Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 > 2017:
Crawling from the wreckage


WHEN THE FIREWORKS went off around the world marking the end of the annus horribilis 2016, if you were watching the videos, you’d be forgiven if you thought you heard something more than the sound of innocent explosions ... and ducked for cover. Or flinched for just a second. Was that ISIS at work? An offshoot of al-Qaeda? A neighbor with a serious grudge? The cops? Some cellular betrayal announcing itself inside our bodies?

We’re all raw like that right now, our nerves torn and frayed like the end of a wire whose insulation has been conducting way too much current for way too long. It’s been one thing after another. People push back against being angry, frustrated, cynical. Some of us are feeling worse than that.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention web site, more than 44,000 of us will die by suicide over the year, if the pattern for 2015 continues. It's an average of 121 a day. AFSP data shows there’s been a consistently upward trend in suicides in recent years.

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The holidays can be the worst; we've known that forever. But it was especially true about the year that is now, mercifully, over. The collective sense of our humor, a generally durable thing, was corroded as we took body blows to our sensibility, our frames of reference, all year long. And when the Christmas season finally got here — the time when we wanted to believe “It’s a Wonderful Life” — well, shit, it was one thing after another.

For much of last year, and sure as hell for the last two months, we’ve been feeling a bit like pre-guardian angel George Bailey in small towns and big cities across America, a country we don’t quite recognize anymore, where we can't quite get traction on our dreams, where up is down and wrong is politically fashionable (or soon will be) and facts are suddenly questionable and Mister Potter is about to take the oath of office that lets him run a helluva lot more than the bank.

Tech did what it could; just in time for the holiday season (or the runup to the Inaugural), levitation has become the latest thing in things. We have levitating speakers, levitating turntables, levitating smartphone chargers. With the mag-lev trains in operation in recent years, this technology has been working its way down to our everyday level.

Lately, tech’s been telling us what we already know: We can use a lift these days. Right now we need all the levitation we can get.

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I’LL SPARE you the ritual litany of the greats we lost last year, the titans of every profession. From David Bowie in January to Debbie Reynolds just days ago, the year shuttled us to one disappointment of absence after another. So many talents taken from us, often decades too soon. While the jury’s out on this year being worse than other years in terms of the sheer numbers, there’s little debate that, even if that’s true, the magnitude of the stars we lost in 2016 was greater than in any year in recent memory.

Some of that terrible parade of departures was just a matter of the physiological luck of the draw: the sounding alarm of age and time, the Lachesis and Atropos of our telomeres making themselves known, quickly or slowly. Bowie led things off. He knew what was coming, and he transformed his exit into the lapidary valedictory of “Blackstar,” a stunning merger of life and art. For those departed lives, there’s only to say, sadly, “goodbye, indispensable one, we’ll see ya when we see ya.” That and accept it, holler and throw up both hands in surrender to our own final rush or walk or stroll, headlong into the irresistible.

Some of those departures were early leavings, and largely unnecessary, and we’re sadder about them than we are about the others. Sometimes, as in case of Muhammad Ali, grueling physical punishment experienced over years in pursuit of greatness finally took its toll. The grace in the passing of the athlete whose bold, pugilist spirit defined our age was undeniable. We knew this was coming, but that fact didn't make its jaw-dropping arrival any easier to take.

Other times they were the victims of a fall, of intoxicants, of accidents and overdoses, of too much and just enough of that inevitable human failing: being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have to surrender ourselves to unexpected outcomes at that table in the great casino. Along with the desperate players, the unknowns for whom life is no game but something defended dearly and aggressively, during wartime, in Israel and the West Bank, the Ukraine, in Aleppo, and in Chicago (762 homicides) and New Orleans (176 homicides) and Philadelphia (277 homicides).

It was a great and terrible year to be a human being.

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But the big thing, the mother of all things in the States in 2016 was the election, maybe the greatest shitshow in the history of American presidential politics, and something we’re still reconciling ourselves to. The signs seemed to be so right for Hillary Clinton, for change we could believe in, change whose contours we could recognize, change we could feel a part of.

Regardless of your personal politics, and who you voted for, there’s been a mood of quiet simmering dread about the outcome of this most divisive campaign. So much was never settled, Electoral College votes notwithstanding.

The mantra now is “Give him a chance.” Henry Louis Gates said “give him a chance.” President Obama said “give him a chance.” Dave Chappelle said “give him a chance.” But that was weeks ago, before he picked most of his people, before this payback vibe kicked in, before he started to congeal in the public mind as this real ... unavoidable thing in our lives for the next four years.

Pew Research Center reported on Dec. 8th: “As Donald Trump prepares to take office as the nation’s 45th president, 55% of the public says that, so far, they disapprove of the job he has done explaining his policies and plans for the future, while 41% approve of the job he has done.”

A new Pew Research poll, from earlier today, shows the same uncertainty as before, only worse. “As Donald Trump prepares to take the presidential oath on Jan. 20, less than half of Americans are confident in his ability to handle an international crisis (46%), to use military force wisely (47%) or to prevent major scandals in his administration (44%). At least seven in 10 Americans were confident in Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in these areas before they took office.”

It’s the low-grade fever of buyers’ remorse. It just doesn’t feel right. We sucked it up and committed ourselves to this, of course. We’ve driven the vehicle off the lot, so it’s ours now. But in the back of our minds in the quiet of our private nights, laying awake and wondering what's next, there's that gnawing, nagging thought:

We bought it broken and we knew it. This is a gift for the mechanics of the United States Constitution. This vehicle's gonna spend more time in the shop than on the road.

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AND THE new boss-to-be hasn’t been any help. There’s been no unifying message of direction from the president-apparent. There’s no throughline to where he proposes to take the country. For now we’re left with the dismaying prospect that past performance is all but a guarantee of future results. It's like we’re all waiting for a tsunami to hit the mainland. They’re in your mailboxes now: bullet-point plans on dealing with Hurricane Donald.

Look at the first pictures of him touring the White House, or making his way around Washington. Even he looks uncertain about how all this plays out.

Other things have added to a kind of drift in the collective unconscious, not so much a malaise as an anxiety, buffered by the media and the nonstop impact of social media. Our technology and the tools of communication aren’t even fully dependable; the fears surrounding the influence of Russia's involvement in the November vote disabused us of the notion that free and fair elections will always be an American given.

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Whatever the source of the hacking that may have compromised the integrity of our national vote, the fact is that we’re less secure in making use of the one part of our national political infrastructure that ought to be secured and protected like the nation’s highest secrets, and for the same reasons.

The rules of who plays in media, content and technology changed again last year. A phone company will soon own Warner Brothers and DC Comics. Another phone company owns Yahoo and The Huffington Post. A Chinese company is buying Dick Clark Productions for about $1 billion.

The rules of society don’t feel secure. We’re facing the prospect of an Attorney General determined to be the anti-Eric Holder, working to stop or reverse the advances of African Americans, minorities and LGBT Americans. The nation’s biggest police union wants the Trump administration to make racial profiling acceptable again.

Life feels ... out of its moorings. It doesn’t feel reliable. We can’t count on things anymore. But sometimes blowing up expectations is a wonderful thing. The Chicago Cubs proved that in November, bouncing back from a deficit in the World Series to win it all in storybook fashion.

And someone, some enterprising soul in Los Angeles gave us a reason to laugh and look forward to a different kind of future. At some time in the netherhours between midnight and 2 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 1, s/he artfully placed tarps and sheets over certain letters in the famed HOLLYWOOD sign, iconic treasure of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Four swift changes under cover of night ... and Los Angeles awoke on New Year’s Day to witness the HOLLYWeeD sign in the distance.

It didn’t last long, but good jokes never do. It was of course a nod to California’s pending status as the next great recreational marijuana marketplace (sometime in 2018). But it was more than that.

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It was fun. It was unpredictable. It was just what we needed. It was a way to tell people: Just chill. We're gonna get through this. Keep both hands inside the ride. Because there’s no way out of it, this ride of our still-wonderful lives. And events in America are about to arrest the attention of the world, as protests prepare to make the streets center stage in a new year, in the first days and months of an administration we never expected, led by a man we never believed, or believed in.

And never mind our worlds being upside down — that’s nothing new. Certain people have deeply persuaded themselves that there are no facts anymore. Really? Well ... Fact: We are still a democracy, in spite of everything. Fact: The sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. Fact: The curvature of the watery earth from Venice Beach at sunset is still breathtaking. Fact: Children still smile at you when you smile at them.

And fact: Life goes on ... life notwithstanding.

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

Image credits: Stills from It's a Wonderful Life: © 1946 RKO Pictures. Levitating speaker: LG.com. Bowie: Screengrab from promotional video for Blackstar, © David Bowie. Prince and Muhammad Ali: unknown (send me a comment with credit info if you have it). Trump approval ratings chart: © 2016 Pew Research Center. Trump: via Slate. TimeWarner logo: © 2016 TimeWarner. Hollyweed sign: Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press.

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