Archive for August, 2008

The golden calf turned purple mutant

The specter of democracy stalks the globe, growing ever more witless as it advances. I’ve tried to avoid it for several years in oligarchical outposts like Russia, China and Massachusetts, but no sooner did I set foot back home than the Democratic Party hounded me by setting up its national convention right next door. Apparently their theme this year is “unity,” the classic slogan of the amoeba engulfing a lesser piece of slime. In fact we’ve had far too much unity; having spent a year in the afore-mentioned China, let me assure you that the paradise of national unity looks something like: an endless wasteland of karaoke bars, rice wine that tastes like drinking the flames of hell and being shit out of luck if you luck blondes, brunettes or breasts.

As the history of life shows, the original blobs banded together so they would individually benefit from being part of a larger group, but eventually the organisms became just organs, perfectly capable of being sacrificed if the larger entity deems fit to do so and powerless to stop it. Every year when little Nordic countries come out on top in the various global quality-of-life indices Americans retort that of course since they’re so small they don’t have as many problems, as if this were somehow an argument against their arrangement. Of course prosperity arises from world-wide economic connections, but about the only reason anyone seems to be able to think of for wanting to be in a leviathan of a political entity is to defend oneself from being devoured by an even bigger one, which doesn’t say much for the leviathan in principle. Besides, as the Swiss demonstrated, if you have enough gold buried away where only you can find it even the Nazis will respect your territorial integrity.

Not that I’m saying we should raise the banner of secession this year, since it’s well known how the U.S. government responds to the call for self-determination from breakaway regions within its borders, but Americans could at least stop ovulating for microphone pleasurers like John McCain who make it a point of pride to have done their best to turn the already-bad-enough two major political parties into one. He constantly brags about “reaching across the aisle” to the other party. Hey McCain, why don’t you keep your lecherous hands to yourself? Actually, he doesn’t “reach across the aisle,” he is the aisle, and all this reaching is an essential part of the Senate’s functioning in about the same way that the carpet on the Capitol floor is. I really don’t understand why such posturing is so popular, since the bipartisan are like the bisexual in that virtually everyone else is turned off by at least half the people they consort with. In any case, please don’t encourage him or others like him; he’s already basically the living incarnation of the AARP’s new advertising mascot, the purple donkephant, and I fear that all the inter-special intercourse that gave birth to it and its ilk is going to cause some sort of epidemic to cross the species barrier.

1/10 of a month in the country

Maybe a weekend in the country seems like such fertile ground for drama because with such a definite sense of beginning and ending it seems like there should be some sort of narrative arc connecting them. An old friend invited me for the weekend to a house in Steamboat that his girlfriend’s sister had had rented for her 18th birthday, but two seconds after entering the door I was already afraid that coming had been a mistake. My friend and his lady companion had already locked themselves behind a basement door and I was left with her two sisters, who were only not complete strangers in the sense that friends-of-friends’ bodies are probably usually familiar with each other’s pathogens.

The atmosphere was already dangerously askew. Would I even see my friend at all for the next two days, or would he just peace off to his basement Hades with his willing Persephone, abandoning me to two days of the barren winter of really awkward conversations with strangers? Fortunately it didn’t turn out that way, since the two sisters turned out to be as smart and vivacious in a sort of acidic way as the girlfriend, and in fact in general their voices and mannerisms were so similar to each other and hers that, as with siblings is sometimes the case, talking to them basically felt like an extension of my relationship to her minus any shared experiences or knowledge.

A couple of hours later we went off to a rodeo, where the announcer claimed that the guy with the sparkly American flag shirt beating a horse with a whip until it bowed down to him, then got up on a little pedestal and chased its own tail around in a circle symbolized the perfect working of American democracy, which I suppose after all it did. Six years of continuous living in the eastern U.S., Paris and China almost convinced me that I’m a real Westerner, and maybe I am, since that whole spectacle had the alienating effect of two magnets with the same charge coming together.

The next day the weekend got completely T-boned by one of the sister’s boyfriends, who the others definitely didn’t approve of, showing up on short notice. He was supposed to arrive at mid-day but was late, so we left her to wait for him and set off to go swimming as the sky was thickening into rain clouds. Within an hour of arriving at the pool rain was pouring down, but we stayed, since the girls weren’t going to let such untoward events make them abandon the outing. So naturally when we got home they tried to make conversation with “the dude,” as they called him, but now, with two couples, one of which only semi-welcome, out of six people, the gravitational fields had become definitely unbalanced, with random areas of the house becoming off-limits at a moment’s notice, like the highways being repaired in the summer, and no one satisfied with each other’s respect for etiquette in this regard. It left me alone a lot with the similarly unpaired youngest sister, whose birthday celebration the whole thing was supposed to be after all. I wondered whether I should be making a move on her or something, for the sake of symmetry as much as anything else. The whole mood was threatening to go all Chekhov at any moment, tipping from anticipation into regret before the weekend was even over, confrontations slipping away or left hanging in the air just because they were too tiring.

But the next day came at last, with a long early-morning horse-back ride north of town. The countryside was extraordinary: a wide valley under a rich blue sky, surrounded by a mixture of rounded and jagged mountains covered with the delectable white parchment bark of aspen trees which, all being connected underground into one super-organism, had a beautiful but disturbingly homogeneous appearance and, unlike most of the evergreen trees around, hadn’t been killed off by the current plague of pine beetles. So the forest appears to be going the same way as the rest of America at the moment, since under assault the ones that herd together in a clump are surviving. I sometimes think people are like aspen trees: an invisible subterranean mass of connections that only poke above-ground into the definite forms in which we see and hear them at the moments we run into them, and thrust up in other, similar forms at different moments. Maybe the price of being a perpetual traveler is never to be around long enough to get a reckoning of the totality, like I’m just channel-surfing other people’s lives.

A virgin discharge

I shot a gun for the first time two days ago. My friend’s girlfriend has a shotgun and he has a pistol, though I’m not sure whether they got them before or after meeting each other. Since with two guns and two people they had reached the point of mutually assured destruction, no doubt they brought me in as a proxy that could take bullets from both sides instead, like Vietnam. So they invited me to go “shooting.” Of course I was happy to join the ranks of those mountain men so rugged that they dared to turn a transitive verb into an intransitive. “To shoot.” “To go shooting.” This actually works for me, as I like to think of myself as a sort of existential shooter, defining myself by the action itself and not its object, which is to say I wasn’t even aiming at anything in particular, let alone hitting it. I was just in it for that cocky twitch of the wrist from the pistol’s recoil, that totally unearned sense of power which is a consolation for the massive humiliation that the human body suffers from the mere existence of guns.

The caveman brain of humans still tends to think of a fight as the sort of tiff or scrum where you have a chance of protecting yourself. It’s hard to accept emotionally the frightening asymmetry of the modern age, where any battle involving firearms means, as far as the human body is concerned, all offense and no defense. Still, maybe our helplessness to protect ourselves from our own inventions has paradoxically made the world a safer place in the end, has given pause to all those wishing to do each other in but fearful of suffering the same in retaliation, just like in a more extreme sense world peace has flourished in the shade of the mushroom cloud. In any case, that’s not the source of the satisfaction you experience when blasting away with a .22 on the side of a mountain. But even though like Zeus we were standing aloft raining down hot-blooded justice on random rocks and trees, he showed us the inferiority of our arsenal to his by promptly raining us out. If only every army commencing hostilities in some fetid drainage ditch like Belgium could be so easily dissuaded.