Sunday, December 16, 2018

Pulitzer Project: Ironweed

William Kennedy's Ironweed was a pleasant surprise. Not only did the L'Anse Public Library actually have it on the shelves (no Interlibrary Loan delays), the book turned out to be readable. Definitely a bit strange, but readable.

Ironweed is set in Albany in the late 1930's. It describes a few days in the life of Francis Phelan, a self-described bum. Phelan walked away from his wife and family in 1916 when his infant son died. Phelan blames himself for the child's accidental death and so runs away from everyone and everything he knew and crawls into a muscatel bottle.

Phelan bums around the country, works odd jobs here and there, and eventually ends up back in his hometown of Albany, New York. At times he's hanging out with two friends, and at times he's on his own. Sort of. He keeps seeing ghosts, people he knew years ago and that are now long dead. Some of the ghosts are people he just knew, hung out with in hobo jungles or met while riding the rails, but several are people whose death he caused, almost all unintentionally: a fellow he tangled with in Chicago who cracked his skull when Phelan threw him and he fell back against a concrete bridge pillar, for example.

The book flows smoothly despite the frequent flashbacks to different episodes in Phelan's life and his conversations with people who aren't really there. It's one of those books where you find yourself wondering exactly why you're reading it -- after all, it's the life of a bum at the tail end of the Great Depression, a dude who's definitely leading a fairly grim life -- but the writing sucks you right in. This book for sure falls on the upper end of the scale in terms of readability.

When I did a Google image search to find a cover photo, I noticed it was made into a film back in the '80's. The book won the Pulitzer for 1984; the movie was released in 1987 so Kennedy's agent must have done a good job of peddling the screenplay. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep starred in the film. When I saw that my first reaction was "Why?!" The book is pretty damn grim, although Kennedy's writing is so good the plot doesn't repel you. However, I cannot imagine sitting in a theater for two hours to watch a movie about a drunken bum and his cronies lurching around from dive to dive and speculating about where they can find an abandoned building that would be safe to sleep in for a night. This is one movie that I will not look for online despite the superstar casting.

That said, I do recommend the book to anyone who appreciates good writing.

Next up: Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie. I know Lurie can write; now the only question is whether or not it's going to be another Interlibrary Loan request. The L'Anse library really does devote way too much shelf space to Danielle Steele.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum?

All the talk recently about just how we all should remember George Herbert Walker Bush got me to thinking about the whole notion that we're only supposed to say good stuff about dead people. Why?

Is it so the family won't be upset? Bush the Elder was a politician. His kids and grand kids have been around politics their entire lives. They know the man was not perfect, that some of his decisions were based more political expediency than on principle, like when he was trying to get elected in a Southern segregationist state so publicly opposed civil rights legislation. He had definite moral failings. After all, he pardoned Oliver North after that treasonous swine negotiated with both drug dealers and the anti-U.S. Iranian government. He also apparently believed that anyone who became ill with AIDS deserved it, at least until hemophiliacs like Ryan White entered the public consciousness. .

Okay, so it makes no sense for the ordinary person (or anyone else) to try to pretend once a politician is dead that they had no flaws. What about when it's someone you actually know?

I had been thinking about this recently anyway. I've hit the age where if I go to a social gathering it's more likely to be a funeral than a wedding. The life expectancy for women the year I was born was only 69, which means if I go by the old actuarial charts I've passed my sell-by date (it's now 78.9 so I've got a ways to go before more than half my age cohort is dead). Not surprisingly, I see obits and funeral announcements for various acquaintances on a pretty regular basis.

So is it okay for me to mentally start singing "Ding dong the witch is dead" when I learn that someone I didn't especially care for has beaten me to taking the dirt nap? You know, someone where if I were male I might give serious consideration to pissing on the grave? Am I obligated to say something nice if or when her name comes up in conversation? Or can I continue to use my favorite terms for her, which might not be obscene but certainly have never been complimentary?

As for why I've spent the past 40 years or so thinking of the person as "that bitch?" It's simple. She was mean to one of my kids. It's weird. I have several acquaintances who worked actively to destroy my relationship with the S.O. They devoted a lot of time and energy to trying to split us up (which I'm pretty sure neither of them remembers now) but I've never felt the animosity* toward them that I retained for this stupid person who made my kid unhappy. It's not like I spent a lot of time brooding about it but if the woman's name came up, my reaction was consistently to think bad thoughts and to hope her life sucked. I think the old aphorism "Hell has no fury like a woman scorned" is wrong. It's more like Hell has no fury like a pissed off mother.

Short answer to the question of do I have to say nice stuff now that she's pushing up daisies? Or, more accurately, do I want to? Nope. Depending on who's around, if her name comes up she's still going to be "that bitch."

*To be honest, there might be no ill will because they failed. As to why they tried to begin with? It's a mystery. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Yet another thing that never fails to annoy me

The misuse of the word "miracle." It pops up in headlines and commentary way too often. Saw another one this morning: a reunion between a family who lost their home in Paradise, California, during the recent wild fire and the family's dog. The dog had gone missing during the evacuation. The people had managed to get one of their dogs into the car but not the other. They initially fear the beast was dead.

Like many pets, however, the beast had survived. I might be willing to let the use of the word miracle slide if the article had referred simply to the beast not becoming barbecue, but, nope, his survival wasn't the miraculous part. It was the reunion between him and his humans, or so the headline proclaimed.

Turns out there was absolutely nothing miraculous about the reunion. It was not a case of the couple going to view the heap of ashes that used to be their house and being stunned to find the dog waiting there. Well, the dog was waiting there, but it wasn't actually much of a surprise. Animal rescue volunteers had been working for weeks to find and rescue pets that had been left behind but managed to survive. They've been putting out food and water and working with owners to try to reunite pets and people.

In the case of this particular miraculous reunion, the animal rescue people had spotted the dog fairly quickly after they were allowed into Paradise to look for lost and injured pets. They had been able to identify his owners, they were leaving food and water at the house site for the dog. So when the owners got there and were reunited with the beast it was neither a surprise nor a miracle. The reunion was the result of hard work on the part of people. The owners knew (and had known for awhile) that the dog was fine. So why the hyperbole about miracles? I don't know. Click bait maybe? After all, it worked for me. I clicked on the link to read the story even if afterwards I was muttering about crap headlines and reports that focus on the wrong things.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

An urban legend that refuses to die

Encountered another person on Facebook who's confused his life with that of a fictional character. In the 1982 film "First Blood" Sylvester Stallone's character, John Rambo, is a Vietnam war vet who does a rant about being spit on by "maggots" at the airport. The character of Rambo has been singled out to serve as a target for police brutality, apparently because he appears to be a harmless drifter, another down on his luck loser so the local cops can beat the crap out of him and no one will care. His rant encapsulates all the frustrations he felt as someone who should have been treated like a hero but instead was unappreciated, ignored, and insulted. It was an epic rant that apparently resonated with quite a few movie goers. It's been over 35 years and there are still dudes channeling John Rambo and confusing the abuse he suffered in the movie -- greeted by organized protesters who spit on him instead of showering him with vacuous platitudes ("thank you for your service") -- with their own lives.

Historians and folklorists alike have studied the "military personnel getting spit on" question for close to 30 years now, and guess what? Prior to that first Rambo movie there were no reports. Following the movie? By the end of the '80s it had become common knowledge that members of the military were spit on when they returned from Vietnam. The researchers who have studied this phenomenon have never been able to find a single verifiable incident -- it's always "it happened to a friend of a friend." You know what you call something that's attributed to a friend of a friend? If you're kind, it's an urban legend. Or, if you're me, you just call it bullshit.

The author of the book shown, incidentally, interviewed hundreds of people who initially claimed to have personal knowledge of spitting happening but in the end there was no corroborating evidence (e.g., news reports in print or on television) and it turned out the person making the claim was actually repeating "a friend of a friend" story.

Actually, some of the stories that get cited as "evidence" by the people who swear the spitting happened are so totally bizarre that it's amazing anyone believes them. One story, for example, claims that when service members arrived in Los Angeles, they'd duck into restrooms to change into civilian clothes to avoid being abused by the public. So many uniforms were removed and discarded that trash cans were overflowing with jettisoned Class A uniforms. WTF? If these service members were still in the military and were en route to a new duty station, they were going to need those uniforms. If they'd already been discharged and were heading home, they would have been in civilian clothes. If they were still in the military, sooner or later they'd need their Class A uniform, the one with the most expensive pieces, for some occasion. On the pitiful pay personnel got back then, no one still in the military was ever going to throw a uniform away because they'd have to pay real money to replace the various pieces. Classic sign of an urban legend: it contradicts common sense.

(Side note/minor digression: the uniform story reminds me a lot of the anti-Jane Fonda story about her betraying POWs by getting them to tell her their names and service numbers and then passing that info on to the North Vietnamese. Whatever moron thought that one up apparently forgot that when the POWs were captured they (a) were wearing dog tags with name and serial number, and (b) the one thing every person in the military is told is that when they're captured the only thing they're supposed to tell the enemy is their name, rank, and serial number. Fonda did ask guys their names but it was so she could let their families know she'd seen them and they were okay. She also carried letters from POWs back to the States to mail for them.) 

Anyway, I can understand Vietnam era veterans feeling neglected and mistreated, but it was not by the general public. The people they should be pissed at are the paper pushers in the Veterans Administration who refused for decades to acknowledge the harmful effects of Agent Orange, who dithered about recognizing and treating PTSD, and who put up roadblocks to almost every disability claim. Nothing new about that, of course. Veterans have been getting screwed over by an ungrateful government since the country was founded. 

The same person who's channeling John Rambo also made the claim that during the 1970's service members were told not to wear their uniforms while traveling because of the low opinion the public had of the military. Again, bullshit. For a brief time members were indeed told not to wear their uniform while traveling on civilian aircraft but it was not because of any anti-military sentiment on the part of the general public. The '70s witnessed record numbers of hijackings; service members were advised not to travel in uniform so they'd blend in with the other passengers. Arriving in Cuba in a U.S. Army uniform would not have been cool. However, as a general rule, including during most of the Vietnam conflict, if the military paid for the plane ticket, you had to be in uniform. The government was (and still is) notoriously cheap so when you flew on a civilian plane, you flew stand-by. If you weren't in uniform, the gate agent stuck you at the bottom of the stand-by list. In uniform you were at the top.

I do feel obligated (as usual) to note that way too many of the people who tend to do the super patriotic thank you for service garbage are the same ones who never had the time or desire to serve themselves and who freak out at the suggestion that maybe their high school age kids think about enlisting. I'm still wishing I could have somehow preserved the horrified look on a supervisor's face in Omaha when I responded to his lament about his no-clear-goals adolescent by saying, "Well, what about the military?" You'd have thought I'd said, "Hey, Don, how about if your kid tries prostitution for awhile?" So please don't thank me for my service (I'm Vietnam era) and I promise I won't call you out as an elitist classist ass who thinks getting shot at by the Taliban is a chore reserved for the low-income kids from the sketchy neighborhoods.