31 March 2013

A Whiter Shade of Chill

“The Baby Boomers wonder why we aren’t interested in the counterculture that they invented, as if we didn’t see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes.”  from Winona Ryder’s valedictory speech in “Reality Bites”.

During my middle years at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) in the early 1980’s, I often spent lunch hours at the Newman Center (the Catholic student outreach) playing spades or Trivial Pursuit with Father Al, the secretary Janet, and a ROTC cadet named David.  We alternated between the two, and one afternoon I won Trivial Pursuit by answering the question, “Which song from the late 1960’s mentions ‘one of 16 Vestal Virgins’?”.

I didn’t even have to think.  Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” had been one of my favorite songs for quite a while.  My favorite line in the song, though, is “He said, ‘there is no reason and the truth is plain to see’.”

The song was featured in the 1985 film “The Falcon and the Snowman” as background for a mellow party where everyone was too stoned to disagree much less to fight with each other.  But I first heard it in what was for many years my all-time favorite movie, 1983’s “The Big Chill”.

The film is about a group of friends who attended the University of Michigan in the late 1960’s and considered themselves part of The Movement, against the war, for women’s liberation, for the war on poverty, against segregation, for civil rights, etc.  The action takes place a decade and a half later, after their ideals have withered, with the catalyst being the suicide of the one member of their clique, its central figure, in fact, who was still hanging on.

The movie was quite popular among the college crowd back then, especially the more socially-conscious of us who were unhappy with the Baby Boomers for turning into yuppies and betraying all the values of the Counterculture they had espoused in their younger years, talking the talk without really walking the walk during the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.  Wynona Ryder’s speech in the opening scene of “Reality Bites” spoke not to the entire Generation X so much as it did to us in the cross-generational “Generation Jones”, the “Dazed and Confused” segment of the tail end of the Baby Boom (1947-1960) and the dawn of Generation X (1961-1981) born roughly between 1958 and 1965 too often lumped in with the Boomers.

For yuppies (young, soulless urban professionals who brought us Ronald Reagan, “greed is good”, and neoliberal supply-side/trickle-down/horse-and-sparrow economics as well as the current catastrophic state of the world’s economy and finances) themselves, on the other hand, the lesson was that having shallow, superficial values currently popular but easily discarded when inconvenient is okay.

The Baby Boomers have been a generation often characterized as an intense bright light for one brief shining moment featuring peace, love, and concern for fellow humans followed by a long period of darkness featuring narcissism, greed, and self-absorption.  A shallow, superficial lip-service Counterculture for Change (predecessor of today’s hipsters), which produced a New Left claiming the position of spokesperson for the proletariat yet had little but contempt for actual working people (the gauche caviar of the USA, known here as limousine liberals) turned Me Generation (as hipsters will in the future).   Maybe the light was just too bright to look at and they had to turn away, only able to bear their own shadows. 

Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” at least had better taste of location (Paris) to in which to search for themselves, and their art had soul even if their lives were dissolute.  And since they had just been through a bloody war (World War I), many either serving in the trenches, literally, or near the lines with the ambulance services, the Lost Generation had a bit more right to be pissed.

For all its faults from the point-of-view of us in Generation X, “The Big Chill”, even at its worst, came nowhere near the Baby Boomer self-congratulatory mutual masturbation fest that was 1994’s “Forrest Gump”, and its equally offensive reception of five of the eight major Oscars, none of which it deserved.  I say that even though I loved the film.

In a year which produced the movies “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “The Quiz Show”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, and “Pulp Fiction”, there is no way in hell that “Forrest Gump” deserved Best Picture.  When he got the Oscar for Best Actor for Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks had the same look on his face that President Obama did when he got his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.  The most offensive award with which the film was gifted was for Best Adapted Screenplay, since the yuppie self-love flick that was the movie bears very little resemblance to the novel.

At least “The Big Chill” had a redeeming feature of the film both sets of folks liked: the obvious love, friendship, and mutual respect between the characters in spite and because of their varying conflicts.  A bit like the way Congress worked before Newt Gingrich and the Contract on America.

One of the many conversations my friends and I had about the movie figured in one of the more memorable series of events from my first round of collegiate endeavor, when I was studying political science at the UTC in the early '1980's.

One evening, I was being given a ride home late one afternoon by a female friend with whom I was having a date that next weekend.  I forget the reason exactly that I needed a ride, but it may have been after Sunday Mass at the Newman Center.

Mary, the girl driving, and I had both seen “The Big Chill”, her twice, me four times, and were discussing it.

As we passed out of the tunnel through Missionary Ridge from McCallie Avenue in downtown Chattanooga onto Brainerd Road, Mary half-turned to me and asked, “Who do you see yourself as?  Which one of the characters?”

“Hmmm...,” I replied. “I guess I'd have to say Nick.”  Nick, played by William Hurt, was the cynical drug-dealing anti-authoritarian former psychology student and war vet had who lost his genitalia, or at least the function thereof, in Viet Nam.


"He's so cynical, and so am I."

I was particularly that way at that time.  Haven't changed too much since then either.

"Well, you’re as cynical as Nick," she answered, "but that's not who I'd say."

"Oh, who do you see me as?"

Keeping one eye on the road, she looked at me sideways with a funny look in her eyes and said, “Alex.”

Alex? I thought. The dead guy??

“Alex?” I asked. “The dead guy?”

Kevin Costner's first role.  The original opening scene, later cut, had him in the bathtub, still alive, bleeding.  The opening in the release just showed his body, no face, as the mortician was dressing him, the last shot being that of his slit but now sewn up wrists. 

Alex was the true believer, the one person in the group who really believed the things he was saying, the principles they espoused.  And continued searching and believing long after he left the university and the others quit believing.

Mary did go on to point out that she was talking about all the things the other characters said about him, all their memories, all the ways he'd touched their lives.  So it wasn't a dead guy she was comparing me to, it was the memories of that dead guy.  She wasn’t casting me for Zombie Apocalypse, at least.

Oddly, this was around this same time that my Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brother Richard Smith (later known to Chattanooga’s radio audience as DJ Parker Smith) started calling me the “red-headed guru”.  Richard started doing that after the mortgage burning party at Lambda Chi Alpha when I learned to meditate from two of our chapter’s alumni from the ‘60’s at 3 0’clock in the morning.  You can guess what state all of us were in.

She added that Michael (the Jeff Goldblum character) also reminded her of me.  Michael was the talker and joker who tried to get into the pants of every female member of the group that weekend, just as he probably had at the university; she was comparing our sense of humor.  But Alex won out.

The Alex comparison was flattering as well as disconcerting.  Several years later, however, after the waterfall scene in the movie Robin Hood, my now ex-wife Grace leaned over and said, "Kevin Costner's got your ass," so maybe my friend's assessment was more accurate than she knew at the time, and in more ways than she could have known.

Speaking of my ex-, in Sunday school one morning in the ‘90’s when I was still going to church, our class was beginning the book What’s So Amazing About Grace?.  The class leader asked us what was the first thing that came to our minds when we heard the word “grace”.

“My ex-wife,” I immediately answered.  Everyone laughed, but it is her name.

For mine and Mary’s date that weekend in 1983, we went to a Sicilian-owned restaurant in Brainerd Village, Mama Theresa’s, very intimate atmosphere, delicious food, great wine, then to a movie.  Typical dinner-and-a-movie date, but the conversation at dinner was fantastic, lively, and engaging.  All-in-all, one of the best "just-a-date" dates I had ever had to that point.

By the way, don’t go looking for Mama Theresa’s.  Caesar, who owned it along with the wonderful Pizza Caesar’s, moved back to Palermo.  Too bad for Chattanooga too, because all their food was superb.

Afterwards, I couldn't get Mary on the phone for the next three weeks after our dinner and movie, nor did she show up at the Newman Center for Mass.

When Mary finally did show up at the Newman Center for Sunday evening Mass after those three weeks, she came up to me and said, with no preamble, “I'm sorry, but things between us would never work out. I'm too conventional for you.”

(Conventional: 1. Following generally accepted principles, methods, and behavior. 2. Ordinary, commonplace. 3. Lacking originality or individuality. 4. Typical, stereotypical. 5. Conformist.)

I just stood there with my mouth open. What do you say to something like that?

After a time, Mary and I did get back to being pretty good friends again, but for a while it was pretty awkward.  She never explained nor gave me any hint of what had brought her to that conclusion after just one date, and it wasn’t exactly like we didn’t know each other. 

Mary graduated UTC and began teaching at Notre Dame, the local Catholic high school which was her alma mater.  She graduated a class ahead of my best friend at UTC, Chris Mahoney, who finished Notre Dame the year I finished Tyner, in 1981.  During our time at the university, I got to know so many of his classmates so well that a number of them got the idea that I’d graduated with them from there. 

A few months after she started working there, I got a call from her asking if I wanted to come to her wedding, and if so, she'd send me an invitation.

The 22-year old too-conventional-for-me Catholic girl was marrying a 38-year old divorcee who had 19-year old a daughter.

And she had called me unconventional.

(Unconventional: 1. Not adhering to accepted standards. 2. Out of the ordinary. 3. Dissident, unorthodox, heretical. 4. Atypical. 5. Nonconformist, maverick.)

(Irony: Contradiction between circumstances and expectations)

Sure, I replied, I’ll go. Why not?

The wedding was surreal. The only person whom I knew there was Mary, my friend and one-time, literally, date. I ended up slow dancing, very closely, with her new 19-year old step-daughter Darly, which her boyfriend, whom I hadn't known about, didn't seem to appreciate, though he took it out on her rather than me, by delivering her to her grandmother, me in tow.

What ensued was a lot of screaming and yelling and scolding.  In Cuban Spanish.  No one paid me any attention.

It turns out Darly was not happy about having a step-mother only two years her senior, but she wasn't pissed at Mary, she was pissed at her dad.  So she’d overindulged in some refreshments.

A couple of weeks later, “too-conventional-for-you” Mary was fired from Notre Dame High School for having married a divorcee on grounds of moral turpitude, by the same organization (the Catholic Church) that has provided so much aid, comfort, support, and shelter to the kiddie-fuckers in its ranks all over the world, with the cooperation of its highest echelons, including the head of the Inquisition.

Before that happened, though, two nights after the wedding, I called Darly, my friend Mary's new step-daughter, and the two of us wound up dating on-and-off for several months.


Anonymous said...

Your blog is excellent! Keep the good work.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm from Brazil so sorry for the bad english.

I was raised Catholic but recently I became interested in the real history behind Judaism and Christinanity and your blog helped me, so thank you.

I have some questions:

How the jews remained such powerful force in the World?

Chuck Hamilton said...

Anonymous 1 (31 March): Thank you very much!

Anonymous 2 (1 April, Brazil): Your English seems excellent. It's much better than my non-existent Portugese. As to your question, the answer to that is one of the things I am working around toward.