05 May 2008

I'm Not Angry

I'm not much of a fan anymore, but I'll always remember the first time I saw Elvis Costello. It was in 1978, I think, and he was still in his full-on new wave phase, skinny tie, narrow-lapel suit and all, basically as though he'd just stepped off the cover of My Aim Is True.

In keeping with the new wave theme, the lighting was stark and featured all those ugly colors so in vogue at the time, like lime green, hot pink, chartreuse, etc., and when he sang "I'm Not Angry," the lights changed color in time with the music so that every time he spat out another repetition of the title phrase, his face would turn a different color. They were not happy colors, either, so that in combination with the sneer on his lip and the snarl in his voice set up a direct contradiction every time he protested that no, he wasn't angry at all. No sir, not in the least bit, in fact, I've never been so not angry in my life, he insisted, all the while looking as though every blood vessel in his face was about to erupt into a gusher of Vesuvian rage.

I thought of that when I noticed that Peter of Quincy Mass, responding to last week's half-hearted diatribe about pandering politicians and their idiotic gas tax "holiday", had said, "Finally some sense of outrage with the status quo in your writing!! Come back Larry as a voice of dissent. Your voice is needed and has been absent far too long."

Peter, my good man, I would love to accommodate you, not just for your own satisfaction, but my own as well. And I suspect many of my readers from the old days feel much the same way. One thing you could pretty much count on when you picked up a copy of Lookout or Maximum Rocknroll magazines was that I would be angry, outraged, indignant and infuriated about something. Probably several somethings, and if I wasn't trumpeting some cause or other I'd just dreamed up, I was viciously refuting any reader who'd had the temerity to question my anger, outrage, etc., from the previous issue.

Most of the time it didn't even matter whether I was right or (as more often than I'd like to admit was the case) wrong: if I'd had accused the government or the power structure or the local bourgeoisie of some crime that proved to be little more than bad research on my part or a figment of my imagination, I'd change the subject or point out that even if they weren't technically guilty this time, it was more important to remember that they were guilty of far more serious things that hadn't been uncovered yet.

Yes, I was quite an angry fellow, although if you'd identified me as such, I would have vehemently denied it, claiming instead to be a lover of all humankind (except, of course, for Republicans, Christians, capitalists, hippies, stupid people, people who didn't listen to the right kind of music, people who wore the wrong kind of clothes and a few thousand other exceptions) whose sole purpose in writing was to bring enlightenment and salvation to the suffering masses.

Did I mention that I smoked a lot of pot in those days? Well, not as much as some of my neighbors, true, but enough nonetheless to furnish me with a more or less permanent bad attitude cloaked in a passive-aggressive messiah complex. Like most potheads, I had come to believe that the world not only revolved around me, but was actually an extension of my needs, desires and prejudices. If I was infuriated by preachers and religious people (and I was), it was because I figured they were drumming up business for the competition.

If I had a God-complex, you might ask, how could I get so outraged at the state of the world? Shouldn't I have seen it as merely a reflection or extension of my own creative energies? If I were being logical, sure, but remember, I was a pothead. And as such, I thought that my world was just fine. Peachy, in fact. It was just that all those damn people insisted on screwing it up by doing things their way instead of mine. And even after I'd gone to great trouble and effort to explain to them exactly how things really were.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and my perspective on the world has rather radically altered. When things aren't going the way I'd like them to, oddly enough the first place I look for a problem is in myself. And most of the time, that's exactly where I find it. I'm not saying nobody else ever does dumb or destructive things, but that's a given as long as you're dealing with human beings. I don't have a lot of power over what the president or the guy sitting next to me on the subway does, but I do have considerable power over how I choose to react to it.

And most of the time, maybe even always, I find that not being angry works a lot better for me. It's often been said that nursing a resentment toward someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I don't avoid anger because I think my enemies deserve a break, but because I do.

But aren't there times when things are simply so wrong that they have to be pointed out, where we'd be doing a disservice to ourselves and our fellows if we didn't? Undoubtedly, but even then, I think it's better to do so without giving vent to undue amounts of anger. I used to rationalize that by getting people mad at me, I was forcing them to think about the issues I was raising, but eventually it dawned on me that just the opposite was happening: they were so wrapped up in being mad at me that there wouldn't have been room in their hearts for a rational examination of the idea even if one were knocking at the door and begging to be let in.

And, of course, there's also the fact that, contrary to some opinions, I'm no longer the know-it-all that I was in my younger days. It's a shame, George Burns once observed, that the only people who know how to run the country are all driving cabs and cutting hair, but made those cabbies and barbers look like rank amateurs when it came to telling the people in charge how they ought to be running things. You say you're President of the United States? CEO of IBM? Chancellor of the university with a string of Ph.Ds to your name? Never mind that, listen to Livermore if you want to know how to do your job the way it should be done!

I've often thought, and suggested, that one reason the right wing has been so successful in recent years is that they've completely outsmarted the lefties who, as we all know (at least according to what it says in the Times and the New Yorker and on NPR and all those other bastions of sophistication and learning) are supposed to be the smart ones. But it worked with Reagan and it's working again with Bush: put up a candidate who the educated lefties can sneer at and feel superior to, and said lefties will while away the decades sneering and feeling superior while "dumb" Ronald Reagan and George Bush are happily dismantling every cherished social structure and disemboweling every cherished sacred cow of liberalism.

But we don't want to start down that road, do we? Somebody might get peeved. A little bit cross, perhaps, or even slightly annoyed. So I'll just point out before signing off that I've been as guilty of this as any pointy-headed liberal ever was: looking down on the people who were running things (and running away with things), dismissing them with sarcastic comments and patronizing disdain was little more than an admission of complete and utter defeat. No matter how clever the putdowns I could come up with, they were in charge and all I could do was snipe from the sidelines.

Well, they're still in charge and I'm still not, but now that I've come to accept that while George Bush and Co. may not be geniuses, chances are that I'm not one either, and when it comes down to it, I'm not so sure I could do a better job then they could. Okay, I'd like to think I could, and the bar is set fairly low (not being snide, just an observation!), but honestly, I just don't know, and for maybe the first time in my life, I'm able to admit it. And that, my friends, while humbling, also comes as an enormous relief.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't spend every spare moment snarling about George W. Bush (and when I do snarl, I often follow up with an e-mail to my representative or a check to "wackos" such as NRDC). Nor do I believe that I have all the answers for running my own life, let alone the world. But day-to-day life sometimes makes me justifiably angry about the current political climate. From the illegal war in Iraq to the failure to address soaring health insurance costs, Bush and his cronies win while I lose, directly or indirectly. I'm just glad I wasn't in New Orleans when Brownie was doing a heckuva job. It's ironic that Green Day, the band who set you up for life, is named after that weed you find so evil, because the kind of success you've experienced is ten times as intoxicating. Forget everyone else, or at least ridicule them for not sharing your newfound contentment.