Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Thursday, January 12, 2017

We're All Not in It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 14

14: Night terrors

The Nightmare (1781), Henry Fuseli

I’m an anxiety-prone guy, and people have been telling me this about myself all my life. I say “people have been telling me this about myself” because I haven’t been particularly aware of my own nervousness until fairly recently, late in my life. Now that I am aware of it, I guess it was for me like soft static, a background noise that I took for granted and tuned out. I might have thought about all kinds of things more intently than a lot of people around me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t feel happy. In short, I wasn’t nervous about my nervousness.

But now, alas, I am. And, like many things, once felt, the feeling cannot be unfelt.

I started to be aware of my own persistent anxiety, I think, when I stopped sleeping soundly all night. I’m a guy, and all middle-aged guys have steadily enlarged prostate glands, and with that comes the need to get up and urinate at least once a night (yes, sorry, TMI). Women, particularly women who have had children, tend not to be very sympathetic about this little bit of urological reality, but for many of us guys who are otherwise sound sleepers, this is a real life changer. When you wake up in the early hours of the morning, especially when you are not accustomed to waking up in the early hours of the morning, you have trouble getting back to sleep. But while you lie there half awake, your brain, still largely disabled by sleep behaves a lot like a kid whose parent (the normal conscious brain) is bad at practicing discipline, and the mind does the darndest things. I don’t know about other people, but mine focuses on its anxieties – work, children, death, taxes… whatever. And that really keeps me from sleeping.

This started, I guess, about a decade ago, and at first it annoyed me but didn’t really bother me too much. As the things that I typically did obsessive worrying about tended to be boring and silly – deadlines I had to meet, house maintenance I needed to do, something stupid I’d recently said to someone and regretted – all I had to do to make the worries go away was get up, go to the sofa and read a book for five minutes until the silly worry went away.

That all works fine, when the worries are trivial, but when they are not… well the nighttime obsessions become far less trivial when there is actually something serious there that you can’t simply distract yourself from. My first experience of this was when my two younger children were in high school and having a hard time of it. Life has its familiar moments of trial, and having teenage children is one of those moments… For about four years, I had extended periods of middle-of-the-night worrying, really, really serious anxiety. Of course, because I love my children and because teenagerhood is a time of unmitigated hell in almost everyone’s life, there were actually real, not existential, things to worry about.

But, as wise people say, this too shall (and did) pass. Though I had occasional after-shocks of PTSD-like fear, I eventually lapsed back into a life of occasional, trivial sleeplessness with minor worries. I even learned, like Dr. Strangelove, to live with my prostate and kind of love being middle-aged and, well, um, quirky.

But when my youngest child moved home to live with us after college, things changed again. She came home for a year to work and save money before entering graduate school. She found, and we found, that life had inexplicably changed since high school – we were suddenly older people, somewhat set in our way of life, and she was… no longer a child. It was an adjustment: she was used to living the life of a twenty-something young adult; we were boring old people and liked living that way. She took a job working as a political operative for a campaign, a crazy, 24-hour a day life for crazy young professional people. We kept going to work, coming home, eating dinner, doing more work or watching an hour or two of TV and going to bed.

Different lives. So what was the problem? Well, none, really. Our youngest daughter is one of those kids who came to maturity pretty quickly, and by her early twenties was sensible, reliable and clearly responsible. I knew she could take care of herself… but she lived the life of a normal young adult on a political campaign – work until 1 or 2 am, go out to a bar with friends, have a beer or two and drive home, sleep a few hours, and get up and do it all again. I didn’t worry about her, much… until I woke up in the middle of the night. I would wake up at 3 in the morning, somehow be aware that I hadn’t heard her come home yet, and start to worry. Worry insanely. Had she had too much to drink? (In reality, she really was careful about this)? Was she in the process of being arrested for DWI? What would this do to her young career? Was she dead, having run into a tree? Had some other drunk, leaving the bar at 3 in the morning, run into her? Had she been attacked, raped and murdered, walking to her car on a dark street by the sexual predators that throng the night? My mind would go, on and on and on and on like that, my heart pounding, until I had to get up and read a book waiting for her to come home, which she always did, safely. Nonetheless, this went on three, four, five times a week. She thought I was nuts, and I was.

When I would examine myself during the daytime hours, this seemed crazy. She had been away in college for four years, a younger, stupider version of herself, and had clearly managed to stay alive then, not having any horrible tragedy occur. She could handle herself, and I knew it. My wife knew it, and she slept soundly all night. Why couldn’t I just tell myself to calm down?

Well, I know now that it was really a different thing from worrying about my daughter when she was in high school, when there really was something to worry about, though in both cases I was worrying because my imagination was out-of-control, uninhibited by my conscious, waking brain. This second period of middle-of-the-night-terrifying-child-worry was really existential – a fundamental fear about the hard and harsh realities of life, the uncertainty of existence, all that good stuff. The truth is that, though generally unlikely, something could have happened to her, as something could happen to any one of us at any moment. When I was twenty (when any of us were twenty) and on my own, staying out late, something could have happened to me. It may be stretching it a bit, but I now think that my fundamental fear was the fear of the dangers she faced (and would face) leading her life. It was a I life I had already lived and managed, somehow, unaccountably, to have survived. Essentially, having someone I really cared about in close proximity to me, in a stage of her life that I was no longer accustomed to, really shook up my hold on reality. When the vivid imagining of this took hold of my mind in the dark, dark middle of the night it was terrifying.

Yes, I’m crazy, but I’m not just saying all this to show you that. So here’s another story about night terrors:

A few nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and all the lights were out – the electricity was out. Sometimes here in the winter we get ice storms and this can be a serious thing – the lights can go out and stay out for a week or more… no heat, just dark and cold. But in this case, it was a warmish night – temperatures in the 50’s, and no snow or ice – nothing to worry about -- the lights were probably out because of a problem with a transformer someplace and would undoubtedly be off for only an hour or so. If I went back to sleep, they would be on when I woke up. But, as I’ve already explained, my mind doesn’t work like that in the middle of the night… I began wondering: why, when nothing is going on with the weather, are the lights out? Perhaps, just perhaps, Russian hackers have taken down the power grid!

Lights out!

Don’t laugh yet. I began thinking about what having the entire power grid down would mean. How long would it be down? I’d heard that the grid was a really complicated system, and if something happened to it things might never be completely restorable. How would we know, with cable, radio, phones, the internet down? How would local authorities know? How would society run, who would be in charge? (Not a trivial question in the age of Trump.) How would the authorities tell us? Would there be chaos and rioting? I have kids in two other big cities – would they be ok? How would I find out? And how would they find out if we were ok? Was this perhaps the end of civilization as we know it? ? This long, dark night could go on forever!

Ok, you can start laughing now. I really whipped myself up into really serious anxiety and then started trying to think how to calm myself down. How would I know, with all my electronics down, whether this was just a local outage or national Armageddon? My cell phone! If it was still showing bars, the cell towers were still working and the grid was still functioning… I debated for a few minutes whether I should give in to fear and get up, rummage for a flashlight (waking my wife up) to find my cell phone to check this out. But anxiety was in control, and yes, after a minute or two I got up and did this. I woke up my wife. “What’s going on?” she asked. I briefly explained that I was checking to see if the Russians had broken the power grid. Even in complete darkness, I could feel her giving me a huge eye-roll as she put her head back down to sleep. “Good grief, James!”

As it turned out, I woke us both up and neither one of us would fall back to sleep for a couple of hours – her (I’m guessing) because she was wondering why (and how) she had to live with a crazy person; me, because I was still worrying about the Russians just a little bit. After a while, the power came back on, and sometime after that I turned off the light and went to sleep.

Yes, #goodgriefJames. I’m almost 62, and one of the possibilities I consider here is that I am slowly losing my mind. I’ve thought about this a bit… but I’ve decided that’s not it. Like worrying about the risks implicit in my daughter’s young adult lifestyle, I think I again was experiencing a bit of (totally explicable) existential anxiety.

We’ve just been through a crazy presidential election, certainly the craziest in my lifetime, and we’ve elected someone to the most powerful position in the world that many of us think is absurdly and dangerously unfit for the job. That many others don’t think so is actually the opposite of re-assuring. Further, there is a lot of excellent evidence that the Russians helped him win, which, again to some of us (but not to others), seems insanely disturbing… and he totally denies all the evidence, which is, again, really strange and disconcerting. Nobody really knows anymore what is going to happen.

So, maybe being overcome by existential fear isn’t so strange after all. Am I crazy for letting extreme politics drive me over the edge, wake me up in the night in a hot sweat? If you think so… maybe you’re right… or maybe you’re the crazy person. I’m no person to judge, but I can (reasonably, I think) go either way on this one.

As I personally reel in the strangeness of this moment, one question that keeps going through my mind is how did we get into this? And how do we get out? Can we get out?

Critically part of these questions is the basic question why did the country elect Trump?? which I attempted to answer for myself in my last essay. We may be struggling with this one for a long time, but I think one basic answer is implicit in Trump’s (successful) campaign theme “Make America Great Again.” As huge numbers of commentators have already said, people voted for this because they are really uncomfortable with what America has become, where it currently is. They are upset with the death of American manufacturing and corporate global commerce that caused it. They mourn the steady (but now rapid) disappearance of triving small town, working class life. They are upset with the new acceptance of LGBT rights and gay marriage. They are upset (as has been a perennial theme in America) with immigrants and changing demographics. In short they feel… existential anxiety about rapid changes to our culture and they want to dial it back to a stable version that they imagine (because a stable past is a fiction) was here before – they want to see it again. Trump conjured their anxieties and promised an imaginary solution to the alarming changes of history and time.

It all doesn’t seem too different from the kind of anxieties I have in the middle of a broken night… in fact it’s all of a piece with those. If I wake and find myself in the throes of this kind of over-imaginative anguish, perhaps it’s because the entire country is having one version or another of the same fear hallucination.

So, to recap a bit. I’m delusional, and I kind of suspect that you are too. The entire country is pretty much delusional… which is making us all even crazier. A lot of this comes down to the basic fact that we live alone in our own heads, our own realities, and that inner reality has a hard time dealing with real reality out there, which goes its own way, inconsiderately, without us. We don’t like it, no, not one bit. Life shouldn’t change on us like this. As Robert Frost once wrote:
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
(“Reluctance” 1913)
This is an early poem of Frost’s though he was near middle age when he wrote it. He went on to see a lot more change – two world wars, the atomic bomb, the space age – and yet, somehow he kept it together and kept writing. Perhaps I – we – will somehow do the same.

I doubt much uninterrupted sleeping will be involved though. I’m still crazy after all these years.

We're All Not in It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 13

13: Trump, the exceptional common man

“I alone can fix it.”
-- Donald Trump

As you know if you have been reading this essay series, its unifying theme has been the linkage between narcissism in our society (which I think is rampant) and delusion (which I think has also become epidemic). Hence, what better way to end this journey to the “heart of darkness” (which started at the beginning of a crazy election cycle that is now concluding), than by talking about Trump?

It’s October and, though some people have been saying that Trump has been going “off the rails” since September, he now appears to be certifiably, publicly mad.

But to that in a minute. First, I want to bring back a quote I used in an earlier essay, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

As I did when I quoted this earlier, I’m italicizing the last sentence because I think this insight about American culture, written way back in the early 19th Century, encapsulates a common problem in the American psyche, and a critical issue in what we sometimes wryly call “the American Experiment” of governance. American democracy, because of our concept of the primacy of the individual and because of a natural egotism in human consciousness, tends to result in an atomized society.

It’s a uniquely American tendency, I think, to forget others; to forget the larger realities of our communities; to forget the social complexities implicit in our powerful and wealthy country; to forget the world and the global context; to forget history; and to forget obvious features of reality itself…  in favor of desire and despair-driven narratives of our own vain desires and specific individual needs, our own imaginations, our own disconnected selves. It’s easy in our culture to find ourselves “confin(ed) entirely within the solitude of (our) own heart(s).” The political question though is how do you run a country when so many are driven to delusion by their own solitude and narcissism?

Though this question sounds rhetorical, I’m actually not being polemical-- at the moment, we seem to be on the terrifying verge of actually trying to deal with just such a surreal situation.  Donald Trump himself has emerged as an almost “textbook example” of the kind of deluded narcissistic personality that I have been talking about… and I’m by no means alone in saying this.  His past public persona is almost a cartoon caricature – the spoiled, egoistic rich boy who is unashamed of following his own pure self-interest and succeeding by climbing over the ruins of other lives to greater wealth and personal gain – ex-wives, business associates, “little people,” minorities, women. It’s all in the tabloid press record. He played a public role of being the playboy and non-stop narcissist in the NY tabloids… which is obviously what got him the gig in reality TV on “The Apprentice,”  where he was cast as the generally cruel and demanding “monster boss,” who’s signature line is “you’re fired!.”

This penchant for raw narcissistic ruthlessness and pretty pure childish amorality is apparently what won him the Republican nomination, which I found kind of like watching a cage fight between Alien and Predator, with the idea being that the winner would be ideally suited to be “our” monster for the GOP in the general election.

I find this somewhat hysterical description of him by the political writer Andrew Sullivan in in his apocalyptic New York magazine article “America and the Abyss”,  to be, in fact, alarmingly true and accurate, despite its extreme tone:

This is what we now know. Donald Trump is the first candidate for president who seems to have little understanding of or reverence for constitutional democracy and presents himself as a future strongman. This begins with his character — if that word could possibly be ascribed to his disturbed, unstable, and uncontrollable psyche. He has revealed himself incapable of treating other people as anything but instruments to his will. He seems to have no close friends, because he can tolerate no equals. He never appears to laugh, because that would cede a recognition to another’s fleeting power over him. He treats his wives and his children as mere extensions of his power, and those who have resisted the patriarch have been exiled, humiliated, or bought off. 

His relationship to men — from his school days to the primary campaign — is rooted entirely in dominance and mastery, through bullying, intimidation, and, if necessary, humiliation. His relationship to women is entirely a function of his relationship to men: Women are solely a means to demonstrate his superiority in the alpha-male struggle. Women are to be pursued, captured, used, assaulted, or merely displayed to other men as an indication of his superiority. His response to any difficult relationship is to end it, usually by firing or humiliating or ruining someone. His core, motivating idea is the punishment or mockery of the weak and reverence for the strong. He cannot apologize or accept responsibility for failure. He has long treated the truth as entirely instrumental to his momentary personal interests. Setbacks of any kind can only be assuaged by vindictive, manic revenge.

He has no concept of a non-zero-sum engagement, in which a deal can be beneficial for both sides. A win-win scenario is intolerable to him, because mastery of others is the only moment when he is psychically at peace. (This is one reason why he cannot understand the entire idea of free trade or, indeed, NATO, or the separation of powers.) In any conflict, he cannot ever back down; he must continue to up the ante until the danger to everyone around him is so great as to demand their surrender. From his feckless business deals and billion-dollar debts to his utter indifference to the damage he has done to those institutions unfortunate enough to engage him, he has shown no concern for the interests of other human beings. Just ask the countless people he has casually fired, or the political party he has effectively destroyed. He has violated and eroded the core norms that make liberal democracy possible — because such norms were designed precisely to guard against the kind of tyrannical impulses and pathological narcissism he personifies.

On this, I more or less rest my case. Trump is presented as obvious an example of sick narcissism – whether you want to connect it to sociopathy, schizophrenia or some other form of psychological malfunction is up to you – but it’s all out there in vivid, cartoonish illustration. The state of his delusion is such, that he himself is probably oblivious to how insane he looks from the outside. Recently, he has been openly casting himself as The Messiah, which is generally a behavior that we only see in people who we have institutionalized, or who wander around on the streets, unwashed and unshaven, shouting and mumbling:
“It’s a global power structure,” he said. Trump went on to describe himself as a populist martyr — “I take all of these slings and arrows gladly for you” — and posited: “This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.” (Washington Post, Oct. 16)
It’s a bizarre public spectacle for many of us, both fascinating and horrifying, but it also begs this really stark question: Why is he still a candidate for the highest office in the land, why, dear God, why are so many people still supporting him??

Initially,  much of the leadership in the GOP and a significant portion of the party faithful did openly reject Trump because of this startling, obvious, “disqualifying” bizarreness of character, yet  he retained a ferociously loyal base through the nomination and beyond. These people remained completely unfazed despite a daily string of nutty, counter-factual statements, despite antisocial talk, despite anti-American opinions and policy suggestions (pro-Russian, anti-NATO, anti-establishment, pro-apocalyptic…), despite unsavory evidence of criminal business and sexual behavior. They love Trump and he loves them back for it:  "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," Trump said proudly, publicly, with complete candor and accuracy… And, in the end, as we all now have seen, most of the conservatives who rejected him have said “oh, well” and come back to him, despite earlier claims that they had totally rejected all this evil. You and I all have friends that fall in this category. Dear readers, I strongly suspect some of you fall in this category.

And that, of course, really disturbs me and others like me and leaves us wondering endlessly whywhywhywhywhywhy… As a sane American, brought up in the fairly sane and decent traditions of this country, the common political assumptions on both sides of the political spectrum, this doesn’t seem possible to me now, and I know it would seem outlandish to almost all of us if we could go back, say, two years in time. How have we gotten here?

There has been no dearth of sensible explanations for what can only be described as an episode of mass public delusion, surreal and bordering on hallucination. By far, the most popular of these has been that a good chunk of the mainstream electorate is angry and aggrieved, feeling forgotten, under attack and abused by decades of social and economic change – in particular white, working class and/or rural, under-educated and economically displaced people. These people, the narrative goes, have watched their communities lose industries and jobs; have had their heartland towns plagued by poverty, hopelessness and rampant drug addiction; have watched in alarm as dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking, foreign-acting, Allah-worshipping people invade America, taking jobs and changing customs; have been betrayed and screwed by the political establishment, educated elites and urbanites who look down on them for their traditional prejudices and instead side with foreigners, minorities, gay people, atheists, giving everything to those people and nothing to them.

It’s hard to deny the validity of this explanation… except for a fair number of data points that don’t quite agree. Point one: the famous, “yugely” popular Trump rallies, packed with his most fervent supporters. Yes, the people showing up at these are overwhelmingly white, are certainly angry, and also certainly cite all the reasons given in the paragraph above for their extreme anger. But when they are interviewed – and the press loves to interview them – things don’t quite add up. There will be a white man or woman, wearing an “Make America Great Again” cap and/or wearing a “Hang the Bitch” tshirt, and they will talk effusively about Trump and how he “gets it” when he talks about bringing back jobs and building a wall… but when questioned about the veracity of this or that extreme claim that Trump has just made or some nutty idea about discriminating against Hispanics or Muslims, they will say, “well, I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says,” and when asked if their own circumstances are as bad as those he claims exist out there, they will admit that they are actually employed and doing quite well, and no, they don’t have a lot of Muslims or Mexicans living in their community. In other words, their reasons for why they like him don’t quite make sense, at least in terms of the actual world they live in. But they still love him.

A recently published article in Tablet Magazine notes the same thing:
the median household income of a Trump primary voter is a healthy $72,000 a year, well above the $62,000 national average and higher than the median incomes of those who supported both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, 44 percent of Trump voters have college degrees, far more than the 29 percent of the general adult population. According to a Gallup working paper based upon interviews with some 87,000 Trump supporters over the past year, the most exhaustive statistical analysis of the Trump phenomenon completed thus far, “There appears to be no link whatsoever between exposure to trade competition and support for nationalist policies in America, as embodied by the Trump campaign.” The same study also found “little clear evidence that economic hardship predicts support for Trump, in that higher household incomes tend to predict higher Trump support.”
What is also telling for me about Trump supporters is they really, really don’t care at all about the facts. Trump lies to them constantly and outrageously and they eat it up. The polls are rigged (unless they are good for him, in which case they are brilliant and honest), the media is corrupt and dishonest (ditto), and so are fact checkers. You might conclude from this that Trump supporters are just really ignorant and gullible, but interviews show that they aren’t. They understand that they are being lied to but they are not bothered by his lies. They like being lied to because they like his lies.

I think a really telling detail emerged at very early interviews at Trump rallies. When asked about how people felt while Trump was spewing what amounted to racist hate at Hispanics and Muslims, avid Trump supporters came back to interviewers that they liked Trump because he “is not PC.” They certainly acknowledge that the world around them may be against racism, and will insist mightily that “I am NOT a racist,” but they think it’s great to speak thoughts that are racist because they think the same thoughts. But they don’t call them racist, so they are not. People are too sensitive. Again and again, they appreciate that Trump “speaks his mind,” “tells it like it is” and nuts to anyone who wants to find fault in what comes out. These are just “elitist” others that look down on them, the “real” people. It does not occur to them that the people who they are insulting or attacking are “real” people too, with perhaps real reasons for feeling oppressed and insulted by them.

Telling it like it is. For him. And for them.

It’s clearly because this stuff goes on in their heads and they would like to be able to be “free” and say what they think too. And not get analyzed and labeled “racist,” because that is supposedly a bad thing and that’s not what they really feel like they are. So they’re not. Case closed.

Recognize this? People like Trump, not because he supports issues they care about and they really think he will fix things for them, but because he reminds them of themselves – self-serving narcissists who get to define reality their own way, just the way Frank Sinatra sang: “I did it my way.”

If you objectively look at the example of Trump as a leader, nothing else really makes sense. Trump is admired for his out-there tone, not his substance – he is not an objective example of an admirable leader, a “champion of the common man.” He argues that he’s a business genius, and, as such, is uniquely skilled to fix government. Never mind that government is not the hotel development business, not remotely, and never mind all his bankruptcies and business failures. He is honest, next to “crooked Hillary,” nevermind the daily string of baldfaced lies, nevermind the fraudulent business scams, nevermind the contractors he’s cheated, nevermind the obvious tax fraud. Trump is a “man of the people,” nevermind that he’s a billionaire, living in mansions and highrise palaces, born into wealth, educated at elite universities.

It would seem that Americans supporting Trump, particularly the less-educated white working class supporters, are all really gullible chumps… except it’s also clear that they are perfectly aware of all these disconnects. More than that, they are also aware that nonsense, a freewheeling batch of insincere lies. Day after day, he promises that he will “make America great again,” and that only he can (somehow magically, since he never offers details) do it. He says he will cancel trade deals and bring back industry to America, despite the fact that everyone in his audience understands that this would mean more expensive manufactured goods that would have no real market. He promises people in coal country that he will “bring back coal,” despite the fact that they all know coal can’t compete against cheaper natural gas. I guess it feels good to scream approval at hearing these claims, but it’s a lot like adults screaming approval at claims that Santa will bring them all a sleigh full of toys, when they know full well that there’s no such person.

The point is that they like the way he talks and yells – they don’t really care what he says so long as it humors their feelings, they don’t care what he really is, so long as he sounds in tune with them. After the election, much was made about the enormous slew of “fake news” that Trump supporters read, approved of and shared. A lot of it was wildly improbable, but a lot of otherwise discernable adults liked it and shared it anyway, while dismissing real news, produced by professional journalists as suspect, “biased” and “unreliable.” Interviews with some of the people who produced this propaganda (a lot of them in Russia or Eastern Europe) have again and again shown that the authors were simply writing the kind of stories that they knew their audience wanted to hear – kind of the way pornographers or romance writers write improbable things for audiences interested in those kinds of fantasies. Somewhere in this is the sense that the improbable stories are better than the real stories, because they tell you what you want to hear, and real information – truth – doesn’t really matter anymore. Leaders that sound good to you are better than leaders that will actually work with real issues and lead, because leaders don’t matter anymore.

Presidential -- not. But who cares?
This again is the essence of narcissism – your internal landscape, not the outside reality, is what really matters. And also, no one cares about whether their actions, acting on this internal reality, have real consequences. Gratifying the self is the only thing that has real significance.

After the election, there was a flood of admonition from the right that complaining about Trump supporters (including calling them racist or misinformed or misled or anything besides “right” or “victorious”) was wrong or “unfair,” despite all the beyond-obvious disconnects in their campaign behavior. Suddenly, they were the victims who had been slighted and mistreated… not the people they had been slandering, threatening, yelling at on the street. They feel “looked down on” by bullies on the left who comment on how stupid and misguided they are. How unpleasant to have reality thrown in your face by people who think that they are so smart. The unreality of it is striking. Having been admonished by friends, many of whom have dear friends and relatives who are Trump supporters, to be more kind and understanding to “the other side,” I’ve done a certain amount of soul-searching, but I’ve decided that there really isn’t another position to take here than to cry delusion. I mean, if you know someone who has a mental illness, you might be kind and understanding to them, but if they are hearing voices, you don’t say “OK, I hear them too” – that would enable the illness. You try to help them see that they have a problem and need treatment, though they certainly won’t like hearing that. This is not really that different, though we are all showing some symptoms.

… And so I’ll end this piece here, though it feels unfinished… because it is. I started it in the middle of the campaign, wrote more of it after the election, and right now it’s on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. God knows what’s going to happen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 12

12: Positivity in the time of hysteria

Oh, I could hide 'neath the wings
Of the bluebird as she sings
The six o'clock alarm would never ring

Cheer up, sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen?

-- The Monkees

My dog Otis, playing with his best friend, Misty May. Otis has friends.

Several months ago, I was out walking Otis, my golden retriever, and I met one of my dog walking friends. Actually these days most of my friends are dog walking friends. This is not because I’m a lovely guy who loves dogs and people, but because of my dog Otis, who everyone likes because he enthusiastically likes everyone. How can you not like a happy, happy dog with a positive, go out and greet the world disposition? Only if you have an aversion to muddy paws and slobber, which most people tolerate much easer than nasty human critical thinking. So, like the loser kid in grade school (I guess I was one once), I’ve learned to hang out with the popular kid that everyone likes because, inevitably, some of that “like” rubs off on me. 

Without Otis, probably not so much.

The conversation that I had with this friend illustrates why. He asked me what I thought about Trump – Trump had just said/done something outrageous – advocated killing the wives and children of enemies, asked his followers to beat up a protester, said that we should go ahead and use nuclear weapons… something that, I’m sure, now pales in comparison to many of the other insane/irresponsible/scary things he has said to curry favor with his goon-like multitude of followers, ignorant citizens who seem to have drunk a lot of toxic waste and devolved into something that resembles the Belzebub Fan Club… Anyway,  he asked me about Trump because he knows that I have political opinions and am the excitable type, and he thought it would be good entertainment to set me off.

And set me off, of course, it did. I went on about how I was horrified by Trump, but more than that I was infinitely more upset by the fact that his off-the-charts public behavior not only wasn’t hurting him, but seemed to be a big selling point to a huge chunk of the American public. Who are these people? And what the heck has happened to this country? I think I was probably close to wailing… and if I wasn’t, I think I should have been.

Having nicely drawn me out, he promptly tried to calm me down… or shut me down,  I should say, with a kind of cool, confident, sunny rationality that I’m sure he has learned to use on frothing idiots like me. “Oh, I’m sure that any minute he will say something that does him in and he’ll just fade away and be forgotten,” he said. (This was, of course, before Trump had won the nomination.)

But, but, but, but… that’s not what’s happening! I objected, again noting that his followers seemed to love his insanity, the insaner the better, because they like him “telling it like it is” (especially when he’s actually saying total falsehoods).  All the signs, I pointed out, were that this was going to get worse, not go away… what if he won the nomination?? What could happen to the country if an irresponsible madman was in reach of the presidency?

“I just prefer to look at things more positively,” he said sanely, to end the conversation. And it did, because there was nothing that didn’t involve some naughty words that I could, at that moment, say in reply.  The implication that I was just being way too negative did shut me up, because being overly negative is something no reasonable person would assume was good. I had no rational way to continue the argument, but, in fact, it was about the least effective thing he could have said to resolve the issue because I’ve been fuming and musing about it ever since. I don’t think “looking at things positively” is necessarily a superior way to approach the problems of the world, no, no, no I don’t.

A little personal history/disclosure here.

 Throughout most of my adult life, people have regularly told me that I dwell too much on the bad stuff, on things that are worrying rather than on things that are hopeful an promising and that I am unnecessarily depressing. I’m pretty sure that most readers of these essays feel this way, because I even do myself sometimes. I guess I acknowledge the truth of my negativity because I know my thinking is drawn to problems, discontents and WTF/FUBAR/SMH malfunctions of rational order like a moth to a searchlight.  The bumper sticker “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” was written for my car. 

Still, I’ve had occasion to bridle when people decide to reprimand me for looking at things darkly. Once, a coworker in the university advancement business who was trying to force me to task me with some ridiculous, unworkable request (say, get national media attention for a minor gift from a needy local donor) responded to my professional opinion that she was asking for the impossible,  “Oh, Jim, you’re always so negative!” From her perspective, I guess I was just being difficult, since she always thought that whatever she demanded should magically happen. Because that was how she wanted reality to work, it just had to. Other people should just “make it so.” No naysayers or compromisin’ on the road to her horizon. She was a princess, and princesses always get what they want, right? Me, my middle finger often began to itch fiercely in her presence.

I think this is often the way people who are “positive-thinking” and hopeful are – they want everyone to have their dreams and their hopes and they object to anyone who lives outside their fantasy and who points out that reality says “nay.” They firmly believe that the great force of their own will can order the world. Positivity can be narcissism’s best friend.

So I say watch out for people whose “positive view on life” means that they expect you to positively get in line.  Call me a bomb-throwing revolutionary against such Republican positivity. I really tend to doubt that Trump is going to “make America great again,” just by saying that it should be and the sheer, yuge force of his will.

But there’s also a larger philosophical/cultural/religious aspect to my negative outlook. I know that, to some extent, my negative worldview is an inherited belief, a kind of cultural tradition. My older brother once told me a story about a “philosophic” disagreement he had with one of his ex-partners. She complained to him that he always insisted on seeing the dark side of every situation, and that bothered her because it made everything more difficult and depressing, with him always thinking about what could go wrong. “Life is much happier,” she told him, “if you just believe that everything will come out right.” 

My brother acknowledged that it was generally easier to go on that way, but he argued that there was a virtue to pessimism: “When you worry about the bad things that can happen, you are emotionally and mentally prepared to deal with problems when they occur. “

I’m telling this reported story to show you that my negativity isn’t just me -- it’s a kind of family philosophy. Other families have grand and noble traditions, but mine has an aged and cultivated negative outlook. I have heard from other in-laws felt like our family was always depressed, and some have blamed it on our father, who, someone said, “always insisted on overthinking things.” Frankly, I don’t remember my father as being depressive or even much of a worrier – but he was a college professor and a critical thinker. (He was kind of a man’s man, and believed in living with a certain amount of bold dignity and courage. He didn’t appreciate children who cried and complained.) If you are not much of a thinker, I can see why this is both annoying and “depressing.” It’s hard to think, and it prevents a certain amount of simple enjoyment of things from occurring – thinking too much ruins the experience of blissful ignorance.

But beyond my family history, this is actually a familiar cultural debate in America, from the snarky cynicism of Mark Twain to the “sunny optimism” of Ronald Reagan and the triumphalist wing of the Republican party. The most familiar trope in the argument is the “glass half-full, glass half-empty” dichotomy, which most commonly is used to condemn “half-empty” people who see things that could be seen as normal (or even “pretty great,” if you want to be positive and “overlook the negative”) as being “awful.” With it comes a kind of religious belief that if you just believe that things will turn out well, the force of your positive will (notice how the belief in a friendly, “personal savior” God jives with the narcissistic positivism I talked about earlier) will make everything right. Debbie Downers who don’t have a sunny, positive attitude are naturally bound to fail, this credo says.  

While there is a standard religious trope that this comes from, it’s deeply embedded in American popular culture and pop-psychology, as one can see in the best selling books “The Power of Positive Thinking” and “The Secret,” which both argue mystically that you can make the world turn out right by willing it so.  This “productive positivism” is a philosophy most enthusiastically embraced by people who somehow happen to have already succeeded, of course.  People who follow this philosophy and then don’t succeed… well, they either become bitter failures or they become people who don’t care because are grateful for whatever they are left with. Positivists who have been successful tend to see those who don’t succeed as “losers” who have failed because of some inner flaw, such as a insufficient positive effort or lack of “a can-do attitude.” It’s much the same thing as the way a more religious people used to think that bad things happened to people because of their lack of faith or inner sinful failings.

I guess I’m inclined to believe that there is a lot of Pollyanna or nitwit in people who think that their rose-colored glasses view of the world will get them through life. As someone who has been trained as a humanist to try to understand the world, I think, in fact, that this attitude is dangerously cavalier.  But I also must admit that there are some undeniable positive features to it. People who believe in the power of a positive attitude are self-confident (they lack self-doubt), bold (not timid or fearful),  assertive and risk-taking (not uncertain and risk-adverse) and generally poised (not tentative, overly careful and awkward). When what they are doing happens to be on the correct/successful path, they seem accomplished and brilliant.  Positivity is a life force.

But a blunt one.  As a negativist (such as myself) would note,  so much of this really depends on actually being right, and just believing that you are doesn’t really make that so. Positive confidence is over-confidence when you are doing the wrong thing, and the positive assertion of positiveness in those circumstances is what we call “arrogance.” It’s the natural attitude of winners, and to non-winners (and the people who love them) it can seem pretty ugly. Um,  like the way the Republican party’s arrogance about its own “rightness” now is beginning to seem.

But to turn this issue over yet again, it’s really not just about winners and losers and a choice of being with one camp or the other – there’s an obvious continuum of attitudes here.  On one extreme end, you have people who are so traumatized and crippled by anxiety, by the fear that something catastrophic might happen that they can hardly do anything but tremble, cry and complain. On the other end, you have people who are insanely so self-confident of the rightness of their own path and of making a positive outcome happen for themselves that they are dangerously narcissistic, or even, perhaps sociopathic.  (Does this seem to you like anybody you have observed recently?) They are charging bulls and you had best get out of their way. (One old alpha male boss of mine loved the phrase “you are either part of the steamroller or you are part of the road.”)  Most “functioning” people are probably somewhere in the middle, with enough positive energy to get out of bed in the morning and energetically take on the day’s tasks with some hope of success, but also enough fear of some of the serious things that might go wrong as to be appropriately cautious… about the right things.

Caution… about the right things.  Therein lies the rub, right? What are the right things to be afraid of? Bad drivers? Back-stabbing bosses? Thieving neighbors? Ebola and Zika? The national debt? A domineering government? Bad schools? Violent police or husbands or boy friends? Other people’s dangerous sexual proclivities? North Korea? Iran? Israel? Russia? In one light or other, these are all dangerous to someone, and ignoring any of these (according to a person who is wary of the particular issue) is to indulge in delusion. But you can’t be afraid of everything (without spending life trembling in your closet), so you have to pick the things you are going to be deluded about, and the things you are going to be concerned about.

If you have read any other pieces in this series of essays, you know that among my central concerns are delusion, narcissism, and the relationship between these two. And yes, in case you missed it, I am labeling positivism as a kind of delusion, albeit a helpful or necessary one sometimes. It’s the delusion that the various threats and problems and difficulties of life are not going to affect you, so charge on ahead. And as I’ve also just said, extreme positivism leads to a kind of dangerous narcissism. If you don’t see anything as actually bad unless it is clearly and absolutely bad for you… well, we don’t want to play any games together that involve trust – and possible lying or cheating involving large sums of money, loaded guns or vials of poison, all of which could, uh,  help you achieve your positive goals. You get the fortune, others die horribly, but it’s all good in the end, right? Narcissists, as we see in business and in politics tend to come out on top because they are able to take shortcuts in the twisting racetrack of life.

One might argue that we have a candidate for president now who is just like that. He’s going to make everything great, just great. How?  Trust him. Oh, um, okay…

But, as we know from the Republican primary,  a lot of people recognize the attitude here and approve. Modern life, with its unspeakable complexity and constant stress and conflict encourages narcissism. The seemingly best way in a complex shifting landscape is to shorten your focus to what you truly know – yourself – and “go with your gut”  or … “tell it like it is.”  Shakespeare offers this immortal advice, which modern society is much taken with: “To thy own self be true”… The thing is, though, that most people miss the fact that the Bard puts this spiritual slogan in the mouth of the foolish, deluded, pompous Polonius, who is lost completely in the shifting illusory landscape of “Hamlet” and who is finally killed by the prince, in the confusion of the political palace mess. But Polonius is always a positive guy, and this kind of positive self-help thinking seemed to work for him… until it didn’t. Today, he could be The Donald’s campaign manager – you know, the one Trump just summarily fired because the shelf-life of his pro-Trump positivity had run out.

So we’ve come back to the dog-walking argument about Trump. I have several friends who are appalled and disgusted by the current election campaign to the point of wanting to turn it all off and walk away – they frequently refer to it as #worstelectionever. What has been going on is disturbing, and I get where they are coming from. They are, of course,  turned off by Trump and his appeals to racism, fear and hatred, his outright lying, his exhortations to violence, torture and uncivilized behavior… but they are also lately (and increasingly) turned off by Clinton as well and her negative campaign focus. Why can’t she just say nice things about her positive plans for the future…  while her opponent keeps just asserting over and over again that she is “crooked Hillary,” not offering evidence but citing delusionary conspiracy theories and then lying fantastically about his own effort and everything else. Don’t be so negative, Hillary! Nobody likes a nattering nabob of negativity!

So, friends, here we are again, turning away from all things bad, even when they are, perhaps, actually evil… and condemning those who protest and point us at them. As the old saying goes, “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

So, I’m a negativist and sometimes -- particularly at this peculiar moment in time -- I think it is important to point out that things are going wrong, particularly when the are going so horribly, horribly wrong. If it feels unpleasant to you, that’s because it is. Sometimes you just have to accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive.

Now back to your regular programming.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 11

11: Apocalypse

Following Orlando.

“Jo, get up,” pleaded Cox’s assistant, Fazila Aswat, as the politician lay dying. “No, my pain is too much,” Cox replied, her last words.

-- from a New York Times column by Roger Cohen about the assassination of MP Jo Cox and the possibility of the Brexit vote passing

It’s the first day of summer, a beautiful blue, refreshing Carolina day with warm but pleasant temperatures, following an unusually hot late spring. The first tomatoes and peppers are in in the garden, the daylilies and phlox and beebalm and blackeyed susans are in full bloom, as the fragrant oriental lilies, with their huge flowers, begin to open. It’s the green promise of life we get given every year, whether we deserve it or not.

… So, life is good. Then why o why am I feeling so morose and grumpy? It’s a bit like I’m seeing the world through heavily tinted glasses and I feel tired, not refreshed. My symptoms are the classic signs of depression, I know, but I also know I’m generally not prone to depression and nothing particularly horrible is happening in my personal life to bring it on.

I could blame all this on current events, I guess. It’s a week after the horrible massacre in Orlando, and just past the anniversary of the equally senseless killings in Charleston… each committed by an unhappy and disturbed and murderously angry guy… each citing some vague, wacko political excuse, but clearly each just another lost and confused and dangerous young man. The lost-confused-angry-dangerous young man is a species we now see are all over the landscape out there, like volcanic geysers, waiting to blow. 

The killings bring with them a kind of deadening feeling of futility, as public reaction inevitably gravitates to common hot-button anger topics – ISIS! Islamic extremism! Homophobia! Racism! Mental illness! Godlessness! – and, for the umpteenth time to calls for laws to prevent disturbed people from getting weapons of mass destruction… and, simultaneously, for angry opposing arguments by heavy-weaponry-obsessed gun fanatics, who, it seems, will lose all will to live unless they can stock their homes like military armories. Locked in place in this irrational policy battle, we all know nothing will change.

Then there’s the currently presidential campaign, which a severely disillusioned friend of mine keeps referring to as “the worst election ever.” I’m a democrat and don’t think that Hillary is so bad, but I acknowledge that many, many people out there dislike her with an intensity that makes the word “loathing” seem mild. I’m not completely sure why this is – a bad memory of the Bill Clinton years, perhaps, when things got creepy and selfish in this country, or a subliminal reaction to seeing a strong, ambitious woman, or simply disgust with the political class, which she definitely belongs to… for me, the foaming-at-the mouth angry reaction of people to her is even more disturbing than some of these dark echoes in the candidate. And then there is Trump.

Trump, of course, is a disturbing topic and an essay in himself, but let me say briefly that he is a shock to my sensibility, as he is to the sensibilities of so many others, in that he seems to be a complete violation of what we might call "our American ideals” -- the bedrock rules of our country’s established political culture and of public decency and discourse. While people on the right might believe, as Barry Goldwater once said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” (meaning that a certain amount of totalitarian behavior is allowable in pursuing conservative ideological principles), this guy is ugly, mean, childish, a foul-mouthed bully, an open racist, an open xenophobe, an inciter of mob violence… all in the service of nothing more than his own monstrous ego, a near satanic triumph of public narcissism that offends huge chunks of people from both sides of the political spectrum. Comparisons have been drawn to Hitler, history’s quintessential mad, monstrous leader, and, while that is perhaps still an offensive overstatement, the clear parallels are there. It hardly seems possible to imagine that someone like this could be the nominee of one of the major political parties in this country – he’s so surreal that it feels like a bad dream.

But what I (and almost everyone I know) really am disturbed by most is the fact that approximately a fifth of the country are people who are so ignorant or ugly themselves that they like this thug, and that fully a third of the country are so politically callous that they might be willing to vote for him if he just mumbles the right political doctrine. These people are all around me -- neighbors, even friends -- and the thought that they are okay with social evil and political tyranny is, well, deeply depressing.

But, in the end, I guess I’m forced to conclude that Trump and other political nightmares roaming the countryside are themselves just symptoms (rather than causes) of an overwhelming cultural ennui, as the French would call it (it’s perhaps close to what the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called “la nausee” – nausea, a kind of existential panic), that everyone seems to be feeling. Gloom, unease and discontent seem to be in the water.

Okay, we're blue. But why? And so what?

A diversion into fantasy.

As I said, it’s summer, sweet summer, and I, like many other people I know, take the time to indulge in fun, light, entertaining “beach reading.” My particular summer genre is science fiction-fantasy-horror and there are always a couple of the “usual suspects” blockbusters out there for me to read. This year, I got the new Joe Hill ( a horror/fantasy writer who happens to be Stephen King’s son) novel “The Fireman” and Justin Cronin’s “The City of Mirrors,” the last in his vampire-novel “Passage” trilogy. I finished the first and was about a fifth through the second, when suddenly I realized that the novels were very similar – they are both apocalyptic global plague novels. I guess I have a fondness for this kind of stuff, but the more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that a huge chunk of sci-fy/fantasy literature these days are apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) novels. Zombie apocalypse – need I say anything more? It seems that when our imaginations turn to the future, that’s what it sees, not flying cars and miraculous brave new worlds. And in adolescent lit it’s the same thing – there is a whole new genre, in fact, of what is called “dystopian fiction” (“The Hunger Games,” “The Fifth Wave,” even -- in some ways -- the “Twilight” novels), in which plucky teens rebel against the monstrous new order that they have been born into.

So this is the fantasy that we indulge in – the world is falling apart and we are all, more or less, horribly screwed! Everything ends, badly and irrevocably -- what larks! Why so glum, America? We can't say it's Trump, or even modern dysfunctional politics, because this trend in our imaginative life well preceded all of that. "The Road," "The Stand," "Mad Max," "Waterworld" (okay, now I'm getting too dark… sorry)… bleak visions that proceed The Donald and government shutdowns.

Since I’ve been struggling to understand my own odd malaise, I’ve been considering larger answers. Yes, I’m equating a negative view of life with a negative imagination and negative future outlook and basically saying it’s somehow the same thing as feeling depressed. I know these are all apples and oranges and bananas and that I’m oversimplifying, but I also know that on a fundamental level, it's all the same when things are going rotten: it’s black fruit of the poisoned tree.

With that in mind, one of the first things I began to consider when I tried to find the root of my feelings was something basic and banal – my own physical condition. I’m approaching (if I haven’t already reached) senior citizen status and old people have what society used to call (for a reason) “complaints.” Since turning 60 a year ago, I’ve been afflicted by a number – hands and feet that ache with arthritis (or so the doctor thinks), pronounced stiffness in the joints and lack of flexibility, some memory loss (no, I’m not worried about Alzheimer’s – this is pretty typical for someone my age), some noticeable loss of strength, some sleep problems, including early morning wakefulness and mid-day sleepiness, etc., etc. Yes, I do exercise daily and try to eat right – though I’m overweight – but, contrary to the modern health myths, you can’t get older without feeling older. We are all mortal, and the body ages, some bodies faster than others. I guess I’m both a realist and a pessimist on this (more on pessimism later), but I’ve accepted my own physical decline, and I’m here to tell you that acceptance may feel honest, but it still sucks and does very little to make you feel better. When you reach the age where things hurt pretty constantly, you are constantly reminded that (1) they didn’t use to hurt that way and (2) there is no turning back. That, my friends, is depressing. This is why old people are commonly characterized as grumpy and cranky (guilty on all counts!).

So that’s part of what is making me see the world as wrecked/bad/falling apart/coming to the end, but what about everyone else? Well, I’m a Baby Boomer, and it bears remembering that my generation, by virtue of its size, has always had an unfortunately outsize influence on our culture… and we are all feeling pretty old (I’m actually one of the younger boomers). This is why you have to sit through all those Viagra/Cialis, constipation, irritable bowel, cancer therapy (etc., etc.) drug commercials on TV – we boomers are legion, and all we are thinking about are all our physical complaints, and wishing that there was a magic pill to cure them. It doesn’t help that my generation was once dubbed “the young generation” (“Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!”). Somehow, many of us got conned into thinking it would always be that way. Bummer, man, bummer.

Neil Young, also old.
Keith Richards

So the aging of things, specifically the aging of our personal things is a large-scale negative influence that is shading our whole society. And it’s not just our bodies. It’s hardly a revelation to say that our country, both in terms of its economic health and in terms of power and global authority, is aging too. As has been said by many, we’re at the tail end of our empire, our century of glory, our Pax Americana and that is upsetting for the whole country, since we have all only known nothing but the glories of empire. Our national mythology is full of “America the Beautiful” with waves of golden grain and fruitful plains, with alabaster cities gleaming, with truth and brotherhood from sea to shining sea, and mainly with fairly non-stop growth, prosperity and expansion. As we all learned in school, this was fueled first by the open and seemingly endless frontier, “left” to us by Native Americans vanquished by disease and gun (and, yes, made affordable and profitable by slavery and cheap immigrant labor). Once that began to close, we had world war, which left us largely untouched and also militarily triumphant – in many ways, we owned the world and got to keep expanding into it.

But all things must end, and global development (which still enriches us) and globalism (which enriches only a few of us) has now brought us to the stage where the fat, easy days of empire and dominance are ending. Trump may claim that he is going to “make America great again,” but even his most gullible followers know that this isn’t really going to be so (though they like his attitude). The age of lucky, arrogant, selfish, bullying "great" is, inevitably, passing.

It’s worth noting that the passing of empires is rarely happy news for anyone. The passing of the Roman Empire led to centuries of feudal darkness, disease and violence. The slow passing of the Islamic Empire led to the colonization of it’s lands and the lasting humiliation of its peoples and contributed to the chaos that began the first world war. The collapse of the colonial empires (particularly the British Empire) led directly to the horror of the world wars and the fear of the Cold War that followed. When empires die, the world has to shift and re-arrange, and that that transition is rarely smooth and peaceful. It's the recurring historical point that Yeats talks about in "The Second Coming" where "the falcon cannot hear the falconer" and "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed." This is all dark, hysterical-sounding doom talk, of course, the stuff of poetry, not of everyday life, but it’s also something we all fear is true.

It’s really just change, of course, and change is and always has been a constant feature of reality. But it’s also change in just one direction – aging – and we all know what that leads to. No wonder, I guess, that I am depressed, that the country is depressed, that everything is going haywire and falling apart. It’s not like this feeling is sudden or new either, because we have been building up to it. To go back to thinking about all those dystopian novels our young people are reading, it bears reminding that they are not altogether new. In my youth we already had “1984” and “Brave New World” and “The Time Machine” and then “Lord of the Flies” and “A Clockwork Orange” (“hello darkness, my old friend!”). While we still thought dreamily about “explor(ing) new worlds and new civilizations” and “boldly go(ing) where no man has gone before,” we were also beginning to sense that it might not go so well, and there was a slowly creeping feeling of gloom.

So, summer. All sing cuckoo!

One of my favorite songs from the young, folky, early hippy era of my youth (which, yes, was full of flower children and peaceful protest, but was also in the constant shadow of The Bomb) was a song by Richard Farina (a local favorite in my hometown), “Children of Darkness”:

Now is the time for your loving, dear
And the time for your company
Now when the light of reason fails
And fires burn on the sea
Now in this age of confusion
I have need for your company

For I am a wild and a lonely child
And the son of an angry man
And now with the high wars raging
I would offer you my hand
For we are the children of darkness
And the prey of a foul command

It's once I was free to go roaming in
The wind of the springtime mind
And once the clouds I sailed upon
Were sweet as lilac wine
Then why have the breezes of summer, dear
Been laced with a grim design?

The song and the feeling have always haunted me. So, this takes me back to where I began, wondering “why have the breezes of summer… been laced with a grim design?” Farina, like the rest of the generation of my youth, was of course staring into the black maw of Vietnam and, as we all know (and Neil Young sings) this dreadful, nihilistic war “did slowly go by.”

So, I fervently hope, this too shall pass. But first we have to get by Trump -- our own “Apocalypse Now.” Good luck, my fellow Children of Darkness… And snap out of your self pity -- there are still wars to fight.