Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Judy: Processing Grief

Mike Weston, January 1998

I'm dedicating this post to my son, Mike Weston, who died in a helicopter crash Afghanistan in 2009.  It's about him, but it's also about what has happened to this country.  I chose this picture, which was taken when he was a marine reservist on a mission called Operation Baltic Challenge, a NATO mission in Lithuania.  We was still young and idealistic, and he still believed in the American experiment in democracy.  

For those of you who knew Mike or knew of him, he was, first and foremost, a challenging personality.  As a family, we remember him as the organizer of play activities, although even as a youngster, there was often a political or media-driven theme to the play.  He started reading early, and read voraciously choosing to immerse himself in writings on all sides of the political spectrum.  In high school he participated in the Model U.N., went to the Governor's School in International Affairs, took courses at Penn State in Political Science, Economics, and Japanese, and was mentored by the father of one of his classmates, a neoconservative Poli-Sci professor whose claim to fame was consulting with Republican presidents.  Mike went on to Stanford, where he majored in Computer Science and Economics, and then to Harvard Law School.  The week after he got to Harvard, he called me and said, "This is just about helping rich people hold onto their money."  He was right, of course, and I told him he didn't have to continue.  He said he always finished what he started, but he didn't see the point of sitting in classes, so he just read on his own and took exams and graduated cum laude.  

The Spring of his first year in law school, Mike flew out to Los Angeles at Spring Break to interview for a summer internship.  He had been observing the blue collar population around him in Boston, just as he did in Palo Alto when he'd been an undergraduate.  He would roam around Boston, and there were times he felt afraid because he didn't know if he could defend himself.  He was also acutely aware of how class differences dictate opportunities in life.  While he himself was quite fortunate, he identified with those who were not.  After his interview and a visit to his father, a successful attorney himself, Mike flew back to Boston.  He was seated next to a group of young men who were very clean cut, but kind of rowdy.  He always said he thought they were Mormons because of the way they were dressed, but they were actually Marines.  By the time he touched ground at Logan, he had decided to go into the reserves.  

Mike was in the military either active-duty or reserve from 1995 until his death.  He signed up for every kind of challenging training available, and rose to the rank of Major.  Even after he became a DEA agent, he continued to be a Marine Reserve.  What he was known for among his friends were his values, and his continuous search for a purpose in life.  Over the course of his military service he went to Norway, Panama, Morocco, Lithuania, and Kuwait, and he had three missions in Iraq.  Before each trip he immersed himself in the history and politics of the region, which allowed him to understand what he was seeing in a unique way.  He called home from Kuwait in 2003, where he was handling the logistics for setting up prisoner of war camps in advance of the invasion.  He could see that the whole operation was wrong-headed, based on what he had read and what he saw when he got there.  It was already clear to him that while we could easily prevail with our military might, an area as primitive as Iraq only worked with an autocratic leader like Sadam Hussein, that if we eliminated that kind of strong leadership, the region would devolve into civil war and chaos.  

Mike's deployments to the Middle East and his work for the DEA in inner-city Richmond, Virginia, changed him in many ways, but one of them was to make him much more pessimistic about the future of our country.  He felt that Americans didn't appreciate what they had, the freedoms our Constitution have given them.  He observed the calcification of our political parties, and the rigid bureaucracies that had sprung up around government employment.  He even at times would say to me that perhaps the "great American experiment in democracy" has run it's course and that we will devolve into something else.  He wasn't optimistic that Barack Obama would be elected, and he was fearful that if he was, racism in our country would only intensify.  Mike always identified with the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, those who had no voice in their own lives and futures.  Wherever he traveled, he sought these people out and listened to them.  At a very deep level, he believed that democracy was the only hope for the world, but he wasn't sure that human nature would allow it to continue in this country.  As a side note, he also believed that the media was the most serious threat to our form of government because, unlike doctors or lawyers or other professionals, they have no form of self-policing and regulation.  If a journalist propagates false information, there is no professional mechanism for challenging it.  With the advent of the internet, it is no longer possible to prevent totally false claims from being widely disseminated and ultimately believed by those who do not seek verification of information.

So here we are today, a country reeling from the most division presidential campaign in recent history, and trying to make sense of the half of the electorate that voted for the most seriously unstable and unqualified candidate ever.  As you can see, Mike predicted most of it, although he'd probably by somewhat surprised that the candidate is who he is.  Or maybe he wouldn't.  When he was a teenager, he was fascinated with the rise of the tel-evangelists, which prompted him to start his own (pretend) church, which he dubbed, "The Church of Appalling Greed."  Not really so very different from where we are now.

This week has been very, very painful personally.  For me personally, it brought a grief that I haven't felt since Mike died.  I'm mourning my own loss of optimism about my country and what it will stand for in the next few years.  I'm mourning the loss of safety that persons of color have in this country now.  I'm mourning the inevitable increase in income inequality that will result from the president-elect's economic policies, and the economic pain that will inflict on the poorest and weakest among us.  I'm mourning the giant step backwards we have taken in our valuing of women, not only by rejecting the first woman candidate in our history, but by selecting a sexual predator instead.  I'm mourning for the damage to the environment that will result from his choosing a "climate denier" to oversee the appointments to the EPA, and this one will affect ALL of our children and grandchildren.  

I'm going to echo what many thoughtful individuals have said:  the most important thing we can do is to resist accepting what is happening as the "new normal."  For me, that means that I am seeking out organizations that will fight for the disenfranchised, minorities, refugees, immigrants, women, children, and the environment.  I will support them first, financially, and second, with any political action possible, whether that is to call government representatives, sign petitions, or show up to help where it is needed.  It has been too easy to let other people do the heavy lifting, and to benefit from the normal ebb and flow of politics in this country.  I will be going to the Women's March on Washington on January 21 so that the president-elect can see that women, individuals of color, immigrants, the rainbow coalition, and others who have been marginalized, are not going away and that we will hold him accountable.  

I am very, very sad that this is where we find ourselves in this country today.  I will leave it to others to figure out and understand how this happened.  The only thing that lifts me out of my grief is to make and execute a plan of action, so that at the very least I can feel that I am part of the solution.