IMG_0779 Most of the time, when I go to the grocery store, I think about Gorbachev.   The Threat of Communism is something I vaguely remember, and the vision of a Soviet store where there is one kind of toothbrush (ugly, straight, and red) and one kind of bread (brown) has a firm place in my imagination.

Probably people born five or ten years after me don’t have these ideas as anything other than textbook asides, crammed into the last week of the school year.  (The Soviet Union existed for most of my grade school career, but didn’t make it to middle school.)

The most wonderful place in an American capitalist system is the supermarket.  I usually call it the “grocery store,” but you know a grocery store could be a place with a grocer, who actually sells you your food, or knows something about it.  No one at the supermarket knows anything.  They are just working there.  The thing is, a supermarket offers you such great bounty that there are not questions to be asked.  You don’t have to inquire, as Gorbachev did, Are there any toothbrushes today?  There are.  There are 83 toothbrushes, and you only need one.

The ceiling is outrageously high for no reason.  The approach to the place often has some Temple of Dendur-style colonnade.  Everything about the place is designed to prove to you that not only is there enough food here, there is so much food, you can strengthen and/or fatten yourself up until you feel like stopping, if you ever do.

Then you go inside, and the part that always inspires me with capitalist pig pride is the outrageous number of choices.  Would you like orange juice?  Maybe you want to squeeze it yourself.  Maybe you want it condensed and frozen.  Maybe condensed and bottled.  Maybe you’d prefer it ready to pour and bottled.  Would you like calcium thrown in?  Extra vitamin C?  Pulp?  No pulp?  What size?  Glass or plastic bottle?  Fake orange juice?  Juice boxes?  Refrigerated now, individual size, or bigger to take home later?  Name brand or generic?  Organic or filthy conventional?  It’s morning in America, indeed.

(I thought this was a grocery place?  It is, but you can also get drugs and cleaners and pet food and liquor and holiday decorations and plants and office supplies and possibly folding chairs or beach balls.)

I guess I could still compare our supermarkets with Cuban stores.  The trouble is, I think of Cuba in terms of cigars and old cars and palm trees.  I know the Cubans are suffering, but their suffering doesn’t turn me on the same way Soviet suffering does.  Maybe I’m mixing a Russian style of suffering, garnered from Doestoevsky and Pasternak, into my supermarket scenario.  This must be the fault of Reinaldo Arenas, who describes his suffering vividly, alongside the fabulous fun he had.  Russians in literature do party.   They just don’t have fun.

Even crazier than the selection, though, is the wildly inefficient way that the place is open 24 hours a day.  The huge place– the giant freezers that don’t even have doors, the ones that just leak and breathe out cold air constantly so their siren song to you is stronger– this place  is open 24 hours a day so that you can buy almost anything to make and eat almost anything whenever the hell you want to.  Really, we only need a drugstore open 24 hours a day, with emergency-staple food and a pharmacy.  But we’ve got so much more.

The idea of more, of course, is what Americans are so excited about, and what makes them so sexy and also so repellent.  There are a million situations in which more is a terrible mistake.  It creates shocking amounts of waste.  It also inspires creative people, though.  More, more, more!  Blogs.  Paintings.  Songs.  Nobody needs them.  Still we churn them out, insisting that more will help.  And actually, I think it will.

The Sound of One Man Waiting

Someone passed along an article to me about cell phones at school:  maybe, the article suggested, schools should let students use cell phones on occasion.  After all, it’s so much trouble for teachers to stop the lesson and confiscate cell phones.  And it’s so much a part of what they do and who they are, to be continuously interrupted and constantly available.

What I wonder is: if everything is open to social interruption, then how can we concentrate?  How can we really listen?

Television and the internet, while lots of fun, habituate me to the attention span of a two-year-old.  Religious practice helps extend it.  Religious practices often encourage you to concentrate– ten minute meditation, sermon, reciting a ritual.  It is clear that time in a religious space has been set aside for a narrowed, and paradoxically, encompassing, mindset. 

A lot of people don’t go for religious practice.  Close attention to art and nature can be great concentration practice, too.  You are practicing focusing and listening, at least with the more demanding, extended experiences.  Lots of different things would work: long hikes, fishing sessions, quality time with one painting, or fifteen minutes hearing a theme develop and morph.

I think when people say, “I want to be beautiful, and I want to be in love,” they are actually saying, “I want to be listened to.”  It’s just that being beautiful and loved get you more attention in our human hierarchy, so it’s confusing.

It’s intoxicating to be listened to, and it’s challenging to listen.  It’s hard not to think about your own reactions and what you are going to say next. 

Like most of us, I have a few people who want to be able to get a hold of me.  I understand that, and I am annoyed when I can’t reach someone.  Still, I hate that absent people can trump present people. 

When I am with someone, having coffee or whatever, nothing formal or huge, I still want to be with them.  Everyday moments listening to everyday stories are what all relationships are built on. 

I watched “Chinatown” recently, and I loved how Jack Nicholson’s character went to see some guy at his office, and then had to wait for the guy to come back from lunch. 

Can you imagine?  Waiting for someone to come back from lunch?  No one knows where he is.  No one can call him.  The guy’s just out.  And instead of pushing through it, Roman Polanski makes you wait, wait, and listen to his character wait.

This is the Place

In two weeks, I am flying to Rome.  I’m going because if I died without seeing Rome, I’d be pissed.  I am also going because I am very legalistic and proper, and Rome is the third in the tier of European cities that are must-see.  And lastly, I am going because I am strongly identified with Western Civilization, and I am a Christian by heritage, tradition, and my own love and practice.  Rome is, both physically and psychologically, where Western Civilization and Christianity were baked.  You can frost it or garnish them a lot of different ways, but they are what they are.

More than seeing Great Masterpieces (although I love that), what has blown me away about visiting Europe is being in the same place as someone I love… someone I love who has been dead for a long time.  

In Paris, I visited Chopin’s grave and Hugo’s apartment.  As much as I may try, listening to Chopin’s music and reading Hugo’s books in humble Kansas City, it is hard to believe that Frederic and Victor were real people.  Just people.  People who like all people had beds and noses and then needed graves.  There are a bazillion other graves in the cemetery with Chopin.  I know this because I had a hard time finding his, and I walked past a lot of them.  People are still living in apartments on either side of where Hugo lived.  There was a car parked out front with a carseat  and a sign that said, “Bebe a bord.”

I went to the Globe mock-up in London.  I thought it would be interesting and kind of silly, like a Renaissance festival, but instead it nearly brought me to tears.  All these plays were written by a person, and he (whomever he was) ran around right here in this neighborhood, quite a while ago.  I was happy just standing on the ground that Shakespeare had stood on.  It made me proud to be a human, and relieved me of any worry or competitive angst as a writer.  I didn’t need to be Shakespeare, because Shakespeare had already done that!  And he had done it so well.  I could just be myself, a bad writer, or a sometimes good writer, or give up writing entirely, I mean, whatever I felt like doing was fine.  

So other than eating European food (somehow automatically superior to everything on our continent) and drinking red wine with every meal without looking either indulgent or alcoholic, I am going to Rome to be where St. Paul was stewing in prison, writing fervent letters.  To be where Martin Luther was climbing stairs on his knees and wondering if that kind of penance was necessary or useful.

I am going to be where Keats and Shelley were.  I am too old to love like Keats, and too coarse and cynical to write like Shelley, but there they were, in love and political and Keats sick and probably sweating a great deal.  And writing and writing material for generations of flakes and English majors to swoon over.

There are a lot of dead people to visit.  The good news is that they don’t care if you visit in 1500 or 1890 or 2009.  The bad news is that so many people have lived and died in Rome that I think I will be quite busy.