By Eric Le Roy
Content 18+ For a long time I have been telling people that my most creative ideas come, not from deeply considered treatises drawn from gold-trimmed volumes, but rather from snatches of common conversation heard along the streets, or simply that one breathtaking remark which friend, foe, or stranger might suddenly make in the midst of an ordinary conversation. In other words, the city bus or convenience store can trigger ideas into the great beyond as well as any source of august, somber, and all-sobering erudition.
I tell my precocious young students, especially those in the IT industry, that I have a ‘leg up' on them because, at my ‘advanced age' (I am older than the world's original whore) I am blessed to have “one foot in the past and one in the present, whereas they have both feet in the present.” By this I mean that I am able to see life from a longer perspective than they can and that, while this experience is neither intended to glamorize the past nor derogate the wonders of the present, it means that I woke up to the planet (and soon learned to negotiate within it) 73-odd years ago. Moreover, given that the business of our earth has changed more rapidly in the last 50 years than in all its previous history recorded or otherwise, I guess (I hope) it matters that I saw how things were before they became ruled by technology. I can turn on my flashlight to show my young friends the dreams and cares, daily realities of joy and despair, that people in the past experienced. And declare that those people, now in the dark basement of old people's memories, also knew how to live.
Sometimes I go a step further and try to point out that, believe it or not (they believe it not) some things were actually better back then. On gravest reflection, and under a subtle shower of jocular jeering from my genuinely friendly contemporaries, I have concluded that it mostly has to do with speed. For although our means of self-destruction are much more sophisticated than they used to be, I don't believe that human character has changed all that much. The old folk singer Woody Guthrie used to sing, “As through this world I ramble, I meet many kinds of men: some will rob you with a shotgun, some with a fountain pen.” Old Woodrow hit the nail on the head. I have also learned, because of the way I approach teaching history, that you must see the world through their eyes (the people who actually lived it) and not so much through ours (the people who presume to judge it) and that the Past, for all our yearning for cobbled streets and lost women, glittering palaces and wooden taverns, was really a great conglomeration of disease and shit. How they coped with it defined the age they lived in, and the happiness they drew out of it, however remarkable it may seem to us, was as genuine as birth and death.
Walk down the high street of any medieval town, for example, and you will find a cattle, pig, sheep and horse-driven, fly and maggot infested stench beyond all reckoning. And you would do well to keep looking up with peeled eyes so as to avoid the buckets of piss and dung being hurled from the balconies. And in plague years the rotting corpses. The bodies of now-fabled and richly imagined lovers were often riddled with fleas (bed bugs, as they were affectionately referred to) and kisses came from mouths like sewers.) Nevertheless, yet the inner poet of my heart longs to spend a bawdy weekend there.)
But those people too were happy. In their usually short lives, they figured it all out too: they had their cards and ball games, they jumped naked into the streams that sometimes really did glitter, they stood, trembling with passionate love for swain and maiden at the corner of the street or the edge of the forest. Whatever the case, they did not think of themselves as inhabiting an ‘ancient' world. Or a particularly dirty one.
It would be wrong to say that they had a lot of time on their hands because in fact their tactile, laborious lives called for hard labor in ways our technology has long since canceled. For example, as recently as my childhood, women used to wash bundles of clothing and bedsheets by arduous hand, wring them out and pin them up on clothes lines, praying that it would not rain before the clean cloth and linen dried, whereupon they would return, remove them from the line into baskets, drag them inside and meticulously fold them. It was a long process, but I don't recall anyone thinking it was extraordinary. Certainly, in spite of what the more militant feminists insist today, the women of the world I knew just took it all for granted. It was life, pure and simple. And they found ways to be happy.
People would read long books and write long letters. They spent whole days in each other's company, and the neighbors were always looking out the window to catch the rough-hewn children in the act of impersonating the Huckleberry Finns of their own epochs. Marriages lasted, not out of love, but because of church proddings, social pressure, and pure economics. In later years, those of my childhood,your football and baseball buddies in the small rural towns were likely to be the same gaffers who carried your coffin (with you in it) off to the graveyard at the end of life 60 years later (rarely many more). Probably you would marry a local girl or guy, depending on your sex (‘we didn't know about ‘gender' back then) and, aside from silver screen images of Hollywood dreamscapes, we didn't constantly ask ourselves if we could do better or if we were really having fun. Maybe you would argue that what we had wasn't much, but I would argue back that at least it was real. Pinball machines and telephone booths. Crude, I agree. But modern then. And real ice cream, not frozen snot. Ginger ale that burnt your gums, not the inoffensive watered down urine they sell now.
Which brings me back to what I said earlier about sudden flashes of insight arising from a fast, fast, and getting faster world. My student and friend Galina and I were discussing this topic the other morning, and I was lamenting the fact that although, as an ESL (English as Second Language) tutor, I sometimes see and converse with people from four or five continents in a single day, sometimes even imagining that I have developed deep and meaningful relationships with them, they are in fact, as Shakespeare wrote, “... all ghosts, and are melted into air, into thin air.” And when I finally switch off my computer late at night, this fine crowd disappears, my office-bedroom resumes itself as a mere desk, and the screen goes blank. The party is over; everyone has chased back to their homes at the end of the earth. Only the dogs on the floor nearby, and my wife fiddling around with her own ‘realities' can be touched, can share their breath. It punctures me, stabs me, it lacerates my heart, this sudden emptiness. The ‘baseless fabric of the vision…leaves not a rack behind.”
Galina gave a reason for these quicksilver comings and goings which make up so much of all we have, these cameo appearances which briefly seem real only to go away, sometimes forever, with a single “CLICK.” We live in a click-and-vanish world.
She said: “Nobody needs anybody anymore.”
I have been trying for a long time to put my finger on it, to capture in a blazing epiphany the reason why this life, as it is now, seems on the one hand so impossibly full and varied, but ultimately so thin and bereft. I make dark jokes about it, the crazy stuff of today: “Speed Yoga”, “One-minute bedtime stories”, “How to look like a Bodybuilder in one month” , “How to learn Chinese in three weeks.” The algorithms and bots take care of our basic needs; mechanical pets are becoming available so that we can express our warm and fuzzy sides, there are blow-up dolls to receive the semen of lonely men, build-in vibrators to provide female company directors with silent “Yippee Yahoos” during boring meetings.
Children are left unborn while cyber pioneers explore the digital netherworlds; homes are often like luxury hotels with room service for private meals; ‘partners' no longer make love or even clear their calendars for a ‘quicky'15 minutes of doing the ‘wild thing' because they are too tired after their 12-hour workday followed by an obligatory trip to the cosmetic kingdom of the fitness center where hard bodies nimbly prowl; then goofing away the long commute home amid a galaxy of gadgets, and always, always, always, Keeping Their Eyes On the Screen. Often the adoring couples go on separate vacations because Time won't allow otherwise. They will get old that way in a nanosecond, lose their hair and teeth in a “New York minute”, many of them finally slowing down long enough to wonder where it all went. And who fucked my signifcant other back in Barnados 50 years ago. Or was it on Key West? And who was doing it? Me? Her? Him?
Relationships come and go according to the will of the Click. ‘You have a problem with me?' Fuck You. Click. ‘Let's take a pause in our relations” Click. “Connecting this week would be a ‘challenge', so let's ‘dialogue' next week. I'll ‘pencil' it in.” Click. ‘Please, please, all I'm asking for is a chance.' Click.
Meanwhile, the old ways of courtship, ‘sparking under the moon' and playing ‘stink finger' at the drive-in movie, have yielded to hook-up culture. “I'll send you a selfie of my stiff cock (or maybe someone else's, but let's pretend, huh?) and you can reciprocate with some glam-pics of your spread-eagled quim. Then, assuming we feel a ‘connection', we can hook-up.” Divorce rates will go down only when people stop getting married, which they will, and all the churches will complete their metamorphosis into glass windowed trinket galleries.. Time, T.I.M.E. time, TIME – is of essence. “Look, we'll spend 30 minutes in the Metropolitan Art Museum, have brunch at Pot au Feu – or do you prefer Cibo Matto (if we can get a table) ?, then we can go to the Performance Art exhibition featuring the improvisational world of Estelle Kluntz and Mario Fenochio, and after that grab a taxi to the LAX airport for our non-stop flight to the Himalayas where we can make a cool video of those sheep-herding mountain folk in their funny gowns.”
All of this under a constant barrage of noise, noise, and NOISE. Obligatory uproars from the hostile and disenfranchised ‘Youth' at war with the status quo; camera clicks among the regulated protectors of the points of interest of how things are amid the status quo; sketches and brush strokes depicting dead revolutionaries, painted warriors against the status quo; artists straight from the sushi bar and missionaries of the avant garde selling packaged absurdity to the wealthier ones of status quo.
Does it sound like I am griping? Nothing but a fart-rippling old codger having a pity party because of a world that has left him behind? Sad because the hot chicks only touch him if they mistake him for something invisible that they can walk through? Yes, it is true.
But it's like the old Supreme Court judge who said that he could not define ‘pornography' but he knew it when he saw it', I understand – I know it in my old bones – that something is missing. It is utterly intangible and unprovable. And yet I believe that it constitutes a condition of mind and ‘mentality' that amounts to more than mere sentimental sniveling and ancient longings provoked by old songs and accordion music in the backstreets. It is rather a thing of the spirit, a blend of time and experience, and, above all, an admission of loneliness and an honest articulation of our deepest needs for human warmth, companionship, and love. The time for long letters is past. Of patient anticipation long lost. Of delaying instant gratification for the sake of something more profound.
There are no distances and therefore no real journeys. Snarling Independence and a kind of self-glorifying narcissism and Click Click correspondence, such as it is, make emotional pariahs of us all. We stand ALONE. And damned proud of it!! Until the deep nights of the soul prove such pride ephemeral. Made of nothing. Crying out for the sisters of nothingness.
I remember watching on Animal Planet a video recorded somewhere near the North Pole, I assume, or some place of ripping cold and gelid water, almost frozen. There were two small creatures there: a tiny fishy mother and her tinier minnow offspring. Both would soon be devoured by bigger hungry things. And indeed they were: in the morning we saw them both being ushered swifty away in the jaws of predators. But before that end, those last little crunchings, the film had shown them nestled, nuzzled together – mother and child – in the mild heat they generated between themselves on that glacial arctic night. Hours together and that was all. But together.
Why my heart was at once torn to shreds and then mended back to a single throbbing unit by such a vision as this, I can not explain to you. Which is why Galina's words: “Nobody needs anybody anymore” – brought me to my knees. As Keats wrote, shortly before his death from tuberculosis: “I am living a posthumous life.” The Young and Beautiful gallop over me like Stallions and Mares. Where are they going? I think they are going to the places where I once was, and that, much later, they will come back here empty handed. Or maybe there will just be riderless horses. I hope very much their happiness abounds, while, in fact, these bold people ride and ride.
And so, one looks out the window and sighs, without really knowing what one is sighing for. You seem to remember something that once was real, people mostly, all things you could catch hold of, more than just digital emblems of who knows what. But is all that false and is my tired mind only playing tricks on me? Click Click?
Alas, I grow jaded. Like the psychopath, I have started to see human beings as interchangeable parts. Down the long chute we all go, or on the ferris wheel or into the funnel. I feel like I have seen and heard it all before. I think it is because technology brings us a world without smell or touch or taste. On the computer screen there is nothing fragrant. Nothing stinks. The people do not have legs. Only heads built up on torsos and fingers that are always on the Click button.
I remember long ago when I was a boy in West Virginia, and in the evening we used to wait for the lightning bugs to come out, and we'd catch them in a bottle with a top full of holes to let them breathe.
On and on they would flicker and dance, probably confused in their bottled up world. Their lights enchanted me, though perhaps made brighter by their captivity. And then I would let them out, even shaking them free into the tactile black marble of the growing darkness where everything is carved into wings on big stones the gods left behind.