[P]unishment is fickle—it strikes or spares unpredictably—and so, too, is forgiveness.
–Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “Why Won’t Twitter Forgive Suey Park?“
But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark, slimy path
Where lie secrets I never want to know.
–Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
Allow me to digress, Fickle Readers, from my usual panoply of zany Shakespeare banter and bitter rantings about illness and the writing life. Stories like this one, about how Josh Duggar sexually molested five girls, four of whom were his sisters, tend to spring up in my backwater domain (all too often these days). Such stories fester in my mind, maybe because I have this overwhelming urge to rewrite them, or at least make sure they end the way I want them to.
The Duggar clan have long been on my radar of People to Investigate and Be Horrified at. You may know the Duggars best as the stars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, although there were many one-off specials about the family in their somewhat less-plentiful incarnations. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, the parents of the household, are part of the Quiverfull movement, a fundamentalist Christian sect that believes in having as many babies as possible for the glory of God and also in imposing their religious practices on everyone within reach. The Quiverfull people are isolationist and homeschool their kids, but apparently not so isolationist that they can’t try to influence American politics. Jim Bob was an Arkansas congressman from 1999 to 2002, and until yesterday Josh Duggar–the oldest of the Duggar children–was a member of the Family Research Council, a prominent lobbying organization that works against rights for gay and transgendered people and often claims that LGBT people are child molesters.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
But I’m not here to discuss how vile the whole situation is, or how revolting it is that people who claim to love children allowed their fourteen-year-old son to live with the four daughters he violated (and there were only five daughters, between twelve and eight years old, at the time this happened) after they sent their son for a three-month stay with a family friend who rehabs houses. (According to the police report, Jim Bob claimed that this was “Christian counseling.”)
Instead, I’d like to talk about the term “nice.”
It seems to me that we need to redefine the word nice to reflect what the word really describes. Most of the time, being nice is equated with being good. It is not. Nice is a way of behaving, a way of appearing, a way of putting the people you meet at ease with you and with their environment. Nice is a mask you wear in public. It’s a way of smiling and dressing, wearing your hair, explaining the mundane details of your life.
None of these things has any bearing on the private morality or behavior of nice people. Case in point: the Duggars. Even in the early TLC specials, which my husband and I watched like rubberneckers on a highway, I was incensed at how these so-called loving parents treated their daughters like slaves. One or two of these tiny girls would be tasked with cooking for the entire household, while the older ones cared for the babies their mother produced every six months. The girls’ chores were cooking, cleaning, washing the clothes, while the boys of the household did one-off tasks, like taking out the trash. And the bright, shining star of the brood was the oldest son, Josh, who narrated the details of his family’s wonderful life with a self-satisfied smirk.
So these parents who push their daughters like workhorses while their sons have real childhoods get money, houses, TV appearances, while other large families around the country struggle to make ends meet. Why? Because the Duggars are Nice. I even had a family friend, whom I love dearly and respect, rave to me about how nice and down-to-earth Michelle Duggar was. But does Nice entitle this family to all the care, attention, and the support they’ve gotten over the years? Should they be praised for being Nice?
I think we all know the answer to that. The Duggars may be nice, but they’re neither good nor righteous nor godly. The revelation that Josh Duggar had been molesting girls came in 2002, right at the end of Jim Bob’s term as congressman. He waited a year to tell his church, and the church members waited several months more to report it to the police. Apparently, they knew just the right policeman to report this information to–one that let Josh off with a “stern talking to”–because no charges were filed then, and now that same police officer is serving 56 years in prison for child pornography. The investigation that produced the police report now circulating on the internet only occurred because an anonymous whistle-blower emailed Oprah about the situation in 2006, right before the Duggars were going to appear on her show. The year 2006 was also when the Duggars moved into their giant house built for them by TLC. Recently, when the Washington Post sent a FOIA request to get the police report published first by InTouch, they received a notice that one of the victims had requested that the report be destroyed–on the same day the Post sent their request.
Notice a pattern here? The Duggars may be Nice, but they’re not about morality or Christian love. They’re all about power.
Nice is a functional behavior in society, but don’t be fooled. Nice is never a synonym for good.
UPDATE: Wouldn’t you know Stephen Sondheim got to the moral of my post before I did? Alert readers on Facebook noticed the resemblance between my last line and some lyrics from Into the Woods:
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different from good.
The speaker is Little Red Riding Hood, describing her dark epiphany in “I Know Things Now.” I could point out the similar conclusions Red Riding Hood draws about being careful around Nice people, or the association of predatory urges with a “nice” facade. But I think I’ll let you Fickle Readers out there make your own judgments.
One thing I will say: I never thought the Duggars were particularly exciting, but they were scary to me. Maybe that’s why I tuned in to their shows. (Thankfully, however, it looks like I won’t be tempted to tune in anymore.)
This comes from a book Little Fickle has been reading: Mr. Sunny Is Funny!, by Dan Gutman. Note how Shakespeare is defined as the antithesis of everything fun about summer vacation:
That Shakespeare guy made no sense at all. The question isn’t to be or not to be. I’ll tell you what the question is. Do you want ice cream or cake? That is the question. Trick biking or skateboarding? That is the question. TV or video games? That is the question. Would it be better if a piano or an elephant fell on Andrea’s head? That is the question.
Andrea lined up her dumb books on a shelf in ABC order.
“Hey, maybe we can read together on the beach, Arlo!” Andrea said. “What did you bring for summer reading?”
Summer reading?! What is her problem? “Summer” and “reading” are two words that should never be put together in the same sentence. The only reading I brought was a comic book that I finished in the car. It was about a superhero named Mold Man who can turn his body into any shape. He’s cool. I bet Mold Man would kick Shakespeare’s butt.
…I hung one more year on the line.
–Paul Simon, “Have a Good Time”
So now I’m the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. My husband, Inspector Spacetime, reached this age last month, and he doesn’t seem to be more enlightened yet. Maybe it takes a while to kick in.
Anyway, to celebrate my first full day of being a brand new age, here are a sampling of the callouts I’ve wanted to make for a while. I haven’t gotten around to writing them all down because I’ve either been chasing after small children, playing with poetry, lying around in a semi-conscious haze, or just generally being insane:
First, I’ve had some nifty Publication News in the past couple of months! (You know the Goddamned Writing Life? Sometimes it ain’t so bad.) I had a horror poem, “Mother Killer,” published in Spectral Realms, along with many a fine spec poet, such as Ann K. Schwader, F.J. Bergmann, Marge Simon, Mike Allen, and spec-poetry bigwig Bruce Boston.
I also had not one, but TWO essays published this spring: the first, “Rape Stories,” is a reprint from Mid-American Review but made its official Internet debut in Hippocampus Magazine, a journal devoted to memory and memoir. I have to say I couldn’t be happier about this publication. Not only did Hippocampus provide a new forum for a piece that is really important to me, the layout folks on staff found a picture of the fountain from my old stomping ground in Rome, where the essay happens to be set. Many, many heartfelt thanks to whoever found that picture. Even though I wrote about some fairly dark topics, the fountain itself takes me back to a beautiful time and place.
The second essay, “Dead,” appeared in the 2015 issue of Moon City Review, which isn’t online but can be ordered here. A really gorgeous journal, which also includes a piece by Curtis Smith, an amazing writer and all-around beautiful guy who incidentally helped me work on the very essay that appears in MCR. Lots more deep and heartfelt thanks to Curtis, whose workshop did so much to boost my confidence when I felt like I was starting from square zero.
Back to Hippocampus: this month, I had the overwhelmingly self-esteem-boosting experience of opening an email about a journal’s latest issue to see my name listed as a contributor. Yes, in case you missed the umpteen times I announced this in the past week, I’m officially on the schedule of Hippocampus reviewers, and my very first review appears here. The book is Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Light of the World,” a stunning piece of writing that shows what extraordinary innovations a poet can bring to prose. Definitely a must-read.
Two last things: as a birthday gift, I finally got the Poet Tarot, which is in fact a pack of Tarot cards plus a guidebook for “creative exploration.” This nifty item is produced by Two Sylvias Press, which is also currently running its poetry chapbook prize. (I personally covet the trophy they give out with the award, but I’m not sure I have anything on hand that’s especially prize-winning.) And I must say, I’m SO looking forward to playing with my Tarot cards and seeing what happens. I looked through them already and noticed a certain Mr. W.S. is not among the poets represented. Very ballsy, ladies!
And finally, April is over but the PoMoSco poems will be up for one more month! Here’s the official wrap-up post discussing the 3000+ poems that were written, plus links to some favorite individual pieces. Though my own work isn’t featured here, you should still explore the site for some excellent poetry! (And if you think I’ve forgotten about my proposed list of ruminations on my own found poems of April, oh how very wrong you are. I may just pick a few I like or want to grumble about, or I may write about them all in one lump, but you can be sure you’ll get bugged about them, yessirree!)
From her excellent blog, The View from Sari’s World:
We know this play is about the fickle nature of love. Shakespeare seems to be lecturing his audience on the frailty of love and just how easy it is to transfer one’s emotions from lover to lover. On a deeper level, we are reminded that over the course of our lives we can be different people to different lovers, and vice versa; what attracts us or makes us attractive to others can change over time. For some reason this train of thought led me to Bottom. He too wants to be several players on this world’s stage, and Shakespeare lets him. Bottom is our fool, a dreamy lover, a wise man, and would be troubadour. Bottom’s antics mirror that of the over all plot. Like the lovers he is fickle and easily distracted by the next thing. Who he is and what he wants depends on whom he is with.
–Sari Nichols, “A midsummer night’s dream, Bottom style“
I dream of my childhood cats, Kate and Daisy, on a regular basis. I have no idea why. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say my subconscious obsession with them has to do with making sure they’re adequately taken care of. When I was growing up, we had many, many rules about how to treat the cats. And since we adopted Kate when I was seven and Daisy when I was ten, I felt as much personal responsibility for their welfare as my mother did, because so much of the time, it was just my mother and me.
The biggest rule was that we couldn’t let the cats go outside. We lived on a busy street, and my mother, who had raised her first cat in a trailer park, didn’t know how to go about keeping the new kittens out of danger. So they were officially indoor cats, except when we took them out on harnesses and leads and let them play in the backyard. This created the added complication that the cats knew what the outdoors were like, and they wanted to go out at all times. So there was always the danger that they would rush the front door and slip out when no one was looking. And when they weren’t rushing the door, they meowled plaintively whenever the sun shone, and they were so trained by the words “go outside” that you couldn’t use those two words together in any other context. If you forgot, you’d have the two of them queued up by the back door in seconds, meowling plaintively, forcing you to do what they wanted. (And if you’re saying to yourself, “They were just cats,” you have no idea of the emotional pull of a cat’s desire, or its effect on an anxious human mother.)
In most of my recent cat dreams, my mother has adopted a vast array of cats and kittens and keeps them in some hidden part of her house, like the basement. I don’t remember where all these cats came from, but I’m always a little irked that she has so many, and she’s not paying enough attention to them like she should. Inevitably, I’ll come across Kate and/or Daisy (usually it’s Kate, the one who came to us first and died last). I’ll realize I myself forgot that one or both of them are still around, and often they’ll be remote, like they don’t know me anymore, and that will be my fault. Sometimes I get mad at my mother, as if she’s been keeping Kate away from me, making me forget, making me neglect her.
Last night, my dream was a little different. I was in my first house, a duplex with 70s-green low-pile carpet and a kitchen that, size-wise, was more like a glorified hallway. I had a young stepfather, who was going around trying to take care of the place, stacking things up on top of the fridge when the pile fell over, repairing things that broke. I noticed some water on the carpet and told my stepdad that the fridge needed help again. Then I found four huge, wet dents in the carpet by the wall. They were muddy, like the mossy pools you might find in a cave. My stepfather took a knife and tried to cut the carpet away, but with the first tear the floor started collapsing. My mother shouted. I shouted. He managed not to fall, but now there was a giant hole in the floor, and that hole led into our garage, where the door was open. I mentioned something about blocking off the hole so the cats couldn’t get out, and as soon as the words left my mouth Daisy leaped through the floor, onto the concrete below, and scurried out to freedom. I yelled even louder, Daisy got out!, and off my mother and I went to find her. Across the street, there was a park with all kinds of calico cats and brown-and-white dogs, but we couldn’t find Daisy. She was so dumb. She couldn’t take care of herself. And I couldn’t find her. All I knew how to do was search and call her name, Daisy! Daisy! Daisy! But my voice was muffled, and my words didn’t go anywhere.
I wish I knew what this dream is supposed to be telling me. If it’s about neglecting my physical health–in dreams, the body is often represented by houses–or if it’s about having too much to do, starting too many projects to keep up with, letting things slip away undone–which is often how I live my life these days. I suppose the dream could also be showing how my current life is tapping into old ways of thinking and being that don’t work anymore. I’ve simplified my life a great deal since I was younger. I don’t have a cat, mostly because my husband is allergic, but I don’t know that I would want the responsibility of taking care of one, anyway. I remember the sickening smell of their food, the hyperanxious focus on the door (Come in! Don’t just stand in the doorway! You’ll LET THE CATS OUT!!!), and I want nothing of it. Maybe that means I’m lazy or not a cat person after all. Or maybe I just like to organize my life around the principle of stasis as much as time and reality will allow. There are piles of junk all over my house. Some have been there for many years. I should clean them up one day, but there’s no rush. There’s nothing rotting, nothing dangerous, nothing that needs immediate attention in any of these accumulations of stuff. It’s not pretty, but it’s not forcing me to chase after it, either.