"Somebody got murdered on New Year's Eve; Somebody said dignity was the first to leave." They tell you in writing classes, I think, that it's poor policy to open an essay with a quotation. It makes your writing look weak. Your readers assume you couldn't find much within yourself so you had to go borrow something fine and shiny from a better writer. Maybe so, and maybe no shame in knowing when to ask for help.
But maybe, too, you might consider, if the author excavated down into his own sad soul here as the murky night of the dying year congeals into the hard and bitter beginning of this desperate and dangerous dawn, he'd drag out some hurts and fears so bloody and black that none of us would want to watch them writhe or hear their screams.
So how was it for you? 2008. Did you lose your job? Your health insurance (with its high deductible, offensive co-pay, various restrictions and exclusions, and extensive paperwork and frustrating telephone contacts with incompetent and uncaring company employees)? Or did your retirement fund evaporate or just reduce by half or so? Still think you can make a profit selling your house (or perhaps even sell it at all)? Do you think 2009 will be better?
It was a good year, '08, if you have a sense of humor. And if you don't, I guess I'm not talking to you, because the excessively sober and somber don't stop here at my little corner of the journalism carnival often, and when they do they stay only long enough to be offended so they can write to my editor and demand I be removed for the crime of negativity.
But no, really, how could you beat it? Millions died, many horribly. Millions more suffered, middle-class white Americans moaning about their pain, with the poor beat-down bastards of the Third World just taking it as they were starved, raped, shot, tortured (some of them by us or at our behest), infected, bombed (we got our share of those, too), butchered (and some probably eaten by crazy old Bob Mugabe), used, blamed, buried (or not), forgotten and ignored. Too bad Lenny Bruce isn't still alive to build a new routine from all this misery. Did you appreciate my opening line? The same author said this about Lenny: "...he sure was funny, and he sure told the truth, and he knew what he was talkin' about."
Well, I never had the money to invest in some shaky Wall Street instrument designed to keep me in my luxurious lifestyle through my golden years, so I didn't lose a nickel in the great stock market unraveling. So I could laugh all the way to the bank, so to speak, as the rest of you were redeposited in reality by your bursting bubble. They're coming fast aren't they-the bubbles? Dot-coms, housing, investment. And then to cap the quarter, some sleazoid running an outfit called Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (that would be Mr. Bernie Madoff his own self) indeed made off (I don't make this up, people!) with fifty billion dollars or so of money he'd sucked up in a giant, yet simple, classic Ponzi scheme, while Federal regulators were busy not regulating.
They had, in fact, spent the last three or four presidential terms deregulating because, haven't we been told since Ronald Reagan ran the show, "The Market knows best." Probably so. Bill Clinton assured us "The era of big government is over." The business of government is not to help the hurting and helpless, after all. Unless the sick and injured are giant corporations. Or investment banks. Or insurance companies.
But you were there. You saw the deals go down. You gasped in disbelief as professorial, careful Ben Bernanke and goofy, loose-canon Henry Paulson teamed up to deliver a few trillion dollars of money you and I haven't even earned yet to the crybaby capitalists who sat sadly before them and said it just wasn't fair that they should have to live or die according to market forces, however appropriate that might be for those of us picking hemlock boards off the green chain in the mud at N.C. Hunt's sawmill or sweeping the aisles and stocking canned goods at the Hannaford grocery conglomerate at three a.m.
At least we aren't fretting about the cost of our wars any more. And what a relief. Some hundreds of billions to prop up incompetent, crooked regimes, blow up wedding parties, and give the neighbors something to fight against. At least we don't have to kill those miserable creatures in Gaza ourselves, this Christmas. Israel is gunning down those it hadn't already starved. The score after some weeks of Hamas rocket fire and two days of Israeli bombing: about 270 to one. So much for eye-and-tooth proportionalism. Ah, but it's the Middle East! What can you do about that mess, after all? Just keep funding it, I guess.
And who cares about any of those old problems we briefly discussed back in the Sixties? Population growth, resource depletion, chemical pollution. No, it's gotta be death and destruction or profit and loss to get our attention now. "Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?" Probably.
So it's a new year. Arbitrary, to be sure, but a turning, nonetheless. And this will be, a few optimists still tell me, a new start, a turning from the old, sick, tired ways to a new way of doing business, a better operating system, a leadership infused with hope and dedicated to change. Millions of us, after eight years of letting Dick Cheney ruin pretty much everything he touched (and Congress still unwilling to execute, impeach, or even investigate him), voted for change. Change. "Change We Can Believe In", initially, although by election day the signs has sagged into the less assertive, "Change We Need."
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And then, in the weeks after the election, their votes and their volunteer hours and their dollars no longer in demand, a great many hard-working, well-intentioned, decent, honest, desperate believers and voters gagged and recoiled as their new president stocked his cabinet and agencies with warmongers, friends of Wall Street, allies of big business and the insurance industry, and supporters and creators of the status quo. The crowds will be thick in the streets on inauguration day as Rick Warren prays to his God for great things to be delivered to America (except, perhaps, for its sinful, abomination-in-the-eyes-of-God homosexuals). We do still love a celebration. But the oil of doubt now clouds the once pure contents of our bucket of hope and change.
I've thought about everything we've experienced during this crazy year and for these terrible two terms, and really, I'd say ever since good old goofy Jimmy Carter wobbled out of the White House and picked up his Habitat hammer, making room for the Twenty Mule Team actor and his flaky wife and his crooked henchmen to crank up the engine that Bill Clinton gunned down the track and George Bush throttled off the rails. The doctrine of American Exceptionalism has brought us to this ruin. "We're Number One." We've got the dead and the debt to prove it.
And it's throw thirteen billion (for now) to the Motor City managers and throw twice the current number of our young men and women into Afghanistan, says the new Big Fool. Had enough from the Voice Of A Generation? Don't want a nice line from "Masters Of War?" OK. Here's how Afghanistan looked to a songwriter at the fading of a different empire: When "the women come out to cut up what remains, just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains, and go to your God like a soldier." Unless, perhaps, you're a queer soldier, in which case ask the President-elect's new preacher friend what might become of your immortal soul after Secretary Gates has yer filthy hide shipped home.
Here's where I think we stand on 1/1/09. And I think, despite everything I've just said and a great deal more I haven't, that it's a better vantage point and a more promising threshold than we crossed a year ago or in many years. We may finally have lost our faith. Faith in our innate and provable superiority. Faith in whatever simulacra of whole and good human beings fill the seats in Congress. Faith in the great Capitalist System. Faith in money. Faith in guns and rockets and force and power. Faith, even, for some, in God or some other god or gods or great spirits. "You can waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets."
Not all of us, to be sure. And not in everyone to such a degree as in some. But surely even the average voter, a typical citizen, an office worker, a union man, a shopper, a school board or budget committee member does not now see his or her country or the world in the same way as it appeared even six months ago. We can see that the old ways have not served us. We may hope to find the wit and the will to immediately reject any who will propose to give us more of what has dragged us down.
The ice storm last week and the high winds a few days later tore thousands of pounds of pine limbs and dead oak branches from my woods. It is true that in falling they smashed some rhododendrons and reconfigured a couple Japanese maples in the understory. But a lot of crap has been cleared. More light will fall on the forest floor come spring. My pines will begin making clear wood over their wounds. I cannot live illusioned that my property is static or flawless. Change must come to these woods whether I choose to prune and pick up and prepare for the next storm or not. Change will come without a bumper sticker or a billboard or an invocation or an address because change is the way of the world. We can only hope to ride it in a decent and dignified direction.
The generals and giants of industry and their placeholders and action figures in Congress and the White House will tell you they're making the world a better, safer place for you. If 2009 is not the year when we require performance rather than promise, that year will come soon. It must, or we, as societies before us have gone, will go.
Letters appear from time to time arguing that I have nothing good to say. Well, you know, Hank Williams died on New Year's Day in 1953. And Hank had a hard life and he made it harder on himself. And he did tell us we'd never get out of this world alive. But he also wrote "I Saw The Light." You probably think, and he and his publishers intended that you think so, that the light was God. But it wasn't. It was an airport searchlight that Hank, drunk in the backseat again, saw as the car neared home. We've been through some dark nights. We've had terrible things done to us and we've been complicit in the whole sordid business far too long.
Let that light be, this new year, that of the returning sun. Of our return to reality. To our senses. Blind faith has robbed us and left us as children. Let Bruce sing us out: "Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted."
They say it's poor form to end with a quotation, too.
Unashamed to sometimes violate nearly all the rules his teachers tried to impress upon him, Mr. Cooper, believing the time is short and the untruths, half-truths, false hopes and misdirections growing, intends to speak the rude truths as he feels them and let the offended pile up their objections at his door, next year probably even more than in the one just cut loose behind.