Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Memories: Childhood in the 1970s Part 10

For my entire childhood and most of my teenage years I did the same thing with my parents every Thanksgiving: the three of us climbed into a wide bodied tan or burgundy station wagon or Thunderbird and drove to my best friend George's house with his two parents Olly and Betty and his sullen and shy sister Val.

As I have repeated all too often, since I am a perceptual and sensual creature, this experience at George's was rife with a plethora of memorable sights, moods, and sensations.

George himself had the greatest sense of humor and we fancied ourselves a comedy team, always trying to write our own material and pretend were on Saturday Night Live. I remember little of what we concocted because our comedy, such as it was, was overshadowed by the decor of the house and the character of his family. More literally, nobody was interested in our acts since all attention was focused on Olly and then his daughter, and lastly, my own parents and their pontificating about current events. Of course his father Olly had that droopy, elaborate handlebar mustache that so reminds me of the character Nigel, as played by Harry Shearer in Spinal Tap.

If Olly's mustache weren't enough we were treated to the spectacle of him preaching and hectoring his daughter and giving hour long disquisitions on the superior virtues of Progressive Rock, particularly less known bands like Renaissance. But Olly's stache stole the show, so distracted I was by it that I remember little of content in what he had to say.

Less pleasantly, since Olly fancied himself an amateur anthropologist, he would insist upon lecturing his daughter on the habits of tribes in other cultures. Sometimes his lectures were to be held in secret, sometimes we were invited. He felt she was the one of the two with the superior intelligence and had essentially given up on his son, who was a slow learner, however gifted with wit, leaving the two of us to explore their insane 1970s house and backyard.

George and I tried to be serious about comedy. We would listen to records of Bob And Ray and Gilda Radner and Richard Pryor and George Carlin and try and figure out how they worked. What we loved about Bob and Ray was that they were a team and most droll and absurdist in outlook. (Though we would not have known to describe it as such). I remember one bit called "write if you can get work" and we really appreciated tracing comedy back to its earlier roots - before SNL. One summer my father taught us a Shakespeare class, an early variant of home schooling you might say, and I remember my disappointment that it was mostly plays like Macbeth and Hamlet on the "syllabus" since I had hoped for some comedies too, especially As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.

George and I rebelled against his father's taste in music and I was always attempting to go to George's room as a musical oasis where I would insist on listening to Sonny Rollins records and whatever "fusion" records George had bought. But we had little time alone to listen to jazz or finish our budding comedy act as Olly would always make sure to enter the room unannounced, to reprimand his son in front of us for not being as bright as his sister, and to talk about the bands Genesis and Renaissance as what was really "cutting edge" and ahead in music.

I had never known so many clashing and vibrant shades of pastels to coalesce in one environment. Not only was the deep shag in chocolate brown covering every inch of wall space, but there were this bright pastel fuzz - I know not what else to call it - covering appliances, especially the entire bathroom, in apple green, and powder blue, orange, canary yellow, and many others. This is to say nothing of all of the artwork - all of those heavy velvet and oil paintings of historical figures and, so we were told, obscure family members from previous centuries, the paintings that literally gave me nightmares the few times I had to endure sleeping over. (The decor and the general atmosphere there was rather unpleasant for me. I wanted to visit but not sleep, let alone ever live there).

These colors bring to mind George's mother because she always made her specialty which was a grasshopper pie and we loved that dish so much. The recipe was a secret and when we were most young we had believed there were real grasshoppers in it taken from the backyard and cooked. I was not to worry because "they tasted just like Oreo cookies". I remember that Betty wore much louder clothing than my mother. Both women loved these ugly dacron things, these shapeless tops and bottoms that you sort of just pulled on, stuff with lots of elastic. But Betty loved to be inspired by, I guess, Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and would wear the loudest pastel checks and plaids in the largest scales.

George's mom, Betty met Olly while they were coworkers. They happened to be both postal employees, the mail carriers who rode rounds in the suburbs. Almost no mention was made of the U.S. mail nor any practical work matters at the yearly Thanksgiving. But much mention was made of how great it was that both the parents worked (!) and had good jobs they were proud of. Its equality was seen as the virtue, so in a sense, in this one respect, and in spite of some personal unhappiness that resided there, George's family was ahead of it's time.

All of this Thanksgiving celebrating was to end abruptly. Firstly, when my own parents divorced in my middle twenties, and my mother actually left "home" to move to another state in the south. Secondly George's parents divorced, a few years later. Both my family and his had been married for a good twenty or thirty years. It was rumored that George's father had a penchant for streetwalkers and other activities of the kind. Last I heard he gave up his interest in anthropology and progressive rock for Bible Study, and became a serious Christian. (Presumably the streetwalkers were also given up, considering his newer religious interests as well).

Both Olly and Betty remarried. (Olly remarried twice, his wives becoming younger I believe). So did my father. My mother never remarried. Betty married a rather handsome wealthy businessman with whom she appears happy. Valerie, her daughter, also married a businessman, albeit one with progressive interests. To this day George and I remain unmarried.

My mother attempted to hold a Thanksgiving meeting/reunion over there many years later, after both families' divorces. Both my mother and Betty invited other women over and all husbands were out of the house, (having been expelled from the marriages), leaving in essence an all female Thanksgiving, with the notable exceptions of George and I, having to overhear the turkey conversation of that table. The spectacle of that day, especially the frank, brutal and graphic conversation of these obese, middle aged (and senior) women sitting around a table and discussing the sins of the male sex was truly of of the most disturbing experiences of my life. Gone too was the decor of that earlier period. Everything was light, airy, streamlined and tastefully bland.

I was most shocked that they would carry on like this with me and George present, as if we were not people who would be disturbed by being privy to their authentic sentiments. Even well into adulthood, I had no way to make sense of divorce, and who was to blame, and above all, I felt such a sense of loss, and our dependency as children on the vagaries and convictions of adults; and as adults, our dependency on the wills and often conflicting beliefs of other peers.

George's sister had grown into a beautiful woman with a career in accounting. I remember her telling me on that final Thanksgiving day that I had to make decisions in my life about which parent with whom to side and that she felt my father and her father were villains.

"Why would you ever want to have anything to do with your dad?" was what she bluntly asked me. She was most unhappy that I could not assent: I mistakenly insisted that it was their business and that we could never fully understand. She has never forgiven me, I think, for that statement, though on the face of it, it seemed at the time a sensible one. For Valerie was happy because she was free from her father and leading an accountant's life, and I was a confused man living as a musician in Boston and coming down to a very changed Florida and all I could remember was all of the fun George and I had as children in that crazy seventies house.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s: Part Eleven

If you will recall my first love, rather my first love who was actually a peer and not a teen working for the family business (Carla), or an English teacher (Ms. Miller) or a celebrity stranger (Jacqueline Bissett, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant etc.), you will remember Lydia. Of course I got distracted by Lydia's mother because of, well, Ms. Rodding's Miles Davis records and the fact that Ms.Rodding (who was the first woman to explain to me the Ms. formulation, in great earnestness) was more like Ali McGraw, that is, a fully developed woman, than her daughter. I also got distracted by Lydia's best friend Sally. But it appeared to me then and it feels in my memory now that Lydia was more important to me than anybody else, at least with a certain degree of romantic equality.

But as we talked, usually in and around the expansive trees that populated the freaky free school - the one with the headmaster's van and other local color - we shared all that we had on our minds, especially our shared love for the movie Annie Hall, which was the only "adult" movie Lydia's mother allowed her to see. (Seeing R rated and G rated movie was a weekly event for me of course). People then as now love to fit our individualities into the fashion and framework of celebrity examples, and Lydia was always told that she looked like Diane Keaton (!) No similar comment was made as to my likeness with Woody Allen.

Such long talks over hours gives you an idea, not only of our lovely time together, but also of the absolutely irresponsible attitude of a school that would allow so many hours pass by with kids spent outside in the afternoon, with no clear classes, grades and other traditionally accepted parts of school life.

What I had not revealed before dear reader was that after many years apart, I suddenly got the idea to contact her. I had just spent my first year away at a boarding school and I was curious to see a childhood friend now that we were teenagers and I was in high school.

In life we often must look back in order so that we may understand the present. Partly in fidelity to this particular truth we must slightly leave the 1970s behind - alas and alack - and venture into....the 1980s, albeit a very early 80s that in many respects is not so far apart from the late 1970s.

I gathered the courage to contact Lydia, after more than five years. I had just finished a freshman year in high school and was prepared to go off to a dream of an institution called Interlochen Arts Academy, one of the very few schools I experienced that I can call with some justification decent, if not excellent. I was unable to drive and called up Lydia. Inexplicably and with some horror I realized that one of my own parents (I cannot and do not want to remember which) had called Lydia's mother to set things up. That is, I had not even had the opportunity to speak with her since we had both entered adolescence, or puberty, or whatever the experts are calling it these days. Somehow, I was told by my mother in her usual manner, which is to say like a female drill sargeant (or female PE coach), I was to be "dropped off" and left in the company of Lydia in one of those early 1980s vast shopping malls, meeting in the parking lot.

Nothing prepared me for the shock which was the sight of an adolescent Lydia. Everything about her was so radically changed, from hair, to clothing, to the excess of makeup and accesories, that I had to literally ask twice if it were her, if she indeed was Lydia. I do know I must have said Lydia several times to her for confirmation, to say nothing of validation.

I really don't know how to describe the change. I am not a great or even particularly good literary stylist. I do not do novels or short stories. I wish I could magically imbide some of the vapors of an Elkin, a Roth, or especially, given our subject, an Oates.

The Lydia I remember was a deeply hippie styled girl. She had wild curly brown hair and full lips and slight but pleasing curves and went about in bell bottomed dungarees and tie dyed or denim halter tops. That may have accounted for a lot of why I loved her. That form was all that I knew.

The new Lydia, you might say, was what was called a "valley girl". She was wearing so many shades of plum, teal, fuchsia and pink that my senses were overwhelmed. I felt as if I couldn't see her. She had this enormous skirt and these large hoop earrings, like a bargain basement version of Cyndi Lauper, you might say. For all I know she might have had incredible style for the time, but I was too shocked by the change to fully be in the moment and relate to the newer her.

It was a date of sorts. Indeed you might say that we saw a perfect date movie, if you believe in such categories, which I adamantly don't. The film was called Valley Girl.

As I recall I loved it but she didn't. This started a lifelong pattern of gender reversal where we would see these studio or even independent movies that were seen as aimed towards a female market or sensibility and it was always I who ended up liking the movies while my female date would hate it. Thus the fallacy of over generalizing and stereotyping.

We ate sushi which I had never had before, and for which I had little appetite and she did most of the talking, about things which seemed far removed from her childhood concerns. Instead of her stories or her flute she talked of New Wave pop music and how much more conservative she had become, at least more so than her out of date parents. And she had to mention her puzzlement at why our parents had set things up as they did. She made it clear in so many ways that she was engaging in an empty formality and, in her words "she was not the same girl" that I had known and with whom I had spent time",  above all making it clear that "I hadn't seemed to change at all".

I was consumed by philosophical thoughts the whole evening, even during the movie which was rather well written and acted. Thoughts like these: what is identity? How and why do people change? What is the nature of that change and is there a deep core that remains unchanged? I really wanted to know. These are questions that are still important to me.

The worst part of the date was its conclusion. As she walked me to her car. I reached over to kiss her something I had never done with her and had always wanted, perhaps because we had always seemed so young. And here I assumed that we could act more like, well, adults. Yet she pushed me away most fervently explaining that she didn't really feel about me the way that "everyone" knew that I did. She said she had to get back to do homework and listen to some music she felt I would just hate, something called Men At Work, or Haircut 100. I forget which.

My first kiss was not a kiss at all but a great risk, a mishap. How much better was the backstage smooching as a child, so primitive and polymorphous, and rooted not in traditional intimacy but bodily brute drive. Why there was even a group involved as it was group kissing with several girls. Conversely, this business of the couple seemed to me woefully overrated to me. I wondered what the fuss was all about for close to a year after that.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Gradations of Evaluations

There is a matter of daily life that is little discussed, even less understood and yet holds a key to our understanding of value. I am referring to the mode whereby we are engaged with an object with some interest, we find it serviceable in some way, functional, and yet, for a variety of reasons we do not exactly love or fully embrace the object in question. Too valuable to be mediocre yet too compromised to be great we might use words like average or okay to accurately express our reception.

It is a pity that this mode is so little discussed since it comprises the majority of our artistic experiences in this life (or it ought to, lest we are too promiscuous with our enthusiasms). One might say that the majority of experiences in life are like this as well. They are not irritating or tedious, yet do not create strong joy either. But we might find things to like in them.

This positive acknowledgement of that which is okay or "good enough" is pervasive in other parts of cultural life. It is certainly a key concept in newer psychologies, such as the concept of the "good enough parent."

One of the cultural reasons why this mode is underrepresented and under appreciated is the hyperbolic nature of our popular media and our linguistic habits. When the word "awesome!" is used to describe practically everything we experience to the point where it it functions as a thoughtless preposition rather than a superlative adjective, this can only signify our inability to take seriously the distinction between our likes and our loves. We might lose our appreciation of the above average.

Inability to read in this way accounts for the extraordinary enthusiasm for works which do not merit the volume of attention, especially mass cultural attention, upon them.

For example, whatever the merits of the epoch shaking show Madmen - i.e. the wardrobe is authentic and attractive, the drama is entertaining by contemporary standards of entertaining representation in drama, the behavioral and narrative events are emotionally absorbing - the show is not of the excellence of, say, Anton Chekhov. Yet one would never know this to read the reviews and reception of this award winning show. Curb Your Enthusiasm, on the other hand, is a kind of comedic masterpiece. It is rather like Chekhov! Indeed, one of the reasons why Curb Your Enthusiasm is superior to much of the rest of dramatic television is that it absolutely refuses to "glamorize" or overtly dramatize our terrible dailiness. This is not only because it is a comedy, because certain non-comedic dramas traffic in a similar dailiness (the films of Mike Leigh are an excellent example).

Importantly it is because Curb Your Enthusiasm confronts most directly the dilemma of the individual and the collective or community in ways that avoid the temptations of solutions. Madmen, on the other hand, cannot escape from a need to flatter our advanced progressiveness concerning class and gender, specifically even as it romanticizes a past that is objectively so much superior to our own in terms of quality of commodities, design, fashion, and so on. It wants us to enjoy the past vicariously, without having to specifically undergo too painfully the oppressiveness of the past, if, for example, we are women. This contradictory two-step is perfectly accomplished through that rather new Bill Condon influenced genre of contemporary costume drama, where getting all of the period details correct becomes the theme of the work, a mode that afflicts our cinema as well. (Walk The Line, Ray, Kinsey, and An Education all do this).

We imagine so extravagantly the past because we are unable to imagine sufficiently, save for a few bright figures like Larry David, the present. The problem is in part linguistic.

What has been lost is the kind of language used to describe most of daily life, which is, after all, concerned with events and states of consciousness which are neither bad nor great. They are not even mediocre. Rather they are are a curious yet most common variant of "okay".

Curiously and almost paradoxically, the inability to deal with the middle of life and art is connected with a loss of reverence for the "high" and loss of suspicion or skepticism for that which is "low". Everything that is merely passable is defined upwards and the "high" might become invisible or irrelevant. In her new book The Age Of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby makes the claim that we have lost a truly middle-brow culture, a phenomenon I can't help but be convinced is connected to the lack of a place afforded the "middle" in life; or at least a feeling for and understanding of the middle as a conceptually real and distinct, though large, part of culture.

In the current issue of Raritan, (Summer 2010 Volume xxx, Number 1), critic Robert Boyers, in an essay entitled "Pleasure Revisited", offers an evaluation of our inability to evaluate and even read that makes me see in him as close a kindred spirit as I could ever hope to find. Since his essay is such a perfect distillation of a background theme throughout these blogs I am compelled to quote him at great length. His word shall be the last.

"The militancy required to dismiss certain kind of work as 'popular' or 'pandering' or 'obvious' is rarely in evidence in our culture, where trash may be solemnly studied in the academy and accorded respect for its political content, and professors of literature no longer think it a part of their function to educate taste or rescue their students from escapist fantasy".

"If pleasure was, not long ago, associated with the capacity on the part of most writers, artists, and intellectuals to maintain a certain spiritual militancy that would allow them to savor works uncommonly rigorous or demanding, works that withheld from their audience an easy or immediate gratification, and that militancy is no longer felt to have anything to do with the pleasure most of us seek, then a momentous change has surely occurred. The reluctance to invoke certain distinctions brings in its wake an increasing inability to make them. thus do we see the blurring of boundaries between one kind of thing and another, the debasement of the language of value and description into meaningless labels or the borrowing of terms that once had a particular meaning for entirely alien purposes".

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Truth and Falsehood

These days, given the dominance of scientific methods, there is little actual respect accorded the results of a human being sitting alone in a room. It is true that many resultant works from such a scenario are beloved: there are mass market fictions and non fictions that are created from isolation, there is this blog you are currently reading and, of course, millions of others. However the currency of Truth is not of the essence in isolated pursuits. Rather these days scientists, especially of the hardest variety are very much of a mind like Patricia Churchland, who flatly stated that there could only limited progress in understanding from a person sitting alone and thinking. If you thought this was bad, and wondered whether progress could be made through relation and conversation, biologist Simon Levay is on hand to assure us that no progress could be made in the realm of understanding human sexuality from sitting around and discussing it. Apparently sexuality is such a third person, objective part of life that only, say, brain imaging and controlled studies could get at the truth of sex.

These are views of life that could only arise when a significant part of the elites or leading intellectuals in a given culture have implicitly or explicitly rejected the notion of first person experiential consciousness, or at the very least, have relegated such consciousness to an illusory movie that plays as a result of neurons firing. The problem with this view is not that it is reductionist per se, but that it is so extreme and radical a reductionism.

These are the sort of sentiments and assertions which naturally flow from an age of the brain. Everything that is not strictly the product of specifically scientific laboratory experiment, as in minute monitoring of brain states and so on, is seen as unreliable and in some quarters unreal and speculative.

In such an age, one that Karl Popper would rightly call "scientistic", disciplines like philosophy and psychology are essentially getting replaced by neuroscience. What good is sitting alone in your room, as wrote Kander and Ebb in Cabaret, when you can go to the lab and find out why you really are the way you are, rather than relying on your poor misguided memories, recollections, feelings, everyday reasoning, ordinary observations?

On all of these blogs I have been sitting alone in a room typing. Quite literally too, as unlike many of my contemporaries it has not and is not on a laptop amidst a crowded public space, say, a coffee shop. Would you have more implicit respect for me dear reader were my results not dreamed up from out of my brain but backed by "studies" - able to posted all over the relationship section of the Huffington Post, with keywords like "controls" and data and all sorts of though experiments like dividing people in rooms and getting responses to games and puzzles involving ethical issues and life situations? If it involved the sort of topical fears and fads of the moment, like food and nutrition issues, and our perceptions of each other, and the roots of Tea Party racism, or why and how we are altruistic or religious, or selfish according to some research group, would not my blog be a little respectable?

Never has a culture been more obsessed with the truth and falsity of itself and its representations of itself. Perhaps, not coincidentally, never has a culture had more plainly fallacious views of things. (Some of the more improbable religious beliefs are held by over half the population). The two problems are connected because we fail to honor both Poetry and Science. We have forgotten that each have work to do, but, they are not meant to be in tandem. (There is that knee-jerk Holism again in wanting to merge the two).

This split between Truth or fact on the one hand, and illusion and imagination on the other, has been a problem for much of human history. It is not inevitably a problem, for example, that we must have parts of life that are imagined or pretend and parts of life that we take to be as factual as the ground beneath our feet, nor is it a problem that these two are kept separate in some way. It was such a problem for Plato that he would have banned poets from his Republic. Plato, for all of his unscientific pontificating about ethereal forms, had a suspicion of the poets because he was only concerned with that which could be said to be really existing. He thought human culture should be a kind of news program, whereby people are saved from the sorts of dreams and nightmares that come when people spend too much time alone.

(Interestingly enough, just as I write this scientists have discovered that it is bad for us to think alone. I am not a conspiracy minded soul but is this a mere coincidence that this proof of the perils of thinking alone is revealed at the very moment when we only respect team generated scientific discovery?)

We do justice to neither poetry and science and eventually one of the domains might, in an almost colonial manner, come to play the role of or replace the other.

This project is akin to Churchland's project when she insists that there is no "spooky" stuff. By "spooky" she means that there really aren't real values in the world floating in the ethers like Justice and Love and Beauty and so on. These are rather mere metaphors for habits we have gotten into in perception perhaps a result of some crude atavistic need to reproduce and similar stories. She is not saying the feelings aren't real; she is not saying we should stop using words like Love and Justice but that we have been wrong about their meaning and source all along. In essence we have been as wrong about ourselves as we were about chemistry and physics in previous centuries before further proof was available.

Of course to do this move is a damning indictment of this richest of cultures we inherit. It is also a way to flatter the present at the expense of our rich past. Could it be that Shakespeare has less truth or fact in his plays because he lacked our scientific advantages?

Or it is possible that one can make genuine discovery or progress in non scientific ways, in ways that consist of sitting alone in a room or talking to others in an informal context?

This blogger - your weary, jaded, middle aged musician and amateur philosopher, clad in my three piece flannel lounge suit (though with no pipe or martini in sight) is alone in a room and here to assert, without consulting the proofs of science, without benefit of experiments however controlled, that Love, Justice and Beauty and Truth are actually quite real. Indeed I submit that they are as real as tables and chairs. That they do not have an actual physical location in space or even in our brains is no argument for their non-existence. I know that this is a terribly old fashioned view, I know it is very unhip. While it does have a venerable and historically ancient pedigree, it might strike, you dearest reader, as simply too simple or traditional to be possibly true.

Yet this was the view of some of our greatest minds in many cultures around the globe. The details and tones might differ but the sentiment is the same: we have selves, our world is thoroughly suffused and shot through with value. We are conscious. We have experiences.

What I am talking about is not a religious view. Indeed one need not be religious in the slightest to hold to what I am now saying. The religious themselves play the same game as the scientists. They want to live in a world where all is reduced to third party or third person evidence; it is just that their criteria for what counts as evidence is so thoroughly baroque as to run to the opposite extreme to Churchland. Whereas she wants to edit and chisel cut away all non essentials within a hairbreadth of life, many if not most of our religions want to expand indefinitely until every part of our Soul is accounted for, explained, and mastered. The result is, in spite of the profound differences (Science makes a fetish of evidence, Faith makes a mockery of it) rather similar. I sense in both a touch of the Fundamentalist.

We live in a fundamentalist culture, as today's election results in the United States in part attest. We think in terms of ultimatums, in terms of final causes and at our worst, final solutions.

Let us never lose sight of the individual. It is the individual who is precious. Descartes made many an error but one thing he got right is that the one thing we can be sure of is that we are undergoing an experience, and through that experience we exist, though I would not want to limit it, as Descartes may have, to only thought.

After the earnestness of this blog I promise my next one will be more colorful. I promise to make sure and be more chatty and intimate, to "reach across the aisle". I promise to have some pictures to delight, amuse or distract.

But remember, after all, I am just a guy sitting alone in a room.