Musings because of Toronto and Seattle

Two clues in a crossword puzzle read, “1977 AL expansion team.” The answers, of course: Toronto and Seattle. This started me down a lengthy chain of thought, I’m afraid. Indulge me at your own risk.

From my point-of-view, the Blue Jays and the Mariners have “always” been in the American League, because I turned seven during their first season. But, oh, the changes I have seen in the world…

Computers, smaller cars, the end of Soviet communism and the Cold War, internet, cellphones, September 11 and the on-going War on Terror, the total transformation of television from the major networks to the morass of thousands of cable channels.

Mark TwainThe city I grew up in hardly exists anymore. I can remember when the Metro system opened; now the trains run past places in Montgomery County where I can remember cornfields growing. The kinds of suburbs in which most Americans live did not exist when I was born.

We have our first black President of the USA. We have had our first female vice-presidential candidate, Secretary of State, professional basketball player, and a million other first females. We have had the on-going holocaust of the unborn (for which history will certainly judge us very harshly, but I will have to come back to this). We have had the ‘gay rights’ movement. And a lot more children get born out of wedlock now than did when I was born (in wedlock, thank God).

Growing up these days would certainly disorient me. When I attended schools, teachers were not only allowed to be mean—it was more or less expected. I learned to type, in the summer of 1981, on a manual typewriter. The idea of composing prose using any device other than a pen leaves me utterly cold. I think, though, that many of today’s young people learn how to write without using much ink at all.

I lived through the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II, also known as the implementation of the second Vatican Council. I have lived through the careers of Prince (the artist forever to be known as), Michael Jackson, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Eddie Vedder. The record collection I gave to a fellow teacher at the school I left to join the Jesuit novitiate in 1996—the contents of that large box would certainly fetch a few thousand dollars from vinyl collectors now. I can remember when the Sugar Hill Gang released the first-ever ‘rap’ album. (It was in the box, not to mention the LPs of Journey’s Escape, Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, the Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper’s, the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” Moody Blues, Talking Heads, and many other pretty-amazing relics of non-digital music.)

So: a lot has changed. The world into which I was born in 1970 is no more. But then I got thinking about this: It’s one thing to have a life spanning the years 1970 to 2014. Quite another to have had one spanning the years 1870 to 1914.

To be born on June 28, eighteen seventy… Some Civil-War soldiers would still have been recovering from wartime wounds and injuries. Then, between my infant cries and my forty-fourth birthday:

Bruce SpringsteenTranscontinental railroads; the laying-out of modern Washington, D.C.–and modern New York, Philly, and Baltimore, for that matter; a Europe made-up of independent, secular nations; a USA comprised of 48 states instead of 37; the automobile, the airplane; the career of Mark Twain; the conclusion of the papacy of Pope Blessed Pius IX, the first Vatican Council, the papacies of Leo XIII (which means the beginning of Catholic social teaching, encyclicals as we now know them, and the standardization and popularization of the Holy Rosary) and St. Pius X (when people started receiving first Holy Communion at age 7), the identification of the Modernist heresy; the introduction of headlines and photographs into newspapers; the career of Theodore Roosevelt; the world-wide expansion of the British Empire; and the beginning of the American Century, the American presidency as we now know it, and World War I.

In other words, the changes between 1970 and 2014 do not hold a candle to the changes that occurred between 1870 and 1914. Whatever disorientation I occasionally feel while trying to manipulate some gadget, or trying to drive in suburban traffic at speeds that quickly vary between 5 mph and 75 mph, or going into a library and finding that not only is it not quiet, but that there aren’t many books—this disorientation, while real, would not even register on the scale of the person who was born with horse buggies driving by and steamboats chugging on the Mississippi, only to celebrate his 44th birthday listening to radio broadcasts about a war 3,000 miles away that his son would probably have to fight in.

In other words, history has slowed down considerably. For at least the past 44 years, change has come rather slowly. That brings me to the second part of my train of thought.

Let’s trace a trajectory between these two things: 1) Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural address and 2) the movie Gravity.

1. FDR spoke of history as moving ever upwards, albeit with ups and downs:

I remember that my old schoolmaster, Dr. Peabody, said, in days that seemed to us then to be secure and untroubled: “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights—then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.” (FDR Fourth Inaugural address, 1945)

FDR invested his whole enormous personality in this idea. He had very rare gifts of charisma which allowed him to father the US a lot like Moses fathered ancient Israel. FDR’s sincere and generous faith in “the upward trend” of history flowed-forth from him like an atmosphere, animating his people.

2. “Gravity” has more going for it as an audio-visual work of art than almost anything I have ever seen. Sandra Bullock’s character never really makes sense, I don’t think, but that’s not my point. My point is that the movie’s images and sounds impress us with this overpowering sense: the humble earth, crawling with insects, is where it’s at. Reaching for the stars, aspiring to exploits beyond the stratosphere: not a good idea. We are born for this: to live on earth.

I guess what I think is: An era is ending. It has already lasted a long time, as eras go.

President Obama lectures the world endlessly in favor of FDR’s ideals. It all sounds hollow and meaningless. FDR did not, in fact, have a truly accurate vision. Mankind is naturally and irremediably tribal. The tide of the American century washed up against Vietnam, and then Iraq. And in Iraq, it appears to have turned. The moon pulls the water in another direction now.

We Americans, of course, have our own ways, as a tribe. We like to drive up and down our highways. We desperately need a leader who can find a way to keep us driving with a sense of hope. For such a leader to emerge now will take nothing short of a miracle. We need someone as honest and as poetic as Mark Twain in his prime. Geniuses like that don’t come along very often.

In the movie, Sandra Bullock famously cries out, “I wish I could pray. But no one ever taught me.”

All times call for religion, but especially ours. Maranatha.

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