Saturday, January 19, 2008

Not a choice, but a certainty

My dad lived from March 13, 1913 until July 28, 2001, a time of amazing changes. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and never graduated from grade school. He drove a pair of farm mules as a boy and quit driving a Ford van in the late 1980s. He was born before Hitler came to power and died after the end of Soviet communism. He was bombed by German aircraft during his World War II service in the United Kingdom, and he watched the first moon walk by man. He observed the decline of American robins and other birds that followed the widespread use of DDT even as Rachel Carson was writing Silent Spring. He and his sisters noticed that the climate had changed between their childhood and middle age, that winters were no longer a solid freeze between December and March. He and his generation witnessed the awful power of the atomic bomb and lived with the Cold War that followed. During his lifetime, there were two world wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, plus countless regional conflicts, terrorist attacks, and peace demonstrations led by a generation with whom he felt little in common.

The death of chess champion Bobby Fischer made me think of change and how nothing in my childhood prepared me for it,

When I was a child, the people in the headlines were Muammar Qaddafi (various spellings), Idi Amin, Jean Paul Getty III, Patty Hearst, Richard Nixon, Golda Meir, Yasser Arafat, Helmut Schmidt, Ted Bundy, Evel Knievel, and, of course, Bobby Fischer. The odd thing is, even as a teenager whose body, mind, and emotions were evolving every day, I never thought of the world as changing, as being different by the time I grew up. Subconsciously, I thought that Muammar Qaddafi and Idi Amin would always lurk as unpredictable threats, that Patty Hearst would always be prominent as victim-turned-fugitive, that Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs would spar in perpetuity, that Evel Knievel would continue to hurt himself spectacularly for TV cameras. And that Bobby Fischer would continue to symbolize America's pride and dominance.

The announcement of Fischer's death reminded me that I have not heard or thought of him in decades. That Evel Knievel is dead. That Ted Bundy, whose murders filled me with terror when I read that the then-unknown killer's victims were primarily girls with long hair and pierced ears, was executed. That little from the headlines of my youth remains. There is still conflict in the Middle East, but the characters, plot, and staging continue to change. Terrorism haunts us more than ever, as the threat of planes hijacked to Cuba became planes flown into urban towers. Fear of the Soviet finger on the button of the bomb has become fear of a terrorist hand on a dirty bomb. Muammar Qaddafi and Fidel Castro are with us still, but happily no longer have the same potential bite. The mighty Soviet bloc is now a checkerboard of ethnic conflict and capitalist corruption. The American robin and bald eagle have made impressive comebacks, but more species than ever are endangered by everything from climate change to habitat loss.

I have a vague, unsupported notion that the state of the world and its inhabitants is worse than it was 40 years ago, yet logically I know the underlying problems remain the same: The environment. Resources. Poverty and distribution of wealth. Conflict. The list goes on.

In the U.S., we have sacrificed freedoms in a futile bid for security and safety, but it is likely that that pendulum will swing back again. When it comes to celebrities, we have traded the Bobby Fischers and Evel Knievels for the Britney Spears, but perhaps we will tire of our fascination with the dysfunctional, and some other celebrity-worship paradigm will take its place.

To me, Andy Warhol did not deserve his 15 minutes of fame, but he was right in ways beyond which he meant. The current generation doesn't grasp the emotional power of seeing an American defeat a Soviet on even just a chessboard because its context is not theirs today. My generation doesn't feel the same twinge as my father's when we see photos and footage of the flag being raised on Iwo Jima. Future generations may see video of the events of September 11, 2001, but will not experience the immediacy of our shock and horror. This is how history is written; it's in the past; it happened to someone else. We understand best what is in front of us now.

Today's politicians speak glibly of "change" and the need for it;. What they do not mention is the one truth beyond their control: Change is not a choice, but a certainty.

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