Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Home, Sweet Home

The summer after seventh grade my grandmother sent one of my cousins and me to a snooty boys’ camp up in New Hampshire. For me it wasn’t a great fit (who were these people?), but I tried to be a good sport. Around the campfire on skit night, I was asked to spell “yankee.” Hamming it up and following the script, I began to drawl, “D . . . A . . . M . . . .”
“Wait, wait,” hollered the MC. “What are you doing?”
"Wheah I come from, son,” I drawled on, “it’s all one word.” Which, despite the play-acting, was exactly how I felt.
This was also the summer after that ur-reality show, “Candid Camera,” sent its goon squad into the hills of Tennessee and asked the folks in the little rural community to say the word “oil.” The answer just about all of them gave was “awl,” or maybe “awul.” Point being: at this alien hellhole (from which I demanded to return home after two weeks, while my less sensitive cousin stayed on for the whole month), when I wasn’t being asked to spell “yankee,” some obnoxious cretin was my face with “Hey, Yow, say ‘oil.’”
I mean, what do you say? What I said was, “Oil, you dumb shit, OIL!”
Have I established my credentials? I’m a southerner, proud of it, and prejudiced to the bone. But the South’s not perfect, and since the national media love nothing better than to laugh at our failings and foolishness, I sometimes think we ought to dial it back a little bit.
I’m thinking, of course, of the recent mass baptism on the football field at Villa Rica High School. One of the coaches cooked up the entertainment with a local pastor, and on a recent afternoon before practice 18 team members, along with the coach, took turns in the dunking tub. Word got out in advance, as it was meant to, and throngs of on-lookers applauded.
It would be one thing, I suppose, if the newly-saved had headed quietly home afterwards, with nothing more to be said. But this was pure P. T. Barnum—the event videoed and posted on YouTube. And I’m sure that coach and pastor anticipated with glee the letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, which took about a nanosecond to arrive. Surprise: the baptism was in violation of the First Amendment, and, specifically, of 2003 Federal guidelines mandating that “teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities.”
Gee, thanks, but so what? Are the kids and the coach and the preacher going to take it back? They’re in the spotlight—thank you, Jesus!—having the time of their lives. It’s like the reverend said: “I need to send those [Freedom from Religion] people a thank-you letter because what they’ve done is ignited the base.”
Honestly, I wonder why Freedom from Religion rises to the bait, why it insists on playing its predictable role in this tawdry drama. Well, I guess I know why, but still, doesn’t it sound like a bunch of people who don’t have enough to do, or worse, a bunch of damn yankees who don’t have enough to do?

As for our part, though, don’t we have to confess that we bring it on ourselves? We say we just want to be left alone, but it looks to me like we can’t stand to be left alone. I say let’s turn down the volume, and see if we can’t get the do-gooders to go bother somebody else.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Run It Up the Flagpole, Boys (and They Can Stick It Where the Sun Don't Shine)

Y’all got a flag yet? Tell you what. I’m gon’ get me one. Couldn’ve give less of a shit up till a few weeks ago. For me it wasn’t nothing but ten dollars better spent. Then they started taking ‘em away from us. They think that’s gon’ work?
            I was coming back from the store this afternoon and passed a Richard Petty-looking dude in a jacked-up truck. Thing was rumbling like thunder and had two big old rebel flags flapping from the back of the bed. A little while back that son of a bitch probably looked more like a deacon at Macedonia Baptist—right up to when the damn goverment started gettin’ in his face. Now, with all what’s going on, seeing that truck, flags wavin’ . . . I swear, it like to give me chills.
            And what’s even worse than being told what to do is if we say we don’t like it then we’re a bunch of racists. It ain’t about race. We don’t hate nobody—except maybe Obama, but that’s just about his communist style of goverment, got nothing to do with race. Now, is he an American? No. African or Hawaiian, one or the other, but he ain’t no American. And that just might explain—are you listening, friends?—why it don’t matter to him who comes in or where they come in from.
            What I was saying was, it ain’t about race. We get along fine with the blacks. Or is it African-Americans now? Whatever. Listen, if you hated colored people, could you watch television today? That’s all that’s on there. ‘Cept maybe for NASCAR. And of course every commercial on TV has got to have some colored in it. I mean that’s just flat law now. Goverment law.
            We know all about the Civil Rights movement. We seen the changes. Shit, we’re living the changes. Live in the same neighborhoods, kids go to the same schools, work right alongside one another at the same jobs. (Now this is just a comment about me and not nobody else, but my philosophy is, I might be drunk, or worse, but I’m gon’ get my ass to work.) Point is, racism ain’t even possible these days.
            Notice: I ain’t said nothin’ about no heritage neither. Only problem for us white working people here in the South is the goddamn goverment all over us like tarpaper. Ain't but one political party in the U. S. of A. today tellin' it like it is, and we all know who I'm talkin' about. No: it ain’t hate and it ain’t heritage neither, far as I can see. Heritage? Don’t know about you, brother, but my family never had no slaves on no plantation. And here’s what’s funny to me. We poor white motherfuckers didn’t get to have no slaves, but we’re the ones get blamed for all the hatin' and all the lynchin'. By who? By the goddamn liberal communists. 
                All I’m sayin’? Lot of folks out here tired of gettin’ pushed around.  
                And if what Sheldon told me this morning is true, that Wal-Mart has done pulled all the flags from their shelves ‘cause the communists said to, well, I don’t know what I might do. But whatever it is, it ain’t gon’ be my fault. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Dope on Dope

Should marijuana be legalized? No, of course not. Why? Because of the drug’s downside. And because of its upside.
            First the upside. Let’s face it: the weed is huge fun. But people, what are you thinking? That it’s okay to have a bag of fun just lying around the house? To be indulged in whenever? What’s happened to our puritan heritage? You remember when H. L. Mencken said that puritanism is the fear that somebody, somewhere, is having more fun than you are? Well, what the great sage of Baltimore apparently failed to appreciate was that this is a good fear, an important fear, a society-stabilizing fear.
            Most important, it’s a motivating fear. After all, the puritan doesn’t respond to this fear by going out and having more fun. He goes out and works harder, accomplishes more, makes more money, and sneers more fiercely at the free-gigglers. In other words, he keeps the world moving, and I think we can all agree that that’s an essential chore.
            So the upside, fun, is problematical. Not that fun, per se, is bad. But fun is the reward state, not the perpetual state. First we do something useful and productive, something to serve the public good, like thanking veterans for their service. Point is—we earn fun. It’s not complicated. And the people who say that “dope” can transform the things we do to earn fun into . . . fun? Well, we’re not listening to those people. OK? Because that’s crazy.
            Now, the downside. It ain’t pretty. First we’re going to have to take a candid look at the effects of marijuana, chief of which by any measurement is raging paranoia. Of course, this is another fear, and an equally useful one. What would you do if could get high and not worry about being high, not even think about the worst possible person knocking on the door or the horrible news a telephone call might bring. Of course you would, and so would everybody else. Can you imagine it? All that fun on the loose? Scary. But that’s what we’ll have if pot is legalized.
            A final point, a bit personal, about us older folks. Another universally recognized effect of marijuana is that it makes you stupid. Believe me, we geezers don’t need any help in that department. If you’re going to put your old people on a sofa in front of the TV, fine, give ‘em a little pot. Otherwise, no. I already spend enough time wandering from room to room, picking up magazine here, opening a drawer there. So don’t count on us oldsters to get behind your legalization thing. We’ll lose our dignity soon enough without your help.
            Well, hell. It’s a young people’s game anyway. All those millionaire hippie kids at Apple and Facebook and Google, blowing the world away with their gizmos and gewgaws. Probably got joint dispensers in the break room. What does a nattering old man know?
Just this: There’s a bigger picture here. The prospect of legal marijuana, alarming as it is, merely illustrates a much larger sociocultural phenomenon: funcreep. Think about it: Sunday alcohol sales, legal gambling, gay marriage, gay Boy Scout leaders. Wow! People are having fun in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.
Hey, I know we got a lot of problems in this country: racial unease, injustice, economic inequality, war. I almost hate to add to the list. But, frankly, I’m worried. Fun is out of control.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Takin' My Medicine

There’s a pill for everything, you know. Not that that puts pharmaceuticals in any special category. There’s an anything for everything—just a click away. Still, all those meds you see advertised on TV, targeted particularly to people who look to be about my age, people who are “having trouble” breathing or peeing or digesting or remembering. It’s become a cliché: all old people do is take pills.
Well, that ain’t me. I have no prescriptions and take no medications. At least that’s what I say every time I fill out medical history forms. In fact, I’m just about a perfect human specimen, according to such documents, and I’m generally able to hold on to the notion that when I fill out these forms I’m conveying the spirit of the truth if not all the boring minutiae.
            Then my knee started hurting. Karma, you have to figure. Since no injury could be more symptomatic of mortality than—ouch!—all of a sudden, for no reason in the world except to throw it in your face, your goddamn knee goes out on you.
            But we’ve all had these little tweaks, little yips in muscle or tendon, foot, knee, elbow or shoulder. We’ve all made the lame joke about how we don’t seem to get over them quite as fast these days. That’s all this was, and I waited it out like a man. Iced it, elevated it, tried to stay off of it. But it’s hard to walk on one knee, and it didn’t get any better. I went to the orthopaediatrician, and now I’m on a pill, an anti-inflammatory. I get one tiny tablet a day, and it’s all I think about. I don’t know whether to take it in the morning so it can be working all day, or at night so I can look forward to it all day. Just like a junkie—except maybe with different delusions about the paradise that beckons. I just want my knee back.  
            My addiction to this pill made me start thinking about all the other pills I take. Two of them, I suppose, fall into the category of supplements, but I take them with fanatical devotion. One is fish oil, or Omega 3, or whatever it’s called, and I’m convinced it helps control my cholesterol, which tends to drift upward. The other is magnesium, the purpose of which need not be mentioned. Both, of course, are perfect metonyms for the universal syndrome we call aging.
            OK. Full disclosure. About that other pill: Do I use it? Heck yeah. I call it my “happy pill,” and I’m taking about hydrocodon. Bro: I’m telling you. It’s the way to go. It’s the only pill out there that delivers the satisfaction of assembling a piece of Ikea furniture without blowing your head off. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t abuse this drug or possess it illegally. But if I happen to luck into a prescription—for some minor surgery, say—I’m not returning the leftovers.
            Oh, you thought I meant that one. All I can say about that one is make sure you have the insurance.      
            So okay, maybe I’ve been in denial. Maybe it’s time to give it up, to let truth ring, to say the words.
Yes! I’m old and I take my pills.

But I ain’t changing how I fill out those forms. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mind Games

June 10, 2015

Mind Games

You’ve noticed it, right? The triumvirate? The Big Three? Come on, try to name one. Yep, you got it: the impossibly adorable golden retriever. Another one? Right again: the acoustic guitar leaning against the wall. Third . . . easiest of all: a yoga class in the background. What do they add up to? Sales. Today’s mad men (and women) have identified these three cultural markers as bankable touchstones of the contemporary zeitgeist, as images of health and happiness that can be counted on to reverberate pleasantly in the shared subconscious of a key demographic—that is, people with money. Trying to sell financial security? Pain-relieving drugs? A new line of active-wear? Throw this shit at ‘em.
            The Big Three, once I had isolated them, fell on me like a ton of clichés. It so happens that I have an acoustic guitar (which I whang on with annoying determination), Dede is a yoga teacher, and together we’re the overly fond parents of Myrtle, our golden retriever.
            Has it come to this? Really? After a lifetime spent shunning conventional roles—breadwinner, nine-to-fiver, stressed-out commuter, career-obsessed ladder-climber; after diligently cultivating a rich life of the mind and harking to the deeper truths of the natural world; after years of sneering contemptuously at the false promises of consumer culture, here  I stand, avatar of the silly people.
            How did it happen?
            On the literal, logical level I can explain it all away: Dede was doing yoga long before anybody saw it on television. I have a guitar because you don’t feel as worthless watching zillions of hours of sports on TV if you have a guitar in your lap. Myrtle was an emergency adoption.
            But all three, together, identifying my own household as an emblem of vapidity? Irony worthy of Sophocles. And there it is. I’m being punished for the great sin: intellectual pride. I’m being exposed as a fraud, shallow as a tadpole puddle. Nature boy? Ha. Your beautiful woods don’t mean anything to you but ticks. Big protester against the corporate oligarchy? Dude, you were an English major. What else were you gonna do?
            Okay okay okay okay. Maybe I deserve it. But still, who or what is the agent of this apparently purposeful retribution? As a skeptic when it comes to religion, I have to say I’m curious about whom I’ve offended.
The old, white-bearded white man who created Adam with a touch? Prob not. More likely it’s this modern bunch, the new pseudo-creators who get to decide which stars to hang above the rapt masses—stars like golden retrievers or acoustic guitars or yoga classes. These gods obviously have zero tolerance for blasphemy, and now they’re coming after me like a plague.
Well you know what. I'm ready to rumble. Soon as I get me some new active wear.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Consumption: The Behaviorist's Perspective

Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day. These cherished holidays give us a chance to renew vows of love, to celebrate Christ’s resurrection (or, for us pagans, the return of spring), to honor our mothers, to show a little gratitude for our brothers and sisters in the armed forces. Mostly, though, these holidays give us a chance to spend money.
I try to resist the impulse to blather on about consumption—about the insatiable beast into whose maw we pour all of our natural resources, including our own working lives—and out of whose ass come glittering new things, things we continue to hold more dear than the air we breathe and the water we drink. Because, you know, who wants to hear it?
Plus, it’s a losing battle. We can’t help ourselves. There’s something about spending money, about buying things, that satisfies us deeply—more deeply than, say, eliminating poverty or protecting endangered birds. Why?
Let’s take women first. There are roughly 3.5 billion women in the world, and all of them like to shop. I’m not saying just that they shop—everybody shops—but women enjoy it. Women spree. But take a look at what comes home in those pretty bags and boxes: clothes, including and especially shoes, jewelry and related adornments, beauty enhancements like soaps, lotions, and scents, not to mention the package herself—manicured and pedicured, waxed and buffed. It is an incontrovertible law of nature: The woman wants to be desired; therefore, she shops.
The wise man bows to this truth and, like me, will hold his tongue even when the woman complains about the chore of “reorganizing” her closet. The wise man knows that the female waxwing likes to spruce up her nest, maybe even weave a piece of found ribbon among the twigs, and he knows why. The wise man has learned to caress the linens and silks appreciatively, to nod over the new fragrance like a connoisseur, to grin happily at the $300 color job. It’s all for him anyway—or might be. 
Now, how about us men—wise or otherwise. Men are different; it’s categorical that they don’t get excited about the prospect of a day of shopping with the guyfriend. Sometimes out of necessity they do go shopping with their wives, but these excursions, for most men, can be endured only with the help of a nice, fat Percocet. Here’s the thing, though: When men do shop, they go big. Cars, boats, beach houses, Rolex watches, vintage Martin guitars, a new bag of Titleist golf clubs. Why? For exactly the same reason women shop: To make their existence known to members of the opposite sex—not excluding their wives and not necessarily younger women, but women, dammit. In the case of golf clubs and vintage guitars, such items are of course penis extenders intended to intimidate and oppress other males, which comes to the same thing.   
The monogamous relationship is on solid ground when the two partners go big together: first-class airline tickets for that week in Paris, August in Bar Harbor, the long deferred dream of the complete kitchen do-over.
Wait. What’s happening? Am I, your erstwhile advocate for the health and longevity of Planet Earth, seriously countenancing consumption on a colossal scale?
No, not exactly. I’m just saying that birds do it and bees do it and Father’s Day is right around the corner.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

In Defense of Sorriness

The arrival of the Great American Backyard Bird Count a few weeks back prompted a once-a-decade bird-feeder cleaning. I have a couple of the dome-over-dish type, and since I look down from my loft-office window, I figured I could count better if I could see through those weather-stained, mold-splotched domes. Should I do the cylindrical one, too, while I was at it? No. Obvi. Foul as it might have been, the cylinder had no apparatus to block my view. To borrow one of my dear departed father’s favorite expressions, I wasn’t going to make it my life’s work.
            I hauled ‘em in to the kitchen sink (Dede not at home), soaped ‘em, scrubbed ‘em, and rinsed ‘em down. Problem: when the domes dried they were just as opaque as they had been, though not quite as nasty. I took ‘em outside and went at ‘em with a spray cleanser. Made no difference. Hadn’t I had better luck last time I tried this? Hadn’t I been able to completely restore their acrylic transparency? What had I used? Since I couldn’t remember the answers to the first two questions, the third one was moot. I hung the feeders back up, having at least imparted a measure of hygiene. I had also succeeded in not making it my life’s work.
            A path opens before me down always-entertaining memory-loss lane, but today I have a greater theme in mind: sorriness.
            I’m not claiming to be the sorriest person in the world. I’m willing to bet that at least a few house painters are sorrier than me. Maybe a few jackleg auto mechanics. But I’m sorry enough.
            I deceived myself on this point for the longest time. Wasn’t I a go-getter, full of grand ambitions, a leader of men? Hadn’t I been elected president of my ninth-grade class? I was rounding the bend past sixty when it hit me that that was actually my mother’s conception of me and that it probably wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. Dead thirty years. Mom, let it go. It’s too late for me to be a Supreme Court justice.
            Now I see the truth. Now I look in the mirror and I see sorriness. What’s more, with these new eyes I can see a proclivity toward sorriness from an early age. One night in tenth grade (the huge election victory a year earlier notwithstanding), instead of reading the history assignment I hula-hooped 5,000 times, a perfectly pointless endeavor encouraged by my dear, long-gone, equally sorry brother. The go-getters pretended not to study and made the Dean’s List. I didn’t study and made Cs.
            But is that such a bad thing? My father would think so. When he said, “Don’t make it your life’s work,” you were supposed to understand that the injunction applied to putting gas in the lawn mower, say, rather than to, say, everything. He went to the office every day until he was eighty, a classic type-A. Which is fine, of course. But one of those in a family is probably enough.
            The way I see it, sorriness is a gentle, unassuming vice, one that doesn’t insist on dominating the personality. It’s a vice that leaves room for virtue. For example, sorry people almost never run for high office, direct global corporations, or incite religious fervor. The small force sorriness exerts does nothing but create an almost inaudible ping in the machinery of capitalist consumerism. Sorry people know how to say “no.”
            Sure, I wake up some mornings and think, “Gee, maybe I should do something today.” Because, in this culture, how could sorriness not be vulnerable to self-reproach?
            But we sorry people—those of us who are serious about it—will remain true to ourselves and strong in our aversions. Nobody is the boss of us.