Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dissenting from Father's Day

Every time there is a national holiday of some sort, especially when that national holiday is a Hallmark Holiday like today, I start feeling a tad uncomfortable and claustrophobic. Too many people are thinking the same, or similar, thoughts and are all participating in the same fiction. Perhaps, as my mother used to say, to tengo un espiritu de contradiccion [I have a “spirit of contradiction”], and maybe that spirit is a gift. Either way, Father’s Day, or ‘Anything’ Day, makes me uneasy.

In mid-Spring of 1992, my friend Tom and I decided spend part of “dead week” at Duke, the week between the end of finals and graduation, at Mepkin Abbey in rural South Carolina. I suppose that fact alone is evidence of my espiritu de contradiccion. While Duke students of all shades and stripes were finding places to party for dead week, Tom and I went to a Trappist monastery to spend time with G-d and perhaps pick up some uncommon wisdom.

At the time, one of the ways the monks of Mepkin Abbey supported themselves was by selling Mepkin Abbey eggs to local grocery stores. Very proud of their self-contained business, one of the monks gave Tom and me a tour of their impressive egg production facilities. Of course, I was touched and impressed by the gentleness and care with which the monks would care for the hens, keep the hen house spotless, select the only best eggs for sale and keep the rest for their communal consumption, and their customers with the highest dignity, respect and love. But the one memory of their egg-producing facility that stuck in my imagination was our first visit to one of the hen houses.

An older, soft-spoken monk, draped in his floor-length white habit with a black scapular of equal length, led us quietly to the hen house in the late afternoon sun. The lush, verdant grounds slopping down to the calm Cooper River seemed like a picture capture for a post card. The four, long, rectangular, aluminum hen houses seemed oddly out of place in this serene setting. We were headed toward the door at the short end of the rectangle, like head seat at a long dinner table.

Our monk guide opened the non-descript metal door slowly and the hens’ soft, but intense, collective clucking started to leak outside. Before the monk opened the door fully, he asked us to step in quietly and slowly so as to not startle the hens. We could see that the hens’ cages were stacked two or three cages high in several rows and ran, contiguously, the entire length of the rectangular hen house.

Our peaceful monk opened the door fully and asked us to enter ahead of him. I stepped in quietly and immediately noticed the first column of hen cages. Shortly after I noticed them, the first two columns of hens turned abruptly to look at me. And, with a look of startled surprise, those hens started clucking loudly, as if affronted by our presence. Then column by column, down the length of the interminable row, in a nearly perfect peel like fans doing The Wave at a sporting event, the hens turned their little heads in our direction and started clucking in the same tone as the first ones until the entire hen house clamored with the hens’ collective, seemingly offended, clucking.

I was embarrassed that we had caused such a ruckus, turned to the monk guide and apologized. “Don’t worry,” he started. “These hens have small brains and a very short memory. They’ll forget you’re here in a few minutes.” And so it was. Just two or three minutes later the hens quieted down.

And as I stood there, imbibing this unique event, I saw the analogy that was brought to relief before me. Humankind is exactly like those hens in that hen house. The overwhelming majority of us live the bulk of our individual and collective existences within a fifteen-mile radius of where we live. That which surrounds us, people, places and things, our day-to-day familiarities, comprises that with which we’re comfortable in both form and substance. When something foreign enters our contained lives – the black people who moved in next door, the lesbian who befriends your daughter, the homeless person who confronts my avarice – we cluck and protest vociferously until that foreign cause becomes part of landscape; until it becomes familiar and we’re bored with it.

Our commercial media feeds our communal, emaciated intellect. Constant sound bites, that are devoid of any and all context, are constantly thrown our way. Advertising interrupts our already attenuated narratives, thoughts, and news about the occurring world. We process information, and form judgments, about our present and past worlds – and the people who inhabit them – on tiny morsels of information. It is easy for the multinational corporate machine to direct, and predict, our behaviors and tastes by what they feed us. Revlon has metric tons of cheap, ugly silver nail polish they need to move? No problem. Pay Paris Hilton to wear the stuff, pay paparazzi to photograph her wearing it, and then run the article in Vogue. Bam! Instant feeding frenzy on ugly, cheap, worthless, left over silver nail polish. And it’s all good. M.A.C. doesn’t have to worry, because it knows that everyone who bought that nail polish will forget about it in three weeks and turn to their new purple nail polish.

And so it is with these Hallmark Holidays, and many other aspects of American life. Today, we assuage our individual guilt about our fathers, buy them cards, gifts, and perhaps take them out to eat. We know the entire ritual is a farce, completely artificially constructed by corporate America. But, we play along anyway and judge others who don’t play the game. We may not have a real relationship with our paternal units, but we capitulate anyway. And, like the hens in the hen house, once the distraction is over, we will return to our clucking as usual.

My father died when I was fifteen years old, in 1982. I have now lived the majority of my life without my father. I have a black and white picture of him, from the 60s, before I was born, next to my desk. In some timeless sense, every day is father’s day for me. As I get older, I find myself becoming reacquainted with my father through photos and others’ memories of him. Like a character in a novel, or Beethoven through his music, I’ve gotten to know my father much better through the years. I’m consequently very sensitive to the overwhelming amount of wasted life that people have with their parents, and other important people in their lives. Many people have the luxury of having both parents alive and well. And yet, there is no fleshy authenticity to their relationships. How tragic.

I know it is a form of dissent to say so, but I hope our collective consciousness will move beyond the attention span of the hen house. I hope that our addiction to Hallmark Holidays will cease and that corporate America will find more humanity-friendly ways to make money and increase profit. We are here on this earth for only a little while. Let’s create genuine, beautiful memories day by day.

1 comment:

  1. On the eve of Mother's Day, I appreciate the sentiment. Right on with the commercialism and fakeness. Thanks for writing and sharing!