This is an excerpt--I'm going to give a good taste--of an essay I began composing this morning. It's about, let us say, an interesting aunt of mine, but also about our rush to judgment in terms of evaluating people as good, or bad. We watch people weigh in all the time on how much so and so sucks because they did this, and how great so and so is because they did that. But it's not that simple. It's never that simple. Get ready to laugh. Maybe cry. Then laugh again. The piece--and again, this is just a portion of it--is called "Dot: What Makes a Person Good?"
Sometime in the teens of the twenty-first century, it became the vogue to make lightning-strike—and lightning-fast—decisions on people and their relative quality, as if instantaneously knowing their essence, whiplash-style.
The way they looked when they smiled could be enough to brand them lacking in character, smug, their visage deemed “so punchable.” The person making this comment would see no irony in the fact they were espousing violence, no matter how jocularly—not that it was every very ha-ha funny—on someone they didn’t know at all. Reasoning, or concluding, or leaving open the possibility, that people just look certain ways—that the individual whose facial morphology presents a gruff exterior might be a kitten on the inside—didn’t seem worth the time or effort.
Your face couldn’t score you a ton of points, but it could work against you. This was also a period when if you dared to take a photo and you were not smiling, people would conclude that you were unfunny, unpleasant, intense—a big no-no in the Age of the Forced Veil of the Chill.
They wouldn’t think that maybe you couldn’t smile so adroitly on cue, or that nearly everyone smiled in their photos, and yet so few people are truly funny, or legitimately happy, so why think a readymade, rapidly donned smile meant anything at all? It wasn’t just your face that could do you in. A difference of political opinion on social media could sink you to lower depths, or just an honest-to-goodness stupid mistake—depths from which there seemed to be no reemerging.
We make these stupid mistakes, being human. But rather than representing a brushstroke that perhaps ought to be cleaned up, the mistake is instead tabulated as the entire canvas, the totality of the painting. It was who you are, and if the parts of you resided in a collective museum of what you were most truly about, the Museum of You, then every last painting in that museum would be a variant on this first one, a study—like a personally dystopian version of Monet’s exploration of water lilies—as to your bad person-ness.
The idea that we could do something bad and still be good—and that this is how it has been for every good person that has ever existed—went far, far away. Over the hills, lost in a glade, past the horizon, off the edge of an earth that might as well have been flat for how crazy and athwart nature it seemed to have become. The globe got ironed out, with 3-D beings turned into 2-D caricatures. Humans morphing from flesh and blood to animation cel and cartoon. A part-human race of Shrinky Dinks.
I’d read Tolstoy as a means of getting a grip on the pool ladder that might pull one out of this soup, because in Tolstoy, you’ll see someone be hideous on one page, then more magnanimous than you could envision yourself being on the next. You learn enough about that character—that person—and you know if they are good or bad, on balance.
But people stopped reading Tolstoy, just as they stopped looking beyond the immediate, fraction-of-a-second judgment. I think it had a lot to do with social media, as we trained our eye, and our cognitive powers, to devolve, so that we could think less and bombard ourselves with more.
You smack your head enough times, and your head gets numb, and you can’t feel the next smack after that, and if you wanted to add more smacks, it’s easier at that point. With social media we had a rush to judgment movement, a kind of training of the American psyche, but in reverse, not in an Education of Henry Adams, “I must learn and grow” manner.
We decided within a few seconds of clicking upon it if we were going to scan a puff piece. We knew the piece would be puffery, because that’s how pieces came to be written, published, marketed. They didn’t show us a lot of respect, so people on the other end of the internet were going to do the same. Wasn’t worth more attention than that. If we didn’t catch that keyword or graphic to give us some cheap thrill or hook, we were moving on, having formed a negative opinion that we would just as quickly forget about so that we could get on to whatever was next. And we became that way with how we looked at human beings.
I’ve put all of this in the past tense because it’s 2019, and though this kind of thing is arbitrary, a new decade approaches where you think that it can’t get worse—though it always can—and I suppose as some kind of wish fulfillment, because I’d like this period of insta-evaluation—which is to say, both false positives and false negatives—to be over.
I remember how when I read about those Good Samaritans at Stanford who pulled Brock Turner off of the unconscious woman he was raping. You read one glowing report after another saying what amazing people these individuals were, proof that good ones still exist. I recall thinking, “You don’t know them. They might be wonderful people, they might be anything, but they did the right thing this time.” I would imagine that Brock Turner, in a similar position of riding past such an encounter, would have done the same thing if he was with a buddy and his buddy said, “We need to help that woman.”
So what does that mean?
Then I thought about my Aunt Dot, who has been dead now for quite a few years. She was actually my great aunt, though we were not related by blood at all, given that I was adopted. Her sister was the person I’ve always thought of in my mind as my good grandmother, who went by the handle of Grammie. She was my mother’s mother, and Dot’s younger sister.
My other grandmother, upon learning in her kitchen from my mother and father that they were adopting someone—who turned out to be me—stormed out of the room with the marvelous, Macbeth-ian exit line, “Blood will tell,” after several comments featuring the word bastard, which I technically am.
My biological mother was fifteen when I was conceived, my biological father was married, with a couple kids. She played guitar, he was an auto mechanic. This was in New Bedford, not far from where Melville lit out to sea, and the stain upon the family honor was sufficient that my short-term mother was sent off to Cape Cod to avoid scandal and gossip in her hometown, and it was on Cape Cod, in Hyannis, where I was born. She then gave me up, and we returned to New Bedford separately, her to her parents, presumably, me to a foster home, where I acquired a second short-term mother.
Grammie, upon my adoption to my real mother and father, loved me immediately. We were tight. Over the years we would watch lots of Red Sox games. She came from a generation when people called African Americans “colored,” and that would still slip into her vernacular, though she didn’t understand what she was doing wrong, and if there was a bigger Pedro Martinez fan in the world, you would have been tasked mightily to try and believe it.
She also gossiped a lot about her sister Dot. Aunt Dot was what you’d call very old school religious. She was a spinster. There was this vague familial rumor that once—around the time of a mid-century war, so either WWII or Korea—she was “sweet on someone,” but everyone knew this was more of an attempt to gussy up a little mystery to her backstory, which could be drab.
Her principle interests in life, it seemed, were the Lord, prune juice and talking about her bowels, and terming people fat—to their faces. Other people said hello, how are you, how have you been, but Dot sized you up, looking from your feet to your head, shaking her own head around your midsection, no matter what was going on there—you could have a washboard tucked in your pants—and then she would inform you that, alas, you were a porker. (In later years, Dot came to resemble Gollum, which made her judgments on your level of fitness seem to have more passionate certainty behind them.)
The prevailing opinion was that Aunt Dot, well, kind of sucked, but that was, again, kind of, part of her charm, that level of orneriness. You admired her consistency, after a fashion.
Her recounting of her bathroom battles with her blocked passageways had a Homeric quality to them, and Aunt Dot’s deus ex machina could involve anything from forceps to her fingers—I shudder anew as I type—to apricot brandy, to a passage from Paul to the Galatians.
You could be seven, as I was, and that would not preclude her from divesting herself of her recent multi-hour torments and pitched battles, and how she had come through, fatigued, but lighter, less blocked, more, presumably, flowing. People who met her would say that she was a trip, if they were trying to be positive, others would wear that ashen rictus of shock that showed how hard they were trying not to exclaim, “What the hell?”
Dot was very anti-hell. She loved a good brimstone lecture, though, about what hell would be like if you landed there. These were joyless talks. Grammie, meanwhile, was full of joy. She loved her grandkids and spoiling them. She loved mischief, forking you a ten dollar bill she couldn’t really afford behind your mother’s back after this was exclusively forbidden. She even had the eye twinkle thing going, such that she traded in some Santa Claus swagger, grandmother-style.
She wouldn’t stop smoking or playing the lottery, which Dot disapproved of, this being a form of gambling, and after she died we discovered piles of notebooks written in these really intense numerical ciphers that amounted to my grandmother’s life work of numbers theory, which I think may have cracked open the universe for her. Let’s just say that she won a lot. She wasn’t especially religious, but she had a scary-looking picture of a saint in her room, but everyone had that back then. She died before the Red Sox won their first World Series in almost a century—you’d think, living as she did into her eighties, she would have seen at least one—and that made me sad, but not as sad as when she fell in the home she loved so much and broke her hip, and had to go into care at one of those establishments that, however well-meaning, smells of perpetual piss.
I’d take the commuter rail out to the closest stop to this house of recuperation, then walked through the wooded town where my dad’s mother lived, though I wouldn’t visit her. The latter was kind to me in later years, the bastard stuff having died away, not that we were ever close or liked each other much. But she tried, and there is a wonderful thing about being human and that is if someone softens towards you, it is in our nature—and I think it still remains there, no matter how hard we try to denature ourselves—that you will soften, too. I was visiting Grammie, though, who spoke mostly about returning to her home, how she was looking forward to that, even as she knew, I think, and you knew, and she knew you knew—there was a lot of knowing going on—that that probably wasn’t going to happen. When she died, she did not go easily into that good night. She was in a coma, but the end would not come. She was taken off machines, and still it would not come. I sat with her, alone, several nights, so that she would not have to die alone. And she did not.
But it was Aunt Dot who really knew something about sickness. When Grammie was out living her life, it was Dot who was taking care of their parents. They had once had a brother named Lester, and one of the few things that Dot and Grammie agreed upon was that this fellow was the absolute bee’s knees, he could have been a politician, they would both race to add, trying to beat each other to the punch of the rhetorical flourish, as if nothing could be more incandescent in a person’s life, and then they would nod, in unison, sagaciously.
This Lester loved his drink, and one night, when locked out of the family’s house, drunk out of his mind, he scaled the roof to try and find ingress through a window, and fell to his death on the pavement, a political career that was never going to happen crushed before its first filibuster.
When they were older in life, and Dot was decades deep into her spinsterhood and Grammie had outlived her husband, they were roomies at the house the latter loved so much. Dot had the top floor, my grandmother the ground one. When you visited, it was only a matter of time before Dot would make her descent and call you fat. You’d hear her pacing around upstairs, the beast stirring, and Grammie, knowing what was about to come, would say, “Oh dear.”
The cellar of this house was the stuff of nightmares. There was a coal shoot—very old school—and shadows numberless, such that you thought goblins of some kind or other had to have at least a temporary residence here. You were told—warned—even by Grammie, which was especially worrisome, not to go down there, save when she or Dot wanted something. Then it was cool. Only, it was not cool, because Aunt Dot had created this character named Willie Winkle whom she said lived in the basement. He didn’t just abduct and murder children, but there was this seducing element as well in her narratives on the subject. It felt a little like he was going to do some other things to you that were less than ideal, even so far as basement goblins went.
Nonetheless, if Aunt Dot wanted her cribbage set, she wanted her cribbage set, so with your orders, down you would go, and she would carry herself to Grammie’s sink, where she'd take a hammer and bang on the pipes, so that an echo seemingly sourced from the fiery bowels of the earth—from someone who knew fiery bowels—would throb and ring in your brain, as Dot screamed, “Winkle is gonna get you ya! Here he comes!” It is worth noting that on the occasions when Dot tweaked her wrist—for she was also a hypochondriac—Grammie would take her place with the hammer, this being, again, one of the very few things upon which they found accordance. Perhaps Winkle was Lester’s ghost, for all we knew.