81% Totality

When you work in facilities management, you have access to all the cool, out of the way parts of your buildings. For Eclipse2017™, many of my coworkers gathered on the roof. We have picnic tables up there, and some camp chairs, and a hammock, so despite the constant noise of the air handlers, it’s actually a pretty cool place to spend time. We have occasional celebrations on the roof and it’s been a good place to view the crowds generated by the Cubs and/or Blackhawk parades, the massive protest du jour, or to watch the planes practice for the annual air show.

So, anyway, 18 floors above Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago we had a front row seat to an almost-total eclipse (81%, to be precise). Most of us had eclipse glasses, some brought their lunches, and someone’s phone had the NASA eclipse playlist going. It was one of those too-rare moments of non-mandatory, non-coerced, organic bonding and morale boosting.

For me, though, the most interesting part of the eclipse didn’t happen between the moon and the sun. It was what was happening on the ground.

At one point, just around the time of peak coverage, i took off my glasses and looked out from the rooftop. Taking in the almost 180° vista, I could see from Randolph Street on the north all the way down to the Museum Campus on the south, a distance of about a mile and a half. And, what did I see? People, thousands of them, facing south and turning their eyes toward the heavens. They were on sidewalks and in parks. They were on double decker buses and in boats. I could see in buildings and on balconies. Everyone, seemingly, took a moment from a hot, muggy, busy Monday to stop what they were doing. And face the light.

We are so divided these days. We are a non-compromising, polarized mess. I honestly don’t know what to do about that. I struggle with whether it’s my job to fight that division or whether all I can do is raise the best son I know how. But sometimes it’s nice to see reminders that we can still have shared experiences. That we can still have common interests. That, even if it’s something simple and relatively meaningless, we can still go through the same things together and feel all the closer for it.

Tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors feared that which they didn’t understand. Something like an eclipse was seen as an ill omen. Today I’ll choose to believe the opposite. Having no greater claim on certainty than my stone age forbearers, for me Eclipse2017™ will be a sign that we are ready to move past our divisions. That, as one, we are soon to face the same direction and look toward the sky.

 

Forty

There are things in life that you think will have a big effect on you or be of great importance, but end up mattering very little. When you’re a kid, the world is full of them: monsters under the bed, what your parents are fixing you for dinner, what colors are your favorite. As you grow up a little bit, the labels on these weighty matters of great import change, but the underlying self-importance that colors them does not. Gone are monsters and in their place are SAT scores, whether that person likes me or likes-likes me, and any number of strong, deeply held opinions on the Star Wars prequels. If you have a kid, you’re exposed to a whole new dimension: breast or bottle, cry-it-out or not, home care or day care?

We go through life wrapping ourselves in these questions, these opinions, that are honestly and passionately held – sometimes for very good reasons – that we think will define us and be the crux on which we pivot.

And often (usually?), they do not.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve gotten to see quite a few friends and family approach and pass the great milestone of turning 40, most of them with grace and charm. Seeing this, and being suitably impressed with my own grace, charm, and emotional control, I lumped the big 4-0 in with all those things that seem like they matter but really don’t. I assured myself that I wouldn’t be sucked in to the cliche of feeling old or over the hill. That 40 is just another number and would feel no different than 39, 38, or any of the ones that came before. I knew that it wasn’t something that needed to be a big deal and that I’d likely sneer at it as my birthday passed me by.

Well, that birthday is tomorrow. I’m down to the last hours of my 30’s. And I am freaking the f*ck out.

We’re told our whole life that 40 is old, aren’t we? It’s the punchline of jokes. We see black party hats, streamers, balloons, and yard signs all emblazoned with giant white numbers, like a taunt. Forty-year-olds are who high schoolers mock and roll their eyes at. At my first job out of college my boss was thirty, which I remember thinking was “old”, and he was a full decade younger than I am today.

I think my problem is that I’m having a hard time de-identifying myself with being a thirty-something. Thirtysomething is a great age to be. Old enough to have learned poise, tact and professionalism, but young enough to be hip, flexible, and capable of reinventing yourself if you need to. Thirtysomethings are still in many ways explorers out on a ship at sea. Eventually, all explorers need to bring the ship in to the shore, find a quiet piece of land, and build a cabin. I feel like someone (me? society? the man?) is telling me I need to do that now. I don’t feel ready.

So, for now, I’ll do the only thing I can. Wrap myself in a warm blanket of friends and family wishing me well and telling me that 40 is one of those things that is no big deal and ultimately doesn’t matter. And maybe I’ll even believe them.

But I’m not done with being an explorer just yet. I’m not content to retire to my cabin and turn my back on the sea. There are things to learn – about the world and myself – and so much good work to do before I’m done. So if I’m going to let myself feel like 40 matters, I’m going to make it matter in the best way I know how. This is the year I commit myself to blending together poise, tact, professionalism, capability, flexibility, and the vigor of youth. I will focus that on doing not what-you’re-supposed-to-do-as-you-get-old, but on the things that I want to do. The things that inspire me. The things that make me feel young.

If I ever do get old, I want it to be with my hand on the tiller and with salt spray on my face.

Onward.

A House Divided

So far, my time within this mortal coil has coincided with the terms of six -scratch that- seven presidents, from Carter through Trump. I was too young to remember anything about Jimmy Carter, but I do have clear memories of parents and teachers talking about Ronald Reagan. The first presidential election I paid any attention to was the Bush/Dukakis contest, probably because of the SNL debate sketches, but spurred on by this notion (picked up from older family members) that, with President Reagan leaving office, an important era was ending and it was our duty to shepherd the country into equally capable hands. I was 10.

There have been seven presidential elections since then. During that time, my political views have shifted, so I’ve felt the joys/agonies of victory/defeat as a young Republican, a rudderless centrist, and these days a mostly-lefty-mostly-just-leave-me-alone. Point is, I’ve seen lots of elections and lots of inaugurations before today and have become familiar with feeling chagrin, disappointment, and anger that my candidate didn’t win. I’ve felt that way from both sides of the aisle.

Today, though? Today was different. This wasn’t that. I don’t think we’ve yet seen a today in any of our lifetimes. It was a harbinger of something, a shift in the barometer. Old sailors will tell you that they can feel a storm coming, even one a few days out, by the way the wind changes direction. I worry that I am starting to taste the salt spray on my lips.

This is not just because a republican won and I am a registered democrat, although both are true. There are lots of Republicans who are qualified to be president who, for me, wouldn’t have raised any red flags. Would I have agreed with their policies? On some stuff yes, on many other things no. Heck, I feel the same way about this election’s two major democratic candidates.

Traditionally, the inauguration speech is supposed to be one of vision, inclusion, and motivation. It’s supposed to lay out the policy themes for the next four years, bring all Americans back to the table, and send us off with a bit of a pep rally. To me, the most important piece in there is any talk of unity, of shared purpose. “With malice toward none, with charity for all”, “ask what you can do for your country”, etc. etc.

Trump’s speech didn’t hit those chords. If anything it sounded more defensive and divisive. He spoke a lot about how we would return to greatness by setting our selves apart and above our enemies (my words, not his): career politicians, neighboring countries, world markets, radical Islam. Lots of talk of conquering (again, my words). He had to know what ugly moment in history he was invoking when he yelled repeatedly “America First! America First! America First!” And the assertion that patriotism doesn’t leave room for prejudice ignores, among other things, 1930’s Germany and apartheid South Africa.

Trump is a dangerous man, not just for his proposed policies, his counselors, and his rhetoric, but for the tacit permission he gives the worst of us to come out of the shadows. Look at the post-election violence against people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and others that was accompanied by cries of “Trump!” or “MAGA” graffiti.  It’s no wonder people are scared. It feels very likely that those are just the starting point. That some americans now feel empowered to throw off the shackles of kindness, compassion, and common decency. That because Trump acts like the ugliest of ugly alpha males that it’s ok for them to do so too. The next few days, weeks, and however long will see massive protests. And I get it. I am not by nature a protestor; I’m too self conscious. But I get why people will want too. They are angry that we, collectively, have allowed things to get to the point where someone like Donald Trump could rise to the highest office in the land and they are scared that because of the rhetoric, because of the policies, because of the Trump Administration’s leaders, their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness all of a sudden looks a lot more hazy.

One part of the inaugural address that stood out to me was all the talk of you the people taking the country back. This was a calculated move. You the people are acting through Trump to make america great again. Therefore any attack on the President is, by the transitive nature of jingoism, an attack on all of you. It’s a statement meant to foment division among Trump supporters and critics, against threats to his ego or status, both foreign and domestic.

If you get enough beers in to me (2), I will eventually bore and/or make you think I’m off my rocker by telling you that you’re naive if you think the US has fought its last civil war. I’ve done a lot of reading about the 1800’s and there is nothing that happened then that couldn’t happen now. Slavery, sure, but slavery alone wouldn’t have led to war had it not been the catalyst between two groups who viewed each other in black and white, who wouldn’t compromise, and who ultimately decided to stop communicating. Those are all ingredients that exist today in one form or another. What freaks me out is that, before the last year, I would talk about my civil-war-could-come-again ideas as something far down the road and out of sight. Maybe 100 or 200 or 500 years, I’d say. But certainly not any time soon.

But today we live in a world of angry rhetoric, a revival of “America First”, of foxes guarding the hen house, of policy rollbacks that will adversely effect millions of americans. People are angry. Others are angry at the angry for being angry. And still, we don’t compromise and we often don’t talk.

This morning was a headlong rush in to an uncertain future. On inauguration days past I have felt joy and hope, and I have felt disappointment and anger.

Today was the first time I felt fear.