Life, Death, and Pizza: An Argument for Cooperation
By Kevin S. Mahoney
“Mister Wolfe says we never get to the why of anything.” So intoned possibly the best narrator of detective fiction ever devised, Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. I forget which novella he says that. Having read them all, certain details blur. But it has that blend of snarky omniscience that Wolfe maddeningly displays with regularity when he sees something in a murder case that no one else does, and calmly solves the case.
That idea stuck in my head, is still there. I don’t know if I believe it, which practically proves the point. If I don’t know what I believe to be true, what certainty exists? It’s possible that everyone just feels their way along, every moment of every day. It’s not quite fate, but it’s not pure free will either. And pretty chaos and flinty pragmatism are wound together, indistinguishable and therefore inseparable.
Yet I believe in and practice altruism. The form it takes varies. I might hold a door. I have given directions around my city to clueless tourists countless times. Sometimes I write a check to a charity. Usually the opportunity drops into my lap, and I throw up my hands and give the universe a nudge in what I perceive as its intended course, because it seemed like the thing to do at the time. I don’t go looking for it.
Robert Twigger, British author and veteran of the world’s most difficult martial arts course, learned during that year long trial that there were two types of people (both students and teachers) involved in it: the monk types who wanted to make the path of success clearer and easier for those who came after them, and the hard boys who figured the difficulty should be passed along, as it adds character. I agree with that division just as strongly as I do with Mr. Wolfe, and I know I am one of the monks. The world is difficult enough. So if I see a situation developing that mirrors one that has gone sideways in my own life, I am compelled to put my hand on the tiller and keep the bow of the world above water.
I was nearly excommunicated once. For the non-Catholics out there (which statistically is almost everybody, which is fine) a moment of explanation: excommunication is the denial of salvation of a parishioner by direct intervention of the clergy. The flip side of the Catholic concept of confession, if a person fucks up badly enough the priesthood can come to the decision that he or she isn’t fit for heaven. Once thrown out of the Church, conduct in life past that point becomes immaterial. Go directly to HELL, do not pass Go, do not collect any further communion wafers.
To be fair, it was an accident. And neither I nor the nun who proofread my blasphemous remarks were in our right minds. But I said what I said and wrote what I wrote, so I take full responsibility.
I wrote the eulogy for a young priest who had served my first college. He died in the early hours of Christmas day, twenty odd years ago. He had held a mass at a nearby church, then fell asleep at the wheel driving home. I got back from Christmas break to flyers that didn’t make sense no matter how many times I read them, and probably still wouldn’t if I had continued to be religious. I found the nun who had run the campus ministry with him, and after she broke the horrible news, she asked me to be a part of his service. I had been involved in Sunday mass almost two years at that point, reading and giving communion, and I couldn’t say no. I have no real singing talent, and I don’t play an instrument. She gave me the only other piece of the service that was available.
At first look, this seems like two people making interlocked bad decisions. But it wasn’t wholly unreasonable. I had been an altar boy all through grade school and served in many weddings and funerals. I knew the format of the eulogy, and I knew the man who had died, more than some strange imported priest, who would have doubtless delivered something far more generic. And I sweated that speech. I wanted everyone to know what made Father Mike different from all the stodgy, dour, senior citizen priests I had been raised by. And in crafting the best send off for Father Mike I could, I overlooked the first runner-up rule of speechwriting: know your audience.
Halfway through explaining how fun, and relatable, and warm, and cheering Father Mike was, I looked up from my notes to see two plus rows of incredibly insulted priests. If any one of them had been armed with holy fire, or some other decorum preserving weapon, I would have been dead already. Still at the lectern, I did the only thing I could think of; I blamed the nun for setting me up. She and I laughed, and then I finished reading. I don’t remember blushing through the remainder of the service, but I must have. I’m not a monster.
That extreme experience has stuck with me the entire second half of my life. So when I found out that someone a bunch of my idols knew and loved had died prematurely, and quite a few of them were stressed and nervous about their roles in his send-off, I saw a tiller than needed steadying. There were some complications. I only know my idols digitally. I didn’t know the man who died at all. And his memorial was on the other side of the country, three time zones away.
Courage takes strange forms when required. The memorial was a ticketed event. The schedule was made public on social media. I knew where people would be, when they would be there, and having been in their shoes, I knew what kind of boost might help. I bought enough pizza to feed all the performers and had it delivered backstage. I told no one in advance. It is still easier to ask forgiveness than permission, even in
I was happy to learn that the food got there and was well received. I don’t think anyone would have blown it as badly as I almost did two decades ago. It felt really good to know that I made a horrible high stress situation a little easier. Life might be a mess, a flailing chain of events holding everyone hostage. But that doesn’t prevent bravery, compassion, and the delivery of surprise gourmet pizza. Be the slice you want to see in the world.
- This is the first post of 2018. I ignored the blog last year, due to Trump angst.
- This post was composed to TMBG's new album I Like Fun. It's great, go buy it.
- The Robert Twigger book is Angry White Pyjamas. It too, is excellent.