Sunday, June 06, 2010

Standing Water

As a youngster growing up in a mostly white, middle-class suburb of New York, I felt the contemptible urge to conform. Girls my age all starved themselves to look like Twiggy. Everybody watched "Ed Sullivan," and ate Mallomars. To fit in, one had to wear garish red nailpolish, and keep one's nails so long they should have been registered as weapons.

I admit, I was a weird kid. After taking a bath, from time to time, I'd wrap myself in an exotic, warm towel and sit on the toilet seat staring at standing water that didn't quite make it all the way down the drain. This is what it must mean to be normal, I thought, to be in a permanent state of intellectual stasis neither in the tub nor down the drain.

Often, too, when I took the local train from Greenwich Village back to Main Street, Flushing, I'd ask a passenger if they'd heard of surrealism. One man told me he had, and he was convinced a shot of penicillin would cure it. Get me out of here, I thought, out of a place where seeing the world differently was seen as a socially transmittable disease.

Those of us who can remember the sixties are glad we don't have to relive them, or do we?

A frightening residual effect of the so-called new normal is this phenomenon of "neighborhood watch," neighbor keeping track of neighbor. There's even a sign on the street where I now live advising people to call police if they see anything "unusual or out of the ordinary."

My neighbor perfectly exempifies the so-called new normal when she talks about going through the newspaper to make bids on homes that were taken over by banks in foreclosure. Someone else's loss is her gain. I can recall, too, my neighbors in Manhattan telling me that they checked the obituaries to find vacancies for family members.Yes, I know, this is what is known as the lowest common denominator.

As a country, we are pregnant with the lowest common denominator. We've become so adept at social homicide that we no longer have to use bullets, just the default position of conform or perish. We now view adaptability as virtue, and the desire to radically transform oneself and the world as insanity. Nobody would cut Galileo any more slack today than back in his times.

Have we, as a society, become so agoraphobic that there is no longer room for the Andy Warhols, Salvador Dalis, and Dantes of the future? How can we factor someone like Don Quixote into this equation?

By striving for the middle rung, we may have eliminated unrealistic highs and lows, but we've essentially condemned civilization to a pool of standing water that is neither replenishing itself nor destroying itself, but has instead slowly, and noxiously, shown itself to be as devoid of imagination as it is of purpose.

Striving for normalcy, by definition, can only engender and prolong mediocrity