"Dad, did you know the governor of Illinois was arrested?"
Well, no. This was last week. I was in Denmark, visiting my daughter, and this was my first news from Crazy Land in a while. It's dangerous to go online when I'm traveling. I learned, among other things, that my governor, Rod Blagojevich, was taped discussing the sale of the president-elect's old Senate seat because it's "a bleeping valuable thing. You just don't give it away."
No way. Not in this economy.
But even though I felt no real surprise at that or anything else I eventually returned home to - flying shoes, collapsing Ponzi schemes, a federal report documenting waste and ineffectiveness in the reconstruction of Iraq (who would have guessed?) - I was nevertheless blindsided by the cumulative effect of the week's news. All it took was a week of expatriate perspective to see how surreal, how nuts, American normal has become.
This isn't funny, even though all we can do is joke about it - oh groan, Uncle Sam has a wicked Bush hangover, or whatever. But Bush - now frozen for the history books and the collective memory of the future ducking an Iraqi journalist's shoes - was just the recent, advanced stage of our self-created crisis of common sense, our crisis of short-term thinking, which coalesced three decades ago into a governing syndrome. (A VP-elect Sarah Palin probably would have advanced the crisis to a yet more surreal phase; at least we didn't do that.)
A week in small, sensible, "socialist" Denmark - bike-happy Denmark . . . even at midnight in mid-December, bicyclists of all ages were tooling around Copenhagen - was enough to infuse me with, well, hope: The values America has officially mocked since the Reagan era - sustainability, fairness, global consciousness, peace - actually do have a place in modern societies. Indeed, they can attain the status of evolving, complex consensus.
We can build the foundations for a sustainable future, respecting - revering - the well-being of our children's children's children, while at the same time living our lives today with full, joyous expression. We can pursue happiness without screwing up tomorrow. We can have a government that believes more in universal education and bike lanes than it does in the next generation of nuclear weapons.
Yeah, I know, I'm getting carried away here. I'm describing "my Denmark," perhaps, more than the real one, which has a conservative government, troops in Iraq (not very many) and its own struggles and controversies. And, of course, like the rest of Europe it has its medieval castles and statuary and churches, splendorous remnants of the slasher history of Europe's becoming. It has Hamlet's castle.
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And I mustn't forget the crumbling Nazi bunkers on the Jutland coast, fascinating reminders of an occupied Denmark that both collaborated with and resisted Hitler. Some of these bunkers have been turned, with an ironic honesty that says much to me about the modern Dane, into works of art. Let us neither forget the past nor be stuck in it; let us dance with it.
On my last morning in Denmark, my daughter, Alison, walked me through Copenhagen's Fredericksberg Gardens to show me the Pacifier Tree. I've found myself returning in my mind to this tree continually ever since. It's an unobtrusive symbol of what matters, I guess, and fills a small hole in my heart.
I understand that these trees are all over Denmark and Sweden, and perhaps elsewhere as well. These are rite-of-passage trees. They bestow a public blessing on the children of Scandinavia, as they make what is perhaps their first conscious decision to grow up: surrendering their pacifiers at age 3. They give them to the tree.
The one in Fredericksberg Gardens was festooned with several hundred of them when Alison and I visited it - pacifiers wrapped in ribbons and other decorations and generally, so I later learned, accompanied by notes from the child, e.g.: "Goodbye Pacifier. My best friend. I love you. I'll miss you. But now I'm a big girl, and mom and dad say I don't need you anymore."
When we were there we actually saw a young family approach the tree, Mom, Dad, baby in a stroller, parka-wrapped toddler walking on his own. The little boy stood in wonder before the tree and finally, with his mother's help, hung a bag of pacifiers on a lower branch while Dad snapped photos.
That was it. We moved on. What lingers for me is something that seems rather larger than this moment - something about how we're not as alone as we think we are, that as we become ourselves we serve a whole we barely comprehend. The most private aspects of our lives have a public dimension.
When did we Americans, as we grow into adults, stop learning this? When did we make a public habit of chasing private compensation - "you just don't give away a bleeping Senate seat" - to fill the void of our ignorance?