It’s hard to remember what it felt like to walk around light and airy, believing that the world was getting better every passing year — rather than walking around as I do these days, with the chronic, sciatic understanding that everything is going to hell in a handbasket.
I’m by nature an optimist: pink-cheeked, bumptious, and always convinced I can make anything happen, whether it’s carrying a queen bed up a flight of Brooklyn stairs or forcing a fascist out of the White House. When I was a college kid in the late 1980s, I was fond of waylaying boys at bars to explain my theory about how humankind was tending toward freedom. (This was not an effective flirtation technique.) I was highly enthusiastic about what I had learned at the metaphorical feet of Professor Eric Foner at Columbia College, in a history course called the Radical Tradition in America: that you could trace the inexorable progress of human rights, from the signing of the Magna Carta to the Jeffersonian notion of a democracy run by yeomen, up through the 20th-century labor unions’ slam-dunk with the eight-hour workday. Excelsior! The world was getting better. The rights of mankind were expanding.
I can remember having a dinner-table disagreement on this subject, the progress of humankind, with — of all damn people — the stepfather of my two best friends, who happened to be the author and naturalist Peter Matthiessen. It was the time of Tiananmen Square, 1989, and, pointing to the innovative use of the fax machine to deliver uncensored news to the protesters in Beijing, I argued that technology was only setting us freer. Peter was generous in speaking to the Youth without condescension — his smile was a turtle smile — and he said something to the effect of: You are mistaken, kiddo. Human consciousness is not on a trajectory of improvement. It isn’t improving at all.
I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ then. I was just a girl with an over-ample sense of my own intelligence (as evidenced by my having had the hubris to dispute the nature of human consciousness with the actual master of an actual zendo in the first place!). We all finished our pasta vongole and piled into the living room to pop a video into the VCR. What did I know? I had not even read Matthiessen’s “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” — much less a document like “Black Elk Speaks,” which illuminates a common cultural consciousness among the Plains Indians before the arrival of the settlers that exceeded anything we had to brag about, mental-maturity-wise, in 1989.
Today, in 2021, I do not understand how we adults in charge of this thing are managing to maintain calm, having witnessed the dark directions history has taken us since then, since the flicker of hope burned for a moment in Tiananmen Square. Authoritarian states are thriving. Freedom and democracy are not on the march. Our fellow species on the planet are disappearing at the rate of dozens per year (and that’s if you only count the easily visible ones, the Chinese paddlefish and Honduran frogs, the mud snails and Indochinese tigers, not the wee insects or micro-organisms). We keep blithely breezing past ecological tipping points, as we continue to enjoy our venti biscotti frappuccinos and to browse Sunbrella patio furniture. I myself am still browsing pricey French wicker-chair cushions, though I cannot say I’m enjoying it much anymore. “Technological nightmare” is not too harsh a term, in my grinchy opinion, although I think “anhedonia” may be more apt. As we lose connection with the Earth, we lose so much of the joy of existence. We have traded free wild strawberries eaten on a raft in the middle of a lake on a May afternoon, as the swallows form clouds overhead, for the dull cocoon of total Netflix forever. It’s boring.
Concurrently — and I know I am being a bit of a drag — doesn’t it seem obvious that the quality of life right here in our own hometown is also getting ever more fouled up? Am I wrong? Beyond some obvious upgrades in the arenas of readily available espresso beverages and improved pizzas, can someone point out ways in which our community is happier or healthier than it was 30 years ago?
Things seem worse to me, and I don’t just mean that diabolical traffic light in Water Mill that slows the flow of the trade parade to a torturous crawl. I don’t just mean the squeezing out of the middle classes. Or the gross economic inequality manifested in the megamansions crammed into every conceivable corner, like mushrooms between the cracks in the concrete, while the working poor pack into basements. I also mean the ugly attitude of so many fellow residents we encounter as we navigate the overcrowded day. I mean the ongoing privatization of common spaces, and the pinching off of public access to our beaches and woods. I mean the dying off of Northwest Woods (and can we stop pretending it’s not dying off?). I mean the lack of community feeling at all. The disintegration of our old bonds. Summer is coming, and with it will come, inevitably, the mood of mortal gladiator combat in the Flavian Amphitheater of the Stop and Shop parking lot. It’s just no fun.
We are like crabs dropped in a bucket of water who do not notice that the temperature is rising to the boiling point.
The other night I forgot to turn off my emergency-medical-services pager when I went to bed, and awoke around dawn to hear the firefighters’ voices as they tackled the blaze at Moby’s restaurant on Pantigo Road. The spirit of volunteer emergency responders — firefighters, E.M.S. — is about the only remnant of our old community, once so proud, that clings to life. But volunteers may soon go the way of the Sumatran rhinoceros, too: Are we headed to extinction?
I hope you don’t stop reading my column altogether because I’m being such a mope this week. I was up at 4:20 a.m. for an ambulance run, and I cannot drink my regular coffee this morning because I am fasting before getting bloodwork done later today, and although the sky is blue and the irises are all a-bloom, the anhedonia is strong as the clock ticks toward the start of my workday, proper, at 8 a.m. I’m sure I’ll feel better once I’ve had my latte.