Thursday, September 11, 2008

Little Big Town

This is brought on by the political tension in the air, but this isn't about politics. This is a rant on something that, I think, transcends (yet underlies) politics. What interests me right now is a certain current underneath the rhetorical tide, something that seems to speak more to the notion of "two Americas" than mere red & blue, liberal & conservative. Rural and urban is definitely part of it, and is probably where I'm gonna start, but I think it's something far more insidious than that, since that's just about where one lives, which grows, often as not, from the field in which one works and/or what one values.

This might be about the difference between those who deal in numbers and those who deal in letters, or those who handle objects and those who handle cultural commodities. I don't think it's about who works with hands and bodies vs. who works with the mind, because I find that division is the most facile of all (painters and sculptors work with their hands as surely as do farmers and mechanics, who use their intellects brains as surely as do professors and physicists; the physical, generative theatre I do demands that I read as astutely as a copy editor and maintain the physical condition of a professional athlete).

I suppose, in the end, the manufactured division I see is that between "the elite" and "hard-working Americans." As far as I know, most everyone here, if not everyone I could possibly think to ask, would claim to be the latter. So if we're all hardworking Americans . . . who the hell are the elite?

I've seen a lot of complaint in the last week or so from conservatives about liberals "talking down" to the rural voter, to "small town" values, and thus, presumably, to the "average voter." And while I've seen more conservative complaint than I've seen example of that about which they're complaining, it would be disingenuous to a degree beyond my capacity--I being an honest, if cheeky and evasive, sort--to suggest that I haven't seen a few people showing a lot and a lot of people showing a little of the kind of condescension being described.

Of course, we're talking about this now because we Sarah Palin--Alaskan, Christian, conservative, hockey mom--is on the national stage. How quickly these defensive, hard-working small town residents and their equally hard-working apologists forget the years (at least) of contempt leveled at urban, liberal "elites," and dismissal of their (okay, if I'm being honest--OUR) values as decadent, effete, out-of-touch with "hard-working" Americans . . . as though no one ever called us to ask about that rent check we held onto, waiting for a paycheck to clear; as though we never had to figure out how to make the same rice & beans we'd been digging into for a week look like a real meal, maybe even a marginally different meal than those rice & beans represented same time, day before; or had to take a second job to pay off the uncovered portion on our (okay, MY) wife's 4th throat surgery in the last decade while still slogging away at old student loans, medical bills, and business investments.

I use my personal story to illustrate because the notion of hard-working Americans and elites is a matter of personal narrative; and in everyone's narrative, he or she is the hard-working citizen, and the people who just don't get it are elite. When I sit in my one-bedroom apartment--the rent for which is over half my monthly income--with my wife, an "elite" is a jug-eared Texas millionaire with a vacation home; when I'm onstage or on the Fray, with my tailored diction and fondness for grammatical (de)construction, mocking the way that same millionaire says "nukular", well, apparently I'm elite.

Funny thing is, most of the people I know in my city (or my "Little Big Town," the Emerald City) came from small towns themselves; a lot of us learned our contempt for small towns--and many of us do, admittedly, have some--because we were beaten, bruised, mocked, ostracized, and, in some cases, raped, burned, and assaulted with arms in our little bergs. Some of us were clumsy and weak; some of us had no head for team sports; some of us just had aptitudes or interests in the directions of pretty words, soft fabrics, big ideas. We may have doubted in our churches, or recoiled at the idea of meat. Some of us may never have developed that pubescent interest in the opposite sex, instead gravitating towards our own, or maybe we did a little of both. Or maybe we just liked opera, which made it seem like we lacked "normal" heterosexual desire. Maybe we drew a sharp, astonished breath the first time we heard Sonic Youth, or My Bloody Valentine; maybe dissonance made us feel whole in ways that melody and harmony never could. Maybe we hit our growth spurts late, or early, or we were fat. Maybe we were just too fucking smart, or smart in the wrong ways.

Whatever it was, a lot of us found reasons to move away from those small towns, and for a lot of us--even those who suffered astonishing abuse at the hands of their peers and, mistakenly or not, blamed that abuse on rural small-mindedness, but particularly for those who didn't, or who did, to a degree, but also had beautiful memories of watching the sun set on a lake, or glimpsing a gigantic sturgeon a handful of feet below our canoe, or bowing to a cheering audience, or cupping a breast in the front seat of a '77 Volvo, the sun roof open, thinking even the football players don't have it THIS good--yes, for a lot of us, it was HARD to leave those small towns, where social norms were savagely enforced, but rents were low, competition in our disciplines was minimal, and somehow, no matter how lonely or ostracized we were, everyone who DIDN'T want to hurt us wanted to help us--they knew us, recognized us, knew we weren't right in the head, but, by God, he's Mike's kid, and I'll never forget that joke Mike told at the office Christmas party . . .

So it was hard in the cold hard city, and we had our struggles too. We DO have to hold down desks and counters, stack boxes in warehouses, prepare your food, drive your cabs, even if we spend our nights working a guitar or piano, treading the boards, or leafing through books. Maybe some of us'll get to quit our day jobs, to eek out a living on articles we're only half interested in writing, or slogging through ten Neil Simon plays in the hope that we'll get tossed some Shakespeare or Mamet now and again, or that we'll get to play our original songs instead of covering the fucking Eagles for another fucking wedding. Maybe some of us are programmers, and find good work at Microsoft, or we teach at universities, get tenured, and live comfortably. Or maybe we'll keep those day jobs, and do some art for big money, some for beer money, some for no money, in the hopes that someday, maybe even after we die, someone will look at the work we never, ever compromised and say, "There, there was a hound ahead of his time."

And maybe it's all bullshit, and maybe it's all a waste. And maybe the same goes for your life, your family, your God, your values. After all, we only have the stories we tell about ourselves, and the faith we put in their veracity. Maybe there's a heaven, a hell; maybe I'll come back as a banana slug or a wolverine or a Texas millionaire. Or maybe we're just fucking worm food, pre-soil; maybe the afterlife is the life our death makes possible.

If it sounds like we're making fun of you when we talk about your "guns and religion," well, remember that we sometimes seek our comfort and edification in our foreign cinema and kind bud, or our cheap wine and punk rock, or our transcendental meditation and macrobiotic diets. And you make fun of that, too (or so it looks from here).

If it sounds like I forgot to tell your story, well, remember that I don't know it. My own story--making it, telling it, finding some way to weave entertainment from it--has kept me busy. You worry about what those rap videos are doing to your kids; I'll worry about whether I'll ever be able to have any, or whether existence precedes essence, or whether there'll still be roles for me when I'm a little less young and a little less pretty.

Yes, this has been a ramble. Sorry for the disturbance. If you've made it this far, well, thanks for your indulgence.

If you need a moral, a thesis, it's this: We're ALL hard-working Americans (more or less; don't cloud the issue by nattering on about the drunk asking for change), and elitism doesn't come with a benefits package. I might have contempt for you, but that doesn't mean I don't see you as a brother; it means you have something I wish I had, or you don't have something I can't imagine living without, or I want you to understand me and like me (because I want everyone to understand me and like me), and you just plain don't, and that pisses me off. It's nothing personal . . .or rather, it's strictly personal, and it has nothing to do with what I think about where you live, what you do for a living, how you account for life and eternity, or even how you vote. I'd love for you to believe as I do, because I think it's true; I'd love for you to vote like I do, because then I'll have the leaders I want (or am, at least, willing to settle for); I'd love for you to buy tickets to my shows, especially if I'm getting a percentage of the door. Hell, if we liked the same kind of ice cream, I'm sure it would inspire someone to make more. But in the end, I'm just trying to do what I can with what I've got, wherever I can do it, and to make it all a little more bearable with whatever creature comforts, codes of honor, and spiritual directives appear to me to reflect truth and/or offer the greatest possible utility.

Rather like you, one imagines.