The Final Minute

We’re hunkered down for the virus. Well, sorta. I’m at home, like we’re supposed to be, but my wife’s at work at the small store she’s managed since it opened 10+ years ago. Because I’ve worked from home for years, and she’s at the store, our life somewhat resembles what it was before Covid-19. Except my wife and her boss are offering curbside service now; and her store’s cooking classes have been cancelled; and they’re wiping the place down after each customer.

Roll the film noir film stock.

INT. LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
Wife enters. Husband greets her. They tentatively embrace. She quickly exits to bathroom. Door closes.

When we set aside what appears to be normalcy and take a good hard look at our hand scrubbing, and the absurdly long stares we give table tops and silverware before we dare touch them, the paranoia we face when packages arrive at the door and we’re unsure the health of their senders, carriers, deliverers, it feels like we’re living through some sort of Walking Dead shit where bleach replaces machetes and my wife and I debate kissing. Yeah, kissing. We breathe the same air, share the kitchen and bathroom, a bed. But set aside logic, I’m searching for time.

I spoke with Mom tonight. We talk often. But our calls feel more precious now. She’s 98. I’m almost 60. We’re in Covid-19’s crosshairs. Both of us. But my priority is my life. Not hers. No, not because I’m a dick, but because a mother shouldn’t stand over her only son’s grave. Not after she’s put so much effort into keeping him alive. I have to outlive her… by at least one minute.

I’m an only child who’s lived from a wheelchair for 50 years, a child whose mother willed him through a decade-long battle with a deadly illness, a mother’s child who wishes that as an adult I had eaten better, kept exercising, traded screen light for sunlight. For just that minute.

Daddy died 25 years ago. That’s when I knew my one and only job: get healthy. I began swimming, eating organically, protecting my life. For her.

But life…

I met someone, settled in, got lazy and careless, rediscovered doughnuts. How many minutes did that doughy goodness cost me? It matters now.

My childhood was spent in hospitals, but I was rarely alone. I was frequently sad, but depression was never allowed the ground to root. Because Mom was there. My mother did more than give me life. She saved my life. So I can’t sell hers to Hell.

Just one minute.

I missed grades 7-12. Illness. But ten years later, I graduated from a top tier university, married a woman far above my grade, started a surprisingly successful business that lasted until the 08 crash took it down. You know how and by whose invisible hand I passed those markers. You know.

Yet you can’t ignore dark clouds or ticking clocks. They’re so much bigger than we are. And so much smaller. Invisible to the naked eye. Microscopic.

So it’s left to us to adjust. To “stay in place.” To breathe less deeply until the machinations of nature pass. Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

My wife and I are in our fifties and we don’t have kids, and I’m an only child. My DNA’s speeding down a straight two-laner heading toward its unavoidable end. No exits. No attractions. Just that final dramatic scene. By Covid-19. Or something else.

And I’m okay with that.

As long as I last those final 60 seconds.

Bernie’s Brand

I’m going to tell you what doomed the Bernie Sanders campaign, and it wasn’t policy. More than 50% of voters want Medicare for All.

And it wasn’t his age. He’s sharp and energetic.

It wasn’t because he is not a Democrat. That’s not widely understood.

Finally, it wasn’t the Bernie Bros. Most voters aren’t on Twitter.

What doomed Bernie’s campaign?

Branding.

Bernie Sanders has cornered the market on young voters since 2016. Democratic voters fifty and sixty years younger than the guy adore him. Almost worship him. But young voters are not enough when it comes to Presidential elections. First, unlike Boomers and their parents, young voters are remarkably unreliable. They go to the rallies but not to the polls. Second, there just aren’t enough of them. The number of young voters is dramatically overshadowed by older, reliable voters.

Fact: Candidates can’t win without older voters.

But older voters are suspicious of, even fearful of, terms like “Revolution” and “Socialism.” These words have been triggers for them for as far back as the Cold War. The Red Scare burned that into them when Boomers were still the age of Bernie’s youngest supporters. But Bernie could have overcome this.

Bernie Sanders wants to be a socialist far more than he is a socialist. At heart he’s just a good old fashioned liberal, the boring old school vanilla kind of liberal that Boomers heard lauded by their Democratic elders and that they themselves once supported. And that was the problem.

What Bernie ignored as he clung to his revolutionary brand was that if you’re over fifty, like Boomers are, it was drilled into you when you were still a child that Roosevelt saved America from the Republican-caused Great Depression. It’s for that reason that FDR is a god to older Democrats. His New Deal policies? They fit hand in glove with Bernie’s. If Bernie would have highlighted those connections instead of his “Revolution,” his policies would have been extraordinarily familiar — even comforting — to the silver-haired set, and two generations of older voters could have been added to his youthful base. That small shift would have almost certainly brought him close to the 51% of delegates he needed to win the nomination. Yet that wouldn’t have been enough. He also needed the heart of the Democratic Party: African-American voters.

Winning over black voters is a hard nut to crack. Black voters, especially older black voters, are intensely loyal and intensely pragmatic. And Joe Biden was Obama’s wingman…

But do you remember LBJ?

LBJ, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, was the man who signed into law The Voting Rights Act of 1965. That single stroke of the pen, for the first time in American history, guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote. Finally, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it gave black voters a voice in government. It was long overdue and followed years of effort by African-American leaders and the white protesters who supported them.

One of those white protesters had been Bernie Sanders. In 1963, two years before the Civil Rights Act was signed, Bernie was arrested in Chicago for protesting against segregation — arrested as in there are police records, newspaper photos, even newspaper interviews! What other 2020 Democratic nominee offered that kind of bonafides with older black voters? Not even Harris or Booker, both black, have been arrested for championing Civil Rights! And while, yes, Biden stood respectfully at Obama’s side for eight years, he first fought like hell opposing school busing, then wiped the floor with Anita Hill, and capped it off by championing the Clinton crime bill that unnecessarily incarcerated thousands of young African-American men. Joe was vulnerable on racial issues as Kamala Harris made evident, and yet Bernie rarely mentioned his own history. Opportunity wasted.

So here we are.

Most of us of a certain age want to be James Dean. We want to be rebels. So, apparently, does Bernie Sanders. But Bernie held onto “socialist” and “revolution” a little too long and failed to sell his solidarity with older African-Americans in terms they would have related to. And that sucks for America far more than it sucks for him. Because we need Bernie. The man not the brand.

The Darkness Cult

I am a liberal, but I love strong political debate. I want to be challenged. I want conservatives to change my mind. To make me see the light. To make me smarter. As Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

But at this point in time some of the smartest people I know have locked themselves in a small dark (and it is dark) room where they are fed lies they consume whole and vomit up with impunity.

This isn’t conservatism we’re dealing with. This isn’t the Republican Party that once sided with America. This is a cult in the shape of conservatism, like the Moonies were a cult in the shape of Christianity, and I don’t know how we fight it. But another Bible verse, Ephesians 6:12, comes to mind: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

We are not fighting ideas. Not anymore. We are fighting against an enemy that ignores reason. That ignores science. That ignores fact. That does not view human beings as human beings but as races and religions and nationalities. It is at its core the rejection of… us.

So, I guess the question is, How do you respond to a Crusade?

EMG (electricity)

Ann Arbor. One hundred miles from home. The two of us were in a small windowless room. It was dark. I was nine-years-old. My mother waited in the hall outside.

Leather straps bound me to a gurney. My body was already weak. But the straps made certain that I was unable to move. I lay there with needles that had been pressed into the muscles of my arms, abdomen, legs, feet, and hands. The needles were connected to wires plugged into a control board. The board housed a row of potentiometers.

A young man, the other person in the room, turned one of the potentiometers, and electricity surged into my arm. Its current stung, burned, made my muscle quiver. I screamed for my mother.

He returned the dial to neutral.

Mother was born on a ranch in deep Baptist Texas. She was raised to follow the rules. This morning, she was commanded by a man half her age — a boy, really — who was donned with the authority of a white lab coat to leave her third grader in the room with him. She was told to sit in the hall and wait. She did what she was told.

The young man turned another dial. Another muscle stung, burned, quivered. I screamed for my mother and begged him as I sobbed, “I’ll do anything you want me to! Please, please, please stop! I’ll do anything you want!”

He turned another dial.

I was five when we lived in Muncie, Indiana. You could say it was there that I was initiated into this particular morning. I pressed a safety pin into an electrical outlet and 220 volts of electricity coursed from my fingertips up through my arms to my chest. I fell to the floor. I screamed for my mother.

He turned another dial.

A surge of electricity traveled from the board, through a wire, into my body. My muscle stung, burned, quivered. And I screamed for my mother. She waited in the hall like she was instructed.

Terrorism

Terrorism isn’t the destruction of a building. Terrorism changes your priorities far more than it changes your skyline. Terrorism plunders everything because of that singular necessity: survival. 

It begins with a loss of equilibrium. Your brain feels like it’s melting into fluid and becoming unmoored from your skull as the room spins and your hearing and eyesight struggle to convey faithful representations of the space and sounds around you. Finally, if these signals accurately represent what’s going on within the wiring that is your brain, you sense nothing at all, and you won’t until you regain consciousness.

You wake in a pool of urine. It’s wet and warm underneath you, or cool if it’s been awhile. During those first conscious moments, you cannot cognitively put words to your name, nor the day, nor the month, nor your location. And so when you’re asked questions, even the most basic questions, your response is that you don’t know. But you do know the people you love, and you’re comforted if they are there.

As you embrace your foggy cognizance, you are sleepy, very sleepy, and you should be. Your brain just ran a five minute marathon and has nothing left to spend. Your body, too, has thrashed and pushed and contracted and contorted until it burned every ounce of fuel it had in reserve. Left with nothing, barely even thought, your bewilderment turns to calm. You fall asleep. You’ll wake an hour or two later feeling as if you’ve never before experienced such complete and perfect rest. You have never felt better.

I was nine-years-old when I experienced my first grand mal seizure. It occurred in a Chicago motel room in the winter of 1970, the day after my doctor changed my massive dose of prednisone and a week after an unforgiving head-first fall onto a concrete garage floor. Dr. Harrell said he didn’t know if it was one of those events or my newly diagnosed autoimmune disorder, dermatomyositis, that caused my epilepsy. It didn’t matter. That seizure and the ones which would follow, as much as my recent confinement to a wheelchair, would control my family’s life through my teens and into adulthood, not because the seizures were daily, but because their threat was.

Auras” sound lovely, spiritual, but to an epileptic like I had become they were the precursor. Auras signified that I was on the cusp of a seizure, and sent me fleeing to a space free of triggers. My flights became so common that my family – myself, my mother and father – developed a routine: I crawled into my head, closed my eyes, tried to tune out every sound and stimuli as my dad rushed across the living room and silenced the television, and my mother hurried my wheelchair into my bedroom; she pulled the top covers down; Daddy lifted me onto the sheet; Mother pulled the window shades tightly shut (even the smallest gape in the curtain was an opening for light and a cause for panic); Daddy left for the bathroom; Mother sat by my side, whispered that she was near; Daddy returned with a cool damp washcloth; Mother placed it over my eyes, removed light’s final opportunity. Then we waited, in silence: me on the bed; mother on a nearby chair; my tall father on his feet, reclined against the far wall, watching. I shushed every utterance, quietly, seeking the least disturbance possible. I sought only isolation. I dived deep into its void for protection. 

The quiet lasted a few minutes, or fifteen, or thirty; every episode was different, if always the same. The result, most days, was a clearing head and a cautious return to the living room. But on some days, more days than anyone would want, I dropped into a ferocious convulsion as my parents watched their only child jerk and twist and growl unaware, until I stilled and, in time, awoke.

“Did I pass out?” Rarely came the answer I hoped for. ‟You did, but you’re okay now. Daddy and I are here.” Mother’s words were without fail gentle and never without her touch. Daddy smiled at me, motioned to her; she removed the cloth from my forehead. He disappeared, returned with the cloth freshly cooled, “Here you go.” His powerful voice was tender like Mother’s. She placed the cloth on my forehead. He sat on the bed, caressed my side, “How you feelin’, Pal?”

“I don’t know.” Words were too confusing. Answers impossible.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep?” Mother asked. ‟I’ll be right here.” I drifted off.

We believe as adults that we’re autonomous and strong. We dismiss the herd instinct we understood so well as children. We pretend there’s something more sacred than conformity. But five minutes of uncontrolled shaking and writhing brings to mind nothing holy but everything sinister. Convulsions, the loss of control to chaotic unseen forces, are the bane of creatures who need conformity. People were feared for this, imprisoned for this, killed for this. And, when a child among children exhibits this demonic-like activity, our primitive nature is empowered; we are helpless before that kind of helplessness; especially scared are the young. Children observing this affliction become as afraid as the epileptic – afraid of the epileptic.

“Your seizures aren’t anybody else’s business.” Daddy was firm, drilled that phrase into my head. Within his warning was the implication that people would think I was crazy, “They won’t understand.” I never seized in public, yet Daddy assured me that even the hint that I could would doom me. He was a private man and frequently urged me to keep family business within the family. But his admonitions to keep my secret our secret were different, pleading, like my exposure put us all at risk. I was a young adult before I understood. 

It happened in 1936, a car wreck on the outskirts of Granger, Texas. The vehicle flipped, and a teenage boy was thrown head first from the old convertible. My father’s first seizure followed. Another would see him kicked out of the military during the war in which his best friend died a hero. I don’t know how many more seizures there were or under what circumstances. He never told me. But I do know that they so terrorized him that our doctor in Michigan had no idea that he had ever convulsed. That secret was held by a Texas doctor who prescribed the medication that arrived at our home in unmarked white boxes from twelve hundred miles away. And yet, despite decades of caution, that thing which Daddy fled still found him. In his son. For him to watch.

Terrorism is unrelenting.