Piece by piece, puzzling over a nation in crisis

America, covering windows with plywood in case of riots while piloting a helicopter on Mars.

SHARE Piece by piece, puzzling over a nation in crisis
Demonstrators during a clash with police at a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Wright, a Black man whose car was stopped in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on Sunday, not far from where George Floyd was killed last May, was shot and killed by police.

Demonstrators during a clash with police in Portland, Oregon on Monday. They were protesting the killing in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on Sunday of Daunte Wright, a Black man whose car was stopped not far from where George Floyd was killed last May, was shot and killed by police.

Nathan Howard, Getty

A strange time to be an explainer, someone who’s in the put-the-pieces-together-to-see-the-big-picture business.

These days the pieces just won’t go together. It’s as if someone dumped the 500-piece Dogs Playing Poker puzzle and the 1,000-piece Yosemite at Dusk puzzle and the 2,000-piece Grandma’s China Cabinet puzzle, mixed them all together in the center of the table and said, “Here, figure out THIS!”

Are we the nation where cities like Chicago park salt trucks strategically, preparing to block off streets during the next, almost inevitable, chaotic social disorder? Or a nation about to fly a helicopter on Mars? We seem to be both, but those two pieces sure don’t mesh easily.

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Are we a nation of honed sensitivities, where people are free to manifest themselves and announce on their emails which personal pronouns they prefer?

Or where popular TV pundits vomit up patently bigoted “replacement theory” poison in prime time, calmly explaining that every immigrant who becomes a citizen erodes his rights? Because those two pieces — one jumbo Elmo’s eye, one tiny white squiggle — aren’t even from the same puzzle box.

Less than four years ago, we watched torch-bearing white supremacists march in Charlottesville, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” (“Yeah right,” Jews muttered back, “like we want to go live in your mother’s basement and tack a Nazi flag over her washing machine.”)

That was chilling enough. Now the same sentiment is being blasted through the megaphone of Fox News.

Are we that country? The Torch Parade puzzle? Or are we Masters of Medicine, the folks who excel at delivering COVID vaccination? As of this week, 36% of Americans have had at least one dose of COVID vaccine. Meanwhile, in Europe, the figure is only 21%. How can we be beating the land of socialized medicine, a utopia that includes both Sweden and Norway? Make sense of that.

Meanwhile in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the trial of one police officer for the senseless on-camera killing of an unarmed Black man isn’t even over and the next incident already has taken place. The trial of Derek Chauvin, the cop accused of killing George Floyd, continues and the unrest sparked by the killing of Daunte Wright begins.

Does that sound glib? I’m not trying for glib, but weary and angry. It can be a fine line.

I don’t even have anything to be weary and angry about, personally. No cop is going to stop my car for having an expired tag and then kill me because I scratch my ear. I’m more worried about my boys being hit by buses than being murdered by jumpy Barney Fifes. “Look both ways crossing the street,” I tell them, driving to the airport. “Other than that, I got nothin’.”

It’s a great privilege, and I only wish there were a way I could pack it into aerosol bottles and hand them out, so parents could spray it over themselves and their progeny.

But I can’t. I’m sorry. And frankly, my own cushy situation doesn’t negate the outrage that comes from looking around. That’s half the trouble. If only more could follow suit. These Republicans keep truncating their sentences, blithely turning, “Everything’s fine for me” into “Everything’s fine.” Empathy is such a simple intellectual task, like those toddler puzzles where the one cat-shaped wooden piece goes into the one cat-shaped hole. And they still can’t do it.

I’ve always hated jigsaw puzzles, by the way, and haven’t completed one in my life. I’ll sit there, gamely trying to help, to get into the spirit of the thing, maybe even fit a few pieces together. But I always give up and wander off to do something more satisfying.

That’s the problem. We can’t do that. Our nation can’t make progress and can’t stop trying. This mess of puzzles is piled in the center of our communal dining room table, and we must sort them out. But it’s hard, and time-consuming, and no sooner do we finish even part of one puzzle than someone messes it all up again, sweeps it onto the floor so we have to start over. Meanwhile, we can’t even agree with what the picture is supposed to look like when it’s done. I think we’re assembling Norman Rockwell’s “Do Unto Others” painting, while Tucker Carlson seems to believe we’re working on “White Christmas.”


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