Ten Signs I Have Clearly Arrived at Middle Age

I always wanted to do what my older brothers and sisters were doing; I couldn’t wait to reach the next milestone. Not any more. Here are just 10 of the  many facets of my rude awakening:

Does she or doesn't she? She doesn't.
Does she or doesn’t she? I don’t.
  • My mid-life crisis began at the same time as the financial crisis in 2008, but only one of them has ended.
  • I’m no longer prematurely gray. It’s just gray. All of it.
  • I used to explain pop culture references to my kids; now they explain them to me.
  • I have two kinds of contact lenses – one bifocal, one regular – but I usually just wear my glasses and squint a lot.
  • I use scissors to open everything. Everything.
  • I now like grapefruit juice and black coffee.
  • At the school play many people assume that I am there as a grandparent.
  • I would rather watch Downton Abbey than Breaking Bad.
  • I fall asleep during the first musical guest on SNL, regardless of who the host is.
  • The sweaters I brought home as keepsakes from my 80-year-old mother in 2003 are starting to look good on me.
Mom and me, 1972
Mom and me, 1972

Oh, yes,  there are wonderful things: children old enough to help out and talk about everything with, decades-old friends and memories, a whole lot of perspective about what matters, not getting carded. While I can’t say the same about myself, I think my mother was at her most beautiful when she was the age I am now. Her life was completely crazy then, I know now, but all I remember from that period was her confidence and style though my nine-year old eyes. And as the years went on she never shrank back, never gave up, always stayed current and engaged with the world.

If she were here today she would be glued to the TV, doing her own analysis and pontificating on the Papal conclave. One of my last memories of her, ten years ago, is of her watching the unfolding scandals in the Church and declaring that a new reformation was afoot – even in hospice she was doing color commentary. She wasn’t always right about everything, of course, but she was always interesting. In practically the same breath as she spoke of the Catholic crisis, she confessed to having a crush on Donald Rumsfeld. I hope I’m saying things like that when I’m eighty.

Predicting the Unpredictable

Last week my youngest told me that if he could go back in time, he would find the terrorist headquarters and blow it up – he actually said he would sacrifice himself – so that 9/11 would never have happened.  That’s the lesson he brought to this day.  When I told him that we can never quite know what might have prevented that day ten years ago, he found that answer wholly unsatisfactory and I don’t blame him.  I didn’t like it either, but I also know that my childhood was laced with an understanding that we weren’t expected to control our futures, only to prepare ourselves to lead the best life we could with the blessings we have.  Among the many disillusionments of the 21st century, this responsibility to control everything in life that we are imposing on our children, and its attendant assignment of blame for every mishap, is the biggest one.  What was once the ebb and flow of daily life has turned into a lady or the tiger conundrum every single day.

Now more than ever, it seems we are trying to predict the future and we are still surprised when we are wrong.  With the 24 hour news cycle, smartphones and iPad apps, the media devotes so much time and space to people saying they know what the future holds interspersed with other people trying to say they saw the most recent disaster coming followed by a systematic and relentless assignment of blame.  What is wrong with this picture?  How do we calculate our success rate in preventing catastrophe?  Most of the time the people who saw it coming – if there are any – cannot be found on CNN, Fox or the Huffington Post, that’s for sure.

There was a time when the most we could expect to warn us of disaster was the tornado siren.  What we have now that earlier generations did not is a bombardment of information that gives us the illusion that whatever happens, we should see it coming.   We spent days preparing and watching hurricane Irene blast up the coast only to have her ravage inland rivers – apparently, no one warned Vermont.  All of the tsunami sensors in the Pacific did not dissuade Japan from placing a nuclear power plant on the coast.  And all of those big banks got hoodwinked by the ratings agencies and never noticed all of those bad loans they were underwriting.  It’s no wonder we scratch our heads and wonder how we missed it because as time goes by our mistakes seem ever more stupid and obvious.

Pick a topic – our health, the economy, or the weather – there are any number of solutions to it that are just a click away.  And yet, the flow of disasters almost seem to speed up rather than abating with all of this new knowledge and the ability to communicate it.  If we leave the TV and the internet on, we are fed, ever so smoothly, the myth that we can prevent bad things from happening when in some respects the bad things are perpetuated by us sitting in front of the screen.  And the more preposterous and untenable the theory, the better – we reward the wing nuts:  I watched the movie Network last spring and it could have been a documentary. 

The moment of revelation in youth that people do terrible things for reasons we cannot understand is one we never forget, and a certain part of our lives is indeed devoted to trying to avert the personal disasters we have known in the forms of death, illness, poverty and pain.  Those moments stand juxtaposed with the more collective events for which we don’t feel any personal culpability but then feel compelled to do something about:   My parents had Pearl Harbor as a defining moment (and that came on the heels of the Great Depression), the following generation had the death of President Kennedy (followed by the Viet Nam war and Watergate), and we have this day (followed by two wars and a financial meltdown).  What one generation does in response to its challenges defines the generation that follows, and I don’t pretend to know that that means for my children – I’m not getting into the prediction business.

Many years ago my cousin was dying of cancer, and she removed every newspaper, magazine and television from her home so that she could focus on her art and on helping others (she offered free financial advice to retirees).  I admired her focus but recall thinking that I would never shut myself off from the world the way that she did, even in those circumstances.  Now, as I watch the towers fall yet again, I understand, and yet I watch, hoping to think of something good we can do with my son’s time machine.

We Thought We Could

Election Night 2006 confetti

Election night 2006.  That’s Deval Patrick on the jumbo screen at right, emerging triumphant in his victory as the first person of color to be elected governor of Massachusetts.  The campaign slogan was Together We Can.  The headline in today’s Boston Globe was that he will cut 1,000 state jobs to avoid a budget deficit of $600 million.  He didn’t create the recession, but there is still something terribly disheartening about this news.  Families of people with disabilties will lose the people who support them, more teachers will lose their jobs, more schools will be overcrowded, and politicians – the Governor included – may use this as an excuse to build casinos in Massachusetts.  He is sinking in a quagmire not of his own making, and signs point that he is looking to all the wrong people to pull him out.  I don’t blame him for not getting along with his own legislature – even though his party holds the majority – but, just as with Obama, I wonder if he has been able to surround himself with people who are truly like-minded.

That election night was an interesting moment in time.  Ted Kennedy spoke (boring boilerplate), as did John Kerry (deadly boring boilerplate – leftover from 2004 Presidential campaign) and Martha Coakley (most boring of all attorney general-speak that she still uses in her current campaign to fill Kennedy’s Senate seat).  Patrick was the beaming exception.  Like Obama – he literally lit up the room.

Still, my favorite moment from that night did not take place on the floor, but in the empty corridor outside as my daughter and I were going out to find something to eat before the speeches began.  It was one of those enormous convention center hallways that could accomodate a truck if it was required, and walking toward us was a man in a red pullover sweater.  He looked familiar and I squinted to get a better look.  He smiled at me and, not breaking his easy stride, smiled and said “Hi there, how are you?”

“Fine, thanks.”  I nodded and returned the smile as we passed each other. 

 My daughter looked at me, and said “Who was that?  It seemed like he knew you.”

“That, my dear, was Mike Dukakis.   And he was once the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.  I’ve never met him before, but that’s what good politicians do – they make everybody feel like them know them.”

“That guy in the red sweater walking all by himself?”

That guy in the red sweater walking all by himself.

Eight Years and Counting

The eighth anniversary of September 11 brings cloudy skies, and rightly so. Unlike that blindingly clear day, everything is murky now. We are mired in a jobless recovery from a recession that snuck up on us, an no one seem to really know how to fix health care, and everyone is cranky about it. We expected that September 11 would change the way we live radically, instantaneously, but it didn’t – instead it visited upon us a long, slow, steep decline that we still fail to comprehend.

I remember calling my mother in Saint Louis as the towers burned. ‘I have been waiting for something like this to happen my whole life,” I said. “That’s terrible,” she replied. “People are jumping out of the buildings.” “I don’t mean that,” I tried to explain, “I mean that this is a defining moment for my generation. I always heard about Pearl Harbor, about the assassinations, about events that everyone else remembers happening with a sense of manifest destiny. And with that came an identity, a place in history that shaped how you look at the world in the space of a moment. Everything that happens from this moment on will be thought of in terms of before and after this day.”

I still believe that. September 11 set George Bush on a course for disaster but in a more roundabout way it set Barack Obama on a course for victory. If Bush (and so many others complicit in the march to war and financial ruin) had not been so terribly wrong, people never could have made the leap of faith that brought Obama forward. But where that leap of faith will take us remains to be seen. Will his eloquent hopes lead us to a sustainable future? Can one man cure a crippled legislature?

I think the mentality that there were terrorists at the gate created by September 11 allowed bankers to gamble and regulators to turn a blind eye. Like the 1920s after World War I, a war that was decimating a generation provided all the rationale required to pursue the high life. The post 9/11 world allowed the government and media to hype the beauty of having it now just at the moment that the generation who saw the danger in that philosophy was fading away. No one was willing to say no to anything except personal responsibility. Who knew what the future would bring; why wait when you can Buy It Now, just like on eBay.

And still, for every one of us that has reacted in fear and denial there are so many who have been humbled, who have worked to understand our responsibility to act thoughtfully. It is that appreciation, that sense that if we try to listen we can come to an honest conclusion about what is right for us, that brought us to the conclusion that is Barack Obama. We have so much history to overcome in this process. Not just racism but the politics of money, legislative and judicial inertia, and party organizations that no longer make any sense. Many a good public servant has fallen prey to the duplicitousness of friends and enemies alike.

September 11, the wars, and the Crash of 2008 robbed us of what little trust we had manage to recoup after Watergate and Viet Nam. Restoring it is a tall order for one man, but we have done more with less.

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