Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

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100 Books by 40: OF MICE AND MEN

On a night out you might run into someone. Maybe someone who’s had enough beers to talk to strangers. Maybe it’s someone who’s naturally gregarious and regularly chats with randoms at the bar. You might have 2 hours of conversation with that someone. You might like the same music or share some other interest. It’s fun for the evening. But these random encounters are in a separate class from time spent with close friends; they are cherished precisely for their surprise and randomness.

This is my first Steinbeck since The Grapes of Wrath. Of Mice and Men was just as good as I was expecting it to be. I was already familiar with the story, so I absorbed the metaphors and foreshadowing. My only wish once the book was over, was for more time with the characters. They are the randoms at the bar. There’s nothing to be done but savor the short, beautiful moment.

There’s been lots of talk about a Princeton kid who wrote and entry explaining why he won’t apologize for his white privilege. He’s nineteen. I know what I was like at nineteen. One of the hallmarks of that time is my undaunted confidence in my opinions and critical thinking skills. The other was my complete and total lack of understanding of anyone’s experiences outside my own. I grew up so white that I didn’t meet a person of color until college. I didn’t know a single solitary thing about race other than the self-affirming things that most affluent white kids know. I knew that I worked for everything I got. I knew that the world and more specifically our economy was a fair meritocracy, where skin color was irrelevant to someone’s skill set. I knew that my family worked hard and that they only had their work to thank for their achievements.

Did I do some learning in the years from eighteen to twenty-five. The world isn’t fair. People are completely judged on their appearance, especially skin color. Meritocracy while a nice idea is certainly not the measuring stick for adult success. Some of these lessons, I learned apart from racial issues. These are hard truths that only experience can teach.

I understand where Tal is coming from. I would have written something similar at nineteen. After watching only black men get pulled over around our college campus for years, after watching the police shootings in my city only result in black male victims for years, after watching people I care about get treated differently because of their skin color, I can only conclude that there is a structural problem.

I know why Tal’s position is reassuring. White, affluent people don’t want to acknowledge privilege for a number of reasons. First, acknowledging it requires that we seek to rectify it. Second, acknowledging it requires a small dose of humble pie suggesting that not only our talent has brought us to our socio-economic position. And finally and more darkly, white people are desperate to hold on to any advantage they have. Change is scary, and there is a palpable sense of people clinging to the deck chairs of the Titanic that is the culture built to serve the Baby Boomers.

I promise this will get back to Of Mice and Men in just a moment.

While I do believe that luck favors the well-prepared, I also have come to understand wealth and its role in success as a option enabler. Wealth buys you better options, at nearly every juncture of your life. In childhood wealth buys you child care that preps you for school. It can buy you a stay-at-home mom, and perhaps more one-on-one adult interaction. It can buy you more books. It can buy you more experiences. Later it can buy you better schools, where your classmates will all be as well prepared for school as you are. It will buy you a well educated cohort to socialize with through your school years. These better options don’t guarantee your future prosperity, but they send you into adulthood better equipped to prosper.

Wealth buys attractive options. George didn’t have wealth. He didn’t have the option of purchasing a farm, and keeping Lennie away from people who wouldn’t understand his limitations. So when George is confronted with that final, terrible choice, it was his lack of attractive options that drove him there. Do I think George was responsible for what brought him to that river bank with Lennie? Yes. But blaming George provides an emotional escape from what’s truly sad about Of Mice and Men. The real heart-break in the book is how sensible all of George’s actions are.

I loved this book. I loved the characters. I loved the tender interaction between Slim and George.