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Monday, October 15, 2012

Never Get Off The Boat

 "Never get off the boat. Absolutely God-damn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got off the boat. He'd split from the whole fucking program."

- Captain Willard, "Apocalypse Now"

America is one heck of a complicated place to live right now. There have been times in the past - from my early adulthood to just last week - when I've thought about leaving. After all, some of my own ancestors left their homes to come here, looking for a better life, and at bottom it really does seem that we're all Citizens of Earth; why shouldn't I roam around a bit to see if the grass really is greener over the fences? Oslo? Osaka? Wellington? Moscow? Edinburgh?

Well, two reasons: First, because I haven't given up yet. When I think about just how horribly wrong America could go (and let me be clear: in my opinion we're flirtin' with disaster) I shudder and gnash my teeth and tear at my hair, but despite the awful possibilities, I don't think we're so far in the hole that we can't dig ourselves out. We may be headed full-bore towards a really big cliff, but unless we go all the way and take that final big plunge, we can always just stop and turn around. Second (and maybe more importantly), you just can't run away from this shit. There's no such thing as paradise. The porridge will always be too hot or too cold, and almost never just right.

My own town is a perfect microcosmic example of this. I've lived here twenty years, and I'm probably as conversant with it's delights and its down sides as anybody. I love it or I wouldn't have stayed, but there are days when I have a really hard time and I tear my hair and gnash my teeth and declare that I'm getting the hell out. Then I realize that everything I like about the place is difficult - if not impossible - to find elsewhere; and that everything I want to run away from will probably greet me with open arms wherever I go. Every town has corrupt politicians; there's only one Rio Grande Gorge, baby.

I recently took a little road trip to "the heartland" of America and frankly, I was horrified. Politicians like to hold up the vast center of our country as a place where all the "old virtues" that made America the envy of the world are still in healthy vigor. Well, that ain't what I saw. I saw small town after small town where the buildings were all boarded up, and the only signs of life were the chain gas station / convenience store and the police station. I saw gang graffiti on grain elevators where there didn't even seem to be any human life for fifty miles in any direction. I saw miles and miles and miles of center-pivot-irrigated corporate farms and not one single family garden. I saw towns where I couldn't find a locally-owned hardware store, a locally-owned drugstore, a locally-owned department store, or a locally-owned grocery store, (and sadly unsurprising, no bookstores at all) but I literally lost count of the churches. And speaking of churches, I passed hundreds of 'em professing a mind-boggling array of Christian denominations, but not one synagogue, not one mosque, not one Zen temple. The four categories of radio station were either classic rock, new country, conservative talk radio, or Evangelical Christian. The one time I managed to pick up a clear NPR signal, they were running what amounted to a promotional puff-piece on the CIA. You don't believe me, but I kid you not.

Demographically, my trip was a bit skewed since I was hanging out with some Native-American friends (they usually call themselves "Indians," by the way) but in the towns I went through the population seemed almost 100 percent white. Not that they all fit in some convenient stereotype of "white"; they were male, female, young, old, thin, fat, etc. etc. etc. But they were, by-and-large, white.

(And I haven't even mentioned that every single day I was on the road the high temperature was over 110 degrees, and for two days it hit 117. I'll debate you until we both hyperventilate (in the heat) on why climate change / global warming is happening. Maybe it's us burning billions of gallons of gas, or maybe it's just nature taking its course. But I won't debate that it is happening. It is. If you don't believe me, it's because you never come out of your air-conditioned cubicle, you live in Antarctica, or you're willfully and gloriously stupid. So there. By the way, after I left, my friends said it went up to 121. Bloody hell...)

People like me love to bat around the word "diversity" like it was the cure-all for the universe, but here's the thing: diversity is like broccoli, good for you whether you like it or not. I'll give you a simple, real-world example: it is said you can get all the amino acids you need to live from nothing but corn and beans, but if corn and beans were all you got to eat, would you want to live? What's with all these white people? What's with all these Wal-Marts? What's with all these Christian churches? What's with all these corporate farms? What's with all this classic rock? (Okay, okay... I still love "Stairway To Heaven." We all have our Achilles heel.)

I'm actually okay with all the Christian churches, even though that isn't what I believe. I don't believe in Islam or Judaism or Zen or UFOs either, but it does seem to me that communities with a diversity of spiritual viewpoint are healthier. That includes atheism, too. I'm not picketing chain restaurants, but I like to eat at locally-owned diners. They're better, in my opinion, and most of the money I pay them for my biscuits and bacon stays in my community. The waitresses come to my gigs, you know. This seems healthy. I know that gangs are a problem virtually everywhere, but it seems to me that many of those kids could be better helped and better served if there was a greater variety of options we could give 'em, not just " at Wal-Mart, go to jail, or join The Corps." Some sort of local, deliberately small-time option seems healthier, or at least equally viable. And now that I've admitted that I actually like classic rock, I'll make the possibly dubious claim that probably half (okay, okay... a third) of the music I listen to these days is local. Made by my friends. Friends that I can support by going to their shows on almost any given night of the week. Why would I run away from that?

So. America. 

I'll freely admit: I have a ton of problems with us. It doesn't make me feel safe when I hear politicians (of any party) trumpeting "American Family Values" and our defense superiority when I know we're dropping bombs - or at least providing the bombs for somebody else to drop - on other people all over the world. Don't get me started on Drones. It doesn't make me feel safe or happy to deny health care to anyone, whether they behave the way I do or not. It doesn't bode well for our future when our schools (from elementary to universities) are spending exponentially more money on their football teams than their science classes (and art classes!). It doesn't make me feel safe to know that we're spending God-knows-how-many-times more than the next twenty countries combined (most if not all of whom are our ostensible allies!) on military hardware when that money would arguably pay for the basic housing, clothing, food, and health care for everybody on earth, which would make us true heroes. It doesn't make me feel safe to see a cop standing on the corner in riot gear holding an assault rifle; it makes me feel safe to see a gay couple walking down the street with their arms around each other. I don't have to share - or even approve - of their lifestyle to know that if they're safe doing their thing then boring-old-white-bread-Chipper is probably gonna be just fine. I just wish I could find that kind of comfort in more places in our country. I won't even mention the farce of the upcoming elections.

Maybe it'll get too hot in this kitchen, and I'll get out. Not yet. I'm not ready to split from the whole fucking program. I think there's something here worth fighting for. Maybe I'll crash and burn with my most typical failing - I'll hedge and hedge and hedge my bets until it's too late, and I'll go down with the boat. I hope not. I just know that since I'm not yet ready to go all the way, I'm not getting off the boat. I'm scared, and we're taking on water, but not yet. Not yet.


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original artwork by Chipper Thompson

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