Some Things Never Change, Sep04


In the time I’ve been alive, a lot has changed. But some things I thought would have long ago gone the way of the woolly mammoth just kept on growing. These things tend to be obviously stupid, shallow, bad-for-you wastes of time and money. On the other hand, some illusions disappeared overnight.

Let’s start with this whole celebrity thing. Even before I visited that tawdry part of Los Angeles named after a 1920s housing development, I knew that all this Hollywood celebrity stuff was nonsense. If you watch movies like Day of the Locust, you realize that the creation and worship of artificial gods has been going on for some time, with results varying from tacky to tragic. So why haven’t we, as a collective body, grown out of it? Why do the same 200 people keep showing up on the cover of every National Enquirer or People magazine?

I guess it’s because we all aren’t the same age, so there’s a sucker born every minute. Maybe there’s somebody out there to whom Kate and Ashley Olson are role models. Perhaps there is someone who cares deeply about Britney Spears’s love life, probably more than does Britney herself.

But as our dominant culture spreads worldwide at the speed of light, what does it profit the world for everyone on every continent to know more about J. Lo than they do about their own government, culture, history, art, or traditions? It’s unseemly. It’s voyeurism masked as human interest, and it debases everyone, even the so-called celebrities themselves.

Since the star factory is making quite a few people quite a lot of money, it won’t shut down until we rise up as a body and say, “Enough! Get thee behind me, Satan!” Of course, the chances of that happening are slim, so I guess I’m going to learn a celebrity factoid every time I log onto hotmail.

Now for an entirely different topic: what’s happening with soft drinks? It’s sugar water, right? Sometimes caffeinated, sometimes with trace amounts of vitamins or other stimulants, but it’s just colored sugar water. We in the first world enjoy potable water, right from our taps. Even Iowa City recently joined the club of places where you can drink the tap water. So why do we continue to waste billions of dollars drinking small containers of cold sugar water when that same money could be spent on something productive, like feeding the hungry or universal health care?

My early memories of soft drinks remind me they were once a special treat. A tiny, 8-ounce bottle of coke was considered enough to satisfy one person’s thirst. Sometimes you’d have to share a 12-ounce bottle with a sibling, and that entailed a lot of careful pouring into identical glasses. Even ice water was considered a luxury, and mothers would scold their children if they tarried at closing the refrigerator door. “Hurry up, you’re letting the cold out. Why do you need ice in your drinks anyway?”

This was the same mother who warned you that you’d rot your teeth if you had more than one soda per week. Maybe she was onto something. What if today there were a cosmic uber-mother who could stop this nonsense before we all die of obesity and diabetes?

There are several things that changed despite all my predictions to the contrary. I was as surprised as anyone by the collapse of the Soviet Union. For four years in high school, I studied Russian. I got to visit Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev in 1968, at the height of the Cold War.
From what I saw, I couldn’t imagine Russia ever joining the rest of the world. Today, I understand there are McDonald’s fast food restaurants everywhere.

I am of an age where Catholic altar boys memorized the Mass in Latin, and we would chant our responses in this mysterious tongue, completely by rote. Back before Vatican II, the Catholic Church was an impregnable fortress of tradition. I couldn’t imagine it bending any rule, much less throwing the rule book out the window. But that’s exactly what happened.

The problem with stripping away all the artifice in order to expose the core becomes apparent when artifice outweighs the core. It’s the pathetic old wizard shouting, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Inside the church’s elaborately decorated outer box was another, smaller, plainer box, and so on until we found that the innermost, very tiny box was empty.
Nuns would tell us stories of heroic child saints who were mowed down by sneering communist soldiers. These brave children were willing to give their lives rather than to renounce their allegiance to the Bishop of Rome. Considering the Roman Catholic Church and the Soviet Communist Party thought themselves polar opposites, it’s odd that both monolithic institutions met nearly the same fate. I hope the child saints don’t feel cheated by this turn of events, and are enjoying themselves anyway, from their perch in Heaven.