Sunday, February 28, 2010

Castle Dreams

Book Review

The Glass Castle

A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls had a most unusual upbringing. Her parents could easily be described as both eccentric and disturbed. Her father Rex was keenly intelligent, an electrical engineer by training, but pretty much out of the reality loop because he couldn't stop drinking. Rose Mary, Jeannette's mom, didn't drink but had a compulsion that could be almost as problematic: she was an artist.

Unfazed by the daunting demands of child rearing, Rex and Rose Mary indulged their obsessions to the point of near criminality. Brian, Lori, Jeannette, and Maureen were left to fend for themselves, their care and maintenance a virtual self-help program. But despite all the apparent neglect, a strange and subtle kind of love was always there—just beneath the surface of the chaos that never seemed to go away. Amid the madness, an unlikely richness permeated the lives of the Walls children. Even if food for the body wasn't always available, they learned—by mere osmosis—that sustenance for the spirit was in plentiful supply. All they had to do was look around. Reading, writing, art, science—all there just for the asking.

Walls brings us in close as she recalls a life she knew was not normal but bravely embraced nonetheless. To anyone cursed with parents too compromised mentally and conflicted emotionally to provide that normal life other kids seemed to have, Walls' story is a poignant reminder of both the horrors and the hope such a contorted existence can bring.

To be sure, the Wallses didn't set out to live lives of such want and poverty. But it was as much mismanagement as misfortune that forced Rex to round up Mom and the kids every so often and "do the skedaddle" as Rex liked to say. In dozens of backward towns, from California to Arizona to West Virginia, they found sanctuary—short-lived though it always was—from those who didn't seem to appreciate them for their peculiar ways. And it was always just a matter of time before the bill collectors, health authorities or FBI agents—at least the ones in Rex's mind—began to close in and force the family on to its next unknown destination.

Keeping alive a sliver of hope for a better life was Rex's self-appointed task. Out of whole cloth, he fabricated tall tales and exotic plans for one day striking it rich. All he had to do was perfect his gold-prospecting gadget or get that patent on his new energy-saving device or figure out how to—well, you get the picture. In any event, Rex promised his family they would one day live in a grand house out in the desert, one which would be powered by his patented solar energy system. Here in their dream home they would live and want for nothing. Rex even had a name for his pie-in-the-sky mansion. He called it The Glass Castle.

Dreams of one day living in The Glass Castle notwithstanding, years of sleeping inside cardboard boxes in homes so blighted and broken down that rain often poured freely through the roof was wearing on Jeannette and the other children. And so they, too, dreamed. They dreamed of one day breaking free of the clutches of lard sandwiches, mad parents, and virtual destitution.

Walls seems to almost congratulate herself when she realizes that she has indeed escaped and is holding down a very good writing job while living in a Park Avenue apartment in the city of her dreams—New York. But one day she is crudely reminded that some things in life are more difficult to escape than others. Noticing a woman picking through the garbage of a nearby dumpster, she is jolted by the reality that the woman dredging through the dross is her mother. Yes, Rose Mary and Rex followed Jeannette to New York, and she must now confront her own affluence in the contrasting light of her parents' new home—the streets of the Big City.

To her credit, Walls stops short of outright condemnation when reflecting upon her parents' miscues, partly because much of their plight seemed so predestined—and partly because they are family and rejecting family is not something one does lightly.

A few years after Rex has passed on, Jeannette and her new husband John entertained the family at Thanksgiving. There's a suggestion of lingering bitterness when Brian, at the sight of an opulent feast on the dinner table says, "You know, it's not really that hard to put food on the table if that's what you decide to do." As if to admonish her brother for saying something that might bring back bad memories and hurt Rose Mary's feelings, Lori matter-of-factly interjects, "Now, no recriminations." John suggests they drink a toast to Rex, and Mom seizes the moment offering—with affection in her voice—what the grown children already knew: "Living with your father was never boring."

No, The Glass Castle never got built, but Rex and Rosemary, despite their flaws, may have unwittingly built something just as special—a family that has figured out how to love.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Belief in a God: The Height of Inanity

It came to my attention the other day that the popular definition of the word inane has evolved over the years. Originally it meant empty, void, or insubstantial, e.g., the vast and inane reaches of outer space. Today it more often means asinine, pointless, or devoid of intelligence. It occurs to me that either definition works just fine to describe the phenomenon of belief in a supernatural being as lord of the universe.

All manner of philosophers, scientists and historians have attempted to explain why it is man appears so predisposed to religious belief. (Recent archeological finds in Turkey have unearthed what appear to be temples predating the Great Pyramids by thousands of years. These findings seem to indicate that before building any other kinds of structures, man built houses of worship! History In the Remaking, Patrick Symmes, Newsweek, Feb. 19, 2010) It has been said that more than ninety percent of the world's population believe in a god. Can that many people be deluded? The short answer is yes.

No matter which side of the faith/reason, theist/atheist debate one finds himself, it is generally accepted there is no rational justification for religious belief. That many theists will nonetheless lay claim to the existence of a god being logical or intelligent is both unimpressive and beside the point. It is much easier to respect someone who makes a leap of faith in the absence of evidence or reason than it is to respect someone who rationalizes his faith with nescient intellectualism.

As the irascible Bill Maher might ask, What's so difficult about saying 'I don't know?' Whatever it is that makes this modest concession so painful to articulate, it plainly has the power to sustain people's delusions. It matters not that the more temperate among believers—however few they are—might be a force for civility; they are nonetheless complicit in the crimes of the intemperate by advancing their most fundamental claims. In short, moderately religiously people have elevated irrationality to a respected art form. It really is a neat trick.

Will the next millennium bring with it a new Age of Enlightenment? One can hope, but evidence both affirming and denying this possibility is strong. On the one hand, atheism—characterized mainly by its reliance upon rational thinking—is now seen as less a taboo and more an acceptable and popular worldview than ever before; on the other hand, religious fundamentalists of all stripes are not going quietly into the night—to say nothing of the nihilistic extremists they spawn.

Religious faith is not likely to disappear any time soon, if ever. Perhaps it is not necessary that it does. What is necessary, however, is that those who do have such beliefs practice their faith without injecting it into the social machinery that must be acknowledged by everyone, most notably government.

Believing in a supernatural god—there may be no greater manifestation of the inane.

Dear Melissa Harris-Lacewell

Dear Melissa Harris-Lacewell:

I was delighted today to find your inaugural column in The Nation. Now I have another reason to immerse myself in this great publication. Now admittedly I am just getting to know of you, having followed you on Rachel Maddow and Countdown with Keith Olberman for several months now.

Your post in The Notion blog, Progressive Bible Study, I thought was something of a departure. I can understand why one would not want conservatives to abscond with whatever richness religion has to offer; I would only suggest that this richness never seems to reveal itself within the realm of the political. On the contrary, good democratic governance and free religious expression are greatly enhanced the more they remain free of each other's influence.

If you are suggesting that religious influence—in the form of enlightened morality—is a good thing, may I just say there is nothing uniquely religious about enlightened morality. Right and wrong are readily discerned by accessing more universally accepted paradigms within the realm of the secular.

Your suggestion that progressives stake their claim to a chair at the table of biblical influence in political matters (if I haven't misinterpreted or misunderstood you) reveals at best a naive hope that religious influence in political matters can somehow be moderated to the point of acceptability. I do not share this optimism given what I have seen over the past thirty years.

Whatever richness religion adds to our culture can best be maintained by keeping it quarantined from the political arena. When politics gets entangled with religion, the very religious freedom political leaders are tasked with protecting is threatened.

Don't cave on this issue. The rewards of standing firm are too valuable for our democracy to do without.

Yours truly,
A. Stickler [for keeping religion out of politics]

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

So Long, Sparkle

This is our daughter Alycia enjoying a
special moment with Sparkle in their younger days.


From the first day we took her in as a young stray fifteen years ago, Sparkle seemed to know right away who it was she had to soften up and win over. As a child I knew the joy of having a puppy to pal around and grow up with, but I had never taken to cats—didn't want to know them. Their independence and aloofness always struck me as their way of saying they could either take us or leave us; it seemed not to matter to them one way or the other. I see now how wrong I was.

Sparkle was persistent—I'll give her that. No matter how many times I dismissed her or shooed her away as a young kitten, no matter how coy, tough or disinterested I tried to be, Sparkle was determined to neutralize my feline antipathy and expose me for the big, soft marshmallow I was deep down inside. Crawling up onto the couch where I sometimes snoozed after chores or a round of golf, Sparkle would plant her feeble frame on my large shoulders and snuggle right up next to me, as if to mock me for being such a pushover.

It was embarrassing to be rendered completely powerless by the charms of a kitten, but I was careful not to let my weakness show. I pretended not to care or notice whenever Sparkle jumped onto my lap to affirm our secret friendship. Before long, however, the cat was out of the bag, and I could scarcely contain my affection for her.

Whatever was left of the tough guy within me was reduced to rubble today as Sparkle went to sleep for the last time. My tears flowed freely as her tired head gently settled onto her soft and pillowy paws—the merciful medicine relieving her of the pain and discomfort she endured so bravely.

We have much to learn from the creatures we take in as pets, from the unconditional nature of their love to the enduring posture of their loyalty. Somehow it is beyond them to hurt or disappoint us the way we humans will all too readily hurt and disappoint each other. If their behavior truly is subject to the dictates of instinct, how amazing it is those very instincts should appear so agreeable.

For now, we're going to leave Sparkle's food and water dish right where it is—until it really sinks in that she won't be needing it anymore. I have a feeling it may be there for some time. Thank you for being such a good cat and such an important part of our family. We're going to miss you very much. So long, Sparkle.