Waiting to know

Six­teen years ago.

I still remem­ber so many details about that day, most of them so triv­ial, incon­se­quen­tial, which was, I think, all I was real­ly capa­ble of tak­ing in and pro­cess­ing any­way. I can still see my store man­agers face as she received an ear­ly morn­ing tele­phone call from a friend. I can still hear her sharp cry of alarm at the news, freez­ing me in place in the ghast­ly flu­o­res­cent glow of the back­room of the book­store where, a moment before, I had been sleep­i­ly try­ing to remem­ber all the mun­dane steps of count­ing out cash draw­ers and prepar­ing to open the shop for anoth­er day of busi­ness.

Even after all this time, I still don’t know what I can mean­ing­ful­ly say about the real events of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001. But in the wee hours of this morn­ing, as I checked for updates of dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Irma and won­dered how my few friends and acquain­tances in Flori­da were far­ing. I was struck by how much our infor­ma­tion pipelines have changed from what they were when the jets hit the tow­ers. There was no Twit­ter. There was no Face­book. I knew peo­ple with cel­lu­lar phones, but no more than a hand­ful of them.

At the book­store, we rolled out the tele­vi­sion that was used for train­ing videos and stood around, employ­ees and cus­tomers alike, watch­ing the break­ing cov­er­age on net­work news. We eager­ly clus­tered around the news­pa­pers the next morn­ing when they arrived to pore over the writ­ten cov­er­age, to first begin to digest the news and to try to under­stand the how and the who of it. And a few days lat­er, when the week­lies like Time and Newsweek and The Econ­o­mist and the New York­er, we again eager­ly seized and devoured them to begin our jour­ney to real­ly under­stand­ing what had hap­pened, and what might hap­pen next.

And when time per­mit­ted, we would call each oth­er on our respec­tive work breaks and talk for a few min­utes, ask­ing each oth­er how we were, what we were think­ing, if we had heard any­thing new. We would take com­fort in each oth­er’s voic­es at the oth­er end of the line, the long spi­ral cord of the tele­phone hand­set fol­low­ing us around the cramped break room, teth­er­ing us to that con­ver­sa­tion, to that moment, to that exchange of dis­tant con­nec­tion.

It is trite to say it was a dif­fer­ent time. But it was, and I am feel­ing that most keen­ly as I reflect on the dif­fer­ences in the flow of infor­ma­tion, in the gains in instan­ta­ne­ity in our news sources, and the cor­re­spond­ing loss­es in cred­i­bil­i­ty for the same. Six­teen years ago, we wait­ed to learn the sto­ry, hop­ing to under­stand. Now, we refuse to wait for the news to fin­ish hap­pen­ing before we want it parceled out and post­ed in eas­i­ly-shared snip­pets. And we don’t need to digest it, because most of us all know exact­ly what we want to know already. We already believe what we are going to believe. Any news sto­ry that attempts to counter what we already know? Well, that must be biased, or fake, or… who cares? We dis­miss it as eas­i­ly as we dis­miss our fel­low cit­i­zens who hold to dif­fer­ent hopes or ideals than ours. We don’t wait to lis­ten, we don’t wait to under­stand. It does­n’t even occur to us to try any­more.

Is this all because of that day? Is this chok­ing of our civ­il dis­course the result of those smoth­er­ing clouds of ash and dust that went roil­ing through the streets of Man­hat­tan? Is our nation­al patience and con­cord left buried under the unsort­ed rub­ble? I don’t know: I’m still wait­ing for the news to come in.

Is all lost?

Things aren’t quite as they should be around the coun­try. Many of us are angry. Many of us are fear­ful for our safe­ty, or that of our chil­dren. Many of us are wor­ried about what the future will hold. Many of us are miss­ing and mourn­ing loved ones. Many of us are dead.

I ini­tial­ly wrote those words to be the open­ing of a Christ­mas 2001 piece that I nev­er found my way to com­plete. I have revis­it­ed that draft many, many times, and it is of lit­tle sur­prise to me that they have not been ren­dered irrel­e­vant by the pas­sage of a decade. For all the smoke and noise that has gone on since that hor­ri­ble Tues­day morn­ing, what has been solved in the inter­im? What has been changed for the bet­ter? I don’t pre­tend to have my ear to the ground on any aspect of inter­na­tion­al affairs or mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, but from where I sit, it sure looks like we are all stuck in a spi­ral of vio­lence and mutu­al destruc­tion, with no exit in sight.

What way out can there be for us as a nation, as a peo­ple? Per­haps the even more press­ing ques­tion, as the wheels of the next major elec­tion cycle are already in turn: are we still a nation, a peo­ple? Is there any­thing left of the Amer­i­can poli­ty? Is there any sal­vaging the great exper­i­ment that has been these Unit­ed States? The ran­corous par­ti­san nature of cur­rent polit­i­cal rhetoric, the hol­low void at the heart of all the shrill elec­tion­eer­ing, seems to leave lit­tle hope that these ques­tions can be answered in the affir­ma­tive.

Does that mean that the ter­ror­ists have won? That ques­tion, at least, I feel con­fi­dent in answer­ing: no. No, it means that we have lost: lost our way, lost our soul, lost our sense of the com­mon good. It is up to each and every one of us to deter­mine if we can ever find any of those again. But time is not on our side in this: we need to do some­thing, not soon, but now. With the excep­tion of those few self­less heroes we still remem­ber, all of us were help­less spec­ta­tors the day the tow­ers fell. That does not mean we have to be help­less spec­ta­tors as our coun­try falls apart.

Running away from work to do your job

Even from far away across the great unde­fend­ed fron­tier in Cana­da, I have for the past month been fol­low­ing the events in Wis­con­sin with more inter­est than I typ­i­cal­ly grant polit­i­cal mat­ters. Part­ly this is curios­i­ty, part­ly per­son­al inter­est (my moth­er-in-law is a pub­lic school teacher in the state), and part­ly this sto­ry is more grip­ping — and more appalling — than any­thing I have seen in the pub­lic are­na in a long while.

I will not attempt to engage this debate in any com­pre­hen­sive and sub­stan­tive fash­ion here — I think we all know by now that is not my baili­wick — but there is one aspect of the ongo­ing impasse that has been much decried in the blo­gos­phere that I would like to com­ment briefly upon: the self-imposed exile of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic minor­i­ty from the state sen­ate.

I am sin­cere­ly curi­ous: if the sit­u­a­tion were reversed — if a Demo­c­rat-con­trolled bicam­er­al state leg­is­la­ture, with the avid sup­port of a Demo­c­rat govenor, high off the eupho­ria of a sweep­ing elec­toral change of pow­er, rapid­ly intro­duced leg­is­la­tion man­dat­ing, say, tax-pay­er-fund­ed abor­tion clin­ics in high schools — and the only means remain­ing for the Repub­li­can minor­i­ty in one of the leg­isla­tive bod­ies was to remove them­selves phys­i­cal­ly from the state to deny a quo­rum and keep the leg­is­la­tion from pro­ceed­ing: how many con­ser­v­a­tive Catholic blog­gers out there would be deplor­ing their lack of respon­si­bil­i­ty? How many would be rail­ing that they need to stop behav­ing like chil­dren or dra­ma-queens and get back to work? Would the Catholic com­men­tari­at pre­fer that, in such a sit­u­a­tion, they stand by and let the leg­is­la­tion pass, despite their absolute con­vic­tion of its wrong­ness, and hope for the best down the road?

I did­n’t think so. And I want to make absolute­ly clear right now that I am in no way imply­ing a moral equiv­a­lence to the ques­tions of abor­tion and labor rights; I am mere­ly try­ing to demon­strate that the judg­ments of dere­lic­tion of duty that are being lev­eled against the state sen­a­tors from Wis­con­sin are unde­ni­ably par­ti­san. These per­sons are not run­ning away from their jobs: their job is to rep­re­sent the inter­ests of their con­stituents, and they are doing so in about the only man­ner avail­able to them under these cir­cum­stances. Pro­ce­dur­al rules exist for good rea­son, and minor­i­ty seg­ments in a rep­re­sen­ta­tive body should not be vil­i­fied for mak­ing use of every nuance of them to stand in the way of what they see as aggres­sive, par­ti­san action by the major­i­ty. Such options should not be abused, cer­tain­ly, but I think the sit­u­a­tion is the Bad­ger State is clear­ly a case of last resort, not of grand­stand­ing.

All Things Must End (Even This Year)

And so anoth­er year comes to a close, and with it the first decade of this much-vaunt­ed third mil­len­ni­um.

A lot has hap­pened in these ten years. Some build­ings got knocked down by hijacked air­planes in 2001: that was quite a dire start to the decade. As a result — or using that trag­ic event as a thin excuse, if you pre­fer — the coun­try of my birth has been at war in far-away lands ever since, as well as hap­haz­ard­ly slap­ping togeth­er an end­less and impo­tent cul­ture of fear in our own part of the world.

The end of that year saw the end of a long but future­less per­son­al rela­tion­ship for me, but I entered the new year full of hope, and in Jan­u­ary of 2002 I found the love of my life. In 2003 I got mar­ried to her, and after a brief year of lov­ing cou­ple­hood we became par­ents togeth­er, and then three years lat­er it hap­pened again, and now, three years lat­er, it is hap­pen­ing yet again. (I’m real­ly not sure how this keeps hap­pen­ing.) Mar­ried life, fam­i­ly life, has been a lot of things, but most­ly it has been real, and that is good.

My pro­fes­sion­al life, too, has cov­ered a lot of ground in these ten years. At the start of the decade I was just becom­ing a low-lev­el man­ag­er at a Barnes & Noble store. Four years lat­er I made the leap, neces­si­tat­ed by the recent birth of my first son, to a soul­less cubi­cle job shuf­fling through thou­sands upon thou­sands of mort­gage files and prepar­ing them for archiv­ing in a vast gray ware­house. That near­ly destroyed my soul, but for­tu­nate­ly I was res­cued, thrown a life­line, and I escaped to the tiny data­base sup­port team in the same build­ing, where I was able to learn a whole set of skills I had no idea I would ever encounter, and far more impor­tant­ly I was able to work with a group of peo­ple who real­ly cared about each oth­er, and made work­ing togeth­er some­thing joy­ful. I will always miss that aspect of that time.

But the voice of voca­tion was not silent in my life, despite years of neglect on my part, and in 2009, with the sup­port of my wife, I final­ly set foot upon a path I had been pulled toward for quite some time: the study of canon law, prepara­to­ry to a life work­ing as an expert in the inter­nal law of the Catholic Church. I am now in the midst of my first year of grad­u­ate stud­ies in this area, hav­ing left all my gain­ful employ­ment behind and thrown myself on my local church for the sup­port of myself and my grow­ing fam­i­ly; I can hard­ly say how grate­ful I am that they have been so will­ing to catch me and hold me (so to speak). It has been an excru­ci­at­ing­ly chal­leng­ing time for my fam­i­ly, but the light is start­ing to shine bright­ly through the clouds once more, and there is much to hope for in the years ahead.

And now the decade is over, and in the morn­ing a new one will dawn. What will the next year, and the next ten, hold for me? I cer­tain­ly could have pre­dict­ed very, very lit­tle of what tran­spired over these past three thou­sand six hun­dred fifty-two days, so I won’t even pre­tend I have a clue what to expect from the com­ing three thou­sand six hun­dred fifty-three turns of the globe. But I am sure hop­ing that I can make a sim­i­lar­ly san­guine report to each of you at the oth­er end of this decade, too.

Hap­py New Year, every­one. Don’t stick beans up your noses.

Electoral Malaise

I know I have said this before, but I’ll just go ahead and say it again: noth­ing deci­sive­ly good (or deci­sive, peri­od) can ever come out of the entrenched two-par­ty sys­tem the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal process has set­tled into, seem­ing­ly immov­ably. The best that can ever be hoped for as it cur­rent­ly oper­ates is this end­less, impo­tent game of pen­du­lum-swing­ing.

I didn’t vote this year, for the first time since I obtained suf­frage in 1996. With the inter­na­tion­al exile, and no real per­ma­nent address back home, and no time or ener­gy to per­mit me to feel engaged or informed in the process, I didn’t even give it a sec­ond thought. The bot­tom line for me: if I am unable to vote mean­ing­ful­ly, then it is my duty not to vote irre­spon­si­bly, a duty which I grace­ful­ly ful­filled yes­ter­day.

But that should not be tak­en as any indi­ca­tion of any par­tic­u­lar dis­re­gard for the process itself. I have at var­i­ous points in my life felt quite strong­ly that the Amer­i­can exper­i­ment was either mis­guid­ed from the very out­set, or even if mer­i­to­ri­ous as a utopi­an endeav­or had clear­ly run its course and been proven unten­able. My alter­na­tives, such as my ado­les­cent plans for a mil­i­tant theoc­ra­cy and my resul­tant admi­ra­tion of the Ital­ian Futur­ist and Fas­cist move­ments, now seem, in ret­ro­spect, pre­cise­ly the puerile pos­tur­ings of an atten­tion-starved youth with too much time on his hands. (This is, coin­ci­den­tal­ly, exact­ly how I read most of the pop­ulist cur­rent-day polit­i­cal dis­course of sup­posed-adults: I believe this state­ment goes far in explain­ing my dis­taste for engag­ing in that quag­mire at present.)

So here’s my grown-up ten-cents’ worth: the sys­tem is ter­mi­nal­ly bro­ken. That doesn’t mean we should give up on the whole thing, throw up our hands, and build self-suf­fi­cient rur­al com­pounds where we can await the inevitable social col­lapse (which was pret­ty much the milieu I grew up in, so don’t laugh). Rather, it means we need to change the sys­tem: not fix it, because it is real­ly not worth fix­ing in the cur­rent form, but to change it thor­ough­ly into some­thing that does work, and that we can all feel good about being a part of. Maybe even proud.