The Insider’s Guide to Life: Best Lived Awake

ColumnYou care because you’re awake.

When it comes to Big Issues and Serious Problems and Matters of Cultural Import, I’m more what you’d call crust than cupcake. So in sitting down to bang out a fresh column, the opportunities for righteous ranting were everywhere I looked. For example, last Thursday I learned there’s a whole happy movement around a woman whose contribution to food culture is Semi-Homemade recipe products made from processed and packaged ingredients that are, apparently, fabulous. And that she’s being hailed as the next Martha Stewart (not to mention the next first lady of New York). Friday morning I learned of a woman, Barbara Reich, who makes $150 per hour – and she’s booked – to help affluent families organize their stuff into stuff boxes with stuff labeled instead of stuff piles just lying around on top of stuff. We learn that she’s helped her own family sort their Crazy Bands into the appropriately orderly clusters, e.g. “Animals”, “Sports”, “Rare”. Crazy Bands commentary alone could fill an iPad app.

And then Saturday happened. A deeply disturbed young man opened fire on U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and dozens of others at a political gathering in Tuscon, Arizona. Six are dead, 14 are wounded and Giffords is in stable but critical condition after being shot at near-point blank range with a semiautomatic weapon. The media frenzy and Twitter stream since have exploded in everything from grief to fresh debate about issues such as terrorism and gun control and bigotry – to Sarah Palin caught in her own crosshairs, so to speak. The incident is tragic, yet for many, it was inevitable. There’s blame, and counter-blame, and accusations of politicizing, and whining about accusations, too. What if the shooter had been Muslim? What if the political affiliations were reversed?

About those issues. Gun control, mental illness, violent rhetoric in politics, the environment, immigration, bigotry and above all an unconscious rage: it’s all before us, encapsulated in one sickening, surreal and yet unsurprising event in a grocery store parking lot. Dismayed as I was over the all-but-instant – with a side of gleeful – Palin slamming on Twitter over the weekend, the heaping of attitude doesn’t undermine the valid and painful point. We have steeped ourselves in a culture of violence so that we’ve almost forgotten the bitterness of the taste.

It’s not just political jargon or the fact that parents will take children to see an action flick but dither over a nipple. It’s not just pain porn and casual misogyny. It’s not just police abuse and the highest industrialized rate of adult incarceration. It’s that our leadership believes, wholeheartedly, that violence can solve problems – that it can solve anything at all. It’s that so much of our leadership is terrified to confront what we may dread in a conscious way. So many quaking cocks of the walk.

And of course, we react to pain in predictable ways: inflicting pain right back, numbing ourselves, erecting vast and expensive theaters to aggression and security with 24/7 ticker tape showtimes.

We all have a library of pop wisdom picked up as impressionable children. I remember watching the ’94 Olympics where Dan Jansen finally won his gold. In the obligatory fawning profile piece, he recounted his struggles with anger and how he finally learned, with the help of his therapist, not to sweat the small stuff. He gave his favorite practical example: not getting so worked up at other drivers, even when they cut you off. I wasn’t anywhere near driving age but somehow that stuck in my mind. So, thanks Dan, I’m not a road rage babe. Rush Limbaugh, of all people, drove one thing into my young mind that sticks to this day (yes, I grew up in a Republican home, and no, Mr. Limbaugh didn’t succeed with much else): “Words mean things.” Well. Rush is right. Words mean things. And I hope we’ll take a long look at our words and what they’re saying about us.

Despite all of this, I don’t share the bleak views of some. I don’t think our culture is jumping the proverbial shark, in spite of the success of The Jersey Shore and the excitement about only partly homemade foods and wacky rubber bands. We have terrifying problems, yes. We’re standing at the crumbling edge of global warming devastation, still unsure if we should turn back. We’re involved in expensive, protracted, ugly exploits and wars around the globe. Economic uncertainty and basic security still tease us through the fog. And yet: You care. You care because you are awake, and your heart aches.

There is a beautiful line from the African music group Tinariwen’s song, Assouf: “What can I do with this eternal longing?”

You can do a lot.

This is the second in your editor’s new column for 2011, The Insider’s Guide to Life, exploring topics such as media, culture, sex, politics, and style. If she’s got the strength for it, there will be more to come. Cheers and spellcheck!

Image: lil_miss_wit