My daughter and I are in Vermont for her graduation, and last night we arrived at a lovely bed & breakfast run by two accomplished men who live full, worthy, elegant lives. When one is not seeing clients at a local health clinic and the other is not directing the news at a nearby TV station, they are both in their renovated farmhouse fixing blueberry coffee cake for their guests, tending to their strawberries, and delivering lambs.
Behind their house is a pasture full of sheep, and this morning at breakfast we learned such interesting things about them: 1) After they’ve given birth once, ewes typically have twins or triplets. 2) If you want to know when sheep are ready to lamb, touch their udders; if they’re rock hard, the time is nigh. 3) When a lamb is born, it has a layer of brown fat to provide it with just enough energy until it can find its mother’s teat. 4) Sheep have distinctive bleats, and one here, it seems, had such an aggravating baa that our hosts finally sold her, though they felt bad about doing it. Unfortunately, they sold her to a neighbor who uses their pasture.
Some years back, a woman I had known since I was a child told me that people never change. I don’t remember why she said this but think now that she was referring to someone we both knew. “It’s not true!” I flared. “I’ve changed.”
Of course, this is not a new idea; nor is it a particularly inflammatory one. The same has been said of dogs, zebras, and tigers. At the time, though, I was deeply offended. During the many years I had known her, she had not changed at all: She had been a self-satisfied adolescent with an extremely small world view, and this she remained into adulthood. I couldn’t bear that she lumped me together with everyone else and that she had failed to recognize how set apart I was, how unique, how evolved.
Now I see that I am the same bird I always was, only more so. Whereas I had been withdrawn and sad, now I am reclusive and oppressively melancholy. Whereas I had been timid around people, now I avoid them as much as possible and watch animal shows instead.
I’m telling you this now: If you find yourself watching a movie at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, you’d better not talk on your cell phone; otherwise, someone in a zentai suit will come from somewhere out of the dark and shush you.
This would be a great way to humiliate a nincompoop into changing all kinds of bad, if dangerous, behaviors. I, for one, would think twice about texting while driving if a ninja appeared in the passenger seat and clucked his tongue the very first time I had the temerity to do it.
I am about as left-leaning as I can get without falling over on my side, and lately I’ve been thinking that the research is correct: Democrats and Republicans are born that way. When Reagan was elected Governor of California in 1967, my father was so angry he swore in front of me and steamed for days. When my landlord, a Mr. Shiess, refused to return my deposit money just because he believed he could get away with it, my incensed father drove to Goleta, where many UC Santa Barbara students live, and threatened the man with a lawsuit. After that, he cleverly transposed two letters and referred to the greedy bastard as Mr. Sheiss (German for “shit”).
My father was a sensitive, if ruminating, man who would have given his golden retriever, Rusty, his last morsel, and his inability to hold onto whatever little money he managed to amass over the course of his short life seemed more a function of his biology than of anything else. This is not to say that all Democrats are wealth averse. Though my mother was a Democrat, she craved money more than anyone I have known, and my brother, too, a Democrat, also, is a staunch defender of capitalism and a great gatherer of goods.
Although there is no way to explain adequately why my father and I became poster children for the principles of the Democratic Party while my mother and brother did not, there are certain general differences between Democrats and Republicans that are indisputable. Anything that seems a handout to the hapless, for example, like welfare and unemployment, is anathema to a Republican, while a Democrat believes in helping those who cannot help themselves. It is simplistic, though, and even ridiculous to suggest that Democrats care about their brethren while Republicans do not. The way I see it the differences between Republicans and Democrats boil down to this: Democrats on the whole have a greater capacity to tolerate ambiguity and nuance, and this capacity seems to arise at the cellular level.
Yesterday, a young teacher stopped by my office to talk about the picture of an African elephant on my wall. Soon she told me about her trip to Ghana, which changed her life, she said, and I told her about my unnatural aversion to mosquitos, which has changed my life, I suppose. Although I would like to visit Serengeti National Park more than just about anything, I told her, my fear of contracting malaria there prevents me from even entertaining the idea of such a trip. It’s because of my father, I said.
A soldier in World War II, he returned from New Guinea infected with the virus and for years after, until his death of a heart attack at 52, when I was 20, he suffered bouts of vomiting, fever, and violent chills. There was only one episode I knew about firsthand, though; all other stories about his illness were apocryphal. In those years, after his divorce from my mother, I saw my father far less often than I would have wished, and seeing him at my door, so distant and diminished, diminished me all the more. He had lost a terrible amount of weight, and every movement, no matter how slight, seemed a great, sad labor. “Don’t cry, baby,” he had said, so I put on my bravest face for him. I wear that brave face still, but in a way his illness became my own.
When I was young, teenagers were deities. I couldn’t imagine becoming one both because my years seemed to plod round the sun and because I felt weak in the company of older children. It was as though I had been born without a force field.
When I was in the sixth grade, I went to see a high school production of South Pacific and was so smitten by the lead, Tom, the oldest son of my fourth grade teacher, that I wanted to rush the stage just to breathe his atmosphere. How handsome he seemed from afar, how tall, how straight, how commanding.
Then, something happened: I saw him change costume in the wings, and my life was never again the same. The magic was gone in an instant, and my thespian god was made just as fleshy real as my impossible older brother.
While writing We, I have been tempted to discuss it with you–to analyze the creative process and to reflect on the story’s evolving meaning. I have wanted to know what you think about individual chapters and what you think about the whole work so far. Then, I think of Tom off stage wiggling out of that white shirt, and I fear you will be as disappointed with me as I was with him.