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Looking Back at What Lay Ahead

by Robert Earle

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

#8: The Chinese Communist Party disintegrated like the Soviet Communist Party, but for opposite reasons: not because China was broke, but because it was rich, and the business community wouldn’t put up with either the People’s Liberation Army or the Party anymore, each sucking up gobs of capital, land and even air space reserved for military aircraft. Get out of the way, boys. We’re into diamonds and lap pools, not “national security.” So the Uihgurs got loose in the west. No problem.

More provocative was the fact that the new Dalai Lama did bear an eerie resemblance to his predecessor, and of course he returned to Tibet, a very large chunk of what China had claimed. But then Taiwan feared Korean unification so much that it made a Hong Kong-like deal with the Mainland and voilà, just like that you had a Chinese colossus of 1.7 billion people again, twice as large as the U.S. economy.

I was missing my afternoon walk and my left foot was going numb. Couldn’t this be finished up tomorrow? Maybe, but I knew if I didn’t keep going, I’d wake up at three in the morning, doubt-ridden and desolate. I simply could not sleep with that damned head unit on.

I gave the study’s freckling brown walls and overburdened bookcases the kind of stout look I mustered every ten years or so. Good God, I thought, they called me because I’m eighty, not despite the fact that I’m eighty. Born during the Korean War, raised during the Vietnam War, reached maturity during the Cold War, actually got tangled up in the Iraq War, and now had only two items left to record.

This ominous thought made me reach for my bourbon, needing some booze to settle my nerves and conscience. I knew why I was hesitating, but I had to wrench a truth out of myself that hurt because I had been born and educated in an Atlantic World that was no more, taps sounding with the 2021 dissolution of the European Union, and then...

Wait, I had to go back to go forward: first came the demise of the Euro in 2014 and with it the demise of Franco-German coordination; then the botched French Mediterranean initiative; then and only then the demise of the European Union followed by the breakup of NATO, possessing neither muscle nor motive to go on. Whew, a mouthful, but as true and sad as anything Brahms ever wrote.

Sally and I had gone to Europe the previous spring and seen it for ourselves. What a train smashup! One country slamming into the next and the next and the next, accordion-style. We used to like Paris so much... and Oxford, my favorite spot for loitering among the gargoyles... but you had these aimless, over-drugged down-and-outers, and things that could have still worked — elevators, windows, bathroom spigots — but didn’t work for simple lack of care.

So many listless Europeans staring over one another’s heads... so many listless Europeans living in multitudinous solitude amidst the fragmentation of every great monarch’s dreams since Charlemagne, Son of Pepin the Short. This wasn’t Proustian, elegiac and nostalgic; it was more splintery, more Swiftian. Everyone was sick unto death — pallor and bones in suits and skirts, bad teeth, bad breath, bad hair.

The collapse of European civilization was definitely #9.

Sally returned to the apartment with Terri, William and Robert in tow. I heard her saying she’d see if Grandpa Trace was free. Quick as a flea in a pet store, I slapped my head unit back on and almost cracked a tooth on the rim of my glass, swigging more bourbon because I knew I’d have to say, yes, of course, I’d love to see Terri and the kids. Liar, liar, pants on fire, but mirabile dictu, I swerved out into the living room, cane in hand, and no one was eating! Having bought them cake downtown, Sally wasn’t letting our dear porkers scarf down one cookie more. Good for Grandma.

William looked unhealthily pregnant. Robert was Sir Lord Lard. Mama Terri, my once-upon-a-time sylph princess of a daughter, was more or less the Toad Queen. How the three of them fit into their shoe-sized electric car, I couldn’t imagine. I supposed they must strap one of them to the roof like Mitt Romney’s dog. They didn’t go to school; there weren’t any schools anymore; school came to them, the great parental challenge being to get them to flick it on, listen and take the tests. It made them so solitary, seemed to me, so cut off, and yet they were continuous in more than the balletic flow of their endless adipose.

Nothing stopped in their lives. The time of day? What did it matter? Didn’t. Time, aging, reaching various stages of life’s journey... All this would happen whenever it happened. I couldn’t get my sand wedge through this trap, not that I played anymore. I swung and the boys moved about two inches before rolling right back where they were embedded to begin with.

“You doing anything?” William asked.

“Can’t you put that more nicely, William?” Terri chastised him. “You’re speaking to your grandfather.”

“All right. What are you up to, Gramps?” William tried again.

“Not much,” I answered. “A little consulting.”

“About what?” Robert asked.

I didn’t want to go into #10, what had happened to America these last twenty years. If I made it sound as awful as I believed it to be, Sally would cut me off, Terri would say they had to go, and I’d find myself out there in the living room adrift on an island, no desk to prop me up.

So I took evasive maneuvers. “Pascal said, ‘All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit alone in a quiet room’.”

Brothers for better and for worse, the boys both firmly declined to ask me Pascal Who and whether Pascal Who really was right.

Actually, I didn’t think so. Not all man’s miseries, #1 through #9 proved that. But the pity was that if they had wanted to ask me, I might have enjoyed talking with them. They didn’t have to know who Pascal was. I could have told them. I even could have suggested ways in which misery enriched the human experience. But put something like that out there, and you’re being anti-social. Even proposing a thoughtful discussion is being anti-social, much less pretending that at eighty you’re capable of such a discussion.

They left soon enough, and I jiggered back into my study, sat down hard and looked out the window, ruminating on the effect the collapse of the GOP had on American politics, giving the “radical middle” its chance to squeeze in, capture the independents, traditionalist ethnic groups, and desperate states-righters eager to flee from national disaster while abandoning the Democrats, too, and saving what they could in the far corners of the republic.

What a twenty years! With climate change baking the southern states bald and singeing the great plains black, three-quarters of the population had crammed into the northern tier, pursuing a hodgepodge of retrenchment from militarism (couldn’t afford it), international engagement (didn’t want it), and even big project-ism: highways were a mess, bridges were crumbling, no space program, no national labs anymore, and Washington, D.C. a physical as well as moral chancre, untreatable, gasping for breath where it had collapsed.

Even on my truncated walks, I saw this decay with my own eyes. The grand houses of Kalorama were chopped up into condos, but most of them were half-full, like the streets, office buildings, restaurants and stores... if you could find one open. High office — being a senator or cabinet member or Supreme Court judge — had acquired a kind of janitorial quality. The nation’s “leaders” were living along the Potomac to mop floors, not make decisions.

By rights the United States ought to have fragmented like Europe, but something held it together. What was it? The adhesive friction of continental dust? Still, you couldn’t move into Minnesota without a permit. California had its own chief diplomat for Asian affairs. Spanish was the state language of Florida, Texas, Illinois and what used to be New Mexico. Could Washington stop the Indo-Pak war, worldwide droughts, trans-Atlantic disintegration, the flow of U.S.-born terrorists into Judeo-Palestine?

Washington? Who cared about Washington? Who even used “Washington” anymore as synecdoche for the whole country, pars pro toto? Broke and irrelevant, Washington made no matter to no one, as someone recently put it to me on a visit to Chicago. The premise of national unity had been indicted and convicted by the bond default of 2024, the suspension of Social Security in 2026, and the incapacity of the country to feed itself: too many people, not enough water or arable land.

Uh-oh... wow... hmmm... I hit my bourbon again and wondered if someone was up to something by giving me this assignment. Who really wanted a report like this? If I tossed my honest judgments out there, winding up with the disaster of #10, they might not be ignored, and that could lead to who knew what? The idea shook me a bit. In fact, I grew so queasy that I had to take my head thing off again and realized I was just a frightened old man who worried he’d be penalized more than he’d be paid.

For no reason, I began obsessing about the possibility that I might end up losing my study. Not Sally, no, never, but my study! How? I didn’t know. But what if I did? What would I do? How could I survive without the view out that window? The sight of those desiccated trees struggling through the seasons? The coasting, unchallenged feelings I enjoyed when I closed the door and sat there alone, reading a little bit, snoozing a little bit, looking for a book, trying to remember the German word for remember, the Russian word for snow.

Our lease could be revoked. Our building could be condemned. I counted once that we had lived in thirty-seven different places since college and pledged we’d never move to another, but it could happen, wrecking what was left of our finances. Someone could read my little paper and declare me out of my mind.

I pictured that: the interview, the deliberations, the bad news and terminal institutionalization. All because what had happened the last two decades had taken its toll on me, broken my spirit, common sense and ability to reason?

No, of course not.

Of course not.


More bourbon. On with the head thing again. Go ahead, say these things happened and they were significant, they had meaning, outcomes, negative effects. There had been a wrenching, withering, unholy dipsy-do in world affairs, and the United States didn’t come out on top.

Who could put that right? Me? Lincoln? Bismarck? Yet another Caesar?

What did “putting things right” mean, anyway?

“Shove your damn money,” I said, tearing up what I had written into little bitty pieces.

Sally tapped on the door and asked if I had said something. I said no, just mumbling to myself. She asked if everything was all right. I said sure. She came in and sat down.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

I knew she would tune out before I finished the second sentence, so I said no, I didn’t. I’d keep it to myself. And eventually she gave up, letting that sad look of hers linger on me yet one more time.

I knew what she was thinking; she’d said it often enough: If only I would open up and let the world in, things would be so much better. But she supposed that was too much to expect at my age.

Copyright © 2012 by Robert Earle

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