Friday, June 26, 2015

OF TWO MINDS

I titled the book I wrote with my evaluation of what is right with America and what is wrong “NEITHER HERE NOR THERE”, which was a reference to my ambivalence about living as a Dutchman in “the land of plenty”. Was I in the right place or should I have stayed east of the Atlantic Ocean? With a lot of hesitation and many caveats I came down, in my book, on the side of America but the ambivalence remains. My choice had a lot to do with wishful thinking and with the reality that my tribe is now firmly implanted on American soil. The die has been cast, so why look back and second guess?

Am I wishy-washy? Am I too picky, not willing to take the bad with the good? Name me one country that is perfect in every sense? China? Russia? Germany? The Netherlands?

America is undoubtedly a land of enormous contrasts and how well anyone of us fits in, depends largely on where we place on the social ladder and how close we identify with the mainstream in public opinion. Outsiders have a tendency to see only one aspect of America. They either see a fumbling giant getting from one mess into another, incapable of keeping its own house clean, or a nation where the sky is the limit and individual freedom is still revered.

Inside the U.S. there is justifiably a lot of reverence for the past. As of the time of this writing there is a fierce debate about the place and symbolism of the confederate flag. The people who want to see it continue flying from State Capitols in the South revere it mostly because their ancestors were willing to sacrifice their lives for it. They are willing to overlook the fact that, long after the War between de States, the flag also became the symbol of white supremacy and hate crimes. In this debate I will side with those who say that the flag belongs, if anywhere, in a museum and not on the mast with any State Capitol or other public building.

But are we idolizing the past more than justified by the facts? At what time in our history were we better off, as a nation and individually for most of our people, than we are now? And how glorious was our dealing with the slavery issue and our treatment of the native inhabitants of the American continent?

I am of two minds about America, because, while I grew up in a free and sovereign Holland where heartfelt gratitude towards America for its leadership role in fighting Nazism and for the Marshall Plan was the norm, living in America of today I wonder if present day Americans would be willing to make the kind of sacrifices the “greatest generation” made in order to preserve not other peoples’ freedom but the future well-being of their children and grandchildren.

With the baby boomers in charge, the population of America has become materialistic, selfish, greedy and in many respects decadent. The French have an expression for this mindset: “Apr├Ęs moi le deluge” loosely translated as “it will last my lifetime.” In other words, let the future generations clean up the mess we leave behind.

In world affairs America looks and acts like a paper tiger, incapable of changing the paradigm in the dominant foreign policy issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fight against militant Islam and the relationship with China and Russia in its favor. In the meantime it has wasted energy, lives and trillions of dollars in ill begotten military expeditions, which have rendered the opposite result of America’s engagement in the two World Wars of the 20th century: instead of gratefulness and admiration, hatefulness and disdain.

So, while I recognize the American legacy as well as its unrivaled potential for the future, I am dumbfounded by the divisiveness permeating the American society and the lack of fury about the sordid under-performance of a nation that is still the envy of the world. I feel like a parent who loves his child dearly but is sorely disappointed with the report cards it brings home.

I am not the only one who is of two minds. In America today, we can’t agree on anything. We are so polarized by the two party system—and their proxies in the media—that all of our myopic focus is on ideology and petty turf wars like the ones being fought about the Affordable Care Act, minimum wage and gay marriage.

The real issues that challenge our future, like the national debt, infrastructure investment, cyber security, tax reform, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, tort reform and the funding of our entitlement programs, remain unaddressed. We allow inequality to grow to extreme proportions and social mobility to become a thing of the past. A big miss in the American system of today is that there is no national strategic agenda and no constitutional mandate to have one. Although there are reasons for the public sector to be governed different from the private sector, there is no reason not to adopt the best business disciplines in public governance. One of those should be the articulation of a national strategy, followed by a determination of the resources required to implement the strategy and finally by a determination of changes in the tax code required to provide the necessary funding. As it is, America puts the cart before the horse: it hangs on to an antiquated and inadequate tax system and then tries unsuccessfully to live within its means, with the inevitable result that the national debt keeps growing even while nothing of lasting importance gets done.


America needs a unifying principle. A rallying cry that makes the people overlook their petty differences and work together on making America great again and living up to its God given potential. When America becomes of one mind, than so will I.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

BEND IN THE ROAD

It happened the day after Christie’s 70th birthday, which could easily have been her last. We were coming off a fantastic long weekend with all the kids and grandkids for a big birthday bash at the Wintergreen resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and we were heading out to Mt. Vernon, IL to see our Dutch friends the Heijnen’s.

The trip would take us all along I-64 for some 650 miles and we had just passed Charleston West Virginia, when, at a bend in the road, our car doggedly and of its own volition veered to the left, while the interstate was bending right. That does not work. Something would have to give. It was our car. We ran sideways into the concrete barrier that formed the median in that section of the highway and, after some serious scratching and scraping, bounced back from there into the left lane that we had been driving in. The side airbag deployed. While this was happening we saw a complete wheel rolling ahead and away from us, all by itself and nicely following the curve in the road. We also saw cars coming by, swerving to avoid running into the wayward wheel.

The irony was that Christie was at the wheel of my car. That hardly ever happens, because I hate to be in the passenger seat, particularly on long distance trips. But this time I offered the birthday girl a turn at the wheel to give me a break on what was to be a ten hour ride. So, it befall on her to get us out of a real pickle and keep us safe from further irreparable harm. Using her wits, eyes, and judgment she got our heavily injured three wheeler across the inside lane(s) and onto the emergency lane, where we came to a full stop. We must have had an angel on our shoulder guiding us, because with the benefit of hindsight it looks quite miraculous that it remained a single car accident and that the cars coming up from behind were able to avoid us. Our good fortune was helped somewhat by being in a stretch with a 60 mile speed limit; Christie observes all speed limits.

I grab my pen (keyboard) to write about this, because, on reflection, I learned a thing or two from this incident. The biggest take away for me is that in a situation like this things happen so fast that it is hard to reconstruct, after the fact, the sequence of events and circumstances with a high degree of certainty and reliability. I was witness to everything but missed quite a few crucial observations. I was keenly aware that we were suddenly veering off course and I know that I yelled out at Christie “what the hell are you doing?” I looked at her, wondering if she had dozed off or fainted, and saw that she was open eyed desperately, but without success, trying to keep the car from bumping the concrete barrier. I can’t say for sure if we saw the wheel running away from us before or after the impact with the wall, but I have to believe that it was the wheel separating from the axle, and not anything Christie did, that caused the car to veer left. It was the left front wheel that came off and that would cause the car to steer left.
Nor can I say for sure if I-64 at the point of the accident is a two or three lane highway (plus an emergency lane) and how many lanes we had to cross to get to safety. Christie says it was a three lane highway at the point of the accident. 

More crucially, I could not witness to the traffic situation around us. There must have been vehicles around us, because, as I followed the errant wheel running away from us, I saw several cars (that must have come up from behind us) swerving to avoid hitting it. Christie tells me that with the use of her mirrors she was able to assess that she could make it over to the emergency lane. How she did it on three wheels is still a mystery to me. It did not take more than a few seconds.

I have always heard that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and I can now better understand why that may be the case. In a traumatic situation that comes out of the blue one can only register so much, while preoccupied with self-preservation. In our case, I think that no more than five seconds passed between the moment that the car hit the barrier and the moment that we were in the emergency lane. I do not remember doing or saying anything to help the situation in that interval. We sat for quite a while motionless in our seats after we had come to a standstill, looking at each other and assessing if we were unscathed. I had trouble locating and activating the car’s emergency signal lights. Not rationally, I first texted the Heijnens that we would not be coming, before I used my phone to call the emergency services. With that done, I first called 511 (having seen road signs for that number) but found out that it would not get us the help we needed. Then 911 which worked better, except that I could not see any road signs or markers to tell them where exactly along I-64 West we were. I had to walk back a hundred yards to be able to read an exit sign on the East bound lane. We were near Nitro, WV. It took about 15 minutes for deputy officer K.B. Daugherty of the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office to find us. In the meantime a Good Samaritan in a white van had stopped behind us and was offering assistance. He went in search of the errant wheel, found it a quarter mile away in the berm and rolled it back to the car. It showed that the five spokes of the aluminum wheel assembly had all sheared off through the middle. The center of the wheel assembly was still firmly bolted to the axle. It is a scary thought that this can happen with a well maintained vehicle. Are Cleveland potholes to blame?

The deputy officer took charge. He could not have been more supportive and reassuring. He arranged for a wrecker to pick up the vehicle, took pictures of the damage to the car and offered to drive us to the nearest Enterprise office so that we could rent a car. The only time we have ever taken a ride in the back of a police cruiser!

For me this was now the second time that I escaped with my life from a car accident in the fast lane of an interstate highway. The first time in 1972 when, as a passenger in the back of my boss’ company car, we were rear-ended on the ring way around Antwerp, Belgium when the driver hit the brakes after realizing that he was about to miss the right exit we were supposed to take. If these accidents happen with 43 year intervals, I’ll escape from experiencing this for a third time.

I thank God and Christie for keeping me alive a little longer.

The incidents make me think of Robert Frost’s:” I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”