An essay in ten parts:
“Would I what?’
“I don’t understand.”
“Could somebody make you answer ‘Yes’ to ‘Would you?’ no matter what?”
“Always and without question?”
Mrs. Mitchell was a boxy woman. To a fourth grader, she was a big box, but she had rounded edges and used her soft, smiling side with me. She was not, however, immune to policy. She had to insist I eat the square of boiled cabbage on my tray. It smelled of eggs gone wrong or the local refinery’s worst day.
Generally, I’d drink my milk quickly, and when Mrs. Mitchell wasn’t looking, I’d hide a couple of forkfuls in the carton. That would be enough for Mrs. Mitchell to move on in her smiling patrol, but one day she caught me stowing some cabbage and told me to eat the rest. I could see she wanted to be nice, and I told her it would make me sick. She asked if I’d ever tasted boiled cabbage. When I said no, she asked how a fourth grader could find out what he enjoyed if he never tried new food?
I started to gag on the first bite, my stomach lurching as if it meant to start a race without me. The smell—a cloud of sulfurous purgative—set me off, and the texture—I imagined the inside of bugs—finished me off. I survived the second bite, but nothing could hold my gut back.
Mrs. Mitchell stayed out of my lunch after that.
My workplace isn’t extraordinary. Meetings with colleagues slide through patches of absolute and smooth solidarity, but when we disagree, the brakes lock and everything pitches to a washboard stop.
We have convictions. Each of us is married to his or her own way, and opposition turns us to the task of persuading others. We have reasons, we assert, and as they reel out, listeners busy themselves with refutation. We normally conclude to use our own best judgment, but when we don’t, our discussions depart from the matter at hand. We initiate a quest for dominance no one can admit. We discover whose point of view will subsume or overpower the others, which of us will receive concessions and which of us will not.
Don’t get the idea I’m innocent in this. In fact, I may be the worst.
Scientists who study wolves have soured on “alpha wolf.” They use the term to describe breeders, those who contribute genetic material to the perpetuation of the pack. No one wolf holds that post, and, though in larger packs one breeder might defer to another in a recognizable hierarchy, survival in the wild often relies on diversity, redundancy.
Behaviorally, however, dominance and submission appear often. One wolf raises his ears and tail, another flattens his ears and lowers his tail, takes a lower stance, crouches, rolls over to expose his belly, looks away slightly, and, in some cases, dribbles some urine.
Children learn early on that friends acquiesce. When I was eight, Harley Ross always wanted to play baseball. My hand-eye coordination was poor, the game was complicated and strange with just two players, and usually involved much too much exertion for a hot Texas summer. Still, I played, pitching to Harley over and over as he filled and emptied the bases with ghost runners.
By the time I came up to bat, Harley had bored of the game. He’d ask if I wanted to come inside, drink some lemonade, and watch T.V. I had no trouble acquiescing there.
Can anyone convince anyone else how to feel? What if people are only susceptible to persuasion when they are indifferent or confused?
John Dewey, the champion of progressive education and philosopher, wrote a letter to his wife Alice on October 10, 1894 about an encounter with Jane Addams, the Chicago reformer and pioneer of social work. Addams was “blue” Dewey said, because she’d lost the financial support of an important local businessman over her remarks about the Pullman strike. The supporter told Addams she shouldn’t have mixed herself in something that was none of her business. In a clumsy attempt at consolation, Dewey suggested the antagonism of institutions like labor and capital were not only inevitable but also necessary to arriving at the truth. Dissent, he suggested, is the engine of change.
Addams’ response, Dewey told his wife, was startlingly calm and composed. She said that antagonism wasn’t inevitable at all and, in fact, was always pointless and detrimental. Antagonism, she asserted, never arises entirely from “objective differences” because those could be resolved simply or, if left alone, blend over time. Addams believed antagonism arose instead from “A person’s mixing in his own personal reactions—the extra emphasis he gave the truth, the enjoyment he took in doing a thing because it was unpalatable to others, or the feeling that one must show his own colors and not be a moral coward.” Every argument, in others words, invariably reverts to emotion and ego.
On whether antagonism was necessary to the growth of ideas, Addams told Dewey conflict was, “Always unreal and instead of adding to the recognition of meaning, it delayed and distorted it.”
Dewey tells his wife, “She converted me internally… I never had anything take hold of me so, and at the time it didn’t impress me as anything wonderful; it was only the next day it began to dawn on me.” Two days later he writes Jane Addams to apologize and says, “Not only is actual antagonism bad, but the assumption that there is or may be antagonism is bad.”
I wish I had been there. One great brain moving another with barely a nudge.
Sasha Denninger hated the way I talked, so she decided that we shouldn’t see one another anymore. I was always so oblique, always speaking through analogy or metaphor so she didn’t ever really know what I was thinking or feeling. She thought I was funny and could be charming and affectionate, but none of that was going to overcome her feeling that I was too intellectual and abstract. She liked smart people, she insisted, but she wanted someone who was more than smart.
I hadn’t seen the moment coming. While we’d had arguments, they’d always ended well with one of us apologizing and the other taking part of the blame him or herself. I thought maybe this time, the same would happen, and then we’d go on trying to be a couple.
But, as Sasha spoke, I played with the frayed edge of a throw blanket on her couch. I looked around the apartment and searched for titles I knew on the bookcase. I glanced at her to see if she was crying or had cried. Her mascara clumped slightly in her lower eyelash, but no tears.
“I hoped I might rub off on you somehow,” she was saying.
“I think you have—maybe I don’t show it as much as I should, but you have. Don’t you think we’ll both rub off on each other?”
“God, I hope not,” she said.
A moment comes in racing when, if you’re side by side and stride for stride with another runner, you feel yourself inching ahead or giving way. My coaches always prepared me for those moments with inspirational speeches about “the will to win” and “courage in the face of adversity” and “intestinal fortitude,” but none of those speeches ever meant much when the moment arrived. I was in a different world. After the fact, I could lament or celebrate the outcome of those contests with stories as carefully constructed as my coaches’ speeches, but, at the time, in my heart of hearts, I felt they turned out as they were meant to.
I picture cavemen a lot. They are lounging at the opening of their home and staring at a sky pinked by the sun dipping below the rocks. The air is starting to cool, and they begin to think about fire, the magic and color of its fluid shapes, the smoke that scents their hair, the heat with a face that has to be turned to, the feel of fur and flesh as they gather around it, the sound of laughter and then sleep.
Probably it wasn’t like that, or not like that often. They must have struggled, not just for enough to eat or for shelter from heat, cold, and violent weather, but also for peace among themselves. Assent.
But, in my fantasy, one hand gathering wood turns into many, and one smile ignites many more. They fall in, agreeing without words to what is best done and therefore needs to be done. They accept the battles they will create unawares, but each hopes to win at least enough to survive.
We just want to win.