Some idealism

Moderator: JLMcCafferty

Some idealism

Postby JLMcCafferty » Sat Dec 30, 2017 8:23 pm

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It was the font that gave it away.

As an amateur scholar of propaganda, I’d seen the cartoons and style frequently enough to know what she was reading about from the photo she took of the page. But it was the font of the page number that helped me recognize exactly which book she was looking at. I remembered admiring it the first time I opened my copy.

“Is that Dr. Seuss Goes To War?”

“Yes! It’s incredible! Have you read it?”

Have I ever. That book, bought as a birthday present to myself years ago, gave focus to my post-grad school need for research-based learning. I’d been fascinated by the hidden stories told through popular media ever since taking a course on it as an undergrad (advertisements, in particular, are my favorite), how the artists use an understanding of the audience’s hopes and fears to craft powerful and persuasive messages. And if one is able to coordinate those messages into a consistent narrative, change, whether for better or for worse, takes place. You see examples of these in all periods of modern history, but especially so in the period of the 1930s and 40s; a lot of the propaganda used was so blatant and in your face. But more people recognize it because of how effective that propaganda was and how extreme and visible was the result.

Books, and conversations about books, have been one of my few high points in a ridiculously rough year. That chance interaction at the end of November led to a project that I’ve more or less faithfully been keeping up with all month on my Twitter feed: Book Advent. The premise was simple: each day I would share a tome from my library that had some sort of meaningful impact on me, along with a little blurb about what I liked about it. If the author was alive and had a Twitter handle, I tagged them in it to make sure they knew how their work impacted someone else (one of my guiding principles). If not, I tried to share a specific memory in the 280 characters allotted.

It’s hard to fully explain why something is so important to you in such a tiny space. I could go on at length about specific virtues and passages from each of the books on my list, augmented with personal anecdotes about memories and inspirations related to them. I’ve had a fiery, passionate love of the written word longer than I can remember; one of my earliest memories was being about three years old, standing at the little chalkboard easel in our playroom with my dad as he explained sounds associated with specific letter combinations. But for this project, I went in with the full expectation that most people aren’t going to care about anything much further than the one line basics. Any time anyone asked about the project, I got about four seconds into an explanation before they were talking about something else, anyway. It wasn’t important. Tweet blurbs would be fine.

Or so I thought, until I got cornered at a party last week by someone demanding to know why they had to settle for some half-assed Tweet when they were legitimately interested in what I had to say. The questioner is my biggest fan, a detective with a love for uncovering the stories most people don’t know to look for. He’s known me for some time, so I understood that his real question was Why, after everything I’ve done and seen and started and experienced, did I still believe people aren’t interested in those stories? It was a good question, and one I literally crossed an ocean and sequestered myself in an ancient cathedral town for a month to contemplate. I still don’t have a solid, easy answer to any of it.

But this did not placate my fan. At the age of 70, Mac has been a veteran of Vietnam, thirty-some years on the police force, a four-and-a-half decade long marriage, three children, and two grandkids (one currently a high school senior, the other a kindergartener – neither the type to be easily bargained with). He knows a little something about dealing with difficult people in general, and me in particular.

“So there’s one more book for this Advent thing?”


“Good. Tell me about it, but do it right. I don’t like those twit-things. Tell me the story.”

So there, in the middle of this uproarious party where I’d barely gotten two words in with anybody and until this point was feeling rather low, I started drafting out the final Book Advent offering I have this year.

This is for you, Mac. Here goes.


Years ago, around the same time as my ill-fated first attempt at counseling (see Hello Darkness, My Old Friend), Robert Fulghum’s work found me one autumn afternoon as I was walking through a deserted section of the stacks in my university’s library. Books falling around me of their own accord wasn’t anything new. But if I was alone when it did so I made a point of reading it and taking notes, especially if I was pondering a vexing question at the time it happened. More often than not, an answer – or at least a clue toward a solution – could be found in the tome’s pages. Seek and ye shall find, I guess.

The specific book that fell at my feet that afternoon was a copy of his first collection of essays, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. It’s the most famous of the nine books he’s written and a good starting point for anyone interested in his work. Fulghum’s writing style reminded me strongly of O. Henry’s work in that he does a remarkable job of painting scenes to illustrate his points. He doesn’t write about a topic; he draws his readers into a moment, or a series of moments that illustrate an idea. There’s an engaging whimsy to the stories he shares, but powerful lessons as well.

I read the entire book that night, and then read it again. Then I started tracking down his other books. My very first Amazon purchase in 2003 was a used copy of It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, because none of the local libraries where I lived had it and our (now long-gone) Waldenbooks couldn’t order it in. Each one was like a treasure chest filled with something better than gold – it was full of a simple assurance that no, you’re not alone; yes, life is ridiculous; but yes, it is absolutely rich and funny and weird and heartbreaking and joyful all at once. The little things are what will keep you sane.

Any of Fulghum’s books would make a wise and entertaining entry to a Book Advent; I’ve given numerous copies of Kindergarten as gifts. But the particular one I chose to wrap up my list has the simplest title of any of his works: Uh-Oh. From the ubiquitousity of the title phrase to the Fellowship of the Fridge, from Norman the Pig in a kindergarten production of Cinderella to Howard (who art in Heaven), Uh-Oh is special. My first time reading it was the weekend Voldemort finally left for good. When I was deciding between taking a job in London or the job I ended up taking in Cleveland, the end thought from an essay about Fulghum’s businessman neighbor – “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” – stopped me from making a mistake I’m certain I’d have sorely regretted. I read it on the days around Blackest Friday, and again a year later when I wasn’t sure my marriage was going to survive. At every major juncture of my adult life, the moments when everything changed, this has been the book I was reading. Every time. It’s on my nightstand right now.

The entire collection is astoundingly good – indeed, so many of the ideas presented serve prominent roles in my personal philosophy. But there’s one essay in particular which stands out from the rest. In it, Fulghum starts off talking about his experiences volunteering at Christmas for the Salvation Army. How his father’s family’s house burned down and the Salvation Army were the ones to help. His young son’s questions on the way home from kettle duty (“Are angels the Salvation Air Force?” “Do they have tanks?”). The gathering of the Salvation Smarmy Band. And then, a lament of the downturn of charity followed by the single most important paragraph I’ve ever read:

But it does no good – solves nothing – to distance myself from the front lines of human need by using the mail as a safe shelter. I believe that serving the best ends of humanity means getting out in the middle of it just as it is, not staying home writing checks and thinking hopeful thoughts. The world does not need tourists who ride by in a bus clucking their tongues. The world as it is needs those who will love it enough to change it, with what they have, where they are. And you’re damned right that’s idealistic. No apology. When idealism goes into the trash as junk mail, we’re finished.

It’s a powerful message. There’s a challenge there, as relevant now as it was the first time I read it and in all the times I’ve read it since: Get out there. DO something. FEEL something. There will be times – many times – where people will disappoint you and not do their share and make you, like it did young Sam, want to chase after and hit them with a tambourine. Get out there anyway and do something about it, rather than sitting around lamenting how bad things are in your own mind. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Don’t sit around on your ass arguing on Facebook or Twitter about how “things would be better if…” or “If only the other side could come around to...” with the same groups of people who are also sitting around arguing the same things instead of GETTING OUT THERE AND DOING SOMETHING.

This is not an easy thing. This is going to mean getting out of your comfort zone. It’s going to mean talking to people who might not agree with you and resisting the urge to smack them (with tambourines or otherwise). It’s going to mean questioning long held beliefs on a regular basis and thinking about things that aren’t always pleasant. It will absolutely mean being wrong from time to time, and learning how to learn from that experience like a rational human being. There are no ‘safe spaces’ if you’re committed to actually loving the world enough to change it, with what you have, wherever you are.

And, yes, you’re damned right that’s idealistic.

2017 was rough, but we aren’t finished. Not yet.


A final note: As I was prepping the final draft for this entry, I pulled out my copy of All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten with the intent of pulling a few reference examples for the uninitiated. Having no particular essay in mind, I opened the book to a random page: an entry on losing his barber. This is what it read:

Without realizing it, we fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with a minister and congregation. Or with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people, who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways. People who teach us, bless us, encourage us, support us, uplift us in the dailiness of life. We never tell them. I don’t know why, but we don’t.
And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend on us, watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know. Don’t sell yourself short. You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think.

Seek, indeed.
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