My new short story in Eclectica:
We grew up together, Mack and I. Or at least we shared the same classrooms from Sister Mary Margaret’s kindergarten through Father John Patrick Denning’s 12th-grade history class. But it was only later, after my wife and I divorced and Mack was just getting engaged, that we became friends.
Mack was the name he preferred. His real name is Judah Maccabeus O’Flaherty. It should have been “Judas” Maccabeus, of course, but his mother was afraid the other kids would tease him for having the name of the apostle who betrayed Christ—an odd scruple on her part, given the handles she actually did burden him with. But parents are like that. They rarely consider what it’ll be like for their offspring to wear a sandwich board of weird monickers for an entire lifetime. I should know. My parents called me Christopher Aloysius Lifkovitz….
(Transcribed and translated from the original Ur-text by Thomas J. Hubschman, B.A.)
And it came to pass that a great Plague was upon the land. And the people were sore distressed. And their leaders knew not what to do, for the chief among them had declared the affliction was of nought and would pass betimes.
And the chief’s physicians were confused and did dispute amongst themselves, some saying the plague was the wrath of the Lord and to resist it was sin, and others that it was a test of the Lord’s gift of the wisdom he had vouchsafed unto his people to cure themselves.
And, lo, there arose among these latter a servant of the people. And he said that the people must wear a cloth upon their countenance and do social-distancing. But the Chief did mock him, and some of the people mocked him as well. They took up arms and defied the servant of the people, saying, Nay, but we shall not obey! For are we not free men to do as we wish and come and go as we please?
And the Chief said that the defiant ones spoke true and that the venom of the asp and the adder would cure the affliction, for so it had appeared to him in a dream. But the people knew not whom to believe. Some said foreigners had brought the disease upon them, others that they themselves had offered impure sacrifice to the Lord and the plague was His punishment thereof.
And as they did contend amongst themselves, many died and many more fell ill. The old did fall away as leaves from the trees. But the young were spared the worst. And some did say this was the will of the Lord, for the old had lived their lives and the young had not yet and the dying of the old was the will of the Lord and was good for the kingdom and that now the people must go about their business as before.
And those who did believe this prepared to do so. The sellers of the slaughtered sacrifices and the sellers of figs and dates and barley did return to their accustomed places in the markets and the young men came forth to play at their games again.
And as the fruit trees began to put forth their abundance and the people, those who had cried, Lo, this blight shall pass betimes and those who had said the affliction would endure and that the people must practice sacrifice and good fellowship in their affliction until their wise men learned the cure thereof, behold it came to pass that… [Remainder of text missing.]
(My thoughts as in mcsweeneys.net)
The way we elderly were dismissed at the start of this COVID-19 thing, as if we had passed our expiration dates anyway, was just an exaggeration of how we are treated all the time. If we are occasionally shown respect, it is for our longevity, not our present usefulness. To the young we look like dried-up fruit. They don’t realize that inside these parched exteriors, a rich mental life and torrents of emotion are still rushing like spring floods.
I used to assume I was an aberration, a grotesque exception to the deceleration that seemed synonymous with advancing years. If I found myself getting excited about a new idea or weeping from music that used to make me feel merely exalted, I figured I’d better keep it to myself lest someone try to medicate me. When I fell in love — it could be a toddler or a puppy as easily as a human being, a sudden pang as startling as my first kiss — I scarcely recognized this “I” as the same man I was twenty or even ten years ago.
And it’s not just intensity. There’s a difference of kind. That first kiss in the hallway of my teenage girlfriend was intoxicating, stupefying. But what I call “falling in love” now seems to be experienced by a different kind of being, before an undeveloped gray creature but now multi-colored and winged. Where did he come from?
I’m not alone. Other old people feel what I feel but keep it to themselves: It’s disgraceful, even pathological, to experience deep feeling at our age. When was the last time anyone saw two flabby, wrinkled bodies coupling in a movie? Passion is the provenance of youth, a scandal in the old. If we’re noticed at all we’re seen standing, not quite steadily, on a line at the supermarket looking a bit overwhelmed, or leaning against a railing to catch our breath — scarcely sensible, never mind living at a pitch some people take illegal drugs to achieve. If we’re seen holding hands in public, people stare and wonder what sort of ember could possibly glow in such dry, wasted forms.
The worst of it is not that the young don’t realize what we are, it’s that we ourselves don’t appreciate it. No one holds us in greater contempt than we do. We not only don’t celebrate our enhanced sensitivity, we accept its medicalization all too readily. Indeed, we do fall into genuine depression. How could we not? But is depression not appropriate to someone no one values, a mere burden to family and society in general? And do we not, in fact, turn into husks, old fools, even demented old fools as a result? How could we do otherwise, apart from the sturdy minority who maintain some sense of self-worth?
It’s not easy to resist an environment that reinforces such negative attitudes. Ask any member of a so-called minority group. Yet, we elderly are the goal humankind has striven so long to reach: an old age with bodies and minds still in working order, ready to impart not just wisdom but what it means to feel life at its deepest level. Reaching this point used to be the privilege of a select few. Now threescore and ten is commonplace. Why should we not share the blessings of this maturity with everyone else? Would it not be irresponsible to do otherwise?
(c) Thomas J. Hubschman
My father died with a big question mark over his head like the one in the bubble over a cartoon character who can’t make up his mind. No one saw it but me. I had been sitting for two days at his bedside watching him slip from semi-consciousness into coma. I had brought The Brothers Karamazov with me to the hospital, which I had started rereading after many years when my sister called to tell me pop had had a second stroke and wasn’t expected to last long.
It seemed odd, spending those hours by his bedside in the company of both the comatose man who had begot me and with Papa Karamazov. One, my father, was about as curious and tentative a human being as I’ve ever known. The other was a self-absorbed narcissist who cared about nothing but his own pleasure. And yet, because they were both fathers, they shared something universal on that account: an unhealthy influence on their sons’ amour propre. I found the two men getting confused in my mind—lecherous, single-minded Karamazov and my own one-woman, ever-questioning parent—as the hours dragged on and I got little sleep except for cat naps on a cushioned chair a nurse kindly provided….
“We think, we have consciousness, with our hands and feet, guts and muscles, just as trees “think” with their roots and leaves. To be sure, there is a way to make a machine that is identical to all the functions we have as human beings. The polite term for it is sexual intercourse.”
My latest at Eclectica: http://www.eclectica.org/v24n2/hubschman_salon.html
In the house I grew up in, the Great Famine was a living memory. The starvation of a million Irish a century before I was born was the Holocaust I lived with, not the one that had recently occurred in Europe. Europe was far away, Ireland was right there in my mother’s kitchen. In those early years after a war that had engulfed the entire world, cost half a million American lives and ended with the destruction of two Japanese cities by atomic bombs, the Nazi concentration camps were only starting to enter public consciousness, never mind my six-year-old’s. At the same time, a civil rights movement for African Americans was beginning to gain traction. But Jewish refugees were told by fellow Jews to forget what had happened to them or their relatives in the old country and to get on with their lives. And African Americans were warned by their leaders and sympathetic Whites not to go “too fast” in their quest for equality….
To read the rest:
My latest at Eclectica…
In his essay on Gogol, V. S. Pritchett wrote about “the carelessness, the lethargy, the enormous bad taste of genius, its liability to accident, it’s slovenly and majestic conceit that anything will do. Don Quixote falls in half, the Chartreuse and Le Rouge et le Noir go shockingly to pieces, Tolstoy stuffs a history book into War and Peace, Fielding and Dickens pad and Dostoevsky wanders into ideological journalism…” Pritchett contrasted these faults in the great novelists of the 19th century with the modern novel which, he says, “has reached such a pitch of competence and shapeliness that we are shocked at the disorderliness of the masterpieces.” But in contrast to the unfinished patchiness of their antecedents, “In the modern novel we are looking at a neatly barbered suburban garden,” while in the greats, “We feel the force of a great power which is never entirely spent, but which cannot be bothered to fulfill itself.”
Not quite what we were taught in our English lit courses. But, true enough, it seems to me, and even more so since the ascendancy of post-modernism. The conclusion one reaches, or at least the one that has nagged at me for years, is that we who practice the art of fiction in contemporary times do so in a kind of silver or perhaps bronze age, unable to reach the heights of the 24-caret stuff produced by those lazy geniuses of the 18th and 19th centuries. We may write, some of us, with good form in carefully constructed sentences, but we’re just not made of the same stuff as a Dostoevsky or a Jane Austen….
The Wall Street banks were considered too big to fail and were forgiven for driving the economy into the ground and wrecking the lives of millions of Americans and who knows how many other people on the planet. They were not only forgiven, they were pumped full of trillions of dollars and allowed to go back to business as usual.
If Boeing or General Motors or any other giant corporation gets into serious financial trouble, they too have friends in high places to come to their rescue. Is this the same reason, too big to fail, why the Roman Catholic church, after decades of revelations about widespread sexual child abuse as well as continuing sexual assaults on seminarians and nuns, can avoid being held accountable for hideous crimes it has perpetrated and then covered up?
Why, in fact, do we use the euphemism “sexual abuse” for an act that amounts to rape and physical assault when talking about the felonious acts of the clergy of any religion? If public school teachers were accused of such crimes on a scale the Catholic clergy have perpetrated, would we demand nothing more than apologies and promises to do better? Would we continue to pay taxes without a substantial, basic overhaul of the educational system? Why do we leave it to the Vatican and the same people who have enabled and covered up clerical criminality for so long to take the necessary action?
The Church claims more than a billion members worldwide. It lives off the money those members contribute along with substantial corporate investments and other income. How many of those billion are practicing or even believers, I have no idea. What I do know is that no one in the Wall Street banks responsible for the Great Recession of 2009 faced criminal charges as a result or their criminal behavior. And I am not aware of any prosecutions of Catholic or other clergy on a scale commensurate with the crimes that have been alleged against them. Why not? Why are we satisfied with apologies and reforms instead of demanding long jail sentences?
Why also are we not hearing more of the details of specific, individual crimes that have done severe physical as well as lifelong psychological harm? I have in mind the rape of a boy by a clergyman reported in the New York Times, not Catholic in this case, who had to be operated on to repair the damage done to him. Such stories, when they are about media moguls or public officials, fill the front pages of our tabloid newspapers and much of the TV news. Why are graphic descriptions of assaults by those who are not the victims of priests and other clergymen appropriate for the media but the same acts by clergymen are not? Individual stories, whether shocking or heartwarming, engage our feelings in a way no statistics can. Those late-night TV shakedowns by organizations trolling for our contributions always show the appealing faces and withered bodies of individual children. Even legitimate charities attempt to connect individual suffering human beings with individual donors. News media trade on a fact of human nature: the tale of a specific individual is a tragedy, the report of thousands is a statistic. We rarely read about or hear graphic descriptions of clerical criminality, only reports or statements by victims who were “sexually abused,” usually over a period of years. But one graphic description is worth a thousand such reports, just as the account of an individual family who lost their home as the result of a predatory bank is worth any number of cold recitations of the number of such homes that defaulted.
The Catholic Church lost much of North America and almost all of Europe even before the current sex scandals were exposed. It has since concentrated its efforts in Africa and Latin America where it faces serious challenges from evangelical Protestantism. But it’s not yet in danger of going out of business. None of its lay members have any vote about who fills the ranks of their clergy. That clergy claims divine appointment – the same assertion monarchs used to make. Some Catholics agitate for a priesthood that includes women or for the right to use birth control, but they have no power to do anything more than humbly request such reforms. The Church hierarchy retains all authority to itself while demanding complete obedience from its members under pain of excommunication and eternal torture in an afterlife. It is an institution predicated on its own authority, not on democratic principles.
As long as we give our financial and corporate institutions permission to set their own rules we will continue to suffer the consequences of their greed. And as long as we accept the idea that autocratic religion, or “faith” as it is euphemistically called these days, can operate shielded from substantial consequences for its bad behavior, we will suffer the abuses that come with allowing such institutions the privilege of being too big to fail and too big to jail.