A Yankee Notebook

August 8, 2016


MONTPELIER – The only thing that is constant is change. Hardly a new idea; that little maxim has been around for about 2500 years, since it was propounded by the philosopher Heraclitus. It’s hard to formulate a refutation of it, or its homely illustration, “You can’t step twice into the same river.” Change has been not only a constant feature of our lives, but in recent years has accelerated – and continues to accelerate – beyond what any of us could have imagined only twenty years ago.

This has led me to a corollary that seems equally obvious: You can tell a great deal about a person by how he or she reacts to change or its imminent prospect. Take three recent political campaign slogans, for example – Barack Obama’s 2008 “Change We Can Believe In”; Bernie Sanders’ “A Future to Believe In”; and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” – and then take a look at the people who rallied or are rallying to them, as well as those who have done all they can to strangle and frustrate them.

One of the features of Vermont that’s most attractive is its citizens’ innate willingness to try new ideas. They haven’t always been good ideas – witness the state’s foray into eugenics during the mid-20th century – but following the immigration of long-haired utopians after the Second World War, the trend has been toward the liberal and progressive.

For many decades before that the state was rock-ribbed, if moderate, Republican. The late Professor Alan Foley of Dartmouth used to tell the story of the old-timers hanging around the porch of the general store in Barnet, lighting their pipes with the ubiquitous Ohio Blue Tip wooden matches. A salesman who showed up one day with boxes of Diamond matches (a rival, red-tipped brand) found he literally couldn’t give them away, because, as one old guy said, “They ain’t blue.”

Bernie Sanders’ campaign offered radical change, but it was unclear to many of us where it could go as long as special interest money funds politicians’ campaigns and the possibility of term limits legislation is as remote as Pluto. If the Democrats are somehow able to wrest away control of the Senate and Bernie’s people remain loyal, there may be reasonable hope for some change, though probably not as sweeping as they might wish. Washington is a good gig.

Those who, on the other hand, want to make America great again, whatever that may mean, are practicing what Freudians call Verschiebung, or displacement: You’re in a losing argument with your wife, so you kick your dog; you cure the pain of a headache by dropping a brick on your foot; you react to a terrorist attack by declaring war, on trumped-up charges, against a nation that had nothing to do with it. Years of a steady media drumbeat – how poorly Americans are doing, how immigrants are swarming across our borders and taking our jobs, how white folks will soon be drowned in a brown tide, how everything we buy nowadays comes with directions in at least two languages, how “Christianity is under attack” – has resonated with people who in fact aren’t doing as well as they used to, and they need someone or something to blame.

Personally, I find change exciting. I wasn’t raised that way – the Old Testament pealed loudest in my ancestors’ bell towers – and the trick, over the years, has been not to repudiate that, but peacefully to outgrow it. Thus I welcome the fact of equal rights for all my fellow citizens, try always to respond generously to the suffering and less well endowed among us, deplore corporate control of what I consider basic human resources, and will support any credible campaign to make health care and higher education more nearly affordable.

But there’s a fly in this high-toned liberal ointment. It’s a type of change that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. It’s not change exactly; better to call it superannuation. I don’t mean by this the accumulation of funds to tide you through retirement; I mean the way the world passes us by, once we do retire. This is the negative side of change for many of us old-timers.

Used to be, if my wife asked if I’d paid the phone bill and I wasn’t sure, I’d call Alice, the bookkeeper at the phone company office. Yep, she’d say, or nope, and that was that. Now, if I’m in the same bind, I have to deal with a series of numbered options and a voice assuring me the call’s being monitored for quality assurance purposes. Then, “Say or type in the last four digits...”

I’m looking, as I write, at the large, lovely screen of a beautifully designed Apple desktop computer. I love its simplicity, and don’t fret at all that it can do dozens of things more than I can possibly conceive of asking it to do. It’s as good as it was when brand-new, only about five years ago. But here’s the thing: The cyberworld is passing it by; it’s superannuated. It isn’t being offered software updates anymore from the mysterious source that supplied them in the past. Now and then it can’t send manuscripts as it has, reliably, for years. We’re being left behind, it and I.

I take it to my favorite Apple dealer. His crackerjack (see what I mean by superannuated?) repairman tells me that it’s in great shape, but its software is no longer always able to work with the new systems at the other end of the line. I need to “upgrade.”

He means I need a new computer, and murmurs something about mine being in good shape, but old and unable to keep up. “So what?” I cry. “ I’m old, too, but I still work all right!”

“Just as well as you ever did?” I have to admit he had me there.

Photo by Willem lange