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Friday, March 25, 2016

"The Ghost Behind My Shoulder" (on what it means to be a senior citizen)


the ghost behind my shoulder

Today, I received, as I have many days over the past few years, a friendly call from my United Health Care, who regularly counsels me about my need to call the pharmacy about my drug dosages and question my general health. Since I am still quite competent and order my drug refills on time, and since I had, this time, just seen my primary doctor for my annual checkup, I angrily hung up—the call, after all, was an automatic one, with no human being behind it who might be hurt or abused by my obstinate return of the phone to its cradle.
      I know why they are they are calling. I am 68 years of age, and in May I will be 69; I am described by them, and the government, as a senior citizen. And they are a bit worried that I may becoming somewhat forgetful, perhaps even moving toward a bit of dementia that perhaps might allow me to forget about my need to call my pharmacy for a refill, or allow me to ignore major signals of human deterioration. In truth, I am quite actively killing myself through alcohol, but my health plan doesn’t actually know that—although perhaps my primary doctor has reported that information to them. Nonetheless, I’m angry. They are treating me as a very old man, who doesn’t quite know what I’m doing, while I perceive—and I presume anyone who read these pages might perceive—I am not quite there yet. 
     My entire writing in the My Year volumes is about my memory, wherein I have revealed, apparently, that I remember much more than other members of my own generation and those even younger can now recall. Yes, there is always the possibility, as we all must admit, that I have misremembered much, or make up some of what I define as the past. But I have worked hard to produce actual documents that reiterate my own memory; and I believe that what I am remembering from so long ago actually represents facts, as I have worked hard to substantiate my own experiences. 
      I specifically do recall my mother’s own complaints of a decade or two ago (now, at 90 years of age, she no longer complains since she is suffering from dementia) that whenever she had a doctor visit, he would communicate only with my brother or sister, as if she was not in the same room. “She,” the doctor might report, is “suffering from ….whatever…” as if my mother might not be able to hear or respond about the report. What she was severely suffering was the absolute ignorance of her own being in the very room in which she sat with the doctor. Why couldn’t the doctor turn to her and tell her, to her face, what was the problem? And why couldn’t my brother or sister speak up for her, and report that she, in fact, was sitting right before them, and might be actually spoken to?
      I was angry for my mother when she reported this through our long telephonic conversations, where I had determined to allow her to speak rather than me dominating our conversations. It was after the death of our father, in the process of which I had to deal with my mother, that I learned to simply stop talking and begin to listen to the woman with whom I’d had so many battles, that changed everything. I began to listen, and was pained by what I knew she was encountering. If only I had been there, I am sure I would have told those doctors to please speak to my mother instead of to me: she was alive and very much able to listen to their advisements. But they treated her, at the age of 70 and, later 80, as if she couldn’t possibly comprehend what they might have said. She was angry and hurt. 
     Despite her belief in the system and her absolute commitment to authority, she had finally begun, in her old age, to doubt the wisdom they might have pontificated. And, I think, in the end, even today, it has changed her entire vision of what the authorities or the system might be able to offer for her own existence. 
     She is disturbed today when the workers at her health-care facility sweep in and take away her day-old blouses and pants to clean them; she is peeved when they suddenly force her into the showers for a needed clean-up. I try to explain to her that these actions represent only good intentions, to make sure her clothes (which she may not know she has spoiled) are properly cleaned, and that her body is purified, as she always desired it would be. My mother spent her entire life cleaning our house and our lives…why does she now so resist the idea? 
     Well, I do now begin to understand. It is not she who matters as much as a system that is insisting she behave in a certain way. Without even knowing it, she has become a kind of resistant elderly person who no longer desires to be defined by the society at large. Although, in her thinking, she remains a conservative, she has joined the intellectual revolutions of those who feel abused by the system.
      When my sister wanted to have my mother be tested for Alzheimer’s, I adamantly protested. Even having such a test would have possibly have determined that she was suffering from something far more seriously than her simple aging memory. She still tells me, every time I call her, even to this day, what she eats each evening, and shares with me her personal hurts from the comments her dinner-companions make; although these are stories she has repeated over the years, they are, I am sure, incessantly repeated, little accusations of why she isn’t wearing earrings (when the accuser never wears any kind of jewelry), etc. If these are repetitious statements, they are probably represent repetitious actions reiterated by the looks and statements of her table mates day after day; or, even if existing only in my mother’s overactive imagination, they still dominate her memory. 
    She has still her imagination. She reads. She wonders when my sister might join her again in an evening of what she perceives as “illegal” glass of wine or two in her small room (“I have to share a bathroom,” she incessantly complains); she remembers and appreciates my weekly calls. She is angry only for being treated as if she had no active mind. How can I blame her for that perception?; and even her expressing it is only evidence that she does still very much have an active mind.
      When I recently went to the doctor for my annual checkup, for the first time in my life the attending nurse, after checking my blood pressure and reconfirming my pill usages, suddenly told me that she was going to mention four words—table, apple, peach, and knife—which I might be asked to repeat later. I immediately knew why she was asking those questions. Was I suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia? Suddenly I was terrified: had I become my mother, an old person to whom they could they longer directly speak?  
      “What year is it?” she suddenly inquired. I was so astounded by the banality of the question that for a few seconds I couldn’t even speak. “2016,” I answered.

      And what day is it?
      I puffed for a few seconds in shock. “Tuesday, the day of my appointment,” I answered. “And it’s March in case you’re interested.”
      She was.
      Now can you recall the four words I mentioned beforehand.

      I offered them up in their opposite listing: “Knife, peach, apple, table.” Not very original or profound words. And you might notice they all relate to a perfectly happy picnic? The kind I might have experienced in my childhood.

      My friendly hispanic nurse said nothing. I had proven that I was not “one of them”—the old folk who needed further help.
      Everything was fine.
      Everything was not fine. All good boys and all good girls do not to heaven go simply by knowing. If you get too far up the scale, well there’s sour notes up there and you will most definitely be punished for hitting them. 
       I hope when I am 80 years of age, a doctor will speak to me, directly, telling me if I am still living or about to die. Please, doctor, do not speak to the ghost behind my shoulder. I want to talk to you directly, even if I can’t quite comprehend what you’re talking about. I have spent my life attempting to explain my experiences to your generation.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2106

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"A New 'Liberalism'"


a new “liberalism" 

by Douglas Messerli

 

Most US commentators have increasingly pointed out that American liberals, over the past few years, have grown more and more to favor what one might have formerly described as American leftist viewpoints. One need only look at the open admission of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders embracement of “socialism”—however limited that may be in terms of his own political practice—and the excitement it has generated, particularly among younger voters, to realize something has changed in the Democratic Party. And the fact that Sanders has forced Hillary Clinton to reconstruct many of her centrist positions is even further testament to those important shifts.

     If President Obama, himself, often appeared throughout his career to take the centrist path, increasingly, once he became a “lame duck” president, he has attempted to do everything in his power (a power increasingly diminished by rightest congressional representatives) to move toward his more liberal (and leftist) positions. If Obama remained a kind right-centrist with regard to the rights of Americans for computer and telephonic privacy—and one must always wonder why he had become so adamant about his commitment to abandon these rights: what does he know about terrorism that forces him into this position?—in almost every other issue, he moved further to the left, arguing for more open immigration policies, for major shifts in industrial responses to climate change, more open political and trade relationships with Cuba, Mexico, and even Canada, and more liberal approaches to jurisprudence in connection with sexual, religious, and cultural choices denounced by the most conservative forces.

     Perhaps Obama’s own high regard for the democratic system and his natural distaste for the ugly “mud-and-shit” battles of American politics made him often seem aloof; but it is clear that he saw as one of his goals to bring the US culture into a more liberal and even leftist lean. Despite our impossibly enmeshed struggles with radical Islam (words which, for fear of besmirching the American Islam communities, Obama refused to use), he sought ways to bring the American military out of its inevitable and surely endless involvement in the Arab world.

     Ultimately, Obama—the black devil of narrow white prejudices—was, perhaps, simply too much of a gentleman to achieve his goals; maybe you need a coarse, foul-mouthed southerner such as Lyndon B. Johnson to make the kind of changes Obama sought to achieve. Certainly President Jimmy Carter had long ago learned the lesson that gentility gets you nowhere in Washington, D.C.—except perhaps at dinner parties, many of which I grumpily attended in my days there.

     It is hard to envision, given the need for such diplomatic behavior, someone as course and vulgar as Donald Trump celebrating a leader from any nation in the White House. Oh, I am sure he has entertained many lovely women and men in his New York apartments quite brilliantly, serving up the best wine and steaks one might imagine. But the roar of his insatiable self-centrism and openly boisterous financial and, quite frankly, greedy values suggests he will quickly be seen by the rest of the world—no matter how truly rapacious many other leaders are—as a monstrous beast lumbering into whatever New Jerusalem’s they might have imagined, is simply unfathomable.  This man, who seems to admire one of the worst of world leaders, Putin, seems incomprehensible as an American leader.

     Yet, as even he preaches, he has brought many of the uneducated, least-paid of American workers into the Republican Party, and, more importantly, into his seemingly dictatorial-like sway. These people are ready to swear an oath to him that can only remind one of the Nazi Party fervor of Hitler’s early followers. They are willing, literally, to “beat-up” those who, attending his gatherings, dare to protest against his values. Many of them, as he argues, have never before voted or been politically involved. Who as these thugs, one wonders? What kind of men and women, the later of whom seem even more deluded given Trump’s consistent demeaning of the women who cross his path, are these folk? What does this extremely wealthy man, who has for decades worked to achieve great wealth, mean to these working stiffs? Are they simply deluded or has he miraculously and inexplicably tapped into their anger with the political system?

     Trump would have you believe it is the latter, that he—one of the wealthiest men in the US—has simply tapped into and, most importantly, “listened to” the concerns of the undereducated and overlooked would-be Middle-class, as if he were a saintly member of the ruling class who has swung down to bless and care for them. He has no specific answers for how he will, in fact, truly create for them a better world, but his promises, based on the reputation for his somewhat blurred achievements, are a matter of total faith. “We will be great,” he argues, “I promise you, things will be better, much better.” And, as if his word might be enough, the crowd, a bit like a revival-meeting devotees, clamors its absolute faith in his quite unspecific notion of the future.

      Although Trump has seemingly been converted into religious conservatism, he remains vaguely aligned with some of his previously more liberal viewpoints. Although, he is against “Obamacare,” he seems to not have no real solutions to achieving his desire to still support most needy Americans. Although he argues against immigration, insisting he will build a wall a make Mexico pay, he continues to argue for a fair path for to citizenship, something which neither Cruz nor Rubio seem able to offer. While he argues that the US arms agreement with Iran was badly negotiated, he is not committed to its immediate cancellation.

     In truth, of course, he and most of those in government know that many of Trump’s claims of what he will do are impossible, that his insistence, for example, that millions of Mexicans illegally living in this country will be rounded up and transported out of the US or that he will be able to immediately send US troops to end ISIS. These are obviously political bluffs shouted out to what presumably is an audience of “yahoos.” But are these working class men and women actually “yahoos?” Intellectuals and even good-intentioned liberals can imagine the intellectual limits of such a folk, but I truly don’t feel they’re quite as stupid as the media and our own cultural separations might have us believe. Not so recently, but for years in my youth, I sat many a night i Philadelphia, New York, and even Paris working-class bars, and heard the kind of men and women arguing in quite a passionate and intelligent manner, questioning assumed values while venting their anger, but also expressing quite sophisticated explications of their world. Unless we imagine that these people no longer exist, or that the so-called evangelicals who are supporting Trump are all unthinking beasts, convinced that their man is right no matter what he says—a notion that has in fact been posited on CNN and many other news stations, and even by Trump himself, who at one point claimed that if he shot down a man of Fifth Avenue he would still be loved by his “supporters.”—one has to wonder what they see in this new political potentate.

       Let me just suggest—and I have absolutely no evidence to support this—that Trump allows them a route that they have never before been offered into not only the elite world from which they have been forever excluded. Trump gives the sense that too might connected to wealth while also slipping into more balanced positions in US politics.

     Obviously, the Tea Party and Republican politics have utterly failed them. Yet, as God-believing, somewhat bigoted and very frightened Americans they certainly have no way of embracing the Democratic political system. Where might they go to feel involved in the American system? Only, if like various isolationist communities who have arisen over the past few decades, they opted out of the American political scene, might they find a route of involvement.

      Trump, oddly enough, offers them, perhaps without them truly knowing it, a graceful way out, by pretending a conservatism which is, unstatedly, not the real thing. Trump, notably, does not represent the scorch-the-earth policies of Ted Cruz, nor the whiny neo-con politics of Marco Rubio, but rather pretends a politics of out-reach, as if Zeus were reaching down like Michelangelo’s savior to touch the hand of ordinary mankind. Who might resist such a seemingly generous offer?

      That the self-centrist Trump might not really be offering anything, in the end, that might help these desperate folk, is unthinkable. Why bother to share his basically motivational speeches (modeled on Trump’s own hero, Norman Vincent Peale) if he weren’t seriously concerned about their lives?

      In truth, I am convinced, Trump is serious only about his own career. As a pundit today rather ironically expressed it today on CNN—a day in which Trump had seemingly softened is bitter attacks on opponents: “If there are truly ‘two” Donald Trumps, we can only imagine who his vice presidential candidate might be.” Yet he has successfully convinced, it appears, a large portion of the basically conservative believers to join him in what promises to be a more liberal agenda that those Republicans running against him. As Jimmy Carter quite perceptively argued, Donald Trump is, perhaps, a far less dangerous foe for the American left than any of the other candidates—even if his kind of “liberalism” is a dangerous political position. Both Mussolini and Hitler, we must remember, portrayed their fascist positions as liberating.  

      If Trump, as he argues for himself, is infusing the Republican Party with new believers, at least they will certainly be drinking his strong brand of coffee rather than weak tea.

 

Los Angeles, March 11, 2016