Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Untraditional


Tradition is something that baffles me.  On the one hand, I understand that for many of us it creates a sense of continuity and purpose in our lives as well as a semblance of community with friends, relatives and strangers alike.  For instance, we gather on the final Thursday each November to give thanks for all our blessings—more accurately, to gorge, get drunk and argue with people we never really liked in the first place. 

There are no phrases that grate on me more than “It’s tradition” or “Because it’s always been done that way.”  Well, no, clearly something wasn’t always done that way.  One guy had to be the first one to stare up at the blank sky on July 4th with his tri-corner hat slightly askew before turning his cannon up towards the heavens and firing off a ball into the sky to celebrate his homeland.  (I pray that there was beer and/or wine involved in that decision.)  Soon other lemmings in his village decided this was a good idea, and they too began firing their muskets up at the sky to up the game.  Then like wildfire it spread to other hamlets, and before long, it was “tradition” that we set off fireworks on the American Independence Day.  (Take that, Puritans!)

But I think that most people simply walk through life blindly accepting the minor rituals of our contemporary life without any thought whatsoever to the wherefores behind them.  For example, I’m a USC alum—and despite this fact, I’ll get back to my irritation with the group-think involved there another time—and I enjoy attending one or two football games in the fall if I happen to be in L.A. at the time.  One of the long-held, though never explained, traditions is that as all of the students and alumni make their way from the main USC campus across Exposition Boulevard to the Coliseum, we kick the bases of the flagpoles at the extreme southern edge of campus just before Exposition.  On the way back from the game back onto campus, the ritual is repeated. 

One guy, I’m guessing a drunken fraternity bro, had to be the first, and for whatever reason, everyone behind him thought it was a good idea.  And so a tradition was born. 

The last time I attended a home game, on the way back onto campus, I simply walked past the flag base without kicking.  For one thing, I was wearing sandals and didn’t feel like breaking a toe.  For another…I came to the realization that who really cares?  My friend “Politico” saw this, and a look of consternation crossed his face as if I had just raped his grandmother.  “You didn’t kick the base,” he said.  “No,” I replied, “I didn’t.” 

Even to the most superstitious person…the game is already over and, if memory serves, the Trojans won.  So what’s the point of re-kicking the post after the game was over?  Is it somehow going to take away from the Cosmic Trojan Post-Kicking Karma prior to the next game?  Am I somehow going to upset the balance of the college football universe’s juju?  It clearly has no influence on the outcome of the game since every week everyone does it and they still win or lose regardless of the number of taps of sole-upon-metal.  Were you just not kicking hard enough that day?  Did one guy too many opt to sleep off his hangover in the dorms? 

I like football and I like when the Trojans win, but their win or loss has nothing whatsoever to do with my kicking the flagpole base or not.  And if you’re a Trojan and for some reason you still think it does, then clearly your faith in their skills on the gridiron is in need of some reenergizing. 

At that moment I realized that I was done forever with that little “ritual.”  It’s not a tradition; it’s a ritual.  Just because everyone else does it doesn’t mean that I need to.  I minored in psychology in college and took an entire course in social psychology.  People hate standing out, and they hate being looked at for standing out of place.  In group psychology, this is the same phenomenon that makes it difficult for anyone in a crowd to help out someone in need in their midst.  I believe it was Dr. Zimbardo of Stanford who did experiments on this and found that one’s proximity to someone in need combined with the number of others around you is inversely proportional to your decision to help or not to help.  I.e., if you come across a guy screaming in pain while jogging through empty countryside, you’re more apt to help than say if you’re part of a group of a hundred runners in New York who all pass by a screaming man without a second thought. 

But back to the point.  As I’ve gotten older, I’m becoming ever more comfortable with my swim-against-the-current mindset.  The absolute best way to get me to do the exact opposite of what you want is to tell me that everyone else does it precisely in this way.  Society tells us to conform to certain strictures of behavior simply because it’s what’s expected or how it’s always been done.  And for many things, this is in fact a good idea when it comes to such things as respecting another person’s property, life and right to live without being harassed or physically intimidated.  That’s why we have laws against such things.  When we start making laws against nonconformity, then we no longer live in a free-state democracy.  Don’t believe me?  Why don’t you go ask women in Saudi Arabia how swell it is to have state-sanctioned, male-favored morals enforced upon them without the choice to say no? 

So to clarify, I’m not talking about things here that are illegal and for which society should expect a certain level of obedience so the rights of all our citizens are respected.  What I’m talking about are the small little rituals that we engage in every day without even thinking about it.

For instance, what exactly is the point of taking your cap off during the playing of the National Anthem?  
You’ve seen this shit at every sporting event you’ve ever been to.  “Gentlemen, please remove your caps for the playing of our National Anthem.”  First of all, why do only men have to remove their caps?  Does Uncle Sam simply love women more than men?  You never hear them say, “Ladies, please remove your bonnets…”  What if some dude is going through cancer treatment and isn’t comfortable with the idea of showing off his bald head to a bunch of complete strangers?  Should that be forced upon him?  Isn’t cancer enough of an insult to his manhood already?  And what if the Pope’s in attendance?  Should Joe Girardi politely ask His Holiness to remove his castle hat?  And what about the purple skullcap he always wears underneath it?  What about yarmulkes and kufis?  How come the armed forces personnel aren’t required to remove their headgear and only need to salute Old Glory? 

And I know that people will invariably say, “Well, it’s respectful to remove your cap…”  Respectful to whom, exactly?  To the athletes down on the field?  I guarantee you the only thing they’re thinking about down there is how they’re going to scoop their teammates to the hot blonde with the bit tits sitting in the front row during the seventh-inning stretch. 

Is it really respectful to country?  This is where it gets thorny for me, because you know they always show a montage of the flag and Mt. Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial and such during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  So someone might say, “Taking your cap off is respectful to our veterans and our soldiers.”  Now I want to just stop right here and say that there’s no better way to show your love and your respect for your country than by treating your armed servicemen and –women with the respect they’ve earned and deserve.  When this country goes to war—or off on a “god-directed errand”—by those folks at the top, it’s never the richest or the whitest among us.  This is one reason I’m actually in favor of bringing back the draft.  It’s easy to cheerlead for a war when it’s somebody else’s kid over there in the sightlines of a Kalshnikov (and let's be frank, often someone with a darker skin color). If we had a compulsory two-year enlistment for every able-bodied man and woman from the minute they graduated from high school, you’d suddenly see a lot more folks at the top suddenly concerned about where our armed forces get sent around the world. 

But folks, it goes without saying that our “all-volunteer” army goes where they’re told without asking questions, often returning home with not only missing limbs, but often with pieces of their souls ripped out by things seen and done.  You want to honor our veterans, then volunteer for organizations that cater to their needs.  Remember that their wars continue long after they put their rifles down.  Then come years of nightmares, PTSD, disintegrating social relationships and a largely ignorant public who show up initially for a “good job” pat on the arm and then forget about them. 

And that’s just for those vets who are lucky. 

So you wanna honor America and honor our troops, then donate to the USO and other organizations that keep our troops entertained and their morale high while they’re fighting these ass-backward bastards in the world’s worst hellholes and do some good work for them upon their return home.  Vote out politicians who support unnecessary wars and who vote in Congress to keep them going.  Taking your cap off at the ballgame is literally the absolute least thing you can do

So I say, if that’s all you’re gonna do for our soldiers, I say keep your fucking cap on.  Hell, why not keep your cap on anyway?   What’s going to happen to me if I don’t remove my cap during the “Star-Spangled Banner”?  Nothing!  Is Uncle Sam gonna haunt my dreams for a year?  Will he show up in my nightmares raping the Statue of Liberty or some shit?  Is a bald eagle gonna squawk relentlessly above me and then release its droppings on my head during the National Anthem if I don’t take my “Jimmy’s Gator World” hat off?  If that’s the case, then I’d rather keep my fucking hat on as a shield!  That’s just common sense!

Here’s something else that often happens at sporting events or other mass gatherings: observing a moment of silence for someone who has recently died.  Does this shit really matter?  Once again, it’s simply done because it’s accepted and expected that it will be done without question.   Nobody ever asks why we do this.  What if you have Tourette syndrome and it’s simply impossible for you to go even ten seconds without blurting out “fuck…shit…blow job…”?  What if before the playing of the National Anthem they ask you to remove your cap and observe a moment of silence for someone dead but you’re an observant Jew with Tourette syndrome wearing a yarmulke and you happen to be sitting right next to an open microphone? 

Do you think the ghost of Uncle Jehoshaphat really gives a shit if you observe a moment of silence on his behalf?  Uncle Jehoshaphat's ghost probably wants to find out from the mystical keepers of the great beyond how many chicks he could've banged on earth but didn't realize it at the time.  That's the first thing I wanan find out when I get to the hereafter.   

Speaking of death, you’re getting this from me first: When it’s my time to kick someday, I don’t want any of this crap of people wailing over my iceberg body and reading Bible passages and shit.  No solemn procession, no tired retread of clich├ęd Old and New Testament passages about the temporaneousness of this mortal coil, no priests who barely knew me talking about what I good man I was (tee hee), no fucking moments of silence.  Have a rock concert.  Keep the party going.  Sing songs and drink with people who are still here.  Keep living your lives.  Take me with you in spirit on your adventures. 

Or how about this: A week after I’m gone, I’d like the following announcement to be made at the next New Jersey Devils home game:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please stand and observe a moment of farting sounds, cat noises, and running in dizzying figure-8’s in honor of our recently departed EFA.”
 
Now that’s a legacy I can get behind!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What Am I Doing Here?



I am walking up a mountain.  I used to live here.  It is getting dark.  Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains envelop me, take me.  They are silent and watchful, careless of my meager problems and insecurities.  Neither knowing nor caring that a solitary human among them hiked these hills thousands of times and felt at one with them. 

And yet I love them.  They do not love me because they are only rock and moss and the action of uplifted and subverted fault line tectonics.  Beautifully profound and yet existentially indifferent. 

Why, after not living here for over a year, did I return to the San Gabes at sunset?  Partly to reminisce.  I arrived in Southern Cal as a scrawny, inexperienced 17-year-old.  I moved to Altadena in 2001 because it reminded me briefly of home in New Jersey and because of the extremely tenuous geographical congruity: Like New Jersey, Altadena is on the northeast edge of its parent.  It seemed a natural way to preserve my link with my homeland.  Unlike my home, northeast greater Los Angeles is a land of mountains and warmth 12 months of the year.  These mountains that form the LA Basin mark the northernmost—and most rugged—boundary separating “Southern California” from the High Desert.  Beyond it is only uncertainty and poverty and no stars nor stripes.  To the west, the Pacific.  To the east, the real world.

I used to live only a few miles from here.  When I first mounted these hills I was barely in my twenties.  I got lost, but a guy named Marco told me to take a path down to his home, where a long-haired guy would refill my water bottle and give me a power bar for the hop back to the valley just below JPL.  I ran into llamas from a local farm and imagined the terrain along the trail teeming with drooling Uruk-hai.  On a trail up to the higher grounds I came up with a story about a swordsman who opts not to kill a foe after winning a duel—the opponent winds up becoming a wicked king and thus the question is asked: Was the swordsman’s mercy at all beneficial? 

Mostly, though, I recall these mountains and hiking them with A.  In these mountains we argued and laughed, we explored and walked until the sun went down.  In this present moment I stop at a spot where we once made love standing up in the dark with the lights of Pasadena below us. 

I don’t miss her.  I do miss the mountains.  But I don’t belong here.  I lived here for 15 years and yet never once felt that I truly belonged.  I was always a visitor and a foreigner in this land of sun and fun.  My friend Screenwriter once said that the great illusion of L.A. is that there is no sense of time passing.  When every day is sunny and 70%, there is only one continuous burn of narrative without time passing. 

But I am older now.  I moved to Altandena barely 23; now I am 33.  When I think back on all that has happened to me in those ten years—good, bad and ugly—I stand now here amongst these rapidly darkening crags and ponder all that went wrong.  All the wrongs that were done to me.  All that I forgave and all that I’ve forgotten. 

I am at a turning point.  After 15 years in the Land of Sun and Fun, I left last fall.  I moved back into my childhood home with my rapidly aging parents.  Back home is where I am from, where I “belong” but not where I “should be.”  But the truth is that there is no “should”; there is only is. 

It is darkening and the fallen sun turns these rocks red with extinction.  I have cheated death numerous times—by car, by train, by plane—and yet some dark part of me almost believe it’s near.  No one gets by forever. 
I’m not sure I’m ready to go.  With only the silence and the dark of these dying mountains for company, I come down.  I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go, but I’ll go there anyway.