January 12, 2010

what's the opposite of a silver lining?

i don't know why the presidents keep reminding me of tv shows, but so it is.

there is an episode of everybody loves raymond where ray is nominated for a sportswriting award. he calls it a lose-lose situation. he says if he wins, there will be expectations, jealousy, competition. if he loses, he'll be upset. his wife, deborah, tries to convince him just to be excited that he was nominated.

they never show the ceremony, so the next scene is the two of them arriving home. deborah walks in the door, saying, "i promise you, ray, something good is going to come of this," at which point ray walks in, dragging his feet and whining, carrying a huge trophy.

JQA reminds me of this over and over again. throughout his life, people and institutions absolutely throw acclamation at him, and he is quick to rue it every time. when george washington appoints him as minister to russia it's oh why didn't he ask me about it first and when john adams transfers him to prussia it's people will think it's because you're my dad and when his fiancee - not girlfriend, fiancee! - asks him when he wants to get married it's maybe you should just go back to america and i'll be there in a few years and we'll get married then and MAN why do you write me so often?

paradoxically, he is aching to make something of himself, to benefit the world, as he says. he is tormented by the dual demons of wanting to live up to his father's reputation and his mother's standards, and also wanting to be seen as independent of their influence and patronage.

paul nagel has a major beef with abigail, and i therefore have a major beef with paul nagel. he goes to great lengths to portray her as a domineering nag, and has few qualms about the fact that this point of view is singular. he rarely misses an opportunity to quote her pedantic letters to JQA, brushing over the fact that the adams family were devoutly religious, so what seems pedantic to us was probably basic chatter in their house. not to mention the fact that nuclear families in those days all lived together until the kids were in the mid-20s, and sometimes after, so having a son who was across the ocean for years at a time was, oh, traumatic and worrying. when JQA, at the age of 22, basically without money, wants to marry a 15-year-old, abigail thinks it's a bad idea. so does john, JQA'S brothers, the girl's family, and eventually the girl and JQA herself. "so after abigail ruined that marriage" nagel defiantly explains, JQA was heartbroken. sure.

but sure, even so, john and abigail had high expectations, and were an intimidating set of parents to live up to. JQA was always saying that he wanted to be a scholar, and have a literary career. but equally, and more subconsciously, i think, he wanted to please his father, and people in government were always asking for his service, so he kept subverting his dreams to work in politics.

he took the road more traveled, in the adams family, and always wondered what difference it had made. what constantly nagged at him - much much more than abigail - was the impression that he hadn't chosen his life.


  1. I don't think that is a good comparison. What Janet is talking about is a parents problem, which I don't think JFK really had (I assume you mean THAT Kennedy). What JFK, and all of the other Kennedys had was a brothers problem. Joe Jr., the annointed one, died in a suicidal mission during World War II. It was then left to his sickly brother Jack to fill those shoes, which he did on cortisone and pluck. He was killed. So the mantle was passed to Bobby who managed to make up for in enthusiasm and moral certainty what he lacked in smahts. After he was killed in California it was up to Teddy to shoulder all of that wasted promise.

    JQA's siblings were spectacular screwups, except for Nabby who merely married a spectacular screwup.

    If you're looking for a historical twin for Kennedy, you could do worse than Bibi Netanyahu, the good looking and articulate and Boston-educated younger brother of a fallen war hero.