The Fight for The Future is About People

I had some typically unique experiences walking around New York City this week. Experiences typical of New York in their uniqueness.

I don’t even know if I should call all of them experiences. Some are observations. But, then again, many of the observations I make from day to day — especially when walking around the city, which I tend to do a lot — they end up affecting me to such a degree that they take on an aura of the personal. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is bad. All the time, it’s just the way it is.

I was rushing down 34th Street the other day when I was suddenly stricken by the sight of a young woman, who was standing alone all the way to the edge of the sidewalk on the street side. She stood tucked between a signpost and a phone booth, hunched over a cigarette, which she pulled at with such care and such a look on her face that I knew instantly that it was the only thing in the world, at that moment, that could keep her from bursting into tears.

I can’t explain how I knew this, and neither can I explain my certainty — that this was not only true but exactly true. I didn’t believe she was going to cry. Not at that moment. She had the cigarette; to balance her physicality, and her chemistry at that moment, with the storm going on  behind her eyes. Maybe not a winning formula in the long term, or in the eyes of some people, but it was working.

She was in pain, or crisis, or both. It was striking — but I didn’t feel sorry for her. And it took me until just now to realize why.

I didn’t feel sorry for her because I’ve been there. And, retrospectively, I cherish the fact that I’ve been there. Do you know why?

Because the woman was fucking feeling something. Sure, maybe she was fighting it a bit, in order to keep herself together at that moment (with the help of the cigarette), but, she cared enough about something, someone…enough to bring her eventually to that moment that I witnessed.

I don’t often worry, anymore, about people who are processing their emotions. Feeling their feelings. It doesn’t happen enough, here and now. I know I’ve failed at it in key ways in the past. Just as I know I’m lucky, on several accounts, to have not failed at accessing my emotions in other key ways in the past.

If anything, she should have been proud. Everyone else on the block, myself included, was just rushing around under the spell of some device or another. With her, it was just what was in her head at that moment, and the cigarette. Life and a momentary break from it.

I also had a brief conversation this week with a handicapped drunk man. He was having the time of his life while the Bee Gees played loudly on the boombox he had balanced on the front shelf of a walker he was pushing in front of him. I’ve seen the guy before, talked to him before. He shows up in my building sometimes to visit my neighbor (also handicapped — he’s legless), and as far as I can tell they just visit and sit around and drink and listen to music. Sometimes my neighbor starts without his visitor, and falls asleep and doesn’t hear the bell ring. On those occasions, the visiting man waits in the hall, usually on his back, sleeping occasionally, until his friend wakes or someone else with a key shows up.

Both men love my dog. Last night, I helped the Bee Gees guy pull the walker up the stairs leading to the elevator. It’s interesting, how you have to go up and down stairs to get to the elevator, in a building where one of the tenants (on the top floor) has no legs. I’ve helped carry my neighbor to the roof before, to get to the other elevator in the building, when the one on our side isn’t working.

The last time I talked to him, he asked me a bunch of questions about Zelda (my dog) and then started telling me about a dog he had once, who was a little mean but protected his apartment. The Bee Gees guy never liked dogs until he met Zelda — just this week. That’s what he told me at least. He played with her a bit and said: “Now I know why they say they’re man’s best friend. Look how happy she is to be with us.”

And then, finally, I had a sad experience yesterday morning with a man on the street. He startled me, by grabbing my bag from behind — not a great tactic when you’re looking for a signature, which was what he was doing. I move quick, so I was a little thrown and upset by the resultant yank. I was minimally caffeinated and focused on fighting the day.

Essentially, what I’m saying, is that — prior to his talking to me — I didn’t feel like hearing what this man had to say.

Those of you who live in the city probably know the feeling — there are just too many people vying for your attention (and your money), for too many causes, as you move from place to place. If you stop, and you’re a decent person, your contact information and maybe some of your cash is going to go to whatever cause birthed the clipboard that the stopper person is holding. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, or that causes aren’t worthy — but I am saying that they can be wearying on a macro level. Especially when most of the time and resources you have already go into fighting for many of these causes in a different way.

So I started moving again, as soon as I saw what the man was presumably about.

And then he pushed the folder (it was a folder, not a clipboard) into my face. There was just a legal pad there, with some names and other information scribbled on it in ink. There was also a picture of a kid clipped to one side of the folder.

“This kid got killed two days ago,” he said. “Don’t you want to help?”

It all happened very fast. I said I was sorry and I kept walking.

I felt bad. But I didn’t see how anything I could do, then and there, was going to help that dead kid get undead. Also, to be honest, all things considered, I wasn’t sure the man was legit.

I had been in a typically frenzied head space when he had yanked me, thinking about Sophia, thinking about all the many reasons why I must tell her story, and, related to that, why I do what I do. I was thinking of all the big things I want to do with my life, to help contribute to the creation of a better place for myself and for others than the one we see in front of us these days.

And the man had upset me with the yanking, and then again by shoving the folder in my face, and…he even seemed a little combative…and…

…I don’t know.

Sometimes I can handle these things. On other occasions, I can’t. Sometimes, it’s just too much, too quickly, and there’s not much more that can be said about it.

But I wonder what it says, about me and about us, that the overwhelming weight of the fight — and of our lives within it — can cause us to fear the time it would take to stop for a moment and listen to and communicate with someone who is right there, in the flesh, and needs help. Or needs help helping.

Then again, New York City is a big place, throbbing with life, with more joy and more pain that any one person can absorb and parse at any one time. The girl with the cigarette was okay. The drunk guy with the walker was mostly okay. He only needed a little help, and maybe, a little companionship. The kid, if he really is dead, has already been lost.

Which leaves me just where I started, if a little wiser. I guess what I’m saying is that this week I was reminded that the fight for a better future doesn’t exist only in the abstract. It’s not about statistics, it’s not about what you see on the news, or about what’s trending on your social media channels.

It’s about people.

Have a good week, everyone. Get angry and speak up.

A Graduation Speech From Your Drunk, Crazy Uncle

I think about the future a lot. A lot. Some days, I worry about the end of the human race. That we’ll blow this whole place up before we find a way to get off the rock and find some other habitable planets to blow up. This does actually go through my head.

Other days, I scale it back a bit. I think about the near future — mine, as well as that of the coming generation of young adults. Perhaps I am thinking about them, particularly, because it’s graduation season. The time when young college graduates in particular exit the buffer that exists between life as a child and life as an adult. I worry for this group, because the adult world the majority of them face is nothing more than a tall wall of shit.

Look. I’m not being dramatic. I’m telling the truth.

When I try to think about the near-future, on a larger national level, I find it nearly impossible. Thinking about the future, for so many Americans, invariably results in being yanked back to the sad reality of the present and past. There is little to look forward to, in terms of the old narrative of The American Dream. For most Americans, there is only more of the same circumstances they have had to live with for decades.

You work. You go home. You get up tomorrow and you do it again. As this cycle repeats, you increasingly receive less in the way of compensation for your work, even as you are asked to give more. Prices go up, the cost of living increases, and wages go up insufficiently in proportion. You borrow, and you cut expenses. You make do. Then, for all purposes, it’s over.

Subsequent decades of life — if you’re lucky — will be represented by a trustworthy repetition of this pattern. Along the way, you will be lied to — more so via lies of omission or misdirection than direct deceit. It’s going to be fine, they’ll say. It’s necessary. Things will get better. You can still save. If you work hard enough, or if other non-workers stop weighing us all down, it will be all right.

But it won’t be all right. Not unless you — we — make it all right.

This is not the way it used to be; and it is definitely not the way it’s supposed to be. If we push forward despite the uncertainty, and think anyway about the future that the current generation of young professionals entering and/or floundering in the American work force face, it’s not even the worst scenario.

There’s been a lot of talk in the news and on the web this week, about surveillance. Spying. About the implications of the ability of the government to leverage corporate data to know who you are talking to and when, for how long. What you do online. Whatever.

It doesn’t bother me.

For a few minutes (and not much longer), I wondered why it didn’t bother me. This news seems like something that should bother all of us. But, do you know what I realized? It doesn’t matter.

What are they going to catch us doing? What do we do, other than acquiesce, daily, to this unjust, rigged system of indenture — wherein, in the supposed “land of the free” we live forever yoked to The Market?

Who among us, who isn’t at or near the “top” of society, does anything but quietly play along by all the rules, everyday — who can afford not to?

I have grown weary of the tired, lazy comparisons to the dystopian future forewarned in Orwell’s 1984. I found them wearying during the Bush years and I find them wearying again now that they’ve cropped back up in the news.

It’s a brilliant book — but it’s also just a book. It remains chained to the constraints of the page. By virtue of its medium, it remains beholden to the need, on the part of its author, to both suggest a chillingly possible future, and yet paint a picture of that future that is limited to the point of view of one main protagonist.

Winston, the protagonist of 1984, lives at one point in time, in a particular place. He experiences a limited set of mounting tragedies that, even if they are poetically drawn and made to approximate the universal, cannot ever encapsulate the breadth of what it is like for millions upon millions to suffer a similar fate at the hands of totalitarianism. Definitely it can’t measure up to the actual tragic fate that millions throughout history have suffered at the hands of totalitarianism. Ultimately, Winston’s world disappears from our immediate view when we turn the last page, even if its lesson lingers.

We do not live in a time that recalls the dystopia of 1984. Our time is in most ways much, much better; and in certain, albeit tamer ways — a little worse.

The students graduating today face a very different job market than the one I just barely squeaked into seven years ago. And I’m a pretty smart, hard-working guy — who graduated from one of the best colleges in the country. But I also used to be a naive guy. I used to believe the narrative, that these two qualities, with perhaps a few others appended to them, were enough to succeed, and be happy, in America.

Students graduating today? I’m sorry, but I’m here to play the role of your drunk uncle — the guy yelling the truth in some corner at your graduation party while everyone else pretends he’s the crazy one (in their defense, he should stop drinking).

Our latest crop of graduates should be proud of their accomplishments. Getting through college, for most of us at least, is not easy. It wasn’t for me, at any event. So, graduates — be proud. Celebrate. Rest a bit.

And then, once you have celebrated and rested, get on your feet and prepare for a fight.

Your country is not with you or for you. I’m sorry to have to say that. But at least right now, it is against you. Investment in the future is being withheld as a means of preserving the past. The present hardly exists. It too, withers in the grip of past. The last several years, for those holding all the power and money and influence, have been about little else but storming the walls of the fortress and drawing the ladders up behind.

This post started as the usual recap of What I Liked This Week, which as we all know by now, is just as often an ironic title than a genuine one. That’s been bothering me, lately. As much as I default to it at times, out of habit — I dislike irony. It does not fit our current plight. Like the Orwellian comparisons, it is lazy, and it misses the point. Irony fails as us much as acquiescence.

There is no reason to fear a future in which all lived cowed to an image or a character akin to Orwell’s Big Brother. As readers of the novel might recall, the character himself is but a symbol of oppression, wielded by a plutocracy of a few in order to exploit, keep down, and control — the many.

And so, I admit to playing a little loosely with the example to better serve my point. I know that 1984, like so many fine examples of science fiction, is meant as a warning. I know that it’s meant to be only a dramatized expression of the very real potential repercussions of a failure, on the part of those living in the present, to protect ourselves and the future from oppression and institutional control.

This post was going to be about two news items, that I meant to include as follow-ups on previous items about the looming student debt crisis, the severe repercussions of rampant income inequality on the future, and the decision by members of the elite (Congress) to take food from the mouths of the poor in the name of reducing a budget deficit caused by the wealthy. Essentially, this post was going to be about pointing at the fortresses and disappearing ladders.

But I think I’m done with the news. And with screaming into the void.

There will be no more lists of links in this space, no more distractions from the real work of doing what is urgently needed, here and now, to help free ourselves and future generations from our (partially self-imposed) oppression. We must focus not on what has happened, but what must happen. We must take a look around us, catalog what is available, and begin working together to build new ladders. Beyond that, we should be thinking of what new fortresses need to be built — and how tall their walls should or shouldn’t be — as we consider what we as young Americans want this place to look like once it is finally ours.

We, the young, are almost completely on our own. We have each other, and we have new technologies and new paradigms of thought and collaboration to help us grow. It will not be easy to fix this mess, because we did not end up on our own by accident. We were — and are being — left behind. For the last several years, through no fault of our own, we young adults have been left to enter a world that has been wounded and picked clean by the greed and obliviousness and the cowardice of those who came before us, and who now refuse us entry to the future that is supposed to be ours.

Do not fear Big Brother, America. Fear yourselves, for you are unfortunately complicit. Fear your mothers and your fathers, no matter how painful that suggestion may be — no matter what you owe them. Any American parent who truly loves their children should be worried for them right now. Their intrinsic need to want to see their children safe, to see them thrive…if this need cannot subsist under the light of the truth — then it was never fully there to begin with.

Most of all, fear the aging lords and ladies scheming in the board rooms of your major cities. The government is not trying to control your life. It can’t. The government is a hostage. The fact that the government is spying is worrisome. The fact that it must ask permission from corporate interests, in order to do so, is more worrisome.

Fear the machinery that the lords and ladies wield against you. Fear Big Business. It’s oppression is not symbolized by a boot that stamps on a human face. The genius and the horror of its power is its omnipresence and omnipotence in your life as a consumer. Most of us, in one way or another, owe Big Business our food, our medicine, our debt, our homes and our livelihood. It used to be that your consumerism was desired. Then it was expected. Then assumed. Now it is demanded. 

This is what’s frightening about the future. I have made it a point to leave clear indications on this site that I am not anti-business. I am not even anti-corporation. A well-run corporation, with the right leaders and mission, can do amazing things. But banks that are too big to fail, and small groups of mega-corporations with few competitors, who together own entire billion-dollar industries like oil and agriculture, and thus wield incredible power over the direction of the country — well, let’s just say there’s a reason we had a historical precedent for not allowing organizations to grow to the levels they’re at now. When business gets too big, and too consolidated — and thus too influential — those in control become too far removed, from the lives their businesses affect, to be trusted.

From a high-level, social perspective, business is supposed to exist in order to provide us with a means of assuring a livelihood. We do not exist to ensure the continued livelihood of business.

If we really want a future for ourselves, a real future that is ours, we’d do well to think about the perversity of our current relationship with the world around us. We work, we go home, they give us less, they ask for more. In between, we spend. We do not invest, we do not create, because we have little opportunity or capital. We are the capital.

Nothing will change unless we change it. Future generations will continue to be fed into this increasingly vile system, if we do not work together to free ourselves and them from the shackles of debt, of living-to-work instead of working-to-live, of existing in unnatural opposition to our fundamental desire to be free. If we do not fight, do not scratch and claw and stand up for ourselves, while at the same time supporting and embracing new, community-based, disruptive ideas for building a new, open infrastructure of commerce based on fairness and equal opportunity — it will get worse.

The artistic world, as it often does, has begun to lead the way. The tools are out there, and (obviously) so is the need. It is just left for us to do the work. I’m not afraid — not anymore. Are you?

It’s okay to be afraid. But it’s okay to get angry too.

Have a good week, Furious Faithful. Thank you, forever, for reading.