Posts Tagged ‘misanthrope’

Really

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Absurdity has been poisoned. Slow death, the frog in the pot. And absurdity, the ridiculous extremes of what we do and say to each other, has been my source of humor for so long, the thing that fortifies me. Absurdity saved my life once, for real. Stopped me from killing myself, because I zapped out of my body and realized how weird everything was, because a Spuds McKenzie commercial was playing on the television while I was attempting to fatally hurt myself. Take a look at that video and then imagine that shit playing while someone is cornered into the absolute illogic of tipping over the precipice, of actually attempting to wipe himself out. It was just too much, too freaking weird. I saw myself, there in front of the television, Spuds partying it up while reality collapsed, and my desperate actions were just as silly as that partying mascot. A dose of plastic reality, of a world that wasn’t as dark as I thought it was because the world was composed of elevated triviality. Still is.

I am proud to say that Spuds McKenzie saved my life.

Lately, though, I don’t have a solid grasp on the absurd. People do things that are shockingly thoughtless or, worse, deliberately hurtful or disrespectful (not a lack of respect, but deliberate disrespect). But the shock is muted, imprecise. I’ve been drinking poison, drop by drop, acclimating my body to it, and it doesn’t even taste bitter any more. It’s like being slapped while numb-drunk. You sort of feel it, but then have to work through your brain to compute what just happened, what might constitute a typical reaction. Contemplating, but not able to properly react.

Without that proper and somewhat immediate, deliberate reaction, you take this affront into yourself. Somewhere on a gut level, you know that something was wrong, something bad just happened. So you keep it, draw it inside, stay with it. It isn’t absurd. It isn’t anything, just a malformed blob, a featureless golem. You chew on it. You digest it into your system. It no longer references things outside of yourself. From deep within, this affront become a reflection of you, could only have been caused by you. There is no other logical explanation. You were treated like shit because you must have deserved it.

I went through this last week. And several weeks before that, from a different angle. I’ll go through it again, I know, because I am bound to the people who cause it. In that manner it becomes a game of abuse. Power. A jerk exercises power over you, and your reaction is constrained to interior destruction, or a channeling of energy toward people who aren’t really involved. You need to react. You must react. But you cannot react properly, to the fuckwit who assaulted you, without either losing your job or opening a box of endless shit-storms.

Here is something I haven’t said for a couple years now:

“Really?!”

Remember 2011 and 2012? Everyone was whipping that out. The affronts were flying in from all angles, from jerky jerks to downsizing to paranoia-driven paradigms. The absurdity was clear, and “really?!” was an expression of exasperation, a reality-check, a moment of stepping back and admitting that the current situation was no longer playing by the tacit rules of sanity.

But it was also a moment of pissing in the wind. You blurt out your “really?!” and then carry on, accepting the shit you were just told to eat. Again and again. And soon enough the “really?!” becomes a tacit rule in itself, replaced by an eye-roll, then a sigh, then nothing at all, then the constant clenched fist of soul-consuming tension.

Because the unspoken answer was: “Yes, really. Shut up.”

The barometer twists and bends and becomes detached from the truth. It is no longer a measure of any true environmental variable. It is, at best, an expression of confusion. At worst, it is mistaken for some sort of honest internal judgment.

My barometer has traditionally been calibrated by other people. This is normal, to a degree. Feedback helps us understand our impact, to juxtapose intent with result. At some point, probably a very long time ago, my notion of impact was not just calibrated by others, it was defined. I let other people tell me who I am, I listened to such an extent that I could not disambiguate my own self-definition from the Sartre mirror-reflection of other’s eyes.

And this is the point in the blog when I usually wind my way around to some epiphany. I can feel it coming, that moment when I uncover a truth or some other shit.

So I’ve been sitting here for a few days. Stuck.

I know that I was able to move past the impact of serialized disrespect. It wasn’t keeping me awake through the night. But I couldn’t figure out how I did that.

I wrote. I worked on art, on creating, prioritized my output. Finding a positive distraction helps, a way to shift the energy into creation instead of negation. But… it was a distraction, not a solution. Bringing it all back within this blog seemed like an easy deal, some ubiquitous life experience that rings true for everyone through individual facets.

But trauma has a way of spreading slowly, manifesting unexpectedly. In this case, I was my own trigger, marching through public self-reflection with the hubris of considering myself beyond it, problem solved.

So why did it come back?

Well, digging deeper, I think a better question is: What is the problem?

Disrespect? Trouble with people?

Nope. I had a window into clarity last night. Really, an actual window. I walked by a Starbucks and saw someone cleaning up, winding down the night, going through rote closing actions. I felt nostalgic camaraderie, those many nights I had scooted about, green-aproned, reeking of roast. Those past years. Past years that don’t seem so far away.

I worked at Starbucks throughout much of the 1990s. Moved up and around and down, wasted time, met amazing people, made lifelong connections, watched those people move on while I wasted more time. Experience shapes us, shifts us, challenges us, so I don’t live in a state of regret. At some point I decided to flee that life, then I fled again, returned with nothing, no job, my life a pile of boxes in my parents’ garage, little idea of what could be next. I crawled out of that, found a place and a home, and eventually built something, a career.

My fear is that I built upon a foundation of sand. Just follow my CV, and there it is. The time when I was at zero, and the time before that, years at Starbucks, when I was cultivating excuses.

A friend told me recently that the voice that he hears, sometimes, is this: “Impostor”

Man, that is the truth. When I’m shaken, disrespected, I wonder if these people will just carry forward and dissect my career in front of me, get to the sand. Send me right back to Starbucks, back to a life adrift.

Last week I attended a wake, briefly. I have a very difficult time interfacing with family, and it comes back to the same root. They have known me for too long, and I fear that they define me by the little boy I once was, or other awkward aspects of my past, all of that foundational sand. And, again, I’m using everyone around me to define who I am, incorporating judgment over praise. It seems easier to be judged than to be proud, and to default-assume that this is what they think of me. So it gets added to the stack, incorporated. Another ingredient in a Shit Stew of the Soul.

So I’ve been worried that Spuds McKenzie will no longer save me. Even Spuds isn’t absurd enough for this rapid boil. It’s probably going to have to be me. Find my own definition and reason, generate the absurdity from within. Be fucking ridiculous. Be my own Spuds McKenzie.

Unwrinkled

Friday, August 10th, 2012

A funny thing happened last night. A can of worms was opened, somewhere deep inside my head. And the worms proceeded to slurp my brain matter through their linear digestive tracts until my entire head became filled with worm poop.

Explained:

In response to a Facebook post from Rachel, I mentioned my first favorite novel, A Wrinkle in Time. That took me back to sixth grade, with its simplicity and optimism, and my ongoing love for that story. It was a good memory, one of those warm places in your psyche, a little part of yourself that worked out all right.

Then, maybe a half hour later, someone else on Facebook posted that Ms. Priest, one of my seventh grade teachers, had passed away. Ms. Priest was the first and perhaps greatest embedded anti-establishmentarian I had known. She smoked and swore and forced students to use their brains, to look into their hearts. I added my very brief eulogy to a growing list of Facebook comments, noting that many of them had been permanently affected by this amazing person.

Then I thought about it a bit more. She had certainly made her mark. I used to have recurring dreams of visiting her class, being back in that class, back in seventh grade. Those dreams faded, and junior high became this nebulous transitional zone. I could cite many elements of grade school, and, of course, the high school triumphs and scars never dissolve. Junior high, though, was fuzzy. Chess club was in there, somewhere. And band. But not much else. My personal history tends to jump from a generally healthy sixth grade to some point in high school. A wrinkle in time.

The odes to Ms. Priest continued. Dead Poets Society type of stories. Each one served as a building block and brush stroke, recreating Ms. Priest, her classroom, the halls beyond that circulated through the school. I couldn’t retreat from the unfolding detail, and soon I felt that Jim I was back in seventh grade, sitting in that class with those people, with that teacher.

You see, I didn’t just remember faces or specific episodes. I remembered the exact feeling of what it was like to be me back in seventh grade.

And I realized that this was the first time I had felt truly inadequate, when I found that I couldn’t commit to any particular type. I couldn’t be a smart kid or a nerd, and lacked any equipment to be clever or beautiful or strong. Ms. Priest encouraged everyone to dig into themselves, but I resisted. I was shallow, dopey and shy, and I didn’t respond to her efforts. So she moved on to the others, the ones she could lift up. I puttered along, a failure and a disappointment. And that phase of inadequacy has stayed with me since then, even through today.

This isn’t some sort of indictment. I still have positive memories of this full-throttle teacher. But I also remember other students bonding into cliques that would evolve straight on into high school. And I remember loners, intellectuals and athletes— all of them not-me. I’m not sure how much identity one is supposed to grasp in seventh grade, but I didn’t have much.

This was also a period in which my mom was severing religious ties. I had grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness, and some time around seventh grade we had stopped going, and she was ultimately disfellowshipped (for some really petty reasons). I don’t recall it bothering me much at the time (other than being concerned about her emotional ordeal), but it was a period of personal upheaval, a sharp shift away from lifelong de facto relationships.

I suppose that people who have spent time in therapeutic counseling have already navigated these epiphanies. I’m not used to unearthing the secrets of my past. It isn’t that I “don’t go there,” it just never comes up, and, apparently, this was was buried deep. Most people can reflect on their own souls and come up with a pretty good collection of traits and trends, historical arcs. It’s rare that you are able to pinpoint a defining moment that carries through your personality with such persistence. I’ve fought with the same problems we all have: depression, self-doubt, social awkwardness. However, I think I just uncovered the exact time period when it became real and anodized. The birth of a part of myself that I hate.

And I have to say: this isn’t particularly liberating. It feels like a sac of poison has been accidentally lanced. This social clumsiness and cluelessness is now measurable. I have been knee-deep in it for 32 years. The pain of this realization is extremely personal and isolating. Yet I think everyone has experienced that lonely pain, something you just can’t communicate to other people because it’s embedded into your core. Something you force yourself to carry.

I apologize for such a self-indulgent post. I’m not sure if I have a point, here, other than the fact that I never stood on a desk and pulled that “Oh captain my captain” shit. But I suppose there could be an upside. Time has become unwrinkled, flattened and exposed. I can take that forgotten memory as a cornerstone. I can build out into those two years of junior high and piece that history back together. And, if anything, pain and history feed art, so I suppose Ms. Priest will be making an appearance in some future story, manifest as either glorious or terrible. She probably would have liked that.

The impermanence of communication

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Waiting for the baby to arrive. Well, he’s here, but, for now, he prefers the confines of Rachel’s womb. I’ve done a lousy job of keeping friends abreast of my spawning. Every few days I think of someone else who I just sort of didn’t mention this baby thing to during the last, oh, nine months. These online tools, from email to blogs to social networking, are primarily supposed to make such general broadcasts of life events much easier. However, you have to use the tool to get the result, and I’ve become disgustingly lax. I blame Rachel, my wonderful and social wife. I just figured that everyone who knows me also knows Rachel, and, much in the way that I can rely on her to answer the telephone whenever it horrifically invades my personal sanctuary, she would take care of this baby-announcing business.

In a way, Facebook has made communication so easy that it’s become warped and diminished. It reminds me of the terrible havoc wreaked by word processing. I’m just old enough to remember what it was like to type something. On a typewriter. You could set the margins, apply a little white-out, and maybe throw in some carbon paper. Every other aspect was extremely permanent and one-shot. When word processing came along, everything became variable. Composition is just the first step. Tweaking margins and fonts is trivial, and I think most of us have, at one point, creatively stretched a 2.5 page paper out to meet the 3-page requirement. Worse yet, the draft has become extinct. You write it out, edit as you go, and then rewrite directly on top of what you just did. There is no archive, and no duty to permanence. Using a typewriter, there is a deliberate aspect to every word, every character. When you know you can undo anything you just typed, it doesn’t seem as important to get it right the first time. The true destruction, though, is to the art of spelling.

I can’t spell. The computer takes care of everything for me, so I don’t have to worry. However, back in those typewriter days, I don’t think I could spell worth a crap anyway. So yes, science has helped me become a better human. But I’m certain that, with nothing but that trusty typewriter, I would have become a much better speller. I wouldn’t have had a choice. Either adapt, learn how to do it, or blow my savings on Liquid Paper, year after year. The word processor has destroyed any requirement on my part to have any freaking idea how to spell. I’m 41 years old now, and it just ain’t gonna happen.

Now I’m worried that Facebook (and whatever other upcoming innovation in social networking) is doing the same thing to the art of communication. We used to rely on face-to-face, letters and telephones. Then email. Now we just need to occasional status update, broadcast to all who sign up. Conversations become strings of loosely connected fragments, murmurs and shouts from the ether. Pretty soon I could simply install event-listening software on a personal device, and I won’t have to bother typing “Jim is on the way to the hospital” or “Jim just ate two bowls of chili and has been in the bathroom for the last hour, reading three chapters of the new L. Frank Baum biography.” Everything will be coded, RFID’d and tagged. My iPhone will know that I’m in the bathroom, my personal health record will have something to say about the effect of chili on my gastrointestinal fortitude, and the tag in my L. Frank Baum book (too cheap right now to buy a Kindle) will report relevant info back to the iPhone. The iPhone will shoot out the appropriate message, according to my settings, to folks with the appropriate access roles and I won’t need to bother actually telling people what I’m up to. Instead of “like” and “dislike”, I can just select from 10-15 pre-written responses that should apply to just about anything. With absolute minimal effort, we can all send each other updates and responses and automated chuckles, and the art of conversation is both simplified, streamlined and destroyed. And without the efforts of forward thinkers, it will also not be archived.

I am most critical of myself, so this is a reaction to my own dopey way of falling off the map. I don’t have to be so fatalistic about this. I mean, it’s up to each of us to stop monkeying around and actually put a little effort into our surrounding humanity.

So, um, we bought a house, too. Yes. Any other life events? You all should know that Rachel and I are married (implied by the “wife” status). Both of our cats died in early 2009 (a month or so apart). We went to Hawaii in May, attending one of my big librarian meetings, and had a wonderful time connecting with family on both Oahu and the Big Island.

Our son will be named Simon.

I raked leaves today.

I ate soup with bread while watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Jim is sitting at his computer.

Jim sure likes this weather.

Jim wonders.

My Personal Encounter With Michael Jackson

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t like at least one Michael Jackson song. I mean, does anyone, anywhere, not like “ABC”?! You’d have to be a corpse to not be affected by that one. A corpse. He’s dead now. This is news I thought I’d be hearing decades from now, after MJ had drifted into some whatever-happened dimension (perhaps called “prison”). I would be in my own twilight, so the ultimate passing of such a pervasive mega-star would afford me the opportunity to take my entire life, from pre-adolescence clear through fatherhood and beyond, into full account. So now he’s dead, and we’re all caught off guard, totally unprepared to reflect upon the incomplete stack of our own personal inventories.

I have a personal connection with Michael Jackson. Sort of. I mean, we all do on some level. Music coalesces certain strands of the lifeline. I came of age during the 80s. Right about the time that we all bought Thriller, I was just blossoming into a self-awareness that would define my permanent personality. I wasn’t angry yet, or disillusioned. I owned a zipper jacket, the first of my many mismatched fashion statements (I later settled on aloha shirts – that one seemed to stick, so now most of my friends know me as a shirt guy). I was just on the cusp of being frustratingly interested in girls. Life was dangling over the precipice of adolescent turmoil, and somewhere in between Thriller and Bad it all crumbled to confusion and self-loathing. But I later had another connection with Jackson. Let’s call it a “personal encounter”.

I worked through the collegiate angst. It derailed my ambitions, but also guided me to discover art and creation. Today, it doesn’t matter that I don’t remember how to write a PL/1 or Fortran program. I still write fiction and create, and, surviving the conflagration of self-discovery, I’ve managed to forge true, life-long friendships. I came out of college with a somewhat useless degree, though. In 1991, a college degree was worth a lot less than in 1986. The “liberal arts degree” bubble had burst, and there was an influx of us over-educated, not-going-to-grad-school give-me-a-job-please semi-retired Professional Students. It was the first time someone told me I was “over-qualified”. I had no idea how to respond to that. Isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that mean that you’re getting a bargain by hiring me? I just couldn’t see things from the employer’s perspective. I mean, today I would never hire someone who was obviously going to jump ship for the first “real” job. So I settled for the first non-food-slinging place that would hire me: The John G. Shedd Aquarium.

When I tell someone that I used to work at the Shedd, the response is almost always positive. What a cool place! Working with fish! Educational! And it was a neat place. The job, though, was mind-warping. I guarded the fish. “Visitor Services”. Yet another rung on the downward-spiral staircase of my customer service career. I suppose it’s all related to that ridiculous psychology degree that took me nowhere fast (as in, really fast, as in: the moment I matriculated I was right there smack dab in the middle of nowhere . . . fast).

The Oceanarium had just opened and was a massive success. They had money flowing, bursting their not-for-profit pockets, so they hired a team of young whippersnappers to stand at various stations throughout the aquarium, guiding visitors, tearing entry tickets and maintaining some semblance of order. We were a mix of museum-security lifers, aimless liberal arts graduates and recently-downsized middle-aged vagabonds. Most of what we did was stand around. That’s it. Often alone, but sometimes paired up with some other lost-soul coworker. I’m not sure which situation was worse for me. I often never know exactly what to say in a conversation, or have much of an idea how to keep a conversation flowing. This has resulted in the development of some nervous-babbling approaches (perhaps evident via the excruciatingly verbose Megablog entries), just to squelch the extremely uncomfortable and smothering silences. Back then, though, I hadn’t experimented much with babble. So, with the exception of a few people who I felt genuinely connected to, I would be paired up, for seven or more hours, with people who I couldn’t talk with. We would sometimes drift to opposite ends of the little zone we were meant to oversee, one person near the otter tank (aside: otters are infinitely more entertaining than seals – everyone wants to go see the seals, who just sit there like giant, glistening, sleeping cats, while at the other end of the facility those otters are like Cirque du Soleil, cranking out maximum entertainment like face-licking hyper sea-puppies), the other person fifteen feet away at the relatively-inanimate-yet-pretty tide pool. Those were the days when I was incessantly reminded that, for all of my flowering and development, my heightened awareness and creative energy, I still couldn’t have any kind of normal conversation with anyone. I was not normal. I was without rhythm.

There were other days, many other days, when I would be spared the spotlight embarrassment of having to work with a partner. Just stand alone at a podium or near a gallery entrance. All day. Nothing to do except recede into my mind, so starved for stimulation that I started to eat my own soul. Just me and my man-eating brain.

There were moments, of course. I learned to love the Giant Sea Bass. It was in a huge tank at the end of one of the dim galleries, in the old-school original aquarium (the Oceanarium is a massive extension, an architectural semi-circle that wraps around the old building, with a spectacular glass-walled horizon-vista of Lake Michigan). Fish are generally pretty stupid. They lack intelligence as we know it. One of the exceptions is the octopus, which is not only alien and beautifully, elegantly freakish, but also pretty smart. The days when I was posted near the octopus tank were pretty good. The Giant Sea Bass had its moments, though. If you stood still for a little while in front of its tank, it would drift over and stare at you, floating right in front of your head. Then you could dart to one side or the other, and it would follow you. And it wasn’t a jerky I’m-hungry-and-you-look-like-lunch following. It was smooth and metered. The Giant Sea Bass was a cool cat, as cool as a cucumber (not a sea cucumber – its nervous system, if it can even be called a “nervous system”, is insufficient for the exuding of coolness). To this day, I refuse to eat sea bass, regardless of the potential deliciousness.

The greatest creatures, though, were the dolphins*.

*(Okay, the actual greatest creatures were the pseudorcas (“sood-orca” – False Killer Whale). We had them on loan from Indianapolis, and kept them in a large side pool that was normally an extension of the beluga whale area. The belugas are super-cool, very friendly to the point of social. You could hang over the railing (“sir . . . sir . . . please don’t hang over the railing”) and a beluga would rise up from the water in a vertical column (called “spyhopping”) and smile or even spit a little water toward you in a soft arc, like a blubbery drinking fountain. Well-mannered and intelligent, they never spit at you. The pseudorcas, conversely, were bad-ass. They looked like huge, dark, pissed-off torpedos. They did not rise up to greet anyone. Instead, they exuded contempt with extreme marine-mammal malice, usually in the form of targeted breaching. You probably already know this: breaching is when a whale pops out of the water and slams back down, causing a freaking cool splash. They do this for a number of reasons, often just to scratch an itch. The pseudorcas were experts at breaching in such a way that they could direct the focused splash over the railing and onto the walkway. They wouldn’t just try to hit the walkway, though. They would actually target people. The public were used to the friendly belugas, so they would usually stand near the railing, waiting for a innocuous glimpse. Before they knew what was happening, the pseudorca would zip around the perimeter, lunge up and slam down, sending an arc of water straight into the gaping, stunned human. Their favorite target was anyone carrying a baby. Maybe this just presented a larger target. Who knows. I like to think that this was a natural attack move, to take out an opponent’s defenseless young. I just remember the awesome satisfaction of watching one of these beasts water-blast mommies and their yelping, writhing babies. Now that I have a baby on the way, of course, it’s a little less awesome. Still, the pseudorcas were bad-ass.)

Just after we herded the patrons out of the Oceanarium for the day, moments after closing time, I would go to the quiet underwater section of the gigantic dolphin tank. It was like hanging out in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus living room, after-hours, dim and calm, gazing into the blue-crystal oceanic depths. Sometimes a dolphin would swim up to the glass, hovering with a sort of Giant Sea Bass awareness. Dolphins are all energy and motion. They’re the Mary Lou Rettons of the sea (sans the Republicanism – but who knows, maybe there are some wife-cheating Toby Keith-loving cigar-chomping Grand Old Party dolphins out there), rarely satisfied with stillness. So I would stand there a moment to get the attention of a dolphin, and then sprint, full speed, 30 or so feet, along the length of the wall-sized glass panels. The dolphin would wave its powerful, smooth-muscle body up and down, swimming along my side like an organic missile, and then finally bank off into the depths just as I reached the far end of the stretch, laughing through my panting. Racing the dolphins. It was amazing, and nearly worth all of the soul-draining aspects of that job.

The piranhas, conversely, were incredibly boring. Motionlessly waiting for their next meal, doing absolutely nothing, not even swimming, just hanging there as if immortally frozen in a cube of lucite. So much expected of them, so little delivered. Can you see where I’m heading here?

I tried writing. I specifically remember standing at the Oceanarium Exit post. There was a podium there, so I could attempt to work out various story ideas on the blank areas of our daily schedules, stuffing notes into the podium when the Management Proximity Alarm would silently ring. Writing while standing guard, though, is like sleeping with one eye open. It isn’t really sleep, and it isn’t really writing. So not only did I have plenty of time to wonder why I went to college for five years in order to pick my nose in daily seven- or eight-hour stretches, I also lost much of my creative energy. Bleh.

Every now and then there would be a slight ripple in the pool of stillness. A celebrity guest appearance. I once sold a ticket to Daryl Hannah (skinny, skinny, skinny . . . but pretty and seemingly not-an-asshole). I walked alongside Dustin Hoffman (he’s a shortie). I even briefly met Christopher Lloyd: He was visiting the Oceanarium with his girlfriend, hovering outside the ladies’ restroom while she powdered. Four of us were perched at a post (the two of us who were supposed to be there, along with two others with Lloyd-dar). Lloyd, a generous soul, drifted over and we said hello. He was pretty low-key. All of the fish-visiting celebrities were low-key, sort of like the monosyllabic down-time Robert DeNiro of interviews. It didn’t take us long to reach the point of nothing-to-say, particularly since I wasn’t about to venture into fanboy territory. Unfortunately, one of my coworkers didn’t have such compunctions.

“I loved you in those Back to the Future movies, man!”

“Oh, thank you. Yeah.”

“That car was the best.”

“Yeah, well…”

“You still have that car? It was the best.”

“Well, that was in the movie-”

“The car was so cool, though! You have it, right?”

“Er, it was a movie. Um. The car.”

“But it’s YOUR car. I saw it. Man. That car was the bomb!”

“…”

Sometimes you are in the midst of a conversation with someone, and that person will blurt out some blatantly racist or homophobic comment, taking you so off guard that you can’t even formulate a response, agape with shock. That was our state as we watched our coworker grill Christopher Lloyd about a magic car. As we composed ourselves, trying to formulate a way to communicate to Mr. Lloyd that this guy’s warped misinterpretation of reality did not represent the views of our little group, Lloyd drifted backwards, an obviously practiced and honed maneuver from years of being a freak-magnet, finally rescued, moments later, by his re-emerging girlfriend. The only person with the guts to bid him farewell was our idiot coworker.

On a slow midweek afternoon Michael Jackson was in town, shooting a video with Michael Jordan (a meeting of the mega-stars, some sort of binary supernova). I was stationed in the old aquarium that day, at the Oceanarium Exit, at the soul-sucking podium, slow-churning through another day of nothing. Then my Motorola radio blurped a few fuzzy words.

“Pfft! Michael. Pfft!”

Huh? Whatever. Back to the zone-out.

Then I saw Harry, one of the middle-aged Visitor Services guys, emerge from a murky corner, hustling through a circuit of various posts and stations.

“Michael Jackson’s here.”

“What?!”

“I’m telling you. He just came in downstairs, at the Handicapped Entrance.”

“Holy . . .”

“Keep it quiet.”

Harry was gone before I could say anything else, a mere tracer image, moving the word on to other coworkers. There was a weird stillness, punctuated by indecipherable bursts of Motorola static. The galleries were empty, filled with a negative static. It was like being told that the missiles had just been launched and we had about three minutes until complete vaporization. It was the ion-infused temperature shift and green sky just before a tornado rips through, “to terrorize y’alls neighborhood.” No one knew exactly where he was. Somewhere in the building, or under it, or scaling the roof. Something.

Then I saw him. The shadow of a skinny figure in a jacket and fedora, face and hair sort of covered. He darted into the nearby dark gallery and stood for a few seconds, gazing into one of the tanks. Then he jerked over a few feet to the next tank. A couple people were with him, perhaps guarding or advising. No, it was four people. Five. After another 1.5 seconds he snapped to the next exhibit, the five people spontaneously becoming seven or eight. Now he was darting to each successive tank, people hovering about the previous tank like a cloud of gnats. His shifting became increasingly rapid, less than a second to gaze into each tank, to perceive the little worlds of each cluster of aquatic life. It took about 20 seconds for the crowd to reach the tipping point, and then Michael Jackson disappeared.

He didn’t disappear into the crowd. He was still ahead of them, separate, a jumping flea on a fast-track circuit, squeezing about nine exhibit tanks into 15 seconds. When he reached the darkness of the gallery corner he just jerked out of existence. There must have been a secret maintenance door. A human-sized, Wonka-esque vacuum tube in the floor or ceiling. Perhaps an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Who knows. Moments later, the crowd was reabsorbed from whence they came, and a post-storm calm smothered the galleries.

I can only assume that this was a ground-zero glimpse into Michael Jackson’s everyday world. There could be little to no possibility of him experiencing even one minute of a normal person’s existence. He was one of the most recognizable people on the planet, so anywhere he went, the gnat cloud would surface. Of course, showing up in perfect Michael Jackson Drag didn’t help. We all have our uniforms, though. If I was suddenly mega-popular, would I have to stop wearing my Aloha shirts? Would people blame my troubles with fame and identity on my refusal to not wear my recognizable uniform, for neglecting to lurk about the world incognito?

I survived my bubble-existence, eventually moving on to other fun realms of occupational humiliation (but never again the loneliness). Michael Jackson didn’t make it. He stayed in the bubble to the bitter and abrupt end. It was as if he was placed at the Oceanarium Exit podium for his entire life, folding into himself, sleeping with one eye open, derailed from the social cues that inform morality and human contact. And now we add his story to our personal inventories. And we move on.

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.