The Road Trip

We were somewhere near the Tennessee-Virginia border in early April. Night was falling, and I was at the wheel of our minivan. We’d been driving for most of the day, having left Arkansas a little before noon.

My son Julian was in the passenger seat, queuing up music on his phone to play this new Canadian artist he’d recently discovered. I was trying not to lose sight of the other car in our caravan, the black Chevrolet with my other son and his girlfriend. The interstate was hilly here and with their taillights not working properly, it was easy to lose track of them.

Julian had driven until we switched drivers somewhere near Knoxville. We’d run through a variety of conversation topics, and the scenery rushing by outside had kept our attention. But with dusk and a change of drivers came a change in mood, as we continued to roll into the night.

The coronavirus pandemic had only recently become a reality, and it had been three weeks since I’d begun working from home every day.

As the music played, I asked him how community college was going, now that they’d moved classes online.

“I’m not going to class anymore,” he said. “And I don’t think I’m going to enroll in the fall.”

“Oh?” I said.

“Being online isn’t working for me,” he said. “And I think this coronavirus thing is only going to get worse.”

We listened to the music for a minute.

“You’ve been staying in your room a lot,” I said. “Some days I hardly see you.”

“I need my space,” he said.

It was hard to be optimistic about the coming months. Anything I could think to say would sound hollow. I nodded in agreement, but realized he couldn’t see that in the fading light.

“What’s your plan, then?” I said, throwing the topic back to him.

“I don’t have one,” he said. “What’s the use anyway? It feels like the whole world is a shit show right now. Everything I expected for this year isn’t going to happen.”

I glanced over at him. His dimly-lit face gazed out at the highway ahead while he got quiet again as the music played. He leaned forward to turn up the volume.

That night, I had no way of seeing just how bad it would get, both in the world and in Julian’s life. The weeks and months to come would be filled with awful news, the shutting down of normal life, the cancelling of so much, and Julian being fired from his job, retreating further from his mother and me, leaving the house to go smoking, getting drunk alone in his room late at night.

But we had a long way to go still until we could get home to relative comfort and some sleep.

Don’t Like the News? Kill the Messenger

I’m not a journalist but I have worked with and around journalists for over two decades, something I have talked about before here and here.

Which is why I found it disheartening to read the story of the demise of LAWeekly as I knew it. While it is true that newspapers and other journalism outlets have struggled over the past decade or so in the face of economic hardship brought on by the internet (and to some extent, themselves), to learn that an established news outlet has been deliberately targeted for destruction is chilling.

Years ago, I read the LAWeekly and its sister publication the East Bay Express rather frequently when I was a college student in California. These “alternative” weeklies could always be relied on to provide thoughtful stories about local issues not covered in much depth by the bigger news organizations. (Washington, D.C.’s alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, is still chugging away, but it’s sister paper, the Baltimore City Paper, folded in 2017.)

The story I read about how the LAWeekly has been gutted may contain some hyperbole–journalists are not perfect, and often they have an overblown sense of self and of the importance of their work, in my view.

But I have no doubt that the institution of journalism with its modern emphasis on fairness and accuracy is essential to the effectiveness of democracy and the protection of civil rights. To disparage legitimate journalism as so-called fake news–as President Trump does almost daily–creates a situation where fewer and fewer people trust facts, such as they are.

(It’s important to remember that the freedom of the press was important enough to the Founding Fathers that it is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution–alongside the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice and ahead of the right to bear arms.)

According to this version of events from the editorial staff at The LAnd Magazine, the LAWeekly was bought by a “cabal of Republican donors and Trump supporters from Orange County” who are “devoted to defeating progressive ideas by indoctrinating young conservatives and infiltrating what they considered to be liberal institutions.” If true, this is another example of the hypocrisy of conservatives these days.

Conservatives themselves claim with alarming frequency that liberals are somehow “indoctrinating” or “brainwashing” people (if you want examples, leave a comment–I don’t want to unnecessarily drive traffic to people promoting falsehoods). The argument is illogical, however.

The conventional concept of brainwashing requires that someone is led by the intentional actions of others to believe something they would not have and could not have believed if left to their own thought processes. If a journalistic organization publishes verifiable fact, without attempting to manipulate its audience, and someone reads it and draws a conclusion, I can’t see how that, in any way, is brainwashing. (Note that conservative “news” manipulates its audience intentionally every day by distorting the facts and not questioning unsupported claims.)

Conservatives give lip service to individual liberty. However, conservatives are all too eager to oppose that exercise of personal liberty when individuals make up their own minds about their own lives and the lives of those around them in a way that does not conform to an established conservative point of view.

Conservatism, almost be definition, is threatened by new ideas and the reconsideration of how we as a society view the world. It is thus not in favor of personal liberty at all, but rather the adherence to a strict set of codes of (mostly old fashioned) behavior. If a news outlet such as LAWeekly questions those conservative “values,” it is seen as a threat to the conservative ideal.

A threat that, unfortunately, is sometimes targeted for elimination. So who is the larger threat?

Maybe this is an isolated incident and perhaps I’m over-generalizing (overreacting?). And maybe the ideal of having news that’s free of bias is a pipe dream. But the possibility that reasonable people cannot agree on some basic structures of society, such that we now have flavored news that meets our preferred tastes, is frightening.

“Participatory democracy depends on a broadly shared view of reality, and therefore on trusted institutions of journalism and mass media.” – Kevin Platt, University of Pennsylvania

Euphamisms

When the failure of a product or service is discussed, people will say how “the market wasn’t there.”

When a company tries to launch something new and doesn’t succeed, they’ll say that it “didn’t do well with consumers.”

When a writer is unsuccessful, they’ll say he “failed to find an audience.”

These are all just variations of the same thing. They are euphemisms that grown-ups use for age-old playground judgements:

“You suck!”

“Loser!”

Creating fancy phrases derived from social correctness or business school lingo doesn’t make it hurt any less.

In fact, all of these smell of head-shaking and pity. “Poor soul,” they seem to say as the ice cubes clink in their glasses of scotch, “he just couldn’t rise to the occasion, didn’t have the right stuff.”

“Shame, really.”

“Indeed.”

The Ghosts of Loneliness

The month after the September 11th terrorist attacks, my wife and I decided to visit the harvest festival at Cox Farms in Virginia. She’d heard about it from our neighbors so we took a Saturday to see what it was all about.

It was a windy fall day with clear skies, and the festival area was already busy when we arrived. From the parking lot, we walked through the entry gates into an open, gently sloping area bordered by corn fields. Pumpkins, straw bales and gathered cornstalks decorated everything.

Our two-year-old daughter, bundled in layers, ran to the first activity area. It was a small stage with percussion instruments for the kids to play. Some music was coming through a sound system and my daughter picked two drum sticks and banged along on a log. My wife and I sat on some hay bales and watched the somewhat chaotic “music.”

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

I carried our younger child, not quite one year, in the carrier backpack. He was bundled too and hunkered down against the wind. He peered out at the activity around him but seemed content to stay in his nest.

Our daughter next wanted to try the long slide. Built into the side of a slope, I thought it would be daunting to a small child but she was game. At the bottom we waited and as she slid to a stop in the soft straw, she looked as if it were a bit much.

“Would you like to go again?” I asked.

“No,” she said. So we moved on to the next thing.

My wife and I had come to Cox Farms that day looking for something. It had been a rough year for us. Our son had been born through an emergency caesarian section when my wife had suffered a ruptured aneurysm while pregnant. The subsequent brain surgery, while saving her life, caused trauma that required months of rehab and supervised care. And all while we tried to raise two small children.

The aneurysm was an event that divided our lives into “before” and “after,” a clear marker that separated what we wished for our future from what was now actually achievable. The brain trauma also created a separation between “us” and “them”—those who understood what brain injury was all about and those who could not.

These twin difficulties worked in tandem to create a feeling of isolation for us. And the September 11th attacks only added to our desire to find connection with others and with a normal flow of life.

But we didn’t find it that day, nor for several years to come. The loss and the resulting loneliness were with us constantly, a formless presence that acted out when least appropriate, seeping into our daily routines and interactions. It seemed to live in our bones.

Ahead is All in Darkness

I’ve lost my vision.

Not my actual vision, but rather my view of the future, the one that guides me forward. I can’t see it anymore.

All the light is behind me, shining on where I’ve been. I can see it much more clearly. And I spend my day looking over my shoulder, thinking of what’s past.

Ahead is all in darkness.