Thursday, December 26, 2013

Wonderful Life

Maybe I should have gone to the Christmas Eve service.  Everybody else did.  Christmas Eve, we were in Pittsboro, North Carolina, just south of Chapel Hill, at my sister’s, “The Queen Bee’s,” house, completely abusing her hospitality.  Not only has Waller Grant rolled into town, and parked itself in my niece’s front yard—making all her sophisticated Southern neighbors wonder just who might these hippy-rednecks be—but we’ve also shipped in my oldest son, The Philosopher, and his girlfriend from Austin, and Knightsmama’s dad, Buckaroo, and his girlfriend.  It’s a veritable Texas invasion.  The Queen Bee’s house has become something like one of those tavern way stations that the early settlers created along the rough hewn roadways.  While Knightsmama and I are staying at the niece’s house—mostly chilly nights in the monster—Buckaroo, older girlfriend, all three boys, and younger girlfriend have filled the The Honey Comb Inn.  It’s a virtual Christmas story:  no room at the inn, indeed.  My sister and brother-in-law are much too polite, but I don’t think we can bring in enough beer, wine, breads and soups, or tell enough outrageous stories to make this worth their while. 
Visiting my friend Rhonda in Knoxville, Tennessee
At 10:00 p.m. Christmas Eve, everybody—except me—dressed up right pretty like and headed off to The Chapel of the Cross, Episcopal Church, for The Holy Eucharist, Rite One.  By all accounts, the service was beautiful and moving, if a church service is where one finds beauty and emotional release.  I am usually one of those people and up until the day before I planned to be among the reverent.  But on the eve of Christmas Eve, I spied in the television schedule of the local The News and Observer the appropriately last minute presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life on the National Broadcasting Corporation network.  Frankly, I have been feeling worn out and bedraggled, tired, distracted, over-taxed and overwrought.  For almost a month I have been working my way toward a blog post on “Status Anxiety,” which I have been discovering is one of the wide-eyed possums in the center of this highway I have been avoiding, and soon-or-later I am just going to have to meet head-on.  If I am going to break the surly bonds of earth, I will have to come to grips about where I am in the world’s pecking order.
I was fine this fall, happy as one of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble savages wondering the woods, as I commandeered the Caravan to the Eastern seaboard and the south.  But as I allowed myself to meditate on the journey that a twenty-something Dude experienced in counterpoint to the journey this sixty-year old Dude is currently experiencing, symptoms of an old and nagging disease began to reappear.  Have I done everything with my life that I wanted to do?  No, of course not.  Then, why not?  Why have I not, as the Army admonishes every day, been all that I can be?  Am I just someone perpetually disappointed?  Then why not just accept that fact, know that I will never be satisfied, and proceed blithely into the thwarted expectations of the future:  it’s going to be bad, so why not enjoy whatever good there is in it?  Or have I just been lazy?  Poorly organized?  Lacking in intellectual voltage?  Absent of native genius?  Born daemon-less.  Or should I have taken the road more often travelled, and rejoiced in my ordinariness? 
I wish I could say that this brooding is a mood recently descended upon me like a dark winter new moon.  But like Robert Frost, “I have been one acquainted with the night.”  Still, no matter how bitter my temperamental stew has occasionally become over the years, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has always been available as a gentle sweetener.   Sure, I am quite aware that some folks have judged the film to be a big fat bowl of giggly sentimentality.  And maybe that is true, but I embrace the movie, first, as a statement of political truth:  we can’t let the sons-of-bitches clothe their avarice as moral and intellectual superiority.  Second, I hold the movie closely as an economical truth:  basically, all we need to be happy is adequate food, shelter, family and a caring community.   
Meg and Todd Hoke Sing in Hendersonville, NC.
So I recognized that the Herald Angels could hark without me, that in the little town of Bethlehem a little baby could lie away in a manger, and the silent night, holy night, could prepare a room and let heaven and nature sing just fine in my absence.  I needed Clarence, and I craved a moment when all the Potters of world were named what they are—crazy, heartless, bitter old men, who are frustrated because they can’t own all of us.  And, it worked.  Here a few days after Christmas, I am feeling all warm and cozy and perfectly content to be the dude who drags his family around the country in a thirty-four foot fifth-wheel travel trailer.  I’ve accomplished what I accomplished and maybe I will accomplish a bit more.  But, Jesus, why do I need to worry about this so much?
Recently, my reading has provided some context for my personal sore spot.  Did you know that back before these here United States were a twinkle in our founding fathers’ eyes, Rousseau had already figured out that long ago we happy humans emerged from the forest primeval and screwed things up.  A few of us figured out we could bamboozle our brethren into believing that we somehow deserved more of life’s goodies than they.  Not only that, we created institutions that protected us from their irritating ungratefulness.  You know, monarchies and aristocracies.  Then some enterprising folks on this side of the Atlantic began reading Rousseau, and, becoming a bunch of the ingrates, got themselves organized and brought forth a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we supposedly were created equally.  But in a perfect example of not being careful what one wishes for, it didn’t take long for uneasiness to set in.  Even Alexis de Tocqueville noticed it as he traveled our great and not quite unhappy land in the first half of the nineteenth century. 
He writes, “When all prerogatives of birth and fortune have been abolished, when every profession is open to everyone, an ambitious man may think it is easy to launch himself on a great career and feel that he has been called to no common destiny.  But this is a delusion which experience quickly corrects.  When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention.  But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed . . . . That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance and easy circumstances” (as quoted in Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety).   What it boils down to is that we have a problem right here in the good ol US of A.  That problem is that each of us has to come to some sort of reckoning:  if I am equal with everyone else, then why do some people have more success and happiness than I.  Why did Harry attract angel investors for his new hair clip, and I found no one interested in supporting my elastic ribbons?  Why did Mary’s donut shop attract customers and my taco shop flounder?  Why aren’t I Carnegie, Rockefeller, Edison, Ford, Disney, Buffet, Gates, or Jobs?  It must be my fault, some flaw in me, that makes me so middling. 
Of course, other factors now contribute to our “strange melancholy.”   One is advertising and media in general, which parades all the goodies of human imagination before our hungry eyes.  All this can be yours, if you have enough good taste . . . and money.  Another is the idea of social and material progress, the idea that things are always getting bigger and better, that we deserve more than our parents, that we should expect all aspects of our lives to be constantly improving.  Third, we have replaced narratives about the goodness of basic everyday people in the hands of an ever-loving God—the meek inheriting the earth, and all that—with the narrative that God aches painfully for all of us to be rich, with the corollary that if one is not wealthy, then one must have pissed off an otherwise generous deity.  Fourth, in spite of all the rhetoric concerning liberty and independent spirits, by far most of us have sacrificed our freedom for the security of corporate (or government bureaucracy) slavery.  Of course, we also know that corporations offer us little security—we can be fired, laid off, and off shored at a moment’s notice.  We are all more wealthy and more vulnerable at the same moment.  We eye anxiously every new purchase, promotion, or honor our neighbors accumulate while wondering when it will be our turn to be noticed and rewarded.
The Look Homeward, Angel Angel
So call me a sentimentalist, if you wish.  Call me naïve.  But It’s a Wonderful Life tells me danged near everything I need to know about maintaining some sense of equilibrium in our dog-eat-dog society.   It’s pretty simple:  Life is the adventure, just maybe not the one you wanted.  Let fame and fortune take care of themselves.  Do for others because you care for them.  And fight, fight, fight the assholes who want to enslave us and take more than their share.   This movie is the America I love—and I believe it has existed more often and in more places (if for short periods) than most of us know. 

In the previous blog, I wrote about my revelation in a beautiful screened-in porch in Pearl River, New York, in 1982.  Ambition=Discontent and Discontent=Ambition.  By no stretch of anyone’s imagination have I lived up to moral implications of this realization.  I have certainly perpetrated my share of hopes and dreams and plots and schemes upon the world, merely “to get ahead.”  I am trying to get myself in a position where I can stop that shit.  If any Angel Second Class is listening, I am open to helping you receive your wings. 

Photos from a few days visiting friends in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Soundtrack.  Robert Earl Keen:  "Merry Christmas from the Family."

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