The Debate. . .

Screen Shot 2020-10-10 at 12.07.27 AMJust me and 1500 or so of my closest friends. Sorta like Facebook without the advertising. All equally wired (or so I’d have to assume by all the shallow breathing and the guy retching three rows over and four seats down). All waiting for the starting gun (‘no thanks, I’ll do it without the blindfold — just let me finish my cig!’) that would signal permission to turn the package face up. All hoping that the sleepless, caffeine-stoked night would have crammed in enough knowledge (?) to eke out a ‘C’. Late April in Thames Hall quadzillion-court gymnasium that would be home to us all for the next three hours. Unless writer’s cramp and/or just having (absolutely) nothing more to say got to us first. Exam week at UWO, 1964.

I had high hopes for the vice presidential ‘debate’ this week. DJT had earlier sufficiently embarrassed himself that even the newsfeeds that could be counted on to find a silver lining were characterizing the performance in less than flattering terms. Biden had apparently registered a victory (of sorts) just by remaining upright and (largely) respectful — the ‘just shut up, man’ aside. The exchange between the VP and VP hopeful promised to be a lopsided, fish in a barrel exercise. Kamala Harris had shown herself composed, accessible, well equipped to think on her feet, and with a huge arsenal of material, mostly gifts from the current administration’s four year record — and daily, jaw-dropping updates. Her opponent, not known for his snappy one-liners and twinkling repartee, would be easy prey.

The proctor gave us the ten-second countdown. The breathing went from shallow to nothing. The guy over there threw up. And it was time.

CNN’s Susan Page welcomes us to ‘the first and only vice presiential abate (?)’ — very likely the clearest utterance of the evening — and introduces the principles. Kamala Harris shuffles her feet uncertainly, offers a muffled acknowledgment and head nod to ‘Mr. Vice President’ and both dutifully take their places, twelve feet distanced from each other, behind what some have called the ‘Pence Fence’. And the stage is set.

Before trudging up UC Hill that cool, Spring morning, I’d stacked the novels we’d been expected to read in the preceding four months. When the pile reached three feet, it collapsed, metaphorically making its point and foreshadowing things to come — evidently I’d grasped a few terms that I (faintly) hoped would come in handy in the day’s task.

Ms. Page ‘sternly’ states that there are agreed upon ground rules and that she’s present to enforce them — hoping I expect to head off another train wreck of disrespect, over talking, and generally ignoring of debate etiquette. She reiterates the need to observe time allotments, despite one’s ‘compelling need’ to finish a point — allowing us to move on to the next topic. Hmm? And then launches into the first question of what a Biden administration would do about the Covid-19 pandemic that a Trump administration wouldn’t do. Kamala starts with an indictment: ‘the greatest failure of an administration in the history of our country’. That, ladies and germs — to remain with the theme, was the highpoint of the evening.

Compare and contrast the protagonists of one of the following pairs of novels: Madame Bovary / The Scarlet Letter; Joseph Andrews / Don Quixote; Wuthering Heights / Emma. OK. So I’d actually read the big, red ‘A’ book, but hadn’t quite gotten around to Flaubert. Henry Fielding had (very helpfully) written short chapters with little summaries as headers — so I had a loose idea of JA’s adventures, but Cervantes was just too thick. Heathcliffe, Catherine . . . tough call. And I’d only managed to find the Coles Notes on P and P — so Emma was going to be a stretch.

Evening in Salt Lake City continues. Direct questions of moment were asked. . . and not answered. Opportunities to score a hit, a very palpable hit, were missed, fumbled, and generally ignored. The ‘rules of engagement’ may as well not have been stated, as Ms. Page struggled to contain the protracted boilerplate that passed for a response. The abiding maxim for the night: just keep talking, and talking, and . . . until there’s nothing of any import left to say — having said nothing of any import to that point.

When in doubt, or in the absence of anything substantive to say . . . just write, and write, and. . . Maybe I’ll get lucky and tick a couple of boxes. Volume counts, right? Four pages on Hester and, at a guess Madame B must have been the heroine. Hell her name’s in the title. So a little baffling with a couple of paragraphs of BS on the latter — both die, right? Always a safe assumption.

I got my ‘C’. God knows how. Guess half of something must count in the prof’s eyes. More likely he just got tired of reading and assigned a grade that would ensure I didn’t end up in another of his courses. As for the debate, same result. No winners, no losers, no. . . nuthin’. In fact, a whole lot of nuthin’.

The Fine Line ‘Twixt Compassion and Schadenfreude

No wave could sweep those upper decks — unthinkable!
No storm could hurt that hull — the papers said so.
The perfect ship at last — the first unsinkable,
Proved in advance — had not the folders read so?

E.J. Pratt, The Titanic

Screen Shot 2020-10-04 at 12.30.34 PMIs hubris a crime? And, if indeed it is, what should the punishment be? Miss Stevenson, our severe and dedicated grade 11 English teacher, had, for more years than she would care to count (I’m sure), been charged with the responsibility of sparking a flame in our none too literary hearts. Plowing through Pratt’s epic poem, she’d managed to tick more than a few boxes: Can Lit content and hooking her audience — at least this member of it.

What mattered that her boats were but a third
Of full provision — caution was absurd:
Then let the ocean roll and the winds blow
While the risk at Lloyd’s remained a record low.

And more, through her efforts, she’d warned us all — ‘don’t fly too close to the sun’ — giving us a word that’s resonated long since.

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with . . . Covid

Screen Shot 2020-10-04 at 12.29.07 PMHubris does, in fact, generally have some pretty dire consequences. The ship sinks and two-thirds of its occupants die. Icarus catches an updraft — just before he has a meltdown, finishing his days in the Mediterranean. Satan gets the consolation prize (that would be ruling in Hell in preference to the alternative). And Leroy (as in bad, bad Brown) and Jim both buy into some pretty serious battery. Swagger evidently doesn’t impress the Goddess Nemesis. BS may baffle brains — but not a bipartisan virus.

So what to do when the longed for, or so we thought, day of comeuppance finally arrives — in the most fitting of ways. The timing, the agent, the target so perfectly, so ironically delivered, selected, it had to be scripted. Life is just too random to have written this one. I’ve spent, and in very good company, four years watching, tallying each distortion, misrepresentation, prevarication, insult, breach, crime and been as appalled as any when, yet again what looked like a slam dunk for the good guys would bounce around the rim, only to fall out of bounds. I’ve read so many accounts, books detailing the abuse and disrespect for a system that should be treasured, not trashed, that, like countless others, I’ve become desensitized to the next assault — left open-mouthed, disbelieving.

Then. . . DJT tested positive.

And the villain of the piece, as often happens, becomes a teacher — potentially. Not by dint of intellect or intention or merit or even accident. He’s just sick. At risk of succumbing to a fate that, some, many would say he deserves, having fumbled, denied, mishandled, misinformed sufficient that 200,000 of his constituency have died. A fate that the courts, the rival politicians have been powerless to effect.

Karen Armstrong, a UK author and teacher has written widely and wisely on the process of compassion. Her 2010 book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, plots a course from selfishness to compassion, from alienation and divisiveness to shared humanity. In her ‘charter’, she underlines the wisdom of studying those we dislike — not to ferret out weaknesses, points of vulnerability to gain an advantage or to bring them down; but to learn about ourselves, our values. Not a new concept, but an elusive one. Compassion, extensively accepted as a ‘wired in’ part of us, is often ‘trumped’ by our older, reactive, tribal instincts — particularly in times of crisis, acute or protracted — as most of us would acknowledge, the last four years have represented. The latter entrench, divide; the former has the potential for growth, healing, unification.

Cultivating compassion requires both intention and a shift in focus, perspective. In turn, the necessary precursor to these both is awareness, paying attention to water shed moments, the forks in the road where we are presented with a choice. There’s something inherently satisfying about the moment when the ‘evil doer’ (to borrow a Bushian buzz word) is brought low — and so easy to reflexively get caught up in the emotional fist pump that we call schadenfreude, pretty graphically defined as ‘the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.’

It remains a choice, a moment when we’re given pause. I felt it. Evidently the ‘truth tellers’ of our world (aka, the late night comics) did too. As did political rivals. Whether this remains a sustained and sustainable teaching point is the larger question. Perhaps the largest one is ‘will the teacher learn’. Trump will likely survive. Will this figural moment be ‘spun’ to political advantage; or will it foster change, growth, gratitude. . . compassion in a man who has repeatedly shown he has none.