My father liked to make predictions. He would pace the kitchen floor when I was a kid and opine about the changing world. I was held captive (if not captivated) by his windy forecasts of what was coming. He was right about a lot of things. That’s not easy for a son to say sometimes, […]

My father liked to make predictions. He would pace the kitchen floor when I was a kid and opine about the changing world. I was held captive (if not captivated) by his windy forecasts of what was coming.

He was right about a lot of things. That’s not easy for a son to say sometimes, that his father was right. But looking back, I admit, the man had some vision.

He said, for instance, that Wisconsin one day would be coveted as a green haven, cool and clean. Very true. As global warming melts the Sun Belt, our North Woods will become a retirement oasis for migrating baby boomers looking for a place to park their deck chairs.

He also said Milwaukee and Chicago would merge into one giant megalopolis. That’s now obvious. The Census Bureau lumps Kenosha in with the Chicago metro area, and the route south on I-94 is nearly an unbroken string of development.

My father was fascinated by technology. Long before TV remotes and mute buttons, he designed a gadget that switched off the sound to the television. He foresaw cars that would navigate the highway totally by auto pilot, and knew that personal computers would revolutionize the planet. And he strongly believed that a single pill eventually would take the place of a five-course meal. (This could have been a commentary on my mother’s cooking, I don’t know, but my taste buds are thankful he was wrong.)

For much of his life, that’s how he viewed things, with an eye always on the future, hopeful of changes he would never live to see.

But something happened as he grew older. His optimism dimmed and his predictions turned pessimistic. “The world’s going to the dogs,” he would grumble, and a middle-age disillusionment took hold.

His views of politics and government especially began to sour. Long before 9/11, he believed Big Brother would start limiting our travel in order to keep an eye on us. I thought he sounded paranoid at the time, but in retrospect, his claim was prescient. Nowhere can we move around today without a security camera staring us down. And you now need a photo ID to cross the U.S.-Canadian border.

As people began to neglect the natural environment, he saw the coming of virtual reality as a substitute for good old-fashioned outdoor fun. And sure enough, today we opt for indoor water parks rather than the waters of Lake Michigan and practice our golf swings and tennis serves with a device called the Wii.

The wheel has turned. That same middle-age disillusionment is now nagging at me. Twenty years after my father’s death, I look around with a little regret at some of the things that have changed, and some that have refused to budge.

Jobs are harder than ever to find in the central city, and many Americans still can’t afford to take their kids to the doctor when they’re sick. Keeping our water clean and plentiful is more challenging than ever. We haven’t gotten very far on sending manned (or wo-manned) rocket ships across the solar system, or on filling potholes, for that matter. And we just can’t seem to figure out how to settle disagreements without killing each other, as demonstrated sadly by our latest war, now longer in duration than World War II.

Yet we’ve seen some amazing changes, things that were beyond the realm of possibility two decades ago. My father never would have anticipated the day when, with the push of a button on a keyboard, you could order a pizza, find a date, or send a home movie instantaneously to people anywhere on Earth. Science and technology have advanced at head-spinning speeds. With a simple DNA sample taken from the inside of the cheek, scientists can track a person’s ancestral roots. Cars can run on french fry oil. Tiny robots can roam our GI tracts searching for disease. Transplanting body parts – a hip joint here, a kidney there – my father could understand, but silicon breasts and penile implants, I can’t be sure.

Pop culture he just couldn’t fathom. Women with tattoos and men with nose rings? He probably would have shrugged and blamed it on the Beatles (his scapegoat once upon a time for everything from the demise of the necktie to the ’72 Democratic nomination of George McGovern.)

In his last year, leading up to the 1988 election, my father predicted that George Herbert Walker Bush would make a good president. The prediction is particularly clairvoyant when compared to his son’s performance.

But unimaginable to my father would have been this year’s sundry lineup of presidential candidates – a decorated Vietnam vet, an ordained Baptist minister, a Mormon, a Hispanic.

And never would he have foreseen a woman and a black man running as a political party’s top choices.

Far from what he called “the same old-same old” of American politics, it’s become the new narrative, the perfect antidote to disillusionment – and a hopeful sign that maybe we’ve made a little progress after all.

 

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