Thursday, January 26, 2017

Richard Ford / The Diary

Richard Ford
Poster by T.A.

The Diary: Richard Ford

The American author talks about gun laws, culture wars, and plague spores

OCTOBER 12, 2012 
by: Richard Ford

Of all things spinning out of control in the US, packaging is clearly the most dire. It’s impossible now to get anything you buy in America open. A package of chewing gum. A vacuum-sealed, clear-plastic cardboard sleeve, inside of which is a shiny socket wrench. A bright Mylar packet containing 14 lightly salted peanuts and openable only with my teeth – like a chimp. I had to use a box cutter to stab my way through the tungsten-steel plastic encasing a padlock I’d bought to keep thieves from stealing my motorcycle. When I got through the first layer, I found I’d created numerous edges so sharp that I sliced deep into my finger “causing” me to lose my temper and throw the package across the room, breaking a lamp. Security, I suppose, is the theory. Not mysecurity, but the retailers’ – from, I guess, theft? Lawsuits? Designed difficulty in operating a childproof Mylanta bottle impedes its hasty use, thus protecting the lives of inadequately looked-after tots and fending off litigation. I’d gladly sign a waiver saying all injuries are my lookout, if I can just get into my Ibuprofen-PM bottle at 2am.

Illustration by Alex Williamson

When I was in college in the 1960s I went to school with a bunch of boys who studied packaging engineering the way I studied Milton and Hardy. Admittedly, this was at Michigan State. They didn’t offer packaging classes at Harvard and Princeton. Packaging wasn’t a science then, it was just a way of putting things attractively inside something else. People hadn’t yet started dusting cyanide powder and bubonic plague spores into Cheetos’ packs. All we had was the bomb then. But these boys saw a vertiginous future out ahead and knew they wanted to be a part of it. They were going to become the people who sealed things safely off from other things and in so doing made the world safer for democracy.

Berlin diary snippet from my ongoing book tour. Walking along Friedrichstrasse last week in a cold, soughing rain toward the Brandenburg Gate, not so far from Checkpoint Charlie, I passed a clutch of laughing German kids, skipping arm-in-arm down the pavement, singing “Mr Gorbachev, tear down your wall” to the tune of “Happy Birthday To You”.

Before President Obama scored his unhappy “own goal” in the first debate, I was thinking about what might happen to the Republicans if they lost the election. More than in most political seasons, the rightwing has staked it all on being able to create an “entity” out of comically ill-fitting parts – nutcase birthers, gay-marriage haters, anti-government and anti-tax fanatics, gun nuts, a smattering of reluctantly legitimate Romney supporters, plus a few grumpy GOP moderates who can’t think of what else to do with the vote they inherited from their old man. Quite a colourful circus tent. Nobody, including the Republicans, thinks this comprises a real political party – the kind where members sort of think the same about stuff. All they jointly hold dear is a race-tinged abhorrence of our not-inept, but not-entirely-ept-either, chief executive, whom they can’t believe was ever elected in the first place. But if Obama gets elected again, and their cocked-up contraption teeters over on to its side, then I was thinking they don’t really have much left for the future, except cross-eyed bitterness. But I now think that’s wrong. They’ll just throw a few of the noisier birthers and gay-bashers over the side, spasm smilingly back toward the middle and call that “new unity”. This may bespeak an actual virtue of a vast, ungovernable country like ours, able to absorb most discords into an accommodating mediocrity. Though there’s the new question now: what happens if the bastards win? Do they actually govern? How?

My wife and I just moved into a fancy new apartment smack in the middle of Harlem – placing us among the new throng of white people who are “gentrifying” this formerly mostly black and politically significant section of north Manhattan. Rents are cheaper – for now. And I, of course, love the “diversity”, the hectic street life, the clamour, the buzz of implication, the edginess, the authenticity that life elsewhere in New York lacks – all the things we liberals feel good about as we try to live out our dreams of equality. Of course, I shouldn’t feel comfortable at all: four murders, 10 shootings, all gang-related, on our street this year. “Them” shooting “them” – though I could easily get in the way. In practical terms, living out my dreams of equality means living inside a white enclave enclosed and uninvited within a larger black enclave, outside of which is a larger white society where I’m – at least for another moment or two – in the majority. We’ll see how my dreams work out when the numbers get reversed.

Where I was teaching last year, at the University of Mississippi, it became known to me that it was now legal for my students to bring concealed weapons to class. Loaded pistols. I know … it’s “impossible to imagine such a thing happening in Oxford or Cambridge”. This gun news was information I didn’t quite know what to do with. Should I just not even show up? (I’m too cowardly, plus they wouldn’t pay me, and I needed the money.) It was a fiction writing course, so should I maybe tone down my criticisms – in case somebody might not like what I say and decide to shoot me? It gives a new spin to the notion of “teacher evaluations”.

I was, after all, teaching the class, acting as the authority figure, so shouldn’t I be armed too? Be fully prepared to engage the students’ savage need to learn? This poses a new problem in pedagogy: the student as assailant. Is this just a “symptom” (everything’s a symptom, nothing’s ever just what it is) of the US falling further behind the studious Chinese and the quick-witted Indians in college achievement? “Arming oneself for the future” taken literally?

Richard Ford will talk about his latest novel ‘Canada’ (Bloomsbury) on October 18 at the South Bank Centre, London;

An interview with Richard Ford will be published in FT Weekend Magazine on October 20

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