I recently watched the movie Argo. It’s based on the true story of when the US Embassy in Iran was taken over by militants in 1979 and its staff was held hostage for a staggering 444 days. Six embassy staffers escaped to the Canadian Ambassador’s house where they hid until a gutsy CIA operative came up with a hail Mary plan that wouldn’t work in today’s world of cell phones and internet access. Even knowing how it ended, the movie kept me on the edge of my seat. Cleverly edited to include real homeland responses and reaction to the events, it brought back a lot of memories of hearing Walter Cronkite’s gravelly voice announce the mounting tally of hostage days spent in captivity—along with flashbacks of posturing politicians and news people eager to spin the wheel on their daily game of What America Should Do.
There are many moments in the movie that are hilarious to those who know their history, like when a government official claims there’s nothing to worry about; the hostages will be freed in 24 hours or when another one says Carter wants to wait because he’s planning a secret military strike. I choked on my popcorn and Diet Coke on that one, laughing so hard. If you like political thrillers and history, you’ll love this flick.
Thinking back to that time, I left the theater realizing that I was far more politically aware in my younger days. News and world events had an urgency to them that made staying informed, having an opinion, and being involved feel as critical as breathing or eating. It was startling to recognize that for all the world’s brave new instant access via smart phones and the internet, I feel less connected to world events now than back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
It could’ve been due to growing up in Hawaii during a time when film at eleven meant footage deemed too graphic for primetime by most mainland broadcast stations was regularly shown on our 6 pm news. I have vivid memories of the fall of Saigon and of asking my mother what she would do if we were some of the faces locked behind the gates as the helicopters took off and landed on aircraft carriers. I watched, astonished that as soon as the people scrambled out, ducking under the still rotating blades, the helicopters were pushed into the ocean, splash, to make room for the next one to land. When I asked why didn’t they go back, “Not enough fuel or time,” was my mother’s response.
It might’ve had something to do with soldiers and wars seeming very close back then when PTSD Vietnam vets lived rough in the jungle near our house and would come into our yard from the beach to use our outdoor get-the-sand-off-before-even-thinking-about-going-into-the-house cold water shower. One vet in ragged camouflage pants spotted my sister and our teddy bear picnic and collapsed at her feet, weeping silent tears into the grass as he almost, but never quite, reached out to touch her long dark brown hair. That day our mother magically appeared and gently lead us back to the house, locking the door behind us. “He’s just a little sad,” she said, “because of the war,” when we asked why.
Boat People, those brave souls who’d rather take their chances on the open ocean in leaky sampans than risk another day under communist rule, were also more than photos on the news to me. The kind janitor at my mother’s office who always made sure the coffee was hot was once a respected doctor; the gas station jockey who washed our windows and checked the tire pressure used to own a chain of grocery stores.
For a few years, hard news was my life. My days revolved around the evening broadcast, getting it on the air just as the meatloaf was coming out of the oven. If it bleeds, it leads was more than just a joke back then. The bloodiest footage I ever saw was in the raw video feeds uploaded by freelance videographers during the 1980s uprising in the Philippines. When ousted President Marco ended up seeking asylum in Hawaii and living in a house on Kalanianeole highway, the main road from Honolulu to where my family lived, I couldn’t believe it, nor the hours long traffic jams caused by protesters and pro-Marco supporters duking it out in the street. Imelda’s shoe collection was also very real, especially when secret service types routinely hustled everyone out of Liberty House so she and her entourage could shop. No, really. They’d shut down Kahala Mall’s poshest shops so she could get her shoe fix. I saw it more than once.
Growing up, politics and news were regular dinner conversation, opinions tossed back and forth like the salad; my parents seldom agreed back then, and neither gave an inch. Over french fries and Cokes my friends and I debated: women’s rights, the right to choose, affirmative action, regressive taxes, trickle down theories, evolution in schools.
It all mattered greatly back then.
Today, not so much.
Part of the reason it’s taken the backseat could be that I now live out in the country where the biggest concerns tend to be keeping chickens out of the neighbor’s garden and funding a new community rec center; the threat of soldiers marching over the hill seem a lot more remote than they did years ago when I couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a GI or a G-man.
It’s a symptom of my isolationist feelings that I seldom watch the evening news anymore, preferring to read news online or to listen to brief top of the hour newscasts on the radio while playing chauffeur between piano and soccer. When news is reduced to a snappy sound bite or a headline on an IPad, it’s easy to maintain the illusion of being informed without really knowing anything.
If I try to put a date to it, I’d say I stopped caring about news a few years after 9-11, after losing people in the towers and watching the days go from red to orange to yellow to orange alert again. It’s hard work to maintain that kind of immediacy day after day, especially when carpool and the science fair keep rearing their heads.
I’d say my current apathy is less a loss of faith in country and leadership than it is a loss of faith that my opinion or voice really matters. The young and eager believe they can do anything, that the rightness of their vision ensures eventual success, that all effort no matter how small somehow matters. Twitter and Facebook are full of their optimistic rhetoric, but I fear it’s the barricade scene from Les Mis played over and over.
I’ve lived long enough to know that the things you anticipate are never quite what bite you in the butt. It’s what you don’t see, what doesn’t make the headlines, that gets you every time. The sad truth is that now, when I see the passion for news and world events in the younger generation’s eyes, I don’t feel hope or even inspired. I just feel exhausted. I’ve run this marathon before.
Today, I’m blaming my melancholic outlook less on the recent presidential election and memories stirred by Argo and more on the new blanket of snow outside my office window. An island girl needs sunshine, warm weather, and surf to chase away the winter-long blues. Time to see something more like Chasing Mavericks. Maybe then next week’s blog will be sunnier and surfier.