Thursday, September 16, 2010

An Entirely Synthetic Life

                                                                  Prairie Mallard, 1995

I sit in the airport terminal watching the citizens of Zombie Nation quietly ignore one another as they text, surf, tweet or simply stare into space. Husbands ignore wives. Wives ignore kids. Kids ignore everything but what scrolls across the screens on whatever handheld devices they've demanded and received from their self-absorbed acquiescing parents.

Oh, I'm sure they all have lives, I guess. If that's what you want to call it. They probably think they're happy, content, satisfied. Entertained. Occupied. Thumbs become blurs over tiny keyboards. Eyes squint at tiny little messages written in the fragmentary patois of our time. Thumbs blur once again and tiny little responses are sent out into the endless gulf stream of digitally-truncated banality that's ever flowing right over our heads.

I feel superior, of course. I don't know anything about them, so it's easy to make snap judgements. Do I? Oh, hell yes.

Take that booth-tanned guy sitting across from me with the gravity-defying hair who reeks of ASS body spray. I'm sure he's quite happy, quite content to be defined by how he looks, regardless of how much I think he looks like a smug, spoiled dick in his Tapout shirt. And he might be the nicest, most interesting guy in the world for all I know. He may volunteer at a local soup kitchen, read Nabokov because he really digs it and have a kennel full of gundogs. But I doubt it.

And the catatonic kid off to my left studiously ignoring his parents, lost in the depths of his own infinite playlist, his iPod-induced stupor is in turn studiously ignored by both parents who, hunched over their own devices, haven't spoken to the kid, or even acknowledged his existence - or each others' -  in the twenty minutes I've been sitting here. They might be the model nuclear family at home, discussing the day's events earnestly and interestingly over a pot roast. But I doubt it.

And the severe, pneumatic blonde in the black miniskirt and power heels tapping importantly on a netbook perched just-so on long, gym-toned legs while talking into her bluetooth headset to some equally urgent-acting business partner in some other airport terminal. Yeah, she's flying business class and yeah, she looks like she wouldn't hesitate to claw her way over a pile of screaming infants to board the plane first, but maybe beneath that weatherproof plasticized exterior she's really a sweetheart who likes baking cookies in her pajamas, collecting Strawberry Shortcake dolls and sending big chunks of her obviously-considerable disposable income to paraplegic Bulgarian orphans. But I doubt it.

And the tired-looking dads, the disaffected looking wives, the bimbo-looking girlfriends, the bored-looking boyfriends, the spoiled, petulant kids, the ironic hipsters, the crazy-haired spinsters, the emo-looking weird dudes with Romulan haircuts, the tweeners, the teeners, the guidos, the tools, the real fake housewives of wherever; it's like the extras from every lowest-common-denominator reality show on television are swirling around me in a sea of dull, pointless synthetic existence. Behind those slack jaws and vapid eyes they all might be interesting, self-actualized individuals. But I doubt it.

And as I look around I wonder if any of these people, these organic automatons, have ever known  or ever will know a single moment - just one brief shining moment out of the entirety of their dull, manufactured reality - of pure, crystalline rightness; some beautiful, momentary astringent that washes away the waxy build-up on whatever remains of their souls and forces them to feel alive. Not entertained. But alive.

Maybe. But I doubt it.


  1. True, maybe, and certainly true for me, but I've never subscribed to the notion that only hunters can truly feel alive.

    I was speaking more in general terms of finding something, hell, anything genuine and real that moves you, and the difference between that and the shallow, synthetic, instant gratification pap so many of us seem to thrive on now.

  2. Man, having just returned from a cross-country flight... you couldn't have described it better. I wonder sometimes, how much more oblivious people can get. What will it take to wake them up... open their eyes... spark some reaction? Or better... to spark some interaction?

  3. You sound like Henry Rollins. Which is both a compliment of the highest order and a criticism that you sound old, bitter, disaffected, and unwilling to change. I don't disagree with you, but those robots you saw, they are the future of the outdoors too. They have to be, because there's almost no one left.

    I noticed that other than a reference to "spinsters," everyone you described sounded under the age of 40. Just an observation. In your generation, was the problem really the youth?

    Because it's not in my generation.

  4. Ha! I'll absolutely take the Henry Rollins comparison as a compliment...

    As for the old, bitter, disaffected and unwilling to change part, I am both guilty and not. For the record, I am hanging onto my thirties by that slimmest of margins, so there's no intentional age bias on my part and I didn't mean to sound like I was throwing the under 34 demo under the bus.

    On the other hand, I was old, bitter, disaffected and unwilling to change by about age 19, so maybe you're onto something there...

    No, the problem's not the youth, never has been, they simply reflect, fairly or unfairly, the larger cultural issues we're dealing with, issues brought on by a relentless, totally integrated and all-encompassing push to turn people into consumer units.

    And you can argue that big deal, it's nothing new, that's the ultimate goal of marketing and always has been. Which is true, of course, but the difference now is there has never been less delineation between the real and the contrived, there have never been more and more powerful tools (tools disguised as entertainment) available to (to rip off the Frontline episode) the merchants of cool to fuzzy that distinction, so we end up living in some weird half-world where the lines between real reality and fake reality are increasingly blurred.

    And that has nothing to do with age at all. I will say I believe the allure of all that is probably more powerful to the younger set, if for nothing else than most of it is very slickly branded as a physical expression of individuality and rebellion and self-expression.

    And the rub is, it can be. We have never, ever had more powerful tools or broader opportunity to express and then broadcast individual creativity, to tell the world "this is who and what I am." It's amazing, really.

    That's also, ironically, it's biggest problem, because there are so many ways to be entertained so many avenuues of stimulation and instant gratification that people are content to simply feed at the trough, to consume what's given them.

    At least that's what goes through my mind when I'm sitting in an airport terminal and I'm looking around and everyone,literally everyone I see, from little kids all the way up to the grandmothers, is plugged in, like a scene out of a William Gibson book.

  5. Phillip, it really is amazing, isn't it? The art of conversation seems to be withering, doesn't it?

  6. Smilin' Buddha, my main SLR right now is an old, tired Canon 10D that really needs to be replaced. I also have a waterproof Panasonic lumix point-and-shoot that I recently bought for wet-weather hunts. Really like it so far.

    The B&W pic of my old chessie was taken with a film camera and then converted to digital.

  7. And I forgot to add, I didn't mean for it to sound like just another anti-consumerism pop-culture screed. I'm not an intellectual Utopianist. We're all, by necessity, consumers, social and otherwise, and I have my share of light-n-fluffy frivolities.

    But, to quote an old saw, the dose makes the poison.

  8. I'm going to reserve judgement on the blonde until I see a picture.

  9. their defense, what else are you supposed to do at an airport? It's either play on your phones or pick up dudes in the bathroom.

    But seriously, dont let your perception of yourself lead you to believe other's perceptions of themselves are any less valid. And as for that feeling of being alive...well I think different people can experience that same feeling simply by watching the Rodney King video.

  10. Hmmm, I do have that Larry Craig wide stance thing going on...

    As to your other point, I'd say true, but I'd also argue that letting my self-perception color my judgement of others' self-perception is a fundamentally human characteristic. Deep down, we're all smug bastards.

  11. I think of of that is just in the nature of air travel. It is generally uncomfortable, regimented, and overly close (to other people). Personally, I try to read my book and intrude on the psychic and physical space of others as little as possible, hoping they extend the same courtesy. Excitement and engagement comes after leaving the airport. If you'd seen me in the Denver airport after the redeye from Anchorage, "zombie" would probably have been a charitable description.

    That said, the Anchorage airport offers better people watching, speculating where this guy with a rod case is heading to/from, ditto the other guy with a camo dayback. Lots of happy faces there.

  12. I think the thing about looking around - in airports, bars, malls, shops, football matches and churches - is that who and what you end up seeing (and this does sound rather silly I know but bear with me) is only the stuff that can be seen.

    I think that life - being alive, the sense of being alive, the truth of being alive - is something that translates very poorly into the visual realm.

    One of the hidden possibilities of hunting - and I was sitting in a hedgerow only the other day thinking about this - is that, doing our best to hide as we do, we can sometimes end up for a moment slipping outside the sense of ourselves as players in the world of images - we can sometimes let fall the face we use to meet the faces that we meet.

    Quite often though, I'd hazard, this is a traumatic event for us. After all, there's nothing to guarantee we'll feel at home when our image fall away. Who hasn't met their own heart's truth for a moment in the woods and wept? We might very well choose to have nothing to do with the gaps and questions we find in our hearts when a moments peace reveals them. And rather than meet this we might instead choose to hasten back pretty damn quick to the bar, the mall or - even - to the airport. Being really alive can be pretty scary sometimes and the face that we show in the world - the I'm-in-control face, the no-problems-here face, the face we see looking back at us from nearly everyone we meet in the street - this can be a rather reassuring and orthopaedic mask after the pressing questions that the woods and fields can sometimes open up for us.

    So, even though I know what you mean, I wouldn't be too hard on those folks in the airport. Truth and life don't confine themselves to the fields, the rivers and the woods, after all - they show up where and how they will. There's no reason to think that, behind the public faces, life and truth don't somewhere show up for them just as pointedly as they can do for us.


  13. Umm, I hate to be the guy to ask it, but... if they looked up at you at any time during this, what generalizations might they have made about a guy typing away furiously at his personal computing device, occasionally taking small breaks to look up and stare at people before again typing furiously?
    : )

  14. Mdmnm, I suspect you're probably right, but as an inveterate people watcher what I'm noticing and find interesting is the decline in communication and interaction btween people actually traveling together; friends, family, etc.

    Hubert, that's a really interesting point and a great comment. I admit I hadn't ever thought about it that way.

    Josh, guilty as charged. They're probably thinking "look at that self-absorbed tool over there. And why does he keep staring at me?"