But if you try sometimes well you just might find
Here below the thoughts of the late great sci-fi satirist Kurt Vonnegut writing about how one man among several such men in 19th century America grew rich and saw to it that they STAYED rich. This from his 1965 novel God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. Food for thought as we enter primary season!
“When the United States of America, which was meant to be a Utopia for all, was less than a century old, Noah Rosewater and a few men like him demonstrated the folly of the Founding Fathers in one respect: those sadly recent ancestors had not made it the law of the Utopia that the wealth of each nation should be limited.
“This oversight was engendered by weak-kneed sympathy for those who loved expensive things, and by the feeling that the continent was so vast and valuable, and the population so thin and enterprising, that no thief, no matter how fast he stole, could more than mildly inconvenience anyone.
“Noah and a few like him perceived that the continent was in fact finite, and that venal officeholders, legislators in particular, could be persuaded to toss up great hunks of it for grabs, and to toss them in such a way as to have them land with Noah and his kind we’re standing.
“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream went belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of Cupidity Unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.”
He had a great smile – here he as Writer in Residence at Smith College – but don’t be fooled: he spoke in dead earnest. Truth to power, that was Vonnegut.
While sifting through some old papers in this quiet season, I came upon a stack of letters.
They detail a relationship begun some 100 years ago, when my then-eight-year-old mom first began spending some serious time with the seven-year-old cousin who would go on to become her very first friend.
This photo shows my mom. She’s the baby in the middle flanked by her two big brothers, born in 1905 and 1906. She herself came into the world in in 1907 (and yes she did have me at the last possible reproductive moment.)
…And this photo shows her cousin, also as a baby, and also flanked by his older sibs. He was born in 1909.
By 1914 or so, according to my mom, you could find the two kids sitting for hours on the curbstone, waiting for the fruit man to clop by with his horse and cart so they could pick up his rejected berries and surreptitiously wing them just past the retreating figures of random passing grownups.
They spent hours punished in their rooms.
I first met this cousin the summer I was ten, when my mother organized a family reunion. When he stepped from the car to greet this friend he had not seen for 30 years he called out “Hello old partner in crime!” He then turned and christened me “Muggsy.” My willowy older sister he called “Stretch.” And in his colorful reminiscing, he showed us a side of our mother we had never seen.
With their friendship thus renewed, he sent more letters, each filled with his signature humor:
“Mike and Paul continue their education studying to be bums,” he wrote. (They were nine and 11 at the time.) And, “Son David is finishing college and doing a lot of singing, most recently in a performance for 200 college girls majoring in something that has to do with being kind to people.”
In time, we kids grew up and this cousin wrote reacting to it all: Congratulations and think of it! Muggsy and Stretch having babies at the same time!” A few years on, when Mom went south to visit Stretch and ended up breaking her hip, his response was immediate: “That’s what you get for going to Florida.”
After she moved to a retirement home near me, my mother wrote to him to say, “It’s like college all over again!” Since she lived five minutes away, I well knew how happy she was, throwing spontaneous sherry parties, and ignoring all the fire drills and raising a late-blooming feminist consciousness in many an elderly breast.
Her friend from 1915 wrote to her in her new place:
“Now that you’re settled in with all the old fogeys, I take it upon myself to send you a note. I have diabetes these days so I can’t walk downstairs anymore. I slide down the banister.“ And a little later: “How are you? Still running the Home? I can just see you bossing everyone around. I have had a slight stroke and it has affected my handwriting and speech. I couldn’t write or speak before so it’s no loss.”
But soon after, there was this: “Back home after losing three more toes. Looks like I’ll have to give up ballet.”
The last letter in the folder was written not to my mother but to me, by yet another of this man’s sons, a singer-songwriter who I ‘re-met’ when his career brought him East on tour.
“The old Da’ is in bad shape as you might have guessed,” it begins. “I can honestly say, Terry, after much quiet meditation that I wish God would let him go to the next great adventure.”
Which God did, within days of his son’s writing.
It was late August when we laid him in the ground. Four months later, my mother followed her first friend, without warning, or sickness, or pain.
I want to salute those two frisky spirits from both horse-and-buggy days and to say once again how very lucky I feel to have known them.
Some cruises I’ve gone on were crazy fun from morning until night, like the one I went on 20 years ago with my sister Nan where she joked that we had to be careful about getting too much blood in our alcohol stream haha.
This cruise that I’m on with my old man Dave hasn’t been like that, mostly because on this cruise all I’ve been doing is getting a kick out of things generally and watching the people around us.
It’s been more fun than a trip to the zoo, it really has, which is not to suggest I think I’m any better than everyone else, far from it. And I know that anyone looking at the two of us would say, “Why didn’t those two just stay home? They’re not doing the Macarena, they didn’t come to the bellyflop contest, they’re not wearing whimsical sunglasses with flamingoes sprouting from the frames, what is their deal?”
Our deal is that mostly we’ve been reading, reading, reading.
It’s been heaven. I see myself walking in the reflection of the gym at the ship’s tippety-top and think Who IS that lucky girl? but it’s me! It’s been like a dream is what it’s been like. More on what else I’ve seen later. :-)
In my next life I’d like to be a woman with calves like duckpins.
I’m seeing a lot of such calves on this cruise that I’m on. The women who own them seem to have more stability and be more stable than the rest of us ladies here on board. More ‘planted’, sort of, like the legs of the big grand piano at the Schooner Bar where the red-haired Irish lady sings each night.
They kind of roll with the ship whereas the rest of us scrawny-calved gals skitter around like sandpapers on our drinking-straw legs. We seem plain doomed to topple, kind of like these guys below. (Go 18 seconds in to hear the soundtrack. Love it!)
This in memory of the events of January 29, 1986 which impacted me greatly since NASA had my application:
When in the Spring of ’86 I became one of the final 40 contestants in the initiative to send a journalist up in space, the loss of the Challenger was still so recent the bodies had not yet been found on the ocean floor.
Maybe that’s why the TV crew who came to my door the day my name was announced seemed so eager. “She even looks like Christa!” said one of them.
Which I kind of did, though here I’m making a face. (I was standing next to Gandhi in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London, and trying to not smile while mimicking his dour expression.)
“Have her children cling to her skirts!” said another.
We were all still in a kind of shock, I think, and maybe that’s why that news crew was trying to frame things in such a dramatic way. We hadn’t yet adjusted to the new reality. Masters of technology that we imagined ourselves to be, we thought we were in control of everything.
It’s a notion we humans cling to fixedly and relinquish with great reluctance.
Picture being on a plane as it taxis toward takeoff, a rolling rec room in most of our minds, in which folks read and doze and look out the window – until it picks up speed and the trees blur and the tarmac goes fuzzy to your sight and somewhere inside, all your instincts as a land animal cry out in disbelief that this big-bellied metal hull will ever lift and soar in flight. The tiny bubble in the carpenter’s level of your brain leans way over to one side, and a small frightened voice deep inside you asks of your death, ‘Now? Today? This very minute?’ Then the plane straightens and climbs higher and with relief you turn back to your magazine, thinking, ‘Not yet then. Not this sight the last these eyes will behold.’
In the months before Challenger flew, teacher and Mission Specialist Christa McAuliffe said in her motherly and reassuring way, “It will be like taking a bus.” But it isn’t like taking a bus and it never was, as every career astronaut knows. It’s like riding a Roman candle.
Back when this first crew died what shocked us most was that we all watched it happen: one minute, seven hale and joshing Americans; the next, a blank sky. And then between that lost mission and the loss of Columbia in ’03 came that other event when, in an eyeblink, two mighty steel towers gave way to blank sky too.
I was just 36 when I applied to be the first journalist to fly in Low Earth Orbit. In the days just after January 28th I wrote in the Boston Globe that we owe God a death, as Shakespeare says, and that the Challenger Seven had paid their death-debt. They now flew free, I felt, beyond caring about control, or planning, or how many days might pass until a tiny planet tips enough to bring what its creatures call Spring.
I think of them today. “Give me your hand,” the black box caught one of them saying as their capsule hurtled quickly downward and the phrase is lovely, holding as it does all we can offer one another in love, or friendship, or at the Hour of Our Death. All, and perhaps enough.
Watch this, is you can bear to. And under it, President Reagan’s finest hour:
More, even cruder stuff happened in that Emergency Room I spent four hours in and wrote about here. I didn’t tell it all in part because I didn’t think I COULD tell it without using the real language that I heard there.
But it wasn’t just the language I didn’t tell about it.
I didn’t say that for my long, long wait I chose to sit by a man who woke that morning unable to move his leg from the knee down. I sat beside him because of his face, because of the expression he wore, that struck me as so socially ready and amenable in spite of the look of anguish that flashed across it now and then. Like me, he had come a long way to get here, and like me, he was alone. But his wife worked there at the hospital and he seemed to feel comforted by that knowledge and was with communicating with her regularly by text.
We sat together trying to ignore the behaviors going around us – like the fact that the dowager princess lookalike who had tripped on the cobblestones had actually called the city workers she blamed “fucking assholes,” an utterance that shocked me to my boots coming from a lady in her 70s with such an otherwise hoity-toity manner
She was eyeing me pretty good, I noticed and maybe it was what I had on, I don’t know. But when she saw the Gloria Steinem book I was reading she said, “Do you like that?” in a flat level way but then said nothing more when I told her yes.
The man with the dead leg and I really were right by the toilets, as I said, so after an hour or so I asked him if he wanted to move. “Sure,” he said, so with him in his wheelchair and I pushing, we rounded the corner to the semi-enclosed space that held the two tall guys I spoke about – only the chair would fit because an elderly lady wearing a sari and seated in her own wheelchair had been placed at the enclosure’s entrance in such a way that we couldn’t get him by it. It wasn’t my place to move her and I we could both see that. “I’m fine,” he said and wheeled himself back to where he had been.
Here in my new spot the first tall man I told about, who had reddish hair and who had what looked to me like cellulitis on the hand that was attached to an IV, told me they had to keep him hooked up here all night at least and maybe for 24 hours past that. “It sucks because I have to go to Florida this week on a job!” I agreed that it sucked, which I didn’t say in the last post.
I didn’t say either that the sandy-haired, second, tall man, the one with the gash on his chin, had gone directly on from telling me that Gloria Steinem was a fraud to attacking what he called “that whole Martha’s Vineyard crowd.” “Matt Damon! Fuckin’ Ben Affleck! You know his brother Casey Affleck? Guy’s an fuckin’ midget!”
I didn’t say that when the ER staffer brought in the homeless-looking man with the long grey hair covering his eyes he had leaned in to him and muttered, “Behave yourself now.” Thus I shouldn’t have been surprised by what followed when the two tall guys started to mock him to his face, calling him “Shaggy” and worse. I didn’t say that he finally sat up from his slump and called them both faggots before the rest of the F words began flying thick and fast.
“Guys!” I didn’t tell you that I said. “Guys, what about this lady hearing all this language?” I said, indicated the woman in the sari and who was 80 if she was a day.
“Oh don’t worry about HER!” snapped Shaggy. “She doesn’t even understand us! She’s an Arab! She speaks Arabian!” Then he shouted enough more bad things that the burly male staffer who had brought him in came flying into the room, took him by the elbow, hissed “I warned you!” and hustled him to a different area.
Just after that they called my name and I got seen.
Thirty minutes later I saw, in an exam room that they were escorted my quickly past, the man who had no ability to move a leg that was paining him terribly.
We waved to each other and though there was no opportunity to get it, how I wish I knew his name.
Because me, I just fell down while running on wet tiles around a pool and got a compression fracture in my back; but this man? This man I can’t stop thinking about. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to wake one morning with such symptoms and I so hope he’s ok today.