The Laboratorium
September 1999

Someone Else’s Cultural Heritage


They were just a bunch of teenage girls, trying to mess with someone's head, asking me if I was the guy who played Zack on Saved by the Bell, and when I said no, asked if I was sure, as though it was more likely my memory in error than theirs, are you sure, they said, not even the second cast, and how could I, seventeen going on seventy going on seven, say, it's not me you want, not even me you want to toy with, why don't you go pick on someone from your own universe, I don't know this show, I don't know know this Zack to know if I look like him, perhaps even I do, all I know is there is such a show by such a name, or maybe there was and there isn't any longer, and I know nothing about it, and now apparently perhaps I should, perhaps this is expected and I am once more on the wrong side of the velvet rope, looking in at someone else's cultural heritage, no, I am not Zack, and no, I don't know this friend of yours at my high school, no, I really don't think anyone named Truman Capote goes there, I'm quite sure of it, but still this world of yours by what act of god is it mine as well, where and when was I supposed to pick these things up, and how did I come to be excluded from the assumed collective?

There is too much normal, too much of it, the contradictions should break any life's span that tries to contain them all, but has that ever stopped this pressure, has it ever? I am supposed to follow the camera without question into the confessional, am I not, supposed to recognize what transpires there, Hail Marys and rosaries and who knows all else, all these fragments of a Catholic life, all the details and detritus of growing up Catholic, but the thought rebels, I didn't grow up Cathlolic, surely I'm not the only one, and whoosh, see, we Americans aren't so comfortable with Big Religion, all the sitcom families, those nice undistinguished Protestants who go to their nice undistinguised Protestant congregations on Sundays, see, they're not living with the fragments of a Catholic life, but they are, they are, we're all living with all of it, I've seen as many Hollywood bar mitzvahs as I have real ones, in this country, we all grew up Jewish too, is that not normal too, indeed it is, it's all shoved in there and our upbringings overwritten with the American Collective, a thousand life stories that are all supposed to ring true, they turn and face the camera and look you in the eye waiting for the recognition of yourself in the scripted normal lives they lead, and only a madman could see himself in all of them, but in America we are all of us mad, so perhaps it's okay as long as we are mad together, our madness forgiven by our claims to normalcy.

Where were you when Kennedy was shot, the question comes to define a generation, and then in the way of such things, that generation takes its turn defining the world, defines all existence in terms of its own definition, and it is sad not to remember what you were doing, but heaven help those who were doing nothing at all, born too late to experience the defining moment of all existence, all of us who missed history's bus and will spend all eternty waiting in vain for it to come again, struggling to make sense of these images projected on our minds from someone else's youth, what, really, is a generational rebellion but an overthrow of images, the demand to be allowed one's own defining moments, the agonizing cry that images of rebellion must ultimately become images of repression because they have won, because they have been confirmed by years of history, that even a Woodstock must stagger and fall under its own weight, the weight of standing for something, there is no sellout, no, that is not the point, but things cannot mean what they used to mean, it is never the same once the context has caught up, newsreel footage of marchers and fire hoses is something set apart now, it is a newsreel and they are using fire hoses, if you look closely it may retain the shock of immediacy and bring the past to life, but it will always remain an overlaid past, one tempered by all that has come and gone in the interim, the world will never the be same as it was when those images were fresh, because the images themselves have so shaped the world, and this fact demands acknowledgement, that history marches onwards and that nothing lasts even a day or a week with its meaning entirely intact.

When the road-signs of the expected are written in an indecipherable script, when all the place-names have been swapped and fabricated wholesale, when one fears the impossibility of ever being properly ordinary, that is when one is forced back into the second way, of striving to be properly extrraordinary in every deed and gesture, or one waits, waits, for the extraordinary to come upon one unawares, to emerge from behind a parking meeter and twist into solidity and place its hand down firmly on one's shoulder, leans in to whisper in one's ear but the words are superfluous, the hand comes down with the awaited logic of destiny, brings with it the preordained return to perfect certainty, the hand comes down and you are off like a shot, every second of one's life has been preparation for this instant, it has all been training so that you will be able to do what you now know you must do, and you spend your days in anticipation of the hand, cultivating the interiority of everyday objects, puzzling the fragments washing up on your shore, there must be some secret reason that justifies you and someday it will strip the lining from the inside of the world and pull you out and through, but until then the ego must nurse itself, must make its way through a made-up history not its own, feeding itself on every isolating detail, the only certainty the certainty that it is chosen, that it is special.

You have told me forever that I live in suburbia, and then you have told me that suburbia has no soul, but your suburbia is not my suburbia, it takes no imagination to make another movie about the hollow core of life with perfectly manicured grass and perfectly manicured faces, for fifty years the images have been pouring forth, the commonplaces of our culture prancing out and proudly knocking down the same illusions they knocked down last year and the year before, this indoctrinated culture that wants to make every place mean something generic, the only true images of suburbia are the ones that aren't about suburbia, the only suburbia capable of being about anything is the constructed one, the images it is convenient to assume, we measure our suburban lives against the pictures force-fed and assume that when there is a discrepancy it must be reality crapping out, how many acts of youthful rebellion have been commited because a million authoratative voices ordered rebellion against a conformist uniformity, high heels in the kitchen and cookie-cutter houses and two-point-five children and secret existentialist dread, don't you see that they programmed us to seek this and then programmed us to destroy this and all of it equally removed from reality, the only part that has ever rung true is that sometimes the toussled blond kids on sitcoms look like kids you went to nursery school with, if you recognize yourself and your surroundings it is because you are living in a soulless glass box and if you do not it is because you have been deprived your cultural birthright and repudiated to live forever trapped beyond the glass looking in, and alway, always, culture spins its serrated wheels and laughs at you.