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You Are a Whole Different Person When You Are Scared

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opednews.com Headlined to None 12/29/08

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Norwalk, CT–– I'm not going to lie. I hate the holidays. In my many juvenile pursuits, I've dissented against many Christmases, but I can't say it was all energy well spent. Like a last minute shopper possessed with the spirit of 'Tis the Season, the laws of attraction reeled me back in. One year, in order to avoid family festivities I even copiously feigned being selfless enough to take the train to The City under the guise I would be volunteering at a soup kitchen, but instead ended up walking around in the likeness of George Bailey, standing outside the building in a sorry state looking rather depraved. A homeless guy wished me a merry Christmas and in one charitable gesture asked whether I was going in to join the line.

It got me thinking about how often I've tried declaring my independence from the likes of my extended family. Family has been a giant I have wrestled with throughout my misguided life. But somehow it keeps pinning me down and at times mysteriously overpowers my command center to code red, to some bestial version of myself no learned person can ever hope to undo.

There's a lot to be said about where you come from, your history. Not that that history determines who you're going to be. That's entirely left up to your actions. But if you are going to evolve --if you don't know your history--it's as if you are born yesterday. Where's there to go from there? When you constantly fall prey to the whims of others and beyond. Fear of the unknown can downright stupefy you.

As the economy signals grim images of another era, time's running out on a lot of people. But I never expected it would reap one of my own. As the lives of countless Americans rest on so much uncertainty, I never expected to see my mom grieving the loss of her firstborn so prematurely. With so many firsts headlining the news cycle, I didn't expect the story to come to me.

It was Veteran's Day and I felt like a big winner, but I was still wallowing in post election blues. In the sudden shock of un-recognition I found myself bereft of words. Searching for meaning and feeling rather thrusted to act in an unscripted program. People at home and abroad welcomed Barack Obama as the President-elect. John McCain shushed his xenophobic crowd, and hopefully sent them packing to whimper back into whatever hole they crawled out of--and in the name of George W do some "sole" searching--never to be seen anywhere near a voting booth again until they repent. "Real Americans" spoke and they spoke clearly. They opened the door of the White House for a black man and he lit their candle of hope. The American flag was finally snatched out of the hands of greedy hustlers who have been soaking it in blood and have been smearing it all over our TV screens. The flag fluttered in global unison in that quixotic context signified in history books. The American experiment was boldly personified by a man who recaptured The Dream. The glint of vision that shone in his eyes reflected back and virally spread en masse with tears of relief along with that unhinging warning of change on the horizon. Finally. It's a good time to be alive. But, it didn't last long, did it? Cynics came out, too, and soon stole the show.

I needed some time to digest--but that wouldn't be a luxury afforded me.

When I got the call about my oldest sister I implored in disbelief. How could this person who I was certain would stick around to torment me to my last breath be suddenly gone?

Because she lived for being the oldest and the strongest in the family, no one,including her, thought a gallbladder operation would turn so awry. The doctor's discovered she had a severe enlargement of the heart and kept her for additional monitoring to stabilize her. This was the first she heard of it. Why? Like 46 million of uninsured in this country, her chronic illness forwent medical care due to high cost. Her ailments would have their way, though, so she broke the piggy bank and negotiated a lower rate for a CT scan.

With her ailments as her constant companions, like many workaholic Baby Boomers in search of their own version of the American Dream, who believe: "If you work hard enough, someday you'll achieve great wealth," she learned to religiously get up at the crack of dawn, go to work, day after day, only to find her dream manifest into a pile of ersatz excess dispensed with an insatiable hunger for more in order to keep filling the void. Housed by such flimsy foundations, when the wolf come a-runnin' and she watched everything she's worked for come a-crumblin'--while some may choose to jump to their own deaths before such days are visited upon them, she wouldn't entertain such ideas.

Belly up but chin up, she hid from shame about her house, where she raised her three children and managed to see them through marriage and each one safely ensconced in their own homes, because it was going into foreclosure. I can see now how in making sacrifice after sacrifice her heart swelled almost as if to make more room, and in the interim, popped springs like overworked machinery.

The Ghost of Christmas Past revealed my sister's troubles began to balloon a year ago. She set no table, baked no turkey, and was about to pass on Christmas altogether before I intervened to suggest we go potluck. Now, she fills another line in a slew of statistics rendering a failing economic model. Why didn't economists and lawmakers alike let the cat out of the bag sooner? With banks teetering and foreclosures skyrocketing, professional politicians trained to look after their constituents are unyielding to untried experiments. Which explains their reluctance to respond to hard times.

How long, Oh Lord? How long will our bourgeois democracy let Wall Street panhandle the already nickel-and-dimed taxpayer? While some people are having a goodie-goodie-gumdrop holiday others eat #&*! and die.

If you can muster enough courage to trudge up and ask, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" be prepared for an earful of his woes before he chews the matter over a platter, with your guts spilled out before him. And your dignity? A mere starter course. Who cares if you're a descent man or if you are a shyster. These are treacherous days we live. Everyman for himself. The kinder you are, the more of a chump you become. Guard your pocketbook with your life, because everyone seems to be hustling somebody.

However heartening it may be to see the old guard removed from power, it still rattles the senses to hear the incumbent of the 4th district of Connecticut, Chris Shays, quibble about being "hit by a tsunami," crediting his loss to the Republican party. No, Mr. Shays what you're saying is categorically wrong. For is not our current culture of greed spurred by the rip currents of his very party that have left the middle class awash and destitute? Who's looking out for them?

As the gap between the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and the Ghost of Christmas Present tightens, out goes that sweet sense of complacency, and in comes living hand-to-mouth. My sister was 30 days away from a well-deserved rest. Just days away from selling the food business she and her husband started three years ago-- and a light at the end of a striving tunnel would soon come. She looked forward to a pension projecting into her twilight years, to finally sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labor. She entered the hospital two days before the election, visualizing better days ahead, laws working in her favor. But––

Though my relationship with my oldest sister was sometimes reared in biblical proportions and easily summed up in one bellicose 50-Cent lyric, in the numbness of it all, it seemed altogether natural to turn to melodrama for the many questions gone unanswered. As details of her narrative tricked in, the tragedy of her heartbreaking story echoed the sentiment of Albert Maltz's The Happiest Man On Earth.

All the sudden life as I know it is no longer present. All of the sudden, certain photographs become snapshots of pleasant memories. Quite frankly, my sister was hardly likable--and understandably so in the recent past. She managed to alienate quite a few people, but you wouldn't know it by the turnout at her funeral. The community she expended so much élan in the prime of her life came out in droves to honor her in her final chapter.

Regret and trepidation bubbled over the pews. Though first relations should've reserved me a front row seat, it came as no surprise that again I had a hard time squeezing my way in to make it at my mom's side. A necropolis of empty consolations followed a miserly Greek Orthodox service. "Zoe se sas" [life to the living] opened a pinhole to look from, whereas Ecclesiastes 9:10 provided an aperture of panorama:

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.

Personal it may be, but it is incumbent upon me to share, because her death represents far more than an end of an era. It puts to rest a lot of the ideals and mythemes introduced by the legacy of the Reagan era.

Because of our generational schism, my sister weighed in unfavorably on my freewheeling lifestyle. Despite the fact that she and I hadn't talked in months, her passing brought me back to a time she and I had a true heart-to-heart. With a graduate degree under my belt, an empty pocketbook, and hard-pressed for work, I was looking at a dream that seemed to stretch further and further away from me. I hardly recognized myself. And right when you think no one else understands – Snap! Leave it up to a sister to put her finger on it: "Are you scared?" She asked. I stared back stumped. The person she was looking at was no longer the same person who moved to New York over a decade ago with the entire sum of $200 dollars in my pocket and enough aplomb to bulldoze over 5th Avenue.

She offered her earmarks on my unmitigated choices, "You're not a teenager anymore," she said out of one side of her mouth – and "are you thinking about retirement?" But, on the other, she revealed she secretly admired me for making those very choices. And then, "Go!" She clamored. "And don't worry about the money. I'll send you some when you need it ... and if I don't have it; I'll find it," she said, quelling my consternation. "Me? Where am I gonna go?" she quipped with a gander that gave meaning to all things that binded her: the mortgage, the business, the kids. "You can just get in your car and go," imparting her words in dismay. "All I look forward to is: you call me, from wherever you are – that you did it!" She said.

Addled by a dime and a dream that won't quit, her gust of pure urgency gave me the perfect kick in the ass to hit the road. Without her as a lifeline, it was my mom that offered a sophist word to the wise. "She may be six feet below, but her words remain here with us."

The cancer of our sick economy already metastasized to the bone, but analysts are hard-pressed to diagnose the current conditions akin to the Great Depression. As bells are prepared to peal the inception of a spanking New Year, horns blare the ringing of a Newer Deal. We may indeed be far off from stumbling upon proletariat propaganda or seeing the apple peddler hit the street. But plausible it is, however, to juxtapose images of an era so technologically different than ours – and while not anatomically literal – a set of symbols contained in a simpleton middle school history book dug out of the basement offers a snapshot of staggering similarities:

"October 29, 1929 – The New York Times reports: Stock Prices Slump $14,000,000,000 in Nation-wide Stampede to Unload Bankers to Support Market Today – 'A shrinkage of $2,893,520,108 in the open market value of the shares of sixteen representative companies resulted from yesterday's sweeping decline on the New York Stock Exchange.' Stock prices plummeted an estimated loss of forty billion dollars by year's end in a downward spiral with no end in sight. Banks and financial institutions were reluctant to extend credit. Businessmen were afraid to expand operations. Consumers were cautious about buying new products and stopped making good on monthly payments, hoarding whatever they could. Surpluses began to pile up in warehouses. Factory production operated at only a fraction of its capacity. Many were laid off while others welcomed pay cuts in order to keep their jobs. Construction of new houses, office buildings, and factories stopped. Walls without plaster, rusting girders, and idle cement mixers stood as all-too-real reminders of the financial panic. Some people were harder hit than others. The army of the unemployed constituted 25 percent of America's labor force. Before the end of the year a paralysis was crippling nearly the entire economy. The worst was yet to come."

On Inauguration Day, 1933, FDR's famous address prescribed the appropriate tonic that lifted the spirits of the American public. Judy Garland bellowed Over the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz that quickly became a kind of anthem of the 30s.

History is not merely political. It is also personal. There's a lot to be said for being hopeful and foolishly romantic in bad times. If we approach them with the same urgency my sister passed on to me, one day sooner than we'll know, we'll be living tomorrow laughing about today. In the mean time we can hinge ourselves on tomes put down by people whose eyes have already seen episodes of the American Story in turmoil. Historian, Howard Zinn, honed in precisely on this conflux: "Human history is not a history of human cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. And if we do act in however small a way we don't have to wait for some great utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presence. And to live now as we think human beings should live in defiance of all that is bad around us is itself a marvelous victory."

Will we survive the apocalypse? Reality is beholden to each his own. Call it what you might, the dire hole we find ourselves in will be televised 24/7. So let's peer out for creative solutions. Let's support a rescue plan for America's greatest resource: The People – a recourse that cements the plural foundation of our displaced democracy. It needs to be spared further heartbreak and desperately needs to be stirred with fresh hope and courage. Praise The Lord, the tenets of our time will not come back to haunt us. Since we didn't drop the ball this time – as masses gather around Times Square – let's keep chimerical ditty coming.
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Val Strange is a freelance writer journeying these United States and keeping score. She holds a master's degree in Media Studies from Syracuse University after working in the movie business for over a decade. Her essays appear on several online (more...)
 

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