Repeating the Fundamental Mistake

Every few years I find it useful to reread David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and see how we’re doing. There’s always some current policy that lines up exactly and there’s always some way in which — unexpectedly — things have changed. But what changes the most each time is my own eye, by which I mean, that which jumps off the page most clearly, directly, unavoidably. In different eras, different bits of the analysis rise and fall in significance.

The first time I tried to read this inch-by-inch analysis of how the US got into the quagmire of its war in Vietnam, the details nearly did me in. Did we really need to know who attended which meeting and what they said? Why did China make such a difference, except in the most thorough historiography? Honest readers could debate these things all day — and often do. And then, five or ten years later, it’s time to do it again.

This time, the something that leaps off the page in a way that it never has before, is what Halberstam referred to as the fundamental error of the early decision-makers: “A quick assumption here, that the government and the people of South Vietnam were as one, that what Diem wanted was what ‘the people’ wanted: a quick assumption which haunted American policy-makers throughout the crisis.”  (p. 170, 1992 edition). It has taken me some time to acknowledge to myself that the times this phrase echoes most often are moments when I see President Obama speaking, for instance this week at the United Nations, with the confidence and vigor of a stable regime. It echoes as my wife and I watch countless hours of C-Span — hearing after hearing, think tank panel after think tank panel. Sometimes someone will address life as we are living it, but usually, that happens on Book TV, not American Government or Washington Journal. Not the callers, but the pundits and politicians channels might as well be discussing another country.

I find this disturbing. The Best and the Brightest concerns the intersection of domestic and foreign policy, but mostly, it’s about foreign policy. Halberstam’s analysis always circles back around to how we can achieve better foreign policy. As many times as I’ve read it, this is the first time I felt that the primary problem described above — that the government and the people have radically divergent interests– applies more to us Americans than to the nations we are bombing, invading, corrupting. What Washington wants is not what the people want — left, right or center — and what the people want is no particular interest to the government.

Just to continue with this scary motif for a moment, let’s link it to the unprecedented appearance of major military tools placed in the hands of domestic policing entities. Governments who do not wish to carry out the wishes of the people will eventually understand that they do not wish to carry out the wishes of the people. At first, they kind of drift away, but eventually the benefits of being in government for the benefit of someone other than the people being governed becomes too tempting. Intentional. Directional. At that point, members of the government with this goal — at all levels — will organize systems by which to suppress rebellion and opposition. So perhaps what happened at Davis, in Ferguson, are harbingers of a non-constitutional authority.

Once governments want non-democratic authority, they want immediate access to military equipment. Just as the Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of white supremacist organizations and their terrorist potential, someone needs to start tracking all this police equipment and making it widely known. What is this “training” that comes with it? When are the “conferences” that role play best uses? Who gets to go to these things and who pays?

That’s what I want to see on C-span now. It’s more likely, of course, on Democracy Now! or Al Jazeera, but I doubt the Tea Party care any less about this problem than do we Progressives. In fact, I am starting to wonder if those crazy old-time right-wingers might not have been on to something that the rest of us should have paid more attention to.

Late Night Bombshells

I’m a night person, and I like to see how things end. So over the years, I’ve stayed up for a number of television presentations that my mother — my usual viewing companion — has walked away from. Sometimes she just couldn’t stand what she was seeing. More often she was determined to get to bed at a reasonable hour because she hates sleeping late, loves that quiet time before the large family swirls into her quiet kitchen.  Her crossword puzzle. Classical radio. Coffee and a modest breakfast. Then we come in, and her work begins.

The first big thing I heard and she didn’t, was LBJ’s speech to the nation, March 1968, which ended with his stunning withdrawal from the presidential race. As unhappy with him as I was, it still threw me off. When Kennedy was shot, we knew what was going on: a violation of the natural order. Now LBJ was walking away. Were presidents really still the pillar? (Come to think of it, wasn’t the next one Nixon’s resignation? Then the Ford-Carter diminution? No wonder people admired Reagan!)

The next big late night thing — and here we switch pretty completely to baseball — was Carlton Fisk’s iconic home run. Heck, we lived in Cincinnati, we listened to the Reds every night after dinner, often ran down to the ballpark nothing was on tv. And now she was worried about getting up on time, with the World Series on the line? As we say on Facebook: WTF?

Brief skip forward to the Kirk Gibson home run. Iconic, yes. But not my team. Same with some of the other great World Series home runs — including Mr. November’s.

10:30 isn’t as late as some of those were, but somehow, since the sun sets so damned early in Vermont after the Equinox, it feels like the middle of the night. And now it’s not my mother but my wife who keeps me company. She’s a Yankee fan, but always nice to the Red Sox. And I’m not just being nice about Derek Jeter. He has been a true class act, a steady character and talented professional. Someone who partied a lot but never went over any lines. As with Mariano last year, the team doesn’t really matter when it comes to saying good-bye to an immortal. When his single shot through the infield (a better throw would have gotten that runner), I whooped and hollered like everyone else who ever wore a baseball cap. Even the Orioles stood and applauded until The Captain departed.

In Cincinnati, our immortals were mostly traded away. No small market could pay Big Red Machine-level money as revenues grew with television, Yankees don’t have that problem. They face the opposite challenge: a player has to be good enough to justify the money that team will pay. (The Red Sox will pay you that whether you’re worth it or not, snark snark.) But few are able to be that good that long. So we treasured every moment. And there it was. The fairy tale ending to the fairy tale career. What can we say? Is God a Yankee fan, or just a Derek Jeter fan? Maybe it was a present to Joe Gerardi, who joked that the best way it could end would be a walk-off.

Whatever the explanation, my first impulse was to pick up the phone and call my mother. To hear her complain that it’s way too late, she’ll find it all out in the morning. And like Derek’s, my story has a happy ending: my mother is still alive. Well. Indeed, I will call and describe another late night milestone that she missed.
But not too early: she really likes that crossword puzzle.


What happened to all that energy I had last week? Autumn hits the far north/south far harder than it impacts those closer to the Equator. I’m not ready to be cold again: the heat didn’t bake last winter out of my bones. I remember another recent Vermont autumn that brought this same fear of winter, due to the same sequence of a long, deeply-cold winter, followed by a cool summer that showed no stamina resisting autumn’s winds and shadows. I was more active then, and it didn’t help; an eight-hour day is supposed to refer to work, not light. With any luck this cycle will pan out like that one did, with lots of heat and light the following summer.

Of course, my spirits aren’t just subdued by the autumn. My wife just fell getting out of the shower. Always terrifying. She hit her head; how hard? She might have scraped her back; what does that look like? (Both seem sort of okay). She’ll need help getting off the floor; how much will it be? Can I do what she needs?

She got herself up pretty well, I dried her as fast as I could, and now she’s listening from her glider as Derek Jeter plays out the last of his illustrious career. Football scores crawl beneath the panorama of batter, pitcher, and field boxes. Jeter has played hard, but the Yankees will need a miracle to play into October.

She was an athlete all her life, my wife was. Time and again we rely on the training of her muscles, the daily-nurtured determination to beat back physical challenge with grit and grip and a body that knows how to find its hidden reservoirs of strength. Today too many kids spend too much time with screens and chairs, too much bad food, too few opportunities to play team sports. What will they do when they get old? If my wife hadn’t done all that basketball and sailing, if I hadn’t spent my twenties doing yoga in my parents’ living room, if my mom hadn’t taken us all for swimming lessons at the Y, and is still doing her own water aerobics at 85 — well, all I can say is, we’d be beat. Beat. Not by the Huntington’s Disease, but by not knowing how to fight off the premature autumn it wants to wrap around our ambitions.

Time to hang the Halloween flag. And this weekend, they say, we might have one last shot at eighty.

Huntington’s Disease and Herculaneum

When I wrote fondly last week about my joy at playing house, did I mention that it sits on a volcano? Like all volcanoes, this one troubles and frightens in various ways, but not all the time, and not in any pattern. Maybe it’s more like living near several volcanoes, each with its own separate pattern. You might have seen one of those documentaries about the various Iceland volcanoes. One blows straight up in the air, one kind of seeps, another threatens to spew forth enough heat to bury the nearby towns and farms with mud from rapid melting of its usually beautiful glacier. Each of those unpronounceable names has particular characteristics, each of which signals a clear and separate scenario to volcanologists.

The name of our volcano is Huntington’s Disease. It lives in my wife like a parasite, often resting, but always on the lookout for some way to kidnap her body and turn it against us. When we married, I told the minister to announce that our marriage has three participants, because she fights the disease with as much detachment as I do. It has not become her new being, even though it changes her shapes and talents in irreversible ways.

Three weekends ago, as I dug out one of the tougher tree roots, my mind flashed an image — as it does in so many stray moments — of the flash-fried corpses discovered so recently at Herculaneum, at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. When the lava engulfed them, it perfectly preserved the poses in which they sought comfort. If a shout should come from my open living room window, and I arrived too late to forestall the fall, the choking incident, whatever it would be that would cut short her life, my tree stump would be like one of those Herculaneum bodies: caught mid-task for ages to come.|

Other times, the volcano that looms is Kilauea, the constantly oozing lava that slowly crunches over Hawaii’s trees and roads and houses. My wife just slows down, does less. Fighting the disease is so constant, and although it takes over the brain, it controls the entire body. After a long, ambitious day, she’s likely to spend the next one looking as if she were walking under water. Maybe only sleeping.

But the one that scares me the most is Mt. Pinatubo. Perhaps you remember those films from the Philippines, no more than about twenty years ago. There were warning signals and evacuations, saving thousands of lives. But then, when the mountain erupted, spewing ash into a tropical rainstorm that would have been a disaster all on its own, mud spattered down everywhere. Lahars — lava-mixed mud — rolled down in large rivers, while lava-mixed rain coated the countryside as if in some overdone theatrical: whiteface on the people, the cattle, the pets, the cars and trucks and squalid little bags that held their lives.

What will our lahar-rain look like? Maybe she’ll swallow too much liquid into her lungs and be strangled by that vicious pneumonia. Maybe she’ll fall and suffer one of the major disabilities that beset us women of sixty and over. If these things happen, she will still be my wife, but our cute little home will be shattered. My caregiving-based funding will end when she enters the hospital or residential care. My ties to the community are tenuous, because I spend so much time at home, but residential care or hospitalization will completely uproot me. I’ll look like one of those tree stumps whose roots lie cut around them.

Huntington’s Disease has no cure, and after all the excitement about finding its genetic marker, the subsequent decade has revealed that the gene requires activators the doctors don’t understand. There are some correlative factors that seem important, but no one knows why. My wife is the youngest — one of the risk factors — and her father was somewhat older when she was born — which is now factoring into several neurological syndromes. On the other hand, it appears that in her family the activators have delayed the onset of symptoms past the point they would have been predicted by just the genetic marker.

Maybe you don’t care about this, because no one in your family has this disease. But it’s the only hereditary member of a cluster that might well rumble into your life — Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, maybe even ALS or MS. More and more, our research communities are cross-fertilizing each other. Yes, ALS is still the worst, and fully deserving of all that ice-bucket money you might have heard about. But would you spare a thought for us, living here in this cluster of volcanoes, and donate for research into Huntington’s Disease? We need brain scans to identify the sectors of each HD brain as it wins and loses particular regional battles. My wife, for instance, has phenomenal intellectual capacity, but impulse control and anxiety attacks slice into our lives almost daily.

Next Saturday, September 27, 2014, our humble little Vermont chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, will walk to raise funds. Our chapter has expenses — a paid convener — and dreams, such as a local residential facility, so caregivers can maintain rooted lives when our loved ones are no longer at home. Please click on our website and make a donation:

And thank you.

Disoriented by Married Life

The most useful thing that has been said to me in the aftermath of my Solstice wedding came from a friend in a tightly Christian congregation: “When people get married, we expect them to take a year off from their ministry to settle into married life.” By ministry, she means, as do Unitarian Universalists and many others, not necessarily a professional ministry, but the service outside your own family and neighborhood to which you are called.

Nothing prepared me for the intensely domestic focus that emanates from this tiny gold band and the beautiful woman who placed it on my finger. My eyes want to look at her, my hands love the duties of caring for her. The respite care workers go nuts because we do not want to be apart for any significant amount of time, even when the back-up team is here to get me out. “Out” to me means yard work. Work on the house. Grocery shopping for something that will taste special for both of us.

That’s all as it should be. But more disturbing has been the lessening of my passion for old friends and even my family of origin. Likewise, the ministry that meant so much of me has fallen aside, doomed by its insistence that I follow it to places she cannot physically go. My mind reverts to an earlier stage of life that was dominated by public and international events, enough to have diverted my reading and writing.

The question I ask myself is this: where are those covenants of yore? Did I make too many to keep? Everyone does, of course, and some must be sacrificed to time and distance. But my fiber rebels against such apostasy. What I hope is that my friend’s words are accurate and as married life becomes more familiar, once again it will have space for the family and friends that were my greatest joy until a few years ago.

But notice where this wisdom came from: another religious community. Perhaps Unitarian Universalism will be more attractive to young adults if we expand our explicit expectations to include the roller coaster/whipsaw changes that follow the act of saying, “I do” and honor the obsession with nesting that paves the way for the young families we hope will populate our Religious Education programs. This summer my wife and I not only got married but also turned sixty, so we’re not planning to have any human children or grandchildren. Our congregational life — unlike my former denominational passion — remains intact and, in my case, even a bit renewed. But if we were young adults now, desperately trying to earn more money to buy and fix out a house, to fund offspring, and pay off our student loans, I’m not sure I’d appreciate the lack of respect for private ambition our leaders tend to imply. And if we were people of color, watching our family lose its brief opportunities at success (“last hired and first fired” means there isn’t much of a savings account, much less a cushion), I’m not sure I’d find meaning in a congregation which is wrestling with “our legacy of privilege.”

So if my marriage has done one thing, it’s up-ended my sense of place in the world. It has freed me from some old assumptions, and I’d like to see my religious community experience the same unimaginable buoyancy.