In the Autumn of 1962 I went to school, came home, turned on the television, and worked on my stamp collection at our kitchen table. Outside, a glare-y sun beat its post-September light low over the water as it dropped behind the tip of Long Point. On the oval black & white screen, beneath a bowl of rising dough incubating in the heat from its vacuüm tubes, our “local-boy” president, his cheeks puffed out from Addison’s Disease, his eyes black dots, and his customary smile absent; was busy playing chicken with Khrushchev as we all came along for the ride.
By then, fifth grade, I’d been long apprenticed to the realpolitik of Mutual Assured Destruction. I had built a model of a B-25 while watching the Berlin Wall go up, and the tanks maneuvered in central Europe again. This time, not the point-of-the-spear, just a trip-wire for the missiles. Missiles I’d seen bursting up from the waves before firing their rockets and arching up into b&w skies, or rising on gray plumes out of their bunker-ed silos. I’d seen the whole lead-up of Twentieth Century History encapsulated in grainy snow-clogged footage of the trenches in France, U-boats off Kinsale, gas-clouds in Belgium. Then Pearl Harbor, close after the shanty towns and bread-lines, Weimar riots, goose-stepping brown-shirts, Chamberlain’s mustaches no match for Adolph’s…. Around me, most grown men had been at war. My father, just too young for the first one, too old for the second. He was an anomaly in this way, just another of the ways he was different – a generation older than the parent’s of my classmates.
Victory at Sea; flashes of 16-inch guns fired in broadside, phalanxes of landing craft, shattered palm trees, and blackened half-drowned sailors pulled out of black seas. The Holocaust, televised years after the fact. Footage of Nuremberg, first Riefenstahl’s glamor shots of Aryan Glory, then Göering and Speer in the dock, everyone wearing over-sized headphones – a steam-punk-ish pre-cursor of i-Pod’s ubiquity? Listening to Sputnik, and going outside into a cold black night to watch for its silent pin-prick crossing the sky. Then the ever-larger blooms of nuclear and then thermonuclear blasts in slow-motion, growing, then bursting, fireballs spreading and rising skyward to form the exact shape of a Death’s Angel’s cap.
I’d had all this behind me, ten years old, no, nine. I’d only be ten in December. So much practice at absorbing enormity while quietly absorbing the parallel lessons that we just let it all wash over, nothing should interfere with getting on with the day-by-day.
By the time I was five – I knew this because the tales were told to me again and again as humorous anecdotes, not because I remembered them – I had fallen down the basement stairs twice when I was one, been scalded by a dropped pot of boiling water when I was three, and at some indeterminate time knocked my head falling against the dashboard from my usual perch standing in the front seat of our car. I was fifty before this litany of “accidents” registered in my mind as a pattern of neglect, if not outright abuse. My apologies to all those who’ve suffered much worse; but this was enough, coupled as they were with the lies and shadows of an alcoholic household, to foster the internal conviction that I lived in a dangerous world where no-one was effectively looking out for me. The television, my most constant companion, continually reinforced that the same was true beyond our front door.
I grew-up in two worlds – actually a kaleidoscope of dualities, reflected and re-reflected as if in opposing mirrors. There was the world of getting by, of avoiding immediate hurts; and the world of yawning enormity, a paralyzing realization that extreme violence and disaster was never more than first thirty, then fifteen minutes away, once the missiles had been more efficiently deployed. I knew this was true. I knew this was true deep in my bones, yet every daily interaction, every moment of what passed for normal life, insisted I was wrong, that everything was fine, and I was a fool to think and feel otherwise. “We’ve never had it so good!”
“We’ve never had it so good!” This phrase, now threadbare from overuse, not much more than an habitual reaction choking in people’s throats as soon as they say it, was then still fresh, imbued with all the thrust of that bounteous time when the spigots had freshly turned the taps of war over to the creation of a materialist heaven-on-earth. To people who had seen the bread-lines as children, fought in the hedge-rows, or in deep black volcanic sand; for a smiling, chubby, well-dressed kid to complain how bad things were was an outrage. They had long-ago decided they would have no more pain, no more struggle, no more dark nights of uncertainty; and they had willed this into being, not only for themselves, but for all of us. “We’ve never had it so good!”
This was continually “beaten” into us, even after Lincoln’s caisson paraded a second time, just shy of a century after its first use. Even after the procession of flag-draped coffins rolled off the planes returning from southeast Asia, after one after another hopeful voice was silenced in assassination, and the police had rioted from Birmingham to Chicago, from Watts to Newark, beating and arresting anyone who failed to agree, “We’ve never had it so good!”
In 1975, in a village in coastal Maine, I met someone with a persistent cough, who was dead by 1979 with what I’d only later piece together must have been one of the earliest cases of AIDS in America. The first time we’d visited, he told me of a recent trip to Africa he and his ex-boyfriend had made. Growing up in Provincetown, I wasn’t shocked by his homosexuality. I was even flattered by his advances, though I had to assure him I only wanted a friend, to have a “sophisticated” person with whom to talk about art, music, and literature…. In such ways, such moments of casual decision, and many others of oblivious chance; broad currents sweeping the world brushed past me, leaving scars instead of the finality of lingering illness or early sudden death. Still, for me at the turn of the eighties I’d left a broad swathe of “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”
A moment passed then with the end of that decade, when another willful turn was taken away from the enormity, now ever more immense and harder to avoid. Once again, I was a fool and a chump not to see the bright promise of “Morning in America.” The troubled sleep had not awakened the sleep-walkers, but only renewed their insistence that all was fine. If only we re-doubled our efforts, blamed the right scapegoats, and got on with spreading “freedom” and lining our pockets with the swag we so richly deserved. My sense of alienation in my own life, in my own country, on this Earth grew into a conviction of my exile. Attuned to insecurity and the veiled yet vividly clear, to me, threats surrounding us all, I was constantly reminded that my input was not welcomed, nor valued, nor desired. “We’ve never had it so good!”
Once again, though this time on the wider stage, I was overtly oblivious and internally assaulted by the recurring pattern of abuse. The persistent déjà vu as the latest plans for a bright and shining future were closely followed by cries of surprise as the accidents and unforeseeable mistakes piled on. It took that later realization of the way this pattern had played-out in my own early childhood before I would see with growing clarity and conviction that the past and present litany of accidents, disasters, and mistakes were nothing of the kind. They were the inevitable expressions, the fully predictable – in outline if not particulars – outcome of a willful self-delusion superimposed onto greed and a profound cowardice of spirit.
The fullness of this realization, as I’ve said, was still decades ahead, decades passed off-balance, caught up in the dislocations resulting from a growing cognitive dissonance, an inability to trust my own intuition, and the plain impossibility of finding a place to stand from which to place a rebuttal to all that I knew was wrong and getting worse. Over those years, the etiquette of denial developed and became intricately refined. It went from a certain mild discomfort at bringing up “difficult” subjects, and progressed to a firmly established taboo that, after the sickening bathos surrounding 9/11, hardened into a quasi-legal prohibition of any dissent, a prohibition now codified into capital offense with our new president’s fresh authority to call for targeted assassination of his fellow citizens whenever the Star Chamber so decrees in secret session in suburban Virginia.
The insane kerfuffle over the “Millennium,” first in 1999, then repeated as 2001 rolled in, was no more than a fuss over crossing a numerical portal, further trivialized by our inability to agree to the date of its occurrence. The way Clinton had held the country together in the face of a tirelessly prosecuted rebellion from the right as he absorbed the “charge” by taking it to ground by way of the fierce focus on his personal peccadilloes, hardened into the near-coup of November 2000. By the next year, we had nostalgia for a public discourse limited to stained dresses and sexual antics in the oval office.
Nine/eleven was spectacle on a grand scale, but how could we all claim surprise? Even that claim of shock was banal and so predictable. The immediate reactions to Pearl Harbor had been private, countless moments of individual decision: to enlist, to put aside personal matters, to rally around the needs of the nation. Fifty years of televised documentaries replayed iconic footage of the blast as a battlewaggon’s magazine erupted skyward with palm trees silhouetted in the foreground. This image; sandwiched between ads for cigarettes, liquor, cars and beer; settled into our catalog of consumption. By mid-morning on that September day, this now ingrained habit of mediation, coupled with an inability to see anything beyond spectacle, entered images of smoking and collapsing towers into the marketplace of emotional consumption. The event had become yet another “celeb” tragedy celebrated by the same rituals pioneered at the death of “Lady Di.”
If only that had been the end of it. Most chilling that day was an image only glimpsed in passing and left off the ongoing tape loop. Was that Fredo or Michael we saw receiving the news of the attack and woodenly turning back to the story of the goat? Evil may attach itself to stupid, but the clever have always lined up to give it its power. The cycles sped up once again, the crises, the accidents, the unforeseeable mistakes; all ramped up to never-before-seen heights which were quickly supplanted by the next round.
All this was mere prequel to the lingering end-of-decade/end-of-an-era we’re now in. The scaffolding of platitudes and assurances that so long-held up this death-worshiping edifice has all-but fallen away, yet the worshipers continue to flock, and to take their incredulity as a challenge to maintain their previous insistence. “We’ve never had it so good!” This tocsin call is no longer voiced, it’s been replaced by whining laments of slipping exceptionalism; but the force of that wish is still there behind empty gestures and hollow assertions; brittleness of spirit incredibly hardening into a practiced brutality cocooned in anesthetized unfeeling, covering over a yawning chasm of hollow panic.
That Autumn of 1962, I wasn’t the only one learning the lessons of MAD-ness. We’ve all been in that school, or were born into one of its later classes. The instincts, even then already keenly honed in the anxious minefields of my “home” life, cried out to me that this was all wrong. The collateral damage of self-blame and identification with my tormentors, was hard at work to sink me. If not into resignation and obedience, at least into a frightened paralysis of be-fogged indecision, anxiety, and depression. Over the years I swallowed my objections, and learned to blame myself for my inability to act. Still, at every turn, it became more clear that I had seen what was coming implicit in its beginnings and as irrevocable as Fate. I maintained the role of spectator, so long practiced at watching spectacle as we’ve all become. I was sickened as much by my apparent precognition as I was by the whole sad spectacle itself. Underneath it all has been a throbbing realization that the death and destruction visited most often over the horizon of my direct view, or in a relatively slow, compounding, death-by-a-thousand-cuts, as the absences grow. This was real, it was increasingly irreversible, and reaching ever higher levels of consequence without ever stirring me, or anyone else it seemed, into effective action.
Enormity. Childhood is our introduction to its mysteries. Adolescence is a time to rebel against its intractability. Maturity, could that be a time when we grow to accept enormity and find ways to accommodate? Accommodation is not the sickening spiral into infantilized powerlessness that passes for adulthood today. Accommodation is a slowly building realization that there are limits on our desires, irrespective of their validity, coupled with the development of an ability to read the landscape of our own inner limits. We take in what the world insists and return a reckoning of what we will accept. There is a wide-ranging spectrum of possibilities here. There is ample room for failure. We can be carried along by chance, or cut-off at any point, or we may be fated to be mere witnesses to folly; but if we have done the work maturity requires, we will have made some accommodation, we will not be summarily stripped of our place, our time, our chance.
Don’t tell me how hard it is to “give up hope.” Don’t poke me with that sharpened stick of “looking at the bright side!” Don’t try to ensnare me with your positivist creed. I can see the hollow emptiness inside that cracked, brittle shell. I know it only leads to death piled on death, culminating in the ultimate death of any possibility of any kind. The only hope I want is a shoal hope. The only promontory I see clearly is a dark mountain. The only tool I can count on is my insistence to put one word after another. For now, to counter that false call “We’ve never had it so good!” I have a provisional response. For the first time in my life I have found my voice, and that may be enough.