Coming apart at the seams

A protester is silhouetted against the flames of a burning liquor store in Minneapolis on Thursday, May 28. (Associated Press/Julio Cortez)

It’s been a month since I last wrote something on my blog. Here I sit, trying to decide if “despair” or “discouraged” or “despondent” best describes my mood. All I know is I have rarely felt this low.

So many people, far more eloquent than I, have weighed in already on events of the past week. They’ve been numbing, frankly.

  • A black man in Minneapolis had the life squeezed out of him by a police officer who kneeled on his neck as he lay handcuffed, face smashed into the pavement, pleading to just breathe.
  • A black man in New York’s Central Park, a Harvard-educated birdwatcher, asked a white woman to leash her dog and then filmed her racist rant as she called 9-1-1 to report that an African American was “threatening” her life.
  • In Minneapolis and cities across the country, demonstrations to protest the death of George Floyd turned violent. Buildings burned. Businesses were trashed. Cops and ordinary citizens clashed. Curfews were imposed.
  • In Portland, shit happened, too. Peaceful protests in one part of the city were undermined by a full-out riot downtown. The mayor declared a state of emergency. Acts of vandalism damaged small businesses along with those owned by megacorporations.

All of this action on the streets deflected attention from what came earlier:

— A string of Memorial Day tweets from President Trump that insulted the looks of Nancy Pelosi and Stacey Abrams and, worse, smeared a MSNBC host by suggesting he murdered an aide in his congressional office nearly 20 years ago — despite an investigation that concluded the woman had a heart condition that caused her to faint, hit her head on an office desk and die of her injuries.

— A long-simmering feud that saw Twitter call B.S. on Trump for making false claims about vote-by-mail, only to have the president sign an executive order intended to weaken social media companies’ legal protections as a result of what gets posted on their platforms.

— And not least, the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus shot past 100,000 deaths as Trump played golf, then withdrew the United States from the World Health Organization.

All of this left me feeling miserable at a time that I would normally be looking at the bright side of things.

Sharing photos of neighborhood bike rides and my latest baking and cooking successes seems pretty trivial at the moment.

Even looking ahead to the final two weeks of the spring quarter at Portland State has me feeling down. Ordinarily, I’d be looking to tie a nice bow on the three classes I’ve taught this term, especially knowing that I am just days away from retirement.

But, no, this term has been hellish for too many of my students. They are stressed out by the combination of spending countless hours per day on Zoom, dealing with reduced work hours or lost jobs, worrying about health issues affecting their family members, and wondering if the fall term will bring more of the same remote teaching.

Somehow in the midst of all this, while America literally is burning, they need to turn in final essays, submit missing assignments, and prepare for next week’s final exams — which, of course, will also be done remotely.

Having taught Media Literacy for several years now, I’ve grown accustomed to setting aside a lesson plan in order to focus on a teachable moment. Sometimes that’s meant critiquing breaking news coverage of a mass shooting or a certain fatal helicopter crash. Other times, we’ve focused on understanding the context of the Kavanaugh hearings and the Trump impeachment process.

Just two weeks ago, we took time to talk about Ahmaud Arbery. Last week, it was George Floyd and the standoff in Central Park. This week, it’ll be an open forum on whatever my students have to say about this awful storm of calamities we are living through: racism, climate change, a shattered economy, a global pandemic, a nutjob president. Oh, and the who-knows-how-long-it-will-last suspension of face-to-face learning in higher education.

I know that sounds bleak. But I feel horrible as a baby boomer who thought we would hand off a better, healthier, more equitable world to our children and their children. Instead, we have a country plagued by shameful inequalities in health, wealth and education; demonization of immigrants; and political partisanship and conspiracy theories amplified and weaponized by social media.

Who knew that wearing a mask to prevent spread of a deadly virus would be interpreted as a political statement? Who knew that showing up with guns and camouflage clothing to a rally at the state capitol building would come to be seen as normal?

How must the rest of the world look at us now?

It’s hard to realize that just three Sundays ago I was inspired by a special section in The New York Times that reminded readers of the role of cities in America, as engines of growth and opportunity. And I quote:

“The nature of a nation is that we are bound together in a community of shared obligation, purpose and opportunity.”

“The urban areas where 80 percent of Americans live are the places that best enable us to care for each other, to interact with each other, to build together.”

“And as inequality deepens, the problem becomes harder to fix: The scale of the necessary changes is larger; those living in wealthy enclaves feel less need for communal infrastructure; and separation makes it easier to ignore problems — indeed, not to see them at all.”

It hurts my heart to see the destruction wrought in our cities, including my own. I understand the pain and rage that prompted so many thousands and thousands of people to stand up against systemic racism that has taken too many black lives and threatened or belittled so many others.

If I’m feeling despondent, it’s because I know we can do better than this. For the sake of our country, we’ve got to.