I’ve got to give our junior U.S. Senator Thom Tillis credit. When it comes to answering letters from constituents, his Washington office will certainly get back to you in short order. Well, sort of.
That’s more than I can say for senior U.S. Senator Richard Burr and 5th District Congresswoman Virginia Foxx. I’m still waiting to hear back from them. On Jan. 23rd, I mailed four first-class letters to Washington—two letters to Mrs. Foxx, one from me and the other from my wife Timberley; and a letter each to Mr. Burr and Mr. Tillis. I also had mailed a letter to President Donald J. Trump three days earlier on Inauguration Day, and I haven’t gotten his response, either. I guess his staff has been busy.
When North Carolina’s U.S. senators—Richard Burr and Thom Tillis—both voted Tuesday to confirm the highly-unqualified Betsy DeVos as America’s next education secretary, even I could see that the fix was in and that all this political foolishness will continue at least until the next election in two years.
You can define that term—political foolishness—however you please. There’s plenty of madness and plenty of blame to go around, whether we’re talking about people in Washington, D.C., or Raleigh, N.C., or on our own Facebook pages. Most of us can’t help but watch this absurd reality show—Survivor: America—and then participate either by playing in person at political rallies and protest marches, or by endlessly critiquing the winners and losers on social media from the comfort of home.
Yes, I plead guilty. Sometimes I just can’t help myself, for all the good doing anything does nowadays. Right is wrong, and left is right. Or the left isn’t right because the right isn’t wrong, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Confused? Yes? No? Well, then, can we just agree to disagree? How ’bout that? Feel better?
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to hate my smart phone. And my tablet computer. Come to think of it, I don’t like this laptop I’m using right now too much, either.
What’s my problem? Well, for one, I think I’m addicted to the Internet—not just to social media, but to the virtual rabbit hole that is the World Wide Web. I used to spend hours at a time at a computer back when I was a newspaper reporter and later a technical writer. On my time off all those years ago, I’d even work on that novel that was going to win a Pulitzer Prize (in my dreams) and stare at a computer screen a few hours longer just to make sure I was near-sighted.
“Those glasses make you look smart,” Timberley said as I modeled the various styles of eyewear in the showroom mirrors—thick safety rims, thin wire rims, no rims, horned rims. “Well, kind of.”
“Really?” I asked, then turned to the white-coated optician. “I’ll take this pair.” I need all the help I can get when it comes to appearing intelligent.
But as it turns out, I’ve been getting too much help from the Internet with looking and feeling stupid. It was an evil plot. Now I get very little writing done because it’s too easy for my truncated attention span to be hijacked by cyberspace or waylaid by the Web. Damn you, Al Gore.
Yes, yes. I know what you’re already thinking. We’re all tired of politics. It’s everywhere we look—on the TV news, in the headlines of newspapers that no one reads anymore, all over Facebook and Twitter, which too many people read (or do we just look at the memes?), and, if not a topic at the office water cooler or in the church pew, it’s discussed anywhere people can gather and express their opinions freely.
No, the question isn’t why are we tired of politics; or even why are so many people, including me, concerned about it to the point of distraction. The question also isn’t why can’t we express opinions freely on the job or at church. We all know the answers to those questions—or, at least, we know our own three-o’clock-in-the-morning-lying-awake-in-bed answers to them, whether what each of us feels and maybe even fears is rational or not.
The question is: Why are political news and views everywhere we look now? Why is your Facebook news feed clogged with political posts, and not with cute photos of puppies and kittens?
Take a few minutes to answer that question before you read on. Listen to a few tunes on YouTube—like R.E.M.’s popular “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” or Jimmy Buffett’s lesser known “Apocalypso,” if you’d like to get up and dance around wherever you are right now. No one will mind. Trust me. Their eyes are all glued to their own smart phones or computer screens.
I mailed my letter to President Donald J. Trump on our way out of town Friday morning. Timberley and I didn’t watch yesterday’s inauguration live, choosing instead to watch its highlights on the CBS Evening News. And today we participated in the Women’s March on Morganton.
Taking those topics in reverse order—since most things dealing with Trump seem backwards to me, anyway—I’m really proud of our hometown and the county’s Democratic Party for organizing the event in support of women’s rights and civil rights. Around 600 women, men and children from Burke and surrounding counties participated in the local march, which included a rally on the historic courthouse square.
The protest was peaceful. The worst behavior that I witnessed came from passing motorists—like the blond woman in the Lexus who gave us a thumbs-down as we waited to cross East Union Street so that she could continue through the intersection when the light turned green. At the same time, many other motorists waved. We saw many friends from here and elsewhere, some that we hadn’t seen for months and even years, and we made some new friends.
Morganton’s march coincided with other protests and vigils across the state and nation, the largest and most highly publicized, of course, being the Women’s March on Washington. I hope the march to preserve all our rights doesn’t end today.
Ever since I learned how to address an envelope—something most school-aged kids don’t know how to do now—I’ve written fan letters to my heroes. Not emails. I’m talking about honest-to-goodness, pencil-chewing, hunted-and-pecked, forehead-creasing, lower-lip biting, pink eraser and Wite-Out smudged fan letters. Emails ain’t got no soul.
And I’ve actually received some personal responses, from people like home run king Henry Aaron and his Atlanta Braves teammate Ralph Garr in the 1970s; Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow and science fiction pioneer Ray Bradbury in the 1980s; and, as of today, President Barack Obama, who, to me, is the best U.S. president of my lifetime so far.
I was an eighth-grader at Happy Valley Elementary School near Lenoir, N.C., in April of 1973 when I decided to write to Hank Aaron, my favorite player, who also happened to play for my favorite team. He was chasing Babe Ruth’s Major League record of 714 career home runs, and I wanted to tell Hank how much I admired him, so I wrote the letter in pencil on lined Blue Horse notebook paper and zipped it off to my hero in care of the Atlanta Braves. I’m not sure how I got the team’s address, maybe from an Atlanta telephone book at the public library. The Internet didn’t exist back then.
My 98-year-old aunt Clara Ellis Duckworth Clontz died in her sleep last Saturday, the last day of 2016. Her preacher reminded us Wednesday at her funeral that her bedtime prayer for some time had included a request to die in her sleep. We all had heard her say that but must have secretly hoped—I had, at least—that she would live to see 100.
As I noted in this column last week, the deaths that especially touched me last year were not the losses of celebrities but were the passings of old friends and family members—like Aunt Clara—whose lives were celebrated for reasons much more personal than fame, fortune or artistic talent. To hope that death takes a holiday this year would be futile. As Chaucer wrote, “Time and tide wait for no man.”
Yes, 2016 has sucked out loud, and I won’t even try to list all the celebrity deaths that have scarred the past year for our celebrity-driven culture. I also won’t note the death of civility in public and political discourse, thanks in large part to social media’s prominence in our nascent “post-truth” civilization.
And I won’t say anything disrespectful about Donald J. Trump, except that he is the perfect president-elect for the glass-half-empty class of people we have become. He’s our latest model American, I guess, until we’re at least half full again and can take more pleasurable roads than the expressway to perdition.
I have always heard that books are portals to other times and places. But when Timberley and I went Christmas shopping last week at Barnes & Noble, I wasn’t expecting to step into a time machine and revisit the 1970s without even opening a book.
That’s what happened, though. It really was deja vu all over again, triggered not by the written word or by a smell, as is often the case, but by the sight of something I thought I’d never see again – a roomful of record albums. LPs. Big, beautiful, shrink-wrapped sleeves of cardboard bearing veritable works of art and enveloping the greatest sounds ever pressed into vinyl or committed to any other medium.
Our heroes – old and young alike – are dying. Our new leader is a liar, and we who elected him – even we Christians who champion truth – knew it. Our choices aren’t choices at all. Everything seems inside out, upside down or backwards. Nothing makes sense. We can’t be sure of anything anymore.