Great Dashed Expectations
(not dedicated to Charles Dickens)
It’s been said we live in an age of diminished expectations. Heck, just growing up requires navigating the rapids of shattered dreams. I remember finally getting my first cowboy hat. Now I’d look just like Shane or John Wayne. My mother handed me this black flat-brimmed hat. Hanging from the brim at intervals of an inch or so, were black tassels, each with a little black fuzzy ball on the end. I looked at it in stunned disbelief. What the hell was that? I wouldn’t have to shoot Black Bart at all. When he saw this hat, he’d die of laughter. That hat got lost real fast.
When I was in middle school — this was in the 1950s — we were told the atom was our friend, and that nuclear energy would make electricity too cheap to even meter. Obviously, that didn’t happen. We never got those jet packs and flying cars, either, though that’s probably just as well. In the 1970s we were told the Alaskan Pipeline would make gasoline really cheap. Another lie. So the lesson even then was, don’t get your hopes up.
We jump forward to June 17, 1994. America was hosting its first ever World Cup. The inaugural match would be played in New York City between Italy and Ireland, guaranteeing a packed stadium. I’ve always been a huge soccer fan, Italy was my favorite team, and I’m half Irish, so I was really keyed up. And here let me introduce a new word that entered the American lexicon last year — anticipointment. The match hadn’t gone ten minutes when BREAKING NEWS interrupted it. O.J. Simpson, in a white Bronco driven by his friend Al Cowlings, was fleeing the law to avoid arrest for suspicion of murder. It was driving along the L.A. freeway, pursued by at least a million police cars. Hey! Get this shit out of here! After what seemed like an eternity, the match coverage resumed, but up in the upper left corner there was that damned Bronco, driving along, driving along. It went on long after the match had ended. Months later came the verdict, after a three-ring-circus trial. Everyone was sure he did it, but he was acquitted.
Alright, I didn’t promise you trivial dashed expectations, but great ones. Staying with the world’s game, Brazil recently hosted the World Cup. You should know that Brazil and soccer are nearly synonymous; they’ve won the Cup more than any other country. They were playing Germany in the Semi-Final, and the stadium was packed with hysterical fans, doing the samba, expecting another wonderful victory. They were also in complete denial that this team wasn’t one of their best. We are Brazil. We are hosting the World Cup, therefore we will win. That bubble was burst soon enough, as the Germans scored four goals in six minutes to lead 5-0, and it was still the first half! The cameras panned to faces in the crowd, wide-eyed in shock, and soon with flowing tears. One particular shot really stuck with me. It was an old man in a hat, clutching a replica of the golden World Cup trophy to his cheek, and he was weeping. He looked just like that Greek mask of tragedy. The final score was Germany 7, Brazil 1. I was thinking, now they know what Poland must have felt like in September, 1939. What, too soon?
We can be pretty sure that on June 25, 1876, when General George Armstrong Custer and his 264 soldiers were chasing that band of Indians down a draw near the Little Bighorn River, he had the greatest expectation of another easy win for his cavalry, and another bullet point (pardon the expression) in the resume for his presidential ambitions. At some point in all this excitement they became aware that they’d entered a trap and were surrounded by thousands of Sioux warriors, who quickly took care of business. I can imagine that after this great battle, many Sioux expected that now maybe the white man would finally leave them alone. Well, the Buddhists like to say that disillusionment is the path to enlightenment. An old friend, who also happens to be my webmaster, once told me that when you break down the word, it means the end of illusion. That’s good, right?
When the United States invaded Iraq in March, 2003, we were told the whole thing would be over in a few weeks. Hell, we’d even be greeted as liberators, with rose petals thrown at our feet and unicorns farting out rainbows. I doubt many Iraqis are grateful. Just a little aside, here: did you know the original name for the invasion was Operation Iraqi Liberation? Someone noticed the unfortunate acronym and changed the last word to Freedom.
Nov. 4, 2008, was one of the happiest days of my life. Barack Obama had just been elected as the first black President of the United States. I watched television coverage of the crowd at Grant Park in his home town of Chicago; even The Oprah was there. We were all crying tears of joy. The Saviour had arrived, and he would restore our floundering democracy. I’m not blaming him for everything that’s happened since then, as he’s had to face unprecedented obstructionism. But in my nearly seventy years, he has been one of the greatest disappointments of my life, especially when it comes to civil liberties.
The half of me that isn’t Irish is Swedish. I like to tell people that genetically, I’m the product of a Viking raid on the coast of Ireland. Like the Irish, the Swedes have a proud history of their own, and I’d like to share with you one of the great moments in that history, or what should have been one of the greatest moments. It was 1628, and the Swedes were a major player back then, controlling most of the Baltic coast. It was during the Thirty Years War, and they were currently fighting the Poles and Lithuanians. King Gustavus Adolphus wanted the biggest, bad-ass ship ever built, to aid in the Polish campaign. She was named the Vasa, after a noble Swedish dynasty. Gustavus Adolphus? Hey, they were in our conference when I was in college. Well, it was Minnesota.
She was the wonder of the age, the largest warship ever constructed up to that date; 225 feet long, 38 feet wide, with 13,720 square feet of sail. Two gun decks held a total of 64 cannon, of which 48 were 24-pounders — really big guns. She could carry 300 soldiers along with a crew of 145. Brightly painted and richly ornamented with gold leaf, over 500 sculptures of kings, gods, mermaids, tritons, and other fanciful creatures filled every open space. She had tested a little unsteady, but the King wanted her in Poland yesterday, so off she went. August 10th was a beautiful sunny day, with only a hint of breeze, and she set off on her maiden voyage from Stockholm harbor, her decks crammed with nobles and dignitaries, while thousands watched from shore. This would be the glory of my people. After only 1000 meters or so a gust of wind filled her sails. She heeled over, water rushed in through the gun ports, and she sank like a stone, to the horror of all. Their faces must have looked like those Brazilians at the World Cup. There she lay at the bottom of the drink for 333 years. In 1961 she was raised, restored, and now adorns the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. She’s still a beautiful lady, you just can’t take her anywhere.
Over a hundred years ago a social scientist named Thorsten Veblen wrote that revolutions don’t come from the poor, they’re too busy trying to find something to eat. They happen when the middle class, expecting a better life than the generation before it, realizes that it’s not going to happen. The American Dream has always been that each would do better than the preceding one. Right now we have a generation of young people graduating from college, most of them $50,000 or more in debt, and the only jobs for them are do you want fries with that. Beware, oligarchs, the pitchforks may be coming for you sooner than you think. You’d better hope they have nothing else than pitchforks.
The Buddhists teach us that expectation is a trap, and always leads to disappointment. Hopes and dreams are fine, we all need them, but to expect some outcome almost rings of entitlement, doesn’t it? My philosophy for most of my life has been to always expect the very worst, while hoping for the best. That may sound cynical, but let me tell you a little secret I discovered: if you always expect the worst you’ll never be disappointed.