A confession: I’m in no hurry to get through Amoris Laetitia. Two hundred, sixty-four pages is a lot of Pope Francis to dive into all eagerski-beaverski and heedless-like. The first two chapters, however, have gone down smoothly enough. As usual, the pontiff demonstrates a firm grasp on How We Live Now, but he addresses those trapped in modernity with more compassion than passion. In plain English, he isn’t hollering at us.
One sentence in particular leaped out at me. “On the one hand,” Francis writes, quoting the Relatio for the 2014 Synod:
…equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds and ends up considering each member of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute.
As it happens, I come from a long line of extreme individualists. Okay, a short line. Okay, my mother. If you ask her about growing up in a family of two parents and five kids, she’ll make it sound like a baboon troop. Coincidentally or not, my temperament is very similar to hers. Maybe for that reason, I don’t know any families. I know a few husbands and fathers, but my job, it seems, is to entertain them for an hour or two at a time when they happen to be at loose ends, and perhaps to serve as living exhibit: “THE FATE OF THE EXTREME INDIVIDUALIST: BE AFRAID.”
To satisfy my curiosity about families, about how divergent personalities manage to cohere without reverting wholesale to the ways of the savannah, I look to my best friend Rick and his wife, Yuna. On paper, they belong to that wretched species, the double income-no kids couple. But to get to know them is to recognize that Rick, a little like the God of Israel, has both a paternal and a maternal side.
Did I say “has”? What a misleading – and boring – verb. Rick, a human dynamo with a fanatical mistrust of anyone else’s competence, hoards the functions of both Mom and Dad. He cooks, he cleans, he drives and changes oil. He sets agendas and even does most of the talking. To enter Rick’s orbit is to be lulled, for long stretches, back to the phase of childhood when you were allowed to ride your bike no farther than the corner. This has proved as true for Yuna as it has for me. In the family sitcom Life with Rick, she and I would be siblings. (Paul Petersen and Shelley Fabares would have to play us.)
So when I try to imagine how family solidarity works in practice, I think back to a road trip the three of us took down to Tucson over Fourth of July weekend, 2008. Rick’s brother had offered him a voucher good for a free overnight stay at a five-star resort in Oro Valley. As the drive would take 90 minutes, tops, we figured that leaving at 1:00 PM would give us most of the afternoon and all of the evening to lounge around the pool, getting happily steamed.
There are many scenic drives to be taken in the state of Arizona, but the stretch of I-10 joining Tucson with the Metro Phoenix area is not one of them. The only sight worth mentioning is the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch by Pikacho Peak. We had driven past it – offering the ostriches our best royal wave – when Rick demanded, “Where’s my wallet?”
It was not in the glove compartment or under the seat or in the cargo pockets of his shorts, or in any other obvious place, which meant he’d left it either at the gym or on his kitchen countertop. He called the gym – the desk clerk reported seeing no sign of it.
One possible conclusion was that Rick had, in fact, left his wallet on his kitchen counter. The other was that some sharp-eyed gym rat had plucked it from beneath the decline bench. In the first event, we could continue unruffled, as Yuna and I both had enough credit on our own cards to cover dinner and booze and gas and any other necessities. The second offered cause for worry, as the hypothetical thief could be beggaring Rick at this moment on creatine supplements and protein powder. In neither case would it help matters to turn around. If the wallet was at home, it would wait for an extra day. If it had been stolen, there was fat chance of our catching the thief.
Sometimes when events have slipped from Rick’s control and taken an unwelcome turn, he undergoes a physical transformation. His entire body tenses up: his fists and jaw clench, and his eyes protrude an observable extra distance from their sockets. He was in this state when he snapped, “I’m going back. I want my wallet. When I get it, we’ll turn around again and make the trip.”
Yuna and I were not pleased. We had been driving for maybe 45 minutes. Returning to Rick’s house would add at least another 90 to the trip. Forming a kind of telepathic pact, we urged Rick, in concert, to relax and stay the course. We spoke in soothing, supplicating tones, partly out of simple human concern, but also because we were the lower-tier members of a mockup family, a hierarchical institution. It is not for Jeff and Mary to give policy to Donna and Alex.“Odds are it’s on the counter.”
“I think I saw it lying there.”
“You can call Wells-Fargo and see whether anyone’s made charges.”
“They’ll cancel any charges you didn’t make.”
“You’re a gold card holder – they’ll bend over backwards to please you.”
When Rick is experiencing too much stress to brook any contradiction, his voice rises an octave and he begins to stammer, until he sounds less like a person than some furious tropical bird. “We’re GOINGBACKGOINGBACKGOINGBACK!” He blurted, by way of cutting off our petitions. Yuna and I relented, knowing a veto when we heard one.
As the next 10 minutes stretched into the next 20, it dawned on us that we had reached a piece of highway where the exits were few and far between – there would not be another, we decided, till Marrana, at the very edge of Tucson itself. Gloom filled the car as we imagined checking into the resort at 5:00 PM, the best part of the day far behind us.
Then Rick said: “I’m making a U-turn.”
He elaborated: “I’m going over that median. Fuck it. I can make it, right?”
The median consisted of a ditch partly filled with boulders. Driving Yuna’s Jetta, Rick would almost certainly not make it. More likely, he would tear the bottom out of the car and possibly break an axle to boot. We would be stranded in the middle of the interstate under the July sun until Triple A came to our rescue.
Here, you might think, Yuna and I joined forces to stage a mutiny. In fact, we offered only token protest – “I don’t think that’s such a great idea,” “You’d better not, honey.” Earlier, we had submitted to the power of Rick’s personality and his office, and it is not so easy for thralls to recover their will on such short notice, even in an emergency. Instead, by being complacent, the two of us were hedging our bets. If Rick tried to jump the ditch and failed, the pigheaded bastard would learn his lesson. If he succeeded, he would justify the faith we’d placed in him as our mad, hermaphroditic deity. For me and Yuna, it was a win-win situation.
We were already in the car pool lane. Rick stepped on the gas and began drawing deep breaths. I could tell he was trying to work up the nerve. From the back seat, I could see Yuna’s hands clutching her seat. I clutched mine and brought my knees up to my chest. I can’t speak for Yuna, but I was serenely resigned to my fate.
At that moment, I heard Rick say, “Shit. Cop.”
I looked in the rear-view mirror. Sure enough, there was a speck that I recognized as an Arizona DPS car – closer, no doubt, than it appeared.
We ended up having to drive all the way to Marrana before turning around. Rick’s wallet turned out to be on the kitchen counter, right where we thought it was. We arrived in Oro Valley at some point between five and six. Once the excitement of the ditch-jumping stunt had passed, Yuna and I remembered how much we resented Rick for putting us through the tedium of a return trip, and we punished him, as voiceless subjects will, with the silent treatment.
If I had Pope Francis’ ear, I would ask him: Is this how a properly bonded family operates? Can it fairly be separated into a vertical element involving subordination and a horizontal involving (sometimes silent) collusion? Is feedback sent upwards only indirectly? Does imminent disaster feel as right as fate when it’s been arrived at through the observance of protocol?
Because, if so, it’s not altogether awful. Rick must have read Yuna’s and my smoke signals clearly because on the second trip out of Phoenix he acted like a man chastened. He smiled and made jokes – some of them at his own expense. (“Boy, we were about to plough right into that ditch – pretty stupid, huh? Ha ha.”) Yuna and I weren’t biting, though. Our nerves were shot. Anyway, it’s not every day a mad, hermaphroditic deity admits a mistake, so when you catch him at it, you might as well enjoy yourselves.
When we finally checked in, Rick offered no protest when Yuna locked herself in the bedroom and rented an action movie. (She loves them – Rick and I joke that they actually form a single, endless epic titled Denzel Kicks Ass.) After insisting I join him on a trip to the nearest Trader Joe’s, Rick released me from duty, settling down, sorrowfully, to smoke hash from the hand-carved bowl he’d bought in Amsterdam. I rushed to the bar, where the kind barwoman comped me at least seven of 14 vodka-tonics, listened actively as I spoke of discerning a vocation to the priesthood, and refused in the gentlest terms when I asked for her number.
That spell of isolation must have salved the chafing from our chains, because when next morning came, the three of us were a unit again. We spent the three hours before checkout splashing in the pool. Heading northward again, we agreed that the resort was glorious and swore to come back as soon as possible.
We still haven’t, but when we made the pledge, I’m pretty sure we meant it.