Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part I: Tattoos & Taboos

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Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part I: Tattoos & Taboos

Just yesterday in trendy-all-too-trendy Austin, Texas lived and labored the world’s greatest tattoo artist: Homer Milton. He was as blind as the bats reverse-perched under the downtown bridge, but his work was known throughout the world, even among Japan’s Yakuza.

One day Milton could hear cane taps and paw patter outside the store door. A client entered the tattoo parlor covered from top to toe in ink and design. In one hand was a retractable cane; the other, the leash to a docile Rottweiler. His name was Dick McKeon and he was as blind as the mice in Longhorn Cavern. He was a white man who no longer looked white because of the overlap and intricacies and intersections of symbols, numbers, icons, and forms sprawled over his skin. It was as though he were permanently clothed in every tattoo conceivable, where the diversity of one only dithered another.

McKeon: Sir, today I wish to inquire about acquiring a new tattoo. Something to remind me of the joy of good old days.

Milton: I remember someone reading to me a long time ago that the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[1]

McKeon: Right, I want a tattoo that will remind me of the common joy created when cheering for local sports teams––cheering for victory!

Milton: You remind me of when and why I quit baseball as a child. It wasn’t because of the winning or the losing or the cheating or the bruising. It was because of everyone else’s parents, the mob rule of the crowd. I remember I quit baseball because I’d rather have gone fishing and taken a dip in the river than deal with the rabble.

McKeon: Well, it sounds like you tried to escape both the conformity of childhood teamwork as well as the herd mentality of the helicopter parents of your fellow players.

Milton. I tried to escape, but successfully failed. For, “wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.” [2]

McKeon: I’m impressed with your quotation but regret its lack of trendiness. You should be reading newer works that express the old ideas. Like the other day I was listening to this book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013). Ruthie’s friends would go to the river to escape from small-town parentage:

During her junior year Ruthie’s crowd began hanging out at the river, where they could build bonfires and drink beer without adults hassling them.[3]

The river at Starhill was (and probably still is) a place to congregate, a place of sociological sifting of wheat from chaff.

Milton: I know what you mean. As Americans we know this scene inside and out. It’s well portrayed in films like American Graffiti (1973) and Austin’s own Dazed and Confused (1993). We know it not because it’s cliché but because it’s so essential to our own understanding of ourselves within our own culture.

McKeon: While Ruthie’s friends tried to temporarily escape from their parents, her brother Rod tried to permanently escape the entire town:

The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be. There, on the far side of the river, was the rest of my life, straight ahead. I had no intention of looking back.[4]

Milton: Yeah, but every army needs a system of rank and can’t survive without one. But you’re right. Rod tried, but we suffer no escape. None for me with baseball back then. None for Rod or Ruthie or her friends. None even for small town folks of last century. They could not escape the in-group/out-group resentment inherent to our anthropology. Take for instance the psychology of a small southern town found in Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940):

The place was still now crowded—it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everybody a feeling of estrangement…. They shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.[5]

McKeon: So whether at a river or in a café, we sell ourselves this idea that our collective feeling of shared estrangement within our communities is a new, unique twenty-first century problem. We say all the billions of people for millions of years have been inescapably trapped in history, but we in century twenty-one are exceptional because we are aware of, and attentive to, the trap itself.

Milton: But it’s unique to no one but us. Everyone from the past would find no difference between now and then.

McKeon: But difference is the key to it all.

Milton: How so?

McKeon: Well, take Dreher’s sequel to Little Way, How Dante Can Save Your Live (2015), where he talks about in the world of––indeed, the anthropology of––his small Louisiana town of Starhill, a place where anything different made for a severe taboo:

As I reported the book [Little Way], I learned from questioning my sister’s friends, her husband, and my parents more about why Ruthie held me in such disdain. It had to do with my moving away to the city; Mike said that she always felt that I belonged in Starhill, and that she took my leaving as a personal rejection. It had to do with my having tastes and beliefs she didn’t understand; for Ruthie, as for Daddy, “different” was a bad word. It had to do with her believing that I was getting away with something, being paid to write for a living instead of doing honest work. And it had to do with, well, me; even her best friend, Abby, said that she couldn’t fathom why Ruthie’s patience with everyone else was endless, but she could barely tolerate me for a moment….

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest….

A thick iron gate slammed shut within me, and from behind it I regarded my father with cold contempt. He had struck me where he could do the most damage: my sense of manhood. I followed him and my sister out of the field, my face on fire, this time not with shame but with wrath. And from that moment on, I saw him not as my champion. I saw him as my adversary. [6]

Milton: You should compare Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound (2008) whose story is set in the same Mississippi delta region as Dreher, but about 100 years prior. In Mudbound “lend” is a taboo four-letter word.[7]

McKeon: It’s because difference is a debt owed to the community. For community equals conformity and both make up a system of checks and balances that is intolerant toward debt.

Milton: And difference is the key. The atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson once explained why all information, including cultural information, is binary. Bateson holds that facts—in any context––are but “effective differences,” and “information consists of differences that make a difference.” The human mind “is an aggregate of interacting parts or components,” and the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time.”[8]

McKeon: A––“nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in time or space”––and you say the guy was an atheist?

Thus the blind tattooed the blind—both knowing exactly what they wanted—both of whose origins and orientations toward the world were completely incompatible in comparison to the other.

NOTES

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[1] Buber, Martin. Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Ch. VIII – The Village.”

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 28.

[4] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 19.

[5] McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 1940. Modern Library. 1993. I, ii, p. 36; II, vii, p. 238.

[6] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 26, 32, 11.

[7] Jordan, Hillary. Mudbound. Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC. 2008. p. 117.

[8] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. pp. 61, 81, 92, 99. Cf. Plato, Republic 521c–523b, 524e, 525a–526d.


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