American Exceptionalism

Robert d. Kirvel

Without monsters or gods, art cannot enact our drama-–Mark Rothko

When on rare occasions we encounter in the flesh the textbook definition of a character type, stereotyping’s seductive appeal can feel unsettling. Tad, the husband of my former sister-in-law, is a good old boy of the my-country-right-or-wrong, love-it-or-leave-it ilk. He donates generously to the NRA, drops everything when summoned for a cause involving bullets, and cheers from his armchair the self-styled philosophers on biased broadcast and social media because their political arguments are invariably presented, Tad affirms, in such a balanced way.

“I’ve made a donation in your name to the Flat Earth Society.” I fantasize about offering that emotionally fragrant statement—embroidered on linen and framed—to Tad next Christmas. Yet, if better judgment prevails, I will refrain from playing Santa Monster to Tad’s inner child because no one, myself included, sees the world as it actually is. Rather, humans experience things as we are, through filters of belief, bias, values, assumptions, and the local culture—call it our personal god-or-monster climate. 

It matters: what we say out loud or don’t say. Equally affective is how we convey the information. 

When I visit Tad and Sonny for a few days during the summer heat, I always remind myself why I’ve returned to the inland turf of my adolescence. The driving force behind each trip to the west of Davenport, Iowa, amidst 360-degree horizons of field corn is a desire to connect in small ways with recollections of childhood, commune with spirits of relatives departed, and remember my first true friend in life who was murdered in his twenties by a virus—that awful virus. If Tad enjoys hurling buckets of verbal gibberish toward random compass points, his faithful sidekick–chameleon, Sonny, pivots effortlessly with the slop direction. Awash in currents of mixed metaphors, my mom was fond of saying, don’t cut off your nose despite your face when you get behind the eighth ball. That she never grasped the game of 8-ball is obvious, but does Mom’s counsel about holding versus freeing one’s tongue apply to her son when revisiting corn country? Hold that question for a moment.

According to clever biologists, higher intelligence may reveal itself only during a blip in biological time and prove unequal to the challenge of surviving the long evolutionary haul. We have plentiful data to support the idea. Is it surprising then when folks are besotted with the power of astrology and crop circles and Uzies, as Tad and Sonny are? This much, at least, is obvious to me with respect to the topic of firearms: humans as a species are not sufficiently evolved to be trusted with jackknives, let alone guns of any caliber. Why is it obvious? Stuff your opportunistic interpretations of the Second Amendment, I suggest, along with all the good-intentioned framer–farmers who also believed in the curative power of leeches and a universal incapacity of the fairer sex. There might be defensible exceptions to the losing bet associated with placing firepower in the hands of half-hairy hominids—for example, when a grizzly is coming at you—but the adverse consequences for modern times are right there in the numbers. Mom favored another, borrowed notion of responsibility. So you let the cat out of the bag, so you shall reap. We reap, several thousand deaths by bullet every month. The data are widely reported, so what purpose would it serve to remind someone like Tad of facts?

Part of me knows debate is pointless when two sides are entrenched, especially on a topic like guns. If logic fails, what about illogic then? Or irony, humor, metaphor? Surely something can be gained by exploring a fresh approach when an in-law brings up, for the umpteenth time, the power and glory of concealed carry. But what might that gain be? Something just under the surface about what people say versus what they really mean? Perhaps something about interpretation. 

At the breakfast table the first morning of my visit to corn country, Tad muses out loud about a legislative initiative he supports: requiring guns in public school. Not just on the part of security personnel or teachers, but children.

“At what age would you like to see kids packing pistols then?”

“Oh, I’m thinking fourth grade.” He is serious. “That’s what we do now at our church.” He nods to Sonny, who nods back. They are both serious.

I speak slowly. “Of course, you are free to conjure visions of deranged jihadists mowing down unarmed kiddies denied the right to concealed carry, if that’s your thing, but my thing is classical music and diction.” Tad looks askance at me. 

“Yes,” I tell him, “because—joyful, sad, or bipolar—words suggest affective qualities through their dreams, and who does not like dreams accompanied by a musical score?”

In my head, I explain to my hosts, I often think about the emotional associations of words. I imagine a piccolo enjoying sprightly visions as viola suffers from depression in the dark hours, or I envision a xylophone and flugelhorn acting out episodic schizophrenia in the forest. The truth is that the very mention of concealed carry brings out the worst in me, so I am determined to change the subject by any means possible.

“That makes no sense at all.” Tad says. “What you said.”

“What part?” I ask, titillated by the prospect of rapid-fire nonsense and success in confounding the direction of Tad’s thoughts. Then I feel guilty for baiting one or both of my hosts.

“The whole thing. All of it. And what you write about too.”

Tad waves a magazine in the air over our breakfast sausages, pages open to a piece I had suggested he peruse and from which he might profit, but I was wrong. His swishy wrist motions carry a dismissive quality as he repeats that the narrative, featuring a catgut chorus persecuting one unhappy flugelhorn, makes no sense. Tad’s principal complaint seems to be that the writing in question describes as taking place in the real world something that could not happen in reality, including a musical instrument’s mental breakdown. Tad is the sort of fellow who enjoys television shows about real people and events: topless vampires, for example, seducing big-hearted hit men, and he likes to repeat plot twists in detail. I counter that the published article under discussion (my own, though I do not remind him) is a metaphor about violation and shame, that some things written may not be true in the literal sense but can capture an aspect of the human condition and elevate our personal understanding. A poem, for example. 

Tad says he does not like poetry. His flat intonation leaves no room for doubt. Here is a case of irony if ever there was one, absolutely, if you throw in some irony.

Tad, as fine looking a sandy-haired lug as exists in farm country, can suck the life from conversations and has the habit of interrupting earnest discussions to offer friends a gripping snippet about himself:

“I loved that old second-hand Skilsaw I bought years ago dirt cheap, but one day it quit. When I took it to the guy, he called back and said oil wasn’t the problem, no sir, but the air filter had wrecked the compression. I’d been using an air compressor to clean the filter and blew the coating clear off. Time for a new saw. Har, har.”

Sonny chimes in with musings about her favorite politician who has written another book in which the principal contentions are that God loves America above all nations on Earth and that Americans are God’s favored children, having never done harm to any living thing in the past or present. She rolls palms heavenward when I mutter something about the danger of positing U.S. “exceptionalism,” as Noam Chomsky likes to call it, in light of America’s history and ongoing track record of imperialism spiced with the latest iteration of Agent Orange/dioxin or something. Sonny counters that “We, as a Nation” can accomplish anything we want to accomplish, including the destruction of Iran and that other God-forsaken country over there, if we only remember to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” from time to time. She larks a snippet,

...going off to war, with the cross of Jesus...

to tease my goat. She probably thinks the tune is funny, that she’s being funny, and she is. On the serious side, she probably has in mind Stone Age clerics who advocate amputation to solve the irksome problem of bread pilfered by starving urchins. Amputation is bad of course. But is it much better when the citizens of one country fancy they have the right to set right by drone strikes the regressive thinking of citizens of another country about which they know diddly? I silently ask myself the question, not Sonny, remembering Mom’s advice. But enough of ammo and Stone Age politics.


In the interval between one unguided missile from Tad and the next drone attack from Sonny, I walk far into the fields out back, and my thoughts involuntarily pivot to the nature of the human brain and its equipotential mission. I think initially about coprolites (petrified dung) and chastise myself silently for being ungenerous. I picture a pair of goldfish named Death and Destruction nibbling detritus affixed to recently unearthed archeological skulls soaking in a laboratory vat somewhere in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and rendering the bones immaculate, that image coming to mind because we are, in the end, whether we live with corn, cow dung, or subways, fish food. I think about the reality that I am a visual thinker and try to imagine what passes for thought in Sonny’s noggin. More coprolites sprint cross the visual field of my imagination. Then I remember how some neurophysiologists speculate that religious inclination, interpretable as wishful thinking or otherwise, is an inherent (better term: emergent) property when enough neurons—a hundred billion or so—get together and decide to tame fire and play canasta. So it’s really on the inside rather than from the outside that we might look for the origins of belief, is it? Other emergent properties that come to mind during my stroll on the soil are an affiliation with “us” along with an aversion toward “them” (i.e., a tendency to elevate us at the expense of everyone not us) and a fondness for hot dogs.


The television blares in the family room as I saunter through the Iowa farmhouse. The flat screen remains on day and night in this otherwise bucolic place, tuned always to the same “breaking news” station. Another rant is in progress about socialism chewing government to pieces and food stamps digesting economic leftovers. 

Sonny quotes from the Bible while looking up at me. “A man who sleeps with a man shall be put to death.” Is she joking? Baiting? I suspect the King James Version presented to me during childhood for perfect attendance in Sunday school contains no such recommendation, then I remember. Am I in handcuffs? I am not. Am I free to go? I am free to go. 

Free to reminisce as well while revisiting home turf. My Mother. After her final consultation with a young surgeon, she cried as I drove her home, terrified of another hospital and the risks associated with surgery at an advanced age. Her spirits rebounded in the car that sunny afternoon after my telling her what she wanted most to hear: that she need not have the operation if that was her choice, and it was indeed her choice. I think the pigeons have come home to roost is the way she put it that day, suspecting—as I knew with assurance following an aside from the physician—that death was the likely outcome either way, surgery or no. No irony was in sight that day, except for a stint of freedom in the face of death. She was 93.6 years old when she died in my house a few months after the consultation—more precisely, in her wing of my house—in her own bed next to her husband of 65-plus years, about the same terminal age that her Grandma Comstock had attained, our stern upstate New York ancestor with the gold-rush name and fortitude of a Wagnerian handmaid named Brunhilde. Only after Mom was gone did I grasp the extent of unswaying maternal encouragement exceptional mothers award their children. Now there’s genuine exceptionalism for you.


Sonny was out back petting her roses when a related thought washed over me. 

“You could have done something. You’ve ruined my life.”

Those are the most hurtful words anyone has ever spoken to me. They were snarled by my father, who had convinced himself I’d killed Mom and taken all his money, this after renovating a wing of my house so both parents could spend their final years in a serene setting with their own ground-floor rooms. Five years after Mom died, I did need to place Dad in a residential care facility after all, despite opposite intentions, because of his progressive vascular dementia. “You have no choice,” two docs and three nurses insisted following yet another trip to the ER. I rejected, then acceded to their advice when I came home from work one afternoon to inhale acrid air, find molten metal on his stove, and discover our shared washing machine had been crammed with so many blankets and sheets that the repairman needed heavy equipment to extract them. Later that week I found my father on the floor of his bathroom at 2 a.m., sorting pills into cardboard boxes for an imaginary trip, while repeating with urgency that, “the people upstairs” (in a one-story home) were ready to go. 

Many seniors are not easy to handle toward the end, and my father, who had always kept emotions under lock and key, became downright difficult. Still, after watching the quantum increments of his mental deterioration, a step-wise descent on the rungs of a conceptual ladder to living hell, after cleaning trails of detritus from bedroom to bathroom, upon feeding a parent with a spoon and living with flickering hopes and dying expectations, I know things about the end game others may not care to know. Dad, younger than Mom by about 5 years, breathed his last at the age of 92.7.


My soul mate, Norm, asked me just after he was informed of his terminal diagnosis whether I would be all right. “Of course,” I shot back reflexively, meaning I’d been okay before we met, and I would be fine for the rest of my life after he departed too soon this plain of sunbeams and terror. Brave words those, spoken as much to reassure myself as Norm, but no dice. The more his health failed, the kinder he became, in contrast to my father’s withering temperament. Each time Norm comes to me in dreams, I am overjoyed, then crushed upon awakening to the conscious reminder of an insurmountable loss. 


Glancing out the sliding farmhouse doors now, I see Tad and Sonny in the rose garden embracing as young lovers would in a Franco Zeffirelli movie featuring a sumptuous musical score that charges autonomic nerve endings. Tad has his hands on Sonny’s still-slender waist; she, one palm on his chest, reminds me why I’ve come back to this place for a reconnection with memories. In this moment, I love them again, both of my parents, Tad and Sonny as well, because love is eternal, if intermittent. Tad drops to his knees and hugs Sonny, with his splendid head of hair pressed against her thigh, an expression so submissive and tender, yet commanding and lovely, that it makes me feel uneasy to watch. Sonny pulls her husband to his feet, and they walk along the rose path in slow motion as if it were possible to remain in physical contact for an eternity of cloudless blue yonders in Middle America. 

I would grant them cerulean tomorrows too, particularly after recent tribulations. Sonny has always drawn as much assurance from religion as Tad from his political convictions, but both dispositions were tested by their son, “The Kid,” who walks, partly upright, a tightrope of social disequilibrium. When, during my own youth, the family went to a grand auditorium in the city for some special outing, my father always purchased front row seats in the balcony. Even if main-floor sections were available, he insisted on steeply inclined views. I remember trying to fight impulses of hurling myself over the railing and plunging to decease, and when struggling to brace back—pushing moist palms against armrests—some mysterious power seemed to yank me forward into “The Downward Path,” just as some cerebral force-field apparently tugged at The Kid.

During one visit to Tad and Sonny’s house a while back, I happened into the family room to discover the television was not tuned to the usual station. While Sonny fussed with dinner at the kitchen island and Tad scanned an Old Farmer’s Almanac, The Kid had apparently been given permission to watch a ghoulish movie about college students stranded at a remote cabin in the forest. The boy seemed transfixed but, as usual, remained silent. Then at a moment of crimson theatrical violence, The Kid burst out with the type of wicked laughter that redefines creepiness. I glanced at the parents, but neither apparently noticed, and I remember thinking—for the first but not last time—something was off-kilter in this house. 

I began to see comments The Kid was posting on Facebook about strong women, “retarded” lesbians, and feminazis. Remarks about the myth of rape in the armed forces followed, along with ridicule of transsexuals and venom directed toward obviously disturbed females outside the mainstream who took to blustering on the Internet about unequal pay and other “feminist lies.” 

“He’s sweet,” Tad and Sonny kept saying, a thoughtful 14-year-old who keeps to himself. He’s an intelligent 15-year-old who doesn’t harbor ill will toward anyone.

After seeing more recommendations from my nephew about burning people alive, I responded to his comments online from across the miles, hoping he might think twice before ridiculing others on the Internet even if the intent was a joke. Was it a joke? New posts appeared during his sixteenth year, ignorant and mean-spirited. I sent him a personal email and then another, reinforcing the idea that words matter. Misogynistic rants followed, and I sent a third email to The Kid together with suggestions about some good sources to read: Gloria Steinem on feminism, Carl Sagan’s baloney-busting toolkit to draw upon when encountering phony baloney. I urged him to consider joining a debate club at school to learn principles of fair-minded exchange. I wrote Tad there was something we should discuss regarding his son, but Dad never responded. 

A few months later, I opened Facebook and saw that The Kid “liked” a blog posing the question, “If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?” The blogger answered the question with


and The Kid added his recommendation: “Fags and trannys (sic).” 

The world stopped spinning as I struggled to see a way forward or back, reminding myself that Facebook is just a dumb tool. Don’t blame the tool. I decided to write a letter and send it to The Kid along with every other family member of legal age. My first draft was angry, so I toned it down and down again, nevertheless ending the letter with my disappointment and shame in discovering homophobia in the family, most of whom have known who I am for decades, but everyone? All the nephews? Did they know? I couldn’t be sure because the subject of homosexuality had never come up with them explicitly. But exterminating fags? Not acceptable. 

I got a phone call from Sonny who was almost speechless with suppressed rage. How could I send a letter like that? Now The Kid wouldn’t eat dinner and was convinced his family life was over. We talked, mostly right over one another’s words. “This is the reason I’m not on Facebook,” Sonny sobbed. “I don’t want to know these things.” She understood about my taking offense, but then she added, “You don’t know until you’ve lived it.” 

“You don’t know,” she’d said, and I knew just what she meant: what it’s like to be gay unless you, yourself are gay. I knew what she meant to be sure but did not buy it.

Tad’s reactions went straight to the mattresses, as the saying goes. He had three things to tell me:

– “You are being intolerant and judgmental.”

– “The boy doesn’t have a problem. You have the problem.”

– “If you’re so upset, you ought to see a psychiatrist.”

Someone at my nephew’s school thought the lashing out on social media might have been a reaction to bullying, and another acquaintance suggested latent homosexuality and its accompanying shame as a possible explanation, but in the heat of the moment it is doubtful anyone in my family could have responded adequately to what I was feeling. What does it feel like to be called a fag by a relative who wishes all-God’s-gay-children dead? 

I remember staring at photos of The Kid taken at a younger age, then looking out the window as if the air itself were to blame. I still wonder if he will get over intolerance one day and come out the other side. Will I? Every gay person I know is, to a greater or lesser extent, in recovery from shame, striving not to live as victim but to rise above the anguish brought on by folks who might be well-intentioned but oblivious of the pain some words elicit. For that reason, I found myself conveying to people—to my family—emotions they didn’t seem to grasp but needed to appreciate. I know this though: I will never have a child of my own, so part of my reaction centered on a hope of discovering in The Kid qualities akin to those I would have wanted to see in my own son.


Reflecting on that heartache once again during my current visit to Tad and Sonny’s house, I meander outside and down the quarter-mile driveway of the property, which ends at a rural mailbox. There, I pivot to take in the cluster of farm buildings as sparks fly between my ears. Sparks associated with the present, sparks from the past. It’s been six years since my father died. It has been two years since the Facebook incident. 

I grew up with the people in this region of the country—friends and neighbors—believing something unique set us apart as not just decent folks but the best people in the world living in the best country on Earth. I still want to think that despite enduring more than a decade of childhood and adolescent shame over being the person I am. In public school, I questioned values valued locally, including beliefs in arcane forces rather than logic, dogma rather than material cause and effect, sometimes a blatant disavowal of science and analytic understanding. The predominant local values I observed and rejected could be summarized in a few words: spiritualism, regionalism bordering on provincialism if not parochialism, denial, and conformity. Or stated more concretely: (1) faith in divine agency and the superiority of one’s denomination, (2) distrust of most things urban strengthened by an affiliation with things rustic, (3) conviction that traditional ways are best, and (4) loyalty above all to one’s family and the home team. I am disloyal under more than one of these tenets, worse, I am unsilent about being gay, thus at least part monster. But what is it, exactly, my relatives really think about my being a “fag?”

Lingering at the mailbox, I picture houses down the road and dotting intersecting lanes in the vicinity, each dwelling within the context of the larger neighborhood a community of the like-minded no less than applies back home along the crowded blocks of my city. Inside the houses in both locations folks prepare dinner, laugh, love, sometimes hate, and invariably act as humans. Here in mid-America, however, the occupants know their miles-distant neighbors in a personal way because many still live a stone’s throw from their birthplace, and on any given day—every day—one hears only familiar dialects, shares comfortable views that rest on ungrounded foundations, trusts familiar flesh tones that are uniformly white, agrees on what is just and unjust, and reinforces local notions through repetition and nonstop breaking-news propaganda having little connection with realities of a complex world beyond. The local dynamic seems to involve an unlikely combination of honesty and naivety, honor and tunnel vision, virtue and repudiation.

When good people embrace curious philosophies, is it grounds for ridicule or tears? Is it possible to empathize while entirely rejecting another’s viewpoint?


“So what’s your favorite?”


“Your favorite meal for dinner.”

I tell Sonny, and that’s what she fixes for us to eat that evening. At one point during the meal—my last in this house for the year—Sonny says, “I wish you’d find somebody.” How much can a person convey in five words? Worlds. I believe that had I asked her for fifty thousand dollars that night, Sonny would not have hesitated to jump in the car and drive to the local banker’s house to pound his midnight door. Wouldn’t have battered an eye, in Momspeak. 

Which takes me back to that nonlinear fiction published in a literary review Tad had fluttered in the conversational breeze over breakfast sausages the first morning of my visit. That particular story had centered on violation and shame and loss, and never before had a product of my imagination elicited such mixed reactions from readers. One friend expressed rage over its characterization of Neanderthal behavior, whereas two others called me to say the ending made them cry. Both responses were gratifying because they confirmed at least a few people were moved by the message and had made the effort to say so. Which makes me wonder: what might it have been like if the souls who understand me now—today, as an adult living in urban America—had been present during my shame-filled growing years. What might happen today if The Kid enjoyed such compatriots, and if he appreciated my history and had a glimpse of my truth?

I try to formulate what, exactly, bothers me so much about the “death-to-fags” incident and how I’d like to see it resolved. I keep hearing my Mom’s advice about holding one’s tongue. A few years ago I read a Triple-A formula summarizing responses that might help repair a wrong. (1) Acknowledge the wrong, (2) apologize, and (3) atone in some way (unspecified) that feels appropriate. Good advice or not, it seems certain that ignoring what damaged a relationship is counterproductive to mending it.


Davenport, IA, and Minnetonka, MN; faithful Sonny, literal Tad, and their teenage son; my mother and father; Brunhilde Comstock and sweet Norm: I marvel at people and places and what they come to represent in a personal way. It’s not that personalities and geographies framing a life are simply what they are; that idea short-suits complexity. Contemplating elements that underlie a life is a pointing back in time to one’s history and ahead—along a tapestry of infinite textures illustrating what once was and what we still hope to experience or feel—between past mysteries and current expectations, all, matters of interpretation. 

In the foregoing snapshots from real life, the identities of people, physical locations, and family connections are camouflaged for the sake of protective decency, but the experiences and associated emotions have not been falsified. As straight as a crow flies is how my imperfect but exceptional mother would have put it. 

We journey into a part of ourselves when revisiting old haunts, and in confronting a past that contours the present we might perceive irony where none is present, misfire in aspiring to cleverness, or misconstrue intent. We recall feelings of happiness and shame and hurt. We disengage in anger, or wait for a reason to forgive human failings beyond our ken. Saying what we think, can elicit hurt sometimes. Sometimes, what we don’t say hurts most. 


Robert D. Kirvel, a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, is a Pushcart Prize (twice) and Best of the Net nominee for fiction. Awards include the Chautauqua 2017 Editor’s Prize, the 2016 Fulton Prize for the Short Story, and a 2015 ArtPrize for creative nonfiction. He has published in the UK, New Zealand, and Germany; in translation and anthologies; and in two dozen U.S. literary journals, such as Arts & Letters. A collection of 22 interrelated stories, Predisposed, is slated for publication in London during 2018. Most of his literary works are linked at