Tuesday, October 3, 2017

America the Sick

Berlin, October 3, 2017

These days, hearing the news from the USA is like watching a sick or injured animal writhe in agony. The brain is insane, the heart broken, the body covered in self-inflicted wounds.

People here ask me - did you know this was gonna happen? Is that why you left, came back home? But home is the US too - the familiar smells, sensations, the desert air, the towns I used to live in, the houses I bought and fixed up into homes, loved in, birthed my babies in, the friends, the work and the community. 

No, I left for other reasons. I didn’t know. I turned my back and then all hell broke loose. 

I guess that is not quite true. I knew the fish was rotting, and not just from the head. A few years ago, I read Tony Judt’s 'Ill Fares the Land', which predicts pretty much what now happens to an US society that has let go of its values and standards. Tony Judt’s dying words rang so true, and in a way contributed to me re-owning my European social democrat identity, paving the way to come ‚home‘.

Now it seems more insane, watching from a distance, probably than it feels being in it. All the attention on the clown president, outrage becoming the main political sentiment. The vitriol of social media, and non-social media reduced to reporting what social media says. My dear friends, seeking emotional shelter with each other, from learned practices, non-violence, gardening, love, travel. Others just tuning it all out, for self-preservation.

People here shake their heads, recent developments just the explosion of what they always suspected was true about US society and politics: dog eats dog, everyone for themselves, hollowed meritocracy, with no value tradition of solidarity. 

Mix in the erosion of US democracy and the amplifying function of social media, and eventually, all that brings out the evil in people, more and more people, until the whole society is so sick it starts writhing and dying. Mass shootings and the response, or lack thereof, one painful symptom of how we missed a turn a while ago and now its all downhill and speeding up.

Watching this from here, my main sentiment now, ironically and unfortunately, is a selfish one, too:  Thank not god but myself that we are out. Especially, that my children are out. 

They get to grow up exposed to values we hold dear -  solidarity, pluralism, tolerance, respect. Every parent in the US can still assure this for their kids too, but here it is not constantly contradicted by the political discussion and the economic reality. Here my children have access to education and health care without anyone going into debt. Rory and Kaya have access to state support while they build their respective start-up businesses.

There are some scary developments here too, no doubt: an extreme right wing party just entered the German parliament for the first time post-war. There is heated discussion, stupidity and meanness on social media, homelessness, shitty weather and heartless bureaucrats. But I feel safe, because the basic values seem still to be agreed upon. A cab driver I talked to recently had just thrown an elderly couple out of his cab because the man said that refugees should be gassed. 

And the kids have the added benefit of a bi-national, bi-cultural perspective on everything, maybe helping them to understand this world and their place in it. Today is the 3rd of October, the national holiday in Germany that celebrates the re-unification of the two German states. Which is a whole other topic….Ben asks: so what is this holiday today? I explain and he, thinking of the 4th of July, asks: Is there a parade or something? No parade. No display of national pride. But a society where we feel fairly safe, free and surrounded by a tolerable amount of insanity.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

50: Trust and Curiosity

What a curious time in life. Those of us at the end of the baby boomer generation, we are all at this point: we have understood that our life time is finite - the limit of the time horizon is now in sight. Those of us who had kids are growing out of the parent role, the jury still being out on whether or not we managed to steer the next generation to where they need to be for themselves and for the world.

Those of us who had passions and professions are in a review period. Can we go on working this hard for another decade or more? Or maybe the economic system has changed, and our business models and value systems don’t work anymore.  But how figure out what is next, how to reinvent ourselves?

Some of us are utterly lost. What do we do after kids and without that business model? If you haven’t had kids, how do you create something that lasts beyond your time? Too late to build a house or write an opera?

And then, our parents are getting old, or sick or dying. Many of us are inheriting wealth we didn’t earn from this much more successful generation before us.  Others are sandwiched between fledgling children and aging parents, or inheriting an economic or real estate mess, apartments full of books. What if your parents became demented before you could forgive them for their screw-ups?  Now they need you and you haven’t even found the peace to love them. I am seeing it all around me.

I see a lot of desperation, sadly, especially among men.  Self-hatred. The feeling of having wasted time, either having done the same thing for too many years, or doing too many different things without real focus or depth. Unemployment,  boredom, doubt, loss, alcohol. Teenage kids glued to little screens, farther and farther from the reach of our love.  Do we still matter for anyone?

The good news: we know what we know, we know what we are able to do, and we know what we don’t want. For some of us, long-term partnerships have not survived this life phase of contemplation and change…. and we rediscover who we are just by ourselves. Not too bad. The big dream has died, but the little dreams live on.

We have 15+ years of productive time left. Enough time to do something different, learn one new thing, try one new system, change location. A few (lucky ones), manage to fill the remaining time, keep riding the same professional wave to the end, chin up, and gather applause on the way out. 

More good news: those who don’t have self-doubt, and are not lost or desperate, not on a wave petering out, actually may now reach a calm sense of positive expectation, resting on two pillars: trust and curiosity. I think, at this point in our lives, we cannot ask for more than to base our lives on a healthy mix of those two sentiments.  Trust in ourselves and in our abilities, and our judgment, and in the basic goodness of the world.  Curiosity about what gifts will come our way, and who will be there with us to enjoy them, and what we can make out of them.  

My gifts are so many now: my children, who are turning into amazing sensitive and sensible people, my parents, who get older and weirder, yet I am learning to love them and enjoy them in new ways, appreciating every minute I have with them. My work, which is ever changing and rich with learning and a team that is growing together and working in sync, in ways I didn’t even know existed.   New and old friends who provide comfort, companionship and love, and with who I can look into the darkness and into the light, as we hold and support each other. Stepping out into the night, breathing the cool air and hearing the rustle of the trees, feeling that I have had it good. 

50. I couldn’t think of a better age.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Middle Class Where Goest Thou? (A Tale of Fear or Solidarity)

My friend Ed Ward, who moved back to the US from Europe a little more than one year ago, provides his first year in review here. Like me, he is on the fence – some things are good and some things European he misses (food prices!). He is still “broke, not poor”, if a little less so. I like his motto, which he has promoted for many years, and which is an expression of hope that this state we are in is a temporary one.

As a recently turned single (-income) parent I myself have changed from very affluent to pretty strapped financially – supporting half the number of family members at this household on 20% of the former combined salary and not a single asset to call my own anymore.  A little scary at age 50. But thanks to supportive friends, family and employer, and a socio-economic system that assures health care, retirement and education (and no, it’s not free, I pay taxes and contributions for it) – thanks to all that, we manage quite well.  And we will soon start to pass on the solidarity and add a member to the household, probably a young student from a less fortunate country. So I’ll change Ed’s motto to “poor, but fortunate”.

Not everyone here feels this way. A small, but growing number of people in Germany could now be described as “still pretty fortunate, but vaguely pissed off”. Yes, Germany now has its own Tea Party! A new social movement called Pegida, which stands for patriotic citizens against the “Islamisation” of the occident. Really, the occident.  Pegida and their especially inept and shady leaders (reminds one of Sarah Palin and the likes) provide much amusement to the media, comedians and the twitter community. Yet, every Monday they meet in growing numbers (last rally had 17,000) in Dresden and now in other cities, and protest – not sure what exactly…. since foreign nationals of Islamic faith comprise something like 1.2 % of the population of that state, Sachsen. Pegida people chant “We are the people”, copying the peaceful revolutionaries of 1989 East Germany. And they march for peace - but I am not sure what kind of peace they are thinking of.  The peace of a racially homogenous society, maybe. They are a bunch of ignorant dimwits, just like the US Tea Party. But they come from the same environment of middle class fear that the Tea Party emerged from.

And they do worry the shit out of the political establishment. This week, voices from the ruling party CDU emerged, saying that the traditionally conservative CDU moved so much to the middle, to social democratic policy positions, to an open society welcoming refugees, and to embracing the EU, and as a result they have lost some of the more right wing constituents on the way. This is probably a somewhat accurate description of what happened here. Is the reaction of the CDU and the AfP (that's our new Anti-EU Party) going to be what the GOP did in the US, which is embrace the Tea Party and let it take over? I doubt it.  Of course in Germany, we worry about right wing, racist movements way more than we do in the US.

And on the US side of the fence? Tom Schimmeck, a columnist with our local paper who loves and is very familiar with the US feels after a recent visit that the spirit of the citizens has been broken – the dishwashers don’t believe the millionaire story anymore.  He says that while the economic statistics are promising, the current recovery and economic growth happens without the middle class, which is now 40% poorer than before the recession. Income inequality continues to rise, and education has become just another for-profit line of business, just like prisons and health care. (Btw- our little family is looking forward to welcoming the first educational ‘refugees’ from Silver City next fall.)

It’s true- looking at the US from this side of the fence is totally depressing these days. The persistence of structural racism evidenced by police violence and a failing justice system, the report on CIA torture and subsequent discussions, the result of the recent elections, and the loss of all the progressive enthusiasm of the first Obama years. The hope we had that policy may be about people again – health care reform about healthy people, immigration reform about hard working families –gone. Instead, corporations are now considered people and propaganda and the influence of money on policy is now considered protected free speech. And the next elections? Bush III vs. Clinton II ? Money rules.

I think living in a small, predominantly progressive community like Silver City for all these years made it easier to handle- you could always rest assured in the warm community spirit and believe that the country had not completely gone to shit, and then rant of facebook about all the bad things from a protected place. I don’t know whether this is good or bad or both.  Is it collective illusion or a supportive oasis, where we make small local improvements, when we can’t affect the big picture anymore?  

Benny, at age 10 and living again in Silver City, loves it there, but he also worries about the people in Sudan and the refugees from Syria living in Berlin. And on Christmas Eve he cries and wonders why he is so privileged and others are so poor, sick with Ebola or displaced by war. It affects him deeply, emotionally. Us socialists here in occidental Europe call that solidarity.  I am proud of my middle class global citizen son.