Discover more from Discourse
Humility, Empathy and Asking the Big Questions
Ben Klutsey and Roland Merullo discuss authoritarian trends, the role of spirituality in modern life, lessons from golf and much more
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Our conversation today is with the author Roland Merullo. He’s an award-winning author of 24 books, including 17 works of fiction. His book “Breakfast with Buddha” was a nominee for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His latest book, “Once Night Falls,” was selected as a November 2019 pick by Amazon First Reads editors. He has his undergraduate degree from Boston University and a master’s in Russian language and literature from Brown University.
Thank you so much, Roland, for joining us today.
ROLAND MERULLO: My pleasure, Ben. Nice to be here.
Pluralism and Authoritarianism
KLUTSEY: We recently launched a program on pluralism, which is an important aspect of a liberal democracy. We launched that program here at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. When we say “pluralism,” we mean how do we live and coexist peacefully with each other amidst very deep divides and differences?
We’re seeing deep polarization and division that make it difficult for us to accept pluralism. Your recent piece in Persuasion is very timely and speaks to how we’re taking liberal democracy for granted. You talk about how we see people flirting with authoritarian means for getting their way on a variety of issues. I wanted to get your take, first, on why you think this is.
MERULLO: I think it’s very complicated. I’ve been following the political conversation in America literally since I was a little kid. My dad was involved in politics, and I wrote about a 20-part series on the 1996 presidential primaries and election for the Philadelphia Inquirer. And I travel a lot, I’ve worked overseas a lot, I’ve traveled around this country a lot. The whole subject fascinates me and, these days, particularly disturbs me.
I come from a real working-class background: I lived in a working-class city right outside of Boston for 25 years. I still have relatives there; I go there all the time. Actually, I have two degrees from Brown, and I’m kind of a member of the liberal elite, but I really have one foot in—it’s the white working-class world. Some of my friends are poor, some of them are working class—some of my relatives, same thing—so I feel like I have a fairly good lens into both those worlds, and it’s sad to me that they can’t speak to each other.
To try to answer your question, I think part of it is humility on the part of the liberal elite. I don’t think . . . I encounter some of my—colleagues, I guess would be the word, even though I don’t work in university anymore—who have a tremendously difficult time speaking to working people. That would be one aspect of the problem.
Another aspect is the polarization of the media. You have people who only watch Fox News and people who only watch MSNBC, and it doesn’t foster good cross-the-line communication, in my opinion.
KLUTSEY: You also cite “humorlessness,” especially canceling comedians and restrictions on artistic expression, especially given concerns over cultural appropriation or othering, and the willingness to believe and spread misinformation on topics people do not like the reality of, especially the results of the 2020 election, as symptoms of this slippage into authoritarian mindsets. Could you explain a little about how these work and if they build on each other, in a way?
Lessons From the Soviet Union
MERULLO: Yes—I should say first, the piece was probably about my time in the Soviet Union. I worked in the Soviet Union for 28 months between 1977 and 1990, and so I’m particularly sensitive to Soviet-style authoritarianism. I see the tendency on both the right and the left.
The right, obviously, they’re messing with elections. They’re preparing the ground to really mess with the elections in 2022 and 2024. That’s the foundation of democracy—if you mess with that, you’re done: You don’t have democracy.
On the left, it’s more—you mentioned cultural appropriation and othering, which are terms that writers deal with these days. It’s an attempt to really forcibly limit people’s ability to say what they want to say, and I think it’s counterproductive to the movement that those people want to see happening in the United States.
I’ve written three novels from the point of view of women: I couldn’t do that now. I’ve written about Russia; I have characters who are Russian, who are different races, who are Cuban, who are old, young. That’s what novelists have done since the beginning of the existence of the novel, and now people on the left are saying that I have no right to do that. It’s really sad to me personally, but it’s sadder to me nationally that we don’t look at people through any kind of individual lens anymore; it’s all about labels, and I don’t think that fosters communication at all.
KLUTSEY: You mentioned living in the former Soviet Union for 28 months. It’d be great to hear your experiences living there—the on-the-ground experiences and perspective living there, and how that informs some of your views now as you’re thinking and writing about these issues.
MERULLO: During the Cold War, the United States put together traveling cultural exchange exhibitions to try to get the Soviets to have a little bit of a window on the West because, as I’m sure you know, their information was totally controlled by the government. And so we sent these exhibitions—which were actually more like traveling museums. They were huge, 10,000 square feet, filled with incredible displays. We brought them all across the country with Russian-speaking Americans, including me.
I should say none of us was ever told that we could or could not say anything; there was not that kind of propaganda. Sometimes, often, 15,000 people a day would come to the exhibition; there would be lines literally a mile long out the door in snowstorms because the Soviets were so curious. We traveled the length and breadth of the country; we worked together with Soviet workers. I had different jobs for the three different tours that I was there. We lived in Soviet hotels; we went to dinner at the homes of people. It was a very thorough exposure to the life there.
The things that I saw—they were terrible. They were what you would expect from an authoritarian regime. People who couldn’t say what they wanted to say for fear of being sent to the camps, or losing their jobs, or losing their apartment. Police beating people with no recourse. There was no such thing as suing anybody about anything and hoping for any kind of reasonable outcome.
Soviets could not leave the country. I took the train from Moscow to Helsinki when I left the first time, and the train stopped at the Soviet border, and they had German shepherds sniffing underneath the cars to make sure nobody was holding on under there trying to get out of the country.
I saw horrible things, and I spoke to people who’d been in the camps, and who’d lost relatives in the camps, and who’d lost their jobs, who’d been beaten nearly to death by the KGB. I was personally interrogated in a locked train station. We saw some horrible things. I know this is true for the people I worked with, the other Americans. We became highly sensitized to that and greatly appreciative of the freedoms that we have in this country.
Preserving Our Freedoms
KLUTSEY: Yes, that’s really fascinating. You said in your Persuasion piece that we’ve lived so long—I’m quoting here—“We’ve lived so long with our freedoms that we’ve come to think they’re automatic, impregnable, a birthright instead of a way of life that needs to be continually nurtured and protected.”
KLUTSEY: As I was reading that, I was wondering whether you had any lessons for us on how we might nurture these freedoms. Obviously, most people would agree that we’re not living in the Soviet Union. But how do we preserve the ideals for future generations?
MERULLO: First, we respect the sanctity of the vote, which we are in the process of not doing. Second, we allow people to say things that are upsetting to other people, as long as they’re not hateful or really obviously inducing violence.
I think we have to be tolerant of that kind of thing. If you look at some of the comedian routines of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, people said stuff that I’m sure was offensive. Some of it was offensive to me as an Italian American, some making fun of the way my grandfather spoke. But you have to be a little bit resilient and say, “OK, they’re making a joke. I don’t like the joke, but they’re making a joke. They’re not coming from a place of hatred.”
I think most people know when someone’s coming from a bad place. I think in trying to reduce offense in the country, we’ve gone too far, and we’ve really policed speech to too great an extent.
Again, to me on the right and the left, the right is much more guilty of messing with the elections. The left is much more guilty of messing with the language. But both of those things impinge on freedom, the way I think of it.
Experience and Empathy
In your post-2016-election piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that highlights an inability or unwillingness among people to empathize with others who are different from them in worldview or lived experience—and you mentioned growing up with some of these people, and you mentioned humility is one thing that’s lacking. I imagine that you think empathy is one of the things that you need to have for people of different backgrounds, because some of these people feel like they’ve been mocked. You talk about mockery in that piece, and other forms of denigration, as a result of the lack of—they may be in a different place than the others.
But what is it in your background that gives you—in addition to growing and living amongst some of these people, I learned that you have had jobs like a tollbooth operator; you’ve been a carpenter. And so it seems as though you have some experiences beyond just having family with these people. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MERULLO: Yes. I feel very lucky that I have had those experiences. I . . . think purposely after college tried to do different things rather than go into a softer career, and I did drive a cab, and I was a carpenter for seven years. I was writing at that time; I wasn’t making any money from writing.
Also, I’m very close to my family members who—my brother’s a custodian; he doesn’t have a college education. His wife doesn’t have a high school education. And I see them all the time. I talk to them every few days; it’s not an abstract thing to me.
I feel very grateful that I’ve had those experiences. And not only—I went to Exeter Academy, I went to Boston University, I have two degrees from Brown. I’ve been to Italy 12 times on vacation. I have a very, in some ways, luxurious life; I’m not a wealthy person, but I’ve had a very comfortable life. I’m glad to have half of one foot in that other part of America.
The Role of Fiction
KLUTSEY: Yes. Much of what you write is in the fiction genre, as well. And what role do you see fiction and storytelling playing in helping people to become more empathetic and to overcome one’s own self-righteous feelings and perceptions about issues? Can fiction help build empathy, you think?
MERULLO: I love that question because I feel like the novel is a study of the individual. “The Great Gatsby” is not about a type; it’s about Jay Gatsby. Virginia Woolf wrote not about—obviously, it was set into a certain class in Great Britain, but it was about individual people. Mrs. Ramsay is an individual person, and the depth and complexity of the individual is exactly the thing that the novel explains and explores, I would say. To turn the novel into a political document and say . . .
Some novels obviously are political. There’s the political dimension to many of the things I’ve written, but it’s more—to me, it penetrates to a level below the surfaces, below what you look like, what your skin color is, what your gender is, what your politics are, what your age is. It penetrates into the mysterious depths of a human individual in all our complex psychologies.
I think if we were able to relate to each other on that level, it would be a fundamentally different scene in America. Buddha said life is suffering. Everybody suffers in some way. That should be a unifying principle, at least of the American conversation, and it is not.
I think the novel displays that suffering and hope and striving in ways that no other art form can do as well. A film can do it, but not with the depth and length that a novel can do it.
The Role of Solitude
KLUTSEY: Yes. I really like that.
Some of the conversations we’ve had previously with other guests have been about polarization and how much we are so saturated by politics. It seems as though we encounter this on a daily basis. I was wondering what the role of solitude in one’s life might play in stepping away from the daily political noise.
I bring this up because I listened to a conversation you had not too long ago, in that you mentioned that you live in a very remote part of the country, where you can’t—at the time, you couldn’t even have Skype, and you noted that it gives you a chance to write and do what you do.
I was wondering the role of quietness and how that can help lower the temperature on some of the polarization and division that we’ve seen in our society. A recent philosopher we talked to said we need that solitary moment to reflect on who we are, to reflect on the differences around the world, and also to appreciate those things. I just wanted to give you a chance to reflect on that a little bit.
MERULLO: Sure. I won’t get the expression correctly, but it’s something like, “All the trouble in the world comes from people’s inability to sit quietly in the room for an hour and do nothing.” I understand that: I had a meditation practice for 40 years, and what that does is help you examine what’s going on in your brain. And sometimes what’s going on is not very nice, and it’s flawed, and it needs observation and adjustment.
I think we don’t have much contemplative time in our society now. I’m sure you’re in a doctor’s office sitting there, and everybody takes out their phone for the five minutes they have to wait—including me; I do the same thing. It’s like, when do we ever just sit quietly someplace and just watch what’s going on in our brains? What’s going on in our brains is the beginning of everything. That’s the root of what we end up doing. I wish there were a little more of an emphasis on contemplative time in this society, but I have no idea how we could possibly do that. It’s just so much in the opposite direction.
But I think it’s helpful to spend a little time alone. I think it’s helpful to spend a little quiet time and just take a quiet walk in nature. You don’t have to have a formal meditation session or anything like that.
If you go to a hockey game, in between plays, they’re playing super-loud music. If you go to the beach, people are playing loud music on the radio. And I play golf, and golf used to be a place where you really were supposed to be quiet. Now people are riding around in their carts, their golf carts, playing loud music. It’s like we’re afraid of just a little bit of internal ponder, a little bit of quiet time, a little bit of self-reflection. I think that would be helpful. I don’t see how we can institute it.
Volunteering Can Build a Bridge
MERULLO: One thing I do want to say, to go back to another question I don’t think I answered very well, was one thing I think that would foment a better channel—a better discussion across the different lines that we had—would be if we had some kind of a national volunteer requirement where you had to serve for a year, no matter your station in life.
You don’t have to serve in the military—you could serve in a hospital; you could serve mentoring kids. I mean, there’s a lot of different—you could do something in nature, cleaning the forest so we reduce the risk of forest fires. Whatever it might be. I think if every young person had to do that for even six months, we’d understand each other better. We’d feel more like a community and less like various groups.
KLUTSEY: You served in the Peace Corps, right? Did that foster a sense of community within you? What did you think of your other colleagues in the Peace Corps as well?
MERULLO: No, that’s a great idea, and I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. What I think it does is helps us have a clearer view of the way we live, more than any good we may have done in the rest of the world. I know there were Peace Corps volunteers where I was who said they, meaning the people in Micronesia, should send Peace Corps volunteers to us because they live in a wiser fashion than we do.
I think it’s been helpful to—and even if you’re not in the Peace Corps, if you just travel and experience other ways of life with an open mind, you can come back to America and say, “They do that much better than we do. Why don’t we try to adjust our society, our assumptions?”
You’ve mentioned meditation a couple of times, and I wanted to give you a chance to touch on spirituality a little bit. I know that in both your fiction and nonfiction work, there is a focus on religion, faith or spirituality. I’m curious what these terms mean to you and why you think it is important to address them in one’s own life.
MERULLO: That’s a huge part of my life. I actually—the words make me a little uncomfortable. “Spirituality”—I use the word—it makes me uncomfortable because I feel like it excludes certain people, or they exclude themselves when they hear that word, as if it has to mean going to synagogue or mosque or church.
I don’t think of it that way at all. To me, spirituality means just thinking about what’s going on. Why are you here? We really talk about something we take for granted. You are an individual consciousness on a spinning ball in the middle of space: What’s that all about? I don’t believe in having an answer for that, but to think about it would be nice.
To think about the fact that at some point, you’re not going to be that; you’re not going to be in this party; you’re going to die, and then maybe nothing happens, maybe something else happens. I’m not going to say I know, because I don’t know. I think it’s valuable to consider that, to step away for a minute, from the latest paying of a bill or playing of a golf game or watching a show on TV or whatever it is that people love to do, and just say, “What is going on?”
I find reading across the religious spectrum to be fascinating because different religions have different explanations for that and different ideas. Somebody like Walt Whitman, who’s not traditionally thought of as speaking out of a particular religion, but he was looking at the big picture and saying, “What’s going on here? What are we doing here?”
I think it’s actually the function of art in general. When you paint a still life, what’s that all about? Why would someone care to paint a bowl with three pears and a banana in it? Why? Because they’re trying to make you look at it instead of just saying, “Oh, there’s a banana; I’ll grab it and eat it.” It’s like, there’s something beautifully mysterious about that. I think to me, the function of all art—dance, theater, music—is to push you into a little bit of a different mental zone and have you pay attention in a different way.
KLUTSEY: Yes. We’ve had some conversations with some guests who’ve said that an appreciation for art can give you some tools to appreciate the differences that we have in our world.
Fostering Civil Discourse in Academia
KLUTSEY: I know that you’ve taught in colleges a few times. Do you have any insights or tools from your experiences as a professor in fostering more civil discourse? A lot of our listeners are in academia, either professors or they’re working on the administrative side. It’d be interesting to get your thoughts on approaches that may have worked in your classrooms.
MERULLO: I have a lot of thoughts about academia these days. I love the idea of teaching people. I was walking around the Brown University campus yesterday and just marveling at it, at what a beautiful thing an institution of higher learning actually is. You’re passing on knowledge in all these different areas to a younger generation. What could be more valuable than that?
I do feel that there has grown an intolerance in some of those institutions, an inability to listen to somebody who’s going to say something that bothers you, that upsets you. That’s an opportunity, to me. I like to be able to talk across the Grand Canyon that stands between my ideas and some of the ideas of the people that I know and love or have worked with.
I think that some academics are shutting that down, and I find it terrible, actually. I think that they should be smarter than that. They should allow somebody to come on campus who’s going to say some—not hate speech; I would draw the line at inciting violence or hatred. But I think that definition is too broad now. Someone should be able to come on campus and say something that upsets the students, or some of the students, and let that foster a discussion rather than shutting that down, which . . .
Sometimes the discussion is fostered. And sometimes, too often of late, I think, we don’t want to listen to those people. It upsets us to listen to those people. OK, be upset. It’s OK to be upset. It can be good to be upset, not out of hatred, not out of just purposely trying to provoke someone, but speaking something that—if you say something I don’t like to hear, to me that’s an opportunity: Maybe I can learn from you. Maybe that can foster a discussion, however difficult.
Anybody who’s ever been married for a long time or in a long-term relationship should understand that. That person, the other person, is going to do things that you don’t like or say things that you don’t like, and you can have a giant fight, you can get divorced or you can talk about it. I would prefer to try to talk about it, at least as a first step.
How To Be Quiet
KLUTSEY: Yes, absolutely.
Going back to our discussion of quietness: It’s understandable that you can’t make everyone in society do that, but do you have any advice for individuals who might want to better assess what’s going on in their minds with quietude?
MERULLO: Keep a journal. Commit 5 to 10 minutes a day to just sitting quietly someplace and not doing anything, not looking at your phone, not scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, not trying to get something done: Just sit there for five minutes. Make a cup of tea. If you can sit outside, sit outside. Or sit in your house and just look out the window for five minutes. As a practice, not as a haphazard kind of thing, but as what the Buddhists and some others call a practice—you’re practicing. When you’re practicing, you’re strengthening your interior muscle, I would say.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Could we double-click on the point about journaling for a second—because there’s this book called “The Artist’s Way,” and one of the advice in that book is something called morning pages. That I have practiced myself—that in the morning, you set up some time to write, and you write for three pages straight before you drop your pen, and you just keep doing it. It could be a stream of consciousness. It could be anything that emerges from your subconscious: just keep writing.
That’s one way I’ve heard about. As a writer, do you have other ways of journaling that you think would be useful?
MERULLO: I think that’s a great way. That’s therapeutic. I think writing is almost always therapeutic, even if you’re writing fiction. Where is the fiction coming from? It’s coming from your subconscious. It reveals something. A lot of times after I’ve finished a novel, I look back and say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that’s what I was writing about.” There’s stuff in there that I had no idea was going to be in there. It’s like a dream, almost.
I think keeping a journal is simple; it doesn’t have to be the way you’ve described it. It can be; I think that’s fine. But if every other day you sit down and write–just write your thoughts or write what happened or write what you’re worried about or hopeful about or fearful about. It’s therapy. I think we all could use some kind of therapy.
Techniques for Productivity
KLUTSEY: That’s right, that’s right.
Now, what is the Roland Merullo magic for productivity? You’ve written 24 books. I find that amazing. How are you able to do that? What’s your daily routine look like?
Over here, my boss, Tyler Cowen, has a podcast called “Conversations with Tyler,” and he asks this question a lot. He says, “What’s your production function?” But basically trying to get to the point of how are you able to be productive?
MERULLO: I think meditation has been very helpful to me. It gets rid of some of the clutter so that when I sit down to write, I don’t have to wade through a lot of other stuff; I can pretty much get to the point of what I’m trying to do, whether it’s write an essay or fiction or nonfiction, creative nonfiction. I think that’s part of it.
Part of it is I’ve had a very supportive wife in this. I’ve made decisions that were really foolish financially—really foolish, including when we had a 1-year-old child and she wasn’t working, making money. I had a university job at which I was uncomfortable because of politics. I resigned in protest and just said, “I’m going to try to write and make—I’m going to try to just make enough money from writing that we can live.” That’s a foolish, foolish thing to do. But I did that kind of on purpose to put myself in a position where I had to be productive.
For me, that has worked. I’m not in a position to recommend that universally. And it’s been the cause of some stress. There were times when we didn’t have enough money. Amanda would say to me, “We have enough money to pay the bills for the next two days,” and I’m like, “Well, I can’t write a novel in the next two days, and I can’t finish the one I’m working on in the next.” It was stressful, especially when we had kids, which we had late. And she stopped working when we had children, working for money. That was my way of creating an artificial push to produce, and so I didn’t have the luxury to not produce.
I think those two things would be the main answer to that question.
Lessons From Golf
KLUTSEY: I see.
You mentioned golf earlier, and I understand that you have quite the reputation in the field. So I’d be remiss to let you go without asking what the sport of golf can teach us about what we’ve been talking about. Do you see any parallels between the practical advice you offer golfers, such as your “Ten Commandments of Golf Etiquette”?
MERULLO: You’re opening a big door right there, Ben.
I played a lot of other sports as a young person. I rowed varsity crew in college. I played some hockey and baseball and karate, just anything—basketball in the backyard kind of stuff. I got into middle age, and there were physical reasons why I couldn’t do—I couldn’t run anymore, I couldn’t play hockey anymore, I couldn’t do karate anymore. All of that athletic passion got funneled into golf.
I grew up playing five times a year with my dad on crappy municipal courses for eight bucks or something. But when I turned 45, I became a fanatic for golf.
It looks so stupid from the outside, I think: a bunch of guys smoking cigars and riding around in these stupid carts and cursing and throwing up big clods of earth. And of course there’s the country-club aspect of it, which is a whole other discussion. That’s not my life—not the way I grew up and not really the way I play now.
It’s an incredible sport. I think mentally, it’s just so demanding. It’s completely humiliating, more than any other sport I have ever played. You are guaranteed to humiliate yourself in front of friends and strangers every time you play golf. At the highest levels even sometimes; that can happen on the PGA Tour.
There’s something to be said for that, for being humbled that way. If you keep a handicap, it tells you exactly how good or not good you are, which is—you can’t outbrag your handicap. You can’t say, “I’m really, really good at golf, but I’m a 21 handicap.” Well, if you’re a 21 handicap, you’re not really, really good. You’re OK, not bad.
It’s been great for me. I’ve played around the world. I’ve met some really nice people. I think one of the strangest things I never would have expected that golf has given me is that I was never really comfortable around people with a lot of money. I had a chip on my shoulder—I admit that freely (I probably still have a little chip)—but because I write about golf, I have gotten to play at courses where the members are tremendously wealthy, and I’ve met some really nice people.
I realized some of them have given more money to charity than I will ever give in my life and have done wonderful things in the world, and some of them are asses. That’s been helpful to me, to be able to actually meet the other—from a working-class standpoint, that other group that “oppressed” us. In my upbringing it always was, “The people in the rich suburbs, look at how they talk about us,” kind of a thing. Golf has helped me reduce the size of the chip, I would say.
Bridging Divides Within Families
KLUTSEY: That is fascinating.
Now, I heard you talk about this in a conversation—that you come from a very big family, and you grew up with about 36 cousins.
KLUTSEY: How many?
KLUTSEY: Forty cousins, wow. Did that teach you anything about bridging divides and differences?
MERULLO: It’s funny you should say that because most of my cousins, on especially my father’s side, which is where I have most of them, are very conservative people, Republicans. The cousin I played golf with yesterday is one of the people closest to me in the world, and our politics are just very, very different, and we love each other.
I think it’s easy to hate, and it’s easy even to dismiss people when you don’t really know them. I saw that racially. When I was a kid, I grew up in a completely white neighborhood, and sometimes things were said that weren’t good things. I did notice when people from my neighborhood met an individual Black person, it changed them in some way. They treated them well because that’s the way they were—they treated people well—but they could no longer make an abstraction of that person. They knew that person.
I think anytime we close off someone because of the group they belong to or the politics or political views they hold, it’s just such a negative thing. If we actually could sit down with that person, we might argue, we might end up not liking them, but at least we could say, “That’s another human being. That person has . . .” I don’t know.
The main thing I would say—and I had a kind of argument with a friend of mine who’s a gay woman about this—I feel like we’re much, much, much more alike than we are different, you know what I mean? Even physiologically, men and women are more alike than different. We have two lungs; we have a heart. Sure, there are differences, and sure, there are differences among people. But really, we love, we fear, we’re born, we die, we feel pain. We opt for pleasure when we can. That gets ignored, and instead, we focus on how different we are from other people.
I don’t want to be saccharine about it. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re all people. We’re all the same. Everything will be fine.” It’s not like that. It takes work to overcome some of our differences, but I really do think we can. I think of it as going down to a level where we relate to somebody on that level, rather than being up here and relating to them on the most superficial level. I know maybe that sounds a little simplistic for your audience—
KLUTSEY: It’s great.
MERULLO: —but that’s what I think.
Is Roland Merullo Optimistic?
KLUTSEY: It is wonderful.
I tend to ask my guests to reflect on whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of our society. I wanted to give you the chance to talk about that. Are you optimistic about the possibilities in the future about becoming more pluralistic and crossing divides or not?
MERULLO: I’m, by nature, an optimistic person. I’m a glass-half-full kind of person, but I would say two things: One, I’m fairly pessimistic right now because it seems like the trends are very antidemocratic. I think, again—as the piece that you cited—I don’t think enough of us really appreciate the fact that we could lose the democracy we have, or what’s left of it, and we could end up living in a way, in a place, that would be really horrible.
I see some of that happening. The counter to that, in my mind, is that I’m wary of predictions. I’ve seen so many of them not come true at all, not be accurate at all. The world sometimes has a way of balancing itself—not always, but sometimes when things look really bleak, something that you cannot imagine happens, and it lightens up that picture a little bit.
So I’m hopeful. Right now I’m probably more pessimistic than I’ve been in a while, both about democracy and climate issues. But I’ve seen enough, I’m old enough to have seen enough in America where we swing to one extreme and then we swing back to the other extreme, and then we hang around in the middle for a while. I don’t necessarily think that some of the extreme stuff that bothers me is going to have a long lifespan.
KLUTSEY: What’s your next book?
MERULLO: I don’t know, and that’s very unusual to me. I’m kind of in a hiatus. I’m writing essays. I have a series of essays called “On the Plus Side” that I send out by subscription to people. They’re not political. I’m trying to be just about life—just the kinds of things that E.B. White wrote about or Thoreau wrote about—just life.
I’ve been spending a little bit of time on that and pondering what I want to do next as far as a novel goes. I have one good idea, but if—well, I think it’s a good idea. If I talk about it, it will lose its juice; so I’m not going to talk about it.
KLUTSEY: [laughs] I see.
Before we bring this to a close, do you have any advice for our audience? A call to action or anything like that?
MERULLO: I’m not a big advice person. I think that assumes that I know something that they don’t know.
I guess I would cite—my wife has been away helping her sister for a while, and I hope she doesn’t see this today, because I’m surprising her by getting the kitchen floor refinished, which has not been refinished in 25 years, and it really bothered her. The reason I’m bringing it up is I had a couple of guys working in the house, and when they came, I shook their hand. I said, “What’s your name? Hey, there’s some beer out on the porch. If you want to have a beer, grab it; make yourself at home.”
One of the guys especially was just stunned that I would treat him that way. He said, “The last house we worked at, they put up plastic to keep the sawdust from going in the house, and the people would speak to us through the plastic.”
Do you know the book “I and Thou” by Martin Buber? Are you familiar with that book or not?
KLUTSEY: I’m not.
MERULLO: It’s a beautiful book, and he talks about how you relate to another person and seeing them as another full human being, even if you’re buying a donut from them. You’re going to buy the donut—you use them to serve you the donut, but you can do it in such a way that you respect their humanity while you’re doing it.
I wouldn’t call it advice, but that’s like a principle in my life. I try to operate by that. I think it’s a positive thing. I think that might bridge some of the differences.
KLUTSEY: It seems like that comes up too when you’re doing retail-type jobs. You talked about this too when you were talking about working in the tollbooth, where it made a huge difference when someone would stop by and it wasn’t just about the transaction, but they asked you about your day or just some random thing.
MERULLO: I just say hi. I brought up my girls to look at . . . if someone’s serving them in any way—cafeteria in the school, or cleaning a room that they’re in, or washing their car when they go through the car wash—look at the person. You don’t have to have a 10-minute conversation and ask them about the details of their life, but you can look at them, you can wave to them, you can say thank you to them.
When we were in Spain, we were walking part of the Camino de Santiago, my wife and I. We were in a little town, and there was a man in an orange uniform whose job it was to sweep the little corners of the alleys in the streets. She went up to him and just said, “I just want to thank you; the city really looks good.” You could tell that that almost never happens to that guy. It was a beautiful thing for her to do.
You can’t have an involved conversation with every toll collector and donut seller you meet, but you can say, “How are you doing today?” or “What time did you wake up today?” or “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I sat on the New York subway next to a guy who I didn’t know at all, and he was eating something. I turned and said, “What are you eating? How is it?” Just a little mini human connection. He said, “I’m having cabbage and beans. It’s pretty good.” I said, “It looks good. I like that.” Just a little thing like that, I think, might help a little bit in this nation of ours.
KLUTSEY: We could all be a little bit nicer.
MERULLO: A little bit—or just more real, more human.
KLUTSEY: Yes, absolutely.
Well, on that note, I’d like to say a big thank you to you for spending your afternoon with us. We really appreciate this conversation. Thank you. Thank you very much.
MERULLO: A big thank you right back at you. Thanks for having me.