What Remains After the Storms
Yesterday I went out back on the enclosed patio behind my office to have some coffee and escape from editing reports on torture, as well as the sour smell of the water damaged carpets on the second floor. Two weeks ago an enormous storm front swept through Washington, DC, spawning tornados, knocking down huge trees, and taking at least two lives. I had left my office for a doctor's appointment at 3 PM. As I came to the top of the hill at 35th and Prospect streets in Georgetown and turned west, I had to catch my breath when I saw a churning mass of iron grey clouds bearing down on Georgetown. Although it was very dark and insufferably muggy, the rain had not yet started. The air was eerily still; the chirping of a small bird was the only sound.
Five minutes later, a wave of wind and sheets of rain slammed against the bus I'd just boarded. The world outside dissolved in a rush of swirling water and a frenzied green flash of thrashing trees and bushes. Lightning strikes zapped the sidewalk a few feet away from our bus. Within three minutes, a surging wake of grey water sprayed up as the bus moved along Massachussets Avenue. It reminded me of landing at the Victoria, BC Harbor hydro-port on pontoon planes, and that brief rush of adrenaline as the plane hit the water and it seemed we were going under in a big splash
Another storm, not quite as violent, swept through later that evening as my fiance and I sat at a Thai restaurant in Bethesda, entranced by the lightning show and marveling at the volume of the thunder and the relentlessness of the rain.
Early the next morning, I got a message with a number of photos attached from my colleague Brian. The wind had peeled off the flashing of our building's roof and rolled it up like the top of a sardine can. The gutters were hanging down, mangled like twisted paper-clips. Inside, the second and third floors sustained some serious water damage.
And the rain kept on coming for the rest of the following week, less so in the DC area than in the midwest. One evening I turned on the television and saw a town under water and thought "how awful!" Then I saw that it was Franklin, Indiana, where my ex-husband and I had lived in the early 1990s. I called friends in Bloomington to see if they were okay. No floods there, luckily.
An unprecedented heat wave enveloped Washington for most of the last week. I can't recall three digit temperatures oppressing us so early in June.
Life has seemed frantic, scattered, and gloomy over the last two weeks, perhaps because of the weather. A sense of things spinning out of control has lingered at the edges of my consciousness for a few months now. There's been so much to take in: the cyclone in Burma, the earthquake in China, the tornados in the US, the hints of a coming US attack on Iran, the economy starting to creak and shift like a big ship at sea before it capsizes. Right now, I can look out my window at the British Petroleum sign across the street. Gas prices range from $4.16 to $4.46. My daily leading economic indicator. I've never been so thankful not to have a car. Or a mortgage. Or kids heading for college.
Last week, my friend Julia and I were watching the evening news with Keith Olbermann, and both of us just looked at each other in amazement at some of the stories. I said to her "You know, the whole world situation is just...."
"Unsustainable" she answered.
We started joking, but with somber undertones, about how we need to go back to planting our own gardens, keeping chickens and goats, and returning to horses as our means of local transport. Julia predicted that the US railway system will be revitalized, since fuel prices are not likely to come down anytime soon, and all those people who made the mistake of buying SUVs are now stuck with four-wheel albatrosses around their necks.
Looking at the political landscape, we both agreed that the next six months will be among the most crucial and decisive in the history of the United States. Watching former White House press spokesman Scott McLellan outlining the extent of corruption, cynicism and betrayal of the rule of law in the Bush Administration, and then realizing that Sen. Nancy Pelosi is still insisting that "impeachment is off the table," left us flummoxed and outraged. The only thing that holds the US together as a political entity is the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and a commitment to civic involvement in public affairs. Once that is gone, we are nothing but a mob of consumers, seeking an unattainable sense of satisfaction through things, clothes, cars, and houses we can not afford. The more we buy, the less we really have. It's not up to Nancy Pelosi to decide when we can use the "scalpel" of impeachment to heal our very ill country.
Up until about two years ago, I felt that writing, activism, teaching, and active involvement in discussing politics and presenting opposing views were crucial and worthy pursuits, because only a profound rethinking of where we are and how we got there could prevent us from going where we were inevitably heading. Now I fear that we are already almost there, that the storm is on the horizon. It's bearing down, too late now to outrun it or postpone it. We have to go through it to get through it, and see what is left standing when it finally passes over us. Maybe our roof will be gone. Maybe ancient trees will fall. Maybe all the trinkets and baubles we collect month after month will be swept away.
I've been worried about myself lately. My enthusiasm has ebbed, replaced by a premonition that the system we know, with all of its glaring faults and deficiencies, and the political, social, and economic parameters by which we have oriented ourselves, are about to change suddenly and profoundly. In a perverse way, I even welcome this possibility. Let's get it over with, already, so we can build something better, fairer, and more sane.
My Dad, whose health has improved immensely, surprising all his doctors and thrilling us, wrote a manuscript about his life in baseball. I have it here and am trying to squeeze in time to edit it and look for publishers. It's not a sports story so much as it is a story of what was possible in the US in the middle of the last century. A guy who grew up in an orphanage, with the prospect of coal mining or cow farming in his future, ends up in the Major Leagues. With only a high school education, he manages to have a beautiful house in a swank suburb of Pittsburgh, and provide all his daughters with their every need, great summer vacations, dinners out at Pittsburgh's best Italian restaurant every week, mingling with the sports and media stars of his era, and looking ahead to retiring to Long Boat Key in Florida, where we always enjoyed ourselves during the annual pilgrimage to the south during Spring Training.
He assumed, as did we, that our lives would only get better, that his retirement would be fun, and filled with beach outings, golfing, travel, and relaxation.
By the mid-1980s, after he'd lost his job in a corporate media shake up, it was clear that we'd seen the peak of the American dream and that the future would not be such smooth sailing. The last five years, both my parents have experienced terrifying health crises, exacerbated by the realization that the American economic system is brutal and that the aged, the poor, and the marginalized have very little to look forward to. The lack of accountability of the management at assisted living communities, the venality of the insurance companies, the travesty of HMOs and rules about using "out of system" physicians and labs, and the hours and hours that my sister Amy, the last of us who still lives in Pittsburgh, must spend getting the basics taken care of just sucks the life and hope out of me. It's as relentless as a rainstorm, and the clouds just keep on coming.
In some ways, I think it's more demoralizing to live in the US now than it was to live in post-war Lebanon or Palestine. Despite the daily trials and tribulations there, despite the incredible suffering so many people around me had endured, they still had each other -- strong community, family and neighborhood ties, and an ability and eagerness to enjoy meals, songs, jokes, sunsets, and each other. They never rushed and "multi-tasked" like we do here. Though living in a political hell, they were still able to feel, reach out, empathize, and enjoy. The textures and flavors of social life here are so much blander and flatter in comparison, and having had that view of life for over a decade, I often feel angry at the sorts of entitlement that so many Americans have, and the concommitant lack of patience, groundedness, and compassion here. The human connection is lacking. The ability to just be in the here and now is increasingly rare.
And what are we all running toward? With the dire economic forecasts, I can't help wondering what people who have worked hard, year after year, at jobs they don't particularly like to save money and build up the retirement accounts must feel -- like atheists studying hard for the priesthood. It all looks pretty meaningless to me sometimes. Life is here. Now. What's important and crucial is right before us, not hidden in the computer programs of financial advisors and the data bases of 401K plans.
Up until Bush won the presidency for a second time, I held some deep hope that average people could still make a difference and set this listing ship back on course. That hope has almost evaporated over the last three years. I've come to believe that the two greatest toxins to the spirit and to society are greed and fear, poisons that are swamping our body politic's immune system.
Then I started watching MSNBC. I discovered the clear and cogent, as well as very funny, voice of Keith Olbermann, and as the primary season started gaining momentum, I found that I was structuring my evenings around watching "Count Down." Wow, someone is still speaking truth to power -- and on a major network, to boot! Someone still understands the Constitution and the unprecedented dangers engulfing it -- and all of us.
One of the biggest drags of returning to the US, and not wanting to lay out an extra $30 a month to get BBC World Service, is the abyssmal state of the media and the insipid, tunnel vision of contemporary news reporting. It literally nauseates me. For a while, the only thing I wanted to watch on TV after a long day of teaching or writing about the miseries of the contemporary Middle East was reruns of "Law and Order" or excellent programs like "Saving Grace" and "The Closer" -- fictional portayals of the power of law and the triumph of struggle and decency over the worst aspects of human nature.
Turning on the news and seeing the same talking heads who insisted we go into Iraq opining about the dangers of Iran has stunned me. Shouldn't these people have their journalistic credentials taken away and banished from news studios? Where is the accountability? Where is the shame? What do these 'experts' have other than expensive suits, huge salaries, and ties to the elite? How did we sink so far? (And they even get rewarded with new venues to pontificate, witness William Kristol at the New York Times, and the regular appearance of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz as commentators on various news programs).
Over the last three months, I've been watching Olbermann, Matthews, and Russert religiously every night (and wondering when these guys ever sleep), not just to know what happened each day, but also to obtain a balancing sense of hope to counter the premonitions of coming storms and free-floating anxieties about where the hell we are headed, as Americans and as humans. Their views are usually well to the right of mine (and of course the issue that concerns me most -- the tragedy of Palestine -- gets no coverage on mainstream media), but they are not bullshitters. How refreshing!
Yesterday, as I was sitting out on the patio taking a break, sipping some coffee, a leaf torn loose from the recent storms drifted down and landed on my lap. Instead of brushing it off, I picked it up and looked at it closely. It was perfect and simple and real. I noticed when I held it up to the light that the network of veins mirrored the branches of the tree it had fallen from, and the hidden branching roots under the earth. Seeing that it had five veins branching out from its stem, I mused "five fingers on my hand. Five protrusions from the trunk of my body (head, arms, legs)...." The symmetry and simplicity of that leaf just made me stop and feel calm. I went back upstairs to work, still holding that leaf, and taped it on the wall next to my computer, as it symbolized some sort of wisdom and grounding that I did not want to lose sight of.
For the first time in weeks, I felt at ease and focused. I returned to a long document about human rights abuses with renewed energy. Five minutes later, my colleague Pauolo came down the hall saying "Hey, everyone! Tim Russert just died!" We all just shouted "What!? No!"
When I got home, I watched Keith Olbermann and his colleagues remembering Russert and telling stories about his past as a journalist, son, husband and father, but most of all: A responsible citizen-advocate-journalist. Now there's a dying breed. A word that everyone seemed to use to describe him was "grounded." He was simple, balanced, real, eloquent and humble -- like that leaf I'd taped to my desk, probably right about the time that he died.
He leaves a void, and we have to be accountable and fill it, by demanding more of our media and government, and ourselves, than we have gotten for a very long time.
Laurie King-Irani is a social anthropologist and journalist, and former editor of Middle East Report.