Columns » Bob Lancaster

Not bitter

by and


I’m thankful I’m not thin-skinned like Grabber the Huck.

Give me your best shot and I might flinch but I won’t pule. I might even halfway agree with you, as I halfway did with the reader who thought my remarks in our recent annual Best and Worst of Arkansas feature were unnecessarily hateful, and figured me for a bitter old man stewing out here in irrelevant and monastic Grant County misanthropy.

The only part of that I’d quarrel with is the allegation of bitterness. I’ve searched my heart and I promise you there’s no bitter in there. Cobwebs and Miller empties and a belief that we shall overcome someday, yes, but no bitterness. I looked in all the drawers and under all the rocks.

I’ve told you before that I don’t think the children of privilege who grew up in 20th century America can qualify to be Christians according to the Founder’s stark prescription in Matthew 19. For pretty much the same reasons, we can’t qualify to be genuinely bitter, either.

Bitterness is something you have to earn, or amass, and I just don’t have the credentials. I don’t have the requisite traumatic experiences — unlike, say, the entire showbiz celebrity community, every single member of which, we have learned since “Mommie Dearest,” was horribly abused, mainly sexually, as a child.

You have to have hit a deeper bottom than I have to make that blind and desperate leap of faith, or to find consolation in the other direction — by pickling your consternation in your own pooled gall. Either way requires an unambiguous acquaintance with real-McCoy despair, and despair’s a booger from a murkier slough than I inhabit, thank the Lord, one whose pit I’ve not yet been obliged to co-occupy.

Maybe you’ve hung there; I have not; and I think luck has a lot to do with that. Embitterment or not could be for most of us just a matter of trading places. If that 400-pound warden at Cummins Prison had strapped me as grotesquely as he did many of those old boys, or if I’d been one of those johnson-wired by that ghoul at Tucker, I could give you the up-close-and-personal from the fens of bitter. If my kid had been one of those shot dead at Jonesboro, and I saw the punk who did it out gallivanting around this soon after, as happened just last week, the bitter would be eating me alive.

That’s some true bitter there. But what those of us of this time and place ordinarily call bitter is only mock bitter, or pretend bitter. It’s just hyperbole for exasperation or mere annoyance or disappointment. Bitter in our world is how you feel about being so fat you can’t cut your toenails. It’s what Bush and Cheney felt about those reports on how they dodged the wrath of Cong. It’s that huckster again believing he was forever being screwed out of what he had coming. It’s your favorite ball team going only 10-3.

I tried to be bitter on the Dostoevsky model when I was a young blade casting about for a pose, a role. But the world was too coddling of us would-be anti-heroes. It kept us warm and fed and entertained and stylish, and never demanded we kiss a ring or a butt, or show gratitude or even common courtesy. How can you transmute such as that into a credible bitter?

When my budding athletic career petered out, I wallowed miserably in the mock bitter of coulda beena contenda — but it was all just b.s. and I knew it was. I couldn’t get beyond recalling that I had in fact scored a varsity touchdown one time, and that something peaked then and there that would bar me ever after from entry into the tiresome hell of old-jock bitter.

What it was, after all the whoop and holler and endzone-yippee and adulation-basking and confetti — well, all right, no confetti — I heard the voice of singer Peggy Lee inside my helmet asking, “Is that all there is to a touchdown?” And the answer was, afraid so, Sport. But the moment passed and the sun came up next morning, and life moved on. It moved on inexorably and unaccountably and unbitterly in the direction of Pine Bluff.


I remember an earlier visitation of pretend bitter having to do with gathering prepubescent suspicion that Mom might not really like me best. She told me she liked me best. But she told me not to tell the others because it would hurt their feelings. Came the day when I realized that out of my hearing she had almost certainly told each one of them the exact same thing. Woe was me, but it was a pretty easy woe.

Alydar comes to mind. No racehorse ever had more cause to go bitter. One step on Affirmed and he could’ve won the Triple Crown. But Affirmed dug in every time, and Alydar had to settle for being prince of the also-rans. He didn’t sulk about it, though, carrying himself always as a champion, proud, beloved, head high, never one sign betraying bitter right up to the night the Calumet hit man snuck into the barn and whacked him for the insurance.

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