I couldn’t believe what my phone had just told me. It was on the floor below, and I was up on a ladder, vacuuming century-old ceiling joists in the house my wife and I are renovating. I was stewing over Donald Trump's latest insane pronouncement. I flipped from equanimity to rage.
“The world is going to hell,” I yelled, the vacuum roaring, the ladder swaying, “and I’m sucking up bird feathers!”
How is it possible to be an ordinary citizen in extraordinary times?
Like a lot of everyday people, I once had ambitions to be a change-maker on some political stage, to somehow be an influence for good. I once practiced stump-style sound bites in the shower. I still have great ideas for campaign music, like Joan Jett’s cover of, yes, “Everyday People.”
During Bill Clinton’s first White House run, I met Hillary. As county co-chair for the Clinton-Gore campaign in Kansas, I had ponied up $250 for a fundraiser luncheon in Topeka. I asked her about the link between lifelong learning and good jobs. I swear she locked eyes with me for five minutes. I don’t remember what she said, but someone at the table muttered, “She should be running.”
Here’s the embarrassing part. A smug, busy-bee enviro, I had concerns about her husband’s seeming indifference to climate change. As the ballroom emptied I said hello and tried to give her a copy of Bill McKibben’s bestseller “The End of Nature.” She kept eating her cold chicken. An aide took the book. Climate politics weren’t going to be changed by my proselytizing. Of course. The memory actually haunts me. Even politicians, I later realized, can’t be as bold as the future demands.
Having given up on seeking elected office or persuading politicians one on one, and now only a sometime activist, I still obsess about how to make a difference, especially during this season of tiny thoughts writ large by a man who long ago fired his prefrontal cortex.
Do I need to scream at Politico every day? No. Do I need to watch funny-sad Trevor Noah clips at 10 p.m.? No. I simply must cut back on the summer polls I drink up like soda, all the AP fact checks, all the outraged tweets. I need to keep my blood pressure under control.
No more network TV (except for the debates, sure). Any time Trump is on the car radio, I will play Miranda Lambert instead. I will abide by my just-conceived 5/5 rule. No more than five news stories a day on the election and nothing after 5 p.m. I’ve ordered American-made Hillary merch, volunteered to volunteer, made a donation. All good.
I know freaking out doesn’t help. Yelling into the void doesn’t help. Neither do sleepless nights or nearly falling off a ladder. (My wife would have found my crumpled body, the phone nearby connected to Reuters.)
Just because, as a poet once wrote, “the pure products of America go crazy,” we don’t have to. We don’t have to be extraordinary to fight back. We can be, as we are, extra ordinary, living our lives — renovating houses, registering voters, dropping off supplies at the neighborhood homeless shelter, coaching kids on the field, helping a friend, learning to do better, casting our votes. We need to do what we can as calmly as we can where we can for as long as we can.
I shut down the vac, descended, turned off the phone and put it on the kitchen table. Then I steadied the ladder and climbed back up. Only a few more ceiling joists to go.
Christopher Cokinos lives in Tucson, where he is a professor of English at the University of Arizona.