Friday, February 21, 2014

The Miracle of '64

There was so much hype for so long about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first trip to America and first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, that I missed the actual anniversary days. The first Sullivan show was February 9, 1964.

 Though I saw that Sullivan show and liked them well enough, I personally didn't have my Beatles satori moment until 1965, when I sat in a near-empty movie theater in Manhattan (behind either Bob Dylan or one of many lookalikes) and watched their second film, Help! Now I still score pretty high on the Beatles quizzes that were floating around this month.

 But I did read the January Rolling Stone cover story, and learned that I wasn't alone in missing the Beatles significance--neither did his record company. (Of course, I was in high school and they weren't.) Here's a few key graphs from that story (this is the link but not all of it is online.)

 The story quotes Jonathan Gould in the book Can't Buy Me Love concerning the clueless executives of Capitol Records, who owned the U.S. rights to release Beatles records but didn't think it was worth their while. Then one of their executives read an article in Variety:

 "...Variety reported that the Beatles' most recent single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand," had become the first British record to sell a million copies before its release. The band's previous single, "She Loves You"--which had been rejected by Dexter on behalf of Capitol--had also surpassed a million sales, and the group's second album, With the Beatles, sold 500,000 copies a week after its release.

 'This meant,' writes Gould, 'that in a market one-third the size of the United States, the Beatles had released as many million-selling singles in 1963 as the entire American recording industry.'" 

 So Capitol decided to release some Beatles tunes, but in due time. But people took matters into their own hands. From the RS story (by Mikal Gilmore):

 "On December 10th, Marsha Albert, a 15-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, saw a rebroadcast of the CBS Morning News report from November 22nd disparaging the Beatles and the frenzy they inspired in England. Albert wanted to hear more of the music. She wrote to a local station, WWDC; the disc jockey there, Carroll James, located a flight attendant for a British airline, who brought a copy of the 45 rpm "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on her flight to Washington, D.C.

 After the record arrived, James invited Albert to WWDC's studio. In the early evening of December 17th, Albert announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in America, here are the Beat­les, singing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand.' " "The switchboard just went totally wild," James later told Bob Spitz in The Beat­les: The Biography. Callers – apparently not all of them teenagers, since WWDC was an MOR station – wanted to hear the song again, and again."

 And 50 years later, again and again.

The Beatles were a phenomenon throughout 1963 in the UK but America discovered them just over two months after the unspeakable trauma of the assassination of President Kennedy, who symbolized hope and the future.  The Beatles did not replace that exactly.  But they did offer another kind of hope for a future with a different kind of joy in it.  Especially for those who were young then--the early and middle boomers--it was a Way.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Our Icons and Their Stories

In the 1960s it was becoming clear that pop culture was becoming American culture.  By now that seems perfectly normal.  The media covers pop music and movie stars as our royalty, television shows and movies like the latest artistic and cultural events.  Scholars study Beatles lyrics and Doctor Who scripts.  The new myths of gods, goddesses and heroes are the scifi and superhero sagas.  But that didn't seriously begin to dominate until the 60s.

Early boomers will remember the roots of this change in the 50s and 60s, especially as icons of those decades and earlier reemerge in the news one last time.

The death of Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers reminds us that aspects of pop culture are really refinements of folk culture.  I've just been rereading William Eastlake's early novels and came upon this sentence: "The secret in creating anything new seems to lie in borrowing all you see and hear about you and adding one small touch."

That's often true in music particularly. Linda Ronstadt and Paul Simon talked about the Everly Brothers both in terms of the music they transformed and their effect on the music that followed theirs (like Simon & Garfunkel.)  (Ronstadt was even better in this Time Magazine piece, which requires registration.)

Adapting folk culture in a different way is seen in the life of Pete Seeger.  He only slightly changed folk songs (though his strengthening of the lyrics of "We Shall Overcome" helped it become immortal) but he applied them to contemporary issues with roots in the past, such as civil rights, an end to war and preserving the natural environment.  Here's Josh Marshall's remembrance, one by Bruce Springsteen,

To put it another way, as Marshall McLuhan did, each new medium (or form) at first adopts a previous medium as its content.  So we've seen in our early boomer lifetimes how television took program models from radio and movies, which had earlier adapted them from the stage.  As this essay says, the now classic early TV comedians brought sketches and approaches they adapted from vaudeville.  This was true of one of the great TV comedians and comic actors of the 1950s who died recently, Sid Caesar.  Here's more of what I've written on him and his innovations and contributions.

The death of actor Ralph Waite is an occasion to recall how deeply and for a long time he has been part of establishing a cultural image, first as the young father on The Waltons and most recently as a father and grandfather figure on the TV series NCIS and Bones.  I will also remember him for a little known but culturally evocative fantasy film about JFK called Timequest.   Here's a biographical obit.


Finally, the little girl who helped a country and a culture through the dark days of the Depression has passed away.  One of Shirley Temple's proudest moments was that in one of those movies, she held the hand of the immortal dancer Bill Robinson--perhaps the first time a white female had touched a black male on the silver screen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day Everything Changed


When President John F. Kennedy was murdered on November 23, 1963, the course of the future changed in the U.S. and around the world. Fifty years later, that's clearer than ever. On that day I felt that the course of my life would change, and fifty years later, with that course nearly run, it is a certainty. It was the day that everything changed for me. My life would perhaps not even resemble what it is today had President Kennedy lived and completed his second term. Not just because of him but because of what he would have done and not done, as opposed to what others did and did not do.

 I've avoided nearly everything on the Internet about this anniversary, and absolutely everything on TV (since I don't have it to watch.) I have video from that past, but I haven't watched that either. I've confined myself to two new books--two of the many published this year, and the tens of thousands published over the years about JFK.

 JFK's Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke ( Penguin Press) is a day by day review of those 100 days in 1963, with lots of background from earlier years. Clarke makes good and careful use of what's been published over the years, by historians, journalists and a lot of participants in the Kennedy administration. He's used the archival material that's been gradually released by the Kennedy Library. He integrates the most credible of the revelations about JFK's dalliances and his medical history. So for someone who hasn't trusted much or read much about JFK since the first generation of biographies, this book turned out to be the right book to read.

 The second book is If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam), an alternate history built on the premise that President Kennedy did not die on this day fifty years ago. However it is basically built on historical fact, and much of it is about pre-11/22/63. These parts of the book match Clarke's book almost exactly. There are a few pages based on recorded conversations that are nearly identical.

 Clarke's premises is that,even though JFK's own excesses always threatened to catch up with him, 1963 was the height of Kennedy's presidency, and probably the best year of his marriage and fatherhood. He was looked forward to running for his second term, and had found his main themes. On a speaking tour in the west ostensibly about conservation, he found that whenever he mentioned the nuclear test ban treaty and the need to end the arms race, he got a huge response. The pursuit of peace was going to be one major theme.

 The second was a national effort to address the problem of poverty. He'd proposed a tax cut and other measures to help the middle class and the economy in general, he was committed to civil rights (especially the voting rights act) but poverty was going to be a new focus.

 Clarke chronicles the painful dance that Vietnam policy had become, but he is certain--as most in the position to know were certain--that in his second term Kennedy intended to end American military involvement in Vietnam.

 None of this surprises me, nor would any of it had surprised me on November 23, 1963. I learned that he'd been shot by a p.a. announcement from our high school principal. Then I had gym class outside. I learned that he was dead from a boy coming down the stairs to the locker room as I walked up. Hours later I was walking home with three friends, two of whom remain just about my only friends from high school. Clayton and I usually walked across the fields from Central to Carbon Road, where he would go down towards his grandmother's house and I would go up and across to my house. Johnny V. was with us that day--he lived on the street above mine. And as it happened, my debate partner Mike and I had previously arranged to work on our debate case, so he was coming home with me rather than taking a school bus to Latrobe where he lived.

 As we walked and talked we could not believe it was even possible that Lyndon Johnson could be President of the United States. That turns out to be the Kennedys' view as well. JFK is quoted in both of these books as believing LBJ would be a disaster. In our shock, and forgetting all constitutional provisions, we speculated on how Bobby Kennedy could take over for his brother. Surely that's what voters wanted.

 Everything changed in America because of the assassination itself. For me, it was the first significant death I had experienced. There hadn't yet been one in my family. But beyond the losses that arguably changed the psyche of the country, I saw a major focus of my life begin to fade.

 In my own very small way I had organized classmates and worked on the Kennedy campaign in the 1960 election. I got myself to Washington for the Inaugural and through luck and pluck managed to be one of the first ordinary citizens to shake President Kennedy's hand, two days after he became President. By 1963 I had already participated in another campaign and had very interested contacts in the local Democratic party and the still powerful unions. I was writing on world affairs (and from a very Kennedy perspective) for the school newspaper. I followed every scrap of news in print and on TV I could about the administration, wrote letters to officials and generally felt I was practically part of the Kennedy administration.

Though I tried to continue the Kennedy legacy and remain involved in politics, even working for LBJ's campaign against Goldwater in 1964, that first impulse on November 22, 1963 gradually came true. Without JFK's judgment, without his ability to communicate, without his style, things fell apart. And everything else began to change.


On the morning of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, it rained. But by the time President Kennedy got in his car for his motorcade, the sun was shining.

 Greenfield's story begins with one small change: the rain continues. Because of the rain, the plexiglass bubble top is attached to the presidential limo, so it is no longer an open car. So when the motorcade slows down to make a turn off Dealy Plaza, a gunshot shatters the plexiglass and wounds the President. But he survives.

 In this story, President Kennedy is re-elected, and much of what Clarke's book suggests would happen does happen. The voting rights act, medical care for the aged (Medicare) pass, JFK makes further agreements on nuclear arms with the Soviets as well as selling grain to them (and in the process keeps Khrushchev in power), he begins the process of resuming relations with Cuba, and relations with (Red) China. And above all, he does not commit ground troops to Vietnam. There is no Vietnam war.

 But where Greenfield's book is best is in suggesting the ramifications of these policies, and of the difference it would have made with Kennedy in office when various cultural changes occur (as represented by the Beatles, Tom Hayden, Gloria Steinem, etc.) There would be an Students for a Democratic Society, campus protests, etc. But they would not be so violent in any sense. Young people would join SDS and go South for Freedom Summer. But they would also join JFK's domestic Peace Corps, in droves. Politics and government as public service was a Kennedy tenet, and one he wanted to emphasize in his second term. But LBJ destroyed that, temporarily for some, pretty much permanently for me.

 The Vietnam war, more than any single factor, deformed my life and in various ways and to various extents changed the lives of my friends and contemporaries. Vietnam plus LBJ plus the draft gave the 60s the edge of anger, desperation, despair.

 There were right wing crazies in the early 60s, saying about JFK pretty much what they say about Obama. But they were marginal. There were dangerous currents in the U.S. reacting to racial issues, but JFK was a quick study, and in 1963 he was aware of the new realities of the inner cities and suburbia. There was press horseshit then as now, but despite political dangers (JFK knew the South was lost for a long time because of his support of Civil Rights) the arc of history was strongly progressive. With a different 60s, there very well might have been a very different 70s, 80s and 90s. And a quite different 21st century so far.

 There's so much about why JFK could have been especially effective in a second term (while neither Clarke nor Greenfield expect he would have piled up the electoral votes that LBJ did against Goldwater in 1964, they agree that JFK would have won comfortably against Goldwater, and brought with him a Democratic congressional majority) that is hard to explain without knowing how different a time it was (though Clarke's book does a pretty good job of this.) But that's precisely the point: he was right for the times.

 As things turn out, I find myself in no position to be heard even if I tried to explain this. But I was there, and I know it. It was the turning point of my times and of my life.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

An Altered State: My March on Washington (50 Years Later)


I was 17 and a Catholic high school student when I participated in what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. I  heard my own beliefs expressed by President Kennedy in his television address that June: “We are confronted primarily by a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

 In the weekly newspaper for the Greensburg diocese, the Catholic Accent, I read about an organization called the Catholic Interracial Council that was inviting people to go to the March. I contacted the priest who was named, who talked to my parents. He must have been convincing because I got permission to go. But I got my first indication of just how small this group was going to be when I attended a meeting, and it was two priests—and me. A photographer from the Catholic Accent snapped our picture as I pretended to paint the already completed banner we would carry.

 As it turned out, we were the only three people from the diocese to march under that banner. We would meet many other people from the Pittsburgh area, organized by religious groups of various denominations as well as by labor unions and civil rights groups. Many traveled to the March from all over the country by bus, and a few by plane, including celebrities from Hollywood and legendary entertainer Josephine Baker from Paris. I boarded a special train from Pittsburgh, one of the twenty or so originating from various places that were added to take people to the March.

 Recently reviewing video from that day posted on YouTube, I was amazed to see a few frames of my 17 year-old self arriving at Washington’s Union Station, walking towards the camera and trying to look appropriately serious, in my dark suit, white shirt and tie. (I'm on the far right at 11:32 or so.)

 I also looked alert. Vigilance to the possibility of violence was universal that day. From police commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, to the murder of Medgar Evers outside his home in Mississippi, it had been a brutal summer in the South. It’s been estimated that over 14,000 demonstrators across the South (including high school students) were arrested during those months, with at least one death.  But the March was very well organized along principles of non-violence.  It was the template used for demonstrations afterwards.

 When I got home I wrote of the “dedicated and dignified fervor” around me at the march. But high spirits were also part of that day’s rhythm. From Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial there was always singing. For me it started even earlier, when I restlessly explored the train, wandering through one quiet car after another until I suddenly pushed open a heavy door to a car literally packed to the rafters with young people. Some were perched in the luggage racks. Several at the far end of the car were playing guitars, and everyone was singing.

 The march itself was like one long song. It is more powerful in my memory than the hours of speeches at the reflecting pool. Looking into the faces of the people nearest me, and all of us looking around, my feelings became a reflection of what we felt in common. We were astonished by our numbers, by the fact of us all there, of the reality that was completely new. The overwhelming mood was wonder. It was a sustained altered state, a living dream.

 We had a sense of unanticipated numbers on the march, but the dimensions of the day weren’t clear until we got to the reflecting pool. So many people (since settled at 250,000, the largest demonstration in U.S. history to that date) and yet the transfixing feeling of peace—I don’t think anyone had foreseen this.

 I saw the joy and wonder and the tears as black people of different ages and from different parts of the country saw each other there. I was also aware that in this context they could see a young white face undistorted by hate or contempt.

 We’d marched and sung together, but even as an audience for the program at the Lincoln Memorial, the interactions didn’t stop-- interactions that in the mid-1960s were still rare. Now we stood in line together at portable water fountains and toilets. We bunched and sprawled on the grass together, sweating under the same steamy sun, both drowsy and responsive to the inspiring words and music coming through the not always comprehensible fuzz of the sound system. We felt careful courtesy becoming a release into a common regard. We looked at each other.

 We listened to Dr. Martin Luther King together, quoting an American hymn—“From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” We heard his American litany reach its crescendo: “Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!...Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!”

 “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring... from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"

 He spoke of a dream that he saw reflected in the water in front of him.

 The official intent of the March was to support passage of the Civil Rights bill that President Kennedy sent to Congress a few days after his June speech. Immediately afterwards I recall commentary in the press calling it a failure because that bill was stalled in Congress (it would pass in early 1964.) Today the march is better remembered than the political reason for it.

 Race has still not been erased as deep separation, nor has full racial justice been achieved. But fifty years after that day, my memories aren’t of politics or even history. They are physical. They are of a future glimpsed by being lived.

Fifty years later President Obama called this day "as important as any day in American history."  In his speech at the Lincoln Memorial he carried the theme sounded by Martin Luther King--of no one being free unless all are free--into the present and the future:

Because they marched, America became more free and more fair -- not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid."

"But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago."


 "That’s where courage comes from -- when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from.   And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on Earth for every person. With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit, and prepares them for the world that awaits them. 

 With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise. America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That's how when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we’re marching." 

 "There’s a reason why so many who marched that day, and in the days to come, were young -- for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream differently, to imagine something better."

[More at Dreaming Up Daily, Blue Voice and Kowincidence.]

Monday, July 08, 2013

Rooms of Nostalgia

From a report in the New York Times on psychological research into the functions of nostalgia:

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future."

The research has been conducted over a number of years by Constantine Sedikides.   “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times..."  

Nostalgia has long been identified as an illness or more recently as a symptom of psychological problems, mostly depression.  But this research sees its compensatory and humanizing functions.

“The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America,” Dr. Wildschut says. The topics are universal — reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.

Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. These reported bouts are often touched off by negative events and feelings of loneliness, but people say the “nostalgizing” — researchers distinguish it from reminiscing — helps them feel better. 

A couple of fascinating findings, though not counterintuitive ones: Nostalgia is often sparked by music--the old songs bring it back.  And people "nostalgize" (yes, they wouldn't get any grants if they didn't make up an important sounding word) more on cold days or in cold rooms, and the memories give them a physical feeling of warmth.  They don't feel the cold so much.

The usefulness of nostalgia seems to vary with age, according to Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England. She and her colleagues have found that nostalgia levels tend to be high among young adults, then dip in middle age and rise again during old age.

“Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Hepper says. “The young adults are just moving away from home and or starting their first jobs, so they fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.” 


There are dangers, which have prompted the dour diagnosis of indulging in nostalgia:

Of course, memories can also be depressing. Some researchers in the 1970s and ’80s suggested that nostalgia could worsen a problem that psychologists call self-discontinuity, which is nicely defined in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” by Stephen Stills: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.” This sense of loss and dislocation has repeatedly been linked to both physical and mental ills.

But the feeling of discontinuity doesn’t seem to be a typical result of nostalgia, according to recent studies. In fact, people tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity if they nostalgize more frequently...

This research stumbles for me where it usually does: in the dubious details of the actual studies.  I'm not sure how they earn this unsurprising conclusion, but here it is:

Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” Dr. Routledge says. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.” 

"Nostalgia" means the yearning for a lost home.  What that means, and why the yearning, changes according to age and circumstances.  Sedikides suggests that taking the "those were the days" approach is not helpful to, for example, an old person nearing the end.  But it can be helpful in the final quest for a sense of meaning: "what has my life meant?"

But of course such research has to lead to a self-help plan.

Dr. Sedikides, now 54, still enjoys nostalgizing about Chapel Hill, although his range has expanded greatly over the past decade. He says that the years of research have inspired strategies for increasing nostalgia in his own life. One is to create more moments that will be memorable.

“I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. “We call this anticipatory nostalgia and have even started a line of relevant research.” 

He suggests "nostalgizing" two or three times a week.  So schedule that, won't you, along with your pilates, meditation and revising your life plan?  

Once again, the startling findings of psychology are anticipated by many centuries of literature, drama and music. In art, Magritte referred to the "nostalgia for the infinite" (title of the accompanying 1912 painting) that is part of the yearning expressed in a lot of visual art but also in the fascination with vastness and mysteries that leads people into fields like astrophysics and archeology.

  People in general already understood that they are nurtured by memories, find dimension to their lives in the past and in learning about ancestors, and that while even the best personal memories are bittersweet, they are important to who we are.  The dreamy, airy, watery imagery of nostalgia is part of what grounds us. 

We may be haunted by lost homes, but those emotions can be embraced as important parts of our selves. Older people tend to live in the past more, and that past continually expands--more information, texture, clearer memories, deepening memories and more images that feed one another--until the past assumes a bigger presence in the present.  It becomes much more of who we are.  Just as we keep and display photos etc. from our past or of our ancestors, the ever-changing and deepening feelings we get as we return to those   mysterious scenes become rooms in the homes we make each day of our present.

So it's not nostalgia exactly.  Because it's being welcomed back into our present lives, part of our totality again.  It's helping to furnish where we live now.   

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

RFK on The Future

On the 45th anniversary of his assassination, some words on the future, from speeches made at various times and places by Robert F. Kennedy.

 "The future is not a gift: it is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future. This is the essential challenge of the present."

 "The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of American society."

 "We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be enobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land."

 "If we fail to dare, if we do not try, the next generation will harvest the fruit of our indifference; a world we did not want - a world we did not choose - but a world we could have made better, by caring more for the results of our labors. And we shall be left only with the hollow apology of T.S. Eliot: 'That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all'."

Monday, March 04, 2013

Generations



This is one of the videos now on Youtube from a concert featuring James Taylor and his son, Ben Taylor.  The video quality isn't great but the sound is okay, and you certainly get the message.  This is the most fun of the ones I saw.  Ben's voice is so much like James it's almost scary.  But he says he's influenced by his mother, too, who happens to be Carly Simon.  James Taylor is an American Master, probably the best to come out of our 60s generation as a singer, guitarist and performer as well as songwriter.  It looks like another generation is going to get to hear his music live.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Start Making Sense

Through press secretary Jay Carney, the Obama administration today ruled out raising the eligibility age for Medicare.  It was proposed as a deficit-cutting measure.

Ezra Klein has a first take at the reasoning.  But he doesn't mention the most obvious argument against it, and it's me.  I've been paying into Medicare, not only the tax but direct payments because I am eligible for Medicare Part B, and had to sign up for it at 65 or deal with penalties later.  So I'm paying into it and so far haven't used it.

That's the logic of insurance.  Healthier members support it, and the younger members are more likely to be the healthier.  Raising the eligibility age would likely increase costs relative to money coming in.

Because everybody misses this--we PAY either directly or by a hit on Social Security checks for Medicare Part B, which is doctors.  That, plus fairly high deductibles, and this is no free ride.  Right now it's costing me what individual medical insurance cost me maybe 10 or 15 years ago.  Which is good, but it's not free. For me it is a major monthly expense.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Perspective

Conventional wisdom--what "everybody" believes--is a tricky thing.  When it involves assumptions based on experience, you have to ask, whose experience?  Who shares it?

I'm probably not the only early boomer to notice that "everybody" doesn't necessarily include those of us who had different formative experiences in our youth.  For instance, there's the perception that every American household has always had a handgun around.  It's a birthright.  Right?

I don't know if this is an age related thing, though I suspect it is.  I grew up in western Pennsylvania in the 1950s, and in my neighborhood, lots of fathers hunted.  We all knew when rabbit and pheasant and deer season were. You know, Deer Hunter country. So we saw hunting rifles.  The occasional shotgun.  The only handguns I ever saw were partially disassembled souvenirs from World War II.  Maybe it was the proximity of that war in time that helped make guns rare.  So the idea that houses on my street would be brimming with  assault rifles is as strange as if you told me our neighbors were extraterrestrials.  Stranger, actually.

But here's something I do know.  I heard Ezra Klein talking on MSNBC about the violence of pro football today, and the increasing evidence that it causes serious and permanent harm to players.  Klein, who is a young man, probably surprised viewers who see him as a numbers nerd with the information that he was a nose tackle in high school, and liked hitting people.  The big hits, he said, that's why we watch NFL football.

This is a popular view, especially among sportscasters.  But I did not grow up with that kind of football.  I did not see that kind of football in high school--and where and when I was, high school football was king.  It was way more important than college and pro football.  But even those games did not feature vicious hits.  They weren't rewarded, no one talked about them.  A player injured badly enough to stop play was rare, and a hush fell over the stadium.  It was a shame.  It wasn't football.

To this day I watch football for athletic plays, not big hits.  I watch less and less football, as games are more and more interrupted not only by blocks of commercials but of time spent watching players crowding around a teammate in pain, or watching him be carted off the field in a stretcher.

It doesn't have to be football.  The Constitution does not say everybody has to have a gun, and the biggest gun they can buy.  It wasn't that way, and therefore, it doesn't have to be that way.  Changing what's become a runaway insane gun culture, and a big money football culture, all very difficult perhaps.  But today's gun culture and today's football culture are not written in stone.    

Monday, November 05, 2012

A Vote for the Future



Older people often care passionately about the future, even if--and maybe especially if--it is not a future we are likely to share.  We care about the future of the children we love, and the young in general.  We care about legacy, about the world we will leave behind, and its future.

There are plenty of reasons why older Americans should vote in their own interests to reelect President Obama, and for Democratic candidates to the Senate and House.  Democrats created Social Security and Medicare, and especially these days, only they can be trusted to protect them.  As much as they try to obscure their positions now, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to end Medicare as we know it, and eventually privatize Social Security.  They also threaten Medicaid, which many older Americans will need for longterm care.  It is in our interests--and the interests of our families, we don't want to impoverish just to take care of us--to support these programs by voting for President Obama.

But we care about more than our own future.  Some look at the future of the country in financial terms.  Romney and Ryan say they worry about the burden of debt on future generations.  Yet their proposals only make that debt much larger.  They can't possibly admit the truth: that the federal deficit has been going down under President Obama, despite the Great Recession and the extraordinary programs needed to get America's economy re-started.

President Obama supports the kind of help for students of all ages to obtain the highest education they can, the kind of future-oriented industries particularly in energy, and other efforts to create a better future, with more opportunity.  For everyone, not just the wealthy and privileged.

He does not want to create social turmoil and individual pain by going back on America's promise of equal rights, of womens rights, of a sensible health care system. 

The future was much on the mind of the politically Independent Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, when he endorsed President Obama last week: 

When I step into the voting booth, I think about the world I want to leave my two daughters, and the values that are required to guide us there.

The two parties’ nominees for president offer different visions of where they want to lead America. One believes a woman’s right to choose should be protected for future generations; one does not.

That difference, given the likelihood of Supreme Court vacancies, weighs heavily on my decision. One recognizes marriage equality as consistent with America’s march of freedom; one does not. I want our president to be on the right side of history.

  One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.

Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both found success while their parties were out of power in Congress -- and President Obama can, too. If he listens to people on both sides of the aisle, and builds the trust of moderates, he can fulfill the hope he inspired four years ago and lead our country toward a better future for my children and yours. And that’s why I will be voting for him.


Monday, October 22, 2012

R.I. P. George McGovern

George McGovern died Sunday at the age of 90. I remain proud that my first vote for a presidential candidate was for him in 1972. I covered aspects of his campaign for the Boston Phoenix, and met him briefly. I've never seen as devastated an election night headquarters as I did in Boston that November, even though Massachusetts was the only state he won.

During that campaign I wrote about what reporters were digging up about Watergate, and about the Nixon administration which McGovern rightly called "the most corrupt in history." Not that anybody listened, until later when everyone was forced to listen. And so for years I proudly carried on my guitar case the bumper sticker, "Don't Blame Me, I'm From Massachusetts."

In his remembrance of George McGovern at Daily Kos, Meteor Blades (who is one of my touchstones for my generation) quoted this passage from McGovern's last book, which he published when nearing that age of 90:

"During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I've been labeled a 'bleeding-heart liberal.' It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society's ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction "Love the neighbor as thyself." —George S. McGovern, What It Means to Be a Democrat (2011)

This was his faith, the faith of a liberal. It's always seemed more than ironic to me that the original bleeding-heart liberal was Christ. That's the source of the phrase--it's the bleeding heart of Christ. George McGovern, a World War II bomber pilot from South Dakota, ran for president in 1972 to end the war in Vietnam. Because of the extent of his electoral loss, he became something of a disgraced figure. Yet he served honorably in the Senate--a stalwart public servant--for decades more. He continued to represent a flinty goodness--a faith in the better aspects of our nature, which don't really need or depend on the religious imagery. "You'd do the same for me" is a human faith, regardless of any injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself, which is psychologically dubious anyway.

  The other side of that leads to a vital sternness of principle. There is nothing mamby-pamby about this 1970 McGovern statement in support of his Senate amendment to end the war, which MB also quotes:

"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us."

Only Bobby Kennedy could have been so forthright and eloquent, and McGovern had been forced by his assassination to take up his banner. It was a terrible time. But his brave voice spoke for many in my generation, including me. And for that especially I remember him.  (Here's another summation of his career.)

Rest in peace, George McGovern.You led an honorable, thoughtful, courageous public life, and this country is better for your service.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Among the Forgotten


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It's not often that the decisions young men had to make in the 1960s about Vietnam and the draft come up, and almost never is the decision  to oppose both and refuse to participate in either given any respect. But Lawrence O'Donnell does it here, in the context of highlighting the amorality of Mitt Romney in actively supporting the war and the draft, and taking a deferement that apparently only Mormons got, so he was not drafted and did not risk participating in the war he advocated.

It is all still a very sore subject.  Soldiers returning from that war felt disrespected.  Perhaps for that reason alone, although probably for others as well, it has been harder for many Vietnam vets to make peace with protestors of that war than it has been for them to make peace with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers they fought against. 

It has been decades now since anyone has experienced anything like what we experienced, being subject to the draft at the height of the Vietnam war.  Once again there are the naive proponents of a new draft as a way to solve the very real problems of those who serve in the military today.  They don't know what they're talking about. 

How America treats its military veterans is criminal.  But First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the Vice President, have persistently highlighted their plight, and advocated for them.  O'Donnell is right to point the finger at Mitt Romney, who sees the military, and the horrors of war, only in terms of money.  All he can say is that he wants to increase military spending.   It is money that largely fuels war--money that people like Romney make in huge quantities, while poor young men and women suffer and die so those "builders" can become richer.  That's the brutal truth of it.

In the meantime, there remains another set of young men who made moral decisions in the 1960s who have been disrespected ever since.  O'Donnell's words are rare, and welcome.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Magical Again

Martin Amis is a writer I've admired mostly from afar. I've enjoyed the novels I've read and the non-fiction collection about the 80s, The Moronic Inferno, a title that describes the 80s and a lot of the ever since. But I haven't read a lot of his work, for often his most urgent concerns are not mine--at least not of the same moment. Maybe it's just that his life has been so different from mine.

  But he was quoted making an observation that I've not only never read anybody else make, I've never heard anyone else say. He was describing something that happens to him, that I thought that for all intents and purposes, only happens to me. He said that he is often caught offguard by a memory of something that attacks him with regret and chagrin, seemingly out of the blue, just walking down the street or in any daily situation. A small regret would emerge unbidden but with such power that they stop him in his tracks, literally, as he walks down the street, and he involuntarily winces and mutters to himself because of some small memory that had the peculiar force of shame and the pitiless, bottomless thump of regret.

Now he's done it again, in a recent interview (published at Smithsonian online and flagged by Andrew Sullivan's site.) He has identified something I am dimly aware is happening to me--that in recent days I've become more conscious of.

Here's what he said: "Your youth evaporates in your early 40s when you look in the mirror. And then it becomes a full-time job pretending you’re not going to die, and then you accept that you’ll die. Then in your 50s everything is very thin. And then suddenly you’ve got this huge new territory inside you, which is the past, which wasn’t there before. A new source of strength. Then that may not be so gratifying to you as the 60s begin [Amis is 62], but then I find that in your 60s, everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again. And it’s imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance, that it’s not going to be around very long, this world, so it begins to look poignant and fascinating.”

Yes, there is that "huge new territory inside" which is "the past." But especially, "in your 60s, everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again." It does. It's a bit easier to appreciate the moment. I'm very aware that this is a golden time--I'm reasonably healthy, I am without physical pain, temporarily secure--well, the sense that it is certainly all temporary. But it is, right now. And the day is easier to appreciate. People, relationships that are good--and the blessings I have here, of this lovely air, especially in the sunny autumn of the North Coast. It is fascinating and it is poignant, and it's sharpened by the awareness not only that it will all soon end, but you don't know when it will start ending, or how.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Long Goodbye

I saw an interview with Harry Belefonte on Charlie Rose recently.  Especially since he's promoting his autobiography, Belefonte talked about his fascinating life, in music and film but mostly in politics.  He has a long history of activism, that extends back to Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King.  When the subject of President Obama came up, Belefonte expressed disappointment.  In the Bush years he was especially critical of the homeland security measures that stifled civil liberties and threatened to enact a kind of military state.  So he was especially upset about what he viewed as the lack of progress in reigning in those programs.

I can understand his disappointments, though not their extent--the idea that he can't locate President Obama's "moral center" seems specious to me.  But I did recognize the intense feeling behind another complaint: he said that President Obama has never talked with him.  He has never sought out his counsel or even asked about his experiences in those intense and important decades.  All his hard-won lessons remain unexpressed, and unheard by someone who could greatly benefit from hearing them.

I understand that.  On a different scale and perhaps with less reason, it is a feeling common to people who have decades of experience, and retain the judgment and ability to express those judgments.  But no one wants to hear this.  Moreover it is a paradox of this age that while people on average are living longer, they are marginalized earlier.  In an increasing number of occupations, you're finished when you're fifty.  If you aren't the CEO or filthy rich, no one will listen to you at all once you've passed 60.

When people stop listening to you, when they stop expressing any interest or admiration in what you present in whatever form they used to pay attention to, it does not go unnoticed, often consciously, but always deep within.  Once a sense of usefulness ebbs, so does much else.  It supports a general drift towards a state of marking time, essentially waiting to die. 

Certainly there is a change.  With age comes more interest in depth.  Less interest in new songs, more interest in listening to the old ones more deeply (and hearing the lyrics as new, now.)  Memories come unbidden even when new names escape.  All this can mean a mastery of a greater extent of time, of their patterns, and developing a more informed perspective.  That in itself should be valuable, for one thing that becomes evident is the penchant to repeat mistakes.  Yet no one seems interested.  Perhaps the answer to that lies in trying harder to make the form of such expressions more seductive.  Still, as a more general reaction, it is discouraging. 

I remember the old men I saw as a child.  Some were loud and unhinged, and they were definitely scary.  But most were silent, and that was a little scary, too. These were often the older men in families I was somehow related to, that we would visit from time to time. They stayed on the edge of things, letting the women take care of family relations.  They even drank quietly, alone or with other old men.  Their lives among others were over. 

I'm beginning to understand those old men. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thought of the Heart

This is the season when the famous dead of the past year are remembered again, in a group.  I've checked many such sites on the Internet, replete with photos, but none of them include James Hillman, who died in October.  I will make my usual remembrances from the year past on other blogs, but since my last two posts here have involved Hillman and his work--and he's been key to earlier posts--I feel it's appropriate to give him this stage entirely.

It's also because I didn't know he'd died until I started these searches by going through the month by month lists on Wikipedia.  Somehow I missed this news on that October day, which I suspect wasn't hard to do.  As Thomas Moore says in his tribute at Huffington Post (which I no longer frequent)   "People don't generally know his work too well because it is so subtle and steeped in traditions of philosophy, religion, the arts and especially in the intricacies of Freud and Jung."  I've never claimed to understand all of his work, just as I don't understand all of Jung.  But Hillman speaks to me directly with some frequency, on levels beyond intellect.  I recall in particular a strong emotional response to one of his lesser known works, two talks collected as Thought of the Heart & Soul of the World.

Moore, who knew Hillman as a friend over many years, continued: "James's many books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated. He changed my life by being more than a mentor and a steady, caring friend. If I had to sum up his life, I would say that he lived in the lofty realm of thought and yet also like one of the animals he loved so much. He was always close to his passions and appetites and lived with a fullness of vitality I have never seen elsewhere. To me, he taught more in his lifestyle and in his conversation than in his writing, and yet his books and articles are the most precious objects I have around me."

Moore suggests he may write more about Hillman for more general readers, and that would be a blessing.  So would a real biography or two.  In his writings and lectures, Hillman was mostly silent about his own life, although he did tell some tantalizing stories in his last book, A Terrible Love of War.  Several years ago I emailed Michael Ventura, Hillman's co-author of one of his more popular books, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, asking if he knew if there was a Hillman biography in the works.  He emailed back that he didn't think so, and that Hillman felt his life was less important than his writing.  But I admit to being fascinated to know more, if only to add more human dimension to his books.  And now I read that indeed there's a two-volume biography in the works, with the first volume due in April.

Meanwhile here's a link to other Hillman tributes.  The "Turning 65" and "Turning 60" posts here at this blog are my real time testimony of how important Hillman has been to me in imagining and living my life.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On Turning 65

me and my grandfather, my First Communion.  Ignazio Severini was around 60. 

Again, in terra incognita for baby boomers, the 60s generation.  Though since turning 65 at the end of June, a bunch of others have done it, including Bill Clinton and George Bush.  So obviously it's different for all of us.

It's been a more ambiguous and perhaps a more sobering milestone that 60, which may have something to do with the fact that I've waited almost two months to post this. Emotions specifically around this birthday were definitely muted. It was no big deal, and that in itself says a lot. 65 used to be retirement age, when you got a retirement dinner and a gold watch. It was a rite of passage, acknowledged and celebrated by family and friends. None of that happened.

Besides the fact that I’m not “retiring” in the sense of quitting my paltry-pay jobs, there was no retrospective beyond what happened in my head, which actually wasn’t much.

In the weeks and months leading up to the day I did feel some sadness and even anger about the lack of honor and recognition for the good work that I’ve done. A feeling of being taken for granted, or more specifically, of being ignored. I have no place—let alone an honored place—in this community, or in any other. And even though I have acquaintances of varying degrees here, I can’t say I have friends. I don’t think there was anyone here who even knew about my birthday, unless it was a friend of Margaret’s.

But when the day came, I was happy to spend it quietly with Margaret, hiking by the ocean, enjoying this quiet life. I am aware every day—in fact, it worries me how aware I am—that all of this can turn on a dime. The last five years have been notable for nothing happening—nothing earthshaking or terrible. In our families there have been births and marriages and a break-up, but no deaths except for one of Margaret’s aunts. A week or so before my birthday, her mother visited. She’d just turned 90.

My family in Pennsylvania is healthy. Margaret is healthy. I am healthy. Pema the cat is healthy, though a worry. So far our lives haven’t been economically threatened. But any of that could change at any time, and all of it will change at some time. That (along with regrets about the past that emerge from dreamtime) wakes me up early with anxiety at times, and at times postpones my falling asleep.

Part of life has become the lived ironies of being this age—all the cliches, of always being young in dreams and in my head, to the point of seeing people who probably are younger than me as older. Of never knowing how people will react or respond—person to person, or person to the paradigmatic old person. Individuality disappears from our persons as we all start to look alike: men with white beards, red cheeks, no mouths; small, tentative, distant eyes.


James Hillman

When I turned 60, my touchstones were Michael Ventura’s essay on “saying goodbye” and James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character. Saying goodbye is a continuing process, though it is saying goodbye to possibilities. I just watched a DVD about the reunion tour a few years ago by Sting and the Police. I must always be saying goodbye to the dream of enthralling an audience like that, let alone leading to their ecstasy after more than 20 years of their devotion. Not that this is a new thought, but it is renewed, with different emotions each time. Which of course is not to negate the fantasy, while playing into the silent night.

I’ve already said goodbye to much of contemporary culture, though that is a continuing and not complete process. And anyway, much of it has said goodbye to me. I have entered more fully that melancholy area where you know you have perspective to contribute, but no one cares to ask for it. I guess it’s a fairly common observation of “elders.”

I don’t know what to say goodbye to in my work. In the past year I began to say goodbye to even completing another book, but now this summer I’m not so sure. I’ve got focus and energy for a project that seems clarified.

Which leads me to my touchstone this year, and it’s James Hillman again. But this time it’s his work on Puer and Senex. I came across a moment on YouTube from a seminar he gave just last year about it. It spoke to me, so I looked up what’s available. It turns out his definitive edition of his Senex and Puer work was published in 2005, and is already out of print. The university library, notoriously buying few if any books these days, has no Hillman past his early work. There were DVDs for sale of this seminar, but they were pricey. Still, as a birthday present to myself, I ordered them.

I have some of the essays, notably in The Puer Papers from the late 60s, and a key one in Picked-Up Pieces. But I wanted to see what he had to say now, now that he is of Senex age, and he’s out of the puer paradise of the 60s.

Though the DVDs have too little of him, too much of the crowd’s questions and comments, it was worth it. He’s still vital, and though showing his 80s, his voice is strong. Puer (Latin for boy) is a particular archetype of youth, as Senex is for old one. He championed the Puer in any age, and talked about the union of puer and senex. He talked about the puer flights, the longing that is its own reward, and how that must be honored even in the senex age.

I was a pretty classic puer type, leavened with some senex (the melancholy, the seriousness, and some need to be organized, etc.) but clearly the women in my life saw the puer dominance—the impatience with ordinary life, the anxiety, the looking down on it all from an imagined height. The devotion to the dream, and to the vision that was too far, too high, too big. Plus all the wounds and failures.

The puer inflated ego is no longer a problem for me. The outside world has injected plenty of humiliation over the past 15 years especially, with little compensating affirmation or confirmation. Together with aging and the receding of dreams, the weakening and diluting of visions, and given my status and precarious and vulnerable position in the world, I’ve been humbled.

So combining my particular circumstances with the senex qualities that naturally emerge, a certain fatalism adds easier vulnerability to hopelessness. Given the human prospects as made clear in just the past year or so, the larger world of time only adds weight to that side of the scales.

Hillman offers just about the only straw to grasp, in his idea of the senex and puer union. He points out all the similarities in the two archetypes, and says (as I interpret it) that the senex qualities of organization and discipline, and even the depths of soul (the sadness and the perspective) can be applied to the puer vision, to be true to the calling.

To paraphrase Hillman: The recovery in the senex is the recovery of the puer—the freedom that was once there...the recovery of the range of thought, of imagination. But the senex can have the greatest range of all, like Beethoven’s last quartets. “He recovered something in the midst of disability by letting his imagination go. But that imagination had spent many many years working his gift...staying faithful to the original vision. That’s the important thing—it isn’t being related to your partner, or to all the things we use relationship for and drive the puer man to a frenzy of anxiety, but related to the calling, whatever that strange thing is, that wounds him and names him.”

The calling, the vocation is one article of faith I retain from my Catholic schooling. So I respond to this idea. Even if it’s more about soul-making than destiny, unless they turn out to be the same thing.

I’m monitoring my abilities and except for a sometimes unpredictable fluctuation in energy (which is perhaps different in quality from the fluctuations I’ve always experienced), I don’t have a lot of disabilities of age. I’ve kept my writing sharp through use, if only with moronic work for hire and these bolts into the nothingness on my blogs. But I don’t know how deep I can still go anymore, or how high. That’s the challenge. Even there it may not be a matter of ability as much as why put in the effort, why turn everything else upside-down (as I did often enough in my puer years to disrupt my life, leading to financial vulnerability now) to try and once again fail? And what would success be anyway? As a writer in the marketplace, I may as well be already dead.

But I’ll grasp at any straw I can find that can convince me even for part of the day, so I’ll take Hillman to heart, in my 65th year.

Being faithful to the vision is an end in itself. Whether something comes of it is not entirely up to me. Pretty much nobody accomplishes anything as difficult as writing a book (let alone publishing it) without help. Without the faith of others, there’s only a faith in the future—as part of the vision, if it is such—that motivates towards expression or completion. That, and for the fun of it. Of having done it.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Faithful to the Calling


This piece of James Hillman's talks on the archetypes of Senex (Saturn, old age) and Puer (youth) has something very moving and apropos to say to me, that today I want to share.  It's about fidelity to your calling.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Boomer Revolt

Here is what GOPer political strategists probably thought they were doing with the Ryan budget proposal to kill Medicare: by exempting those 55 and older, their proposal would not touch and therefore not interest much of the Baby Boomer population. Those hitting 65 wouldn't care because their Medicare is unaffected, but those more than a decade away wouldn't even be thinking about it yet.

But various polls show that it didn't work. Boomers in their 60s and boomers in their 50s and even 40s are united not only in opposition but in revolt against the GOPer proposal. They were the ones speaking angrily about it at GOPer town halls, and they still are.

The family values GOPers didn't reckon with actual family values. Elders don't want their children to be without Medicare. Those approaching old age don't want their children to have to be responsible for the inflated expense of medical care and nearly worthless insurance, even if you can get it.

Boomers who aren't elders are quite possibly caring for elder parents in some way. They know just as well as elders do what Medicare means.  The threat to destroy Medicare unites older and middle aged boomers in revolt.

I'm about to apply for Medicare myself. What I've learned so far is that Medicare is not really free. There's Part A, that's akin to what we and our parents used to call hospitalization. That's "free." But Medicare Part B covers costs of doctors, and for most elders that requires a monthly payment of more than $100, which just a few years ago was a reasonable premium in the private insurance market. Medicare Part C is the vaunted private insurance, and it's something of a minefield as far as I can tell. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Levels


This didn't make the headlines, not in bin Laden week--not that it would have anyway.  But since it's a report to be delivered at a big international conference, maybe it still will.  The report by Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program says that the ice in the Arctic and Greenland is melting much faster than previously predicted, and is likely to result in a much greater rise in sea level this century: five feet.  Some believe this is even too conservative an estimate, as it doesn't factor in other contributing causes to sea level rise.  But it's a very significant rise.

There were a couple of thousand comments to this AP story.  One said something to the effect that old age is looking better all the time.  That's a common enough response.  Another response was posted as a comment, but it has the look of  an often-emailed piece that's made the rounds.  Still, early boomers may be the last who recognize most of this from at least their childhood's:

" In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman  that plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized to her and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”

That’s right, they didn’t have the green thing in her day. Back then, they returned their milk bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But they didn’t have the green thing back her day.

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks.  But she’s right. They didn’t have the green thing in her day.

Back then, they washed the baby’s diapers because they didn’t have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts – wind and solar power really
did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their  brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that old lady is right, they didn’t have the green thing back in her day.

Back then, they had one TV, or radio, in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a pizza dish, not a screen the size of the state of Montana . In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn’t have electric machines to do everything for you. When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used wadded up newspaper to cushion it, not styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, they didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power. They exercised by working so they didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right, they didn’t have the green thing back then.

They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty, instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water. They refilled pens with ink, instead of buying a new pen, and they replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.  But they didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus, instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And they didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

It’s a crying shame that we didn’t have “the green thing” back then! " 
 
All of that is familiar to me.  And while I remember that push mowers were no picnic, it does speak to a few things some of us have noticed: with greater prosperity and larger populations came greater complexity and much greater waste.  Things were in some sense simpler and slower and less cluttered, though our choices were also fewer.  English muffins were foreign food in the 50s, and you'd be considered weird if you wanted one.  
 
So I think we know that losing a certain amount of "choice" however false and artificial is likely to be part of the price of survival in the future.  The costs that have been ignored, and the costs that are unsustainably low (transportation of goods certainly) are going to be exacted on the future.  But we're still here to say that a life that's more modest, more thoughtful and more sustainable, is possible.  We had one.           

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

For As Long As We've Got


Power Shift 2011 is a gathering of 10,000 or so mostly young people organizing for action to confront the Climate Crisis and related environmental crises.  Leaders of the group met with President Obama, and the report of this at Climate Progress elicited the usual political grumbling and the inevitable debate on whether the Baby Boomers ruined everything.  A bit unusual however was that it appeared boomers were taking both sides.

While one commenter wrote "my generation has failed, and too many of us have become indifferent or selfish." Another:  "If there is to be a future,the youth of today are going to need to shame us grey hairs into making difficult decisions by staying in our faces forcing us to confront the truth. If our Youth are to have a life, then us Grey Hairs from Presidents & Legislators, Business Leaders & Faith Leaders, Opinion Makers & Everyday People need to be confronted with the facts that how we live in the present is consuming their ability to live in the future. It is encouraging to see our Youth refusing to let us steal their future."

But another commenter countered: " I think we deserve more credit than “failure”...  That the fight took longer than any of us realized in the 60s and on does not mean we have failed. Look around. Civil Rights. Gay and lesbian rights. Women’s equality. Human rights around the world. Respect for the environment. And so much more. I agree none of the above is complete and can be considered a total victory but all are far from failure. The battle lines are getting closer to “Black” and “White” and that is why the rhetoric is sharper. Guns get drawn quickly. A cornered foe fights dirty. Big money spent hundreds of millions of dollars to control the power and the best they could muster is the Tea Party with an uninspiring IQ average. Yes, we have not won, but we are far from losers."

My own point of view is that while this also sounds like a dialogue within a single conscience, there is plenty of "failure" to go around.  As much as I'm heartened by this organization and this conference, I've heard a little too much nonsense about "powerful" organizing techniques, and I'm afraid there's lots of evidence that artistic efforts and "messaging" haven't been very effective yet in furtherance of Power Shift's goals.  That doesn't mean they should stop trying.  It just doesn't make their efforts automatically superior, or the final answer.    

And I also point out that the techniques these young people are using--including the theatre of large-scale demos--were pioneered by my generation during anti-war demos in the 60s and 70s.  (Check out those puppets.)

While I regret many things in my life, I don't think I've regretted for a moment not going to one more demo.  I did what I could, and I still do.  All the good fight is a process, and we all have our parts to play in it.  And if we follow the reference I'm pointing towards--Jacques' speech in As You Like It-- one determinant of our roles is age.  We did what we could when we were young.  I think we did a lot.  Some of this "selfishness" later on was people concentrating on raising their families, seeing their kids through the tumults of the crazy 70s and depressing 80s, etc.  And what we were part of did change things.  And some of it backfired.

But now we're older, and some of us are old.  We have perspective and specifics from our experience and history to contribute, if anybody cares to listen--and lumping us together with the people really responsible for "failure" isn't going to help with that.

  And we can help with things like courage and perseverence and lasting.  And that above all is what this is going to take. 

Bill McKibben pretty much said so in his heartfelt and cogent address to Power Shift.  He didn't mince words about the power that immense amounts of money has in this society right now.  And he didn't mince words about our chances, or what it would take.  He finished this way:

" So far, we’ve raised the temperature of the planet one degree and that’s done all that I’ve described, it’s melted the arctic, it’s changed the oceans. The climatologists tell us that unless we act with great speed and courage that one degree will be five degrees before this century is out. And if we do that, then the world that we leave behind will be a ruined world.

 We fight not just for ourselves, we fight for the beauty of this place. For cool trout streams and deep spruce woods. For chilly fog rising off the Pacific and deep snow blanketing the mountains. We fight for all the creation that shares this planet with us. We don’t know half the species on Earth we’re wiping out.


And of course, we fight alongside our brothers and sisters around the world. You’ve seen the pictures as I talk: these are our comrades. Most of these people, as you see, come from places that have not caused this problem, and yet they’re willing to be in deep solidarity with us. That’s truly admirable and it puts a real moral burden on us. Never let anyone tell you, that environmentalism is something that rich, white people do. Most of the people that we work with around the world are poor and black and brown and Asian and young, because that’s what most of the world is made up of, and they care about the future as anyone else.


We have to fight, finally, without any guarantee that we are going to win. We have waited late to get started and our adversaries are strong and we do not know how this is going to come out. If you were a betting person, you might bet we were going to lose because so far that’s what happened, but that’s not a bet you’re allowed to make. The only thing that a morally awake person [can] do when the worst thing that’s ever happened is happening is try to change those odds.


I have spent most of my last few years in rooms around the world with great people, many of whom will be refugees before this century is out, some of whom may be dead from climate change before this century is out. No guarantee that we will win, but from them a complete guarantee that we will fight with everything we have. It is always an honor for me to be in those rooms. It is the greatest honor for me to be with you tonight. No guarantee that we will win, but we will fight side by side, as long as we’ve got."


So instead of fighting over who is responsible for failure, we pick each other up and we fight the good fight together.  And if there is anything that getting older teaches you, it is the meaning of "[for] as long as we've got."