The View From Away: The pessimist in the mirror has me worried

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People have been telling me I’m a pessimist for years. They may be right. Just my luck.

What made me suspicious was where my head went when my son came home from his first semester at college. He did very well academically, made friends, managed his money pretty well, and became a valued member of the Ultimate Frisbee Team. Whatever that is. He tried to explain the game to me. Apparently, they run around and throw a Frisbee. It’s like taking your dog to the park, only with teams. And no dogs. I’m sure I’m missing some of the finer points, but then, I see one football game a year, the Super Bowl, and it’s for the commercials. That’s me and sports.

The point is, he did well and had a great time. He even managed to keep a long-distance relationship alive. If you read these things regularly – and who doesn’t? – you know Bobby went through some interesting times socially in high school. All’s well that ends well, though. A long-time friend who was a girl became a girlfriend at the end of the school year. It has continued despite him being in Chicago and her being on the East Coast, more than I was ever able to accomplish. She has been spending time with us over the holidays, and it has been lovely. She’s very nice, they’re good together, everything one would want your son to experience in a first serious relationship. You might say it’s all good.

An aside: One of the more annoying expressions in our developing New Speak is “it’s all good,” partly because people usually say it when all is anything but good. I’ll never understand those movie scenes where some punk with a gun demands all the money in the register, and clerk says, “Hey, man, take it easy. It’s all good.” First of all, mister minimum-wage cashier, the correct answer to any question asked by somebody with a gun in his hand is, “Yes, sir.” I don’t care how many Samuel L. Jackson movies you’ve seen. Now is not the time to go hostage negotiator on a nervous junkie. Plus, I’ve had a gun pulled on me. It’s not all good. It’s all bad, with plenty of room to get worse.

(I know. It’s crazy people call me a pessimist.)

Anyway, even though the phrase is close to gibberish, in Bobby’s case, at the moment it really is all good, or at least pretty close. He’s doing well academically and socially at a school he likes, and his affections are being reciprocated. Any father should be happy, right? So how come whenever I watch them together I can’t stop worrying about the world they’re going to be launched into soon? Why do I feel sad because I’m afraid they’ll never know the America I grew up in?

Maybe I’m looking more back than forward, and with nostalgia for a world that never existed outside my head. There’s more to it than that, though. I’ve never thought America was perfect, but when I think about this country that I love so dearly, it isn’t the similarity to the rest of the world that strikes me. Cultures have been destroyed by other cultures for millennia, in the name of everything from religion to racial superiority to manifest destiny and my personal favorite, “progress.” We have been guilty of that behavior both within and outside our borders. Of course many people were excluded, and many more had only limited access, but that has always been the norm in the world. The miracle of this country was how many people were included. That’s not surprising. Power will be abused.

The surprise, and the source of my pride as an American, is that we did anything else. And call me brainwashed, but it seems to me we’ve done some things significantly differently, and I worry that now, as my son’s generation is poised to get involved, the national mindset is changing and the institutions that made us a model for other countries are being eroded.

Of the presidents during my lifetime, Kennedy was born rich, but Harry Truman sold shirts. Eisenhower was born on a farm. Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Clinton all came from modest circumstances. Even Reagan, fast becoming the patron saint of privilege, wasn’t born to it. During and after World War II, America created the most successful economic machine in history.

This isn’t intended to argue the merits of American economic or foreign policy. This country is far from perfect and has done great harm as well as great benefit around the world. My point is about the mindset of the Americans I experienced growing up and for most of my life, those problem solvers I mentioned before. We seem to be looking over our shoulders now, as individuals and as a country, more fearful than challenged by the problems the world faced. Our leaders seem so busy arm wrestling over who gets to be in charge that they have lost sight of what they’re supposed to be in charge of.

I hope this is only temporary. Fear mongering appears to be pandemic and isn’t helping us to stop worrying about losing what we have more than we dream about what we could be. That’s how I grew up, dreaming about what I could be. I felt like I was living in an extraordinary country when I was my son’s age. I don’t want him to prepare for his life believing it’s ordinary, or worse, that he is ordinary. That would really make me sad.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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