Kitsch or Culture
[30 Days to Take Off]
I am fairly aware that what I am writing now is a little pep talk for myself five months before the planned departure date. Is this trip really going to happen? I am unsure, and until this week, I have refused to talk about it with friends. I am more than a little nervous that God or whatever passes for God—random luck, karma, or poor planning—will make it very clear to me that this particular dream is impossible. I can sing however loudly I wish with Robert Goulet, but this dream could be dead on arrival. Right now, my individual brand of faith boils down to a choice. I chose to believe that doubt and fear are illusions, and that on August 1, my family and I will drive out of Austin in rather large pick-up pulling an RV destined for a great adventure. This Countdown, this preface to the trip, is, so far, the only proof I have.
|Will the real America please stand up?|
photo by LG, Cumberland Mountain Store, TN. 2012
Excuse me for minute while I let my inner English teacher have the stage. A preface is a peculiar rhetorical gesture. Most prefaces are not really prefaces in the sense that they are not pre anything. Most prefaces are written after, even long after, the words in the book have been written, and, of course, some “Prefaces” are written by someone other than the author of the book. This means that whoever writes the preface is really writing a post-face and claiming, falsely, otherwise. For them, everything that will happen in the book has already happened. Therefore, writers really aren’t telling us what life was like before the events in the book took place. At best, the writers are reporting what they remember about what they were thinking before the events in the book took place and changed them. Heraclitus identified this problem: he told us that we can’t step into the same river twice. Or we can’t be the person we were before the events that changed us, indeed, did change us. This is not the case here. As I write this preface, very little, indeed, has happened as relates to what I am guessing the book that follows will be about.
I can say that I do worry about the future and about the trip. Since “the trip” is still a long way in the future, I recognize it as a fantasy. I am apprehensive that once my family and I set out to find America that there will be no “America” there. Or rather, the America I find will not be one I care to discover. I know such a statement sounds odd, but bear with me. As I have said, I live in Austin, Texas. I have lived here, except for a couple of brief periods, since 1971. Over 40 years. While I am a private, introverted person and have never been part of whatever in-crowd that has dominated the pop-culture scene, I have enjoyed what the city has to offer. I have watched the city change from sleepy college town and home of the Cosmic Cowboy to a tougher puck rock and blues scene to the current foodie, indie-film hipster scene.
Like the rest of America, during this time period, Austin suffered a series of Boom and Bust periods. As a person on the limited state income of a community college teacher, I always preferred the recurrent Busts to the Booms. Not that I wish ill on my fellow citizens, but I never felt lonely and poor and left behind in my pint-size pick-up truck when the Mercedes, BMWs, and Jaguars disappeared from Loop 1, our highway where the 95 % and the 5% briefly conjoin. Although I do greatly enjoy the foodie, independent brewery scene, I have remained as loyal as I can to the hippie Cosmic Cowboy ethos or local DIY businesses rather than corporate chains. And most of the growth in Austin in the past twenty years has been suburban and corporate. Many of my favorite haunts have disappeared. There are no shortages of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, Subways, Olive Gardens, Chili’s, Cheddars, P. F. Chang’s, Bed, Bath, and Beyonds, Barnes and Nobles, etc., etc, etc. Austin even has its own homegrown corporate want-to-be’s coming to a town near you, such as Schlotzsky’s and Chuy’s. I can remember, the grumpy old guy in me says, when the first Schlotzsky’s opened on South Congress Avenue. And don’t get me started on what happened to Chuy’s after George Bush’s daughters started getting drunk there. And Whole Foods?—there, my friend, is a symbol for everything good and bad about my hometown.
I know my psychic wrestling match with authenticity is exasperating to those around me. I begin our adventure knowing that Disney World is unavoidable. First, my wife and I know that we cannot travel a year in America with our two sons and not take them to Disney World or Disney Land. What parent in America denies their child the Disney experience? If one succeeded in such a denial, the retribution for that denial would be the first thing that their child would do in their young adulthood, much like the children of teetotalers, who as soon as they get to college begin experimenting with alcohol and god know what else. So we will go to Disney World, in January most likely. If only for inoculation purposes. A small brief dose so the antibodies develop for long term immunity.
More troubling to me is Disney’s long shadow across the nation. I predict that it will be disturbing and unnerving, and perfectly enjoyable, to experience the purified fakery of Main Street, USA., Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Liberty Square. After all, it was perfectly enjoyable to experience Ronald Reagan’s sweet reimaging of the fifties in the nineteen eighties. After one finally escapes from the corporate fantasy of the Disney imagination, one knows one has experienced a fantasy. Of course that wasn’t real, one will be able to admit—I hope. But can one walk out of a home-cooking restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, one that Rachel Ray has visited and recommended, knowing that her visit and recommendation has not turned the restaurant into an imitation of itself.
The problem lies in the nature of tourism and the attempts to please and manipulate tourists. It’s the problem of media and the hungry belly of the Information Age. A local example in Austin is the Mexican food restaurant names Guero’s. It is owned by a hip couple with admirable tastes and a talent for marketing. At one time, they had a cool, cutting edge restaurant and bar. Then it became trendy. Bill Clinton visited and so did Lucinda Williams and all sorts of other hip and cool people. After a time, prices went up and the food remained what it had always been—a palatable version of the standard beans, rice and enchiladas—but the restaurant became a place that you took your out-of-town guests to as an example of what makes Austin cool and unique. At that point, I would argue that it ceased to be such a place. Instead, it had become a tourist joint, another roadside attraction. It has become one more expression of Texas Kitsch. It’s another form of a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville restaurant. I love Jimmy Buffett. I have sung “Margaritaville” an embarrassing number of times. But with almost two dozen restaurants in the world, do I think he is presenting anything authentic, anything unique, anything other than a corporatized vision of what I do and should enjoy. And why is there a Margaritaville Restaurant at Niagara Falls? This problem, the problem of manufactured authenticity, is Disney’s long shadow.
Then finally, here at the end of spring break, it hits me. Hits me like pint beer glass hurled from across the nation from one of America’s microbreweries. My oldest son is correct, I know how to do this. I know how to separate “the people” from the “corporations.” I know how to separate the people’s traditions and cultures from the people’s kitsch. This mental activity is exactly what I have been engaged in for thirty or so years. It’s what I have been teaching, and why I have been teaching. Reading. Reading books and every other kind of document. Reading objects and their histories and how they were read by some and misread by others. I know how and where to find meaning. I’ll know meaning when I see it.
Soundtrack: James Brown. Living in America