« The End of American Beauty »

I just got my copy of American Beauty on DVD. It is one of about five or fewer movies I actually own. I'd seen it a few times before. Today I watched it and found myself verklempt! By the end, I was nearly sobbing.

I guess it has hit a nerve with me. Suburban decay and the illusion that suburbia is a neat way of life has been a favorite, albeit depressing topic for me. And this movie somehow taps into that for me. Suburbia. The land of the walking dead. Nearly everyone in that movie was emotionally dead. I guess it hits me in a deep place, because sometimes I feel that way too. Or I feel that I am surrounded by people in this movie.

Suburbia is not just a place. It's a way of life. It's an institution. It is not just buildings and freeways. It is the death of our society, because it is the most celebrated way ever to effectively kill human contact, which of course makes true community impossible. Suburbia is the ultimate in disposable society. Everything in suburbia is meant to be a quick and nasty solution to a problem, but is no such thing. James Howard Kunstler is adamant about declaring suburbia is "a living arrangement that has no future." And I agree. Community isn't just a collection of houses. A house is not a home. A cul de sac is a dead end in every sense of the term. A collection of Wal-marts, ARCOs and KFCs is not a local economy. A car is not a form of independence. The latest computer, gas grill, mountain bike, DVD player, or car stereo is not a sign of superiority over anyone. All this stuff is just stuff. None of it makes any of us happier. Some of it delays agony and disappointment. These are things we fill our lives with to make ourselves feel we have something in life. Nonsense.

My grandmother died in April 2001, and within about four months of that, I had spent most of my inheritance from her on recording gear and my computer. The thing was, I had thousands of dollars of gear already, and as time passed, much of the stuff I bought that summer I have since sold off in my slow wind down of musical activity, and a great deal of frustration along the way. Before she died, her bedroom was immediately adjacent to the studio room. The computer I now type from is exactly where her bed was, and exactly on the other side of the wall from here is where my drum set was. And around there was several thousands of dollars of recording gear. And I never used a bit of it to record anything she ever said. Shit, I could have used a scratchy old cassette deck to get conversations. I was using DAT, minidisk, VS-880, and other stuff, but never did I do anything like record conversations with her in her last few years. But as soon as she died, I went and bought more of the stuff, and in that time, have not really used it. I felt something was profoundly wrong. I have gear, but not my grandmother. I have no recordings of her at all. Kinda stupid if you ask me. I don't have a good enough excuse. I can only say what happened, not why it happened. Though we lived in the same house for nearly three years, we were distant. We didn't talk much. We lead separate lives in our suburban abode. I could kick myself for not recording things she said. But at the time, I had nothing, not even a lame excuse.

Like Lester in American Beauty, I was dead for a few years. What does it mean when two people can share a house, and don't even need to bump into each other, but still create even more space between them by ignoring each other, and sniping when the opportunity arises? And why is it that I can hear about people from other countries and societies that live three generations to a small house, but they all somehow work together? I got a four bedroom house here, and that wasn't enough space for two of us. Classic suburbia. We all want to live with our own little "me zone" but it's an empty gesture. Part of the charm in the early days of suburbia was that people didn't need to live in close proximity to one another. Coming from dense cities, that must have been appealing, but here we are, about three generations into all this, and now our civilization is hanging on by a thread. Suburbia has destroyed our country, even as it was the supposed savior for a people who were trying to escape a multitude of problems.

People need to live in proximity to one another, and to other organic elements like water, trees, open space, farm land. It worked for thousands of years. The cradle of civilization sits on two major rivers. London has a river through it. New York is on the coast. Geneva is next to a lake. San Diego has a lovely natural harbor. Suburbia pays no heed to all that. Suburbia is utterly canned living that can be set up anywhere, in places humans have no business in. Phoenix is a lovely hell hole, as is Las Vegas. All of suburbia answers to a few common design types, and all are built with cars and freeways in mind, not people. People are a lower level design consideration. Suburbs are designed by engineers, not citizens. Suburbs are built by contractors, not residents. Suburbs are occupied by people from other places (because any suburb can be no older than a century at the very most). Suburbia has no history. Suburbs are total lies. Or as Kunstler says, they are cartoon environments with cartoons of houses. Suburbs have no history. EVERYTHING about suburbia is just WRONG.

But we are sold a package. We call it the American Dream. It is a neat little package including cars, houses, and all sorts of accoutrements that go with. The thing is, all that stuff is just a cover for what modern life has become—a void. People without cars are effectively second class citizens now. People who use a five year old computer are backwards. People who don't watch TV (like me) are wierd. Pedestrians are a nuisance. There are all sorts of ways that suburbia measures people and categorizes them and puts them in little boxes. People now feel like losers if they can't keep up with the Joneses. Our whole economy is built on consumers feeling they need to buy stuff—the latest model of everything. And, with that, there is no incentive to make things that actually have lasting value. Really! Our economy is based on making everything disposable. Even so-called "durable goods" like refrigerators and washing machines are meant to be replaced in a few years (if you are doing your job as a good customer/American). But look at furniture, furnishings, small appliances, and all sorts of other things. They are made cheaper and cheaper so that you will be able to afford next year's model, and the industry is advertising that you will cease to be a valid individual if you don't keep up.

Our economy, our national identity is literally based in insecurity. And a lot of people are insecure. Marilyn Manson said it best in Bowling for Columbine: keep people afraid and they will keep buying. Well, suburbia is a great place to make people insecure. It is tailor made. All of suburbia is disposable. Maybe that's why people are so damned depressed! They all know there is nothing to look forward to. Home is nothing. Home will be nothing. Homes are disposable as much as cars and buildings. Homes are a consumer commodity as much as cars and refrigerators. Use it for a while, then go get a new one. People have no real stake in the place they call home now. None of us actually built our houses. Nor did we do what the Amish do—raise a barn and the whole community is a part of it. See, THAT is how you make community. That is where people feel connected to their land, their property, their people. We have just thrown that sort of life into the trash here in America. People are all worried about homeland security. Well, you tell me. What the FUCK is there to defend, anyway? Defend KFC and Taco Bell? Wal Mart? Freeways that never clear up? Stoplights? Parking lots and garages? Gated communities? Liquor stores? Empty strip malls? Gas stations? Toxic waste dumps? Oil change shops? Failed inner cities? Rude drivers in cars with absurdly loud stereos?

What the hell is there to be happy about? What is there to protect? How is this community? Why fight for this shit? Oh, terrorism is a threat now, but no one noticed that the last fifty years have seen the true destruction of our nation, one car, one house, one fridge, and one piece of particle board furniture at a time. We've replaced real life with a plastic version made in China meant to emulate real life. Our people are more rude, our families are more broken, our towns are more dead, and our worth is measured in terms of dollars, not character or virtue. No wonder people use drugs. They just want to forget all this. And a fine thing it is to forget! Maybe I should start using drugs. All this talk gets me really fucking pissed off sometimes.

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