I once asked my cousin by marriage, Gary Gutjahr, what were some of his favorites things about living in the Midwest. It was the night before my brother Rick’s wedding, and Gary, Rick, my youngest brother David and I were having a beer together at a bar on Lindbergh Boulevard in St. Louis. I guess this was our idea of a stag party. Gary took a moment to give my I-think-I-may-be-running-out-of-conversation question more time than it deserved. I detected concentration, thoughtful consideration, and just a bit of a twinkle in his eyes – just what you might expect from an old school banker mulling over the decision of whether to proceed with a loan agreement, (kind of like Fredric March in Best Years of our Lives) before answering. “We get to avoid fads,” he replied. “You see most fads seem to start on one of the coasts, and they die out before they reach St. Louis. and then if they make it here, we suspect there might be something to them. We got to avoid Transcendental Meditation and EST altogether.”
I wonder what they’re getting to avoid out there right now. Back here, right now, how do we begin to sort out what are the earthshattering events, the five-alarm fires from what are the seemingly important but perhaps faddish arguments over opposing, sincere and heartfelt beliefs that are keeping us up nights in New York?
By the way, when did we start using words like “Micro” and “Macro”? I don’t know, but sometimes I find them a useful shorthand in framing a point or discussion.
Right now, this letter is going back more in the direction of “Micro.” Maybe that’s where it’ll stay. You never can tell. I’ve written less than a page.
Our cat Mario died this week. He left us with sixteen years of companionship and the example of an ethical life well lived. He was always, kind, modest, and didn’t take up any more space than he deserved, even though he was the senior member of our feline gang. And yet, despite his seemingly mild-mannered approach, he was never bullied nor pushed aside at the food dish by his two younger cat brothers. He set the tone for the family and was rewarded with the respect of George and Najee.
My cousin Allan died this week as well, the last of my “grown-up” cousins. My mom was significantly younger than her three brothers. They married and had kids early. Mom and Dad married late leading to a sixteen-year gap between the youngest of the “grown-ups” and me. As a teenager, Alan had engineered Mom and Dad’s first date. Who knows, without that bit of youthful matchmaking, I might not be here typing away at this.
Allan grew up in the ten years of the Depression, and there was scarcely time to catch an adult breath before he found himself thrust into life as the navigator on a B-24 bomber flying combat missions over Italy, making a forced landing on one and getting shot down on another and returning home to join the 1950’s generation of the grey flannel suit. Like most American veterans of this war, he never said much about his time overseas. My dad never did despite surviving kamikaze attacks in the Battle of the Philippines, and George McGovern never did in his ill-fated Presidential campaign in 1972 despite having a combat life very similar to Allan’s.
Moving out to the macro, could the world now be, somewhere along the way, in the same kind of a twenty-plus year marathon that people like Allan, and perhaps your mom and dad or granddad lived through, and will we remember being caught up in the events of this day the same way that they may have remembered the day after Pearl Harbor. Between worries over climate change, a world was badly shaken by a pandemic, by massive political cowardness and corruption and racial and class divides that threaten to rip us apart as a nation, well, we may not be facing the challenges of the Greatest Generation but we have a lot on our plate.
Returning to the micro, what do we as individual people do. We can vote, we can pay attention, we can think things through. And, following the examples seen through the journeys of our parents and grandparents, we can stay as calm as we can and keep going steadily along. Wars aren’t won overnight and great problems aren’t solved overnight either. Forgive what may sound like my bit of cliché advice, I’m writing this as much for myself as for those of you now reading it. I’m trying to figure it out, trying to figure out what makes sense and what answers coming my way are faddist quick fixes. I know there are no easy answers. But here’s one of my favorite and helpful expressions of reassurance that I hear right now, maybe it’s our version of “Keep calm and carry on.” I most often. Hear it when I forget to push my mask up over my nose or I find myself closer to someone than six feet and I am reminded by them of my error. It comes right after my “I’m so sorry.” And it’s the best.
The words are “Forget it. We’re all in this together.”
Mario and Barbara