Several people asked me yesterday if I had heard the news that Anna Nicole Smith was dead. It was as if the whole world had been there to see her collapse, and had no one left to tell, which is always the secret pleasure of dreadful news, that we get to be the first we hope to tell someone else.
I had only my wife to tell, because she is too busy with the permanent things to worry with news. We spent perhaps ten seconds on it, asking the things most people ask: How did it happen? How old was she? Didn't her son die a while back? Then we were on to other things, as will be the rest of the world, once the last of the corpse is frisked and the spoils divided amongst entertainment channels pretending to deliver news and journalists posing as entertainers.
You wonder how a life can end up like this. What does it take, for a girl born in a little Texas town, whose mother named her Vickie Lynn Hogan (in hope, which is always how we name our children), who had birthday parties and drew pictures for her teachers and whispered little-girl secrets to her friends on the school bus? What causes a girl to become what Vickie Lynn was? Some of the answer is obvious, I suppose a father who left her, an incapable mother, drugs, alcohol, the usual.
The usual. I have this feeling of complicity that I can't shake. I wonder if anyone ever offered this girl a glass of water on her long, ugly path from abandoned child to helpless mother, from whore to star, from office joke to a corpse that will be picked over. Did anyone hold out the hand that each of us secretly longs for at some point in his life, often more for the offering than for the help it promises? We long for it because in our hearts we are tired and lonely and wish that someone could just see that this is so, and more, tell us that he sees it. Did anyone ever tell Vickie Lynn?
Maybe there were many people like this on her path. A pastor whose sermons I am fond of always concludes with this admonition: "Remember, you may be the only Christ that someone will meet today." I like to believe that someone is listening to him. I wonder who was Christ to Vickie Lynn, and how many more were anti-christs, who often look the most like Christ to those who can't discern the difference tittering moralists who judge from the safety of less rocky paths. Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn?
This feeling of complicity won't leave me because I have been one of those tittering moralists, shaking my head when word of her latest abomination spread like dreadfully good news. More than once I lingered in delicious pleasure over the details of her surreal life. From newspapers to the E! channel, the girl who remade herself as Anna Nicole had her descent chronicled for all of us to watch, but always with a light touch, a veneer of comedy, so that we who leered could feel better about ourselves for observing the self-destruction of another human being.
Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn? I know she received bags of mail every day. I wonder if Christ snuck his way into any of those letters. Thousands of people clambered to take her picture and shake her hand. Was Christ in one of those people? Did Vickie Lynn ever see him standing in the crowd of watchers? Did she see him in any of us?
She lost a son. Perhaps the only surprise is that he lasted twenty years. I don't know what contortions the mind of a child must make when he sees his mother whored out to every man who promises money or affection or simply affirmation. I don't know what self-loathing and fear this must breed in a boy. I only know that he died with a host of drugs in his blood, a cocktail designed to fix the problems in his mind and heart caused by this world of men. Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn's boy?
She leaves behind a baby girl. There are hundreds of people, some alive now, some yet to be born, who will meet this child on her own path. Who will be Christ to Vickie Lynn's girl? And who instead will tear at her young flesh, the way the vultures already tear at the corpse of her mother, from the lawyers to the avaricious men to you and me, the voyeurs?
I don't believe it's our responsibility, you reading this now, or me, to save anyone. I don't believe we have in our possession even the magic to save ourselves. I'm haunted by the notion, however, that we can either offer Vickie Lynn that glass of water when she passes, or we can silently watch, and become little better than the others who consume her.
I've come to believe that when Christ said to go into the world with the word of hope, it wasn't because he needed any of us to do any of the saving of lost lives. It is to save us, I think, that he sends us. It is because there is no neutral ground, only mercy, or consumption; the glass of water, or the picking over of the corpse; being Christ to Vickie Lynn, or enjoying the spectacle of her destruction.
Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn? Who prayed a real prayer for her not the self-righteous prayer, the little love note to God which is really a love note to ourselves, which reads: thank you God, and aren't you thankful, that I am not like that one over there? Who prayed for her son, or her daughter? Not me.
Worse, if I made a list of all the Vickie Lynns whose paths I've crossed, and whose broken and thirsty looks I pretended not to see, I suspect the shame would be too much to bear. So mostly I think about other things, until this used-up woman goes and dies in a hotel lobby, and for some reason now I can't shake the question: for whom will you be Christ today?
If only we shared that glass of water as effortlessly as we share the news of death.
Recently I came across this quote from Voltaire: "Anything too stupid to be said is sung." It puts me in mind of the insipid John Mayer song, "Waiting on the World to Change," which has been nominated (naturally) for a Grammy. The song begins:
"me and all my friends
we're all misunderstood
they say we stand for nothing and
there's no way we ever could
now we see everything that's going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don't have the means
to rise above and beat it"
So the essence of the song is that Mayer and his pals will sit on their overindulged fannies and wait for the world to change, in between stanzas asserting their superior moral sense and keen twenty-something ability to see through the obfuscation into how things really are.
One widely cited reviewer claims that none of Mayer's contemporaries "has come up with anything resembling a worthwhile anti-war anthem that is as good and speaks for their generation as much," which seems tantamount to calling Joe Biden the most honorable member of the Senate Judiciary Committee an occasion more for weeping than praise.
Aside from being a hack writer, John Mayer is a big flaming wuss. This is his idea of a protest anthem? "Ooh, nobody will listen to us, so we're going to sit here and whine about it." It's a pathetic comparison to songs like "Four Dead in Ohio" (Gotta get down to it/Soldiers are cutting us down...How can you run when you know?), "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," and "We Shall Overcome." Heck, even The Clash's "The Call Up" (It's up to you not to heed the call up/ I don't wanna die!) has more gravitas.
I suppose we should be thankful that people with bad ideas feel compelled to wallow in their impotence. The only thing more nauseating, after all, than the thought of millions of whelps grooving along to this claptrap would be to watch Mayer lead them in a protest march, cell phones and chai lattes tightly gripped in angry little fists of pique, a sea of fashionistas indignantly stamping their feet and agitating for some vague change that hopefully includes low-cost student loans and free music downloads.
So yes, John boy, keep waiting for the world to change. Play your self-indulgent ditties and leave the changing of things to the real men and women. It makes one long for the days when instrumentals were popular, and musicians were viewed more like servants than prophets.
They say that the insane and geniuses are alike in that their minds make unusual connections between ideas. The good news is that I may be a genius. The bad news is that insane people often imagine that they are brilliant. Regardless, I noticed what seemed to be a common thread running through three seemingly unrelated news items this weekend, and this annoying little thread got me thinking.
The items were in separate issues of The Wall Street Journal (which, with its snazzy new design, is not your Daddy Warbucks's newspaper any more). The first detailed a rise in university "study abroad" programs which involve neither. Desperately needing a break from the terrible burden that is college, many students are opting for a semester skiing in Utah, or "studying" culture in New Orleans. This in itself is unsurprising it's clear that, given their overriding goal of revenue growth, most universities will do anything to keep the little princes and princesses happy, so long as an educational veneer can be slapped atop it.
What surprised me, instead, was the seeming helplessness of these students' (paying) parents. Consider Pete Cordero, father, as the Journal explains, "of business major and ski enthusiast Michael," who is spending a semester (as well as daddy's money) on the slopes. "I did everything in my power to talk him out of it," moaned the elder Cordero. Except, of course, withholding the money to pay for it. Perhaps this should not be surprising; "It's for the children" is the modern-day equivalent of "Open, Sesame" when it comes to breaking into otherwise well-guarded wallets.
In some cases, it seems, the phrase is so powerful that it can cause money to materialize where it otherwise would be absent. Carol Powers took out a $6,000 loan, the Journal reports, so that her son Tom can spend a semester in L.A. Ostensibly, this is for him to study entertainment management, but as Tom divulges to the reporter, he's spent most of the last month cruising Sunset Boulevard. Ms. Powers, meanwhile, is worried that the sun and fun of the west coast will seduce her boy. What is it that computer programmers remind us garbage in, garbage out? A painfully useful concept, that.
The second news item was about entertainment mogul Sumner Redstone's recent legal settlement with his own son, cashing the latter out of the family business. It seems that the younger Redstone was peeved that he wasn't being allowed more say over the enterprise built by his father. Likewise in the third news item, which detailed press giant Rupert Murdoch's legal wranglings with his own poisonous brood.
I wonder what it is about money that leads to the destruction of these most fundamental human bonds between parent and child. Perhaps it is not money, but the accumulating of it. Amassing fabulous wealth or political power, for that matter seems frequently to entail the wholesale neglect of one's children. When one considers the biographies of powerful men, the accompanying codas of failed, broken, and spiteful children are, sadly, too commonly observed as well. If it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain heaven, then how much more so for his children?
I'm always impressed by extremely successful people whose children are happy and good. It seems such a rare thing that I want to hug them for not screwing it up. I've discovered that extremely successful people tend not to want hugs from far less successful acquaintances, so I just admire them quietly.
I think, too, about people I know and admire who are good, attentive parents, but whose older children have stumbled due to weaknesses of character, or self-discipline, or both. I don't think I will become the parent who watches helpless while his pampered son skis away his money on the slopes of Utah, but what parent does set out to raise a less than perfect child? And yet that's what they become, despite the efforts of we broken and flawed people assigned the task of raising them.
I wanted to write "best efforts" in that last sentence, but I know that too often my effort, such as it is, isn't my best. Perhaps that's the trick, I tell myself I'll just work harder and better than all the other parents I know, and then my children will walk humbly and in strength with their God. There is something valuable, I am sure, in weeding out, as parents, as much laziness and complacency in ourselves as we can bear to discern. Increasingly, though, I am coming to believe that no matter how hard and well we perform as parents, we just can't guarantee that our children will be good and faithful and true.
This is why I get on my knees because praying any other way any more just seems so double-minded, to me, and useless more often these days, and pray for my children. I pray that they will be better than me, because I have been that selfish student, as well as his gutless father. I have been the narcissistic mogul and the ungrateful wretch of a child. I have always been that really stupid sheep, the one who has to get his legs broken by the shepherd and then be carried around for awhile, so he can learn dependence and obedience.
So I pray that my boys will be better than me, because the stubborn path is so rocky, and overgrown with regret, and I'd just as soon they never know it, except perhaps by reading a few of the old man's words. Mostly, I pray that God will work some miracle whereby a man like me can raise far better men. God still works miracles, you know, so I like to believe that such a prayer is more about genius than insanity.
Or perhaps it's mostly about hope, because that is, in the end, what we rely on a hope that we can overcome the world as well as ourselves. I believe we can, and so that's why I get on my knees in the cold dark hours. Something nice about praying in the dark morning is that, sometimes, when you open your eyes, there is more light in the world. In a way, I think that's all any of us are asking for.