Thursday, December 31, 2009

The humbling

At the end of this annus horribilis magnus, you can find any number of yardsticks for malaise, the sad metrics of disappointments and disasters that have littered this year from almost its beginning. One event puts this year nearly over in real perspective.

Someone’s seen the face of Jesus in a Kit-Kat bar. That’s all you really need to know.

That, and how frequent these sightings have become. A woman in Tennessee discovers the face of Our Lord and Savior in an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich. Someone else sees Jesus in the lid of a jar of Marmite yeast spread.

(It’s happened before, too, of course. In 2006, in Fountain Valley, Calif., the Virgin Mary was detected in a hunk of chocolate at Martucci Angiano's gourmet chocolate company, Bodega Chocolates. AP reported that, “Angiano's employees have spent much of their time hovering over the tiny figure, praying and placing rose petals and candles around it.”)

These discoveries, theistic or nontheistic, depending on your point of view, have another dimension. This may be the undiscovered causal factor in the nation’s rising obesity levels. We’ve long thought of our religion as an abiding thing, yea, with us always — just like our other abiding everyday companion object: food.

More and more, we’re looking for divinity in a pan of divinity.

◊ ◊ ◊

What the hell. You had to start somewhere. And at some time. Back in January, many of us, most of us believed, to ourselves or out loud, that we were about to turn some major corner on the national experience. When Barack Obama won the election in November 2008, we had expressed the hope that, just maybe, the software of the American government could be re-engineered for populism instead of empire; that the governmental machinery could be retrofit from the inside.

In the closest thing to a truly national mandate any American president in modern times has ever enjoyed, Obama was swept into office by a nation of true believers (and their accidental enablers in the Republican Party).

Lotta water under the bridge since then. President Obama tried to close the political divide created in the contentious campaign. To celebrate the Super Bowl, our secular religion, Obama invited Republican members of Congress to a Super Bowl party, a spirited bid for Rah Rah Rah and Kum Ba Yah at the same time.

It pretty much went downhill from there. A congressional backbencher from South Carolina called the president a liar at a joint session of Congress. Arizona State University decided not to award Obama an honorary degree, essentially saying that his best and brightest days were yet to come. Chicago, Obama’s home city and political training ground, was rebuffed in its bid to host the Olympic Games — a rejection that the disloyal opposition in the GOP gleefully exploited to the fullest.

And then came the bigger ugly, the nastiness that seemed to define the year. The virulent right-wing tea party hate sessions, which emerged over the summer, put to rout any ideas that the Republicans (and their Blue Dog Democratic enablers) would offer any constructive contribution to the nation’s problems, especially the health-care reform debate.

The GOP leadership erected obstacle after obstacle, prolonging the process of making a change in health-care reform the country has needed for decades. While an average of 120 Americans die every day — more than 43,000 every year — for lack of health insurance.

That kind of insensitivity seemed to leach into everything for much of the year. Banks were indifferent to the crying needs of homeowners desperate for relief.

Credit card companies, eager to lock in their profit margins before credit-card reform goes into effect, jacked up interest rates even for their best customers. Millions of Americans just barely hanging on, torching their 401(k)s and IRAs to pay the mortgages, were tipped into financial oblivion.

Charitable donations were down from previous years. Food banks were stretched to the limit, faced with the newly dispossessed: professionals, blue-collar workers faced with loss of income and depleted savings. People were forced into homeless camps that sprouted up in American cities; the laws and customs of various municipalities forced many of those camps to move, creating mini-diasporas that largely went under the national radar.

States were beginning to run out of the unemployment funds that the unemployed had counted on. Looking for work was a waste of time — or seemed to be, since six people were looking for every job that was available. Every time you watch the news, it seems, there’s closed-circuit video footage of some idiotically desperate souls trying to effect a redistribution of wealth by chaining and dragging an ATM machine from a bank branch or a convenience store after hours. Call it a bailout for the folks who didn’t get one from Washington.

Drinking was big this year. The shares of LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton, a maker of wines and spirits, increased by 69 percent for the year. Shares in spirits maker Diageo PLC rose by more than 24 percent. People got scared.

People got desperate and angry. Six police officers were shot to death in Washington state in an eight-week period, four of them slain by one gunman who executed them as they sat at a coffee shop before their morning shift.

By the end of the year, a numbness of the senses appears to have taken hold; the national mood’s typified by a gnashing of the inner teeth, a deep discomfort with, well, WTF, everything.

In some deep-seated ways, we’re not even comfortable being human any more. Look at the titanic box-office success of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” whose hero assumes the guise of a being from another planet, at first for purely financial gain, but later for a deeper more basic desire to escape from the jail of his past, to be anywhere else, anyone else. Just for a while.

That’s a longing we’ve tapped into in the past, of course, but this film’s phenomenal returns so far suggest that that longing is something we’re trying to download a little more hungrily than before.

Very hungrily. The kind of hungry you have when you’re subconsciously looking for Jesus in a Kit-Kat bar.

The year’ll be over soon. For a lot of people, the year’s not enough; they want the decade over too, and they’ll do mental and mathematical gymnastics to achieve that, to reinforce the idea that the decade concludes at the end of the ninth year, instead of the tenth. With a year like 2009, you can hardly blame them. We’ve been humbled this year. Schooled. P’wned. Headbutted, suckerpunched … and still Bushed. We’ve invested so much energy getting out from under the floodtide of bullshit that laps at our ankles, and then at our knees, and we’re not done yet.

But still. There’s reason for hope. The 2010 Optimism Poll from The Associated Press and GfK found that 82 percent of Americans are optimistic about the immediate prospects for the future. (Like everything these days, the results broke down along party lines: 87 percent of Democrats are optimistic; 53 percent of Republicans are. Make of that what you will).

There’s a sense starting to build in this country, a feeling that our lives may yet be the forward-looking statements we’ve been looking forward to for far too long.

◊ ◊ ◊

Tonight there’s a full moon, and it’s a blue moon, that astronomical rarity we’ve enshrined in the culture as a proxy for any rare event. Even more rare for all these elements to come together on New Year’s Eve.

Now (sweetly propitious circumstance), there’s a feeling that maybe some or much of this was ordained, that the wheel of the last two years was a process that had to play out, one it was required for us to experience, to grow from, to learn from … so being optimistic about 2010 can really mean something validating and positive, something that’ll make it almost painless buying gym memberships, Pilates classes, Nicorette by the carload ...

And Kit-Kat bars by the case.

Image credits: Wilson: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press. LVMH stock performance: Still from Avatar: © 2009 20th Century Fox. Blue moon: via Huffington Post.

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