Surgery was relieving several months of debilitating pain, and I had just learned that a tentative diagnosis of a fatal disease was mistaken. For some while, pain had been almost the only thing I thought about; when fear of death was tacked on, I became even more self-absorbed.
Then a few days ago, I woke up like Rip Van Winkle – a new person in a changed world.
I found myself talking with Ann over coffee about something other than my medical condition – in particular, about the way we and most Americans increasingly shop online, and how downtowns are becoming little more than entertainment, dining, and office districts, if that. They were dying off before my illness, but their demise seemed new on my Rip van Winkle morning. And it was of more concern to me. A country without downtowns is almost too strange to imagine, and the ramifications of it would be terribly destructive. Person-to-person shopping, when that was common, was a major form of social interaction. When women came to the small department store where my grandmother was a piece-goods clerk, they got more than a few yards of cloth. They talked about the weather and whether the peach crop was ripe yet, they met Mrs. Oliver’s little grandson who was under the counter, they talked about the cost of groceries, and they lamented the death of a friend. Try doing that with a computer screen.
Artificial intelligence is another threating development that seems to have come about while I was away. In the 1970s, we were amused by a television ad in which a glass is shattered by a high-pitched sound made by either Ella Fitzgerald lor a recording of her. “Is it live or is it Memorex.?” That was kind of cute and harmless. AI can do things that are anything but.
Now, photographic evidence, once unquestionably believable, has become, well – maybe. There are convincing videos of numerous public figures saying and doing things they did not actually say or do. Even without the specter of electronically created illusions, frighteningly large portions of the country posit as fact anything they want to believe. Democratic leaders, e.g., are pederasts who murder and eat children. That particular bit of insanity has been around for some time, but in my Rip van Winkle moment, it seemed more noticeable. Anyway, shouldn’t it have disappeared by now, taking QAnon along with it?
It also seemed that while I had not been paying attention, we started shooting each other more often. The grumpy old men who used to yell, “get off my yard,” are now blasting away with guns. Turn in the wrong driveway, and risk getting shot. Knock on the wrong door if you’re black, risk getting shot. Try to get in the wrong car in a parking lot – who hasn’t done that? – risk getting shot. Gun violence, per se, is not new, of course, but when did it become commonplace?
Not all the newness of my Rip van Winkle morning was distressing. I was able to get a cup of coffee for myself – didn’t have to ask Ann to get it for me – and that felt better than you probably imagine. I was able to stop taking the drugs I had been relying on, I stood up from a chair without help, and I walked a few steps without the aid of a walker.
I was struck by how quickly change, personal and otherwise, can occur. I had answered the phone as a person with no more physical problems than a bad back. When I hung up, I had an incurable disease. A few weeks later, I walked into Mount Sinai Hospital fatally ill and an hour or so later, walked out quite healthy. It seems that the country had made a similar sudden change. Not so long ago, we were a people shaped by agreed-upon norms of behavior and what constitutes reality, then Donald Trump appeared.
As threatening as the forces of our time are for democracy and the continuation of human life, I am joyful in the moment and generally optimistic. I suppose that is to be expected, given how I felt a couple of weeks ago and how I feel today.
Available now wherever ebooks are sold. $2.99.
A Franklin Manor Christmas and A Franklin Manor Epiphany. Deep-snow, magic realism.
12,000 Miles of Road Thoughts. Old Van, Old Man, Recovering Hippie, Dying Cat. Travel narrative/memoir