If you don’t want to spend much time reading today, I’ll reveal the point of this piece right up front. It’s meant to illustrate the following idea; to wit: “There are times when you must speak, not because you’re going to change the other person, but because if you don’t speak they will have changed you.” Those are the words of Melissa McEwan. If you don’t know of her, you should Google her name. Her blog is worth the trouble to find it. In any case, her words are what this piece is all about.
Now, read on. Or don’t. As you choose. It’s a free country, sort of.
One of the almost inevitable pastimes of people my age is visiting doctors and hospitals. The only exemptions from this inevitability are dying young or being eligible only for emergency room care because you lack money or insurance. In practice, that means dying younger than you otherwise would.
When it comes to married people, if one member of the couple isn’t under care, it’s likely the other one is. In my case, the big creaking door to old age opened when my wife, Karen, was stricken with a rare form of cancer that required a 13-hour operation, followed by radiation treatments, followed by doctor appointments beyond counting to repair the damage done to save her life. The operation took place almost four years ago. She remains cancer-free, so it was a success. The extension of her life surely did not come without costs, however, and she has paid a big price for that additional time, costs that made enormous demands on her patience, stamina, and spirit. It is impossible for me to fully express how much I admire her courage. Or to say how much I love her.
Her cancer required us both to finally accept the fact that we had unequivocally entered the Kingdom of the Old People. We’d been trying to deny we’d arrived at that place for years, looking at people our age with an attitude that made them “other,” not yet us. Acknowledging our stage of life was one cost of Karen’s serious illness.
There were also significant financial costs, though Medicare covered a big chunk of those. It’s hard to think yourself lucky when cancer strikes home, but unlike lots of people who are younger, the Medicare eligibility was a stroke of luck, as was the fact that we were able to afford supplemental coverage. Without that, she would have been doomed, I guess, because I simply don’t know how else the care would have been provided. Though we both worked all our lives, we sure as hell couldn’t have afforded to pay for it out of pocket, nor would we have been eligible for loans sufficient to pay for what it cost for her treatment.
When you sit in waiting rooms on a regular basis, you see and hear lots of stories about the suffering other people are going through, the vast range of afflictions that befall us, the devastating blows we can be stricken with at any age. It’s humbling in the best of ways, increasing one’s store room of empathy enormously. It’s a crash course in secular humanism. Oddly enough, shared suffering seems to be one of the primary things that connect us. From that perspective, there is no “other.”
So, from that perspective, I shouldn’t have had such a visceral reaction to the old man in the elevator earlier this week, a guy wearing Birkenstocks with sweat socks on his feet and a TRUMP 2020 cap on his head. He was roughly my age. Before my wife’s cancer, I probably wouldn’t have been prepared to see acknowledge that I was as old as he was. He was perhaps 6/4″, an inch or two taller than I am.
But I couldn’t take my eyes off that fuckin’ cap. Ishmael Reed, a writer I admire, would have called it “reckless eyeballing.” As the elevator rose toward the 2nd floor, I said “are you kidding with that cap?”
He wasn’t. My wife shushed me. I mostly try not to upset her, especially since her cancer, but this guy had, at that moment, embodied everything I’ve hated about Trump for more than three years–his overweening ego, his lies, his depthless cruelties, his willingness to do or say anything that will continue to give him the adulation of the slack-jawed dipshits and yahoos, or the money of his rich and powerful enablers. My reaction was so visceral that I had, for that moment, forgotten that my wife was even by my side.
“Yeah, I’m serious,” he said, “and I’ve got a right to wear whatever I want.”
I know I should have shut the fuck up at that point, but he had managed to push another button, one just as angrifying as his damn cap. My experience with right wingers (and it’s a pretty long resume) is that they automatically conflate disagreement with denial of their rights. They think themselves very clever when they can accuse liberals of being “intolerant,” for instance. Their sense of martyrdom and victimhood is always right near the surface. Trump, of course, is the poster boy for this attitude, as is Rush Limbaugh and the rest of those fat cat fascists who’ve dominated the discourse for so long. No matter how much money or power they have, they’re always feeling put upon.
“I’m not questioning your rights,” I said, “I’m questioning your intelligence.” I didn’t even raise my voice.
My wife grabbed my arm and said “stop it.” Perhaps I need to make clear that she shares my politics. She’s just a nicer person than I am. You probably woudn’t think so, however, if you could see her cussing at the TV damn near every time Trump’s visage appears on our 50-inch TV screen. I’d like to think that I taught her some of that vocabulary, but I’m fairly sure by now that she knew all those words when I married her 57 years ago this week. She was just too “ladylike” back then to let them slip from her lips.
It’s a good thing we were only going to the second floor because the Trump guy said something else. I was trying hard to accommodate my wife, realizing how upsetting this was for her, but also wanting very much to accommodate my desire to unleash fury on this deplorably stupid motherfucker. The odd thing was that I wasn’t feeling that electric adrenal rush I could remember so well from fights I had in high school, or even during volatile political arguments I’d had at various times. Except for concern for upsetting my wife, I felt utterly calm. Perhaps my sense of calm was due to a lowering of testosterone connected to the aforementioned age thing.
When the elevator doors opened, the old son of a bitch exited to the left, shouting “what the hell’s the matter with you?” Our appointment, thankfully, was in the opposite direction, a visit to remove stitches from a procedure that had implanted a sliver of platinum in Karen’s eyelid to help keep it closed as she slept and thus less likely to dry out in ways that made it hurt. As I said earlier, cancer is a bitch, or words to that effect.
I could hear the old guy’s voice echoing in the corridor. It appeared that I’d upset him. By then, however, I was feeling like an asshole for my thoughtlessness in upsetting Karen who surely didn’t need this shit.
But really, do any of us need this shit? How many have needed what guys like this have put us through by electing Trump, by going to his rallies, by keeping this hot air balloon of a man airborne. How many nasty and mean sons and daughters of bitches and bastards who share this country with us have darkened our days, people willing to have children kidnapped by their government, or to give open and enthusiastic support to racists, to a kakistocracy that exposes all of us to peril without an expiration date. Even if Trump is impeached, the damage he’s done will extend into the lives of our grandchildren and their grandchildren, even if we can survive the delay this man and his fellow thugs around the world have imposed on our ability to fight global climate change or to create a saner world. And that’s a big if, ain’t it?
Still, my feelings are mixed about having confronted that old bastard in the elevator. He, too, has his share of human burdens. He was either at the hospital to pick up his wife, or he was, perhaps, an old widower who had medical issues of his own (though he looked hale and hearty). Besides that, what good did speaking up do? The image of two old men coming to blows over politics is always a bit ridiculous. And it might have come to blows had I not had that restraint men so often need, the sensible guidance of a more level-headed mate at my side.
But there is, nonetheless, an atavistic part of me that wishes Karen hadn’t been with me that afternoon and I could have followed the sound of that guy’s voice down the corridor and kicked his ass for him. Because I sure as hell wouldn’t have managed in a thousand years to explain to him why he seemed so fucking dumb to a guy his own age who’d seen as much of the world’s good and evil as he had seen and had drawn quite different conclusions.
In any case, that cap-wearing old prick was, for those few moments, the focal point for a life time of rage engendered by guys like him who had called me and people like me unpatriotic, traitors, hippies, tree huggers, snowflakes, Commies, or nigger lovers. Guys like him had called Martin Luther King “Martin Luther Coon.” Some of them had cheered when Kennedy was assassinated. They’d voted for Nixon, then Reagan, then Dubya and Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of American fascism. They turned out for Tea Party rallies that vilified Barack Obama in crude displays of racist hate. This guy was my walking, talking nemesis, and it wasn’t entirely personal. Guys like him had beaten up guys like me in logging towns for wearing long hair, or for registering voters, or demonstrating for the rights of farm workers. Guys like him had spat on guys like me, or told us that we should just go to Russia if we didn’t like it here. They’d compared the peace symbol to “the track of the American chicken.”
Guys like that old man had also made it harder for Americans like my wife and I to afford health care, had voted for the damn right wingers who have done so much to make life so much harder for so many, had decried things like “socialized medicine” even while getting treatment paid for by Medicare themselves, had proclaimed their devotion to things like self-sufficiency, rugged individualism, and free market capitalism even while applauding the rich and powerful whose wealth could be traced to government largesse, tax breaks, subsidies, defense contracts, and a thousand-and-one scams and legal stratagems unavailable to poor or honest people.
Had my wife not been with me, had I let loose a half century of accrued angers, had I split that old guy’s lip, it wouldn’t have changed a thing. Just thinking about having done it, however, makes me feel a release of some very righteous anger toward people who have done so much harm through all the days of my life.
And yours, too.
There will be those who say that succumbing to such violent impulses only brings us down to their level. I’ve heard that all my life, and I’ve mostly shared that belief. So far, however, refraining from sinking to their level hasn’t been entirely successful at discouraging their worst impulses or lessening their power.
Let’s hope we can put a stop to their bullshit through the legal system or the ballot box. It’s late in the game, the odds seem against us, and the stakes could hardly be higher.
The Rolling Stones – Street Fighting Man (Official Lyric Video)
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