Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Confessions of a Straight American Male Slacker

The promotional poster for the film Zack and Miri Make a Porno set me off into one of my brooding spells. The Zack character, or caricature, born in the race to the humor bottom of cheap tricks and fart jokes that is the Judd Apatow genre of film, captured the look and expression of the "bros," the frat boys that define white college masculinity at the University of Arizona. The poster embarrassed me. And the truth of it hit me.

I have become a Zack (well, a fifty-some, college teacher version of Zack). The type has deep roots on college campuses and has way of trickling up. A look that is casual to distress, it is as irresistible as it is common. I see it most in Southern California retirees who can't quit the beach, though the days of surfing have long passed. There is an appeal to the look. It's "cool," non-threatening to anybody, loveable, unkempt as a well-loved teddy bear, and speaks to late nights out and long mornings in.

By itself, at a certain stage, the Zack is harmless -- soft. He is not the crazy, reactionary, NRA wing-nut, nor the skinhead Nazi, nor the overachieving, but heartless corporate shill. But sometimes I get the impression that there is no waking up to smell the coffee, even once in a while. The disorganized adolescent has become not a stage in development, but an end, a terminus, an idealization of the middle school bad boy.

As a boy, that is charming. As a man, less than becoming. The arrested development at thirteen has grown a little tired.  He's the king of "Whatever," meaning "works for me," provided you are male, white, and affluent.

And I don't like that, don't want to be that. So, I set out to do some reflecting, some soul searching, some unpacking of Zack and his appeal, some hard self-critical analysis on why it is I have become this version of man.

I did not find the sexual reference in the title embarrassing, but the reference to sex as product for sale performed by nice, middle-class kids, does merit a later look. No, I reacted to how men are represented by the Zack character. He is what social critics have labeled as a "Mook": a slacker, a perpetual teen-ager, a self-absorbed, somewhat lazy narcissist.

In contrast, Miri looks sharp, coiffed, competent. She looks like she could fix him, or at least help him grow up. But she can't. Her look is a product too, but that's another essay. Women have their own image pressures. Suffice it to say that she has to work at it, put some effort into looking the female ideal. Back to the Zack Mook.

Mooks have opted for the path of least resistance, have gone down the road of easy-going sloth. When I was in college, I wanted to be cool, mellow, laid-back, and comfortable. The shorts, worn T-shirts, and mop of hair all contributed to message that said "I don't have to work or wear a uniform like the losers who didn't make it to college." It was a class thing, in part.

I was ashamed of my working class roots. I did not want to be driven by necessity into dressing up and studying engineering or business, though the Mook look jumped across disciplines. The Mook was a carefree "project" that women with maternal stirrings wanted to take home. He was fun. He was easy. He was shallow. He was apathetic.

On the underside though, he was weak and disengaged. He did not care for himself or fight the river to self-actualize. The Mook is a type, a product, a consumer. He saved me the trouble of winning an identity that fit my heart's desires. The prefab Mook made things easy. People got it, didn't ask questions, let me through the gate into the easy living land of Mook.

His look has become a highly crafted mix of name brand clothing, cars, sports, ways of doing business, and of leisure. He speaks a code of belonging to the upwardly mobile heir to fun and trusts. He is established. 

That is what it is, and I can't fight fashion or history. But the truth, to me, is that the slacker image is the product of privilege. People who have to find a way to make a living can't get away with the wrinkled cargo shorts and a baby fat body. Privilege makes it possible to be both clueless and comfortable, a slob and a driver of German luxury sedans.

Somewhere I read in a novel the line "Rich men's sons, like blue horses, seldom win races." My path down privilege and Mookdom had not prepared me for the ordeals that would be marriage, parenting, or work as a writer. My slacker attitude produced schlocky results in all areas. I began to pine away for something I forgot a long time ago, that elusive element of things and relationships people called quality.

I saw quality in the lives of those I began to admire. These people cooked healthy, fresh, tasty food. They dressed with a personal style. They took the time to get to know those they loved and worked on becoming better friends and partners. They also worked. Hard. They created, sacrificed, loved, poured themselves into life and gave with abandon.

Most of these friends were outsiders of some kind -- gay, non-white, women, living on low wages -- not the American mythological ideal. They have been wounded by the dominant culture for being different, for not being white, plump, harmless, and clueless. They were also inspired to be better, to make something out of themselves. A few wanted to "outdo" the dominant white, straight, male culture.

They made it clear that I was very easy to outdo. Embarrassing. Yes, I have been a slacker. I admit it. I chose the easy path of privilege. And what so often accompanies privilege is the belief that we -- humans -- are somehow disconnected from one another and that it is possible to simply please oneself and feather one's little nest and not act to ease the misery of others.

So, as I go along on this thread, it is not the image, or just the desire to do things well, but rather the desire to see a world wider than my own self-interest that triggers my reaction to Zack.  He is not just a neutral representation, but a dangerous temptation to pretend I don't know as much as much I do. He is the man fearful of having to act, to put himself on the line for something bigger than clueless coasting along.

He is the forever sibling, the drinking buddy, the sidekick in a world dying for lack of grown-ups. Problem is, the Zacks of the world have to want to grow up, but, hey, what's the rush?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A War Story

We were at war and had been captured. Our captors held us in a large room made of heavy wood. It was the largest room in an ancient building that belonged to a powerful family now long gone.

We were tense, both guards and prisoners, but eventually we began to learn to others' language, share cigarettes, drink, food, stories. The room was the world. We were haggard and bearded.

At one point, someone said what we all were thinking: “I say we stop fighting this war.” A moment of silence passed before we all cheered. Captors dropped weapons. Prisoners embraced guards.

We began to live humble but rewarding lives. We worked a small piece of land, had families, raised crops, animals, made art, lived and argued, made up, took responsibility when it seemed right to do so. We cared about the quality and mindfulness of our work. We knew this life we held was fragile and we were careful not to tear at the web that sustains all of us.

Now I know this land is precious. Each day is a gift. We wear colors – flannel shirts, soft cotton – fabric faded and thin around the elbows. We are weathered, strong, lean, healthy.

One day two dark figures emerge and wrestle on a ridge before descending to our isolated home. They cross the boundary, one pursuing the other. The one scrambles desperately for his life. The other pursues with equal vigor, catches him, restrains him from behind, and shoots him in the throat. The angle the bullet takes would end up in the shooter’s chest if the bullet went the other way. The captive dies. The executioner walks over to us, looking tortured by his actions.

We see in him the man we would have become if we had not decided to leave war behind. We have something he does not, but yearns for. We are poor, but full of an inner light. The angel of death has not stolen the soul we keep by doing least harm.

The captor sees this in us, makes a face to say, “But what can I do?” and walks away, back to where he came from, over the hill, back to the war. His story haunts him, sends him into a flight without rest. We all feel sad but grateful to have had a life as we begin to bury the dead man, who is haggard, bearded, dressed in black.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bears, Dreams, and the Wild Woods

My son Sean saw a bear up close once on Mount Lemmon. He saw it at our cabin, located at the edge of a forest that runs, unbroken, from the ski area down to Tucson. There are bears, coati, deer, mountain lions, and scruffy backpackers that roam up to the edges of land containing summer cabins and the little hamlet of Summerhaven. This is a story of a time when a visitor from the wild woods met an ordinary family from Tucson. Sean has since become an outdoor guide who seeks contact with rocks, trees, and living inhabitants of wild places.

In wildness is the salvation of the world. -- Henry Thoreau

The alpine forests of the high sky islands in the Southwest are more like Canada in some ways than they are Arizona. The woods are home to Sonoran Desert natives like javelinas, ring-tailed cats, and, a long time ago, wolverines, grizzlies, and jaguars. Now it is rare to see any of these, but we have cabin on the edge of the forest, at 7500 feet, and every once in while a wild thing crosses from our imaginations into the sanitized and domesticated human territory. Fear and fascination mingle in these rare moments of contact, and the results can be wonder-filled or devastating or a mix of the two. No matter what the blend, they are portals to being more alive, if just for a moment or two.

One Sunday afternoon, up at our cabin on Mount Lemmon, I was sweeping the wood floor before we headed down the mountain back to Tucson. The mundanity of the task and the warm August afternoon afternoon acted on me like a sedative. I was not looking forward to going back to the heat of the city and moved slowly through my task.  

It came as something of a surprise when the floor shook with several palpable shocks and I heard heavy steps on the porch. I turned to Megan and said “What was that?” She went to the door and met a juvenile black bear that stood up and walked toward her. She slammed the door as the bear pushed against it on the other side. Kyle joined her in leaning against the door as hard as they could until they got it closed. She then locked the door.

I saw the bear drop back down on all fours and turn to leave the porch. It hit me that Sean and our dog Luna were in the car, the car in the driveway next to the cabin, the car with all doors wide open.  I thought of Sean out in the open car asleep in his car seat. As Kyle helped Megan bolt and hold the door I exited the front door, ran down the stairs, closed all the doors, and jumped into the driver’s seat.

The bear immediately appeared around the corner of the cabin and ambled toward the car. He was a handsome animal, with thick, lustrous black hair. I was amazed at how long and straight the individual hairs were as the bear came alongside the car and peered in through the window. Strangely I liked him right away. I thrilled at the wildness of this, of the proximity of contact, of the inscrutable black eyes that looked straight at me. He sniffed the grill of the car and apparently did not much like the aroma. No argument there.

Chemicals, oil, caked-on grime of the machine reek of what is wrong with humanity. Here was wild bear, living clean, by his wits, a part of the big scheme, not taking more than his share, not bringing down the whole ecosystem. He is not the one who is out of place, or rather out of sync, out of balance. I wanted to apologize now that we had the chance to at least greet each other.

In spite of my willingness to pow wow, he took no particular interest in me. But he did linger outside of Sean’s window looking at Luna, the sleeping dog. He licked his lips.

I don’t know what woke Sean, but he woke to see the bear’s face in the window looking at him and the dog with something of a hungry stare.

You can imagine the scene when Sean realized what he was seeing. Well, a waking dog, crying child, barking dog, and flustered father all seemed to amuse the bear for a few moments before he shuffled off back down the canyon.  

Once he was far enough away I got out and followed him just to see where he was going. He headed for the thick stand of elderberry down by Sabino Creek. I saw his form pass through a curtain of green undergrowth and then he was gone.

After that, there were other sightings of bears in Summerhaven, a sow (what people call a female bear) and two cubs, a big adult male, another sow, but no juveniles. It seemed the dry conditions and lack of forage had driven them down to the village where they were rifling through dumpsters and occasionally breaking into cabins.  One left a particularly impressive mound of scat in front of the post office. That  pile became something of a monument.  No one drove through it or shoveled it up for quite a while. It was proof that there were still bears on the mountain.  


Not long after the season of bears, Sean began to have nightmares. He would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified, and run to our bed. He burrowed into the space between us and shook until he went back to sleep. He told us about the dreams when he was able to talk, usually as he played with his Legos or pattern blocks. As long as he was involved in something other than the telling, he could air his fears. He told me that in his recurring dream a bear could walk through walls. This bear would come into the house and threaten him, bring its big, wild scent into the house, along with the teeth and claws.
“He’s a big bear, sometimes brown, sometimes white. He is magic bear that can go where he wants… even through walls and houses. He can be anywhere,” Sean would say as he stacked or snapped together his bricks.

So Sean had a history with bears. It took a few years for the nightmares to bubble up, but here they were, and we had to do something about them.

Megan decided that Sean should see a psychiatrist she knew in Phoenix, so we combined errands and put together a trip to the city of the bird that rises from the ashes.

The psychiatrist met with the three of us and listened to Sean’s stories. The session stretched to over an hour as we thoroughly combed through the stories and dreams of bears. Afterward, he introduced some reason.

“Now Sean, you know that bears live up on Mount Lemmon, don’t you?”

“Yes,” answered Sean, dutifully.

“But they don’t come down to Tucson, do they?”

“No sir, they don’t. It’s too hot for them.”

“That’s right. It is too hot, especially now in the summer. And, they don’t have anything to eat or  anywhere to live in Tucson, right?”

Sean nodded.

Then the psychiatrist looked at me, still talking to Sean.

“And, even if a bear did come to Tucson, your father would protect you, wouldn’t he?” he said, giving me a cue.

“Yes, absolutely,” I said, nodding, confident and solid.

Sean looked a little doubtful, but assented.

“I guess so.”


On the drive back to Tucson, Sean sat quietly in the back seat. He seemed to have moved past the bear demons. We talked about soccer and swimming. We drove through the height of summer, and clouds gathered around the peaks of the higher mountains. It looked like it was raining high on Mount Lemmon as we drove past the Santa Catalina range.

We all slept well that night. I rose early because it was my first day back at work for the fall semester at the university. Megan had gotten up early as well and was working at the computer when she looked out the front window and saw two sets of thick, black, hairy legs walking in sync. She could not figure out why two people would be wearing black, furry pants in August in the desert, nor could she grasp why they would be walking like they were in a farcical horse costume. She saw only the legs, but soon heard Luna barking a frantic, shrill bark. She went out to see what was going on and met the bear on the porch. A 350 pound black bear was standing a few feet in front Luna, who was stiff-legged and more than happy to surrender her duties as sentry now that Megan was on the scene. Megan grabbed Luna and turned to take her back inside just as Sean sleepily emerged in the threshold. Standing there in his pajamas, his eyes went wide with disbelief and betrayal.

I had left around 7:00 or so and was at work when Megan called me to tell me a black bear was in our front yard. She said she had locked the door and that the bear had turned around and walked back the way he had come. Everyone was OK, though Luna and Sean were both pretty shaken up.

The bear then made the news when he climbed a wall and jumped into a pool. Game and Fish sedated him and relocated him. The papers made it a pretty big deal.

When I got home that night, I sat down with Sean. He was not happy.

“You said there were no bears in Tucson.”

“Well, usually, there aren’t bears in Tucson, but I guess they do come down once in a while.”

He seemed unconvinced.

“You said you would protect me. And you weren’t even here.”

Now this one was tough.

“I know that. And I will protect you as much as I can.” It was pointless to say more.

He took that as good enough I think and snuggled up against me.

“The WAS a pretty big bear,” he said, “and he came all the way from the woods. I like the woods but I'm scared of them too." He thought for a moment. "Maybe he was trying to tell us something.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or just a lost bear looking for home.”

What else can a father say about the wild without and within?