This week I’ve been thinking about “choices,” in particular the either/or choices that seem to be everywhere, both politically and personally, and the human demand to somehow find a way to have both alternatives, whether it’s a governor who wants both his prestigious life and his secret lover or a nation that wants an end to recession without having to spend zillions of dollars. That’s the framework of my inability to answer the question asked by a photographer who seems to be coming to Heart Butte in an attempt to see something “real, true and authentic” and wants me to tell her how to go about that. I suspect that her fantasy is that she will find picturesque and either noble or touching scenes of Indians, which she intends to sell, to enhance her own standing.
In fact, I’m seeing in many of these cases that same hidden choice, which is to promote one’s own interests. This morning the Sunday magazine section of the paper tells us Jada Pinkett Smith wants us to know her “true self” in all its intimate depths. Impossible in the first place and she’d better think twice in the second place. Maybe Will Smith likes her the way she is, but what makes us think that we will? Could any of us withstand public knowledge of our intimate “true” selves?
Anyway, what can “true” possibly mean in terms of identity? What is the “true” nature of Native Americans when -- like every other functioning human being -- they vary in response to time and place. The media, by pretending to present reality, fixes in our minds a picture of life that cannot be true. Sometimes that’s destructive. The Heart Butte kids firmly believe that all the rest of America lives like sit com people and that there are only two choices in life: to be like Heart Butte or to be like a sit com sim-suburb.
Obviously there are at least two strategies for keeping control of impossible choices when neither one of them is obviously happy. The first is whether there really are only two choices. A subset is whether they really are mutually exclusive. Generating many alternatives and strategies is a good thing, even if one doesn’t get any more clear-headed about what to do. It’s pretty predictable that the situation will change shape as you accumulate more information, other opinions, interactions between the two choices. Compromise. Obama is becoming Mr. Compromise, which worries some people because they see they see reality as always insisting on one of two clear alternatives, or surrendering. The biggest change between Bush and Obama is not between conservative and liberal but between intransigence and negotiation. And yet Bush was famous in his pre-presidential business years (not particularly successful) for boldly insisting on everything and then quietly settling for a lot less.
Kids in their senior year think they must make a choice between college and jobs without ever working through the alternatives like community college, jobs that lead to education, internships, work/study and a host of other strategies. They seem to have a lot of trouble withstanding the anxiety that’s generated by having to explore a field of unlimited possibilities. Often the adults around them are no better at it. The strategy that has worked for the entire lives of many of these kids is to DEMAND that the adults solve problems for them, make the world do what they want, and pick up the tab as well. This is the strategy of tribes and the strategy of many of their constituents. It works just often enough to be reinforced with small results, while confusing the big picture.
Sometimes the world shifts in a way that happily resolves a difficult choice. I worried a bit over having to choose between a little village and a big city for the decades of retirement. The Internet has so thoroughly brought city and university activities like scholarly research and discourse to any point on the globe that all I’ve had to give up is shopping. Well, of course, I could do that online, too, but it’s not quite the same as wandering Powells. I can buy more books online than I could find at Powells, plus I still have access to Powells. As for the obscure fine arts movies I love, Netflix is up to it. (People entering the post office with their own red envelopes see mine and ask, "What did you watch?" When I tell them, they say, "Never heard of it.")
There’s something more in this craving to “know” and “be known.” More than just the silliness of setting up two such categories. We seem to have a yearning for intimacy without having to let ourselves be known. Consider Governor Sanford, poor man. I think all that public rambling was the real him, hoping that people could see him. All the journalists got out of it was that he wasn’t smart enough to produce a sound bite that would get him off the hook. We’re all anxious to know the “real truth” about Michael Jackson’s death and the crash of the airliner over the ocean. We seem to feel we have an entitlement and it had better be “good” in the sense of fiction having a satisfying composed ending. Impossible. We want to be the only ones who know the true exclusive story, as though it gives us some superiority and as though anything in the media could be "exclusive." What’s the inside deal on that over-the-top raid on suicidal Mormon geezers who dig up Indian artifacts? We seem to think it gives us some control. But it doesn’t.
I’m working my way slowly through the MI-5 series as a backup while I wait for Netflix to find more scarce movies on my list. The big preoccupation on MI-5 is the tension between knowing and not-knowing. They are charged with British domestic intelligence and authorized to kill if necessary to preserve secrecy and safety. The scriptwriters always frame it in choices, often resolved either by chance or by generating a new alternative that changes everything. They don’t address health insurance or global warming, but they’ve picked up a lot of other major issues like the moving of nuclear materials across populated areas and the underfunding of the military complex -- or it it underfunding? Still, the subplot is always intimate relationships, whether they can be maintained in the face of secrecy or whether they would be destroyed by disclosure. Should one form domestic partnerships within the workplace? Or does that provide too many conflicting and distracting choices to be intelligently managed?
I’ve said I’d like a better sound track for my life. But I could use a good scriptwriter sometimes. Even as I sit here and invent my own scripts, wrestling with story choices, and wondering what to say to a photographer who thinks she can just ask someone how to find the “real, true and authentic.” How does she find it where she is? What makes her think it’s any different here? What makes her think I know, or that it’s knowable. Isn’t she just flying to Argentina, in reality not knowing whether she’s going to either a lover or an ocean disaster?