About ‘Condition Oakland’
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TRACK 3 – CHAPTER 14: GERUNDING FUN
We practice every Wednesday, or sometimes on a weekend, but always at least once a week. And that’s not including the times just a pair of us get together to work out some ideas, or refine certain parts. We spend so much of our creative energy on the band that we often just drift through school days, doing enough to get by, paying attention to what we want to learn, or what we think is important, or what we feel we can use… and taking the rest catch as catch catches on.
I do start getting more involved in the classes I like, though, like English. It has always my favorite subject, and I have had some really good teachers over the years, like Mrs. Kerry, this old woman obsessed with Jack London, and Robert Frost, forcing us to memorize her favorite poems, kicking stupid kids out, banishing them to the hallways to roam for the rest of the hour. Or Mr. Jones, the obsessive-compulsive grammar teacher, (he had to be, I mean, consider the way he was always erasing the chalkboards, every thirty, forty seconds, chewing on pens, taking more bathroom breaks than all the kids in his class combined), who it seemed would never rest until every fucking kid in the world knows what a gerund is.
Mr. Sanders is my current teacher, and I have no problem getting caught up in his class, mainly because the first book they read was Hamlet, which I have read at least three times on my own. Then they read “All the Pretty Horses,” by Cormac McCarthy. I had never read that one, but I wanted to, so I picked it up and got through it within the first couple of weeks back at Louh, and then wrote a paper on it for Mr. Sanders. One of the topics he gave us to choose from was the death of the frontier in America, and it really interested me, so I did a lot of research and wrote a pretty damn good paper. He took me aside after class one day and handed it back to me, with a lot of corrections on it. I was dismayed, but then he explained that he had judged me harshly because he had heard from one of my previous English teachers, Mr. Truman, that I showed excellent writing skills and was a “very good reader” as well. So the criticism of the paper was more abstract, and stylistic. That pleased me to no end, Mr. Truman saying that I was a good reader. He and I had never gotten along in class, I found him to be too hypocritical. See, he told me he wanted me to be able to learn at my own pace; he was obsessed with alternative teaching methods. So, he said I could read in his class, whatever I wanted, if I was bored with the material we were covering. Well one day I pulled a book out of my bag, set it on my desk, and started reading. And he called me out on it, saying, “Mr. Davis, I’d like you to join the rest of the class.” I didn’t argue with him, but after class when he asked me where I ‘got the nerve,’ I started to tell him, “From you, you bastard,’ but I didn’t. I just said, “I thought you wouldn’t mind,” and he said, “Of course I would mind. Do you think I’m up there lecturing every day to my students for kicks?” That’s the reason I would teach a class, I thought.
Still, telling someone that they’re a good reader, that’s such a great compliment if you think about it. Anyway, Mr. Sanders says to me, he would like to see more writing “of this caliber” on the upcoming assignments as well.
I started a journal outside of class, to start recording some things I’ve been thinking about, too. When Avery told me to write a book I guess it got me started to thinking about writing more than just music. I start to try to write some things that I guess are short fiction pieces, just kind of patches of things I think are interesting or beautiful. I get some books out of the library on writing, most notably this book called ‘The Art of Fiction’ by John Gardner. There’s a lot to it.
We’re hanging out more and more as a band, or as the Conclave. The two are so intermeshed that it doesn’t matter who officially is doing what. Anyway, one day we go to hang out with our friend Mike at his Uncle’s house, a bit out in the county. He invites us sometimes cause he’s got a big yard that we are thinking about having some kind of party/show at sometime. So we get a big tub of guacamole and some chips, and sodas, and rent some movie, but we aren’t watching it.
We are drinking Mountain Dew, sitting in his living room.
“Where’s your dog, Mike?”
“Outside. In the yard.”
“I love your dog. How’s Beezer doing?”
“Let’s go play with him.”
I feel a little drunk, though I haven’t been drinking. It’s like I am suddenly stuffed with cotton. Beezer is at the edge of the driveway, barking at a jogger.
“Why doesn’t he go after him? Your dog could rip him apart,” I say, trying to be funny. Beezer is tiny; it is absurd watching him get excited.
“He can’t leave the yard.”
“What do you mean, he can’t? Did you train him or something?”
“See that thing around his neck?” I look. “We just got that. It’s called the Invisible Fence. There’s a line buried around the yard, and if he goes outside that area, he get shocked by his collar.”
“That’s awful!” I say, a little too loudly.
Mark is laughing about it.
“C’mere Beezer,” Mike calls.
The dog trots towards us.
I am in line for the interception. “Here comes my baby,” I say to the dog, scruffing his head with my fingers.
“How hard does it shock him?“ Lane asks.
“I don’t know. But it has more than one setting. Why is it awful, Tim?”
“It just is! It’s inhumane!”
“Well, how humane is it to let your dog run away, or get hit by a car?” Sidney asks me.
“Exactly,” says Mike.
“Well. You don’t have to shock hi- I mean, what setting do you have it on? Has he figured it out yet, or does he still get shocked?”
“It’s on the second to lowest setting. And it beeps whenever he gets close, so he has some warning.”
“Let’s test it,” Mark suggests.
“How do you mean? Throw the dog into the neighbors’ yard or something?”
“No, on one of us. One of us has to see how bad the shock is.”
“I’m not going to do it. I don’t want to be electrocuted.”
“I’ll do it,” I say. “I’m the one who said it was wrong, so I might as well be the one to get shocked.”
“OK then. Mike, give him the collar.”
I have it strapped to my leg, and I hear the staccato beeping as I approach the end of the driveway.
I am nervous, having never felt electrocution, but also curious.
I walk across the invisible fence, and it immediately feels like my bones are being microwaved. There is a strange popping sensation in my knee joint. There is some pain, but it is more of a, well, shock. It definitely isn’t pleasant though, and I quickly return to the yard.
“How was it?”
“Not so good,” I say, shaking the collar off my leg. “If I were your dog, I would not be leaving the yard. So, I guess it serves its purpose.”
“Right on. Well, Beezer’s learned. He knows his boundaries.”
“Lucky for him.”
We are lolling around in Mike’s backyard when his Uncle comes out with a cooler and walks over to us onthe lawn back.
“Hey Mike,” he calls. “If you and your friends want to, you can use the fire pit. I’ve got plenty of wood,” he says, pointing.
There’s a large concrete slab in one part of backyard, with a metal fire pit. We pick out some wood, getting newspaper from Mike’s house. None of us had been boy scouts for very long, so we don’t know what we are doing, but we’re not dumb. We light the paper, and watch it catch. It seems to be working.
“Hey, grab some more sodas,” we say to Mike as he disappears inside. They come cold, straight from the refrigerator. His Uncle’s cooler turned out to be full of beers, and he’s doing some yard work by the fence on the other side of the yard.
We all feel spontaneous, talking about anything that comes up.
“Do you guys like camping?” Mike asks.
“Sort of,” Sidney says. “I used to go all the time with my dad, when I was really little.”
We all know that Sidney’s dad died when he was fourteen, in a car accident, so we’re silent for a while. Then Mark tries to bring us back.
“Look at that fire. We did a pretty good job.”
“I’m going to add another piece of wood,” Mike says.
“It’s fine how it is.”
“I want to add another piece,” he says, obviously going to do it regardless of what we tell him.
Mike stands there, looking into the fire.
“I’ve stopped watching TV entirely,” he says.
“Awesome,” I say.
“I’m experimenting. First to see if I can do it, at least for a month. And second, to see how it affects my brain, or my thinking.”
“I haven’t watched TV, except for movies and shows on DVD, in over a year,” I say. “Unless I’m forced to, like in a social situation.”
“Really? What did it do to you?”
“It’s different. It’s not hard after you haven’t watched in a while. In fact TV sort of makes me nauseous, when I have to watch it.”
“Why’d you stop?”
“Because. Well. I used to be really depressed, and I would watch TV so I wouldn’t have to think and feel depressed, but it turned into a downward spiral where the more I watched TV the more I would be truly depressed, because I knew I was wasting my time and not doing anything with my life. So, once I realized why I was becoming more depressed, I just quit TV, and tried to find better things to do with my time.”
“Like what?” he asks.
“That’s when I started to play guitar. And writing more lyrics or poetry. And taking walks and stuff. Once you stop watching TV, the world starts to feel real again. Take a walk and the world screams at you for your having ignored it for so long. Read a book and you get more of an experience where you actually aren‘t braindead.”
“I’m hoping something like that will happen to me,” Mike says.
“I’m glad you’re doing it. I mean, the main thing is the commercials. Like I said I still watch TV shows on DVD. It’s the whole mind numbing passive just watching something and then in the cracks between you’re being injected with advertisements… it’s totally f’ed. I think having that much more time to actually live makes your life much more interesting. Just think of what people could do if they didn’t watch TV all the time.”
“Well, do you think everyone could do it?”
“I don‘t know… That’s a big question. You can’t just cut TV from everyone’s life. Most of them don’t have to think about anything, really. They get their—have you seen that shirt with the people in front of the TV and it says ‘Why do you think they call it programming?’”
“They get their programming and all things they need to know and say from TV. So if they were suddenly forced to try to live without it, they’d probably experience withdrawal symptoms, like from a drug.”
“Yesterday was my first day without TV and I felt sort of lonely, and I wanted to give in and watch TV, but I didn’t.”
“See, people get like emotionally attached to it. It’s a powerful thing. And it’s not inherently bad or anything, it’s just used poorly. Like any tool, it can be used for good or bad. I don’t know. I just stay away from it. Watching TV actually makes me feel ill, now, like I‘m on bad sedatives with a story to tell. It just disgusts me, the way people are told to view the world. I mean, I like films a lot, but TV can take over your life and become your world if you don’t have self-control. When you give in to TV, you’re giving in to the media’s purchase on your mind. Just think of the commercials alone. There’s some quote like, ‘It’s hard to fight an enemy with an outpost in your head.’ Well, that’s true. So, by giving up TV, you’re taking back some of the autonomy you’ve lost to our ‘culture.’”
“Yeah, well. I’m trying.”
“Yeah, that’s really cool that you’re doing that. I guarantee you you’ll be glad you did if you keep with it and use your time for something better, like developing a skill or something. And if you ever get bored you can always call me up and we can go do something real. Something fun.”
“I love TV,” Sidney says. “How else would I know what’s funny?”
“The whole problem with it is just the passivity element,” Lane says. “That’s the only real problem. If you watched it but were still thinking, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“But mostly it doesn’t really interest me anymore. It’s just mindless entertainment most of the time, not anything real. It‘s like a utility. There’s a whole world that we could…” I get quiet and sit wondering, about to say something but not. My lips look like they’re reluctantly receiving a kiss.
“I don’t know…” I sigh, shutting my eyes and turning my face to the side and looking out, then rubbing my whole forehead with open thumb and palm like I‘m adjusting its fittings. “I don’t know yet.”
Mike’s Dad, I noticed, was watching me from their porch. As I caught his eye, I glanced his’ rolling, and feel a hot mix of shame and pity. I quickly turned to stare intensely into the fire.