At my age, time is more precious. In a year when I have changed jobs–or more precisely, traded paid employment for a series of volunteer assignments–moved to a new city, traveled widely in the beautiful USA, taken positive steps to stabilize my health, and married off many members of a whole new generation, I can indulge a sense of hope and accomplishment. Alternatively, if I am seeking the thrill of impending disaster, I can find it in regular reports about the dire effects of climate change. Either way, life is not boring. Even if you’re really only treading water, the scenery shifts.
One of the pleasures of life lies in noting one’s own adaptability. Can you deal with something new–a physical challenge, an intriguing concept, a different social environment–and in particular, can you handle it as well as you might have decades earlier? A certain dumb satisfaction comes over you to realize that, even if “progress” is no longer an appropriate word, it is possible to achieve survival and a little more, even when things around you take on a new, conceivably hostile, aspect.
My complaint as 2019 closes, therefore, is that I have been cheated. Within the seemingly inescapable bubble of national politics and media punditry, I have been deprived of any illusion of novelty, never mind excitement. The latest survey from Newsweek asserts that about half of Americans feel the country is in worse shape than a year ago. Putting aside all the important caveats about polls–especially the open-ended kind that ask ‘is the country on the wrong track?’ (when do we know it’s been on the right one?)–it seems that depressing or disturbing change has been underway in the lives of my fellow Americans, including the other half, who might believe that the country is “better off” now. I must have missed something interesting.
It’s mostly Democrats who feel depressed, and I hold the Democratic Party largely responsible. To be sure, the Republicans have taken away my state and local tax deductions, and that is bound to get my attention eventually. But the Democrats have been fixing to transform American life for so long, not least by banishing hatred and restoring justice, that I am a little disappointed. (Not to worry, CBS points out that decade-long depression is also well documented.) The Democrats’ first, for some only, objective in this process, removing the mendacious dimwit who occupies the White House (and several resort properties), has been on the horizon since 2016, and looming large since last year’s midterms. Now it has reached a plateau, and we are asked to settle for Impeachment Lite. The most remarkable revelation in the whole episode has been that no one seems to know what an impeachable offense is. Actually, we do–it’s whatever the majority in power says it is–but we’re reluctant to admit that.
As for the Presidential campaign unfolding before us, there are few features of it that could not have been predicted a year ago. The byzantine and bizarrely over-populated debates crafted by the DNCC have yielded nothing in the way of new ideas; rather they have enticed another rich New Yorker (and partisan cherry-picker) to try to buy the office from the first one. We have three debates between the Democrat nominee and the President to “look forward” to, but unless Steve Harvey should announce the wrong winner, I don’t expect much drama. (Subject to humbling revision, if a woman should somehow be elected.) In the absence of any real crisis–recall 2008, 1932, or 1860–the most hopeful development would be a collapse toward the center. (But thanks, Andrew Yang, for a fresh dose of honesty.) Regardless of the outcome, Democrats will return to the task of avenging the political assassination of Merrick Garland, and Mitch McConnell will lord it over his stable of fawning Republicans, only a few of whom have expressed so much as “concern” about the direction of his rule.
Of course, much of my ennui arises from the company I keep and reflects an unmerited luxury. If I had spent the past year, for example, as an aspiring North American toiling through jungles and slums to reach the border, only to be sent back into profound danger in Mexico, I might view things differently. It’s certainly been an eventful year for tens of thousands of Uighurs. Not knowing whether the next week will bring explosive death to you and your family also imparts a zest to life. How many in South Asia, the Mideast, or parts of Africa have faced this possibility in 2019! Plenty of people where I live have also lost their homes over the past year, and this fact charges their daily existence with anxiety and alertness. On the other hand, perhaps my frame of reference is just too narrow. This week comes word that my nearby galactic neighbor, the red giant star Betelgeuse, is nearing its life’s end. This will take the form of a spectacular supernova. I likely won’t be around to see the explosion, even though it might already have occurred centuries ago, but as a dramatic reminder of transition, it’s hard to improve upon.
Given my historically good fortune as a lucky member of America’s luckiest generation, I am inclined to overlook the real possibility that change can often be for the worse. I want things to get better and dislike the thought that we are stuck in a rut. The government did finally manage to avert a shutdown and to renew a trade deal that actually helps most parties, but I find it hard to be grateful for those meager achievements. If this is what I have to get used to, then I really need a different outlook, one that combines confidence in America’s future with an indifference to how it plays out. If that sounds like a counsel of despair, then maybe I’m just starting to understand those survey results.