I’d never read the Book of Esther when I was invited to speak on the subject last month at a gathering of congregants from both my Havurah and a Baptist Church. In an act of curiosity and non-Biblical faith, I agreed.
I read the Book twice, taking notes. It begins with drunken feasts and ends with murderous mayhem and more drunken feasts which are recreated annually for the Jewish festival of Purim. Embedded in the narrative between are stories of two women – Vashti and Esther — who stood up against autocratic authority, and a man – Mordecai — who enabled one of them. God doesn’t intervene in any of this. I think it’s fair to say there isn’t an explicit spiritual moment in the entire book. Nor did I initially discern a comprehensive theme. Perhaps, as some suggested, it’s simply an adaptation of Persian myth. But whatever the source, I felt confused about the meaning.
I resorted to character analysis, looking for individuals who offered examples that we might learn from. I quickly dispensed with the king – a vain and foolish man – and Haman – a vain and evil man who sought the death of all Jews in the realm. That left, apart from the eunuchs, three possible candidates for role models: Vashti, Mordecai and Esther.
The first woman, Vashti, stood up for herself. She directly defied the king’s command to display herself as a show girl to his fellow merrymakers. It was the king and his courtiers who saw in her behavior a larger and more insidious message that could lead other women to hold their husbands in contempt. She was banished for refusing to obey her man. The Book reminds us explicitly that the man is the king in his castle. This isn’t a message for these times and deserves to be dismissed. Moreover, given that Vashti is sent packing long before the story ends, her courage can’t be regarded as the central story.
Mordecai, a Jew, has a strong presence and dispositive influence in the Book of Esther. He had several moments in the sun. First, he’d been looking out for his younger cousin Esther for some time when we meet him. He continued to do so, even after she’s carried away to the king’s harem. I gave him points for family responsibility.
Second, he revealed a plot he overheard to kill the king. That was decent of him. His motive is unclear but, again, points for disclosing treasonous disloyalty.
Third, Mordecai stuck by his principles: he wouldn’t bow down to Haman, the king’s henchman. This might be regarded as an implicit reference to God for Mordecai knows that to God alone the knee may bend. He never said this, and the narrator never suggested this, but Mordecai lived his monotheism, even as he knew it was unlikely to end well for him. This, too, deserves admiration.
Fourth, Mordecai impelled Esther to save the Jewish people. Just in case she wasn’t swayed by principle, he made the case that, if she didn’t speak up for her people, and take the risk of incurring the king’s wrath, she would ultimately perish with her people under Haman’s edict. He effectively appealed to her sense of familial duty but shored it up with a reference to the reality of the situation, which was, at that time, in Haman’s hands.
But it isn’t the book of Mordecai – it’s the book of Esther and she is the third role model candidate. Esther puzzles and troubles me. She manipulated the king to get her way, never openly defying him. She spoke up, at her cousin’s urging, disclosed her Jewish identity, and asked the king most graciously to spare her and her people. (She noted, by the way, that she wouldn’t bother the king about this if her people were merely going to be sold as slaves. It was a matter of life and death, she pointed out.) This was courageous, although she also surely knew that, if she stayed silent, she too would die under Haman’s order. She succeeded at her high stakes game, partly because the king had a sleepless night which he spent reading about the goings-on in his realm. The plot thickened here, as the king suspected Haman also of importuning Queen Esther – was this Esther’s set-up to enrage the king? — and availed himself of the gallows that Haman had erected for Mordecai to hang Haman instead.
But when Esther asked the king to revoke Haman’s edict, he said it was impossible, that a king couldn’t revoke his own order. Dubious, but there it is. Instead, a new edict was written at Mordecai’s direction to permit Jews to fight back against any attempts on their lives and to annihilate their attackers – including their women and children. This apparently was readily accomplished because the people, we are told, were so fearful of Mordecai’s new power that no one took up arms against the Jews. As a result, 75,000 non-Jews were slaughtered. In addition to the 10 sons of Haman, whose hangings were sought by Esther personally, as well. And all of this was followed by great celebrations and feasts and joy which are reenacted annually to this day.
Putting aside all in the narrative that strains credulity, I was left with a sense that Mordecai and Esther ultimate failed us as role models when the tables turned. They became vengeful and murderous. Though the story of Passover includes compassion for the Egyptians who suffered and lost their lives, compassion is absent from the Book of Esther. Just unmitigated joy in the destruction of non-Jews and their families.
I’m glad it was Mordecai who ended up with the king’s signet ring, but I’m disappointed that Esther’s better self didn’t prevail. The hilarity of the annual Purim festivities seems misplaced to me. However, my perspective on Esther wasn’t shared at the gathering by either Jews or Baptists. The discussion was, nevertheless, fruitful. It led me to realize that there is a thesis in the Book after all: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even when good people are involved.
Abandonment was the theme of two news stories last week. The Washington Post reported on a Japanese man found in his micro-apartment in Kawasaki four months after his death. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2018/01/24/feature/so-many-japanese-people-die-alone-theres-a-whole-industry-devoted-to-cleaning-up-after-them/?utm_term=.28e61b3bf457 The focus of the story was the new “cleaning industry” that has taken root in Japan to tidy up after “lonely deaths” that go undiscovered until the landlord comes to call. The same day, the New York Times ran a story about the discovery of a six months old baby in China, left in her stroller with a note from her family that was unable to care for her and her epilepsy. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/world/asia/china-abandoned-baby.html These stories cry out for compassion, though the man, Hiroki, is beyond its reach. The parents of the baby wrote of their sense of shame for abandoning their daughter, but no one could be found to feel remorse for Hiroki’s lonely, unnoticed death.
They are not unique – in fact, they are legion, homeless in the streets of cities or refugee camps. But these two people, the unnamed baby and Hiroki – whose surname was ironically withheld to protect his privacy – speak to us as individuals, chosen people by the media. Like George Bell, who died alone amidst his hoarded belongings in Queens in 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/nyregion/dying-alone-in-new-york-city.html, they were abandoned not as a consequence of distant war or drought, but of circumstances that are familiar to the readers of the Post and the Times: the inability to care for our own.
Long term care for the chronically ill and the frail (and failing) elderly, and many who fit in both categories, in our own country is challenging even when family and money are available. When there is a shortfall of either, it becomes next to impossible. Planning and giving for elder care are both in perilously short supply. Median retirement savings for families with any savings is $60,000; the median for all families is $5,000. Private philanthropy provides no backstop: only 2% of institutional giving in the United States goes to aging programs, a proportion that has stayed the same for 20 years. Generations, Journal of the American Society on Aging (10.22.2015). Social Security and Medicare are the tenuous lifelines for our aging population, but we shamelessly ponder ways to reduce spending on the elderly, who are living so much longer than we expected, too long for us to be expected to care for them. Until “we” are “them.”
It has been repeated so often as to be a truism that America is aging; that the fastest growing segment of our population is 85+ years old; that the over 85 population will triple, from under 6 million in 2012 to over 18 million in 2050. Lynn, J., MediCaring Communities (2016), p. 14. Despite the handwringing over costs, there is still no sign that, as a nation, we are trying to come to grips with that reality. Issues about care abound: how many health care aides must we train and pay – and where will they come from? How will they get to where they are needed? In New York City, the number of home health aides has grown from 61,700 in 2006, to 151,700 ten years later. They earn an average of $25,000 a year and typically travel almost an hour each way to and from their work site, the home of their elderly patient. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/31/nyregion/health-care-worker-commutes.html How will we provide accessible, affordable housing? How will the elderly even be adequately fed? In Atlanta, just one example, thousands were on waiting lists for Meals on Wheels in 2014, the same year that organization delivered over 2.4 meals to seniors nationwide. www.MealsonWheelsAmerica.org ; http://www.myajc.com/news/thousands-waiting-lists-for-meals-wheels/O1HTQBFi0InPg9P4KVRlpK/ . In some places, seniors may wait a full year before they are served. Medicaring Communities at 70. As we indulge in the myth of aging in place, we ignore the isolation that comes with it, the absence of the pleasure, challenges and stimulation of the company of others. We remain ill-prepared to provide moral and practical alternatives to abandonment even in the face of a growing imperative.
It is all too possible that a “cleaning industry” will grow up in the United States as more of us outlive productive years by decades, and families continue to disperse in search of jobs, education, housing and the amenities of a good life. Hiroki, the man found dead in Tokyo, was not missed for four months, but four days would be too long to die unnoticed, like George Bell. Perhaps had Hiroki been found sooner, it would be less repulsive to us, the readers, but the real sadness here came weeks, months and probably years before his death when no one cared he was alive.
“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit,” Willie Loman cries in Death of a Salesman. But Hiroki was. Medicare, thankfully, can provide us with doctors and medicine, but who will see to it that we take note of the frail elderly and provide care as if they matter? For they do. Not just because of who they were, but who they are, in their illness, their weakness, their dementia.
Friends marveled that my father celebrated his 98th birthday last year. Words like “wonderful,” “amazing” and “awesome” were offered as commentary. And, though he was deep in dementia before his death, these words were apt, for my father had outstanding home nursing care 24/7, a beautiful apartment, daily visits by family, friends and colleagues, the energy to walk in the park and occasionally a museum, food that he relished, a weekly concert in his home by student musicians. He had contentment in the context of his diminishment. How many of those millions among us who will live past 90 will have such a life? Who among us would wish for less?
Cultivating the lives of the elderly in a meaningful way is no less an obligation than educating our children. Failing to do so reflects on us as badly as if we’d abandoned them as infants. It is in a sense a higher moral obligation for we have nothing tangible to gain from it. Nothing but the gift of loving, the satisfaction of responsibility met, the pride in a civilization in which our endings are no less valued than our beginnings.
I worry that all my thoughts have been thought before by someone smarter, and written down in words that are more insightful than mine. If I worry enough about this, I don’t write what I’d like to say. Today, one week into the new year, I’m writing a few things that I k now have been thought and said before but, tant pis, I’m going to say it again.
The first is a word about grief. This thought is plainly second-hand. That is, it came from a dream that wasn’t even mine. It was my daughter’s. In it, as she reported it, I’m with my late husband and – this part is hard to believe – Kobe Bryant. My husband leaves and I say to Kobe, “I don’t want to forget that Paul was here.” “it’s not about forgetting,” says Kobe. “It’s about living your life.”
Really. Kobe Bryant?
I’ve considered the source and decided that it’s my daughter channeling Paul. And he’s right, of course. Grief is not the sole vehicle for remembering. Happiness isn’t premised on forgetting.
Second, there’s the matter of aging. Like grief, aspects of this subject have been the subject of my earlier posts. In fact, it’s inevitably a subject I confront every day, though not always thoughtfully. So, too, do a raft of other people, it seems, and many of them study it and write about it. More studies have surfaced that suggest that friendships and socializing contribute to longevity. Other researchers credit crossword puzzles, walking, non-smoking, red wine, cardiovascular exercise, a Mediterranean diet, learning and a positive attitude. I find all of these studies suspect as they tend to corroborate the expectation that the values of the researchers make for a long and happy life. In my close family, the sole member of the generation before mine is my 97-year-old aunt. She has dementia, aphasia, diabetes, a brain tumor, a towering white blood count and is obese. Twice divorced, she had no children and – how to say this nicely? – was not dearly beloved by her niece (me) and nephews (my brothers). She was always included in family events but didn’t make them happier. Indeed, the stories about my aunt’s snide criticisms and condescension are legion. As she became my responsibility seven years ago, I learned she had some friends from her teaching days and her volunteer ushering at Carnegie Hall. But they are gone now, and her companions are three aides who treat her with love and provide capable care, for which I am deeply grateful.
My aunt’s longevity puzzles me. Her lifestyle matched few of the predictive factors associated with old age (though she apparently was never a smoker and she did enjoy music). As her brother lived to be 98, perhaps there is some genetic component yet to be discovered that overrides all of the more obvious life style factors. Be that as it may, I will continue to avoid red meat, walk my dog, do the New York Times crosswords and cultivate optimism, whether or not validated by experience. These seem inherently good things, so I understand why researchers want them to matter statistically. I do too, as it enables me to believe I have some control in the matter.
Third, a word about my dog, Pippin. He is teaching me dog-speak. This is good not only because it fosters communication between us, but also because it demonstrates that, at 70, I am still in a learning mode. Which promotes longevity (see above). It has taken me three years to learn the language, in part because he’s still perfecting it. However, I understand the following: a whine with a sit means he wants to eat, preferably a treat; a bark, on his four feet, facing me, means “let’s go out.” (The urgency of this bark, understandably, varies.) A bark on the move signals someone or something at the front door. A whine on his feet facing me means “I’d like to sit in your lap.” Scratching on my wastepaper basket tells me it’s time to shut down my computer to play with one of his pitiful toys. This is quite an impressive vocabulary, covering, as it does, most of his life activities, and thus, many of mine. I’m trying to make progress with communication going in reverse. That is, when I say “come,” he should do that. This hasn’t met with great success. “Wait” seems to be meaningful to him and, fortunately, he correctly interprets “no.” He gets that he’s supposed to go up or down the stairs ahead of me when I say “go,” usually accompanied with a sweep of the hand. The rest, well, not so much. He’s quite adorable in his new sweater.
Fifth: family. I was reminded throughout the Christmas-New Year-Hanukah holidays, as we swept away the detritus of meals and gifts, that what remains is a family rich in its variables, experience and love. My extended family is Jewish, Catholic and Lutheran, black and white. We hail from the north and south, east and west of America and find our roots in Ireland, Russia, Hungary, Argentina, Israel, Canada, Germany and Africa. We are vegetarians, pescatarians and omnivores. We are second, third and fourth generations. We are married, single, widowed, divorced and partnered. We are toddlers, teens, middle aged and seniors.
We come from a nuclear family, an extended family, an adoptive family by acclamation. We are in-laws and, I’m forced to admit, some are outlaws. We are healthy, powerful, frail and failing. We are at the outset of our lives and contemplating the ending. We exasperate and exhilarate each other, we fail, we achieve, we advocate and protest, we leap tall buildings in a single bound, and we stumble. All in the course of a year.
We reach across continents to friends and relatives of four generations in Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Canada and Japan. We discover new friends around the corner in our new neighborhoods and treasure the friends of childhood where we once lived. We multiply faster than our losses. We are downsizing, we are expanding.
We are a family with new roles, new connections, new places we call home. We see ourselves differently than we did 70 years ago when few of us were living, but we repeat the stories of how we came to this country with awe. We reaffirm they are our stories and that this defines our core of courage, ingenuity, loyalty and love. Whether or not I see the torch pass again to the next keepers of our traditions, or recognize them in the next generation, what I see now is good and hopeful, free and alive to change. May the year ahead continue to grow our vision of who we are and extend the embrace of our family, remembering that who we become is a new iteration of who we were.
I hope the reader’s recognition of familiar thoughts and feelings, of gratitude and joyfulness, and perhaps a tinge of sorrow, makes up for the lack of originality. Happy new year.
The nerve-piercing pain of sciatica provokes this question: have you thought about how much time is spent standing around? I’m not counting walking or running or any kind of hopping and skipping. Just standing still, in one place.
Some small part of time thus spent is intentional. Attending a cocktail party or reception, for example. Or participating in a receiving line at a wedding or funeral. While these are some of the least satisfactory forms of social interaction, they are a matter of choice. Indeed, these occasions are all about standing about: it is integral to the nature of the event.
Standing is also intentional when it substitutes for alternative movement – such as standing in the elevator, on the escalator or moving stairway. In those circumstances, we choose to stand rather than to exert energy climbing or walking (which may not, in situations like a 65-floor building, be feasible). That could be said of standing on a bus or subway for that matter. However, though it is a choice, it is a means, not an end. Standing is not the essence of riding the subway. It is a collateral feature. One wouldn’t choose to stand on a motionless bus (though it does happen, in which case the intentionality of standing diminishes by the minute and feels more like coercion). It is only because the bus or train will get you where you’re going more expeditiously that you choose to stand around in its aisles.
When giving a speech or a lecture, standing is standard delivery, though not, strictly speaking, part of the act. (In fact, I’ve found that a request for a tall stool and a lectern will usually be honored.) A solo musician, say, a violinist, likewise appears in the venue, expecting to stand. A cellist, on the other hand, or a harpist, expects to be seated. The size and shape of the instrument dictates whether or not standing is required. Of course, the violinist could be seated (whereas it would be very difficult for the cellist to perform while standing). The violinist is in fact seated when part of an orchestra. But the solo violinist performs standing. It is standard, though not essential to the performance.
Which brings me to normative standing. We are expected to rise and remain standing for many rituals, for example, the opening of the Ark, the entrance of a judge, the singing of a psalm or the pledge of allegiance. Standing in such situations connotes respect. It may be perceived as a non-verbal affirmation of shared values or beliefs. And, though age or infirmity may excuse sitting it out, those who are not so excused but remain seated (or kneeling) typically will be regarded as oppositional or ill-mannered. There is an exception for sitting (or kneeling) as a religious or political statement, which is (usually, though not lately) respected as a form of free speech. This depends, of course, on who’s sitting and who’s standing, and their respective takes on the message conveyed by the conduct. Absent such personal circumstances and principles, however, the words “please rise” are generally met with compliance and we stand until told to be seated. On some occasions, this can be quite a while.
A new consensus has apparently been built around the standing ovation. The rule seems to be (based on personal observation) if more than 5% of the audience stands to applaud the performance or speakers, then everyone must do so. (On Broadway, standing is the least obnoxious audience behavior when the curtain falls.) Sitting it out, amidst frenzied clapping and stomping, exposes you to the quasi-hostile question: didn’t you like it? Moreover, it is impossible to get that last glimpse of the stage unless you rise with the masses. So, while a standing ovation may have a normative thrust, and increasingly feels ritualistic, it has a strong coercive element.
By far the most standing around we do is incidental: waiting your turn. Standing on line to buy a ticket or obtain a boarding pass. Waiting to clear passport control or security. To use the bathroom or the ATM. To pay for your groceries. Waiting for the light to change to cross the street. Waiting is the most aggravating form of standing around and the mere prospect of it may incite misbehavior, mendacity and rudeness, especially in competitive contexts.
The sight of a long line can provoke a normally fair-minded person to push ahead of scores of passengers waiting to board a train at Penn Station. It may induce a shopper to grab the first place at a newly opened register at Whole Foods, to beat out the half-dozen ahead of him at the one that’s closing. It may lead a bar mitzvah guest to reach in front of an older woman to grab the last pumpernickel bagel. If challenged, the line-breaker will usually respond self-righteously — something on the order of “everyone’s doing it” or “it doesn’t matter” or “I can’t eat sesame seeds.” I’ve heard variants of all of these explanations, fiercely spoken but ultimately feeble attempts to cover up that someone feels her time lost standing around is far more valuable than anyone else’s, or his discomfort is more significant than another’s.
This ill-mannered behavior is fed by a strong competitive element. Angst over the possibility that you’re actually losing ground, that others are gaining on you while you are stuck in place, can make standing around intolerable and create a combustible situation. Southwestern Airlines tries to curb the problem by corralling passengers in numbered lines, thereby mitigating the competition while actually prolonging the standing around (an excellent example of relieving a symptom rather than the condition that produced it).
Even in non-competitive situations, however, standing around to wait your turn may be construed as a waste of time rather than a contribution to social order. That, in turn, triggers high levels of anxiety and foolhardy conduct. It was such an anathema to my father that he’d risk life and limb to tear across Fifth Avenue against the traffic. The terror of seeing him dodge taxis has induced in me a healthy respect for red lights. Which is not to say I’m patient standing around on the street corner, but I have lived long enough to write about it.
It begins in January. I climb on a pony – or ostrich or tiger – listening to the calliope and waiting for the bell. When it rings, the carousel slowly gears up, with rasping effort, to turn. At the start, it turns very slowly, as if it’s pulling out of the grip of the past year. It gathers speed gradually through April until, at last, by summertime, it slips free from the past and acquires a momentum that carries it forward with heightened determination. September arrives, and the acceleration intensifies. I must grasp the pole, even as I lean out to resist the pull. I give in to it and gallop forward, circling faster and faster. Suddenly I sense the momentum dissipating. It is the end of December and the carousel slows to a stop, allowing me time to buy a ticket for another ride. This is how I experience the passage of a year.
Though many researchers have explored the notion that time is perceived to pass more rapidly as we age, that phenomenon has escaped me entirely. The metaphor of my perception of time has remained the same for over 40 years, and its paces haven’t varied. My moods tend to match the turning of the carousel, with the fall being my happiest, most energetic time of year. Why that should be is unclear, but perhaps it dates from my school-going years: I always looked forward to going back to school, from first grade to the beginning of each year of law school. It was the prelude to new possibilities.
When I was in elementary school, I remember the annual ritual of shopping for new clothes with my mother. On the first day of class, I would wear my favorite new outfit, feeling very spiffy. Even that year when the temperature was still in the 90’s, I wore my new red wool pleated skirt and navy blue sweater with a white trimmed collar. It didn’t matter that I was over-dressed for the hot day — I was excited about the newness of the school year and my clothes matched my mood.
More observant Jews might also note that autumn is the sacred time of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Perhaps there is some primeval association in my soul, but I don’t recognize it. The September exhilaration I experience is more tamped down by the High Holy Days. I sense that I’ve been found wanting on the spiritual plane. And, in recent years, the grief evoked by the Yizkor services has become more intense, denting my high autumnal spirit with the remembrance of losses. So, no, I don’t think the Holy Days of the Jewish calendar account for my perception of September’s velocity.
I don’t simply perceive time in an experiential sense, I also visualize it. There is ample research into charts, graphs and symbols that enable a student of most any discipline to grasp change over a specified time period. They may cover millennia, eras, centuries or seconds. Considerable thought has gone into designing a look that conveys the evolution, growth and maturation of our universe, civilizations and bodies. It is challenging to compress time periods that vastly exceed our individual lifetimes into a visual without obliterating the sense of the tempo of change. Many such charts invite us to leap over 100 and 1000 year stretches to understand an historical or geographic phenomenon.
But time is lived hour by hour, day by day, week by week. And this is how I visualize it: I can see the weeks of a year, unfolding accordion-style. The closest weeks are fully open, and the days are individuated. I can infer the degree of their proximity by the clarity of lettering and the detail of hours. The furthest reaches of the calendar are still folded tightly but, as we move forward in time, the closest days drop out of the picture, and the later ones unfold. I can tune into this visualization at any time of the year; although it is grounded in the calendar, it is continuous. It is the foreseeable future.
Both my experience and visualization of time offer comfort. The recurrence of the carousel cycles, and the continuity of the accordion book, reassure me in difficult moments that I will get through them, that time is my most reliable friend. When I was a homesick teenager at a summer boarding school, I could see when I was going home. When a person dear to me died, I understood I would not be stuck in that excruciating moment forever. The carousel would keep turning, pausing and accelerating. The days would unfold spontaneously.
On joyful days, the experience and visualization of time hold out the excitement of the next milestone or occasion — or the exaltation of pure possibility. Their parameters outline the future, giving me confidence that I’m on track, even though the details – people, places, things — that will fill the seasons and the weeks remain to be discovered. I am in motion, moving time and again to a good place before moving forward. I am charmed anew by the exuberance of the carousel’s calliope.
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception,” wrote Aldous Huxley. Perhaps the carousel and the accordion book allow me to pass from the known to the unknown without qualms. Perhaps they substitute for faith.
My intention in reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman was to understand why World War I began in 1914. This has been on my mind since viewing the spectacular display of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London in August 2014. Each poppy represented a British soldier killed in the war that destroyed a generation. Eighteen million persons in military and civilian life died in that dreadful war; 23 million more were wounded. It seemed to me impossible that such consequences could flow simply from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Serbian terrorist (or patriot, depending on one’s loyalties), but that was all I retained from a world history survey course 50 years ago.
This is not an essay about the causes of World War I. Suffice it to say, that the network of alliances and ententes that crisscrossed borders and continents from 1870 – a somewhat arbitrary starting point – to 1914 is confounding. Ms. Tuchman doesn’t purport to explore all of them, or to mine all of the history of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans – I should stop there, for the list of all of the nations engulfed in this conflagration is almost the entire world. What she does is dissect the conduct of the first month of battles in August 1914 that set the course for the following four years of death and destruction. I am not the first to observe that it is a brilliant day-by-day reconstruction of the key actors’ strategies, decisions and behavior.
It is difficult to absorb the details of the attacks, counterattacks, retreats and other actions of those 31 days. I found it impossible to master Tuchman’s maps of troop movements (which my Kindle didn’t facilitate). I found myself re-reading sections to be sure I had correctly connected a particular General and his army, and had to do some peripheral research about brigades, corps and divisions to appreciate the significance of some events. I was overwhelmed by detail and can’t recite the chronology with confidence. Even the names of some of the key players at key moments are a bit muddled.
Nevertheless, after finishing the book, from prologue to epilogue, I felt vastly better educated about how it all came about. Further, as I distance myself more from the particular pages, I feel that I’ve learned or been reminded of some important basics about the affairs of men (they were all men at the time, of course). Perhaps I knew some of these things before reading The Guns of August, but I write them down now because I don’t want to lose sight of them again. They are not unique to me or especially profound observations, but they help me find relevance in a time that otherwise feels very distant.
Langfollow’s List of Lessons from The Guns of August
People looking for a fight will find it. And may drag in people who aren’t.
Plans based on how things used to be are doomed.
Human behavior can be worse than imaginable.
People crave inspiration.
People tell barefaced lies to create their own narrative.
Fake news is not new.
Glorious reputations may disguise incompetence.
Knowing when to be flexible is a critical skill of discernment.
Paying close attention avoids mistakes.
People rise above their limits to achieve a goal that matters to them.
That, in short, is both the good news and the bad news from 31 days of August 1914.
My mother privately smashed plates in the basement when she was angry. I knew nothing of this until decades later when she was working on an autobiography. She told me then about the tremendous emotional pain and fear she experienced as a child when her parents fought regularly and furiously with raised voices, and sometimes more. She vowed she would never subject her children to such behavior. Hence the broken dishes.
As parents, we are prone to over-correct, hoping to avoid the mistakes we associate with our own parents. My mother, traumatized by her parents’ rages, didn’t consider the spectrum of expressions of anger or the need to distinguish between self-possession and self-deprecation. It took me years after my mother’s revelation to discern the source of my own aversion to confrontation. I had intuited from her self-restraint that anger shouldn’t be openly displayed. I expanded on this theme to avoid provoking anger as well. The two occasions when I raised my voice as a teen remain sources of remorse to me. Despite the sense that my anger was justified in both instances, I felt that I had threatened my relationship with my mother by lashing out. Confrontation was not just inappropriate, it was risky. Even in my adult career as a litigator, I shrank from one-on-one conflict. This is the context of the conduct of my life and relationships.
Taylor Swift shook me from this false sense of serenity. Her voice is beautiful, strong and inspiring. I’m not thinking of her songs, though they presumably fit that description too. I’ve got in mind her recent testimony about the experience of sexual molestation at the hands, literally, of one David Mueller.
When I was nine years old, a great uncle made a Mueller move on me on the stairs of my very own home. I told no one. I knew it was wrong of him. I knew I didn’t like it. It didn’t occur to me to doubt that I would be believed if I told my parents. But I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want to create family discord, which I implicitly understood it would, so I said nothing. Decades later, I mentioned it to my mother and father, then in their 80’s, when for some reason my great uncle’s name came up. My father reacted fiercely – had he known, he would have killed his uncle, he said, and it didn’t surprise me. He might have come close. A revelation surely would have blown a hole in our family circle. And I would have been responsible, or so I felt at the time. But the uncle and his entire generation were now long dead, and so, with the danger of conflict in the past, I found my voice when it was inconsequential.
I was 15, crushed in a packed Manhattan E Train, when it happened again. This time it was a stranger. I never saw his face. He was wearing leather gloves – I think of them as black gloves, but I never saw them either. I know they were leather though, for I wrestled with his hands as they crept up my inner thigh. “Take your hands off me, you creep,” is what I imagined shouting, but I said nothing. I was shaken by the assault, as my girlfriend noticed, but I kept it a secret from her too. I didn’t doubt that I would be believed, but I knew I would have created a public ruckus that I didn’t want to be the center of. Rather than confront the anonymous miscreant, I’ve kept it a secret for 55 years.
I was 26 and a lawyer in a large law firm the next time. Seated at a dinner, next to the president of a large mid-west chemical company, I felt again, a hand – his hand – creeping under my skirt up my leg, hidden by the tablecloth. Outwardly, he was a model of propriety – didn’t even take a drink. I was appalled and firmly shoved his hand away. But without a word. The dinner continued, uninterrupted.
Remembering these episodes, I feel compassion for the nine-year-old, the fifteen-year-old, and even the 26-year-old that I was. I look at my teenage granddaughters now, running track, climbing walls and silks, playing soccer, dancing and swimming competitively: I haven’t a single doubt that all of them have a sense of physical integrity that has been honed since they were toddlers. Each one knows she is powerful and is unafraid to be her own advocate. They would be shocked, I think, to know that I did not feel that way too, that I, a civil rights advocate of some stature, blinked when it came to my own protection.
There are many consequences of conflict evasion, in many spheres of life. Taylor Swift, by tacking in a different, brave direction, has led me to reflect on them. I’m grateful that she spoke up, that she minced no words, that she called Mueller’s lie what it was, that she made it emphatically clear that grab-ass is not just boyish horseplay, that she didn’t shy away from confrontation. She acted and reacted in a way that she will never second guess.