Monday, October 03, 2005

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I've never been much of a fan of Stephen King's writing: it's a genre that doesn't do a whole lot for me, is the main thing. There are two pieces, however, that have made me wonder if I should reconsider. The first is a book he wrote, published in 2000, called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and the second (though it's first, chronologically) is King's chapter in Mid-Life Confidential, an account, written by many of the band members, of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band that Dave Barry was in and about which he said, "We play music the way Metallica writes novels," or something to that effect. (I actually saw the band, and was completely entertained by them.)

On Writing is really quite lovely. The first half is a short autobiography, and I really liked the clear, straightforward way that King told his own story, including the story of his recovery from addiction (though that is by no means the theme of the narrative). The second half is advice to would-be writers, and it's extremely clear and helpful. But Larry's comments to the post below made me think of King's piece in Mid-Life Confidential, in that obscure and roundabout way that is characteristic of the way my brain works sometimes. King's piece is called "The Neighborhood of the Beast." The title comes from one of the more creative pieces of graffiti that he (or I) had ever seen:
What's the connection between Larry's comment and that bit of graffiti, you ask?

On one hand, as I've detailed here (perhaps ad nauseam), I am, compared to much of the world's population, living in the lap of luxury. I've rarely wondered from where the next meal would come, I've never been homeless, I've got a shitload of education, and so on. Thus, characterizing myself as "deprived" in most important ways is just wrong on the face of it.

At the same time, what I've seen, as I've attended elite schools, gotten elite degrees, and met people who have more money than the deity of your choice, is that all of the things I "have" really aren't quite enough. (I don't mean "not enough" in the sense of "not enough stuff": I'd be pretty ecstatic if I could do what I love and have approximately the same standard of living that I have now. I don't need, or even particularly want, to make buckets of money or have lots of stuff.) That is, I'm not tied into the right circles or networks (and I've done enough network analyses to recognize the importance of that), I don't have the right experience, I'm profoundly deficient in several attitudinal areas, and I don't have a lot of money--not enough to buy a piece of property, for example. The things that people of privilege take for granted--such that they can't even see the privilege--are the things that make me depressed, when I let myself wallow in that mud. I don't have any capital, for example, despite the fact that I've been working for 30 years, despite (or perhaps because of) my degree, and despite whatever intelligence I bring to bear: I chose the wrong areas of interest, in part because I had no idea which ones I was supposed to choose, lo those many years ago, in order to start my own business now. Let me hasten to add that I would not have been much interested in the areas that would have been useful now; it's not all the fault of some conspiratorial set of others that has put me on this path.

In short, there is at least one glass ceiling, but it's not the one that results from my sex that's relevant--that one has been less problematic for me (though it has probably affected my choices, for example, all along the way, and perhaps in ways that I can't easily see) than the ceiling of class (or whatever: call it what you will). Larry bemoans the fact that the greedy and/or well-off among us aim to get--and generally succeed at getting--as much as they can, while they participate in (or, at their worst, create or support) institutions and institutional arrangements that de facto create a permanent underclass. And I'm on the knife-edge between. I've been in the neighborhood of the beast, the neighborhood of the wealthy and powerful and well-connected, the people who know people, the people who can make a bunch of money and then take a break and then go make a bunch of money somewhere else, doing something else. And I know I'm not one of them, and I can't be, for an assortment of reasons, some having to do with my own conscious choices, but some having to do with only having been near the neighborhood of the well-connected, rather than a member of it.

Still, I keep fighting for this little bit of space--and I want to share it. I want to find ways to share it with the people who can't even imagine having any space at all, not because I'm so fucking generous or magnanimous, but because, damnit, it's the right thing to do. There's another story, by Ursula LeGuin, called something like "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (I thought I had it somewhere but can't find it right now). The ones who walk away are the people who discover that the price of their happiness isn't one they want to pay, because the price of the lovely, happy community in which they live involves the misery of someone--someone specific. Everyone is required to find out the price they're paying, and many, perhaps most, choose to stay in Omelas anyway--because life there really is quite nice--but some people cannot bear the knowledge that their happiness is bought with the flesh and blood of someone else's dire suffering. It's the best critique of utilitarianism I've ever seen, in some ways. And, too, I do believe that we ought to (in the moral sense of "ought") share what we have. If the chefs were unwilling to share their knowledge of the art and craft of French pastry, for example, then it would be less able to survive and thrive.

But the Larry in me rears its head and reminds me that my success is unlikely. All that knowledge and education I've got, it's nothing in the face of the networks I need for this dream to actually become a reality. That's what Larry's voice says, and some days I worry that he might be right.


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