A Movable Society

11:42:00 AM

If one harbors such complaints and grievances against "society" or "the world" or "our culture," then it must, by necessity, be based upon occurrences that exist or persist in one's daily life. For instance, last night I accompanied my best friend to one of his business appointments. He was interviewing his client--a woman running in her first campaign for public office, and a woman who, with a modest but tastefully decorated house and a young daughter, could be considered your average, middle-class, conscientious American. The interview was geared toward eliciting from her the image she wanted to project via a web site to her future voters, presumably designed to appeal to other citizens like her that might think her election to office would make Miami a better place for not only her child, but also theirs. When my best friend tried to unravel her political platform, she merely said, "I'm running to do something about all the injustice in this world." Consequent attempts by my friend to discover the nature of these "injustices" revealed that she was not sure what they were; only that they are there and that they are problematic. I'm tempted to vote for her, you know, since I believe that she's justified to presume that there are, indeed, injustices that need to be remedied. But, If my initial presumption is true--that these feelings are born in one's daily life--I would be dismayed if, after a successful campaign, I find that my representative in office finds that an endless hold-up in traffic due to all the recent road construction on Alton Rd. and Biscayne Blvd. or that no one will break a buck so that she can feed the parking meters on South Beach are the source of that perceived injustice in the world. I don't dismiss these real and present daily hassles--especially with the rising cost of gasoline and parking meter rates--but certainly, elected office has more potential for social change, for dealing with real, fundamental injustices, than merely daily inconveniences than traffic jams and "the problem of spare change in the change caddy."


Similarly, today, while I was stuck in a small traffic jam of my own, I saw a woman on the curb proudly displaying a hand-written sign drawn on white poster-board. It said in florid cursive script, "The end is near. He is coming soon. Repent!" Now, first of all, this person, or persons like her have been roaming the earth with their signs of imminent doom since the dawn of human history. We will remember that John the Baptists was one such figure, lingering around fig trees and watering holes of yore, claiming that the Messiah was on his way. "Repent!" he would yell just before he dunked your head to near death in the river or pond. And turning back to our lady of grace on the roadside with which we began this anecdote, what exactly, we may ask ourselves, does she see in all these motorists that pass by her that she finds so guilt-worthy to require immediate repentance for salvation? In other words, are all these motorists that pass her so evil or unvirtuous or such wrongdoers or so damned that she felt obligated, as a duty to her fellow man and Christian to remind them the situation has now come to a head? Yes, yes, we're all sinners, as catechumen or bible study might suggest to us, but didn't she know that a dude already died on a cross to redeem, to save, and to spare us for all eternity from the threat of hell or damnation?


Regardless, the point is that no matter what impelled her to stand on the street corner with her sign, her opinion that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, ripe for a second coming, and poised for Armageddon, came from somewhere or some incident in her daily routine. Perhaps her pastor has spent many a grand, mournful Sunday bemoaning that tithes and donations are not enough to support the continued existence of her congregation. The Landlord and not The Lord, himself, so to speak, is the one near at hand, knocking on the parish doors, saying, "Pay up your rent, or it's the end of you." And so, the end is near, my friends; not just for our dear lady of charity, but for you and me as well. REPENT, SINNERS!


Well, my brethren (please imagine with me that the lights in the room have gone down in brightness a few notches, the choir in the background is humming the refrain rather than wailing, and I've taken out a handkerchief from my breast pocket, dabbing it along my forehead while I catch my breath, before I deliver to my presumed audience the news--the good and bad of it. Here, my friends, is the news of how the end is truly near. Soon The Rapture for all of us. Soon the second coming. Soon, there is terror that the world is truly corrupt, and that the injustices are too great like our lady politician tells us. Soon, our children will be in great peril, a daily struggle for their lives in a hostile world populated by the damned. The lights are low, the choir hums, and here is a tale of the end and of injustices beyond belief).


* * *

In sixth graded I began, as part of my middle-school curriculum, band. Every morning, I sat in a chair, my hands curled around a trumpet whose bell had been dented severely within its first days of life, and whose spit-valve was already gathering moldy slime around its orifice. And, our conductor, our teacher, a grizzly man with a hoarse voice, wispy white hair, and a limp due to polio in his youth, would raise the baton, start the John Philip Sousa march we had been laboring over for a few weeks, and after a few notes, would drop his hands in frustration. Ornery in his old age, he would curse and yell at his pupils for a good quarter of an hour. That represented a fair portion on the rehearsal; that is, part of our sessions included reviling by our teacher, and since we were but children, we supposed that he was justified to be so angry due to respect for his age. But, after the ire built upon a lifetime of teaching youths to fumble better on their instrument waned, he would say to us by way of encouragement, "We are creatures of habit." He said this often, and in retrospect I now think that what he meant was that, if we had habitually hit the wrong notes on our instrument and had forgotten to tap our foot on the floor to keep proper time for the tune, then, at the very leas, he understood that being creatures of habit, we were not to be blamed. After all, he probably thought the problem was not in our deliberate failure, but in the bad habit of positioning our fingers poorly on the instrument. And since this was an issue of human nature to him, it was, as far as he could say, forgivable. And, I think now, he was right in thinking that. We are creatures of habit.


After he stopped the band, he would pick out two or three of the most grievous offenders, and patiently guide them through the proper notes, asking them to play them slowly and deliberately for a few rounds until it was clear that, at the very least, there was hope that the bad habit of fingering wrong could be replaced by better, correctly-fingered habits. And the band would then resume the middle-school howl of noise in unison, and that was that until his frustration grew into a scolding speech again.


What bears to reckon, though, is that now, as an adult, I recall my frustrated teacher's wise words. We are creatures of habit. So, when, in this new epoch of my life wherein it turns out, to my enduring joy, that my relationship with my girlfriend has blossomed to the point where we have united our independent lives and now live together, one thing that might have been ruptured with both of us is the fact that our habits—our daily routine while we lived separately—could have been challenged. However, as it turns out, no such thing happened, and, at least in me, there is along with the delight of living "as if" nothing's changed, is mingled with a strange sense of worry that there's something wrong in this ease of transition. And, I will not hold back nor keep you, my dear friends, in the dark about this dis-ease engendered by ease. Certainly there have been some tricky issues that have arisen from all of it that bear some contemplation. And yes, something in me feels along with our lady politician and our curbside doomsayer that there's something strange going on here. It is from this simple act of relocation in my personal life that I may declare my problem with "the world" or "society" or "our culture" that, though I should be glad that it has made my relationship with my girlfriend easy and unfettered by stress of forming new habits, it, nonetheless, makes me a bit prone to agree that we're all going to hell in a hand basket.


See, (and it's a rather simple matter of recounting the problem at hand), since I've moved, I've become aware of the disturbing fact that I miss nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, about my old neighborhood. In fact, I'm glad to be out of there. I lived, presumably, where anyone might yearn to live. There were manicured gardens and posh landscaping. There were several pools within the gated community. The property values have been rising since I moved in, and the homes—two and three bedroom townhouses—were luxurious, to say the least. I presume that it is the American Dream to own one such dwelling place. Presumably it is a good locale to raise a family.


On the other hand, there are signs posted throughout the complex that those same kids you choose to raise there are not allowed to play ball on the streets—streets with very low traffic, mind you, since the gatehouse at the entrance of the complex is even reluctant to let the Pizza-delivery car through the gate without a confirmation phone call. And yet, I've seen those same children riding through the quaint streets wearing helmets twice the size of their head. Not even adults, riding on motorcycles going two-hundred miles an hour on the expressway are required by the state or anyone to sport so much as a cap.


Also, as far as "community" is concerned, there's not much to speak of. I only attempted to throw two parties in my house in the five years that I lived there. In the first such party (on a weekend night) the police arrived within the first hour after the guests had assembled, and the next morning, I found written onto my patio door in red lipstick, "ONE MORE FUCKING SLEEPLESS NIGHT AND YOU'RE OUT OF HERE!" The second time I threw a party, by eleven, a little wraithlike old dodger that walks his two Yorkshire Terriers through the neighborhood had managed to summon the gatehouse into an expedition of recruiting tow trucks to haul off my friends cars since they had been parked in the wrong parking spaces. Though those spaces were labeled "Guest Parking", and though they remained unoccupied for the remainder of the evening, this Condo Commando, nonetheless, had no qualms with showing his neighborly goodwill by safeguarding parking that, if occupied, might disturb his peace. Beyond that, I never met any of my neighbors, and so, in the first reduction, I have no one from my old neighborhood to miss. That's a shame in my opinion.


And regarding my habits, as it turns out, twenty miles from my old neighborhood, it would seem that there was a willful attempt to replicate that place elsewhere so that I still have easy access to Whole Foods Market (a supermarket specializing in organic, natural or otherwise "healthy" alternatives to your average supermarket selections. Just in case you suspect that the produce at your normal supermarket will make your children grow extra arms). There were also the convenient 7-11's, Blockbuster Videos, Starbucks, McDonalds, Panera, Pep Boys, Ft. Lauderdale Ale House (as opposed to the identical Miami Ale House), Subways and Quiznos, Borders Books and Barnes and Noble. In other words very little had to change in my habits or routines; nothing had to change in my pantry nor in my selection of toiletries; my coffee and burgers come out at the same temperature and flavor. And if I was concerned that this is something—this duplication of commerce city by city—where a phenomenon indigenous to South Florida, I could drive five minutes and find Cincinnati in the form of a Skyline Chili and Maggie Moos (franchises originating and indigenous to that city). And in Cincinnati, there I've found, likewise the Starbucks, the Chili's Bar and Grill, the Best Buys, and the Shell Oil. And so, I suppose that had I moved six hundred miles away, hopefully with my girlfriend, no doubt I would have had little trouble in assimilating into the local culture. It is, after all, identical to the one back in my home town.


I am reminded of one of Jim Jarmush's characters in his movie "Dead Man." The frustrated and disenfranchised Native American, the character called fittingly "Nobody", tells Johnny Depp's character his story, claiming that during his abduction and travels through the white-man's culture, he says, "I was taken to Toronto, then Philadelphia, then to New York. Each time I arrived in another city, somehow the white man had moved all their people there ahead of me. Each new city contained the same white people as the last, and I could not understand how a whole city of people could be moved so quickly."


So, my friends, I wanted to give an honorable mention; I wanted to tip my hat and recognize in this rambling account that while I settled into my comfortable and complacent routine alongside my girlfriend, finding that none of my habits had changed, I was beset by a disturbing vision. On the one hand, I saw in the crystal ball of my minds eye that I had traded something very dear to me for this uniformity and ease. I saw that, yes, for our economy to work, for Starbucks and Blockbuster and Best Buy and Whole Foods and all those other stores that crop up on the street corners of every urban environment be able to succeed then all those who inhabit these disparate locals must be the same or at least very similar as individuals. Our economy cannot afford to have people with different tastes and likes ambling about since then, there would be no market for these goods where individuality, the ugly beast of consumerism, makes its presence known. If Albuquerque prefers yerba mate, a caffeinated drink much like tea, to coffee, then Starbucks does not have a chance to flourish there. And, I wondered if somewhere in the depths of my soul I had not, in effect, traded my individual presence and uniqueness in the world for a bit of luxury. I wondered if I had not sold my soul and bought a triple-grande-skim-vanilla-latte instead. And it occurred to me also as counterpoint that, perhaps, it's a bit idealistic to wish what Henry David Thoreau wished while he spent some time at Walden Pond; that is, he wrote, "I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead." Even though Thoreau is often quoted as capturing the values and ideas that America stands for, I think that now, in the light of dealing with the world as it really is, we should disavow and unconcern ourselves with such an unpractical and unprofitable thing as personal, civic, commercial or national individuality. And furthermore, if I did, now, want to assert my individuality by discovering or filling my life with goods, luxuries or pastimes that expressed my unique identity, then where would I turn? I've been trying to find for over two years now some cargo pants made of blue denim, but that's just not something that the American public wants, and so nothing short of tailoring it myself will make it available to me. Uniformity. This is, at any rate, the movement of globalization after all.


As my vision continued to unfold, I wondered if this was the subliminal injustice that nags at our lady politician and The Beast of Armageddon that our lady of grace urges us to repent for because something deep within their spirit nags at them, saying, "HEY! I DON'T WANNA BE FORCED TO LIKE LIVING LIKE MY NEIGHBOR!" I wondered if soon we—every one of us—would all be wearing ribbons on our lapels and placing magnetized ribbons on our car that said, "Support Your Troops." And perhaps we would all, together, assert our individuality by wearing a yellow plastic band that had engraved in it the words, "Live Strong," since we all, of course, live alike: strong. And I wondered if soon, like a Nazi Army, all alike in our hatred of anything different from us that cannot support our goods, we would be making wars with foreign nations, killing their people whom we fear for being different, and after several blistering attacks, bless them with our Democracy regardless of whether or not the citizens that country who give that government its legitimacy desire that form of government. We assume that want our form of government rather than, say, an oligarchy or a monarchy, since, of course, they must live like us to buy like us. They would vote just like us, and we would cry out like an anthem that Liberty and Justice now truly reigned over the whole Earth. In short, we would export to their land our way of life and our economy, bringing them into the fold, so to speak, so that now they too may share in our coffee drinks and perfect burgers, and our politics. "Don't you see," the political pundits would say, "this is a Mandate from the people!" And soon, that mandate would mean that those issuing the mandate authorized the authorities to restrict those on the other side of the mandate from marrying one another. Everyone would come out of the darkness of being different from everyone else because being different, as they say, threatens core American values and threatens our way of life through terror, so that now, in the lightness of homogeny, we would be all the same, and in unison the world would swell in one perfect voice, saying, "Yo quiero Taco Bell."


At any rate, this is all an alarmist vision, so unreal to our fine sensibilities that we can venture to say, my friends, that all we need is a little Prozac to remedy the situation. Shame on you, mind's eye, for conjuring up such phantoms! So there's no need to worry, everybody. After all, it's really ridiculous that any one would be so blind as to let a situation like that to happen. Surly we'd notice if it ever came to that.

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