I spent about an hour this afternoon following a Facebook discussion about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program (more concisely described as “the torture report”), which was finally released yesterday after years of delays and outright stonewalling by various political forces who didn’t want the facts coming to light. (Sadly, I have to include President Obama in that group; he’s been hugely disappointing to me on this matter.) To call the back-and-forth I witnessed “disheartening” would be an understatement.
I know, I know… you should never read the comments. One of the cardinal rules of the Internet, right up there with “don’t feed the trolls.” But in this case, I just couldn’t look away. At least, not at first. After a while, though, I finally had to. I was so repelled by some of what I was reading that I felt I had to literally, physically get away from my computer. My conservative friends often say things like “I just don’t recognize my country anymore.” Well, guys, you’re not the only ones who feel that way sometimes. Today, after an hour of reading opposing opinions on something that seems so self-evident in my mind, opinions ranging from baffling to infuriating to frightening to outright appalling, I felt like I’d fallen through a wormhole into some alternate universe where everything is exactly mirror-opposite to the way you expect it to be. I have rarely felt such a profound sense of alienation, or so bleak. There was an oily black cloud of despair welling up inside me. So I decided it was a good time to leave the office and go for my afternoon walk.
I didn’t have a destination or a route in mind — I never do, really — but today it seemed more appropriate than usual to just let my feet carry me where they would. I found myself drifting up into one of Salt Lake’s oldest residential neighborhoods, an area called the Avenues, away from the traffic and noise and bustle of South Temple Street. The air was unseasonably warm; if it wasn’t for the garland wound through porch railings and the oversized ornaments glittering in people’s trees, you might have thought it was the middle of October or even the first of April, rather than two weeks from Christmas. The sky was clear and cloudless, a bright indigo color that likewise seemed to belong to a different month than December. My iPod, as it so often does, seemed to sense my mood and started serving up a stream of music seemingly designed to counteract it: classic ’60s pop tunes, some Motown, the “John Dunbar Theme” from Dances with Wolves… and then came the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”
I’ve never been a full-on Deadhead, but I do like a handful of their songs. They have an innocent quality — kind of an odd thing to say about a hippie jam band notorious for their drug usage, but hey, that’s what I hear in them — that brings back my college years for me. Not specific memories, really, but more just a phantom echo of who I was then, how I generally felt on any given day. I remember believing myself to be so cynical and angsty back then, but that was just a silly story I told myself for reasons I can no longer explain. The truth is, that was a time — the last time in my life — when I felt truly positive about the world and my place in it. I would’ve denied that if you’d said anything, of course, but it was true. I went through my days vibrating with a low-grade excitement that could have been optimism, a certainty that things would inevitably turn out all right. I imagine everybody probably feels that way at that time of their lives, right there on the threshold of adulthood.
So anyhow, there I was walking through the Avenues and jamming out with the old hippies, when I saw a girl jogging toward me. She was nineteen or 20, college age herself, long and willowy and wearing a red-and-black sweatshirt with a University of Utah logo splashed across the front. Her hair was blond and silky, tied back in a ponytail that swayed and bounced in time with her steps. It shone in the sun like something too pure to have come from this polluted world. She smiled as she passed me, and I smiled back.
But this story isn’t going to the place you probably think it is. Usually a smile from a pretty girl on a day like today rejuvenates my soul, and makes me feel young, if only for a fleeting moment. Today, though… today it had the opposite effect. I didn’t think “if I was 20 years younger and unattached…” and I wasn’t remotely tempted to leer or waggle my eyebrows.
Instead, I felt something to which I am entirely unaccustomed: I felt parental. I felt protective. I wanted to put my arms around this girl and keep her safe from all the things out there that would bruise her and muddy her and beat her down by the time she reaches my age. I wanted to shield her from all the fucked-up nastiness of this tired, filthy existence and find a way to let her remain as shiny as she is right now.
But that’s impossible, of course, even if I really was her father. And anyhow, I know that the thing I really want to find is some way to bring back my own shine…