Friday, June 25, 2010

Another Time, Another World

We who have ever lived near the Gulf of Mexico are in real grief right now. Although a world away, I think of it constantly and know that we are just a couple of hurricanes away from a disaster of far greater magnitude than we now envision. And, as one who lived there for many years, I am well aware that those hurricanes will come before the end of August and suspect it unlikely that the oil spill will be contained before then.

The beaches meant a lot to us in south Alabama. This is what I wrote in my book The Fair Hope of Heaven about the little beach in my home town:

You can see the old pictures all over Fairhope today – ladies in their modest bathing suits, gentlemen wearing neckties and straw boaters, gleeful children leaping into the warm unpolluted waters of Mobile Bay. Before 1928 the only way to arrive in Fairhope was by bay boat from Mobile…surely those were the days Fairhope was a paradise of summer joy, centered on the bay with its public pier, its sandy beach, its casino (not, as some would have it today, a gambling house, but a barn of a building with a big dance floor and showers and changing rooms for bathers), its little wharf restaurant, and its inns on the bluff overlooking the water -- with wide porches to catch the breeze.

There were once dance pavilions scattered along the beach front. Local bands played music you could dance to – the baker who moonlighted as a bandleader was dubbed “Buns Lombardo” by his buddies who wanted to capture all his talents with one moniker. The first ice cream factory in the state was at the north end of the beach, where the duck park now is. There were sliding boards off the pier; there was a track that took the “People’s Railway” up the hill – uptown to the center of business. Fairhope was a town of talk in the winter – of ideas, meetings, forums, plans, and visions – but summers belonged to the beach.

By the 1950’s, when I was a teenager, there was as yet little air conditioning in our world. Our bodies adjusted to climate changes. We played outdoors all year long and found no displeasure in being hot in the summer, because, after all, summertime was when you got to go outside, climb trees, explore gullies, and swim in the bay every single day. Most everybody went to the Yacht Club to learn to sail and to win races. The public tennis courts were near the gully’s edge across from the University of South Alabama theater (at that time St. James Episcopal Church). Now there is a parking lot where the courts were. One of those early dance pavilions, Burkel’s, had become a roller rink by the 1940’s and was a popular place until it was destroyed by fire in the early 1950’s. Burkel’s was located on the beach at the foot of Pier Street
Even with excessive heat and humidity, we went to the beach. We didn’t perceive the heavy air as a sweltering damp blanket, but as a comforting mist-forest that reminded us that it was summer in the most wonderful life we could imagine.

The town today is working to mitigate the coming disaster. Above is a demonstration called "Hands Across the Sand" extending on Fairhope's beaches and beaches all across the Gulf Coast. So far Mobile Bay has not gotten much of the damage, but Fairhope and outlying communities, aware of the coming hurricane season, know that it is coming sooner or later. Work is being done, but nobody knows if anything will succeed. Diehard haters of the government, not expecting the president to come through, implore him to send out the military. Lovers of big companies are loath to see them as villains, even in this catastrophe. We would all love to know whom to blame and see them suffer, but the Republican South is challenged to accept that it might have been their own short-sightedness in seeking profit at the price of regulation.

The well will be stopped in time; some of the suffering will be alleviated; but it will never be the same in the beach communities that were seen as pristine, perfect little towns. How the ecology will work its way out cannot be known. We have hurricanes and more failures to cap the well to live through. It is difficult to be optimistic, but I am, at least at some level. Mankind is resilient, and nature is too. The best that can come of this tragedy is a new way of looking at our natural resources. Our children and grandchildren will deal with everything in a new way. I continue to have hope that they'll come closer to getting it right than we did.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Unreality of It All

I really don't know why I'm so hooked on television. It's an escape. It’s hypnotic. It reveals a reality that no one could possibly believe.

Some shows pit people against each other in odd situations. There are cooking contests; there are home decorating contests; there are shows about people whose houses are filled with clutter including unopened boxes of stuff they bought themselves years ago and don’t remember yet refuse to part with because they say they might need whatever it is someday.

People on daytime TV reveal their innermost thoughts with hysterical alacrity. Dr. Phil will tease out of his guests secrets that no previous generation would ever have admitted, and the subjects of these confrontations weep and take it in front of a studio audience and cameras. There was this family who came to him years ago--a battling couple with two girls, both dabbling in sex and drugs, all four defensive and hostile. After a few sessions with Dr. Phil the younger daughter revealed she was pregnant by her jailbird boy friend and Dr. Phil acted like a great solution would be for her to have the baby, grow up somehow, and everybody would be happy. She did have the baby, and for years now the family keeps coming back to the Dr. Phil show while she bounces from one reprobate felon to another, still doing drugs of some kind and still popping out babies that her parents—never paragons of maturity and wisdom themselves—are stuck raising. Dr. Phil consoled the mother by getting her some plastic surgery and a personal trainer.

Ordinary people aren’t allowed to be so any more; they willingly subject themselves to beauty makeovers, home makeovers, and life makeovers. Interior designers throw out people’s furniture, tear down walls, paint the places in garish colors and their victims squeal with delight and weep openly, proclaiming ecstatically that their lives have been changed forever. People are not only passionate about the inconsequential, they clamor to expose that passion to the world. There is a life coach who talks with couples about their marital problems in order to repair a dysfunctional marriage and rebuild an uncomfortable house. When the couple take prescribed steps to resolve their foundering relationship, the coach rewards the family with a home renovation that would cost $50-$100,000 in real life.

Some shows are about so-called “housewives”—women in their 30’s and 40’s who live in ritzy areas and have time for what men think of as the age-old female pursuits—backbiting, bitching, and spending money. The term “housewives” was taken from the ironic title of a comedy series called Desperate Housewives about a the soap-opera lives in a suburban neighborhood, and with it came a new definition. A housewife, rather than a wife and mother devoted to keeping hearth and home, now means a beautiful and overindulged woman with time and money on her hands and happens to have a husband and children. An exhaustive article in today's New York Times revealed the market research that goes into the planning of these shows which are advertised as "reality." The Real Housewives of New York City shows us a capsule slice of the lives of some well-chosen women who live on the Upper East Side and spend most of their waking hours at restaurants, fund raisers and fashion shows, gossiping and defending themselves against gossip by digging themselves even deeper in questionable behavior. The Real Housewives of New Jersey involves a gaggle of sisters and sisters-in-law who live in the same community and have an inordinate amount of time to visit each other and interfere in business that in another lifetime would have been private, if not in the community, at least to the the larger world that happens to own a television set. What the research apparently indicates is that when an interloper encroaches, enough drama will ensue that the viewers keep tuning in to be a part of the fireworks.

Dirty laundry is willingly aired. There are judges who officiate at small-claims settlements. There is a show that trades the mother and wife in one family for the mother and wife in another, diametrically opposed family--both on the borderline of what is accepted as normal—to see what happens. There is a show that pits young beauties against each other for the hand in marriage of a man none of them really knows. There is even one that turn those tables and makes young men compete for a nubile beauty, just as it once was in real life, when everyone wasn’t made up for the camera and most people knew each other pretty well before making that leap.

And of course there are the commercials. Some chipper woman with an irritating voice and in a white uniform bleats to an innocent man nearby that he should buy something called “Progressive.” Whether it is insurance or breakfast food I know not because I can’t make head or tail of her sales pitch and I mute it whenever I hear the sound of her. And if you like your vacuum cleaner, you apparently can tell because it talks to you and dresses like you. Then there is one commercial in which the woman throws away her mop and it falls in love with a nearby bowling ball.

All this jabbering cannot be good for the brain. I suspect it has altered our way of using that organ, giving us all shorter attention spans and addling us for serious thought in the hope of manipulating us to buy more products. I also suspect that it works. It’s hard to live in a quiet house with all television removed.

Try as I might to tell myself I’m wasting time with this white-noise surrounding my life, I still don’t seem able to turn away. Television is a great train wreck with all the victims exposed, bruise for bruise, much as on a hospital dramatic show (like House, which I watch religiously, or Grey's Anatomy, which I've never seen. (You can't watch everything.)

I said before it's a form of escapism, but what would I want to escape from? I am independent, I go where I want to (which, often as not, is New York City) and I seldom see anyone I don’t choose to see. Television brings people I don’t want to know about right into my apartment and shows me perversions I would never have known about. It keeps me from reading, from writing, it does little to entertain and nothing to enlighten. But I'm fascinated by the manufactured reality of it all.