Monday, March 19, 2012

Doing the Best They Can with What They Got: Thoughts on the Work of David Simon and Co.

Tonight I watched the fourth episode in season one of Treme, a series brought into the world by the same folks who brought us The Wire. After I watched the episode, I called my mother, and then I started wandering around the house, preparing for a bath. It was 9:30. I stayed home sick today, so I was feeling tired, foggy, and a little anxious with the knowledge that I'm one day down for the week at work.

As I wandered around, preparing, my mind was turning. I was thinking about how my first impression of Treme was not good. It seemed kind of...boring. I couldn't pick out a single character I cared about. But when I had that reaction, I remembered that I'd had the same initial reaction to The Wire, which turned out to be one of the best series in television history. And these shows have something in common, and it's what I loved about The Wire and am growing to love in Treme: everyone is just doing the best they can with what they got.

I first heard that phrase in AA. I don't know if they made it up -- they probably didn't. But that's where I heard it, and it's still one I find extremely helpful. Like most phrases one hears in Alcoholics Anonymous, I didn't really get it at first. But the more I hear it, the deeper I understand its meaning to be. For a control freak, it's at first the worst news in the world, but in the end, it turns out to be the most important.

The scene that got me thinking about all of this involved Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk on The Wire but plays Antoine Batiste, a no good trombone player, on Treme. He's leaving Baton Rouge to return to New Orleans after visiting his young sons from a previous marriage. Back in New Orleans, he's got a baby mama and can barely make enough money to take care of his child -- in large part because of the formally mentioned no good issue. He just wants to party. While in Baton Rouge with his kids, he drives them around in his ex-wife's now husband's Land Rover and takes them to the Olive Garden with borrowed money. He tells them he wants to help them go to college. He tries to play the good, supportive, sacrificing dad over pasta and soda. But when he boards the bus back to New Orleans, the older woman next to him asks if the trip is for business or pleasure, and he responds, "Pleasure. New Orleans is always pleasure." It's where he lives and works and has a baby, but it's always about pleasure. And the immediate gut reaction would be for most a feeling of contempt, but I got the sense that he was just doing the best he could with what he had.

The Wire and Treme are full of this kind of moral ambiguity. Perhaps not everyone would read that ambiguously, but I do. He seems to sincerely want to help his kids when they're at Olive Garden on someone else's dime and pretending feels like the truth. But inevitably, entropy takes hold, and he takes the easiest route -- he goes back to New Orleans with the hint that it's right back to playing the trombone in a strip club for little money, cheating on his woman, and ignoring his other children. But while it would be easy to act as if his problem is one of being a very bad person, don't we all have a thing that pulls us in a different direction than the next right thing? If we look at it globally, isn't this a struggle we all face? I suppose we could say some issues of morality are worse than others, but for me, that's just an excuse to ignore my own seemingly petty problems because, hey, at least I didn't murder anyone! Or have kids then abandon them! But the Bible says a sin is a sin is a sin (paraphrasing, yo -- but all sins are equal in the eyes of the Lord), and the shit I do dirty is no better than the shit someone else does dirty.

Besides...there but for the grace of God go I. If I'd ever had children, who's to say I would not abandon them for a good time? Prior to my awareness of my alcoholism, I could see myself taking that path of least resistance.

And that's doing the best you can with what you've got. Some people have hurts and wounds and don't know any better. We find that hard to believe. I find it hard to believe when people don't know any better than to miss too much work or to ask me before they drink the last Diet Coke in the fridge, but if I'm honest, that's because those are my issues. I'm a perfectionist afraid of what other people think, so I work sick and take less than my allotted PTO every year. And for me, not asking if you can drink the last Diet Coke in the fridge is tantamount to you forgetting I even exist. On the surface, these things seem like moral absolutes -- it's rude to drink the effing Diet Coke! But really, the person who drank the Diet Coke didn't know I'd feel forgotten, and the person calling in sick to work might actually be sick and not have my issues. We're all just doing the best we can with what we've got, and it's taken a lot of work to get to the understanding of what drives some of my reactions.

But that understanding is nothing without going a step further and having compassion for those who push my mother-effing buttons. That's what, "They're just doing the best they can with what they got," is for. It shows me that they deserve some forgiveness...and, if I plug myself into that equation, so do I. All forgiveness is is letting it go.

But what does this have to do with the works of those who brought us The Wire and Treme? These shows are full of scenes like the one mentioned above -- people who want to do the next right thing but grew up with drug addicted parents and can't keep fighting that fight; people who look like they're going to end up gang bangers but get adopted by cops instead; cops doing the next wrong thing in a effort to arrest someone who is morally on the up-and-up but on the wrong side of the law; drug dealers going to college (haven't we all been told college is a cure for supposed social ills) so they can be better at their business -- of selling drugs; people who have heart but get no breaks. It's just like life. It just is what it is. And while doing the best with what we have as of right now involves having laws that do not make nuanced distinctions about the very different levels of morality that can apply to the very same act committed by dozens of people, we don't have to believe that legal and moral are even remotely the same thing. Most of us run into issues of legality very rarely, but we run into seemingly imperceptible issues of morality constantly. Problem is, our first instinct is to call out the immorality -- the rudeness, the laziness, the supposed negligent ineptitude, the indifference -- of others rather than turn the light on ourselves. All I can think when I watch a show like The Wire or, to a lesser degree, Treme (there are slight differences in the way these two shows approach moral ambiguity) is that some of my choices have been made easier by sheer luck, and doing the next right thing is hard for us all. For instance, I've never done crack cocaine at least in part because I've never been offered any, known anyone who did (until after they quit using), or even known where to begin to get some. Some people grow up with it in their house.

If anything, these shows call out the great immoral other. True immorality -- evil -- isn't born of individuals but of systems. My mother and I were talking about how any time you have a group of people working together, you have problems. That's not a suggestion we should disband and all go off to find our own, solitary caves in which to live and eek out an existence. It simply means that our nature comes into the spotlight the moment we all start working together to create systems, such as a government. But if we can bring compassion into the mix -- the kind of compassion only fostered by hearing the very messy stories of other people's lives and relating them to our own in some way -- then we can escape what causes the problems. We can stop reacting to other people and their immorality, real or imagined, and start doing something about our own.

Until then, we'll all just be doing the best we can with what we've got.

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