The Diners

'How Little I have Known You'

For several years, a diverse group of friends gather to share Christmas dinner—academics, artists, physicians, couples and widows. In previous years, dinner talk revolved around toy party favors and small talk about family and health. This year it becomes a spontaneous and sometimes explosive confession of ideas and secrets of lives little known.

FROM THE BOOK: “He’d forgotten how many years they’d gone to Betty’s for Christmas dinner. Not that knowing was all that important. Mostly just curiosity. He’d recently heard someone say on MSNBC—never on Fox News, which he never watched, or he’d read it in the TimesThe New York Times, to which he subscribed—that trying to remember something would keep the brain sharp. He did admit, however, that whatever advantage to his brain there might be, the simple act of wondering indicated a faltering interest in dining at Betty’s. Nor would the woman finishing her makeup in the bathroom remember. He wondered if the woman in the bathroom finishing her makeup also had doubts. Probably both had allowed the dinner to slip, without objection, into the category of ‘custom.’ If he gave it any thought, ‘custom’ had come to mean ‘duty’ with only a remote possibility of pleasure ...”

It was late on Christmas Day, about 1600, light giving way to one of the darkest nights of the year in northern California with no prospect of a full or even half-moon; the forecast called for rain.

The disappearance of light and the presence of rain could be significant to some gathering at Betty’s, particularly if they suffered from SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sad to say, but not even Christmas could provide relief from SAD.

The principal symptoms of SAD (the acronym fits) were fatigue, depression, hopelessness and social withdrawal. The suggested treatment included light therapy (not useful tonight), talk therapy (useful tonight) and unspecified medications: some, Schedule I, likely; others, Schedule III, perhaps.

The symptoms just listed suggest it would not be unreasonable to assume some of Betty’s prospective guests suffered from SAD. For instance, might the disorder account for the reluctance of certain people to attend tonight’s dinner? Taken a step further, would a snoop be likely to find some ‘unspecified medications’ in the bathroom medicine cabinet at the home of ‘wild Gulf Coast shrimp and Pinot’?

§

Doctor Bill Andrews retired after thirty-two years as a general practitioner. His wife, Jessica, a renowned artist, had not yet retired. Tonight, at about 1600 on Christmas Day eve, as the remaining light slipped away, ‘Doc’ Andrews dropped into the bucket seat next to his wife’s, and from behind the wheel of a classic ‘67 Corvette Sting Ray L88, guided the freshly washed and waxed machine (why he did so on a winter day seems odd) protectively onto a narrow two-lane road. Eventually, after some discussion and … well, never mind … they would join ‘wild Gulf Coast shrimp and Pinot’ and a few others at Betty’s annual dinner.

The Andrews’ conversation as they drove included his concern about rumors—which were no longer rumors—of their host’s plan to have The Diners ‘open up’ in some unspecified way.

“When did she tell you about this, Jess?”

“I think two days ago. Please, pay attention to the road, Bill.”

Andrews returned his eyes to the road and tapped his thumbs rhythmically on either side of the steering wheel, thinking.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“I think she’s got some kind of game planned for after dessert.”

“Okay. That might be fun. A bit of a break from previous years.”

“I don’t think she’s having favors, though,” Jessica said quietly, scooching down in her seat in anticipation of his reaction.

“What! Are you serious? Then we’ll have to listen to Alan and Julie drone on about their most recent trip. You know, they never, I mean they never ask anyone what they’re up to. Are they impolite or genuinely not interested?”

“I don’t know, Bill. But that’s not so unusual these days. Alan and Julie are not alone. How many people do we know who ask us questions? I have a tough time thinking of more than one or two. Do we ask them about their lives?”

“Sometimes I wonder why we do this,” he muttered.

Debates about the existence of God or other such imponderables held little interest for Doc Andrews.

 Not so, Alan Skinner.

“Well, I’m not ashamed to say I believe,” Skinner replied to Sarah’s distaste for the topic, ignoring Andrews, but he hadn’t any allies this evening.

Now, Jessica Andrews, whose specialty was watercolor and acrylic painting and who was willing to discuss anything other than religion, tried to back Sarah’s earlier plea, but her challenge to Alan had the opposite effect.

“Come on, Alan! You believe there is someone in the image of the people at this table—I won’t get into the gender thing—who listens to zillions of prayers worldwide every second, sorts them out and satisfies each one according to some heavenly prioritizing arrangement?”

“Mock me if you wish, but I do believe in such power. Look, all the intellectual tools we have cannot explain some things. That’s where faith comes in. We live in an extraordinarily beautiful, mysterious and complex world of systems, of which we understand only a fraction. Such a universe could only have been designed and set in motion by a force beyond us—call it divine, if you want.”

It wasn’t clear if anyone noticed that Alan had snuck in two mathematical concepts: systems and fractions.

“I’m probably a Deist like Jefferson and Adams. And don’t try to sell me on the ‘Big Bang’ theory. Who or what set that firecracker off? Admit it. We don’t know. So, one kind of faith, yours in the ‘Big Bang,’ is little different from my faith in a divinity, for lack of a better word …

“Religion, if expressed and acted on humanely, can be an effective way to discover for yourself what you think and believe to be true.”

Marian Bell-Hunter, one of the widows seated to Tom’s right at the oval table, could no longer keep out of the fray.

“Alan, what the hell does that mean? What you think and believe is personal. Ahh, if only a person’s beliefs stopped there. You can’t have a world where each person believes they alone possess the truth and rationalizes that others must hold to the same. There must be some truths around which whole societies can organize without destroying each other. Maybe those beliefs match yours; maybe not. Otherwise, you’ve got anarchy …

 “And consider this about prayer, which is grounded in faith—faith they will be answered. But what if your prayers go unanswered? That, too, would be ‘God’s Will,’ right? And if it’s ‘God’s Will’ not to answer prayers, yours and countless others, and ‘He,’ or ‘She,’ is going to do whatever ‘He’ or ‘She’ wants regardless of those prayers, why bother praying in the first place?”

Before Alan could reply, Sarah returned to his earlier point, echoing Marian.

“Believing, at least as you explain it, Alan, is really an act of faith, as Marian suggests. But faith is not reality. Saying that you believe something to be true is not proof of anything. Granted, faith is your right … until you try to impose what you believe … what you think is true, without proof, on others. The world has a long history of that kind of fanaticism and its results.”

“I’m not a fanatic, Sarah.”

Sylvia Burns, the other academic widow, could stay silent no longer.

“I once read a piece by George Carlin, or perhaps I saw him perform it during a stand-up TV special. Can’t remember which. It was fundamentally about belief/faith and whether it’s enough for the survival of humankind. For a man raised Catholic, like Carlin, no one can overstate the importance of his belief/faith, as you have said, Alan. But he sees it differently than you, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, a little more humorously. At root, Carlin’s much more nuanced. He sees a duality—the plusses and minuses—in his Catholic education. I’ll paraphrase.”

 

The more you look around, the more you realize something is really messed up: war, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime and corruption. If this is the best god can do … well, results like that do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kind of messed up world you’d expect from rookie creator with a bad attitude. In any decently run universe, this guy would have been out on his powerful, infallible ass a long time ago ... 

I credit that eight years of grammar school with nourishing me in a direction where I could trust myself and trust my instincts. They gave me the tools to reject my faith. They taught me to question and think for myself and to believe in my instincts to such an extent that I said, ‘This is a wonderful fairy tale they have going here, but it’s not for me.’ 

 

“Look,” Tom interrupted, impatient with the conversation’s direction. “Those comments have been made zillions of other times, by others and by people at this table.”

Tom was correct. This was not the first time those arguments had surfaced at the annual dinner. Now, everyone but Sarah and Alan seemed happy that Tom had managed to end it … at least for now.

It took years for Tom Whelan discover how much Catholics celebrated bloodshed and death. He hadn’t found a reason to give much thought to this central reality—he believed it to be central—of the Church. Some might find this puzzling for a professional historian. What changed him? It started with a young Roman citizen named Tarcisius and a book: Angela’s Ashes.

Little is known of Tarcisius beyond his martyrdom in the 3rd century. According to one version of the legend that developed later, Tarcisius was a young boy during one of the fierce 3rd century Roman persecutions. Entrusted with the task of bringing the Eucharist to condemned Christians in prison, he encountered an angry and resentful mob whose purpose was to stop delivery. In the end, he preferred death at their hands rather than surrender the Blessed Sacrament he carried.

Frank McCourt’s 1996 autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, focused Tom’s revelation about Catholic blood and death like nothing else, certainly beyond Tarcisius. Catholics, McCourt said his elders told him, should aspire to be like Tarcisius. It seemed to the lad that his father, the schoolmaster or the priest constantly promised (insisted?) young Frank happily die for something. 

McCourt reported that his amiable but shiftless father would stumble home drunk after a night on the town, roust his young children out of bed and make them promise that they would be willing to “die for Ireland.” Of course, in true Christianity, which few rarely practice, sacrifice is what one does. A duty. Jesus Christ died for your sins. Ergo, be ‘Christ-like.’ Young Whelan concluded, although he had no intention of following such a prescription, that a good Catholic must sacrifice him or herself for the faith or, in McCourt’s circumstance, for Ireland. In any event, the bloodier the sacrifice the lovelier.

 McCourt’s tales of sacrifice fascinated Tom Whelan. The young Irishman’s schoolmasters regularly made him promise to “die for the faith if called upon.” In McCourt’s own words, “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland, and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.” 

McCourt wryly wondered why it always had to be about “dying for the faith” and why no one ever asked him to “go swimming for the faith” or to “eat candy for the faith.” If Catholics played their cards right, which parents, priests and teachers drummed into young McCourt, an angry mob might beat him to death (like Tarcisius), making him a martyr. A better outcome, decided young Whelan, would be the ‘sacrifice’ of one’s enemies instead.

© 2016 Stephen Fox

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