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Month: July, 2016

The Dark Days Ahead

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Dear Sylvie and Felix,

It’s late July, two days before my thirty-eighth birthday, more than three months before the 2016 presidential election. This is an absolutely vital time, as they all are, and this was a vital day; the first day when Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, overtook Hilary Clinton in the polls. The political spectrum, stable since Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the death of State’s Rights nearly fifty years ago, may be pulling apart. Everything feels on the edge of something. The scandals are only outpaced by the shootings in various places in the world, the fear, the anger.

This letter is not meant to talk about the good old days, or to share fears of a world falling apart before you can make your way in it (though of course I do). Parents throughout history have always loved their children and rarely do what’s best for them. For a nation founded on opposing taxation without representation, we do exactly that: the national debt is nearly $20 trillion, and the only solution available to your generation will be to tax your own children, as was ours. The environment, non-renewable resources: we have taken more than our share.

This election, momentous as I’m sure it will be, will change little of that. I’m a jaded political science major. I watch the people around me get angry at politicians, and I can only look at the systems that create their incentives, and in some case force their behavior. Adults will always take from their children, because children are powerless, and politicians need votes.

I see all this and my thoughts turn to an old figure named H.L. Mencken. Mencken was a brilliant mind, a powerful journalist and critic, whose apex came at a time, like today, when the the world was transforming. It was the 1920s when the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, abandoned its multiracial base to become the representative of Big Business, leaving FDR and the New Deal to claim them among the poor for the Democrats. Mencken would be unclassifiable by modern standards: Pro-science, anti-religion, pro-(for the time) feminism, racist, elitist, conservative. He was an ally of the Mark Twain we rarely talk about: the one who watched America get fall into empire through the Spanish-American War, a bitter, angry, utterly correct Twain, no longer laughing.

It’s hard not to feel that way, lately. There’s a one-liner from a movie that used to be popular:

“You hate people!”
“But I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic?”

I feel the exact opposite. I like people, or try to, until you get them together and they become political. I’m not sure how jingoistic your public education will prove to be, but even now it’s not polite to talk about the fact that there are flaws with democracy, and that The People aren’t always wise and just, especially when there’s a minority population around to vilify.  Mencken left us with, among other things, a wonderful selection of quotations. The problem is that the way of them leads to madness. His hatred of the unwashed masses, and his belief in his own elitism, led him to a fondness for the nastier elements of Nietzsche, and with it, Nazism. Like Heraclitus, he was fond of war, because wars “strengthened national character” and came at little cost of useless life.

In the end, hating the people for being ignorant is just as faulty as hating politicians for pandering them. The only solution is to change the systems that cause them to act the way they do. People mistrust their government, I believe, because they are disconnected from it; America is too big, too fractured, for the concept of citizenry to mean much anymore. If we have to keep democracy, the only solution I can see is refresh the meaning in the phrase “public service”, the way Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy called for a lifetime ago. To make politics not a lucrative and risky career path, but a specific act of working for the people around you, of seeking justice rather than power.

The trouble is, you can’t just wait for some Mr. Smith to show up, sacrifice himself, and do it. You have to create a system that encourages it. And that’s too complicated for me; I fear it’s too complicated for everyone.

There will be dark days ahead. By the time you read this, those will have gone, and others come and gone as well. I hope yours are more peaceful ones. The world, I think, has never recovered from the invention of the radio, and I hope that the connective tissues that now bind the world — telephone, airplane, internet — finally unlock some secret toward combining all people together rather than just factions. But most of all, I hope that you don’t lose faith in people, even The People, no matter how ignorant they seem. It gets so easy to hate them that way.

 

 

 

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Forgetting

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Last night was a forgettable night. We drove up to the grandparents’ house for Shipwreck Day. Felix, you slept downstairs with Mom, with questionable levels of success. Sylvie, for you we inflated your new little portable bed for overnight trips, and you cried into it for more than an hour. You woke up at five.

It’s weird being home. I got invited to my twenty-year high school reunion the other day. I won’t go, of course; not because it’ll be a room full of near-strangers awkwardly establishing a social pecking order (it will); I’m not ashamed of my weight or my career or any of the other standard variables for judgment (that much). Although we go to see my parents regularly, I’ve barely spoken to anyone from my hometown in a decade, and it’s nothing personal. I didn’t dislike high school. I just don’t remember it.

When I was young I knew I was smart, because I was told I was smart. For a long time, that was the extent of my metaphysics. Marriage taught me that I had certain blind spots in my mental processes regarding perception and bathrooms, and teaching taught me about various intelligences (why I remember things much better when I take notes). That was it. Otherwise I figured I was normal, in terms of brain.

You don’t realize that you’re beginning to forget. When elementary school turned to watercolor, I assumed that’s what everyone’s childhood was like. Or maybe my childhood was so idyllic, so calm and uneventful, that there was nothing but invisible warmth to take away. Middle school… who wouldn’t want to forget that? But then, as I got this reunion notice, as I paged through the scanned yearbook, I realized that it was mostly gone. A few snippets here or there that I can withdraw if necessary: my first kiss, on my doorstep the night of Prom my freshman year. Playing Maurice in our class rendition of Lord of the Flies: The Musical. But so much of the connective tissue is gone. My memories are like an aging basketball player’s knees.

The point of all this: I need to write more, for your sake as well as mine. I don’t want that gauze to slip over my twenties and thirties, but I can already feel it happening. It begins with the books. One of the things about aging, one of the defenses you create for yourself as you pass your physical peak, is that while you may not look as good or run as well as you did last year, you’re a lot wiser than that idiot. You’ve read. You’ve learned. And yet when I go back and look at the list of books I read in 2005: I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Lysistrata. I have no idea what Lord Arthur Seville’s crime was. I wouldn’t have known that I’d even read those books if I hadn’t made a note of it. How can I know this and be wise?

I’m not sure. But really, it doesn’t matter. The books, ultimately, can go. They’re not that important anyway, and if they were, I can only hope their lessons work their way into me and create the instincts for my next generation, an instinctual morality. But you two I can’t afford to lose. I need those anguished, pillow-muffled cries, the fact that you, Sylvie, sang “sylvie shiny shell” over and over to the abalone we bought you, and that you, Felix, kept muttering “da” whenever you’d lose sight of me in a crowd. We take photos, we record videos, but there are so many things we miss, that I already miss.

I want to remember them all. But barring that, I want us to read about them.

Forever

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“It’s time for bed,” we tell you. You giggle and hide behind the couch cushion, a flimsy defense even by your standards. You have just turned three, and you are always laughing until you are not. We are not laughing. It is late, and we are tired, and your little brother is crying out beyond your worldview. “Sylvie, will you please come get ready for bed?” I ask, rhetorically.

You do not, so I pick you up, still so easy a gesture. You kick wildly, not to wound, just to communicate. I put you in front of the toilet. “I don’t want to go potty,” you cry.

There are so many things we don’t want to do. “We always go potty before we go to bed. Every night,” I say, too tiredly.

“Let me down!” This is not about potty, of course. Every year of parenthood adds another layer of irony. At first it was the layer of development, the idea that every action had an affect on future actions. Now, it is that, and it also a layer of control.

“I will not let you down. You need to go potty, and we need to get ready for bed. It’s late,” I add, as if this proves anything. I pull a pant leg over a foot, pajamas at the ready.

You lean forward and hit me in the chest, a chopping motion. “Go away, Dad. Go away forever.”

Your mother appears instantly, takes you upstairs to brush your teeth and scold you, while I follow your first imperative, if not the second, retreating to the family room couch to hold Felix. It does not hurt, I think to myself, reacting the way you do when you skin a knee. It should not hurt. It hurts.

You are three years old. You are a beautiful, hilarious psychopath. You know how to love people but not how to understand how they feel. And even in those brief moments when your id gets the upper hand, it can’t last; you’re being pushed forward by the conveyor belt of your own curiosity and energy. You’re the clumsy ice skater who plows into random people.

I don’t really know what to do about it. I put my trust in the liberal philosophers who taught me that everyone acted rationally, that everyone could cooperate if they could see the benefits. How do I teach you what happens when you don’t brush your teeth, if you use the word “forever” like an underline? I don’t even want you to know what forever is, yet, because then you’d have to figure out the opposite.

So for now I’ll go away forever, and tomorrow I’ll come back. It doesn’t hurt that much, as long as I remember what the words mean to you. We’ll pick berries and you’ll refuse to leave the green ones. We’ll swing and you’ll demand I tell you stories. It’ll be fine. We can go on like this forever.