The hard part about life is extracting enough novelty from it to keep it interesting, but not so much as to make it intolerably, unbearably, unmanageably, unliveable.
Which is why we have heuristics. Or other simplifying devices like codifications and formulas, recipes and examples, parables and analogies, metaphors and portents.
(Oh, and travel blogs and people like me!)
You know: intellectual tools that help present life as it is: unique, yet, at the same time, compact and fathomable; and not so overwhelming as to tap us over like so many ten pins standing helpless, in muted anticipation, in some inert line we have been fitting into.
Which (believe it or not) is one reason that I’m about to talk about Iraq, but only as a prelude to talking about my guitar-playing son. And it is also why, along the way, I’ll probably take a detour through Oedipus Rex. Maybe as a means of verifying that this is a travelblog – which is another way of observing that just about everything we think or do has detours and rivulets and tributaries and ultimately feeds into and contributes to the execution of the great journey of life.
What got me started on this thread was the Iraq part. It wasn’t my own idea, I have to confess. It was Bill Powell’s, in the essay he penned on the last page of Time-Asia, June 18th edition. (yeah, I read my mags on a two-week lag—if the jet lag even affords any reading at all). Anyway, Powell’s piece was called “Past is Not Prologue” and he was arguing that, try as they might (whether for purposes of quelling mounting public anxiety or simply buying more time), Bush administration officials have proven incapable of transforming past military interventions into models for American success in Iraq. The “liberation” from Saddam was originally sold as mimicking post-WWII Germany or Japan (“just wait, after we rebuild these former enemies and engage in a little re-education, we’ll all be fast friends”); after friendship proved elusive and good will lost its lustre, the toxic peace prevailing between Sunnis and Shi’ites was said to approximate the endemic (but stabilizable) antagonism between North and South Korea (“they stay on their side, they stay on theirs”—which, if you follow the logic in the contorted grammar meant that “they” all infested everywhere); and when a DMZ-like stand-off mentality failed to prove out, the guerrilla-style insurgency was painted as akin to the opposition mounted in Viet Nam (“once we pull out, the two sides will resolve their differences and in a matter of years we’ll probably all be outsourcing our electronic manufacturing in Basra and taking vacation-tours to view Saddam’s tombstone in Tikrit”).
The problem with the “Past as Prologue” thesis, Powell claimed, is that it is entirely off-base. Iraq is not Japan; nor is it Korea; nor Viet Nam. Iraq is Iraq.
And life is life. We may try to simplify it by saying: “hey, I’ve seen this before” or “Oh! I recognize this pattern . . .” the fact is that we are really just fooling ourselves. There is no pattern, pal, because . . . this is life. And life can’t be reduced to a formula.
Nor should it be.
Are you listening, Herr Bush? Well, if not, try this on for size:
No matter how much easier it is to reduce life’s events to a paradigm—rendering our history into heuristics—the fact is that it is the novelty—the uniquess of every situation, each moment—that makes life so vital. It is the novelty of each next thing in front of us that makes living so special. More than that, it is what will also assist us in surviving the next insurgent assault intact. Whether that is in Iraq, the workplace, the courtroom, on the playing field, or . . . even at our own dining table.
Having said that, I recognize that even I resort to simplifying devices to work my way through the next thing. Alas . . . I am shown to be as simple-minded as the next Greecian philosopher.
Before explaining that line, let me share that my son is playing guitar now. Actually, he’s playing my guitar now. He seems to have located it lying neglected in a corner of my closet; there, I had left it unprotected during one of my protacted peripatetic forays. So he did what any musically-inclined, teen rapscallion would do: he picked it up while I was away and started fooling around with it. At one level, I suppose I should applaud him (having also been a musically-inclined, teen rapscallion once meself); he showed initiative, spunk, curiousity, desire. And probably that complex admixture of need to both emulate and best his old man. And, why should I complain? After all, I have about four other string-boxes in my arsenal, so it’s not like he’s depriving me of anything essential; nor is he completely unsettling the equilibrium of my universe by fitting the curve of that rosewood on his thigh, or fingering the polished maple fretboard with his digits. Ah, except . . .
That was the first rosewood that I ever fitted on my thigh; it was the first polished maple fretboard that I ever caressed and massaged and assaulted with my digits. It was that guitar that I learned on and, so, it has a certain sentimental value (which no one else—even my son!—ought to worm in on!). In short (you guessed it), my son’s innocent action has exposed me as a jealous master—and woe be to the one who wishes to appropriate this master’s precious possessions!
And, okay, maybe I confess, there would be something more. (Something more than jealousy?) A little competitive juice there in the idea that he is working on a craft, an art, that was once exclusively my domain – at least in my family. To be fair, you can’t win for winning in life. Because, first of all, he’s actualizing himself. He has a hankering to express himslf, to explore a form of emotional communication. So, why deprive him?
Beyond that, look at it the other way around: inside out. It can’t be any easier for my boy. Here he is at a time in his life where everywhere he moves he bumps square into my shadow. He just graduated from the junior high I went to. He plays basketball, the sport that I coached proessionally. He’s taken up tennis, which I also was middling okay at. He has started writing songs on the piano – my piano!—and something that I also had a professional aptitude for. And now he even sleeps in the room I once did, as well. So, it’s got to be a challenging time for identity, for self-concept, for pride. Probably both for him and me.
Which returns me to the “past as prologue” pit of quicksand and also, I guess, Oedipus Rex. You recall the tale of the boy who would be king. Killed is Dad, married his Mom. Mounted the throne. (Enough of that).
Actually, Oedipus Rex is a story that has had numerous incarnations. There was the first encapsulation of fable by Aeschylus, then a more enduring re-working by Sophocles. A third version, with its own original touches, was then tendered by Euripides. (And we poke fun at the lack of imagination—the derivative nature and recycling mentality—of contemporary popular culture!). Unlike Hollywood remakes, though, this Oedipus tale is one that has shown remarkable legs—two thousand years worth—mainly, one supposes, because it has something universal to convey about the human condition.
Over the years a few good entertainments have trod this terrain. The novel—then movie—The Great Santini was one. There, in one gripping scene, a father cannot endure the moment he recognizes his son can actually kick his ass on the basketball court. A similar, but real-life, replay of sponaneous generational power-shift was captured in the film Hoop Dreams, where a drug-dependant father who once ruled the local blacktop makes the mistake of calling out the new king of the courts: his estranged, teenaged son. For the boy—as for nearly every son—there is no satisfaction in conquering Dad. After all, once the goal is achieved, then what is there? Only the hollow—even phyrric—victory of youth over age, to be followed by the fast-accreting realization of “okay, and then?” Once the prize has been secured, what takes its place? Where does one direct his attention: to the discredited past? Or the suddenly uncertain, unmoored future?
For the youthful champion, physical success begets the cacaphony of symbolism, which then purchases a truckload of psychological baggage. All of which really means: it’s damned hard growing into one’s skin.
Well, for the responsible parent there is no cookie-cutter past; there ought to be no prologue to be conjured or resorted to in accounting for the unfolding present. Life is to be lived with an eye on the future. One’s mortality must be acknowledged, even embraced as part of the natural order. A child’s fears of success must be quelled, and their attainments celebrated.
I am who I am, not who I was. You are who you will be, my son. For better (but hopefully never worse). Forever and ever.
With your father’s love and unflinching support.
Not to mention his trusty, treasured, second-hand guitar. Play the hell out of it, lad.
// Notes from the Road
"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.READ the article