Friday, December 21, 2018

Dark Night of the American Soul

It's 4 am on the longest night of the year and I can't sleep.

After lying in bed for an hour without being able to find where I misplaced my REM cycles, I gave up trying. I made coffee (a cup of which is sitting close by), and pancake batter, which will turn into breakfast in about four hours (breathing helps dissolve the micro-clumps of batter).

Update on My Life
The physiological explanation for this mid-night dance with my keyboard is drugs. Per my chemotherapy protocol I take 20 mg of dexamethasone—a steroid—every Thursday, which invariably means I'm on an energy high every Friday. While manic is not necessarily a good state to be in (think Mr. Toad's wild ride), I've learned to control the wave and Fridays offer a pleasant burst of productivity. It means that Susan typically wakes up on the last day of the work week in an empty bed (if you don't count Lucie, our 50 lb lab/retriever love ball who likes to join us in the family bed), but she knows the drill.

While I rarely rise this early in the day (excepting on Fridays and when I need to catch the shuttle to St Paul to connect with the eastbound Empire Builder), I've always enjoyed the night—this thing that mostly slips by me with my eyes closed. It's quiet. The phone doesn't ring, and there's ample time for the three R's—readin', 'ritin', and reflectin'—all of which are precious to me.

Today is solstice, the Earth holiday that occurs toward the front end of Xmas season. It's the official start of winter, which is something we Duluthians embrace as part of our boreal heritage (that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger). This is our time. All the snowbirds have left by now, and we're down to the hard core natives and winter sport nuts. Even though I don't ski, curl, or play hockey, I like winter.

Yesterday I wrapped up back-to-back reports for work I did on the East Coast two weeks ago, which frees me up to address a modest backlog of non-urgent emails, and positions me perfectly to enjoy the social side of the holidays, where friends and family come first. I've always loved this break in the daily routine. It's the one time of the year when it's socially acceptable for a fortnight to feed our ritual-starved souls. 

On the micro-level my life is going pretty good. My cancer is quiesecent (knock on wood), I have a loving partner, all four of our kids are out of the nest and doing well (all are in their 30s and have partners they're happy with), I have work as a process consultant and teacher in proportion to what I want, I'm making enough money to tread water with my health care bills, and I even get to play duplicate bridge twice a week when I'm in residence. What's not to like?

Overview of the National Scene with Loki as President
On the macro-level, unfortunately, I am brooding over the chaos that passes for national politics these days. Trump's capacity to be divisive and anti-relational knows no bounds. He's a one-trick pony who only knows to be a bully, and his boorish, spectacularly disruptive behavior has been given incredible latitude for mischief as a consequence of his surprise success as a presidential candidate two years ago. Now we're stuck with him. 

I have to think that even those who have been inspired by his drain-the-swamp, plain-talking, fear-mongering rhetoric have to wince when they observe his unpredictable, unprincipled, misogynistic, racist, distorted, and vicious tactics. He unattractively showcases the self-discipline of an angry teenager, and the self-absorption of Dorian Gray. Later today we'll discover the outcome of his eleventh hour game of chicken with Congress because of the tantrum he's throwing over the legislative branch's unwillingness to authorize $5 billion for a border wall we don't need but which he rashly promised in his campaign two years ago. 

Rather than accept political reality (never mind political sanity), he wants a fight, which is the role that bullies are wont to play. Rather than striving to pull the country together (you know, act presidential), he's willing to pull it down—apparently because it's more important that he deliver on his promise to his angry white base, who are determined to hold onto white privilege for as long as possible and/or feel they are being discriminated against and threatened by a steady flow of immigrants who are taking jobs that they have rejected. Never mind that the budget is going to hell in a handcart and that even some Republicans admit that the wall is a dumb idea, he's willing to ruin the holiday for about one-fourth of federal workers who may be laid off by midnight. Rather than allay the fears of his constituency, he fans the flames. In the spirit of this pagan holiday, it's clear to me that Trump is channeling his inner Loki. 

To my disgust, Republicans have basically caved in to Trump and are offering him a largely unobstructed field in which to spread his seeds of discord and mistrust. To my frustration, the Democrats have yet to articulate anything approximating a cohesive response to the fears that Trump is playing to. Rather than objecting to Trump (that's the easy part) they need to be pitching jobs, health care, education, a sane international policy, a balanced budget, and a caring government to the disaffected. They need a coherent, inclusive platform and they need a candidate.

Talk about Mr. Toad's wild ride!

My Personal Challenge
All of this presents a difficult societal challenge. How will we clean up the mess? And what is my role in that? 

Years ago I made the decision to focus my social change work on the grassroots level. Thus, I work with groups trying to effect a shift from a highly competitive culture to one that is more cooperative. I am operating on the trickle-up theory, whereby success on the local level can (theoretically) be ratcheted up to neighborhoods, municipalities, states, etc. I've essentially been following that course since graduating from college in 1971. While I don't expect to see the promised land in my lifetime (I'm like Moses that way), I expect to continue the path I'm on for as long as I am cognitively and physically able. That part is relatively straight forward.

More difficult is how to respond to the disruptive, demonstrably uncooperative behavior that Trump is championing at the national level. What can I do (what should I be attempting) in an effort to turn  around this orgy of negativity and love of the fight. What can I do to promote dialog in the age of invective?

The truth is, I'm not sure. 

I don't have connections on the national level and Washington isn't calling me asking for advice. While I believe my grassroots efforts are entirely germane to the issue, their impact is likely to take longer to bear fruit than the need calls for. I suspect that the best I can do at this stage is to invest at the municipal level. I can look for opportunities to selectively get involved in progressive groups locally (Duluth is a medium city of 85,000) in an effort to create citizen bridges that transcend party lines. Maybe Duluth could become a sanctuary city for the politically estranged.

I was heartened by the fact that none of the Democrats who won election to the top three offices contested in November (two Senate seats and the governorship) ran negative campaigns. Maybe we can be different in Minnesota and a model of political healing.

While Trump would likely object to that kind of sanctuary just as much as one focused on immigrant support, who cares? With Trump, I'm at the point of adapting Groucho Marx's admonition from a song he debuted in the 1932 classic movie Horsefeathers: 

Whatever he wants, I'm against it.

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