This weekend I shared with my wife an old tape I'd recorded with a rock band I was in my senior year of high school. I was impressed by how solid we were musically, especially my buddy's spot-on drumming, which is usually the weak point of any teenage band. My singing was probably the weakest element of our group.
I marveled that we'd recorded that tape some 13 years ago. I turned 30 a few months ago, but my adolescence doesn't seem that long ago in my mind. I guess in part it was because we were already conscious, already essentially entering adulthood, so in many respects I'm still in the same phase of my life now as I was then. No longer a child, and not yet an elder. That, and the difference in relative aging (a year represents more of your life when you're 4 than when you're thirty), probably accounts for the fact that I don't see my 17-year-old self as such a foreign, different person than I am now. Certainly teenage Greg isn't as different from 30-year-old Greg than teenage Greg was from 4-year-old Greg. When I was 17 I considered my infant experiences as from another lifetime, if I remembered them at all, while now I consider my teenage experiences as more or less understandable and coherent with who I am today.
My singing voice is perhaps less versatile, less flexible now than when I was 17. I have found that out in the past few years as I've dusted off the old vocal chords for my son after a long time locked away somewhere. But my voice now is more solid, a bit lower, more fixed and confident, even in its deficiencies. And listening to my tape from many years ago, I even wonder if I'm not actually more versatile now than I was back then. I think I hit the high notes better now, though I'm more aware of my voice's shortcomings. Perhaps it's that awareness of my comfort zone and my solid base that actually makes me more flexible in the end.
I think life is that way in general. As an adult, you feel more set, less versatile than you did as a teenager. But though you may truly be less capable of change in certain respects, the net result is that your wisdom and experience make you better at what you've always been good at, and you're probably even better at things you feel you're not so good at now. Maybe adolescence is just about being less aware of our weaknesses and incapacities. In language, too, I obviously speak Spanish far better than I did at 24, when I was just starting to learn the language. That said, no one in Colombia mistakes me for a native Spanish speaker, while in Spain I was always taken as a Spaniard until I'd spoken for a while and made some grammatical mistake. Is my pronunciation less pliable, more rigid and foreign-sounding now than it was then? Or is it just an objective difference between the light Colombian non-accent and the heavy Spaniard accent, which is easy to mimic and masks your natural foreign accent?
On listening to my band's demo tape, I reflected fondly on the times we lived that last year of high school. I could finally have some fun and enjoy adolescence, run around with different girls, sing in my band during our weekly, poorly-attended concerts where we subjected elderly grandmothers from the Cabrini Green projects to our dissonant rock music as they waited to hear their charges' poetry. I miss those times in many respects, and I miss the relationships that I've been neglectful of keeping up. That said, I'd never return to those times. I wasn't getting laid, I was working shit hours as a grocery bagger at Jewel (which is, incidentally, a pretty decent place for long-term employment, complete with union benefits and regular raises), I was chafing at being an adult living as a child in my parents' house. No, much of the joy and appeal of those times was precisely in the anticipation of the future, a future I now have the luck to be living.
Recently my wife and I have been watching movies via Netflix. That's right, the service has finally arrived to Colombia, though only through poor-quality streaming over poor-quality internet connections. And the selection of films is as yet skewed toward low-end shit like computerized cartoons and straight-to-video romantic comedies with no-account actors that wish they could match the vim and acumen of such leading lights as Ryan Reynolds and Owen Wilson.
I chose Harold and Maude to watch recently, for the first time in years. It is a cute movie, but aside from Cat Stevens's masterful singing, most of it is really trite. The characters are one-dimensional tropes, and the message amounts to a sort of indifferent, solipsistic nihilism towards life. "Do whatever you feel" is the name of the game, which we have seen in action in the forty years since as it leads to Enron, Goldman Sachs, the Iraq war, and global warming. At any rate, I like the movie's aesthetic and its music. Like a precursor to Wes Anderson.
We also watched Swingers, a real favorite of mine during my early adolescence. I was surprised at many things by the movie. First off, all those 90s trends that I saw as so disparate and separated by so much water under the bridge, were really occurring at the same time, or separated by a year or two at most. Hair metal, grunge, neon fannypacks, early hiphop, gangsta rap, the swing revival, the No Limit shitty Southern rap scene, all these things were crunched into a few years' time. As I lived them though, I thought that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in 1996 was about as different and distant as you could get from Soundgarden in 1994 or Tupac in 1995. Now I see there was a lot going on in a little bit of time in that whole era.
Aside from that reflection on time and styles, it was interesting for me to think that when I first saw Swingers I was much younger than the actors and their characters, while now I'm a bit older than them. I've had the same funny sensation in the past as I passed the age of Ralphie in A Christmas Story, or the age of the Breakfast Club gang. When I'm older than the 1981 Indiana Jones, it will be a real mind-bender.
Swingers is a well-done movie. It captures the minutiae and tedium of that early-20s phase. The characters, as my real-life early-20s crew, are looking for love, cheap thrills, fun, and above all to kill time. They still aren't assuming real adult responsibilities, and they haven't been able to get satisfying, meaningful jobs. There is a character who's a real mope, another who's the life of the party--I don't think there's usually just one of each type in each group of friends, but rather that each person is sometimes wild, sometimes introspective, sometimes bored and pissy, etc. I've certainly been both a Mikey and a Trent in my early 20s, and perhaps even today to some extent.
Caro wasn't crazy about Swingers. On the one hand, it is a very male point of view, and frankly I was surprised at times by the latent or outright misogyny. But also it speaks to a US-style, middle-class life phase that my wife didn't exactly pass through, perhaps above all because in her 20s she was a professional woman taking care of a little daughter. In this sense, Caro also commented on something she's been reading about in her work to decrease violence and lawlessness in Colombia. One source of hers discussed the role of television and film in constructing a common, shared identity in a country like the US. In Colombia in the past the TV selection was so limited and people weren't glued to the set anyway, that there wasn't that type of collective identity strengthening. Perhaps today's US, with its 200 channels, is also not very conducive to shared viewing experiences. At any rate, my Colombian wife certainly wasn't going to get or identify with the pop culture references that give Swingers most of its interest. It is a movie driven by details and quirks, not by plot or even character.
I have noticed, as has my wife, that US comedy is particularly good at showing awkward, uncomfortable situations to extract a type of humor where you're squirming and laughing at the same time. Swingers has a lot of these moments, where the main character is making obsessive phone calls or striking out at making small talk. Other such films include What about Bob or Cyrus, both of which just make you squirm in your seat.
A final comment on Swingers is that I recently found out that Vince Vaughn is a die-hard Libertarian political activist. This is disappointing, because he's sort of a hometown hero for us Chicagoans (though he grew up in the suburbs). Anyway, the Libertarian idea that each individual exists more or less independently of his society and his government is a silly conceit, only possible for those spoiled products of a stable government that provides them with such a comfortable life that they can afford the luxury to spurn it. People in the US often quip that if you want to see what small or non-existent government looks like, you should go to Somalia and see how you enjoy it. In Colombia, you don't even need to look that far afield. For all the problems of life in places like Boyaca or Bogota, things are immeasurably better than in the remote outposts of Putumayo or Arauca, where government is totally absent, and armed thugs run everything in town. I don't think you can be a Libertarian if you've lived through mass rapes, massacres, tortures, and forced recruitment into illegal groups. Those poor people are clamoring for a responsible government presence, not railing against it.
If Libertarianism is in itself laughable and incoherent, the idea of a fortunate son like Vince Vaughn, the product of a family of economic elites, espousing bootstraps-style self-reliance is all the more so. I mean, the guy plays make-believe dress-up for a living. He wears makeup to work! How can he seriously think that he is working substantially harder or in a more worthy endeavor than a lawyer or a janitor or an agronomist who makes a mere fraction of the money he does? I'm not saying the arts are less worthy than other pursuits; they're just not any more worthy, either. Furthermore, to be a coherent Libertarian you can't just admire any profitable work. I don't think any Libertarian would say that a drug dealer or a con artist is worthy and self-sufficient thanks to his hard work, no matter how hard that criminal really does work or how much money he has to show for it. Libertarianism must insist that success is only valid if it comes about honestly. In that case Vince Vaughn should return whatever money he got from stinkers like Couples Retreat, because that movie was at its core a cheat to anyone who paid to see it. I'm picking on Vince Vaughn, but what I mean to say applies to any big-time actor. Actors are lucky to be getting paid a lot of money for doing work they enjoy and that is no more demanding than most other jobs. They should be thankful for that stroke of luck, not self-righteous. And if an actor or anyone else is going to get on his high horse about how noble his pursuit and achievement of economic success has been, that person had better make sure to always put forward his best and do only quality work. If they happen to cut corners and put out something mediocre just to make a buck, they lose all their legitimacy, because now they are mere conmen, scammers, and not honest professionals.
To celebrate Halloween, I am reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to my son Sam. I am very impressed by the short story, mainly in its evocation of a pastoral time and place. You really wish you could live in peaceful Sleepy Hollow. It's a skill in scenery and story-telling that I'd never before noticed in the book, even as I read it last year with Sam.
There are two other, unrelated things I wanted to comment on that I've noticed recently. One is the honor code in Bogotá public buses. I'm not talking the sleek new Transmilenio bus rapid transit system, but rather the packed, junky minibuses that ply the intermediate streets of the city. In these buses you pay the driver directly as you get on at the front of the bus. But when the bus is really full, the driver will sometimes just open the back (exit) door, where there's more room. When this happens, the recent arrival passes his money up the line of passengers in front of him, all the way to the driver. Then the driver passes the change back to flow person to person until it reaches the passenger. Everyone dutifully passes money back and forth when they have to, and I've never seen anyone pocket any change, even when it's a ten-dollar bill paying for a 50 cent ride. And the back-riding passengers never skimp on paying, even if the driver can't see them. For a country that is supposedly one of the world's most dangerous, this all takes a lot of civic honor and responsibility.
The other thing I wanted to mention is Colombia's pro-life atmosphere. I have seen women and girls from all walks of life faced with unexpected pregnancies, and I have yet to see someone who opts for abortion. Obviously they struggle with the decision, and they consider abortion, but something has driven all the women I have run across to choose life for their child. Legal abortion is restricted to certain medical cases in Colombia, though it seems you can readily have a doctor claim that you qualify for one of those conditions. But again I'm surprised that from well-off families to destitute single women, people seem to prefer having the baby, and many women lead successful, motivated lives afterwards. There is not a very publicized or spirited debate on the issue, for instance along the lines of the US argument where one side likens abortion to concentration-camp murder and the other treats a fetus or an embryo as if it had all the humanity of a sack of potatoes. But it seems that something in Colombian culture or society pushes people away from abortion. In any case, if we are interested in creating a society and a world in which there is an ethic of life, in which women can have children with some confidence that the child can count on opportunities and love and joy in its life, then perhaps we should look more closely at Colombia, where a pro-life sentiment seems to flourish without grand discourses or political posing.