Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

A Review of Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.

Regardless of where we think we fall on the continuum of civility, one thing is certain, we can’t assume that we understand others automatically or that they understand us. In the places where we cross paths with strangers, faulty perceptions and skewed conclusions are ever-present. Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies does a brilliant job of playing out this conundrum in the experience of immigration.

The author considers himself authentically American, a child born in the United States and a man shaped in its culture. But he is also an immigrant son, and that allows him to see a complication in American identity. In the words of one of his characters Akhtar says, “The thing I never got used to here was not really understanding what people are thinking. Everybody coming from so many different places, so many different experiences, everybody looking at the same things in completely different ways.” We are a nation of people whose family trees have been transplanted. Our histories have been interrupted, and we often are confused about where we fit in. Reflecting this, Akhtar challenges the idea of the melting pot. As an alternative, he borrows an idea from chemistry and he asserts that the country is a “buffer solution – which keep things together but always separated. That’s what this country is. A buffer solution.”

Akhtar’s deft storytelling in Homeland Elegies streams together the story of a father, born in Pakistan and making his way in the United States, and a son born and raised in the United States, but still puzzled about his connection to another place where there are people and habits that resonate deeply with his own primordial sense of “family.” The father in Akhtar’s story, a physician lured by the dream of being both a healer and an entrepreneur, finds both boom and bust in his fearless pursuit of the American Dream. He takes his chances, and the gamble undoes him.

The son in Akhtar’s story is his father’s opposite. He grows up in the United States, culturally nurtured on the advice to follow your own dreams. He is determined to be a writer, does well in school, and immerses himself in creative ventures, which for a time require that he live on loans and handouts from his father. The plays he writes and the fiction he weaves reveal the puzzles and complexities of the immigrant experience. He reveals the insults of being judged by the color of his skin or his name, the insults born for being Muslim, and his confusion about the meaning of wealth and success in America.

In the eyes of his father, the son is a wastrel who is failing to embrace the opportunities of the American Dream. With so many opportunities available to him, the father cannot understood why his son would squander his options for the luxury of telling tales about the people in his life. Even after the son becomes successful, his father remains disappointed with what he considers a lack of ambition. Why would his son want to be a writer?

Akhtar masterfully portrays the way children born in the United States to immigrant parents, live in two cultures and form a double-consciousness. What other children assume, these children must assert. A name, a religion, a skin-tone, and sometimes the bald prejudice of others are relentless reminders of another identity. For Akhtar the moment of assertion comes when he is already a successful writer and making a public presentation. A member of the audience takes exception to comments he has made about the role of the arts in addressing social problems. His interlocuter suggests that if Akhtar doesn’t like the way things are in America, he should go somewhere else.

“It took me a moment to speak: I didn’t expect to be emotional, but I was,” Akhtar writes. It is a break-through moment. “I’m here because I was born and raised here. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. For better, for worse – and it’s always a bit of both – I don’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve never even thought about it. America is my home.” Who but someone aware that others see him as an outsider needs to make this assertion for himself?

The son of Akhtar’s story, who asserts his American identity, is witness to the fact that his father has never been truly at home in the United States. Akhtar says of his father: “As much as he’d always wanted to think of himself as American, the truth was he’d only ever aspired to the condition . . . . he’s been playing a role so much of that time, a role he’d taken as real.”

Immigration creates misalignment in the relationships of parents and children. They feel embarrassment for each other in places where, each in their own way, they are not understood: the parent in the new country, and the child in the old country. They are also witnesses to each other’s sadness. The child sees the parent’s rejection and feels pain for losses that are inevitable. Even for the immigrant who embraces the new home wholeheartedly, it is a “cruel paradise.”* Even the most assimilated immigrant is shadowed by consciousness of being an outsider.

The children of immigrants know a world that is not their world anymore, but it is still the world of people they know and cherish. In the old familiar places from which the family has come, the child born in America will always be a visitor, welcomed and doted on, but a visitor nonetheless. Inside the immigrant household, settled in America, there are layers of life that are strange beyond its walls. The immigrant child, crossing the threshold of the house while coming and going from home day by day, is crossing cultural borders. It is not possible to transplant homes and home places. The immigrant child is always, to some degree, an emotional nomad.

In a stirring scene toward the end of Homeland Elegies, as the son says farewell to a father who is returning home to his place of birth, both the pain and the love are evident. The weeping son tells his father he is sorry. “I didn’t know what I was apologizing for, but I knew I had to apologize,” he says. His father does not accept his apology. “No, no . . . ,” the father says. But the son needs to be heard. He grabs his father’s coat and pulls him toward him, while the father is still objecting. “. . . I pressed in and drew him closer, pressing myself to him, feeling him as tightly against my body as I could. I held him there until he stopped resisting. It wasn’t until he tried to speak that I realized he was also crying now. . . . Only the embrace between us mattered now. If only I could hold him close . . .hold him longer. Maybe what was broken in both of us could finally be mended.”

Many immigration stories are either victim stories or resentment stories. They focus on the undeniable hardships of immigration or the injustices acted out on those who are judged by others to be outsiders. Both of these are true to the experience of immigration, but there are additional elements in Akhtar’s account, and that is the merit of his story. He does not destroy the bond between father and son even as he narrates its difficulties. Instead he brings into view the indescribable sadness of immigration as it creates irreparable separation between the generations.

The sadness of immigration is felt in the second generation when children look at their parents who remain alien no matter how long they have lived in American and no matter how hard they have tried to fit in. They may be citizens, they may be taxpayers, they may vote, they may serve in the military, they may be eligible for social security, and eventually they may be buried in American soil, but they will always be partly alien. They will never be as completely American as they assume other Americans are. That is the sadness of immigrant children. The title of Ayad Akhtar’s novel is accurate. It is an elegy. It is a sobering reflection on something that has passed away and is gone.

Akhtar’s novel is autofiction: the protagonist has the author’s name, and many of the elements of the story parallel events in the author’s own life. Despite this Akhtar deftly avoids the blunders so common in this genre. He does not conceal himself behind the excuse that his self-revelations are “only fiction.” Whether they are identical to the particulars of his life, they are true to the experience of his life. He writes with the forthrightness of someone who has been cut on the sharp edges of immigration. So is Akhtar’s writing fiction or memoir? Who cares? The writing is fluid and lean. The story is frank and colorful. And within a few pages the reader is hooked. The story deserves to be read. It surfaces so much that Americans need to be considering with each other.

*Hylke Speerstra and Henry Baron, Cruel Paradise, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005.

The Misappropriation of Age: When Books About Old People Aren’t Funny

A Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 years old, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans,  Grand Central Publishing 2017.

There is a growing genre of comic fiction about old folks. In 2014 Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg wrote The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules. It was originally released in Sweden, but was translated and distributed worldwide, eventually becoming a bestseller in Canada and selling over one million copies. She had followed in a trail blazed by Jonas Jonasson whose book The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared sold over eight million copies. Fredrik Backman gained attention when his novel, A Man Called Ove, was translated from Swedish to English and distributed worldwide in 2016. Most recently Dutch author Peter de Smet has captured a spot in the genre with The Secret Life of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ years old. After first holding a place for over thirty weeks on the bestseller list in the Netherlands, it has now been released in twenty-one other countries, along with its sequel On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 years old. Each of these authors has gotten rave reviews.

The authors are brilliant observers of ordinary people, but there is another key ingredient they all share. They make people laugh with impossible details and slapstick scenes about old people. What hundred year old man can climb out of a window? In a scene reminiscent of the sad clown in the circus taking a prat fall, Hendrik Groen tells of Mrs. Been, who fails to lock the wheels on her wheelchair, and when it tips over she falls onto a fully loaded tea cart. It may be funny when this happens in a circus, but it is a disaster in a nursing home. So hold the laughs. Backman recounts Ove punching out a clown in the waiting area of a hospital. The clown offers to entertain children by making a coin disappear, but uptight and stingy Ove, a man who has barely survived dire poverty, thinks the clown is trying to rob him.

These stories have a problem with cultural appropriation. When Oprah’s Book Club promoted Jeanine Cummins American Dirt, a story about migration, it caused a stir because Cummins was not part of the group whose story she was telling. It began a conversation about who gets to tell stories? What gives an author legitimacy? This is an important issue when victims of discrimination are portrayed in literature. It is also a fair questison when applied to portrayals of aging.

Stereotyping is a way of locking those from whom we want to be separate in the space of “the other.” Laughing at them might make the distance seem less brutal, but for the object of the put-down the shaming intensifies the insult. Portrayals of race, disability, gender, ethnicity, and alternate lifestyles have frequently been portrayed this way in stories. Values are changing. Blackface on stage isn’t funny. Lisping jokes about gay people aren’t either. And a president who mocks a man with a mobility impairment is totally out of line. Isn’t it time to add age to the list?

Fredrik Backman

When Fredrik Backman wrote a story about Ove, the author himself was thirty-five years old. He created a troublesome old man, rigid in his ways, and full of self-pity about his losses. If Ove were your neighbor you wouldn’t be laughing, and if he were your grandfather, then shame on you for laughing. We laugh about our prejudices because we lack the intention to do anything about them. We might call this the “guffaw defense.” We use it to avoid having to look at tragedy squarely. What gives a young author legitimacy in writing about an older perseon if he crosses the line into stereotyping, disrespect, and bullying?

Peter de Smet was just over sixty when he wrote the story of Hendrik Groen, a character in his mid-eighties. What de Smet turns into humor is far from humorous for real older people. Hearing loss and visual decline are not comical, they are the stuff of daily humiliation for those who are isolated by these losses. Woven through his stories are comic images of older people using mobility devices ranging from canes to mini-cars. Getting around is a problem not a joke for many older people. The author stoops to calling aging men “old coots” and older women “biddies.” His name calling crosses the line into bullying.

One of the most painful scenes in Hendrik Groen’s story occurs at the bingo table when the number “44” is called. An elderly woman bursts out with the words “hunger winter.” In the winter of 1944 during the occupation of the Netherlands by Germany over four million citizens of large cities lived with drastic food shortages. Twenty-thousand died of starvation. Many ate cats, rats, and grass. Children went to bed night after night with the ache of hunger in their bellies. Is an older woman’s memory of this funny? Does she deserve to be reminded that younger people tire of hearing the same old stories? De Smet was born after the war. He did not live through “the hunger winter of 44.” Does he get to speak for those who did?

Humor directed toward those who are considered marginal carries with it an unspoken message of social expectations. When we laugh at older people for being old, we are also telling them that they should minimize their inconvenience to others, accept that their time of usefulness is past, remain silent about past events because we aren’t interested in hearing about them over and over and over again. In short, we are telling them to suck up their loss and step aside.

It is hard to talk with the young about aging, because they are trying to put off dealing with it as long as they can. Perhaps that is nature’s way. They have other important things to do at earlier stages of life. That which they hold at a distance will inevitably catch up with them, however, and sooner or later they too will die. If they are fortunate enough to put it off for a while they will get old along the way. The pain of that inevitable truth is what gets laughed away with “guffaw defenses.” Meanwhile through all the laughter we fail to ask what the value of growing old might be. Is it a wasted stage of life? To get a purchase on that we might have to stop laughing and ask someone seasoned with age.

I am not suggesting that authors give up writing fiction about older characters, but I am suggesting that when authors do write about them they not bully this age group. Older characters are interesting, but age-shaming isn’t funny. There are examples of authors who’ve gotten it right. In 2017 when Elizabeth Berg wrote The Story of Arthur Truluv, she herself was seventy years old. She understands the meaning of loss that comes with age. Her novel has depth that some of the others in the genre lack. She also understands that loss does not begin with age, and she creates a touching alliance between a colorful young woman and two older adults. Berg makes it clear that they need each other. Her writing mixes humor with compassion. It is not a mushy novel; it’s a respectful one. We might even call it “age appropriate.”


A Review: The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, 2017.

Reading during quarantine has shaped my tastes. I’ve been willing to dig into thick books that require a time commitment, because these days I have time. When I started Rachel Kadish’s historical novel, The Weight of Ink, I wasn’t concerned that it was six hundred pages long, and when I reached the last page I would gladly have read on for a while longer. With this adventure in historical detective work built around the discovery of a lost document, Kadish joins a guild of talented writers like Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book) and Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve) who can turn obsession with a manuscript into a gorgeous historical portrait.

The Weight of Ink is the story of two fascinating women. Ester Valasquez is a Jewish woman living in London in the 1660s, who by tragedies of history has become the scribe for a blind rabbi. It is a time in which few women learn to read or write, and in which a rabbi would not turn to a woman to assist with correspondence unless there were no one else.  Even in households with wealth, the lives of women were consigned to chores that left no time for learning. This division of labor was rationalized by the widely held view that education is wasted on women because they lack the native ability for it. Ester’s education and intelligence make her an oddity.

Ester’s story coincides with the Great Fire of London that took place in 1666 and the Great Plague that struck the city from 1665-1666. It was a time of social chaos, and misery was everywhere. In sidebars seamlessly woven into the story, Kadish creates a portrait of seventeenth century households in which women were responsible for the grinding labor of laundry, food preparation, and keeping the fires for cooking and heating continuously tended. In a time of disaster the difficulty of all these duties was multiplied. If life was hard in general, it is unspeakably hard for women.

The second woman of the novel is Helen Watt, Professor of History, who finds a trove of Ester’s documents, hidden away under the staircase in a seventeenth century home that is being remodeled in a gentrified neighborhood of modern London. Watt is an expert in the era in which the documents originate, and has the skill to translate the languages and difficult scripts in which they are written. To accomplish her work she must navigate the hurdles of modern conservatorship and the crass competition of a university department.

Did readers introduced to The Weight of Ink three years ago, when it was first released in 2017, find the details of quarantine and plague as fascinating as we find them now during the quarantine of 2020? The effort of finding food and commodities, as well as the oddity of masked citizens cautiously moving about the streets of the city easily play into our imaginations now. The tolling bells announcing deaths and the sounds of undertakers’ carts delivering the dead to mass burial sites, without traditional ceremonies or a gathering of mourners, remind us of the lonely deaths and unattended funerals in our own time. Rats moving freely in empty streets and the fear of contagion as people pass each other in public places resonate with our own fears.

During this strange and unpredictable time of our own quarantine, we wonder if practices shaped by social distance will become the new normal. Will we again sit arm to arm with strangers in theaters or airplanes?

Will the time return when we can hug and kiss friends and relatives at funerals and dance with friends and family at weddings? Will choirs again sing together without fearing that along with projecting beauty they are spreading death?

Quarantine and losses resulting from confinement serve as fertile metaphors in The Weight of Ink. Women were permanently confined to a smaller world than that offered to their male contemporaries. Lack of education and opportunity permanently isolated them. We do not have to go back centuries, however, to find a time when this was the rule rather than the exception. Less than one hundred years ago Mary Whiton Calkins, who served as a Professor and research assistant at Harvard University, was denied a degree despite the brilliance of her work. The reason given: Harvard would not grant a degree to a woman. In the presidential election of 2020 it will again be the case that, after electing forty-five men as Presidents of the United States, some of questionable character and limited competence, we still will not be offered the opportunity to vote for a woman to hold that office.

Sometimes quarantines are necessary. Wearing a mask while traveling on an airplane makes good sense, and avoiding flying altogether may be a prudent choice for now. When we are in quarantine mode we tend to over-restrict, because it is better to be safe than sorry. For the time being we may have to tolerate that too. But what about the permanent restrictions we place on human flourishing for no other reason than our lack of willingness to see the costs of small mindedness?

There are forms of quarantine that are arbitrary and destructive, and no matter what the circumstances we cannot justify them. We lock out refugees. We take distance from those who do not dress as we do, speak as we do, or worship as we do. In times of uncertainty we cast blame on those we think are not like us, and we create permanent forms of social quarantine.

The Weight of Ink is a good reminder that overcoming arbitrary quarantine requires breaking old habits and testing rules. We have an opportunity, while we are feeling the pinch of quarantine, to examine other forms of arbitrary social distancing. As we take steps to reopen our communities and neighborhoods, will we also have the courage to open our minds and hearts to move beyond unnecessary forms of social distancing to which we have become accustomed?

Onboard with Mr. Rogers

A Review of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Watching Tom Hanks play Mr. Rogers is a delight. He creates a version of a familiar figure that is convincing, without stooping to impersonation that is corny. As the film weaves together complex layers of a compelling story, we are taken back in time to the set of Mr. Rogers neighborhood with its familiar theme song and the distinctive trolley whistle. The film also lets us see Fred Rogers off-set in his home, with his wife, at the pool, and riding the subway in New York. Layered onto the story of Mr. Rogers, there is a new story of a friendship that gives us a different insight into the man Fred Rogers was.

Much credit for the success of this lovely film lies with the performances of a top-flight supporting cast. Matthew Rhys, in the role of Lloyd Vogel, has proven once again, as he did in ” The Americans,” that he can portray a dark and troubled character with relatable emotional depth. Susan Kelechi Watson plays alongside Rhys and sustains a tension that sets the character of Lloyd Vogel up for transformation over the course of the story. Chris Cooper plays an annoying alcoholic dad, who nonetheless loves his son, despite the fact that his son is stuck in anger about his father’s failures.

A fictional element in the film invites us to see Mr. Rogers through the eyes of Lloyd Vogel, a character based on Tom Junod, the journalist who wrote an article about Fred Rogers in Esquire in 1998. Although the role of Lloyd Vogel is largely invented for this film, an article written by Junod for the December, 2019 issue of Atlantic confirms that the portrayal of Mr. Rogers by Tom Hanks is true to character.

Fred Rogers has been dead for sixteen years, and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is the second film about him in two years. The documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” was created in 2018 to celebrate Fred Rogers’ 90th birthday. It’s worth noting that it is not children who keep coming back to check out Mr. Rogers again. It’s adults who find these films interesting. It seems we can’t get over our fascination with Mr. Rogers. But why? What keeps pulling us back for another look at him?

This new film reveals what parents watching Mr. Rogers on TV over the shoulders of their preschoolers learned long ago. Mr. Rogers’ approach to children was not shallow: he dared to speak of death, divorce, bullying, war, violence, and much more. Because children worry about these things, Fred Rogers was convinced that it is better for a child to talk about them with a caring adult than to brood about them alone. Child-viewers were drawn to Mr. Rogers because he was interesting, but they stayed with him because he was comforting.

Even more interesting than watching Mr. Rogers interact with children is watching him interact with adults. There are some steps that seem to be repeated over and over again. The interaction begins with adults asking Fred Rogers about his work with children, and in many cases they thank him on behalf of their own children, who were his fans. They assume that is his legacy, but then the conversation moves on to what many adults think of as Mr. Rogers’ eccentricities: the cardigans hand-knit by his mother, the navy boat shoes he wore on set, and his puppet voices.

There is a pivotal moment when adults realize that Fred Rogers is as serious about adults as he is about children. In an interview with Joan Rivers on the Tonight Show in 1983 we see this happen. Most striking about the interview, though, is what happens when Mr. Rogers sings “I Like You” to Joan. It is a song heard many times on his show, but this time he is singing it to her, a lightening fast comedian who can turn anything into a joke in order to deflect feeling it too deeply. As Mr. Rogers sings her defenses melt, and she realizes that he sees past her clowning and humor. He likes her, she is caught off guard, and she doesn’t know what to do.

Adults are often touched when they see these scenes in which Mr. Rogers interacts with someone so carefully and respectfully, but also so intimately and authentically. In her “Mr. Rogers moment” Joan Rivers had to consider what so many others have observed about him. Maybe he isn’t just a performer. What if he’s real and means what he says. Are we ready to hear it?

The thought that Mr. Rogers is authentic is confusing. It’s a complicated time for heroes, and not just for the heroes, but also for those us of us who admire them. We’ve been disappointed so often by heroes we’ve come to expect it; to protect ourselves we stay ready for when they will let us down. We admired Bill Cosby and laughed along with Pee-wee Herman, until we discovered a sinister side behind their entertaining personas. The trust we had for them degraded into embarrassment and rage, on our part, for being taken in by them. Because it’s hard to forgive, it’s hard to trust, even in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

That’s why it gets our attention when those who knew Fred Rogers best consistently reinforce our trust in him. Time and again they tell us that the man who played Mr. Rogers on the set is the same man who walked off the set and back into his personal life. It wasn’t an act. The crew that worked with him attests to this, and friends, like Tom Junod, give many examples of the remarkable compassion that was Fred Rogers’ way of life.

Mr. Rogers was extraordinary in part because he was so disarmingly ordinary. Few of Mr. Rogers admirers actually imitate the features that make him recognizable: a cardigan knit by his mother, the flamboyant toss of the shoe as he changes from street shoes to boat shoes, or his puppet voices. It’s hard to imagine singing his “I Like You” song to an adult without adding parody as insurance against being perceived as naive. If we are honest, and Fred Rogers would expect us to be, we have to admit that Mr. Rogers, though likeable, was a little eccentric.

Perhaps it is to balance our questions about Mr. Rogers’ eccentricities that we find his self-discipline so interesting. He lived a life that by many standards seems rigid: regular work hours, swimming daily for exercise, a restricted vegetarian diet, and the practice of praying each day for a long list of people by name. He played the piano, and was married only once and for over 50 years, both accomplishments that take a lot of patience and practice. Most remarkable are the notes and phone calls with which he reached out to stay in regular contact with people to whom he had made a commitment of caring. It all adds up to a great deal of structure. We can admire this about him too, but it is probably not this that draws us to him.

I wonder if our fascination with Fred Rogers is fascination with his commitment to radical kindness? Is that what seems too good to be true? We understand his commitment to the well being of children; caring about children is a popular cause these days. But what about a man who befriends those who laugh at him? Consider his ability to embrace Eddie Murphy with friendship after a SNL skit that merciless parodied Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood.

Can we understand a man who resolves to see the good in others no matter what? Mr. Rogers did not focus on flaws, and he did not have one category for friends and another for critics. Also he did not expect that good people would always be nice. Can we trust a man who does not fear speaking openly about difficult things, not because he is brazen, but because he is tender? Can we trust a man who loves his enemies?

As disarming as Mr. Rogers’ kindness seems to be, his example can make us uneasy. It took effort to become Fred Rogers/Mr. Rogers. To some his style seems foolish and odd. Is he too good to be true? In any case few of us have the grit and discipline to be as kind as he was. It’s easier to practice indifference than compassion. What will we be remembered for? What if we are remembered more for cruelty than kindness?

Perhaps that is why we keep going back to Mr. Rogers. We need another dose of encouragement. We want to check out once again if, with effort, it is possible to be a kind person. Is kindness real? Does its impact last? This is the feather of hope that Fred Rogers has given us.


Remembering Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788-1879)

Sarah Hale was a remarkable woman. Born in 1788, she was home-schooled and became a teacher. At age twenty-five she married, had five children, and was widowed before her tenth anniversary. It was customary at the time for a widow to dress in black for two years after the death of her husband, but Sarah never gave up her mourning attire. A look at her life would suggest her choice to remain a perpetual widow was less a gesture of grief and more a signal to suitors that she had turned her attention to matters more important to her than marriage.

Soon after the death of her husband, Sarah began to write, publishing a very successful novel four years later. She also wrote poetry, the best known from her collection for children is “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Her own parents had promoted education for both boys and girls, and Sarah herself, as an advocate for the education of women, was one of the founders of Vassar College, the second institution of higher education in the United States to grant degrees to women.

For her entire adult life Sarah Hale was a promoter of causes. She was a tireless abolitionist, an advocate for public health awareness, and a promoter of uniquely American themes in literature. For over forty years she was the editor of one of the most widely read magazines of her time, a role in which she continued until she was ninety.

Sarah Hale was also a letter writer. In 1846 she wrote to President Zachary Taylor asking him to support national unity by declaring a public day of Thanksgiving. Taylor did not respond. She kept up her campaign by writing to successive Presidents: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. None of them took action. It was seventeen years later when she wrote to Abraham Lincoln that she got the response for which she was hoping. In 1863 he declared a national day of Thanksgiving.

It was a peculiar year to declare Thanksgiving. The United States was still torn apart by the Civil War. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in January of that year, the fighting had continued. In June, at Gettysburg, there had been a battle so bloody it became known as the Harvest of Death, and the invention of photography brought images of the horror to the public.

Neither Sarah Hale nor Abraham Lincoln were naïve optimists, but they both seemed to sense what we have often experienced since: in the worst of times it is especially important to attend to gratitude. During two World Wars the public cut back their rations to assure that service members whose places were vacant at home could have a special meal. Barely a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy we celebrated a Thanksgiving in 1963. In 2001, still reeling from the shock of 9-11 we celebrated another. And so it goes from year to year both on the national level and in private homes. We do our best to celebrate this holiday no matter what.

This year, in an atmosphere politically fractious enough to bring the possibility of ugly words to many American Thanksgiving tables, ninety-five percent of Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving nonetheless. They will roast up 46 million turkeys and travel 45 million miles to be with family and friends. Once again, as we have done so many times before, we will take the risk of gratitude, even if there may be rough patches in our celebrations. And no matter how it goes this year, we’ll probably celebrate this same holiday all over again next year. It has become part of the fabric of American life.

There is a quote from Sarah Hale that fits Thanksgiving Day, especially in a year in which the celebrations may be under a cloud of discord: “It requires but a few threads of hope, for the heart that is skilled in that secret, to weave a web of happiness.”

Ok Boomer

I saw a kid with a T-shirt that said “Ok Boomer,” and it wasn’t printed just once, but ten times over. I’m a boomer watcher. I’ve written about them, criticized them, and defended them. In the interests of full disclosure, let me admit that I am a boomer, and sometimes I wish I weren’t.

I decided to ask what “Ok Boomer” means, and I got a blunt reply. It’s what someone under twenty-five is thinking when “some old boomer drops their ignorant shit on you.” My first instinct was defensive. I imagined getting a T-shirt printed as a retort.

Whatever Zoomer!
Have it your way!

Fortunately good sense got the better of me, and I immediately realized my mistake. Generation Z looks way better in t-shirts than boomers do. It isn’t an even playing field.

My unidentified source for the meaning of “Ok Boomer” was happy to fill me in on the background of the expression. Apparently it’s a “dank meme.” I thought I got what that meant. The internet has been around long enough that even old folks know what memes are. But dank? Really? In my day dank was what hippies called home grown marijuana that was put into a baggie before it had been thoroughly dried.

Oops. I just did it again. Who cares what dank meant in our day. That “dank” is already fifty years out of date. Dank is like bad. Sometimes bad means good. And sometimes…well enough already. The point is that Zoomers are fed up with us.

Zoomers have heard enough of our tales about how things used to be. They aren’t interested in hearing about what life was like when we were young. Managing life the way it is now is more than enough for them to deal with.

There’s another good reason to hesitate before getting the t-shirts printed. Zoomers have a point. The world we’ve handed over to them isn’t exactly a nifty one. They have a lot of cleaning up to do, and they’re cleaning up after us. We’ve let them down, and they’re letting us know.

I might not feel comfortable saying this to a Zoomer, but I want to remind my fellow boomers that we weren’t the most respectful generation of young adults back in the 1960’s when we were going to set the world straight.

Remember our memes, like “never trust anyone over thirty.” We were proud when we marched in protests, and we felt good when we chanted “the whole world is watching” while police were bashing heads and stuffing our handcuffed friends into paddy wagons. We thought the generations before us had held progress back, and we thought we were pushing the evolution of the human race forward. What’s more, we were confident that future generations would thank us for ushering in the age of Aquarius when all would be peace and love.

What have the Zoomers got to complain about?  Growing national debt, unmanageable educational loans, a conundrum of health insurance, continuous war, an environment groaning under the stresses of our excesses, and growing distrust of elected officials?

Ok Zoomer. Maybe “Ok Boomer” does sum it up.

It’s Halloween Again

It’s Halloween again, the season for seeing little princesses with wands and glitter, dinosaurs with awkward tails, winged fairies who do not fly, and toddling supermen with skinny legs and bulked out chests. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend nine billion dollars this year on Halloween costumes, candy, and decorations.

Costumes for pets is a growing trend. Animals don’t concern themselves with how they are dressed for Halloween, or whether they are costumed at all, but apparently their owners care. Pets, especially dogs, have become surrogate children, and Halloween is their holiday too.

The breeds that once were working dogs, whose task was to guard, hunt, herd, or control rat populations, now have become “companions.” They are adopted not bought. When brought for grooming or veterinary care they are referred to by their owner’s surname: Rufus Doe and FiFi Jones. During working hours when owners are not home, some of them go to doggy daycare.

Many small breeds always were companion dogs, the “lap dogs” of privileged classes who had time to sit around with pets on their laps. More recently some canine friends have graduated to the status of emotional support dogs. These lap dogs can be taken on board airplanes to provide comfort for their anxious owners.

What’s happening? Have people with disposable income become the target of marketers willing to separate them from some of their cash? It’s hard to resist cute advertisements for pets and pet products. Could it also be, however, that the average of two children per family leaves room for more dependents, or that the growing number of childless households has resulted in an abundance of nurturing energy that is looking for an outlet?

Perhaps the restyling of pets that turns them into family members has something to do with the epidemic of loneliness. When polled, half of all Americans report they have less social contact and fewer people to turn to for support than they would like. While this finding is not surprising for older adults who live alone and no longer work, it comes as a shock that the group reporting the highest incidence of loneliness is adults thirty-five and younger.

For lonely people, pets are appealing. Working breeds that are eager to please can be trained to respond to their owners’ wishes. Lap dog breeds that orient naturally to their owner’s scent and seek the comfort of their owner’s touch are cozy. There are few wild dogs anymore; most breeds have been domesticated to serve humans, and the human canine bond is strongly symbiotic.

Who is more likely to greet you when you come home than the dog who has been alone all day and is waiting for your return? At the same time, who is less likely than your canine companion to complain if you come home late? Where else can you find a loyal relationship so oriented around the terms that you set? Dogs are natural codependents. They were bred that way.

Halloween is a season to show off our dogs, especially those who are willing to ingratiate us by letting us dress them up as fantasy figures. And unlike kids, they won’t complain if we don’t share the treats.

Talking Heads or Pasquino

Several times lately I have turned off the TV in the middle of the news just after intentionally turning it on to catch up with the day’s breaking headlines. In short, I’m ambivalent. Sometimes the news is like bread; it’s appealing because it’s fresh but after indulging in just a little, I’ve had my fill.

News highlights the day’s gossip dug up to discredit politicians and financiers. It recounts the day’s political pot-shots aimed at the President, or someone with a Swiss Bank Account, or a candidate whose wife blurted out something too candid. To hold viewer interest the news is sauced up with a Saturday Night Live satire about the tanning mom or tongue-in-cheek speculation about a pro football player who is too good to be true. Really, who cares? Where’s the beef?

The scale of public gossip has gotten out of proportion. It was tough enough in the past when people talked behind the backs of their next door neighbors, but now the most trivial gossip has the potential to go viral. We are treated to a few four letter words stealthily picked up by a microphone mistakenly left on, and are not told about a serious statement outlining a candidate’s platform. We graze on stories about terrible neighbors, careless parents, and horrible teachers, meanwhile forgetting about the multitude of earnest people who work hard each day to share a good life with others.

Lust for news feeds the fantasies of our “inner gossips.” Networks invite viewers to send their video clips. The Internet is a free-for-all where anyone can post anything. All it takes these days to be paparazzi is pocket-size cameras, smart phones, or webcams. Amateur producers of the day’s gossip dream that the dirt they dig up will get millions of hits and ultimately make them rich or famous.

Forgive me for a little swing through nostalgia, but I like the way Romans used to dish dirt on each other. Near one of my favorite marketplaces in Rome is a beat-up statue where for the last five hundred years Romans have posted their opinions. Many of them were written in verse. This odd looking statute with paper notices pasted to its base is fondly known as Pasquino. In the past most of the lampoons (or pasquinades) attached to its base were political attacks or complaints against the Vatican. Today they are about anything that someone wants to grouse about.

What I like most about this odd corner set aside for public complaining is that the majority of pedestrians walk by without a second look. Tourists stop to take pictures because many city guides mention the “talking statue,” but after snapping a picture the visitors too walk on without reading the pasquinades that have been posted. They like the spectacle, but most tourists don’t know Italian.

A few centuries ago creeping though the dark of night to post a complaint at the foot of Pasquino was a risk that could lead to prison or death. Today everyone knows that the gossip posted on the statue is overstated. It’s drama, and little of it is taken seriously. Still almost everyone accepts that it’s good for cranky folks to have somewhere they can let off steam. Actually I am inclined to agree with that sentiment, but I still wish it were not on TV and not called “breaking news.”

Mr. Sillypants Goes to Washington

In a folder of papers at my desk there are reminders of things to do sometime, although they aren’t urgent. Waiting to be filed is a copy of Billy Collin’s poem called Child Development along with a program for an event at which he read his poetry more than ten years ago. Now and then when I sort through the folder, I pause to read Collin’s poem, which is as good a statement as any I’ve even seen about name-calling. Each time I read it, I chuckle as if I’ve never read it before and feel grateful that our nation has Poets Laureate as gifted as Billy Collins. It gives me hope.

There are endless fine ways to interpret a poem; that’s the point of poetry, isn’t it? My own amusement with this poem by Billy Collin’s begins somewhere in the neighborhood of being reminded that children are fresh and adults pretentious. How playful the little people are whose name-calling includes “Dumb Goopyhead” or new variations on references to poop. With growing expectation, I follow Collins line after line, like a listener waiting for the punch line of a good joke I’ve heard before. I’m readying myself to laugh at the delicious moment when I’m reminded that beneath the surface of propriety and adult indignation, when we stoop to name-calling, we are all three-year-olds.

courtesy of of M. K. Brown

Recently when I read Billy Collin’s poem again, I found it more serious and less funny, although no less clever. Perhaps it is because nationally we are at a high tide of humorless name-calling, much of it artless Mr. Sillypants pot-shots that, beyond being brash or crude, add nothing new to the conversation. Even the comics have lost track of the funny-bone and settled for the grotesque and vulgar. Our current civic name-calling isn’t nearly as inventive and insightful as the creations of children who call each other “Big Fatty Stupid” or “Dopey Dopehead.”

For just over thirty years we have had a Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. Has the time come to extend the lubricating genius of art across the street to the Capitol and appoint a professional Congressional Fool to help those “giants…talking baritone nonsense to other giants” take themselves a little less seriously? Or might there be added to the long list of appointments made when a new President assembles a team, the office of West Wing Jester? Bear in mind, the office might never get filled if its approval requires the advice and consent of the Senate.

In the absence of the honorable offices of West Wing Jester and Capitol Fool we leave the responsibility to poke and niggle the powerful to the reporters and pundits who run commentary on the President, the Congress, and anyone else important enough to make us worry. But what if, as it so often appears, the masters of breaking news only believe it is their high calling to “devastate some fatuous hack,” and meanwhile themselves have lost touch with their own inner fool? How can we trust any of them, the powerful and their critics, if they no longer “know in their adult hearts” that sometimes they too are little more than “Mr. Sillypants?”

Originally published on Front Porch Republic.