Seasoned Greetings

Screen Shot 2020-12-28 at 9.21.48 PMA tradition of sorts — opening Christmas cards on Boxing Day morning — allows for a measured entry into Christmastide. It signals the easing into those under-recognized ‘Twelve Days of. . .’ that begin (not end) with Christmas day. In ‘normal times’, the fevered run-up to ‘the day’ would be twenty-four hours removed. The equally frantic, Boxing Day assault on shops, this year at least is, like near everything else, a ‘virtual event’. A time to catch one’s breath and reflect on relationships, the connections one has retained, renewed, discovered in the past year.

As a child, the ritual of carded greetings began with the appearance of three or four binders on the dining room table, typically mid-October. Packed with samples of the year’s offerings from Hallmark and its ilk, these fat volumes would be scrutinized, the ‘possibles’ marked for later comparison, the ‘too similar to last year’s’ rejected — and choice for the year made. Message selected, font style and colour chosen.

To call my parents’ Christmas card list a list is gross understatement. This twenty-odd year catalogue of cards sent and received was akin to an accountant’s ledger — and every bit as meticulously maintained. What had started out life as a simple address book had long ago been repurposed as a register with double ruled columns for years: tics (greetings sent / received) or a wee ‘X’, adjacent names, if the gesture had not been reciprocated. Changes of address were recorded in my mother’s tidy script. Unreturned greetings were granted a two-year window — then ‘struck from the roll’, a neat line drawn through, margin to margin. There were very few lines, few ‘de-rostered’ entries.

Most decisions (to send or not to send) were slam-dunks. My parents had lived in the same town for much of the book’s two decades of existence. The core hadn’t changed much: too early for age to yet take its predictable toll, fifty years before the peripatetic pattern of today would manifest — lives were stable, settled, rooted. My father would work for the same company for forty-one years with relationships that only increased in number as his role expanded. He was well-liked and cultivated connections that lasted. My mother maintained an equally steady group friends built around clubs, church- and bridge-derived. By and large, friends, acquaintances were shared — so the calls were not complicated.

A few weeks later, a folding table would take up residence in the bay of my parent’s bedroom dormer, laden with boxes of cards and all the necessaries for the next act: father addressing, mother signing and inscribing the perhaps 150 personalized messages that would cement their connections for another year.

A statement of the obvious, 2020 has been an extraordinary year. Descriptors have found their way into everyday language with new and potent meaning: social distance, bubble, lockdown. . . Daily routines altered. Reflexive modes of greeting thwarted. Commonplace, ‘unconscious’ practices shifted to planned, choreographed events. . . a visit to the grocery store, an elevator ride, a chance encounter with a friend for coffee.

2020 has embraced its paradoxical side as well. In a year when social contact has become near synonymous with risk, creative solutions, work-arounds have become bastions against months of personal isolation. Virtual and intentional have supplanted actual and automatic, cavalier, casual, or ‘mindless’ — not as weak sisters, but as viable surrogates.

In our household, choir practice night became multiple quartettes, members safely spaced in the church gardens, on scheduled rota; services pre-recorded, then live-streamed. A professional practice that was to have seen its graceful wind-down this year, has been reinvented, an online ‘paper route’, my wife’s affectionate reference. Music lessons, far from being sacrificed, have doubled in number. Our adult kids and their partners work from home, have discovered the joys of solitary running and ‘design it yourself’ marathons, Youtube recital, choral creativity. ‘Zooming’, whatever that used to mean, has become 2020’s new verb. The platform and its like have brought an intensity, efficiency, and intimacy to gatherings that the in-person equivalent could never achieve.

And so in times of enforced separation, isolation, the intention to connect has become all the more compelling; not least, for me, in a desire to renew relationships that had fallen fallow. Recommencing long lapsed friendships took on a new urgency — never more accessible than with the assistance of (aptly-named) social media.

A landmark birthday ‘gathering’, scaled to conform to regulated guidelines, was celebrated with emailed tributes in lieu of hugs and face to face good wishes. Even our Christmas ‘cards’, theme and greeting selected online, were ‘sent’ virtually.

Equally though, sitting before the accumulated wealth of carded greetings this Boxing Day morning, I’m transported to the final and most satisfying piece of this now six decades old memory: the thrill and anticipation of each envelope opened, each message shared, each connection renewed. In this year of detachment, disorientation — the familiar, the touching of something real, the closing of the circle.

Jonestown 2020

Supreme Court decision 201211

If you’re keeping score, at last count it’s 56-1 — the win/lost record for suits filed and suits eligible to be heard in the ongoing effort to end the democratic process. The most significant to date is this three-sentence decision issued by the US Supreme Court yesterday. This would be follow-up to an election victory by several million votes, the subsequent certification of vote counts by all states, and the increasingly Chaplin-esque, slapstick performances that are the challenges to same, best placed in the monologues of late-night talk show hosts.

Screen Shot 2020-12-12 at 12.02.03 PMA truly head-scratching question: how many more times will the cat come back? And infinitely more disturbing: what are the long term implications of the widespread and shamelessly political — and populist — support for these challenges?

In November 2016, I’d begun a piece built around ‘Social Learning Theory’, a relative latecomer to the annals of how patterns and styles of behaviour find their way into the repertoires of certain individuals. It posits that, far from needing to be rewarded (operant conditioning) or associated (classical conditioning), we can simply learn by watching — and modelling or imitating what we see — and by the direct instruction issued by the model. The potency of this process is believed to be influenced by the observer’s take on the model: his/her perceived level of power / authority, how respected they are, and a number of qualities that are attributed to the model by the ‘watcher’ (attractiveness, trustworthiness, perceived competence, similarity to the observer).

The piece was triggered by an, at the time, significant uptick in attacks on minority groups immediately following the 2016 election. Endorsement of and fomentation by a ‘potent model’, a newly elected president, to engage in such acts were seen to be underlying, contributing factors. So how to make sense of the 2020 reprise of the above scenario, no longer limited to ‘minority targets’ — but a continuing assault on the process that underpins not just our governing bodies, but our way of life, our value system: democracy?

For four years, the characteristics of ‘model 1’ have been regularly eroded, challenged, disputed, and pilloried. Trustworthy, truthful, competent, attractive are no longer, and for many never were, terms that could be applied to DJT. This should have sufficiently undermined the credibility, the influence of the model as to diminish his impact to the inconsequential. The reverse appears to be the case. The openly expressed fears, anxieties are now framed in the most dire of terms: coup, sedition, autocracy. Questions around how 106 political representatives could willingly buy tickets on this train are wildly more catastrophic than the tragic, but isolated actions of a few marginalized and disenfranchised trolls.

Enter the Stockholm Syndrome. Long identified as an ‘explanation’ for how an individual could behave in ways that not only contravene social norms, but his / her own values. Typically isolation and indoctrination (often via forced commission of acts that are utterly inconsistent with one’s value system) are the levers. The development of sympathy for one’s ‘captor’, the vilifying of and open resistance to authoritative voices of reason challenging one’s ‘captor’, and the identification with a perceived overlap in goals and values are the result. Hmm.

This is not Jonestown or Waco. 74 million voters are not being held hostage in some remote compound, forced to rob banks. The social isolation, alienation is just as palpable, divisive; and the disinformation just as tailored, toxic. The Kool-Aid is just as real — just as lethal.

Alternate Truths

Screen Shot 2020-12-08 at 11.28.48 AMIllusion: an instance of a wrong or misinterpreted perception (of a sensory experience).

Delusion: an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument; typically a symptom of mental disorder.
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There’s a point when a strongly held conviction, a belief system, or a defining personal style morphs into something else. When an ‘I know this much is true. . .’ moment crosses the watershed into Neverland. When one’s credo becomes abruptly more sinister, more dangerous.

What makes this ‘crossing of the Rubicon’, this passing over the threshold from ‘generally accepted reality’ to a state less firmly tethered to the real world particularly worrisome is just that — that we’ve floated away from the mothership. That we’re no longer able to conduct meaningful ‘reality checks’. The feedback loop that keeps us grounded has breeched . . . and we’re adrift. Worse, we become increasingly attached to a self-referential, alternate universe, a ‘do-loop’ with no hope of fact-based correction.

The two versions of this New Yorker cover remind us that, with ‘selective pruning’, we ‘see’ what we want or are intended to see: the elegant, cocktail-sipping gal that has become the image of a Covid-times poster child. Pull back for for full frame and the rest of the story, the ‘truth’ reveals. Illusion of grace and style is supplanted by unshaven legs, days or weeks of detritus, device distractions, sweats over suits, the cavalier dereliction that displaces discipline. Illusion.

As state after state has certified and re-certified vote counts, suit upon suit has been tossed aside by the judiciary, ‘witnesses’ undone not by crafty examination but by their own ‘weirdness’, and November 3 recedes into the mists with January 20 looming on the horizon, the ‘version of reality’ that has held sway for a truly disturbing number of folks for the last four years has shifted from illusion to delusion.

An election has been won. . . and an election has been lost. I’m reminded of Arthur’s duel with ‘the Black Knight’ in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As Arthur progressively dismembers his ‘worthy adversary’, BK sinks deeper and deeper into denial. Losing an arm (’Tis but a scratch’), a second arm (BK crows ‘Oh, had enough, eh?’) and confronted with the reality of his armless state (‘just a flesh wound’). Legless (BK’s defiant retort ‘I’ll do you for that’). Progressively, ‘I’m invincible’, ‘the BK always Trumps hurt’ — and ultimately ‘we’ll call it a draw’.

Funny in film, sympathetic in an individual’s psychotic process, tragic and terrifying in a nation’s morality play where near half of the population and an equal proportion of elected officials continue to support and endorse the deluded claim that ‘I won’ — and ‘none shall pass’.