Saturday, April 12, 2008
JEFFREY. A friend of mine died today. It's no big deal. He wasn't interested in living any longer, and I, who had spoken with him via cell on his deathbed, realized there was no there there when we talked. An on-again off-again friendship of close to 40 years was unequal to the shell of charm that was the calcified residue of what had made us friends in the first place. Not even the imminence of death in a hospice could precipitate a breakout from that shell. It was cool to the touch, even over the phone, and it poisoned my memory of what I used to think of as good times. I mourn his passing. He was brilliantly talented. I'm prepared to believe he inspired other people with that talent. But in his death he reminded me of my own father, a desiccated ruin who welcomed the end of his disappointments.
I have had an extraordinarily fortunate life. I was raised to be part of the prep school, Ivy League elite who rule the world with their minds. By an accident of geography I was also raised in a pair of predominatly rural counties that take hold of your soul with an anti-rational mix of vistas, smells, sounds, people, and pursuits which become part of your blood. The salt smell of the marshes and the burning rubber smell of drag and motorcycle tires cutting swaths through the moonlit silence. Serpent roads and internal combustion engines that slice through the mist of back roads, back woods, the river, the ocean, the bay, and the back streets of villages, towns, and even Philadelphia.
So I was always divided. Thomas Wolf said "You can't go home again," but he was an asshole. Going home again was the only thing that ever had the chance to save my soul. I had been brought up to be one of the Paper People, those whose province in life was supposed to be ideas but is instead the pillorying of all ideas, in the name of bookish superiority, a continuous demonstration of the power of wit and learning over the native creativity that is supposed to animate our best efforts. The only thing I learned from the Paper People was a certain superciliousness, the kind of preemptive dismissal of all things philosophical which is responsible for the exceptionally high percentage of our so-called 'best and brightest' who go to law school and business school and occupy the empty wastelands of stock trading, investment banking and corporate law.
I went so far as to go to business school myself. I actually did better at statistics and business case analysis than I had done at Dickens and Shakespeare in college, but there came a day when I realized that I was in danger of becoming a certified public accountant or a banker.
That's when I returned home -- to the grave disappointment of my father, who had lived most of his life in a town whose people he had never met, unless they were the right sort.
Now I know how wrong he was AND how right he was. In a curious way John Edwards is right. There are two Americas. But the difference between them is not what government can do to reconcile them. There's only what they both need to learn from each other. The Paper People think they have figured out everything important. They have their books and their goddamned smarts, and they have certain gifts at administration, organization, discipline, and rectitude. But they almost always make an unholy mess of their own lives. They're always the person tapping the outside of the aquarium thinking they can make the fish conform to their irrelevant will.
Then there are the real people. The ones who live in their senses and the moment. The ones who never have any money but always know where the best party is being held tonight. They don't have any books. They're the ones who know how to cut off dangerous tree limbs, pump your septic tank, put the power back on after an ice storm, catch the snake in your crawlspace, and reshingle your roof. They're also the ones who shoot bullet holes in road signs, think stripping is an okay profession, and will kill you in a barfight because they didn't really imagine what life in prison is like.
My PRIVILEGE in life is that I'm both these people. The blood of the Real People makes sense of the Paper People. I've lived in both their worlds. Real People are more fun but they repeat the same mistakes so endlessly you reach a point of wanting to be done with them permanently. (No, you really don't need to slash her tires and bust all her fenders just because...) Paper People are genuinely enthralling -- they know so much and can be so charismatically captivating -- but they live their whole lives without the slightest idea of what life is about, and they're actually proud of that fact. Their wit and intellect can kill you stone dead over a decade, and if you don't believe me, look at what happens to their children.
My ARTICLE OF FAITH is that most Americans are more like me than unlike me. We believe in the virutes of both Real People and Paper People. We subscribe to a sublime if naive notion that the ultimate of our breed is someone who knows how to live AND how to think.
To be honest, I go back and forth. Sometimes I can't stand Real People. Other times, like now, I positively hate the Paper People. What's the point of all that intelligence and talent if your only response to the sound file on this post is that it's "boring"? What I DO know is that Europe has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Paper People. Their entirely rational refusal to reproduce is the purest possble refutation of the rightness of their philosophy. They won't exist in another fifty years. America will. Because even though bipolar examples like me may seem like victims, in reality we are simply evidence of the roiling process that continuously rejuvenates our nation. When you get sick enough of the Paper People, you will stop buying their newspapers and magazines, and you will demand some combination in your leaders. Maybe that's Obama's real role: the reductio ad absurdem of the Paper People. Learn fast, my friends. Four years of superior platitudes is a lesson. Eight is a cataclysm.
You can see that nothing is going to be resolved in this post. Perhaps that's why I'm obsessed with the promise of Christianity, which does not conflate intellect with virtue. Intriguingly, the story appeals to all facets of human experience. It befuddled George Bernard Shaw as much as it does your local bartender. That's why I love it so.
Sleep well, my friend. You don't like this music, but I do. We'll argue the point later.