How do you teach it? You can’t. You can only model it.
It’s easiest to feel empathy with the clown. First off, we know he’s there to entertain us. His cigarettes fall out of the pack, he tries to pick them up and his hat falls off. He makes to fetch his hat and steps on his broom, which whacks him. No moral judgments to be made: the clown is our frustration, purified.
Not so easy to find connection with the ranting demagogue. Yet I feel the need is profound to burrow within both him and his worshippers. Here, understanding is not approval, nor is empathy the same as sympathy. The ART OF WAR emphasizes the need for “empathy” with the enemy as a needed element to defeat him: what does he truly want, what are the weaknesses he knows, what’s it like to be inside his head?
It’s possible to be too empathetic. In high school I went through agonies before calling a girl for a date, and I don’t think it was for fear of rejection: I’ve certainly had bad reviews and hundreds of rejections of my plays and novels, but I still keep on with my mother’s blind faith in my intrinsic worth. It was mainly because I dreaded pulling the girl off the toilet or of forcing her to come up with a polite excuse to say no. That did no one any good.
But I find myself increasingly reluctant to enter into discussions on political issues because—increasingly—I find myself differing with progressive friends not on values but on tactics. Specifically, empathy with the other side.
What does that mean? Certainly it doesn’t mean compromise: the matador doesn’t compromise with the bull. But he has to understand the bull, not to ascribe motives like He doesn’t like Latinos. If the main motive of the anti-abortion movement is To control women, why does a recent survey show 43% of women are anti-abortion? Perhaps because they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy, but how likely is changing any minds by asserting they’ve been brainwashed? The issues on curriculum and book censorship elicit the most outlandish actions of school boards and state legislatures, but I see little empathy expressed from progressives to the deep concerns of parents trying to cope with raising their kids in a culture that’s changing with every tweet. Instead, we expend vast energies castigating the ignorant knuckle-draggers.
The gay rights movement perhaps began with Stonewall, but it would have gone nowhere (IMHO) until the AIDS epidemic forced an enormous coming-out that connected the issue with people that people knew—friends and relatives. We’re tribal creatures, all, and abstract arguments about human rights, denigration of opponents’ intelligence, crowds screaming in the streets, or accusations of guilt don’t go very far in actually changing minds. Not, at least, without the human connection—the story of the Philadelphia mom working fulltime to support her three kids, putting a pot on the dining table to catch the sewage dripping from the pipes upstairs. There’s a billion of those stories, and they need to get told and told and told.
I’ve been looking forward to the Bay Area Book Fair, an annual spring event where we’ve rented an exhibit table a couple of times in the past. Very few indie folks like us make big bucks, but it’s still a sweet event and I was happy to be going again after a couple of years of Covid layoff. And hey, the first volume of my memoir was in print, and I had the feeling it might see some action.
By an odd coincidence the fair was at exactly the same time our daughter was able to visit from Italy, her home for the past 25 years. That’s a big deal. We figured out how to make it work: Saturday I’d handle the table solo while Conrad and Johanna would have a free day to schmooze and spend quality time with each other in San Francisco, and on Sunday she and I would go visit the Berkeley Arboretum while he book-sat. Nice.
Crowds were sparser than I remembered, and not as many were actually interested in buying books. Money is tight. I had some good conversations but none of the authors were selling much except in the kid-book sections. Maybe Sunday would be better. At the end of the afternoon we packed up everything except our big sign and went back home to enjoy dinner together and get a night’s sleep before heading back down to Berkeley to set up for Sunday. We left most of the display in the car overnight to simplify the turnaround, and had a very detailed list to make sure we wouldn’t forget anything we brought into the house.
I was grumpy about the fact that our reorder of my memoir hadn’t arrived in time: we had exactly one copy left and couldn’t do a sales job on what we didn’t have on hand. The display of novels and play collections looked nifty but it didn’t have a single focus, so we thought we’d simplify, putting a more effective push on our joint fifty-year memoir. There were little stacks of leftover books here and there in the living room and office, but repacking could wait for morning. The cats were peeved about having been left alone all day, so we petted and played a while before flopping into bed.
Come morning the bins got repacked and we checked the list. “Where’s the money envelope?” “I think it’s still in my backpack.” We have a nice little multi-zipper pouch for $100 in change, our inventory and sales list, and the Square that allows us to turn our iPhone into a credit card processor. It wasn’t in my backpack. “Maybe it’s under books in one of the bins. I know we didn’t leave anything in Berkeley.”
We took everything out of the big bin and the little bin. No luck. I went out and searched the car. Nope. The velvet tablecloths were folded into a big package: maybe the envelope got folded into the middle? I brought the pile in and we spread both cloths out. No luck. My heart sank. Time was getting short so I located our old backup Square, ransacked petty cash for enough fives and tens for change, and put everything in a different pouch. Meanwhile, Conrad searched his laptop bag and Johanna searched her own backpack. Rats. We could cope, but we’d just lost more than a hundred dollars and felt pretty grim. It was time to go, but I needed a last-minute pee stop. Through the closed door I heard Conrad make a weird little noise and then say, “It’s here.”
“What? Where?!!!!!” “Under the ottoman.” And there it was, with four or five foam-rubber cat toys and a book of poetry I’d bought from our next-table neighbor. During the night the cats had knocked stuff off the ottoman and shoved it under. Never underestimate peeved cats.
I wrote earlier that I’d started a novel based on the King David story. It’s a few months later, and I’m working on the fifth draft, middle of chapter 6. Once starting rewrites, they tend to go on and on.
Meantime, I’ve read two King David novels. One, by Joseph Heller (he of CATCH-22), was a rambling excuse to write some sexy stuff and mock a supposed hero—which is a ready temptation to anyone who reads I and II SAMUEL and the beginning of I KINGS if you’re not in a hero-worshipping mood. The second, THE KING DAVID REPORT by a German novelist Stefan Heym, is better written but more about the narrator’s challenge of writing truth under an authoritarian regime; he stays at a distance from the main character himself. Both useful, though, in clarifying what I don’t want to do. Also I’ve read some useful Biblical commentaries. And seen two movies, both unmentionable.
I’ve often said that I rarely write what I know but more what I WANT to know. I may have some notion at the outset what attracts me to a subject, but it’s only in the writing that I slowly come to know my stake in it. Here, the heart of it is an old man looking back on his life, critically but with a bit of understanding—strange how that resonates with me right now.
The story itself is compelling, enough incidents for at least a year-long miniseries or a five-hour movie of Russian angst. If you haven’t been turned off by the Sunday School version—the precocious shepherd boy impelled by faith—the original is very much worth a read. Great mythic storytelling, certainly on a par with Homeric saga and a lot shorter.
My version, I guess, is more like a jazz riff on a standard tune: it’s certainly not the original, but it hits the needed notes for recognition, and it’s what the story means to me. It alternates between a straight third-person narrative and the first-person voice of the old man sorting out the meaning of his life. Being an old man sorting out the meaning of my life (not to mention culling photos and figuring what to do with my puppets) I empathize—even though I haven’t achieved a kingship or slain a single Philistine.
Neither of our cats care anything for what we write. They parade across the keyboard and sniff the hand that makes the typos. It matters not that our story is deathless, that anyone wants to read it, or sinks slowly into the muck like the monsters of Beowulf. The trick is to adopt the cats’ objective attitude while continuing my tatter on the keys.
I was bullied pretty consistently all through elementary school and junior high, then by high school kids had other things to think about and so did I. Nowadays that old feeling is creeping back. I was amazed at how hard I cringed at seeing multiple versions of Musk’s smirk all over the web today. I recovered a little when I had the thought that he must have dodged into a photo booth and mugged as fast as he could.
It was bad enough with 45 everywhere you looked, then it piled on with McTurtle and Ted Cruz, and now there’s a beauty pageant’s worth of identical women with identical blonde hairdo’s carefully scrolling over their shoulders. Every goddam blog and news feed has to have a big picture of one of this gang with everything they post, and it gives me the creeps—sends me right back to the days of the lunch line.
The teacher’s back is turned, there’s no referee, and the principal’s just waiting to retire. WTF? WT actual F?
People opposing the sexual exploitation of children condemn “grooming.” I’d add that we’ve also experienced grooming for tribal divisions and violence. It’s been going on for a long time. Now that there are role models it’s out in the open, but it was always simmering on the back burner. Remember when advertising whipped up divisions between those who favored McD and those who ate Burger King? Or Ford and Chevy? I remember being struck by these silly hostile billboards in the Philly subway, so that would put it back into the 90’s. Real seventh-grade gems like “Friends don’t let friends drive Ford.”
Generations have been groomed by ads and hopped up on breakfasts of Pop Tarts and Coke in front of the TV, with supermarket tabloids giving them the inside story. I know, trash journalism is nothing new. When we were doing research on Marie Antoinette I was stunned at their versions of the National Enquirer—talk about pornographic fake news, wow.
I may finally be goaded into cutting way down on screen time. Always look for the silver lining.
This afternoon Elizabeth let me know that Edward Gibbon the historian stood only 4 ft. 8 in. But for a string of circumstances, I would have never known this.
I suppose it began when I decided to apply for Northwestern rather than Harvard, as my English teacher pushed. Had I not done so, and had not Elizabeth been bounced from U. of Michigan and forged her way into Northwestern, we might never have met. And had we not been seated across the aisle in a stage lighting class and found ourselves the only ones in the class laughing at the prof’s jokes, I would never have ventured to talk with her—I’m a very shy person. With that, life began to shape itself, though via change upon change upon change.
I’m within a couple of months of finishing writing a novel based on the David stories of the Hebrew texts, so I’m acutely sensitive to what shapes a life. How do you get from being a shepherd to being a king, and what happens then? Or being 15 and then being 80? I think we tend to see our lives as inevitable, perhaps because we can’t imagine it any other way, perhaps because we’ve absorbed too much fiction where the author has been careful to make things seem perfectly plotted and inevitable.
I just read of rat experiments that concluded that if the baby rat doesn’t get enough touch from its mom, it fails to thrive. The rat mom licks her babies a lot, and maybe more of us need that. Imagine what may be at stake.
Not that it makes a lot of difference to know that Edward Gibbon was short . I’m just fascinated at the utter crapshoot that shapes our lives. We’re born, we hop a wild camel, and we slide off where it stops. Somewhere along the way, we write a college admissions essay on where we think the camel will go.