Outside my street-level bedroom window just now, I heard a man’s flat voice, and then a woman sobbing deeply, suddenly.
“Oh my God, I’m so scared,” she cried. I looked out the window. Do I get involved?
She was sitting in the passenger seat of an open-doored SUV, her chestnut hair thick and wavy, her skin smooth and olive; the man next to her only seen from the back, and barely, bobbing his grey-curled head, was fiddling around with something in the backseat, the backseat door open and between them. Her body was limp, heavy, head hanging. He said something, twice, about “the baby.” She turned to look toward him, and sobbed again.
Her sobs came in a rich voice, velvety and agonized, past which I heard his relentless, flat, hard words speaking over her cries in monotone, unemotional and relentless, without comfort or attention to her pain. Her sobs only deepened.
This, thought I to myself, is the near-complete story of Woman in the World of Man.
“How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?
I don’t even know how the can opener works.”
~ Father of Woody Allen’s character Mickey Sacks, Hannah and Her Sisters
What makes women and men so different? An age old question.
Another age old question: What makes families so different? This sort of questioning is what happens when you reconnect to childhood memories on social media, and lately those connections have been made through politics almost exclusively.
Here’s yet a third age old question: What is the best way to be useful politically? Do you write a check, or do you throw your body at it?
I have several different memories of people around our neighborhood doing what was called “volunteering.” They led newspaper recycling drives, or, say, cleaned the litter from the corner acre lot with the wild stream and blackberry bushes where we kids played kickball and built forts and explored. I remember Mr. Scott from up the block stopping by our house one day during just such a clean-up effort, to ask for a jug of water, which my mom, Lynne, happily handed him—a glass container that had once held orange juice, a thing which people like my parents, who grew up during the Depression, saved for moments like this. Later, Mr. Scott stopped by to return it, with thanks. Because he grew up during the Depression, too.
As I brought the jug into the kitchen, which was a very short journey from the front door in our very small house, I asked my mom, “How come we never help with things like cleaning up or being on the PTA or doing newspaper drives?” And my mom regarded me through the blue haze of her ever-present Salem cigarette and said, “Honey, we don’t volunteer. We write checks.”
Knowing as I did how little money we had and how carefully my mom managed it, it seemed kind of crazy that we would “write checks,” but that’s what we did, five dollars here and there, when we had it. We carried old clothes and other items to the Salvation Army or the Good Will. But we didn’t get involved at the community level, not bodily. It just wasn’t us. I am still this way.
What the O’Haras did, though, was get to know new neighbors, person to person. White or black, poor or rich, a dozen kids from assorted fathers and mothers or a small traditional nuclear family, if you moved in within ten houses of us, we may not bring you a cake, exactly, but we waved from across the street. If we got a response, we—and I mean all of us, kids and parents, individually—would walk across the street and get to know you. We’d size you up, sure, while we told you the history of the house you were in. We welcomed you as one of our own, and this only stopped the first time you stole from us, and this happened often, and my mom would sit you down and explain to you, firmly but lovingly, that we could no longer trust you to be in our home, and she was deeply disappointed in you. “All you had to do was ask,” she’d remind you. And the door closed behind you forever. Though we still waved, asked how you were doing, and cared.
What the O’Haras also did, to borrow from poet Marge Piercy, was “dive into work head first.” Wherever we were—and I’m feeling a little Faulknerian narrating in the first person plural but it’s what I mean—and whoever you were, whether a stranger in the supermarket parking lot trying to put bags into your car, or a kid who dropped books in the hallway—we would, by instinct, reach out to help you. Many hands make light work. It’s no trouble. Glad to do it. Pay it forward. We do it with money, too. (My youngest brother, just last Christmas, bought a $25 gift card at Walmart after I’d checked out, and handed it to the harried-looking Hispanic woman behind us, laden with stuff, counting pennies. He simply said, “Merry Christmas,” and off we went.) It’s a way of being, is what I’m saying. When people ask us—and they do—why do you bother to help like that, we always ask, “How can you not?”
That said, as I said, we don’t volunteer to do community work. That’s where the Rachovs come in. The Rachov family (as I’ll call them) lived two streets over, five kids, one for every one of the O’Haras plus one, and we went to school with them all our lives, even into college. But while we knew them, and they were really nice, and Mrs. Rachov was easy to spot for her great height, her big smile, and her ever-present bandana covering her hair as she knocked on the door to collect newspapers for the annual drive, I remember them not being exactly approachable. As a family, they seemed sort of in love with each other, and we O’s were raised to be independent.
What got me thinking about them at all was that recently, by accident really, I reconnected with the oldest of the Rachov children on Facebook, a friend of a friend, a woman named Martina Benson. “I used to be Tina Rachov,” she wrote me. When I realized who she was, I admitted, “Your younger brother un-friended me a few years back.” In fact, that “friendship” with Kurt lasted about a week, his right-wing politics outraged by my crusade for voting rights (which outrage never ceases to amaze me in a democracy). Tina remarked, “Yeah, I have him blocked. And his oldest son. And my parents.” I wrote her what I remembered about her helpful family, and she said, sarcastically (as it turned out), “We were so warm and inclusive.” And it was then that I recalled that her mom’s ever-present smile was sort of dead-eyed when not directed toward her kids.
And that’s how all this got me thinking about the O’Haras, who, whatever our failings in terms of community involvement, always voted and always took in stray people who just didn’t know where to go. Until they stole from us, which they almost always did. The Rachovs, by contrast, gave to the community as a whole, but were not only insular but it turns out repelled by the individual people who made up their community. Growing up, Tina was always described by her brother Kurt as “the crazy one,” and he’d shake his head and smile sadly as we passed her walking alone down the road. Now I realize that however much the Rachovs modeled civic duty, it was crazy Tina, the oldest and a girl, who had an actual heart as well as awareness of and real kindness toward those who were different from her. Go know.
And yet, looking at what the O’s and R’s both accomplished, don’t we need both sorts of families, however crazy-making?
Right Wing Meets Left Wing
Don’t we need both a right wing and a left wing if a bird is to fly?
Politically speaking, what makes the right wing and the left wing so different? Shouldn’t we want the same things, to fly in the same direction, toward food, warmth, safety?
What I really wanted to write about today was the three beliefs/qualities/ethos that separate the right wing from the left wing on this big-ass bird we call The Republic. It’s pretty basic.
- Private vs. Public
a. The Right Wing: The right wing believes in legislating private morality, such as sexuality, reproductive rights, and the freedom to act on one’s personal biases based on race and sex, for example; and leaving the policing of public works and rights, such as air and water quality, land use, food supplies, and basic rights of citizenship, up to private corporate entities. The right believes that limited, exclusive, and private access to personal wealth is the only path to true freedom, and that there is no such thing as a social contract. Only by blocking social progress, limiting access to public help, and inhibiting the personal freedom of the lowest of society can man be truly free, and very rich.
b. The Left Wing: The left wing believes in legislating policies over things we all share, such as air, water, health care, and food supplies, as well as basic rights of citizenship and equality that allow us to have the freedom to pursue our happiness and not hold back the happiness of others. The left above all wants to make sure we all have equal access to all public works, including things as seemingly disparate as clean water and the arts. Public is public, and the left believes it is protecting the social contract that keeps all of us not only functioning but also aspiring to greater heights. The left wants everyone to feel they are invested in the society, money be damned.
2. The Myth of the Level Playing Field vs. Sharing the Wealth
a. The Right Wing: The right knows that it’s a level playing field, that all humans are born with the same rights, wealth, opportunities, and living situations, and that it’s up to each of us to make the most of what God has given us. Someone on the right will never, ever be okay with lowering his or her standard of living even a little tiny bit (unless it’s by spontaneous personal giving) in order to help the less fortunate, because there is no such thing. Therefore, whatever God sees fit to deliver to you—whether it’s extreme poverty or huge wealth, disasters or benefits of weather or health, an abusive home or nurturing environment—it’s all one and the same. One man’s suffering is no one else’s business, and certainly not the government’s. And the wealthier you are, the more God has blessed you, and so the easier you should have it in terms of rules and regulations.
b. The Left Wing: The left knows that it’s never been a level playing field, and that whatever you have been handed was nothing you asked for. Therefore, if you were born into extreme poverty, abuse, neglect, or other extenuating circumstances, there’s no reason in a country as vastly wealthy as the United States for citizens not to give someone a little help, at our collective taxpayer expense. A person on the left is always willing to lower his or her standard of living a little bit to help the least fortunate among us, because we know that at any moment, we could be in the same situation. God has nothing to do with it.
3. Secular Government vs. Religious Government
a. The Right Wing: The right places personal religious belief at the center of their governed lives and policies. That religion may be Christianity or Corporate Capitalism, but it is never Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Other. In keeping with this placement of religion in their lives, the right believes it has the right to Play God, choosing who should live or die and how, whether at the hands of weapons, a lethal injection, or inside a woman’s womb. The right is very comfortable assuming the role and judgment of God.
b. The Left Wing: The left places empirical knowledge, including science, history, journalism, arts, and debate, at the center of their governed lives and policies. This placement does not preclude religious belief, but religion does not play a role in governing beyond belief in the freedom to practice that religion. The left, caught in that curious mix of human limitation, human responsibility, and openness to the unknowable, does not feel it has the right to assume the role of God, and does not feel comfortable choosing for others who has the right to live and who should die, and therefore wishes to prevent, through legislation, those would do violence to others via weapons, lethal injection, or preventing a woman from owning her own womb and body (any decision about which is between a woman and her god and her doctor), and those who would carry out private violence.
So you see the problem. Ain’t no way this bird can fly.
Straighten Up and Fly Right
The buzzard took the monkey for a ride in the air,
The monkey thought that ev’rything was on the square,
The buzzard tried to throw the monkey off his back,
The monkey grabbed his neck and said, “Now, listen, Jack,
Straighten up and fly right, straighten up and fly right,
Straighten up and fly right, cool down papa, don’t you blow your top.
Ain’t no use in divin’. What’s the use of jivin’?
Straighten up and fly right, cool down papa, don’t you blow your top.”
The buzzard told the monkey, “You’re choking me.
Release your hold and I’ll set you free.”
The monkey looked the buzzard right dead in the eye and said,
“Your story’s touching, but is sounds like a lie.”
Straighten up and fly right, straighten up and stay right,
Straighten up and fly right, cool down papa, don’t you blow your top.
~ Nat King Cole, “Straighten Up and Fly Right”
Different though the right wing is from the left wing, we are stuck to the body of one bird—this earth, this nation—and if the screaming eagle crashes into a glass ceiling or the rising sea or the shiny grill of an oncoming SUV, it’s because the right wing willfully denies and obstructs the talents and directional role of the left wing.
There used to be a time when you could say, “Hey, it’s BOTH wings,” but those days are gone. They began ending when Newt Gingrich took out a contract on America, and when the entire Republican Party made it its business to shut that whole thing down, that “thing” being government of, by, and for the People, and culminated in the election of Donald J. Trump, a president right out of Mad Magazine or a Marx Brothers movie.
There’s no denying the interrelationships among the right’s treatment of women, treatment of blacks, treatment of indigenous people, immigrants, and those of faiths beyond Christianity, treatment of the poor, and its treatment of the Constitution. The struggle toward a more perfect union is, for the right, answered in dissolution and apocalypse—an annihilation of their own creation. The ultimate Endgame. They cultivate the ignorant, whip them into a frenzy around a cult of personality, and set about “winning” through the destruction of such basic rights as access to free speech, access to voting, access to citizenship, equal rights for all citizens regardless of race or gender or religion, access to economic opportunity, and the right to an unpolluted natural world.
The left wants you to have equal access to affordable healthcare, jobs, citizenship rights, clean air and water, and education in a safe, secure, and inclusive nation. That’s about it.
Seriously. There’s no comparison between the two wings. Sure, the left wing is dull as ditchwater, but that ditchwater is potable, and if you need a ditch dug, they’ll help you dig that ditch.
All the feathers that cover the body of a bird make flight possible. When, say, a virus causes the bird to shed feathers of one entire wing, the bird goes nowhere but down. How far do you want me to stretch this analogy?
Hope Is the Thing with Feathers
The other week on the 7 Train here in Queens, where I live, I got on a car and sat next to an old man with a large head, shoulders bent over as his fingers, with deeply dirty nails, who reached into a cellophane bag for sunflower seeds in the shells. He’d crack, open, extract, chew the seed, and discard the shells under his seat. I judged this. A glance at his parka and pants and shoes suggested he was not probably homeless, and tufts of hair in her ears notwithstanding, his thick grey hair was washed and he was clean, except for the nails. A laborer. His eyes, when his head turned in a shell-crack moment, were large and crinkly and kind looking. I returned to my book. So the ride went. Then halfway in the tunnel, he began to sing quite happily, openly, in a language I didn’t recognize—somewhere between Greek and Italian or Polish—and his singing was so rich and gentle and natural, one let it go, the way people do in New York. But still, you wonder. Then a young woman who was standing opposite him came over to stand next to him and said, “Are you Armenian?”
He stopped singing, and looked up, “Yes! Are you?”
She said, “My parents are. I recognized the language. I think I’ve heard that song.”
He said, “It’s my birthday.”
“Happy birthday,” the young woman said.
I turned toward him for the first time and said, “Happy birthday!” Then, “It’s my mother’s birthday, too.”
“It is?” the old man said. “Happy birthday to your mom!”
Just then we approached Grand Central Station, and he stood up with his bag and looked sheepishly under his seat. “I make a mess. But it’s my birthday.”
The young woman reassured him, “Don’t worry, they sweep it out at 34th Street.”
And off he went, smiling. I stood up to await the next stop. As the train moved on, I caught the eye of the young woman and told her, “Thanks for that. This is why I live in New York.”
She nodded, smiled. “That’s why I moved here.”
There is no greater freedom than having the freedom to move toward the pursuit of happiness.
If your personal happiness depends upon the destruction of other people who have never wished you harm, you are a problem.
But now, in an ironic twist, my personal happiness depends upon the destruction of an entire political party whose sole purpose is to destroy my happiness.
But we come at this impasse from different angles: The right wing thinks they have the right to stop the old Armenian man from eating sunflower seeds and singing on the 7 Train because it’s fucking annoying, and also he should be deported; whereas the left wing recognizes the old Armenian man as a person with eccentricities who, when not merely tolerated but engaged, turns out to be a delightful human to know, his deeply dirty nails revealing, with some imagination, his history of laboring to live in and serve this country.
It used to be I only got involved with people on a personal level, as on the train back there, and that I didn’t get involved at the community level, at least not bodily. It just wasn’t me. I am still this way. Except on January 21, when I did the Women’s March in New York City. It felt good. I’ve done it several times since.
What I’m saying is, people can change. If Miss O’ can change, the world can change.
So America: Make an effort. Talk to your neighbor AND throw your body at the problems. Mend these broken wings so we can take off like a big-ass bird.
And don’t be afraid if the pilots turn out to be a couple of women and an old Armenian man riding a train in New York. Indeed, the world should be so lucky.