Forever the Sunset
The future will come quickly, now. It will not be apocalyptic, not for most people, at least; but it will be obvious that where we are is not as good as where we were. Part of that feeling is the old story of a better time, a Garden we know was there because we were there, whether or not we really were; another part of that sense, however, is quite a bit less fanciful.
I fondly remember the nights when I was a childa thin, active, outgoing little boywhen my parents would take me places. It was so good, especially on a cold night, when I would sit in the back seat of our big yellow Chevy Impala, all warm and enthralled in the sights of the countryside in the darkness.
We would travel the long, lonely roads of the rural Midwest of that era, and I could look out into the blackness of the night through the side windows. Occasionally, I'd see the light from a mercury vapor lamp off in the distance. That meant someone lived way back there. It was probably a family. They had a light, so that meant everything was okay, just like it was for me in that big back seat, where I could lie down when I got sleepy.
Every once in a great while, we would come to an overpass. That was exciting since it was about the only place where big lights illuminated the whole road. Better still, there would usually be at least one, maybe two, all-night diners. When I'd feel the car slowing down, I knew that meant we were going to stop at one of those restaurants, where it would be bright, music might be playing, and I'd get to have a cheeseburger and a vanilla milk shake. Usually, there'd be some kind of a little shop where I could see some really cool stuff, and I'd be able to watch people I didn't know.
Mom and Dad would chat with each other, and the waitress would talk to all of us, including me.
When we'd finish eating, Dad would get ready to pay the bill, and I'd hurry outside, where I could stand in the lights of the parking lot and experience things I really liked. On a cold night, it was especially great because even my skin would have something to do as it tingled in the frosty night air. I could smell the diesel fumes from trucks pulling into and out of the parking lot, and I could hear the semi truck tires howling away on the big interstate that went under the overpass.
The lights from the restaurant and the parking lot were so bright that I could see in the night.
Mom and Dad would come out. Dad would be stuffing his wallet back in his pants while Mom would be chattering away. We'd go to the car, but I'd always take one last deep breath of the night before I'd climb in. Back on the road, I'd try to look out the car windows for a while, but weariness from the good meal would inevitably, and pretty quickly, set in, and I'd lie down on that big back seat, where I'd fall asleep, safe and warm.
It wouldn't be too many years later that Dad would get sick and die from lung cancer our doctor too long told him was just pleurisy. Blue Shield cut off paying for the horrible chemotherapy and Betatron treatments long before the doctors gave up trying to make the cancer go away.
The Sunday afternoon Dad died, I left the room when Dad, in his last moments, asked my eldest brother to lift him up so he could see the towering pine tree outside the second-story bedroom window.
I went to the back yard, where I sat down behind a big old maple tree. Mom didn't see me when she came out to watch the sun set and maybe to see if Dad's soul was safely on its way. I heard her quietly say his name, then she went back inside.
I didn't understand on a deep level why we had to move from that nice, big house, and why we'd end up sleeping in the old station wagon that replaced the Impala.
I didn't understand on a deep level why I became more and more isolated and disliked by just about everyone at school. I withdrew. I didn't think about it; I didn't consciously decide to; I just did. By the time I was in my early teens, I sat in a corner of the run-down apartment we got. I surrounded myself with stacks of boxes and books. Those were my things, and they were all I had, except for Mom, and she was prone to acting pretty loud and crazy. She'd still put herself together and turn into a sharp, fiece lioness when she needed to, but she really acted strange far too often, and that made me withdraw even more.
Dad and Mom had managed a loan company for the wealthy local owners, and he'd been covering increasingly bad problems the company was having with payments. Mom kept it going as long as she could until those wealthy people threw her out one day because she couldn't make the dividend and coupon payments they were expecting. She blamed Dad and all the cronies to whom he'd made bad loans, including my eldest brother's customers at a boat shop he owned by the lake. I knew she was right about all that, but what I didn't know was that Dad had been forestalling economic disaster in a tiny company that was a meaningless bit player in a global drama of shifting financial, monetary, and power paradigms. I would realize that much, much later in my life; but at the time, all I knew was that I needed to wear a big overcoat whenever I was outside because that was the way the world couldn't touch me. (See my story, "The end of all things.") No one knew what to do about me. A few were bold enough to tell me to lay off the self-pity and grow up (as if that or the occasional threats of violence were going to straighten me up), but most others just sort of left me alone, some of them imagining that I would grow out of my crash into self-absorbed oblivion, which I did when my Mom and I took up residence in an abandoned farm house. I learned to clear fields, kill food, and generally feel good about losing weight and gaining muscles through hard, sweaty work.
Eventually, we had to move from there. One night later on, Mom dropped to the floor in a coma at the all-night diner where she worked. She'd been holding back the progressive ravages of diabetes for too long, and it finally got her good. By the time she came back, she was pretty much blind from retinopathy, in pain and constantly trembling from neuropathy, and in even worse debt from the new medical bills that were now piled on the bills we hadn't gotten paid off from Dad's time. After she collected Social Security Disability payments and some food stamps for a while, she got word that the government had decided she could be retrained for gainful employment, so she got sent to a place where blind people learn how to do things. They cut off most of her food stamps and reduced her disability checks.
For her, it was just about the end of the world because retirement benefits were still a few years away. What she didn't know, and probably wouldn't have cared about, anyway, was that another wave in those shifting paradigms of global finance, money, and power was sweeping through the land, once again culling the populace of its weak and infirmed, along with the old memories of a better time those kind might carry with particular clarity.
Under mounting pressures for my lack of a plan for my life, having quit high school and having failed at college, I enlisted in the Army. That was an awful mistake and a fine platform for starting over (see my story, "I Am Become Battle, How White Be My Tears").
Times were good when I got back to college and soon thereafter became a college teacher. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I imagined that everything would get better from year to year, and it did for a good run. I hadn't learned the lesson of my youth, though: the waves of that shifting economic reality would return, one after the other, through my life, which would be nothing but one more tiny piece of driftwood in a roiling ocean of kindling from little trees of personal hopes lifted up and thrown to the currents like meaningless toys in a vast drama. The scope and meaning of that large play would not be appreciated for many decades to come, even by those with nominal control over events on the ground.
The robust economic growth of the 1990s was the staging platform for a hard shift into the 21st Century, and all of what seemed like willful and terrible acts were random but precisely understandable set props in the larger, heaving, pushing tide of history in constant birth. The near-catastrophe that swept through the global financial system in 2008 was symptomatic of an unstoppable force pulling economic life for the world's peoples into a gruesome maw of new and complex relationships between sovereign states and the far more efficient generators of innovation and attendant revenue of large corporations.
If you think the grim future can be stopped with protests, elections, wishful thinking, and apocalyptic articles whipping your political cohorts to action, you haven't been where I lived, and you haven't looked at the young people today, so many of whom are acting eerily like I did two generations ago at the shock front of the new world that was to sweep away the strength and success of the post-World War II era. The shadows of the darkening landscape are lengthening right before our eyes, and before long, they will merge into the seemingly bottomless well of night. All those kidsthe emos, the goths, the juggalo trash, the semi-literates, the losers, the TV and music-addicted wastlings, the failures of the education system, the ones who can't compete academically against kids from just about any other country on Earth? Those are the ghosts of our future. That ought to scare the Hell out of you, especially considering that we made them. In so doing, we really did make the future, notwithstanding all those shifting global paradigms flogging us with the demoralizing whip of our own irrelevence.
Imagine, if you choose, that you can stop that future. That's not the worst lie you can tell yourself, but it's still a lie if you think stopping the future means stopping someone else who's to blame for how bad it's going to be. Times will not get better just because we want them to or just because men and women who pose to be our leaders promise they will if only we'll crawl to their special signature brand of conservative or neoliberal authoritarianism.
In the end, I was the creator of my own destiny. Wallowing in self-pity postponed the time when, instead of hiding from the world or, far worse, trying as a self-loathing narcissist to confront its awful monsters, I had to take on the miserable task of fixing the mess that was myself. I'm still working on it. Some days are better than others.
We, like the world, all have a whole lot of good as we careen out of control into the bad times ahead. We have already waited way too long to seize our own day and, in so doing, we have made the task of taming that angry, destructive unknown all the more difficult and unlikely. We should try, anyway.
I explain it to my students like this:
The sunset of Empire is behind us. No onenot you, not I, not wecan return the sun to the warmth of day; we must, instead, go into the night. You can walk in darkness and expect someone to hold a torch for you, or you can carry your own torch. By either of these two means, you might survive the long night ahead; but know this: you have a third way. Instead of following the torch or carrying the torch, you can be the torchthe very light, itselfon your path through the darkness. If you choose this way, in time you will learn the most important lesson of all as you journey through the night searching for the morning. Not only were you the night as you let the fall of Empire consume you in darkness, but when you chose to be the torch in the darkness, you became the morning.
Powerless, yet still we created the dark future we must now survive.
Imagine the morning of the future if we choose to be powerless no longer.