Saturday, August 5, 2017

Beth’s Books: A Comparison

If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em!

~~ John Waters

There are many books that I love, but I have two that are my co-favorites. The one that would be considered a classic is The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) and the more modern, pop culture-ish one is The Stand (Stephen King).

I read the latter many years before the former. To be honest, if I had to pick one favorite, one that I could read over and over again, it would be The Stand. (Sorry, Steinbeck.) Why that book? It’s not traditional “literary” material, i.e., the critics weren’t enamored of it. Well, screw that.

It means a lot to me because I read it in my formative years, when I was in high school, and that was during a time when I was traveling a weird, dark road. I look back at it now and I’m really not sure where that came from, but it was this strange mix of authoritarianism and rebellion, and the authoritarianism part is so far removed from who I am now that I really don’t understand what was going on in my head. Teenagers, right?

Anyway, something in that book just clicked everything into place for me. It was rebellion against authoritarianism, and finally realizing that the two were mutually exclusive meant everything to me. It was a genuine epiphany. It was the age-old question “Will you use your powers for good...or for evil?” Reading about Stu, Glen, Larry, and Ralph making their stand for good honestly changed my life. I’m not a bad seed, by any means, and my ship would have righted itself at some point anyway, but I still remember reading the book and going, “Yeah. That’s the side I want to be on. I want to fight for what is right.”

When I was thinking about these two favorite books the other day (everyone thinks about their favorite books, right?), I initially thought, “It’s weird that these two books are my favorites. They’re so different.”

Then it hit me. They really aren’t that different at all. MIND BLOWN.

That’s right! It was another epiphany! I love having those!

It made me think of the old essay question to “compare and contrast” two very different things. I always loved those exercises because I could usually come up with some pretty good arguments for both. I won’t bother much with the contrast part here, because those are pretty obvious: different time period, different circumstances, different types of people, that kind of stuff. What interests me more are the similarities. And believe me, until just the other day, this had not occurred to me.

  • They are both, at heart, apocalyptic novels. The Stand (TS) is certainly the more dystopian story, with over 99% of the world dying from a killer strain of influenza. A lot more people died in that universe. But think of the poor Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath (GoW) and every other family displaced by the Dust Bowl. Wasn’t that the end of the world—at least as they knew it—for them? When you can’t raise any crops and your family is starving, that’s pretty apocalyptic, isn’t it? So what do you do?
  • Road trip! In my world, road trips are a fun adventure, but in the worlds of TS and GoW, it is a matter of survival. In GoW, the Joads travel west, as did so many other refugees of the Dust Bowl, in order to find a better life and a way to survive. A dream of a better life. In TS, the survivors of the plague traveled west because of dreams that compelled them to find the source of those dreams. Something was drawing them both west. And along the way, what did both encounter?
  • Challenges. The road before you is not always easy. The Joads encountered hostility from people they met, the road was fraught with danger, and people were lost along the way. The survivors of TS had to scavenge for food, deal with hostile, unhinged people, and cope with the end of the world as they knew it. In the expanded version of the novel, they have to attempt an emergency appendectomy on one of their group. Can you imagine? Both the survivors and the Joads had similar experiences as they traveled west.
  • Good versus Evil. While TS treats this more literally, with a showdown between those who have aligned with the positive force in the universe (call it God, because that is what Mother Abigail believed it was) and those who threw their support to someone who is possibly Lucifer himself, the Walkin Dude, Randall Flagg, the Joads have to deal with the banality of evil, to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase. They encounter petty men who despise them for their refugee status and exploit them for cheap labor. They live in horrible conditions and there is no easy way out.
  • The triumph of Good over Evil. Although that’s a little ambiguous in both stories. The survivors of TS eventually prevail over Randall Flagg, but it’s clear that he’s not entirely gone. There is still a worrying doubt about whether anyone has learned anything from what should have been an obvious lesson. Tom Joad has his moment of righteous fury and kills a man, and he gives a stirring speech about how he’ll be there when anyone is getting screwed over. But he has to flee and leave his family, so his moment of righteousness came at great cost.

In conclusion, as in all great apocalyptic novels (or movies, or TV shows), the reader must answer the question, “What would I do in this situation? How would I handle it? Would I be on the right side or the wrong side?” Part of the appeal, at least for me, is the psychological aspect of it. How do we react when we are in dire circumstances? (It’s why “The Walking Dead” is my favorite show.)

I know that my advice would be to stick with the good. Do what you need to do in order to survive and protect your family, but you really want to be on the side of good.

Be like Tom Joad.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Case of the Mysterious Book

Mystery achievement
Don’t breathe down my neck, no
I got no trophies on display
I sign them away, I mean what the heck?
~~ “Mystery Achievement” by The Pretenders

I posted about this on Facebook and got so many interesting remarks, and it prompted my own thoughts, that I decided I’d make a blog entry out of it.

On Friday, I got a package in the mail, and when I opened it, I found this book and this note. I do not know who sent it. It came from the return address of sales and marketing company in Brea, California. I do not know of anyone who is in Brea, I don’t recognize the handwriting on the note, and there was no additional note to tell me who sent it.

Muy misterioso, no?

I can only assume that it was a Facebook friend who decided that I might be interested in the book and took the time to look up my address online (probably not hard to do) and package it up and mail it out. When I posted it on Facebook, I said that if the person who sent it doesn’t want to post publicly, they could send me a private message, but I still have not had anyone step up and say that they were the one who sent it.

At first, I took it as an oddity, a weird little mystery about which to speculate on Facebook, and didn’t think too much about it. But as is my wont, I kept thinking about it, because something about it just niggled at me. And, as is also my wont, I have a few things to say about it. If this person is a Facebook friend, as I suspect, I hope they see this, because they need to.

First, Lee Strobel is generally considered to be a total hack among my atheist friends. He attempts to couch things in scientific terms, but he’s no more a scientist than I’m the Queen of England. He has no background in science whatsoever. Zero.

Second, why the secrecy? Why didn’t you sign your name? It’s almost as though you are ashamed, or more likely, worried about what I might say to you. (The latter is a legitimate concern, as you can tell, because I am writing a blog entry about it.)

And what is your purpose in sending this to me? Do you want to convert me? Are you so concerned about your own beliefs that you feel that I need to validate them with my own approval? (This was posited by my friend Mark, and I think it’s a legitimate point, one that hadn’t occurred to me.)

Finally, and this is really important, you have no idea of how I came to this point in my feelings about religion. You seem to have the arrogance to think that I haven’t thoroughly thought about this in my 50+ years of life on this earth. That if I really think about it, and read a book by some dude with no science background, I’ll suddenly have an epiphany and the scales will fall from my eyes.

You have no idea about my background or what type of religious indoctrination (I use that word purposefully) I received. You have no clue about the conflicts with which I have struggled in my life, including an ex-husband who “found God” and decided that I was possessed by a demon. You don’t know about someone in my life who burned one of my books because it had bad words in it. BURNED A BOOK.

You don’t know how I have grappled with these matters for much of my adult life, and the guilt that I have felt because I wasn’t pious enough or worthy enough to get into heaven and would surely burn in hell.

You don’t know how I prayed desperately for God to heal people I loved dearly, including an aunt who was like my second mom and an uncle who told me from his hospital bed that he thought of me as his daughter. They died, anyway.

You don’t know how I can’t be myself around certain family members because for them to find out that I don’t believe would be so horrible to them that I would be getting daily, tearful calls telling me to mend my ways.

You don’t know. But you were presumptuous enough to send me this book, thinking that you might save my soul, or that I might validate you, or whatever the hell reason you sent it to me. But you didn’t have the courage to stand up for your convictions and at least say, “Hey, Beth, I sent this to you because….” You did it anonymously. I think that is something you might need to explore about yourself, rather than worrying about my immortal soul.

One of the many reasons I left religion behind was the arrogance of those who have decided that their beliefs are the only true ones and that everyone must get on that Jesus train or burn in hell. My ex-husband was determined that I would see the light and when I saw that his attempts to convert me were going to continue as long as I was married to him, I asked for a divorce.

I do not make decisions lightly, and leaving religion behind was not easy. It took me many years of thinking, pondering, and discussion. Do you know how incredibly difficult it is to break away from a mindset and belief system that has been indoctrinated in you since you were old enough to walk? This has not been an easy journey for me and I still deal with family issues because of it. I’ll just say it...the fact that you would presume so many things about me and decide that I need to get religion is not only offensive to me, it is insulting. And it pissed me off. That is something you really don’t want to do.

Listen. I’m a tolerant person. I’m cool with people believing what they want to believe, as long as those beliefs don’t hurt or discriminate against others. Some people who have a deep and abiding faith do very good things because they feel it is the central tenet of many religions to serve others. I respect that, I really do. But some of us help others because we feel it’s just the right thing to do. Both are equally valid approaches with a common goal.

So if I can respect those who believe, why can’t you, Mystery Mailer, respect me for not believing?

Do unto others, man. Do unto others.