Guest Post, Sam Gridley: Guns and Cheesesteaks: The Case for ISEP

unnamedEveryone lately has been talking about American political and cultural fragmentation—red states vs. blue states, natives vs. immigrants, cops vs. African Americans, and on and on. Even BBC News, to judge by its website, finds our cultural battles more interesting than MI5’s phone spying.

Not only do we disagree about everything, but we’ve combined our disputes with a new form of segregation. Most of us manage to live in a way that keeps us safe from The Others, namely, those whose opinions we can’t abide. In his 2008 book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop documented how Americans sort themselves into like-minded communities that have little contact with each other. We live in different cities and neighborhoods, we watch different TV programs and browse different websites, we listen to different music, we hear different types of news.

When by accident we stumble across The Others, our typical reaction is to brand them as ludicrous. Here’s an illustration: A friend of mine from Philadelphia, an American citizen born in Chile, recently flew to Santiago for a family visit, along with his American-born wife. When they returned to the U.S., they came through customs at the Houston airport. As is normal, my friend filled out a single customs declaration form for himself and his wife. The customs officer studied the form and the passports and then looked up suspiciously. “How come your wife has a different last name?” the guy wanted to know. Well, the wife is an academic who has published books and papers under her maiden name, so she’s not about to change it. She started to get upset, but my friend gently explained the matter to the agent: “You know,” he said, “some women who teach in universities like to use their original names, it’s pretty common these days.” The agent thought about this awhile. “Where you from?” he then demanded. “Philadelphia,” my friend answered, and the agent grimaced, “I don’t like Philadelphia. They hate guns up there.” My friend tried to finesse this point, saying there are plenty of people in our area who own guns (although he is not one of them). At last, the customs agent gave in and let the couple pass, but he issued a stern recommendation: “You gotta get yourself some guns!”

Naturally, as my friend told me the story, we both guffawed about it. How stupid that customs guy was! He didn’t even know that lots of American women have been keeping their maiden names for, like, the past 50 years??? A Neanderthal! There was no doubt that my friend and I shared the same opinion—and disdain.

When Pope Francis came to Philadelphia this past September, I thought about the issue again—because the Pope was the exception that proved the rule. On my Facebook feed, I encountered various reactions to the papal visit:

  • Appreciative: It’s so great that we can host a major religious figure in our city.
  • Mildly critical: It was a nice occasion, but the security measures went over the top.
  • Angry: It was a goddamn military occupation—National Guard, Secret Service, and Homeland Security everywhere!
  • Outraged: What the *@#%!! happened to the separation of church and state?!!!

What was remarkable was that my Facebook friends showed a significant range of views on the subject. This made me realize that, on most days, I encounter little diversity of opinion either in real life or on social media. Admittedly, there’s my one friend who believes Wall Street bankers should be shot, which I think kind of extreme; but everyone else I know thinks Wall Street should be converted into a maximum-security prison, so that’s not a huge spread of values. I dare say the same is true for most other Americans. Maybe you have Facebook friends who think everyone should have automatic weapons in the house, but if so, your other friends probably think at least a couple of .38s are necessary—again, not much of a spread.

There’s no doubt that our insularity, the way we isolate ourselves from other viewpoints, aggravates our differences. So what can we do about it? When my two kids reached college age, I tried encouraging them to attend schools in the Midwest, just for exposure to different sceneries and cultures. Our college tours took in Minnesota, Iowa, and Ohio as well as Maine, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Where did they end up going to school? The Philadelphia suburbs and New York City.

My daughter did spend a semester in London, on one of those standard college exchange programs. She learned to ride double-decker busses, appreciate different types of curry, and spend pounds as if they were dollars. And I fondly remember my own time as a graduate student in London, when I learned to love beans on toast with milky tea. (That was before the whole city went upscale.) So, along those lines, I’ve been thinking: What about a student exchange program within the USA? Our contrasts with each other are much bigger than our differences from the average Londoner. I mean, my British landlords laughed at me when I asked where to put the “garbage,” but that was mere vocabulary, hardly like the gap between Sarah Palin and Elizabeth Warren.

Imagine how a domestic student exchange would work. That Houston customs agent would send his kids to Philly or New York for a semester. We’d have to quarantine their weapons, but they’d learn a hell of a lot about people different from them. And the same if we sent Muslim kids from, say, Flatbush to Kentucky.

I’m proposing to call this initiative ISEP: The Interstate Student Exchange Program. It will have to be set up by individual states, of course, because Congress can’t create anything except acrimony. I myself will be happy to host a young Houstonian, whom I can introduce to NPR, vegan cheesesteaks, poetry readings, and my friend who wants to shoot bankers (the young person’s guns might be useful for that). And I’m willing to send my grandchildren to Houston to learn about Tex-Mex cuisine, oil drilling, Kenny Rogers, and the proper way to hold an assault rifle.

The upshot of ISEP may be that we come to value our differences. Or perhaps we’ll just be better informed, so that instead of finding The Others totally weird and absurd, we’ll hate them for good reason.

By now, I confess, I don’t know how serious I am. Do we really need to treat other states like foreign countries? Must we set up an acronymic government program to help us talk to one another? Maybe I’m being earnest-ironic-whimsical—and if so, isn’t that appropriate for our times? Let’s ask Ms. Palin and Ms. Warren.

In case you do want to call your state legislator to promote ISEP, I’ll offer one final note: The program can be entirely tax-neutral. It can be funded by cutting regular school budgets, which many states already love to do.

Guest Post, Sam Gridley: Literature and the Season of Depression

“We have to honor our depression,” my friend Stephen Berg said to me a few years ago. It was a passing remark, the context now lost, but it seemed a profound idea at the time. Later I discovered that the expression had been used by psychologists and therapists (James Hillman perhaps the first) since the 1970s, but I refrained from finding out what they meant by it or what my friend meant by it (likely quite different, Steve being a poet and an original thinker). Instead, I’ve let the notion molder in the back of my mind like an old shoebox in the closet, occasionally bringing it out for inspection.

On the surface, the idea suggests to me that our culture’s approach to depression—as a mental disturbance to be eliminated as fast as possible with feel-good drugs—stifles the important truths our minds are trying to tell us. There are so many things to be sad and upset about that depression in a sense is simple realism. If we gulp SSRIs and play with our smartphones and multitask ourselves into concealing our despondency, what are we missing?

I opened the shoebox again this December, a month that for me has become a depressing lead-in to a dismal season. Why dismal? Partly it’s a touch of what many people experience, the reaction we now call seasonal affective disorder (“prevalence in the U.S. ranging from 1.4% in Florida to 9.7% in New Hampshire,” says a 2007 article in the New York Times). More deeply, winter dismays me because it begins with the holidays we used to spend at my grandmother’s house, the one place I experienced a true sense of family.

When my childhood nuclear family fissioned, my grandparents became the new emotional nucleus, the stable point, throughout my youth and into adulthood. As young marrieds, my wife and I would drive from the big city to Grandma’s small town, children in the back seat, presents in the trunk, looking forward to days crowded with relatives, cheap decorations, ugly sweaters  and foods we would never cook ourselves (potato soup laden with salt and butter!). With Grandma gone and the children dispersed, the winter holidays now seem empty, as fruitless as a cardboard fruitcake. It’s not that I envy those who are celebrating with their families; rather, I kind of wrap them in my own self-pity, feeling sad for them as well as myself, and that state of mind permeates the months that follow.

This year in addition, at the start of winter, I’ve been reading some books with depressed protagonists. Is it stupid to dig into these at this time of year? One is Lauren Grodstein’s latest novel, The Explanation for Everything, in which a widowed biologist finds his trust in science challenged by a student who believes in God. The protagonist, Andy Waite, has been researching the effects of alcohol ever since his wife was killed by a drunk teenage driver. His experiments aren’t going well, though—the mice he carefully tends and then dissects aren’t proving what they’re supposed to prove—and he might lose his funding as well as his chance for tenure. His romantic life is dead, and a female neighbor’s attempt to revive his libido does not go well. He’s a decent father to his young daughters, but otherwise his life seems perpetually on hold.

“Depressed people,” says Wikipedia, “feel sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, worried, helpless, worthless, guilty, irritable, hurt, or restless,” and Andy Waite matches at least several of those adjectives. He might continue in that mode for many more years, but a challenge arrives in the form of Melissa, a Christian student who asks him to supervise her independent study on Intelligent Design. As a scientist, and in particular as the instructor of a course on Darwinism, he considers Intelligent Design a ludicrous attempt to dress religious irrationality in scholarly garb, but Melissa maneuvers him into agreeing to work with her, and the more he gets to know her, the more she undermines his emotional and cognitive foundations. Without quite succumbing to her beliefs, he begins to find them comforting. He reads and rereads passages from a book written by her pastor: “how he was here for a reason, how everyone is on this earth for a reason, and the reason belonged to God.” And without exactly falling in love with Melissa, he finds himself romantically connected, which presents a further threat to his career.

Another book I’ve read recently is Joan Didion’s best-selling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, a dissection—with as sharp a knife as Andy Waite uses on his mice—of the author’s own deranged state of mind in the year following her husband’s sudden death. Grief, she points out, is a truly disturbed condition, one of both mental and physical changes, and in her case no Melissa arrives with a Good Book of Succor; instead Didion uses her journalist’s work ethic, driven by the need to “get it right,” to catalog and analyze the distortions of mind, body and spirit that she endured. “Grief turns out,” she says, “to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” And when we do all reach it, we will be unprepared, even though she tells us the particular ways we will be unprepared:

“Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (Chap. 17)

Immediately after this passage, she describes how, as a young woman, she found meaning in geology, the “inexorable shifting” of the earth being evidence of some “scheme in action.” Though the scheme she intuited was indifferent, not benign, contemplating it was “deeply satisfying.” This recognition in turn gave significance, in her mind, to a key passage from the Episcopal litany: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.

That line is not exclusive to Episcopalians, of course; translated from the Gloria Patri, it appears in many other Christian doxologies. I remember it from Christmas Eve services, held just before midnight, at my grandmother’s Lutheran church, and though I’m as much a nonbeliever as Joan Didion and Andy Waite, I found it both comforting and inspiring. In a typical translation, the “world without end” line is preceded by “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” and followed by “Amen”—an appropriate Amen, since after glorifying the world without end, what else is there to say?

As Didion suggests, there’s solace in this evocation of the eternal, whether you connect it with a god or not. It has always been thus. It ever shall be thus. What’s the point, then, of complaining? And isn’t there some beauty in the fact that it all goes on forever (at least until the asteroid hits)?

Grandma’s small-town Lutherans, gathered on a cold Christmas Eve in a drafty church, creating warmth by their massed human numbers, would chant world without end, amen in unison. To me they felt—all these people I saw only once a year, the bald, the fat, the sniffly children, the sexy young mothers, the bored teenagers, the starched businessmen—like extended family. I imagined that by gathering together for ritual we resisted the encroaching freeze outside. For those few moments I believed in these people’s essential nobility, no matter what bastards they were in their daily lives. I believed that human suffering had dignity. I believed there was some point to existence, even if I couldn’t define it.

To conclude the service, we would light handheld candles, each person passing the flame to the next, until the entire sanctuary glowed with tiny lights—for just a minute or two, until we snuffed them out.

These brief flashes of meaningfulness have surprising influence in our daily lives, like an energy bar that keeps us going through the lean times. But for me it’s difficult to recreate them without the congregation snugged in surrounding pews, and especially without Grandma’s hip next to mine. The meaning arises from the people.

Where is all this taking me? To a recognition, I guess, of the courage it takes for all of us to plow through the unavoidable winters of the body and spirit. Joan and Andy and the rest of us—we’re actually pretty brave, aren’t we? Perhaps acknowledging this stalwartness, even celebrating it, is one good way to honor our depression.

And this is something literature can help us do. Maybe it’s not so silly, then, to read books about depressed people in the winter.

Okay, bring them on, the grim tales. With a mug of cocoa, please, for extra comfort.