Saturday, April 16, 2011

My Token Conservative Friends

Yesterday, again, two friends came to blows on my Facebook page, spitting venom at eyeballs with all the deadly intent you might expect from opposite ends of the political spectrum. I usually log on and discover this kind of brouhaha past its beginning, when verbal fisticuffs have already drawn some first blood, but not so late that I couldn't put a stop to it. With few exceptions, I leave the floor open.

I am mostly OK with this. This must completely baffle some of my friends, since I  --  and the great majority of them  --  are dyed-in-the-wool liberals. (Honestly, I am lucky that George W. Shithead and I will never come within arms-reach of each other, because I would not be responsible for the white-hot blind rage that would put me in a secret prison for a long, long time.) The arguments can sometimes get quite ugly, depending on the viewers' sensitivity: nothing most people would allow in their own homes, and just the kind of devolvement that causes me to leap for the off-button on the TV. I've blocked and deleted conservative "nutcases" in other online arguments, so why don't I now?

The short answer is that I'm still listening.

This is not because of my deep belief of the old truism “give an idiot enough rope and he'll hang himself”  --  though the saying has applied in a past situation or two. Try to bring biblical fire and brimstone into the discussion, for example, and any intellect I may have powers down like the Tin Man in the rain. That's when friend-deletions happen.

By the process of elimination, I no longer have those kinds of unthinking, party-line, Fox News mouthpieces among my friends  --  at least, not that I know of. The remaining conservatives seem to be intelligent and articulate. I don't think they are homophobes or racists, for starters. Their reasoning for being conservatives must be outside the realm of anything I have yet heard; I don't understand it, not at all, but I want to. I may later decide they're whack jobs, but I don't know yet. Two in particular: One told me early in our Facebook re-acquaintance that he was "the original compassionate conservative" (wow, there's a concept I haven't seen or heard in years). The other makes it known repeatedly he doesn't like the extreme crazies desperately in need of Thorazine, or something  --  the Tea Party et. al.

In the spirit of ethnographic confessions, I admit I'm watching as though they landed their spaceships in my living room and offered greetings from Planet Claire. I am fascinated as any anthropologist would be given the opportunity to understand another life form. In truth, I have not heard one word from them yet that helps me understand. I am looking at them with one slitted eye, thinking "You must be just plain greedy? Greediness  --  that's it, right?" But until I get some indication they want to eat human babies, I'm still listening. I have to. I need the hope. To the very last minute, I need to believe we can do better, we can show our children better, maybe leave them something more than ashes. Call me that current dirty word "peacemaker;" call me an appeaser in the face of war; call me a bleeding heart, to a fault; call me a hopeless champion of hope. But those two maybe-non-crazy conservative friends of mine peep up from time to time, saying just enough to suggest a surprise  --  perhaps something outside the Tea Party line.

They might be waiting for their chance, like me. Friends may have noticed me dropping a bizarre, repeat comment into comment threads involving both factions over time, what on its face might seem the strangest failed segue: "The difference between Left and Right is in how we do a cost-benefit analysis." People probably wonder what the hell? I am waiting for someone to ask me, "Just what do you mean by that?" Because I think, when the Tea Party et. al. has snuffed itself out along with most of the entire planet's environment, "the cost-benefit analysis" will be how the remaining, hopefully reasonable two sides rebuild some kind of working relationship with whatever is still left. You see there the limits of my hope:  I am listening for what can be cobbled together, after the fall.

But that's just an illustration of how I wish the debate would get to something constructive, a blog for another time. If everything is as broken as it seems to be, then maybe it's up to the rest of us half-way reasonable diplomats to get on with it, and prepare for what happens after the Empire is laid to waste. Until the day when our two sides get down to such intensive therapy  --  maybe when the unicorns slide down rainbows, bearing flowers for all  --  there will be times when the conversation devolves. I really don't know what else to do about it, if I am to keep listening.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Me, Myself, and ...

Many years ago, a few days into a new job, I was getting to know a handful of coworkers when the subject of Only Children came up. We were a small public relations office on the frontlines for a desperately beleaguered larger institution, so on the occasion of my arrival we were taking more than the usual time to bond, like soldiers. Sitting together, drinking coffee, talking for hours while waiting for the battles ahead. We hadn't gotten to family histories in the long, deep conversation yet. But I looked around, decided these people were A-OK, and deemed it safe to pronounce, "All the Only Children I have ever known were completely socially inept."

This did not sit well with one of us who, come to find out, was an only child. Man oh man, he was touchy touchy.

Time is a teacher. By the time I left that institution several years later, I had learned that the Only Child situation was far worse than I had ever thought. Some people with no siblings could be virtually crippled by their inabilities to get along with others, to cope in team projects, or to have the spotlight swing off of them even briefly. I was astounded by the lengths to which some Only Children could go for attention.

* * *

The purpose of this story is to illustrate "why I hate writing in the first-person," at the very same moment I am announcing that henceforth, I will be embracing the first person in this blog! Well, maybe not “embracing”  --  more like fully engaging in the exposure therapy. Up to now I’ve loathed it and I think it shows. If blogs are going to be so conducive to this particular point of view, though, I need to quit delivering it with the ambivalence of a housewife bringing a Jello salad mold to the table. (She might be smiling, but inwardly she's wondering what she was thinking when she stirred pecans, cottage cheese, celery and pistachio pudding into the same bowl, and then expected them to hold together in a fish shape. Awfully easy to screw up, for a recipe that looks like congealed vomit and nobody likes in the first place.)

How easy is it, to screw up the first person? Let me count the ways.

1) You can really step in shit, as I did in that PR office so long ago. This is something a little more forgivable (or at the very least, forgettable) when speaking off the cuff. It's a little known fact that in Journalism 101, however, the first rule taught to fledgling writers is, "Do not step in shit for no good reason."

2) It's the trickiest of all Points of View to write, often coming off as self-centered at best, or desperately needy of a constant spotlight. With the exception of bad seeds, I like for people to like me. I don’t want them to wish to slap me, if they have to endure one more moment inside my brain.

3) Don't we have enough of narcissism in our culture already? Really  --  Facebook status updates are surely all anyone needs of me.

4) Worst of all, first-person is frighteningly revealing. Much safer to report a story in the third-person, rather than deliver your Jello mold stark naked, the word "I" sprinkled liberally throughout the dish in case anyone missed who is responsible for the mess. Plus -- for good measure -- some stories from your own personal life stirred in, the better to piss off people you actually know.

* * *

I am aware of the irony of the story that opened this blog, and that some percentage of readers will be Only Children. I trust they've cursed me mightily all the way to now, but that is precisely my point. Time is a teacher -- and some students need a lot of it. Maybe they ought not to be writing first-person until they are good and old, sticking with simple, factual reporting instead. I needed about ten more years to see the flaw in my logic about Only Children, beginning with the fact that undoubtedly, I had many perfectly normal acquaintances whose sibling status was not known to me. I needed personal experience:  when I remarried, I discovered an only child in my new husband’s family was one of the most well-balanced, likable, Zen-like fellows a person could know. Really -- I'm not just saying that so that when someday he is, indeed, rich and famous, he includes me in his will. Though that would be OK, too.

Oh well. Skin to the wind.

* Written with insincerest apologies to everyone who loves Jello molds.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hide Your Children, and Bats

Yesterday, I did some of the best writing in the whole wide world. The best ever ever ever. Me and David Sedaris, we were communing. The three intertwined stories ala "This American Life" turned out so funny and enlightening that poor David was beginning to worry about his place in the literary world. I was thinking to myself, "I don't really have a wardrobe suitable for accepting awards." You'll just have to trust me on this, because a) that super-stretch would be really nice for me, and b) no one will ever see the blog that resulted. After devoting seven hours to thinking the whole thing through on a drive home from the beach Monday, and then about three hours writing it last night, I quickly went to get permission to publish from my daughter, who was the subject of one of the hopelessly intertwined stories. It was just a formality  --  the part from her young childhood was so adorable (not embarrassing at all), I just knew she wouldn't say "no." She did.

For today's blog purposes, this means "update" instead of our originally planned programming.

I am on my fifth day of quitting smoking, and not one millisecond closer to seeing any light at the end of this tunnel, unless the light is a headlamp in the psyche ward. This is not my usual hyperbole here. I am convinced people like me who haven't quit smoking yet experience withdrawals differently from everyone else. Whether this is really true does not matter one iota to me right now. If my boss were a trace less kind than she is, or if I didn't have the good luck of working in my own office where if I bite my lip hard enough no one will hear me, I would not have made it through this day without a cigarette.

Imagine being covered head-to-toe in the worst possible poison ivy or jock itch (I'm guessing on the latter of these), with no hope that it will go away for weeks, no position you can get into to relieve the insane itching and pain, no pharmaceutical that works to help. That's how bad the rage that welled up inside of me was. Imagine there is something you can buy over the counter that makes the agony go away in an instant, but everybody says it causes lung cancer or some other similar fate that is supposed to be worse than the one you are in, at some point in the unknown future. You could be creamed by a truck before it happens.

First I wanted to break things indiscriminately, hit and kick solid matter until my bones broke  --  that would certainly get my mind off the current unbearable pain. I was thinking, when I could think, what an idiot I had been, not to foresee this and lay in a heavy-duty baseball bat for the occasion. Again  --  not hyperbole; every word of this is precise and true. I stomped around like a mad woman, looking for what could reasonably be broken, when my eyes lit upon several pieces of leaded crystal in my office that, quite literally, have the company name etched on them. I didn't begin throwing them as hard as I could onto the grass outside  --  but it was a very, very close call. Instead, I dropped onto the floor and cried into my arms, folded on the seat of my chair, for one entire hour. And not a nice, cathartic cry, but a crazed snotty gushing of curse words, loathing, and despair. Think Jim Morrison's "brain squirming like a toad." When it was over, it wasn't really over  --  I was just too exhausted for anything but pushing my storm cloud around from one place to another. The look on my face was something like a woman's when she is practicing Lamaze, as she is trying to keep her mind on her focal point at the height of childbirth.

Meanwhile, last night and tonight, my daughter  --  innocent, unknowing babe  --  keeps coming to me, to read aloud various essays she has written for school.