Out of the Mouths of Pop Stars


There is something really special about the forwardness of kindergarteners. They are always going outward in the burst of their beliefs—only to do a candle’s dance at the breeziest response. Their honesty is often halfway to the truth.

As five and six year old human beings, they typically straddle a threshold of development between the fluid and the firm, the personal and the social, the intuitive and the factual, the feeling and the concept. They live in an era of personal cartography, drawing clear-cut boundaries on the newly charted maps of their own worlds—little Alexanders of cognition. Indeed, even though it’s usually at this time that a child will leave the nebulous but porous realm of “parallel play” and enter the wide, definite, transactional world of “socialization,” the egocentrism is still strong, and other egos come as a shock. Sometimes, the confrontation with another “me” can have the smack of scandal. Why, with the entire world still throbbing out to me, should this stranger-kid stab it with their standing in my place in line? Thus, still overflowing with their first four years’ intuition, they lap and splash over the levies they have started which will form those narrow canals we call “learning.” Sometimes, when the storm is just right, they fairly wash it over with themselves. Believe me: as an early childhood educator, I have done some wading. A couple times a month I may be baptized by the flood.

But this liminality in kindergarteners provides for so many strange new things, some of them baffling, some of them wondrous. Continue reading “Out of the Mouths of Pop Stars”

Marilynne Robinson: Making the Given Great Again (Part 1)

There are many books I love that I would almost never wish upon my loved ones. When asked about these volumes (the rarest honor), I embark on a high and glowing encomium, only to slow down with wary admonition, and stop with a shrug. I feel the need to protect my friends and family from getting caught in Dickinson’s webs, for fear those words which are to me like continents of light will read to them like nought after nought after nought. I feel guilty for the length of half of my favorites. I only mention War and Peace if I am feeling the need to arrogate to myself a more Napoleonic status in the conversation; the same goes for The Brothers Karamazov and piety (or philosophical seriousness). I am overly apologetic about the generosity of Dickens. Bleak House is excellent, but it’s crowded full of characters, and those characters are so aspill with their own words—as if his Victorian, literary excess should make a mess of others’ tidy, twenty-first century brains.

But there is one author I frequently find myself wishing more people had read. One reason for this is aesthetic: she is accessible in the optimal sense. Whether through novel or essay, she writes of things available to common perception. She appreciates the capaciousness of common language—for instance, the potential inclusiveness of a word like “thing.” Her work consistently seeks to show the huge in the small, the unsaid in the said, the cosmic in the everyday. In this sense, she is a distinctly religious stylist: a positive puritan of prose, an inheritor of a long American estate of seeing the grand (or the Grandest) in the plain which we know best through Cather, Anderson, and Hemingway, but stemming even farther back than the prose of the King James translators to the Hebrew narratives from which it came. She takes nothing for granted, because she sees everything as given. No detail is spare; every word bears the meaning of considerable attention. This is all to say that, in the mercenary terms of commerce, the reader of this author’s work can receive abundant compensation for so little time and expense—if they have eyes to read it.

But another reason is more particularly social, even moral—perhaps I should say humanistic. This author represents, in her upbringing and background, her education and continued reading (or self-education), in her interests and commitments, an assemblage of identifications becoming less and less common in our society (or at least in our discourse). The labels she has chosen for herself overlap peculiarly, and together bear no easy summary. Sometimes they seem to press against and out of our small, symmetrical, isolated picture of political, intellectual, and religious identity. She shares commitments and interests beyond our expected boundaries. Her terms, taken together, resist the unhealthy satisfaction of pert association. It is for all this variety and contradiction of belonging that she is an individual.[1]

I am talking, of course, about the individual in my title, Marilynne Robinson. For about the past two decades she has been exemplifying all (and more) of the qualities I mentioned above. Her work serves to continue the multiple traditions she finds formative and instructive. However, it should be stated that, for all of her diverse influences, Robinson first and foremost identifies as a Christian and an American.[2] For all of the things she finds formative, these two are in some deeper sense normative. Nevertheless, like the totality of her labels, Robinson’s own Christianity and American-ness bear no easy summary. Those swift and simple associations that form the mind’s lazier morals will likely swerve to a stall in a variety of synaptic dead-ends. (Incidentally, these are the kinds of cognitive cliffs that William James identified as moments of truth.) Robinson’s work attempts to give those dead-ends firm and effective connections.

The things Robinson seeks to connect her readers with can be summed up, I believe, as the given. As her latest book of essays shows, Robinson regards all things as endowed with the quality of givenness. This givenness of things may be the unifying theme of all her recent work. More important, this move of Robinson’s to give connection to the given may be an important departure for American discourse itself—a departure that is in fact a return.

Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson: Making the Given Great Again (Part 1)”

Thou Shalt Remember


Sickness unto Rest

There’s a certain memory I do not want to remember. As you can see from my distancing language, I don’t even want to call it mine. But lately it keeps coming back into my mind—interrupting my thoughts at odd moments, and filling my attention when I happen to slow down.

The phrase that just came to my mind is “brought low.” Knowing what I don’t want to remember, I can see why.

Before I lived in New York, the words “brought low” would have had a ring of quaintness to them. I might have said the phrase in a kind of affectation, a blandly dramatic gesture that made vague fun of my self-centeredness. But at twenty-seven, with a masters degree in old books and the paginal equivalent of two theses to my name proving useless to the job market and more and more fruitless to myself; with so many scores of books and names and thoughts that formed the often shaking, sometimes crumbling sky-castled future I had built up in my mind; with two-households’ worth of student debt and a wage below a living; with viral tonsillitis in my throat and rancidity in my heart, I was, quite literally, brought low.

It was a sunny afternoon, and I was miserable. I was taking a quick break—really a panting respite—between my two jobs at the time. I had just entered “the workforce” and had found—I thought quite luckily, at first—a job teaching mornings in a Gifted and Talented third-grade classroom at a “High Achieving” New York public school. To attempt something approaching “supplemental,” I also worked afternoons as a mentor/“manny”-type to a preschool-age boy. Being my first year working in the school system, I quickly felt as if I was toiling beyond-time and falling sick semi-monthly. But as anyone who has worked multiple part-time jobs knows, sickness in such cases can be a kind of curse: you cannot rest for long, because you do not have the “time” (i.e. money) allotted to you; at a certain point, you may have to tax your health and simply shoulder through it, or else you face the extra tax and insupportable burden of empty hours and a shortened paycheck. What I had been struggling to carry, through too-many weeks of fever and sweat and pus and pangs, had turned my time into a desperate thirst for numbers. I drained my well-being to fill my timesheet. Continue reading “Thou Shalt Remember”

Greatness


[For my mother.]

In the past year or so the word “great” has gained a peculiar currency. That currency may be starting to wane, at present, but I have continued to wonder what the term means for myself and others. For at least nine months I have been asking myself what greatness really looks like.

And what have I found? Continue reading “Greatness”

Pocket Picking

Pocket Pic

“They tell us that on the last day the sea will give up its dead; and I suppose that on the same occasion long strings of extraordinary things will come out of my pockets” (G.K. Chesterton, “What I Found in my Pocket”).

This is what I found in my pockets this week: keys, a pen, a wallet (mine), my cell phone, two bark chips, several wrung out flower petals (of unknown origin), a blue plastic bead, a ladybug hairclip (not mine), a Lego hand, and two broken pieces of white sea glass.

Who thinks about pockets these days? We take these poor, repressed, underpantsed things for granted.

When I stop to think about it, my pockets have always served me well. Without them, I would not be literally going places; without them I would not get home. I am convinced that on innumerable occasions they have saved my brow from the sweat of remembering, just as they have saved my mouth from admitting my poverty. I actually trust in my pockets. (In the case of money, of course, I trust my wallet as well. It is a double-coverage kind of faith.)[1] After all, a pair of pockets is a steadfast second set of hands.

But over the past several years, my pockets have begun to surprise me. In them I have noticed a new dual-importance growing. The first is vocational; the second is technological; both, you might say, are trans-personal. My pockets are connecting me to people.

The first is this: my work has involved my pockets in carrying more than my own personal effects. In teaching preschool- and kindergarten-age children, my pockets have become a veritable treasury of trinkets. Many’s the time I get an importunate hand pressing on my arm, with two round eyes leaning ever closer to me, and a little voice urging, “Hold this for me . . . Hold-this-for-me-please.” I only accept these miniscule burdens if the child doesn’t have any pockets of their own—if they are wearing a dress or sweatpants, or have those shallow, sewn-in flaps that hardly count (so why bother, Gymboree?)—or if the gewgaw in question would be safer with me—especially if it turns out to be Johnny’s mommy’s credit card, or Jane’s dad’s Masonic ring. But most of the time, when I take these tiny things upon myself, it is for the good grown-up reason that they are not appropriate in the activity or at school at all.

But lately—in truth, over the past decade or so—I have also noticed a presence in my pockets even more importunate—and, if it can be believed, even more imperious—than the nimbuses flaring from the children’s treasures. It has been burgeoning to a great concern, beyond an ingrained habit or a necessary evil, to the point of actual bodily care. It is my cell phone.

It rests in my pocket, but it emanates such an aura of utter relevance and necessity that I forget my very personal attachment to my pants. If I were to plunge into a lake, my heart would cry out for my phone, not my clothes or my life. Certainly not my hair. Were I to fall from a bridge, I am certain I would use the duration of the plummet to check if my phone was indeed woefully trapped in my pocket. I cannot completely disavow that the thought wouldn’t cross my mind of flinging it to the safety of dry land.[2]

(It’s not just me, of course. Whenever someone drops their phone the room gasps and flinches. The world watches in silent hopes of survival. If we happen to misplace our device, we sense the phantom phone inside our pocket or purse, despite what our fingers say. Sometimes it seems to me that the seat of my pocket, that place on my leg where a pocket has always resided, has now grown a mass in the shape of a phone. A sensory tumor.)

But it would be false to talk about my cell phone as a presence in my pocket without discussing what it really represents: people. Or, people of a certain sort. Indeed, I act as if I hold many people in my pocket. Some of them I communicate with directly, over literally long distances, as if they were virtually in the room; most of them I merely watch and scrutinize, or read as literal proofs of human errancy. To my mind they are manifestations of our “current situation,” which is always changing and ever increasingly urgent, sometimes doomsdayish. Whenever I have a free moment—even if it’s only an idle minute better spent staring into some suggestive texture on the wall—I pull these people out and try to “keep up.” Most of the time, when I am working or with real enfleshed people, I feel my cell phone’s clutches on me—a kind of vague and unwitting obsession with a thing that is merely sitting inside my pocket, yet a screen that is always promising to show me sign-people and threaded wonders. Continue reading “Pocket Picking”

Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings

Christ and the People Mosaic(Photo thanks to Picture Mosaics.)

Nowadays, we see people wherever we go–you might even say more than wherever we go. They follow us, and we follow them. They are virtually always with us, even in our most private moments. Oftentimes, without any personal connection, without ever hearing the sound of their voice, we watch their behavior, and scrutinize it, and display our own views on their persons to the rest of the “public.” We see what they’re up to while we sit in the bathroom. There was a time when we never would have thought of doing this. We have already seen them so often, so inveterately, that we no longer see just how we are seeing them. I myself have been as blind to this “seeing” as I am to the nose on my face.

I personally see them only as “them” and never as “we.” They are strangers I know everything about.

We live in an age of personally but digitally mediated people. This is the genesis of the “technoself.”[1] We have instant, individual alerts and updates of live events, brought about by people made into headlines made into capital letters. This is the viral-but-virtual, public-in-private complex of twenty-first century media. This is the current “BREAKING” on our 3.5-inch screens. Of course, picture and video more fully relate what has happened in real-time situations. But even then it is a clipped reality, a tiny square of our many quilted and rippling dimensions, narrowed to a focus, frozen out of time, and flattened for our screens.

We live in an age of platformed people. Continue reading “Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings”

Overheard at the Bestiary

IMG_0585

Gossip is a pretty primitive form of personal knowledge. At least, if one were to use the history of literacy as an analogy—and if one were to take a generically progressive view of history (which I currently will, as long as it serves my purposes)—then gossip is perhaps a medieval mode of understanding another person. In the optimal cases some kind of genuine knowledge, approaching mastery of the subject, has come passed down to new apprentices of the person in question, so that whatever was original and firsthand has become layered with many and sometimes untraceable adulterations. Scribal errors are inevitable. Indeed, at its worst, gossip is a verbal means of making someone handle-able, so that the person no-longer-in-question can be passed around and manipulated (notice the handy mani– in there) whatever way the gossips please.

Even at its most innocuous, gossip invariably leads to misunderstanding and therefore iniquity. This sounds like a judgmental statement—the kind of pronouncement found in any puritan code of conduct (see The Snake in the Grass, or Understanding the Satan in YOU, being a treatise on human suckiness and pursuant of at least something approaching God’s gracious indifference)—but think about it: any talk about someone will fall short of its subject, even if it comes from the subject him- or herself, and any brief talk will only fall shorter. Since gossip usually happens in those little corners and closets of time in the midst of daily life, I think it’s safe to say the arrow falls very close to our feet.

Oftentimes, in my experience, gossip leads to the making of monsters. I use the term in the more original, less sensational sense, meaning “an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.”[1] Whenever I have overheard or participated in gossip, the persons of skewed interest become strange creatures indeed: beastly humans with elephantine flaws, alien habits, and devilish tempers. It’s an act of taking someone’s situational action (or reaction) as his or her permanent trait—and, at least within the confines of the conversation, his or her defining characteristic. It glosses over or plainly ignores the circumstantial nuances surrounding that person; it flattens the greater depth of him or her with a gargoyled appearance.

Continue reading “Overheard at the Bestiary”

Malapro

Malapropism - Pledge

malapropism: ridiculous misuse of words, especially through confusion caused by resemblance in sound.[1]

I have a peculiar love of malapropism. Anyone who has known me for long—anyone who has spoken in front of me long enough to misspeak—anyone who has gambled in knowing me long enough to have had the bad luck of misspeaking in front of me—knows the childish glee I get from any verbal flub or infelicity. Around most strangers and acquaintances I am respectfully silent. But should a close friend or relative make the slightest slip, I’ll flash on them and smile in their face with wide-eyed wonder. Of course, I have to be in a good mood to lower another’s.

Now, to some degree this linguistic schadenfreude is a familial trait. Should someone mispronounce a word or trip on their own tongue within our hearing, my family will rear every one of its grinning heads like a herd of velociraptors. And yet my particular delight in malapropism, in particular words misused or mingled (but not quite mangled), is a little more specifically mine. It has become a kind of hobby of memory to remember the specific solecisms I’ve heard. Many a simple misstep has become a special moment to me.

And yet, I consider myself a kind enough person. An empathetic, or at least empathetically educated, person. I consider myself a person.

Now, one of the reasons I love a good malapropism is because it often says more about its speaker than it does about itself. It is more an expression of personality—temperament, interests, experience, thought-process—than it is an error in language. I think of this as a more universally acceptable appreciation of malapropism—which therefore makes the appreciator more relatable.

At surface-hearing, a malapropism is funny because of its incongruity. It strikes the well-trained ear as off-key with the rest of the pitched world. It’s funny the way a bad tuba note used to be funny. The most civilized, language-conforming speakers will laugh at a malapropism mostly out of spite or embarrassment: as a way of shaking the filthy thing off. I will certainly admit to succumbing to the less superior superficial perception of malapropism. Once, shortly after the third and thankfully last “Star Wars” prequel came out, I watched a preschool boy menace another with the vicious proclamation, “I AM JENNIFER GRIEVOUS!” The comedy was not only in the child’s insistent reminders to his playmate that he had another but unseen set of arms—which presumably stopped flailing every time he paused to point them out to his playmate—but also his bombastic confidence that he knew, owned, and was the dreaded general: a ruthless, thick-voiced, armor-plated, brain-skinned, snake-eyed, four-armed, lightsaber-wheeling monster who goes by the name of Jennifer.

But I sincerely believe that when I laugh at a malapropism I am not merely laughing at the person who speaks it. I am laughing because of them. I would be more than happy to laugh with them, but I am usually the one to laugh first, and that seems to be enough in most cases. Anyway, a malapropism is one potential source of what I have elsewhere called the comedy of acceptance. With a malapropism, the acceptance is often very one-sided, at least if the laughing is out-loud. When someone misspeaks around me, I would rather not correct them, because I wouldn’t want them any other way. At this point in my growing up, I try my best not even to laugh, because I do not want that raw person-essence to flee. Everyday so many humans are hiding behind saved faces, and who they are is far more good-and-pleasant than good diction.

Continue reading “Malapro”

OH; or, “The Original Hipster”

[This essay is obviously quite belated. By now there have been numerous articles that more thoroughly study the many screes that cover the hipster mountain. In this I am not attempting any new insights about fashion, postmodernism, history, or that most contentious of all topics, fretted over nearly beyond recognition, irony. I myself am usually many years late to any game, and take a long time for reflection. So I hope it is apparent that most of all in this essay I am analyzing my own particular responses and, within them, my characteristic failures to see.]

IMG_0386  (Rare depiction of a young, hopeful Ishmael setting off in search of Experience by Rockwell Kent.)

Call him Ishmael, but also call him American. Because like so many Americans, Ishmael has a tattoo. In fact, he may have more than one. Like so many dudes, his is on his arm. You can imagine how cool it looks, considering how yoked he must be from all of his whaling experiences. All that manly pulling of ropes and . . . um . . . barrel carrying.

But actually, the one tattoo he mentions in his narrative, and the only one we know about, is a detailed enumeration of a sperm whale’s measurements. So Ishmael’s tattoo is in fact a flesh-bound fascicle of the very material for which many consider Moby-Dick to be an old, long, and “difficult” (aka boring) book: all those dry, technical, often prolix passages of whaling minutiae better situated in a scholarly work than in a high seas chase novel. “And then the great whale’s heart burst, clouding the air with blood, raining hunks of exploded life-stuff down to plash piece by piece into the roiling water like so many melting rubies . . . Now, in this next chapter, I’d like us to examine the ways in which the throwing of a harpoon can be as exciting to read as any operator’s manual.” No, no—in truth, I like, love, and greatly admire the vast majority of Melville’s novel. To me it is a loose baggy monster only in the best sense. It is full of so much. Including an interesting example of American tattooing before it was a thing.

For some time now there has been a trend of getting antique-looking tattoos on one’s body—usually somewhere frequently publicly visible, very often the forearm. I am not the one to write even a brief history of this fashion, and I refuse to do the research to do so. But I am assured by my sheer experience of “the culture” that it is a thing.

And actually, the thing is part of a much larger trend that by now is commonly called hipsterism. Well, not exactly: it’s not in fact enough of a movement with a collective cause or shared experience or set of agreed-upon principles to be deemed an –ism, but it is widespread enough to have become a real presence in the culture. From the fact that we in Portland have a “Hipster Santa,” plus the recurrence of hipster parodies in the mainstream culture (such as in shows like 30 Rock and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), we can infer the existence of some essential facets to being a hipster. We all seem to have a higher idea already in mind when we discern the outward signs of a true hipster on the street.

For many, the phrase “the old is new again” will likely sum up the hipster style nicely. And indeed it gets very close to the subject. At least, it gets very close to what I in this essay will be calling “hipsterism” or “historical hipsterism.”[1] Portlandia famously satirized historical hipsterism with its “Dream of the 1890s.” Knitwear, suspenders, straight razors, muttonchops, handlebar mustaches, artisan everything. These are things that people are not doing still, but are doing for the first time for themselves. However, they are not doing these things because they need them, but because they like the idea of them, and because they want to be seen doing them. The Portlandia segment approaches the ostentation of the hipster enterprise through its lyrics—“Micro-brew or die”; but it most clearly captures hipster affectation in its visuals: the blank, grim, and often forbidding stares of Fred Armison and his fellows are pointed at the viewer from over their gargantuan whiskers. The facial hair is exaggerated and fancified as it has not been for over a hundred years, and they stare at you as if they were standing for their first daguerreotype.

Here I think Portlandia has caught something unique but elusive or hidden, perhaps latent, in at least some hipster self-fashioning. It is more than just plain old-fashioned coolness, though it is related to it. It does indeed want to seem not to care much about anything, to seem effortless in the midst of so many trying.[2] It is, indeed, ironic, but not necessarily deviant for doing things this way: as writers like Jen Doll and Ann Powers have pointed out in response to Christy Wampole’s judgments, irony has been a fact of human living for some time. But in its selection of certain historic American clothing and hairstyles, often caricatured even by 19th century standards, historical hipsterism seeks to take a specific kind of step away from the crowd. It is more than a mode of donning parody. It is more than unsmiling self-satire.

The danger, or at least provocation, of hipsterism seems to me to be pomposity. Hipsters can take not taking themselves seriously very seriously. It is this tendency that I think defenders of hipsterism and irony do not always address: the investing of irony with self-importance. Perhaps some of it is treating parody as fine art. Whatever the case, at least on a superficial level, hipsters seem to be the opposite of unassuming—and yet what they assume is not easily traceable to themselves. Like many stylish people, hipsters are practitioners of being seen. To me at least, they are constantly being-seening. I can’t imagine any of the nattier dandified kind making toast, getting sick, or sitting on the toilet, so imposing is their toilette. (Not that I really want to imagine the last on the list, by the way, but think about it: can you easily imagine a young man with the proudly up-turned mustaches of a Union general hunched over in so naked, undignified, and basically human a posture?) I sometimes believe such people don’t want me to know they own pajamas, or even a bed for that matter. And on top of all that there arisen that aloofness or self-distancing that’s become so notorious. There’s a self-focused gesturing that never looks at anyone. This is obviously not true, and humanly impossible, but the appearance of it is a noticed phenomena. Simply Google the words “aloof hipster” and see what you get. There is a real sense to some that hipster will not grant you entry into the compound circle of their orbits. It’s as if they are monks of coolness, who have sworn themselves to themselves, and made a vow to style itself.

I would say this view of the hipster is really of the mythical “arch-hipster.” It is largely a stereotype. And as far as irony is concerned, its strategies have become so normalized by now that perhaps, as Doll said, it’s really a matter of moderation.[3] But I have to confess that the stereotype of hipster aloofness is one that I can relate to having perceived as true. At times I have been just as judgmental as Wampole in my estimation of the ostensible “hipster lifestyle”—or at least their style of dress. And I suppose that has been just the problem for so many: “hipsterism” of such an outwardly totalizing nature flaunts an affected lifestyle as pure style, leaving nothing known but the gesture itself. To me, an arch-hipster bares no experience in their get-up. They are all gotten-up, with no sign of where they’ve gone or where they’re going. The outfit, when taken from a century out of context, doesn’t even represent a currently relatable occasion, much less any individual background. Here is the barista with the Woolrich vest and John Brown beard. The side of his scalp is strictly shaved, but from the asymmetrical side-part his hair flows like some force of nature. What happens when you look him in the face?

Continue reading “OH; or, “The Original Hipster””

The Comedy of Acceptance

Sam Weller

When I was in college one of my friends told me a story about her younger brother. He was a typical high school boy in many ways: excitable, impetuous, demanding, hungry, pungent, psyched, and yet strangely indolent and dim at times of rest; depending on dinner—whether he’d had it yet; whether it was what he’d wanted—he could be enormously proud, kingly even, towering and solid in his person, or else morose, Jobian, hyper-sensitive, and easily cut to the quick. But one of the most unique particulars to my friend’s brother was his logical-linguistic faculty, his individual reason in his individual language. His own personal left side of the brain. How he expressed his opinion on something often had the subtlety of an errant anvil. “Hammer and tongs” is supposed to imply rigorous, constructive, usually dialogical debate or conversation. His was the surprise singular dropping of cold hard dumbness on nothing. That was my impression at the time of my hearing this story, anyway.

It happened one Saturday afternoon that my friend and her family were out running errands. At one of their stops, my friend’s brother came across a bag of assorted candies. The candies reminded him of candy. Candy reminded him of other times he had had candy. Those remembered times reminded him that he liked candy. The memory of liking reminded him that he liked liking. It was only a short neurological distance before the connection was made: thought became want, want became desire, desire became need. He bought the bag of candies—that is, he put the bag in his parents’ basket.

But somewhere along the way home the assorted candies remained unopened, even in the brightness of their colorful wrappers. Maybe they drove through some place on the way home. Maybe his digestion caught up with him sitting in the van.

Whatever the reason, desire had subsided somehow. Driving back, my friend’s brother asked their dad if he wanted to have the candy instead. Their dad, busy doing the actual driving, muttered an affirmative commonplace: Sure, I’ll eat anything, you know.

When they got home, after the usual bland shuffling and settling, my friend’s mother began preparing that ever-promised meal, covenanted daily since childhood, dinner. My friend’s brother, seeing these preparations, asked what it was supposed to be—a question freighted with sphinxlike gravity. I do not remember what it was, or what he was expecting, but the brother did not like the answer. He bemoaned his mother’s choice. He decried the item’s very existence. He cried violence against his hankerings. In his lamentations he opened the bag of candies and began unwrapping and eating them, one solitary piece at a time.

Just then my friend’s dad, coming through the sliding glass door from the backyard, gave out a more neutral, dadly bark at the brother.

“What?”

“Why didn’t you clean the backyard? You said you were going to. You didn’t do it.”

“What? I can do it later.”

“I told you to do it before we left. Actually I told you to do it last night.

“I wasn’t home last night.”

“You were before you left. You were home this morning. You didn’t do it either of those times.”

“I will in a minute, okay? God.”

“Don’t swear that at me. You said you were going to. It’s a mess out there.”

Okay-okay-okayyyyyyy.

“It’s not God’s fault it looks like a goddamned warzone out there . . .”

“Well it’s not my fault that dinner’s gonna suck.”

“. . . piles of poop everywhere out there. What did you say?”

“That’s why I’m being a jerk.”

Tempers grew higher, and voices grew louder. Feelings were hurt, faces were fuming. At some point my friend joined the cause of her parents, and then the whole family was gathered in the dispute. Or rather, father, mother, and sister united against brother. They got to a point where they had each chimed in some death-knell against his callow moral rectitude. At first, he took these rebukes harder and harder, and grew more blockheaded against them. But soon their steady words had the effect of erosion. Looking around him, his conviction softening, he issued one last defense at the head of his accusers. He looked with dread seriousness at his dad and said:

“Well at least I got you candy!

They all stared wide-eyed at him. They looked at each other, gasping for words, only to look back at him in utter dumbfoundedness.

They stood shocked as if a boulder had rolled through the living room.

Finally the dad’s stern, straight face cracked a slow grin, and he broke into a laugh. The sister and the mother soon followed, and even the brother began to smile uncertainly. It wasn’t long before the whole tense body of the family relaxed in laughter, the kind of just-pent-up, now-released laughter so much like hard-earned tears.

My friend shook with laughter as she recounted this story to me. Approaching the climactic words, she had to stop and catch her breath. She made many false starts, having to smooth the smile from her cheeks so that she could speak. But the smile stayed there because the surprise of her brother still stood in her mind.

I had seen her annoyed with him many times. I myself had been more than annoyed with him many times. I thought him the worst kind of fool: proud, with big shoulders. Certainly my friend had plenty of reason to complain about her baby brother. On the worst of days, his seat of reason was a highchair from which he tossed a mess of clanging slop around her, not even aware of her trying to pick it up. But at that moment, still reliving his utterly unique response, her face showed the exact opposite of annoyance. Even as she had cringed and frowned before when telling of his churlishness, my friend now smiled with lucid joy when clumsiness. But she wasn’t laughing at him, she was laughing because of him, and the smile lasted far longer than the laughter. It was the facial expression of that good old English word, so underused nowadays, mirth.

Continue reading “The Comedy of Acceptance”