their “being” as the human they were exist, but I like to read fiction that tells how such existence might play out–and who knows?

As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are all star stuff. Before we were conceived, the energy and/or material for our existence was there, and after we die some of it persists in some form. That’s enough for me.

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