Friday, May 30, 2008
Mimi thought this amid the stifled whine of the airplane, as she turned her wedding ring back and forth in the square of upper sun coming through the window onto her lap. A silly conceit, to think of being closer to the sun than most of humanity could ever be for most of human history before. The big marquise diamond flashed beautifully. She had worn it on that finger for ten thousand days, twenty-eight years.
How she loved him. E perfecto, as Minnie sings of the bandit Ramerrez in the opera, he was perfect, so proud, so kind, so deferent. He was in love with another woman, a good sixteen or seventeen years younger than either of them, that Mimi knew. And yet there was nothing he could do about it, clearly nothing he wanted to do about it. She was safe.
The other woman was one of his liver transplant patients, twice over. He, the most decent of men, after he had put his hands in her body and cured her, had innocently found with her a second love of real beauty and pity. It was no one’s fault. They met, and found they shared a second soul. He used to stare into the darkness in bed at night, or at the opened, unread pages of his book, shaken out of himself. They were like people in an opera, exchanging one long wordless look, and then always hearing the same storms outside barred windows, always watching for the drape of a hem up a castle stairwell, ever afterward.
Why, just then? If it is possible to be tired of success, perhaps he was tired of it then, and tired, a little, of happy Mimi’s everlasting, smiling gratitude at life. Perhaps he was intrigued by a woman who did not pursue him, but lived quietly with death, and bent her head just so, smiling, listening to every word he uttered when he pursued her. They were circumspect. Very decent, very moral. Poor things.
When there was no need for her to see him any more as her physician, this woman had been asked to found a support group for other transplant patients at the hospital. She did it willingly, and would have done it even if the only available night for the group’s meetings had not been Tuesdays, the very night he sometimes kept late office hours at the hospital. So two Tuesdays a month, for years, they had a chance to run into each other in the halls. Their faces arced into joy. That was all, except for the occasional benefit luncheons, the chance meeting in the parking lot.
Over the weekend they had been thrown together for just such an occasion, had shared a room again in that poor old electric way they had. They watched, yet didn’t watch each other, thrilled if they so much as passed behind each other’s backs while socializing with old ladies. In fact they had long been such a fixture that people who had first heard some gossip years before would later unthinkingly interrupt their rare tete-a-tetes even now, blathering about the weather or about some task they wanted him to do on his day off. And then they would remember these were no commonplace friends, and foggily berate themselves for stealing the un-couple’s stolen time. The doctor and his former patient would act as though it didn’t matter, and resign themselves to the hope of next Tuesday, or a Tuesday after that. They would resign themselves to the hope of the next benefit luncheon.
Poor things. They had a rich inner life, the two of them, probably. For what it was worth. There was nothing anyone could do. The ring stayed on Mimi’s finger. Their rings stayed on, all of them.
Mimi’s elderly father had called at four this morning to say that her mother was ill. She had cancelled all her engagements and classes for the week to fly to Palm Desert to help them. Her husband had cancelled all his patients and meetings to drive her fifty miles to the airport. He had agreed she must go, he had sent her, he loved her, he was hers. She sat back in her seat now, closed her eyes, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on her hands.
Mimi did not see everything. She never knew that the doctor had actually broken down enough, near the beginning of it all, to ask this strange woman to have an affair with him. He had asked her in such a poetic way that she had not understood what he meant, and so nothing happened. Mimi, at that time, which was the worst time, took a long weeping walk with her best friend to talk about her suspicions. The friend, grim with tact and anguish, said to her gently, they obviously think a great deal of each other, but I’m sure neither one is the type to do that. Strengthened, Mimi confronted him with what she thought was only his humiliating public crush. They had had a fight which left him gray-faced and furious. She had never dreamed he could look like that.
The other woman wept once, too, beside her sleeping boyfriend, whom she also genuinely loved and had loved since he took her to their high school prom. Sick of it, sick of it, she thought, her lungs boiling in the dark. After she refused the doctor, or realized she had done, he in a fit of pique and of shame ignored her for more than a year. It had been a lovely, exciting friendship of a kind, so not being a saint (and feeling more cheerful the next morning) she was bitterly hurt by this new experience. To be dumped. What, had she suddenly become a bore? She vigorously imagined turning to him in one of the hospital’s sloping yellow floodlit halls, holding out her hand, and saying horridly, "We met once, didn’t we?" But she lacked the nerve. Then she got angry, and ignored him for a year, too.
But – as in an opera – a storm outside the window, the drape of a hem up a castle stairwell, hearts streaming into each other, drew them back together. Her support group thrived. They met and smiled on those occasional Tuesdays. Other men saw him flinch at the sound of her voice, unexpectedly, in a bright suite where she normally did not go. Other women saw her try not to gaze at him. He ministered to other patients, who embraced him warmly and then moved on. Mimi had friends, they had friends as a couple, who ate dinner happily at their house, never guessing what such forthright privileges would have meant to half his secret life.
He happened to thumb through an old magazine once and found the cognac ad, Martell or Hennessey’s or whatever it was, with that glorious dark woman gazing out of the brown depths of the glass. Every man has a secret love, the ad said. The shock and pertinence were great. Love, comradeship, and denial – this rich inner life – all looked to go on indefinitely, and no one outside these three, these four, really, ever shaping their lives by it, nor giving a damn. The woman’s boyfriend, upon meeting the doctor, knew at once that this was the enemy, though he did not hate him for it.
It would go on until Mimi and her husband moved to Palm Desert too, or until perhaps the patient and her family moved somewhere, or until the un-lovers were, say, a harmless seventy-eight and sixty-two. Or eighty-eight and seventy-two. Who would care then? Or it would go on until the other woman died. Liver transplant patients cannot expect to live forever.
The plane flew on. Mimi relaxed, her eyes closed. He is still mine. He loves me after all these years and he is still mine, body, vows, duty, respect, history, ring, and all. I have seen him nod slowly when our friends talk about moral decisions affecting our children and our children’s children. Suppose they would fly to each other tomorrow, if they were free. So what? They are not. Besides, imagine them, the operatic ones really trying to make a go of it, unillusioned. Imagine their halting and stumbling over who snores, and who makes grocery lists and who takes out the garbage. ...You’ve almost got to be young.
He’ll go on being a doctor and playing golf and showing the neighborhood kids how he makes beautiful handmade paper in his basement mill, for our friends’ daughters’ wedding invitations. (They were the most popular couple on the block. Neighbors dropped by just to be with them, especially when it looked like they had other company.) And he’ll make nothing for her, never for her. Whether her face is impressed like a watermark, like the woman in the brown glass, into every beautiful piece is his business, not mine.
I will go on teaching. We’ll go to the Bologna book fair in March. She’ll go on swallowing a dozen anti-rejection pills, and working for the telephone company. He’ll throw me a party when I get my Ph.D.
Mimi remembered their children’s wedding receptions. She had paced the shadowed dance halls radiant in red silks and silver jewelry, speaking kindly to old women, his huge platinum wedding band shining like a piece of his soul on her finger. He loved her. That, and her fecundity of ten thousand days ago, was the reason for new weddings, new happinesses now. How small and simple other couples seemed, compared to them. There was the ring, blazing. She had the kind of love that moved airplanes. When it came to it she would be the widow, no one else. I am reality, ten thousand days and my large soft paper-skinned breasts still feeding him in the night.
She spent the rest of the flight chatting with a middle-aged man on one side, and helping a tense, very young mother amuse her baby with rattles and songs on the other. Later the plane landed in Palm Desert. It taxied to its gate. She could feel the desert heat already settling on the plane’s skin, and could glimpse through its scratched white windows the low, marled purple mountains abruptly rearing close, as if they had shouldered the city’s horizon out of the way. Mimi smoothed her pink and green suit, and stroked back her loose gray curls. She smiled at the baby, bade her new friends goodbye, and got up to fetch her bag and depart into the heat.
I can lay claim to at least having heard of him before quite a few other people happened to do. A good five or six years ago and more, signs with his odd-looking name popped up on lawns in my old suburban Chicago neighborhood. Since the neighborhood is "changing," as we put it politely, I assumed he was a local politician running for local or at most state office, possibly even running cynically on the strength of an impressively African-sounding name.
And of course he was running, on a name that happened to be his own, and of course in time he won, election to the United States Senate no less. My family and I watched his speech after his senate victory that night and, I will say this though I suppose to some good souls it will make me look a troglodyte, I have not willingly listened to or read anything written by Barack Obama since.
That night he talked, and he talked, and he talked, to adoring supporters in a hotel ballroom, as all winning candidates do. He was locquacious and poised, joyous, obviously. I don't remember what he said. But as the speech went on, we turned to each other in the privacy of our living room and began to laugh.
If this were a short story, now would be the time for the narrator to make clear that the laughter was the nervous, frightened laughter of two bigots appalled at fresh proofs that the world was changing. But we're not bigots. It was the laughter of two intelligent people amazed that this talking man, now elected to a seat of great power, could not hear himself, could not slow down, stop, listen to himself talk endlessly and endlessly about himself, and himself, and then about himself.
I joked at his expense. "And I remember!" I preached in sweeping gestures to the television, "one day, when I was only a boy of ten, that I saw ... a cat outside a polling place. And the cat was black and white. And I knew, when I saw that cat ... that my grandmother was right. And that one day racism and prejudice would end ...." And my husband laughed and I went out to the kitchen to get something to eat.
A bigoted troglodyte, taking refuge in laughter at an appallingly changed and threatening world? I don't think so. Rather, a voter, disgusted at the explosive, complacent inanity of a man who was now my United States Senator. And, later, virtually God, deified by the media. A few years ago I visited out-of-state cousins who are probably more often Democratic voters than I am. "What do you think of Barack Obama?" one asked excitedly. To her, he was new material.
I looked at her. "Oh, you mean God?" I said. Everyone laughed, even though my response came out ruder than I meant it to. I meant it to sound bantering. "Honestly, whenever we see him on television," I explained, "we just say 'Oh look, there's God.' And we change the channel." Everyone laughed some more, and that was the end of that little out-of-state conversation. I did not mean to quash it -- I don't think I did -- but there is no pleasant way of saying, "I don't think of him because he's hysterically overexposed and not interesting enough to think about." The corollary thought is so obviously What's your problem?
The only interesting thing about him is the way he is adored, especially by the media, of course. You could be illiterate and know he is adored simply by the frequency with which his picture, always a flattering one, has appeared on the front pages of newspapers and magazines since that first victory speech in Illinois. And what is even more interesting about him, this spring, is the way he has been forgiven. The God who is forgiven -- what an intoxicating and mysterious package to elect to the presidency.
Forgiven what? The revelations about the absurd and vicious church that he belonged to for twenty years, about its racist pastor and its creed and Obama's happy support of both, should have ended his career. With those revelations, I thought the empty man had been filled in. So this is what he thinks. So this is why he says nothing of substance. The very idea of a man's simply asking to become commander in chief of an integrated armed forces -- supposing that were a job separate from the presidency -- in wartime, while wallowing in a toxic anti-American spiritual bath, should have been perfectly incredible. That the position of commander in chief is bound up with the presidency and that he is going on seeking it and has been forgiven and given more air time and allowed to seek it, would seem to past generations a symptom of wide-ranging social insanity. In past generations, this would have made the Democratic party a disgrace. The candidate would have been a disgrace. He still is.
But something in the society has changed. Previously, I like to think, upon these revelations his opponents would have refused to debate with him, his staff would have quit; all would have said, whatever the nation's problems, a candidate with any respect for the electorate or himself does not start his race rigidly intellectually loathing the country. And yet now all such past understandings are no matter. Hillary Clinton -- who should have joined the Republican party on the spot, become John McCain's running mate, and left the Democrats with their God -- cannot shun Obama for fear, probably, of herself seeming narrow-minded. He goes on, joyous and talking, and winning.
Something has changed, some definition of what constitutes respect for the electorate. Yes, yes, I know the nation and its policies and history are open to criticism and debate, and patriotism does not mean a mindless, pop-eyed salute and a growled "Love it or leave it." But, facts like Obama's church and his friends and, yes, his wife's inability to feel proud of her country until it embraced God, all paint Barack Obama into a corner where he clearly wanted to be until perhaps he realized that the whole nation does not necessarily always enjoy life in this corner, nor pay much attention to it from day to day. But forgiveness for his, shall we say, gaffes has also come from this corner, and that is why his career is not over.
The one truth that Obama's candidacy has proven about American society is that the statistics are right: one fourth of all Americans hold a college degree. That must be true. That's why he has been forgiven, and has continued to collect endorsements from other politicians -- itself a disgraceful thing -- and more importantly to win primaries. He is familiar. A brief shock -- "controversial pastor," etc. -- but no, we know him. A generation or two ago, we would not have, not because of his skin color but because a generation or two ago, one fourth of us did not graduate college. Now we do. He's your professor, and mine. We've heard, from freshman year, the things that Obama heard in his corner, things he was not revolted by, things avowed by his pastor and his friends and his wife. America the cesspool, the corrupt, the enslaver, the brutalizer of nations, the vast capitalist arena where dog eats dog and the children go to bed hungry and oil refineries block the sun. Oh, we might have been a little uncomfortable with this at first, because if we looked out the window in college we could see the sun shining after all, but the professor was there to assure us he was right, he had books, and our uncomfortableness was a normal and necessary response to profound challenge. We grow, and growth is painful. Right? Remember?
Why else, indeed, does Barack appeal so much to the young? Already naturally righteous, most of them are also students. They hear every day from polished, well-spoken men the things that have echoed in Barack's corner for years. He may be the most exciting and yet familiar adult in their lives. Electing your prof to the White House, and he's young and black. Way cool.
His supporters of any age may argue with me, at this point, that I've freely admitted to not paying any attention to his words or ideas, but have only accused him of being unfit for office because he listened for a very long time to a man whose sulfurous and peurile attitudes he has already repudiated in no uncertain terms. Yes, I plead guilty. I ignored Barack Obama from the night of his senate victory speech because I couldn't believe how shallow he was, and I stupidly reasoned that after his six-year term, we would hear no more of him. Carol Moseley Braun was another photogenic, black first-time Senator from Illinois who made a lot of gaffes and then disappeared after six years. Somehow, no one marked her for the presidency. No one made her God.
I've written of what I deign to call "interesting" things. Another interesting thing to contemplate is what might happen if Barack Obama loses the election in November. He may lose, and he may even lose big. Three quarters of the American population are still not college graduates, and may not find Obama challenging but familiar. For all we know, John McCain may enjoy a Reagan- or even only a Nixon-size victory. If that should happen, I fear we are going to have some stunned and angry worshipers in that corner, clawing themselves in despair at the way people will vote.
Monday, May 26, 2008
The question that this letter writer posed was, if two men or two women can "marry," why not a brother and sister? Or why not more than two people? What parts of marriage, if any, are permanent and outside human definition?
I think that the controversies over homosexual marriage will have to lead to this. One day soon, a brother and sister, or some other people whose pre-existing relations will make our flesh crawl unless flesh-crawling reactions are not themselves outlawed, will step forward in California or Massachusetts and demand the right to marry. The judges and the Hollywood stars may be flummoxed, but on what grounds could the right be denied?
There really isn't any reason for chastity, technically. One human body is built to join any other and where they are not built to join, human beings can think up all sorts of exalted reasons why they should attempt it anyway. It seems any American born after 1950 likes to think he has discovered not only sex but a new and wondrous tolerance for homosexuality. We haven't read enough of the ancient Greeks, for a start. (After the Symposium, Alcibiades tries to seduce Socrates: "...throwing my coat about him I crept under his threadbare cloak ... and there I lay during the whole night having this wonderful monster in my arms. ... and yet nothing more happened, but in the morning when I awoke I arose as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.")
So one day soon, this right will be demanded. I would venture to guess, it might even happen within the next five years. We may not quite grasp that it can happen because for the moment, defenders of homosexual marriage put their case in such dignified, gentle, we could almost say bourgeois terms. "Our type of monogamous love happens to be different from yours, that's all," they say. Because they don't realize or don't acknowledge that they are erecting the same kinds of barriers to the next group of rights-seekers that they decry now, their demands seem like the end of the road. But why should barriers exist at all, to something that is a right?
We also may not believe it can happen because ... well, it just won't happen. Nobody would think like that. But thirty years ago, gay marriage was unthinkable. Now it's a right that people have to amend Constitutions, if they can, to overturn. We may not have invented sex, but we have created a world in which everything concerning rights is absolutely and joyously (gaily?) thinkable.
A brother and sister could argue that their type of monogamous love is just a little different, too. Maybe they need insurance, and maybe they deserve the dignity of social sanction as much as anyone. As to technical barriers to such a union, well, a brother and sister might have grown up apart, and so have no innate family feeling, like Lord Byron and his sister. If geneticists leap to the argument that their children would have problems, they can simply avow that they don't want children, or will adopt. Notice how quickly the imagination falls back to these technicalities, rather than to moral or religious taboos thousands of years old. It seems only taboos are taboo, perhaps because we know -- those of us who don't presume to define marriage -- that the people who enjoy expanding all rights will not listen to taboo. We must speak to them in a language they will understand.
I will be interested to see what happens when this first couple steps forward in California. The logic of their request will be impeccable. The logic of its refusal -- for it probably will be refused -- will have to venture into territory where it seems few people are comfortable anymore, except on Sundays in church. A refusal will have to venture into territory where mankind does not and cannot define everything, in which case, who does? A refusal will have to venture into territory where the rules and taboos of our anonymous ancestors of thousands of years ago carry more weight than the most progressive thinking now. A refusal will have to venture into territory where not everything is a right and where the individual's emotional predicament bows before society's ancient, collective, and maybe reason-less No.
And if that territory proves too frightening, too intolerant, if we can't go to a place where mankind does not define all things but something else does and we lack control, -- if the brother and sister get their marriage license, -- how interesting that will be. Then what?
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Having either confined pieces like this to a journal, or having arduously tapped them out onto paper and maybe sent them to magazines many long, agonized months after the news in question was no longer topical, it is an odd experience now to make a draft of thoughts right here which I can self-publish -- to one reader, or none, but that's not unusual -- this very minute if I want to. In addition, the thought nags: isn't fiction, art, more dignified, celestial, useful?
It seems so, but I do have the devil of a time with fiction. Making up stories, connected surface scenarios that aren't true, and releasing them to readers who will then interpret and enjoy them as they like, is just something in which I have only the smallest and the most pained and grudging interest. I've tried. I look with wonder on those who can do it. In college I did have great fun writing what amounted to a short piece of historical fiction, incorporating all that I had learned from a semester spent studying Victorian England. But to have spun that into a novel would have been more, I think, than I could do. Anyway, its format was that of a letter, and they are chatty and plotless by nature.
What I like best is to teach through writing; hence, the wine blog, hence the book review blog. But good heavens, how is that a full use of what small abilities I have? Chardonnay is chardonnay is chardonnay; and how will I answer to my maker when I announce that I reviewed other people's novels, but didn't write any of my own? (Well, one. But not much of it is made up.) I do excellently with situations, and I think with characters. What confounds and bores me is this "plot" business. Come, come! When was the last time real people ever lived out a plot? With an ending? Truer words than this were never spoken:
Manicurist to rich society wife, as she files her nails: " 'Don't you just love to read? How do they ever think up those plots? Of course I guess anybody's life would be a plot if it had an exciting finish.' " (From the movie The Women -- Norma Shearer is the rich society wife about to start living a plot.)
So then, a "piece," as we say in the trade, non-fiction, about a very topical issue which I, as usual, won't be able to cope with fast enough to render it of use to a magazine or a newspaper. Never having been lucky enough to do that -- one editor who has published me said about an essay of mine, "It's timeless. That's a fault" -- I have no reputation as someone who should be called and asked to respond authoritatively to a topical issue while the issue is still hot. I have no product to deliver, and no name.
Oh, I'm not whining, really. It leaves me free to blog, and include quotes from The Women in an essay, which my dear lord editor would unhesitatingly pencil out. There's the problem with writing without an editor: no professional to help you do your professional best by candidly telling you good grief, No.
The topic is that controversial decision by four justices of the California Supreme Court, overturning a law that the people of California had approved, determining that marriage is only and ever a union between one man and one woman. The California Supreme Court, or its four justices who made up the majority for this decision, handed down that this definition of marriage is unconstitutional in that it denies the civil right of access to marriage -- the rite of marriage --to homosexuals. Since the California state constitution does not yet spell out what marriage is, the court was able, it seems, to lump this right into a kind of bundle of all rights, or any rights you like; the general concept of civil rights. Because it was asked to. What the people of California can now do, if they still wish to define marriage as only and ever a union of one man and one woman, is to amend their state Constitution to define it so. That way, no supreme court will be able, in theory, to say that a provision of the actual Constitution itself is unconstitutional.
Of course there has been a great deal of reaction, to say the least, about this. Brighter people than me, faster thinkers, better educated, with big reputations, or simply (and also) more devoted news junkies, have written reams already. (Remember what "reams" are?) Liberals are delighted with this expansion of proper compassion to disenfranchised people, and are proud to second it. Conservatives quote a dissenting justice's complaint of "legal jujitsu," and warn of a future in which little girls and boys will absolutely be taught that marriage to either a man or a woman is very much a normal part of their future. Dennis Praeger wrote eloquently (and fast!) of a basic, moral dismantling of the human sex drive, more importantly a moral dismantling of man's and woman's basic urge to love one another. What a pity if it will turn out that he is right, and if we should learn that romantic love was not invented by medieval Italian troubadours or eighteenth century English poets, but was a part of human nature all along -- and that it could not have been invented but can, under the correct conditions, be shamed and puzzled away, beginning in the hearts of children.
Now, normally this would go into a drawer, and would await revision. But this is blogging. A bit like the serial publication of yesteryear. Maybe that's why yesteryear's authors were so prolific. They let their pieces go almost instantly, meanwhile thinking out what else they wanted to say, and they cringed and hoped not to have written anything too awful. Tolstoy's poor writer-characters waited for the explosive public reaction, on changes in agricultural policy or something, that never came.