My wife belongs to a book club that has turned into a food club. Last month they completed the transition. No one talked about the assigned book because no one had read it. Instead, they shared appetizers and recipes. Similarly, her card club has morphed into a wine club. A few holdouts still keep score at euchre while the rest drink local Chambourcin on the patio.
Somewhere in all this is the problem with America. We’ve lost our direction. Look at the Democratic Party, floundering like a book club without a text, without a platform, without an heir apparent. Our nation cries out for Oprah.
Then there are those iconic pastimes that have changed but we don’t want to admit it. Professional sporting events and county fairs have devolved into gastronomic exercises where we devour everything we shouldn’t. I love Wisconsin. They serve bratwurst, beer and deep-fried cheese curds on the sidewalks without pretense or prevarication.
Yet, elsewhere, America is held loosely on the tracks by single-issue voters who remain focused on the important things. Imagine a poker night where the players diddle on their cellphones instead of bluffing and going all in. I used to play billiards on Wednesday nights. We drank beer and ate fried raviolis, but never lost sight of the true business at hand (until billiards went out of fashion and our pool hall closed). Imagine Sunday softball leagues without old guys in uniforms puffing around the bases…the hollow ping of aluminum bats…balls arcing toward the fences. We still have local nursery meetings where we carry on our 80-year tradition of complaining about our chosen vocation. Players, shooters, batters and growers…our silent majority…keep doing what you do!
In 1969 I saw Simon and Garfunkel at Cleveland Public Auditorium. No warm-up band. No black ladies singing backup. Just a short guy with a guitar and a tall guy with wavy blonde hair. Garfunkel was still going to Yale Law School, not sure if this music gig would work out. While they sang, you could hear a pin drop among the sold-out crowd. Paul Simon commented before America that he thought it was their best song so far. One of the lines…’I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,’ makes me think he was in need of a book club.
Two weeks later, at the same venue, we saw Jim Morrison and The Doors. This time the audience lept out of their seats and surged towards the front. Cops lined the stage, kicking fans in the face. Jim leaned on an amp, sneering and enjoying it all, flipping us off. We cheered.
Looking back on it, Simon and Garfunkel had a more sustainable approach to music and life. They eventually split up, but they’re still around. The amazing thing is that one fan, one city, (one nation) could embrace both acts. We were all passionate about peace and social responsibility back then, and yet we elected Richard Nixon. Twice.
A few years later, as an English major at Ohio State, we studied the beat poets. Then one day Allen Ginsberg showed up. I found him that afternoon on The Oval, under a tree near the main library. He was wearing a full-length robe, frizzled hair and wire-rims, sitting cross legged reciting Howl and America. I found it ironic that seated in the grass around the homosexual artist were concentric circles of awestruck girls…a gay pebble dropped into the solemn Big-10 waters of Mirror Lake. His poems were profane political rants against our society and nation, and yet, the last line to one…America, I put my queer shoulder to the wheel.
I’m nearing my self-imposed word count limit. Did Ginsberg worry about word counts when he was conspiring with like-minded individuals to levitate the Pentagon? I need to weave together all these observations and memories in some clever summation…all the traditions that remain amidst the inconsistencies and opposites…the kneeling athletes, on one hand, Trump rallys on the other… one land divided by a common sense of self-purpose, free expression and freedom of assembly wherein we gather to celebrate those things that make us different…avocations and politics and presidents that make us laugh and cry at the same time.
Maybe there is no summation…no tying together all the disparate threads, revelations and revolutions…other than to refer to the whole bubbling kitchen pot with an air of humor, anger, indulgence, pride, affection…a required reading for the week and for our lives…Our America.