Sunday, October 31, 2010

Empire Building

I never used to be able to stand A Prairie Home Companion. I would turn on the radio and there, like a cartoon hound dog with his mouth full of mud, would be the voice of Garrison Keillor, singing some old standard song that he had slightly rewritten the words to or telling some nonsensical rambling story about some mildly dysfunctional couple in Minnesota.

What is this, I would ask myself, quickly changing the channel. And why would anyone listen to it?

Then about a year or two ago, I suddenly became fascinated with the show. I would listen every week, waiting to hear what extremely similar thing would happen. Would a cowboy meet up with his old flame…again? Would a Midwestern expatriate writer have a guilt-ridden phone conversation with his provincial parents…yet again?

Once you embrace the logic of A Prairie Home Companion, it’s easy to get sucked in to the bizarre parallel universe it depicts. The show’s audience seems to love the predictability of it, the comforting if illogical repetition. They laugh hysterically at the same joke about Lutherans every week. They love the twisting personal narrative, often told in the second person (and right about then is when you realize…) that always ends up with the same song about rhubarb pie. They chuckle as Keillor inevitably finds himself romantically attached to a much younger, much more attractive woman, and even on the radio they can tell she’s out of his league. And when the show is over, they can even go on the show’s website if they want to delve more deeply in to this make-believe world where not only are all the children above average, but where the red states are full of old lefties and everyone loves gospel music and spoken word poetry and choirs performing the native folksongs of former Soviet Bloc countries.

Predictability like this brings a certain comfort with it. That’s why people enjoy sitcoms, or watching the same Saturday Night Live characters play out variations on the same gag week after week. The joke ceases to be funny and instead becomes soothing like a lullaby.

That’s how I found this alternate prairie reality, a strangely calming bizzaro-world. Each time I heard that Keillor had written an offensive article in a magazine (why gay people shouldn’t get married; why Jews shouldn’t write Christmas songs), I would go look it up, eager to see what new levels of curmudgeonry he had achieved. And because he existed in a half-reality where it was never clear whether Keillor spoke as himself or some sort of parody of himself, the ridiculous beliefs he espoused were more quaint than upsetting.

The more I read and the more I listened, the more I thought: I want an empire. Not a big, scary, hegemonic empire like Rome or the USSR or McDonald’s. Just a small, self-contained empire with a legion of devoted followers who are willing to celebrate my every bizarre whim as utter genius, to lovingly embrace my foibles, to delight at the same joke for years and decades on end.

I have been admiring a number of these small empires lately, and the one I really want isn’t Garrison Keillor’s, but Dan Savage’s. Like Keillor, the sex-advice columnist and gay rights activist has his own brand of logic and language, including a number of acronyms for concepts that are so fundamental to his reasoning that they require shorthands. A good lover is GGG, “good, giving, and game,” which means that you had better let your boyfriend suck on your toes if he enjoys it, no matter how boring or gross it seems to you. If you don’t, Savage will urge him to DTMFA, “dump the mother fucker already.” These abbreviations are so well-known to Savage’s audience that they often misuse them in incorrect and even disturbing ways, forgetting what they actually stand for:

I love my boyfriend but he’s moving out of the country in two months and we’re going to break up then. Should I stay with him for these last months or DTMFA?

I’m a mother of a twelve-year-old son, and I’m doing my best to raise him in a GGG manner.

As these terms suggest, Savage’s advice and opinions follow certain well-worn paths. Like Keillor’s audience, Savage’s devotees, including myself, know what to expect from him. Yet I read and listen to him with a voracious appetite that speaks to either the comfort of the familiar or perhaps some sort of subliminal brainwashing. And I have come to realize that many people I know are equally brainwashed.

For example, when I visited my sister recently, I started to mention something that Dan Savage had said on his podcast. I started summarizing a phone call that he had taken and responded to.

“To save time,” my sister interrupted me, “you can just assume I’m familiar with every episode of Dan Savage’s podcast.”

Sometimes I wonder if the men who rule the empires I admire ever get sick of them—sick of the routines, the predictable logic, the cute terms and sayings? Does Garrison Keillor ever wake up and think, I don’t ever want to sing that song about rhubarb pie again? Does Dan Savage ever get sick of having to talk about sex every single day? Does Ira Glass ever get sick of saying, And what happened next was truly bizarre, as though this is the first time he has ever narrated a bizarre occurence? As successful as they have been in building up their own recognizable brands and selling them to adoring audiences, do they ever get horribly, nauseatingly sick of themselves?

This is the reason that I would be a horrible emperor, not to mention a horrible CEO, middle-manager, public relations officer, or cheerleader; I would get horribly sick of myself. To be a representative of something, to be an unceasing champion, is a really draining job, one that requires a kind of confidence and perseverance that I don’t have a lot of. This is part of the reason I admire the people who are able to maintain an empire, because I appreciate how grueling it is to be the leader of a cult of personality.

I attend a number of schools that are run by a single person. Each of these schools reflects the vision and energy of its teacher: the flashy muay thai school with the blaring music and assertive display of clothing and equipment for sale; the tidy jiu jitsu school where there are specially designated spots for shoes and water bottles and sweaty students and dry guests; the yoga studio whose bare wooden floors are all business but whose ceiling is decorated with Christmas lights and flying monkey puppets; and the one I relate to most strongly, the kung-fu school treading so lightly in its rented gymnasium that it is only a school when we are practicing there.

Sometimes I see signs that my yoga teacher or my kung fu teacher are tired of their jobs, bored with us, their students, discouraged by the low energy of the class. Perhaps they are not really discouraged at all; perhaps I am projecting onto them the discouragement I feel as a student in a sluggish class, the discouragement I fear they feel because I would feel it in their place.

I know that if my suspicion is correct, if my teacher really is disheartened, bored, uninspired, that he can simply close the school. I have recurrent dreams that my kung fu teacher announces at the end of class one day that he is closing the school. I suppose this isn’t such an unreasonable fear, given that I joined his school after my previous kickboxing teacher closed his school in just that way, except he didn’t wait until the end of class: “This will be the last day,” he said casually, as his students jumped rope to warm up. “I’m cancelling the class. But go ahead and work out on your own today. See you later.” And he walked out the door.

This is the danger of a monarchy: it ceases to exist without the monarch. My uneasiness with devoting myself to a single school that could disappear at any moment must have something to do with why I feel more comfortable with a diversified portfolio of schools, even though my heart is fully invested in one of them.

But more, noting the empires created by my teachers, I often think: I am really glad I don’t have that power or that responsibility. I am a teacher, too. But I could quit my job tomorrow and my school would keep on going without me, just as they did before they ever knew I existed, unaware of me being born thousands of miles away the same year they were being founded, and just as they will after I retire and presumably long after I die.

If the only thing keeping the school alive was my own faith in it—if it ran on my energy alone—I don’t know if I could keep it open. Would I have given up during one of those semesters when all my students were disgruntled and bitter and I wondered what business I had being in charge of them? Would I persevere through those times? Or would I decide the entire enterprise was futile and go find some other way to spend half my waking hours?

Every time I walk into a class and my teacher is still there, I know he could have decided not to be, and I am grateful. My teachers might not be able to imagine how grateful, just as I often imagine my students would hardly notice if I were replaced with some other teacher or a t.v. screen or a robot. And I’m also grateful that, nice as an empire sounds sometimes, I have the security and freedom of not having to be an emperor.

No comments: