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Growing Up in an Election Year, Or Anyhow....

By Dennis Myers

“Gus Hall.” My mother stood in front of a single line of aging men in ill-fitting suits. She had been summoned to the small, wood-paneled conference room that sat above the town’s single jail cell in Boro Hall, summoned to explain herself to the local school board. It all started with a sixth-grade civics experiment. My brother’s civics teacher wanted to conduct a mock presidential election in class. But instead of letting the kids vote their conscience, the instructions were to go home, find out how your parents were going to vote, and come in and vote the same way.

“Tell ’em Gus Hall.” The then perennial Communist Party candidate. Armed with this information, my brother returned to school the next day and obligingly told his teacher. For this, he got a carefully folded yellow take-home note…for his mom.

“Gus Hall…and it’s none of your business…” Imagine the stuffy room flushing pink with indignation, a shirttail or two now pulling uncomfortably upward from the waist, as board members leaned back in their chairs and my mom leaned into them about the individual rights of the American citizen. “And the last time I checked, a person’s vote was only shared between herself and the voting machine.” (Up until the computerization of last election, the town still employed those old-fashioned contraptions with the nifty metal levers that made elections a fun, mechanical process.) “…or am I wrong about my rights?”

The moment was a pinnacle of civil obedience for my mom, and in her silvered years, she would occasionally retell the circumstances—with the same original fire—to any and all. Anyone could always talk politics with my mom; she freely offered her opinions from the national to the local, from the picnic table to the bridge table. And Mom formed these opinions from a wide range of sources. She was, after all, the only woman I know who bought Playboy magazine for the interviews. (Dad was appreciative.) Even after I left for college, I could count on her fierce wit on the follies and fooleries of our presidents, patricians, and pundits. “I don’t see how anyone can pardon corruption…anyhow…”

The word rose perhaps from her Depression-era imprint for frugality. Mom grew up in the deep understanding that everything was money, and money often meant food, clothing, a sleeping place. So within a few minutes of any long-distance phone call, Mom would start injecting “anyhow” to finish her sentences. Anyhow… The effect made the conversation frustratingly incomplete, suggesting something more could be said, but instead the unvoiced would give way to some common resignation to the situation, whether it was international, regional, extremely local. “See, the dishwasher probably needs replaced, but…anyhow…”

Anyhow. Say it and then you can talk about anything you want next.

For the past couple of years, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing an essay on how liberalism will always just be the good fight and never the homeland. I started collecting a scattering of premises: that the centering around an exchange of ideas falters when thrown against disciplined conviction; that slogans always supersede argument; how disappointment feeds rage in one and resignation in the other. That democracy itself is an aberration in human history. I might have wanted to build an argument of abstractions, but what I was really seeking was an answer to The Campfire Syndrome: why do a bunch of kids singing Pete Seeger songs grow up to vote for Rick Santorum?

I can’t write that essay now. See, timing is everything and I can’t write that essay anymore, since the quick wits of the NY Times, Politico and others have recently started salivating over scientific studies that identify and isolate the characteristics of the Republican brain versus the Democratic brain. The fascination represents the latest trend in political-social commentary. This deepthink is an attempt to ground the current political system within the rational framework of contemporary social science: to make it both natural and inevitable. Where past poets once sung about the pawnsmenship of the poor, journalist now cite New England Journal of Medicine articles to explain why the vote in Kansas turned out the way it did. A kind of Einstein voicing it is what it is.

Just as well, since it’s over my head and paygrade to peruse reports on wavy-lined flashcards experiments or scientific behavioral analysis of college students tempted by stacks of laundry quarters and then somehow extract (or divine) a universal truth. But maybe I’m not all wrong to doubt these logical arguments and surrounding science account for the political truth. Voting booth reality, perhaps, but not social truth.

So what would I say now to the olde school board back home? What would I say to Mom in this election year? I will no longer drive around the stop-sign-riddled streets of my hometown screaming “Vote for Maddox” from the Torino’s car window; nor will I wear a homemade T-shirt with PLO inked on one sleeve and JDL inked on the other. Sport no more Dadaist challenges to political convenience. But lately I have convinced myself that arrogance is the blind belief that the values and culture you were formed in are exclusively right. Can I really insist that everyone stand on the same rock as me?
Sure, I appreciate the oven-baked comfort of the familiar: if you can never go home again, it is because you have never really left it. And sure, no one can call home the ground which threatens to violently shift at any moment…unless you live in San Francisco or, occasionally, New York.

But anyhow…

I can say this. Mine is a small voice asking you to consider listening to the world’s other voices. Especially now, when all our voices are seemingly made smaller by these times, when never before in history have so many focused so much attention on so few, when we all seem to get so little out of it. It is as though we have ceded decisions and celebrations, directions and self-worth to those who are highly visible: to the most popular, to the most talked about, to the most witnessed. Sure, this is not an insight (please check the latest issue of Neuron), and this may simply be just a common thread in recorded history. It is just the weight of this surrender has critically condensed. I haven’t read any scientific proof of the idea. Just feels like an important truth.

Truth? Mom might call it a civics experiment gone astray. Backed by consideration and expressed with conviction, I can hear the voice rise up that opinion is important, but conversation—at the bridge table, the frontyard, the long distance call—restart the conversation.

In her last years, as my mom slipped into increasing fragility and rage, she often replaced her interjected anyhow with something much more mysterious. I can hear her now. If she were to call to discuss the long grass in the backyard, the book banning proposed by the school board, or the hypocrisy behind a senator’s hubris, I would listen to her fire…and then her pause, with only now the sound of vast emptiness surrounding her on the back porch…then quietly, “…anywho…”

Right…not really a word: I learned from my mom how to trip outside the boundaries of standard English. Still, she was on to something real. Any howany who… Right, Mom. Just as she stood ground for her voice, her place in a mock election, she was right that those are always the questions, election year or not: any how? By any who?

Coda: Post Grad in the Parking Lot

"On the way over here, I asked for wisdom, that I might know the truth."

About a week after finishing up "Growing Up in an Election Year," I'm standing in a parking lot in the woods of New Jersey, quietly listening to a middle-aged man explain the situation. Quietly, because I 'm trying not to lose it over my car's broken windshield. The situation? Earlier in the day three kids were throwing rocks in this parking lot. No one knew who threw the fatal rock; the kids couldn’t even agree if they were throwing stones for distance or at each other. Multiple confessions, a summary police report, but there was no bottomline explaining why I was spending my Saturday cleaning up splinters of glass. So I am eager to understand the truth.

He’s nodding his head, listening to his nearly hysterical daughter in a backward ballcap and red, cropped tomboy hair cut, and occasionally sneaking a look over this shoulder to see if I am catching his concerned, all-knowing expression.

He crossed the lot, his lips tightening. "I have listened to my daughter and I know that she speaks the truth. You can expect no payment from us."

The moment I saw the spidered safety glass, I figured I was screwed. I was from New York City, not a local…so I didn’t have the weight of potential painful casual encounters at the Stop+Shop to back me up. Plus payment would likely be a hardship for two of the families.

Still the parents of the other two parties understood that the truth was murky, but the responsibility was clear to share. They offered to share the cost as well.

But not this guy who drove up in a Beamer. No, he questioned the logic of shared responsibility—he promised to consider the idea when he got home—but the way he saw it, if his daughter was throwing rocks, but claimed not to throw the rock that did the damage, there was no responsibility. Conveniently, of course, no pain for him either.

Like some ancient priest in the wilderness, he had simply called down wisdom on himself, and, with the certainty of arrogance, could claim, "I know truth." He took personal responsibility to avoid social responsibility.

Truth…simply as a way to forget any obligation to common, human decency.

From October, 2012

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