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THE WEEK IN GREED #19: The Pressure of the Real

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I was in a Starbuck’s in central Connecticut trying to think about the election, but I kept getting distracted.

A young Asian woman with a scone was holding forth. “They said on their own website that it cost 79 but I got here and suddenly it’s $1.20 and there’s like ten left, all in gross colors. I told the sales lady, ‘It was 79 on the website’ and she was like, ‘I don’t know anything about that, honey.’” The guy across the table stared at her from beneath a gelled shingle of hair, listening in that super empathic manner suggesting these two had yet to fuck.

At the next table, an older couple was berating their teenage son for his tardy appearance. He kept claiming his car had stalled on the way, an excuse not even he seemed to believe.

The woman making coffee was keening about the new device she wanted, only the Apple Store opened while she was on her shift, of course, so she had to ask her friend who worked at Pier One, but he couldn’t do it because he had his own stuff to buy, so she was going to have to ask her mom, who would probably mess it up and buy her, like, the Nano Four.

After a time, these voices began to merge. They composed a kind of seething national chorus. I will never get what I deserve.

And who was I to complain about their complaint? I say the same thing all the time.

***

It was a particular moment in time, in the suburbs of central Connecticut, where nearly all public discourse happens in a Starbuck’s or a Bertucci’s, in an Anne Taylor or a Pier One, where the Brownian motion of civic life is contained within white-trimmed malls.

I’d landed here on Black Friday, a newly minted “holiday” devoted to the sacred rites of shopping, to transitioning Americans from the corporeal gluttony of Thanksgiving to the retail gluttony of Christmas.

I should have been in a library, but I didn’t know where to find a library in central Connecticut.

I kept trying to think about the election, but I couldn’t get back there. It seemed ages ago. Instead, I thought of this line from The White Album, Didion’s long sad strange poem about how we let the Sixties slip through our fingers:

It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure…

 ***

Why does my heart operate like this? Why, in the face of good news, does it seize upon portents of ruin?

Are you like this, too?

How long did it take you to relocate your anxieties about the election to the rest of your life?

I gave myself about three hours. At last, I thought. Democracy has served as an instrument of moral progress. Americans have disavowed the use of selfishness and bigotry as political tools. Paul Ryan can now return to his given role as the star of an infomercial for a workout regimen that makes you poop gold.

Then Palestinians and Israelis started killing one another again and congressional leaders launched into their horseshit soliloquies about the sanctity of tax cuts and the same old huckster pundits were back in their pancake makeup, while the corporate money slunk back to the drawing board, in pursuit of more efficient ways to poison our common sense.

By the next day, the election had begun to feel like a stopgap, like some terrible disaster – not averted or vanquished, but delayed. And then even less. Like a diversion from the real business of America: the frantic effort to buy off our loneliness.

***

It’s more complicated than that, though.

I spent Election Day in the town where I’d grown up. I’d come to give a lecture and to visit my mom, who had just endured the removal of several internal organs, her second such surgery in the past five years. “It’s alright, Stevie,” she told me. “I wasn’t using them anyway.”

So I watched the returns with my folks on either side of me. The numbers came in from New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; my dad and I began to feel the woozy flush of pessimists proved wrong.

But my mom wasn’t getting it. She stared at the blizzard of data washing across the screen, then glanced down at her belly, at the wound there. I could see, just for a second, how frightened she was.

By which I mean of course how frightened I was.

My dad clicked over to Fox, so as to witness Karl Rove confronting the voters of Ohio. But even this spectacle couldn’t distract him from the real story in that room. He wanted my mom to snap out of it, to act like his wife again, not some addled patient in danger of drifting off to the other side.

***

I watched Romney deliver his gracious concession speech at an airport bar, then caught the rest on a red-eye back to Boston, a hundred little blue screens aglow as our plane zoomed over the black mountains below. We landed at dawn and there was my own little family waiting for me at the airport, my beautiful tired wife and my tender shrieking children.

I should have fallen to my knees in gratitude. I should have found a God to thank. But I picked a fight with my wife instead, because she had the audacity to fall ill and to expect me to take care of her, when I was the one with the sick mother, the maybe dying mother, and anyway at the bottom of it all I wanted her, my wife, to become my mother, young and forever healthy, which isn’t fair, but is.

***

I was still in the Starbucks, still trying to figure out what to say about the election. It was barely a fortnight ago, but the squalls of Black Friday had blown me off course. I kept hearing the voices of those b-list actors from Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s 1978 paean to zombie consumerism.

“What are they doing?” the blond says, of the blue-faced goons staggering around the mall. “Why do they come here?”

“Some kind of instinct,” her guy says. “Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

***

My mother took part in the Civil Rights movement and was one of half a dozen women in her class at Yale Medical School and she raised three troubled sons and wrote two remarkable books and read every novel Charles Dickens wrote, most of them several times, and she has cared for her patients with great compassion and taken far too much shit over the years from my dad and me and my brothers. She deserved, and deserves, better.

And I guess that’s what I feel about the election, when I dig to the bottom of it.

It is my hope that Obama will become far more radical in defense of the common good; that he will suggest to Republicans, for instance, a return to the top tax rate of the Eisenhower era (91 percent). I would love to see him campaign for a constitutional amendment banning all private money from political races. I would love to see him empower scientists to solve our climate change crisis. And so on and so on.

***

But none of that will keep my mother alive forever. Or me. Or you.

The final crisis is always personal: how do we fight back against what Wallace Stevens called “the pressure of the real,” which I take to mean those anxieties that keep us apart from our souls. (I’m not sure I’m even getting that right. It’s based on something I heard Matthew Zapruder say far more eloquently.)

Maybe that’s what I was feeling in that Starbucks: the pressure of the real. Maybe I was afraid that it was too late for America, that election night 2012 would go down as little more than a twitch of conscience in the twilight of a wasteful empire, the fundamental malaise was too deep, the distractions too profitable, we would remain zombies to the end, unwilling to stanch our profligacy, to face the burdens of our historical moment, devoted instead to the spiritually empty pursuit of sensation.

Or maybe that was my fear talking. Maybe the pressure of the real can mean something else: that we love some people so much (and are therefore so afraid of losing them) that we have to create vessels of beauty to contain our terror. That our politicians fail us and the cherished among us die but that love and imagination, as commemorated in our words and our deeds, survive. That these human gestures form the invisible thread that binds the mighty to the meek, the wicked to the good, the living to the dead.

Maybe this can be taken as our proper work for the next four years: summoning the faith to see our nation as partly ruined, full of delusion and wrath, and still to wish for, and work for, and believe in, its resurrection.


Steve Almond is the author of eight books, including Letters from People Who Hate Me. You can order his new collection of stories, "God Bless America," here. More from this author →