23 November 2014

I haven't been sleeping well lately. Every new revelation about the state of our elections puts me in a tailspin. The rush to vote on Rep. Holt's Bill (now unaffectionately known as Microsoft 811), and the degree to which both the public and our members of Congress don't adequately understand the issues and what's at stake, are very disturbing.

I can't even escape through reading. I picked up some interesting books from the library, among them a mystery that revolves around home improvements, and the latest novel by Michael Chabon. Ordinarily, they would have piqued my interest, but now, I couldn't get into either of them. I'm going to read A Margin of Error, Ballots of Straw by Lani Massey Brown, a computer expert who has been closely watching elections from her perch in Florida. Like Man of the Year her book talks about what could happen at election time with computers running the show. At least it's fiction, even if I haven't strayed very far from the topic I've become obsessed with.

Thursday, I went to the doggie beach with my crazy but lovable dog, Emma, and my daughter, Ariella. We romped and chatted, got really sandy and gross, met new dogs and their people, and had a gay old time. For an hour or more, I completely put election stuff on hold and didn't think about it for even a second. It was so refreshing, like a mini-vacation from real life, and it was great. And then reality came crashing back. Remind me to get out more often.

For the longest time, some lines I suspected were from The Cat in The Hat have been rattling around in my head. 
        This mess is so big
        And so deep and so tall,
        We can not pick it up.
        There is no way at all!
This passage resonated with me and kept popping up, virtually every time something new and horrible happened. Dr. Seuss's "mess" of epic proportions so aptly and amazingly described exactly what is going on with our elections.  Is it just me, or do you see it too?  Since I was on the topic of kid's books, I also reread Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, another family favorite. (More on that in a bit.)

What role do young children's stories play in our growing up and our adult outlook on life? Grimm's fairy tales are the exception to the rule – they are dark, violent, and often gruesome. Many modern American parents shy away from them for that very reason, even though studies show that dealing with those issues in a non-sugar-coated way is actually very healthy for a child's development.

Classic American children's stories share some general characteristics. They may indeed have a fantastic, magical, or otherwise unrealistic aspect to them, but that is just window dressing. First and foremost, they stress the safety and security of home and family. Home is a haven, reassuring, and even boring, in its routine predictability. There may be issues to deal with, but with the exception of poor Humpty Dumpty, a happy ending is virtually guaranteed.

Some of these stories are notorious for their saccharine quality. Many young children have inexplicably found them as irresistible as a well-worn blankie or a damp, pruny thumb, and the books finally disintegrate from constant rereading. Their very predictability is their charm and their allure. As adults, we know how uncertain life is, and all the more so for the very young, who are constantly facing new challenges, circumstances, and unfamiliar people and places. It's nice to know that some narratives always have the same beginning, middle and end, no matter how often one reads them. It's reassuring to be able to count on that, each and every time. The fact that stories are so often read before bed means that their contents float around in a child's mind and leave a big impression, influencing dreams and the subconscious.

Let's examine The Cat in the Hat and Where the Wild Things Are within the context of that emotional bottom line. Both stories deal with the rather outlandish adventures of misbehaving youngsters – Sally and her unnamed, narrating brother in the former, and Max in the latter. Dr. Seuss's characters get into trouble when they open their home to strangers who turn it upside down while their mother is out. Sendak's hero, Max, gets in hot water for being wild and out of control, and his mother sends him to his room without supper. 

Max deals with his rage and embarrassment by escaping to an imaginary land inhabited by monsters even wilder than he is. He gets his ya-yas out by hanging out with them. In the end, though, he gets lonely and wants "to be where someone loved him best of all." After a long and arduous journey "back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day" he finds himself in "the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot." Bottom line? He is still loved and forgiven. Home is still (or once again) a welcoming place. How do we know? Because his punishment has been lifted. He gets that dinner after a fabulous adventure and not only that, but it's still hot.

Let's turn to Sally and her brother. It's raining out, and their mother is gone for the day.  They're bored, and where there are bored, unsupervised children, everyone knows that trouble's not far behind. Their pet fish constantly tries to warn them. What a spoilsport, maybe even a spy for their mother. But he's right – things are definitely not as they should be once the Cat and his friends, Thing One and Thing Two, are done playing. What is the bottom line at the end of this story? The kids themselves put an end to the fun, after finally seeing the wisdom of the fish's advice. They catch Thing One and Thing Two and tell the Cat to take a hike. The cat comes back and somehow finishes cleaning up just in the nick of time. As mother steps in the front door, everything is back in place, safe and sound. A close call with Mother none the wiser. If she doesn't know, then it's almost as if it didn't happen.

Interestingly enough, although we never actually meet parents in either book, their presence is very much felt. They have set up boundaries, standards for acceptable behavior, a safe and loving structure within which their children can grow and flourish. They don't even have to be present; the life that they have built speaks for itself.

We Americans are often adjudged naïve compared to our European counterparts. Perhaps it is because we are raised to think in simple black-and-white terms, and we don't outgrow that tendency. What do children's books, sitcoms, romances and Horatio Alger-type tales have in common? Good prevails, love wins out, the poor boy overcomes obstacles to achieve success, and at the end of the day, the child ends up safe and sound in his own bed.  The magic of make-believe is an important element of childhood. But, holding on to it for too long makes us over-reliant on the eventuality of a happy ending. Wishful thinking threatens to make us oblivious to the facts. Fairy tales are so comforting precisely because they don't resemble real life at all. 

Taking this back to the political sphere: although we might like to, we cannot take democracy as a given. In our ignorance of our past, we have estranged ourselves from our own history. We forget that liberty is neither innate nor permanent; many fought and died for it over the years, and it lives and thrives only with constant vigilance and nurturing. 

Likewise, we might like to think that this mess our elections are in is merely a temporary glitch, an aberration, and that if we just hope enough or wait long enough, it will simply straighten itself out, without our having to do anything about it. I feel like that annoying pet fish in The Cat in the Hat, who is constantly harping, nudging, warning, and pointing out dangers around every corner. Especially now, when dissent has been so muted and our liberties so eroded, we need whistleblowers and activists more than ever. Without them, our democratic way of life could slip away without our even being aware of it. With them, we have a chance, if we pay attention before it's too late.

I've mentioned before that I have a bumper sticker hanging underneath a calendar in my kitchen (it's hidden there because I can't bear to look at it).  It's been hanging there for several years, but it feels like forever. The sign has a W with a red circle and a thick diagonal line through it and says, "Wake me up when it's over." From the time I was a child, then a teenager and finally a young adult, I always knew that there were others – namely, my parents, my extended family, my community, my government – to keep me safe, to take care of things for me. That baton, and the responsibilities inherent in it, has been irrevocably passed to me and my peers. History will judge how we stepped up to that challenge by what remains of the liberties we inherited from the previous generation. That is our bottom line.

For you Mary Engelbreit fans, I'm reminded of her picture of a young girl who stands, arms akimbo, lips pursed disapprovingly, and commands, "Snap out of it!" This is no time for apathy, complacency, or excuses of any kind. It's time to follow this girl's advice. As my brother used to say, "Immediately, if not sooner."