A few days ago, Lydia Schoch put up a post on her blog, “What I Would Do with a Million Dollars.” Her plans are eminently sensible and I applaud her foresight. After all, one never knows: someone might just hand her a fortune someday, so it is important to plan ahead.
But lately, I’ve found myself wondering what I would do if I happened to have 5.7 billion dollars to spend. I’m pretty sure some of it would end up at our local bookstore. I’d probably buy that cool fountain pen I’ve been eyeing. In a moment of unbridled reasonableness, I might even set up retirement funds for myself and my family.
But what to do with the other 5.6 billion? Would I build a border wall that could be easily breached, one that would have an enormous, deleterious effect on the environment, that would divide towns, deprive people of their homes, augment the crisis at the border, and be an eye-sore to boot?
No, I don’t think I would.
I think I’d be inclined to spend it on children, on the generations coming after me.* Maybe I’d give kids books and fountain pens. Or better schools with reasonable class sizes and teachers who are paid so well that our best and brightest would vie to spend their days with boisterous kindergartners and surly, adolescent, high-school students.
Maybe I’d find a way to help social services around the country staff their offices with social workers who would have only a few cases apiece so that children in desperate situations wouldn’t get lost in and abused by the system. And maybe, like teachers, I could pay these workers well enough that bright and caring people would be eager to be hired for these positions, especially if there were money left over to provide them with the training and support they would need to deal with heart-breaking family situations.
I might spend the money on research to reverse global warming so that our children will have a planet on which they can live or donate the funds to NASA in hopes that they’ll find new worlds for new generations — and ways for them to live on these planets without destroying them. (See WALL-E.)
Truly, I can think of so very many ways to spend 5.6 (or even 5.7) billion dollars, and none of them include a border wall. Anybody have some other suggestions? What would you do if you had 5.7 billion dollars burning a hole in your pocket?
Here is a relic of my childhood: Mazel and Schlimazel, or The Milk of a Lioness by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer tells us a story of two spirits, Mazel (good luck) and Schlimazel (bad luck) and the wager they make one day after Mazel has been boasting how happy he makes people and that everyone loves him, but no one loves Schlimazel. (And I have to say, even though Mazel is basically a good character, he is pretty obnoxious right at the start. But he quickly gets better.) Schlimazel gets understandably riled. He claims that whatever Mazel can do in a year, he, Schlimazel, can undo in a second. And the bet is on.
Mazel seeks out the poorest hut in a poor village and finds Tam, a young man beset by bad luck. And here’s where I start to love Mazel. He sits down next to Tam in his shack with toadstools growing from the walls and gets to know Tam. Even though Tam isn’t really aware of him, Mazel asks Tam questions about himself and while Tam talks — to himself, he thinks, but really prompted by Mazel — Mazel pays attention. Mazel and Schlimazel is a children’s book, a short story — a fairy tale, really — but at this moment in the story the words and illustration depict a moment of genuine companionship.
From here, of course, Tam’s life promptly improves. His luck changes. He is brought to the attention of the king and the princess.
After a good bath and a change of clothes, Tam quickly rises from the court smithy to the court proper.
And while Mazel helps every step of the way, the story makes it clear that Tam is doing the work. Mazel’s presence might have prompted the king to give the young man a job, but Tam labors to do well. And Singer reminds us that “When the humble achieve success, they often become haughty and forget those among whom they grew up. But Tam always found time to help the peasants and the poor.” Tam’s kindness is all his own and not a veneer imposed by Mazel. Tam’s rise becomes a joint effort. Mazel provides opportunities and Tam earns the next chance that Mazel makes possible. Mazel and Tam build on another’s efforts. That’s teamwork, people.
Tam and Nesika, as we would expect in a heteronormative story such as this one, are in love. The king (who never gets a name and has class issues), much as he likes and values Tam, continues to hold onto hope that Nesika will find a prince she can tolerate sufficiently to marry. Nesika (and here is another aspect of the story I love), however, is no mere passive prize. In fact, when we first meet her, she has been driving her father up the wall for refusing suitors for eminently sensible reasons. One laughed too much, another would only discuss fox-hunting, a third beat his dog. The latest suitor (number seven) Nesika rejects “because his boots were foolish.”
“‘How can boots be foolish?” her father asked.
“‘If the feet are foolish, the boots are foolish,’ Nesika replied.
“‘How can feet be foolish?’ her father insisted.
“‘If the head is foolish, the feet are foolish!’ Nesika retorted.”
Nesika is one smart cookie.
But, naturally, a day comes when an impossible task must be accomplished. Tam volunteers to get the necessary milk of a lioness, and the king is so touched he says that when Tam returns, he may marry Nesika.
So off Tam goes, Mazel riding unseen on his own horse right behind him. A lioness with cubs is conveniently hanging around right outside the city, and Tam, thanks to Mazel, strolls right up, milks her, and pops back on his horse. (There is an amusing moment, one that I find a little poignant, when Tam and Mazel leave, in which the lioness comes out of her luck-induced haze and realizes what was done to her and is terribly embarrassed and angry. I don’t blame her for feeling pretty violated.)
Tam returns with the bottle of milk and presents it to the king just as the year is over. Schlimazel steps up and, in the single second that he’d said he would require, causes Tam to mis-speak a single word and the whole house of cards that Mazel and Tam had built so carefully over the course of the preceding year comes crashing down and Tam is sentenced to hang.
And this moment in the narrative is the one that has been on my mind lately. If you want to know how the story ends, you’ll have to read it yourself, which you should do anyway, because it’s a really good story.
The Personal and the Political
This pivotal moment in Mazel and Schlimazel has come back to me often as I have been struggling with both personal and political issues about speech (and yeah, yeah — I know: the personal is the political, but bear with me. I offer my distinction as point on a continuum, not as a dichotomy).
We have all seen, over and over, the harm done by words carelessly or viciously deployed, seen the way these words are making our cultural landscape into something twisted and bleak. Tam’s verbal mis-step and the consequences of a words rose to mind last month when Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court in Fort Worth declared the entire Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) to be unconstitutional. With a word (well, OK, a set of words, but ones that amounted to No), Judge O’Connor may have swept aside all the good that the ACA has wrought: coverage for young people through their parents, the slowly stabilizing cost of insurance, coverage for those of us (and we are legion) who have pre-existing conditions. The ACA is far from perfect; we need a Congress willing to pitch in and work together in good faith to argue and compromise and give a damn about the citizens of this country for that to happen.
The rescission of the ACA might not condemn any to hang, but it will cause deaths — slower deaths from illness, injury, despair and poverty from exorbitant medical costs rather than from the rope, but deaths nevertheless. The word of one man can take away essential care from so many — our friends, our families, our neighbors, ourselves — care that can save lives, save minds, and save souls.
And this kind of sudden reversal is not affecting health care only. We are seeing the accelerated destruction of the environment, of foreign relations, of civility, of children’s lives — brought on by ill-chosen words and inexcusable silences. We are seeing years of work and progress undone in moments.
My memory of Tam’s reversal and the degradation of political discourse and practice also connected with me in a more personal way. The personal aspect again has to do with health, my health. Several years ago, I was on high doses of Prednisone for some months. The drug messed with my mood and memory; I recall very little of those months, nothing of what was happening in my son’s life, fragmented scraps of my daughter’s college graduation. For most of that time, I had to sequester myself because I never knew what was going to come out of my mouth. I felt terribly isolated from the people who were important to me and from myself. (Let us give thanks for good therapists.) I usually call my mother a few times a week. It was unsettling to go for more than three months without talking to her.
While I still don’t remember the months I was on the Prednisone, most of my memory is back. The deficit remaining lies in my ability to retrieve my words. I often struggle to get the word I want, the word I can feel in my mind, to come out my mouth. Instead, I hear myself say something that starts with the same letter but is otherwise completely unrelated or a word that has some relation to the word I know is in my head. The link might be somewhat similar in meaning to or the complete opposite of the word I want, but there will some kind of connection that makes sense to me. The result is that, often, I, like Tam, spout out the wrong word at important moments. So far, as far as I know at least, no one has died, though I often feel terribly awkward. No one warned me how drastically the drug was likely to affect me, and no one told me that the effects might be lasting. (Again, my situation is not strictly analogous to Tam’s. No one has tried to put an actual noose around my throat. It just feels like that.)
I have been living with aphasia ever since.
Aphasia. A beautiful name for the implosion of the bridge that connected me to the rest of the world.
That’s how Meghan Beaudry describes the bewildering, frightening experience of losing her words. Amy Roost, author, host of the podcast Fury, multi-talented and -accomplished wonder woman (Check out her web site. Go ahead. I’ll wait) sent me a link to Beaudry’s article, “A Brain Infection Destroyed My Marriage, But Made Me a Writer.”* Beaudry’s aphasia was inflicted by cerebritis, not medication, but like her, I had to “claw back” (exactly the phrase I hold in my mind) my ability to find my words. It’s still a struggle, almost eight years later. And her relationship to language is much like my own. Beaudry “balked at learning to navigate a new computer or phone, but cherished language, treating my words like pets and people: each with their own personalities and preferences….” Losing my words was like being unmoored. snatching at frayed threads instead of have a solid rope to secure me to my life.
Again like Beaudry, I continue to replenish my word hoard, but it is frustrating for me and for those with whom I try to communicate to wait around while I fish for words, needing the right ones with the right shades of meaning for my verbal palette. Poor Tam had a single moment of mis-speaking and was condemned for it. I live with the fear of condemnation, of being judged inadequate or unintelligent, of having people impatiently fill in my pauses and thereby let me know that I am taking up too much of their time.
Returning to the more overtly political, I wonder how many of those who claim to govern for us understand the power of their words, they way they are creating a world of flourishing hatred, selfishness, vituperation, viewed through a lenses so narrow that no light seems to get through. I think most of them are aware; I suspect few of them care. Tam (though he didn’t know it) had the excuse of being momentarily beset by some really bad luck; others of us have conditions that make it difficult to find the words we need. But Tam and most of us struggling with impediments work to correct our errors, though we may not always succeed. I don’t think many of our politicians and lawmakers can say the same.
I’m not much of a fashion maven, but I suspect that if we check the footwear of many —too many — of the people in power, we will see that they are wearing dangerously foolish boots.
*Beaudry’s story is headed by a photo of a snail slinking along the page of a book. It’s an apt image: finding words now can be a slow process, one that doesn’t necessarily stay on track, though at least it’s not usually slimy.
OK, OK: I’ll tell you how the story ends, but not how it is resolved, so you still have to read the book. Tam avoids hanging, he and Nesika get married, and Tam and Mazel remain friends (even if Tam doesn’t know it). And here’s another great aspect of the story: when the king dies a timely, totally non-suspicious death, it is Nesika who ascends the throne. Tam happily inhabits his role as consort, providing advice to Nesika when she requests it. But it is Nesika who rules the kingdom.
I like to say that, just as Scrooge carried Christmas in his heart all year long, so I carry Hallowe’en in mine.
So even though Hallowe’en was over weeks ago, I want to tell you a story — a true story! — about the kindness that allowed me to put out a Jack-O’Lantern to welcome trick-or-treaters this year.
I had a busy October and didn’t get out to acquire a pumpkin until just before Hallowe’en. (OK: I am typically a last-minute kind of person, as I was unhelpfully reminded by the unnamed person who was with me). But the stores usually carry some pumpkins into November for Thanksgiving, so I thought I would at least be able to pick up a couple small ones. However, when we got to the King Soopers, the outdoor bins were nowhere to be seen.
There was not one pumpkin in sight.
Not any of those tiny decorative ones.
Not even one of those white ghost-pumpkins.
Not even one with a mushy spot.
However, it was a drizzly, cold evening, so I thought perhaps the pumpkins had been moved inside to keep them from freezing. With hope in my heart, I entered the store and went to the produce section. Alas! Here, too, all presence of pumpkins had been abolished. I resigned myself to a pumpkin-less All-Hallows and set about doing the rest of the grocery shopping.
When I had finished at the deli counter, the young man behind the counter asked if there were anything else I needed. So I said, “I don’t suppose there any pumpkins hiding somewhere in the store.” He said he didn’t think so, but offered to check.
He disappeared for a few minutes, then came back with the produce manager — Joseph I think his name was. Joseph explained that there weren’t any more pumpkins out, but that he did have one in the back he had been planning to take home. We did the “Are you sure?” exchange a couple times, but Joseph explained he already had seven Jack-O’-Lanterns at home, so I accepted his offer with profuse thanks and profound gratitude.
Joseph disappeared into the back for a moment, then came out carrying one of the biggest, most perfect pumpkins I have ever seen. That pumpkin glowed.
It was a truly magnificent pumpkin, and an equally magnificent act of generosity.
Well, I was sure that something awful would happen to that glorious squash on the way home, that my husband would drop it (even though he almost never drops things, especially when he’s being careful), that I would trip over a particularly strong up-swelling of gravity (all too likely; gravity has an unfortunately tendency to accumulate under my feet), that aliens would see my perfect pumpkin and beam it up to carve themselves (we keep hoping for something to get abducted because how X-Files would that be? — but not that pumpkin). But we got that orange orb into the house in one piece, so of course I proceeded to cut it up.
I wish I had had more time to do us to do justice to that pumpkin. I wish I had been able to carve an intricate visage with painstaking details, a well-thought-out face with tremendous expression. I wish I had been able to make a Jack-O’-Lantern that would have been entered into the annals of the Great Pumpkins of All Time.
But I didn’t. Because we have small children in our neighborhood, I wanted a lantern that would be rather welcoming, but also spooky enough to add to the atmosphere of the evening. I envisioned a sort of banshee, one with a wailing aspect and hair blown about her face. I’m not sure that my intentions came through entirely, but it was all right. Not what that pumpkin deserved, but I hope it was not too embarrassed by the countenance I carved.
I salvaged the seeds for roasting and used the sections I cut out for a light pumpkin soup.
The post-Hallowe’en weather was cool and the pumpkin-lantern held its shape for a solid week. No squirrel nibbled on it; no neighborhood hooligans laid a hand on it. It stayed on our front step until it suddenly collapsed on itself and had to be resigned to the compost bin. But with me I still carry the glow of that pumpkin, of the candle the lit it, and of the kindness of Joseph, king of the produce aisle.
Does anyone else remember this classic Far Side cartoon by the inimitable Gary Larson? It was a favourite of one of my closest college friends (hey, Sara!):
Well, I ran into my own Far Side moment the other day.
It was a lovely day in Colorado and I was walking along the West End of the Pearl Street Mall, headed for a coffee shop, talking on the phone with my friend and colleague Jaynie (hey, Jaynie!). I stopped outside Ozo’s to finish my conversation, and as I soaked up the bright autumn sunshine, I noticed a small, grey, slightly fuzzy spider valiantly trying to spin a web across the busy sidewalk. She was slightly larger than the top of a pencil eraser, and on a cloudy day probably would have been virtually invisible. But as I was standing there, the sun shone right down between the buildings and caught her like another strand of her web. Even so, no one else seemed to notice her.
What blew me away was that she had managed to get at least four long strands in place, one from the awning of the coffee shop, one from the wall next to the awning, and two others across the walk, attached to a low newspaper dispenser by the curb. The spider herself was hanging upside down, binding her anchor threads together, about four feet right above the middle of the sidewalk. There were a lot of people walking by in both directions and I have no idea why no one had torn through any of her threads.
(I couldn’t get a photo, so you’ll have to imagine the scene from my sketch.)
Alas! Her good fortune did not last. First a young man walked, all unaware, through the webbing that ran from the wall. The spider swung away, but not far, since she was still attached to three of her strands. Then, as the spider swung back, still working to tie together her workings, a woman in a coat of the same grey as the spider, ran into the weaver. I thought for sure that the spider would be off for a ride on the camouflaging coat, but after a second I saw her on the sidewalk, crawling back toward the wall. Dozens of people and a couple kids on bikes all came within a hair’s-breadth of squashing the little arachnid into oblivion, but she seemed to have a force-field around her because everyone swerved without even seeing the scrambling spider and she made it safely to the lea of the wall.
I don’t know what happened to her after that. And I don’t know what the moral of this story is. I guess I just have a fondness for the quixotic, for creatures that decide to tilt at windmills — or try to spin them for themselves.
I started writing this piece a few months ago. I have struggled with the conviction that what I say will have no impact beyond, perhaps, attracting malicious responses. But with the mid-term elections here, I decided to finish the essay and post it. And as I was filling in the remaining gaps today, I saw that there was another shooting, this time in a synagogue in Philadelphia.
I am a Jew. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter, and I don’t find that I am more appalled at this rampage than I have been at all the many, many others. But I confess this one shook me. These were my people. I may not have known any of the congregants or victims, but this killing is still personal, and it brought to the surface not just what has become my usual fury, but also a core of fear that I wish I could deny I carry with me. So now I publish this essay not just in hopes of effecting some ripple of change, but also in defiance of that fear and of the people, like today’s killer, who have installed it in my heart and in my mind.
It has been over nineteen years since the slaughter at Columbine High School, nineteen years since we saw what destruction of lives, of dreams, of potential could be wrought by the proliferation of guns in our country. In those nineteen years, we have seen with growing frequency how gun violence does not just end the lives of people, of children who should have lived, but also how such violence leaves victims bewildered,1parents’ hearts shattered, siblings missing brothers and sisters and wondering whether their parents will ever be happy again. Friends and classmates are left with memories of carnage, memories that shape them for the rest of their lives. And we rarely hear about the children who are picked off one by one every day —an average of nineteen shot each day, three or four of whom will die.2 And those of us who want to prevent these rending losses with gun-law reform are branded as unpatriotic, our ability to understand the Second Amendment derided, our intentions attributed to a desire for some kind of self-serving political gain. Like Cassandra, we see clearly but seem fated to be dismissed.
It has been a little more than eight months since the Parkland murders, eight months since the survivors of that horror transformed their anger into a movement that (should have) shamed us all. The students spoke and marched and insisted — rightly — that such shootings should never happen again. Their demands were sensible and moderate, yet they were denigrated and ignored by many, especially by those in power who could have brought about changes that would have lessened the violence. And these young people continue to persevere by turning their March for Our Lives movement into a Vote for Our Lives endeavour, by travelling the country and encouraging other young people (and not so young ones too) to register and cast their ballots. They give me hope.3
And then there was another shooting, this time in Texas. And what was shocking was the lack of shock. It was Santa Fe student Paige Curry who, when asked by Foti Kallergis of ABC-13if there was part of her that had thought such a shooting couldn’t happen at her school, baldly replied
“No,” she said, without looking directly at Kallergis. “There wasn’t.” “It’s been happening everywhere,” she said with a shrug. “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”4
I find it unspeakably abhorrent that we have allowed, by refusing to implement sane regulations on guns, this expectation to become normal, that we have become comfortable with our children’s knowing we find their slaughter an acceptable alternative to regulating weapons in America.
The community of Santa Fe is still, as they should be, reeling and mourning.5 And yesterday, The New York Times reported that
Kentucky State Police foiled a man’s plan to attack a high school after they received a tip from a New Jersey woman who said he had sent her a racist message on Facebook, the authorities said.
The police traced the message to Dylan Jarrell, 21, of Lawrenceburg, Ky., and then discovered after searching his phone that he had been plotting to attack local schools.6
School shootings continue to be the signature villainy of our time, continue to be the salient point around which our arguments and fears coalesce. My husband is a teacher; he doesn’t know what to tell his students.
I continue to think about guns in our culture, about the people who do use them safely, and about those with opinions different than mine who are willing to engage in civil discourse on this topic. So I asked someone I respect, someone who grew up shooting guns, who could shoot from the back of a horse and the back of a truck, what she thinks we should do about guns. She told me that her local city newspaper recently ran a cartoon of a police department with guards all around it, and a hospital with guards, and a school that’s completely open. She thinks we must set guards around our schools, have our kids walk through metal detectors to get into their schools and be searched upon entry to the school building.
I know there are other thoughtful persons who agree with this view. But it is untenable. No school district has the money to post such security forces nor to purchase detectors and hire still more security to search our children. We are not even willing to pay the majority of our teachers a living wage.
More disturbing is the psychological effect that asking our students to go to schools that are set up like prisons will have. It is strange and upsetting that so many people, so many lawmakers are willing to ignore the effect sending children to fortresses every day will have but are eager to use the mentally ill as scapegoats. While some killers are indeed in need of psychiatric intervention, not all are cognitively or emotionally dysfunctional. The Las Vegas shooter had no mental illness. Too often the logic is that because a person, almost always male, picked up some guns and used them to kill more than four people, then that person is crazy, an aberrant statistic about which we can do nothing. But if we adhere to that argument, how can we hold any killer accountable? How do we calculate the amount of damage that we will define as insanity? Shooting four people isn’t much worse than killing three, or two, or one. And we can keep going from there. If killing a single person is madness, what about beating someone? Raping teens? Slapping a guy who got fresh at a bar? Calling the nerdy kid at school names? Pretty soon we would have to acknowledge that any act of harm against others, intentional or careless, willful, planned, or spontaneous is a sign of incompetence and illness, and that only the saints are sane.
We need to stop calling to our past, to our history as an excuse to maintain the status quo and to acknowledge that our present time has different needs. When our country was born, as Garrett Epps explains in The Atlantic7 more cogently than I can,
To much of the revolutionary generation, a standing army was the mortal enemy of freedom and self-government. Those ratifying the Constitution had vivid memories of red-clad professional soldiers—some speaking German—swarming ashore to enforce British tax laws, and then to try to crush the Revolution.
Despite that fear, the United States has established a federal military and invested the president with the powers and responsibilities of Commander in Chief. We have done away with state militias and bearing arms has never been a constitutionally unlimited right. It is long, long past time for the majority of us to stand up and say, “No more. Pass laws that will drastically reduce the number of guns in our country.”
America has always wrestled with the competing rights of various groups and individuals. We have, in the past, prided ourselves on our ideal (to which we may not always live up as well as we should) of protecting the less powerful from those in a position to oppress them. Those who argue for the “right” of all of us to own arsenals of whatever weaponry strikes our fancy are not preserving our freedom; they are refusing to see that the great American experiment with flooding the country with guns has notmade us or our children safer; it has turned us into a society that tolerates killers and the terror that our children carry with them to school and into life.
As we go to the polls, we should remember that the Second Amendment was meant as a safeguard against tyranny. It is a sickening and dishonourable shame that it has now become itself an instrument of tyranny.
If you’re thinking about not voting, please think again.
To the under-thirty crowd: check out former president Obama’s PSA. Prove wrong everyone who says you’re apathetic, that you don’t care enough to be aware of what’s going on or to cast a ballot. I don’t think that’s true of your generation. I think you do care and want to make a difference. Perhaps some of you don’t think your vote can bring about change, but it can. Voting is an act that is at once a right, a privilege, and a responsibility. Take advantage of living in a country where you get to vote. Vote now so you can retain that right.
To everyone: If you think you can’t lose the right to vote, think again.1 Thousands and thousands of people are being disenfranchised by voter suppression laws and regulations. Vote for the American Indians in North Dakota; vote for the tens of thousands of voters being denied a ballot in Georgia because there’s an extra space between their names. Vote for the immigrants in Garden City, Kansas, where the only polling place has been moved out of town, a mile away from the nearest bus stop. Vote to help ensure every eligible citizen gets to cast a ballot.
Vote because families are still separated, because children have forgotten their parents, because the president wants to reinstate this policy of separating even nursing infants from their parents,2 a policy that causes life-lasting trauma and because he now has a Supreme Court that will support this cruelty. Vote because children of both immigrants and citizens need protection.
Vote because women have the right to control their lives and destinies and need access to trustworthy health care, to birth control, and to safe abortions. Vote because we all need access to quality health care and we won’t get it from this Congress.3 Vote because our judiciary is becoming dangerously unbalanced. Vote to restore judges who represent the majority of people, not the fringes.
Vote because every child needs an education in a school without guns and with decently paid, dedicated, capable teachers. Vote because children die every day from a gun, because adults are shot every day as well. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, eight children die each day from gun violence; ninety-six people of all ages are killed by a gun — each day. And then there are the thousands (over fourteen thousand children; close to ninety thousand people total) who are shot every year but survive to live with the trauma and the often lasting disabilities and the expenses of having been shot.4 There was an op-ed piece in the Washington Post about how people are afraid to make their opinions known to others because our national discourse has become so uncivil, volatile, and threatening that speaking up can be dangerous.5 I understand that fear — in fact, I share it. But voting provides us a powerful means of participating in the conversation, of having our say safely, of making our voice be heard.
If you’re thinking about not voting, think again. Many of our recent elections have been close; your votes truly can turn a tide. Don’t let anyone say you didn’t put out the effort and missed your chance to have your say; don’t let others decide your fate.