CURMUDGEON

Angry, ill-natured old man whacks you with his cane & vents because the world has changed without his permission & he doesn’t know what the hell to make of this menagerie


1: the High Five

For two decades now I have perched in the DJ box on Friday and Saturday nights, spinning CD’s. I play the lounge singers; the saxophone heroes; the big bands. I watch the kids and their antics --- the pretend lesbianism done for male attention; the sneak to the restroom to do some coke. In the early 2000’s a craze developed that took a decade to die out but it is dead now and I hope it does not return.

   Back then the bar was a forest, a garden of waving arm-stalks as patrons high-fived each other with relentless dedication, each pretending to have achieved a moment of abandon and transcendence. Although it was spiritually impossible to experience exaltation every sixty seconds, the appearance had to be maintained, not just maintained but driven to the limit, as people strove to prove to each other that the genii of hilarity had indeed taken over their bodies and delivered them from the miserableness that was their common lot in life. Often the gesture was a measure of social power: if the initiator got the jump on you --- got there first --- then you had to match it, raise your hand and slap back, if you wanted to be seen as being in the swing of things. Sometimes the initiator misjudged his own power and didn’t have enough clout to compel a response; then the talk flowed around him, unheeding; soon he would have to lower his flag carefully, hoping no one had noticed.

   These kids had seen the ‘5’ on TV or in the movies and said, Oh wow, that looks cool, I want to do that. Certain actors had lifted it from the sports field and made it look right. The trouble was, it was not right. The body failed to endorse it. It took premeditation and fakery to cater to the kids’ desperation to appear cool. Exaltation did not discharge itself into the nervous system that frequently. As I looked at the would-be cool girl before me, eyes alight, her hand extended high, my body refused to cooperate and do the expected.

   I knew that guys practiced it at home. It was obvious they wanted to stuff their nervous systems with enough packed impulse to make it appear real and spontaneous. They’d spend half a minute slapping the door-frame or the cabinet or the high wall. One night four of them formed a square and spent two minutes slapping each other’s raised hands, getting the coordination right, working it up like they were at ball practice. After a while they were pumped; they’d made it feel real at last. They’d become accomplished high-fives, ready to play their part on the bar scene and put to shame the less practiced, the hesitant, the losers.

   When I saw the meme spreading among people who were standing at the bar, I was offended because I’d already had prior experience with the real high five, and it was real on the basketball court. Not that I’m the great jock or anything, but I played a lot of basketball before I tore both my rotator cuffs (and I’ll play again after I have the surgery). On the court you mentally track the other players, where they’re going, what they’re up to. You know where your arcs will intersect. After one of your guys makes a basket, maybe you move your arc a little so that it touches his and you throw up a hand and meet his in mutual appreciation. Right! That’s good, that’s real. Symbolically, we just danced two inches off the court in the air. Symbolically, you my brother.

   But the body has to be jogging, in motion for the spirit to take over and move your arms and the same thought to pop behind both your eyes. And you need to just have experienced an actual moment of triumph. That’s when it’s real. And these hollow, desperate kids in the club were experiencing no such moment. They were pretending to, and trying to make you pretend along with them. To me, it was an affront against the spirit of mankind.

It was all calculation and subtle bullying, trying to make the person you faced dance on your puppet-strings --- and their response was based on social fear, nothing else.

   I thought carefully: was there any other situation when the ‘five’ was real? The only one I could think of was when a runner rounded third and slammed hands with the third base coach. I couldn’t recall ever having seen it, but I could envision it. Then, to my surprise, I learned that this was actually where it had originated.

   It’s died out now, because the craven desire to appear cool to those around you, the effort it called for, was just too wearing on the nervous system. It asked too much. It taxed you, and after a while your mind just skipped to other things. And then I was able to stop saying, “I don’t do that,” to my twenty-something interlocutors, freezing them into puzzled shock.

   Lest I appear too much the ‘bah, humbug’ guy, I will say that the fist bump ‘feels real’ to me, and I will bump anybody’s knucks any time without hesitation.

2: The Leaf Blower

I used to do yard work when I was a kid. I never used a leaf blower. It’s so irritating to see the pack-on-the-back Mexican trying to blow a wavering front of leaves onto a neighbor’s property, or, just as bad, into the center of the street. The racket alone is offensive and unnecessary. A wide push broom, or a rake, will do the same task, but better, by gathering the leaves into a pile where they can be bagged. Who decreed that things had to be done this way, and why did every lawn care business fall in line? Probably just to look more ‘up-to-date’ than the next guy, is my guess. A status move among the lowly.

   If I had a lawn-care business, I’d advertise --- WE DON’T LEAF BLOW, WE SWEEP --- and furthermore, WE COMPOST OUR TRIMMINGS, for I’d have a half-block of vacant property on which to do just that; then sell the compost back to homeowners in two years. The continual removal of trimmings depletes the mineral content of the soil and necessitates artificial fertilizing. IT’S TIME LAWN CARE WENT GREEN. Advertising that way, I’d ace out all my competitors. Hit like a blitzkrieg, sting like a bee. Who wants to join me and invest?

3: Death to Video Games

Play ball, kids.
4: Bandanas on Dogs

Tying a bandana, a big red handkerchief, around your dog’s neck, is more of a poor-white-trash move, and I hesitate to criticize from a more fortunate perspective, but the meme has spread into the office-worker cohort, so it’s legitimate to blast it. It simply violates the integrity of the animal, the beautiful lines of his body, and turns him into a cartoon, a sentimental reduction from sleek beast to toy. But undoubtedly many dog owners view their ‘pet’ this way.

   It’s both a spiritual and an esthetic offense.

5: Poetry Readings

   I’ve been to a few. There’s the poetess up front, sitting on her raised dais, with her crew of adoring art buds, purses stuffed with poems. The priestess opens one of her self-published books and intones. But nobody can follow what she’s saying. Your mind tries to get a grip on it but falls aside and turns over like a whipped chariot racer. Nobody knows what she’s said, but everyone puts on a duly solemn & appreciative face --- a face transfigured by the muse --- and claps.

   Poetry may have begun as an oral art --- mouth to ears to brain --- and as such was shaped by sound and rhythm and hooks, hooks like alliteration and endings joined to line-beginnings by repetition --- but this kind of poetry disappeared when the Greeks were pacified and the skalds stopped boasting of their raiding prowess. Once the wine and the campfire and the drumbeat were gone, poetry became a private art, written on parchment or paper, made to be read in solitude, passing from paper to eye to brain. It reached you through an entirely different neural pathway. The frissons it set off in the brain depended on the passage of writer’s thought to the reader’s brain, an insemination best savored in private. The thinking brain grasps the printed word at its own speed. It is an experience of grasping. The social element, the vibrations on the air, are missing. That’s okay. It’s an entirely different beast from the dramatic re-enactment as the bard works the warriors up over their past victories.

   Nearly all of us first encountered poetry on the page; we read it in private. The way we appreciate it is torn and ruined IF we seek to absorb it when recited aloud to us by another. Eye to brain is not the same as ear to brain. Two different pathways, two different end results. One type of poetry works for one and does not work for the other. Everything written in private by the over-sensitive introvert is utterly incomprehensible when read aloud. Let us not pretend that we understand it or that we enjoy it.

   Why do we pretend? That is the question.

   The first poetry reading I went to I was repelled and appalled. Those are not too strong words. They are accurate. Apparently the poet was so hungry for attention that she was willing to violate the integrity of her work, making it into incomprehensible gibberish, just so she could sit on that chair in front of the crowd and receive their confused weak-minded adoration. She had to’ve had no respect for her own work, to exchange it for so limp a reward.

   I have since decided that readings of poetry are simply rituals by which a certain sort of person --- who fills the audience --- seeks to affirm their unrecognized or anti-social value through a ritual enacted by a shaman who cherishes their loserhood. All of us have public and private selves. Nothing wrong with that. The bluff bullies who run the world leave multitudes of J. D. Salingers in their wake. I myself am largely private, but I write to communicate or stir up esthetic swirls in the reader’s brain. I will not violate the purpose of my work because I crave transient attention. If I want to address a crowd I’ll write something especially for the occasion.

   Vachel Lindsay, in the nineteenth century, tried to get back to poetry’s oral roots with his ‘boomalay, boomalay’, widely misunderstood. Today’s slam poets try the same, but don’t think I’m praising them. Some can be comedians; most are just strutting poseurs, engaging in male dominance rituals, trying to shake the bushes harder and stomp about more aggressively than their peers. Or the black stage poets, trying to enact angry dramas of rage for their cringing white appreciators. Oh, give it a break, guys.

   Sometimes I wonder: what would a real oral revival sound like? I haven’t decided yet, but when I do I’ll let you know. In the meantime, all my work is for the solitary reader, and you’ll never see me craving attention so badly that I’ll violate my own work for a little uncomprehending applause.

6: In Love With Their Phones

   Sinatra is singing “You Make Me Feel So Young”, or Coleman Hawkins is blowing his usual masterful solo; and suddenly a skritchy-scratchy noise fills the bar, like the alien bugs pouring over the hill in ‘Starship Troopers’, rasping their chitin and squealing. Where are the bugs? I look around. Three twenty-somethings are gathered around the I-phone, great big transgressive smiles on their faces. They’ve cranked up their sound source to equal the bar’s carefully pitched floating ambiance.

   The first time I encountered the I-phone noisemaker I heard this scramble of white noise, utterly blotting out the bar’s music, so I searched high and low until I spotted the screen and its rapt manipulator, a woman who had no idea that anyone but her could hear the chaos she was broadcasting, even though she’d turned it up so that she could hear it without interference. This is the rule among I-phone watchers; they have no idea that anyone outside their cluster of grinning chin-drippers can hear the tinny scramble that has them so enthralled. They actually think that the person sitting next to them cannot hear it unless that person is part of their crew. The stranger sitting next to them has no nervous system, no preference, and, of course, no permission to interfere between a man and his love --- his love being that instrument which makes him whole, that is, hipster-whole, up-to-the-minute with-it whole.

   Sitting at the bar, I listen as the easy elegance of Sinatra is scarred and scraped raw by the metallic cacophony from two seats away. I grit my teeth and tolerate it for a minute. For two minutes. For three minutes. Will they ever stop? Then I lose it in a controlled way. Hey, that’s a nice phone, I say, but the Cone of Silence has not exactly descended over you. They look at me blankly. This is a ‘Get Smart’ reference, but they, of course, are twentysomething, and have no idea what I am talking about.

   When the customers begin playing their phones from both sides of the bar, then no one can hear anything but the noisemakers. A guy sitting next to me stroking his girl’s leg, which is cocked up across his lap, keeps his phone playing on ‘high’ even though he’s paying no attention to it. It’s just his ambient noise of choice, like Johnny Hartman was to an earlier and smoother generation. It means he’s a cool dude because he owns this thing, and his girl is impressed.

   So how does this marriage of love & technology make people into insensitive dolts? Used to be that when a lost hippie wandered into the bar with his guitar, and sat down and began singing, I could ask him to take it outside, please. Now every yuppie-in-training creates his own world using his phone and gathering the people he wants to impress. Those big wide we-be-so-bad grins belong to my customers, and I cannot just be running them off. A revolution has occurred; a generation has been turned into self-centered assholes . . . is it temporary? Will this die out?

7: A New Purpose To Life

   I think the phone problem is just one aspect of a greater phenomenon. To the affluent striver in our modern world, what is the purpose of life? It is to acquire more gadgets, more proofs of --- something --- and to flaunt them: the wave of the moment breaks and spills its digital froth on the shore. You must show those who know you that you have purchased the latest novelty. Electronic novelties have become de rigeur for young males, and for more and more young women; they are what clothing items have always been for young girls: fashion.

  Perhaps soon I will have to join the world as it is and get my VR girlfriend. I have my eye on some of those Japanese creations.