A Yankee notebook: Stuck again in the same old problems


For the Valley News

Published: 11-26-2023 4:32 PM

I’ve never been to Punxsutawney, Pa., and have, in fact, no desire ever to go there. Besides, as I listen to today’s news, I feel that we’re there, all of us, trapped in the film “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray, experiencing the same day, over and over, and feeling unable to change anything about it, even though we know what’s coming.

I can’t recall where or when I first came across the name of the town. Most likely it was in one of the annual news items about that poor groundhog, roused from his torpor to display to the frivolous nation what the weather holds in store for the coming weeks. Being a bit of a spelling crank, I’m sure I spent at least a couple of minutes committing it to memory.

This stood me in good stead once in the fall of 1961, when I was working as a ticket clerk and factotum in the sleepy, but busy (not, in this case, a contradiction) local bus station in Wooster, Ohio. One evening, just as the Akron-bound Greyhound pulled in, all hustle and bustle, a little old lady stood at the head of the line of travelers at my ticket window and ordered a multiple-day excursion ticket with stopovers in about a dozen cities and ending in — you guessed it! — Punxsutawney.

Each segment of the ticket required writing out, besides that day’s city, the ultimate destination. I think my ball-point pen was smoking before I was finished — I know the bus driver was — and you can bet I’ve never forgotten how to spell it.

What’s brought up this memory has been watching the news. I don’t use the word, “lately,” because it never seems to change. When my grandparents were young, we were fighting with Spain and Native Americans; when my parents were young, our doughboys were fighting in France and Belgium; when I was young, our GIs were dying by the thousands to defeat the Axis powers; my kids were born during the early days of our attempt to stymie Communism in Vietnam. And now we’re spread all over the globe “defending freedom.” Except that here at home, in the very seat of our republic and on the Internet, we’re going at each other hammer and tongs and our leading presidential candidate is threatening that, if elected, he will exercise unprecedented autonomy. We’re stuck in a perpetual Second of February, forever repeating today.

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My wife and I were married for almost 60 years. The year we married, the Beach Boys hit the charts with “The Merry Minuet,” describing the state of the world and its end: “The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles....Man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud....What Nature doesn’t do to us will be done by our fellow man.”

In the midst of what feels like radical change almost everywhere, it seems as if we’re going nowhere, spinning our wheels, and have become accustomed to violence and distrust of each other. As another line in “Merry Minuet” has it, “Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, and I don’t like anybody very much.”

There seems little doubt that, as long as elected leaders and parties move to consolidate their power, democracy is under threat. There is little doubt that, reading the daily diatribes that pass for argument on the Internet, many of us in this democracy would like to just make those who disagree with us (I almost typed “enemies”) disappear somehow and be reduced to silent impotence. There seems to be no recognition of the fact that conflict keeps us sharp. I often joke — though it’s not really funny — that marriage, with its spousal checks on our sometimes nutty ideas, keeps us from acting them out and becoming nuts.

That may be the nub of it. Can it be that we’ve grown impatient with the most important feature of democratic government, which is compromise? The word, let alone the practice, seems to be a disqualifying trait in many circles. We’re supposed to have learned it from our elders, in our homes or schools, by the time we’ve reached middle school; but the most successful pedagogues of our day incite and consolidate their followers with fears of the “others” and promising to wipe them out.

A fitting theme song for democracy might be another oldie, the Rolling Stones’ 1969 hit, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” You may remember it ends, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, well, you might just find/ You get what you need.” That’s the way things ought to end.