Next to power without honor, the most dangerous thing in the world is power without humor. ~ Eric Sevareid
There’s a joke making the rounds of the internet: “I feel like I’m 16 again. Gas is cheap and I’m grounded.”
That feeling – of being grounded – chafes. The American way is one long highway, desert winds blowing through open windows, sky as blue as turquoise, the end of the road in sight, the waves of the Pacific beating on the rocky shores of Oregon.
Still the frontier in the minds of many Americans.
The history of America unfurls a story of the seeking the next frontier, the next place to set down roots. At least the European creation myth of the country goes that way. Frederick Jackson Turner, and many writers who came after him, Turner’s The Frontier in American History (1920) still a classic. Much of what he says bears the stamp of his times, but in myriad ways Turner’s analysis of the the frontier’s role in American history still bears repeating:
But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression. Prof. Osgood, in an able article, has pointed out that the frontier conditions prevalent in the colonies are important factors in the explanation of the American Revolution, where individual liberty was sometimes confused with absence of all effective government.
Rugged individualism over the common good, that’s what’s been on display week after week, day after day, hour after hour. It’s disheartening to see this. I dream instead of a world where people see themselves in others, where a neighbor is more than just a person who lives near me.
A confession: It’s getting harder to paint on that ol’ happy face, but some bright spots shine through. Read on.
All day I felt like a balloon slowly losing its air. Mostly because the night before (Day 24), I noticed something going on with my right eye, the one I had a vitrectomy on last year. As it turned, it was nothing, but it scared me so badly that I even called my retinal doctor’s office and left a message on the after-hours phone. The other two times I’ve had to call, they answered almost immediately. This time, no reply. I woke up, thrilled that the problem seems to have resolved on its own – I’m getting to be pretty blasé about some of the visual weirdness. But this wasn’t one of those times.
So day 25 turned out to be one of those lethargy-filled days, flipping through the various offerings on Amazon and Netflix, rejecting all suggestions, unwilling to rewatch anything.
And then I found it.
“The Pianist“, starring 29-year-old Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar for best actor in this incredible survival story of the famed Polish pianist, Władysław Szpilman. Beware – there are spoilers here, but I cannot avoid that.
Sometimes, I truly do believe the Universe tries to steer me in the direction I need to go, even though I am unaware that I indeed do need to go there, wherever “there” is.
I started watching the film and, although I’d seen it before, years ago, I experienced it through a different lens. The scene where a rough, vicious Polish policeman saves Szpilman hints at the – hopefully – inherent kindness that exists in most people. And then came the scene, after many other tear-jerking moments where Szpilman passes his days, week after week, month after month in various apartments, forbidden to make a sound. A German officer, Captain Wilhelm Hosenfeld, found Szpilman starving in an abandoned house in Warsaw. Fortuitously, another moment when the Universe steps in, or so it seems, a piano stood in one of the rooms of the house. Hosenfeld asked Szpilman what he’d done for a living in his previously life. He replied that he’d been a pianist. And so Hosenfeld demanded that he play, to prove it, probably, but also because Hosenfeld apparently was one of those righteous people who hated what Germany was doing. Music spoke to him. After that, he brought bread and sausages to Szpilman, who only survived because of him. When the captain left, he also gave a coat to Szpilman, who was wearing it when the Russians entered Warsaw. It nearly got him killed, until the Russians realized that he was Polish. Note that Yad Vashem honored Wilhelm Hosenfeld with the “Righteous Among the Nations” distinction.
At the moment that Szpilman realized that Hosenfeld wasn’t going to kill him, for some reason, I cried. And I cried. And I cried some more. I wasn’t even sure why. But the feeling I experienced, seeing those two actors re-enacting a scene that took place over 76 years ago was close to what I’d felt last week, when Queen Elizabeth II spoke. Kindness.
Bewildered as I was at my emotional reaction, it occurred to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen real, heart-felt kindness on a regular basis.
And the biggest memory I took away from Szpilman’s story is this: it takes a lot to break people, for humans seem much more resilient than they give themselves credit for.
This day ended up with a plateful of frozen pizza for dinner, doctored with some handfuls of frozen diced green pepper and the remains of a sad bag of grated mozzarella that needed to do the job it was meant to do.
Haunted by Władysław Szpilman’s story, I opted to buy his book, written in 1945. I spent most of the day reading, marveling at how closely the film captured the book’s key points, both large and small.
Of course, I reflected on how so many of us, able to do so for one reason or another, are attempting to minimize contact with others. And that is hard. Szpilman seems to have passed his time in solitude by recreating music, even to the point of holding his hands over a keyboard in one of the many apartments where friends hid him over the years. Unable to make a sound, he played phantom music, hearing it only in his head.
I spend a lot of time now thinking of what I will cook, what I will eat when all this is over. I have a lot of basics, thanks to pre-planning, my natural tendency to have a large pantry anyway even under so-called normal times, and the brave people working with Instacart who’ve been shopping for us and my mother.
But now I really appreciate the huge supply chain that existed in the world – and hopefully still will, but likely in a very different way – making it possible to cook and eat as humans never have before. Yes, money and distribution channels favor certain groups, in certain places. Perhaps the table, so to speak, will enlarge because of this and more people will eat together, all as one.
In the meantime, people look for the things they can control and enjoy, as best they can. For me, cooking still sustains me. Most of the time.
And then there was cake, a luxury, with all that butter and flour and eggs, not things I give up so easily these days:
But I did it anyway.
At dusk, my neighbors lit a bonfire in their backyard, enjoying one of the few nights of this Florida spring where the air temperature actually made such heat feel good. Apparently another neighbor called the fire department. A huge barn-red engine came squealing up and the firemen ran to the backyard, no doubt startling the fire worshipers out of their skins. A short time later, the fire was out and quiet reigned. Although the firemen didn’t so much as squirt a drop of water on the blaze, they did dampen some spirits!
Stay well. Stay safe. And stay home, if you can!