I am reading two books this week

Jim Harrison’s, Returning to Earth, and Lyn Miller-Lachman’s, Dirt Cheap, and though on the surface they don’t have much in common my digging deeper by reading as discovered some connections of note.  Jim Harrison is writing a story that is told as a memoir by a dying half-Native American who’s last desire is to set the record straight before he goes.  He’s sick to the death with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Well, Clarence and his wife, Sally, were pretty happy out there on their small farm southwest Negaunee.  Their little son, Clarence, who was my grandfather, was born with a hair on his ass by which I mean he was a real wild boy.

Donald the man telling us his story has a habit of digressing but he wants us to know right away that he would have been called Clarence too if the family hadn’t decided that that name had had enough use by the time he got born.

The family had ups and downs especially when Sally got sick from an infection and back then just like for many people now there was no health insurance.  Sally was in the hospital in Marquette for a month but Clarence’s credit was good though it took him years to work off the debt.

Being in debt can lead a person into doing something that he or she may always regret.  In Clarence’s case the story goes that

What happened was that the son of the Milwaukee brewer whose horse farm Clarence had worked on telegrammed Clarence and said he would pay five hundred dollars, which was about what a man could make in a year in those days, if Clarence would guide him to a big bear he could shoot so he could be photographed with the bear for a beer advertisement.

The upshot of the whole event was that Clarence ends up having to shoot the bear himself and after a month of heavy remorseful drinking when he realizes the bear had a cub he could save, he gets there too late.  The cub is dead of starvation.

This was a sad tale and Clarence never hunted or trapped again because his dreams told him this was his penance.

It’s funny how we punish ourselves.  In Dirt Cheap, penance takes a different form.  This is story about a former 60’s radical who teaches at a community college in Connecticut.  He and his family have ended up there as a result of his radical past coming back to haunt him when he is targeted by a conservative hate group at his former college and denied tenure.

Maybe because Nicky had always been wrapped up in his work, it was easier for him.  But Holly still remembered the slights, the people they had regularly socialized with who after the tenure vote avoided them as if they had a contagious disease.

. . . When she overheard one of Nicky’s graduate students say to a friend, “If they’d known earlier, they could have had an abortion,” she cried for an hour.  Then she went down to J & R Music World and charged a thousand dollars on her credit card for a new stereo receiver and speakers.

And if this isn’t bad enough, when they get the job offer at the community college, Holly, still trying to compensate for the loss of prestige, volunteers to find them the perfect house.

That weekend she put a deposit on 15 Butternut Court, a four-bedroom colonial on a cul-de-sac.  Despite the piles of dirt and construction materials scattered all around, . . .

At that time she never even saw the abandoned chemical plant a mile upstream and on the other side of the river.

Stress is a terrible force.  Relief from it can be found but sometimes as in the two literary examples above that relief bears a horrible price.  In literature these conflicts and stresses are a necessary part of moving the story forward.  But in real life events like these, which do happen to real people too, are something we need to think about when we set up our emergency fund, and go about organizing our plans for the long term.  Playing what would happen if is one way to think about the future and reading well-written stories can help us see that, even in the worst of times, the human spirit can survive.

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