Last Dispatch from Florida

Friday, 19 March 2021

It’s Friday morning at 3am. I woke about two hours ago from a dream that I was riding in the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Another passenger watched impassively as a large wasp was trying to sting me. I swatted at the buzzing insect, in the dark, with a hat. When I woke, by heart was beating double-time. Isn’t a wasp dream supposed to mean something? How about when it’s combined with the military images that usually appear in my dreams? Have I just revealed some terrible truth about myself? 

Wide awake, I reached over to touch Susan, not to wake her, but for the simple comfort of her presence. She’d gotten up a few minutes before and wasn’t there. After she returned and went back to sleep, I tried for over an hour to do the same. It wasn’t going to happen, so I rose quietly in the darkness, grabbed the clothes I’d dropped earlier, and tried not to step on our invisible black dog. I picked up a pen and a notebook on my way out.

Tea, I thought. I’ll make tea and write. 

I’ve had a hard time writing anything for the past year. I throw down a sentence or a paragraph now and then and feel like a failure when my weekly word count amounts to little more than my body weight. I call myself a writer? Who do I think I’m fooling.

I brewed an expensive oolong I normally save for–what, company? That’s a laugh. Including household appliance repairmen, I can count on one hand the number of visitors who have set foot inside our home in the past year. 

But you’re here with me now. Will you sit with me for a few minutes? The tea is almost ready, steeping in a cast iron pot, wrapped in a towel on the small desk in the strange little common area of the house set aside for books, musical instruments, and writing—when the words will come. 

Dexter, the dog, followed me out of the bedroom. After staring at me for several minutes, apparently confused about my moving around at such an hour, he settled under my chair to lean against my bare feet. 

Thank you for spending this short time with me. Stephen King describes writing as a kind of telepathy. Here I am encoding my thoughts into tiny black symbols made of ink, which later I’ll transcribe into what you’re reading now. These are my thoughts, transmitted from my mind to yours. There’s something—what the hell, we’re in the wee hours, so I’ll say it—there’s something magical about the reader-writer relationship that doesn’t happen in any other aspect of life, not even in face-to-face conversation. That’s why handwritten letters are such a rare gift. Am I showing my age by lamenting the dying art of sending news and telling people you love them with ink and paper? Probably.

So, this is my rambling, sleepless letter to you today. And as I write it, I’m imagining you here with me in the dim light — you, whoever you are — holding a steaming cup to your nose.

It’s fascinating—and a little frightening—to watch myself and those around me change so rapidly. Just over a year ago, Susan and I had VIP tickets to Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival, a well-organized event on the Hillsborough River with the University of Tampa’s gleaming minarets cutting an exotic skyline behind the stage. That concert was the last time we spent time in a crowd of strangers — just a bunch of music lovers enjoying being together and celebrating a beautiful evening. 

Since last March, so many aspects of life have been altered beyond recognition, it’s hard to fathom what “getting back to normal” means. Because it turns out that “normal” wasn’t what we thought it was at all, and I think there are a lot of us who aren’t interested in returning to the way we were. After four years of the most destructive presidential administration in American history, we’ve seen not only what our fellow Americans and elected representatives are made of, we’ve also learned a bit about the people closest to us. This has been a shattering experience for some of us. 

Despite events on the large scale, life continues on the small stage as well, including its final act. I lost an aunt and a grandmother last year, one to chronic poor health and the other to ripe old age. 

I lost an uncle as well, but not to death. He fell prey to the newly fashionable open bigotry that the Trump years coaxed out of its semi-camouflaged hiding places. It’s not that my uncle hadn’t been a lifelong racist and xenophobe. But until recently, he’d done a pretty good job of not letting it show, other than periodically blurting something embarrassing at a holiday dinner table, as certain uncles do. It was when he began to say loudly, publicly, and unapologetically that certain people shouldn’t be here, when he decided that fulminating in his own homophobic, white supremacist vitriol was preferable to continuing decades-old relationships, that I had to let him go. 

Even after all that we’ve witnessed, conspiracy theories and fear-based, data-free lunacy threaten to take others from me. I watch people I always believed were too intelligent to fall for too-easy explanations and simplistic solutions to complex problems subscribe to magical thinking. Of course everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. But there must be limits, and those limits appear when baseless theories, propaganda, and outright lies begin to hurt people.

I’ve changed as well. Some of those changes are undesirable, and I’m working on self-correction. Others I see as a sort of personal evolution. I’m learning, after a half century of walking the Earth, what’s important. All I need now is the self discipline to live the way I know I should, with compassion and forgiveness and gratitude, but also with a steely vigilance for people who deliberately do harm. 

I’m not blameless. I’ve made questionable choices. I owe apologies and atonement. In my own defense, I’ve offered some. Not all have been accepted, and that’s alright. It has to be. Actions have consequences. 

I’ll keep trying to be better because I want the people I love to be proud of me, and because I’ve reached an age at which enjoying my own company is a necessity.

We’re all feeling the strain of the world in our homes, our minds, and in our souls. Lots of us are basically mental at this point. 

I think we have to focus on hope and resolve. The constant barrage of misinformation is causing the pandemic to drag on long past when we could have ended it. (Behold New Zealand.) But it won’t last forever.

We kept our democracy, despite the best efforts of the evil leading the misguided who tried to turn America into something horrifying, and when that didn’t take, tried to take it by force on January 6th. It was a close thing. As more information has come to light, we see that it was a lot closer than we’d imagined. The fight for liberty and democracy continues. (I’m looking at you, Texas and Florida.)

Those of us with a single introspective bone in our body are learning more about ourselves, what we need to stay healthy and sane, and what we need to eliminate from our lives. We’re improving, despite the deteriorating state of the world. And look at all the intelligent and determined young people coming of age every day. They’re going to save us, as soon as people my age get out of the way and stop destroying the planet. The past five years of turmoil and the worsening climate crisis can be the very things that unite us as a nation, and hopefully as a species. I know we can survive, but it’s going to take unshakeable courage, hope, and resolve.

The Buddha is quoted as saying “Your biggest mistake is thinking you have time,” or words (not in English) to that effect. So love people now. If you stumble upon a way to help, do it now. If you wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts banging against the inside of your skull, write them down. And if you’re going to make tea at 3am, brew the good stuff, while you can.

2020 Vision (an unedited rant)

Several simultaneous, near-apocalypse-level horrors are running their course all around us. But the one I’m thinking most about at the moment–the one that’s most affecting my family–is the pandemic it that seems half of us, at least here in Florida, are pretending doesn’t exist.

We have a full house. One daughter awaiting her return to Morehead State University in August, another bound for the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and a son about to start his senior year of high school.

All their lives have been scrambled. The future is a cloud of uncertainty. And they ask questions that are starting to sound a lot like, “Why bother?”

I spend a lot of time thinking about my oldest son, who enlisted in the Marine Corps last year. Military service requires a certain level of comfort with uncertainty, and I believe he’s naturally hard-wired for that sort of thing, but nothing is “normal” these days, not even for a young Marine.

What have I experienced in my half-century of life that I can offer them? It would be easy to tell them how easy they have it–that when I was their age, things were really hard. That’s both true and untrue, because each of us has to live within our own perspective.

Our family is fortunate–yes, privileged. The police aren’t gunning for us. We aren’t being separated from our children and deported country we’ve never lived in. Clean water flows from the tap. So far, we still have our jobs. Our family is weathering America’s steep decline better than we have a right to expect.

But all of us are going to have to adjust our expectations. America is changing. This is a metamorphosis into something we can’t yet identify. The only thing that’s clear is that we cannot go on as we have in the past.

That shit has got to change.

Liberal Professor Schooling Alt-Reich Militia Member (dramatization)

It’s time to demand that our leaders lead on behalf of all of us, that our police serve and protect everyone without checking for skin tone and listening for an accent, and it’s time for us to get involved in whatever way we can.

I often feel helpless to make a difference. My soldiering days are long gone, and I’m a freelance writer and editor who spends his days at a desk in a converted suburban dining room.

I see people around me behaving poorly. Half of my neighbors seem to think current events are an excuse to party like it’s 1999, gather as they please, and refuse to wear masks in public places. I’m not here to rant, but I am discouraged.

It’s worse than that. I live in Florida, and the willful stupidity I see all around me, at all levels, is beginning to piss me off. Seriously, if you can’t show some compassion and humanity, and if you’ve deliberately switched off your brain, at this point I have no use for you.

I’m looking for opportunities to start conversations about how we go forward as communities and as a country. As I see it, our politics have divided us into two nations–one that wants democracy and justice, and another that wants a perception of comfort and security for themselves and those like them, at any price. We’re going to have to learn to be one nation again. That’s going to be tough.

Many countries have failed to come back together after conflict. In fact, as it turns out, so did the United States. We swept too much under the rug after the Civil War, and it’s still there. All of it.

November is coming. We’re going to have to work hard to repair all the damage the current administration has done, both directly and through the sort of indirect, trickle-down-fascism that enables state and local governments and domestic yahoos to feel comfortable breaking institutions and hurting innocent people.

Whatever America looks like in five or ten years, it won’t be anything we have ever been used to. If we get it right, that’s a good thing–something not to fear, but to hope for.

Did I mention that November is coming? I suggest we vote for something better. It’s going to take all of us, so if you’re not registered, kindly get your shit together.

If you think the government we’re enduring now is ok, none of this was meant for you anyway. So get off my lawn, and wear a mask, FFS.