Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"The universe … makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid." Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852)

Baby Doll with Syringe (my first photograph, ca. 1958, taken with a Kodak Brownie camera)

I think I may be ready for whatever 2009 has to offer because I’ve been living like there’s no tomorrow for most of my life.

Periodically shamed by my own lack of providence, I find myself now in nearly the same boat as my peers who day by day put something by for a rainy day—all of us are soaked now, umbrella-less in the cold showers. Their investments are disappearing; mine, such as they ever were, went kaput at the end of the 1990s.

I’m OK with this. I’m used to it. It may even be my element. I’ve always had a fondness for inclement weather. Clement weather’s for wusses.

I’d like to say my amused pessimism is the product of a hard, tragic life. But it isn’t. Most Somalis would envy my childhood, but by post-WW2 US standards, it was no great shakes. I was brought up an only child in a working class environment (i.e. US military bases) by emotionally stunted parents (asocial, uncommunicative, distant, occasionally berserk) and from time to time, when the folks were strapped for cash, I had not-quite-Dickensian holidays: once I got just an orange and some unshelled pecans for Christmas, and in the eighteen years, give or take, of childhood, I had precisely one (modest and cheerless) birthday party. I was different (i.e. gay) and raised in a series of hellfire-and-brimstone churches we usually fled once my mother decided they were too liberal.

I suspect it was in my nature to be bleak from early childhood. This was brought home to me recently when I happened to pay attention to a large framed picture of me at age seven or, at most, eight. My eyes stare placidly ahead, not even a shred of a smile on my lips, not miserable, though, more matter of fact. Maybe too much phlegm, as Hippocrates might have diagnosed my appearance.

Even as a child, I looked a bit like a character in Charles Addams cartoons—macabre New Yorker drawings republished in books through the 1960s, and I checked out every one of them multiple times from the base library. By the way, “macabre” was my favorite word as a child—and I’m fairly certain that I was the only seventh grader at my school who knew what “black comedy” is.

In adolescence I was Harold without Maude. I was convinced that I would die before age eighteen, so now, 37 years later, it’s all gravy. Thin, flavorless gravy. But gravy.

So today I live in a world where the government is bailing out once intimidatingly successful corporations so the CEOs can go home with nothing less than the full $28 million they were led to believe they deserve. As little as I watch the news on television, I’m struck by the number of gray, drawn faces under $500 haircuts, flickering in the cathode rays, terrified that their gross worth may soon fall short of a million.

Did you see The Big Chill? The 1983 comedy of alienated idealism in the Reagan years. I loved that movie, but I haven’t seen it in ages. One part I remember fairly vividly was Richard, the character played by TV actor Don Galloway, who, commenting on a friend who’s taken his own life, says, “The thing is... no one ever said it would be fun. At least... no one ever said it to me.” Of course, in the story’s context, Richard is a philistine, a reject among the radicals-turned-yuppies whom the film glorifies.

But I say, “Well said, Richard. Well said.”

I live in a culture that fights terrorism by shopping and visiting Disney World. A culture where six figures is the cutting-off point of the middle class. Even Richard was a successful Republican businessman, whose stoic values were out of step with the new brand of conservatism epitomized by Ronald Reagan.

My frame of reference is several floors down from this. My favorite movie of all time is Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville, in which a song, written by actor Keith Carradine*, recurs as a kind of motif. The song is tongue in cheek, but it does reflect an existential truth about our society’s little people. It goes like this:

“The price of bread may worry some, / But it don’t worry me. / Tax relief may never come, / But it don’t worry me. / The economy’s depressed, not me. / My spirit’s high, as it can be, / You may say that I ain’t free, / But it don’t worry me / …. / Y’say this train don’t give out rides / Well, it don’t worry me. / All the world is taking sides, / But it don’t worry me / Cause in my empire life is sweet / Just ask any ’bo you meet. / And life may be a one-way street, / But it don’t worry me.”

*It’s worth a side note to add that Carradine’s father, John Carradine, played Jim Casy, the “lousy-with-the-spirit” vagabond preacher in John Ford’s 1940 film of The Grapes of Wrath. And Keith’s brother, David, played the hobo minstrel Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s 1976 biopic Bound for Glory.


  1. I remember Tracy Ullman, as one of my favorite characters from her panopy of them, the superannuated makeup artist (and lush) Ruby Romayne, quoting one of the old grand dames (Bette Davis was it?): "Growing old ain't for sissies."

    I'm learning how serious the dowager (whoever) was when she said that!

    Thrift makes for magnanimous souls.

    Excess for stingy ones.

    I salute you in your thrift.

    And I love your first photo!

    You were off to a game start, clearly...

  2. I respect the thrifty, but don't count myself as one of them. I'm more the grasshopper than the ants. At best I can be said to take my penury with grace. I'm fond of the first photo too, though the photo of the photo here does not do it justice.



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