Life As It Happens


It may be early to prepare for the election after this one, but that’s what I’m doing.

You see, I have a wisecrack that’s been in storage for a while now.

Recently I applied for citizenship and so, assuming I’m accepted—sometime in the new year, I’m guessing—here’s how the wisecrack will go.

“Citizenship has its drawback. Every election up until now, I tell people: ‘Don’t blame me, I can’t vote.’ Now I can’t say that anymore.”

OK, not much of a wisecrack. In fact, considering how abrasive this presidential election has been, not much of a laughing matter altogether.

Citizenship will make me an American, confirming the home I already have here. How I vote will paint me as a certain kind of American. The chances are whatever kind I am will almost surely identify me as a pariah, if not an outright enemy, to a sizeable portion of the nation. Whether blue or red, or even green, I’m going to encounter a continual stream of opinion about why my chosen color beckons towards national ruin. To some, I will almost inevitably be tarred a traitor even before I cast a vote.

As many of us recognize, it will be a gargantuan task for the political hierarchy, and for us all, to overcome these divisions. An emphasis on bedrock values is where I would begin. In a country that prizes values, what about a focus on civil debate, empathy, a hearing for the calmly-stated opinions of those with whom we disagree, an effort to put ourselves in others’ shoes? To differ is certainly part of human nature. To differ with grace and consideration stems, I think, from communal behavior and no doubt from habits learned early in life.

My path towards becoming a certain kind of American seems to me to have been too often decided for me. Let’s start with being a Baby Boomer. Who seriously believes that all people born within certain years, all Baby Boomers, or all yet-to-come Generation Zs, are or will be of the same mind? We may have aspects in common, but as many differences. Ask Hillary and Donald.

And then there are the political tags. Liberal or conservative, never the twain shall meet we’re led to assume. Yet, how many of us cross the lines on an almost daily basis. I support less government, but only to the extent that it still addresses the complexity of modern life. Jefferson, Madison and their peers laid out fine principles, but they could hardly be expected to foresee climate change and techno developments. Oh dear, I suppose that’s going to offend constitutionalists. I’ll be labeled as the kind of American who besmirches the legacy of the founding fathers.

Sometimes it’s hard to decide exactly where an issue fits on the political scale. For instance, I advocate conserving trees. Does that mean I am a liberal subscribing to the insidious threat of environmentalism, or am I conservatively supporting the most precious resource of any nation—its geography? Say what you like about history. Without geography, there’s nothing.

Then there’s defense. There’s a divisive topic I am going to be wary of discussing with people I don’t know well. I am in favor of transferring as much as practical of the world’s nuclear weapons budget to programs that actually make sense. In fact, I’d like to tune in to a political debate in which a candidate treats that as a serious priority. Once again, am I a liberal for wanting to liberate ridiculous funding or a conservative for wanting to conserve life, liberty and the pursuit happiness in a world in which those aspirations are often underfinanced?

And so, as I wait for my date with the Department of Homeland Security, I have much to consider in addition to the usual questions about whom senators represent, what the supreme law of the land is etc., etc. One thing I do know though. Once I take that oath, no one will be able to say with any credibility: “Go back to where you came from.”

Even when they don’t like my wisecracks.

One thing you may not read in obituaries of Native American political activist Russell Means, who died today, is that he had a ready sense of humor.

Sharing the same last name as him, I was long intrigued by the thought that in some distant way we were related. Of course it was highly unlikely. I was born and brought up in England, where my ancestors had lived for generations.

Still, when news of Russell Means and his kin filtered across the Atlantic in 1973, my relatives and I had to wonder. We did have records of an ancestor who emigrated to Wisconsin in the mid 19th century. Could there possibly be an Oglala/Lakota branch of the family?

Through 1973 we followed bulletins of the Native American confrontations at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota with more than a passing interest. In my youthful imagination, I have to admit, I even visualized myself trekking into Russell’s encampment with fresh supplies and perhaps reinforcements from the Means’ band across the water.

Years later, having moved to Arizona, I bought Russell’s autobiography and learned how he got his last name. As so often was the case, an Indian boarding school had adapted things to make them conform. In this case, one of Russell’s forebears had had his name changed to ‘Means’ from ‘Mean To His Horses’, which in turn was a mistranslation of ‘Trains His Horses Well’. I had to concede that I had no ancestors with that handle. So much for the English connection.

Still, my speculation was good for a laugh between us when Russell signed my copy at a book signing. “To Andrew Means,” he wrote, “Thanks for being part of the Means World!”

That sentence has stayed with me. A bureaucratic name change had made me feel a bond with a man and a cause and a culture. Russell was a controversial and combative figure who was both criticized and praised. Still, he helped shape my view of life. Thanks, Russell, for being part of my world!

My favorite memory of Star Trek may well be the “Darmok” episode featuring Captain Picard of the starship Enterprise trying to communicate with an alien called Dathon who talked only in metaphors or similes or sayings of one sort or another.

I can’t even remember the details — just that Jean-Luc had to decipher verbal images that made no literal sense, and eventually did so, thus forging contact with a hitherto unintelligible entity.

In doing so, the good captain illustrated one of the delights of language. A native speaker can talk in riddles that make perfect sense to a native listener and, at the same time, might leave many a new student of the language mystified and perplexed.

For a native speaker though, it may not even matter that a saying or a word has been botched. We know what is meant, whether it’s a malapropism or a misquotation. In fact, such mistakes make our exchanges that much more colorful — especially the vocal kind.

One example that deserves a place in linguistic history emanates from an Arizona judge who, embroiled in career setbacks some years ago, announced to the media that he had a bitter pill to carry. Of course, his plight was generally understood — just as surely as it would have been had he complained of a heavy load to swallow.

Just to show that such pronouncements are not confined to the more rough and ready Western  states, I was recently in conversation with a lady in Boston, Massachusetts, who — sympathizing with an exasperating medical situation — agreed that there were too many cooks in the pot.

There certainly are times when placing a few cooks in a simmering cauldron might be a very appealing idea. A few celebrity chefs spring to mind.

But of course there was no need to dwell on this interpretation of her chosen image. We both knew exactly what she meant, and revision was not required. As she might have said, we had found ourselves between a rock and the deep blue sea. A hard place to be, as only the devil knows.

It is an extraordinary thing to have your life suddenly turned upside down.

In our case it happened with a phone call. One evening my significant other came into my home office and said: “I got the result of the CAT scan. I have cancer. I have mesothelioma.”

In that moment, everything changed. Our plans for the future. Our priorities in the present. Perhaps even our perspective on our 30 years together.

Suddenly nothing mattered more than dealing with this prognosis. This word I could hardly pronounce, that I was not even aware of a few days previously, began to envelop our world. In an unsettling parallel to her medical condition, the very name and notion of mesothelioma invaded daily routine.

Telling friends and relatives was distressing in itself. Bank balances? Credit card debts? Vacation time? Work projects? Forget it. All of it now rendered insignificant. Everything focused on deciding on the best course for treatment.

And when that resulted in a decision to opt for surgery at the International Mesothelioma Program in Boston, then there was a string of logistics to consider. Flights. Accommodation. Housesitter. What to pack. Preparations for surgery. The vagaries of insurance coverage.

My wife is a planner by instinct. She’s the one who, for years, would go to sleep each night scheming about bathroom remodeling and such. Me? I’d just hit the sack and lights out. Now I suspect we both have “mesothelioma” in our minds as we drift off, like it or not.

So we wait during “the phony war” between prognosis and surgery, going over things to do, diverting our thoughts and conversations whenever we can towards non-medical topics.

And, obedient to doctor’s advice, we take a walk every day – something our dogs and I have been trying to get my wife to do for years without much success. In fairness, she’s racked up the miles at work. Still, who’d have thought it would have taken this to get her out on the road?

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