Well, I woke up this morning, Thanksgiving morning, at 3:30 AM and tried to sleep for an hour, but then I gave up. Maybe this sounds like insanity, but I was in one of those states of mind where all of my memories were just piling on top of each other like they do. I could never finish off a neat, linear collection of these memories in the tradition of Proust.
I hope that I’m not living in the end times, because I sincerely would like to believe that someday a historian studying the time and place that is 21st Century America will be capable of objectively writing about how aberrant our culture was.
I hope that this historian will in some way validate me my way of thinking, and I will be held in high regard as one of the lone voices crying in the wilderness as our Western civilization made its last gasps before descending into impoverished obscurity, while succumbing gratefully to our Chinese masters.
Okay, not exactly that. But then, there is the story of me that consists of a youngish old man who is not much different than he was when he was twelve years old.
There is this tendency to always allow the negative memories, the regrets, missed opportunities, etc. to flash forth as the featured cuts in the movie of me. It’s ridiculous, really, but it’s there.
To accuse me of lacking gratitude is to hardly know me. When I become overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude for God, country, wife, home, health, employment, dog, etc., I tend to get extremely excited, as if I’m still a youth caught up in the fancy that he’s immortal. I speak foolishly, and dance, and sing.
To say that I’m inclined to put most of my blame on others for my shortcomings is an inaccurate accusation. I spend only about half of my time when I’m in the negative state expressing myself in that manner. Who’s to say how much any given situation that didn’t go as planned is simply the fault of one human being? Isn’t that a bit arrogant (if you’re heaping all of the blame on your own head)? Either that or you’re making yourself like a primitive in the recounting of the situation, and assigning way too much power to mere mortals.
I’ve experimented with attempting to completely eradicate my ego, and let God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit move into the void left by the recently departed beast. It never works correctly. The beast is still there somewhere, screaming to be fed, and I would like to think that Jesus wants me to approach him as a simple man with human dignity, rather than a zombie.
But, I could be very wrong. There are so many things I could be very wrong about, that I am mostly left to continue implementing what works, and trying my damnedest to remove what doesn’t work. This means that I will never be a true Christian in the purest, most dogmatic sense of the word. But, if Christians can have the mystery of the trinity, why can’t I have my own little mystery of why Christianity, science and Buddhism seem to work so well together in my head?
Mostly this morning, my head was getting dogged by all of the negative memories, and I sat down here to try to sort this stuff out.
Which is to say that most of this is of little value to anyone else, except the urge to publish it online is compelling enough that I tend to post most everything I write. It’s the final closure to the loop, as if to say to God, well, if you think what I’m writing is going to be of value to someone, some day, then the ball is in your court to decide when and how others will pay attention to it. If not, that’s fine, too. At least I didn’t hide it under a bushel.
I do have this urge to one day sit down and attempt to write my entire life story in the detailed manner of Thomas Wolfe or Proust. I want to start back with the earliest knowledge we have of my ancestors, but not attempt to perform actual genealogical research on them. Rather, create character sketches of who these people were from the stories my parents left me.
How any of this matters, I don’t know. I’ve met many of my fellow descendents, and we don’t appear to share any exceptionally similar characteristics–I’m no more at ease talking to my first, second and third cousins than I am talking to any other American, be they black, white, brown, yellow, olive, etc.
If anything, I tend to be more at ease with the cultural outsiders–fellow bystanders who watch the WASPs, once the majority, implode. I am a WASP, but I don’t get most of the present day WASP cultural creations. I don’t understand the present generation’s fascination with recycled fashion, music and whimsy. I can’t mix well with the sports fans. The followers of reality television are by and large a mystery to me. It’s like we’ve taken everything that’s great about our culture and abandonded it, simply because it’s old or was created in times where our people by and large were the oppressors of religious and ethnic groups who weren’t WASPS or other white Western European variants.
I don’t understand the obsession with social media and mobile apps and gaming. New tech seems to be fetishized and touted as a panacea for all societal ills each passing year, and yet it only ever delivers about 30% of what it promises. This is by and large due to the fact that at the end of the day, new tech is like old tech in that it is simply a set of tools created to solve a problem or problems. If I didn’t have access to a computer, I would be sitting here typing this out on a typewriter, or writing it out longhand in a notebook. It doesn’t really make that much of a difference to me, other than it’s more convenient.
The things that are great and worth being grateful for are really things that we mostly take for granted, and I can’t necessarily blame anyone for this, because I take them for granted every single day as well.
I take for granted my very existence, but sometimes I am actually ungrateful to be alive. At times, I feel very unworthy to have been given the privilege of existence, when so many others who are probably more profoundly decent human beings have gone on before me, either in accidents or wars or other acts of service. Most mostly, I just take it for granted, as if I’d done something in a past life that sent me to the front of the line to have what is by and large one of the prime existences on the earth right now.
My eyes are also often wandering to the people who appear to be luckier than me in the gene and family fortune lottery. Oh, but if only I was born slightly more handsome, athletic or wealthier, why then, I would be truly happy. But, if I just had a slightly smarter brain, I would make just a little bit more money, and get to travel as much as I really would like to.
You can scoff at such childish, selfish thoughts, but they come frequently enough that they almost start to seem natural and inevitable. Or, when I’m in a really deluded state, I start to think that God wants me to lust after more riches and power like some proponent of a prosperity kind of gospel.
My true riches, though, are the good memories. Friends, loved ones and beloved pets are the great gifts in life. Of course, they aren’t treasures to be possessed, but gifts to be constantly grateful for. It’s the memories I make with them that are the possessions I cling to in this life.
Powerful treasures are these–simple moments flashing into the brain of times when I was young and full of promise. Spring was overwhelming. Girls destroyed me. I threw a fishing rod and tackle into my pickup truck and drove to a secret place by the lake. I loved the land, the seasons, the geese. Nothing beat a long walk with the dog down to the lake to see the beach where I once swam as a kid before the lake was overrun with motorboat pollution, garbage and geese feces. The lake still had a kind of primitive beauty about it, though. Memories of stealing away from the campsite down in the Ozarks to hike about in the woods on my own. Overturning rocks to search for spiders and scorpions, coming upon a doe and its fawn in the woods while all of my scouting buddies were busy trying hard to get their merit badges and become initiated deeper into the faux Native American tribe.
Nobody knew me in high school and college, except for a handful of friends who drifted away, found me again on Facebook; and we found that we had nothing to talk about. I didn’t agree with the ones who were now rabid liberals, nor with the ones who wer arch conservatives. Maybe all of them were right, because they’d clearly figured out life more than I ever did.
Of course, there was always Susan Parker and Priscilla Chernier–my two great crushes in grade school, junior high, high school, and beyond. No amount of evidence to the contrary could convince me at one time or another that one or the other must really be my soul mate. Susan Parker was half Cambodian, her father a Vietnam vet who married some lady he met while serving over there, and then divorcing that lady after creating three sons and a daughter to pass along the family military tradition. I wanted more than anything else to somehow be a part of that, but I didn’t have a clue. I would order the Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops mail order catalogs, and look at all of the guns and camoflauge, and pray that one day my dad would take me on a hunting expedition with him.
Priscilla was probably more my speed, if I’d ever bothered to actually try to get to know her. We worked together for a few months at Subway, and I kept hoping for some sparks to ignite and the two of us to get it on in the back after preparing the next day’s tuna and seafood spreads. Of course, my story back then was one of creating exceptionally detailed fantasies that could never be realized in a world like this one, with the least bit of evidence that real life wasn’t going to live up to a fantasy’s promise being the impetus to send me spinning into a miasma of self loathing.
By the time I turned thirtysomething, I started thinking more along the lines of how I could capitalize most effeciently upon my imgination. Several unfinished novels lay in the form of unopened files on my hard drive. I continued to be talked down to in creative, strategic meetings wherever I worked, simply because I had yet to finish constructing pieces of the social me. You are reading about a man who never attended a single school dance, didn’t play any sports except little league baseball and high school track, occasionally went on dates with girls but had had a total of two girlfriends by the time he graduated from college.
To make a blanket statement that I was socially behind my peers by say, six years, was a way of obfuscating the issues that were preventing me from moving forward. Socialization of humans is probably one of the most studied and least understood subjects. It is so for obvious reasons–it’s hard to study water when you are a fish. You inevitably end up swimming with the wrong school of fish until you have an opportunity to really see yourself mirrored in the eyes of many of them. At any rate, my point is that some pieces of the social me were constructed while caught up in states of endless escapist fantasies, or being drunk, or recovering from being drunk. Some were never constructed at all. By the time I made a conscientious decision to devote all of my time to resolving the issue of me not being as successful in life as I would have liked, I was well into my thirties, and had pieces of me that were probably operating at a sixth grade level, some at a twelfth grade level, some merely a few years behind my peers.
So, I would find myself doing swimmingly in a conversation about a work topic, and actually getting excited that I was being treated as an equal. Then, I would go out to lunch with the group, and get all flustered and confused when we were asked to go around the table and introduce ourselves. Little things were always coming up, like when to open a door for a lady and when to simply let the first person who got to the door have the honors of holding it. When to acknowledge someone you passed by in the hall, and to what degree. How to hold eye contact and not shrink up inside yourself when speaking to a forceful male personality.
You see, I also was incapable of developing a clear vision about the kind of man I could be.
I would swing wildly back and forth between seeing myself as having the potential to be a muscle-headed, MMA-loving, motorcycle driving man’s man, or a wimpy, nasally-voiced lover of art museums and poetry. I would go back in my mind to try to find a moment when I’d felt completely like myself without any bullshit about trying to impress some group of rebellious, so-called friends, and I’d find myself always in moments where I was alone or among family and close friends, away from groups of people and strangers.
I’d been accused too many times to count of being an effeminate man, the insinuation coming from so many different males I worked with (and even my father), that I might be gay. I tried so hard to take such a notion to its logical conclusion. I pictured any number of males from classes, male friends, celebrities, and couldn’t find one single male worth an erection. But, females gave me erections and fodder for fantasies easily enough. If there was a guy out there who could have proven all of those people correct, I never have met him.
But, in all truth, I knew I had a vision of myself that wasn’t that of a gay man. I had a fantasy of myself being a hero in a later Louis L’Amour novel–one of the ones he wrote that broke out of the Western genre. A loner, a lover of nature and people who were deeply in tune with the land. Quiet, introspective folks who didn’t say much, but felt a lot. Native Americans and cowboys out in an open range, or sailors on the open sea. I had a vision of myself as a clear-headed captain; keeping mostly to myself, but always ready to act bravely to show his men that he was worthy of being their leader. I made friends with John Steinbeck for awhile, and he told me about Sinclair Louis. Then, my roommate in college told me about Jack Kerouac and John Irving, so I made friends with them and the male characters in their books. I made friends with characters in books by Updike, Burgess, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Balzac, and several other writers who impressed me by the amount of linear feet their writing occupied on the shelves of the school library. I made friends with new age writers like Fritjof Capra, Robert Monroe and the guy who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
At some point, I found myself down in Austin, and in the company of males who were roughly my older brothers’ age. I thought they might have some kind of wisdom or experience to impart upon me, to help me on my path to becoming a more fully realized man, and I found myself caught up for years among men who refused to grow up–men who were partying like teenagers well into their thirties and forties. These men had no need to ask about the possibility of a bigger existence outside of themselves and the known universe, and they had no need to consider becoming bigger and better men than the men that they were–barhopping, bed-hopping, pool-hall and tattoo parlor-loving men steeped in the loud live music, cigarette smoke and cheap, watery beer delivered in plastic cups everywhere.
After these men came older, supposedly wiser men who were brought into workplaces to fix things. These fellows blustered a lot and spoke to me condescendingly, chiding and critiquing me, and belittling me–when all the while they displayed a terrific amount of sheer incompetence. I hated them. They presumed I needed a mentor, and started blasting away at me without bothering to spend an hour getting to know me.
So, I gave up on the whole notion of there being a male role model worth looking up to. After all, I was now in my mid thirties. I was supposed to have developed enough of a manly persona to start being a mentor myself–either to my own kids or somebody else’s kids. I thought I knew who I was, at least enough to get by, and I certainly knew a lot about who I wasn’t.
This was enough to finally settle me down enough to attract a woman who would become my wife. But then, I grew restless. I knew I could never be content with simply being enough of a man to make my wife happy, and settling for a middling sort of job and existence. Perhaps if children were to come along quite soon, this would all change. However, I am kind of inclined to think that it won’t.
The quest to develop a fully-realized version of myself continues.
The pieces of me that I wish I could do away with completely are still there inside of me in fractured little bits. They might wake me up at 3:30 in the morning, as they did this morning, and start slicing away at my inner peace.
I hate the whiny me.
I hate the tiny, angry me.
I hate the lazy me.
I hate the nasally me.
I hate the boyishly excited me.
I hate the overly reserved and quiet me.
I hate the scowly me.
He’s all really the same person–an infantile, quasi-entity who would rather take a handout than lend a helping hand to a situation. He is quick to judge and slow to forgive. He’s frustrated with himself for all of his perceived failures and shortcomings, and wants to figure out ways to punish others for his mistakes, but ends up just sitting around beating up on himself. He thinks he’s better than all other men. Really kind of ironic, isn’t it–the piece of me that is truly a small, petty sort of soul is the same piece of me that continually seeks to wallow in delusions of grandeur. Or, maybe that’s just the point–when you are all too aware of how small you are, you are faced with the choice of either accepting it, or trying to tear others down to your size.
There was this me that I really like to look back on.
He was probably sixteen or seventeen, maybe both of those summers. He had the start of a finely sculpted athletic body from running track and lifting weights. He wasn’t especially hairy yet. He’d only discovered one or two white hairs on his head. At glance, he was a perfectly handsome young male, but if you were a female trying to get to know him, forget about it. He hid behind a scowly, disinterested shell if you tried to talk to him, because he was scared to death of you. Away from girls, though, he was teeming with potential to be a great man. He was on the verge of receiving his Eagle Scout, he’d started to drive–a little Triumph Spitfire he’d purchased from his cousin.
He was growing a mullet.
He was going to skip track his Senior year. He was going to get addicted to cigarettes, and blow up and lose it when the macho jocks in weightlifting class decided to pee on him in the shower. He was going to date a redneck, chubby girl who’d already been with seven guys. He was going to actively seek every opportunity to smoke pot and drink beer. He thought he was perfecting an especially cool, hip persona that college girls would find especially attractive. He made Joe Dirt look like a preppy.
Such was the story of a young man afraid to completely face all of his simple social fears. Fears that everyone has, but fears that he thought were all the more exceptional and grand inside of him. His butterflies were demonic forces. His tied tongue was a sign from God. His awkwardness and shyness were portents of some deeper greatness that would one day be revealed as true magnificence. He was carefully constructing a house of cards that would never be completely razed.
That first girlfriend (his first real relationship) right out of collge was met with all of his yet preconceived notions about who he was. He was a straightforward, simple man who loved a few nice things about our culture, but loved many more things about nature. But, he kept trying to turn himself into a sophisticated hipster who went to every arthouse film that played in town, and rented all the ones that didn’t on VHS or DVD. Then, along came a true hipster, who played in a band with international fans, and that girlfriend was more than happy to have the real thing, rather than some pretend hipster sort of guy.
It wasn’t a year after this relationship ended that he was sitting on the sofa with a much more realistic sort of girlfriend (realistic for who he really was on the inside and out), and they were watching the movie Almost Famous, and Lester Bangs was talking about how they were uncool. Some kind of light came on.
The light didn’t completely guide him down the right path, but it was like a little seed planted.
He knew on some level that no matter how hard he tried, he would never be among the cool. Other hipster dudes would come along and win the praise and approval of the kids who cared about such things.
But, being uncool doesn’t mean that you have to be boring. It doesn’t mean that you have to humbly accept menial office jobs while people much younger than you get promoted to positions you had your heart set on. It doesn’t mean that you have to go home and veg out in front of the television, or spend the rest of your life laying around reading books. Being uncool doesn’t mean that you are dead, it just means that you are invisible to the beautiful people, the artsy people, the creative people, the rebels, the people who think they are being authentic by replicating the same arc of being that young people have lived for the past fifty years.
Being uncool means that you have more time to get rid of all the things you hate about yourself, and replace them with stuff that you (above all others) think is wonderful.
My oldest brother read Louis L’Amour, and my older brothers epitomized what it meant to be cool, and so I decided that L’Amour would be my first adult book author to tackle outside of a handful of sci-fi I’d read. I purchased “Fair Blows the Wind” at the store, and it soon stood out as my favorite. I repeatedly read the book from cover to cover. I enjoyed most of the westerns, but even at the age of twelve, I got the sense of the formulaic and grew bored with them after they all started to run together. Then, to finish off this quest, I read some of L’Amour’s final novels, which were set in modern times and didn’t follow his usual Western formula. I was totally in love with the idea of being a lone man left out in the wilderness with only his wits about him. I fantasized that I would meet some wise local man who was mostly Native American, and he’d teach me the ways of living off the land and surviving in all kinds of climates and terrains.
Of course, my L’Amour was kind of pushed to the back of my mind along with my Journey and my Boston (favorites of my other older brother, naturally) when I went to college and discovered that he was not an author that literary people read or admitted to reading.
Within the misguided fantasy, though, was a kernel of innate, primitive truth that stayed in my heart. As I grew more and more a citified individual, I sensed my separation from the land more severely, though I didn’t always understand that this is what it was. A man who knows how to survive in the wilderness like Rambo is a gross caricature of whatever this connection amounts to. Perhaps a Thoreau is more in line with the vision, but then again, maybe not.
It does beg the question, though: why are we all being disconnected from the land? Was the Great Depression too terrible to make us want to return to it? Did the technological advances of WWII and subsequent economic boom give each American man the opportunity to finally realize the secret family dream of becoming like an English feudal lord with his own square patch of green grass to obsessively cultivate? If most of us with houses and yards spent the time and money we do on our lawns on cultivating vegetable gardens, we’d have more than enough to feed our families in most areas of the country. Throw in a few chickens for protein, and perhaps a goat or two for those with larger yards, and we could all be completely self sufficient farmers who grow food just to feed ourselves. Most homeowner’s and neighborhood associations would banish us, though.
So then, the idea of living off the land like a farmer raises this unappealing specter of being a peasant, more bound to some master who tells us what we can and can’t grow or eat. We gladly submit ourselves to our HOA or neighborhood association so we can feel as if we are “free” lords of the manor. But, the desire to be connected to the land persists. So, we buy high-powered hunting rifles and oversize boats with more horsepower in their motors than most people’s cars, and try to reconnect with the land that way. Or we visit dude ranches or community gardens, or go “camping” at state parks with campers stocked with televisions and air conditioning. Still, no dice on feeling reconnected with the land.
This voice inside our heads to be reconnected with the land seems to be more of an annoying pest than anything. So, we mostly choose to ignore it, and pretend that our attempts at hunting, cowboying, fishing and camping somehow match our ancestors’. We ignore those dirty liberals pleas for us to tell our congressperson to pass stricter pollution laws. The land is fine. There is nothing wrong with the land. Why, I can still go out on my buddy’s deep sea fishing vessel and catch rare fish, and drive up to the cabin in the mountains and hunt bear and elk when I please. What are you talking about?
The need to have a connection with the land is something deeper than being able to have our own land upon which we can do what we like. It’s deeper than fishing or hunting trips, or deciding to become an organic farmer or visit a dude ranch. All of those things give us a taste of what the connection is about, but the connection is mostly severed and gone. And, the connection is about moving at a very different pace than the one at which we move. It transcends one culture. A Japanese poet with a Haiku about his mountains and melons understands it as much as someone living in a Greek fishing village who lives and dies by the ways of the sea.
We want this connection back, I think. Or, most of us do who haven’t become completely enamored of the ways and things of man. But, all of our attempts to get it back are sad caricatures of what the real thing once was. And, this is because our lives don’t depend upon the land. If our organic farm goes belly up, we declare bankruptcy or get more money from our parents, and return to our suburban lives. Nothing we catch, kill or grow keeps us from starvation the way a simple job with a food stamp allowance can. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the break from the land will have its consequences in future generations when resources are scarce, and foragers and scavengers reappear everywhere.
With no real way of getting the connection back, the next best thing is to spend as much time as we can outdoors in simple activities. For me, plopping down on a rock in a yoga pose is contrived. It is equivalent to telling myself I’m saving the environment by doing all of my shopping at Whole Foods and driving a car that gets better gas mileage than most. This need to be doing something with an object, or have a purpose beyond just enjoying nature, seems to be the mark of our absurd, overly industrialized selves. We at least need binoculars to bird watch, or a camera, if we aren’t carrying a gun. We need a fishing pole to sit beside a lake and enjoy the calm beauty of the waters and surrounding landscape. If we are walking in the forest, then our distance should be measured and counted and reported to friends, or we should turn the walk into a serious hike or jog and exert some kind of effort. We should bring hiking gear and climb a rock face, or a kayak to manipulate an object while we are on the water. There has to be some kind of purpose we can directly report back to civilization–animals we killed or caught or photographed, distance traveled, obstacles overcome…something. Nature is not to simply be enjoyed and appreciated on its own terms. It is a commodity to be consumed, used, appropriated, redistributed, monetized, etc.
But, that’s the way that it is and the way that it has been for some time, and there doesn’t appear to be any sort of stop or pause to it. Each generation becomes more enamored of the kinds of lifestyles afforded by technology and living artificially. More and more of us have jobs that couldn’t have existed even a decade ago. Were the plug on mobile networks to be pulled, hundreds of thousands of us would be unemployed. Then, pull the plug on the Internet, then personal computers, then electricity. Now, we are all back to being farmers, hunters, fishermen or teachers, storekeepers, bankers, lawyers. Kill coinage and return to bartering, and chances are, most of the teachers, storekeepers, bankers and lawyers return to being farmers, hunters and fishermen as well. But, what if we were capable of drafting a vision for a completely different kind of society?
One that isn’t extremely anti-this or anti-that, but simply more mindful of a bigger picture for how and why we are able to live the way we do. A society that raises people who love the idea of cultivating what they can on their little plots of land, instead of trying to have the perfectly manicured golf course lawn. We are the unfortunate product of all of the dreams and ambitions of our ancestors who left oppression behind to build something better. But we are probably not what they had in mind when they set about trying to make better futures for their kids and grandkids. We are slowly returning to being a feudal society as the wealth gets redistributed to the hands of a few. Capitalism has slowed down this process, but the especially affluent and wealthy are more than happy to maintain a status quo that doesn’t see the need to turn a lawn into a garden or mini organic farm. If those of us in neighborhoods everywhere became completely self sufficient, bartering and trading and producing for each other, then we would no longer need the Walmarts of the world to ship our goods in from China and other points beyond. If we became happy with our own local styles and cultures instead of trying to emulate some centralized set of standards, we’d be okay with wearing clothes that were out of fashion, and eventually happy to wear woven fabrics made from the animals and plants we raised ourselves.
As long as you have a man convinced that he can’t live without television, or a leaf blower, or a bigger, faster boat or truck–as long as you have a woman convinced that her wardrobe needs to change each year and looking like an actress or pop singer from LA or NYC matters–you’ll have this system where we gladly support those who make our sad little attempts to live someone else’s dream a reality.
The point, though, is that the system doesn’t need to be destroyed in favor of communism or agriarianism, or some other ism. That’s where societies turn stupid every single time. The point is to constantly ask why we do what we do, and why doing something differently wouldn’t be okay as well. If you are convinced that you are doing everything you do completely of your own volition without any outside influence from your culture, your heritage, your peer group, your family, etc.–you are not there yet. You aren’t even at the point where you can say what things you are doing simply because everyone else does them. Well, we have to get a leaf blower and stop raking our leaves because every other man on the block blows his leaves and doesn’t rake them like some old peasant. We need to start paying a lawn service to come and keep the lawn neatly trimmed and edged because all of our neighbors are doing it, and Lord knows, we don’t want to look like poor old peasants, or our grandparents who fought and died in wars so we could afford to hire immigrants to mow our lawns for us.
We need a bigger house. Our daughter needs a bigger, more expensive wedding than we had, because that’s what people do now. We need a bigger SUV, even though our parents drove us around in a four door sedan just fine, because that’s what parents do now. And on and on.
Seriously, do you really believe you do what you do out of complete free will? God, what is it going to take to get you to wake up and see how sick you really are?
At least, that’s what I want to shout at people, as I go running by with my dog on an early, brisk morning. Of course, verbally attacking a man who’s happily hitching his boat to his truck and loading the truck up with a cooler full of steaks and beer isn’t going to change society. Defiantly digging up my yard and planting potatoes isn’t going to launch a revolution. Nothing short of completely rewriting the definition of the American Dream will change things.