Friday, July 30, 2004

20 Year Itch

Fellow members of B-- S-- High School Class of 1984,

I won't be attending the reunion this weekend. But I've been thinking about you.


Imagine my surprise a couple of months back when my wife handed me the phone: Ted A--? How the hell are you, man? It just so happened that the recent death of a friend had started me on about all those things that those of us nearing forty are supposed to ponder mortality, The Path Not Taken, have I fucked enough people? and among them, although not specifically Ted whom, truth be told, I hadn't thought about since, well, high school, was a curiosity about the receding personae of my past. We had some nice chitchat and I naively still harbored the assumption that his call was somehow borne of a similarly curiosity. It wasn't until well into the conversation that I realized: this is about the reunion, isn't it? Indeed it was and is twenty years since we were last an accidental aggregate of acquaintances. And since Ted extracted my email address in a moment of weakness, so your names have flickered intermittently through my inbox, sparking little firefly flashes of memory.

I've had this feeling that I can't shake that somehow I share some intimacy with you--at least those whose names I remember--a feeling due, possibly, to the wondering that we all do about where we come from and what we once were. That we have no real ties to the past, every cell in our bodies has regenerated ten times over, our identities are simply continuities of consciousness, that there is nothing physical that binds us to our past besides our artifacts--except perhaps those whose divergent paths might be followed back to that former intertwining. So when we are pondering the halfway point of our lives, after we've discovered even our spouses and children to be strangers, and I haven't thought of any of you for twenty years, I can't escape this strange feeling of communality with you, a feeling which is of course ridiculous. Christ, some of you will be voting for George Bush.


Since graduating, I've encountered perhaps half a dozen of you, and two of those I lived with in college (confidential to MH and LS: I'm sorry for being such a lame roommate). Thus, when I started receiving transmissions from the reunion listserv, I was hoping to hear some adult-type revelations/insights/transformations about the lives you've since led. Matt H. is a minister (quite possibly the most unsurprising outcome of any of us given the gentleness and sympathy I remember of him); Ann-Marie W. has without fanfare outed herself and (perhaps) made us think about how difficult it must have been back when to be unable to express such a fundamental component of self (Here's hoping they'll let you get hitched, Ann); a few of you live in another country. But apart from these tidbits I've been disappointed; the irregular influx of "hey whats up"s has left me with the banal realization that adult life is merely an echo of chatter in the hallways. I hope you'll indulge the following report from the dusk of my thirties.

For all the time I've spent revisiting the past, high school was and remains a giant blank in my memory. For me it was junior high school where my adult neuroses were formed. For example, the embryonic class consciousness ignited by my apprehension of the palatial houses that the bus I now rode passed. How funny that must sound--I mean, I still lived in a demographically significant zip code (property values now through the roof, Mom's golden if the house doesn't fall down), it's not like I was being bussed in from the Brewster projects. Yet, for me in my uncertainty of place, there couldn't have been any more perceived difference between the single parent chaos of my world and the imagined happy family country club idylls of my new peers. The sudden inadequacy of my cookie-cutter bungalow neighborhood stood as shorthand for all my familial discontents, and the lack of any sensible countervailing influence to disabuse me of such phantom laments is something that to a degree corrodes my subconscious still.

It was also junior high where I found myself susceptible to the strictures of conformity. I can pinpoint with comic accuracy the moment of infection: several weeks into my first year, outside on the campus at lunch. Suddenly realizing after a few manic scans of the playground that I was the only one out of hundreds wearing plaid trousers. I'd happily wear such a pattern today, but any ironic detachment merely belies an unsettling intimacy with the demands of fashion. Consider me in partial remission.

Not least of all, those years were a primer of adult cruelties administered with the brutal frankness of children. I'm not exaggerating: I administered some of them. For my part I remain deeply saddened and ashamed.

High school? The casts cure; here's your diploma. Now what?

(ACT ONE CURTAIN CLOSES ON intervening period of continued confusion, menial employment, existential despair, dead-end psychopharmacology, profligate drinking, suffering for art, tawdry affairs, minor epiphanies, cocaine, etc.)


I still don't feel like an adult. Let me clarify: I simply can't accept the world as it is. I am yet puzzled that all those sacred promises (democracy, love, the benefits to the consumer from competition) could turn out to be such an inside joke with such very fine print. I am shocked anew at the needless cruelty, the celebrated mediocrity, the pandering venality and willful ignorance of those who seem to make the world. My threshold for the ridiculous is at a nadir: hence a life of semi-voluntary poverty. How can one take oneself seriously doing any of the things that respectable affluence requires? My attitude is still that of Lloyd Dobler:
I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that.

I now work in a museum as a photographer. I take pictures of pictures: how very meta. I'm married to a woman of whom I can say with humbling gratitude: she comes from my planet. A librarian, a former biker groupie with a physics degree, she, too, is very meta. Along with my daughter, in whom I have discovered a capacity for love that is terrifying in its depth, we make (to adapt from Vonnegut) a little nation of three. I can't say that I have really learned anything, besides why Ayn Rand novels aren't considered literature, or that women often actually like sex. Perhaps it's because I have so much difficulty remembering who I ever was or what I believed at any particular moment of my life. I mostly remember, with relentless acuity, the consequences of my failings.

Here's hoping that your reminiscences are, if not deeper, sweeter and lighter.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Loud Music In Cars

Speakers in the dashboard/Speakers in the door/
Speakers on the ceiling/Speakers in the floor
--Billy Bremner

Sure sign that I am am officially a Grumpy Old Man: lately nothing--not even churchgoers--gets under my skin like car stereos. I'm not talking about the iPod in your Accord. No, what really gets me peering out in disdain through the blinds are the peeps whose cars just can't contain the bass. Of course, they're not supposed to. These fuckers want to strum your floor joists at 500 feet. I gather small consolation in imagining the irreparable reproductive harm that such frequencies are doing to the drivers, but I have recurrent fantasies about building a pinpoint electromagnetic pulse gun and the robust pleasure it would give me to use it. More practically, I wonder if it's time to exercise my second amendment rights: a friend of mine who once lived in a particularly dodgy part of Detroit had no troubles with break-ins once he began sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch every Saturday, carefully and visibly cleaning his rifle. I construct imaginary verbal exchanges with gangster-leaning drivers who become rehabilitated through my persuasive powers.

Me: Look, man. I know you spent a lot of cash on that system. But no one is impressed but you. I mean, in your social strata, maybe this rig fulfills its function as an ersatz dominance signifier, but to those like me it serves only as a nuisance and as evidence that your priorities are seriously fucked. Ever read any Lorenz?

Him: Who?

Me: Konrad Lorenz. Austrian dude. His seminal book is called On Aggression. He basically says that aggression is instinctive and phylogenetically useful among almost all species. In every creature but humans, however, aggression is directed only towards members of its own species, and through behaviors that are unambiguous. But the problem for humans is that we are a heterogeneous species with immense anthropological variety, so signifiers among one subset are meaningless to another. Thus, your clumsy bid to utilize your subwoofer as the mark of a superior mate and competitor has just the opposite effect on a majority of your fellow humans. Fortunately, as cognitive beings, humans can unpack the causal chain of maladaptive aggression instincts and deflect such tendencies into harmless or productive pursuits.

Him: Dang. I had no idea. I'm real sorry, yo. I'm a check out the library right now, right after I tune in NPR up in here. Peace.


The neighbors down the street from our house are a group of hardworking ESL fellows. They are sociable and like to congregate on the porch of their rented house, dubbed (by them--spelled in adhesive letters on the eave) Mancìon. Very friendly: when the gaggle of neighborhood kids hit their house on Halloween, the surprised and amused trabajadores were unprepared with candy. So they cheerfully gave the kids money, practically throwing bills at them. As with any group of immigrants, there are certain transgressed or unapprehended social conventions that serve as minor irritants to those around them. At Mancìon, the most flagrant is the use of street-parked automobiles for the enjoyment of music on the porch, as opposed to, say, a portable cd player or putting the living room speakers in the window at a modest and thoughtful volume. Instead, one of the many vehicles lining the street, invariably with the trunk and windows open, pipes a steady stream of bass-heavy ranchera to the congregants on the porch. And through the walls of the neighborhood.


Other night K was lying down with Lucie to try to get her to sleep. I was at the computer when I heard the familiar arpeggiated bassline that sounds like someone nearby endlessly playing the opening bars of "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da". Hoping that it wouldn't keep L (whose room is in the corner of the house closest to Mancìon) awake. No dice. At 10:00 K appears at the door, frazzled:

"Lucie is still awake. You have to go tell them to turn it off".

Oh, a father's austere and lonely offices! Very well, then. I'm off across the street, mulling my tack. Angry and stern? Amiable and concilliatory? Honey or vinegar? I decide that a dispassionate yet firm posture is the way to go. As I approach the gathering, I ask:

"Who speaks English?"

One guy stands up and walks toward me. His eyes are glassy, his face full of grim concern.

"Hello", I say, "The music is too loud. Well, the bass, really. El bajo muy ruidosamente. My baby is trying to sleep." Without apology he shouts a command to one of his friends in Spanish to turn down the music--which is, indeed, emanating from an open car trunk. Without thanks I turn and walk home as the volume is lowered not quite enough, but adequate to avoid any more confrontation. Returning inside, I can still hear the bass, more softly but unmistakable.

Another hour later, L is still awake and K is on the phone to the cops. This dismays me--I don't want to be the asshole neighbor. K says it's not like they don't know how loud they're being. "You did your duty and asked them first. Anyway, the cops aren't coming, the desk cop told me I have to call 911 to make that kind of complaint. Seems like a misuse of resources".


This was by no means my first trip to Mancìon, but I'm always beset by a melancholy ambivalence when I have to make my request. A better person would be more friendly, strike up an acquaintance, not be such a fucking homeowner busybody drag. Perhaps. But I've decided on my plan for the next outbreak of Desmond-has-a-barrel-in-the-marketplace: I'm not going to say anything, just gesture a wordless invitation for my amigos to come-on-a-my-house. I'll bring them inside so that they may hear that thumping in Lucie's room for themselves.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Lost In The Supermarket

People say to me well, they don't actually, but if people were to actually read this thing, I imagine that they might once or twice ask: Chris, what do you mean by "demographically insignificant"? Some observations, then, to describe the feeling of utter alienation that befalls me on certain forays into the Spectacular landscape.


Sunday our mission was to scout a digital camera for K. I had an unavoidable doodad to return/exchange, so this involved a trip to a giant chain store which shall not be named but which should be familiar to anyone travelling upon one of our stultifying and depressing main thoroughfares. Situated in a similarly giant modern "shopping center" surrounded by a massive asphalt griddle. Of course there are no shade trees to park under.

Approaching the store, the wave of air conditioning is so powerful that one feels from several meters the cold wind as the doors open for preceding shoppers. Once inside, the climatic difference is so drastic that it is literally shocking. All of our senses (save smell, these places don't smell like anything--does a mirage have a smell?) are assaulted immediately. Imagine a confluence of Chuck E Cheese and a WWF event and you have an approximation of the ambient noise/visual overstimulation quotient, if not the social dislocation felt as you realize that most everyone around you seems to think that, yes, this is a perfectly enjoyable environment if not the best of all possible worlds.
We're immediately set upon by a guy wearing a neon polo shirt with the store's logo and a badge identifying him as an "associate".  I guess that's so we'll think that he has a stake, really cares, isn't a salesman or anything even though he seems like nothing so much as, well, an animatronic used car salesman.
WHAT BRINGS YOU FOLKS TO [giant chain store] TODAY?!?

Within seconds of repelling this guy, another appears with the same robotic come-on that is designed to not seem like a come-on.


Everyone wearing a polo shirt with the store's logo and the title of associate has the exact same grimly "upbeat" demeanor, like they all went to the same capitalist re-education camp or are all taking some sort of Republican ecstasy: something that makes them impossibly energetic without making them feel good/relaxed/socially adept at all. And they won't stop coming, they're like zombies.


We finally make it to the cellar door, err, camera department, and are pleased that there are so many cameras out on the shelves for us to pick up and try out. Until we realize that they are all tethered to the shelves with a generous 18 inches of retracting cable which makes attempting to look through the viewfinder feel like we're trying to land a 40 pound tarpon. None of the cameras have batteries. Now that we need some help, there is not a polo shirt to be seen. I go roaming and return with a fellow who doesn't seem so enthusiastic. He absently puts a battery in the camera and leaves before we realize that the camera doesn't have a memory card, either, and so still won't operate.


Having learned just enough about the cameras to know that we will never buy one from giant company, we have to make a final stop to exchange my doodad for another. The cashier puts my new doodad in a clear bag with an adhesive strip at the top with which she seals the bag, a gesture by which I'm equally puzzled and annoyed. I express a small bit of dismay over the loss of any future utility for the bag and she looks at me like I've just asked to smell her panties. I mean, what kind of fucking freak cares about using a plastic bag for more than the schlep home in the SUV and the toss into the kitchen trashcan? As I leave the register and we head for the door, it hits me why they've sealed my bag: so I won't stuff more doodads in it on my way out. And the reason the bag is see-through is made manifest when I encounter a final polo shirt guarding the exit with a demand to inspect my receipt: he can see if I've managed to circumvent the seal on my bag and liberated any doodads that aren't accounted for.


I won't bore you, dear reader, with any more minutiae or with a tired tirade about the spiritual dead-end of consumerism. But the whole experience was depressing in a way that is persistent and soul-sucking. Why does our landscape look like this? Could it be other than it is? Is this really the best we can do? Whose prerogatives are served by such a design? We are told that it is all for us, it is so that we may be blessed with choices choices choices and that if you were to plot a graph of lower lower lower prices, the angle would be of the same degree and incline as the stairway to heaven.

Maybe the Talking Heads were right.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

New Dog, New Couch, New Word

Email from the missus:

This morning on the way to K--* I was talking to Lucie about the possibility of leaving Roxy** out of her crate tomorrow morning, and how the worst thing that could happen is that she would pee on the couch***. Lucie said, "If Roxy pee on the couch, Daddy will be fucking mad."

[mea culpa, I can't help myself it's such a useful word at least I've taught her something]

I said yes, that is true, then explained about "cussing" and "foul" language and how some people (such as Nana and Papa and other people's parents) would be really upset to hear her say that word, so she should not use it around anybody but us. She said, "Don't worry, Mama,**** I won't."

I hope I handled that situation correctly.


*L's daycare: a really good one--not named "kinder" or "kiddie" anything--but what an antiseptic term for the odious modern social necessity of paying people to simulate a loving family while the actual loving parents rent themselves in exchange for survival.

**new dog--see below.

***new, beautiful, first actual piece of quality, made by decently paid North Carolinians non-thrift-store-hand-me-down-composite-board-Ikea-wannabe furniture I've ever owned--precipitated by the masticating proclivities of aforementioned dog rendering lame my $75 flea market orange vinyl couch so I suppose I should thank the bitch for that.

****This word lately being included after almost every other clause in speech to her mother--pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable and a slight 'n' consonance at the end like the French girl we secretly wish she were because that would make us French too: a relief from these ugly American times.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

(Afro) American Gothic

Playing hooky from work for K's birthday....
The scene: Pepper's Pizza, Chapel Hill. Killing time before the start of F 9/11 matinee next door  at the Varsity (it was funny and maddening and brilliant BTW). Waiting at the counter for our slices. Perusing the motley yet amusing collection of hipster band/smartass political stickers visible on the back of one of the refrigerators. 
C [reading]: "Goth: The Other White Meat".
K: Do you think there are black goths? Do they wear whiteface?
C: Now that would be a great documentary! [Pause]  We could call it Bleak Like Me.