The Scharfs drove home bantering about the girls’ presents. The rain had stopped, but the pavement shone about them as if it had been wrapped in cellophane. Denny tried not to think about his outburst at the party. They had married eleven years earlier, and the girls had come, one, two and three, in each of the following years. Girls ten, nine and eight sounded like a countdown for stress, but the two of them managed it well, he thought. He had issues, Jen was sure to remind him once they got out of earshot of the girls, but he was preoccupied by their lives from early in the morning until they were tucked in at night.
Bill Tipton said the presents were “nothing much,” but they rivaled anything Denny received as a child at Hanukah or on his birthday. And Christmas Eve was just a warm-up for the expensive presents the Tiptons had given directions to be opened only on Christmas morning. Jen’s family gave lavish presents; the rupture at the party would not change that; he knew it wouldn’t because Bill made clear that his blood descendants did not share the flaws of the intruder who married his daughter.
Bill’s wife Jean, Ralph’s sister, appeared to care less and seemed fond of Denny. This is her way, Denny thought, at least until now. Nothing seems to upset her. She has no fixed opinions or principles and seems to embrace any one or any thing with the same amused tolerance, including her husband and her son-in-law.
Jen says stay above it, but their gifting edges beyond generosity. The more generous Bill is, the more he expects to rise in the estimation of others. It’s a hostile generosity, Denny concluded. Bill strews presents around, a profligacy to prove his wealth and bigheartedness, daring anyone to do more. He expects back from this potlatch more than I can ever give him, and he knows it. Even his daughter can’t now. We don’t return the favor by supporting Uncle Ralph. That’s why he lashed out at me. He called me out because he wants it back, and more.
Denny knew he was wrong but nursed his righteousness as he rehearsed for the set-to that was about to begin with Jen. Every culture carves out a special low-heat torture for in-laws, a way-house of partial acceptance, a kind of purgatory, he thought. It’s harsher in matriarchal cultures like the Trobriand Islanders or the Navajo Nation, but it is painful enough here.
Denny reverted to his practiced thoughts about how financial dependence on the Tiptons infected everything. Jen and I will have to accept the private school tuition and who knows what other subventions in the future. He fumed about the exclusivity, the sense of entitlement of private school aristocracies. In a private school the girls would develop softer shells, vulnerabilities that could easily be pierced by those who toughened their beaks on the world outside. He regretted what it meant for him that the girls would not grow up in the granular way he grew up in the city. Now, though, he had better prepare for Jen’s attack on his stupid behavior at the party.
Fortunately for Denny, Jen belonged among a dwindling number of southern women who slipped criticism of their men across with a calculated diffidence that kept them peaceful and the testosterone in check. He accepted her blandishments, which she called “suggestions,” more readily when she sweetened them with indirection. She would have her hesitant say then add that they were just suggestions. No, he would be surprised to hear himself saying, no, you undervalue yourself, and then he would give a higher worth to her “suggestions” that Jen herself did.
The way Jen did it countered the New York way he tried to hold in check. His bludgeoning friends and family with demands and opinions, his refusal to practice the elaborate mannerisms of indirection, put off the southerners among whom he now lived. He had to learn Portnoy’s lesson that conversation was not an invitation to battle; he had to learn to use language not as a weapon but as a source of pleasure, which by its summoning rhythms could enhance a relationship.
Denny wondered if her stealth assault on his orneriness resulted from her southern upbringing, or her membership in an emergent generation of Millennial conflict-avoiders, or her naïve buy-in to the Obama line, or if it arose from something deeper, something familial and maternal. By nature or nurture Jean’s guile somehow had passed to Jen.
This time, though, Jen got right to it after the girls were put to bed. She did not wait until they had put out the presents Santa had brought for the girls.
“You prepared for this, Denny, in the car. I was proud of you until your Bronx cheer.”
She tried not to smile and became even more severe. He wondered if this was part of the ploy.
“All I did was state a quiet exception, an ‘ahhhhh’ when everyone else fawned over him.” Denny made a disapproving low rumble to approximate the sound he made in Bill’s living room. He tried it again with a little grin.
“It was more for me to hear – and maybe you – not everybody. I am sorry I ticked off your father, but he said all of us wished Ralph the best. Well, all of us don’t wish Ralph the best. I had to say something. I really did.”
Denny paced about, talking himself up to higher ground. The future of America was at stake. That’s why he had supported the failed effort to dump Obama and nominate the infighter Hillary Clinton. To him, America had never become a just and humane society. Even Obama – forget the Republicans – did not have the fire to force change. Proud of Mason? A groan, a protest, was the least he could do on Christmas Eve.
Denny said, “We have to live our convictions, not just hold them.”
She shot back, “Not in my parents’ living room at a Christmas party.”
Trying not to sound insincere, he reminded her that they had just been in a household where her mother taught the Quaker way, and Quakers believe they should bear witness to the truth in everyday life, whatever the cost, even, say, at a family gathering. She turned this to remind him that her mother was not one to bear witness very often and he should have been the one to remember the still small voice and not make a raspberry.
They set out the carefully wrapped bounty that the girls would convert to a pile of crumpled paper and tangled ribbons, extracting the prizes as fast as they could. For an instant, just an instant, Denny thought about the patience of women’s work in preparing meal after meal or wrapping package after package, only to see them demolished in a short frenzy of delight.
“You were childish. Tonight, you behaved like the people you can’t stand. You really did. You went down to their level….”
He was certain she was on the verge of trying to provoke him again on his betrayal of Obama by joining the tiny rump of disillusioned ultra-liberals who wanted to dump Obama in 2012.
“Lumping me with the swift-boaters. That’s where this ends, not with Uncle Ralph” he shot back, blocking her chance to reopen her deeper grievance.
He need not have bothered. Jen gave it up; it was not her way. She moved on trying to restore their common ground, dismissing her uncle with a wave and falling back on old, shared Obama slogans that only annoyed him now. Rise above. Feel the urgency.
Denny began to think he had extricated himself, but hearing Jen, who still thought change was just around the corner, he felt a great sadness that when Candidate Obama became President Obama, he let down the thousands, maybe millions, of people pouring into politics for the first time who believed radical transformation in America was possible. “Rise above” – the phrase seemed to float up out of the discussions they used to have back in the light of a new day.
“Rise above and be undermined, that’s what happened.” Denny heard himself break the peace. “We can’t let people like Mason get away with spreading lies and fears. “Mason” – he felt the chill he wrapped around his name – “Mason hasn’t lied, yet, and called us names, not yet, but he did and will again next year.”
He saw how she looked.
“Jen,” he pleaded, “it’s almost not his fault. It’s almost not Obama’s fault. It’s in the grain, it’s in all politics, and it didn’t end after 2008 and it won’t end now, or ever. ” He stopped, arrested by his arrival at the end of expectation.
By this time they were well along in the personal decommissioning that occurs before a night’s sleep. Denny regretted that they turned out the lights before they made peace. He moved toward her but heard her breathing regularly, a token of sleep. He was almost glad. His anger had tunneled in and he could not shed it.
“I have the professor’s passion,” he once told Jen, “the righteousness of academic freedom. Professors are powerless but we make up for it with outsized convictions. “I’m just a historian,” he laughed, “exposed through my research to the exercise of tremendous power. All day, Jen, there I am, sunk in the abuse of power. And after I have finished for the day, I am caught up in the abuse of power in the present.”
He lay curled and knotted and thought he shouldn’t have made light of his convictions to Jen. The nation never got it right after the Civil War, nor even in the beginning, but it really became ugly after the assassinations and Viet Nam. A forty year long tragedy. Nixon thrived on it; Ford and Carter limped along, caretakers of discontent; Reagan and Bush the Father put a shining face on it and made it respectable. Clinton reignited it, squandering his chance, and Bush the Son – well, he poured fuel on it and dispensed harm equally on everyone but the super-rich. The iron curtain didn’t just wall in the victims of a bogus political system. It helped two pathological societies to survive. In this country it was more than that. Slavery and its leavings left America short every time it started to dream. Four hundred years with worms in the foundation.
Four years ago, Obama came out of nowhere and seemed beyond race; the enchantment with America came out of hiding. Denny stirred, causing the bedclothes to hiss. Jen and I and a lot of people needed Obama so much that we just didn’t see his ingenuousness, his greenness, which disabled him from forcing a way forward. We tried to ignore the hatred his exotic background and hotchpotch race ignited among the true Americans. We wanted to believe the scholars who said that like after the Civil War and the New Deal, a third great realignment was due, and Obama might lead it. A savior and a paradox: so reasonable, so cool. A little pot in a private school and probably something stronger, but no excess, no loss of control. Charisma, but not a charismatic.
But he blew his chance when he ignored the devastated economy and let the Democratic leadership in Congress renew the battle over health care. He trusted his friends in the elite and ignored the middle class. He caved to the zealots in the Tea Party. He … he did some good things but it wasn’t enough to make history. He was supposed to save our souls. No wonder the Jews are wise enough to wait forever. The poor bastard.
We made a mistake by surrendering to a vision. The frenzy of attacks on Obama showed how wrong we were. I was crazy to fall for it. In October I wanted to turn the clock back and put forward the champion I abandoned in 2008. I would have been just as happy then if Clinton won, but Jen, a woman, my wife, wouldn’t have been. We fell together into the swoon over Obama. I didn’t see it wasn’t his time, but it could have been time for a woman, and it still is, not because she’s a woman so much as she would not let herself be undermined. She’s got grit and might not move history but Hillary with Bill managing her would get even with the Republican know-nothings and stop the foolishness Obama allowed.
He turned away from Jen and longed for the moment when the plausible expands and dreamlike associations thin out the day. His thoughts broke up, multiplied and sought to reform. The strands continued to fragment and recombine, the prelude to sleep, and Denny fell over the edge taking his anger and longings with him.
Denis Scharf had been born at Doctor’s Hospital in 1968 during either the waning days of the Baby Boom, or the beginning of Generation X, depending on which expert on the generations one consulted. Morningside Heights was aflame nearby, and students occupied the buildings at Columbia University. He had joked with his father that he had been born in wartime.
He discovered politics at Oberlin and before he was thirty received a doctorate from Yale. A Jewish liberal urbanite, he still accepted a position for the fall of 1997 as an assistant professor of history at a first-rate southern university. He was told later that the university made the offer because his supporters who pulled the strings – nothing in a university is done without intrigue – liked his research on the dynamics of youth movements and the formation of political views among the youngest of the electorate.
His Ph.D. thesis explored how movements like Students for a Democratic Society, the new Mobe and the Black Panthers grew out of the networking among the bellwethers, the opinion leaders who were linked by letters and the telephone just as the committees of correspondence had linked colonial leaders who fomented the Revolution. Later, Denny polished his ideas into a series of articles that associated his work with that of the sociologists who studied the networkers, mediators, mavens and connectors who had a gift for bringing people together and causing things to happen. His focus on the technical side of group dynamics meant he did not have to show his ideological hand to make his way up the ladder.
To the younger faculty members who were flexing their muscles in the department, Denny’s work ennobled the SDS and the movement to elect Senator Gene McCarthy as president. They were baby boomers who deserved a better legacy than to be branded as pot-headed disciples of Paul Goodman. They were people of principle, they were idealists. Denis Scharf would establish this for posterity.
After tenure, and to the displeasure of some who had supported him, Denny investigated the outing in 1967 of the secret funds the government had slipped to the National Student Association. He probed the paradox that anti-establishment youth accepted funding from the CIA. He asked why the government feared that unless the world’s most powerful democracy imitated the Soviets, a generation of young Africans and Asians would think the Soviet Union deserved to win the cold war. We had to buy participation for NSA clandestinely, because we would not vote the funds democratically via Congress.
When the establishment struck secret agreements with high-principled student leaders and started the funding to flow, the Soviets lost heart and dropped their support because the American youth had turned the tables and overwhelmed the international meetings. The CIA funds bought airline tickets and the rest of what it took to showcase democratic thinking.
It was too much for Denny – a democracy co-opting young leaders in non-democratic fashion to go out to the world and defend transparency and freedom. Youth politicos and amateur athletes, however purchased, are still bought, he wrote. One of the student leaders said later he was aware of the funding, but he knew for a fact that the CIA did not influence any position the National Student Association took. None, he testified, and he should know, because he and a few others set the policy and spoke for the association.
While he was learning to teach he met Jen, a watercolorist and charcoalist who had a good eye but wavering confidence. Four years younger, possibly still on the rebound from a marriage to a Richmond attorney, Jen had returned to the comfort of her father’s home, a hunt country estate. She was living at home and working as an understudy with an artist whose severe style attracted a regional following. She wanted to try to give her work gravitas, she said.
Denny and Jen were a natural fit, despite his political combativeness. They were warned by friends and family, Jen’s more than Denny’s, that it was an unreasonable match. But they knew better. For once, as unlikely a couple as Jen and Denny were right, and reason was wrong. Their hearts had reasons that reason didn’t recognize, and they listened to their hearts.
The girls appeared in rapid succession about a year apart, the first less than a year after the marriage. The role of mother suited Jen well and stimulated speculation between the Tipton grandparents that got back to an irritated Jen about how her first marriage might have turned out better, had the attorney and their daughter produced a child soon after their marriage. And the attorney had been an Episcopalian.
After awhile Denny started to resent the in-laws who enfolded him in their broad, smothering wings, whose warmth he came increasingly to depend on as his means did not appreciate as rapidly as his debts. The dyed-in-the-wool liberal resisted the easy prodigality, the soul-sapping and ball-crunching prodigality, which the Tiptons lavished on their small family. The professor resisted, but he did accept. He accepted and he wrote, thinking in his muddled way that his well-received articles about the idealism of the sixties expiated the indulgence of dependency.
Occasionally Denny thought he picked Jen because she reminded him of the simpler, headier days when he first passed as an adult. She remained as idealistic as he was back then, before the burden of Generation X settled on him. He wondered why she hadn’t reignited for this election. Was it his influence? Once, four years ago, happy as sailors after a long voyage, they came together in supporting an unlikely candidate for president. They stood on the front edge of a miracle year. Of course now the situation was back to normal: all fucked up. But what audacity they had, hoping for change.
Denny realized that Jen was networking much like his groups had in the sixties, although they networked by travel, telephone and mail. In 2008 she became a wired-in, participatory sort of bystander at first, navigating her way around the easy links provided by the websites in support of Obama. “MyCandidate,” she clicked. Obama became her candidate, hers and a thousand others, a Gen X throwback to the onrushing Millennials, and then suddenly there were a hundred thousand others, but he still remained hers, personally. The site solicited her opinion, and she started giving it. She stepped up to the next level, which the site also conveniently provided. She could blog, she could find allies in her neighborhood, and she could see if her friends had already discovered their mutual enthusiasms. More often than not they hadn’t, and Jen netted them for the Obama campaign. She could break up fights, dry tears and coo her way through one-sided conversations, then steal a moment to return to the linked-in world of hopeful politics.
Thinking about his work on the first revolutionaries and the young rebels of the sixties, and the thousands whom Obama summoned only four years earlier, Denny wondered if their networking and protesting meant anything anymore. Sometimes he imagined that if he tried, he could figure out what revolution and grassroots rebirth could mean today. But as soon as the thought came it would vanish again into the cheerless mist of his disappointment.
[Falling Together on Amazon]