The Disappearing America

The Disappearing America

(A version of this article was published in Typepad on August, 2008)

[What follows is a chapter from my first novel, Memoirs of a Secret Agent: a cautionary tale. Though written during the first term of the Bush administration, it’s still relevant in many respects, so I thought it might be fun sharing it. Stanley Crawford, a Homeland Security operative, has a brainstorm after hot sex with his new love, Doris McKenzie. (There is nothing like a boudoir for full self-disclosure.) Section III is pertinent since it expands on some of the ideas expressed in an earlier blog (see A History of this Blog: in search for an anchor, August 14); sections I, II, and IV provide the backdrop. It’s an “expository lump” and a rather long one at that, but I think it works.]

I

The descent from heaven to earth, from the sublime to the trite, is a long, multistage process. It’s as though you had to travel through many stratospheres – not unlike a space capsule, perhaps, on its way back from deep space, except for resistance. It’s a kind of free fall, but then again, it’s painstakingly slow, unaffected by gravity, almost imperceptible. The floating metaphor comes perhaps the closest. Just as a particle of dust must settle sometime, only no one knows where or when, so must two humans who have tasted eternity. 

The climax itself is violent, explosive, a singular experience – indicative perhaps of breaking a barrier. The aftermath is anything but. 

It’s a state of contemplation and tranquility, of peace and euphoria, of awe and reverence – all-transcending, a product of having been brought face to face with the divine. You can’t navigate on your way down. The ship controls are on automatic. You can only marvel at the spectacle of descent and partake in the entire experience. You’re in a trance. When you come out, at last, you’ve landed.

We were both in a state of limbo, of suspended animation between two worlds. Our bodies would barely touch except for the holding of hands, but we were closer than ever, far closer than during any physical contact before or after. It’s as if our souls, our entire beings – minds, bodies, feelings, emotions, reasons – were all conjoined in some inextricable way. We both knew we could never again replicate the experience. We could only reenact it.

There was no need to talk, no place for gestures, physical or verbal. We both knew what had happened. Any action, comment, remark, observation, statement, anything at all, in addition to being superfluous, would only defile the experience. Perfect silence was the only mode available to us, the only proper celebration, the only way of being.

For a long while, there was nothing but the sound of slow, rhythmic breathing and the beating of hearts.

II

We stayed in bed, the same bed in which only a while ago we could only fuck, make love, enact and reenact our carnal desires and innermost wishes, practically devour one another in pursuit of our sexual appetites and fantasies, healthy or otherwise, wholesome and unwholesome, giving each other pleasure in whichever way we could – all in the name of love. That was the pinnacle of our understanding back then, the most we could hope for, the limits of what we had thought possible.

But it wasn’t the same bed. All those things were behind us now. Even love, as we had conceived of it then, seemed unimportant, trivial, a mere stepping stone to a more perfect state, embracing as it were not just the two of us but the world at large, all forms of life, all objects animate and inanimate, the entire Cosmos, in fact.

And so we stayed in the same bed in perfect communion, wondering, thinking, sharing. We were at another plateau.

Intermittently, we talked. 

III

I’d speak of the disappearing America – of the idealistic sixties, of the Kennedy years and Peace Corps, of the flower generation, the hippie revolution and Vietnam of course, of the Columbia- and Watts riots, Wounded Knee, the Civil Rights movement, and Martin Luther King, of the good ole corporate responsibility when jobs were plentiful, the unions responsible and the worker an asset, of times when we still had a strong manufacturing base and well-to-do middle class, when the label “Made in the USA” meant something both at home and abroad, when greed, cutting corners and the bottom line weren’t the only things that mattered.

I was a child of the sixties; she’d missed it by a decade. It made no difference, however. It wasn’t like the earlier attempt when she had questions concerning specificity, context, where I was coming from. This time our understanding was perfect. It’s as though our unified consciousness had spanned all humankind, beyond America, reaching to the very beginnings of history, even to Creation, well into the far-off, indeterminate, and uncertain future. 

Our sensibilities were one – all-comprehensive, beyond borders and culture, beyond ethnic diversity or racial divide, beyond nations and nation-states, ways of power, and all temporal things. It’s as though God Himself had entered our very beings to impart this vision to us – bemoaning his erring children, ever-prayerful, ever hopeful.

She’d voice concerns of her own. She spoke of the immigration problem which neither party would address and which had started making inroads into the local job market, and of outsourcing – a kind of process in reverse whereby jobs were being transferred overseas to places like India or Taiwan, where pidgin-English was preferable to retaining a higher-salaried, American workforce. It had started affecting the insurance industry, her very employer. None of us begrudged the rest of the world becoming enriched on the coattails of American prosperity. But was it right — we wondered — when it came at the expense of its people?

We both agreed this was still the best place on earth as evidenced by the invading hordes – people from all corners of the world, of every accent, skin color, and culture, coming in droves, daily, legally and illegally. Nowhere else would they be rather than here. But for how long? And for what reason? 

We questioned their loyalty. What stake did they really have in America? Didn’t they come here only to rape her, to take their spoils, to squeeze her lifeless and dry, to make their money and run, only to leave her like some useless carcass, all-barren and in tears, when there was nothing else left to take?

It still was, we thought, the land of opportunity. But in the eyes of many, including many of its citizens, it was quickly becoming a narrowly-defined, almost vulgar concept, delimited more and more to the money-making proposition, to accumulation of wealth for its own sake, to enriching oneself by hook or by crook, to the devil-may-care type of attitude while the country and its people were going down the drain.

But that wasn’t what America was supposed to be about. Freedom was. Freedom from government, from undue interference and excessive regulation, freedom of religion and worship, freedom to pursue your own idea of happiness, however construed, freedom to excel in any area whatever, freedom to become whomever you wanted to become; and yes, even the freedom or the right to disagree with your government and its policies, freedom of speech, the right to civil disobedience in the honorable tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. All these have been bestowed on us by our Constitution as our unalienable rights. Pursuit of financial or economic independence, both as a nation and on the part of its citizenry, though an admirable expression of that freedom, wasn’t meant to preempt it, let alone cancel out equally worthwhile if not more admirable pursuits.

It has always been the beauty of America, its singular attraction, that it was never one-dimensional but accorded its people opportunities for the full development in any area whatever – not just in accumulation of wealth but in arts, crafts, technical and scientific innovation, research, physical culture. All this was captured once by that unforgettable, though now defunct, phrase – “the American dream.” Or by Walt Whitman’s notion of America as an idea, as “the great experiment,” as the hope of humankind. And at the bottom of it all was freedom.

The creative energies, the American grit and perseverance, its fortitude against all odds, its domination in the field of science and technology – all were a by-product of that freedom, its direct or less direct manifestations. 

But our golden age of television was long gone. And so it was with the Hollywood era, the times when we could still dream of heroes. The best in American jazz hadn’t seen its heyday since the sixties. And it was no different with rock ‘n’ roll, that all-American icon of pop culture: we couldn’t think of anything memorable or noteworthy past the seventies. Even the best in musicals – the uniquely American invention of making Johann Strauss and opéra bouffe accessible to the American palate – have been of late either English- or French-originated productions: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Miz were a case in point. All have fallen victim to the vulgarization of culture, to reducing it to the lowest common denominator, to increasing the paying base, to selling out to quick profit and box-office success. 

Only in computer technologies and software development did we still excel, but there was a reason for this: because of worldwide demand for ever-cheaper, better products, it was one area in which both quality and profit could still go hand in hand. Hence Bill Gates, presumably the richest man in the world and possibly the last icon of American excellence.

We didn’t mind, of course, the rest of the world catching up. Ideally, we had both thought, all governments and all human societies should emulate our way. The whole world would be better for it. But we weren’t quite ready for “global government,” charitable or Christian as such an idea might be. They haven’t prepared us for this. Even less were we prepared for our government selling out to international business interests and cartels. We were afraid of losing our country in the process.

And so we talked, and shared, and communed. We didn’t need love or sex. Later, perhaps, but only as validation, to reaffirm our perfect union, to seal this once-in-a-lifetime conjoining of mind, body, and spirit, to celebrate our becoming with one another, with all there is.

What joy for a man and a woman to ever experience! What a foretaste of the divine! 

She was beautiful to me, and I to her. We were both beautiful and perfect in each other’s eyes.

It was two in the morning.

IV

She had gone to the kitchen to fix us some food – scrambled eggs, bacon, whatever came to mind. We haven’t eaten much throughout the day. Our bodily needs had been put on hold while our spirits soared, ever-connected, to become united forever. Nothing would keep us apart. But the physical reality was reasserting itself. We were both hungry, nearly starving.

I followed her, naturally. I couldn’t bear to have her out of sight. I watched the lovely figure, the figure of my beloved, from the kitchen chair behind. She seemed the epitome of efficiency, not a motion wasted, her energies, concentration, effort all devoted to a single task. I admired her in all of her facets. She was a perfect woman. I pictured a perfect life.

We didn’t talk much. We were still in awe of our experience, of our perfect union. She turned on the radio, a music station, perhaps to lighten the mood. After all, we were still earthlings, destined to live in the real world. We shall have our flights now and then. Meanwhile, we had to live.

I was figuring on spending a few more hours with her, of making sweet love until daylight, of holding her in my arms and kissing her tender lips. I knew she wanted the same. She, too, was eager for validation, for the sealing of what we had become, for consummation beyond all consummations. We belonged to one another now, thoroughly and completely, without forethought or reservation.

My only concern was a practical one, how to coordinate my work schedule with her living in West Virginia. No matter. I’d be commuting for a stretch until a more permanent arrangement presented itself.  

I knew I couldn’t stay away. I’ll explain to Gloria later. She must understand. As much as I had regretted it, for I loved her also, it was different with Doris. I was sure that Gloria would forgive me. If she truly loved me, she’d want me happy.

V

We were interrupted by a news bulletin.

A helicopter carrying Osama bin Laden and his presumed bodyguards was reported to have crashed somewhere over the mountains of Afghanistan early this morning. Fortunately, an American reconnaissance unit was the first on the scene. Judging by dental records and other available evidence, there is no doubt that one of the casualties was bin Laden. We’re still awaiting confirmation.

The identities of the remaining victims of the crash and the purpose of the mission are unknown at this time. Full-scale investigation continues, and we shall keep you abreast of all new developments.

The president will be giving a public announcement of this momentous event at 9 a.m. this morning, Eastern Standard Time, from the Rose Garden. Nationwide coverage by most television and radio stations, including KXLU, is expected.

Stay tuned for further updates.

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