12/23/2003

Conte Americaine, Moral, Background, and Appendix

True Story: One winter night in St. Louis, returning unhappily from a trip to somewhere warmer and sweeter, I wound up in a cab driven a Polish man who had been a professor of history in Krakow before fleeing in the early 80s. Of course that's not the first thing he said to me. The first thing he said to me was “Do you read?” I had been staring through the black glass of the back window, pretending to be lost in my thoughts and doing my best to ignore that awkward, pregnant cab silence. Surprised and embarrassed, I said I did, a little. “You are a student, yes? What do you read?” I told him a little of this, a little of that, and, in deference to an accent I sensed was vaguely European, mentioned Dostoevsky. “Have you read Dostoevsky?” I asked. I’m blushing now at the pompous little asshole I was then, as I will no doubt blush later in life, should I happent to reread this. Had he read Dostoevsky? “Bah, Dostoevsky,” he said. “Too dark. Too miserable. Life is miserable. Read for joy. Read Huckleberry Finn.” He held the book up and in the headlight beaming through the back window, as though from a movie projector, I could see the cover of his battered paperback. “Read O. Henry.” “I love Twain,” I said. “But have you read O. Henry?”

Exegesis: The Eastern Europeans, I think, are wise, the Russians and Poles and Cheks and Slovaks and Slavs. They have, like the Irish, stared at suffering long enough to realize that it's no more or less intrinsically interesting than joy. Suffering isn't something we can avoid, nor is it something we should run to. We Americans, who panic over flu vaccination shortages, who topple dictatorships to establish reigns of virtue where it suits us, for whom chance, ambiguity, coincidence, and the iron law of unintended consequences are anathemae, would do well to learn from this. Especially now, at Christmas. The less shocked we are when we meet suffering on the street, I think, perhaps the more ready we are to address it.

Background: My dog Milo was just diagnosed with epilepsy. He was having a hideous cluster of seizures at my mom's house. Though allegedly painless, they are about the most upsetting thing to watch I can imagine. We cut short our Christmas trip and returned home to hospitalize him. Here's me dealing with that.

Toast: Here's to Milo. Here's to suffering. Here's to that cabbie, and all Eastern Europeans. And all Irishmen. Here's to the good Lord. Here's to the dream of Santa Claus. And here's to you.