Before I get on with the business of the day, I’d like to clarify what I said about academic condescension yesterday. Please be assured that it is 100% knowledge-based snobbery, not title-based. In fact, I have considerably less patience for those with lots of letters behind there name and very few thoughts between their ears and I very much admire those without the letters who have come by incredible and complex thoughts by way of experience (my dad, my friends Marie and Michele– really, really incredible thinkers, no need for letters). True, I have some letters behind my own name, but I am of the opinion that having a “terminal” degree doesn’t mean the end of learning, nor is it the only path to being learn-ed. <End Rant> Hash tag– yes, that’s personal.
I is an interesting letter in this little adventure you and I are on.
Originally I was going to wax poetic about icing. You see, frosting was the first binge food I ever got caught with. (Got caught with… not first binge. Big difference.) Kind of a big deal when it was discovered in my filing cabinet. (Because what second grader doesn’t ask for a file cabinet for Christmas??? And what third grader doesn’t keep a carton of chocolate frosting and a spoon inside?) Except, while working my way to the letter I, I was also reading two books– Innocence by Dean Koontz (to get technical about it, that was actual my Audible book that I listened to while running, walking, or mowing the lawn– talk about motivation! dang!) and My Own Country by Abraham Verghese (a gift from my dear friend Suma because she thought I’d like it… and did I ever!) and the parallels and really interesting points about innocence were too poignant to ignore.
Therefore, the letter I is for the idea of innocence. Super interesting– just hear me out!!!
The Dean Koontz book is kind of a given here. I’ve been a little bit disappointed with some of his most recent work (77 Shadow Street? It was the pits! Took me for-ev-er to slog through it and even at the end, I was unable to find any redeeming qualities), but this book captured me pretty much immediately. The basic premise is this: a guy who cannot be seen, a girl who cannot be touched, both social exiles, but things change when they find each other. There’s that supernatural Dean Koontz-y element that I love so much and the story was so so good. In the end (not really a spoiler, don’t worry) you find out that the reason for the main characters’ differences was literally their absolute and complete innocence– an innocence so magnificent that anyone who looked at them or touched them was doomed to instantaneous reflection on all the reason that they themselves were not innocent. And that’s not pretty for anyone.
The Abraham Verghese book? Totally different! Dr. Verghese is the MD who wrote Cutting for Stone, which is truly one of the best books I’ve ever read. Cutting for Stone is fictional, it’s beautiful, it’s amazing… read it! My Own Country is an autobiographical account of Dr. Verghese’s “coming of age” as an infectious disease specialist during the first years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.
Where’s the parallel, right?’
I’m getting there.
Verghese is an amazing writer because he is so beautifully honest, even when the things he’s being honest about aren’t so beautiful. He does not write himself as a hero, he writes himself as a man– warts and all. (He never actually mentions warts, just flaws. I say warts because I used to have SO many warts on my left knee, you guys. It was awful. I was in derm every other week because this was before the time of the canned freezy do-it-at-home spray stuff. It was an awful time! Now I wrote about my warts and you will think of me as a beautifully and genuinely honest author, right?)
Anyway, in My Own Country Verghese talks a lot about how his patients were contracting HIV in the small town of eastern Tennessee in which he lived and worked. As you are likely aware, the AIDS epidemic really came to light in the United States amongst gay men. Yes, there were also many cases that resulted from intravenous drug use, blood transfusions, and in hemophiliacs receiving clotting factor concentrates, but it was risky sexual behaviors that were the hot topic. Especially because, at the time, homosexuality was rarely talked about and certainly not well-accepted by any means. As such, Vergheese found himself immersed in a sub-culture that he was completely unfamiliar with and he had so many questions. Not necessarily about the lifestyle, the culture, or anything, although those things were certainly of interest– more so about himself, his prejudices, his biases, his thoughts on innocence and guilt and what having HIV and AIDS really meant.
At one point, Verghese describes meeting a heterosexual couple who were both HIV infected. The husband had undergone heart surgery, during which he had received several units of blood… HIV-infected blood. He then transmitted the virus to his wife. A very sad story, of course, and Vergheese found himself emotionally invested from the get go… this poor, innocent couple.
Until he questioned his notion of what it actually meant to be innocent. If this couple was “innocent,” did that imply that the gay men he routinely saw were somehow not innocent?
I love so much that he questioned himself, his own beliefs, his own prejudices. How many of us can say that we generally do? That we can examine our own thoughts about guilt and innocence and to admit that maybe we weren’t being completely objective… completely fair.
It was interesting to read these two books simultaneously… the first describing how much we can despise the innocent for emphasizing our own shortcomings, the second pointing out our quick leap to a judgement and dislike of those we consider “guilty.” Such an interesting dichotomy.
Innocent, guilty… ultimately– “who am I to judge?” I think Pope Francis got it right. Who are any of us to judge?
I know that I am not innocent– far from it (remember the chocolate frosting??? also, I’ve been a big fat liar since day one, etc, etc, etc). As such, you shouldn’t find me casting any stones.
Shouldn’t being the operative word.
Because sometimes, I think I do. Ok, I know I do.
I appreciate Abraham Verghese bringing this to my attention, for making me really think about innocence and what my own prejudices might be. And Dean Koontz for underscoring the point when it was brought to mind.
Reading and thinking… do it! Even fiction can make a difference!