On this Thanksgiving, the problems pop megastar Taylor Swift is facing should remind us all to get down on our knees in thanks to the miracle of America.
One of my first high school jobs was as a second-shift janitor. It was at this job where I met Hank. Hank was a painter — not like Van Gogh. He painted rooms and hallways and buildings. He always wore his paint coveralls, which were white, like his buzzcut, and his sense of humor ranged from cynical to acerbic to childlike. He was his own Marx Brother: Hank.
Hank was two years from retirement, and he counted the days to Autumn years spent drinking beer, fishing, and playing with grandkids. And when I say “counted the days,” I mean while clocking out he’d smile to himself and say, “712 to go.” The next day: “711 to go.”
Throughout his entire working life he had only ever done manual labor, which was by design. Hank wasn’t dumb, far from it, he just had no ambition, and the way he saw it, this lack of ambition was directly responsible for a life of no regrets, little stress, and the fulfillment found in simple pleasures.
“If there’s Hamm’s in the can and trout in the water, what more do you need?” That was Hank’s mantra. Sometimes he said this to no one in particular. It was just something he liked to say. Sometimes it was a direct challenge, which I took up: “TV. You need TV, Hank.” Mostly, though, it was a taunt, because in 710 days he was over the wall and I had more than 17,000 to go.
Hank was all right.
In so many of us there’s a deep-seated need to matter — for our lives to matter, for our existence to have purpose. This need used to be fulfilled by the hard living that defined 99 percent of the history of humanity.
What I mean is, if you truly want to live a life that matters and filled with purpose, go back a hundred or so years, go back to when your next meal depended on your aim with a rifle, when your family’s ability to survive the winter depended on the crops and livestock not being wiped out by disease or weather, to a time when cutting firewood was an act of survival, not a quaint pastime at your summer cottage.
Hell, until the rise of the middle class in the previous century, unless you were well off, you knew hunger, you knew what it was like to run out of the coal that heats your home, to live in a literal shack without central heat, without refrigeration, and only a sheet of tar paper between you and the rain.
Can you imagine living without air conditioning?
Can you imagine your house filled with smoke because you heat and illuminate it with a flame?
Can you imagine only being able to afford one pair of shoes?
Can you imagine having to stretch your food to the next pay check?
Can you imagine a Christmas where the gift of a dime is a big deal?
Can you imagine life without antibiotics, where something like strep kills children?
I’m only 53-years-old and still I’m but one generation away from shoveling coal for heat, knowing hunger, and owning one pair of shoes. You see, poverty defined my father’s childhood. Not this bullshit poverty we call “poverty” today, but poverty-poverty: hand-me-downs, lard sandwiches, running out of coal, and those rare days when a dime for the movies made you feel like a king.
What I’m trying to say is … Do you have any idea how good we have it in 21st century America? Do you have any idea how blessed we are to live in a time and place where obesity — obesity! — is considered an epidemic among the poor? And not only do America’s poor have access to too much cheap food, they have access to decent housing, cell phones, education, health care, central heat, cable TV, microwaves, air conditioners, and plenty of clothing.
Obviously, you cannot count the mentally ill and addicted in this group. That’s a different matter entirely…
What we have in this country is ABUNDANCE, is more than enough to go around, and despite the prattling on about the wealth gap, go around it does. And let’s not forget generous welfare programs, child labor laws, and the 40 hour work week….
Good heavens, the leisure time we enjoy today… In the history of humanity, do you have any idea how unprecedented this leisure time is? How do you even begin to put a price on time?
In keeping with the season, let me put it this way: Go back and read or watch a movie version of A Christmas Carol. We all used to live like Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.
Things are so good in this country — so incredibly and miraculously good, that millions of us have the luxury, the unprecedented luxury, to worry about Taylor Swift’s problems with some guy named Scooter. Things are so good in this country, Taylor’s problems are national news, a drama we follow like we used to follow the Lindbergh kidnapping or the Kennedy assassination. Things are so good, tens of millions of us live with the extravagance to invest ourselves in the silly problems of a talented, famous, pretty, young, healthy woman worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Taylor Swift has 85 million Twitter followers, that’s 18 million more than the president of the United States.
And whenever I see us fretting over Taylor and Scooter, whenever we are keeping up with the Kardashians, all I can say is, My God, I love this country.
My father worried about polio, about foreign invasion, about his next meal, about not outgrowing his shoes because his mother could only afford one pair a year… Look at us now. Have I mentioned how much I love this country?
Unfortunately, there’s a darkside that comes with this kind of prosperity. With all our needs basically filled by America’s abundance, instead of enjoying the spoils, our natural desire to matter has created an army of busybodies filling their twisted and narcissistic sense of purpose by inventing causes and crises. They pretend racism and sexism and the Russians are still everywhere, are still institutional problems that must be fought with blacklists and canceling and witch hunts and Antifa’s violence and purges and speech policing and riots and boycotts and threats and the replacing of “incorrect” Americans with illegal aliens, with an overall fascism that threatens our everyday freedom.
What a shame. What a goddamned shame. Just when this country should be enjoying a big toga party, we have to fight off these soul-devouring monsters.
You know, at the time, I thought Hank was a bit of a goof, a silly and frivolous man. Looking back, though, I see now that he was one of the lucky ones who cracked America’s code. He only mentioned it in passing once, the fact he’d been in the Pacific near the end of World War II, but that was enough for him to earn the wisdom required to be thankful, to embrace the miracle of America’s post-war bounty and to express his gratitude by going about the business of carving out a simple life dedicated to family, fishing, and Hamm’s.
We should all be Hank.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.