Monday, March 23, 2015

Glasses Half Full and Half Empty, and "There must be a pony somewhere" (9 Dec. 2013)

Inter urinas et faeces nascimur.
"We are born between urine and feces" —
misattributed to St. Augustine of Hippo

           The "sig" line of one of my e-mail signatures ends with the quotation, correctly attributed to Rich Erlich, "Some people look at a glass and see it half full; others see it half empty. Me? I hold it up to the light, swirl around the contents, and check for contamination ...."

            Alternate start, for a longer essay: I grew up on the old story of the little boy who was a total optimist, way beyond the standard-issue American Pollyanna. His constant, insistent sunniness begins to wear on his little friends, who throw him into a gloomy abandoned stable, with the kid up to his thighs in manure. And they leave him there all day and all night. Returning in the morning they find him smiling and energetically shoveling the manure. When they pronounce to him the age- and era-appropriate version of "What the fuck?!" he answers them gleefully with, "With all this horseshit, there must be a pony somewhere!"

            That became a catch-phrase for my generation, and a book and movie title: "There must be a pony (somewhere)."

            Now I'm sure there's a large genetic and congenital and early-experience basis for optimism and pessimist — "He's a congenital optimist" may have some literal truth to it — and I'm sure many parents could tell which of the twins would be the cautious, pessimistic one and which the speed-crawling optimist by the time the kids were a year old. And I know that Americans expect people to get grumpier with age and that it's no surprise that by the time I hit 65 I had achieved thorough-going curmudgeon hood.

            But my negative attitude started in my late teens and solidified when I was in my mid-thirties, when I wasn't all that old and reasonably healthy and vigorous.

            The initial push toward pessimism came senior year in high school when I took over a teen-run charity group in Chicago and was told that we weren't going to get the proceeds from a dance that one of our member fraternities had thrown because the officers had embezzled the money and used it for a winter trip to Florida. These gonifs had stolen money from crippled kids for a road trip.

            What was I going to do about that?

            Well, I got elected to president of the organization after having served a year at what we'd now call "media relations," and I knew goddamn well we couldn't afford the bad publicity and plummeting of confidence if we went to the cops and the story got out, which it would. So I did nothing, this time, but spread the word that any more theft and people were going to find themselves arrested at home in the middle of the night and find themselves rape-bait in Cook County jail.

            But that was just a bit of evidence for "People are no damn good": only a subset of a pessimistic attitude, and a sentiment my classmate Nick Kundra stamped on various surfaces around the area (he had had a rubber stamp made for the purpose and used his spare change to buy a lot of ink). And even at age seventeen I knew an overgeneralization when I read one stamped on my American History textbook: even in the "good news is no news" world of history, some people are okay.

            I graduated in 1961 and reached as much social and political consciousness as I was going to get during the period of assassination and blood of the 1960s, although the key issues for my psychology were — as for a lot of people — personal and, hence, relatively trivial.

            Summer of my freshman year, I finally became a counselor at a summer camp I had long attended and had worked at as a "JC," junior counselor. I was given a lift to camp by one of my superiors in the counselor hierarchy and got mildly nervous that I could get nothing from him about my new job assignment until we were far, far out of Chicago and into the wilds of Wisconsin, and then he broke it to me that I'd be in charge of Cabin 1, the seven-year olds (more or less): "You're good with little kids," he said, incorrectly.

            I did my job and at the end of summer went to pick up my check for the princely sum of $200, which wasn't too bad, if you allow for inflation and a summer of decent lodging, good food, and the Great North Woods.

            I still expected a tip. I was not good with little kids, but I was bloody-well good enough at a job no one else wanted, or at least no one else you'd want around little kids. I did not get a tip. What I got was an offer to receive my pay in cash, and my tip would be my not having taxes withheld.

            Making $200 for the summer wasn't going to put me in any tax bracket for paying taxes; I'd get my "withholding" back. I still had to submit a tax form or some sort and affirm ("under penalty of perjury") that I'd declared all my income.

            Uh huh! I declined the offer and told the camp secretary to cut the check and bit back, "And cut the crap." She did so and gave it to me saying, "You fool! You utter fool!"

            I thought about that line for years, wondering in what sort of value system, what sort of view of the world, was simple honesty, and prudence, folly.

            I ended up writing my dissertation on "Wise Men and Fools" in some plays by Shakespeare and a couple or three of his contemporaries. My Master's essay stemmed from the malice I encountered in the larger world and more personally during "the Troubles" of 1963-74.

            Now malice is nastiness toward others, without profit to oneself, and it's scary — Iago in Shakespeare's Othello is a pretty pure example — and encountering it can really get a guy down on human nature. But (again) we humans are only part of the world, and a vicious human species within an otherwise benevolent universe would give us a figurative glass way more than half full.

            I knew that and my somewhat sour attitude came not so much from bad stuff but as a reaction.

            For thirty-five years, I taught at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with a large percentage of undergrads not only convinced that there were ponies somewhere, but who were pretty sure they knew where those ponies were: back home in their stables, being fed and groomed and pampered by mom and dad.

            Most Miami students impressed me as not so much optimistic about human nature as optimistic about the nature of Nature and their place in it. It wasn't so much a sense of entitlement as what I've called a sense of "comfort in the universe."

            I usually used the phrase in the sentence, "I envy their sense of comfort in the universe."

            And envy it I did. The may've been young and healthy, but I was healthy, and even when young I never, ever felt that comfortable.

            I once said something I thought pretty banal to my friend Marion Musgrave, one of my few Black colleagues, that got me a quizzical look from her and the question/statement, "You don't assume you'll survive here, do you?" And I said/queried, "Excuse me?" And she said, "You, as a Jew; you don't think you'll necessarily survive in the United States. …" And continued after the brief pause, "I assume we'll survive — Black people; at least they'll want our labor." And I thought about it for a moment and said, "That's right; I don't assume I'll survive" — and she said quietly, "Hmmm … we should learn that from Jews."

            I'd studied the Hitlerian Holocaust; I was going to go on to teach a course titled "Massacres"; I'd read P. K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle and had thought through possible scenarios if Stalingrad had fallen to the Nazis and England had been neutralized and the possible deals the US government might cut to appease a triumphant Hitler — and hell yes, I didn't assume survival. I assumed, if things got bad enough, that the US government and society might well hand over American Jews to Hitler, and throw in a fair number of Blacks as well.

            Probably not. I hoped not — but I never, ever assumed "It can't happen here": a wide variety of very nasty Its could indeed happen in the USA.

            That was part of it: the Big Picture part. Much more small scale, I didn't grow up somewhere between well-to-do and 97th-percentile rich (many Miami students had); I grew up loved, but not absolutely, unconditionally loved, and not with love spiced with uncritical admiration and occasional adoration.

            Not that Miami U, Oxford, OH, was inhabited wall-to-wall by kids from rich, beautiful, happy families. We had commuter students and scholarship students and students working their way through. We had one kid who baseballbatted his family to death (well, he missed one sister, but it was a pretty big family), and I had a student who was a serial rapist. Both, it's safe to say, had issues, and certainly the wielder of the baseball bat wielder had family issues.

            The "modal phenotype," though, the usual MUO undergrad, was from a conservative Catholic family of Celtic origins (not, say, Italian or Polish), and well off. In an early survey of college campuses, Playboy Magazine had typified MUO undergrads as "Male models and cheerleaders with straight teeth." Most had never run into problems they couldn't handle, certainly few problems that couldn't be handled by Mom or Dad.

            Let's put it this way: If Mitt Romney had been a High-Church Episcopalian instead of a Mormon, he would've fit right in; and 2012 Republican VP candidate and MUO alum Paul Ryan — though he had more suffering in his youth than most — did fit in.

            For student comfort and confidence, consider this anecdote; it it's no proof but an illustration.
            One of our best students in the English Department brought in his honors thesis on the day it was due. It was fine but needed some minor corrections, and I told the student, "You've got your text on a floppy disk, right" — younger readers can look up "floppy disk" — and he did; "Okay, I'll just make the corrections on my computer, and you can take it home or to a computer center and run off final copy and turn it in with time to spare."

            I put the floppy in the drive, found the file, and either clicked on it or otherwise ordered it to open — this was back in the days of the steam-driven computer, kids; I forget whether or not my computer had a mouse — and nothing happened. The file wouldn't open.

            I tried again.

            And again.

            "Ooookay," I finally said; "you'll have to bring me your backup disk, and we'll run it off on the Department's printer, or you can run home and do it yourself."

            "Backup disk?"

            "Yeah, your backup disk. One of your backup copies."

            "Backup copies? … This is my only copy." He had one copy of his thesis, on one 3.5" floppy disk, a disk that he carried around in his shirt pocket.

            One of my colleagues was a computer geek and had in his office a super-smasher-sledgehammer-file opener program, and we were able to open the file, make the minor corrections, run it off, and have him run it (literally run it) over to the proper academic bureaucrat to make the deadline.

            It was 1970, during the Troubles, that I wrote my dissertation, with my office a few doors down from the Office of the Chancellor of the U of I, Urbana-Champaign, with its bulletproof glass windows. But I composed my dissertation on a typewriter — a technology that doesn't allow file copying — but still made three to five carbon copies of each chapter, which I dispersed in various safe places around campus. And much later, when campus peace had broken out, my co-editor and I made enough computer file copies of the anthologies we were working on that our texts would survive anything short of high EMP (ElectroMagnetic Pulse) from atomic attack on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton — in which case, we figured, we probably wouldn't be too concerned about our manuscript or academic careers.

            I was never, ever sufficiently comfortable in the universe that I'd rely on one copy of a crucial document.

            So I envied such comfort in the universe but thought it borderline delusional. Ditto for many of my students' confidence in their ability to find work upon graduation, and succeed.

            Now to a great extent, that confidence was justified: all were pretty bright, as humans go, and most had the social skills, and social connections, to do just fine. And that apparent confidence was sometimes mostly bravura.

            Still, the degree of confidence, of comfort, was disturbing.

            "Shit happens," and it doesn't always happen to other people, or just to bad or lazy people.
            Many of the MUO students I met — our other campuses were different — weren't much into the goodness of human nature, but were convinced of the goodness of the world toward them, and the justice of that goodness. "With god all things are possible," as Matthew 19.26 and the motto of the State of Ohio has it; so if you say, "Hey, it's impossible for me to find a decent job," well, maybe you ain't got God; maybe you deserve your lot. As for whether or not they felt entitled to their privilege — I don't think they felt privileged; I think they didn't "felt" much in that sense at all, except comfort.
             Inter urinas et faeces nascimur, all of us; and all of us, at one time or another in our lives, can fall into a world of shit. That much pessimism, as Paul Ryan and others need to learn or remember, is helpful for ethical behavior. Otherwise, young optimists, as they come into some minimal political consciousness, can come to disdain people unlike their comfortable selves and take the position politely called "YoYO" (You're on Your Own), which we used to call, less politely, "I got mine; fuck you."

            The glass may be half full or half empty, but for some of us humans, for sure, its contents are contaminated. We need to keep that in mind — and be willing to do some figurative fluids cleanup and replacement, to help heal the world; we need a fair degree of pessimistic discomfort in the world to behave with common decency.

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