Letters at 3AM

The Pacific Coast Highway: What Randolph Bourne wrote in 1917 could have been written today: "The government of a modern organized plutocracy does not have to ask whether the people want to fight or understand what they are fighting for, but only whether they will tolerate fighting. ... Responsibility lies always on the shoulders of those who failed to prevent. Here it lies upon the cowardly middle classes who failed to curb militarism." Go into the seaside restaurants and the gas-pump pod-malls, listen to the conversations; look at the people on the sunny beach, the surfers riding those high Pacific waves -- they seem as oblivious and at peace as the seals gathered on that mossy rock off shore or the pelicans gliding silently just above the sea. Are these people the citizens of a government that is ignoring the chaos of their economy and denuding their constitution to plunge into war without offering any evidence but its word that war is necessary? Are they a people whose youth will soon be called upon to die, and ordered to inflict "collateral damage" on an impoverished, hunger-haunted peasantry? There is no sense of danger or complicity. Only the bright sea and a people displaying their contradictory trademark: anxious complacency ... complacent anxiety ... gulp the antidepressants and pass the ammunition.

The coastal beauty enthralls me until I remember that the sea itself is ill; that the seals and sea birds are fewer, and dying of unnamed diseases; and that the few who focus on such things are seen as shrill doomsayers, their activism viewed as fits of especially bad manners. The shore-side people and the sea-creatures are strangely alike -- but the creatures cannot help what they don't know, while the people keep from knowing through the self-hypnosis of mass media, drugs, and well practiced mechanisms of denial. Their self-numbing is not benign; it has killed many, and will kill many more. Their cowardice and ignorance is this government's most lethal weapon.

The Golden Gate Bridge: It is pure happiness to cross this bridge -- the grace and strength and magnificence of what humanity is capable of. If nothing were to be left of us but this bridge, later civilizations would think us marvelous ... would think that we welded technology and poetry into a useful, beneficial, majestic vision. And we could have; perhaps still could, had we the honesty to admit our failures and the will to correct them -- if, that is, we could only understand what's happened. I think of Frank, the old sailor from Tacoma ... 10 years ago he was pushing 90 and is probably dead now ... walked with a cane, and was of immense physical stature for a man of his generation, 6 feet 4 inches, large-framed ... dropped out of high school, ran away to sea ... on his first voyage he sailed into the San Francisco harbor, before the bridge, before the tall buildings, before the sprawl on the Marin and Oakland shores ... Frank said it was the most beautiful landfall he ever experienced. Then too we occupied "a bright guilty world," as Orson Welles would say, but the planet was not yet dying and our sins were still redeemable. (We can't be sure anymore that they are.) All that we call modern grew, metastasized, during the lifetime of one man. Too fast, too complex, for anyone, anyone at all, to understand. We did all this without understanding what we were doing. Can we undo it without understanding? A frightful question.

Truckee, California: The Donner Party didn't make it over this pass without eating each other. Jimmie Dale Gilmore warned me to expect the irony of picnic tables at Donner Summit, but he didn't mention: the Donner House Restaurant! The memory of the Donner cannibals makes some people hungry? -- or at least doesn't interfere with their appetites? I shouldn't be surprised. The success of the Hannibal Lecter movies is proof enough that in the "good" country which is against all "evil," many have the un-admitted fantasy of dining on their neighbors. (And, in fact, that is what America does; we call it "globalization," but the result is ultimately the same.)

Wells, Nevada: Eleven at night. A gas station. A boy, also about 11, holding a squeegee, asks to wash my windows. I'm impressed with how he carries himself: poised, balanced, looking me straight in the eye, a good sense of "street," keeps an alert distance away, his voice confident and level. He cleans my windshield for a buck, watching me from the corner of his eyes as I pump the gas. His parents are in the garage, they glance over now and then. The father's a large man with an open face, good eyes. The mother has the air of a quiet person and carries herself like her kid, alert, balanced. I like the education this boy is getting. Watched by his parents, safe in their circle, he gets the experience of looking into the eyes of many, watching their ways, their variety of manners (or the lack thereof) ... rhythms of speech, accents, types ... all kinds, from all over ... in a country where people tend to stay ghettoed among their own kind, this boy is learning to spec everyone, talk to anyone, and hold his own. A genre of sophistication hard to come by.

Reno, past midnight: It was always more a street than a town -- one mean street where what you lost was measured in money, but money wasn't really what you lost. Vegas constructed a mask of glamour over its unforgiving lust; Reno never had a mask, or even a face. If ever a town was just a skull, it was Reno. Then even the skull died. Three years ago it was nothing: blacked out casinos, thousands of empty rooms. Nobody writes much about Reno, it generates no news, the local reports stay local; in this America, that's a black hole. I expected to find it as I left it. I didn't expect hundreds of bikers everywhere, motorcycles roaring, every casino blazing lights, every room occupied in every motel and hotel for miles around, from Reno to Carson City and a hundred miles down the highway. No way to know, because you don't hear about Reno. Reno talks to itself, like those homeless people driven into the confines of their privacy, talking to themselves; their words evaporate into the streets, they speak but nobody hears -- Reno, hundreds of bikers making a lot of empty noise. Very tough boys and girls. They like my '69 Chevy Malibu. Their eyes tell me that if I left the car for five minutes it wouldn't be there when I came back. I'm slowly cruising the street; bikers flank me on both sides, pacing me. We give each other what I call "the look": a stern no-nonsense appraisal of how much one can get away with. Behind "the look" I'm always afraid, but they don't know that. All they see is I'm a gray-haired weirdo, at least as weird as they are, and that's enough. They peel off, leave me be. I get back on I-80 and speed away from the black hole, one more crazy American on the road.

The thing is: This is America too. And you won't find it anywhere but here. The debates, the war, the economy, the election -- they don't touch it. Nobody governs this America, nobody gives a damn about it, and it doesn't give much of a damn about itself. Springsteen sang their song years ago: "The only thing I got, has been bothering me my whole life."

Lovelock, Nevada: Let's just say the name is suggestive ... Lovelock ... make of it what you want, take it as far as you want, you'll be right back where you started. Nevada is like that. (The anniversary of its statehood is Halloween -- honest.) Old-timey motel with great cable. Hang around a few days, write, catch up on the new TV shows. CSI: Vegas/Miami, John Doe. Zoom to close-up, graphic as you can, on corpses, pieces of corpses. The government controls what we see of our wars: no bodies, no casualties; the eye-witnesses of 9/11 talked about body parts all over the place, parts of the souls who jumped, parts of the souls caught and (partly) crushed ... but footage of that would make the memory too complete and unbearable ... you can't make mythos of something so devastatingly specific, so the networks re-run only the spectacle of the towers' fall. But the collective unconscious (which the science boys insist doesn't exist, perhaps because of the complicity the concept implies) ... the collective unconscious that we call "entertainment" shows us the body parts of our way of life in a form that we don't have to take seriously. Lovelock. The command to "love one another" locked where we can't get to it -- locked in our complacency, our anxiety, our antidepressants, our ignorance (30% of our high school students drop out), our distractions. Does the world despise us because we have so much; or because, having so much, we are so given to triviality, so afraid to think, and so afraid of them? end story

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