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Thursday, March 10, 2016

On Gratitude

Sorry for the break in blogging; took a bit of a rest as I'd hit political overload.

As noted before, I thought it a mistake for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to come out against Donald Trump: without endorsing any other candidate, he urged Republican voters to adopt strategies to prevent Trump's gaining the 2016 GOP nomination. He blasted Trump as a fraudster and a fake with little to no business sense or executive abilities. Judging from subsequent developments, it seems Romney's attack on the front-runner, indeed has backfired, giving Trump even more of the rebel patina that appeals to many voters in this Year of the Justifiable and Great Anger. Electoral results since the Romney Rant show that Trump has gained strength.

In response to Romney, Trump mockingly noted how in 2012, Romney asked for and received Trump's endorsement. Governor Romney, as the video record shows, happily took Trump's support, praising him as a very successful businessman who understood the economy. How things have changed. Trump seemed to bemoan Romney's lack of gratitude.

All this made me think about "gratitude."

Finding myself reluctant to write yet another screed on domestic politics, and being a somewhat narcissistic sort, I provide the following little tale drawn from the Vast Lore of the Diplomad. As my life gets less and less interesting, I rely on the Betamax in my head to run select episodes from Back in the Day. I try to keep the aging, fading tapes dry and clean, but you never know when or what imperfections might appear on screen. Like a Hallmark Channel movie, I only guarantee "based on a true story." Hey, free "entertainment," right? I, however, do try to "Be Kind and Rewind.

The year of this particular tape? 1978. The place? Madrid, Spain. Why? I am an American, that's why! Sorry, default answer got triggered. OK, pardon me; let me explain the setting.

After graduating UCLA in 1974, I received a scholarship for graduate work at Brandeis University. Thrilled and astounded that real people would give me real money, I jumped into my trusty 1970 Dodge Challenger (wish I had that car now) and raced pedal-to-the-metal 3, 000 miles from the UCLA campus in Westwood, California to the Brandeis campus in Waltham, Massachusetts. At Brandeis, I would study international relations in the Department of Politics, which back then was highly rated--well, at least by the Department of Politics at Brandeis. The Department had its share of leftoid cranks, e.g., a rabid admirer of Castro, Peron, and Pol Pot, but also some serious folk from the Prince Von Metternich/Henry Kissinger/Hans Morgenthau school of political realism concerned about American security in the face of increasing Soviet aggressiveness.

I proved a mediocre student, not fully in gear, alienated from the largely liberal crowd in Massachusetts, unhappy with the unrelentently grim weather, and wracked by doubts about spending my life in academia. Despite all that, I managed an MA, passed the PhD oral exams, and won a small grant in 1977, to study the development of political parties in post-Franco Spain. I went to Madrid, ran about for a year interviewing a host of Spanish politicians, and wrote two or three draft chapters of a PhD thesis--I found these a few years later and promptly trashed them (EMBARRASSING!) Never finished the thing: please believe me, the world of science and letters has not suffered for that. Instead of landing a PhD, I grew a beard, shaved it off, then grew a handlebar mustache, wrangled a gig in the Foreign Service, and conned Her Majesty the Queen of Jarandilla into agreeing to marry me. All OK substitutes, I think, for a PhD.

Plans for a fast small wedding went out the window as parents and other relatives became involved. One was my late mother. She must have been General Grant in a previous life; she seemed always organizing giant enveloping pincer movements. She descended on us from her large mansion in San Marino, California, and ruled that certain things had to occur before the Queen and I could marry. One such, for reasons mysterious, consisted of a courtesy call on my mother's Aunt Matilda, whom she had not seen in some 30 years. We apparently had to secure Matilda's "blessing" for our nuptials. Matilda, who lived somewhere in the outskirts of Madrid, was well into her 90's, and had as her caregiver a spinster daughter, Isabel, well into her 70's. Crucial to the moral of this tale is that Matilda's other daughter, Ana, had died quite young many years before.

It took several days in pre-Google world to locate Aunty. The Madrid phone book proved useless since she did not have a phone. My mother found her by talking to old friends and distant relatives, who knew somebody, who knew somebody else, who might know somebody, who knew where Matilda, if alive, might live. Mother should have worked for the DEA: the elusive leaders of the Cali Cartel would have been located in a flash. Anyhow and somehow, arrangements appeared for a visit to Matilda and her surviving daughter.

We bought a map (no GPS then), rented a SEAT 1500 from Avis, and the three of us headed onto Madrid's fearsome M-30 beltway in search of the elusive Matilda. I remember the trip lasting for what seemed forever. We suffered horrendous traffic, road construction, bad map reading, a flat tire, and a maze of confusing side roads that poked into thickets of hideous and very tall apartment buildings. These depressing almost identical grayish concrete towers looked as though designed by a Soviet architect. Although probably no more than twenty or so years old, they appeared ancient and rundown--almost as bad as what one used to see on the I-95 driving south into New York City. It took a great amount of time and questioning of local residents to locate Aunt Matilda's dire tower.

We parked and walked to Matilda's building. A small tremulous elevator slowly lifted us to nearly the top floor. On the way up, I, of course, hummed "Waltzing Matilda." My mother did not get it. We knocked on Matilda's door, and a small frail old lady opened it. My mother immediately launched into a boisterous multiple-kiss greeting of Matilda only to learn that this was Isabel. Aunt Matilda, herself, awaited in the tiny crowded "living room." Matilda could not stand, had difficulty hearing, and seemed as confused as I as to the purpose of our visit. I don't think she knew exactly who my mother was. She, however, made it clear from the start that she could not give us newlyweds any money. We ate stale cookies from an old tin box, drank strong coffee served by Isabel, and engaged in vapid conversation. The sound track, fortunately, for most of that dreary afternoon has disappeared. A few relevant snippets, however, survive.

Matilda insisted on telling us her life. As noted above, most details have faded away but I was struck by the constant references to her departed daughter. At one point she said, "Yes, Ana died and I got left with this one." Well, "this one," Isabel, visibly winced and stared into her coffee cup. Matilda made similar remarks several more times in the course of the visit. So much so that my mother intervened to praise Isabel for her selfless devotion to her mother, and to urge Matilda to show gratitude for having such a child. Matilda wrinkled her nose, looked down, and said, "Yes, I suppose one must be grateful for whatever little God lets us have." We soon after left the darkening apartment and its toxic atmosphere, rode shaky down to the ground floor, got our car, and slowly made our way back to the hotel. I never could get a straight story from mother as to why we paid this call. She took that reason with her.

Over the many subsequent years, the Diplowife and I have commented on Matilda's attitude towards Isabel, and her lack of gratitude for what Isabel had done. This daughter, in essence, had given up having a life of her own to devote herself to caring for her ungrateful and even nasty mother.

I have seen this phenomenon in international relations when, for example, American politicians bemoan the lack of gratitude shown by country X or Y for the sacrifices made by the USA, "If it weren't for us, you'd be eating foie and speaking Esperanto!" As Americans, however, we should appreciate how a lack of gratitude also contributed greatly to the creation of our own country. Lest we forget that the American colonies did not show much gratitude to the British Crown after it slaughtered, at considerable cost, France's North American empire on the Plains of Abraham. Once the British defeated the French, we not only did not want to pay for the war, but, in fact, wanted the Crown to leave, too. Go ahead Brits shout it out, "If it weren't for us, you'd be speaking French!"

Gratitude, therefore, in personal relationships and in relations between and among nations seems at best an evanescent commodity. A "lack of gratitude" is a common human attribute. We probably should not make too much of it. I have concluded that "gratitude," at best, consists of something that we might earn for a while but we should neither expect nor seek it--perhaps a useful motif for child rearing.

23 comments:

  1. I'd guess that after The War the US was viewed with a bit of gratitude.

    I imagine that that gratitude is spent now: vast numbers of people see the US as a bully run by arseholes. It's sad that it should have come to this. Come to think of it, the Trump phenomenon rather implies that many Americans think their country is run by arseholes.

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  2. Excellent--and evocative. I would only point out that it was General lee--not Grant--who did the enveloping pincer movements. Well, and Moltke, though not so well.

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  3. Thanks. I think.

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  4. Another fine reminiscence -- thank you for sharing it with us. I had a similar reaction to my maternal grandmother, who ended up living with us in SoCal for about a decade without ever saying thank you. And like Aunt Matilda, she too complained about the treatment she was getting from her son, and more particularly, from her daughter-in-law. If we are indeed made stronger by whatever does not kill us, my family now has the strength of Atlas. As a grandfather now, I try to remind myself regularly that my grandchildren and nieces and nephews will never experience what was visited on my sibs and me.

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  5. ..."It led me to conclude that "gratitude" is something that might be earned but should neither be expected nor sought--a useful motif for child rearing." -WLA

    Thank you for the timely reminder Lewis!
    On Watch- Dad of a Daughter in her final teenaged year. . .

    "Let's Roll"



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  6. Good observation about human gratitude.

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  7. Well Mad,
    It truly is a strange world. Liked the story a lot. I don't know what to think about gratitude. If I stopped every time and gave thanks when it was due, I would do nothing else. If I could just realize 10% of the time that it was time to be grateful and was, I would be a much better person.

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  8. For our kids, we only insist on expressing gratitude towards others. Definitely expecting gratitude is a recipe for disappointment, for family or otherwise.

    - reader #1482

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  9. I remember my high school French teacher telling us in class one time that he was teaching us the colloquial French of the countryside, not the imperial French of Paris. He said one should always go to the countryside when visiting France.
    He said that the reason the Parisian French don't like Americans is because they would all rather be speaking German. And the reason the countryside French liked Americans was because they remember why they AREN'T speaking German.

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    Replies
    1. Concur on getting out of Paris...though I found the Parisians quite hospitable in 2006, France is more than just one city. Very much more like the USA than we like to admit.

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  10. Marshall Aid: that probably provoked some gratitude.

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    Replies
    1. I do not have the exact numbers, but private contributions probably exceeded Marshall Plan aid, at least in Britain.

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  11. The lessons you teach are so wonderful. I learned gratitude watching my sweet rancher father who extended courteous and graciousness until the day he died. He was and still is the most grateful person I have ever known. I have sought to be like him...
    I am thankful on days when our "little son" is not abroad flying missions in danger.
    I have learned to be grateful in a pen of cattle, that I have a cane I have to use and it works for knocking the heck out of the backside of a cow or bull.
    What I have learned most from life is to count at least five blessings each day. I have found this extends my heart even more.
    Keep telling those stories....they kindle grace in the heart, in a time when we need that so much.
    Blessings....East Texas Rancher

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  12. My experience is that gratitude goes hand-in-hand with generosity. You can't find it in people who are selfish and petty (and, in Spanish, mezquinos).

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  13. Perhaps we need to be less generous with foreign aid...and more gracious about expecting little gratitude in return.

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  14. I just can't believe that Trump's rally in Chicago is shutdown by thugs, and *every* candidate on both sides of the aisle is blaming *Trump* for it.
    Sure, Rubio and Cruz are trying to 'talk their way around it', but when it comes down to it, you either blame the victim or the blame the perpetrator.
    This is the liberal version of "she was wearing revealing clothing.."

    - reader #1482

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    1. The fascist veto carried the night in Chicago. Dems, as usual wear the Brown Shirts. Trump is who he is and has a right to be. The Brown shirts are who they are and have always been. They are the Dem party. Brown shirt neo Communists. Doubt it? Look at their two candidates.

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    2. We are a little far afield from gratitude. But events press.

      You are right, whitewall. You too, 1482. But.

      In your analogy, 1482, she wasn't just wearing too short a skirt; she had herself sexually assaulted another girl with a broom-handle.

      That's absolutely no excuse for somebody to rape her: there is no excuse, ever, full stop. But it would take super-human self-restraint to leave that fact out of the story.

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    3. Totally agree with #1482 and whitewall. Why my liberal friends can't see the sheer drooling fascist hatred spewing from the mouths of "protesters" in shutting down the Trump rally in Chicago is truly mind-boggling. I mean, IT'S RIGHT THERE!

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    4. patrickhenry...frustrating isn't it? A simple way to understand this dynamic is: a conservative will believe something once he sees it. On the other hand, a Liberal will only see something if he believes it.

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  15. I'm glad to have found a fellow countryman! I learned to whistle tunes apropos to the situation from Looney Tunes. My favourite is when someone mentions a list, and I start in with Santa Claus is Coming to Town. No one makes the connection which makes it twice as enjoyable. Especially when Christmas is a distant memory!

    Excellent story.

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  16. Nice story. By the way, I've been meaning to ask: any chance you could add an RSS feed to your blog? I'd like to have a way to be notified of new posts.

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