Tuesday, July 23, 2013


July 23, 2013:

     Every January 1, when I start writing checks dated in the new year, I can't help but remember that I used to wonder whether I would live to see the new millenium. My maternal grandfather died at 63, uncles on both sides of the family had died in their 60s, my father, although he lived to 75, had to retire at 64 due to a "cerebral accident," i.e. one of those little strokes that have no lasting effect but act as a warning signal. I'm now the longest living male in my immediate family. My brother died at 70. I'm well beyond that, and all my ills--I'm knocking on my wood desk here--are minor. As far as I know.

     So here I am, looking back over my extraordinary life, and I am amazed. When I was born the population of the United States stood at 150 million; now it's well over 300 million. Our principal form of entertainment was radio. There were no Interstates, and most roads were two-lane roads, with some exceptions right around the cities. It took us two-and-a-half hours to drive the 60 miles to the Jersey Shore. My mother's aunt and uncle at their shore house still got ice delivered to their icebox once a week. The people next door in Westfield shoveled coal into their furnace to have heat. An ice cream cone was a dime: for two scoops. Nobody in my family, except for one uncle, had gone to college. Children's lives were far less organized; we played touch football, baseball, and the like in our back yards, roamed woods that have now disappeared, and were seldom supervised. Most people my age had never heard of "gay" people; most of us kept our virginity into our very late teens or early twenties; we got married in order to have sex regularly. I tasted my first artichoke at 22, had no idea what Caesar salad was, and balsamic vinegar? Forget it. My parents traveled by plane for the first time in their lives in their 60s, and never went abroad. An electric toaster was their most advanced kitchen appliance, and my father and mother did the dishes by hand every day of their lives. Credit cards didn't exist, and people didn't borrow money if they could possibly avoid it. Telephones were often on party lines, and when you picked up a phone you heard an operator's voice. My own first car, a hand-me-down, had running boards. I walked to school; there were no school buses then. No child seats in the car. No seat belts, for that matter. Nobody had walked on the moon. Nobody had thought that it might be possible to walk on the moon.

     For hundreds of years, for centuries, before my time, hardly anything changed at all. Clothing styles, yes; food, no; mores, no. Finally trains appeared, and that was a major change; then came the telegraph, then electricity and phones, although very few had them for a long time, and they required a lot of infrastructure to spread across the country. Then radio. But change when it did come was slow to come, and developed slowly, and the country I was born into was recognizably the same country, with the same architectural styles, the same pace, the same attitudes, as fifty years earlier. Something like the Internet and the relentless communication it has brought were unimaginable when I was born. How many people use a typewriter any more?

     It's all just extraordinary.  And yet...

     And yet racism persists in the hearts of men and women everywhere, and blind prejudices of all sorts, and we still torture people, and warfare is just as cruel as it has always been, and it is conducted with ever deadlier weapons, and men still rape women at the usual rate, theft, exploitation, and greed are still endemic in the business world, the rich still get richer and the poor poorer and millions of children grow up below the poverty line; genocide flourishes as it always has, the strong still walk all over the weak. Bullying remains common, priests abuse children sexually, and human beings remain a blight upon the earth itself, which nears, if it has not already reached, a point of no return. I had an argument with my brother once, who thought that America was the greatest country ever and that we were living in the absolute best of times; and I said no, America was not the greatest country ever, that that was probably classical Greece, in the time of Socrates, Plato, the great Greek dramatists, the first historians, the first scientific thinkers, and that it was not material comforts that made a country great, it was the quality of life, the quality of thought, the quality of attention paid to life. He failed to see it, but my brother knew very little history and was therefore not able to make valid comparisons between one age, or one country, and another. And I made this argument even though I knew quite well that the Greeks had ordered the death of Socrates because he was teaching Greek young people to think for themselves. Teaching young people to think for themselves is the opposite, by the way, of teaching them to pass tests.

     So yes, it has been an amazing time, and I'm grateful to have lived long enough to see it all happen, and to enjoy some of its benefits. But human beings themselves have not changed, and I'm not sure they can. Yes, we have same-sex marriage at last, we accept homosexuality, or some of us do, and that's positive. But has racism declined? I believe racism will only decline when more and more intermarriage among the races produces more and more light brown people, until they're in the majority; and I believe justice will increase in the land only when the rich and powerful are brought to justice, and I don't see that happening at all; and American politics gets stupider and more polarized every day; and the country only grows more and more unmanageable.

     Call what we have lived through progress if you want. But don't congratulate yourselves. In the end only one kind of progress counts, and that's internal and moral. It has to do with levels of kindness and compassion and a willingness to imagine what it's like to be some other person entirely, someone not like yourself  at all. And that kind of progress remains far too rare.