Thursday, September 24, 2015

50: Trust and Curiosity

What a curious time in life. Those of us at the end of the baby boomer generation, we are all at this point: we have understood that our life time is finite - the limit of the time horizon is now in sight. Those of us who had kids are growing out of the parent role, the jury still being out on whether or not we managed to steer the next generation to where they need to be for themselves and for the world.

Those of us who had passions and professions are in a review period. Can we go on working this hard for another decade or more? Or maybe the economic system has changed, and our business models and value systems don’t work anymore.  But how figure out what is next, how to reinvent ourselves?

Some of us are utterly lost. What do we do after kids and without that business model? If you haven’t had kids, how do you create something that lasts beyond your time? Too late to build a house or write an opera?

And then, our parents are getting old, or sick or dying. Many of us are inheriting wealth we didn’t earn from this much more successful generation before us.  Others are sandwiched between fledgling children and aging parents, or inheriting an economic or real estate mess, apartments full of books. What if your parents became demented before you could forgive them for their screw-ups?  Now they need you and you haven’t even found the peace to love them. I am seeing it all around me.

I see a lot of desperation, sadly, especially among men.  Self-hatred. The feeling of having wasted time, either having done the same thing for too many years, or doing too many different things without real focus or depth. Unemployment,  boredom, doubt, loss, alcohol. Teenage kids glued to little screens, farther and farther from the reach of our love.  Do we still matter for anyone?

The good news: we know what we know, we know what we are able to do, and we know what we don’t want. For some of us, long-term partnerships have not survived this life phase of contemplation and change…. and we rediscover who we are just by ourselves. Not too bad. The big dream has died, but the little dreams live on.

We have 15+ years of productive time left. Enough time to do something different, learn one new thing, try one new system, change location. A few (lucky ones), manage to fill the remaining time, keep riding the same professional wave to the end, chin up, and gather applause on the way out. 

More good news: those who don’t have self-doubt, and are not lost or desperate, not on a wave petering out, actually may now reach a calm sense of positive expectation, resting on two pillars: trust and curiosity. I think, at this point in our lives, we cannot ask for more than to base our lives on a healthy mix of those two sentiments.  Trust in ourselves and in our abilities, and our judgment, and in the basic goodness of the world.  Curiosity about what gifts will come our way, and who will be there with us to enjoy them, and what we can make out of them.  

My gifts are so many now: my children, who are turning into amazing sensitive and sensible people, my parents, who get older and weirder, yet I am learning to love them and enjoy them in new ways, appreciating every minute I have with them. My work, which is ever changing and rich with learning and a team that is growing together and working in sync, in ways I didn’t even know existed.   New and old friends who provide comfort, companionship and love, and with who I can look into the darkness and into the light, as we hold and support each other. Stepping out into the night, breathing the cool air and hearing the rustle of the trees, feeling that I have had it good. 

50. I couldn’t think of a better age.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Middle Class Where Goest Thou? (A Tale of Fear or Solidarity)

My friend Ed Ward, who moved back to the US from Europe a little more than one year ago, provides his first year in review here. Like me, he is on the fence – some things are good and some things European he misses (food prices!). He is still “broke, not poor”, if a little less so. I like his motto, which he has promoted for many years, and which is an expression of hope that this state we are in is a temporary one.

As a recently turned single (-income) parent I myself have changed from very affluent to pretty strapped financially – supporting half the number of family members at this household on 20% of the former combined salary and not a single asset to call my own anymore.  A little scary at age 50. But thanks to supportive friends, family and employer, and a socio-economic system that assures health care, retirement and education (and no, it’s not free, I pay taxes and contributions for it) – thanks to all that, we manage quite well.  And we will soon start to pass on the solidarity and add a member to the household, probably a young student from a less fortunate country. So I’ll change Ed’s motto to “poor, but fortunate”.

Not everyone here feels this way. A small, but growing number of people in Germany could now be described as “still pretty fortunate, but vaguely pissed off”. Yes, Germany now has its own Tea Party! A new social movement called Pegida, which stands for patriotic citizens against the “Islamisation” of the occident. Really, the occident.  Pegida and their especially inept and shady leaders (reminds one of Sarah Palin and the likes) provide much amusement to the media, comedians and the twitter community. Yet, every Monday they meet in growing numbers (last rally had 17,000) in Dresden and now in other cities, and protest – not sure what exactly…. since foreign nationals of Islamic faith comprise something like 1.2 % of the population of that state, Sachsen. Pegida people chant “We are the people”, copying the peaceful revolutionaries of 1989 East Germany. And they march for peace - but I am not sure what kind of peace they are thinking of.  The peace of a racially homogenous society, maybe. They are a bunch of ignorant dimwits, just like the US Tea Party. But they come from the same environment of middle class fear that the Tea Party emerged from.

And they do worry the shit out of the political establishment. This week, voices from the ruling party CDU emerged, saying that the traditionally conservative CDU moved so much to the middle, to social democratic policy positions, to an open society welcoming refugees, and to embracing the EU, and as a result they have lost some of the more right wing constituents on the way. This is probably a somewhat accurate description of what happened here. Is the reaction of the CDU and the AfP (that's our new Anti-EU Party) going to be what the GOP did in the US, which is embrace the Tea Party and let it take over? I doubt it.  Of course in Germany, we worry about right wing, racist movements way more than we do in the US.

And on the US side of the fence? Tom Schimmeck, a columnist with our local paper who loves and is very familiar with the US feels after a recent visit that the spirit of the citizens has been broken – the dishwashers don’t believe the millionaire story anymore.  He says that while the economic statistics are promising, the current recovery and economic growth happens without the middle class, which is now 40% poorer than before the recession. Income inequality continues to rise, and education has become just another for-profit line of business, just like prisons and health care. (Btw- our little family is looking forward to welcoming the first educational ‘refugees’ from Silver City next fall.)

It’s true- looking at the US from this side of the fence is totally depressing these days. The persistence of structural racism evidenced by police violence and a failing justice system, the report on CIA torture and subsequent discussions, the result of the recent elections, and the loss of all the progressive enthusiasm of the first Obama years. The hope we had that policy may be about people again – health care reform about healthy people, immigration reform about hard working families –gone. Instead, corporations are now considered people and propaganda and the influence of money on policy is now considered protected free speech. And the next elections? Bush III vs. Clinton II ? Money rules.

I think living in a small, predominantly progressive community like Silver City for all these years made it easier to handle- you could always rest assured in the warm community spirit and believe that the country had not completely gone to shit, and then rant of facebook about all the bad things from a protected place. I don’t know whether this is good or bad or both.  Is it collective illusion or a supportive oasis, where we make small local improvements, when we can’t affect the big picture anymore?  

Benny, at age 10 and living again in Silver City, loves it there, but he also worries about the people in Sudan and the refugees from Syria living in Berlin. And on Christmas Eve he cries and wonders why he is so privileged and others are so poor, sick with Ebola or displaced by war. It affects him deeply, emotionally. Us socialists here in occidental Europe call that solidarity.  I am proud of my middle class global citizen son.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


After a year and a half, a trip to he US was in order. I guess after being immersed in my original, European roots for this extended time, an increase in alienation with my US side of the fence was to be expected – but I didn’t think it would hit me this strongly.

Due to a last minute change in travel arrangements beyond my control, my first stop was Phoenix, AZ, a place I have always been uncomfortable in. Why is it even there? The city is a cancerous growth in the middle of the desert, wasting water on its golf courses that everyone drives to from their suburbs with their SUVs. I got to Phoenix after 20 hours on the ‘road’ jetlagged and tired, and spent another couple of hours finding the car and the hotel. There could not have been a more alienating arrival for me. There could be no stronger contrast between the organically grown, lively, messy city I live in, and the artificial, cleanly futuristic out-of-this-world ugliness of Phoenix. It was like landing on another planet.

The next day, arriving in Silver City, the first visual impression that hit me, and stayed with me through two weeks, was one of decline. Crumbling dusty streets, boarded up stores added to the sense of stagnation I got – had nothing changed? A few things did, though: The two new businesses first visible to me were the second Sonic and the second national chain drugstore, both things the need for which is not immediately apparent in a town of 9000. Much better, on second sight: the new local brew pub and music venue in the beautiful Isaac’s location and the new local community radio station, GMCR. Looks like the WNMU pool is finally getting repaired, Light Hall is a movie theater, and there will be air service to Albuquerque again. Too bad that Masa y Mas had to close, the old Javalina’s was no more, and the Wellness Coalition has lost most of its funding, including AmeriCorps.

Despite some of this good news, I felt sad and estranged, and so the next day, Benny and I headed for West Texas. I wanted to show him the beautiful Davis Mountains and the Big Bend, the area that made me first fall in love with the southwest deserts in the late 80ies. I had not been there in over 15 years. I was re-stunned by the natural beauty and peace of the area, and how being there soothes my heart and soul. Benny loved Balmorhea with its spring-fed pool and oasis-like park. We swam with the fish and the turtles and had excellent burgers at the only place open in town, a little shack called Maria’s.

The next day, after the long drive passing Fort Davis, Alpine and then south on Highway 118, we arrived in Terlingua. This little former ghost town (pop. 58) has seen quite a bit of development in recent years, both in housing and tourism, with people now making decent incomes from renting their places to visitors. Of course the old timers now complain about having visible and sometimes even audible neighbours. If this place gets crowded (ok, this would be a very subjective, desert rat interpretation of crowded), where does one go? South Brewster County, I think, is still the least populated frontier area of the US. But rural infrastructure has its perks too, not having to drive 2 hours to Alpine for everything. There is a good coffee shop, a new grocery store in Study Butte, and even a social service agency, doubling as library, clothing & food pantry and victims of violence support provider.

Speaking of violence and trauma, it has made its mark on this little community as well. The legendary ‘La Kiva’ bar and restaurant was closed after its owner was brutally murdered in early 2013, found with his head bashed in, on La Kiva’s parking lot. A local river guide is facing murder charges. The restaurant now has been purchased by a couple from up North. They are doing extensive reconstruction of the crumbling, iconic site, and will reopen later this year.

I got to spend some sweet time with a few of my old friends, hang out on the famous front porch, and we were lucky to see Butch Hancock play at the Starlight Theatre that first night. I knew most of the songs still. 

The next day, we drove into the park, down to Boquillas Canyon, and hiked into it as far as we could, past donation jars for the Mexican Singing Jesus, little bead and wired art made by kids from Boquillas and the big, raging, latte-colored waters of the Rio Grande. 

It rained on and off, and Benny got covered in fine silt mud. 

I felt much better when we headed back towards Silver City after a few days. Somehow the old familiar combination of living in Berlin and visiting the Big Bend had put things back in order for me.

My time in Silver City continued to be bitter sweet, more for personal reasons than having to do with the place – though the town has suffered. Many people there have gone through a tough year, emotionally and physically. Everyone seemed exhausted. The community is very traumatized by the loss of the three young people killed in a plane crash in May. It’s a hard place to be. But there are those who are staying, to live and grow with and beyond this tragedy, to support each other and try to turn the pain into something creative and positive. Saving the Gila River from the grasp of 1950ies policies pushed by greedy and corrupt decision-makers already has become the central fight of this decade, and I hope that the good people of Silver City are not too exhausted to continue this fight in the spirit of Ella Jazz Kirk, and for the sake of their own future.

Most of all, I learned that I have a group of strong, dear, loyal, wonderful friends there, and I need to do a better job of staying in touch with them.

My last week in the US I spent in San Francisco, back at work with my Wikimedia colleagues. We stayed at a small hotel a few blocks from Union Square. Every day, walking to work, and back, I passed hundreds of homeless people, many of them in terrible states of hunger, mental illness and physical sickness. There is a reason for the extreme homelessness here, and it’s not, as some people claim, that the city does so much for the homeless, that it is an easy ride to be one here. Just look at these people’s festering skin, smelly clothes and piles of dirt they sleep in. It’s not easy at all. They are NOT taken care of. No, the reason is: Extreme poverty is the other side of the medallion of extreme wealth. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area now are the place in the country where income inequality is the highest, and has become most visible – to a point of being in-your face with almost unbearable intensity. The average rent in SF is now $3600/month. Given my income, I would be living on the streets there. My colleagues got a tour of the facebook campus, which looks like a gigantic playground – for white rich males, who are allowed to not grow up and yet make the top wages in the country. The fact that their bosses donate a lot of money to local charities does not begin to alleviate the suffering in the streets. These impressions taken together, SF left me with a sense of an economic system out of control and a society that has become completely insane as a result. It can’t last.

The mid-term elections, while politically inconsequential, didn’t help to alleviate the picture of an America that has lost its mind and soul, and abandoned any notion of taking care of each other, or of advancing the country beyond individual enrichment.

So, for now I will return to the messy city, with its unkind inhabitants, grey skies and its cheap grocery stores. I will wear a winter coat, pay taxes, make a decent income, and be safe economically. My kids will get a free, solid education. I will continue to miss my dear friends, my Silver City family and the beautiful rivers and deserts of the southwest. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll buy a little miner’s cabin in Terlingua, contribute to the overpopulation there and spend my last days as a desert rat….