Sunday, April 6, 2014

Stranger in a Strange Land

Too bad this title is already taken, I could write a parallel novel from my own life. Years ago, I read this when I was more into science fiction literature and I think it had a profound effect on me. Everyone can point to specific novels and movies that they feel moved or influenced them. This is one of them, along with the original b&w 1949 version of Orwell's 1984 with Edmund O'brien. Scared the shit out of me. I enjoyed all the classic monster movies, but 1984 really impressed upon me themes like Man's inhumanity to Man, political duplicity and betrayal.

I've written previously on this I feel like an Alien theme, and I probably will again. It's unnerving to be a person who was raised under some fairly specific life philosophies, to have taken all that to heart, and then to mature into a world that seems almost the antithesis to all that. I think most of us have accepted the notion that change is inevitable, in all things, in all ways. But I also believe that most of us - well, at least the friends for whom I wrote this - also subscribe to the notion that Life has to be built upon some kind of foundation of predictability. We wake up in the morning and expect that gravity is still working as it always has. The sun comes up, we turn on the spigot and water comes out instead of blood. The laws of math and physics remain constant. I could go on, but you get the idea. 

Unless you're a person that - as a child - experienced a very fragmented and traumatic home life, where at least emotionally things radically changed from day to day, even hour to hour... unless you were a war orphan or grew up in a band of gypsies, there was some degree of consistency and predictability.

I grew up in a fairly middle-class Protestant, American family unit. Mostly, dad worked and mom raised the kids, although there was always a good amount of love and nurturing in addition to just discipline.  Basically, and I think most importantly, there was structure as opposed to chaos. What this does is allow a young, impressionable mind to develop smoothly, to devote attention to absorbing all the wonderful aspects of Life without worrying about hunger or harm. Thus, just about every day was a wonderful adventure, no matter what I was doing, alone, with family, or friends. I feel that all aspects of my life - emotional, intellectual, spiritual, political, sexual, etc. - got off to a positive start, such that I was not only able to begin accepting my own self, but others around me. I saw that in general, people had more in common than that which set them apart, and as regards the differences, I could have some understanding and appreciation for the roots of that diversity. 

I didn't begin to experience real, significant antagonism until about high school. At that point, young people have really begun to establish a personality and like most teenagers, my classmates were clearly defined by things like socio-economic level, appearance, fashion, music and other various tribal similarities.
Social grouping became evident, as the pretty ones (both male and female) stood out like peacocks, the affluent ones looked down upon those from poorer or rural homes, the athletic ones staked-out their own social territories, on and on. 

For the first time, I wasn't sure of my place in the scheme of things, in the teenage social fabric. I wasn't an A student, I wasn't much of an athlete, I wasn't the most handsome. I was just sort of average, which was fine, but I recoiled from all the cliqueishness around me. It was all designed, so to speak, to make one feel inferior. Then came the day I discovered the guitar and I quickly found my niche group. I was a serious musician, devoting hours to practice and rehearsal, so performing any kind of music from any era was like falling off a log. And of course, I reaped all the benefits surrounding rock music and teen girls. Life was suddenly really, really good.

For a couple decades, Life was just one celebration, one adventure after another, following my heart, following the breeze. I found a wonderful life partner, I got married and things just seemed to continue on a steady course from city life to country life, back and forth, hither and yon. Life was an all-you-can-eat buffet, a smorgasbord in the broadest sense and we were loving it.

My life's journey has pretty much always been a pleasant, fun experience, and we've always been people to say yes to new experiences, new tastes, sounds, vistas. What seems to have changed over the years is a certain social-political attitude, and yes, I will admit to perhaps being more sensitive to it, but I contend that it has in fact changed, and not necessarily for the better. Well, it's gone in both directions to be honest. There have been improvements and advancements in American society. There is more mutual acceptance of differences in cultures, although that's what this country is supposed to be about, isn't it? There's more cross-cultural, cross-ethnic marriage. There's less visible racial discrimination (I'll get back to that shortly). Musical genres have become more diverse and cross-over. There are more shades of gray in the broadest sense.

Perhaps that's part of the problem, if not the process. While, as a society, we've become more diverse, the people who are less able to adapt to change have become more vociferous, more vitriolic, more set in their ways, more opposed to change. Their little worlds - and don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong per se with a simpler lifestyle - simply cannot adapt to concepts like same-sex couples. Then, there's that thing called religion, but central to it - as I was taught - was the concept of forgiveness, not to mention benevolence, which is perhaps the thing I notice more than anything else.

More than being just non-accepting (or in addition to it), a lot of people have adopted a very condescending attitude toward those of lower income or those who work other than suit-and-tie jobs, and I'm telling you it's exactly the same attitude I experienced back in high school. Worse, I believe that this attitude is identical in its immaturity, only more intense as it's been contorted and distorted over time; it's adults behaving like children, in terms of socio-economic-political thought. I contend that if a person is fully developed mentally, that they should be cognizant of being part of a larger picture. They certainly have to deal with that in terms of things like traffic laws. There has to be some sense of flow and going with it. Of course, we've all experienced drivers - and not necessarily younger ones - who seem to have forgotten much of their Driver's Ed. training.

Regarding discrimination, as laws are passed (which are a direct reflection of change in society), things become illegal (if you can prove your case), things become verboten, things become unacceptable in a mature, evolving society. What happens is, the hatred becomes sublimated and disguised. 

One place I worked for a while was really weird, in that they had this diversity policy that was like zero tolerance for racial slurs, sexual slurs, on and on. If you had a problem, you were expected to deal with it in a proper manner. That or just suck it up and not be abusive. Well, the upshot of all this was that people became afraid of losing their jobs if they said anything too offensive, and bear in mind, this particular area of the country was not what you'd call ripe with jobs, let alone well-paying jobs. So, what happened was that if you did something that unintentionally pissed-off a coworker, you'd get these if looks could kill glances, but they'd never actually SAY anything to you.

That…was creepy. I'm glad I found a better job.

This alien world I frequently find myself in just doesn't feel right. It's not scary in terms of change per se; I've probably had more change in my life than a lot of folks, and much of it has been by choice, not chance or fate. It's a world that seems more hostile, antagonistic, and afraid. And of course, change and misunderstanding breed fear. Fear! Security! Buy a gun! Stand your ground!
What the fuck is going on?

I've always said that if I was homeless and hungry, I'd knock on the door of a simple, less-affluent home before ever approaching anything more luxurious, assuming I could even get up the front walk before they dialed 9-1-1, or pointed a gun out the window.

Too many people - and people who have plenty to eat - have adopted what I call a lifeboat mentality where they're more than willing to toss anyone overboard who doesn't seem to be rowing as vigorously as them, or who seems  in ill health and unable to make a contribution. That's the really scary part.

I don't want to be guilty of condescension. Rather than look down upon these people from some point of moral superiority, I feel sorry for them. They seem so myopic. And yes, I am perfectly willing to admit that in their own way, they might see the world out their window as alien, but it is from the other end of the telescope…or kaleidoscope. I feel that the resistance to change and benevolence is alien; they feel the exact opposite. 

I push my canoe away from the shore, off on another adventure, and they just stay safely on dry land, waving with one hand,  clutching their backpack with the other, in which they keep their coin purse, gun, Bible and jerky.

For the most part, my immediate world, my microcosm is in good shape. It's a calm and happy place, but when I venture outside it, when I look through the window of media and the internet, I see some pretty sad and strange things. I'm like Spencer Tracy, the one-armed man in Bad Day at Black Rock, as he walks into the diner where Borgnine, Ryan and Marvin are waiting for him.

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