Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cold Hearted Bitch

It doesn’t get truly, disgustingly hot in Kingston, NY very often – maybe one or two days per summer. And when it does, it has about the same effect on people there that a truly cold day has on people here in South Eastern Virginia. It’s shocking. It’s unbearable. On one such summer afternoon in Kingston when I still lived there, it was approaching 100 degrees, and the humidity was as stifling as anything I’ve felt here in Virginia. I was driving to the Home Depot (again – I practically lived there at that time in my life). A friend was visiting, so she occupied the passenger seat. To get to the Home Depot in Kingston, one must drive up a long, curving incline (basically the side of a mountain), and as we were doing this, I saw a man in a wheelchair struggling to get up this incline. He was long, lanky, and tan. He was shirtless & his shorts were saturated all the way through. His ropy muscles strained under glistening skin. Sweat was literally pouring off of him. I had seen him before in various places around town, but I couldn’t believe he was attempting to go up this road in the current conditions. I gasped, made a u-turn, and pulled alongside him to ask if he’d like a ride, or anything else. He paused in his labors, locked his chair, and said he was fine but had run out of water. I proceeded to the nearest gas station, bought two liters of water, and took it back to him. He was grateful & assured me that he didn’t want a ride, that he was training for a marathon & this was good training. I marveled at this, we exchanged a few niceties, and I was back on my way to the Home Depot. When we parked, my friend was looking at me oddly, and I wondered what for. Practically in tears, she told me how beautiful it was that I had bothered to help the man, that I had gone out of my way to get him water, and gushed about what an incredible human being I was. She informed me that most people would not have even noticed his plight as they passed him. I had thought nothing of it, but I saw her point & appreciated her appreciation.

Why, then, can I not be moved by Haiti? Whenever I hear or see anything about the devastation over there, I sigh, or roll my eyes, or change the channel, or change the subject. It bothers me to hear about it and it bothers me that it bothers me to hear about it. What kind of a cold, awful person am I, really? I must be, at bottom, a cold hearted bitch. Last night, as I was settling down to a solitary evening of channel surfing, I was dismayed to find that nearly every channel was carrying the “Hope for Haiti” charity program thingy. I desperately switched from one channel to the next, but couldn’t escape it. All I wanted from life last night was a Law & Order marathon or even a single episode of stupid Bones (which I don’t even like when it comes down to it), but no. Though I had looked forward to an evening of decadent laziness, I preferred to turn the tv off rather than hear about the plight of Haiti. I picked up a New Yorker magazine instead, one that was too old to have anything about Haiti in it.

Why can’t I be moved by Haiti? I think the answer is manifold. First of all, as I get older, I get more and more like my cat, Esther. She is feline through and through. She knows her own well-being & cannot tolerate any energy that is contrary to well-being. Though she drove me crazy when she attacked Atticus whenever he returned from the vet, I kind of understood it. He was sick, and while I wanted to coddle him, I did weirdly understand her intolerance of it. Who wants all that sick energy in their space? Evolutionarily speaking, her response was much more rational than human responses to illness & tragedy.

And so I have become repulsed, in a way, by the sick energy of Haiti. I mean, as demonstrated by the wheel chair marathoner, I am as compassionate as anyone, but Haiti, I guess, is not a someone. It is a mass of someones, faceless, nameless someones. It is big, too big. It is abstract, too abstract for me to grasp. It is in my face, much too much too much in my face. And this, I think, is triggering me more than anything: it is fashionable. It is so fashionable that the coffers are filling to the brim, and the cynical side of me only hopes that a decent percentage of that gets to real people in real need. In a way, my rejection of this Haiti-pushing reminds me of my wholesale rejection of the movie, The Titanic. I have been assured many times that it’s a wonderful movie, and I believe that it probably is. But when it came out, I couldn’t force myself to see it, though it wasn’t the film itself that I rejected so much as the hype. It was fashionable. Like maniacal flag-waving was fashionable after 9/11. Remind me to blog someday about group behavior & insidious socialization.

I know, I do know that each & every person in Haiti is a specific, real individual, just as flesh-and-blood as the wheel chair marathoner, and probably in more dire straits. But I cannot be moved. I am not drawn. And if I have not learned anything else from my metaphysical studies, I have learned that I must go to where I’m drawn, and I must not go to where I’m not drawn. So I shall not be drawn to Haiti. I am not called by it, and maybe that’s all the explanation necessary. For me, anyway. I realize that a lot of my angst over not being moved by it, not putting on a show of compassion, is a result of social pressure created by media. There goes the goddamn media trying to control me again. Do I sound like a maniac yet?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ten Books: To Kill a Mockingbird & Illusions

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I imagine this would be on a lot of people’s lists. It is an American classic, and Atticus Finch (can you guess after whom my Atty Boy was named?) an American icon. Told from the point of view of Scout, who during the action of the novel is a mere six years old, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of lessons that a six year old can comprehend, but many adults fail to achieve. While the main story line of Tom Robinson’s trial brings to life the ugly, brutal face of institutionalized American racism, its twin story line of the childrens’ obsessive fear & taunting of Boo Radley works to expand & universalize the themes of maturity, listening to one’s own voice, treating people as individuals rather than monoliths, and plain old kindness and generosity. On reflection, I realize that Atticus has served all these years as a yardstick for my own integrity. What would Atticus do? Gregory Peck, who played the lead role in the movie version (which is nearly as good as the book), fingered Atticus Finch as his favorite out of the more than 25 lead roles in his stellar career.

3. Illusions, by Richard Bach. The books of Richard Bach are fun, well-written specimens every single one. I had first read Jonathan Livingston Seagull when I was very young, and had quite randomly picked it up out of a pile of my older sisters’ abandoned books. In a way, it was written perfectly for a child my age, though I wouldn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of this seemingly simple story for years to come. Perhaps I still don’t; perhaps we can never rest easy that we truly and fully understand anything. To this day, the sight of a seagull brings me a feeling of ease, and I refer to them all as Jonathans, as in “Look, there’s a Jonathan.”

But as much as I hold that first book dear to my heart, it is the next one – Illusions – that entertained, stunned, riveted, and freaked me out all at once. I was an angry, screwed up nineteen-year-old in a severely dysfunctional relationship with an angry screwed up older man. The one healthy thing I took away from that relationship was a taste for literary science fiction (Heinlein, Asimov) & a lot more books read under my belt. At a time when I was absorbing all kinds of new information & furiously trying to figure out who I wanted to be & how to be it, this book (okay, and Stranger in a Strange Land really sticks out, too, but it got booted from the list) held a lot of answers. Granted, they were answers whose code I wouldn’t figure out for years, but I didn’t have to have it all figured out in order for it change the direction of my life.

Because of this book, I decided I wanted to go to New York University, and it was the only college to which I applied. This was very much in contrast to my mother’s nature of constantly hedging her bets, and she tried until it was too late to get me to have backup choices. Part of the application package had to be an essay in which I delineated which book had had the greatest impact on me and why (perhaps it was broader than this, but this is what I remember now). I wrote an essay about Illusions that even inspired my mother. I wish I still had that essay; I would have simply used it as this entry instead of all this blather. Before NYU ever had a chance to change my life (which it did, tremendously), I somehow mustered the confidence to apply, to express something genuine and be rewarded for it.
Next: Three Tragedies, by Federico García Lorca