"If you're twenty, you definitely have never done a thing for anyone. Yes, you went to Guatamala on a school trip, and they told you you helped someone, but you totally did not help someone. You were a way bigger pain in the ass. You got your picture on Facebook with a shovel and they got screwed. They hate you now."--Louis CK on Leno
When I was 20 years old I worked as a brick tender in northern Minnesota. I was, I'll admit, a literature major at a liberal arts school who thought pretty words--the bigger, the better--pretty much explained everything. Although pouring concrete, mixing mortar, and carrying 12" cinder blocks was tough, it was not soul-crushing work for two reasons: it was temporary and it was limited to the summer.
When I graduated, a teaching gig I had lined up fell through, and I returned to Minnesota, living at my parents', and worked again as a brick tender.
The work became a different thing this time, after I had graduated, and there was no glory or authenticity in doing manual labor. I was just a poor guy with concrete in his boogers, fingers with cracks filled with Super Glue, who spent his days in the company of a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and surrounded by lime dust.
At 21, literature degree in hand, when I went to work every day, there was no end in sight. When Fall came, I suddenly understood those who worked with me.
There was a story that had floated around about a co-worker who had once, completely drunk and torn up by his cheating girlfriend, tried to shoot himself with a shotgun, had missed, blown a hole in the ceiling, passed out, and had come to work the next day hungover and throwing up behind the cement mixer, but cracking grim, disgusting jokes, as always.
I didn't seem too crazy to me then, to do what he did.
I watched the entire collection of films starring Jean Claude Van Dam, Seagal, Chuck Norris, and Arnold. I watched professional wrestling, understood professional wrestling, and respected professional wrestling. The Rock's eyebrow alone spoke to my soul.
I didn't ride a bike then.
When Winter came, our boss let us go--seasonal unemployment. I'd go cross country skiing out on the frozen lake, between the ice fishing shacks, and the frost would cake my eyebrows and eyelashes, like in the Jack London stories. A local weatherman had a shtick where he'd toss a pitcher of water into the air and it would turn to snow, which is a pretty good metaphor for what happens to souls up there--tossed into the burning cold, lifted and pulverized until what's left says, "OK, I get it. Whoever called her Mother Nature never went to Fargo."
Ten years later I was suffering through an African summer, and I was at a funeral for a guy named Million. They had printed his name with dollar signs, "$Million$", on the funeral program. We were at Manzolwandle High School, there on the Swazi-Mozambique-South African border, where $Million$ had taught math and science. Funerals for teachers seemed to happen every weekend, most of them young men with the wealth to purchase sex and the misfortune to do it in a region where 40% of the adult population was HIV positive.
But $Million$'s funeral was different. He had not died of AIDS. He'd killed himself by pouring kerosene over his body and lighting himself on fire. He'd tried to kill his wife, also, succeeding in pouring the fuel over her, but when he lit the match she'd escaped, and he perished alone. This was not mentioned in his funeral.
Million's daughter, who was four, lived in my house for a while after the funeral, and I don't believe she knew what had happened.
A part of me knows suffering like this is inevitable, the nature of things. I even feel a little joy when I escape its clutches--the crash that happens in the peleton behind me. When I see the weather report from up north.
Another part of me is infuriated. DC liberals are like Louis CK's twenty year olds--unable to comprehend a cruel world. Meanwhile, conservatives are pawns of patricians and bankers, and, it's clearer as the rhetoric against Obama grows wilder, racists of an insidious kind.
I'm not implying that the middle ground is the place to be; I'm implying that the world is packed full of idiots, twenty years old and otherwise, who claim to know what's what.
(1) Baseball players certain that Obama is an alien,
(2) The Norwegians who built a fish-freezing facility on Lake Turkana,
(3) Financial experts who claimed the Dow would rise to 36,000 , and who write books such as Why the Real Estate Boom Will not Bust - And How (says David Berson, Chief Economist of Fannie Mae, "An important book, whether you agree with the author (as I do) that housing will remain an excellent investment"),
(4) The folks of Kentucky, who believe in the wisdom and economic viability of a plan to provide tax breaks to the builders of a Noah's Ark replica, which will sit alongside the current Creationist Museum (whose website states, "WELCOME AND PREPARE TO BELIEVE") and hawks I Am Not Ashamed T-shirts and bumper stickers).
Well, I am ashamed. We're lazy in every possible way. We expect government to help solve our economic mess while also arguing that government is not the solution, and that taxes are anti-Christian. We expect to solve our Muslim "problem" with weaponry that runs on oil purchased from Muslims. We think huge highways are pro-family, while gay marriage, bike paths and taxes on sugar sodas decidedly shatter otherwise tightly bound domestic bonds.
We often forget that contentiousness is part of the American tradition, as seen in the muckraking press, in the Yellow Journalism of Hearst, and in this clip from the Vietnam Era:
In the end, we go about our business, getting up groaning, remembering our suicide attempt last night and the woman who wronged us, returning to work with a grin and throwing up behind the cement mixer. We live on the fat of our government jobs. We wonder how long unemployment checks will continue.
We ride our bikes and forget the bitter idiots, and we think only of our luck at having a moment to be free, to suffer at something simple and without moral ambiguity, to not wonder if those we thought we helped hate us now.
We have grown up.