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Over Easy: Living through nasty times

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)



For the Valley News
Friday, August 23, 2019

Nice is dead. Or, at the very least, it’s an endangered species, like the lichen weevil and Gerlach’s cockroach.

There is no nice way to say this: We live in a nasty time. There are still plenty of nice people around -— they smile at babies, hold doors for elders — but they are not running things, from culture to politics.

I was thinking about this recently when we binge-watched a season of the Great British Baking Show. It is a reality show, but unlike American programs of that ilk, the GBBS is a cultured affair. The competition is held under a white tent in a British meadow, all pressed and polished.

I don’t bake, but I admire the skills of those who do and am in awe of their creations. “Ohh, that looks good,” I exclaim. “Ahhhh, that looks great.” I may even salivate a little, like Pavlov’s puppies.

The bakers make things like Savarin with Chantilly Cream, Viennese Whirls, Marjolaine and Fougasse. I am not entirely clear what they are, but I know something good when I see it. They are a long, long way from the lumpy brown football cakes supermarkets serve up at Superbowl time around here.

The Great British Baking Show is, in its entirely, so nice I am taken aback by it. The hosts are nice, the contestants are even nicer. They seem to actually like each other. They regret it when someone is voted off the show. When the season was over, I felt like a better person for having been in their company.

Of late I have been turning to public TV for a niceness infusion. The main characters in Call the Midwife are so nice it’s like watching Lives of the Saints. The drama is in the birth scenes, which could rattle the manliest of men. In British murder mysteries, killers are at least somewhat nice about it. They dress nicely, at least.

I need such relief after watching even a little of our cable TV politics shows. One I check in on could change its title to We’re Going to Hell in a Handbasket. Or, The Ativan Hour.

When I was a kid, it seemed quite different, as if niceness was in the air. School, church, family and Boy Scouts colluded to send the same message: Be nice! The Scout manual suggested we help little old ladies cross the street. The little old ladies in my area didn’t seem to welcome that service, but I got the idea that I should offer my seat on the city bus to older people or women carrying packages. I was a champion at it, a real stand-up guy.

At that time, American TV was as nice as the Great British Baking Show. Lots of movies were, too. The Sound of Music played for more than a year at a theater near where I lived. Then came Mary Poppins. It was like living in Candy Land.

When we kids were off-duty, that is, not being watched, we engaged in petty rule breaking, almost all of which, upon discovery, would bring a sentence no more serious than a talking-to from our parents.

Of course, people had their dark sides. There were mean adults around — a neighborhood gas station owner who swore at kids, a crabby old woman on the corner who monitored our activities from behind impenetrable curtains — but adults, in the main, were nice, kind of nice, mostly nice or at least nice in public.

Sports heroes told kids to be nice. Outwardly, they were humble (What they did in nightclubs didn’t filter down to us.) Politicians squabbled but treated their “esteemed colleague on the other side of the aisle’’ with respect, or at least the appearance of it.

I would say people are still pretty nice here in the Upper Valley. I attribute this to the neighborly culture of smaller communities. There’s no point in needlessly aggravating the local plumber if someday your toilet might be clogged.

Online commentary, on the other hand, is mean as spit. The Valley News’ own Facebook page is not immune, although the national sites are worse. Sometimes I read the comments and I wonder how people can maintain a daily supply of bile. Are they fracking their worst impulses?

And where is that getting us? The reprehensible word libtard leads to trumptard, and we’ve taken another step downward.

Recently, when I was out of town, I saw a black truck driving fast with two U.S. flags and a Confederate battle flag in the middle, all waving with fury. I can’t be sure what the driver meant to say. To me, it seemed he was giving the middle finger to any liberal (or person of color, perhaps) in sight.

Displays like that aren’t shocking to me, given the example of our president. Even if you like his policies, I don’t understand how someone cannot see what he is: a boiling, brittle teakettle of insults and disdain for anyone and everyone who disagrees with him on anything. His enemies list isn’t secret. He tweets it out seven days a week. The spectacle is exhausting.

More than two years into his presidency, I have been observing my own growing heart of darkness. A moment of self-recognition came at a church service after a lay reader asked us to pray for various church and secular leaders and finally, “our President, Donald.” My heart and mind went blank.

I have been thinking of the future, how we might come back from our political morass. Can’t we be nice, polite, not such jerks? I don’t even know. This is an awful moment in our national life, and it’s a struggle to rise above it.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.