Sunday, October 28, 2007

Contentment

“Contentment” is a word you don’t hear very often anymore. It’s such a passive word. These days we’re all about superlatives. You can’t even buy a small Coke. You have to choose from “large,” “extra large,” “big gulp” and “belly buster.”

Don’t get me started on Starbucks.

There are no movie and singing stars anymore. None. Now all actors and singers are “SUPERstars!” The real superstars are “MEGAstars!” (In a perverse, word nerd way I’m kind of looking forward to seeing where the publicity flaks take us from here.)

How many emails do you get in which people use so many exclamation points they must have bought them at Costco?

Calm words are boring, I guess. When I ask people how they are nobody just says “fine.” Everybody is “excellent,” and “awesome!” If you tell somebody you’re “fine” these days they think you’re either deeply depressed or too busy to be bothered. “Fine” has become, in effect, a benign way of dismissing people.

I guess there’s something pathetic about plain old contentment that just reeks of giving up and settling for less.

What’s going on here? Why are we all driving for higher levels of okay? Remember when being okay was a good thing? Now it makes you suspect. If you tell somebody you’re “okay” they think you’re brooding or pouting or about to launch into some self-serving tirade. “No, really, I’m okay!” When you put an exclamation point on it like that it looks like you’re covering something up or being super defensive. Not just defensive, see, SUPER defensive!!! Or, maybe you scare people by being calm. Maybe they suspect you’re going to be the next guy in the news who walked into his former office and shot up the place.

“He was a nice guy. Always quiet; kept to himself. Said he was ‘fine.’”

Something is driving us these days and I don’t think it’s just the cultural evolution of semantics. I think, for some reason, a lot of us are screaming for attention.

And I wouldn’t mention it, of course, unless I had a theory. Here it is:

We baby boomers have been screwing around with America’s social foundation since the sixties when some of us suddenly decided we had no further need for our parents, teachers and other authority figures.

This was evolving when I was still in high school. We still had a dress code and we still addressed teachers as Mr. This and Mrs. That. But just a few years later there was a brief but widespread attempt to equalize the social standing between students and teachers when students began addressing teachers by their first names. Teachers at the time, many of them children of the sixties, nearly unanimously and warmly accepted this practice as enlightened and hip. I don’t know for sure why this cultural experiment didn’t jell but I suspect it caused a structural breakdown that even those young boomer teachers who opposed the rule of authority had to admit caused some real disruption in classrooms. When “Mr. Farber” confiscated your hash pipe and sent you to the office there were consequences. If “Phil” tried do do that, you probably laughed and Phil smiled, too. In any case, it didn’t last very long but I do see a social pattern that can be traced back to that era.

Young people these days almost never say, “You’re welcome.” Instead they say, “No problem,” which is hardly the same thing. “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” are ancient pleasantries, expressions of respect. But now it’s gotten to the point I don’t even want to thank anybody because I dread the kickback I know I’m about to receive. When I thank a waiter for bringing my meal he says, “No problem” and honestly, I feel a little insulted or, at least, brushed aside. I want to respond, “I’m greatly relieved that my presence, requiring you to perform a small part of your job, isn’t creating a problem for you,” but I don’t. I know he wasn’t trying to insult me but by not acknowledging my respectful gratitude with an equally personal and gracious, “You’re welcome,” he is unconsciously diverting attention from me, his customer, to himself. Not only does it abruptly terminate the intended exchange of pleasantries, it draws a faint line between us. In effect the waiter is saying to me, “You’re doing your thing (ordering a meal) and I’m doing mine (bringing it.)” In an unconscious effort to equalize the social standing between us the waiter is rejecting the relationship that naturally exists.

Being a waiter isn’t demeaning and neither is being polite. We are all subordinate to others at times in various circumstances and that’s a good thing, I think. It keeps us humble and respectful of others. But when we blur the distinction between customer and waiter we rob ourselves of an opportunity to experience a supporting role in society. At other times, in different circumstances, the waiter is a customer, too.

Carolann thinks I’m a nutball when I start prattling on about this stuff. She says I’m too picky about words and she does have a point because I take people far more literally than they generally intend. The thing is, when I don’t I’m confused. The subtleties and shadings of implications in our language are powerful and I hate being forced to go through life unclear about everything everybody says. I find myself constantly guessing what people mean as opposed to what they say. I’m never sure what to believe and isn’t that true to some extent for all of us these days?

When was the last time you fully believed or understood something you read in a newspaper or saw on TV? It’s popular these days to accuse the mass media of having a political agenda that slants the information they provide us. I hate political bickering and won’t go down that road just now but I do think what we’re seeing, hearing and reading today are more shouts for attention, the clamoring of an ever more desperate generation of narcissists growing old without contentment.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Running away from home

I believe the urge to travel is born in Americans even as we are nesters by nature. We are a nation of immigrants after all and of native tribes forced to constant mobility for survival. The immigrant in us wants nothing more than to make a secure, permanent home and yet the tribesman needs to see what lies beyond the next peak and to follow streams to their ultimate destinations.

I suppose that’s romanticizing my own lifelong wanderlust and my paradoxical nesting instinct but I do believe it is largely an anthropological matter and a nationalistic one as well. Most societies either stay put or keep moving. Americans tend to want both at all times.

For as long as I can remember I have explored the Western U.S. and embraced its heritage. My father was born and raised on the plains of southwestern Wyoming. He took me there often and to get there we had to cross some startling and impressive landscapes. There was never a single day of our travels that wasn’t breathtakingly beautiful and completely different from the day before it.

When I was twelve Dad and I were given special permission to watch a Pueblo Indian bonfire ceremony outside of Taos, New Mexico. That was a day or two before we were caught in an Arizona flash flood and forced to dodge boulders bouncing onto the highway.

I have fished for trout in the Yellowstone River during a snowstorm while being watched by a family of moose that surely thought we were crazy.

I saw lightning explode a tree outside of Memphis.

Bits and pieces of old memories and far away places dance in my head fairly constantly.

Tuba City, Arizona: an unremarkable town of Dairy Queens and KFCs plopped smack in the middle of a fabulous nowhere, an arid land of beautiful red rock mesas and spectacular cumulus sunrises and sunsets. One constant view, a million shifting colors; nine thousand people bored out of their minds.

If you wish to see the entire Western U.S. from the top, climb eleven thousand feet up the Beartooth Highway from Yellowstone to Red Lodge, Montana. Above the timberline you will meet tiny ground-dwelling marmots dancing through breathtaking fields of wildflowers between lingering patches of August snow. Looking down at Rocky Mountain peaks may bring tears to your eyes. It should surely install God in your heart.

My heart aches for these places and the thousands of others like them I have never seen. And yet I fear I cannot travel fairly constantly without being tethered to my hearth and kin. I need my home and I need just as desperately to leave it.

It’s a uniquely American dilemma.

Carolann and I have long talked of getting a nice motorhome someday and easing our way into a lifestyle that will give us the best of both worlds. Someday, we figure, we can run away from home for a few days or several weeks at a time secure in the knowledge that our children are well and that our century-old house awaits our return.

It was a good plan until last weekend when it finally dawned on us that “someday” never comes.

We will take delivery of our new home on wheels on Tuesday.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Friday, October 5, 2007

Shrugging off fifty

Shortly before the Christmas of 1997 my son Jeremy gave me the second of three great gifts he has bestowed upon me, the first being his own life. He gave me a daughter-in-law, dear Emily.

Five years later our youngest son, Nathan, made us grandparents for the first time with the child whirlwind, Isaiah, who would soon dub me “Bompah.” And a couple of years after that Jeremy and Emily presented Carolann and me with a second grandson, Tyler.

We were delighted by our mini population explosion. As every grandparent knows, grandbabies are an opportunity to travel back in time and get it right; to raise one’s own child again giving greater care this time to matters wondrously, joyously trivial and with far less attention paid to the dull necessities of character and behavior.

Somewhere among the weddings and birthings I turned fifty and the AARP had hunted me down with a sleuth like efficiency that would make the CIA proud. If you’re even close to fifty the AARP knows who you are, where you live and what you’re up to. I’d bet my first Social Security check they know where to find Osama bin Laden and that they sold him one helluva life insurance policy.

Late 2001 and early 2002 was a hard year in which my life took serious turns. For one thing, I was fifty. You can’t ignore something like that. During that time I was fired from my job because I was inadequate. Losing a job is usually easily and reasonably dismissed as managerial idiocy but in this case I had to admit they were right. I wasn’t, and could not become, what they wanted

That, as my grandma would have said, is a hard pill to swallow.

That same year my father died. He is still my hero. He was only seventy-two and the most physically fit seventy-two you can imagine. Silver haired, bright-eyed, upright, quick of step and quicker of mind he keeled over from an attack on his heart nobody ever expected. And suddenly, for the first time in my half-century of existence, I found myself vulnerable, frightened and much worse, mortal.

I know I’m giving testimony before a congregation of believers. Many of you arrived at this stage in life before I did. Some of you feel it just now creeping up on you. It’s the sudden realization of the preposterously obvious:

I am not going to live forever!

Of all the surprises life delivers, the joyous, the painful and the sublime, I’m now convinced that nothing in life can prepare you for this hideously lonely revelation which you always knew was coming.

Don’t tell me you’re not afraid to die. Well, tell me that if you like but don’t try to sell it to yourself. It is a lie.

Since then I’ve learned to put my life in proper perspective. My grandsons keep me young of heart. My wife and children keep me young in spirit. And frankly, I just have too damned many important things to do, and even more unimportant things to ignore, than to waste what’s left of my life as a sour ingrate, the guest of honor and sole attendant of a self-inflicted pity party.

No, I will not discard fifty-six wonderful years of love and laughter as if they had never happened or bitterly bemoan their passing.

In that spirit I offer you this resolution: that the business of our later years is to celebrate who we are, where we started, where we’re going and why we matter.

If life is a banquet, as it surely should be, they are clearing the table for my dessert and I intend to savor each bite.

I deserve it.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

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