As a 53-year-old, apparently unemployable woman who once traveled all over the country and world to write about sports and later became a political writer who rubbed elbows with Ed Rendell, Arlen Specter, Sen. Bob Casey and had worked in cities like Baltimore, Seattle and capital cities like Harrisburg, PA and Albany, NY, the perfect article showed up this month in The Atlantic called "The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis."
The piece airs extensive research and anecdotes about this thing called the U-Curve, a documented swing into unhappiness, or dissatisfaction about life, sometime between 39 and 57. It's a story with a happy ending, of sorts, in that emerging from the U-Curve shows how people settle into lesser expectations about life and therefore find their satisfaction levels rise. Family, friends, more centered and wise choices make for a more realistic and rich experience going forth in the later years.
That was good news, considering that one researcher found that the U-Curve showed how much more difficult it was to feel satisfaction during the middle years of your life, and another found that the U-Curve brought on feelings equivalent to about one-third the feelings brought on by involuntary job loss. For a 53-year-old with no prospects for ever working again in journalism, I could more than relate to what this article was presenting. It also made me realize more clearly why, somewhat unexpectedly, we have just moved from Seattle back home to my home state of New York.
Seattle is a great place to be older, with its easy day-to-day living, accessibility, walkability, low-key access to theater and the arts, a great university, low taxes and an array of cheap and not-so-cheap eats. But it wasn't a good place for us to get older, for a few reasons, mostly the fact that our families are all back in the Northeast and, more glaringly, the tech business boom via Amazon and Google and Facebook and Microsoft and several other new-era startups (Zillow) that has flooded the city with more and more younger people. Millenials, I think they're called. Or, as they say in Brooklyn, hipsters.
Was it a midlife crisis that drove us from Seattle? That notion, in itself, would seem to be the ultimate admission of such a predictable and lonesome human condition. But at age 53 and 58, me and my partner had grown increasingly aware of our middle age, especially in a city brewing with 20 and 30-somethings, many of whom make no bones broadcasting their belief that us oldsters should just move out of their way. What we see as experience, caution, historic or at least institutional knowledge that helps stake out a broader view, especially in the workforce, is seen by the new generation as millstones of time hanging around their line-less necks. The new generation, blessed with good brains stuffed with all kinds of Information Age input, wants a clear lane to exercise their free will unencumbered by anyone who might protest grammatical errors or lack of historical context.
While a job opportunity was the impetus for the move, the underlying sense that a shift was taking place for us had been brewing for a few months, if not years. Our relationships with friends -- many of the primary ones based on the fact that we all had had young kids in school together -- changed. So did our sense that the city and the world was a great, unopened oyster. In recent years, the generation gap between us and the newcomers to Seattle widened. We went out to restaurants or music clubs and felt not so much like we were out of touch, but that these younger people were out of touch, and yet they seemed to rule the world with their styles, attitudes, trends and habits.
Perhaps the epiphany took place when we dined with a friend of ours, a beloved 77-year-old neighbor with hearing loss, in a very popular restaurant. As cool and welcoming as Seattle had always seemed, and really IS at the heart, the new breed and greater density of young people had done its part to push us to the margins. At least that's how we felt.
In an act of defiance, the last tickets we bought to events in Seattle were to the play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" at Seattle Rep and a concert by James Taylor at Key Arena. In the crowd among the other 50- and 60- and 70-somethings there was a palpable and victorious air that we the oldsters had won the night. This in the city of Mud Honey. In the city of Grunge. In the city of too cool for school and best places to live and ...
So what if Albee's play is dated and nowhere near worth watching without Dick Burton and Liz Taylor! So what if James Taylor presents his great American songbook in rather dull and predictable fashion. The U-Curvers were out on the town, trying to get through this difficult passage of life, free of the reminders that our time has allegedly passed.
The new lesson is not how to keep up. The new lesson is how to scale back, settle down, settle in.
Literary pilgrimages are best saved for internal musing, since the drive to go stand inside the homes where the great poets or other artists lived stirs up deep sediment that doesn't really serve anyone else except the primary visitor. It is a personal matter. I mean, which writer among us can really properly convey the feeling and meaning of just being there in the same room where Walt Whitman was born? Hell if it's going to be me.
However, I would like to just note it for the record: Standing in the room where Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, which is the downstairs bedroom of the farmhouse Walt Whitman's father built in the West Hills area of Huntington on Long Island in 1816, exceeded my own expectations.
I've stood in front of or been in houses where Edgar Allen Poe lived; where Emily Dickinson wrote in genius seclusion; Hawthorne was born Salem; where the poet Charles Olson pumped out his Gloucester poems; where James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein and Anais Nin worked in Paris ... but there is something more fundamental about Whitman, at least for me, not only because of his humanism, progressiveness and his marriage of personal and political, but because he hailed from Long Island, my birthplace.
That the farmhouse still stands is the first miracle. What was once a 60-acre farm in the middle of other farmland is now one acre set inside high fencing to secure the historical site from the suburban sprawl of shopping centers and housing development. Another part of Walt Whitman's legacy, among the most seminal and iconic and landmark artists in American or literary history, is that his name is born on the shopping mall that stretches down Route 110 (Walt Whitman Road) in Huntington across from the poet's birthplace. Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Williams-Sonoma: These may not be any of the things Whitman catalogued in his newspaper accounts or verse, but there these big box stores sit, surrounding the sedate grounds where the Whitman house stands.
And while it's definitely weird trying to find the Whitman Birthplace site amidst the clutter and clatter of modern-day (i.e. car-addled/store-riddled) Long Island, it turns out to be OK.
For the poet who celebrated himself and gave ample, sprawling voice to the burgeoning song of Democracy, the scrum and mess of society blithely whizzes around and past the former pastureland where Whitman was birthed. Thanks to efforts in 1949, when the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association was formed, and continued advocacy and fundraising via former Newsday newspaper publisher Alice Patterson, the site was preserved from the fast-encroaching suburban development. The state of New York helps administer the site along with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which has erected a statue of the poet and a modern loft-like building that houses a shop and reading space.
The entire site and experience is worth the trip and the $6 for the guided tour of the house. On the crisp November day I visited, an enthusiastic guide led me across the lawn and into the home, which Walt Whitman Sr. grandly built as a model home to show prospective clients just what he could build for them, too. We entered the foyer, then the parlor, with its wide-plank wood floors and custom, built-in cabinets and large windows. Then, we walked through to the bedroom where, the guide said: "And this is where Walt Whitman was born."
Whatever sense of being in a semi-sacred space that I had had just walking through the front door of the home was, in that instance, amplified. Most of it came from the striking realization that for everything Whitman did, everything he became and remains, started in one room. I was in a real place that stands in concrete confirmation against the decades and centuries of the Whitman who became the poetic father and god and enduring definition of a hearty, heralded strain of the new American poetic canon.
In a world of shopping malls and cars and democracy under siege, the sanctuary of the Whitman home was palpable. It was made even more so by my profound sense that, stripped of the noise and the Internet and the virtual world I have come to inhabit for great chunks of time, Whitman walked from Long Island to Brooklyn to Washington to the Civil War battlefields and hospitals to Camden, NJ and witnessed his world, his America, unfolding in real time. Our songs of ourselves these days ... hard to not see them by comparison as wanting. But at least the visit got me reconnected to some time and some place distilled of distraction, distilled to its essential point and purpose.
I Pity The Poor Fool Who Tries to Sing The Judy Collins Cover of Bob Dylan's Song Because Her Lung Capacity is Sick
I challenge anyone to try and hold the notes as long as Judy Collins does at the end of the lines of this Bob Dylan cover of "Pity The Poor Immigrant." I think this is one of my favorite Bob Dylan covers, so when I'm driving and it comes on and I try and sing it, I almost pass out from depleted oxygen supply. Not sure there is another Judy Collins song in which she seems to so deliberately demonstrate that she has the biggest pipes of any singer this side of the Metropolitan Opera.
Here's a reading assignment designed to induce a nasty case of political bipolar disorder: Elizabeth Warren vs. The Koch Brothers.
For the past week or two, I've been alternating between two books on the nightstand that clearly spell out the primary ideological war taking place in this country. It's enough to make your head spin, given the stark opposition of these ideologies.
One is Elizabeth Warren's "A Fighting Chance," which gives a deceptively folksy account of the brutal pillage and plunder that the American economy, and the middle class in particular, suffered when the U.S. Treasury and White House bailed out the banks and predatory mortgage lenders, all while forsaking individual homeowners and workers.
It's no secret that for the New Deal-embracing wing of the Democratic Party, Warren's takedown of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and even President Barack Obama over the generous protection of too-big-to-fail banks has propelled her to the top of the 2016 presidential wish list over the presumptive Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. Warren is the one who likes to remind the Koch brothers that the $115 billion-a-year private industry empire they created was done so on the backs of the infrastructure, tax breaks, workers and consumers they've availed themselves to here in America. It's the crux of the national corporate takeover of American government.
Meanwhile, while Democrats try and rally a winning strategy and re-engage the young and minority voters who gave Obama the presidency in 2008 and 2012, the Republicans have their own inner ideological war to battle between now and 2016. That's because the Republican Party that's about to control both houses in Congress is no longer the Republican Party. At least it's not until the establishment Republicans demonstrate that they can thwart the activist, Tea Party wing of their party. Until then, the GOP is ready to play its role as a free-market advocacy cabal that aims to dismantle the tentacles of the federal government, all in the name of freeing us from a welfare state whose final destination is collectivist thumb sucking, bed wetting and liberal use of food stamps.
How these anti-government governors, U.S. senators and congressmen have commandeered the Republic is what makes so fascinating Daniel Schulman's book, "Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty." No matter how many references you've read to the Koch brothers, or how many articles have attempted to show the scope of their influence, "Sons of Wichita" makes plain the genealogy of not only the Koch Industry family, but also the anatomy of a libertarian infiltration of our two-party system.
Since 2008, the Koch brothers' influence on American politics has been on display in the guise of the Tea Party. The anti-Obama protests and "grassroots" uprisings against big government may seem like a spontaneous combustion against an "other" kind of Democratic president, especially after the economic meltdown caused by our dear old friends the bankers, but they're not. "Sons of Wichita" makes it clear that the Koch brother's march toward infiltrating and tearing down the U.S. government has been a steady 40 years in the making.
Schulman details how, by 1965, Charles Koch -- already steeped in deep anti-communism activism by his industrialist father and founder of Koch Industries, Fred Koch -- was well on his way to embracing and promoting Libertarian view far right of even the John Birch Society. According to Schulman, Charles became “a full-throated libertarian evangelist. It was an extreme ideology, in which the role of government was nearly non-existent, and one that fell well outside the traditional left-right poles of political thought.” Government, according to Charles Koch, "is to serve as a night watchman, to protect individuals and property from outside threat, including fraud. That is the maximum.”
After the Nov. 4 elections, with its widespread Republican victories, it was somewhat intriguing that Sen. Mitch McConnell's first message after winning re-election in Kentucky was that he and House Speaker John Boehner would not allow another government shutdown, or sink the country's economy by defaulting on our debt. McConnell is now the most-watched man in Washington; the most powerful Republican in the country whose aim is to continue to nullify the Obama presidency. But no matter how obstructionist McConnell has been, and continues to be, the real issue for Congressional GOP leaders is just how much of the Koch brother's anti-government, Libertarianism-on-steroids agenda they're going to try and carry out.
Those of us neophytes who aren't students of American political influence may choose to see Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Scott Walker as newfangled embodiments of libertarianism, creatures given life and breath in direct reaction to the ascension of Obama the Other. But the seeds for this stark division have been in the political ground for decades. The installment of anti-government, anti-union, anti-regulation candidates in state and federal government has come courtesy of the Koch brothers' 40-year effort to strip the federal government of much of its regulatory power.
The "purity" of the Kochs uber-libertarian vision dovetails splendidly with Koch Industry's insatiable appetite to extract, refine and transport all manner of oil, gas and other natural resources and commodities. Toss in Citizens United and the decision to let campaigns be financed by corporations and the Kochs are now sitting atop their perfect storm of political victory of, again, the national corporate takeover. I shudder to imagine that McConnell and Boehner can do anything given the tensions within their own party.
For Warren to be able to incite a broader, populist uprising against the corruption that the monied class has commanded of our financial, governmental and political institutions, more "regular" i.e. working class and middle class Americans are going to have to buy into a future where shared interests underlie government policy. This is the case she emphatically makes, drawing ire and steam from her first-hand witness of the bank bailout and her call to arms over the economic policies that favor the industrialists, bankers and the 1 percent.
There's little question that the ideological divide between the Elizabeth Warren wingers vs. the anti-government crusade of the Koch brothers will be resolved any time soon. Heck, given the odds, a direct collision course between the Kochs and Warren will not likely take center stage. If nothing else, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush may muddy the ideological waters just in time for 2016. For now, though, in the "quiet" hours after the 2014 elections, the political battle can be distilled -- or dizzyingly revealed -- in the pages of Warren's "A Fighting Chance" and Schulman's book on the Kochs, "Sons of Wichita."
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.