Sunday, January 30, 2011

Existence and the Grocery Store

Our ability to go through most of the day as a stranger has increased. The cities we live in have changed. At first we had the suburbs, by which I mean true suburbs which were incorporated as part of a city. True suburban incorporation, in the case of Detroit, is more the case of Birmingham, Royal Oak and Bloomfield Township. As you move further west the nature of cities changes and the Technoburb emerges. I see the Technoburb as a place that is not anchored by resource, commerce or vacation spot, but is a hub of commuters, at home employees and collections of houses. It is curious to me because as we move more into a virtual marketplace where individuals can work from home cities change. They become unmoored and are no longer attached to a given structure. Often this means the elimination of a downtown, and the result is the public space that becomes commercial, and the market place is privately owned.

We are not allowed to linger or congregate in these spaces.

The change of city is isolating because we are expected to move in and out of the space after achieving our purchasing objective. Loitering is prohibited, and armed men or polite mangers, will escort you away. As a result we speak to almost no one unfamiliar aside from coworkers (maybe).

In previous eras there was a forum (see Rome) or at least a market where you might exchange ideas or hot gossip. Now we have the water cooler and maybe the pretentious coffee shop. The advent of television and the virtual world seemed the largest opportunity for connection and idea exchange, but as a country, we seem to have never felt more isolated from each other.

Before I leave this introduction for an anecdote, and my point, let me say that I am not calling for some previous era where everything was perfect. It never existed. I am simply interested here in taking a peek at our public interaction, about the privacy and quiet we entitled to while waiting in line.

In my grocery line yesterday, a man came through and started talking to me about the virtues of the market place. He explained it as an opportunity to exchange ideas. He said that we should not go to the store simply to get goods but, as in ages past, use the market as an opportunity to interact with our fellow citizens. His insight was sparked by his conversation with my previous customer about mathematics, economics and Wall Street. He, a businessman, and she, a snow plow driver, had a spirited discussion of America’s problems. I refuse to write this off as “time filler”. This may have been the one conversation these two individuals will have with each other in their life. In taking a moment to interact with someone we leave our routine and become more aware in a given moment. Frequently we avoid this awareness, and go through our days refusing to talk to anyone new.

I have many opportunities to notice it at my own store, but also at any public place I go to. We avoid chance encounters, conversation in public, people who seem to be “Talkers”, and yet are charmed by elderly men who seem to be able to break the ice and tell us a poignant anecdote. Basically we’re in a big hurry All The Time. There is ferocity in our independence, which at its limit results isolation and depression, which seems to be an epidemic these days.

In public we expect silence and space, and independence from others. We have this same desire as Americans in our communities, houses, living rooms and friendships. Many of us simply want to be left alone. As a result our already myopic experience of existence becomes narrower. In pained interaction in the supermarket, the library or the drug store we have a chance to break this routine if only when waiting in line. I can tell you from interacting with so much of the public that there are a lot of interesting people out there. There are a lot of psychopaths and degenerates too, but it all makes for a good story at some point. I am not insisting that we go out an attempt to solve the answers of the universe at the supermarket, but perhaps when waiting in line see what the person next to you is really thinking about. Step beyond “How are you?” (An awful question if there ever was one), and see where else you can go.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Turning and the Process of Becoming

I’m back after a hiatus. I wrote many posts, but didn’t feel they were worth posting, which should explain the More You Know/PSA tone of this post.

T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday begins

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn

These lines possess that same attitude that is the core of the Sisyphus’s story. Sisyphus pushes the same rock up and down a hill for eternity. We can imagine that each time the boulder reaches the top of the hill he hopes that it will rest there for a time. Instead it rolls down the other side, and for a brief moment Sisyphus is relieved, happy to have reprieve for his work. If we combine that story with the lines from Eliot, and imagine Sisyphus turning again at the bottom of the hill to push the boulder to its crest once again, we can see that Sisyphus both hopes again that this will be the last time, and that he is exhausted with the pushing. The exhaustion and doubt are the most intense at the bottom of the hill. Fresh from a moments rest he begins again, and cycles through the same emotions.

I bring up this story and lines of poetry because we face this same struggle each day. We wake each morning and have the option to turn. We wake each morning with the freedom to adopt the willingness to experience our life, or to run from it. With a decision to be willing comes great risk. These moments are not epic, these decisions do not contain the intensity of battlefield courage, but are reflected in our decision to take a pottery class, to spend a day at the record store, to draw or write for an hour even if we consider our products shit. They are the risks of enjoyment, to venture into new hobbies, ideas and communities of people despite the chain smoking elderly woman in our hearts who tells us everything is dirt and sounds like a fascist version of Diane Rehm.

Last Friday I went record shopping for the first time. A friend was nice enough to give me a record player as a graduation gift. Upon receiving it I was immediately filled with excitement. I envisioned my record buying day to rival that of any other event in my life, I would discover the music that spoke to my core, and reach new plains of musical ecstasy. These expectations were not so grandiose before the trip, but the hyperbole functions well to indicate my emotional state. When I arrived at Record Time I stepped in with the friend who had bought me the record player, and immediately was consumed with doubt and fragmentation. Who is this artist? What is good? What price bananas? My friend set out picking through the stacks for the artists familiar and unknowns, and I began the slow and arduous journey of trying to figure out where to begin and where to spend my time.

As the day pressed on, and more stores were visited, I become slightly more confident in what I was doing. I had gotten the boulder off the bottom of the hill, and my friend had let me struggle. If he helped me with the boulder something would have been lost – a different topic for another post. The important thing is that two days later I finally got the chance to listen to some of those records. I picked up about fifteen 45s of old Soul music, and some Detroit electronic music. As I sat and sipped coffee I realized what I wanted to look for next time I went out. I reaped my harvest, my labor of listening to some 70 45s paid off. All the dead ends were now fun in retrospect.

Dorthy Parker said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” In the struggle of pushing the boulder, in deciding to turn, in feeling anxious, fragmented and doubtful there is no instant gratification, but if we persevere there is reward, but it doesn’t mean we have to be Pollyanna about it. There is a moment of pure humility in this realization, that each of us sets out to attempt to find “a little present”, a slice of enjoyment. For some this could be a cup of black coffee and a slice a pie, a Drexciya record, or that chair for the living room that fits just right, after six months of searching on caigsist. Cheesy moment over, high fives to the kids, be cool stay in school.