Thursday, April 19, 2012


April 19, 2012:

Lorraine and I happened to be in Virginia when the business came up about forcing women who wanted abortions to have an ultrasound probe inserted painfully in their vaginas beforehand--and be forced to look at whatever state the foetus was in. While we were there the Governor began to back down, but it was clear that it wasn't because he thought the proposed law was outrageous. It was because he was catching too much flack in the national media. A number of other states already have this or a similar law trying to limit a woman's right to an abortion; and of course there are laws about contraception getting passed, too, and it's becoming clearer and clearer that the Republican party is growing increasingly aggressive toward the right of women to control their own bodies.

I have written about this subject before, objecting on constitutional grounds to the imposition of religious beliefs on American citizens. Abortion is essentially a religious issue; certain religions claim that the foetus is a "person" at conception, because that, supposedly, is when God implants the soul into the foetus, and therefore to destroy the foetus is murder. How human beings are supposed to know what God does when is never explained, because it can't be explained; it's nothing more than a belief, and like all beliefs it is no absolute. It has a history, even in the Catholic church, where one finds it at its most strident. St. Thomas Aquinas had no problem with abortion before the "quickening," which is when the infant starts to move and kick inside the mother's body. It wasn't until much later, the nineteenth century, if I remember correctly, that the church decided to condemn abortion no matter when it was performed. And at all times in history women have found ways to terminate pregnancies despite beliefs or the law. Before I was born in 1936 my own mother tried to abort me, using herbs and hot baths and whatever else she could find in the stock of traditional abortifacients; my parents already had a child, they were struggling to survive, they didn't think they could afford me. Obviously I made it into the open, but I have never blamed her. It wasn't personal. I wasn't who I am yet; I was just tissue. And after I was born they loved me with as much tenderness and care as they loved my brother.

I read an article some years ago written by a philosopher that put this business in what I thought was proper perspective. Suppose, this writer said, that you woke up one morning to find yourself hooked up with tubes and whatever else was required to keep him alive to a famous violinist, and standing over you was a policeman who said, "Here's the story. It's your job to nurture this violinist here for the next nine months, when you'll be unhooked and free of him; but in the meantime you have no choice, he's yours, you're his, and that's that." As this writer correctly pointed out, no court in the land would enforce such a situation. No one is obliged to sacrifice one's freedom for the sake of another, even at the cost of that other person's life. You may choose to do so, but that's entirely up to you. You cannot be forced. Not in law.

So on what grounds can we force women to do precisely this when they're pregnant? Even if they were carrying a famous violinist, manifestly a person, you could not force them. And there's no proof, indeed no evidence, that the foetus is a person. That's merely a belief, specifically a religious belief, and the Constitution separates religious belief from the state definitively.

In life as it is lived women will get abortions no matter what. Including women who don't "believe" in abortion. I read a story recently about a woman who demonstrated every day opposite an abortion clinic against abortions, bringing a stepladder to the demonstration so she could make her voice heard more loudly. Then one day she showed up inside the clinic. She needed an abortion. She got one. Two days later she was back on her stepladder. I heard another story from a friend of a friend about a Mafia wife who was also dead set against abortion, until she found out that her teenage son had gotten his girlfriend pregnant. She herself drove the girl to the abortion clinic. Did she change her opposition to abortion? Guess what: no.

The level of hypocrisy on this issue is, in other words, high. As women are fond of pointing out, if men got pregnant too this would not be an issue at all, and abortions would be routine everywhere in the U. S. Make abortions illegal again, and the same thing will happen as before. People with money will send their daughters abroad for their abortions, or their doctors will hook them up with reliable private abortionists, while the poor will go to the back alleys and get it down with clothes hangers. I know a woman driven to that; it was a botched job; she could never have children after. I know another who had such an abortion and had to submit to a rape first, by the abortionist. And let me tell you my story, or rather my first wife's story. She was two weeks pregnant when she was in an automobile accident, her skull was fractured and bones in her knee were broken. The ambulance rushed her to the hospital where, unconscious, she was x-rayed from head to toe to find out what had happened to her body. She did not know at the time she was pregnant. But she was a nurse, and she did know that x-rays have a 50-50 chance of causing major deformities in a foetus so undeveloped. She was a working mother; I was a working father. Abortion was illegal in this country. It had just been legalized in England, however. We found a group of sympathetic Protestant ministers--religious people, got that?--who were referring people in our situation, or situations like it, to doctors in England; we got in touch with them; a Methodist minister talked to us, gave us a phone number, we put our kids in the care of my parents, and within a week we were in London. The doctor wanted to know why we needed the abortion. We told him why. He scheduled it for the next day.

America is a barbaric country in so many ways, violent, ignorant, full of unreason, but surely the religious absolutism that infects so large a proportion of the population is one of its worst character traits. We constantly talk about freedom, but do not hesitate to impose our belief systems on others. The hardest thing to find on the religious right seems to be compassion. One looks at the sayings and teachings of Jesus and then at vaginal ultrasound and you wonder how they can go to church and pray to that gentle man, or pretend to believe they can be like him. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Oh, really? Well then, if you were poor, would you hope somebody would help you? Or would you be OK with tax laws that grotesquely favor the rich and beat up on the poor? Walk a mile in the shoes of a jobless poor man. Walk a mile in a woman's shoes, get pregnant, give birth to children you can't support, can't educate, can't give a decent life. A rich man has as much chance to get into heaven as a camel has of getting through the eye of a needle. So why do you worship wealth, worship the Almighty Dollar, bend all policy to favor the rich? Morally it is more than grotesque; there's a kind of active evil inside these policies, a crescendo of hypocrisy that leads on the political level to deep disgust, and the terminal cynicism that brings nations down. Count on it: if your daughter needs an abortion, you're going to get it for her no matter what your ideology, or your so-called religous belief, or whatever other authoritarian impulse drives you. The Founders had vivid memories of what governments steeped in religion do to people, and the First Amendment is very clear on the subject. Are you religious? Fine. Believe whatever you want. But keep it to yourself. Don't try to impose it on the rest of us. You have no right.

Monday, April 9, 2012


April 9, 2012:

When I was sixteen or seventeen I used to go over to the golf course on the other side of town and try to get caddying jobs, hoping to make a little money. I didn't play golf, didn't know much about the game, and couldn't recommend a particular club for a particular shot. I was good only for carrying bags. Not a job I was born to, obviously. And I came to dislike golfers, most of whom, in my admittedly limited experience, seemed to be unusually rude, or often in sour moods. Worse than that, they all had money, yet many of them didn't tip. It was my first real experience of the upper middle-class. I didn't like them. After that I was never tempted to play golf, or to watch it on television. And that continued through most of my adult life. Watching golf is like watching grass grow, I was told many times, and I agreed.

But then I chanced across the end of a tournament on TV one Sunday afternoon when I was channel surfing and stopped to watch one of the leading players--I think it was Phil Mickelson--seal up a victory on the last hole, where he needed only two putts to win, and then watched in amazement as he blew up and three-putted the hole, even though his last putt was less than a foot from the hole. And this was a guy who was really good at this game. I was impressed. Here was something I could relate to--blowing it big time when it counted. Who doesn't do that from time to time? I certainly have. I finally realized that this was an interior game, maybe the most interior of all. Your only opponent is yourself, your nerves, the level of your skill. Your opponents are fighting their own demons; you're fighting yours. The fact that so many pros in the game use sports psychologists doesn't surprise me. Huge amounts of prize money are at stake, you're trying to get this little white ball into a cup that's located three or four or five hundred yards away, the fairways are surrounded by trees, deep rough, there are sand traps, water hazards, and thousands of people may be standing around watching your every move, and par must seem like at least one shot too cruel. Not to mention below par.

After that when Pace, our neighbor, invited me over to watch Sunday afternoons, I often went. Pace plays golf and she's very good at it, usually winning tournaments in her age group. We're of an age, so the age group is not at all young, but still she bangs through a course in the 90s and sometimes less, knows the professionals both male and female, and it's fun to watch the game with her. And then there's the beauty of the courses. I watched a good part of the Masters this past weekend, saw Bubba Watson win in a playoff and watched the tension pour out of him after he sank his last putt in tears he couldn't control, sobbing in his caddy's arms, and it was quite moving. I know what that feels like. Every time I turn in a story I wait with that kind of tension in me to hear that it's acceptable, that they like it, they're going to publish it and pay me for it. Performance is all. And all this took place in one of the most beautiful settings in America: Augusta National, in Georgia. It just takes your breath away; as an example of landscape design, I think it's nearly unmatched: rolling greensward, majestic old trees, everything beautifully groomed. It reminds me of the eighteenth-century English landscapes designed by Capability Brown. It reminds me of Paradise. It feels like Paradise, too. Golfers have a code of conduct that's unusual in sports: they're polite, they report their own infractions of the rules even when they're inadvertent, even when they're unseen, they step over or around the line between their opponents' balls and the holes when they're on the greens, they wait patiently for others to line up their shots, and they generally speak well of each other. Temper tantrums are frowned upon; indeed, they're fined for them. It's stately, dignified, and yet all this intensity is wrapped up in all that formality. That's what art is, intensity wrapped up in beauty and formality. And this Paradise even has its Adam, its fallen man, in the great Tiger Woods, the best of them all, the ur-golfer, who lost his cool and his mojo when his wife caught him cheating on her, not just with one woman but with many, and apparently came after him with one of his own golf clubs. Tiger has yet to recover from his fall; one wonders if he ever will.

Okay, I'm not an idiot. These are country clubs, after all, not utopias, and the country club mentality is one of the banes of this country's existence; it feeds the elitism, the isolationism, and the arrogance of American wealth. Augusta National still won't admit women to membership. The first time Tiger Woods played there, in a tournament, they wouldn't let him in the gate the first day he came to practice. The sport is international and you see people from all over the world on the course now, including V. J. Singh, who's Polynesian, and any number of Korean pros. More blacks will appear, I imagine, as more reach a point where they can afford the game.

But make no mistake, golf is hardly a sport representative of the racial mix in this country, or the economic mix. Still, it has become one of my favorite sports to watch, and I make no apology for it. All that intensity, that interior passion, masked, managed, contained and put to the service of a golf swing. That's what writing can be like at its best: the passion you bring to a subject, and to the craft, contained, restrained, directed. You will sometimes see a pro make a 35- or 40-foot putt on an impossible curving line across an undulating green and pump his arm when it drops. I have done the same when I've gotten the words right. I do it at my desk, but these guys get to do it in these gorgeous settings. Yes! you exclaim to yourself, and you thank the gods for your luck at being able to do what you do, and for the gift, and the time, to practice your skills.