“I Can’t Breathe”

chicago-1968

Chicago 1968, photo RW

          I feel like I can’t breathe, drowned by the tsunami that just befell my country and the whole world. All of a sudden everything is up for grabs, including a woman’s right to choose, steps to combat climate change, NATO alliances, trade agreements, immigration, just about everything. But I won’t talk about all that; so much has been said and is known by the reading public. Over the last eighteen months the brightest writers and thinkers had intellectually tied up Trump and thrown into the scrap heap of history. They were all wrong.

          What has been thrown out is an approach to life that is egalitarian, compassionate, and respectful, an ethos based on the humanitarian ideals of a liberal democracy. Not too long ago all political combatants could be found in the shelter of that umbrella no matter what their differences. No more.

          This debacle has been characterized as a “revolt against the elites” but it is more like revenge against “those who think they are better than us”, those who worked to improve their minds through education and got ahead using their brains. It comes out of deep anger and resentment and a serious sense of inferiority. How else could the populace turn their backs on Trump’s blatant disrespect for: women, Muslims, Mexicans, and those who prepare and do their homework, (e.g. Hillary and the debates). Our new leader thinks it is ok to grab women “by the pussy.” “When you are a star you can do anything you want,” he said. He laughs at the disabled and, well, no need for me to go through the long list. What kind of message does this send to young people trying to grow up? ‘Nice guys finish last,’ is what it says; it is ok to bully anyone to put yourself forward, to win the race.

          I get invited to certain occasions at the American Consulate here in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, the second biggest city. And today I was invited to witness the final day of the election. I prepared myself to answer questions about how I felt, never for a minute believing that Trump could win. I prepared my thoughts like this: ‘I am honestly disgusted that a man like Trump could actually have gotten this far in the election process. That fact itself discredits America and debases, if not annihilates, the idea of American exceptionalism.’

          Now what do I do? Our new chief has a majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Checks and balances are minimal. He also won decisively, very decisively. All of the bruhaha about every woman in America standing against him, the surge of Latinos voting, the blacks and minorities being involved and taking a stand, never happened. A lot of them voted for Trump.

          It is important to say something about Hillary Clinton beyond how she has been portrayed and the consequent vague or not so vague opinion of her. Even those who are dismayed by the existence of Trump often expressed dislike or suspicion about Mrs. Clinton. Based on what? Nothing, only lies and bullshit. She is of my generation, the idealists, the ones who dreamed of “open borders,” of everyone “getting along,” of equal opportunity and service. Her whole life has been dedicated to that. I witnessed it all, and not from so far away because of university connections. She is one of “us” the sixties generation that fought for civil rights, for women’s rights, for Vista, for the Peace Corps, for inner city programs. We fought against that ill-considered debacle, war in Viet Nam. And yet, through a steady campaign that would make Joseph Goebbels smile from hell, where he no doubt dwells, the ‘no nothings’ polluted the spring until they created “Crooked Hillary.”

          The email “scandal” was truth twisting for political gain. It never had “legs”. At a time when vagaries and pitfalls of email were still not well known, she opted for a private server that would guarantee her some control over her communications. No damage was done. There was no nefarious purpose. Colin Powell, that respected and gullible general, suggested she do it since he had done the same thing. It worked for him and he thought it was a good idea.

          With thirty years’ experience in government and having survived one excruciating battle after another, Hillary was the best and most qualified candidate ever to run for president. And she happens to be a woman. How is it possible for someone with those credentials to lose the election to a spoiled egoist who can’t speak good English and has absolutely no experience in government.

          The world has changed since I was a boy growing up in the glowing aftermath of WWII. And it was glowing in America. We didn’t have to be starving while we rebuilt our cities like they did in Europe and Japan. We were kings of the world and the white middle class was “comfortable” with appliances and new cars and kids going to affordable colleges. That is not the world we live in today. Now, for the middle class, the American Dream is further and further out of reach because of competition from immigrants, because of trade policies that have shipped jobs overseas, and because of wars we fight for other people and receive no compensation or thanks, only crippled and suffering veterans coming back and needing care. This is part of the stew creating the present moment. Throw in “that nigger in the Whitehouse,” a phrase I have heard many times, and you get a xenophobic, paranoid, proto fascist electorate, the “deplorables” who are stupid and proud of it.

          Ignorant people like simple solutions to complex problems. They may not be able to articulate their confusion and frustration but they feel it. And so, they follow the “big man” who seems to have the answers. It is remarkable that they think a billionaire who had never done anything for anyone other than himself will be their savior.

 

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia

November 9, 2016

 

Photograph by Ricker Winsor from the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968

 

 

The Incredible Shrinking Man

    For a long time now I have wanted to write about how aging affects our appetite for life, how it constricts our activities and shrinks our comfort zone and our energy level. I have been thinking about it now and again, when I get around to it. Thinking about it seems like enough work even without the writing. The writing can happen, of course, between naps.

          There is an age zone that occurs like a whisper; you are not young anymore but not old either. But one thing is true; you know for sure that time is conspiring to eliminate you. It is no longer hypothetical as it was previously.

          Over years, watching friends age, sometimes with ten or twenty years between meetings, I observe a contraction of life, both physically and intellectually. The safe zone gets smaller, more precious, and the ability to accept and embrace new experience declines.

          A friend and veteran of wilderness adventure, a man in his seventies, is part of a breakfast group that meets once a week to “shoot the breeze”, to keep each other company, especially through the long northern winters. “I can’t get them to do anything,” he says. “I suggest a relaxing canoe trip down the Allagash river, (about as easy as it gets), and they looked at me like I am crazy.”

          The whisper in the ear, “Don’t take any chances. Just be quiet and stick to your routine. Maybe death won’t find you for a while.” The routines of our lives become ruts. Even a visit to a new restaurant or a drive through unknown territory, taking a new route, can produce discomfort, a mild fear.

          It is tempting to take a mocking, sardonic tone about this. One wants to separate oneself from the afflicted. But I decided to research a bit about it and very quickly read about how age coincides with almost every aspect of our physical system falling apart. It is a law of physics, entropy; all systems fall apart. It is a law.

          For the human body the result is that you don’t have the energy you used to have. That is an understatement. And why? Well your heart is not pumping as well, your arteries are not so clean, your kidneys don’t work great, and, by the way, neither do your lungs, your eyes, your ears, basically everything.

          My friend George is one hundred and five years old. When I was growing up we rarely heard about anybody reaching ninety and now more and more people live beyond that. I spoke to him on his one hundredth birthday and he was cogent, sharp as usual. We talked about the fly fishing we used to do on the Catskill Rivers. He said, “I get on my treadmill every day and I have a keyboard to play some music but I don’t have much energy.” At one hundred and five I didn’t talk to him but got the report that he is the “darling of the home” where they take care of him. They all love him and when they greet him in the morning he says, “Could I please have bacon and eggs for breakfast?”

          Mockery is not the appropriate tone for a consideration of aging but compassion is, since mostly this is beyond our control, mostly. “You can’t unscramble the egg.” my friend stated. And yet inevitable deterioration, in process from about age thirty, can be resisted to some degree.

It gets harder to push oneself. That is true. A younger teaching colleague of mine is a body builder. He keeps encouraging me since I already have a good base after a lifetime of sports and gym. He tells about and provides written material and videos of older guys who still “look great”. Because of him I am a bit inspired to push my gym routine beyond the lazy normal. I took some comfort in his telling me that Arnold Schwarzenegger, about my age, says, “I work twice as hard for half the benefit,” which seems accurate. It does take twice the effort with half the energy, no small task. But he does it anyway. That seems to be the key.

I would not even have heard about Schwarzenegger’s senior workout thoughts if I had not said yes to teaching teenagers a couple of days a week. I am seventy-one. It is not easy to muster the energy to face twenty-five kids twice a day. but I do it. My teenagers help keep me fresh and I feel it is worthwhile because I consider that my experience is a benefit to them whether they know it now or not.

          There are a lot of cliches, adages, and homilies about old age. I suppose they are supposed to provide some comfort as we sink deeper into the couch and give ourselves up to the inevitable. “Old age is not for sissies” they say, as if saying it is enough to prove “they” are not sissies but well up to the challenge. Mostly they/we are not up to the challenge but we do the best we can.

          Recently I heard the term “mild depression” from a friend and I think that is more prevalent than generally known. A sense of defeat can pervade everyday life without being apparent except to our closest people. Even within the person it can go unacknowledged. And yet it can cripple us softly.

          Throwing down the gauntlet for yourself and picking it up is the hero’s path through the “dark wood” of age. More and more there are things I don’t actually feel like doing but I push myself through that barrier of resistance and am glad of it every time.

          So much for the negative aspect of aging. There are positives and they seem to be agreed upon by people researching and writing about this topic. We know ourselves better, are less neurotic, more confident, and more liberated, care less about what other people think, and have a great store of experience and knowledge to share. If we can succeed in maintaining our deteriorating bodies so they don’t bother us too much, we can enjoy what’s left of our life in a much deeper way than we could before.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

October 14, 2016