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 Clovid-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. Cue the black & white film stock.

Meanwhile, back here at the house, 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 touch them, and the paranoia we face when a package arrives at the door and we’re unsure the health of its senders, its carriers, its deliverers, it feels like we’re living through some sort of Walking Dead shit where bleach replaced machetes and my wife and I feel the need to debate kissing. Yeah, kissing. We breathe the same air, share the kitchen and bathroom, and 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. Because a mother shouldn’t watch her only son be buried. 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 job. It was to get healthy. So I began swimming and eating organic — protecting my life. For her. But then I met someone and 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 often afraid, but fear was never allowed the ground to root. Because Mom was there. 

My mother’s constant presence and her devotion shaped me into an optimist despite the Hell around us. But to leave her without her child would be to abandon her to a different Hell/the worst Hell. How can I abandon her when she never abandoned me?

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. You know.

Yet you can’t ignore dark clouds or ticking clocks. The machinery continues. It’s up to us to adjust. To “stay in place.” To breathe less deeply until the virus passes. Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

My wife and I are in our fifties. We don’t have kids. I am an only child. That means our DNA’s speeding down a straight two-laner and heading toward its end. No exits. No attractions. Just an end. By Covid-19 or whatever. 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. It wasn’t policy. More than 50% of voters want Medicare for All.

It wasn’t his age. He’s sharp and energetic.

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

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

So what doomed Bernie’s campaign? Branding.

Bernie Sanders has had the corner on young voters since 2016. Democratic voters forty and fifty years younger than the guy follow and adore him. Almost worship him. But the young are not enough when it comes to Presidential elections. One, they’re remarkably undependable. They go to rallies but not to polls. Two, there just aren’t enough of them. Their numbers and behavior are overshadowed by older, more reliable voters. And it’s those voters, Boomers and their parents, whom political candidates need in order to win.

But older voters are suspicious of, and even fearful of, terms like “Revolution” and “Socialism,” and have been for as far back as the Cold War. It’s a red scare concern that was burned-into them when Boomers were the age Bernie’s youthful supporters are today. Still, 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 grew up hearing lauded by their Democratic parents and grandparents and that Boomers themselves once supported.

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 as a child that Roosevelt saved America from the (Republican-caused) Great Depression. FDR is a god to older Democrats. And if Bernie’s connection to FDR had been highlighted, his policies would have been revealed to be extraordinarily familiar, even comforting, to the silver-haired set. And two generations of older Democratic voters could have been added to his youthful base. And that could have brought him close to the 50% of delegates he needed to win the nomination. Yet that, too, would not have been enough…

Bernie Sanders also needed the African-American vote. But that’s a hard nut to crack. Black voters are intensely loyal and pragmatic voters. And Joe Biden was Obama’s wingman. But Bernie could have cut into Biden’s numbers by pitching himself as the Second Coming of LBJ.

Lyndon Baines Johnson began Medicare. That alone demolishes the argument that MfA is pie-in-the-sky madness and bridges the divide between an iconic and historic President and left-of-center Bernie. But even more than Medicare, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. That was back in 1965 when Bernie was still getting himself arrested for protesting in the streets for civil rights — arrested as in there are police records, newspaper photos, even newspaper interviews! What other Democratic nominee could carry that kind of bonafides with older black voters? Hell, not even Harris or Booker have been arrested championing civil rights, and they’re African-American! And, yes, Biden stood respectfully at Obama’s side for eight years, but he first fought like hell opposing school busing, then wiped the floor with Anita Hill, and next championed the Clinton crime bill that unnecessarily incarcerated thousands of young African-American men. Joe was vulnerable on racial issues. Kamala Harris made that evident when she attacked him in the debates and raced to the top of the polls. But Bernie rarely touted his own civil rights history, at least not to the degree a politician needs to.

And 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 pursue older African-American voters in terms they would have readily 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 some of the smartest people I know have locked themselves in their 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. I don’t know how we fight this, 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.

How do you respond to a Crusade?

EMG (electricity)

Ann Arbor, Michigan. Two of us were in a small windowless room. It was dark. I was nine-years-old. Outside, my mother waited in the hall. But in the room, leather straps bound me to a gurney so that I was unable to move. Needles had been pressed into the muscles of my upper and fore arms, my abdomen, my thighs, calves, feet and hands. The needles were connected to wires that were plugged into a control board that housed a row of potentiometers. A young man, the second person in the room, turned a dial, and electricity surged into my right deltoid. The current stung, burned, caused my muscle to quiver. I screamed. He returned the dial to neutral.

Mother was born on a ranch in deep Baptist Texas. She had been raised to follow the rules and, this morning, she was commanded by a young man half her age but who donned the authority of a white lab coat to leave her third grader and to sit in the hall. She did what she was instructed to do. The young man turned another dial. Another muscle stung, burned, quivered. I screamed and begged him to stop in the childlike way that nine-year-olds beg adults to stop, “I’ll do anything you want me to! Please, please, please stop! I’ll do anything you want!” It didn’t work. He turned another dial.

When I was five, we lived in Muncie, Indiana. I pressed a safety pin into an electrical outlet in our living room. The current coursed through my fingertips and I fell to the floor. 

Another surge of electricity traveled from the power outlet to the board and through a wire into my body. The muscle stung, burned, quivered. I screamed. My mother waited outside the room in the hall. She was doing what she was instructed to do.

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 is becoming unmoored from your skull. As the room spins, your hearing and eyesight no longer 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 will wake an hour or two later and will feel as if you have 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; my dad rushed across the living room, silenced the television; my mother hurried my wheelchair into my bedroom, 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 me, 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 then 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 looked on at their only child as I jerked and twisted and growled unaware, until I stilled and, in time, woke.

“Did I pass out?” I asked. 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 dampened and 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 reached young adulthood 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. Yet, despite his decades of caution, that thing which Daddy fled had found him. In his son. For him to watch.

Terrorism is unrelenting.