Friday, May 20, 2005

Is the Whole World Completely Insane?

Okay, the question is overstated; I had to get my attention. Also, for any wiseacres who would instantly snip, "Well, you should know, Bleak," I will admit to my share of human foibles, whimsical ways, and charming eccentricities. But we are not talking about those. We are talking about the world outside of my house, which is an expansive and oddly-assembled place; and the people in it, whom I do not understand, and towards whom I yet feel an odd, if distinctly mild, affection.

Admittedly, I live in a peculiar neighborhood. Not Cambridge-peculiar, because most people do not read books, and they have never heard of Noam Chomsky. Not Boston-peculiar, because most people do not own suits or ties, nor would they know what to make of The Wall Street Journal. Before you conclude that this is a Salt-of-the-Earth, America's Heartland sort of neighborhood, please note that we are talking about Massachusetts here, the bluest of blue states, where even the ignorant are Enlightened, so you'd want to remove any lingering Bush stickers from your car before visiting, although American flags are fine. The preferred music is not country-western, but hip-hop (which is now over thirty years old, so it is a highly traditional form of music, believe it or not.) Most afternoons and evenings, those modest earth tremors that so alarm visitors are merely the numbingly banal basslines of rap, amplified by the molecular instabilities they generate in otherwise stable masses (solid and fluid) that they encounter.

To some extent, the neighborhood has remained in the Gestalt of Archie Bunker -- or that of the movie Mystic River, only without the ubiquitous crimelords and child molesters. It is not the neighborhood of Desperate Housewives. Not architecturally, as columns and long driveways with mailboxes at the end would be considered laughable. Not materially, as jeans and tee-shirts generally trump any sort of concession to fashion, and the idea of designer clothing would not readily be understood, except by teens, who are expected to be stupid. Adults dress very 1975-working-class; the hippest of the young dress very 1995-street-punk. Morally, we have nothing in common with Housewives. Although I do not doubt that all sorts of salacious hi-jinx take place behind closed doors, that is where they tend to remain. The implicit dictum seems to be, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. The pragmatic basis of this code is, No, no, thou wouldst not want to, not in thy worst nightmares. It seems to work out fairly well. Admittedly, I am not privy, except at one remove, to neighborhood gossip; the major criterion for admission to that underground ham radio guild seems to be belonging (in the biological, not the social, sense) to the female sex. (We don't have "gender issues" here.) Most gossip would seem to center on such gripping topics as, Who is a bitch; Who is hitting the bottle a bit too hard (liquor consumption here is not startling on average, but only because most folks tend to be either teetotalers or enthusiasts, nothing in between); Who is careening towards financial disaster; Whose kids are out of control; Who is moving away; and yawn sorry where were we

We are here for the same reasons that most people are here. We bought a house as a stepping stone to the respectable middle class, but when push came to shove, for one reason or another, we decided, The hell with it. Another reason we have is probably unique here: We fled Cambridge counter-culture phoniness. By the time moving comfortably into the plastic, status-crazy, superficial suburban middle-class, with whom I would have felt quite comfortable, was plausible, it had become a demographic anomaly; the suburban middle-class had become plastic, status-crazy, superficial, and counter-culture. Designer coffee, natural foods, trendily bad (as opposed to honestly mediocre) art, mass psychotherapy, and environmental fretfulness were everywhere. We thought of moving to Oklahoma or Kansas, but the news from there was not good. In any event, we enjoyed the comical politics here, and if the cost of admission was high taxes, the ensuing public bedlam was well worth it. Besides, moving sucks.

But this is not why the whole world is completely (plus or minus) insane. It is that the people in this part of it, who would be considered fairly normal by any reasonable standard, and nicely dull too, often strike me as completely insane. These are not celebrities. (Ha.) These are not the overeducated, with a few more abstract ideas in their minds than their brains can safely accomodate. These are not the overanalyzed, ultratherapied, introspective extroverts of the me, Me, ME! generation (again, plus or minus.) These are merely people coping, with varying degrees of adequacy, with the thousand ills that flesh is heir to. (Or "that hair is flesh to," as Escalator Over the Hill fans will be quick to interject. Unhelpfully.)

Now that I've gotten back to my original topic, I find that (much to my utter surprise! so disciplined a writer am I) there's a whole essay waiting to be written, now that the disclaimers, asides, random observations, and bon mots are out of the way. Another whole essay. And I have things to do, odd though it may be for this compulsive cogitator to consider -- let alone actually do something about, which, I have reluctantly concluded, is an essential precursor, and indeed much of the point, of really doing stuff.

Maybe if I insert a "Part I" into the title and resolve to continue later...