Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Living Word for a Human Superlative

You know that thing, where somebody’s clock runs out and then we all get together and talk about how cool and rad they were, and how much we enjoyed them and what a difference they made in our lives?

It’s pretty much the most bass-ackwards thing ever, and I’m not up for it. Present tense verbs, people. We have them for a reason.

So here’s the thing. Sandy Thompson is our family’s human superlative. He is a filthy bleeding-heart hippie, an aggressively phlegmatic social instigator, a chronic iconoclast, a mainliner of books and a freebaser of big ideas, a gratuitous hollerer of inappropriate things at inopportune moments, a hot-sauce sommelier and a study in joyful cootery. He is also the most infinitely thoughtful, relentlessly generous, inexhaustibly kind person I know – and that is a tall order.

And of course he didn’t get that way without having to make some hard choices. It’s not as if we make it easy to balance being a sensitive, enlightened sapient AND a belching, snorting, unapologetic man-savage even in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen – and that had to be doubly true back in the Eisenhower days, when both parents wore combat boots and raised the kids with a strictly liver-and-onions lifestyle.

And now more than ever, I’m so glad my generation of Thompsons have gotten to grow up with his living example – because he’s spent his life being what I can only think of as a professional American – a truly artisanal citizen. He reads omnivorously, and re-evaluates his conclusions accordingly. He doesn’t buy into the “four legs good, two legs bad” knee-jerk tribalism that has so many of us treating our preferred political party like a gang membership. He volunteers at the local radio station, signs petitions and makes phone calls on behalf of his local candidates. Most importantly (and this is a mark I STILL can’t hit) he knows how to passionately, absolutely, fundamentally disagree with someone, without losing his temper, his sense of humor, or his respect for the other person’s basic humanity. 

That is so hard to do, y’all. That is the endangered art that we absolutely cannot let go extinct. We need fierce, educated, articulate activists who will go to the mat for their principles. But we also need those same people to fight just as hard within themselves and their own movements – to hold on to empathy and compassion for the people on the other side, to ask questions and listen and consider what unhealed wounds, what legitimate, unaddressed grievances, are festering underneath all the obnoxious rancor. Neurologically speaking, it is one of the hardest things in the world to critique your own team, to admit that the other guy has a point, to deliberately flunk your group’s purity test and risk being ostracized on all sides... and yet that is the test we cannot afford to fail. We can’t afford to sign away our own good judgment and let our team’s dogma machine do the thinking for us. We can’t afford to become the club that it uses to beat down our fellow citizens. Singular self-directed human beings do not trample their neighbors. Stampeding herds do.

Sanford has known that longer than I’ve known how to tie my shoes – and so much more that I haven’t even begun to clue in on. I STILL don’t know how to roll a joint or play a guitar or wear the same tie-dyed T-shirt for a funk-free solid week, and my zydeco-and-birkenstocks game is total weaksauce. And no matter how far I make it in the long run, I will never match the bigness of our Lebowski – our family’s exceptional, irreplaceable, once-a-generational gonzo-humanist Renaissance man.

But my belch-fu is at least good enough to hold the line – and as long as you and me and the rest of us rabble-rousing Yankee wastrels are willing to hang out, drink the beers, shoot the breeze, and give until *somebody* hurts, I expect he’ll be all right with that.

POSTSCRIPT: We got to enjoy Sanford for another four months after I wrote this post. It still wasn't nearly long enough.

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