Thursday, October 15, 2009

HOME ON THE RANGE, and elsewhere

Yesterday we buried Wayne Anderson, my neighbor, in the Manchester Cemetery. Since the forecast had been freezing rain, we were all a bit nervous, especially the mortician who was going to have to do the service if I went off the road. He’d done that before, but this service, in honor of Wayne’s great love of cowboys, was in part a singing service featuring two old classics: “Bury me not on the lone prairie” and “Home on the Range.” He was game, though, on the premise that such hardy old tunes could never be permanently damaged. I myself was hoping that someone would pull a harmonica out of his or her pocket, an entirely possible development given the people in attendance. Neither Roy Rogers or Gene Autry showed up to help us out, but we did okay.

These were not folks I normally socialize with, though when we played “do you know” and “are you related to,” there were connections. Most of them knew or knew about Bob Scriver. One was related to Ramona Davis, who taught in the classroom next to mine when I first came to Browning. I daresay no one there, including the mortican, had any idea about Unitarianism, but the beauty of Unitarianism is that as a pluralistic denomination within itself, we’re used to including people surprised to be there.

At such events people are looking back over a span of time and wondering how they fit into the story. Wayne and Rose started out running a dairy in Illinois, moved to various places in Montana so they could be ranchers, and spent many happy years as snowbirds commuting far south. When I looked for a theme for Wayne, I didn’t have to try very hard because he’s only a year older than me, the same generation. We were both fans of the same Fifties cowboy shows. Whenever I went over to their trailer in the last couple of years, the TV was tuned to reruns on the Cowboy Channel. I'd glance over and have to say, "Hey, I remember that story!" It strangely reassuring to reflect that if there’s a whole channel with nothing but reruns of Fifties cowboy shows, Wayne and I must not be the last of the tribe.

And it’s been interesting to think about why that is. Born in the Thirties, we were not Boomers, who relate to shows that are invisible to me. They called us the Silent Generation. We grew up watching WWII, conscious of world destruction and aware of rationing -- sometimes imposed by shortages and other times by the economy at home. I interpret those cowboy shows as morality plays responding to veterans trying to stand-down from violence and also emphasizing the honor of sacrifice by those who would be doing much of the rebuilding. Marshall Dillon and Mister Faver, to say nothing of Paladin, were always trying to find some kind of justice (enforced with guns only if necessary) in the midst of a confused frontier where the big and strong took advantage.

Presently, the heterogeneity of society probably approaches the demographics of the 19th century. Now we’re running into two other forces. One is “branding” or the attempt to define people into groups who buy about the same stuff (not just commercial objects, but also things like education and recreation). (See: )

The other is politics, which always comes down to economics (often militarized), and “corporate” forces that are as strong as they were in the days of colonization. Globalization and the tricky bookkeeping thereof have huge impact on the population’s self-grouping. Extreme groups try to enforce this self-protection-through-allegiance by thinking up epithets, dire outcomes, and pseudo-religion. The stuff is miserable to deal with because confrontation always means a pissing contest with skunks. Even Obama can’t escape their reeking hatred. The only thing that saves us is that they overestimate their success so much that they eventually become ridiculous and the movement dies of self-mockery. They think they are destroying Democratic liberals, but it looks to me as though the damage in the end will amount to the destruction of the Republicans.

The people who talk about part versus whole these days are not so likely to speak of foxes (lots of forays into many points of view) versus hedgehogs (the pursuit of one big idea) so much as using the terms “lumpers” and “splitters.” Most confusingly, it seems as though lumping and splitting are co-existing, even entwined. Even as a generation gets lumped, the various economic, educational and affinity groups get split out within and between them. The Internet is part of this, with its capacity to accommodate huge groups all responding to the same thing, but at the same time to support interest and family groups as small as half-a-dozen and to put people with exotic diseases in touch with each other enough to redefine and empower themselves.

A constant cry about younger generations is that they are stupid because they don’t know what their parents and other olders know. Less heard is the cry of the younger generations that their parents don’t know anything useful in a time of innovation and change. Youngers can’t spell; olders can’t text so don’t understand that spelling is old-fashioned. Worse than that, olders think education is about content; youngers know education is about process, method, understanding how to do it. Both sides will cling to cherished definitions of words or events and resist any attempts to challenge them.

When we try to understand all these dimensions, we’re playing three-layered chess with different moves required on each level. Society is always laminated, always dissected into prosperity, culture, education, gender, national origin, and a host of other categories. When we say the Fifties were simpler, what we really mean is that more of life was unconscious: we just didn’t have much awareness of other people’s lives. The problem in today’s cacophony of voices, each demanding recognition of uniqueness, might be confusion about what we can all share.

I suggest that our rallying point will be survival in the face of global changes threatening human and other life, both the natural climate cycles of the planet (which has never accommodated itself to us) and the unnatural forces we have created, esp. the rising tide of chemicals that destroy life. Simple overpopulation is a major contributor to both problems. That’s a problem the frontier of the American West never had to face.

Yesterday someone at the graveside told a story about an officiating priest somewhere who had become so involved in his testifying and preaching and arm-waving that he slipped and fell backwards into the open grave! He was determined enough to climb out, dust himself off, laugh, and go on with the ceremony. Let that be a lesson to us.

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