Sunday, December 15, 2013


Barry Roberts Greer sent me a free pdf of the book I’m reviewing here, called “Seven Two: A Firefighter’s Story” and I’m glad he did.  I’m not sure what the title means and to me it doesn’t matter much anyway.  The book is dedicated to Beckett, but could almost as well be dedicated to Kafka.  This is a triptych based on personal experience, partly autobio-graphical, but jazzed up to make a story.  

Years ago when I was in the ministry, I had a parishioner who once had a high-pay lawyer’s career but junked it in order to come West and learn how to repair small motors.  He found it FAR more satisfying.  “In law,” he said, “Everyone asks you what YOU think and there is no real answer.  But with small motors, if the thing doesn’t work, you ask how to fix it, they tell you, and then it works.”  In short, that man’s insight and the insight of Greer’s book are the same -- though they head in opposite directions since Greer started with a do-able physical job.  A physical, needed, definitive job is by far the most satisfying kind of work a person can have.  Somehow our society has the prestige and status quotients of the two turned around, the reverse of what might seem logically to be the due rewards.  If you risk your life, endure pain and irreversible damage in order to help others, you get paid less, like soldiers on food stamps.  (Until they cancel food stamps.)

The first part of this book, about learning to be an effective firefighter, is full of technical information and incident analysis, as well as a bit of the usual team dynamics as shown on a good TV series.  I loved it, reading along as fast as I could to soak it all up, trying to keep back all the personal stories that memory kicked up because in a small rez town in the Sixties we ALL responded to fires and because we were building a foundry with high awareness of the fire-tigers we might release.  If I hadn’t been born a woman and raised a wary tight-assed Presbyterian, I would have loved to be a firefighter.  But given the realities, I made a cat’s choice.  (Watching.  Reading.)  Life pulled me in anyway.  (Adrenaline junkie.  Forget testosterone.)

To match expertise and team cooperation with high adrenaline emergencies must have been in human genes from the beginning.  It is hugely satisfying -- I know from my animal control years.  But the damage does come.  In the protagonist’s case it was trauma from a falling beam to the back of his skull that nearly destroyed his eyesight.  Starting over, he went back to school, only to suffer testicular cancer, very common among firefighters -- it used to afflict chimney sweeps.  Soot is not good for tender tissues.

This book is about survival of an individual in the face of corrupt group dynamics -- as I’ve been framing my thinking for a while now. The second panel of the series is in the jungle of Lansing, MI, where politics is . . . well, you can guess because by now the systems of corruption and power are so common throughout so much of the country.  Much of this is long-standing.  He takes the same escape route as earlier: more education.

Surely, the reader thinks, now he has found the sacred grounds of American democracy where professors educate the leaders of tomorrow and all is grounded in the highest principles of the founders.  But, sadly, he discovers -- as so many have before him -- that academic politics is as cut throat as bootlegging or drug peddling.  I started skimming.  The politics of religious denominations, of state and city governments, of public schools, of publishing, of infrastructure co-ops -- you name it and the same shenanigans go on in spite of all the transparency and all the clever organizational design strategies.  (I once thought organizational design would save us all.)  Especially in an economy where the people who are on the front lines are paid the least, forced into working two and three jobs and postposing family and house-ownership, no one has time or energy for reform.  In a college setting they call the poor guys stuck with teaching bonehead English to people who slid through high school on good looks the “comp dogs.”  There ought to be a name for university presidents with good hair and hard-driving wives.  And a name for the people who went back to school because they believed it would mean better jobs.  Like, "gut-shot."

Greer brought his dilemma to the listserv of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, which used to be a loose and contentious bunch of wiseacres and adventurers but has now somehow become kind of cautious and polite.  He wanted them to read this book and three others (I’ll do it and report) but most are putting all the energy and attention they have into their own survival.   

Graham Spanier and Bill Clinton

By the end section I was outright skipping.  There is a LOT of the kind of detailed trial-level indictment material that I have neither the mind nor the motivation to read.  I don’t CARE about all that heaped-up wrong-doing.  It’s banal, it’s everywhere, it’s Kafka, it’s Beckett.  It’s surrealism in defense against despair.  The whole big picture has gone screwy and we need broad strokes, on the level of culture change, to get us back to any kind of rationality.  

Attacking the founders of a listserv is a self-destructive way to go forward -- it’s running into the burning building.  But if it gets people to read the material, does the end justify the means?   We used to have a high school counselor, a pretty effective guy.  A kid would do some obnoxious, possibly self-destructive, thing -- like attempting suicide -- and the bitter old women would say,  “Oh, they’re just looking for attention.”  Haw would answer, “Well, yup.  And so we ought to just give it to them.  They must really need it and we might learn something.”  He knew that a belittling dismissal is really a defense on the part of people who don’t want to get involved, to risk their own comfortable lives.  NOT good fire fighters!  But how much can we ask from people?

Back a while I made it a point to search out and read books about emergency responders: how did they cope, how did they survive, how did they let themselves off the hook when interventions failed?  It was partly because of my brother who had head trauma in the front of his skull and eventually died on the street in Eugene.  I didn’t know he could have qualified for disability, but anyway he refused any medical advice out of that Willamette Valley hippie cynicism that no authority figure knows anything anyway and fear that they would label him crazy.  In the end Greer doesn’t offer a solution except to go push your body up into the mountains where you can feel real -- if frozen -- again and rely only on your own survival skills.  (A few too many people are out on the trails pursuing that end already.)

Everyone just has to make their own way, whether or not the group approves.  What’s miserable is when in their disapproval they try to destroy you.  The group loves more than anything else the Status Quo and will fight change.  I try to keep my head down.  Mostly.  Thanks for the book, Barry Roberts Greer, provocateur.  Fire belly.  Things may change.

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