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An Uncle’s Unrest

My Uncle Charles came into mom’s house in an agitated state.

He filled a cup with coffee, which mom dutifully prepares each morning in her new coffee maker, the latest model that keeps the brew hot without the pot.

As he sat down, holding himself erect, sipping his coffee, he started in on the President-elect, claiming:

1.  Barack Obama’s not even a citizen of the U.S.

2.  Plus, he’s going to “know all our secrets”

3.  And, he’ll take us to the far left….

I had to take a closer look at my uncle to make sure he was okay. He was clearly wound up, face screwed into a knot, the same way I get—must be the German in us—at the injustice and stupidity of the Bush legacy.

Only he was worked up about Obama’s mysterious origins, and insinuating that Obama isn’t really working for the United States, or its citizens.

My mom, who usually doesn’t participate in political discussions, addressed him the way she does me when she demands a straight answer: “What are you trying to say, Charles?”

He wouldn’t elaborate but the idea hung heavily in the shelter of mom’s cozy den that Obama is a sham foisted on a naïve populace eager for change.

I answered for my uncle: “Already, he’s a helluva lot better than what we’ve had for the last eight years. And he’s not even president yet.” Then I asked: “Do you really think Obama would have been elected if he wasn’t a citizen?”

Like many, I have my doubts about Obama; he is, after all, a politician, and a very good one, but I doubt he’s a scoundrel. I doubt he’ll sanction the blatant disregard for human rights the way Bush and Cheney did.

I trust him more than Bush; I feel a lot safer with him. He at least appears to prefer diplomacy and statesmanship to the bellicosity and ignorance of a scoundrel. That alone will bring a measure of security that Bush, for all of his bluster and buffoonery as Commander-in-Chief, never could.

The election of Barack Obama as president clearly presages something new and different, a turn away from fatally flawed foreign and domestic policies, and it suggests that the electorate has had enough of the bullying and brinkmanship and villainy of the Bush administration. But will Obama really make a difference? Will his “Yes, we can!” ring as merrily in four years as it does now?

***

A fire flickered in the fireplace in mom’s den, warming the room already full with the sweet hefty odor of Thanksgiving leftovers. An almost perfect holiday enclosure.

I wanted to sink into the delicious comfort of my childhood home amid the holiday cheer, but the horribly efficient terrorist assault on Mumbai, and Black Friday’s trampling death of a temporary worker at Wal-Mart and the shooting deaths at a Southern California Toys R Us store, made letting go of my usual anxieties difficult, if not impossible.

The world outside seemed to be spinning out of control—as usual. The consequences of America’s greed more evident than ever: Wall Street in shambles, banks and investment giants faltering, murder and mayhem in the nation’s shopping malls, an economy in collapse, and the heads of America’s Big Three automakers begging Congress for money.

Global fear had reached a new height, where less than a dozen well-trained gunmen terrorized the financial heart of India, killing scores of unsuspecting travelers and citizens, and giving notice to the world that the stakes are higher than ever.

Pakistan, on the verge of collapse and about to be overrun by terrorists, maintains the world’s sixth largest nuclear arsenal. The U.S. sent Condoleezza Rice to the area to keep India and Pakistan, unsteady enemies, from tearing into each other and further destabilizing the shaky region because of suspicions that the terrorists were trained by Pakistani security agents.

The fear among experts, of course, is that nuclear weapons could easily fall into the wrong hands if Pakistan collapses.

I imagine Obama got his first real taste of the presidency that day, with frequent interruptions and updates on the attacks as he tried to enjoy one more quiet Thanksgiving with his family before being sworn into office January 20.

In a way, I felt bad for the guy. Even in my little enclosure, the world and its problems were never too far away. Worse, the world seemed grosser than ever.

***

On Black Friday, local TV news KCOP 13 in L.A., showed a woman screaming at an unseen figure. Several deputies had her pinned to the back of a squad car, and were attempting to cuff her hands behind her back: “I’ll kill you!” she howled, raising her one free hand and pointing a finger. “Yeah, you!” she wailed, directing her venom to her off-screen target. The deputies finally cuffed her.

Later reports suggested she had gotten into a spat with another woman at a Toys R Us store. The argument escalated when the men they were with each pulled guns and started shooting until both men were dead.

Terrified children and their mothers and fathers bolted through the back doors, seeking refuge from the toy store violence.

Moments later, the news showed a different tragedy. Dark grainy footage from a helicopter revealed a gurney being pushed out into a Wal-Mart parking lot early in the morning with the body of 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour.

The Black Friday rampage that killed Damour, a temporary worker at Wal-Mart, started when eager shoppers couldn’t stand to wait any longer for the store to open and forced their way through the front doors, trampling Damour to death on their way to the great holiday bargains.

From the helicopter’s vantage point above the parking lot, TV viewers could see an attendant pushing Damour’s corpse on a gurney, dodging numerous shopping carts overflowing with huge boxes, and other bargains, made moments after Damour had been trampled to death.

I walked out of the room because the graphic imagery of the more obvious intractable and ugly condition of our culture’s greed was too much to bear; not even Super Obama can fix that.

***

Amid the glum reports of a world in turmoil, a nation collapsing beneath the weight of its own greed, and violence and mayhem on a day of giving thanks, it was no wonder that my uncle, an otherwise reasonable guy, was spun out about the far left and the secrets that might get out when Obama takes office.

I also find it hard to take much solace in the promise of change, given the depth of corruption that runs through our political and economic systems, given the debt and carnage and destruction we create in pursuit of the great American Dream of amassing more wealth and material goods.

I suspect the real danger of secrets getting out will be how they reflect the shallowness of American culture; and on how the previous administration cynically preyed upon our apathy, ignorance and bigotry through its disregard for diplomacy and human rights, its reckless unilateralism and warmongering, its lining the pockets of friends with wealth that doesn’t belong to them.

The really sad fact is, however, when all the secrets are out, no matter how deep the corruption or on whom it may fall, we will not likely call the culprits to account, another reason to believe that change is little more than a buzzword.

More likely, we’ll rewrite history to reflect favorably on men of low character, such as Bush and Cheney, and exalt them as heroes. The rewriting of history is nothing new, and in today’s world of Twitter it occurs more rapidly than ever.

I was holding a copy of George Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare, 1984, in my hand when Uncle Charles came to visit. It seemed an appropriate sobering reminder of the risks we face as Obama Nation comes to power.

My uncle took an immediate interest in the book and suggested that after I finished reading it I might want to become a Republican.

“Actually,” I responded, “the older I get, the more I feel like a Libertarian. Like you, I don’t want the government in my business, but I do want my Constitutional rights protected and respected. That seems to me the proper and most sensible role of government, ensuring my rights and opportunities as a citizen.”

The creep factor of 1984 is as relevant, if not more, today than it was in 1949 when Orwell’s book was first published.

As fear increases—from the threat of terrorism and economic collapse—so does pressure to strengthen the bonds between government and industry, and to establish a state security system that will ensure their survival, regardless of Constitutional guarantees of liberty or of any concern for human dignity.

The uncertainty of the economy, the degradations yet to be endured as a result of our greed, and our increasing reliance on police power to protect us, don’t bode well for our future; they don’t offer much hope for those in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Even with Obama and all the hope and promise of change he brings to office, I remain skeptical, doubtful that his administration can right the wrongs of government and corporate greed that have brought us to this uncertain point in our history.

Old men who have seen worse shudder at what appears on the horizon.

***

On the way home after the holiday, I met such an old man on the train.

He boarded alone at the Glendale Station, not long after the northbound Pacific Surfliner pulled out of Union Station in Los Angeles, and sat down beside me.

Gamely in his creaky fashion, he wore thick bright yellow and stained corduroy pants, a colorful black tie splattered with native faces in green and red dress, a light shirt and cardigan sweater.

He looked to me like an eccentric, liberal-minded painter or inventor living mostly in seclusion. Slightly slovenly, he wore the satisfied grin of an old man who’d had a good holiday, a man who’d seen the best and worst of days.

He wore glasses and smiled knowingly when he saw my huge bottle of Stone Pale Ale planted on the tray before me. “That looks good,” he said quietly, almost in a good-natured whisper. Before I could answer, he was up and out of his seat. “I’ll be right back,” he said, waving his hand as he hastened, hobbling, to the café car.

Moments later, he returned with a bag of barbecued Doritos and a single green bottle of Heineken beer. He grabbed the bag with both hands and wrestled with it as he tried to pry open the sides. His hands worked in a fury. The bag resisted.

I was about to offer my help when he finally popped open the bag. He fingered a few chips, then flicked a whole one into his mouth, and took a huge swallow of his beer, gulping hard. He plopped the bottle down on the tray in front of him, exhaling and smacking his lips: “That hits the spot,” he said. Doritos flakes dribbled down his chin and an orange streak of spittle ran down the side of the green bottle. “Nothing like a good beer.”

“You got that right,” I said, stricken by the brightness of the old man’s yellow spittle working its way slowly down the side of the green bottle. Little flakes of Doritos stuck to the sides of his chin.

“Where you goin’?” he asked, as flakes fell from his mouth.

“San Luis Obispo.”

“It’s nice up there, eh?”

“Not bad,” I said, “not a bad place to live. How ‘bout you? Where you going?”

“Live in Ventura,” he said. “Moved there 50 years ago from New York.”

He said it almost with a laugh, as if there was something funny about it. He wore a mischievous grin when he talked. Otherwise, he pounded his beer and Doritos with concentrated gusto.

“What brought you West?” I asked him.

His grin widened. “An angry husband,” he replied.

“That’s funny. To angry husbands,” I said, holding up my beer.

He eventually ended up with the woman whose husband he’d run from half a century earlier. In fact, he’d just spent the holiday with the children she bore him. The man she left wasn’t right for her, the old man said. She had died a few years back: “Got really overweight, had diabetes. It finally killed her.”

He was nearly finished with his beer, which was now completely covered with streaks of yellow-orange drool. After taking a final long swig and emptying the bottle, he set it down so hard that it bobbled for a moment and I was sure it would fall into my lap—drool and all. Fortunately, he caught it and set it down again, holding the bottle firmly in his hand.

“Gonna finish the night off with a shot of gin when I get home,” he said, staring into the empty Heineken he held, satisfied.

He only stopped grinning when he talked about the latest news, the way the world had turned to an incomprehensible nest of religious bigots and nuts, how ridiculous it was that a home he’d bought for less than a hundred-grand a few years ago would now be worth almost half a million. “Ha!” he exclaimed. “Can you believe that? It’s ridiculous.”

He seemed most amused with the current state of the world—the failure of an American culture built on amassing more consumer goods and purchasing power, where decency between humans had finally given way to bloodsucking and bloodletting.

After a time, he said: “Did you see that poor guy who got trampled to death?”

“Can you believe that?” I responded.

He turned in his chair and squared himself, facing me, quizzical, whiskers twitching: “What’s wrong with this country?”

“We’re too goddamned greedy,” I said.

“Jesus Christ!” he muttered, turning himself back in his chair, frowning, as if the thought of it was too much to bear.

When I got home, I called mom as usual to let her know that I’d returned safely; told her how much I enjoyed spending the holiday with her and how good it was to be with family.

As we hung up, I thought about my uncle, his agitation and concerns about the future, and realized we’re not that different. We all have reason to be concerned.

STACEY WARDE is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at swarde@roguevoice.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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