THE DROP AT THE END OF THE FAUCET
Waiting for the Republicans to settle on a new speaker of the House was like suffering from some agonizingly long bout of constipation. The outcome of either situation would only be a sudden absence of something to worry about. In the case of the House, we have a mild-mannered carefully groomed hard-right government hack eager to continue his denial of Biden's presidential victory and to extend the Catholic hegemony of the Supreme Court into the lower reaches of the legislative branch. He even quoted orthodox scripture in his inaugural speech. So much for our current state of politics.
But I am also waiting for fall to show us some knuckles as we await the first cold snap. I have a crop of anna bells in my yard, wannabe chrysanthemums, which need to be cut back to the roots each autumn. I told my yard keeper guy it's time to cut them down, but he replied that we had not had our first real frost yet. We should wait, he advised. I went away feeling as if another impending climax to the season was withholding its punch. I receive so little snail mail these days I hardly ever go out to the mailbox to see what drifted in. It's mostly junk mail, offers from credit cards, bright brochures for sailing off with a bunch of oldsters to some Caribbean resort to play a bit of shuffleboard, and eat seafood platters full of coleslaw and French fries, one or two oysters and a crab claw. I can't wait to toss all this stuff into my tinder box for the next fire, if I should ever need one.
Our annual summer stay in France went by very mildly, with a few heat waves scattered among the pleasantly balmy weeks of July and August. I was relieved that I wouldn't need two fans pointed at me all night. But I confess to a certain boredom as I went about tidying up my study, carting down laundry to the wash room, standing at the bathroom mirror studying my face as I prepared to shave. Our meals didn't quite rise to celebrations of mortality; my wife and I scraped our forks in a moody silence, except to slurp up some red wine. Our room was dim and the whiskey I would pour out for myself later on had begun to be rather tasteless. I needed a jolt of excitement, but the clock ticked in a deep state of sleep much of the time. Even the occasional visitor would while away an hour or two in small talk while I sat in my easy chair fidgeting at the buttons of my shirt.
I suppose I should feel grateful that I was suffering from no more than the tedium of an ordinary summer. I should have taken long walks into the countryside to admire the lush growth of grape vines after a very wet spring. I gazed upon all that fruitfulness of almond trees, olive groves, thickets of black berries and yawned. Our kids don't come around as much as they used to; they're busy raising their own kids now, and are facing all the travails of being in their forties. I remember that blur of duties and obligations they now face, and squished down a little more deeply into my easy chair with a book on my lap and a lamp wanly illuminating my tiny desert island of silence and idleness.
The golden years are more like tarnished silver, needing a bit of polish to make them shine. I was out of polish, so I sat there, or puttered about with the intent of writing some overdue thank you letters or paying a few bills. But I couldn't arouse myself to be practical. Instead, I gazed down at the street of our little village and wondered what made people laugh so hard as they strolled by, with a kid gazing up at them and hoping they were headed to the bar for an ice cream. The parents were just going home, going on with their lives.
But somewhere else in the world the seas were boiling up and fueling powerful hurricanes that would roar into the towns and peel off roofs, topple telephone poles and aging trees, and suck out the windows of the local church. Hospitals would be begging for help to attend to all those battered people who had come to the door homeless and bedraggled. The war in Ukraine was slowing down in its dreadful rhythm of missile bombardments crushing the rest of the villages that the Russian forces had left standing. President Zelensky was making the rounds of the U.N., the summits of the Group of Seven, televising speeches to the French Assembly and the House of Commons and anywhere else he could plead his case that the war was more about the future of democracy in the West than it was about saving Ukraine from the jaws of a rapacious dictator in the Kremlin. He would get promises of money and weaponry and then go back to his drawing board to figure out how to keep his cause fresh in American minds. He too was waiting for some turn of events to alter the stalled reality of our times.
I felt sorry for all those TV reporters who were required to keep the news compelling even if nothing much was happening. They had to stand around in the dim glow of fires burning behind them and talk about the savage cruelty of war, even though people were strolling by on the way to some bodega that still had a few canned goods on the shelves. A woman huddled under her umbrella as she summarized the damage wrought by the latest category four storm whipping by overhead. The footage was of sheet metal cartwheeling down the street, a toppled palm tree, a man standing at the water's edge leaning into the sea's rage out of curiosity. No one could find the right vocabulary to waken up a sense of horror in an age that had just muddled through a pandemic with millions of deaths in its wake. What do you say to an audience sprawled out on couches that they hadn't heard before, over and over again. The reporters were getting numb searching their minds for a way to stir up compassion and anxiety. But it was already too much of the same harangue and everyone knew it.
The texture of reality was formed out of a bit of footage of Joe Biden tripping on the steps of a stage and being righted by secret service goons in sunglasses. Or some menacing threats of nuclear war coming from the pale, inexpressive face of Putin as he stood among his generals. Or the snarling lips of Trump as he attacked his accusers and prosecutors hauling him into police stations for arraignments. The problem for everyone was that we were running out of reality that could be poured out conveniently into boiler plate rhetoric and squeezed into news holes between ad breaks. It was becoming clear that television and newspaper editorials were finding their jobs meaningless. Repetition and exaggeration were no longer quite the stimulants they once were. The Cronkites were gone, and they were the apostles of "the way it is." Their somewhat drab but meaningful treatments of the day's events would sink in because we believed what was being said. It had a sting to it, or a pang in the heart, a feeling of claustrophobia that lingered through the ad jingles. But these days the steady downbeat of morbid stories with no clear moral victories was wearing away authority and laying bare the thin surface of what was once taken to be the truth. We could see the pebbles, the sand, the occasional stealthy fish floating beneath the packaged version tragedy and despair.
The world of corporate reality was joyless (except for the ads of smiling women proffering leak-proof panties and the joys of fast food); the world was being narrated by doomsday prophets, cynics, nihilists, habitual sceptics, without a thought that life was varied and had contradictions abounding among the crushing sorrows of earthquakes, tyrants, civil wars, drone strikes, and all the rest of the ills from Pandora's box. If you wanted to dream of a better world, it came to you in brochures for ocean liner trips, for getaway weekends to Aruba, for electric bikes hauling young couples into the state parks for some dazzling vistas of canyons and dark, mysterious forests.
The only escape from monotonous tragedy was commercials for escape to highly automated and manufactured fantasies. But meanwhile, in the interstices of reality that were nearly always below the furious gaze of corporate manipulation, butterflies were hovering over the sunflowers; rivers were running like skeins of pure silver through the velvet silence of trees at sunset; lakes were shimmering with fish nibbling at the bugs floating overhead; tiny fires sparkling in a campsite where kids were roasting their marshmallows. Common, ordinary life was everywhere, but alas, there was no money in peddling this Victorian vision of reality.
My boring summer in France, my thirty-seventh year in the place I called paradise in a memoir, was a gift. I began to see the weave in the stagnant tempo of the mundane world. The miniscule events of flies on the window pane were trying to tell me that reality lay in the events that were not the material of tragedy or defeat, but the part of living that moved in an eternal wave of replenishment. It was there if you could suddenly step out of the manufactured despair of an all-engrossing prepared vision that really wasn't actual but a drama conveyed by editors, content managers, AI technicians, directors, actors, pitch men. The war between a lizard and a beetle was far more compelling that a hyped up retelling of Cassandra's dreams. Remember that the next time you sit down to hear what the world's been up to on the national news. And maybe the drop at the end of the faucet is hanging there in the utter suspense of the moment, which might be infinite in its ramifications.