I was either falling asleep or slowly waking up when I found myself thinking how isolated I have usually been from events that created what we call history. I was born just after American involvement in the Second World War began— my parents married on Valentine's Day 1942 and I was born nine months and two days later while my father was serving in the U. S. Marines. He was absent for the war's duration; I first met him, briefly, after I turned one, and I was three when he came home for good. The war had no other impact on me. Throughout the Korean war, I was in elementary school and, except for school air raid drills that taught us to cower in the halls or cower under our desks and glimpses of news programs my father watched or newspaper front pages I didn't read, I focused on tv westerns and superhero comic books. In the sixties I was aware of the Communist presence in Cuba and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King and the expansion of the Vietnam War, but I was either in college, concentrating on literature and creative writing, or later teaching high school English among older teachers who were WWII vets. I was relieved to have evaded the draft and though I urged students to avoid military service, I persistently stuck to the curriculum.
Race issues around the country had come up one day when college classmates and I drove into Rochester to tour riot sites, but I barely interacted with any African Americans except for a few older college students. What generated headlines and televised news could have happened anywhere in the world except where I was teaching or studying. I mimicked my parents' and grandparents' values and generally disapproved of war and racism just as I disapproved of murder and rape and crime in general. I felt that by being law-abiding and generally ethical, I was sufficient in my citizenship and in my—what can I call it?—righteousness.
No particular political or moral motivation justified my remoteness from the world's dilemmas. I was a small town-boy interested in books and at first radio programs and then television shows and continually movies, and I was continually preoccupied with personal interests—reading voluminously, constantly writing about something or other, living inside my own head rather than venturing out much into the world or taking up causes. Only occasionally did I acknowledge having an opinion about something, one I made up on the spot if asked about it since I probably didn't already have one handy. I primarily focused on my teaching and concentrated on classroom interactions with students (though I did occasionally reveal an opposition to the Vietnam conflict). I had a few friends for awhile, once in a while, people much like me—academic, aesthetic, personally responsible, though probably less self-absorbed. I mostly concentrated on the work I did professionally or the creative projects that preoccupied me—that is, when I worked professionally or was creatively preoccupied.
At the moment, I'm aware of how much the pandemic life I've been living is like my adolescent life and the habitual tendency toward self-isolation that followed it. And yet the world seems now more present in my life than it would have been decades ago. We can't seem to avoid encountering the most persistently intrusive elements of the times we live in. The library where I write has strict regulations about face masks and nobody enters without one. That's also true of the people delivering curbside orders to my open car trunk. For two years now I've parked weekly in the exact same spots in those stores' parking lots. Most of my communication with family and friends has been through the internet: online mail, online conversations, Facetime chatting, Zoom calls. It seems now as if my sense of isolation is less something I thoughtlessly accepted in myself and more something being imposed on me, on us, on everyone I know, something we can't avoid and are constantly being reminded of.
And then there's Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the almost universal disapproval of it, the Ukrainian flag posted everywhere, Ukraine's president's eloquent address to the world, the threat of nuclear war, as if the last two years hadn't had enough deaths across the planet. Now my grandchildren may be living through a time more fearsome and more ominously present on a wider scale than I was present for decades ago, when I was at their ages, during the last World War and through continual Asian "conflicts." It is less likely that they'll be able to ignore or overlook the current war as it escalates—less likely that they'll develop a sense of isolation from the events decimating the world.