* 1 *
The road trip between San Francisco and Austin is much longer than you might imagine and, if you dare to steer clear of the monocultural interstates, harrowing as well. Somewhere East of Taos, New Mexico, the cutting edges of visionary culture blunt into a rusting wasteland of stagnant Americana that relents no reprieve until you roll into South Austin-though even that cultural outpost has increasingly become a mecca for douchebag masculinity. Somewhere along the way, for example, a series of Chase Bank billboards encourages -- without a smirk of irony -- to Chase Freedom with their new MasterCard, like some jackass after a PVC carrot under the yoke of high-interest consumer credit, even going so far as to evoke Henry David Thoreau's transcendental masterpiece Walden:
But perhaps the synecdoche of the entire journey was a Dairy Queen billboard in New Mexico cajoling travelers to Stop Dreaming, Start Eating!, because yes, less vision and more consumption is just what the historical moment demands:
Eventually, after pulling over for a picnic beneath the boughs of an attractive tree and discovering a junkie's littered syringe, my partner and I decided to abandon any notions of the slow road and head straight to Austin. Pulling over for gas in none other than Muleshoe, Texas, however, I am embarrassed to admit that I promptly locked the keys in the car, thereby condemning our evening to hanging out at a gas station, examining and re-examining their selection of fat, salt, caffeine, sugar, nicotine, and alcohol (my God, I realized -- and here I'll reveal something about my eating habits -- my God, there's scarcely an item in here I would dare consume absent civilizational collapse), waiting for a locksmith to assist.
Fortunately for my girlfriend and me, being reasonably attractive and -- more importantly, as it turned out -- white, the locals were very friendly, sharing much more of their lives than an intolerant health food snob like myself might care to discover. One particularly loquacious and rotund truck-driver, wearing a smiley-face t-shirt stretched taut over his expectant belly-a t-shirt that incidentally exclaimed "Happiness Is A Mushroom Cloud" --
-- boasted that he makes 6 grand a month hauling milk (and more if the gawdamn highway patrol didn't keep ticketing him 500 bucks for driving more than 70 hours a week) and then spent the better part of half an hour obliviously trampling back and forth over a dead magpie and attempting to discern our attitudes toward race. He regaled us with tales of a fabled town in Florida that posted signs proclaiming, "nigger don't let the sun go down on your ass," ever since -- in the tradition of the worst racist apocrypha -- a traveling African-American male raped a white teenage girl, and going so far as to assure us that he knows people (and here he spoke sotto voce) who said they would contribute to the KKK if the Klan would assassinate Obama (and now let us pause and respectfully welcome the Secret Service to this otherwise harmless conversation...). Helpless and surrounded by friendly yokels nonetheless volatile in their ignorance, there wasn't much we could muster by way of response other than to wince inward and wow hmm and nod no kidding.
Shortly after his detailed description of a cuckolded coitus interruptus rage-begotten ass-kicking that led to his second divorce, we managed some plausible reason to excuse ourselves from his attentions and leaned relieved against our car. It was there, under the fluorescent, befumed, and mosquitoed canopy of the gas station, watching as he roared his Harley off to Sturgis, that I considered my own classist, People of Walmart revulsions and thought,
But for the grace of God, there go I.
* 2 *
Starting the car at last, I was greeted by the lyrics of a song by Ray LaMontagne, in which he inquires:
I can't tell
the free world
from a living hell?
I said how come
all I see
is a child of god
And there, beneath my own contemptuous misanthropy, I discovered the same compassionate dismay as Ray. What is more, as no less a champion for misanthropy than the late George Carlin once paraphrased, "Scratch any cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist." So let me be perfectly clear: Despite my politically-incorrect and regurgitant disgust at the chimpy-grinned and knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers that populate so much of the landscape of late capitalism, and despite the fact that my own t-shirt broadcast John Lennon's We All Shine On rather than Give War a Chance, I do not believe that I am so very different from the self-same primate cousin I have here described. If I am different at all, I am somehow luckier. But the question remains: Why are so many so incredibly, so indelibly, ignorant? I maintain that any one of us -- and every one of us -- possesses potentials of consciousness that rival any redeemer, except that we fail, and miserably so, for most of us are not even trying, and part of the reason for this was to be found within the aisles of a gas station convenient store in Muleshoe, Texas.
Why, for example, is there any such thing as health food? In the same way as there is basketball and women's basketball and the default category presumes a male sport, the default category of food apparently presumes disease. The offerings inside the gas station were instructive: Cigarettes sprayed with neurotoxic pesticides and hyper-addictive additives; genetically-modified corn chips fried in waste oils and dusted with an excess of chemically-derived salt and artificial flavors; black elixirs of fizzy syrup and brain-boring alcohols brewed with minimal attention to quality and maximal attention to marketing; municipal tap water polluted with artificial hormones and heavy metals and pharmaceuticals and agricultural runoff all sealed within a plastic bottle leaching endocrine-disrupting petrochemicals; doughnuts deep fried in rancid, excitotoxic, and atherosclerotic oils overlaid with processed diabetogenic sugars and obesifying high-fructose corn syrups to distract the bitter aftertaste echoing across the tongue's palette like the belching breath of slow death, shrink-wrapped and forever preserved in a suspended state of decomposition by a mortician's cocktail of carcinogenic preservatives, and am I really such a snob to be revolted by such a menu?
Consider: Reportedly, the average American consumes 300 pounds of sugar per year -- that's more than a 5-pound sack of sugar per week -- and the sugar industry is prepared to sue anyone who says that 600 calories of sugar a day -- or 30% of your daily caloric intake -- is maybe too much, all while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that 1 in 3 Americans will have diabetes by the year 2025. But hey, at least the United States of America is alone among the self-described advanced industrial democracies in promoting amalgam dental fillings for the sugar caries rotting its teeth. Unfortunately, however, amalgam fillings are approximately 50% mercury, a potent neurotoxin, but no worries there, as the United States of America is also alone in fluoridating its municipal water supplies, allegedly to protect our teeth. But fluoride is an industrial waste product and another neurotoxin, interfering with normal metabolism and possibly calcifying the pineal gland, the presumed seat of the dimethyltryptamine soul and the origin of lucid dreaming and mystical experiences, and apparently this is a project that is especially important for baby teeth. Recently, I was escorted out of a Walmart for taking the following picture of a product's label:
Who needs an imagination, though, let alone a spiritual vision, when the average American watches 6 hours of television per day, and by the time they are dead, they will have spent 2 years of their life doing nothing but watching television commercials?
Stop dreaming and start eating.
* 3 *
I do not mean to give the impression that the titular origin of spiritual retardation is sugar, or mercury, or fluoride, or television. It is indeed all of the above, but this brief survey is a far from comprehensive catalogue. Indeed, that entire comprehensive catalogue may be nothing more than a collected synonymy for the metastatic root that spawns each of these malignant tentacles, for the closer one examines any one structure of our society, the more appalling, abhorrent, and absurd it becomes. From the skeletal and cognitive scoliosis of our educational system to the warping of our sexuality via advertising, from the pharmaceutical interdiction of moods to the sharecropper system of indentured servitude that imagines itself middle-class, everything appears exactly wrong. According to The Wall Street Journal, for example, the typical college student today graduates with an average albatross of $22,700 of student loan debt. Thirty-odd years ago, prior to 1978, student loans were virtually unheard of, and a generation of college students graduated educated, free, and wild with fresh ideas, dreams, and visions. It is challenging to escape the impression that this social world has been designed at every turn to distract the freeborn ferocity of the human spirit into an obtuse and obese consumerism.
And consumerism, by the way, means more than merely buying whiz-bang gizmos and shrink-wrapped plastic garbage made in Asia. Consumerism means consuming a culture manufactured to pacify our passions rather than seizing our birthright to be visionary creators of our own culture. Consumerism deskills us of the fundamental tasks of living, robs us of our ability to define our own experience, and I hope this makes you very, very mad. There is a malevolent, perhaps Palpatine force afoot in this world, an historical movement to transform humanity's wild-begotten beauty into a panopticon so ubiquitous that the very concept of escape becomes an archaic curiosity.
But as to the notion that we have been socialized into the intentional constructs of a dark cabal of international bankers -- Illuminati sith lords, if you will -- bent upon a high-tech planetary fiefdom, I'll admit that my mind peers occasionally behind the possibility of that door. But the door always closes -- never slamming, mind you -- when I remember that a conspiracy need not be aware of itself to exist. All that is required is an alignment of interests, and the elite -- that 1% that controls 40% of all wealth -- has an inescapable interest in promoting and protecting a system that grants them their grotesque vulgarities of dubious privilege, no matter how heartbreakingly obsolete that system becomes. But it is the system of social structures, and the social roles of which it is constructed, and the consciousness that consents to occupy those social roles, that compels its own collapse merely by pretending against its own evolution.
In short, everything appears exactly wrong because it is. We're not making dental fillings, we're making money. We're not making medicines, we're making money. We're not making food, we're making money. Our world is the ongoing ramification of a countless series of decisions made on the basis of one deeply-flawed economic premise. Sex and sugar sells, and douchebag masculinity and insulin-dependent diabetes are mere artifacts of that fact. Mercury fillings are cheaper, preservatives protect profit, debt compels compliance, and ignorance is predictable.
The circumstance may seem bleak, as if they are guarding all the doors and holding all the keys, but those doors after all are made out of only ourselves, and the mere fact that it requires such relentless distraction and toxication to contain the human spirit only points to our potency. As it turns out, we are each of us capable of astounding creativity and boundless love, and as we witness these broken social systems into which our lives have been hurled crumble, there is little else to do but rejoice as we reinvent ourselves from these stupefying arrangements at last. We can surely do so much better.
* Epilogue *
For the hell of it, we drove through Muleshoe, Texas again on our way from South Austin back to San Francisco. We even stopped for gas at the very same gas station, and what do you know but that the same trucker was there, this time wearing a t-shirt that simply broadcast the busty silhouette usually seen on the mud flaps of eighteen-wheelers. Apparently he parks his fifth wheel nearby (39 feet, he emphasized, with 4 slide-outs, not too shabby), and the gas station is the most happening place in town. Anyway, as it turns out he'd listened far more carefully than I'd given him credit for when I'd idly shared my disgust with the utter lack of anything resembling living food inside the gas station and how I wished things were different. Grimacing from nearby diesel fumes, he nonetheless showed me the cab of his rig, where he'd removed the passenger seat and installed an ingenious, custom-built sprouting system for growing and consuming his own supply of living foods while still logging seventy hours of hauling milk per week. Grows a dozen different varieties of sprouts and wheatgrass, says it changed his life. Calls himself the Wheatgrass Trucker, and even has a youtube channel.
But actually, no, that never happened, not at all, not really. I don't know why I just said that. Everything else I've said is true, I swear, but that last paragraph was not. I've never been back to Muleshoe, Texas, nor do I expect I ever will. I've never met the Wheatgrass Trucker, although I am pleased to know that he exists. I don't know anything about where he lives or fifth wheels with 4 slide-outs or happening gas stations or mud flap breast fetishes or any of it. It was all just exaggeration, creative embellishment, I suppose. I got carried away with the earnest entreaty I was trying to make, which is simply this: Although that particular paragraph has never happened to me, such a thing could happen, it can happen, it has happened, and it does happen. Everything we know we have learned from one another, and all that is required is to teach a better legacy. As H.G. Wells wrote, "History is a race between education and catastrophe," and today, the pace of that race-and the stakes-have never been greater.
Take care of yourselves, and take care of one another.
And keep on truckin'.
Teaser image by miz_giverna, courtesy of Creative Commons license.