Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on April 5, 2014
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
― John Donne
It was a milestone week. I turned 65. Like many, I never thought I would reach this age. Yet this very week I learned that several childhood friends did not. Three have passed this year, two of whom played significant roles in my early life and then drifted away, like we do.
Allow me to beg your indulgence from taking the pulse of doom to indulge a few personal observations.
We children of Happy Motoring, were raised on the Flintstones and the Cleavers as a vision of family life, and on the Jetsons as a vision of a cornucopian future. As the son of an electrician and a homemaker, I was raised on trade union Democrats values– economically liberal, socially conservative, and expected that I would somehow take my place in a world much like theirs. Uh, no. By the time I left college, that world that no longer existed.
During my lifetime it’s all changed– the New Deal social contract has been rescinded, and the prescription, we’re told, is austerity for workers and tax breaks for corporations and the one per cent. In the 1960s a single earner could pay the rent or mortgage, clothe and feed a family, buy a car and maybe have a little left over for a vacation. Now two earner (or more) households have become the norm, and the vast majority of paychecks yield far less earning power than that of a union electrician in 1965.
I recall a lesson from fifth grade. We learned about the “melting pot,” complete with an illustration of people of all nationalities and races happily jumping into a pot to make soup. The point being we were a nation of immigrants, bonded together in the notion that, “out of many, one:” E Pluribus Unum. Today armed, angry white men patrol the southern borders in search of brown faces without papers. A nation built on immigrants no longer welcomes immigrants, unless they bring an independent fortune or skills favored industries need.
I was the second of my family to enter college, and my luck to enroll during the height of Vietnam. I went in patriotic, full of received wisdom and civic virtue, and enrolled in ROTC, earned a scholarship and was prepared to enter the Regular Army as an officer. Then came the USS Pueblo incident, and then My Lai. Those episodes shattered closely held beliefs and preconceptions. At once, my college experience transformed from 13th and 14th grade to learning how to think, perhaps for the first time. What, you mean our government would leave Lloyd Bucher and those sailors to rot in a North Korean prison? What, you mean kids like me uncritically murder Asian women and children? What, we’re not the good guys? I began to question everything that I had been taught, and from there, everything changed.
On reaching adulthood and employment in which the demands were on mind rather than body, my style would be to work hard, play harder and cram as much as possible into what would doubtless be a few short years. To the surprise of all, those stretched on. My MO was that while I might not be the brightest or most talented, I was a grinder who would succeed through sheer dint of effort and persistence. 80 hour weeks punctuated with long evenings of riotous relief, and, uh, excess? A way of life. For a while.
It took many years to realize that what I did was not who I was. There were victories; and there were losses.
The losses give you perspective, and remind that the bell eventually tolls for all of us.
And with that ringing in my ears, I now approach the final laps of a career in media, including photography, video, film and writing. A time to think of What’s It All Been About, and What Have I Learned Along the Way? Having made every possible mistake along the way, committed every sin short of murder, and been slow to learn from experience, repeating most mistakes several times, a few simple principles have emerged:
1) Kindness. Always be kind. Easy to lose track of when we are young and on the make, in competition with others and serving those all-important ego needs. We get sucked–or leap– into the matrix and forget what’s really important, which are relationships.
2) Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. Dale Carnegie makes this his first rule of human relations. In college I played interior line, and wrestled. My job was to knock other people down. After a while the workplace, as in life, one eventually begins to learn that not every adversary needs knocking down, and not every obstacle is an adversary- some are opportunities. Some learn this essential truth later rather than earlier. It’s amazing how relationships change when you stop being critical of others, and thus engage their own self protective mechanisms. Duh.
3) Live in the Present. In my 20s, I encountered a slender tome by Baba Ram Dass entitled, “Be Here Now.” As I recall, it was about the importance of being fully present in the here and now. It resonated. How many of us spend time rehashing old wounds, or worrying about the future? There is a reason that the “Recitation of the Grievances” made famous by Jerry Stiller’s Festivus celebration on Seinfeld was so funny– because it’s so true. Whenever I return home, I become 15 again as my 86 year old mother opens a trunk full of 60-year-old grievances. Was it Voltaire who said, “My life is been filled with one catastrophe after another, most of which never occurred?” We spend a lot of time worrying about uncertainties, when the effort is better placed on creating a desired reality.
So we Boomers came of age and enjoyed the blessings of cheap energy and a dollar backed by nukes and military force. Now the energy is getting more dear, harder to extract and the dollar is closer than ever to losing reserve status, all at a time when good jobs remain hard to find.
My life has been modest in material terms, but has been enough. Enough to enjoy a working class standard of living, a decent home and raise a daughter. It’s a life I’ve chosen, with no apologies or excuses. What brings me to the Diner each day is the realization that it’s all doomed, and I will miss it when it’s all gone. Between the neocons eager to fight World War III down to the last drop of your grandchildren’s blood, and the crony capitalists and their bankster allies determined to bleed the last drops of wealth out of the near empty husk of what used to be America’s middle class, it appears that those at the top of the pyramid have determined that the world needs to shed about 6 billion “useless eaters” and redundant population. What do corporations do when they have excess workforce? They lay them off.
Prepare to be “laid off.”
The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
—Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality
People aren’t stupid. Most people, from urban liberals to country rednecks, can sniff the zeitgeist. “Survivalists” have been around since the 70s. Nowadays, more people are turning to “prepping”, including many on the far right, who have repaired to fortified compounds in Idaho, etc., the better to wait out the zombie hordes and/or the black helicopters. (Bracing, is it not, to think that the Mormons will be the subset of Americans best positioned to transition through the Zero Point?)
Karma is a bitch. If one reaps what one sows, our portion today is the inevitable bitter harvest of decades of government lies and perfidy, from the Warren Commission’s “magic bullet” to the 9/11 cover story to the lack of faith in the very function of government due to corporate capture. People are sick of being lied to; people are sick of seeing their unresponsive government toady to lobbyists, while ignoring the needs of ordinary citizens. So they’re planning for it all to end, and quite literally taking matters into their own hands for when it does.
One of the great blessings of my dotage is having found the woman that shares my home and life. I met Contrary quite literally in the streets during the height of Occupy. Casual conversation developed into a friendship that then exploded into something quite unexpected. Had anyone told me that I would be getting married after decades of living as a single man, I would have doubled down on that action and covered all I could get. Well. Surprise, surprise. I now live with my best friend, confidant and a veritable Scheherazade, a wellspring of both stories and common fucking sense.
As a child, my grandmother had ice delivered by horsedrawn dray, and lived to see man land on the moon and the end of the Soviet Union. Considering my own lifetime, in which cheap energy draws to a close, I can see our current mode of living will not survive our generation. We have been reduced to a “precariat,” a term used by that servant of hell Alan Greenspan. Prospects for our young people of gone from bad to worse. Our grandchildren will shake their heads in disbelief when they hear stories about the way their parents used to live. When the dollar loses reserve status, the American lifestyle will be reduced to that of the average Croatian today; couple that with the significant and increasing likelihoods of environmental collapse, water shortages or nuke plant meltdowns, and the prospects darken even more. The good news is that the holders of real wealth, those who own property, metals, real assets will survive substantially intact. The only people who will suffer are those who are paid in, save or spend dollars, and who piss away their earnings on luxuries like food, rent, heat, and medicines.
So near the end of it all, it looks as if we’re at the end of it all. Makes a fellow wistful. What matters is that we make such common cause as we can, treat one another as well as we are able, and greet uncertainty with grace and dignity. And be grateful that that bell has not yet tolled, and that the grave has not yet opened for that dirt nap.
Surly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective on this site, and quit barking and got off the porch long enough to be active in the Occupy movement. He shares a home in Southeastern Virginia with his new bride Contrary in a triumph of hope over experience, and is grateful that he is not yet taking a dirt nap.