I have been thinking about people I have known the past few days who didn’t back away from the moment like the people in the streets fighting for reforms in name of the dead. Here is a story about two of them I have known.
In the mid 1980’s a van broke down by my house in rural Pennsylvania in the middle of a snow storm on Christmas Eve. It was a middle aged man and his wife and the man walked up the steep hill to the apartment I lived in with my mother, father, and sister. My grandfather was visiting for the holidays also. The man was very apologetic and all he wanted to do was use the phone to call an emergency truck to get the van. We let him use the phone and they told him they would be there as soon as a truck was available and could make it through the snow storm, but they were not sure when that would be. He said thank you and walked to go back to the van. My father stopped him and said that he didn’t like the idea of them waiting in the storm down in the van on Christmas Eve and they should come up and stay with us while they waited. The man said he would ask his wife and left. He came back a little while later and said his wife didn’t want to impose and they would wait in the van. My father quickly put on his coat and went back to the van with the man to change her mind. He returned a little while later with two slightly bewildered people in tow. My father was a bit of an oncoming storm. At first it was awkward, but after a little bit it wasn’t too bad. Later in the evening my neighbors came over and a friendly card game was started that went late into the night. The man and his wife ended up staying for almost two days until a tow truck could get them to a mechanic to get repairs made. Sometimes it was awkward and crowded, but it was always understood you don’t let someone freeze in a cold van on Christmas day. I am not sure it was even my father’s choice to offer; it might have been part of his being. As a child I was annoyed at the lack of space (there was none already), but I understood. You had to be brave and deal with what came your way.
In 1999 my father had lost a long difficult battle with cancer. I didn’t have much money and was working at a job where I didn’t get along with my boss and I was worried things were not going well. I was depressed and unsure what to do with my life or what the future would lead to. One morning on the way to work I ran out gas. I managed to pull over and get out harms ways, but I was stuck far from any gas station. I was going to be late and had no way to contact my job which didn’t seem to bode well for my employment status. I was hungover and thought about sitting there and watching the cars go by, but decided against it. I wasn’t even sure where the closest gas station was so I started walking in a direction I thought there might be one. It was a grey day and there were drops of rain in the air. I walked for about five minutes until I heard a car pull up next to me. It was a Cadillac driven by an elderly black woman. She rolled the window down and asked me where I was walking to. I said that I ran out of gas and was looking for a station. She told me there was none in the direction I was walking toward and it was a bad neighborhood. She asked if I wanted a ride to the nearest station. I accepted and got in the car. I will always remember what she told me next. She said ‘I was real afraid to pick you up. I wasn’t sure if you might be trouble to me, but I decided I should. My husband died recently and I sure miss him. He said his whole life that you have to do right and be brave. He would have picked you up and helped you. I figure he is gone now and I might not have much time left either, but I am going to be brave too. Just like he was.’ I said that I was so thankful and that I was sure her husband was a great man. I wanted to tell her I lost my father recently and he was brave and I missed him too, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to put any burden on her. She gave me a ride and I got a can of gas. She even took me back to my car. I made it to work only slightly late and thought about the elderly woman’s grace and bravery and how proud her husband would have been of her and how my father would have done the same thing as her in the same situation. I also thought about how I probably would not have. In my life I have never been able to be as brave as them, but I hope someday I can be and I am forever grateful that people like them sometimes exist in this world.
– Gene G. McLaughlin 2020
A number of years ago at Barley’s Taproom in Asheville, North Carolina I was talking to a man at the bar. His wife quietly interrupted him and said, “Why are you talking to that Bearded Riff Raff, we are from NEW JERSEY.” I couldn’t deny it, I am the Bearded Riff Raff and I am not from NEW JERSEY. I decided to own it. Bottoms up! Here’s to the Bearded Riff Raff!
Decabiblio Amalgamation Syndrome – a condition where for every book read by the infected ten more books seem to have grown or been acquired nearby. Often considered by people with the condition to be a blessing and a curse.
There is an idea called binary opposition that comes out of structuralism. I don’t know that anybody studies structuralism anymore, but in 2016 after 10 years of social media it seems relevant. Social media is narrative building on a global scale that has never been seen before. Humans build narratives constantly and on Facebook or Twitter we can build them together 24×7. Binary Opposition says that two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set off against one another. It is what we see on social media every day in the arguments that go on and on and on. Every post and argument extends the narrative which sadly is extremely boring and disheartening to most of us. If one side doesn’t have enough people to tell their side of the narrative it can be easily accounted for and efforts can be ramped up by bots. An equal measured binary response. In the digital age there are no lulls in the narrative or no intermissions. At this point I don’t think we are defining what each side of the narrative stands for. The structure of the narrative is more important than the content. The structure defines the elements of the narrative itself based on the corridors of human cognition that we can’t even see. We can’t seem to stop the narrative. The momentum is too great. Maybe someone can tell me how this ends or gets reset? I am not sure we know. This is new territory. Maybe I’m telling myself a narrative and none of this true at all? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s turtles all the way down, for humans I think it’s stories all the way down. Personally I am going to do what I always do when I am clueless about the world or depressed. Pull out some old world narratives and read them for a few years. Books. At least most of those narratives have beginnings middles and ends.
I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1998. I had never lived in the South before and I quickly learned the phrase ‘bless your heart’ could mean any number of things both positive and negative. It was the inflection or the timing or the smiling or sad face that accompanied the phrase that mattered more. Often later there might be a moment that whoever spoke the words ‘bless your heart’ to you pulled you aside and spoke in a more intimate manner, clarifying their feelings or checking on yours. Sometimes a quiet discussion was the best way to challenge someone or to console them. 1998 was a strange moment in Charlotte. It had been a city forced to change by its own residents, by companies that moved there, by the Supreme Court, by all sorts of factors. There had been far fewer quiet discussions, much more yelling in the years that preceded it. From Julius Chambers presenting arguments for Swann vs. the Mecklenburg County Board of Education in 1971 to Pat McCrory fighting with theater director Keith Martin on Good Morning America over the NEA funded Angels in America in 1996 just two years earlier, the region was always in flux.
It’s been almost 20 years since then. People rarely say bless your heart in Charlotte now and the city is ground zero for a battle over a law called HB2. I don’t miss the phrase much, I never really figured it out. I do miss people who spoke quietly and considered their words though. They were skills that those people had learned the hard way. They witnessed the failures of yelling. People don’t hear you when you yell. They only hear the volume. There is yelling everyday now. Sometime in the next few years we will acknowledge the fact that the yelling did us very little good. We will still have LGBT people and evangelical people as neighbors. They will still live some parts their lives differently than us and it still will not effect our lives much at all. There will be times where we understand that treating each other with respect and dignity is for the best. It will be agreed that all people are entitled to equal protection under the law. We’ll calmly iron out the details. Those will be good times. Then we will forget again. We always do. Then we will yell. Bless our hearts.
Gene G. McLaughlin 2016
To those who feel wronged by the Confederate flag lowering tomorrow take heart. Those of us for lowering the flag know that the minimum death toll of the American Civil War was 625,000. It was quite possibly 1,000,000. There were bastards, hero’s, no accounts, saints and sinners on both sides. The wrong side of history has room for many. There is one important fact we definitely know. We know that every death on both sides lead to Emancipation. Emancipation is the moment this nation began. Every sacrifice on both sides is remembered. It gave birth to anything great we are or will become. Our nation is the sons and daughters of Confederates, Unionists, Immigrants and Slaves. When our greatest sin ended we all began. Grace to all who made Emancipation possible. It is not forgotten.
Gene G. McLaughlin 2015
Today the Somme is a peaceful but sullen place, unforgetting and unforgiving. … To wander now over the fields destined to extrude their rusty metal fragments for centuries is to appreciate in the most intimate way the permanent reverberations of July, 1916. When the air is damp you can smell rusted iron everywhere, even though you see only wheat and barley.