Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 > 2014: The riot of our lives

I got a theory. Wanna hear it? I think the human race is having a nervous breakdown.

              — from “Adam’s Rib,” screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin

THE YEAR 2013 ended with the Dow Jones Industrial Average on a true glide path of gilded prosperity, recording its 52nd record high at the end of the year, up 27 percent. The S&P was up almost 30 percent, on a record-setting pace of its own. Executives from Moet & Chandon, the French luxury champagne maker, gaveled the last trading day to a close.

The year 2013 bows with another record: Only 25 percent of unemployed Americans will get benefits now that Congress let the federal program lapse on Dec. 28, according to data from the Department of Labor compiled by House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, as reported by The Huffington Post. That number is the lowest since the Labor Department started keeping records in 1946.

Yearly recaps like this one are always a matter of gauging highs and lows, profits and losses, with metrics that may not have a lot, or even anything, to do with economics. In this the year 2013 was much the same as any other, only worse. It’s axiomatic: the older you get, the more you get used to things being taken away from you. And people being taken too. But that’s hard to accept when so much of what taken last year — our sense of shared concern, of community; the perceived value of experience; our right to at least the idea of privacy — didn’t have to be taken away at all.

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O.K., you have to give it up for mortality. The absences of the departed last year were like body blows. We lost Marian McPartland and Jim Hall. Ray Price and Pete Haycock. We lost Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O’Toole) and Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin). Tom Clancy’s gone; so are Oscar Hijuelos and Jack Vance. And character actor Ed Lauter and Marcia Wallace (a charter voice of “The Simpsons”). In August, George Duke left us. We lost the multi-instrumentalist poet Yusef Lateef the day before Christmas Eve, a fact that made this holiday season more hollowed-out and bereft than it should have been.

The beneficiaries of the civil rights movement lost three champions of the era, a trio of leaders who gave that movement its spirit and fire. James Hood, who died in January at age 70, was of the black students who enrolled at the University of Alabama despite George Wallace’s impassioned but futile “stand in the schoolhouse door" in 1963. Hood enrolled with another African American student, Vivian Malone, with the help of the Kennedy administration, in a defiance of racial segregation that set the stage for the battles, and the victories, to come.

Lawrence Guyot, who passed in November at the age of 73, worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and headed the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, in which thousands of Americans of conscience came to Mississippi, the cradle of Jim Crow, to register black residents to vote, flying in the face of segregationist authorities who resorted to violence to prevent it.

The Rev. T.E. Jamison, who also died that month at the age of 95, was a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, joining fellow clergymen the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Fred L. Shuttlesworth as part of that pivotal organization’s DNA. Jamison helped to create the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, a kind of trial run for the more celebrated Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott the following year, when Rosa Parks took her principled stand for civil rights by sitting in the wrong place on a city bus — and making history in the process.

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WE SAID goodbye to Paul Walker and Joan Fontaine. To Lou Reed and Ray Manzarek. To Maxine Powell, partly responsible for making Motown the polished, soulful, stylish phenomenon it was in the ‘60’s. And Margaret Thatcher, former conservative UK prime minister and the proto-Ronald Reagan.

We lost journalist Michael Hastings last year, far too damn young. Ed Koch, the irascible, often intractable mayor of New York City. Jonathan Winters, the legendary comedian with a hundred different faces and a heart of gold. Dennis Farina, the Hardbitten Heavy or Hardbitten Cop in more movies than you might think. And Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author whose “Things Fall Apart” has become a classic documenting the human experience from an African perspective. And Syd Field, the author whose three-act screenplay structure is widely accepted common practice for the modern film script.

And we lost the lion: Madiba, Tata, Nelson Rohlilala Mandela, passing at the age of 95, with the grace and dignity to which we’ve become accustomed, into the history he already made. With this passing — less than two weeks before Christmas — we got that grim grace note on a bad year, that extra parting kick in the ribs from the enforcer standing over us.

When Mandela passed on, we lost maybe the best single public example of what it means to summon courage to announce your importance as a human being from a very deep place otherwise determined to render your importance null and void.

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And here in the States, maybe that’s what we lost more of than anything else in the year smoldering behind us: the conviction that things will get better. The last two years of a slow-motion Congress, and especially a House of Representatives that has institutionalized the logjam, have left us with a patchwork of a judiciary, a deliberate choking off of food stamp assistance to hungry people in the richest nation on earth, and a series of strategic votes that keep federal unemployment benefits on a short leash for Americans desperate to find work — or maliciously denies those benefits to the people who need them the most.

The leaders on Capitol Hill have managed to lead us to ratchet down our expectations of what the government can do for us until we’re in a position to return the favor, with the work the government needs to accelerate a still-tender consumer economy, the work and workers of a fragile middle class.

We’re starting to get used to being in that very deep place. We’re lowering our expectations of what’s possible. Professionals in every sector of the economy launch their résumés into the ether of the Internet. On an email and a prayer, they throw their qualifications into the ring hoping they’ve hit the keywords right, that the spellcheck didn’t miss anything, that they’re not seen as being too eager, that they’re not too old for a youth-besotted hiring climate.

And many of them, and other people in America, have given up altogether, spiritually exhausted by the booming economy that won’t boom for them; worn out by the empty fridge, the certified letters in the mail, the phone calls robotically calling for the money they don’t have.

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IF WE LOST some of that sense of what’s possible, at least we didn’t lose some people who never forgot what’s possible.

In September, Glen James, a homeless man in Boston, found out how good gives back. James discovered a backpack containing $2,400 in cash, $39,500 in travelers checks and a passport at a mall in Dorchester one Saturday evening, and promptly notified police, ABC News reported. They tracked down the owner — a student visiting from China — Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis presented a special citation to James for his “extraordinary show of character and honesty.”

For Ethan Whittington, who organized fundraising efforts on James’ behalf after word got out, that wasn’t nearly enough.

“When I saw an update on the article that mentioned the [student] received his bag back and didn’t mention anything about what James got besides a plaque, I thought, ‘Is a plaque really gonna benefit a guy like that?’” Whittington told ABC News.

“I heard about GoFundMe, tweeted it out to my five followers on Twitter,” Whittington said. “Let’s all chip in and help this man change his life. Every little donation helps,” he wrote on the GoFundMe website. “Let’s be reassured that there is still hope and humanity in our great nation.”

What followed was a rush of contributions that’s still coming in. Within days, more than $72,000 was raised for James. Within two weeks, that amount soared to more than $147,000. “It gets you thinking,” Whittington told ABC. “Imagine the possibilities if we continue to do this as a nation. It's so inspiring to see the way that everyone is coming together.”

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Gerardo Gamboa got Las Vegas lucky on Christmas Eve, only he couldn’t keep it to himself. Gamboa, who drives a cab for Yellow Checker and Star Transportation in Sin City, found $300,000 in cash in his cab, in a bag that an unidentified passenger, apparently a seriously successful professional gambler, left in the back seat the day before.

The Las Vegas Sun reported that Gamboa picked up the King of Forgetful Thinking at the Cosmopolitan hotel and drove him to the Palms Place, on West Flamingo Road. Mr. High Roller gave Gamboa a $5 tip. Gamboa drove east a few miles, to the Bellagio, where a hotel doorman found the bag and put it on the front passenger seat, the Sun reported. After looking inside the bag while idling at a traffic light, Gamboa called dispatcher ... and turned that bag in.

For his trouble, Yellow Checker Star gave Gamboa a $1,000 bonus and a dinner out for two, and — nice how this dovetails with the calendar — named him the company's driver of the year, the Sun reported. Sir Cash-a-Lot retrieved the bag from the authorities later, reportedly arriving in sweat pants and a T-shirt no doubt soaked with sweat. He is said to have taken Gamboa’s contact info, presumably with the intent of doing right by the very honest man who made sure a very big mistake that started in Vegas stayed there.   The High Roller later came through with a handsome $10,000 tip.

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IN MAY, an unknown bespectacled analyst contractor from the National Security Agency stole as many as 1.7 million highly classified documents about the U.S. government's surveillance program and released the information to the press, and fled from the United States.

In the seven months since Edward Joseph Snowden left this country, ultimately bound for asylum in Russia, the intelligence-gathering apparatus of the United States has been forced to reveal the depth and pervasiveness of the ways it spies not only on foreign persons of interest, but also on its own citizens. In its dragnet for information on terrorists and their plans and movements, the National Security Agency has made the American public — wired, tech savvy, smartphone-dependent — has been as much the object of government scrutiny as any outlier terrorist entity beyond our shores.

From its implementation of the PRISM program (which granted the government open-door access to citizens’ Google and Yahoo accounts) to backchannel deals compelling a phone carrier to surrender millions of Americans’ private phone records, to spying on anyone from random video gamers to the Chancellor of Germany — the NSA, and the United States government it represents, have cast a shroud over the very notion of personal privacy at a frightening scale, and we’d never have known about it as soon or at all if that wiry, soft-spoken analyst émigré hadn’t said, in his own way, “let intrusions be reported to a wired world.”

Snowden could go over the top. Last month, for example, he said that “[a] child born today [will] never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, un-analyzed thought.” Which is, of course, ridiculous and untrue. Right now. But even in his hyperbole, Snowden struck a nerve by expressing the sum of our Orwellian fears made real, in a call for candor as rooted in the what-could-be as in the what-is.

U.S. Federal Judge Richard Leon agreed with Snowden’s principle. Last month, he ruled that the U.S. government had “almost certainly” violated the Constitution with the government’s vast collection of metadata on almost every phone call inside or coming into the United States.

“I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary' invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” Judge Leon wrote. “Surely, such a program infringes on 'that degree of privacy' that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.”

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YEAH, I KNOW, all of these things is not like the others. They’re wildly unconnected events of random acts of ... thinking. But the connection between these seemingly disparate renegade acts of initiative is stronger than it seems.

They’re wildly unconnected events of random acts of ... thinking. They’re also random acts of feeling. And while there wasn’t enough of that last year, especially from the folks on Capitol Hill, what there was came from the everyday people around us that made life worth living.

The fact that there’s a homeless man in Boston, and other American cities, is a sadly quotidian experience, as everyday as it gets. But when an ordinary man, Citizen Whittington, decides to do something when that homeless man does a selfless solid and turns in something that’s not his, that’s news. When Citizen Whittington enlists his friends and social media to change that homeless man’s life ... that’s as good as it gets.

The fact that a high roller made $300K gambling in Vegas is no big deal, in Vegas or anywhere else. That’s expected. You know what’s not expected? A man honest enough with life and truth, and himself, to turn that money in when the high roller forgets it in the back of a cab. That’s the good stuff. That’s the best of what we are.

The fact that one man stole government secrets may or may not be all that rare (we may never know because that information itself is probably a secret). But when that man reveals, at possible peril of his life and certainly of his personal reputation, the pervasiveness of our government and its willingness to vastly spy on its citizens in every possible way, he reflects a selflessness and a sense of purpose beyond himself and his own narrow self-interests. And that’s worth getting out of bed for, too.

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A friend once told me a story (one he possibly concocted himself) about a little boy who got the surprise gift of an Etch a Sketch for Christmas, and then spent the next five minutes looking for where to put the batteries.

In a digitized, electronicized, Ni-Cad powered world like ours, that’s understandable. Maybe even predictable. But only a little.

It’s things like this, maverick actions like those I mentioned above, that reinforce the power of living, not just living but living fiercely, in spite of everything that happened last year and everything we can’t see coming this year, in spite of the traps and snares that keep us from being what we envision ourselves to be: contributors, participants, non-lethal Molotov cocktail throwers in the riot of our lives.

And “living fiercely” needn’t be a teeth-baring throwdown of the gauntlet to all your adversaries. You don’t have to take on the United States government. Sometimes — most of the time, really — it just means you live like you mean it. It means daring to greet someone on the street when the prevailing mood is to keep your head down and focus on the middle distance. It means doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. Especially when nobody’s looking. It means saying “WTF?” when more complacent people around you aren’t saying anything.

It means understanding that we’re not our situations, our challenges, our setbacks, our problems, our losses. Knowing that they don’t define us now, they never have and they never will.

It means never abandoning the idea that life gets better, and we’re complicit in making that real. It means recognizing that, now and always, we’re the batteries we’ve been looking for.

Image credits: American homeless: Spencer Platt/Getty Images. Moet & Chandon at closing NYSE bell: NYSE Euronext via YouTube. James Hood: John Lindsay/The Associated Press. Lou Reed: Chris Felver. Boehner and friends: pool via MSNBC. Glen James: Steven Senne/The Associated Press. Gerardo Gamboa: Yellow Checker and Star Transportation. Edward Snowden: The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

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