Saturday, July 1, 2017

On Dignity and Greatness: Reading Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" in Undignified Times

As I read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, a Booker Prize winner, this past week, a passage early in the novel struck me as relevant in ways I'd not heretofore noticed. 

Set in post-World War II England (1956), Ishiguro's protagonist James Stevens has worked as a butler for thirty years. Readers meet Stevens as he embarks on a road trip, during which he reminisces about his past years of service, and in doing so we glimpse his significant relationships and the stasis that governs his life and leaves him with little remaining at the of his metaphorical and literal journey. 

In the context of explaining the characteristics of a "great" butler, Stevens concludes that such a butler possesses "dignity." This begs the question: What is dignity? Through exemplification Stevens defines dignity, relating two stories about his father, also a butler, that illustrate both "dignity" and "greatness." 

One story recounts the father chauffeuring two drunk men, a "Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith," on an afternoon tour of local villages. Their "remarks -grew ever more debased and treacherous" to the point that the elder butler, without speaking, opens the car door, signaling to the men that they need to get out. Only after the men acknowledged the untoward nature of their conversation does the journey continue.

The other incident recalls James Stevens's brother's death at the hands of an incompetent general. "Leonard was killed during the Southern African war." We learn that Leonard "had died quite needlessly" when the general abuses his position. A decade later the general visits Darlington Hall, and the elder butler volunteers to service the general responsible for his son Leonard's death. He provides this service as a professional courtesy in order to protect his employer's business interests. 

At the conclusion of these anecdotes, James Stevens surmises: 

"I hope you will agree that in these two father not only manifests, but comes close to being the personification itself, of what the Hayes society terms 'dignity in keeping with his position.'"

We can debate the merits of the butlers' silence, and, indeed, Ishiguro takes readers on a journey that offers a way to think about both the merits and problems resulting from such failures to speak; we're expected to critique this self-imposed silence; however, it's Stevens's remarks about professionalism that resonate with me in the cacophony of tweets and apologists echoing from the White House. The downward spiral of discourse from online "haters" of various political stripes also inform my thoughts as I think about dignity and greatness.

Consider the following passage as it speaks to professional decorum regardless of one's profession:  

[D]ignity has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the facade will drop off to reveal the actor underneath. 

Who hasn't ranted about one issue or another in private conversation, either with friends or family? Our professional and private selves often overlap, but the intersection should not be a constant. 

Teachers understand the role decorum plays in our ability to teach and earn our students' respect. I once supervised a student teacher who lost control almost every day with one class. Simply, the students pushed his buttons, and in his reactions, they lost respect for him. I called the student intern's loss of temper "Dancing on the Desk" and suggested numerous ways for the trainee to keep his cool and earn respect. 

Similarly, the responsibility of elected officials necessitates they don a calm and composed demeanor, that they stand steadfast against petty criticism and not tweet as a reactionary response to external stimuli. Within any profession, dignity demands decency.

The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising and alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze... It is, as I say, a matter of 'dignity'."

Politicians lack dignity when they 

are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least challenging of situations...they are like a man who will, at the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and his shirt and run about screaming. 

Long before he entered the presidential race, the current POTUS demonstrated his lack of dignity. There is no need for me to recount the numerous examples of this man's undignified behavior. Our Twitter streams and Facebook pages overflow with examples and deja vu moments that make many feel trapped in Groundhog Day.

This past Thursday, however, sent many over the metaphorical edge. As a woman, I am increasingly distraught with the POTUS's obsession with female blood and concur with Ishiguro's protagonist that 

In a word, 'dignity' is beyond such persons. 

That is, so unimaginable is it that the president of the United States would stoop to such undignified behavior that only White House apologists attempted to rationalize the deplorable tweets we awoke to Thursday.

Each professional, whether a politician, plumber, or teacher recognizes professional greatness based on the way one comports oneself on the job, and for the POTUS, the job never ends. Even after leaving office, we expect dignity and refinement from our former presidents.

[O]ne could recognize a great butler as such only after one had seen him perform under some severe test. [A]fter one has been in the profession as long as one has, one is able to judge intuitively the depth of a man's professionalism without having to see it under pressure...Indeed, on the occasion one is fortunate enough to meet a great butler, far from experiencing any sceptical urge to demand a 'test', one is at a loss to imagine any situation which could ever dislodge a professionalism borne with such authority. 

After eight years of dignity exemplified in President Obama's executive branch, I am at a loss; that is, I was at a loss to imagine any situation which could ever dislodge a president from dignity's moorings. These days I expect to read daily about undignified behavior from the POTUS.

There will always be, I realize, those who would claim that any attempt to analyse quite futile. 'You know when somebody's got it and you know when somebody hasn't...Beyond that there's nothing much you can say.' But I believe we have a duty not to be so defeatist in this matter. It is surely a professional responsibility for all of us to think deeply about these things that each of us may better strive towards attaining 'dignity' for ourselves. 

We have heard much pontificating about American greatness this past year, but greatness absent dignity doesn't exist. The real test for me these days is to better strive toward attaining dignity in myself and to protect what little dignity remains at the end of each day.

*Follow-up: After tweeting this post, Professor Robin Bates, who writes the "Better Living Through Beowulf" blog, tweeted the following response: "The butler is like a certain kind of Republican, loyal to an insane degree cuz easier that way, closes eyes to incipient fascism." Follow Professor Bates on Twitter at @RobinRBates

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Nostalgia Road #SOL17

My high school senior picture c.1977
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." ---F. Scott Fitzgerald

The concluding sentence in The Great Gatsby ranks among my favorite lines of literature. It speaks of the desire to reclaim our lost youth, our innocence, a more simple, carefree time of life.

Lately, I've been thinking about personal, national, and historic nostalgia and have come to the conclusion that our reach "ceaselessly into the past" often precludes our progress into the future. So intent on capturing a bygone era are we that we often fail to consider the myriad challenges accompanying the present moment of our personal and national past. That is, what is now past was once present, and in the present moment human nature beckons us to look back and long for an idyllic, romantic time that exists only in memory. A passage in On the Road articulates this idea:

I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.

Through photography and memorabilia and memory we tend to privilege the "good times" and shove the past challenges into the recesses of our minds. We have businesses and traditions devoted to reclaiming and romanticizing the past, high school reunions and yearbooks among these.

My 40th reunion is this weekend. I graduated from Webb City High School in 1977. Then I left town as I headed to college that August, shortly after Elvis died. When I graduated from college in 1981, I left Missouri and moved to Yuma, Arizona, then to Iowa, then back to Arizona, and finally to Idaho, where I've lived since June 1989. I last ventured to Missouri right after the F5 tornado that decimated much of Joplin.
Webb City speech and debate c.1976-77.
I'm standing, third from the left.
My visits to my home state have been sporadic. I attended the five and ten year reunions. Many of my classmates have died; my debate partner was killed in a train accident years ago. One of my best high school friends died a few years ago, but I don't know how as our lives took different paths after New Year's Eve 1978.

With only extended family in the area, and with most of my cousins younger than I and having moved far away, I don't feel the pull to return.

Upon graduating from high school, graduates vow to "keep in touch." I haven't, although social media has made reconnecting easier, but often the profiles I see on FB bear little resemblance to my memory of the classmate with whom I've reconnected.

A high school reunion embodies a narrow nostalgia. Those who stayed in the area, or who have family beckoning their return, often stay connected. I see Facebook posts about this as high school friendships evolve into middle-age ones. That has not been the trajectory of my life. Being a teacher necessitates one to reflect on the past, but the emphasis for me is always on the future.

I'm not attending the reunion. Simply, I don't want to. I'm not nostalgic for high school. It was a difficult time personally, with me in constant conflict with my stepmother and with me having to care for my sick father who died my junior year. And I was not a party kid or part of the "in crowd," such as it were.  I was a nerd, a shy nerd, through most of my school days. Some of my best friends were both younger and older than I, so they won't be at the reunion. Others moved away, moved on, and also have little desire to return to the "glory days" of high school. I don't identify with Fitzgerald's Tom, whom Nick says this about:

I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.

I'll not lean into the nostalgia of high school. I'm not beating against the current, borne back into my high school past. We can't make our high school days great again. We can't recover the past in that way. Our attempts to "repeat the past" ultimately lead to our sacrificing the future.

However, if I were to drive home to Missouri, a journey I've taken many times, my path would cross a highway preservationists have worked to restore and honor.

Historic Route 66 begins in Chicago, Illinois and ends in Santa Monica, California. I grew up close to Route 66 where it bisects southwest Missouri and cuts across Kansas. Our literature and pop culture embraces the "Mother Road," and seeing the road's end on the Santa Monica pier has been on my bucket list for a long time. 
My granddaughter Kayla and her friend Chandra.
Our recent vacation to Universal Studios and the Grand Canyon afforded me the opportunity to teach my granddaughter a little about Route 66 and its national importance, but I couldn't help think about the road as a relic to the past, a past romanticized even as the literature featuring the road uses it as a symbol of promise, a mode of moving forward. 

Steinbeck's Joad family traveled to California from Oklahoma via Route 66. He calls  Route 66 "the path of a people in flight." The hardship of travel offered the promise of a better life, and Steinbeck's Joad family symbolize Moses's Israelites. Both traveled to the Promised Land. Both took to the road as a way to move toward the future.

This theme of promise also resonates throughout Kerouac's On the Road. 

I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility, says Dean Moriarity.

Nat King Cole sang about Route 66 in lyrics that speak to the pleasure rather than the hardships of travel along this iconic highway:

Well if you ever pan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66.

The decommissioning of Route 66 became for many a symbol of a bygone era, and now it's a popular tourist destination for those who "beat on, boats against the current." The Cars movies and the Radiator Springs area at California Adventure pay homage to Route 66. I learned from my cousin John that Radiator Springs in Cars is modeled after Selligman, Arizona. Now the Snow Cap drive-in in Selligman beckons tourists longing to experience a bygone era, longing to relive the past. We stopped there, too, this summer.
My husband Ken behind the Snow Cap Drive-In.
Ironically, the road that led refugees, immigrants, and dust-bowl drifters toward the future lives in our national consciousness as a museum artifact bisecting the country. These days I see the Mother Road more as a symbol of our nations cultural, racial, and political divisions than as a symbol of promise. 

I see Route 66 and the nostalgia it represents as a cautionary reminder that we can't retrace the past, can't relive the past, and certainly can't escape the past, but we certainly should move forward.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Not Ready to Be Invisible

Full-on gray, December 2016
"That guy looked right past you, and that pissed me off." This observation by my husband Ken dominated our conversation as we drove home from our Sunday shopping excursion. 

A little over two years ago I decided to abandon my monthly hair-coloring and let my hair go gray. I wrote about this decision and the myriad factors that led to it.  Today's shopping experience represents only one in a plethora of incidents that have altered my perspective and led me to change course as I consider abandoning the gray hair.

I first noticed a change in how strangers speak to me as the gray strands outnumbered the blonde locks. More sales associates called me "honey." The tone of utterances changed from one of respect to a saccharine sweetness that suggested accommodating my perceived frailty. I shared these observations with my husband. He never contradicted me but often indicated he hadn't notices. 

Today marked a tipping point. 

I stood at the fish counter in a local store as I awaited my turn. I visited with a young woman who also eyed the sockeye salmon. She explained to her son that "all sockeye salmon is wild, so there's no need to indicate that on the sign."

"A redundancy, " I added. 

"Yes," she agreed, turning her attention to her young son. "Don't put your hands on the case. It gets dirty, and someone has to clean it."

We chatted about the salmon and a sunburned splotch on her neck I hadn't noticed until she mentioned it. "I went on a long motorcycle ride and guess I missed a spot when I put on the sunscreen." Her comment belied her own insecurities about a physical mark I had not noticed until she mentioned it.

The middle-aged, graying man behind the counter finished with another customer and took the young woman's order. "I'd like a pound and a half of the salmon." He weighed the salmon and indicated it's not quite 1.5 lbs, which she accepted. "That's fine." 

"Fish doesn't work well as a leftover," I said. 

"I agree," the young woman responded as the associate wrapped the salmon and emerged from behind the counter with the fish and handed her the package. 

During this entire exchange, I stood to the woman's left, and the associate emerged from behind the counter to my left.  


he looked right past me and turned to my husband as I stared at his back.  

Ken had been waiting several feet behind me so that he wasn't blocking the corridor. 

"Is there something I can get for you today?" The associate asked Ken. 

"He's with me," I said simultaneously to Ken's, "she's the buyer." Ken pointed at me, prompting the associate to redirect his gaze and acknowledge my presence at the counter where I awaited my turn. 

Uncharacteristically, I said nothing about the slight. I saw the shocked, dumbfounded look on my husband's face. In that moment we shared the knowledge that the man behind the meat counter had failed to notice me. To him I was invisible. To him I am invisible. He looked past me, a 58-year-old woman with gray hair. He looked past me to my 69-year-old husband, whose hair is also gray. 

I don't need a Harry Potter invisibility cloak to be invisible.

In a 2013 issue of Salon, Tira Harpez wrote: "If you want to make a person invisible, just put them in the shoes of an over-fifty woman and abracadabra, watch them disappear."

We still live in an age when society entwines a woman's value with her ability to birth babies, a society that celebrates youthful exuberance and frowns on a woman's frailty in late middle-age and our senior years. Gray hair may be popular among teens and twenty-somethings, but it's also a marker of menopause and shriveled ovaries for the over 50 crowd. 

This past week we've witnessed the political castigation of Nancy Pelosi as a member of the "old guard." She's blamed for Jon Osoff's loss in the GA-06 special election. In contrast, her fellow independent turned democrat Bernie Sanders and democrat Joe Biden enjoy a loyal following of young and old alike. 

For years I've read the research about Hollywood starlettes' shrinking careers as they age. This age discrimination extends beyond the silver screen into the workforce. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Lauren Stiller Rilkeen says, "Hundreds of women in their 50s and 60s have shared their stories of demotions, job losses, and the inability to find another job—outcomes they attribute primarily to their age and gender." And in 2009 the Supreme Court made suing on grounds of age discrimination more difficult, Rilkeen explains.

A 2015 study in the National Bureau of Economic Research offers empirical evidence of the difficulties older women face in the job market when seeking employment. My own anecdotal experiences of seeking a part-time online teaching gig reinforces these findings, although I must admit my inherent bias. Even as older female teachers become more valuable during this time of teacher shortages nationwide, we also witness those younger looked upon as experts whose opinions deserve voice while ours get marginalized. In effect, older women in the workplace and public sphere live the Nancy Pelosi effect day in and day out. 

Sadly, women unwittingly contribute to the invisibility of other women. During our recent vacation to the Grand Canyon, we boarded a bus as the driver, a woman older than I, announced: "The first eight seats are for handicapped and seniors." 

"How old do you need to be to be considered a senior," I asked.

"You qualify," the driver answered. She saw gray and responded accordingly. 

But I'm not ready to don an invisibility cloak.

With my granddaughter at the Grand Canyon, June 2017