Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Letter to Joshua Concerning Understanding

Dear WOPR,

When I was in junior high I was conscripted into a highly structured and regimented branch of French life steeped in tradition and commanded by regulation and fear.  The Junior Cotillion.  Like the Boyscouts my involvement in this was not voluntary.  Unlike the Boyscouts, though, I did not come to enjoy this new, exciting society I'd been thrust into.

It was held at a local country club.  The first one I had ever been in.  A building that reeked of the seventies with tall wooden paneling and flat, hard carpet.  Although, after spit balling the average age of the people there I would imagine the building looked like a spaceship to them.  The women seemed to be running the show for the most part and they talked with that deep Southern drawl that sounds like an old guitar announcing the winners of a cat fashion show.

I've lived in the south full time since I was 5 and have an accent that wavers between west coast television and northeast Louisianian (which is just Texan.  Get over it everyone!  We basically live in Texas.  I can almost see Texas from my house.  Accept it!), but anyone down here knows of that sickly sweet speaking pattern that these plantation era, rich old bags use to communicate with other people.  You hear that come out of someone and you have a pretty good idea where you are: surrounded by money and paintings of Jesus.

They started us out with the basics like how to set a table for serving 800 people.  Then they went on to things like the proper technique for bullwhipping your "staff", how to yell at the chefs for cooking exactly what you asked them to, and also how to properly bow.  Please, I saw Rising Son, I know how to bow, move on.

The entire thing was like a Monty Python sketch.  Boot Camp for Twits.  The severity of the execution juxtaposed starkly with the silliness of the activity.  Always place the forks in this order. ALWAYS. ALWAYS!!  Don't you DARE put that fucking fork next to that spoon!  Why is your left foot turned towards the door?  You can't use your left foot for your door foot!  Don't smile after your third drink, savage!  BUURAAAAAGHH!  That's a slight exaggeration but it captures the spirit of the truly bizarre people that ran this, this, I don't know how you'd describe it.  Let's say, cult for dish worshiping ghouls.

It wasn't all bad.  Well, no, IT was all bad, but some good things came from the experience as a result.  When I was stolen from my crib in the night and given to these perfumed, pearl wearing practitioners of the impractical, I was joined by two friends whose parents also thought that the foxtrot would bring them success and riches when they went to the Governor's court after the harvest.  With these particular two gentlemen our friendship had always been in its beginning phases, and this horrible waste of time we had to endure became a kind of bonding experience.  Tittering behind old women's backs and purposely rearranging silverware became, in a sense, a show of solidarity.  As much solidarity as boys that are all of about twelve can have with one another anyway.  It also helped me crawl out of a shell a little bit.

I had always been a shy boy around girls.  So, the Cotillion also brought something new into my life: close proximity with girls my age.  As we learned how to dance in a way as to not tread on our debutante's sword scabbard all the steps and rules did have the one thing in common which is that you had to do them WITH someone.  For a boy that hadn't so much as bumped into a girl in the hallway at school, all of a sudden I was hands-on-hips familiar with a number of pretty "young ladies."  I would guess that I cultivated up to 6 new intense crushes in the course of my service in the Junior Cotillion (which felt like years but I'm sure was all of 4 weekends in July).

I can still remember that first sensation of warmth as I felt their skin through their impossibly ruffled and pinned dresses.  I remember the same sensation of their hand on my shoulder.  I remember noticing the moisture of their breath and that stale, but not totally unpleasant smell of CO2 as they exhaled.  I could smell their mother's perfume and was close enough to see that they were wearing makeup (the dance floor was always hot and brightly lit transforming the carefully applied blush and concealer into something like a sidewalk chalk drawing in a rainstorm).  The entire dance experience had a very humanizing effect on creatures previously viewed as totally forbidden.  It was intensely pleasant.

Of course afterwards I was still extremely nervous around girls, but at least now I knew that I really liked them and WANTED to be with them, but just didn't have the balls to do anything about it, so you know, THANKS Junior Cotillion!

More important and lasting than any other result of this experience was what it reinforced in my view of the world: the suspicion that I actually new better than most people.  As we stood through lessons about where things go, what color they should be, the order in which you should use your individual teeth, and how much of a tablecloth you can let touch your leg before you are deemed "pregnant", it wasn't hard for me and my friends to look at each other and just say, "no.  This doesn't matter."  It's almost thrilling to have a realization like that when you're barely in your double digits of age, and it can be a very powerful tool for a young person to acquire.

It is a frame of mind that was a real core pillar of my personality.  The idea that something isn't important just because it has been labeled so.  That all things deserve to be examined, understood, and judged by us as individuals before being taken seriously.  And that's not to say that that process has to be long and drawn out.  Examination, understanding, and judgement can be very quick depending on where you are.  If I'm in the ocean and I look over and say, "that looks like a shark.  Shit that IS a shark!  Fuck that shark!" well then there's all three in the space of about half a second.  The Cotillion was one of the first big events that solidified my resistance to established ideas.

Fast forward about four or five years to the middle of high school and we settle into yet another summer where I had been recruited into an institution of learning.  This time it was a summer school where I had been charged to make up a semester of English from the school year that had just ended.  This wasn't the first time I had found myself in summer school.  That specific summer school, even.  And just like the Cotillion, again I was being taught what the majority viewed as proper and, again, I was with friends (not the same friends, but some of my closest at the time) that shared my disgust and mockery of our situation.  This was a make up class I was having to take as a result of my evaluative approach to life partly started by those classes at that weird club.  Having put public school to the test many times and found it lacking in my own personal court of law, I deemed my participation in the activity pointless to the state, and even damaging to me, so I whenever I could miss class I would.

I missed 21 days in a single semester and learned that the truancy department will send you multiple letters asking why your kids aren't in school, but never seemed to follow up after the postage was stamped.  This, of course, caused me to evaluate and subsequently dismiss the truancy department as pointless.  It was a magical time of naivete where the only things I took seriously were the things that made sense to me.

When I was told that because I hadn't lived up to the school's standards I would be going to more school, my reaction was, "fine.  It will probably be bullshit, and I'll ignore that too."  And, my god, the summer school did not disappoint.  That semester we had been required to watch and digest a movie version of West Side Story.  So, for this class, that was the task we were to repeat.  Watch a video and fill in some bubbles on a test.  That's all we had to do.  The teacher turned off the lights, popped the tape in, pushed play, and then proceeded to thumb through a magazine before the FBI warning had left the screen.

When the opening credits to Blade Runner started we spoke up pretty quickly.  It's not that we wanted to watch West Side Story, it's just that we didn't want to be tested on something we hadn't seen.  Here's where it gets good.  She had to have known that the movie on the screen, the futuristic cityscape with flaming towers, Vangelis loudly playing, and half the people speaking something closely resembling Chinese, was NOT what we were supposed to be watching.  I can't imagine a dimension where that wouldn't have been painfully obvious.

But, she was the teacher.  She was the teacher that had given up her summer to educate us, the slackers.  We were telling her she was wrong and that is NOT how it works, boys and girls.  So, she looked out at the classroom (the FULL classroom, I'd like to add).  She gazed at us: the uneducated, the impolite, the interlopers.  She looked us right in the eyes, told us WE were wrong, and sat back down.

We broke for lunch right after Deckard shot Pris in J.F. Sebastian's apartment.  I don't know if you've ever seen Blade Runner, but that scene is not quiet.  Gunshots, screaming, writhing on the floor WHILE screaming, it's a big to do.  We thought for sure that when we came back from the courtyard that the jig would be up and we'd have to go back to coloring maps of the United States with crayons (that's not a joke,  I actually did that in summer school the year before.  The coloring was pass/fail.).  But no, we were still on Earth and pride was still stronger than correctness, so on with the exciting finale of Blade Runner!

After the movie was over she started passing out tests to West Side Story.  There was some protest.  At first it looked like we were going to get the same "fuck you" style of education we had gotten when we protested the first time, but now something was different.  Now, her screw up would effect her instead of just us.  We reminded her that when we all failed that test, and we'd make sure we did, that there would be questions as to why, and we would happily inform the school officials of all the details they needed to know.

She had us hand the tests back, threw them in the garbage, and we all got A's.

This is exactly what I had wanted summer school to be.  I thought school (not education, but the institution that we call public school) was bullshit, and that means that summer school should just be summer bullshit, which is exactly what it was.  The whole thing gave me that old thrill I could remember from the Cotillion and a hundred other things before and after.  It was all reinforcement of the idea that I knew better.  That I had figured it out.  And, that everything from this point on was just going to be me reasoning my way down easy street.

But it's not like that, is it?

One of the greatest disservices I ever did to myself was how I interpreted all those events in my life where I played Russian Roulette with "the system."  I viewed them as "I was right."  What I should have done was viewed them as "they were wrong."  It's a subtle yet powerful difference that I didn't have a real firm grasp on until maybe even as little as five years ago.

I had hit on one concept that's important, which is people don't know a lot about a lot.  What I didn't consider was that I was included in that figure.  When you're smart, but not a genius, there's a tendency to rely on your natural problem solving to kick in whenever you get into a pickle.  What you don't realize as a child in a middle class family is that you never really actually had any problems to solve when you were growing up.  So, when you move out and become an actual person and an actual problem comes up like, say, we only have enough money for food OR gasoline, things go tits up.

You draw your gun, pull the trigger, the hammer clicks, and nothing happens.  Then you call Mom and she tells you that you need bullets.  You tell her you don't know where to get them, and she takes you to the store and shows you.  Also, she buys you a laundry hamper because you forgot that.  Also, you need detergent.  And, more clothes, for Pete's sake what have you been doing, taking a shower with them on and just driving to work with the windows down?  Yes, Mom, that's what we've been doing.  It doesn't take long to realize that the end of your childhood is just another way of saying the beginning of your life.

That's the moment that humiliation turns to humility.  I don't care if your 60 or 12, if you screw up and get called on it and put your hands up and say, "that was my fault.  I didn't even realize I was doing that," then you're a grown up in a very important way.  You realize that you can't just figure your way out of stuff and that there are going to be times when there is just no right answer, like when it's gas or food.  Or, our personal favorite from the last few years, car or house.

I've probably said stuff like this before, but I think even then it was me congratulating myself on how clever I was that I figured out another aspect of life.  This time it feels more real, more rooted in how I make decisions.  I still evaluate everything and make my best call, but now there is an often used option for admitting that I'm probably going to choose wrong a lot of the time and that my decisions, along with my dilemmas, fall under that evaluation process too.

It's a scary thought, to realize that I am probably going to make more mistakes than right choices in my life.  But, it makes me pay attention more.  It makes me back off and think about where I am.  And, in a way it can be a good thing.  I miss the thrill of knowing I'm right, but when I assume that I'm wrong, there's a calming effect to the process I hadn't known before.  There's a problem, I try solution A, it doesn't work. Before it would be instant frustration.  Why doesn't it work?  That doesn't make sense!  I figured it out ahead of time!  Now when A doesn't work, well hey, I didn't really expect it to anyway.  Let's see what I missed.

All that fuss and worry earlier in my life over achieving some kind of peace or zen, thinking that it would come from a place of understanding, that all I had to do was understand and the universe would come to me, is just moot.  Now, for the first time in my life I'm feeling the edge of that vast event horizon to some kind of calm, and it's after I've decided that part of understanding things is accepting that sometimes, or most times, I won't.

Sometimes the only winning move, really, is not to play.  I swear the older I get the more that movie speaks to me in a way that was probably never intended.

Chiggie Von Richthofen

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