In the New America: A Trippy Essay on U.S. Healthcare, Political Double-Speak and More
I’m invited to tea by a new friend. We go to his apartment, a bright and open space near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a stone’s throw from distilleries and chocolate factories and industrial upholsterers, traders and roasters and shipping companies. Three oranges on the countertop, a wine cooler in the corner. Less novels and far more cookbooks than one would expect. He tells me he is a “darjeeling freak.”
We share two large pots and shift awkwardly in our respective sections of his sectional couch. At some point during the conversation, he tells me about a series of interviews between the Dalai Lama and a psychiatrist. Over the course of the exchange it becomes clear that the psychiatrist is basically asking the Dalai Lama the same question over and over again, but no matter how the Dalai Lama responds to each round of inquiry, the psychiatrist doesn’t seem to get it. One detects a barely perceptible adversarial undertone. Maybe the Dalai Lama was frustrated; it’s reasonable to assume the psychiatrist was. But the Dalai Lama is in the business of the dialectic.
He knows all about repetition. If you sift through Buddhist literature, you find heaps of frustration. Many students wanting to know the answer and many teachers not giving it, or at least not giving it in the way the student wants to hear. So the teacher says it again, in an attempt to catch the student in the liminal space between desiring and receiving, so that perhaps the student hears it anew.
* * *
In the New America, everyone seems to have a strong opinion, a direct and informed perspective, even in the midst of a world rife with rangy vagueness and confusion. But this is a country constantly in the throes of making and remaking itself, hooked between movements forward and backward, all while trying to understand and define the now, even as the now speeds up.
The newness of our time is couched in a quick and unrelenting rhythm of systematic input-output, a sleepless interfacing between internal and external; it is also characterized by investigations into how to force ourselves to slow down. Meditation studios are trending, public schools are budgeting in mindful moments and brain breaks. When asked how he felt after a simple breath-focused meditation practice, a young man answers, Like I have no sense of time.
* * *
I go to my usual salon for a bang trim. When I arrive I am greeted by all the hairdressers, and offered water or green tea. Every hairdresser is Japanese. The woman who cuts my hair wears a loose-fitting white linen top printed with black specks, flared black jeans with a gray-and-black tie-dye detail on the lower third of the leg, and black suede lace-up sandals. It sounds crazy, but she pulls it off. She is precise and agile as she snips – half-inch, she says, showing me a half-inch space between her thumb and forefinger. Here I am again, wanting something new.
Again, I feel sleepy. There is something so soothing about somebody touching your hair. Every time I have my hair cut I spend the first hour or two afterward feeling a bit different, thinking maybe I’ve suddenly become more photogenic, maybe my boyfriend will want to have more sex with me. The newness fades several seconds after seeing someone I know, shortly following any brief acknowledgement of the minor aesthetic adjustment. Again, I am like a well-worn couch with a slightly less worn blanket draped over it.
* * *
If you search the term “New America” you find a website for the “New America think tank and civic enterprise.” Founded in 1999, this think tank faces the challenge of finding the minds and fostering the debates necessary “to guide American renewal in an era of profound, exhilarating, and often threatening change.” This tagline alone conveys a strange tension between acceptance of and resistance to the idea of progress, or progress of a particular variety. New America’s board includes Brigham and Women’s Hospital surgeon Atul Gawande, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and National Review executive editor Reihan Salam.
The CEO of the think tank, Anne-Marie Slaughter, is known in part for her 2015 Atlantic article entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In the New America, nobody can have it all, save for a very slim (and growing slimmer) percentage of the population. But more and more of us can have greater quantities of many things: new phones, new apps, new shoes, new clothing, new fusion cuisines, new hybrid desserts, New Age cures, new objects to occupy our hands when our nervous energy spills over. We want our brand new tools, methods, appliances, conveniences, medications, flavors, and softwares to be fresh and hot yet tried-and-true, tested, vetted, approved.
* * *
I grew up in a fairly homogenous town on Long Island, one without a strong culture of historical awareness or responsibility. Before September 11, 2001, a statue of Thomas Jefferson greeted residents, visitors, and passers-through at the main downtown intersection. He had been sculpted to appear dignified, even regal, with one arm outstretched as if to shake a hand. After 9/11, the city government replaced Jefferson with a monolithic, black-and-gold monument memorializing the World Trade Center and its dead.
On the rare occasion that I go back to my hometown – the place where I was born and raised and have since developed a psychosomatic allergy to – I see that monument and I consider how insidiously ironic it is to have replaced the image of a historical figure guilty of owning hundreds of slaves – without any acknowledgement whatsoever that this is one of the things he was – with a large and imposing object meant to mark an event that has been manipulated for the purpose of othering, oppressing, repressing, incarcerating, and killing hundreds of thousands of people since.
* * *
The New America is striated by exposés and cover-ups, by doublespeak and creative interpretation and think pieces and op-eds and rigorous specificity and fanatical fact-checking and unconscionable hearsay and revolutionary storytelling. We live on a linguistic battlefield, the Mortal Kombat of symbolism. The 45th President of the United States does not see any conflict between his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” and the title of his administration’s 2017 budget proposal, “A New Foundation for American Greatness.”
And perhaps he is right not to distinguish between “new” and “again,” since the new foundations for greatness – the means by which a far-right conservative government can impoverish, disempower, and cripple people living in the New America – so closely resemble the old.
* * *
I am teaching my classes – one, two, three a day at least, sometimes upwards of five. When you ask middle school students why newness is attractive, they say, It’s something different. When it’s new it’s usually better. It’s the style of the new, even if it’s usually based on something that’s already existed. One student says that her father thinks of new things as being created in order to fix a problem. Another student, the child of Tibetan immigrants, says one indication of a New America is the degree to which most people dislike our president. However, he adds, this president makes him wonder, aren’t we going back in time to what we used to do?
* * *
I spend ten minutes gargling with a salvia tincture. After swallowing, I lie still on a mattress on the floor, my hands folded over my belly, a blindfold over my eyes. I stay there for about an hour, watching the kaleidoscope of my mind. I learn things about my emotional landscape, I think about my parents and my brother. At one point an elephant makes a very memorable appearance. Nearly a year later, I email the person who facilitated my salvia trip and ask him what he thinks about the New America. He writes back, “This is all I got, a joke. Q: What comes after USA? A: USB.”
* * *
On my lunch break, I consult my calendar, counting the days since the first day of my last period, relieved to find I still have eleven days before there’s any need to worry. In the New America there is gradually – and then suddenly – diminishing guarantee of access to birth control, maternity and newborn care, general pediatric care (including oral and vision), hospitalization, or ambulance or emergency services. In the New America, my persistent depressive disorder diagnosis does not automatically grant me access to mental health treatment.
The people I see smoking crack in the subway station or doing the heroin lean on the street corner or swigging from brown-bagged bottles outside the local liquor store or popping pharmaceuticals to make it through another day at the office are not necessarily entitled to substance abuse treatment or chronic disease management (in the New America, addiction is less likely to be considered a chronic disease than a facet of criminality). I can pay $99 to spit in a tube and send it back to North Carolina for genetic analysis, but New America considers lab testing for serious conditions to be a personal luxury the government cannot afford to subsidize.
* * *
In the New America, some places of worship are activist centers and immigrant sanctuaries. Some religious leaders are speaking truth to power. The two off-limits topics of conversation at the dinner table, politics and religion, are the only topics of conversation. Every time I hear shouting in the street I brace for a riot.
* * *
I get off the train somewhere in Brooklyn and I walk up the stairs behind a young black woman in pink terrycloth short-shorts and a pink terrycloth zip-up hoodie and a pink baseball cap and white platform shoes. Beside me is a tall, thin white man wearing long denim shorts, a tank top, and a fedora. Behind me is a middle-aged brown man wearing a green kurta and beige sandals, and a middle-aged black woman wearing a sharply cut navy blue skirt suit. Hordes of teenagers stream up and down the stairs, shouting and swearing and insulting one another between bursts of laughter.
At the turnstile a skinny Latino man wearing an oversized gray sweatshirt and baggy stonewashed jeans asks for me for a swipe, but I decline – I have three rides left on my card, $23.72 in my checking account, and at least four days until I get my next check. A white woman dressed in layers of black, with thick black-frame glasses on her face, ferries two small children across a busy street. The little boy rides his scooter through the crosswalk and squawks, HA HA HA. HA HA HA. HA HA HA.
* * *
In the New America and elsewhere, again means to return to a previous condition, to repeat what has already happened. To be new is to not have existed before, to be discovered or introduced. When I was twenty-three, I thought it would be a good idea to get back together with my high school boyfriend, with whom I had been broken up with for approximately two-and-a-half years at that point.
This span of time, I have learned by now, is long enough for dramatic transformations to occur, yet not so dramatic that you are necessarily conscious of the implications of those transformations, if you are conscious of them at all to begin with. What I thought would be a delicious again turned out to be an unpleasant new: my new paranoid depression, his new affinity for beer and whiskey; my new panicked expectations for affectionate gestures, his new refusal to meet those expectations. I discovered new insecurities and depths of selfishness in myself, and new heights of cruelty in him.
That was the year I tried to revert back to a state of adolescent frivolity that is impossible to inhabit after you are in fact no longer an adolescent. There is something so ugly and wrong about the desperate attempt to neglect the responsibilities granted to us through the process of witnessing and experiencing, through the leap from not-seeing to clearly seeing, not-listening to closely listening.
* * *
I’m listening to the radio. I hear men talking about the impact of climate change on national security. Brigadier General Gerald Galloway is saying, “The military, of course, has a battlefield on which they’re going to fight. That battlefield is in constant change. . . We expect to see – the rivers will flow with greater volume, and that will cause problems for river crossings. We see there are problems in the seas. The storms are more intense. We’ll have more frequent storms – all of the sorts of things that make uncertainty reality on the battlefield.”
In the New America, our administration stands with Syria and Nicaragua in an official refusal to make any significant economic or industrial concessions or sacrifices in favor of actively confronting global warming. It is early evening on the third day of Ramadan, sunset is still a few hours away. I think about the centuries-old practice of fasting. I drink kombucha spiked with bourbon from a glass jar, I make a vegetable stir-fry for dinner. I am reading a novel about a Turkish American college student. Beyond the murmurings of the radio, I hear a plane overhead and the whine of ordinary people singing outside.
* * *
The idea of new implies a linear model of time, a straight arrow pointing ahead, with a clearly defined trail of cause and effect in its wake. If one does not frame time as linear, then is it safe to say new cannot occupy the same point on the continuum? Without a new, would there be an again? Without a then, would there be a now?
Nothing in the process of unfolding is unfolding without the weight of everything that has come before or, by some philosophical estimates, of everything that has yet to – but has the potential to – occur. Let’s say time is a sinkhole, a whirlpool, a maelstrom. Let’s say new is one ripple, one undulation, one infinitesimal wave, one imperceptible bump in one in a million currents. Let’s say the same for again. Let’s say the point is to keep kicking, keep swimming; to keep our eyes clear, our lungs breathing, our hearts beating. Let’s say the point is not to drown.
* * *
Not long after November 8, 2016, a woman showed me a Jyotish forecast. She thought it might ease my insomnia-inducing, appetite-suppressing anxiety. It didn’t, but every time I remember Vedic astrologer Tamiko Fischer’s reading of the sky at this particular moment in New American history, I gain new insight. I’ll misquote this, I’m sure (Fischer does not keep an online archive of her forecasts), but let’s see if I can get close.
On the day of the 2016 presidential election, cosmic bodies were positioned in a way that mirrored the celestial arrangement present at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This, Fischer explained, indicates the beginning of a period of terrible difficulty, struggle, and suffering, all of which is bundled into a vast and infinitely complicated karmic reckoning for the sins of our fathers. Karma is neither fatalistic nor romantic.
It’s more like free will conditioned by the laws of cause and effect. It’s the unbound expression of every action having an equal and opposite reaction, the now ruptured by the again, the loop-da-loop of past, present, and future. After reading Fischer’s analysis for the first time, I told anyone who would listen. This means something, is what I was trying to believe. It might feel like we’re stuck or regressing or forlornly plodding along, but we’re going forward – the stars, the planets, the moon all say so.
I repeated this information so many times it became like japa practice, the contemplative repetition of a mantra or divine name. When you do japa you do it silently or aloud but quietly. Sometimes, after many utterances of the same sets of words, it’s the in-between you hear – the cessation of sound, the lapse in intellectual calculation, the abrupt drop down into the liminal space between desiring and receiving.
Written by Melanie Jane Parker
All images from Poolscapes by Karine Laval and from Steidl publishing (2017).