Monday, December 7, 2009

Hitting the "Jackpot" at last

Maybe we're all guilty as parents and certainly as consumers. We decry the proliferation of junk yet we cram the parking lots as regularly as any urban dwellers. Or, my wife bless her does, for I rarely venture into such terrain, as my last post "Tagann Kareem/Waiting for Kareem" documented. (That being in bog-Irish and then hack-English may garner fewer readers than this one, not that that's saying much).

But I thought a lot about consumption of the modern and not Victorian strain while in my car for nearly three hours on a chilly weekend day. I sat in Atwater facing a train track. A local commuter train, a freight or two, and an Amtrak Surfliner passed. The site used to be make Franciscan Tile, but the factory had been abandoned long ago. An artisan craft not able to compete with cheap labor far off? Like a lot of L.A., the manufacturers left town. Unlike the trains, on which my father a bit and both my grandfathers worked long, the occupations many of us today do depend less on machines and products than data and numbers. More than ever, we city folks line up to buy in bulk, even if that freight comes a far longer way than the local factory, less often coming in by train perhaps.

The tire garage resounded with an electric drill and honks from it and those herded around the packed lot competed. The windows were a crack down in my old Volvo, but the cold increased and I shut them. I stayed writing that entry above, in Irish, with my standard array in a shopping bag of two dictionaries, a thesaurus, a booklet of conjugations, and a verb/preposition chart. I wrote about watching the crowds come and go, many coming out it seemed after a long time with one item only: a Costco pizza. Why anyone'd contend with holiday mobs, added by my younger son and those who waited for a chance to meet Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as advertised over at Best Buy, for a mass-produced calorie-laden (and I love pizza I admit if from a real restaurant) industrial cheese and meat and dough pre-fab construction flummoxed me.

After I wrote my Irish entry, which takes over an hour a week at least, there was no sign of said son. I thought of him in the chill and felt sorry for him. He queued up for a chance to meet a man he idolized. He insisted on not wearing his shirt over his UCLA t-shirt in honor of Kareem-- the standout of my own youth first for the Bruins and then the Lakers-- and I wished he'd been dressed more warmly. I wondered if he'd make his departure for the play he was in, and fretted as a father should. But, more about that emotion later.

The extended time in the parking lot, punctuated by tire hammering and train crossing, directly in front of the Costco, left me pondering of all books Margot Adler's "Drawing Down the Moon." As "Bo" commented from a neo-pagan thread on his blog, it's from a more innocent time. Her careful, insider's history of neo-paganism chronicles its attempts to invent an earth-based, natural, non-salvific religion today. It does seem from an utopian surge, dimly remembered as the Catholic school warned us 4th graders circa the first Earth Day that the Ecology flag was atheist and the peace symbol was not only deluded but satanic.

Another perspective came from Adler's lengthy closing chapter "Living on the Earth." She cites the countercultural era's "Akwesasne Notes" which covered the Native American movement, and then its need for a more spiritual and rooted perspective with which to replace the oppressive situations it resisted. Like Adler, who grew up atheist in Manhattan but yearning in her young love for the Greek gods for a wider vision, many activists from her hippie cohort felt that their political stance demanded a positive viewpoint that extended their ecological restoration into personal transformation.

Contemplating this, as many in her study who are Neo-Pagans do while living in the city, stuck in suburbia, chained to the crush of the ways of getting and spending, I felt a resonance in the thronged lot full of carts and cars, like mine, and my own complicity. Even if I had not come that day to buy, my hard-working wife for her small business and our home had to drive here a helluva lot more than me, and our house filled with Kirkland this and shrinkwrapped that. Certainly a lot of eight-packs of Garofalo pasta, by the way, in our cupboard. (I'm not complaining, at least about pasta.)

Well, the "Notes" excerpted by Adler traced the near-impossibility of romanticism. How to "regain the old ways"? An article showed a farmer whose cattle sicken from poisoning from a nearby Reynolds aluminum plant. The decline of his herd drives the farmer to work-- at the plant. And, he's thankful to get that job.

"How can you fight something that you work for?" Adler cites: "The monster gives you no choice. It pokes you in the eye at the same time that it fills your wallet and it destroys your garden and cattle at the same time that it offers you jobs." (qtd. 381, 2006 Penguin ed.)

I intended in my career not to work for a corporation but to teach. The necessity exacted by a dismal market for Ph.D's in English (at least of my orientation, complexion and expertise) meant that I have worked nearly the whole time since my degree at a for-profit (now called "market-driven") institution. I've commented often here about the challenges of such a predicament for a humanist in a career-designed, technical-business milieu.

The point today remains: I am not crafting missiles that kill (good thing given my lack of scientific know-how) nor gouging borrowers for interest rates. I'm not ripping people off with shoddy goods or sleeping off the gains of Third World sweatshops. But, I share complicity in the same system that fills the lot with cars, people, goods, and pizza from not a family-owned place but a corporation, a market-driven urbanized asphalt and train and truck and SUV fueled colossus. Our state totters on bankruptcy but immigration, as a glance at this store shows, fills our fragile land with more people than we can support, my two sons notwithstanding nor the fact their parents are a true rarity here as always, natives with a small "n." The parade of people passes from all over the world. We admire this diversity as its own wealth for the Golden State, but we fret about water, we gobble up land, and we bulldoze the hills where I live to cram in more McMansions and their stuccoed spawn.

Whether with only a pizza or two carts full of a lot of stuff, the patrons, many of whom were as well-upholstered as their cars, often hauled off their booty in a SUV. A big (aren't they all to those few of us in a small car?) one cut me off as I attempted to merge from a blind spot into a tight lane of departing traffic. From the passenger window, a young swain of the blonde driver in their black behometh then gleefully and lingeringly they flipped me off. He repeated the gesture as I passed him on the road. I wished him silently a #$(*^-ing Merry Christmas.

In that United Nations worth of humanity, I wondered a lot of less popular musings: our generous immigration policies of family reunification and chain migration that brings over a never-ending stream of relatives, the resulting additions to the ever-growing crush of people in SoCal, the amount of plastic and starch and fat and sugar carted out, and the demands on our planet as more and more people from all over came to America to share our good life. Or got wealthier off the sales of the stuff sent to Costco & Best Buy and stayed in India or China. And bought SUVs themselves.

Then I recalled what I'd learned from the L.A. Times over breakfast. Tim Rutten wrote: "Is it any wonder that over the last two decades, the annual share of California's total income garnered by the top 1% of the state's earners went from 13.8% to 25.2%? That means the most affluent 20% of our population now has an average yearly income nearly eight times that of the poorest fifth of the state."

In the same column, Rutten lamented the collapse of our collegiate system, even as its growth's brought on by skyrocketing and poorer populations needing degrees as a ticket out of their trap. This being left unsaid by Rutten. (The LAT reliably underplays any downside of such demographics even as it panders to its multicultural readership that so far tends to desert the paper in its dotage. It leaves the blame at the feet of a nameless villain, shadowed beyond traffic, sprawl, and decay.) While I struggle against the tide by teaching immigrant/working-class students Pandora's Box, this richest/poorest of 50 States can't balance its budget, either.

I told my family this capitalist factoid but as usual none listened. Who wants their morning ruined by contradictions ensnaring us all? The good life gets more fought over, like that thug and his girl in the giant black SUV pushing the little guy like me and my son out of the way. They then gloat over and over at their petty "prize."

By the way, as I wrote in the other entry, prizes do not come easily especially if free. If a store promotion's involved, as I'd gently warned my son days before, be sure to check the details of any largess they claim to offer you. But, either his ignorance or sheer manipulation meant house advantage in this gamble of our time. Fine print I'd suspected but that my son had no idea of loomed.

Wristbands had been distributed at 9 a.m. for the 1:30 p.m. Kareem appearance. We had gotten there at 12:45. He waited until nearly the 3:30 scheduled finish. The basketball giant arrived considerably and unfashionably late. Those without priority were told they could wait until the end to meet him, but then the superstar went away. My son walked back, forlorn, with a stock photo, unsigned, a camera with no shot, and our spirits both sank.

Still, I would have hope return later this dismal day. I teach regularly an essay to my aspiring technocrats by Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," about the genetics-robotics-nanotech threat that may make us extinct, or irrelevant at best or worst to the self-replicating technology that a few eggheads cannot wait to replace human inefficiency with. In it, Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems, pioneer of Java & Unix, doctoral dropout from the same school where Adler once protested, UC Berkeley) laments the opening of this Pandora's Box of doom.

Few in my classes, maybe 1:20, know enough to explain the rudiments of Pandora to their classmates when I ask. Whether born in a Cambodian refugee camp, a Bolivian hut, or a California ghetto, my students come in rarely with what used to pass for higher learning. I'm their slim bridge between the liberal arts and their machines.

I always figured Hope left in the box represented a positive virtue after the evils had been unleashed by a foolish girl's curiosity. But, on Liberal Rapture (see P.S. below), a comment left a few weeks ago chilled even pessimistic me. The cruellest aspect of the story, a woman noted, was that Hope was left-- to torment us that things might be better even after the evils proved the triumph of death, pestilence, famine, and woe. We cling to what our commonsense denies.

We look around the Atwater lot and see American abundance. The rest of the planet makes the items brought in by those trains. They want what we have, and we send them part of our money spent at Costco and BestBuy so they can work for the same jobs we used to have, before they were sent off by our bosses overseas. Now, we bolster our own decline in wealth by bargain hunting at the big-box store. Costco by the way is one of the very few chains to boast an increase, 6%, recently. (Wal-Mart no longer bothers to release its sales figures. As I tell my class, I am old enough to recall when that chain paraded "Made in the USA" as its slogan, unimaginably, a mere twenty-five years ago. I've never entered and will never enter one, however. Costco's at least a marginally better employer, so I'm told.)

We celebrate a blip in sales. We yearn for a Black Friday increase of an anemic half-a-percentage-point to attest to the recovery of an economy shattered by "market-driven" technocrats. We meanwhile struggle to keep our home, and read of the rush of Bank of America to pay off its bailout money from us taxpayers-- so BofA can return unconstrained in true capitalist laissez-faire style to court new CEO and more fat-cat technocrats. With more lavish salaries than TARP or Uncle Sam could permit. We have our morals after all. For a short time.

In this panorama of profits for few, spending by all, we see ourselves as numbers. Credited for how much we spend as consumers, not as people who wait in line for their role-models to appear. A return to simpler gains, not calculated on Wall Street, found a welcome recovery on our own domestic front later that night.

I had to go get a haircut first. I hit traffic both ways to Silverlake. Massive for a Saturday night. At the barber (if nobody calls them that anymore in the trendy neighborhood), amidst blaring Spanish-language diva videos to which the Latino staff all sang along con gusto, the co-owner told me that they helped raise $5000 for the L.A. Free Clinic across on Sunset Blvd. The salon's sponsoring a food drive for the shelter downtown near Christmas, the fourth year they and his restaurant and the dry cleaners nearby have done so. This cheered me and I thought my son might like to help out. (My wife who always knows more than I do told me later he has a prior charity engagement with another food drive for SOVA, the Jewish organization.)

So, I drove off into even thicker traffic happier about my fellow man. The congestion that tangled me, towards that same Costco & Best Buy, was for the city's lights display in Griffith Park each holiday season. It seems a waste of energy to Scrooge-like me. But, the freeways fill and the atmosphere pollutes as cars and especially SUVs full of the same families I saw in the parking lot (maybe the couple who cut me off?) cruise by displays arrayed in festive festoons. I was never much for Christmas even as a Catholic, and the holiday's never been me at my best. Still, I looked forward to seeing my sons in their bi-annual dramatic, or comedic, revels.

I arrived at the theater and sat between my wife and our friend Richard who dutifully attends every one of these often marathon performances twice yearly. I had not known anything, on purpose (I like to be surprised) about the fall SCTG show.

It turned out to be a morality lesson about the costs of selling your soul for power. My younger son, Niall, carried the leading role of a conniving religious type bent on blackmailing the city council of a small Nevada town to sell their casino to his church, who'd turn it into a bottling factory to undermine Sin City's northern outpost in the name of Family Values. My older son, Leo, delighted in his being a guffawing dad, full of bluster and bonhomie.

You can see them in the photo; younger in suit, older bowing low in green-black bowling shirt, at the conclusion to a play I enjoyed. The next night, my son won the award given the most effort by a performer, the same his brother earned for last spring's play. So, the award that had stood on our shelf the past few months-- it rotates among the homes of its young recipients-- will return again soon with another familiar surname on it. A true prize. No autograph, but the name of one of my sons under another's a true memento.

P.S. I had originally tried-- and failed due to glitches galore at lately-- to post a small kernel of what grew into a big shrub at the post on"Global Warming vs. Peak Oil" 12/5/09 on the heated blog, Liberal Rapture. But as that discussion on its comments turned with a visiting pundit who denies "climate change" into another debate on libertarianism and capitalism and science solving all the problems we proliferating humans can dish out, perhaps it's better to let my entry rest here relatively undisturbed.

Credit: Performers of "Jackpot." Photo via Facebook, by Broderick Miller, founder, and executive director of the plays by, the Silverlake Children's Theater Group.


Bo said...

Ouch. Hardhitting stuff.

Fionnchú said...

Bo, Ian McEwan's new Oxford-set story also takes on the "two cultures" intriguingly. "The Use of Poetry" You may never read Milton the same way again. Or some of your students well may not.

Bo said...

I normally hate McEwan, but I liked that; odd to read something about a city which I know like the back of my hand---I was at the 'Dirty Girl''s college as an undergraduate.

Anonymous said...