Someone Bless Our Weird Fucking Country

Composed on the 3rd of December in the year 2010, at 11:28 AM. It was Friday.

By virtue of my father’s travel habits, 70,000 frequent flyer miles have put me in the Delta Sky With Diamonds Uber Medallion Lounge X, situated a floor above the unwashed proletariat, where I can compose my thoughts without fear of a peasant rebellion.

My thoughts are that for the first time in my life, I have a mild trepidation about getting on this plane.

I’ve never been the least bit afraid of flying. I look forward to it, as when I board the plane, my life is out of my hands, and I can dismiss the illusion of control I have to pretend to have over my life in order to keep jobs and girlfriends. I read and drink, and don’t particularly care if the flight is late, crowded, hitting turbulence, or for that matter, blowing up. It is one of the few activities I do that completely suppress my death anxiety, the others being reading, enjoying cheese and wine, playing World of Warcraft, and having an orgasm.

I have no fears of fear once I actually board, but right now, the incessant sense of dread conjured by weirder and weirder security protocols and warnings has crept into my pre-flight consciousness, and I am having mildly paranoid thoughts about the plane exploding. I’m far more vulnerable to this in my non-flying state, since I’m still pretending I can do something about it, even though years of brain-wiring have not put me in a position where I could decline to fly at this juncture. So I find myself in the personally abhorrent but traditionally American state of worrying about something I’ve already decided to do. Unless you are receiving or waiting to receive new information, this is the single most wasteful thing you can do with your brain (except, possibly, fry an egg on it, depending on what that commercial’s metaphor was supposed to be). Even Raskolnikov saved the bulk of his worrying for after the fact, which is more practical since if you’ve done something you shouldn’t have, a new plan is in order as soon as possible.

On the subway to the airport, a subway beggar gave a preamble recapping the “If you see something, say something” warnings an average New Yorker gets to hear three or four times a day. He seemed honest, if functionally insane, but his final sentence was, “the best way to keep each other safe is to watch out for each other.” I have a peculiar fondness for ambiguous wording; in my own writing, to the agony of former English teachers and current grammar nazis, I like to compose sentences that can be taken two ways, both of which might be applicable in the context. “Watch out for X” can be taken as “Make sure nothing bad happens to X” or “Make sure X doesn’t do anything bad to you,” and though I’m sure the subway man meant to imply the former, the necessary inference of the listener, in the context of terror paranoia, is the later.

This gray area concept is near the heart of our social issue with the internal war we’re fighting in this country, and it’s only gray because we’re not explicitly authoritarian (we’re free market corporate, which is almost as bad, but has better restaurants for the middle class). The text is “We’re watching out for you” and it contains both messages. I don’t mind this all that much, because it’s accurate. We the people are a divided, frivolous, and obsessive lot, and as communicative power and connective infrastructure grow, the destructive power attainable by an individual grows in accordance. Prior to nuclear warfare, a handful of nut cases couldn’t do much harm autonomously; they needed a receptive cultural situation and a political framework that would allow them to get the ball rolling towards, say, a world war. Post nuclear, it’s theoretically possible for a small team of dedicated engineers to kill a few million people, which is why every rational government wrapped all things nuclear in as much political and legal duct tape as they could muster. People complain all the time about the efficiency of government, but in this case, I would much rather all the weapons of mass destruction that actually exist remain behind the most sluggish bureaucracy we can muster.

*

The second thing I did in Portland, Oregon, was visit the Japanese gardens. This has a weird meaning for me, for two reasons. Actually, no; there are two reasons it has meaning, one of them normal, the other one weird. The first is I visited the gardens two years ago, and took a lot of pictures that might have been good had my camera not been on the lowest quality setting, where even the preview is ugly. The second reason is all things Japanese instill me with a mix of lust, fear, and pity, at least since my engagement to a Japanese woman whose merits and flaws were equally traumatizing. Regardless, I went with a mission, took my pictures in the rain, and staggered back over the ridge of Oregon hills. At one point in this trek, I broke the zipper to my jeans, and at many other points, I drooled over houses whose mortgage payments were 80% of my rent and whose square footage was 2000% of my apartment, and had a view of the city in their living rooms. Such thoughts were tempered by the inevitable and overdue earthquake gathering its stress off the coast, where it will someday snap and bring the finest houses in the northwest tumbling down into Portland like so many dice.

The walk was long, but worth it, in exactly the sense that most walks through Manhattan are not worth it, since walks in Manhattan are obligatory, and involve navigating obnoxiousness for want of arrival, while long walks through driving oriented landscapes are by choice.

The fourth thing I did in Portland was have dinner with an old friend. That entire sentence is two thirds false: I did more than one thing in between, and the “old” part of our friendship consists of me awkwardly hitting on her for four hours in 1997. The new part has been much more fulfilling and pleasant, since we can reminisce about the same people and times without having any personal history to avoid in conversation.

The second thing we did together was walk past the tree lighting ceremony in downtown, where the FBI was conducting a sting operation on some whack job kid who wanted to blow up a bunch of Northeastern hippies. It’s hard to argue with the sentiment, but I’m glad I didn’t get blown up, and now, all of a sudden, we’re back at terrorism.

Yet this story is just funny for me, because I didn’t get blown up, and didn’t have to assist my old friend, who’s a doctor, to pick up entrails and save half blown up people. The kid who wanted to blow us up is a poster child for people who want to demonize evil non-white Americans: his eyebrows alone bespeak the killing of babies. He will claim he was entrapped, he will remain a psycho teenager, he will spend the rest of his life in a dark prison as both a victim and perpetrator of ideological warfare. I think about how young he is. I think about how youthful passion can be directed at anything, for reasons stemming from sex and branching into the most psychotic of abstractions. His life has been reduced to a godsend to both the people who want to instill fear and the people who want to use fear to control a people.

While looking for dinner, we skipped a slew of high end restaurants, I because I was tapped for cash, she because she budgeted for obscure beers the same way I budget for average wines in Manhattan. A software engineer (me) and a doctor (her) go to dinner together. They can’t afford it. The delights of excess are just too tempting to budget sanely, and sanity seems an easy sacrifice amidst the crazies.

I’m reading Hirohito, the biography of the Japanese emperor during World War II. The government was torn between corrupt politics and the mandates of an ancient code remade for the purposes of the empire and the military. It mentions that most of the people weren’t buying the emperor as god, people as subjects of the divine will political line. Most people were just running their farms. The beauty of the Japanese garden, precise down to the pattern of the water running over rocks, the fear of my own emotional reaction to the Japanese culture, the horrors committed by a nation one upped by the horror wreaked by the theory of a shy physicist, and the history of politics spun out of control, all seem separated by vast chasms of nothing in particular.

*

If you’re a New York City smoker, the most frustrating thing about the Atlanta airport is that there’s no place to smoke. We’ll take the cosmopolitan attitude towards smoking in enclosed public spaces, because after all we’re such forward thinking people up north we can scoff at the laws of the people too weak to take care of themselves while we applaud the forward thinking legislation. But what we really want is a cigarette, and that’s what the south is supposed to provide for us, while it supplies a solid chunk of Americana for us to mock.

If you’re a New York City smoker who’s lived in the south for a spell, the most surprising thing about the Atlanta airport is remembering that for all your vast superiority, the south is actually full of people with much better manners than you. You feel immediately embarrassed, not for anything you’ve done, but for what you will inevitably do to offend someone. The scary part is that it’s not like another country, or even England or Canada: this is your own country. You should know how to act. But you don’t. Everybody is unfailingly polite, and even you look around with suspicious eyes for Bush voters, you can’t help but notice the dignity everybody imbues you with. There are always the freaks and xenophobes, but the southern ladies and gentlemen have survived past the bigotry and war, and the dignity of the average non-bigot southerner far exceeds the dignity of the average city liver.

Read “liver” however you want.

Portland, Oregon, now a distant place if not memory, becomes a cosmopolitan oddity. Rich enough to feel like a sub Manhattan, cold and small enough to house an unrealistic number of hippies. It’s lamented for being too white, but that not its fault: it’s a suburb masquerading as a city, and close enough to Canada to get away with it without being obnoxious. In fact, the politeness could kill a Manhattan commuter, given a few weeks.

Got to Portland to see America in its tweens.

*

On the last leg of the flight, a woman asked me to switch seats with her boyfriend, so they could sit next to each other. I hate this woman deeply. She made an unreasonable request, especially since it involved me giving up an aisle seat for a middle seat, between (and I didn’t even know this yet) the twins from whatever offensive geek mocking movie of your choice. One couldn’t stop sniffing, and the five to ten second intervals between them had an unpredictability that made me, literally, tear pages out of my Hirohito biography. They may have been perfectly descent people, but they will not be my friends in this life.

The woman relied on me being nice to the point of being a sucker, and since I am, she won. More important, and whether or not she knew it, she relied on a system of etiquette that dictates succumbing to neediness, mostly because we inherited the acquiescence of British society without learning the part about what questions shouldn’t be asked.

Really, the issue was I couldn’t get a smoke in Atlanta, because the south wasn’t un-cosmopolitan enough and the government was too paranoid to let someone get some air between flights and I was addicted to a drug I couldn’t get my hands on, so it wasn’t 100% her fault. But it was enough her fault for me to shoot her, were I an emperor. It’s also quite arguably my fault for succumbing to her request and bitching about it. I have already defended myself, but I would also defend myself on the grounds that once she asked, I had the option of being the bad guy sitting next to her for three hours, or just going to sit next to another set of strangers, albeit in a less comfortable seat. There is a list of better things she could have done. But she asked me to move. And I did. And now I’m home and warm and no worse for the wear.

The system works. Even if she was a bitch.

*

Outside the ariport, I finally get a cigarette. In fact, I smoke two in quick succession, which I haven’t done in years. All negative emotions are swept away in about two drags, and I note once more how the smokers are the only happy people getting out of the terminal, because even if there’s a cab ride and unpacking ahead of us, we have a moment of chemical Zen where none of that matters. The line for the yellow cab looked long, so I dismissed the plebeian rat race once again and called a car service.

I reflect on my discomfort with the friendliness of the service industry outside New York City. Here, I have relationships with waiters and waitresses that are entirely based on civility. There’s little desire and no need to become friends or acquaintances with people on opposite sides of a business transaction. It’s optional, can be pleasant, but is never expected. Here, we are experts in making basic etiquette both informal and sufficient to get warm fuzzy feelings from each other without taxing emotional resources.

I feel safe in the car ride, even though it’s technically the most dangerous thing I’ve done on the entire trip. My home city is, as always, rife with crime and anxiety. It’s both the most and least American place in America, a country of implicit countries that get along worse than most of modern Europe. New York City is its own country, dismissive and fearful of the America around it, and within are five boroughs that judge each other harshly, and each borough is a nest of squirming neighborhoods battling for blocks to hold dimly understood borders. It’s only the most vivid show of the fractal pattern of alienation, that stretches from the world of countries down to the psychotic thought processes an individual has to maintain to live in Manhattan. Yet the hardest and weirdest and loneliest and most insane people flock to this city, and for all its lore of isolation, nobody stays lonely for long. At a point of critical mass, isolated individuals fuse into temporary families, and it happens more, and more quickly, here, in the city of people who strive to be a city of one, than anywhere else. When people are forced on one another every day, and there are too many to kill, they learn to get along, and the effort it takes makes most other concerns not worth thinking about.

A fascist police force helps, too.

I actually still have one of these somewhere.

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