Sunday, June 25, 2017

Telling The Story

I supervised Bernice before I befriended her.

I worked full-time for my summer program, hiring and managing people, overseeing all manner of details. Bernice was a registered nurse who only worked the summers for us, and had settled into a comfortable annual gig of coming in on weekday afternoons to administer medications and tend to bumps and bruises. That first summer we worked together at UC Santa Cruz, I have to assume that she saw me as little more than another in a line of young people, plugged into a position of authority, who would hopefully stay out of her way. She was nearly fifty years my senior.

The second year, we established a rapport. I fell into a routine of asking her what she was making for dinner that night, and she would regale me with tales of lasagnas and meat loafs and roasted vegetables, any one of which sounded far better than the dining hall fare that awaited me on campus.

Summer programs tend to see their share of turnover. By our third summer, I was one of the few familiar faces to Bernice. The one she asked to hold the arm of as she descended a steep hill, and the one she defaulted to asking to carry boxes for her as she set up her office. I probably should have delegated such responsibilities, for example, to the assistants hired specifically to work with her. But there was something I appreciated about being the one she called on. About having earned her trust. Little doubt, about the ways in which helping her reminded me of how I was just getting old enough to meaningful help my grandmother when she started lose herself to dementia, and in those years before I moved away and then she passed on.

Thus, it was with some reservations when I let Bernice know it would be my last summer.

She told me that she thought she would be done, too.

In the final days of that summer, we got to talking about what I would be doing that summer, and it only then occurred to me how little I had revealed about myself beyond work, and beyond satisfying an old woman’s curiosity about my relationship status and upbringing. I told her that I meant to move across the country and write.

And she told me she had a story.

The next day, Bernice presented me with “The Story.” A five-page manuscript, written long hand in big, swooping, ballpoint script on paper from a legal pad. I sat down and read it in front of her, a reversal of roles from my own childhood years when I remember pleading that my grandmother read my stories in front of me so I could see her reactions.

It wasn’t great. Grammatically poor and largely incoherent, making winks and nods and asides without enough context to follow more than half of them. It was only in the late stages that I connected enough dots to realize she was telling the story of Jesus’s birth.

She folded her hands over stomach and reclined in her chair, looking very pleased with herself after I had finished. “I asked two obstetricians in the area to get all my facts straight about what it would have been like then,” she said.

I set aside my workshop-hardened instinct toward constructive criticism. “It’s wonderful.”

My last night on campus we went to dinner, joking that it was it was a dinner date. She picked me up her Oldsmobile with the cassette deck, handicapped parking tag on the dash and we ate good Italian food.

After dinner, she drove back toward campus, then looked at me with a sly grin. “Do you want to see my house?”

In truth, I was curious. But I also knew that it was getting late, and I was, in all likelihood already keeping her up. Besides that, I still had to pack before my flight the next day, and I had tentatively committed to meeting up with some other staff members to watch a movie.

More than all of that, though, I recognized that we had had a nice time together, and the night was more likely to go downhill than to get any better from there.

“I should probably be getting back,” I said.

She pulled into the traffic circle at Crown College--a space so often full of activity when we had had children under our care, now silent and still.

Bernice pulled to a stop, put the car in park, and put a hand on my wrist. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your story.”

As we hugged, I thought it was an odd phrasing. Sure, I thought of so many moments in life in terms of stories, but I supposed that was something older folks, and people who hadn’t devoted their lives to literature, might outgrow to recognize this tangled web of experiences and acquaintances and dinners and goodbyes not as something so contrived or well-defined as a story, but as a life. But then, I suppose she had had far more a life to base her assessment on.

I walked away from the car and Bernice drove away. As she did, I knew there was every chance I’d never see her again. That whatever story we shared had come to a close.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On Assumed Intention

I remember reading an argument against multivitamins. The cornerstone of said argument was that there was no credible evidence that a multivitamin regimen increased anyone’s lifespan.

My response, as an inconsistent multivitamin taker, was to question why longevity of life was the metric in consideration for that particular conversation.

Call it logic. Call it neuroses. I tend to take multivitamins when I’m traveling a) because I typically have less control of my food intake and am less confident I’ll ingest proper quantities of fruits and vegetables, b) because I’m often running on less sleep than usual and c) because I’m paranoid about being in contact with more potential sources of illness—people sneezing next to me on a plane, or handling a gas pump multiple times a day without always having the chance to wash my hands soon after.

As you might very reasonably extrapolate, I’m a bit of a germ-a-phobe, and that is the primary driver behind my vitamin intake. While I guess there’s some logic to the theory that preventing sickness prolongs life, I don’t take multivitamins to prevent cancer or car accidents or old age and the myriad risk factors for an inevitable demise. I take them to stave, generally, healthy.

Maybe there’s more research and literature to further condemn multivitamins, even on the grounds for which I use them--I haven’t pursued research in the field. But for me, this simple, flawed argument pointed to a larger issue of assumed intention.

Another example: I have a friend who is a devout gym rat and who is adamant about not getting a tattoo. His reasoning is that people get tattoos in order to make their bodies look cooler, and that getting a tattoo is an easy way of doing so, because you exchange money for your new look. He suggests that the look he develops in the gym is far cooler because it’s earned rather than bought.

I’ve tried to argue the point. I’ve talked about how people use tattoos to brand themselves with important words or images. Reminders to themselves. Representations to the world. I’ve explained The Semi-Colon Project. I’ve shared CM Punk’s philosophy that he feels badly for anyone without tattoos, because it demonstrates that they don’t have as strongly held beliefs as him. He’ll grant me individual cases, but holds his ground on the over-arching argument.

As children, we learn that impact matters more than intention. That if two children are talking and one makes a joke that hurts the other’s feelings, it’s a problem, and despite not meaning to cause any harm, harm has been done. We teach responsibility. The same goes for play fighting that leads to injury, or when playing keep-away with someone’s basketball is read not as play, but as bullying behavior.

The matter of intention vs. impact grows more complicated as adults. We can assume that we know what something means--that multivitamin users want to prolong their lives; that people with tattoos just want to look cooler. Most of these assumptions are harmless, if potentially misguided and annoying. But then let’s look at another case study—WWE developmental talent Zahra Schreiber, who had, in her past, posted images of swastikas to her social media accounts. The assumed intention, and the purported reason Schreiber was released from her contract, is that she came across as prejudiced and hateful. By Schreiber’s own account, she meant to reclaim the symbol and represent not the Nazi-related connotations the symbol has carried in Western society since the 1930s, but rather the good fortune and well being the symbol originally represented. These claims generally fell on deaf ears.

Schreiber’s argument for the Swastika may not be so sympathetic to a general audience. Compare it to the use of the Confederate flag by those who profess it to represent southern pride and history. What are the real intentions there? What is the real impact? What does southern pride really mean?

These are complicated questions which I’m hardly scraping the surface of. I’m inclined to assume the best of people—an impulse reinforced by years of working with children, followed by years of teaching college students. People with strong principles--principles that were, just the same, only then taking shape. I looked at it as my role not to proselytize but challenge, complicate, and add nuance. To generally cultivate critical thinking about what they were really putting out into the world.

I suppose there ought to be no less weight attached to how we understand others. With an eye toward empathy. An instinct toward asking questions over casting condemnations. And, yes, deciding what points are worth not compromising on.