The other day I was driving around with my friend Barbara. She’s a lovely middle-aged woman who befriended me in my night course. She calls me her “gal pal.” Does that logically make her my gal pal as well? I guess it doesn’t have to mean that necessarily, however I think I consider her mine too, it’s nice…I have myself a gal pal. We hang out and talk sometimes at cafes and such. She’s got a goofy, quirky charm to her on the surface and a deeply maternal, emotionally affectionate core. She’s also seen a good deal of dark things in her life and has managed to be way more optimistic than my manic depressive self has ever even attempted to be. As horrible as this sounds, I’ve often seen optimism as a character flaw, as a sort of artificial coping mechanism, or worse, a complete detachment or ignorance of reality. With Barbara it seems different from that. She’s seen some crap and consciously chooses to move forward. She allows her experiences to shape her in a way that only allows for forward movement, not consistent mental regression into the past.
Anyway, she and I were driving along (Barbara being the passenger in my little falling apart pale blue Honda civic) after we went by her place of residence so that she could change into some more comfortable pants…after all who can stand wearing itchy business pants in the evening? Not me. We were on our way to get a drink downtown and I noticed a quaint little neighborhood and decided to drive into it and take a gander because my roommate and I are strongly considering renting a house. We currently live in a basement apartment with very low ceilings and terrible lighting. Sometimes I feel like the ceiling gets progressively lower and the walls progressively darker each month or week or day, makes me think of Al Gore’s warnings about the ever encroaching oceans onto small human inhabited islands due to our good old friend, Global Warming. I feel like a sad little, dark-circles-under-my-eyes hobbit in this place when I hang around at home too much. We’ve been here for nearly two years (hence why I’m always mentioning cafes, because I rarely do work at home). A change would be nice. Well Barbara said she didn’t mind at all if we took a tour of this modest little working class neighborhood, (she, unlike myself, is very relaxed and go with the flow, and doesn’t have that brain take-over thirst for a beverage in the evenings in the same way most folks do, including myself. As the back of wait staff t-shirts say at this local pizza joint “work is the curse of the drinking class” ha. Oscar Wilde. Had to google that, couldn’t remember who said it. Shameful.) So I took a random left turn onto a very residential looking little road. I was hoping it would somehow loop around to a main road, but, alas! It had a dead end (no, reader, I’m not going to go off on a cheesy metaphorical tangent about dead ends, don’t you worry). I had to make a very awkward 3 point turn and grazed the edge of someone’s yard accordingly. There were kids outside playing and a mom-looking female. She looked at my car, but fortunately not in a particularly scrutinizing or concerned way. I guess she assumed I just made a wrong turn. Still I really wanted to jet out of there as quickly as possible. It was kind of out in the country and I said to Barbara “Lord we gotta get out of here quick, country people will come running down their driveway with rifles if they see a stranger encroaching on their property, it’s happened to me before.” She said “What??? Really???” And then I thought for a second and responded “Shit, I don’t know if that actually happened now that I think about it.” If I scrape my brain real hard, I somewhat recall getting lost trying to find a friend’s house in this tiny hick town called Stokesdale, NC. I think I was with another friend and we pulled into this longgg driveway which was seeemingly identical in the night time to the driveway we were trying to spot, and realized that we were at the wrong place. It ended up being a double-wide trailer and some man came out yelling…maybe holding a gun…not sure. Did any of this really happen? well I really think it did, but I can’t make any promises. It could’ve been a dream or just a completely fabricated recollection. Barbara started cracking up and said something along the lines of “Oh, so you’re just making things up now, hahahaha.”
Well that’s far from being the first time that I’ve gotten dreams and memories and past ponderings mixed up, or unknowingly created a surrealist concoction of distorted memories and bizarr-o dreams. One time when I was probably in elementary school I freaked out because I all of the sudden had a “flashback” to a creepy long haired man trying to kidnap me when I was playing in my front yard some years prior and I managed to run in my house and lock the door and go hang out in the bathroom with my mom while she finished her shower. I really don’t think that happened, but I was so disturbed, goose bumpy and all.
It makes me wonder if I have some strange strain of a pathological lying disorder or something. Or maybe because I spend so much more time in my self-created brain world than in physical reality, I just get confused fairly often. A lot of nights I wake up (I know most other people deal with this) and I’m aware that I had some very intricate, crazy dreams, but don’t remember them. Maybe they just all of the sudden come back every now and then when something triggers them to do so, like a partial de ja vue. Still, I can’t be going around telling lies. Ha. Many times when I’ve told stories related to my past I’ve had to provide the disclaimer “that may or may not have happened, it could’ve been a dream.” After watching these Youtube videos recently, I feel as though Tom Waits probably has similar social behaviors. Not that I could ever compare myself to such a god, a legend, a genius, but I do take comfort in his significantly higher levels of eccentricity.This leads me to a little cultural analysis I’ve had going on in my head for several days now after being struck by a line in a blog post by the economist Paul Krugman. He was criticizing the Republican party for demanding to have access to the email account of a public university professor who had openly disparaged the governor of Wiscousin’s “power grab.” I’m not particularly concerned with this entry (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/25/academic-intimidation/) however one particular line really got my brain a cranking. He wrote in a final, standalone, one sentence paragraph that “As usual, the nakedness of the thing is what’s surprising.” As usual is right! However, I took this line completely out of the context from what Krugman intended, aka to note the absurdity of Republicans’ explicit demands in this and other instances and the the now commonplace acceptance by society of these absurdities as not being very absurd. Instead I started thinking about culture, (this is a far leap from Krugman’s article) I thought more about the sort of paradoxical quality of nakedness in American society. As we move away from being a culture defined by religion and Victorian-esque social conservatism (much to the chagrin of staunch Republicans despite the many, many instances of hypocrisy, naturally), into a more open, somewhat more egalitarian culture with substantially less appreciation for maintaining a reserved nature, we may seem raw, naked, un-mysterious. However it seems to me that this “nakedness” is simply a more complicated attempt at hiding from ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love nothing more than for everyone to just be freaking real, but it’s not the case. People are no longer instantaneously handed down an identity, a social class mold, like in past decades (this is a generalization of course and there are many counter arguments denying that anyone has ever truly been handed down an identity, but roll with me, I'm no sociologist folks). Contemporary society allows for a lot more self-expression and individualism, a lot more personal decision-making, yet with that comes more confusion, more choices in the consumer world (aka more materialism), obnoxious elitism in being non-main stream (when really a good deal of people are quite similar in their desires to be non-conformist, it’s now trendy), and from what I’ve observed: crazy levels of prescription pill/other drug use and abuse (to deal with the inconsistency of everything, including this god awful economy), outrageous levels of self-absorption and social flakiness, etc. I know I already had a little Zombie rant in my last post, so I’ll save readers from anymore “I hate my society” ramblings. All I'm trying to say is that we have a paradox of progress going on. This isn't a new idea, social critics during the industrial age used to talk about how America had it's own modern riddle of the Sphinx. If we didn't figure out the solution to this riddle, we'd all perish. The riddle dealt with the parallel growth of economic progress and plight of the masses. Hmmm...maybe it was because the money was only going into the hands of a few...you don't have to be a Marxist see that people weren't reaping the profits of their toil...the problem was a lack of solution, and well to some extent a lack of awareness or acceptance by the upper echelon that there was any issue with corporate capitalism at all. In this day and age the problem has shifted a great deal, especially considering we've outsourced most of our manufacturing jobs, so the labor versus capital issue isn't as obviously stringent nor cut and dry. Now we've got this problem that with social and economic progress somehow comes prevailing self-absorption, greed and exorbitant amounts of vapidness. I have no solutions so I'm going to shut up about that now.
I’m ending this with one of my favorite segments from Steinbeck’s East of Eden, it's very, very loosely related to the above ramblings, but it’s mainly meant for a new friend that has a love/hate relationship with literary references:
"A new country seems to follow a pattern. First come the openers, strong and brave and rather childlike. They can take care of themselves in a wilderness, but they are naive and helpless against men, and perhaps that is why they went out in the first place. When the rough edges are worn off the new land, businessmen and lawyers come in to help with the development - to solve problems of ownership, usually by removing the temptations to themselves. And finally comes culture, which is entertainment, relaxation, transport out of the pain of living. And culture can be on any level, and is.
The church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West simultaneously. And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing. But surely they were both intended to accomplish the same thing: the singing, the devotion, the poetry of the churches took a man out of his bleakness for a time, and so did the brothels. The sectarian churches came in swinging, cocky and loud and confident. Ignoring the laws of debt and repayment, they built churches which couldn't be paid for in a hundred years. The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. They fought at the turn of a doctrine. Each happily believed all the others were bound for hell in a basket. And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry and our relationships are built. It took a smart man to know where the difference lay between the sects, but anyone could see what they had in common. And they brought music - maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential of purity, like a soiled white shirt. And any man could make something pretty fine of it within himself. True enough, the Reverend Billing, when they caught up with him, turned out to be a thief, an adulterer, a libertine, and a zoophilist, but that didn't change the fact that he had communicated some good things to a great number of receptive people. Billing went to jail, but no one ever arrested the good things he had released. And it doesn't matter much that his motive was impure. He used good material and some of it stuck. I use Billing only as an outrageous example. The honest preachers had energy and go. They fought the devil, no holds barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable. The sects did more than this, though. They built the structure of social life in the Salinas Valley. The church supper is the grandfather of the country club, just as the Thursday poetry reading in the basement under the vestry sired the little theatre.
While the churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time, the sister evangelism, with release and joy for the body, crept in silently and greyly, with its head bowed and its face covered.
You may have seen the spangled palaces of sin and fancy dancing in the false West of the movies, and maybe some of them existed -- but not in the Salinas Valley. The brothels were quiet, orderly, and circumspect. Indeed, if after hearing the ecstatic shrieks of climactic conversation against the thumping beat of the melodeon you had stood under the window of a whorehouse and listened to the low decorous voices, you would have been likely to confuse the identities of the two ministries. The brothel was accepted while it was not admitted."