My maternal grandfather was a man who, fighting with capitalism and losing more than he ever won, managed, almost daily to outwit bitterness. In temperament he was split straight down the middle by two centuries. His “can do” optimism was of the late 19th century; his mechanical aptitude was a thing of the 20th. He built motor cars and motorcycles before World War I, first in Cleveland and then in Brockton, Massachusetts. By the time the war ended Henry Ford had put him out of business and his fortune was gone because he’d invested in the Russian Czarist government.
It’s not my intention to sentimentalize him. He was broke by the roaring twenties. He patented some gizmos that became integral to the manufacture of airplanes and so he hung on. He was able to keep a roof over his head and feed his family. And during the depression my mother remembered him saying over breakfast, “what can be done today?”
Again, without self-indulgence, it’s a good question. I ask it daily and this has helped me throughout my disabled life–for I’ve been unemployed, have lived in section 8 housing, have survived on social security disability, have been discriminated against in employment, and throughout it all, and without moist, David Copperfield-ish brio I’ve managed to think like William T.. Marsh, the oddest of men, who, often having next to nothing, saw each day as a potential adventure. He had white privilege, being Boston Irish. He had just enough residual dough to keep the wolves from his door, though once, a tax collector appeared and W.T. offered him a cocktail laced with dynamite–not enough to kill him, but just enough to send him home wiping his brow with a handkerchief. W. T. was rascally and he loved explosives but unlike contemporary white extremists who horde dynamite he didn’t have any grievances. “What can be done today?” His version of this question was optimistic.
Now grievances matter. Knowing how you’re being screwed is a survival skill to be sure. The man in question didn’t think in generalities however. For him, the tax collector didn’t represent the whole government. When he blew up a Western Union telegraph pole (dynamite again) he did it because it was a blight on the landscape–his. And when the telegraph men came around he said he’d never seen the pole and had no idea it was ever there. He didn’t shoot them. Nor did he offer them cocktails.
He didn’t believe in conspiracies. If times were hard they also offered opportunity. In this way he was creative and like all creatives he understood pessimism was his biggest enemy.
George Bernard Shaw wrote: “a pessimist is a man who thinks everybody is as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.”
My grandfather really didn’t hate anyone. And while I’ve no evidence that he ever read Oscar Wilde he’d have agreed “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
He wouldn’t understand contemporary American pessimism and its associated cults of grievance. He’d likely say to the Trump crowd, “go build something and shut up.”
But don’t build a wall, it ruins the view….