Reading, writing, resistance

Conquering small challenges, like programming the VCR, can lead to small miracles, restoration and taking our country back from the infidels.

Published November 21, 2003 10:38PM (EST)

Last Sunday, I thought I had finally figured out why Democrats have so little hope that we can win back the White House next November: It's because 90 percent of us can't even program our VCRs. By the same token, 65 percent of Republicans can program their VCRs, or have underpaid servants to do it for them. No wonder they've been on such a tear.

I actually just made that last figure up; also, the first one. But how can liberals dare dream of a better world if we can't even tape our favorite shows? Of course we go around feeling weak and incompetent and defeated.

Trust me on this: It is how revolutions begin, with small triumphs that lead to self-respect and knowledge. If you give people food, you will feed them for a day, but if you teach them to program their VCRs, you -- well, maybe this is stretching the point, but still. Today the VCR; tomorrow, learning to clip the dog's toenails without making him bleed. Two months from now? A candidate we can all get behind.

If you are anything like me, the very thought of learning to program the VCR fills you with a sense of impending doom. Last week, when I first came up with this theory -- that conquering this one challenge could lead to small miracles and restoration and to getting our country back from these infidels -- I was in church. The problem is that I often get confused there, and think that truth and beauty always win out in the end; that we cry out for answers, and God gives them to us: Love everyone, breathe, show up, sit outside, dance, stop sucking your stomach in. Try not to kill anyone today. And dance around a little very day. Why? Because it helps. It is part of living: In African Catholic churches, people dance on the way up to communion, even the nuns.

I actually felt on Sunday in church that I could program the VCR when I got home, if I took it step by step.

It may have been the music: It feels like an audible floating of spirit in there, wafting me up out of my chronic self-doubt, changing the channel from the station that plays one song, called "Me, What I Want, and What a Fraud I Am." Many of the people I go to church with have been so roughed up by life, and yet they still sing with joy from the very depth of themselves, and this smoothes me, like a mother reaching out to smooth away the wrinkles of my clothes, or brush a crumb from my face. Their singing is a kind of mother to me.

Unfortunately, none of the choir had piled into the back seat of my car to serenade me on my way home and throughout this day. Ten miles from church, I started to feel alone and worried again. I tried to remember if I still even had the owner's manual, or where I might have put it, and my next thought was, This is so hopeless: I'm someone who's still impressed by telephones and radios.

We used to have a VCR that plugged right into the TV, which plugged into the wall cable. There was no cable box; I think the cable box came in around the same time Bush did, which I am sure is just a coincidence. And even I, who am the Elmer Fudd of technology, could program the last one. I mean, it took a while -- it took like two years. But two Clinton years; these Bush years are in dog time -- each year feels like seven.

Anyway, that Sunday, right before I arrived home, I remembered something that gave me some faith: that I survived the SRA reading program when I was young. Some people loved it, but for me, there were tiny flies in the ointment -- for instance, it destroyed my life and whatever shred of confidence and hope I may have had as a child. But it also taught me a technique I could apply when learning some difficult lessons in the world, on death, motherhood, romance, writing. I realized in the car that I could apply this system to mastering the VCR.

First I should tell those of you lucky enough to have escaped SRA what it was. It consisted of a file box about the size you'd store 45s in, with colored tabs separating reading materials and vocabulary words in order of difficulty. So the beginning lessons, the easier stuff, would be under the red tab, say; and then the next-harder material would be contained behind the yellow tabs. You worked your way all the through the colors, to the silver and gold tabs. You got to go at your own pace, and you got to check your own answers against the correct ones. It sounds so elegant and benevolent, but then again, so did fen-phen. So did Joan Crawford.

Some of my classmates seemed to enjoy their lessons, but I see now that this was an act of hostility. Whenever I started a new set of tabs, I felt like a cartoon character whose heart is pounding with fear and you can see it pushing like a piston out of their chest. The pressure was so extreme for me, the constant testing, the desperate need to succeed, the fear of failure, the sense of being on a tightrope about to fall. Everyone would see that I was a fraud -- not in fact one of the smartest kids, but one the dumbest.

I began getting migraines by first grade, when we started SRA, as the surface tension stretched too tight over that black hole of being a damaged, worried little girl. Brainstorms crashed through the crazy village of my mind, and I felt like it all might suddenly flare into nothingness. I'd have to leave my classroom to lie on the bathroom floor, so the cool tiles would mild down my headache, as Sam said once.

My teachers were really lovely, though, and they always stepped in when all hope was lost. They'd walk me through the dark mornings of the soul. But the catch was, if you somehow scrabbled and cheated your way through one batch of colored tabs, you were still not saved. It only bought you a little time. Then you had to start a whole new batch of material, behind the green tabs, say, and you would stare at it hopelessly, because there wouldn't be one question you knew the answer to, one vocabulary word you recognized, and you'd know you'd reached the end of the line.

I'm still getting over it.

So last Sunday, I thought of the last VCR we'd had -- the one I could program -- as the easier pages behind the red tabs, which I had mastered. Now I was moving to a new challenge, the yellow-tab material. Naturally, it would intimidate me at first, but I would figure it out, as I'd figured out how to write food reviews, essays and books, and managed to raise a child and now a teenager. Friends and books had always helped to throw on just enough light so I could at least see what I was tripping over, and I had tried and succeeded at whatever was right in front of me to do next -- publication, say, or colic, or my mother's illness. I've made a fool of myself a lot of times -- books have flopped, and I'm sure there is a label on Sam's medical file that says Extremely Tense Mother. But I've kept lurching forward. So with this and the owner's manual, I figured I should be able to program the VCR.

I found the owner's manual and sat down in front of the TV and VCR, with all my remote controls. What is it with all these fucking remote controls? I can't help but think of Father Guido Sarducci's plaintive cry years ago, "Where did all these white plastic patio chairs come from? And what do they want?" I finally figured out which ones I needed, and began.

I could take you step by step through the ensuing catastrophe of ineptitude and swearing, or refer you to the opening scenes of "2001," when the apes go bad and smash everything to bits with their bones.

Only I had, instead of bones, a bunch of remote controls.

Rage coursed through me, and I pounded the carpet with one of the remotes and imagined throwing the VCR down the hill, along with its accomplices, the TV and the cable box, and the computer, just on general principle. I got up and stomped around for a while. Then I sat down, closed my eyes, and tried to breathe. I coaxed the dog out from underneath the bed and took her for a walk, and then ate the last of the Halloween candy: the single-dose packets of Hershey bars. The pharmaceutically packaged Kit Kats.

I tried to remember why I had had any faith at all that I could do it: something about SRA and church. That morning our pastor had said people are so afraid and frustrated now, looking for God more than ever, and that God is trusting us to be those somebodies. But first of all, I don't think she was referring to my home entertainment center, and second of all -- if she was -- who could be my somebody for this? I tried to find a tech support number on the VCR's Web page. There wasn't one. There were only frequently asked questions, none of them dealing directly with rage or subhuman incompetence. I e-mailed them, begging for a phone number.

I remembered that when I was a child and stumped by a new set of colored tabs, I could get a little boost if I compared myself to the kids who were really, really slow: total SRA losers. It was SRA schadenfreude. There were always a few kids who couldn't even get through the few tabs in the course of the school year -- many of the poor kids often struggled, the children of the janitors and bus drivers, and of the rangers who lived on Angel Island, who were ferried over early every morning, who always had colds and wiped their noses on their sleeves. They'd be so out of alignment with the various codes -- dress codes, lunchbox codes, not to mention SRA -- in torn shoes, with boxes of Jell-O powder to eat for lunch -- and there'd I'd be with the other smart, privileged kids, hunched over my blue-tab pages with hooded eyes and tense shoulders, like Theodore Kaczynski.

But I couldn't think of a single person to feel better than when it came to technology, now that my mother is dead. Then I realized my boyfriend is even more inept than I -- I gave him a DVD player last year and it so frightened him that he left it in the box for two months until I threatened to leave him -- and this lifted my spirits. He still can't program it. I ate another Kit Kat and thought about leaving him. And I felt so sick of being afraid. I was scared my whole childhood, scared to leave for college, scared to drop out, scared to work, scared to quit, scared when I started every new book, scared at every publication, scared of getting out of bad relationships, scared of being stuck with whoever I was with, scared of having a child, scared to death I'd never have one. The only things that have helped were my friends, and my faith, but my best friends are seriously incompetent -- they make me look like Steve Jobs. It was a hopeless mess. But faith has taught me over the years that mess is compost, and this would have to do.

I do have a lot of faith in compost and decay, that it softens everything beneath us, and within us, and it breaks things down so they can be used again, and gives off all sorts of weird gases and life-giving elements, and these get into the cold, fortressed places within us. They trick their way past the bricks and fences and defenses, and they get in deeper than anything else can, besides music. The problem is that this feels terrible, because it exposes us -- the pain and reality and brutality and softness and strength and suffering and kindness that is the human condition: I know this is good, theoretically, but it feels so terrible when life gets in, even though life holds so much beauty. But then people help you, or you help them, and when we offer or receive help, we take in each other. And then we are saved.

I stared at a quote on the wall: Nietzsche said, "Is not giving a need? Is not receiving mercy?" So I started being nice to myself. I put away most of the remote controls and lay down on the couch with a blanket. First I thought of compost piles I've had in other houses over the years, when I was younger. Then I thought of what passes for a compost pile now, all the junk stuffed under the work table in the garage, that needs to go to the dump or the Salvation Army. I squinted and saw myself shoving the old VCR in there last year. I went downstairs and pulled everything out, until I found it. I dusted it off, and went to my remote control collection. I still had the right one. I plugged the old VCR into the TV in the guest room, and sat down before it, as if it were a chessboard. I flexed my fingers, like a pianist, and began. It was easy, because there was no cable box. It was yellow-tab stuff.

I managed to program it within a few minutes. This morning the tech support people finally e-mailed me a phone number, and half an hour later, I had learned to program the new VCR. Now I can help other people. No more black and white for us: We need to meet each other wherever we are, whichever pages we're on, and help each other move forward from the early pages, red, yellow, orange, through the green and blue, through joy and terror and troubles and technology and family and kindness and politics, and keep on going through the purple, silver and gold.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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