Their hands mark out the time,
Empty in their fullness
Like a frozen pantomime.
Everyone's a sales representative
Wearing slogans in their shrine.
Dishing out failsafe superlative,
"Brother John is No. 9"
For the Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging"
--old Genesis song
For reasons unimportant to this post, I own a book about the grading of coins. I could not grade a coin to save my life, other than, perhaps, "bit worn" or "ooooh, nice". I love the pristine look, though, of a perfect coin in a plastic grading company holder. It's labeled, with that "MS 70", the hallmark of perfection, right there on the holder.
My high school job was working in an old-fashioned TV repair shop. I went in after school, and the kind (now departed) repairman and I delivered people their televisions in a blue-sided van.
During the afternoon coke break, our ritual was to flip a coin to determine who would pay for the little coke bottles from the little red Vendo coke machine.
We always used his special coin to determine the winner. It was a half dollar, rubbed smooth on the tails side, with only one small indentation, perhaps of a late politician's chin, remaining on the heads side.
My boss had carried it so long the features were all gone. I wonder, in passing, how many family grudges work the same way, all worn and smoothed out so that they can barely be remembered, and yet don't even get put to uses as worthwhile as determining the winner of the little eight ounce cokes. Have you ever noticed how few pearls all this life-grist really makes?
I estimate that his worn coin would rate a 1 or 2 out of 70 on the Professional Coin Grading Service company grading scale. But the happy memory of that coin, a thing of worn marvel, makes me think of the joys and disquieting sensations of the marketplace. I'm both enrapt and enraged by the grand parade of lifeless packaging.
I was reading yesterday about Lake Chesterfield, in Wildwood, Missouri. Wildwood is one of those affluent St. Louis suburbs which, like a lot of affluent Missouri suburbs, has its own private lake as the focal point of the community. Torrential rains somehow caused a limestone sinkhole to open under the lake, which promptly drained like an old victorian bathtub. Within two days, the 23 acre pond went from seven to ten feet deep down to pure mud. I am sad to report that the fish did not handle this transition well.
I like that the geologist who reviewed the situation said that the sinkhole which caused this cataclysm was "ticking like a time bomb".
I like his image that limestone erosion and other acts of nature tick like bombs. I also like that phrase "time bomb". It refers, of course, to the delayed explosion extracted through use of a timed ignition on the appratus. But the science fiction part of me wants it to be a "temporal bomb", whose explosion takes one back, let's say, to a piano performance by Satie of "Gymnopedies III" or to a service in which William Penn exhorts the faithful to put aside sectarian hatred and material envy for just a moment, and go found a colony where cheese steaks were plentiful.
I am wary of contemptus mundi thinking. You know, the idea that one should have contempt for the world because everything is going to hell in a handbasket. I get so bored of hearing radio and television commentators tell us that commercial media is producing a generation more desensitized about sex than any other. I remember the times in which I grew up, and the notion that this generation is more "immoral" (which means so many different things, some of which I'd classify as "immoral", a few of which I'd classify as "untutored" and a few of which I'd classify as "sounds fun") than my own, or my parents', or even my grandparents', is to me amusing, wrong and anhistorical.
Because I am not much for contempus mundi thinking, I am also not much one for the idea that the commercialization of society is
responsible for all our ills. I personally like the Norelco commercials they played during Christmas time broadcasts of "Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer", although in point of fact, a Norelco electric razor pulls out my few and rapidly feinting beard hairs with an excrutiating pain known only to people who shave with tweezers or try to box with Joe Lewis despite having a tomato can chin.
I don't want to overstress the "we're all going to hell because of TV and hip hop music" angle of life, because I love TV and I don't think too much about "hip hop music" most of the time. I rather like some "hip hop" songs, though I wish that some of those has-been hair bands like Poison now on tour could cover some of the songs, so that the lyrics could get set off with really histrionic guitar licks. This would be win-win crossover marketing.
In my childhood, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who hung out with gangsters and played all kinds of fields, shaved his legs and did a rather androgynous commercial for panty hose. At the time, people claimed this "selling sex" was societal decline, and yet since then we have won the Cold War, walked on the moon, and read Harry Potter. Besides, Joe Namath no doubt prepared the way for David Bowie, who has enriched us all.
So I guess I'm trying to say that my upcoming little screed is not one of those "we'll all be killed by quarter pounders" anti-everything kinds of concerns (though, in fact, we may all be killed by quarter pounders, and yet I still am sorry I no longer really eat super size orders of McDonalds' fries).
I've discussed before what I have come to think of as a consciousness of acquisitiveness. Don't get me wrong--this is not one of those posts which says that everything corporate or capitalist or smacking of marketing is wrong or evil.
I shop eBay, for Heaven's sake.
It's instead the notion of entitlement to things and revolver notches that interests me. It's the way in which every worthwhile thing can be a commodity.
Every success is measured only in terms of financial success or snob success.
Our local alternative weekly, the Dallas Observer a mildly left/center publication which some locals imagine is far left because so many things are so conservative here, ran as its cover story this week the Great College Admissions Crisis. You see, there are a lot of kids who are graduating from high school over this next few years, and seeking college admission. This year, therefore, even students with top credentials don't get into Ivy League or Seven Sisters or Top Ten or what-have-you schools. It's a rather curious thing for the "radiocal press" to cover. It's a bit amusing, really, the way in which everything starts as MTV, and then turns into VH-1. Our local muckracking alterna-paper, a fun read I enjoy, was not tackling local hunger and homelessness, but instead the angst of suburban parents that--horrors!--despite hard work, their child's engineering degree might be from Texas Tech instead of Princeton.
I see the cloud of the marketplace hovering everywhere. Kids get "A" grades in school even more than they did in my grade-inflated childhood, because schools fear hard-charging parents and falling behind other schools which give "A" grades out to all comers. At Harvard for a time, most students became honor students. The importance of letting people acquire an "A" became more important than having real standards.
Standardized tests, of course, do sort some of these things out, but unfortunately, rich kids who can take a prep course pick up 100-200 points on the SAT, while poorer kids who can't thereby learn the test-taking tricks don't.
I don't want to criticize anyone, though, who got a 4.0 and a 1600 and yet can't get into MIT. That is a sad way to feel your hopes and dreams fading, when your app. and the hundreds of others' applications, are read manually by people who apply goodness knows what criteria to determine your academic fate.
By the way, I think it's curious this admissions office idea that "well rounded" is good. I often find that many people achieve a great deal merely because they take their work seriously at school, even though they did not serve as cheerleader or president of the National Honor Society. Me, I like lopsided people, and dreamers and monothinkers. I may dream in color, but I like people who only dream in one color.
But I'm drifting. The place I want to drift is the place where I say that it's not television I fear, but instead that sense of entitlement that everyone has. I meet kids who "should be rich", but should not have to work for money. As someone who has had to work very hard for money indeed, I always find this "get rich quick" thinking a bit unfortunate, and it's cousin "it's not fair that I am not rich, because I should be able to be live a bohemian life and be rich anyway" also less than fully aesthetically pleasing.
I talk to people once in a great while who bankrupt themselves to ensure a child has something like a new muscle car instead of a much hipper cheap used 1970s era Mustang. Kids "should get into top colleges" regardless of competition, kids "should have top grades" regardless of whether they do the work. Of course, kids in school worked harder than I ever worked nowadays, so maybe, in fact, they should get higher grades than my various gentleman's "B" grades. I worry that as parents, my generation managed to combine 70s cynicism with 80s materialism to create a frothy blend, delivered in an H2 hummer,to rich kids everywhere.
But what troubles me is not people striving for what shallow glories such things offer--it's instead the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer" aspect of things. Last night on public TV, they ran a spot about a woman in Florida who graduated at the top of her high school class from a school which serves largely poor people,
and yet could not pass the required standardized test for graduation. She lost her full college scholarship because her skills could not take her "across the goal" although her hard work was so palpable.
The spot, of course, spun around the political and media-worthy "hot topic"-- protesting student testing. It hit the superficial surface, and the topical "nod child left behind", but missed the real point. Although I want folks to eradicate various cultural biases in tests, I do not think that objective data collection through testing is an evil. Instead, nobody looked at why the schools in poor neighborhoods failed their kids so badly. The spot did not cover that schools for the poor tend to hire more inexperienced teachers, that even in the area of more equitable school funding, richer schools give far more advantages to their students, and that our system is far too willing to allow even the great equializer of public education to die on the vine.
Witness our public universities. They are now out of reach of many kids. We can spend zillions of dollars to let Halliburton overcharge for essential services in a military situation, and yet we can't keep college tuition affordable. I have no problem that kids should borrow money to attend college, though my own parents' circumstances spared me this burden I willingly impose on others. But it's not good policy for a kid to have to be 80,000 dollars in debt to get a degree from a good public university.
I am a fan of making money, and a fan of the things money can and can't buy. I do not want to replace our current mixed economy with a deeply regulated economy--I'd just make some marginal changes in how government regulates. On many things, I don't care whether government does it or private charity does it.
But I do care that in a time of terrorist threats to our health, we have top notch plastic surgeons but a crippled public health system. That's the marketplace winning out over common sense. Will it take anthrax to cause someone to see the light that we need public health, in the same way it took Enron for people to remember we need to keep the SEC working?
I do care when kids in Plano, Texas, a rich suburb of the children of high tech workers, worry about getting into Harvard, while kids in Wilmer-Hutchins, TX, a city of children of service-industry workers, worry about getting basic reading and math skills. It's not all the schools' fault, and it's not all the government's fault. But where has happened to a sense of proportion and of everyone having a chance?
It's enough to make you want to go to a Hummer dealership and scourge the cars. Do you konw where I live? I live in a prairie converted into a suburb. You need a Humvee there about as badly as you need mountain climbing gear. But the Humvees are there, ensuring that one can navigate the suburban streets.
I'm not sure of solutions. It's a matter of "consciousness", but that sounds so lame to write. I was thinking last night of how I now see science and religion as virtually the same thing. I don't mean I intend to argue that Adam's footprints were right there with the dinosaurs ("Eve! We're having a really big gator for dinner tonight"). I mean instead that so many of the debates about such things are more parlor tricks than meaningful.
What IS meaningful? Maybe making sure that things are fair, and people don't go hungry, and that there's more to how kids see life than money, achievement, and getting a better place in the line.
But everytime I think I know how to stop them selling pigeons in the marketplace, I realize I'm much better at reading library books than at writing even the smallest footnote of the book of change.