Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Rip Effect

Lately I’ve been imagining what it would be like to wake up, à la Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, after a long sleep. Say, 42 years.

It’s 1968. I’m partying heavily in the Cascade mountains. It’s summer. Everyone is walking around naked. Men and women. Laughing, joking, hanging out. Everyone is stoned on one substance or another: mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, hashish, marijuana, wine.

I wander away from the group. I wade through a marsh. The water is cool, the sun hot on my back. It’s a perfect day. I grow drowsy. I stumble upon a group of bearded men sitting around a big wooden keg imbibing a beverage that looks a lot like beer. I’m cordially invited to have some. I am handed a mug. It tastes wonderful, dark and strong, like Guinness. I fall asleep. I wake up. I have an enormous beard, absurdly long hair, and have mysteriously aged and gained weight. I attempt hitching a ride into town. No one stops. I notice the cars and trucks look different. The cars especially. They are much larger. Huge, in fact.

I end up walking into town. My feet are sore. I’m a little pissed that no one stopped. I’m also naked.

I’m going to skip all the details about haircut, clothing, and shelter, and go to the heart of the story. Let’s assume, à la Rip Van Winkle, I have been picked up by the police, taken to Harborview, identified, taken in by a friend or family relative who might still be living. I’m given clothes. I shower. I shave. I’m now ready to enter society. It is mid-October, 2010.

With newly opened eyes, I begin to take in all the changes. The really big, really noticeable ones, and the smaller, subtler, not so big ones. I will list them.

1. The Jetsons.

There are no Jetsons. No people flying around with jetpacks. This is not what I expected. People are still on the road. Still driving cars. And the gridlock has gotten worse. And the streets are in disrepair. There are potholes everywhere. Cracks, pustules, carbuncles, welts, and craters. Driving is now a dodgy maneuver in order to keep your CD from jiggling and skipping a lyric in a song, or your entire car from skidding over the lip of a chasm and disappearing down a tunnel of old sewer pipes and electrical cable.

There are a few more bicyclists than I remember from the 60s, but apart from that, not much difference. There are no aerocars with bubble tops, no Rosie Robots busy doing the housework while the breadwinner of the household rests from a three hour a day, three days a week job whose sole task is pressing a button, and which confers a big enough paycheck to afford a shiny space age house on an adjustable column.

I do notice an unusually high number of men wearing something that looks like a jetpack, but it turns out to be a device called a leaf blower.

2. Drugs.

I am not at all surprised to see that most drugs are still illegal.

Except for marijuana.

I would have expected to see marijuana legalized by now, especially since it’s so much safer than cigarettes and alcohol. It surprises to me to see so many people still smoking cigarettes.

But marijuana? Still illegal? That’s crazy.

I discover that, as of 2002, there were 135,000 felony marijuana inmates in U.S. prisons, That it costs $ 2 billion annually to house those inmates. That it costs over $ 7 billion annually to fund U.S. marijuana prohibition.

California, I am not surprised, is the first state with a proposition on the ballot to legalize marijuana. And that there are 14 states that have legalized medical marijuana, California being among the first.

Medical marijuana? What’s that, I wonder. Isn’t that a redundancy? Aren’t all drugs taken with the intent to medicate oneself? Alter one’s mood? Heighten one’s consciousness? Broaden one’s perspective? Assuage one’s disposition? Illumine, with a milder, more benevolent hue, the prison that is one’s self?

Marijuana, it seems, alleviates nausea and other pains associated with cancer and chemotherapy.

A lot of people, I am frightened to discover, have cancer. Breast cancer, colon cancer, cancer of the prostate, lung cancer, brain cancer, thumb cancer, lip cancer, throat cancer, big toe cancer, little toe cancer, cancer of the fingers, cancer of the liver, cancer of the bones.

Why all this cancer?

Toxins, I discover, are everywhere. In the water, in fetuses, in the dirt, in houses, in rugs, in bugs, in food, in juice, in carpets, in couches, in the air.

The environmental protection agency is a joke.

Corporations do what they want.

3. Computers.

Everybody has a computer. They’ve become as common as typewriters. But people don’t use them to calculate heady quantum physics equations or penetrate the secrets of matter and energy or deepen their understanding of the universe. They use them to exchange messages of mind-numbing banality. Trips to the store. Skin problems. Anal itching. Celebrity gossip.

4. Books.

I notice hardly anyone reads books anymore. There are numerous homes without a single book or magazine within view.

5. Television.

Televisions have become huge. Almost as big as movie screens. The variety of programs is staggering. Most of them the programs are dumb, utterly predictable, just as insipid as they were in 1968. A few, however, such as The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, are devastatingly funny and very smartly written.

I discover that on certain cable networks, such as HBO, people are now aloud to say ‘fuck’ on TV. This does not, however, much improve their dialogue, or the monologues of the comedians, whose routines now seem mostly centered around poopoo and sex. They are infantile and scatological.

Though not all. Some comics have grown devastatingly sharp. Two, Bill Hicks and George Carlin, really stand out.

Bill Hicks, I will discover, will die young, at age 32, in 1994, from pancreatic cancer. But before then, his routines will continue to ring prophetically into the coming decades. He will harangue against religion, marketing, and predatory capitalism with devastating wit and humor.

George Carlin will age. His hair will thin and grow white, and, in June, 2008, he will die. But his mind will stay young. Razor sharp. In the decade or so before he dies his comedy routines will become sharper than ever. His insights will go deeper. There will be more anger. He will be tougher. Rougher. He will take on religion, especially the hypocrisy and cruelty that seems to be an adjunct of almost all organized religions. His monologues will grow openly misanthropic. Yet his appeal will linger. At least among a small portion of the American population that have not gone to sleep.

6. Conversation.

Except for a few rare but notable instances, all conversations are shallow, rote, totally uninteresting. People appear to have lost all curiosity. And since they no longer read, conversations are limited to movies and TV and sports. But even among these topics, any attempt to go deeper into a topic is met with hostility.

7. Fascism.

This is probably the least surprising development. There were certainly signs of fascism in the 60s. That’s what a lot of the protest was about. And as early as 1935, Sinclair Lewis had predicted that when fascism reared its ugly head in the United States, it would be wrapped in a flag and carrying a bible.

There are no concentration camps in evidence, at least not recognizably as such, though freedom in general is severely restricted. For those with a modest income, which is pretty much the entire population, choices concerning one’s movements and aspirations are stark to non-existent. There are few jobs available for young, uneducated adults. And since the public education system is hardly more than a poorly funded travesty of mind-deadening routines of endless testing geared to do everything except teach children how to think, this means a lot of people.

The U.S. military is the only viable employer. Death and plunder are now major U.S. exports.

And prison. That has become a growth industry.

The U.S., I discover, has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, and also the highest total documented prison and jail population in the world. 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents, or 1 in every 31 adults. I find this highly disturbing.

I also discover huge numbers of middle aged people trying to survive at menial jobs at big box stores and fast food franchises, flipping burgers, mopping floors, cleaning toilets, welcoming customers at Wal Mart, arranging shirts and coats made in sweatshops in India and Indonesia, standing outside Home Depot hoping for a gardening or construction job, or clerking at convenience stores and service stations.

Men and women getting on into their 50s and 60s struggle to get by on paychecks that can’t be stretched far enough to cover all their rent and food, even for themselves, much less their children, and leave no disposable income with which to buy articles to help fuel the economy. Many supplement their incomes with credit cards that carry usuriously high interest rates. If someone in the family gets seriously ill, or breaks an arm, they must go to the nearest emergency room, where they will be charged thousands of dollars for treatment. Except for the very well-to-do, no one will be able to afford health care until age 65, when they will be eligible for Medicare. If they can afford even Medicare on a fixed social security income.

Fascism is not necessarily troops doing goose-steps in perfect unison in the streets, all while saluting a dictator who looks down from an operatic balcony. This is its pageantry, its external trappings. Fascism is being restricted in what you do, what you say, and what you think. Fascism is having no voice in your government. No voice. No choice.

8. Tea Party.

Stunned. That’s how it would be to hear and see these strange creatures who identify themselves as the Tea Party. These are people who, largely dependent on social support networks, such as social security, police and fire departments and Medicare, want to terminate social security, privatize the police and fire departments, and end Medicare.

The imbecility of their leading figures, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell, utterly perplex me. I have been asleep for 42 years. I have not had a chance to see these developments grow and evolve. During those long years of sleep tucked away in a grotto in the moss-laden Cascades, I have not been prepared by the Reagan years, when it was proposed that unbridled, free market capitalism and no taxation for the obscenely rich would make everyone happy. That money would trickle down from the estates in the Hamptons, Bel Air, Park Avenue and Palm Springs and fuel the lives of ordinary citizens while providing inspiring models of unbridled greed, ruthless predation, and maggoty corruption.

I would have no immunity. No antibodies of delusion and denial. No way to digest or analyze the incoherence and ignorance and sheer insanity of the remarks put forward by the luminaries of the Tea Party. Or the talking heads on Fox News. No way to account for their rise to power. No way to account for the narrowness of their views. Sentences mangled, a feculent, unabashed sentimentality exhibited, openly bigoted statements about gays and minorities promulgated, childish emotionalism, completely incongruous and ignorant wishes to keep government out of social programs such as Medicare, would do nothing less then render me unconscious, again.

9. I Become An Author!

I write a book about what it’s like to sleep for 42 years, wake up, and readjust to society, which is published by a small press. The book is called The Dream Of Life. I wanted to call it I Woke Up After 42 Years To Find The World Has Gone Insane, but the publisher was against it. Too clunky, they said, and too acerbic. The public likes to be preened, not insulted.

Small press means that the title is a limited edition of 200 copies and has no distribution. I discover that it is harder to find a distributor than a publisher. I also discover that when I inform people I have written a book, that I am an author, a bona fide writer, with a published book, published I say, it means nothing. It elicits no response. Nothing. But then, this is because people no longer read books, and anyone and everyone can now get published on their computers, on something called blogs.

Blogs, in fact, very much like this one.

And since anyone and everyone given the time and disposition can write, being a writer means nothing. Unless, of course, you are the person doing the writing. It doesn’t need to be good writing. It just needs to be writing. Letters. Words strung haphazardly together, with cute little twittered expressions like “LOL,” or “my bad.”

There is one way to make the room reverberate with your announcement of being a writer. If you have been on Oprah, interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air or Scott Simon on Weekend Edition, spawned at least two blockbuster movies and been kissed on the cheek by Jennifer Aniston, or if your name happens to be J.K. Rolling or Salmon Rushdie.

Though if you have to announce yourself as a writer, then you’re not a real writer. Real writers are famous and appear on TV. You could write the equivalent of Moby Dick or Ulysses, but if you have not been on TV, or at the very least NPR, then you are not a writer. You are what is termed a “wannabe.” The world is teeming with wannabes.

There is no way on earth Moby Dick or Ulysses, had they been written today, would be published by one of the big mainstream publishing houses. They would be championed by a small press. An heroic, great-hearted small press determined to bring literature into this world, stand against the chill winds of indifference, mortgage their houses, sacrifice whatever it takes to keep the written word radiant and rampant in printer's ink.

As for the size of an audience, making a dent in mainstream culture, it is not a matter of quality. Quality has little to do with it. You cannot demonstrate quality to the ignorant.

None of the above matters if you are writing for the sheer joy of writing. If you are into writing for the sheer pleasure of putting words together, who cares about publication?

But if you are writing with the hopes of gaining an audience - a large audience - make sure your words mimic television. Never engage the cortex. Do not introduce new ideas, characters with inner conflicts, or incendiary dilemmas that cannot be solved with magic. Do not use words with more than ten letters. Paragraphs should be small, blunt, and simple enough for a six-year old.

You may long for companions, people with whom you can share your interests and difficulties, but this will not be easy.

The art of writing itself, the joy and beauty of developing an idea in words, conveying a heightened perception with images and cadence, is enjoyed by a cognoscenti so miniscule as to be on the verge of total extinction.

Few people are educated (the cost of a college education is now as expensive as a chateau in Monaco, or a trip to Mars and back).

Reasons for low self-esteem abound. Jobs are demanding, paychecks are meager, opportunities are negligible. And yet, conversely, paradoxically, magnitudes of narcissism have become so impenetrable that Socrates himself could not tease out anything like thought through the hardened carapace of people immersed like mussels in the imbroglios spun daily in their own heads.

It is a narcissism so global and imperious in its sureness and self-absorption that it has become blind to its own ignorance. Ignorance ignorant of its own ignorance is a toxic, festering soup that leads to suffocating cliques, slavish conformity, and Triumph Of The Will.

Mediocre writing is indistinguishable from good writing. The more mediocre - or just plain bad - the writer happens to be, the less inclined are they to see good writing in others.

The really fine writers are marginalized. Their audiences are so tiny as to be like sparsely attended Quaker meetings.

Most of the time, they read to empty chairs.

The mediocrities draw gigantic crowds, enjoy vigorous sales, and are given interviews on NPR.

Celebrities are given humongous advances of millions of dollars. Splashy covers. And interviews on David Letterman and Larry King.

Also, because few authors of real strength and originality are published by a press with a distributor, any and all books published by a struggling small press, essentially a labor of love with no expectation of a profit, or monetary compensation, will remain in a box that is shoved under the bed, put in storage, or warehoused at a small press distributor in Berkeley kind enough to give them a home, and publish their titles in a catalogue. A few books might be given away, particularly to other authors in the hopes of garnering a review or two, but I will come to discover that no one really wants them. They are, in fact, something of a nuisance.

10. Cell phones.

This is another phenomenon that has little surprise. Dick Tracy wore a wristwatch radio with a TV. What is surprising about cell phones, is the behavior that accompanies them. People talk openly in public about very private and intimate details. It’s as if the public sphere had ceased to exist.

And some people wear their phones. These things are called Bluetooths. At first I think the people are schizophrenics, alcoholics in detox fighting with their demons. But then I notice that they are talking into a tiny device hooked to their ear. And come to the realization that they are, indeed, schizophrenics. Schizophrenics talking into a tiny device hooked to their ear. Called a Bluetooth.

11. Politicians.

It’s hugely surprising that an African American man has become president. This, at first, strikes me as a very positive development. But it becomes increasingly apparent, and very disheartening, to discover that he is a right leaning centrist who makes Dwight D. Eisenhower look like a lunatic, irresponsible progressive. The new African American president, whose father has roots in Kenya, and whose mother is from Kansas, is not as right-wing wacko as Rush Limbaugh or Pat Buchanan, but he is conservative; he is more sympathetic to bankers and wealthy industrialists than he is to the common working people, not at all friendly to gays and their push for equal rights, and, despite being a student of the U.S. Constitution, blithely assists in the erosion of civil rights for high corporate powers and a menacing oligarchy.

He will, I will come to discover, replace the former president, a man named Bush, essentially an adolescent in the body of a middle-aged man, an idiot imitating a Texas cowboy, the son of an elite, obscenely wealthy family, who, despite a privileged, ivy-league education, somehow remained barely literate, barely articulate, his every sentence a painful struggle, his every thought put in his head by someone else, and who will be responsible for starting two wars in the middle east to make his friends happy and rich. He will be responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, many of them women and children, displace millions of people, destroy some of the oldest cultures of human civilization, and get away with it.

The new president will do nothing to investigate these crimes. He will, in fact, continue the former president’s policies. In some instances, such as killing people with drones, increase the activity.

12. The Middle Class.

This will surprise me. The disappearance of the middle class. The middle class is gone. But where, exactly, have they gone? I do not know. There are tent cities in Sacramento and Seattle and Los Angeles. Perhaps there. Perhaps these people cooking their meals on an open fire and bedding down on mats inside raggedy tents, perhaps they are the former members of the stalwart middle-class. Their homes foreclosed by dishonest, fraudulent, and incompetent banks.

But - and this will truly shock me - there will be no uprising. No evidence of fighting back. This will perplex me more than anything. That so many people will be exploited, sodomized, raped, and do nothing to fight back. The parallel with Nazi Germany will leap out at me. The phenomenon of the so-called “good German.”

And Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, and Christine O’Donnell, et. al., whose looniness was weirdly riveting, like a car accident, or a weird growth on your foot, are suddenly more frightening.

13. Civil Rights.

Gone. Habeas corpus, right to privacy, unwarranted search and seizure, gone. The new president will not, as everyone hoped, do anything to restore these rights. He will, in fact, broaden some of the more nefarious intrusions of what will be a militarized police state. Homes will be broken into, laptop computers confiscated, people arrested without charge. They will be accused of something vague and indefinable; of being a terrorist. Which is neither a country, ideology, or affiliation. It is a tactic.

The Tea Partiers, meanwhile, will accuse the new president of being a liberal. Something called a socialist, which none of them are able to describe. This insanity will spread, despite efforts to educate the masses about democratic socialism, and explain why it is not the same thing as fascism.

Some tea partiers will paint a Hitler mustache on the face of the new African American president. They will ride around in motorized wheelchairs, because they are too obese to walk, and howl at anger at the government that provides them with such things.

14. Clothing.

Clothing will have hardly changed. Styles will be similar to what they were in the 60s. There will be a few exceptions. I will note that many of the young men are dressed like 6 year-olds: baseball caps turned with the bill to the back, or skewed sideways; baggy pants falling off; hands on their crotch like a digital codpiece.

Their girlfriends, on the contrary, are dressed like French prostitutes, heavy makeup, Capri pants, stiletto heels.

Women, young women especially, will sport not one, not two, but an entire armload of tattoos, so that they will never seem quite undressed. I imagine that going to bed with such a woman would be a little frustrating. You might ask your date to remove her sweater, or T-shirt, with its colorful designs, only to discover the patterns and colors are embedded in her skin.

15. Dogs.

Dogs have become fashion accessories. People take them for walks, dimly aware, as they are of their children, that the family pet is a sentient being, a four-legged companion with a heart and a soul.


Harald Striepe said...

Somehow, I also hear the voice of Samuel Clemens whispering in this piece.

John Olson said...

Thank you! That's quite a complement. I'm a big fan of Mr. Clemens. I wish he was still with us. I would love to get his take on the Tea Party crowd. I have a feeling he would put me in stitches.

Anonymous said...

This almost made me cry.
What is odd (I'm not sure how or why, but I'm sure it IS odd, while simultaneously and exquisitely appropriate) is that i didn't read it til 5 years after it was written, and that I read it as a sort of a side note- it appeared in the search results (on Google) in response to the query "Liv Ullman picks up bottle with vagina". To be frank, I've forgotten exactly what it was I hoped to learn.