Saturday, February 16, 2013

It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here: A Blogony (Blog of Agony)

I'm Sorry, Are You in My Way?

Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of the universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. 
             —Carl Sagan, author of Cosmos

"I'm the king of the world!"

             —James Cameron, on his Oscar® win for directing Titanic

Today’s blogony title is taken from Charles Grodin’s memoir, It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here: My Journey Through Show Business, from back around 1990. When it was first published, the author made a stop at NPR on his book promoting rounds, where he explained to the interviewer that the title came from something said to him and another actor as they waited on a castle or mansion stair, I think it was, on location for a film in England: an elderly Englishwoman (either a docent or a resident, I don’t recall which) had come upon them on a stair, and asked them what they were doing there. They explained that they were with the movie and were awaiting a cue, and she stated, politely but firmly, “It would be so nice if you weren’t here,” and continued on her way. Grodin realized that, really, her observation summed up the whole story of his professional life.

It occurs to Miss O’ that this offhand comment by an inconvenienced old woman more or less sums up Miss O’s whole feeling for the American Republican Party, but just as quickly as this is said, Miss O’ recognizes that that statement sums up the Republican Party’s feelings for the Democratic Party. (I trust that Republicans realize that no one of either party likes Harry Reid.) And so Miss O’ must reflect: Do we need each other? I’ve gone after things like this before, but here’s what I mean: Going back to Mr. Grodin: the movie company in question probably paid a hefty rental on that castle or mansion, which edifice doubtless costs tens of thousands of pounds each year to maintain. In order to maintain this property, allowances and sacrifices must be made (by the owners or residents), inconveniences tolerated. And yet it must be said and acknowledged: In day-to-day living at this place, it really would be so nice for the residents if the Hollywood interlopers weren’t there. That said, being there was a boon to Mr. Grodin in the short term (pay for making a film) and in the long haul (the title for his successful memoir), and these same creative endeavors in turn touched thousands of filmgoers, radio listeners, and book readers. Out of the inconvenience of a few for a short time comes long-term money and rewards for many others. 

Does This Register?

There is nothing more obnoxious than an obnoxious retail customer, and yet their money spends the same as anyone’s. As readers may recall, Miss O’ worked as a cashier for over five years, from her senior year of high school and throughout college breaks, at the defunct Woolco and then at Dart Drug. As a result of these experiences, your Miss O' has often said that before being allowed to run for public office in this country, a candidate should have to work retail at Christmas. Right wing friends are quick to point out that this is a pointless idea. (I’ve suggested the same sort of thing in regards to candidates teaching in a public high school, with much the same reaction.) What the naysayers will not acknowledge is my genius for recognizing that America is, almost exclusively, a service economy (and, after all, most of our budgets go to education). If not work retail directly, prospective candidates should at the very least have to spend several weeks “monitoring those calls for quality assurance purposes” so as to hear the pain of average Americans trying to understand their medical bills and get the fucking phone company to fix their Internet. (Is it me, or does it seem to you that just as most politicians seem to have little knowledge of the people they serve, just so CEOs of most companies have no knowledge of how to produce whatever it is that makes their companies money. Who are we?)

I think having retail experience is important. A guy I very nearly married never tired of telling me that cashiering was beneath me. He helpfully pointed out that I could easily work for the government (and no, he didn’t work there, either, or at all, if you want to know), since I was so close to D.C. Any reason I gave him for keeping my Dart Drug job was met with some counter or another, amounting to me being lazy and making excuses. (For the record: I worked at Dart all those years because my supervisor, Toni, gave me 39 ½ hours a week, as high as a part-timer was allowed, every week I came home; she gave me raises; and she took me back every Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, spring break, and summer break, even though it meant (in those pre-smart computer days) that I had to reapply each time I came home, fill out the paperwork, and get it notarized every single season. Would a government job take me back every single week I came home? No. Also, I could walk to work, and as we had one car to share among my mom (she managed Crown Books), and my brother, Pat (he worked at Wendy’s), and me, this was huge (my dad needed the other vehicle to get to Alexandria). We three took shifts going to pick each other up when we worked late nights. This retail job of mine also meant I didn’t have to buy clothes (I wore a store-supplied smock that I had to wash), or spend money on gas, or waste time on a highway when I could be home doing laundry and making family meals.) What this job really gave me, aside from enough money for all my college books and living expenses (laundry detergent, clothes, and the occasional touring show, for example, since Bernie and Lynne paid the $2,700/year that Virginia Tech required for tuition, room and board—and every credit after 12 hours was free, so guess who took 18 hours all the time?), I learned all about America. Yes, I did. And it’s not all pretty. No, it’s not.

I have a million retail stories, not least being that I’d spend every single night dreaming about ringing up customers. (My dad, Bernie, dreams every night that he is cutting meat, and he’s been retired since 1995.) No one can understand the stress of retail work until you’ve worked it, and again it wouldn’t matter, this gaining of empathy, except that those are the jobs that most of us work, the jobs most of us have the most daily encounters with, and the jobs that pay the least. From the 4:30 PM beer rushes, to cigarette sales, porn magazine sales, dietary habits, shoplifting incidents, cheaters, screamers, raving lunatics, we in the service industry have seen it all. But most of the annoyances, when it comes to dealing with customers, are subtle, really, and yet they add up, and one day send you running to a loony-style bin. Here’s one example.

There was a woman who used to come into Dart Drug at least once a week. Well-dressed (preppie style), fit, prim in demeanor, she was white, about 35 or 40 (sometimes she was with her husband, who was just like her, only very tall and lean); she would come in to pick up sale items.  It was her custom to argue about the price of one of the sale items each week, and I doubt there were two times she didn’t have something to argue about when she came to the register and watched me punch the keys. (For the kids out there, this was in a time before scanners. You may have to Google it.) Here’s a typical scenario: I’d ring up an item as $1.99, and she’d halt me by saying, “The sign says $1.98.” She was even-toned, never looked me in the eye (or not for long), never smiled, but also never yelled. It was almost like HAL talking to you. I’d go to move to another item, and she’d insist, “The sign says $1.98.” So I’d stop. I’d look it up in the sales flyer. “Here,” I’d point, showing her the item’s name, the number of ounces, or other details, for example, and conclude, “It’s $1.99.” And I’d move to go on, and she’d say again, “The sign says $1.98.” I’d even show her how I read the price code on the price sticker. She'd simply repeat, like Bartleby, “The sign says $1.98.” By now she’s holding up a line of four or five customers for one penny of what will be her $40+ order. (You might be saying right about now, “Miss O’, you should have just rung up all her items and moved on.” Ah, but that’s because you never already tried that (when you thought you’d stopped arguing) and had her refuse to pay for her stuff until the price dispute on that item back there had been settled.) So I’d call my supervisor, Toni, over the intercom, “Manager to Register Four for a price check,” and Toni would come over and I’d explain. And Toni would glare slightly and say, professionally but really loudly, “So you say this is on sale for a $1.98, and not $1.99? Let me check that for you,” and customers would groan, and I would wait to ring up anything else, and Toni’d come back with the sign in her hand, showing the woman the name of the item, the number of ounces, etc., finishing, “It’s $1.99.” And the woman would say, evenly, “I thought it said $1.98,” implying that Toni had just now found a marker and a blank sign and created a whole new sale sign in thirty seconds. “Do you want to walk me over to the aisle and you can show me another sign?” Toni would offer, and the woman would say, like HAL, like Bartleby, “I know what I saw,” and Toni would say, “Do you want me to void the sale and you can leave?” and the woman would sigh, and wave me on to finish. And this sort of thing happened every time she came into the store; and she was never right, and never once did she apologize to the line or to me or to my supervisor. I used to wonder if she thought this was funny, or if she were mentally ill. In either case, she made more than one person consider suicide. Kudos.

But here’s what I learned about people in general, from this woman in particular: I told my dad one night about the latest version of the $1.98 fiasco, and he remarked, “And you know she votes Republican.” And my rational, logical mom said, “Oh, that’s asinine. How in the world do you know that?” And Dad said, “Because she holds up an entire line to argue over one goddamned penny. And in the end, she’s WRONG about the penny, and still thinks it’s her right no matter what to get in everyone else’s way.”

Is that not about as apt a summation of the current Republican Party as you’ve heard?

Think about Dick Cheney’s voice when he spoke egregious lies about WMDs or when he now weighs in on Obama’s leadership abilities: Total calm and confidence as he speaks destructive, evil bullshit: And people once did his bidding, and nearly 4,500 American lives were lost, countless Iraqi civilians killed. Because the sign said $1.98: He was sure of it.

It would be so nice if you weren’t here.

After All We’ve Been to Each Other

Whenever connecting to the F Train (as I do, from the 7 Train) at the Bryant Park subway station, heading downtown, one sees this engraved quotation amidst the mosaic tile art:
 “Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose.”
—Carl Gustav Jung

When I read this line, I hear it two ways: In the first clause, Nature and Man are locked in a struggle, and Man must not let Nature win; but in the second clause, I hear two things, because of the “can”: Nature must not “lose,” or be destroyed, because we are dependent on nature for our own survival; and also, Nature will not lose, in the end—however the game is played—because nature is, after all, Nature.

(Now you might ask yourself, What are these lines doing in a subway station? I had recently moved to New York when that station was finished, and here is an article about it should you wish to read it:

A subway station is, to me, the ideal place for such a graven line of philosophy: A subway tunnel is, after all, a feat of engineering that defies Nature: There is nothing “natural” about burrowing and drilling out such a tunnel (men are not gophers, after all), and yet engineers figured out how to plan the excavation, harness the materials needed to build the tools necessary to do it, lay the foundations, and create the structure, and even build the trains that run through it. But lest Man get too excited or too cocky, all it takes is a Hurricane Sandy to flood the whole works and show you that Man is not, and can never be, the winner.

But what about fellow humans who destroy the works? Who deliberately mislead or corrupt, or murder, or even prevent, say, the fire trucks from arriving on the scene? This might seem like a leap in subject, but it’s not. Men are part of Nature, and men have natures, and men have to make laws to thwart evil natures. It’s our human challenge, isn’t it, since Genesis. What do we do with the conscious destroyers? I would like to give them back to Nature. Here’s what Miss O’ would do with felons like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and every other maximum security-worthy human criminal on Earth who has set about to destroy the lives of others for their own satisfaction or personal gain: I’d drop them, naked and without one tool, into the middle of several hundred square miles of uninhabited wilderness, in high summer (as is only fair), and say, “Godspeed.” And that would be that. It’s not cruel and unusual punishment: It’s allowing them to meet God in the purest sense: A return to the Garden.

Why do such evil creatures exist to begin with? Even in evolutionary terms, that level of selfishness is just weird. I remember reading a quote by a scientist saying, in effect, that humans are nature’s way of knowing about the nature of Nature. For evil or for good, we are the sentient creatures. That said, Earth does not need human beings for its own continuance. To understand why it is Earth does not need humans, try this analogy: Earth : Humans :: Parents : Children. Parents do not need their children for survival, but children, to survive, need parents. If children disappear from parents’ lives, parents continue to live, though that living will be diminished in untold ways. So it will be for planet Earth if humans were to become extinct. There is this to consider, too: When the child turns on the parents, threatening their existence, sometimes parents have to do the hardest thing, and either let the child destroy himself, or have him put away by authorities in order to save themselves and what they have built, including other children they must care for. So after centuries of parent abuse, of digging and mining and drilling and drilling and drilling and polluting: Couldn't Earth respond to the human species in the same way?

It would be so nice if you weren’t here.

This Clement World

So last Sunday after the New York blizzarda storm that amounted to about a foot of easy-to-remove snow, some sturdy winds, and, fortunately, little damage to the cityI headed over to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a theater dedicated to new and edgy work, and now located in an interim location on Jay Street (having lost their bid for a permanent home in an abandoned tobacco warehouse located in a public park by the East River. There was a dispute with environmentalists who said the park would be compromised in its mission to be free and public if a paying theater were there, or something—anyway, St. Ann’s has found a permanent home, but it will be a while before it will be ready for shows). It’s a neighborhood of warehouses and cobblestone streets under pavement, virtually deserted except for some boutiques. It’s funny how what was clearly once a rough place to be is now shi shi. It is very unfriendly, in some ways, in that it’s not really possible to be of it: It’s utterly false feeling. Pasted on. It feels—and how to explain this?—not as if someone said, “Hey, let’s revitalize this neighborhood” or even, “Hey, the rents here are cheap”—because the rents are anything but cheap. It’s more like, “Hey, this area has edge, and our expensively priced shit will look edgy if people have to come to this edgy-looking neighborhood to buy it.” It’s self-consciously cool, which is to say a pose, show without depth, display without connection. That is a purely emotional and intuitive response to DUMBO (an artificial name for the area), on my part.

So to see a show at St. Ann’s is a curious experience, because while I’ve liked most everything I’ve seen there, and I should like going there, yet I always feel like an alien. The theater companies and solo performers they book have a creativity and a worldview that are not like anything else I encounter in public theaters. That said, the shows walk a curious line, in that their experimentation is, well, comfortable, in that it is played to a built-in audience of white, liberal, highly educated, deeply political, urbane, creative people. (This is not to say the audience members are nice. Story to follow.) So what is the point of such an exchange?

The show I saw last Sunday was called This Clement World, written, composed, and performed by Cynthia Hopkins, with a chorus and a band. The title reminded my artist friend Lisa of Carl Sagan: On his television show (and in the companion book), Cosmos, host and author Sagan often talked of the factors that made Earth a “clement” planet, or one capable of sustaining life. As Hopkins points out several times during her show—through music, video, song, story, imaginative exploration, and memoir from a journey she took into the Arctic on a ship—Earth has, for most of its four billion years of existence, not been clement. Between the heat and the asteroids and meteors flying all over after the Big Bang (and for millions and millions of years after that event), Earth contained nothing that lived. When life did manage to get formed, beginning with single-celled organisms (we learned this from Bugs Bunny, remember?), and all the way to dinosaurs and crazy vegetation, all it took was an asteroid or two to send the process starting all over again.

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
                   —Carl Sagan

What Hopkins explores is what excites all of us who love science: The miracle of life, which, to me, could never be contained in the whim of an angry God who went, *POOF* around 6,000 years ago, and Ta-Da! there was a garden, animals, and a man and a woman. That’s a child’s fairy story, and while it’s a powerful parable about what it means to make choices and live with the consequences—with the disobedience of basic rules comes a healthy shame, followed by a hard-won gain of useful knowledge and tools in order to survive outside of the once-protected world—and even skipping over the whole misogynistic slant, you have to admit that as a foundation story for human life on solid Earth, it’s, uh, limited.

Any child understands this, and yet sadly, too many grown-ups don’t see the parable for what it is: It would be so nice if you weren’t here. Every parent of grown children knows that as much as you love your kids, there comes a time when they just fucking need to get the fuck OUT of your house. They are onto you; they know both too much and not enough about you and about life, and this makes them, finally, insufferable. (As my friend Margaret once said of her daughter the nurse after she’d opined on Margaret’s medical condition, “Hazel knows just enough to be obnoxious.”) I love you, now get out.

It seems to Miss O’ that this is where Humans are at this juncture in their lives in relation to their mother, planet Earth: We have become insufferable, and there are so many of us. At the top of the 19th Century humans are estimated to have reached one billion (sorry to use the passive voice, but I can’t find who did the estimating in the articles I read). Two centuries later, there are just over 7 billion, according to the latest Census figures. (I heard a statistic quoted during an experimental theater piece several years ago—it took place partly on a bus, this show, and this was spoken in a moment when we passed the enormous Calvary Cemetery in Queens, as it was juxtaposed against the Manhattan skyline, thus making those buildings into giant headstones, if you can picture that) that said, “More humans are alive on Earth today than have died, ever.” That is, if you counted up all the dead from the beginning of man, it wouldn’t total the number of people currently living on Earth.  This turns out not to be true, according to (60 to 120 billion, more like, have died over 45,000 years, they say), but that it is for a moment even conceivable that such a fact may be right, tells you this: You do realize how large the human population has grown to be, and it’s scary, isn’t it?) Sir Edmund Hillary, who scaled Mt. Everest (I had a typo that said “scared Mt. Everest,” which also seems valid), said in an interview I read once that he would hate to have been born now rather than when he was, because there was really nothing left to explore these days, no real challenges to getting anywhere. I think he held a very limited view of what “challenges” are, but it was his view, and fair enough.

Cynthia Hopkins and her pals on their ship in the Arctic viewed this time on Earth, this climate crisis moment, as an exciting time to be alive, a time of real opportunities to decide what kind of legacy you want to leave for future generations. A physicist they met on their way out of the Arctic Ocean was just coming in in order to “winter” there, as he has every year for eight years, in order to measure CO2 levels. (Isn't it just marvelous and humbling that there are such people who take care of this world and us in it? He WINTERS in the ARCTIC, alone, in order to monitor the health of that ecosystem, and he does it for the sake of future generations. Take that IN.) His conclusion is that humans are more or less done for in less than two centuries, and he's not sure there is much we can do about it at this point, so much work there is to be done to change us. Most will die by drowning. And yet he finds this calamity thrilling, as the earth will be reinventing itself all over again, another era born. Cynthia Hopkins understands his excitement—and yet while she says this, and sings a song of seeing a New York of the future through the bottom of a glass-bottomed boat, she really does want us to try to do something about it, or else why do a show? We can do things: Change our power sources, stop wasting energy, invest in science and technology, and educate people, for the love of god. She smiles when she sings about this, though, does Cynthia, because really, what choice do you have? Liberals are big activists and hand-wringers, and so need a way to laugh, while our Conservative counterparts (who, ironically, see us as destroying their way of life through means of fear and intimidation) grimly try to block all of our scientifically informed progressive action.

It would be so nice if you weren’t here.

Conservatives preach independence from government, and preach no government, and hate all things brought about by government (and all of its (now only Liberal) supporters). Yet in the end, by taking no action and going on as before, Earth decides. There's your independence.

It would be so nice if you weren’t here.

And the longer this goes on, I think more and more of destroyed legions of Native Americans and their shattered way of life, even as I wonder, too, what it must have been like to be Lewis and Clark, and see what they saw of America for the first time. What I see now is that we have to move backward, in a way, and return to a reverence for the most basic ways of Nature and what she has to offer us, in order to survive into the future. Otherwise, we may have gone as far as we can go.

It would be so nice if you weren’t here.

So Why on Earth Are We Here?

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster. It’s dangerous and stupid for us to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology.... How can we decide national policy if we don’t understand the underlying issues?   

            -Carl Sagan, “Why We Need To Understand Science” The Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 14.3, 1990

Why all the false arguments against climate change? The deliberate Conservative act of blocking informed debate and discussion? Where does it get us? The fact is, Liberals today are simply not on the wrong side of the climate crisis issue, are not wrong to be working for a continuing, clement world. Conservative politicians and the people who vote for them, at this stage, would seem to be of no earthly use (literally) when it comes to human survival past the next century, and they are forestalling progress to the extent that it may already be too late to reverse course. So what are they doing here at all in government, when for all of us it would be, let’s face it, so nice if they weren’t?

It occurs to me that perhaps the reason for Conservatives right now is, in fact, to hasten our human extinction so as to make it inevitable. I mean this seriously. I suspect that Earth may be done with humankind, and the sooner we can go, the better for the planet. (Just so, in a far smaller (and given the dire consequences facing the species, absurd) way, the Conservatives—by actively trying to kill or thwart the working poor, the elderly, the unhealthy, women, and the voting public—are hastening the demise of the American Experiment: Possibly that is the best thing that could happen for the world: We really do not know but that another nation taking the reins of the world domination ride wouldn’t do a far, far better job.) Perhaps I’m selfish, but I feel rather sanguine about it all now, though I am sorry for what my sweet little nephew will have to endure. Still, Conservatives don’t care about the future of the planet for their children and grandchildren (I guess they think it runs on magic), and as they run so much of the political show, I can only shrug: The world really belongs to Dr. Strangelove, and Liberals are just riding atop his giant atomic bomb. Giddy-up!

I walked into Cynthia Hopkins’s show through a lobby filled with Liberals, and there’s really no one more obnoxious than a New York Liberal: Well-dressed, well-coiffed (or the opposite), sipping wine (or herbal tea) and looking into sophisticated devices (or at other people), they talk with equal passion and by turns about their anger toward Obama’s drone strikes, their delight in their new massage therapist, and their determination to try this new organic place in Park Slope. Their conversations have the ring of a pose, and I know this is unfair of me to judge. And really, I don’t care if Liberals’ talk rings false as long as their actions speak more loudly: These folks (my people, I guess) are actively supporting the growth of organic foods, natural healing, and peace, after all. Still, I posted on St. Ann’s Facebook page that I thought This Clement World should tour college campuses rather than venues like St. Ann’s. (They said they’d share my idea with Ms. Hopkins.) I got the idea when a woman who’d seen the show accosted me at the York Street subway station waving her program and demanding to know 1) whether I’d liked it; and 2) why she, a convert to climate change science, was paying money to see a show on the subject? (“I get it!” she cried; and I argued that this artist was trying to make a difference, “The worst thing you can do is nothing,” she deserves my money, and God love her. The woman got nervous, mumbled, “If there is a god…” and scuttled off down the platform.) Fuck her. My point is Liberals can be assholes, too (really, Miss O’?) and also that messages like the one in This Clement World must be delivered to people who are not already taking action, and who really, really will need to. Plus, the music is awesome. 

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
                            —Carl Sagan

So dammit anyway, we are, like it or not, for better or for, undoubtedly, worse; through the thick, the thin, the dry, the watery (and, really, what literate, aware being didn’t see that stranded and shit-soaked Carnival Cruise Ship as both a metaphor of our current political lives on an over-heated planet, and as a harbinger of things to come?); in sunshine and in rain; in sickness and in health; to the death, stuck with each other. As Sartre said at the close of his play No Exit, "Hell is other people." It closes with, "Nous continuons," or "We continue." What seemed once such a certainty seems not at all so sure. 

It would be so nice if you weren’t here: This clement world is only temporarily clement, and unless we accept our responsibility for its clemency and take action for keeping it so, that annoyed old woman may, to our horror, get her wish.

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