About ‘Condition Oakland’
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TRACK 2 – CHAPTER TEN: SECRET ORGANIZATION
“The future isn’t now.
See my button? Ask me how.”
– Down With Strangers, ‘Seedy’
The first meeting of the Conclave is in my room, all of us sitting around my coffee table, sitting on the floor, the sofa, incense burning and music playing quietly in the background, something heavy that we’re not really listening to.
“What is this bullshit anyway, Tim?” Mark asks. “I’m a busy man, I can’t have you wasting my time with thi—“
“Shut up, Mark,” Lane says. “This is a good idea.”
“So what’s the idea?”
I’m sitting on the sofa, in the middle, leaning forward. I take a long look around the room at everyone, letting them know I’m joking, and serious. “Welcome to the first meeting of ‘The Conclave,’” I say. “A secret organization for the pursuance of certain goals, namely experiencing the best our culture has to offer, while we can.” There’s a whisper of a cringe from the lack of quotes placed around culture. “We’re talking musical performances, artistic exhibits, theater, film, fine dining, and special events. We’re talking reading groups, activist groups, writing groups. We’re talking us, here, now, spearheading a cultural revolution.” I’m trying to sound inspiring, giving an epic speech about what we could do, what we have to do because of who we are, where we are in space and time, and what we’re capable of doing.
“The six of us. Plus Monica and Laura. For now.”
“Sounds feasible,” Sidney says, as only a pure sarcastic asshole could.
“We’re going to need more people,” Charlin says.
“Yeah, probably,” I say. “But we can start with just us.”
“What’s our goal?” Mark asks. I start to say something and he cuts me off, with a wave of his hand, “Besides a complete cultural revolution?”
“To have fun, of course,” I explain.
“I’m down,” says Sidney.
This night we plan our first outing, attending a play being held at a local community center. College kids putting on “The Iceman Cometh,” by Eugene O’Neill.
“Oh, and we have to dress up.”
“What do you mean, we have to?”
“Um, I think we should wear suits and ties, and dresses…” They just stare at me. “To make it more fun? Come on!”
“I’m not dressing up.”
“Oh come on!”
We are standing in the lobby, waiting to go into the auditorium, looking good. Lane is wearing a grey suit, a black tie. I have blue work pants on, with my favorite tie, large diagonal stripes in a color scheme like an eighties couch, and a favorite dark blue work jacket that works with it. Mark and Sidney look classic. A couple of kids out of a teenage Quentin Tarantino movie. Charlin and Avery are both wearing dresses, and are stunning. Charlin has on a green cocktail dress, a white design at the shoulders, complimenting her auburn hair. She has rhinestone glasses, completing the outfit. Monica and Laura wear thrift store dresses at their finest. And Avery is all black and white, beautiful as hell. She’s got a Chinese to-go box for a purse.
I know nothing about the play, “The Iceman Cometh.” None of us really do, but it’s supposed to be good. So we’re going. The theatre is cold, the seats comfortable and a little worn in. We sit there talking in the theater, waiting for it to start.
The play surprises me, having some overtly political speech, talk about the “movement.” It was published in 1940 and first produced on Broadway in 1946, and I guess takes place around the same time. Anyway, all of the scenes are set in a bar or the bar’s back room in a run-down hotel, owned by Harry Hope. The main characters are all drunks, ex-soldiers or anarchists, now disillusioned and bored with life. One character speaks of his looking forward to death, because it would be a relief from any more of this life. They don’t ask much from the world, anymore, just wanting to drink all day and night, to forget and to pass out, escaping their lives.
Every year, a salesman by the name of Hickman, whom they call Hickey, comes to the bar and pays for a week of drinking for everyone, spending the money he’s earned from his sales. The drunks spend the first act in anticipation of his arrival. When Hickey arrives, though, he says he will do no drinking. He “doesn’t need it” anymore, he says. He’ll still pay for everyone else’s drinking though, and he does, but his abstention puts a damper on everyone’s spirits. He tries to explain to them his new take on life, his newfound self-knowledge. He gets pretty preachy in fact, and it’s off-putting to the crowd of drunks. Still, his speeches rouse the crowd, and they all start to buy into his idea of giving up pipe dreams and facing reality. They get the message that they should not invest energy in tomorrows, but instead live today, even if it means to live with no hope. Because hope is misleading, false, he says.
Eventually you find out that his “peace,” was ill gotten. Hickey had killed his wife, while she was sleeping, so she wouldn’t have to find out he had gotten drunk and cheated again. He says she looked peaceful, there, dreaming, and he didn’t want her to have to live with the truth. So he shot her. In the end of the play, detectives come and take him away, but not until he explains why he did it. The drunks start to take his side in saying that he was insane when he did it, and they would testify so, so he could get off. Then the play ends, and nothing is really resolved, but it has been an experience. We get out of the theatre and start talking about the play on the way to the car.
“So, his name was Hickey? Like the thing you get on your neck?” Sidney asks.
“What exactly was his ‘self-discovery,’ anyway?” Lane asks.
“He was trying to get them to give up illusions and just live, even if it meant there was no hope.”
“Why is there no hope?” Sidney asks.
We reach the van, me unlocking all three doors in less than three seconds. They get in, and I start driving back to my house.
“I don’t know. I think there is hope. I almost believe in hope as a natural resource, something that comes from the world itself.”
“I think Hickey was saying, dreams are just dreams, and the only hope we have is the hope we create and feel within ourselves. Or something,” Avery says.
“It’s the existential dilemma,” I say in a mock esoteric voice. “Man is only what he makes of himself.”
“What’s so desirable about peace of mind, anyway?” Charlin asks. “I kind of prefer drama.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t know what most people want, but I like some sort of peace. Like, a place inside my head where I can be OK when things get bad and I can still feel stability. In my mind there are definitely parts that I can take shelter in, or take strength from. But I like adventure most of the time. So, I think there’s something to be said for finding peace, but also courting instability. So you can feel secure even when you’re engulfed in chaos.”
“If you’ll remember how messed up in truth Hickey was… and then think about his message of giving up pipe dreams, giving up hope… and then realize that the bartenders name was Hope…”
“What I think O’Neill was saying is that dreams, the future, hope, can be a type of intoxication, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you’re also realistic, and… well…”
“I liked the part,” Mark says, “when the guy said he is condemned to see all sides of the problem, all the time, and so he can never act. And if you want to do anything, especially stage a revolution, you have to have blinders on to the rest of the world”
“Yeah, that came up a couple of times. That was interesting.”
“Revolutions happen everyday,” I say. “What do you call the sunrise? What do you call your shirt turning inside out when you change clothes? What do you call a record spinning out music?”
“Yeah, but… OK, a cultural revolution then…”
“I disagree with that thing about not being able to act if you see different sides of the problem, though,” Avery puts in. “I think, at least nowadays, if you want to create any kind of real change in the world, you have to see all sides of the problem, and still act. Somehow.”
“Didn’t he say that when you see all sides of the problem,” Charlin says, “that all you end up with are questions and no answers?”
“Now you’re getting into postmodernism,” I throw out. “There is no one answer to any question. Because there are just too many points of view, that no one answer can work for everyone. So you get fragmentation of culture, and thought, and action.”
“Well, what can you do about that? That seems like it just causes nothing to be decided, then. Like you’re saying the problem is hopeless.”
“Well in a way it is. You can’t unify all people under one banner. But why is that desirable? Isn’t difference what makes life interesting? Who wants to have a world where everything is decided?”
“So you’re saying the answer is to let everyone have their own questions and answers?” Mark says.
“Something like that, I guess. I’m just saying you shouldn’t be going for unity. Unity is conformity. Instead, we should be fighting to keep differences happening. To fight for individual cultures and points of view, even if they’re different than our own. You can try and make people more informed, and increase their awareness, but you shouldn’t try to tell them what to believe in. You have to let people find their own beliefs. You can influence others, and let them develop, but you can’t just come out and say “this is the truth.” Share information and create open debate, with understanding as a goal, instead of pre-set agendas and dominating mindsets.”
“It’s kind of like the Prime Directive in Star Trek,” Sidney says. “They can’t interfere with a society that’s developing, until they’ve achieved space travel and want to enter the Federation.”
“Yeah, sort of.” I say to Sidney.
“So many people are idiots, though,” Lane says. “What about ideas and points of view that are obviously wrong? Are you supporting relativism of all values? Do you think there’s such a thing as good or bad?”
We get to my house, and go inside. Mark and I are smoking cigarettes in the doorway. I’ve got a pack of cloves I just bought. We’re leaning into the room for the conversation. I try to form an answer to Lane’s question. Like I do so often, I reply with a reference to something else. It says something for my own nature, gathering ideas from wherever I can find them, and then applying them to other things; I like that about myself. “Have you ever read the book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’?
“Yes,” Lane says.
“OK, good. I only needed one. Do you remember the part about ‘Quality’?”
“Yeah.” He thinks for a second. After a moment he says, “I see what you’re getting at.” He starts to explain to the others. “In the book, the main character had this concept of ‘Quality,’ which he believed everyone shared, at least in some way. Basically, it means that humans have a subconscious understanding of what is good, and can recognize things as good or bad. The example in the book was, since the main character was a teacher, he read aloud certain essays and had the class rank them. There was a definite decision on which was best, which was second best, and so on. It may seem kind of obvious, but he said that people somehow intrinsically know what is good. And so, that can be carried over into morals. Man often knows what is good. Regardless of whether he acts on that feeling, he somehow knows.”
“That’s just because they were raised to see a certain way,” Lane says. “We’re conditioned to hold certain values.”
“But there’s also a part of us that knows.”
“The Godhead,” Mark says.
“The Godhead… um, Hinduism. Hindus believe that we’re all just part of this giant system of souls, and the center is Brahma. Each of us has the ‘Atman,’ in us, which is the essence of the universe, and that comes from Brahma. It’s a part of us that knows everything, just as the Godhead does. It’s like we’re all just wearing these bodies as garments over the light of God, shining from within.”
“I like that.”
“I’m kind of skeptical,” Lane says.
“I’m finding I’m more of a Mulder man myself,” I say. “I try to follow all religions to some degree. Scully is superhot, by the way. I’m sorry, what are we talking about?” I throw a grin with the pin pulled into the room.
Charlin says, “Well, still, a lot people are idiots, like Lane said before. Some people you just need to ignore or even defend against.”
“Maybe, but I would like to think that by informing people and having open discussions, people could learn from each other.”
“Do you ever wish someone would come along, like Hickey did, and just tell people the ‘way to salvation’? The way things should be I mean,” Avery says, sitting on the sofa.
I lean in to see her. “I think there are plenty of people doing just that,” I say. “Every time someone writes a certain type of book, or makes a certain type of film or song or anything. They’re trying to inform people of their way of looking at the world and how they live. You can take what they give and consider it a version of the path to a type of salvation. Didn’t someone once say that the whole function of life and reality is propaganda? Everything’s propaganda in some way. Because it’s necessarily subjective, so it has to have a certain slant. Even if you’re trying to write objectively, you’re still writing from a single consciousness. So, in that light, everything you do and say is also a political action. You are making a stand every time you say or do something, no matter what it is. And also, most things are open to interpretation.”
“You guys try to do that in the band I guess. Right?”
“I’ve thought about it like that before. So, yeah,” I say.
“You should write a book, Tim. About your point of view and about the band. I think you’ve got a lot of ideas people could relate to and maybe even incorporate into their beliefs.”
“I would read a book with me in it,” Sidney says.
“I think that quote about propaganda is from Ayn Rand,” Lane says. “I know I’ve heard it before.”
“I think you’re right. It’s true.”
“Ayn Rand is a fool,” Mark says.
“Whoa, Mark. Careful there. I like Ayn Rand,” A says.
“Don’t make fun of Ayn Rand,” Sidney says. “Ayn Rand is my mom.” Then he turns to me and whispers, in a voice everyone can obviously hear: “Who’s Ayn Rand?”
In an official, ‘listing-off type voice, Avery says, “Sidney, you’re done. Mark, Ayn Rand is cool. Tim, write a book.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know how to tell people what‘s inside me. It‘s so hard to really connect, just in real life; I don‘t know if it‘s any easier or if it‘s harder in book form when it‘s like one on one, person alone with organized thought. I mean, I want to make a difference. I try. But I don’t know what to say exactly. I’ve had to live through a lot of things to arrive at my point of view; we’ve had to live through a lot of things to get to this point where we can understand each other tonight so easily. Like, it might be hard for someone reading a book to understand that certain way we feel special and together right now, all dressed up and, like, you know, really together. See, I fall into those sure-fire words of youth, “like“, “you know“… because here, now, we really like, know. And that’s everything. And you can’t just give someone your experiences, and make them instantly understand. People have to share their lives with people in order to reach the same conclusions about reality. So really, I need to listen to my own advice and try and live my ideas. If you can actually talk to people, and really try to understand, you can overcome the alienation certain things cause, and change things.”
“Down with strangers!” Sidney shouts to the ceiling, making fun of me good-naturedly.
“Shut up,” I say, laughing.
“Are you kids talking about Ayn Rand down there?” my Dad yells from the stairs. “I’m going to dismantle my railroad piece by piece unless you quit talking about that Juvenile philosophy and only use the philosophical Steele approved for use in rail travel under this roof. And I mean it!”
“He said what now?”
I thought Mark might piss the floor laughing.
We looked up at the carpeted ceiling, and thanked the Lord against the theory of trickle down enlightenment.