Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Origins

One thing that I have come to discover about life is that a person’s views on an issue, their political personality if you will, is highly dependent not merely on formative experiences, like where one grew up or what one’s parents thought and believed, but also on inherent pesonality and deeply personal experience.  Academics, politicians, and just plain old folks with an interest in the world of idea would all like to think that people’s views arise from thought and judgment, a weighing of arguments, with a dash of realization that not all desireable social goods are achievable. 

I wish it were so as well, but it is not.  As I near my 50th birthday, never has it been more clear to me that a person’s politics is a mix of their natural inclination as it has encountered day-to-day life and experiences.  Exceptional persons exist, of course, as they always do, but I’m not speaking of them.  I’m speaking of average, ordinary people. 

The archtypical example—so prevalent in the crime-ridden 1970s—was the liberal who was mugged and thereafter gained a new appreciation for the police and, by extention, political candidates who stood for and promised law and order.  This visceral experience, this amazing event of having another human being point the barrel of a gun in your face or beat you as if you were some kind of stray dog on the street, can have a profound life-changing event on a person.  It can even have a life-changing event for a polity, as in the famous case of New York City, which right up to the last poll was promising Mayor Dinkins a new term in office.  

Vote for a knuckle-dragger like Rudolph Guliani? Who, me?  Us?

Yet, we all know what those same deeply blue voters did once they were in the solitude of the polling booth.


Let me give you two examples from my own life to illustrate what I mean by inherent personality and by politics-shaping personal experience.  First, with regard to inherent personality:

When I was 22 years old, I had a girlfriend in a small Orange County town called Brea. To get to her place, I travelled down a certain stretch of road, some of which bordered the oldest parts of the town.  One one corner, there was a huge lot, raised by the terrain some seven feet or so from street level and bordered by an old, brick retaining wall of obvious craftsmanship and beauty.  On the lot was one of the biggest trees I had ever seen in my life, its gigantic trunk many feet across and its huge canopy enveloping the entire piece of property in a deep shade.  Set back from the street, accessible by a small staircase through the retaining wall and a winding sidewalk bordered by rose bushes, was a three-level Victorian-style home.  The home was well taken-care of and was in good shape despite its obvious age.  It was a living piece of the past in an otherwise 1980s suburban-style spawl, a place of character and great beauty.  I used to think privately to myself that no doubt the tree was some sort of Ent.  What other possibility could there be for such size, such a stance, standing near the house not only to shade it but to protect it?

That girlfriend dumped me a few months later, and as a result my business in Brea dropped considerably.  However, about a year later, I happened to be headed down the same road and looked over to take a look at the old Victorian and it’s entish protector and was hit with a shock, a purely psychic blow to the head by a metaphysical bat.

I pulled my Vespa off the street and over the curb, got off and looked across the street at the corner where the house once stood.  The house, the tree, the retaining wall,the garden, everything was gone.  In its place was a new strip mall with a Jiffy-Lube, a nail salon, a donut shop and an artificial tan salon.  I was seething with rage and deep sorrow at the same time. 

I stood there in mute disbelief looking at what must have been the region’s 20th Jiffy-Lube, 50th nail and tanning salon and 100th donut shop, unable to grasp the complete lack of civic pride, the complete lack of respect for the past, for our own people’s history, that would allow a city government to approve yet another strip mall and allow an obvious historical location to be obliterated. 

At that time in my life, I and my circle hung out at a café in uptown Fullerton called Rutabegorz.  We were mostly students, though not all, and definitely leaned liberal, but, again, not all.  A few nights after I discovered a new place to get my oil changed for only $19.99 and while-u-wait, we were all gathered at our usual table, sipping our favorite drinks, talking and smoking like fiends.  I told the tale above, expecting shared outrage.  What I got instead was a wide division in outlook, which did not fall along party or political lines.  Some were as outraged as I was and mourned the loss of a piece of history, of a piece of civic pride; others marked it down as the price to be paid for economic progress and emphasized the new jobs and businesses that were created.

It wasn’t the sort of thing one could be talked into: one either felt it, and felt it deep, or one simply did not.  It didn’t seem to follow any sort of pattern.  It simply resonated with some and was mostly insignificant to others.

Second story, regarding personal experience:

I was working hard during a Brunch shift, handling about 18 tables or so when my manager came out to the floor to tell me that I had an important phone call to take in his office.  I knew what it was right away.  I had hoped for three more weeks for the semester to end and for me to get home, but that hope was gone now.

It was my dad, telling me my sister had died in her room just a few minutes ago and that the L.A. County Coroner’s Office was on its way to the house.  I could hear my mom wailing in the background. I promised to get home as soon as humanly possible and hung up.  I knew the only reason I was back up at Berkeley was because my sister had asked me to go, had insisted I go, rather than skip it and remain home with her. I did so reluctantly and in a flash knew that I had made the wrong call.

Because waiting tables is a better job than you’d think it was (if the Secretary of State tasked me this minute to pick a team and fly to Tehran with the goal of negotiating the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, I would very much rather go with my old Blue Bayou wait-staff and cooks than any group of State Department personnel and I would have a much higher likelihood of success) by the time I exited the manager’s office and walked around to the front counter, my co-workers, plus a few regular customers, had raised enough money to cover a one-way flight from Oakland to Orange County leaving in about three hours.  I barely had time to thank everyone before being pushed out the door and told to go as quickly as I could.

I stopped by my apartment, changed, got together a small bag, drove to the airport and before I knew it I was in the car of one of my uncles headed for home. 

When I got home, I found chaos.  The Coroner’s Office had just left and my mother was traumatized beyond belief by having witnessed two gum-snapping oafs stuffing my sister’s body into a body bag and the lugging her to the van, tossing her in like a piece of luggage.  My dad, as usual, was near-useless.  One uncle was drunk (the smart one) the other useless (the dumb one). So, I took charge.

Over the next 24-48 hours, my life was a blur.  I remember we re-located to my maternal grandmother’s home because my mother couldn’t be in the house where Monette had died, and I remember that people—friends, neighbors, people we didn’t even know, would come by with complete meals cooked for all of us.  It’s a blur, but I remember a lot.
But most especially, I remember the Funeral Home.

As we made arrangements for a memorial service and cremation (my sister had requested cremation because she wanted to burn every single cancer cell that had killed her), my mother, father and I were dealing with a particular representative of the funeral home.  One afternoon, we had a meeting with him in Uptown Whittier to discuss the final arrangements.  We arrived much too early and took refuge in an old Winchell’s Donut House and had Monette’s favorite (white frosting with chocolate sprinkles) and coffee and waited.  When the time came, we crossed the street and eventually we found ourselves in the representative’s plush office.  He was a bit taken aback that I was apparently in charge, but adjusted quickly.  We sat at his large desk—plainly designed to enable entire families to sit around it—with him on his side and me on the other other, my father to my left, my mother to the right.

And we began to discuss business.  This is the time for the service, this is how many guests the facility can hold, this is the music you’ve chosen, this is the memorial program, this is how much the service costs, this is the charge for the music, here is the performance fee for the singer, here is the printing fee for the program.  It was difficult, but important business.  We all wanted Monette’s farewell to be special, to be something to remember her by.

Then he pulled out a single sheet of white paper with a list on it and passed it to me, explaining it was the final decision we had to make and that he knew we would do right by Monette’s memory in making our decision.  The list read as follows, with the formatting as presented 
(though except for the last line, from memory):

1)  Maple Custom-Built Coffin with Floral Design, Velvet-lined, Brass Handles:        $12,500
2)  Maple Coffin with Simple Design, Felt-lined, Brass Handles:                                $10,000
3)  Oak Coffin with Plain Design, Felt-Lined, Metal Handles:                                      $8,000
4)  Oak Coffin, plain, with wooden handles                                                                 $6,000
5)  Wooden Coffin, plain, with wooden handles                                                          $4,000

6) CARDBOARD BOX                                                                                                           FREE

This was the first time in my life that I actively considered killing a man for a brief moment.  As my mother broke down in tears and my father retreated further into whatever ape-land he inhabits when conscious, I half-stood, bent over the table and said something right along the following:  “If you think such a dirty fucking trick is going work with us you’re mistaken you fucking ghoul. Put her in the fucking cardboard box and if I so much as see you again until this funeral is over I swear as God as my witness they’ll be stuffing your ass in a free-free-free complimentary cardboard box next.”

I had assumed, based on what I had thought was common human decency, that there were lines beyond which businessmen would not cross in search of a modest profit.  I learned, though this experience, that there is no such line and that a strong government is necessary to keep profit-seeking within agreed-upon bounds and no further.  This has been my political view on the matter ever since.

Had I not been born with an inherent sentimentality for the past and for preservation of tradition, had this experience not had happened to me, my views could very well be entirely different.


Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone express something you find hard to believe an intelligent peson could believe: in my experience, there is probably a good reason for it.

5 comments:

  1. Jourdan, hard to see how these episodes wouldn't leave a bad taste in your mouth. To say the least.

    The views you've developed fit into what has been described as the Guardian Syndrome, and stands opposed to the Commerce Syndrome.

    Here is a brilliant exposition on these syndromes and how they play out in the modern world: The Economics of Pricelessness. I read it last month and I should re-read it. Venkatesh Rao is one of the most erudite and original thinkers on the intersection of technology, economics and politics I know.

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  2. Oh and Jourdan - congrats on approaching your 50th birthday - you little punk! <kidding!> <noogies!>

    Hey when the time comes remind me to pass down some tips on surviving your colonoscopy - which is kinda like your beat-down hazing to enter the middle-aged club... ;)

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  3. Jourdan is almost 50?!? I thought you were a whippersnapper Jourdan, but you're *almost* a cranky old fart! :))

    Happy early birthday!

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  4. Jourdan, I don't know how I missed reading this post earlier. I'm so sorry for the loss of your sister, and the experience you had dealing with such a tragic event. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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  5. Good lord. I can't believe they would hand you a list that ended like that. What horrible vultures, to take advantage of a family in their grief. So sorry you had that experience, Jourdan.

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