Your Good Side

It’s an apocryphal story that my friends, family members and students have heard too many times, but it was surgical for me in its impact over the years, and so I think it bears repeating.

I was standing in a long lineup for hours, waiting for a booth to open and begin selling tickets to a Bob Dylan concert.  I had somehow been chosen by my friends to go alone to buy tickets for the bunch of us, so was standing as part of a group of strangers who inevitably got talking.

The fellow I talked with the most was tall, with an impressive mustache and bad teeth, engaging in a funny and oddly insightful way.  He was telling me at one point about a co-vivant relationship between a professor friend of his and a younger woman, a relationship which soured with time.  The turn of phrase he used caused me to laugh out loud at the time, and think more about it later:

“They were still at that phase where they were showing one another their good sides.”

Sad but true I thought.  On that first date we are shining in our virtue, our willingness to behave in the most admirable, unselfish ways.  Love blooms, issuing forth all manner of florid songs and poems about the very paragon of beauty and refinement that our lover is.

Fast forward to when we have been living together for a year, when all the foibles and flaws have been fully exposed.  She now knows that you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle and refuse to ever put a new toilet paper roll on the holder; you now know that she is a slob who leaves underwear lying all over the bedroom floor and spends hours every day on the phone with her mother.  It’s an arc of change that indeed seems inevitable.  We are many-sided creatures, and so, inexorably, we reveal all sides, including the dark one, to those who come to know us intimately.

Many years later, I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment, but I’d also suggest we can contend with the slide.  We can resist the tendency to arrive at two separate standards of behavior: one for those who know us best, and one for everyone else.

The latter standard is of course the one we should aspire to, the one where we don our very best cloak of behavior in an attempt to make the best possible first impression.

Kurt Vonnegut Rashawerakh photo
Kurt Vonnegut
Rashawerakh photo

It’s a daunting prospect, but the great American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. set down what are in fact some encouraging words in this regard.  In the introduction to Mother Night, he wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

You see, there is the matter of will in this gloomy revelatory fate, offering what must be the most constructive strategy in the face of it.  We can all go about pretending we’re still on that first date.  In the grand (or not-so-grand) tradition of ‘What would ____ do?’, we can ask, ‘What would I do if we had just met?’

With sufficient effort, I’d suggest that—in stark deference to Abraham Lincoln’s inescapable maxim that we can’t fool all the people all the time—we can in fact fool most of the people most of the time.  If you pretend to be a good person most of the time, happily, most people will think you are.

Here’s another relevant Vonnegut near-aphorism (the guy was brilliant at them), from my personal favorite of his books, Sirens of Titan:

“The purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

So let’s be clear about the nature of the challenge here.  The tough part is to go on pretending to be a good person around those people who know you well, who know all about your lazy, selfish side, who aren’t about to be fooled.

Regardless, there’s no getting around it now.  This is your new charge, having unwisely taken the time to read this digressive post.  You must now go about at all times pretending that you just met the person you’re with.

The End of the Movies

I grew up without television.  It never arrived in the small town where I lived until I was about ten.  So I grew up watching the movies, initially Saturday afternoon matinees, which my older brother begrudgingly escorted me to under firm orders from my mother, who was looking for brief respite from the burden of three disorderly boys.  Admission was ten cents, popcorn five cents.  (If these prices seem unbelievable to you, all I can say is… me too.)

file2791245784270Movies were it, a prime cultural (and for me eventually professional) mover, right through my adolescence and early adulthood.  For me, TV has tended to be a kind of entertainment sideline, something to be watched when a new show came around with some serious buzz, but more often just a passive filler of downtime, material to unwind with at the end of a busy day.

That has of course all changed in recent years, and not just for me.  I don’t go to the movies much anymore—that is I don’t go to the movie houses—and, what’s more, movies don’t seem to matter much anymore.  These days movies are mostly noisy spectacle, big, flashy events, but events with very little to offer other than raucous entertainment.  Comic book movies are the dominant genre of today, and, no matter how I slice it, those comic book characters don’t really connect with life as I’m living it, day to day.  And, as I say, it’s not just me, as someone from an older demographic.  Today, unfortunately, the audience for the movies is smaller, and more narrow than it’s ever been.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMovie audiences peaked in 1946, the year The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Sleep, and It’s A Wonderful Life were released, and 100 million tickets were sold every week.  By 1955—when Guys and Dolls, Rebel Without A Cause, and The Seven Year Itch were released—with the advent of television, that audience had dropped to less than half that.

But the movies survived television and found a ‘silver’ age (‘gold’ being the studio-dominated 40s) in the decade from 1965 to 1975, when we watched movies like The Godfather I and II, Midnight Cowboy and Chinatown, and the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut enjoyed theatrical release right across North America.  It was a time when movies did seem to have something to say; they spoke to me about the changing world I was in direct daily contact with.

Then came the blockbusters—Jaws and Star Wars—and the realization that Hollywood could spend hundreds, not tens of millions of dollars on a movie and garner just as large an increase in returns.  Movies have never been the same.

Today less than 40 million people in North America go to see a movie once a month.  In a 2012 poll done by Harris International, 61% of respondents said they rarely or never go to the movies.  Why would you when you have that wide screen at home, ad-free, with the pause button at your disposal?  The most you’ll likely pay to watch in private is half of what you would at the movie house.

And then, this year, we had a summer of blockbuster flops.  The worst was The Lone Ranger, made for $225 million and about to cost Walt Disney at least $100 million.  Both Steven Speilberg and George Lucas have said that the industry is set to “implode,” with the distribution side morphing into something closer to a Broadway model where fewer movies are released; they stay in theatres longer, but with much higher ticket prices.  Movies as spectacle.

(If you’re interested in reading more, an elegant, elegiac tribute to the run of the movies is The Big Screen, published last year and written by David Thomson, a critic born in 1941 who has thus been around for a good-sized chunk of film history.)

It may well be that movies, as the shared public experience that I’ve known, are coming to the end of a roughly 100-year run.  It was rapid, glamorous, often tawdry, sometimes brilliant, once in a while even significant, but technology is quickly trampling the movies.  If you were there for even a part it, you might feel blessed.

Text vs. Talk

Nobody answers the phone anymore.  Not unless the call is from a member of that small, select group who qualify for as much in your life, and not unless call display tells you it’s them.  And maybe not even then.

Do you remember when you would unhesitatingly pick up the phone, not knowing who was calling, but confident that you would then be able to talk with someone you cared to?

file4421234854056Not if you’re among the technologically ‘native’ generations you don’t.  For anyone born from the late 80s on, texting rules.  A phone call is intrusive, burdensome to manage, and difficult to exit.  For my generation, on the other hand, texting seems like a throwback in technology, slow and cumbersome, like going back to the typewriter after enjoying the benefits of word processing.

Texting is all about control of course, carefully crafting, on your own time, a message that may appear casual but is in fact considered, strategic, probably revised.  A phone call is unpredictable, volatile even, and calling for that skill so prized by the Victorians—conversation.

But texting also directly reflects the hermetic quality of digital technology, that quality which allows us, in Sherry Turkle’s words, to be “alone together.”  Simply put, it’s more isolating.  The contact you make with another human being via texting is removed, with very real—not virtual—time and space set between sender and receiver.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, isolation can be a good thing, something that most of us don’t get enough of.  Isolation where it leads to the opportunity for quiet contemplation, for thought, for listening to near silence; this sort of isolation is therapeutic, spiritual shoring up which should be a recurring part of our lives.  I spent a couple of summers alone on a very isolated fire tower when I was young, watching for smoke rising from the wilderness forests surrounding me, but really just being with myself, being with myself until I had no choice but to accept myself, and then move on.  The experience changed my life forever; it may be the single smartest thing I’ve ever done.

But that isolation, alone with the wondrous beauty of the Canadian wilds, also regularly made otherwise fully sane, well-grounded individuals slip off the edge of sanity.  “Bushed” it was called then, and probably still is.  There were scads of stories, but the best one I heard personally was from a forest ranger who, driving past a towerman’s hilltop station one evening, decided to pay a visit.  As he drove the winding road up to the tower, he glimpsed the lighted windows of the cabin a few times, but, when he pulled into the yard, those lights were off.  Surmising that the man had just gone to bed, he turned around, headed back down.  But from the road now twisting down the hill, he saw that the lights were back on.

His suspicions aroused, he returned to the cabin, again found the lights off, but this time knocked on the door.  With no response, he let himself in to find the man hiding timorously under his bed.

We are social animals who need regular human contact, and the more social contacts we have, the more likely it is that we are happy.  A little time spent in the company of others was all that was needed by those afflicted like the towerman above, in order to return to a healthy mental state.   Because here’s the thing; too much isolation leads to the isolated avoiding, not seeking out human contact.  I can attest to as much.  After enough days spent alone, you no longer wish to associate with other people.  It’s too much effort, requiring skills that are too corroded.

Now there is obviously a vast, vast degree of difference between mountaintop and telephone isolation, but that’s my point; it is only a difference in degree.  The direction of the impact is the same, toward insecurity and deteriorated social skills.

Like most digital technology, there’s no going back.  Innovation has again created a need we didn’t even know we had.  I won’t be picking up my phone any more often in future, but engagement is the price I’m paying, and engagement is precisely what makes us more alive.

 

The Arc of Age

“Oh to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the coloured balloons.
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
You’re leaving there too soon.”

             Neil Young, from Sugar Mountain

There is a time in your life when all opportunities seem available to you, a time when, whether it’s school, travel, love or work, any number of options are still to come.  If any particular relationship, living situation or job doesn’t work out, well, there are always more chances ahead.

And then one day, approximately two and half heartbeats later, you wake up to the reality that this wide open future no longer awaits you.

imagesKids do it to you more than anything else.  You can always change jobs, move to another city, or leave a lover, but a child is forever.  No changing your mind, after the fact.  As Neil Young has written in another song (Already One), once that charming little creature of yours enters into the world, he or she “won’t let [you] forget.”

The arc of a life affair is like a splendid strand of fireworks, trailing sparks as it rockets up into a starry sky, only to “too soon” begin the downward turn, moments away from extinguishment.  To draw upon another pop culture reference, Anthony Hopkins, in the critically-maligned-but-actually-rather-decent Meet Joe Black, stands addressing the crowd assembled for his 65th birthday, knowing Death awaits him at the edge of the party: “Sixty-five years.  Didn’t they go by in a blink?”

I’m not quite there yet, but I’m acutely aware that opportunities are now diminishing for me, not expanding.  My father will turn 91 this year.  We got him out to Galiano over the summer for what may well be his last visit to a place where he spent many warm days noodling around on various “projects”—a septic pipe for his trailer which emptied into two separate, submerged plastic garbage barrels (I kid you not), a wooden tower for a golden-coloured metal weather vane that weighs roughly 400 pounds, and has never once moved.

Dad and three of his brothers went off to war while all still in either their teens or twenties (Dad was 18).  Only two of them came back.  They didn’t cause the war, not in the slightest possible way, but it impacted their lives in a way I can only imagine.  On my mother’s side, my uncle’s entire graduating class walked from the Olds Agricultural College up to Edmonton, enlisting en masse.  Such were the times, and the excitement in the air for young people, eager for experience.

Sugar Mountain is about the transition from childhood to adolescence, marked by things like (for Young’s generation) a furtive first cigarette beneath the stairs, or a secret, world-exploding note from that girl “down the aisle.”  We all leave the magic of childhood “too soon,” but then the other transitions of life seem to pile on pretty rapidly too.  The end of school, perhaps marriage, the death of our parents, children leaving home.  It all comes at you like rolling breakers at the beach, just as irresistible.

Oddly enough, the passage of time does not slow as we age.  In fact it accelerates, causing whole chapters of our lives to blur into a kind of muted cacophony of sounds and pictures, like a tape set to fast forward.  (I’ve commented here on this blog on the blur of the child-rearing years.)  That year’s time, say grade four, which seemed to drag on forever for me as a child now seems to hurtle by in an instant, like an approaching pedestrian whom I don’t recognize until he’s passed me by.  Too late to even smile.

Most of us will live ordinary lives.  We won’t be rich, or famous, extraordinarily powerful, or especially attractive.  But if we’re lucky, and if we make just enough good choices, we will live long and well.  It won’t be a perfect record, not even close, and there will be a fair number of regrets, but if tragedy, disease, natural catastrophes and the sordid affairs of nation states leave you largely untouched, you will live long, and you will find meaning.  It will come with children, and those others whom you love.  If you are so lucky, it will come whether you like it or not.  No need to hurry.