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books

Empathy and Sympathy in North Carolina

Kasey Thornton’s debut novel Lord The One You Love is Sick takes place in a fictional southern small town called Bethany. That name, and the title of the book, are references to the Biblical story of Lazarus’ resurrection. At one point, the shortest verse in the Bible — also from the story of Lazarus — is referenced by a pastor recruiting for a grief counseling group as, “He wept.” And there is much going on in Bethany to draw tears: addiction, domestic and child abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, suicide. Whether there is new life after the tribulations is left for the book’s ending.

Each character’s predicament intersects with that of several others. A lonely young man sequestered in his mother’s basement renews a grade school friendship when a woman leaves her abusive husband. Another man has a mental breakdown. As the cloud lifts in treatment at the psych ward, he remembers that the nurse is married to the troubled car mechanic in town, and promisees to look in on her and their children.

These are not problems unique to small towns or the south, but Thornton is from North Carolina and fills these stories with details unique to her experience. Wealthy outsiders from the north or big cities are both a source of income and resentful amusement for the locals.

Early in the book, a local talks with her date about her deceased husband, “things used to hurt” him, “he didn’t like watching the news or reading too many books. He had an empathy problem.” Her date, the husband’s would-be replacement, latches on to a break in logic rather than the emotion in her story, and proceeds to define empathy and sympathy for her:

Sympathy means you understand what people go through and you feel bad for their misery. Empathy means you put yourself in the shoes of another person.

Never mind that dictionary definitions differ on these terms, the man has just confessed that he is autistic, so the ironic turn toward mansplaining and away from exhibiting either empathy or sympathy is the point. It is also telling that this man is the only significant character in LTOYLIS from out-of-town. Thornton is concerned with how small towns in the South process grief, what is talked about and what goes unspoken. Outsiders have different ways of avoiding pain.

Sympathy and empathy are important parts of a writer’s toolkit. Thornton puts herself in the shoes of these characters because she has experience with much of what she puts them through.

Lord The One You Love Is Sick came to me through The Nervous Breakdown book club (the book’s inclusion of a nervous breakdown is coincidence, not the club’s literal theme). In an accompanying podcast interview with Brad Listi, Thornton discusses personal experiences that parallel those of characters in the book, including a childhood as a free-range urchin, experiences with the mental health system, alcohol addiction and chronic pain.

Every writer must empathize with their characters’ lives. A reader’s ability to feel sympathy for characters’ misery (or joy) depends on the writer’s ability to do so. Thornton’s ability to get inside the heads of so many characters awed me in this debut. As I turn away from a season of nonfiction election anxiety blogging back to my own novel, Thornton’s debut is inspiring me to explore the interior lives of my characters in new ways, and to consider more deeply the ways their experiences and emotions mirror situations I’ve lived through.


You can support writing like this by buying Lord The One You Love Is Sick by Kasey Thornton on Bookshop.org through this affiliate link.

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election anxiety countdown

Plus Four

11:25 AM: The End

CNN HAS CALLED THE ELECTION FOR BIDEN

—Nate Silver

3 PM: Victory Lap

When I saw Nate Silver’s post, I was mindlessly staring at my computer with four windows open to different election live election blogs, as I had been for much of the past five 105 days. I’d been pretending that I was going to write something else, maybe some fiction picking up where I left off at the exit to the CNN election bunker.

Less than a minute after the call came, I heard the first car horns sound outside. It took me a minute to get myself together, but I was soon on my bike and following the crowds. I thought I would roll through a few neighborhoods, but all the sidewalks and streets were flowing towards the White House. At Black Lives Matter plaza, dozens of reporters spoke unfamiliar languages into cameras pointing towards the White House. Their shots were quickly swarmed with bicyclists and dancers and flag wavers and crowds tripping over their tripod stands.

I took a victory lap around the fortified White House complex on my bike. Drivers did the same, creating a happy traffic jam of honking horns and passengers standing up to wave and cheer through open sunroofs. Wonder Woman zipped through on a red moped.

At McPherson Square, a gogo truck set the mood with dancing in the sun of this perfect 70 degree day.

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election anxiety countdown

Plus Three

7AM: Georgia

While I slept, the vote count in Georgia began to show a lead for Biden. The votes in Pennsylvania continue to be counted, and the count continues to trend in Biden’s favor. Democrats encouraged mail-in voting, Trump denounced it, and state Republicans there blocked local election officials from counting mail-in ballots early. This means that a huge percentage of the last votes to be counted — even from counties that Trump did well in — is coming in for Biden. Pennsylvania is the only state Biden now needs, but Arizona and Nevada will keep counting today, and one or both are likely to be called for Biden.

Trump spoke yesterday evening from the White House. I couldn’t watch it. I have been unable to watch him from the start. His all-caps rants on Twitter continue, and there is no sign he will let up or go gracefully. His lawyers’ filings are being tossed out left and right as baseless. A bizarre press conference in Nevada offered no evidence.

9 AM: Pennsylvania

The counting in Pennsylvania now shows a Biden lead. Decision Desk HQ — an election analysis firm used by many media outlets — has officially called the election for Biden. The major networks will soon follow. With Pennsylvania, the other outstanding states are no longer needed to reach 270.

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election anxiety countdown

Plus Two

10 AM: Escape From Election Central

Is the CNN election room a real place? It has the cold feel of an artificial environment, a Star Trek holodeck. The room is gleaming white with red and blue accents. It offers no glimpse of the outside world except for an occasional video backdrop of the White House or Capitol behind one of the anchors. There is no bustling newsroom of reporters and technicians visible through glass, as on other networks. All the surfaces seem to be fluid video walls or back-lit glass (plastic?) panels; the polished floors reflect the video walls like a still lake reflects the sunset. Watching it out of the corner of my eye these past three days, usually with the volume turned off, I’ve started to imagine being trapped in this place. In the dream, John King and Wolf Blitzer are not in the room. I’m there alone. Robotic camera rigs pan in and out while the video screens change from map to map. I move quickly to stay out of the shot and off national TV. The two men are visible in monitors off camera, CGI ghosts added to this scene by an unseen control room, or an AI. I struggle to find an exit from this place. When I do, it leads to a long corridor patrolled by cleaning robots that take no notice of me. A staircase leads up and up. I push the bar on double doors at the top and exit onto a driveway in the mountains. The facility looks like a bland utility shack with a gray office trailer parked next to it. It is cold on the mountain and I have no food.

On Saturday, the month of cable TV that I paid for at the beginning of baseball’s postseason ends. Best to let that subscription lapse.

2 PM: Scenes From Election Night

While I was home managing my anxiety by baking a cake on election night, Timothy Denevi — whose book on Hunter S. Thompson I read at the start of this countdown — was doing his best to find the pulse of D.C. in true Thompson style. His walk through downtown culminated in a run-in with proud boys (the white supremacist “stand back and stand by” kind, not the new definition proud boys) at Harry’s Bar. Harry’s is one of the last true dives in downtown D.C.. A tourist bar I once sought out for post-movie discussions after exiting the flickering underground rooms of the nearby E Street Cinema, lately Harry’s has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, the crowd idling near the White House had little to do as it became increasingly apparent there would be no decisive win that night. Black Lives Matter activists — who have been protesting almost nightly since the May murders of Brianna Taylor and George Floyd — harnessed the idle energy of the crowd to boost the local movement. A group marched from the White House to the Metropolitan Police Department’s fourth precinct building on Georgia Avenue, which has been a focal point for the community’s response to the recent death of Karon Hylton in a collision during a police pursuit.

5 PM: Counting

The numbers are coming in for Biden. It appears to be just a matter of waiting for Pennsylvania to finish counting. Reports suggest enough of that count will come in tonight that networks might call the state and the Presidential race before we all go to bed. Georgia, Arizona and Nevada offer another route for Biden if for some reason the numbers coming in change dramatically. Biden gave another brief, reassuring speech late this afternoon, beginning with a nod to transition by talking about the state of the pandemic. Trump is expected to speak from the White House at 6:30. He continues to gin up his supporters, many of whom are showing up armed to shout outside municipal buildings where votes are being counted.

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election anxiety countdown

Plus One

I went to bed at about 1 a.m. last night, shortly after the cake I made cooled enough to wrap in foil. If I hadn’t started a baking project, I probably would have been a lazy mess of anxiety refreshing websites and Twitter on my couch while the TV rehashed the trickle of information again and again. The cake awaits a knife and mouths to feed. Blog readers get first dibs if they speak up now (and live near U Street in D.C.).

Around the time I wrapped the cake, Biden gave brief remarks at a responsible, socially distanced drive-in event in Wilmington, Delaware. His vote count was still climbing in key states. He expressed optimism that when the normal vote counting process plays out, he would be the winner. Around that time, Trump tweeted remarks typical of an authoritarian: he delegitimized Americans’ ballots, suggested fraud, and promised to put up legal obstacles to counting the remaining votes.

Organizers continue to ramp up plans for D.C. protests against any effort by Trump to shut down vote counting, or declare an unlawful victory. I plan to get on my bike this afternoon and see how the city is responding, joining up with cyclist swarms as I see them, or just taking notes on the city on my own.

• • •

Today, having accomplished my goal of writing for 100 days to explore and distract from election anxieties, I’m thinking about what form of writing and what goals to turn to next. I have enjoyed this daily practice but want to get back to fiction, poetry, drawing and painting. These past 100 days of personal, cultural and sometimes newsy posts have inspired new directions I’d like to explore in each of those forms. I will continue posting in the more journal-like form of the past two days until the result is final, and through Inauguration Day, January 20.

I am thinking a lot about writing community, and what it might look like to build this into a site with other voices and other writing projects. The group at D.C. Writers Salon has been incredibly helpful in building accountability around writing. Our 20-minute daily morning pages Zoom — which began with the pandemic lockdown — and our formerly in-person 2-hour writing sessions (now also on Zoom) have on some days been the only community I see, but we have kept our writing separate, on our own tracks, with our own personal goals. Perhaps there is an opportunity to bring our writing online together, or bring others into the writing group. Yesterday, I talked to another friend about a collaborative journalism project worth exploring. Maybe these are the same thing. There are no shortage of community models to explore: memberships and paid newsletters, private social network platforms, subscriptions, voluntary donations. How sustainable each model is financially is an open question, but there is plenty of value in the community and connection alone that can sustain in other ways. If you have thoughts or encouragement on any of these fronts, drop me line.

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election anxiety countdown

Zero

There is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some diehard’s vote.

-David Foster Wallace (via Anu Garg in this morning’s A.Word.A.Day)

11 AM: Election Day

We have arrived. Today is Election Day. The sun is out. My phone is buzzing with anxious well wishes from near and far, as well as messages about protests that I hope will become celebratory dance parties. I live on D.C.’s U Street now, and — as I mentioned several times in this series — the scene of U Street’s reaction to Barack Obama’s win in 2008 will forever stick with me. I am anxious to see the street happy again tonight. But everyone is cautioning that a call tonight is unlikely. It may be a late night, drifting off to inconclusive results, like the cold night in 2000 when I left NPR on in my Minneapolis bedroom at low volume until I passed out. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll stay in or wander the city between home and the outdoor gathering a mile or so away at Black Lives Matter Plaza.

Noon: World Leader Pretend

Among the raft of emails in my inbox offering hope, solidarity, urgency on this Election Day is one from R.E.M. featuring a link to this 1989 live version of World Leader Pretend.

The title conjures images of Trump, but the lyrics are an indictment of problems of the singer-narrator’s own making, perhaps from isolation and depression:

It’s amazing what devices you can sympathize (Empathize)
This is my mistake, let me make it good
I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

You fill in the mortar, you fill in the harmony
You fill in the mortar, I raised the wall
And I’m the only one, I will be the one to knock it down

—R.E.M.

Hard to imagine Trump having such introspection about his failings (or his wall). Annotations at Genius suggest Michael Stipe and co. were inspired by Leonard Cohen’s similarly self-critical Field Commander Cohen:

6 PM: The Whole World is Watching

I made an afternoon trip to Black Lives Matter Plaza with a friend who had supplies to donate to activists gathering there. It was relatively quiet. Media correspondents from all over the globe were set up with lights and microphones and satellite trucks. Police presence was very high. A few people waving flags added some visual energy.

It is getting dark now and the crowd will grow as people leave work, as people close their work-from-home zoom meetings. There won’t be much to see, but I understand how important it is to be present and shout down any anti-democratic announcements from Trump. The White House is still visible from Black Lives Matter Plaza despite the militarized perimeter wall that has Trump has built around the compound.

I’m watching and writing from home now. Making dinner is next (I’m going back to the homemade pizza I was trying early in the pandemic). After that, I bought buttermilk for this election cake recipe. That should be a good outlet for a couple of hours of election anxiety. It will be a late night. I can bike back to the plaza in ten minutes if the news warrants.

10 PM: A Long Way to Go

The pizza was good. The cake is in the oven and smells good. The results in Florida and Georgia are not so good. The easy and clear landslide scenario for Biden is out. It is likely to be undecided long into tomorrow.

On Twitter, the crowd is growing at Black Lives Matter Plaza and nearby McPherson Square. There are scattered reports of confrontations with police.

Outside on U Street, the sidewalks are empty. None of the bars that had watch parties in past years are open.

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election anxiety countdown

1 Day: The Wind

7 AM: High winds roared through D.C. overnight. The flags atop Nellie’s — the famous gay sports bar on the corner — are straining against the wind. The D.C. flag was tearing loose from its flagpole when I went to bed. It disappeared into the sky overnight. The U.S. flag and progress pride flag are still hanging, but they too are tattered. The six-story building under construction next door is wrapped in protective Tyvek sheets that ripple loudly with the wind. I fell asleep wondering if a loose board or the poles of an outdoor dining tent would crash through my window.

Normally, the construction site is busy early, but the wind must be keeping workers off the scaffolding and aerial work platforms. A man in a heavy winter coat pushing a child in a stroller at the end of the alley is the only activity I see as I sip my coffee at the window.

2 PM: Despite the wind, I feel a slight calm today. There is no time left for election surprises that might influence opinion. We can do little more beyond getting those who have not yet voted to the polls and making sure every vote is counted.

After writing about wind this morning, and as the wind continues to blow this afternoon, a song about the end of authoritarianism came to mind: German rockers Scorpions’ Wind of Change from 1991.

At nearly five minutes, it is a slow burning rock ballad. In each verse, Klaus Meine’s lyrics invoke the wind of change as an ever-present quality. Change seems to be everywhere, always happening. Change is constant. But change alone is neutral, is not necessarily a good or bad thing.

soldiers passing by / listening to the wind of change…
The future’s in the air / I can feel it everywhere / blowing with the wind of change…
Where the children of tomorrow dream away / in the wind of change
The wind of change blows straight / into the face of time / like a storm wind that will ring / the freedom bell for peace of mind

—Scorpions / Klaus Meine

Other lines tie the song to its historical context of 1990-91 and the end of Soviet bloc repression. But the wind of change described is a curiously passive force. Who is doing the work of change?

Sometimes I use the word change on walks I’ve led precisely because it is a neutral term. I might be thinking about the effects of gentrification or economic forces, but I might also be thinking about natural changes. I am curious what changes those walking with me notice.

Change visible within a block or two of my apartment includes: the collapse of an abandoned home due to decades of neglect, the repair and redevelopment of that home, the end of a long-running flea market, the construction of a large luxury apartment building, the closure of a basement nightclub due to the pandemic, the growth of ivy on an alley fence, the addition of parking lane restaurant seating, the predominance of masks on the faces of neighbors.

The other lyric today’s wind recalls is Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. In his song, the wind is not the agent of change, but carries the answers to difficult questions (how many roads, seas, years, times, ears, deaths before some insight or justice is achieved). Here’s one interpretation Dylan gave in an early interview:

It ain’t no book or movie or TV show or discussion group, man. It’s in the wind… just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know… and then it flies away.

Bob Dylan

This song has more to do with knowledge, the kind associated with meditation or divinity. This is not the wind of change, but a messenger wind.

It is not to be confused with Dylan’s Idiot Wind, the wind of breath and speech: of his wife amid their divorce, or the press, politicians, and even Dylan’s own writing:

Idiot Wind
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the backroads heading south…
Blowing through the flowers on your tomb
Blowing through the curtains in your room

—Bob Dylan

On first listen, Idiot Wind might conjure whoever you’re angry with. Whoever your favorite idiot is. There’s an obvious candidate for that title on my mind this week and these past four years. But, Dylan includes himself as an idiot in the final verse, “Blowing through the buttons of our coats / blowing through the letters that we wrote… / we’re idiots, babe” A caution not to be too sure of ourselves before all the votes are counted, perhaps.

6 PM: The wind has died down. Dark early with the change to Standard Time. The streets are empty. Restaurants on the block are boarded up for the winter, for election chaos, or both. In 26 hours, the first polls will close. The forecast for tomorrow is clear skies, light wind, and a 50% chance of rain at midnight, after the polls close on the west coast.

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election anxiety countdown

2 Days: Come Together

Today is the last Sunday of this 100-day countdown to the election. On Sundays, I’ve been posting one quick thing you can do to end Trump. The premise is that other people are reading this and a better use of our writing and reading time is doing something that will have a measurable direct impact on the outcome of the election. But WordPress and Google tell me that there are maybe seven of you regular readers, all anonymous to me (I’ve done little to promote this series, apart from mentioning it in conversation). I suspect you’ve all done what you’re going to do. Or have a plan to do what you’re going to do between now and the time polls close on Tuesday.

So, instead of telling the five of you what to do as though I were writing to a vast army of followers, I’d instead like to take a moment to express gratitude for your having spent any amount of time following this journey.

The next few days promise to be pivotal ones for amorphous concepts like democracy, equality, justice, honesty and cooperation, as well as specific issues such as the climate emergency and the pandemic. I’m thinking globally and long-term with each of those phrases, and beyond the borders of the nation state whose capital city I happen to live in. There are plenty of immediate national and local concerns that will be shaped this week as well. If writing and posting these ramblings has driven home any one lesson for me, it is that hard things and difficult times are far easier with other people — with friends — than without. So, I’d love it if you dropped me a line. That’s it.* That’s my Sunday action to end Trump this week. Email me. Let’s strengthen those connections in acknowledgment of all the hard things we’ve come through together, and the hard things we may be called upon to do in the days ahead.

*Of course, if you need another reminder… keep calling and texting Pennsylvania voters, keep your plan to vote, and check with all your friends and family to make sure they follow through on their voting plans.