Well, I’ve been reading that trope about 2016 occasionally over the past week or so in various posts. A New York Times editorial ran a piece on it that actually was level-headed. The Washington Post ran a much better piece that points out some hard truths about history and what a “worst” year really constitutes. (The writer of that piece, Max Roser, seems like a pretty interesting character well worth reading up on.) The Post liked where they were going so much that they did it twice.
I’ve always been more interested in personal experience, i.e., I have a hard time with people carrying on about the state of the world, generally because I recognize that they’re pouting because things beyond their control aren’t going their way. Shit, that’s the nature of the universe. Get used to it. Or don’t.
My short list of things that would constitute a “bad year”: your physical health failing (either radically, like cancer, or even something more routine, like a broken arm), your mental health failing, an immediate family member dying or suffering from failing health, a friend dying or suffering from failing health, a pet dying or suffering from failing health, a relationship disintegrating (be it a marriage, long-term friendship, familial relation), losing one’s source of financial income, having one’s source of financial income become intolerably stressful and/or negative, losing one’s home through fire, natural disaster, accident, financial failure, becoming a victim of a violent felony criminal, becoming incarcerated or otherwise forfeiting your personal freedom … you getting the picture?
And even when these awful things do happen … how do you respond? I look back over the past decade or so and can check off a few of these things on that short list of misery. You can wander back through my posts and see how I handled each. Which is to say I’d rather examine these things and put them in the context of my overall life, and the world in general. Because that’s reality. My problems matter to me. Maybe by seeing this, you can divine some type of empathy and grasp that we all suffer from these universal hard truths of life, sooner or later. Do I belabor the points? Sure, but I try not to. When bad shit happens, you tend to dwell on it for awhile. How you dwell is a mark of how you see the world.
I’m supposed to feel bad because David Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Carrie Fisher are dead? Well, I don’t. And let’s face it, when you talk about celebrity deaths this year, it always seems to come back to these four people and no one else. Poor Glenn Frey … even in death, everyone is still convinced he was a massive jerk who shouldn’t be on this level. To me, that’s the most humane realization I’ve seen about celebrity deaths: that even in death, this person was so real, so obviously complicated, that it makes more sense not to think about him because doing so might inspire negative emotions. That’s humanity! That’s who we are! God bless Glenn Frey! (Fuck him, too, the nasty little prick.)
I gather there’s a few things at play when a cliché like “worst year ever” is thrown into play. The worst aspect is the word “ever”: one of those crappy internet words that’s used constantly in post and headline titles to underline the writer’s and/or editor’s insecurity. Like “awesome.” Like “epic.” Like “like.” One of those loaded words that when you hear someone utter it … you just know the person is full of shit. They’re over-compensating for lack of … talent? Common sense? Intelligence? You tell me; I don’t care.
It seems like the larger aspect is that one’s supposed to feel a connection between his personal life and the world at large, the “personal” becoming “political, “ etc. After a few decades of being around people like this all the time in NYC, I’m just not buying it. Nor would I be buying it if I was around a bunch of staunch conservatives in the Midwest. I don’t feel connected to anything via politics: if I’m being honest, I never have. I never will. It’s a game for con artists and sociopaths. That’s the great failing of my lifetime, which spans the 60’s through now: that politics has turned into professional wrestling, nothing more or less. (I put a lot more stock in socio-economics. Want to get a play on me? I have just enough money to feel minor comfort, and not enough to feel extremely distrustful. That tells you more about me than any political shadings and rantings ever will.)
How do I feel connected to the world at large? Here’s a good example.
I had no idea this was happening, but back when Mom and Dad were alive, I would “borrow” Mom’s car every time I visited them in Pennsylvania. From 1988 up through their passings in 2004 and 2013. At some point in the late 90’s, Dad bought Mom a used Chevy Cavalier, I think it was 1994 … at the time, a reasonable purchase, a car a few years out of date and in pretty good shape.
Well, Mom never got another car. My siblings implored her, Mom, that Cavalier is getting old, why not buy yourself a new car for once in your life? She wouldn’t. In her mind, it made more sense for her to make-do with a nondescript used car than to spend money on a new one. That way, she’d have more money to leave her kids when she passed on, which mattered much more to her.
But something was quietly happening all those years, with my going back there and using her car to get around. I never thought to question what would happen if I wrecked the car. I knew I hadn’t done anything to get insured; I simply assumed Mom had the situation covered, and it was no big deal. As I drove so comparatively little, it didn't seem like a burning issue.
When Mom passed on, she willed the car to me, which was fine: all I needed was wheels to get me around while I was back there. When I came back for Christmas that year after Mom passed, I stopped in with her insurance agent who told me I could get a very lightweight insurance predicated on the concept that I’d be driving the car back in Pennsylvania (and not in New York, where insurance is much more of an ordeal).
This happened, for something like $380/year, which I was glad to pay just so I could have a car to get around in while visiting. Flash forward two years. I sold Mom’s car to a friend whose son was in dire need of a car to get to work: any car, even a 20-year-old junker. (That insurance agent, who Mom thought the world of, was a bit of a prick during the transaction, suggesting that I charge her Blue Book value, which was outrageous. I charged her $200, like I said I would, as a favor, and not worried that the state was going to track us down to pay Blue Book value taxes on the transaction. They never did.)
I bought my brother’s much more amenable Toyota Corolla as he decided to buy a new car. Almost immediately the insurance company started harassing me via mail, convinced that I was chiseling them by driving the car in New York on Pennsylvania insurance. I wasn’t. The car stayed there. I can’t imagine driving a car in New York City; it looks like a nightmare to me. Want no part of it. But I guess for every person like me … there probably are thousands of customers claiming Pennsylvania’s much cheaper insurance while driving in New York or some other less car friendly urban environment. It reached the point where I was going to physically attack anyone from that insurance company if they showed up at the door: I was on the way out with them and would be uninsured shortly.
So my sister made the nice offer of putting me up on her insurance policy the same way Mom had. This past Christmas break I got back there, and on one of her lunch hours we went over to a local notary to transfer title and update her insurance.
And it’s one of those surreal smalltown experiences. An elderly, wise-cracking woman, like so many rural notaries, working out of a small office in the front of her house. I could see the burnished dark wood and wall hangings through the living-room entrance, the carpeting and leather sofa, the cuckoo clock, family pictures. A dog started barking, ran up and parked his front paws on my lap, a scrappy little rat terrier named Frank Lloyd Wright. This is how you get a document notarized in rural PA!
We learned from the insurance agent over the phone that my sister’s insurance would go up $300 annually by having me on her plan for the Corolla, which she’ll now own. And it hit me right then … this is what Mom and Dad were quietly doing all those years, paying out that money because I was their son, and they were glad to have me come home to visit. I suspect even if I had been fully aware of this and mentioned it while they were alive, they would have blown it off and told me never to mention it again. As it is, I’ll be paying my sister close to $100 less than where I was headed with the previous insurance company. It was both a learning moment and a time of quiet reflection, like so many I’ve had in the past few years.
When people ask me what kind of year I had … I don’t think Donald Trump, or David Bowie, or race relations, or exploding smartphones, or refugees, or cyber security, or terrorists. I think of situations like this, which are legion in our lives, and piece them together over the course of days and months. No truly awful situations went down – as they surely have in certain years in the near past – so I don’t feel myself struggling and learning how to live with major, life-altering issues. I’ve been doing that. Quite well, too, gleaning whatever unwanted wisdom I can from whatever shit sandwich life has force-fed me.
The worst year you’ll ever have will be the one in which you drop dead. You’re living wrong if you see it otherwise.