About ‘Condition Oakland’
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TRACK 4 – CHAPTER 15: MID MARCH, AN ODE
Some band called “The Crushing Heart” calls Mark, who is friends, or acquainted at least, with the bassist. They are looking for another band for a show at the YMCA. Like I said, we would play anywhere, so we accept the offer. It’s a good opportunity to play for people who have never heard us, for there’s sure to be a variety of people at such a show. I had gone to shows at other YMCA’s and they’re usually full of younger kids, pop-punk kids, radio kids. They’re a lot of fun.
I’m wandering the crowd before we’re to go on, sometimes watching the band, mostly watching the people. I’m excited and nervous, that unique mixture of anxious pleasure. But it isn’t hitting me too hard; I’m dazed for some reason, floating. We are waiting for the first two bands to finish before we’re on, and then ‘The Crushing Heart’ will go on after us. The first band is called “The Third Bullet.” They’re sort of street punk, I guess, or gutter punk; a little of both. Whatever they are, they’re good. They have a female bass player, and she is attractive, I think more so because she is playing an instrument.
I go up to talk to her, but not just because she’s the only girl. She just looks the most approachable.
“What’s your guys name mean?” I ask her.
“Oh. OK.” She talks to me while she’s plugging in her guitar chords and setting the levels on her guitar amp. “We watch a lot of movies, and we’ve noticed this thing in like, gangster movies or horror movies or,” I’m struggling to hear her over the house music. (The YMCA house music mind you. I think they actually play the song ‘YMCA.’) “recurring thing that when a bad guy wants to kill someone, if they’re a real badass, they’ll shoot them once to sort of incapacitate them, then again to cause pain, and then when they finally want to kill them, they use ‘The Third Bullet.’”
“Right, gotcha, thanks.” I like it.
The second band is awful, some pop-punk disaster. Their singer sounds exactly like every other pop-punk vocalist I’ve ever heard, and they‘re nowhere near classic, so I walk out of the crowd into the improvised “back stage” area, which is actually a weight room. I see Sidney attempting to lift about five hundred pounds on the bench press, as a joke.
“Hey, quit messing with that equipment!” I say in a fake adult voice. He visibly jumps, and I laugh.
“Hey, let’s have a band meeting,” Mark suggests. “Over here.”
We walk into the corner, the free weight area, and sit around each other.
“What kind of band meeting?” Lane asks, tiredly. He seems to be a little out of it.
“We need to do something different this show. There are a lot of kids out there, and they are expecting a good show, and I’ve been thinking. I think we should try to move around more onstage, have more energy, you know?”
“You can’t force that though, it has to just happen,” I say.
“Well, we can try to let it just happen then. You can do that, can’t you?”
“I suppose,” I say. I’m a little afraid at this point. I’m still pretty nervous every time I get up on stage, and the thought of moving, and especially dancing is pretty unnerving. I’m still getting comfortable with my powers as frontman. But I agree to try. “Power stances, right?” I say, hoping to sound enthused.
“Exactly,” Mark says.
Finally we go on and I walk up to the mic.
“Hello. We are Down With Strangers. And we’re going to rock your asses off.” The bass line follows my voice instantly, and then there is a drum roll build up. We are playing a faster song called ‘Distillation’ as the opener this time, trying to play to the crowd. We have written the coolest dance song in history. Allow me to present the chorus:
‘Everybody Move like it was going out of style/
Throw up your hands like they was putting you on trial/
I swear you look so good when you cut loose/
Shake your ass off baby derail that caboose.’
The crowd is rough and rowdy. I guess I forgot to mention that the four of us are dressed like we‘re making a jazzercise video. We decided, it’s the YMCA, let’s show ‘em what we’ve got. Playing this song, loudly, really gets to me and I begin to rock out a little bit.
Our set seems to go by very quickly, but I have some time to look around at the audience. I look back and notice Mark has taken off his shirt and is making some great faces behind the drum set. He is almost ripped and looks good playing like that, but I’m surprised he has taken it off. I guess he just did it on a whim. Sidney is moving around a lot, more than I am. My excuse is that I can’t get too far away from the microphone because I have to sing, but he’s dancing like he doesn’t need an excuse. Lane isn’t though. Lane seems more reserved than usual, almost at the very back of the stage area. There is no real stage, we are just in the Y’s gym, but he is all the way back by the amps. He has his head down and he is playing his parts well, but seems to have totally rebelled against Mark’s suggestion that we should be more energetic.
We finish with “Bridges” and at the end of the song everyone is clapping and shouting, and I thank everyone, tell them to stick around for “The Crushing Heart.”
I walk up to Lane.
“Man, you’ve seemed out of it all night. Is everything OK?”
“Yeah, thanks, I’m fine.”
“Really? Because you can tell me if something’s going on. You don’t look so fine.”
“Well, I guess I’m not then. I don’t know. Just leave me alone and I’ll be alright.” He doesn’t say it in a mean way, “just leave me alone.” So I can tell he isn’t angry with me or someone in the band. I don’t press, and we pack up and load the van.
“How’s that for more energy?” I say to Mark. “Hey, look, we got like fifteen more people to sign the mailing list. People were asking if we had shirts or anything. I think they really liked us.”
“Yeah, we should get some merchandise. I know a guy who makes shirts for pretty cheap. We should work out a design and then I can ask him about it.”
We stand as a band and listen to “The Crushing Heart,” and they are pretty good. They had watched our band and then complimented us when we finished, so we think we should return the favor. We also just wanted to see them. Their style is a little similar to ours, but they have two vocalists and do a lot of really low melodies. They are interesting, and I sign up for their mailing list. We say that we should try to play shows together in the future, and try to build the scene, connect our fans, and they agree.
While we are helping clean up the gym afterwards, the woman in charge of the event comes up to me and hands me fifty dollars.
“You’re the singer from Down With Strangers, right?”
We had made some money, at the Holy Ceiling show, pretty much actually, but standing here with this money in my hand I realize that we actually have to start managing our funds. I walk over to the guys to talk about this, and just then Avery walks in the side door. She looks around and sees people cleaning and putting things away.
“Crap,” she says, and then thinks to joke, “ So when do you guys go on?”
“Uh, you missed it.”
“Yeah, I knew I would. I just got off work.”
“Well, we’re still going out to eat. You should come.”
“Yeah, we’ll be leaving in a few minutes. See you there?”
When we get to Courtesy, Avery is sitting at a table alone. There are four other people we know in a booth behind her, and she is sort of turned sideways talking to them. I slide in next to her, elbow her and say, “Eh? Eh? Pretty good show, eh?”
“I didn’t even get to see you guys,” she says, sounding disappointed.
“Oh yeah,” I say.
I think about A, and feel good sitting next to her. I’m not sure what our relationship is, at this point. We are good friends, and we hang out often, but I want to be more. I want to be her boyfriend, and do boyfriend things. And I think she wants to go out, also, but we know each other too well for there to be any mystery, so we are just casual about the whole thing, and neither one of us makes the first move
“Hey, can I write a song about you?” I ask her suddenly.
“Of course! Sure. I was wondering when you were going to ask me that.”
“Well, I’ll work on it, and then play it for you sometime. I’ll let you know. It might take a while.”
Mark, Lane, and Sidney have just walked in. Lane sits in the booth with us and Mark and Sidney sit down at the counter turned around to face the booths, the restaurant being shaped like a long rectangle there.
I stub out my clove in the ashtray.
“God damn it! Look at that waste!” Mark says, gesturing towards the ashtray.
“What are you talking about?”
“I hate it when people don’t finish their fucking cigarettes.”
“Yeah, if you’re going to kill yourself, don’t be half-assed about it,” Sidney says sarcastically.
“I was finished with it.”
“There were at least three more drags left in that cigarette. I don’t understand why people do that. Why do you smoke if you’re not even going to finish your cigarettes?”
“I already had a buzz. I like to just smoke a little, or at least slowly.”
“Oh, don’t give me that.” He’s serious, but I’m just kidding around. “I don’t want to be addicted.”
“So how much do you smoke anyway?”
“Only when I feel like it.”
“I’m totally against smoking, at all,” Sidney says. “I started when I was like twelve, and smoked for a while before I vowed never to do it again.”
“It’s such a stupid habit. Just look at the facts–”
Mark breaks in laughing. “I love it when people who used to be smokers become anti-smokers, not just non-smokers. Or like, how anti-smokers are always secretly people who wish they could smoke, deep down inside.”
“Yeah, it’s fun,” I say.
“Geez Mark, I had no idea,” Avery says. “You guys could become famous as a band for your views on smoking.”
“I prefer to blow bubbles,” Sidney says. “Does any– do they sell bubbles at the gas station?”
I get to work on that song for Avery. By now, I have a plethora of ideas for how to go about writing a song, having actually read books on the subject. One way I try is to come up with a concept or a title, and then take a walk, listening to music, and think about that one idea. Then I write whatever comes to me in a little pocket notebook and try to fill in the spaces when I got home. Another way is I look through books and try to pick out a good line, and then rearrange the idea so it becomes something original. When I write the song for A I just think about the two of us for a while, staring at the page, and it just comes out.
I bring it to practice and show it to the guys, and they agree to let me play it acoustically, without any backing, but then I suggest that at the very end of the song, the band comes in, and then we segue into the next song. “Avery‘s Song” happens to be in the same key as “Quarter Tank” so we decide to merge the two. We try that, and it works.
I tell Avery about the song over the phone, and tell her it’s basically a love song, and she enjoys that. I explain the basic idea behind it, but don’t tell her the lyrics. I’m saving that for a time when she can actually hear the whole song.
“It’s not really about you, it’s for you. You were my muse.”
We sit in a quiet that is asking me to ask a question.
“How come we never got together?”
“How come we’re so close but have never dated or anything?”
“I’m not really good at serious relationships,” she says. “I need to feel close to more than one person, everybody even, so normally one on one things don’t work out. But I’ve always liked you, from the day we met. Do you remember that day?”
“Of course I do.”
“It was at that record store, when I was with Charlie, and you knew him but I didn’t know you. He didn’t even introduce us, I had to ask you your name.” Charlie is an old friend that I don’t see much of anymore, this was over a year ago. “I also remember I almost used my favorite word on you.”
“What’s your favorite word?”
“Prepossessing. I wanted to call you prepossessing, because you were.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means that even though I had only just met you, you already possessed me just because of the way you looked and dressed and talked. I was already yours.”
She doesn’t say anything, but I know she’s happy.
“Why don’t we try it? Why don’t we try going out? I mean, how can it hurt?”
“Well, it could ruin our relationship. We have a good thing going, and it would get more complicated if we actually call ourselves a couple. I almost prefer to just be your friend. But I am attracted to you.”
“And I’m attracted to you. So, I think we should try it.”
“Well, I warned you that it might not work out, just remember that.”
“We’ll see. We’ll just try it.”
We say goodnight, eventually.
Even though the song is acoustic, it still kicks ass. It rocks, but isn‘t too rocking. It suit’s the words well. Avery is standing in the front looking up at me. I dedicate it to her.
“You and I are like a couple of kids sneaking into a movie
And every part I see is so beautiful to me
All I wanna do is hold hands with you and jump into the screen
And take the show everywhere we wanna go
and steal every scene
And it’ll never have to end
Cause love has a way
Of lasting forever
As long as it’s true
We’ll find something to do
I’m down for whatever
Me and you are like partners in crime,
And sometimes we go through hard times
But you always know that I’m yours, and I know you’re mine
So I think we’ll be fine, don’t you?
Of course I’m the world’s biggest dope
As long as there’s hope
And there always is
Until there’s not (There’s not) a chance in the world
Of us getting caught
Cause you know how it is,
Me, All I ever wanted
Was someone to take care of
All I ever wanted,
Was someone to take care of
And be free”
It feels good to kiss Avery. It’s something I have wanted to do for so long, and it is better than I had thought it would be. Kissing always is. She is an artist, biting my lip, kissing my forehead, my neck. I can’t believe we had gone so long without doing anything more than hugging. We are sitting in my basement, and there is a movie on, but we aren’t watching. Then she stops kissing, and looks up at me.
“We should have done this a long time ago.”
“I know,” I say.
“OK. More,” she says, smiling. We start kissing again.
Louh is fairly difficult. There is more homework than I care to do, but at least the subjects are somewhat interesting. I am fascinated with my Sociology class, and we have a “lifetime sports” class where we go bowling, or play raquetteball, or golfing. I’m really good at bowling, and besides, whenever we do poorly we just pretend like we got a strike anyway and hi-five each other and yell our team name: “Strike Zone!” But still, I’m most interested in the Literature class, with Mr. Sanders. He and I are becoming almost like friends, and he often asks me what I’m reading, and tells me about new books I might enjoy. I’m in the middle of re-reading ‘1984’ and we have a long discussion about it, how accurate some of its’ predictions were in weird ways, elements of the book we see in our actual culture. We were chatting like old friends, two kindred minds who had somehow found each other in a crazy world.
“Orwell wasn’t too far off. Censorship is very much alive in our culture, even if it’s done differently than in the book. For example, the news you watch on television, if you watch television…” He looks at me.
“Oh, good. Well, the media is owned by such corporations that are not about to report on the negative aspects of capitalism or the crimes of said corporations. So certain news actually gets repressed, or censored entirely. Then, what is presented as news becomes a sort of entertainment, sensationalized to the extreme.”
“But there’s more to censorship than that. I mean, there’s an unconscious censorship too. People don’t explore certain ideas on their own even. Because the culture says that certain ideas are outdated. Or, like, certain ideas are masked over with irony, or are made to seem stupid by being portrayed by the idiocy sects that are sitcoms. There’s like, a line in the sand that gets sand kicked in its face all the time. And, everything artists “draw” are lines in that same sand.
“Why do you think that the censorship you’re talking about exists? I mean, why is the news the way you described it? Why is the focus on like, murders, and school shootings, and disasters, and the symptoms of social dis-ease, and all these… I don’t know.. Why do you think that is?”
“Because that’s what’s going on in the world. That’s what “sells”, like they say. That’s the cold reality people expect to see, and so when they see it they understand it. You couldn‘t give them the root of problems because, then the people in power would be exposing themselves.”
“Because then we’d all be exposed.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Well, I think that maybe censorship is an attempt for certain people to stay in power, and to make sure that that power structure doesn’t go anywhere. It’s almost like censorship is society’s lack of confidence in itself. As if mainstream society doesn’t believe it has any real foundation and is afraid of ideas because they could bring change. I don’t think it’s true that most people fear change. I think a lot of people actually love it, and want more change in their lives, but the few people in charge are paranoid of losing what they have, wealth, power, etc. so they have to do things like censorship.”
“Well, what kind of change do you want? Who would you have be in charge?”
“Well obviously you need some kind of structure, but as far as who’s in charge of individual’s lives? Everyone. Each person. Ideally, I would like to see a society where no man lives at the expense of another.”
“That’s a noble goal.”
“I think so. ‘It would take so little for man to be free.’ I mean, some people feel free already, people who live a certain way, like they are in charge of their life. I think I’m like that. But it’s hard to live that way and feel free, because there are still so many problems in the world. Like that quote, ‘No one is free when others are oppressed.’ Anyway, it’s almost like people are mad at the world for some reason. When in fact the world does very little to man, it’s the power structures that man has created, and the fact that so many live at the expense of others.”
“But what other kind of structure could there be?”
“It’s hard to picture it, because for so long people have lived under this system, or systems like this. I’m not saying that systems are bad and structure should be torn down. We need structure to be the framework for us to build our lives in. Some structures allow people to build better lives than others. I don’t know if there is one structure that will work for all people. I almost hope there’s not just one, because how would that be good for anyone? I would rather see a world where people can invent and share their lives and their structures. It would be nice, at least. And of course I understand that when people get together and do something, there’s always compromise, because people have to change to be part of a shared structure, but if they have a true foundation for their individual life, they can take on other structures without losing their identity. They can live together, while retaining their individuality, and be strong enough to not just follow someone else’s structure blindly. You have to sacrifice part of yourself to be with anyone. But it’s like a problem and its cure in the same instance, because though you lose something, you also get joy from the other person, if they are joyful. It can’t always be good though, certain times will be times of transition and difficulty. It’s like trying to talk to people who have no concept of the real world, how power is used and misused. If you are suddenly thrown into another culture… Say you’re a stereotypical jock college guy from the United States and you’re suddenly dropped off in Ghana. You are going to be different. You’re going to act differently, you’re going to feel differently about yourself. You are going to take something from their culture if you are in it long enough, even if you’re entirely opposed to it. You will change, and maybe learn to see differently, or at least be more aware of how you see things. This is a kind of incongruity like a conscious person trying to live in the power structure that exists, set up by major corporations, the government, whoever. The system is constantly trying to make them be certain ways, just by the sheer power of being a certain way and putting that way out on all signals. What they feel about themselves, their lives, their ideas. So if they are trying to maintain their individuality, they are constantly in a battle. But you could also see the example of the jock in Ghana as a normal person being introduced to subcultures and countercultures. If they see enough of it, they are going to be changed by it. If you want to give people another world, you have to show them.”
“Well someone could say that you’re just being idealistic and that a new world would never happen. I mean, you can talk about an ideal world, but in the meantime people don’t know what to do. People are busy living within this structure, and can’t imagine anything different.”
“Different doesn’t have to mean different. If there’s anything we’ve learned about revolutions it’s that they often turn the whole world around to come back to the same thing. Like, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” So, maybe it could also be true, that the more things stay the same, the more room we have for change. That’s why we have to be more open to sharing. I mean, people can’t make a transition to freedom easily. Freedom is hard to come by. Freedom, salvation, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it, comes from you. No one can save you; you undertake your own salvation. It’s like, your God is only the image of God you hold in your mind. The way you live reflects how you feel about your relationship to God, the world, other people. If you have a slave mentality, as so many people do now, then it’s going to be hard for you to feel free. Within our culture, people are conditioned to the slave mentality, and can only have a feeling of power when they’re buying something or exerting power over someone else. And whenever someone purchases something with money they have traded for their time and energy, they might as well be saying: ‘This is what my labor is worth. This is what my life is worth.’ It’s really sad to see what it is actually that so many people are giving their lives away for. I saw a sign the other day in a parking lot, a bank’s parking lot. Someone at that bank thought up the idea for this sign and had it made. It said, “Employee parking only. Is it really worth the $50 fine?” And I thought, of people who work jobs they hate. Is it really worth the paycheck? Is it really worth swimming after a dollar on a hook (–I had to use the Nirvana reference—) for our entire lives and missing what’s really important? We’re all trained to be competitive and individualistic, and these things aren’t bad normally, but when they’re taken to the extremes our very lives fall apart. People pride themselves on success so much, but they have taken on someone else’s image of success and have never really known or been free to chase their own dreams.”
He looked at me and I continued. “Still, I mean, it’s complicated. If people don’t have a good job, they don’t have the things they need. Productivity has to come from somewhere. You can’t just tell people to walk away from it all, you have to show them a different way of living. The world is not perfect, and a transition to a better world would be hard, but if we want a better world as much as so many of us claim to, we should be willing to put our passion into something real, not a knee-jerk reaction like taking an axe to the power systems and just tearing them down. I mean, you could argue that that would be cathartic for people, even fun. It’s so easy to tear something down. What’s hard is being constructive in the face of such destructive impulses, including self-destruction, which are so embedded in our culture. Sometimes we hate ourselves, and what we’ve made of the world, and what that world has made of us. So, it’s hard to stay positive, optimistic, even sincere. But we have to try.”
He sat down at his desk. “But some of what you’re talking about Tim just isn’t feasible. In the fifties the Beat’s rejected the consumerist lifestyle, quitting their jobs as you say, at the cost of food and security, to roam the country, be wanderers, and they could do that for a while, but the problem is they had to sacrifice material goods to live how they wanted. To live free, how you’re talking about. Then in the sixties with the war, when it went political, there was a huge clash and I guess you could say we’re living in the aftermath of that clash… Not sure what to do about either side of the issue.”
“What about technology? Why couldn’t we work towards a society where we get the goods we need through nanotechnology, through devices like the replicators on Star Trek? And use more environmentally friendly technology to get the energy? Get the material for the replicators from space travel? Haven’t you ever wanted to explore strange new worlds? To seek out new life and new civilizations?”
He laughs a little. “That’d be something.
“But back to censorship. Ideas like that don’t reach people.”
“Yeah, but why not?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’re not ready for them. The media’s reality is self-sustaining, and it feeds off of any attempt at change. Like, I watched the 60’s taken up by the media and suddenly these new revolutionary ideas were visible, for a moment. The media never wanted to give coverage to real change, and once it got a hold of itself, after the shock of so many anxious youths, it had a real simple way to nip those revolutionary ideas in the bud.”
“It simply repackaged them. And then sold our revolutionary spirit back to us. Made it a commodity. Pretty soon you could buy a peace button in major stores. You didn’t have to make your own style of living anymore, it was sold to you.”
“But this is different. This would be like discovering a new frontier in so many ways.”
“Yes, I imagine it would.”
“It would have to be coherent, organized, but not dominated or oppressive.”
“Well, when you think of the media, and the companies that have commercials in the media, they’re doing the same thing with ideas and beliefs. It’s awful sometimes when you can actually see the true intent of some of these corporations, how they use people’s deepest impulses for community, and love, to turn it all around just to sell them something and make a profit.”
“Holy shit! I just realized that you could even say that reality television is so popular because people don’t feel any true sense of reality. They’re being sold reality, emotions, suspense, expectations, hope, the very things that should be the fabric of our lives. How awful! If only we could get people to live… To be alive… like something depended on it.”
“Television programs are designed to keep people happy, in some way. Which just distracts people from real issues, which are totally ignored. Television is just as pervasive in our lives as it is in 1984. Only, we do it by choice. They had to watch the screen every day, but we don’t. People choose to have that control over them.”
“Don’t you think, though,” I say, “that there are at least some people that are actively rebelling against the dominant culture, like there are in 1984? I mean, they still found ways to live, even if it was hard.”
“I guess, well sometimes I think that we don’t feel like we have control over our lives, and it’s because we’ve been so separated from the real parts of living, like growing food and building communities, living together and being a part of the culture, making music, creating stories, making art… So people get lazy about the rest of their lives, too. They’re being entertained to death, watching TV and going to the movies and never learning to stimulate themselves in real ways like sharing experiences, bike rides, cooking, dancing, music, art, love. Reading a book. It seems most people feel like the world is something you just watch go by, and they just want to buy something to fix their problems rather than actually working through them. We could stand up and live our lives, actually decide what happens to us, as people. We can plan gatherings and create together and do beautiful things, if we’d just do them. And I’m not saying this doesn’t happen to some degree now. Still, I think people feel powerless in their government, but if we got together and organized, we could affect or create real change. So many people turn nihilistic and say the world is ending when really we’re at a time when anything is truly possible, if we just did it. Anyway, we have freedoms that weren’t possible in the book. That’s what I’m trying to say.”
“We do have freedoms, but so few people use them. We’re so proud of how free we are, but really it takes an independently thinking mind to be free, or at least freer than people that just go along with the herd their entire lives. It’s more complicated to be free, it takes more work. So most people just don’t care. In the book there were thought police, but in the real world, nearly everyone is a volunteer, undercover member of the thought police. Also, you have to consider the media and how it controls people’s ideas about the world. Consider the textbooks you use in this school. The history books especially are often biased to whichever social class or culture you are approaching it from. That’s just like in 1984 when the ruling class altered the history constantly to fit whatever they wanted people to believe.”
“Well, Mr. Michaels uses some different books than you might expect. In fact we just read a piece about Vietnam out of Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ I’ve read the whole thing, which was no easy task, but it was a really amazing experience. So it’s good that he’s teaching from differing viewpoints.”
“Yeah, this school is sometimes pretty good about things like that. Mr. Michaels especially. But you have to remember most public schools are basically geared towards indoctrinization. Consider the fact that public education was started in this country to create ‘informed’ voters. In fact, it creates drones, people who don’t question the system in any major way.”
“I know, believe me. I know.”
We talk often about things like this, and sometimes he actually lectures me. I think he enjoys having someone to tell all of these things to, since he has no children and if he went on like this in class parents would be calling the school. I agree with a lot of the things he says, but sometimes I call him out on things. He looks at things in black and white occasionally, and I like to keep him on his toes. And he does the same for me. I tell him about some of my theories, too, about how our culture wants to keep us feeling alone so that our feelings of loneliness cause us to buy more things and worry about what we own rather than worrying about real friendships and connections we have.
“I have this theory I’ve been working on,” I tell him one day. “I call it ‘the invisible fence.’ See, my friend Mike has a dog, and there is this thing called ‘the invisible fence’ which is a line that you bury around the perimeter of your yard, and it comes with a collar you attach to your dog. So, when the dog tries to leave the yard, as he approaches the fence there is a warning beep. And then if he ignores this, as he crosses the buried line, he gets an electric shock.”
“That’s awful,” he says, shaking his head.
“Well, I don’t know about the ethical dilemma inherent in the device itself, I mean, you don’t want your dog to run away. But when I encountered it I began to develop a metaphor in my mind. Like, there is an Invisible Fence that is imbedded in all of us, by society, that dictates how we act and gives us boundaries that we are told not to cross.”
“Like the thought police.”
“Yeah, it’s like society keeps us in one frame of mind all the time, usually one rooted in consumerism, and if you try to break out of that, society comes along and tries to put you in your place. If you try to break free of the system and exist on your own, say in a real self-sustaining community or eco-village, or another alternative lifestyle, the system rejects you. You get the shock of non-acceptance by the mainstream. Alternative ways of living are becoming more and more marginalized, stratified?, so that it’s difficult to do anything but conform. It’s not just when you try to live differently in major ways, either. People are attacked when they just try to fight loneliness and alienation in our culture. Like in trying to get people from in front of their televisions and into an actual shared experience, you’d probably be arrested for ‘disturbing the peace,’ or something… It’s like people are afraid of connecting with others because they feel like they don’t have anything to give.
“I’m in this band, and when we perform, we try to break out of this feeling of isolation, and try to make people share an actual experience with us. We’re called, ‘Down With Strangers,’ in fact, and we sort of have a philosophy, as a band, a political slant almost, but not overtly political. More like that phrase, ‘the personal as political.’ And my idea of the Invisible Fence fits in with what we try to do with our music. We want to try to get to the core of the power we have as individuals, and our actual freedom, to actually change something in the world, breaking free of the Invisible Fence that keeps us ‘under control.’ I guess we hope for a world where eventually people can live with self-control.’”
“That’s very interesting. I didn’t know you had a band. I would like to see you play sometime, if it’s ever possible. Let me know if you’re playing at a bar or someplace where I could be inconspicuous. Not the only old guy in the place, you know?”
I let out a little laugh. “Yeah, I’ll let you know.”
“Have a good weekend, Tim. You’ve given me something to think about, certainly.”
Oh shit, I think. It’s the weekend!
I bolt down the stairs, flying. English is my last class on Friday, and I know that means Sidney is just getting out of Math. So I meet him outside in the hallway and then we head for the parking lot.
“What are you doing tonight?” I ask.
“I don’t know yet. What are you doing?”
“I think we should have a party or something. At Mark’s house. He’s got a fucking awesome house for parties.”
“Well, let’s go to your house and call him, and then call everyone else once we get the OK.”
We get in the car and roll down the windows. The day is spring incarnate. We put on The Cure singles album and I change the track to “In Between Days,” and turn it up. There is a long line out of the parking lot, so we start honking and yelling at people, mock obscenities.
We get about ten million people to come to Mark’s house. It’s a “Conclave” event, the first official one we have for people, with very little planning. Sometimes it’s best to just take an idea and go with it. We think it would be cool to get together, everyone, for a big dinner type party, and share the cooking and everything too.
Even though Mark has the perfect house for a party, we’re all in the backyard. See, we improvise this giant barbeque, setting up tables and folding chairs and buying tons of food. Mark brings out a CD player to put on his deck. He even has some Tiki torches.
We are all sitting around eating, and we decide to call the event the Inaugural “Meat Fire Music Festival.” It’s really a lot of fun. The whole band is there, plus Charlin and A, and like I said, 9,999,994 more. I don’t even know all of these people. We have connections to tons of other groups apparently. Mike is there, of course, and some of Mark’s friends that we don’t yet know. Some kids are drinking, offering to buy beer for us. I am sitting across from Avery, telling her about Mr. Sanders. She says she has a teacher like that; one she can actually talk to.
“We’re so lucky,” I say, “that people like that actually exist, and they’re not just in books and movies. Everyone should have teachers like that.”
We start talking about books, and then the larger conversation seems to merge with Avery and I and then everyone is talking about books. “What’s your favorite book?” and all that. “Who are your favorite authors?”
“I used to like science fiction mostly,” says Charlin, which is perfect. “All of the classic science fiction. Like Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke. But now I read everything.”
“Have you ever read William Gibson?” Lane asks her.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Read ‘Neuromancer.’ ”
“I used to read science fiction a lot more,” I say. “But now I’m trying to read more of all types of genres.”
“What’s your favorite book?”
“I’ll say 1984. Just because I just reread it. And no one claims it as their favorite. So, just to be different, 1984. What’s yours?” I’m looking at Lane, who had asked me.
Charlin interrupts, “How can 1984 be your favorite book? It’s so depressing.”
“Yeah, it’s depressing.” I pause. “But I take from it what I can. I take the philosophy of the main characters, the human spirit fighting for life, trying to live free, to love… even if they fail.”
“It’s still depressing.”
“Anyway, Lane, what’s your favorite?”
“Anything by Kerouac. I just read Lonesome Traveler, and it was excellent.”
“If you like science fiction you should read ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson. It’s brilliant,” Sidney says. “That’s my favorite as of right now. It‘s more cyberpunk actually.”
Someone’s called my cell phone to ask for directions.
“Tim’s a cyberpunk,“ Charlin says, referring to my phone.
I shrug, like, whaddya want?
Avery comes over and sits closer to us, getting into the conversation.
“Someone once told me,” she says,” that whatever someone’s favorite fictional book is, it’s like the equivalent of the Bible to them. Their holy book. I tend to agree with that.”
“So what’s your favorite?”
‘The Sun Also Rises’ by Hemingway. Yeah, I’ll call that my favorite.”
“I’ve tried to read that,” I say. “Maybe I’ll try again since it’s your favorite.
“What’s your favorite Charlin?”
“Definitely ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, by Douglas Coupland. I just… love that book.”
“What’s Mark’s favorite?” I ask her.
“Ask him. Hey Mark!”
“What?” he yells.
“What’s your favorite book?”
“Um, Oh. It‘s not a book, it’s Watchmen.” he says.
“Your favorite thing isn’t a book, it’s to watch men?” Charlin asks.
We all laugh.
“I think he means that graphic novel, ‘Watchmen,’” Lane says.
“Either that or something by Vonnegut.”
We talk about all the things we love and share; books, then movies and music. It’s pretty late when we clean up the backyard and go inside. Some people are pretty drunk by that time, so Mark suggests people stay over, rather than drive home.
“We should have a sleepover!” I exclaim.
“Uh. Yeah, we could do that.”
“Everybody should sleep here! We could camp out in your basement, with sleeping bags.”
“Let me ask if it’s OK with my parents.”
He comes back downstairs, giving us the affirmative.
“Can you stay?” I ask A.
“I’ll have to make something up. Lie to my Mom.”
“Tell her I’ve kidnapped you.”
We raid Mark’s closets and basement for blankets and pillows and sleeping bags. Apparently Mark’s parents are willing to spend their money on nice things, so it’s strange that he doesn’t go to a better school.
Kids are having a miniature dance party in his basement; some kid DJing. It feels good to move to the music and sing along to songs we all know.
We all have our bedding set up, but we’re not about to go to sleep. A few of Mark’s friends are passed out on the giant L-shaped sofa, in front of the TV. Some kids sit around and talk, some play pool. I’m trying to make Avery arm-wrestle me. When she refuses I attack her. We are rolling around all over the place, and I’m tickling her. I get sort of turned on by it, and I think she does, too. We both have had a few beers. Our sleeping bags are set up together, both unzipped, one to make a bed and then the other one as a cover.
It takes forever for everyone to fall asleep.
We start making out, and it is great. I mean, first of all she is wearing pajama pants and a tank top, so there isn’t really anything preventing me from going for whatever I want to go for. She doesn’t seem to mind, not at all. In fact she’s being more aggressive than I am. We have been going out for a while now, and I think we both want to take it further.
My hand makes its way down her pants, and she isn’t trying to stop me. The opposite in fact. I know she’s had sex before, because we have talked about it. I have had sex before, a few times, but only with one person. I take it pretty seriously; I’m not the kind of guy to just have sex with anyone. Sometimes I wish I were, though. I don’t know. Anyway, if there is anyone at this moment I would have sex with, and really mean it, it is definitely her. We know each other so well, and it almost seems like the world wants us to be together. We met randomly so long ago, and most people just meet each other like that and never do anything about it, but we both wanted to keep in touch after just meeting each other that once. That night we met, I had found out she was in a band, actually sang for a group, and they had a show coming up. So I went, and she was brilliant, such a beautiful voice. My eyes were fixed on her the entire show. Every once in a while she would yell, or play with her hair. The band was pretty good, I guess, but I was more interested in her, and her singing.
Somehow, in this room full of passed out sleeping friends, unbeknownst (hopefully) to any of them, we have removed any clothing that is slowing us down. I have a condom right next to me, in my bag. I’m always prepared for something like this, because you really never know, right? So this night we do it, and it is brilliant. We are afraid someone might wake up, so we have to be careful not to make too much noise, or bump into anyone next to us, so our motions are subdued, which prolongs the experience, makes it better. I feel my love for her pulsing in me, in her. We are kissing each other after, and I look into her eyes, a few beads of sweat on my forehead. “I love you,” I say. And she smiles up at me.
I don’t even think until after the fact that maybe we shouldn’t have been doing that in the middle of a room full of our friends. I don’t think it was wrong, though. Sometimes you have to do things, even if in your head you think someone may disapprove. If it feels right, normally it is right, I have found. That is, if you have built up your own values, instead of taking on someone else’s directly. If you learn to trust yourself. I feel a tinge of guilt, but no harm was done, so I don’t linger on it. Besides, it was brilliant. We fall asleep like a couple of ex- Siamese twins.
Spring goes by as quickly as it always does, and before we know it we are out of school, for the summer. After that night at Mark’s house, Lane gave me a list of essentials Jack Kerouac wrote you should have for writing which he called ’Belief and Technique for Modern Prose.’ Reading it is like being drenched in Holy Water, and I still feel it wet on my skin and in my mind through all these days after, as well as other things. On the last day of school I go by Mr. Sanders’ room and tell him about a show, at a bar as he suggested, where he can come and see us play. We are playing at The Side Bar, downtown, and we’re considering it a kickoff to the summer. A jumpstart. We try not to take ourselves too seriously onstage; try to make it fun. So, about a week before the show, I go with Sidney to his uncle’s house, and his uncle helps us build the contraption we have dreamed up.
It is a long, rectangular box, with slots in it big enough to hold cans of Silly String, and a hinged lid that will allow one of us to step on it, applying pressure to the tops of the canisters, launching Silly String through the holes in the front of the device, which is long enough to hold six cans. It sets us back about $25, for wood and then the Silly String, cause that shit is expensive. But we feel it is worth it. And besides, we are using money we have earned by playing out, so we feel as if we are ‘giving back’ to the audience. Giving back faces full of Silly String.
We get to the Side Bar early, to ask if we can use the Silly String Launcher on stage, get all that business worked out. They say it’s fine as long as we clean it up afterwards. We keep it behind Sidney’s bass amp before the proper time.
The club is sort of small, and very smoky. There are band stickers and posters for upcoming shows everywhere. I’ve been to this place a few times, to see bands I really like, so it is cool to actually be playing here.
About halfway through the set, we bring the Silly String launcher out, and set it up at the front of the stage. The stage is high enough to reach about chest height on the average audience member, which is perfect. We don’t want to put anyone’s eye out with it or anything. I am the one to do the honors, the first shot. We had tested it out at Sidney’s uncle’s house, and it worked like a charm then, but for some reason now, I can’t get it to work. It doesn’t spray out on the loud-music part like we had wanted, and as I try to push down harder with my foot, it slides out from under me, and falls into the crowd. We aren’t exactly professional carpenters or experienced birdhouse makers or any of that, so it is pretty shoddily made. Thusly, it basically explodes as it hits the ground, and the Silly String cans fall out and roll off in all directions, hitting people’s feet. Those in the front of the audience figure out what had happened, and what had actually been intended, and then decide to take off with it. People pick up the cans. They start spraying each other, shooting it up into the air, and spraying us onstage. It is chaotic. Avery gets a hold of a can, and sprays it right in my face while I am singing. Pink Silly String is hanging out of my mouth, and it tastes horrible, but I keep singing. Mark is laughing so hard behind me I can hear him over the music, and Lane smiles for what seems like the first time in a week. It is the most fun I’ve ever had playing live. So far at least.
I had totally forgotten that Mr. Sanders was going to be there until after the show when I see him sitting at the bar. I walk over to him, wiping my face on a towel, and sit down. He looks very happy. He holds out his hand and I shake it, and he simply says, “Good work, Tim.” I thank him for coming, and ask him what he thought.
“The music was good, but I was listening for the words. It was a little hard to understand, but what I heard sounded wonderful. Well done.”
He reaches inside his jacket, and pulls out an envelope.
“I’ve written a little something, for you. I was thinking about what you said the other day, and I felt the best way to get my thoughts out was to write a letter. Here’s the result. I hope you’ll find time to write me back, and keep in touch. My address is on the envelope, there.”
“Thanks, Mr. Sanders.”
“Have a good summer, Tim.”
“Thanks. You too.”