Archive for April, 2009

A funny way of persisting

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

I’m just inching past the age of 40.5, and, as I sort my thoughts for another Megablog brain dump, I’m realizing that I am well on my way to becoming an Old Man. This isn’t a statement of middle-aged regret. I’m feeling pretty good about my age, and I recognize that any age level changes with temporal perspective. I was in Colorado just after I turned 30, and recall meeting a couple in their late-20s. When I told them I had just turned 30, they both groaned, as if that was the inevitable Wall of Age. Even then, it was completely absurd. I knew that 30 was generally pretty young, and I always felt accomplished to be finally out of my 20s, out of the Stupid Zone. Of course, stupidity has a funny way of persisting, so it’s not as if my 30-year-old brain had suddenly developed into Highlander-Quickening-like omniscience. I’ll always have a copious abundance of stupidity cells floating around in my head, and I’ll just have to work hard to auto-correct every thought before it flies out of my mouth. That 20-something couple didn’t have their auto-correction properly attuned, so they sounded like a pair of immature idiots. Ten years later, I bet they’re really freaking out about the big 4-0. As for me, inching into my 40s, I’m thinking that throughout my 30s, during that entire decade, I was still wading about in the shallow end of the stupid pool.

So now I’m entering the age of brilliance. The middle of my life, when I’m finally starting to get it. Right? Yeah. Well, unfortunately, I’m finding that my Inner Old Man, the crotchety crab-ass who has been poking his head out for the last 20 years, is just about ready to take up the mantle of dominance. And I say this with full knowledge that 20 years from now I’ll be thinking of my young, stupid 40s, when life was getting thicker and I was still getting a bit dumber. I suspect that I will eventually temper my judgement, start to see the goodness in people, and finally move on from being an Old Man to becoming a Wise Man. For now, though . . .

This started while I was thinking of Facebook. That was going to be the blog post. I was going to title it “Facebooked!”, and proceed with an inventory of all the things that both delighted and infuriated me about the super-popular website/phenomenon. Last year represented a tipping point for Facebook. In a rush of just a few months, it seemed that everyone I know had established some level of Facebook presence. It culminated with Mark, my childhood friend, a person lost to time after having moved away in 1979, Facebooking me, reconnecting our lives in a rush of memories and updates. I had been trying to track him down, along with his twin brother Matt, for decades. I suppose that when you really want to find someone, you can make it happen. However, I never wanted to stalk him or pry him out of the world. I had no contact information, and I had been so generally unorganized throughout my life that I couldn’t even do much digging into my own past. Once information became interwoven with our culture, Googling didn’t help much, as Mark and Matt have a very common name with an uncommon spelling (and my impermanent brain didn’t help out), so I just couldn’t track them down. It was one of the great regrets of my life. These were my closest friends during a time when I was probably at my most creative. Everything we did was performance and collaboration, all pre-video-games, pre-vegetation. Those elements of Jimmy, the boy I once was, were lost forever. In November 2008, though, Facebook turned all of that on its head. For all of the weirdness and frustration of that site, that simple reconnection has probably been the most profound thing that the entirety of the Internet has done for me. Facebook represents the reality of the next-generation semantic web.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided that Facebook is a great big stinking turd of a site. It’s a time-sucker that promotes the meticulous construction of masks. It is working hard to destroy the subtleties of long-term relationships, collapsing all the people we’ve known into a list of “friends”. Friends. Really? My wife is a friend. My boss is a friend. Someone I hardly spoke to during high school and haven’t seen or thought about at all for 20 years is a friend. They’re all just fodder to add to the list, to keep that Friend number growing. And that’s the first thing you notice about anyone else. How many friends? Didn’t we all move past this when we finished high school? Does every network need to include some quantitative value, some demonstrable quotient of success? And what about the people who were once your friend? The amicable partings. We all have them. There is no great break-up or drama. You simply drift apart over time, accompanied by the mutual understanding that this is okay, that there is no ill will. And then, six or seven years later, you receive the Facebook request. Joe Blowass wants to be your friend. Well, yes, you were friends at one time, certainly. But that was back in your second year of college, or back in that service job, when you briefly connected, but, eventually, just found different paths in life. And, in the discovery of that divergent path, you realized that you really didn’t like Joe Blowass all that much. You would actually rather not see him again, and, if you ever happen to bump into him, you can be cordial and mature about it, but you won’t be giving him any means to stay in touch. And now he wants a declaration of friendship. My friends are the people who I hold dear to me throughout my life. There are pieces of my personality invested into my friends, elements of my soul. I believe in my friends. I love them. So no, I’m not going to say that Joe Blowass is one of my friends. It just isn’t true. Yet, is he an enemy? Of course not. There is no middle ground, though. Facebook demands that Joe is either a friend, or a not-friend. And either choice is a declaration, overriding the subtlety of the amicable drift. Now I have to drag it all out of the closet and actually say, “no, you are not my friend.” So you sit on that invitation for weeks. Every time you sign into the stupid site, there he is, with that silly thumbnail photo. Looks like he’s lost a little on top. And now he’s gone up to about 30 friends, faces from all over time and space. Ah, just ignore it. Just check the messages, erase the pokes and requests and surveys and calls for extreme navel gazing, close it all up and bolt out of there. And a week later he’s still there, with the fucking grin, and maybe it’s more of a style than actual hair loss, and 37 friends now, including someone you actually would like to contact, but she always had better taste than Joe. But she added him, so why not. Okay. Now he’s my friend. And friendship now means less than ever before.

And just when you’re going to leapfrog Joe and send a feeler out to that lost common friend, the one who’s thumbnail is in Joe’s growing list, you hesitate. What if she doesn’t want to hear from me? It’s been a few days now, and, being Joe’s friend, she can surely see that he has also added me. What if I’m her Joe? If I send her a friend request, she’ll probably accept it, just as she did for Joe. And it will be meaningless. Or, worse, she could actually say “no”, after having accepted Joe, shooting me straight into the gutter of lower-than-Joe, the lowest of the low. Fucking Facebook.

Meanwhile, it’s a party. A non-stop, 24/7 goddamned party. “Judy is baking cookies.” “Steven can’t wait for this day to be over.” Freddie has sent you a Little Buddies request. Would you like to be his Special Little Buddy? “Annie is having a drink.” Annie has now sent you a request to accept the “have a drink” app. Would you like to have a drink? Which drink are you? No, no, fuck off, Annie, get the hell away from me! No. You’re not my friend. None of you are my friends! I don’t care what you’re doing, and I don’t care if you’re late for work or feeling fine or injecting fluid into your cat or jazzed about tonight. Ugh! This is not a party, folks. Yet, with the constant tiny little updates, and the conglomeration of micro-statements flowing in from 50 different people, any boring old life sounds like its just crackling with excitement. We are all the stars of our group sitcom, our Sex in the City.

So . . . this is what has been popping around in my head. And as I filter it out, sorting, composing, trying to dig up my thesis, I realize that I’m just being an asshole. A cranky old man. And a hypocrite. I mean, I’m there, right in the middle of this fake party, and knee-deep in Twitter, as well. Twitter, however, is a bit more honest. It was designed as a broadcast tool for cell phone text messaging. “Jim is sitting in the back room, at the north end of the bar.” Twitter it, and you don’t have to bother individually texting all the people who were supposed to meet you at the bar, or the people who might otherwise be looking for you. Like everything else that’s online, it either evolves or stagnates, so now it has become a web-based micro-blogging tool. I admire the simplicity, the lack of pretense. Of course, like many other narrowly-defined web tools, there are folks out there over-thinking Twitter, trying to use it as a marketing device and even an educational tool. I’m a librarian, and I recently read a short article about other medical librarians using Twitter as a reference tool, broadcasting links to cool reference resources, bringing help to the people. Hey, if it makes you feel good about yourself, go for it. Some of us just call that spam, though. But maybe that’s just what the micro-blogging movement actually is: intermediary spam. Spam-lite. Keep it short enough, and we don’t feel as inundated with all of those informational blurbs, tweets and belches. Put it all together, though, and it just coagulates into static. “Follow” a few hundred Twitterers, and my voice eventually returns to what it really is: just one within millions. Meaningless.

An old neighbor of mine back in Park Forest, a somewhat cranky old man himself, once described his frustration over attempting to get his driver’s license renewed. He failed the driving test, claiming that the young DMV woman accompanying him was “picking the fly shit out of the pepper.” Man, do I love that phrase. It’s what I’ve been doing every day for decades. It’s easy to do, really. I think our brains are built for it. Wallowing in the details, winnowing away the days on jigsaw puzzles. The assumption, though, is that you can recognize the fly shit, that you know shit from Shinola. That’s the arrogance that usually gets you into trouble, or simply keeps you in your cranky little corner, gradually removing yourself from society. It’s dangerous and self-righteous, and even though I can recognize it, acknowledge this in myself, that doesn’t mean I’ve been able to alter this bottom line of bullshit.

FYI, we should be thankful that this woman from the DMV took the time to pick out the fly shit. This neighbor was shaky of both grip and mind, and was definitely someone who shouldn’t be commanding a vehicle of any sort.

So I spend far too much time going after the easy targets that tend to be interwoven with my daily routines. Such as Trader Joe’s. I’ve been at odds with TJ’s for years. Yes, delicious culinary luxury at okay prices. A good place for vegetarians and organic-o-philes. And friendly! Incredibly friendly. So friendly that I can hardly get out of the store without painting myself in puke. I’m sorry. I’m not a very enthusiastic shopper. I either get in there, list in hand, on target, on mission, super-efficient, or I wander the nebula of deliciousness, lost in a haze of exotic beverages, chocolate delights, 18 flavors of hummus and seven radically different varieties of organic farm-raised grain-fed antibiotic-free (but not necessarily pro-biotic) vegan eggs. So I either zip through the store, anxiously waiting in the checkout line, ready to complete my circuit, or I crawl into line after a lifetime of distracted shopping, dazed and stumbling as if emerging from the Sun’s Anvil in Lawrence of Arabia. Either way, the last thing I want to do is chat it up with the hipster at the register. Just shut up and tell me what I owe.

I’m in the minority on this one. For many of my fellow shoppers, Trader Joe’s is a complete package. Drift about the aisles, charmed by the “hand drawn” signs, sampling a bit of the bruschetta or limeade, finger of decision casually drifting over the fabulous array of chocolate-dipped/smothered plentitudes. It’s all champaign and peaberry. And top it all off with the cutie at the register, young, beautiful, so chatty.

Trader Joe’s is the flip-side of the indie record store. Attractive urban hipsters wait for you at the register. Their hair, clothes and piercings suggest a freedom of living you were never able to attain (unless you, too, work at a similar store). At the record store, friendliness is overshadowed by apathy or judgement. You’re never going to impress that clerk, and anything you say is always going to be either too droll or not droll enough. This is where Trader Joe’s diverges. They have gathered all the beautiful cool freedom-loving next-gen kids who are just too gregarious for the record stores. They don’t care what you look like. They love all, as if each one of them has been touched by Christ. Better yet, they will always support your purchase decisions.

“Oh, the Belgian-chocolate Madagascar prune-lettes . . . mmm, these are just . . . awesome.”

They always take notice of a few random items, claiming that the $3 bottle of wine is their “favorite,” or that they’re positively addicted to those ready-made stinkless-shit sandwiches. Always a compliment, always the wondering of how your day is going, what you’re up to tonight. Girlfriends, boyfriends, knowing grins and camaraderie. The customers eat it up, soak it in, some of them visibly twitching and bouncing as they get closer in line, approaching that hipster, the sunshine epicenter. So by the time I make my way to the front of this processional, I’m up against it. I feel as if I have to be “on,” to fire back a hipster-ism or a witty remark or some other flake of bullshit that I see coming from every other person in line. And they all look like assholes, every one of them. The clerks are assholes for being so chipper about working at a grocery store. The customers are assholes for acting as if they themselves are hip, cool people who just happen to be loading their designer food into their $60K vehicles. And I’m the biggest asshole of all for being there, for grunting my way through the transaction, stymied and shrunken and simply unable to act my way through it. There are plenty of other scenarios in life where I have to amp up my personality, put on a cheery face, shoot the small talk. I’m not going to do it at a freaking grocery store.

“Hey, cool, love these maple cookies, how’s it going?”

“…”

End of conversation.

Why should I even care about any of this? Why spend all of these words complaining, being nothing but a grump? Here is what’s been happening. Listen.

The pleasantries of life have become transparent.

I have become increasingly intolerant of the myopic apathy of youth, the affectedness of it, droll, bored during a time when life is infinite and limitless. I am angry with the “me” that I see in others, to see them pissing away the same things in life that I, too, pissed away. I was recently looking through some older family photos, pictures from several generations ago. Each generation has shifted its tolerance. The youth culture is an offense to the previous generation. Yet, one generation later, there is an even more offensive youth culture, and then another one. The circle of tolerance shrinks with each generation, and I’ve been living with that downscaling.

At 40, life is better, more solid. Now that I have my footing, it would have been nice to feel this security 20 years ago, or at least understand that this period of contentment was coming. What would life be like now if I knew all of this 20 years ago? Would I be even happier now, more successful and stable? This is recursive thinking. It is the path to madness. I am always comparing my success to others, particularly now that the President is almost in my peer demographic. The more I question my choices and place in life, the more critical I am of everyone around me. So it’s better for me to be a grump than to be paralyzed by all of this overthinking. This is the Curmudgeon’s Code.

Meanwhile, I am shocked over how few of my fellow citizens care about such things as not pissing on the seat, not talking on their phones in enclosed public places, not ripping out the last paper towel without turning the little wheel at the bottom of the dispenser so that there is a fresh clean paper towel ready for the next person, not throwing cigarettes, coffee cups and other jetsam out of car windows as if the world was their god damned ashtray, not eating fried chicken on the train or letting go of yourself to such a degree that you yourself smell like fried chicken (bad salmonella Popeye’s leftover coagulated grease fried chicken, not fresh and tasty fried chicken), not drifting aimlessly down the middle of the steps as the CTA train is obviously 20 seconds away from pulling away, not pushing your strollers side-by-side on the bike path and taking up the entire width of the path while oblivious to my ringing bell and hey-hey-hey and all attempts at warning that my 30-mph bike might be a substantial risk to your adorable little baby’s perambulation, not standing on the left side of the freaking escalator, not being a dope, a mope, an idiot, a stupid idiot just like each and every single one of them . . .

As I lay it out, it just seems like a disease. More a sadness than a madness. If I capitalized on all of this anger, I would be in jail, toothless and black-eyed. So I channel it into impotence, with the occasional passive-aggressive hand gesture or cold, hard stare. It is ultimately better to just let it go. Turn off the news. Erase the nodes of comparison and just be happy with the gift of life.

Still, it’s nice to be plugged in, to follow friends and artists on Twitter. It’s nice to still feel like a part of a society I thought I hated. I suppose it would be a good time to hop onto Facebook and fill out a “Which classic cartoon character best describes your lifelong dread and self-loathing?” quiz, join the “Misanthropes Unite” group, or just raise some hell in one of the hundreds of Pro Life groups. Whatever makes us feel better. That is, whatever makes us feel better than others.

Remembering

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

This afternoon I was working on a short story in one of my notebooks. I don’t journal much at all, particularly in these last few years of the Megablog. However, back in 2006, while I was taking care of my dad, I wrote an entry in the first couple pages of this notebook. It’s almost overwhelmingly sad, but, oddly, I enjoyed reading it, remembering that this all really did happen, and that life really has continued for me, and that I miss him, but still have love. Here’s the entry, unaltered:

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

“Where are we going?” He said this at 8:30 this morning, standing at his dresser and fishing through the sock drawer with slow insistence. Mom and I had just switched the cars so that I could keep the borrowed Camry with the “Brucker” plates in the garage. I had arrived the night before to begin my shift, and I wouldn’t be going anywhere until Saturday. I think it was the car swap which set him off. A couple weeks ago he was still getting ready in the mornings, still being driven out to his radiation. A week or so before that he was driving himself. So the short, sudden period during which his cognition became disconnected from his mind was riddled with treatments and office visits. It makes sense that our vehicular focus would set the gotta-get-ready gears grinding into his weak sense of morning routine. A few weeks ago we assumed that his “trouble with numbers” had sprouted from the triple-dilapidation of chemotherapy, severely waning appetite, and the growing menagerie of under the counter pain killers. It was easy to imagine, or at least approximate, that woozy discombobulation which could set in after days or weeks of starvation, exacerbated by months of destructive chemotherapy, red and white blood cells punished and diminished, all topped with narcotics – layers of narcotics. The chemo ended, though. We tried to make him eat. Coffee cake, orange juice, devil’s food cookies, steak soup – anything. The pain killers remained. As if they selectively kill pain and nothing else. His confusion rapidly evolved into dementia. It has to be in the brain by this point. I can’t think of any other explanation. His entire condition, the enormity of it, is impossible to explain. I think of the worst physical pains and conditions I’ve ever experienced and they all add up to a simplified facet of his being. Terrible pains and the destruction of viscera are so persistent that they must be the low hum against which his other layers and peaks of pain stand out. I can’t imagine. And I wonder who is being insulted by the dementia. Is it an insult to him if he can hardly perceive it? Should I take the insult as my own? We’re waiting for him to weaken. Hoping for it. If he’s weak enough, and far enough out of his mind, then maybe he won’t be aware of this final kick. The rest of us will always remember, but my grieving is currently relegated to profoundly sad moments – this morning he said that he wanted to know what we’re going to do . . . I said that he’ll take his pills, eat, go to the bathroom, change his arm bandage and pain patch. He said, “then I guess I’ll get dressed and do nothing.” That was the moment of insult. The old John Brucker, the real one, was frustrated as all hell that he was forced to do nothing. He’s been a worker his entire life, so to deny him the ability to work, on even the smallest level, is to deny the very definition of who he is. That made me very sad, and then, mercifully (to me), I became wrapped up in helping him do the things I had just outlined. And now, moments ago, I looked at his hand as he held his five evening pills. Open palm, fingers gently twitching, the tattoo bracelet around his wrist, five tiny pills again and again. The sadness is intense, and if it persisted it would be overwhelming. It would destroy me. But it doesn’t persist. It burns through me until all that’s left is love.