Monday, February 20, 2012

You as a Character in Someone Else's Story


Few things are as humbling as the recognition that you may well be a character in someone else’s story.  This realization hits with particular emphasis on days when, although you have at least one project under way, your time at the note pad in the coffee shop or behind the computer screen in your work area is start-and-stop, a sentence—if that—at a time.

The Sunday New York Times Magazine and its piece on how much stores such as Target know about their customers, sometimes even more than the customer knows about herself, was not the trigger to these thoughts.  You’d had them over a span of time, adding depth to them on such days when the necessary material did not come rushing forth, even in a form you had reservations about as it arrived before you on page or screen.

In the spirit of wanting to keep up with the zeitgeist in which you live, you make lists of the social, moral, ethical, financial, and spiritual eddies and currents you see frothing about you.  For today, President’s Day, February 20, 2012, while in the midst of a cantankerous and in large measure outrageous battle among the four surviving GOP aspirants for the right to challenge the incumbent in the forthcoming presidential election, you see an obscene expenditure of money, spent on advertising, promotion, and propaganda for candidates who call themselves conservative while speaking to issues that have become coded memes and tropes for racism, sexism, anti-labor sentiments, social inequality, and evangelical extremism of virulence enough to make the views of the so-called Puritan settlers on this continent seem the equivalent of schoolyard bullies.

Those elements are the ones you have currently considered.  Were you to be asked for your own list of problems needing solution, you’d begin with racial issues, followed by gender inequality and, as a subset of that, women’s choices as they related to contraception and abortion.  Next on the list is health care.

Even as you write this, one of your worst fears is realized.  The sound of incoming email alerts you to a communication from a political action committee.  The note apologizes for the recent flurry of requests for donations, then goes on to state that this one, today’s appeal, is fucking serious, stated in such a way that you realize once again how lonely the sense of broad political concerns has become.  “They” need some money for whatever reason, well, then, you’re a name on their list.  Send out a panic note, of a piece with those email scams you get from time to time from a friend who is supposedly stranded in some foreign airport, needing money to get home, and please wire a few hundred, which will be repaid with great dispatch, right?

You are reminded of past contributions to the presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, and to the political war chest of Edward M. Kennedy, all three of whom were of extraordinary financial structure.  Here you were, giving them money.  What’s wrong with this picture?  What’s wrong is the implied code here: You and others like you must go into competition with large corporate donors in order to level the playing field. You must take on the role of David, going up against Goliath. You must help support progressive agendas against those who have already used their power to tilt the playing field toward the enormous tax advantages they already enjoy, not to mention the social benefits “they” have and resent your aspirations to achieve.

Regulations?  Heaven forefend.  It is you who should be regulated against, lest you write off one meal as a business expense, use public funds to pay for your medical adventures, attempt in any way to make contact with and organize others of a like mind to take steps toward a more balanced and equitable approach to the business of doing whatever it is you chose to do as life’s work.

You are reminded of the stunning and tragic ending of E. M. Forester’s A Passage to India, where two potentially great friends, an Englishman and an Indian of Moslem faith separate, the Indian calling after him as a representative of the British imperialists to go home, to get out, to leave us alone.  There was trouble enough before you came.

Sometimes the sense of inchoate helplessness and frustrations are overwhelming.  You are, even within yourself, a fragmented character, beset by any number of pressures, thrilled at the opportunity to address them in essay, short story, novel, and classroom assignments, eager to be at the optimal level of strength in your role.  The energy requirements are significant.  Even on those days when the sentences come out as splats from a depleted tube of toothpaste, you feel the connection with yourself when you squeeze the tube.


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