Tuesday, December 27, 2016

And I Thought I Had a Bad Year …

We are sitting here, with the end of 2016 in sight. I haven’t had the best of years, but who am I to complain? The planet has had a really miserable year.
This in itself should be something of a lesson: I am not alone.
And you, I hasten to add, can take comfort from it as well: You are not alone, either.
We have each other.
For better or worse.
If you’re reading this, I presume you are not dead. Not everyone who experienced 2016 can make that claim. Not only did many people of note expire sometime between January 1 and now; many people whose obituary would not make the major news media, but people near and dear, either to myself or to friends and family, haven’t made it to raise a glass as this year passes into the rearview landscape. Many of them died in dreadful, painful, unnecessary ways. We are poorer for their absence.
And many of our fellow humans who occupy this planet apparently have mistaken the rearview for the windshield. Reactionary forces are hard at work across the globe, on a mission to make one part of it or another “great,” and add “again” to that, because the rearview mirror is a rose-colored glass, alas.
Those who oppose the reactionaries are not without fault. Many of them followed the notion that whatever didn’t agree with their consensus was irrelevant. They believed this even with significant evidence to the contrary.
So here we are. What do we do now?
I’m not making a list. What I do suggest is that we don’t screw up as much as we did in 2016.
Did we screw up?
Take a look around.
And make no mistake, it is our screw-up. Collectively. We didn’t all screw up in the same way. Each in our own unique way, we screwed up to the point that it profits us not to look for any particular group (or even groups) upon whom to fix blame.
A bunch of suckers got conned.
A bunch of grifters worked the marks, and worked them good.
A bunch of folks who were smart enough not to get conned looked the other way or pretended that a significant number of their fellow humans would not fall for the con. Or worse: that the suckers didn’t really matter.
A bunch of folks raised on “good guys and bad guys” scenarios, figured out who the villains were and pointed their fingers at them because that’s what you’re supposed to do just before you say “Bang! You’re dead.” Except the villains didn’t always fall down.
There’s enough blame to go around.
When the suckers fall for the con, we all pay the bill. And it looks like we’ll be paying this bill off for some time. Thank goodness for installment plans and credit.
What I’ll be doing, I hope, is to redeem myself a little from my own screw ups. I want to do more of what I have been doing, with maybe a little more success. I work in that field of the arts that prides itself, rightfully or wrongfully, in looking at the world clearly and honestly, reporting back the good news, the bad news and what hasn’t been deemed news yet, if ever. We may take sides, but we do so ready to critique ignorance, hypocrisy, magical thinking and outright delusional beliefs wherever we find them, even among those on our own side.
I want to count myself among the artists with an eye on tomorrow as well as today, and one who is ready whenever the opportunity presents itself to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way! We can do better.”
I live in a nation that has never respected education. Not really. We’ve given it lip service. We confuse it with “training.” We confuse it with measurements.
We also pride ourselves in “independent thinking,” but for many of us, when we think, we’re doing so with anything but independence; and when we’re independent, we’re being so without thinking.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I have not been a fan of the film Easy Rider. The story always seemed to me, even back in the day, when it was immensely popular, a mere excuse to go out and do some beautiful location cinematography. A product of the intensely wishful thinking of a segment of an oversized generation – an effort at creating a romantic mythology. We like doing that a lot. When reality gets pretty ugly we go looking for myths and pretend they’re realities.
But hey, a number of Roger Corman vets worked on it. It’s not so much the document of an era as a document of a state of mind. It’s not that I think it’s a bad film so much as it is a film that never really spoke to me. I was looking for another myth.
However, this year, this 2016, made me think of the film’s penultimate scene. Billy, the character played by Dennis Hopper, tells Wyatt, the character played by Peter Fonda (also known in the story as Captain America), that they had “made it.”
Wyatt stares away thoughtfully and shakes his head. “We blew it, Billy.” It’s a line I always heard as what Pauline Kael labeled “fashionably bleak.” It was hipster existentialism, a set-up for the romanticized nihilism of the ending – our heroes blown away by rednecks. A phony, forced, convenient, stacked deck of an ending.
I hear the line differently now. I hear it speaking to us in 2016, soon to be 2017. The two protagonists have been pursuing a dream of freedom by separating themselves from the rest of the world. They divorced themselves from society, even while engaging with it. They sought what another cultural antihero of the era (Gnossos, in Richard FariƱa’s novel Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me) called “exemption.”
In our ways, we’ve all been on a similar journey, pursuing dreams, often without regard to the realities that surround them. We’re big on dreams in this culture. We brand them – “The American Dream” – not that we ever agree on what that dream is.
If we then become angry and dissatisfied with our fellow humans for taking their pursuit of dreams past realities, into illusions, and then straight to out-and-out delusions, we have only ourselves to blame.
In pursuit of making a dream into a reality, we sometimes find ourselves “reversing polarities,” as we say in the trade, turning reality into a dream.
Wyatt is right. We blew it. They didn’t blow it. We all put our knives in Caesar’s back.
We all, as the Three Stooges noted, in a somewhat different situation, put the yeast in.
That’s a reality we can face and move on. We blew it. We’ve blown it before. We will surely blow it again along the way. We’re capable of learning from our mistakes, at least in theory. In a reality that is already so filled with deceptions and illusions, we can at least make an effort not to deceive ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be this way.