Friday, June 24, 2016

America's midlife crisis

I’ve been talking with an old friend from school recently.  He is struggling with a job he hates and a marriage that has left him thoroughly disillusioned with the whole concept of relationships, and just a lot of dissatisfaction with hobbies and life in general. Spends a lot of time talking about how much fun it was to be in our 20’s and not having a lot of cares beyond passing Biochemistry and whether we had enough quarters to get our laundry done this week. When I ask him what he’s looking for, he can’t answer. “I don’t know.  Just not this.” I’ve been quietly hinting that he’s in the middle of a midlife crisis.  I don’t think he appreciates it much. (I also don’t think he reads this blog but I guess I am about to find out ;-)

To my absolute surprise, he’s also thinking about voting for Donald Trump.  “I just hate this government.  It’s corrupt.  It’s dysfunctional. I sort of want to implode the whole thing and start over.” When I countered, “OK, so you implode it.  What really good thing happens after that?  What do you replace it with?” I again got no real response. “Just not this.” 

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to America’s midlife crisis.

Yes; I’ve been dancing around this theme for a while. Not surprising, I guess, given that all of my contemporaries are in their late 40s and early 50s, stuck in that decade-long Thesis Year I alluded to a couple posts ago.  We’re all feeling a bit uncomfortable in our own skin right now.

America is in much the same place. We are nearly 240 years old. The average lifespan of a civilization, from 3000 BC until now, is roughly 425 years, so do that math. We’re in that phase of our development where all the straightforward problems have largely been solved and we’re stuck with the really sticky ones that are seriously tough to work out.  Our infrastructure needs a serious overhaul. Our population is aging and getting more expensive to take care of.  We’ve run up an overwhelming and frankly insurmountable debt. We have had to put a lot of rules in place to curtail the bad behavior of a small minority of greedy or irresponsible citizens, and the sheer weight of regulation is starting to strangle all of us.  We have a lot of “family members” who have serious entitlement issues, and an equal number who are struggling to get basic needs met.  Both of these groups are “acting out”, like children in desperate need of balance in their lives.

America is not alone.  The western world is stuck in a bit of a post-industrial existential ennui (Edit:  I've been told that the word I really want here is Weltschmerz), as evidenced by last night’s decision by Britain to leave the European Union.  As another friend pointed out to me, this is the latest in a long line of western populist revolts, their own midlife crises of sorts, that have plagued Europe in the last 15 years, largely led by charismatic authoritarians and largely voted in by people who don’t understand what they’re voting for.

These nations are longing for something, someone, who will make this all seem simpler, easier, more straightforward. For a problem that has a solution. As I pointed out a few months ago, Donald Trump is claiming to have those easy answers for America. He blames immigrants, the intelligensia, Democrats, Republicans, the media, social service programs, the poor, the rich (except for him) – anyone on whom he can pin some quick blame and onto which he can hang a quick, radical program that will have the appearance of a solution for the short term and make everyone feel better. In short, he’s suggesting that the sports car and the skinny girlfriend are a JUST FINE idea, and further that someone else will pay the bills and put the kids through college and fix that hole in the roof.  It’s certainly an option; no question.  But not unlike in our personal lives, the aftermath of tossing out simplistic solutions to really complicated problems can have far-reaching consequences not just now, but well into the future.  Long-term recession, war, increased wealth disparity, civil unrest.  None of it is particularly appetizing.

The problem, of course, is that the alternative – looking hard at the tough problems that face our country, our government, and our society, and making the hard decisions necessary to change them – is kind of a drag. Unlike our personal crises, this isn’t going to be solved by deciding to work out more often and take a pottery class on Saturdays. Because our problems are so diverse and so multi-dimensional, no matter what you do, no matter how you make things better for a majority, there’s always going to be someone who ends up worse off, and angry and vocal. It’s not too tasty either, and frankly it can feel Sisyphean. In fact, it can feel so overwhelming that it’s hard to imagine the “blow it up and start over” option could be worse.

Change needs to happen, no doubt. The issues that spark any midlife crisis are very real ones and we can’t afford to ignore them. It’s just a question of whether this country is going to go out for a pack of cigarettes at lunch time and end up at a strip club three states away, have a protracted divorce a la Brexit, or change careers, fix the roof, cut back on dinners out, get into marriage counseling for the next eight years and grind through it. 

For my own part, I decided to buy a bikini and take belly dancing for now; we’ll see how that works out. 

For the rest of us, I’m hoping that watching the collective buyer’s remorse of the Brexit vote will be a good object lesson and this nation will think carefully about its next move. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

BelieveLand, indeed

“Fezzig, you did something right.”

“Don’t worry; I won’t let it go to my head.”
   --The Princess Bride (1987)

You may have heard that the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship the other night.

I’ll start off by saying I’m not a basketball fan, except for sometimes enjoying the purity of a good high school game, where I care about the kids playing, or the occasional bracket-busting NCAA Cinderella story.  I greeted the return of King James to Cleveland with a yawn.  I’m sure that all makes me un-American at some level but there you go.

I’m a fan, though, of the City of Cleveland and the surrounding area that has been my home, on and off, throughout my life.

A lot (a LOTTTTT) has been written about the sports championship drought in this city, the “ya gotta be tough to live here” mentality of the residents, and the hardscrabble, “you’ll get nothing and like it” history of economic disappointment in this region. One more voice isn’t going to make much of a difference there.

Instead, I want to write about the power of a winning attitude and what it can do for a person, a family, a town. 

This town isn’t used to winning. We expect to lose. Even when everything points to success, we anticipate failure, and way more often than not, we get it. Sports, business…hell, even our weather is crummy.  We live on the coast of the largest single body of fresh water on Earth, and we can’t develop a waterfront entertainment area. We are the second-poorest big city in the nation. Our malls are closing down, our population is moving out of the area.  The city, is literally, three times as big as it should be for the number of people living here. 

And yet, there is a fierce pride in the people who live here. A sense that we are truly a community. A willingness to give one another a hand up. A sense of perseverance, of shared purpose. We don't give up easily, and we're proud of that. That pride has had a chance to show itself off a bit this year.  We are hosting a national political convention next month. Our downtown is growing and the population is moving back to the city. Our restaurant scene has been named one of the ten best in the nation. Our art museum (a true hidden gem) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer.  Our biotech investment environment has grown faster this year than just about any other in the country.

And today, we are celebrating a sports championship win. A hard-won victory that was borne out of that sense of perseverance and pride. It may not seem like a big deal to those of you who live in New York, or San Francisco, or Denver or Chicago. You’re used to winning.  You expect it. You’re cynical about it at this point.  But to a region that has become so accustomed to losing, this feels magical. It feels like the type of event that can take a region beyond the tipping point, to help it get juuust over that peak and make the next win come more easily. 

It’s the type of event that lets the people who live here say “We are winners.  Look at us.”  And that feeling, that momentum, is contagious. I know it’s just a game, but this win is important for this city in a way that most people can’t possibly appreciate.

LeBron James appreciated it.  I gained a new respect for the man the other night, after watching him, I swear, break his wrist with 10 seconds left in the game, still take a couple of foul shots, and then break down, sobbing, on the floor of that arena when the buzzer went off and he and the rest of the nation realized the Cavs had won that game.  Doris Burke, the ESPN analyst (off-topic: does that woman ever smile?) asked him if this win was more important than his previous two championship wins. 

He answered “Of course it is.  This...this is about my home. These people deserve this.”

He’s right.  They do.  And I’m looking forward to see what the combination of perseverance and a winning attitude will do for us here.

They're calling it BelieveLand today.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Have a Good Time

Yesterday it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
I should be depressed
My life's a mess
But I'm having a good time
                                                                                            --Paul Simon, Have a Good Time

As nearly as I can tell, Paul Simon speaks for pretty much everyone I know.

There was a part of me…ok, pretty much all of me…growing up that really thought that by the time I got to my 40s and 50s, life would feel way more in control than it did when I was younger and really felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants all the time.  You know; theoretically I’m supposed to have my shit together and have coping skills and disposable income by this point, right?

Well, here I am newly-minted at the age of 50-something and I have all that stuff.  I have a great job and a good house and I can balance my checkbook (with a pen and everything when necessary), replace the tail lights in my car, prepare a nutritious meal in 30 minutes or less with whatever crap I can find in the pantry, hem my own pants, soothe a crying baby, negotiate a contract, and re-light the pilot light on the hot water tank without assistance.  I have mad skillz, yo.

What they DON’T tell you in your 20s and 30s is that there is an order of magnitude difference in the complexity of the problems you face in your 40s and 50s versus those you face as a younger adult.  I mean, this is like graduate school.  You know, when you’re an undergrad and they give you a problem to solve, there’s actually a SOLUTION to the problem, and your job is to find it.  Grad school is different.  You get to grad school and you encounter a problem and you think you have the solution and you ask your professor if it’s right and he’s all like, “How the fuck should I know? Your job now is just to justify why you came to the conclusion you did and ensure you actually accounted for all the variables. The rest is uncharted territory, Buttercup.”

Wow.  Thanks.

And really, that’s sort of what you deal with once you hit middle age and beyond.  It’s no longer just can you show up for work every day, keep your toddler from falling off the earth, manage to make your paycheck last as long as the month, fix the leak in the kitchen drain, help patch together your friend with the drinking problem and get in for a pap smear once a year.  Now, we have sick and dying parents, estate management, patching together the adult children of the alcoholic friends and relatives we had in our 20s, retirement planning, trying to launch our own adult kids who really think they really have all the flipping answers already (Mom, seriously; thanks for not killing me when I was 22), keeping other people’s toddlers from falling off the earth, middle age depression, managing metabolic syndrome, and how the hell did we accumulate all that crap in the garage???

I really never understood why the members of my parent's generation always looked so serious and stressed out. For heaven's sake, who knew they were spending a decade and a half in their thesis year??? Mom...Mom?  You there?  I get it.  Sorry. 

And it’s not just me – all my friends are singing this song.

For my birthday yesterday, I received the following things:

  •       A children’s book from 1965
  •       A rock, painted to look like an owl
  •       A few decent bottles of red wine
  •       Purple garden tools
  •       A kitschy solar light for my garden
  •       A jingly belly dancing skirt
  •       A new bra (ok, I bought that for myself) 
  •       A decent meal with good friends

When I was younger, I wondered why old people were so delighted with the simplest little presents. I thought they were just trying to be cute and agreeable. Now I know why. Because they are simple, when so little else is.

For my birthday this year, I asked only that my friends go for a walk with me at my favorite park and that my husband make conch fritters in the kitchen and we hang out and have a drink and a laugh together.  The weather was glorious and my friends were caring and the food was delicious and I was grateful beyond words for the joy and simplicity of those acts and that day.

So from now on, if you’re over 45, I’m probably going to start wishing you the joy of an uncomplicated year to come.  Because heaven knows I could use one; you probably could too.

Have a good time.