Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Abracadabra of Silence

“There’s no illness at all, I simply got into a magic circle that I can’t get out of. It makes no difference to me. I’m ready for everything. I got into a magic circle. Now everything, even the genuine sympathy of my friends, leads to one thing—my perdition. I’m perishing and I have enough courage to realize it.”
“You’ll get well my friend.”
“Why say that?” Andrei Yefimych said vexedly. “It’s a rare man who doesn’t experience the same thing towards the end of his life as I am experiencing now. When you’re told that you have something like a bad kidney or an enlarged heart, and you start getting treated, or that you’re a madman or a criminal, that is, in short, when people suddenly pay attention to you, then you should know that you’ve gotten into a magic circle and you’ll never get out of it. If you try to get out, you’ll get more lost. Give up, because no human effort can save you. So it seems to me.”
—“Ward No. 6” / Anton Chekhov

No, I’m not dying though I’ve felt a bit like I am, and I haven’t been too criminal as of late, but in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve been in a magic circle. Not a hula hoop despite a burgeoning underground hula hoop community, but definitely a magic circle. I might still be in it, but I feel like the way out might be just around the bend. Notice I used the word bend not corner, for indeed it is circular, whatever this is. For weeks now, if you were to ask me what day it is, I’d have no friggin’ clue. I’ve been marking post-hurricane time by which episode of which season of the Sopranos I’m on. I am keeping a brave face thanks to Netflix and the anxiety of a fictional middle-aged mobster.

Steve, a good friend and mentor recently observed “your last postings seem tortured and full of Kierkegaardian angst.” Of course I was flattered in some pathetically silly way, given that Kierkegaard, my patron saint of irreverence, struck such a fine balance between the absurdly serious and the seriously absurd. Yet I recognize that this particular balancing act I’ve been attempting to perform, and which has more teeter in it than it should, is merely symptomatic of spiritual crisis.

I have lost my voice inside that circle. I’ve had so many things to say and nothing to say at all, so I hope you won’t mind if I borrow the words of others to prove the existence of said magic circle.
Evidence #1. Steve, for example, was writing to share his and his wife’s experiences as an American Red Cross volunteer deployed to Baton Rouge:

We went down to work the shelters but were assigned as couriers taking supplies and correspondence to the numerous Red Cross and community shelters strewn in the areas surrounding the main hit. We were stationed in the gym of a Baptist Church on the west end Baton Rouge, and our routes covered about 250-300 miles a day. Nancy's route went as far west as Lake Charles (where Rita made a somewhat direct hit), and my route was southwest, closer to the towns along the Gulf—places like New Iberia, Erath, and Abbeville—all evacuated for Rita. We sat out Rita at the gym. About 100 of us were sheltered there, and because Baton Rouge was on the eastern edge of the counterclockwise rotation of the storm, several tornados touched down. It knocked out the power. We assigned each person a secure place in a bathroom or the kitchen, because it appeared the roof would not make it. It did. The place smelled like a goatbarn. We were to return home Sunday from New Orleans, but the highway was flooded. We were finally able to get on a flight out of Baton Rouge to Houston. In Houston we were able to get on a flight to Detroit. Ironically seats were available because of the evacuation of Houston days earlier.

I have many thoughts on the failure of government and the Red Cross, and of rampant racism and classism and wish we could discuss them face-to-face. But I will leave this for another time. l wish I could tell you about each photo. They are places on our routes and from a day trip we made into Biloxi, Gulfport, and Wavelan, which took a direct hit from Katrina. You might not understand the details in the photos unless pointed out—the places where houses used to be, the railroad tracks suspended in air where the gravel berm washed out, the roofs sitting all over after being frisbeed off the houses, the plastic bags hanging in symmetry about eight feet off the ground in the trees—the receeding water line way inland. We will talk.

In the meantime, your last postings seem tortured and full of Kirkegaardian angst. Know you have family. A lady I was talking to, after having related burying a friend the day before, the loss of her home, and many other travails, ended the conversation by looking at me, and very sincerely said, "... but it’s all good, Shugah."

Be well,
Steve
Now if that’s not heartening and disheartening, I don’t know what is. What I found particularly inspiring and would like very much to appropriate is the “but it’s all good, Shugah,” but I doubt I can pull it off.

Evidence #2. Last Thursday I went to a dinner party where I knew only the hostess and the person who had invited me. One of the other guests was a woman from Germany who looked as if she’d stepped off the pages of a 1950s English novel. Her husband reminded me of my days in undergrad, which is not to say that he was immature, but he exuded a certain off-kilter zest that reminisced of the days when you’re young and less stuck on particular ideas about yourself and the rest of the world, largely because post-infancy, you do realize you exist and the world exists, but pre-mid-life crisis, you don’t yet realize that you and the world exist together, symbiotically. There was also New Zealander with the kind of face that could make a soft porn casting director weep. There was a gay Mayflower descendent and his boyfriend, a guy notorious for his mushroom tea parties. The friend who’d invited me has been battling the urge not to quit her current job; if she doesn’t quit, it will be the first job she’s held for more than a year in more than ten years. And the hostess, a masseuse by trade, had decided to pit her own vegetarian lasagna recipe against her own rendition of a Cook's Illustrated–inspired meat lasagna recipe, though she’s not a meat eater. In other words it was an eclectic group that actually gelled pretty well.

What was most striking to me about the evening was a pair of conversations. In one, the woman from New Zealand started waxing poetic about Burning Man. She was enthused in that Burning Man crowd sort of way—emboldened, starry-eyed, agog. I bristled next to her. Having little tolerance for what seemed to me an overly optimistic and naïve insistence that Burning Man will save the world, I felt compelled nay forced to explain that while it’s really great that 30,000 mostly white folks get together to do drugs and explore art in the desert, it’s not exactly the salve this world needs. She argued that each person can make a difference to which I replied, “Yah, whatever… I know that when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon jungle, shit happens, but whenever shit happens, it stinks.”

Needless to say I wasn’t necessarily a hit at this party. Then again, I wouldn’t say I wasn’t. Some of the partygoers didn’t believe me when I opined that most people in this country probably don't even know what Burning Man is, and if you were to explain it they'd think it's bloody strange and possibly dangerous and definitely stupid and wrong. Then she started talking about how diverse the festival is. Diverse my ass. I asked her what she thinks would happen if 30,000 Arabs, or Blacks, or Latinos or Native Americans decided to convene in the desert for a week of debauched art, rave music, psychedelic drugs, etc. She replied that it would be, and I quote, "lovely." to my surprise, half the guests sided with her. I felt like jumping up on the table and bellowing, "Did Katrina not just happen?"

I did disclose that I’ve never been to Burning Man and not necessarily from lack of wanting to go. Nor would I seek to disparage the ideals of the present day vehicle of “counterculture,” bound as it is by it’s very nature to spread love and joy throughout the world. I’m all for a consensual group grope if that’s what floats people’s desert chariots. But it just doesn’t translate to the Heartland. I know because I’m from the Midwest and for as open as I think I am, some of it doesn’t translate to me. I found it hard to translate that sense of "doesn't compute" to my dinnermate, who I later learned is landed gentry with horses and such to eventually get back to should she get tired of water that flushes opposite of what she's been conditioned to experience.

No need to be snotty, I agree. I also agree that the world needs saving. Like my sparring partner who so clearly put the zeal in Zealand, I hope there is a salve for this wounded world, but Burning Man—the movement as spotlighted by the annual event—ain’t it. A bunch of dusty group hugs accompanied by trance music is not enough. But it’s hard, when you’re in the magic circle, to communicate with others who espouse viewpoints that aren’t just seriously absurd, but are, in fact, Absurd. "I’M SORRY," I said and returned to noshing politely until the gay folk in the room began arguing about whether gay pride is a valid notion. Why not just be proud of being human, one asked. "Turn on the news," I suggested. "We’ll find plenty of reasons to forgo pride on any level there."

To be continued.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Parker said...

Nice story, thanks.

10:18 PM  
Anonymous Bob A. Booey said...

Burning Man is too hippy-dippie a scene for me as well -- I prefer my festivals slightly more mainstream and corporate like Coachella.

But I wish I had gone this year. Paul Oakenfold AND Tiesto showed up and DJed for free.

If only I could find out which music acts would be there in advance, I could decide whether to fly out there.

That is all.

10:22 PM  

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