We get two daily newspapers delivered at home, the Sun-Times and the New York Times. I always read my own paper first — loyalty — and then turn my attention the Grey Lady.
On Sundays, I start with the news section, then on to what I still consider “The Week in Review,” then the book section, magazine and business, working my way down through the various substrata of descending significance until I end up at the lowest sub-chamber, Style, with its dubious celebrations of flyspeck fads, grotesque genuflection to tasteless wealth, and enormous full-color Ralph Lauren ads for glitzy sequined, epauletted get-ups that would make Michael Jackson cringe with embarrassment.
At the back of Style, the marriage announcements — “Vows” — which I don’t read so much as scan, occasionally dipping into one to check the job statuses of the happy couples, tsk-tsking over their well-off parents and gold-plated, The-World-is-Mine careers. I glance at all the photos, skipping past the same-sex couples, pausing at the comfortably hetero duos to reassure myself that the brides-to-be are not as pretty as my wife — Ha! doing better than you, pal! — a vindictive little game rigged so I always win.
The Times also does news stories spotlighting certain couples about to be married, and last Sunday one stood out: Lilly Smartelli, posed with her arms around her groom-to-be: Bernie, a 9-year-old mixed breed cocker spaniel poodle.
She is marrying her dog, this Valentine’s Day.
Let me pause here, to give you time to form your immediate reactions, which I will go out on a limb and predict are: 1) the world is going to hell; 2) people are crazy; 3) the Times has slid into tabloid sensationalism.
Am I correct? Of course I am.
Now for what Paul Harvey used to call, “the rest of the story.”
Lilly Smartelli, a former nurse, is dying of pulmonary fibrosis. The Phoenix woman has a year or two to live, and then will slowly suffocate. The terminally-ill 55-year-old has always wanted a wedding, and with no significant other in her life beyond her pets — she has another dog — she decided to make her waning days festive by tossing faux nuptials with Bernie, using the event to raise money for medical and animal care charities that are important to her.
Feel a little differently now? Perhaps even sympathetic? I thought you might.
Here’s the big reveal:
Every group you hate and fear, or simply feel automatic contempt toward, whether immigrants crossing the border or Trump supporters shrieking at a rally — not to equate the two — would be less unfathomable, less menacing, come into clearer focus, stop being members of a mystifying mob and start becoming individuals of dignity and worth, if only you knew more about them. Whether gays wanting to get married, NRA supporters ripping at our already laughably weak gun laws, Muslims wearing headscarves, clueless white guys in corner offices, black teens in hoodies or religious leaders marinated in hypocrisy; all have backstories that mitigate their actions, or would, if only you knew them.
This isn’t to argue that everyone is wonderful. They’re not. Some people are vile. But that vileness has an explanation. And if you took the most repellent figure — a gimlet-eyed hater like Franklin Graham — and could see the arc of his life, you would hear the soft sounds of pity tapping against the thick barred door to your heart.
The intriguing question: Why don’t more people try to understand instead of choosing to be aggrieved? Why, instead of fearing whatever dark room looms before them and letting their imaginations fill in what they fear is going on, don’t they just snap on the light and look around at what’s actually there?
Unconquerable fear, I suppose, and brokenness. They don’t have much, don’t really like themselves, so manifest that in an outsized public passion for their own supposed qualities, and a desire to pour contempt on any who are different. It’s as if they tracked down the addresses of those grooms in the Times and sent them their own engagement pictures, to show them what a good-looking couple really looks like. They don’t realize it’s possible to both feel you’re married to the prettiest woman, yet also understand that every other groom also feels exactly the same way. It’s a leap of empathy many cannot make. They can’t even try.