Sunday, March 16, 2008

pas de perdue

When I visit Bake, I involuntarily play a game in my head. Informally called, "How could I live here without Lithium," the game usually starts by noticing something that's "not that bad" or "semi-pleasant." Like the balmy evenings, the huge, huge sky, the quiet night, or a backyard with a swimming pool.

Then it goes on to where I'd live (in one of the Craftsman houses downtown, of course, where all the old trees are). Then where I'd hang out (the library, my computer, Tahiti on vacation with all the money I saved in mortgage payments). Then it starts to place to buy organic produce, no place within walking or even biking distance, no moisture in the air, no restaurants that don't slather mayonnaise or beef broth on everything...and hardest to describe: no fucking scenery to look at.

The flatness and dullness of my hometown cannot be emphasized enough. In the part of town where my mom lives, all the housing developments are surrounded by beige brick walls. Driving to the store requires a vast trek down deserted, walled-off six-lane streets. The buildings are all one-story, and walking anywhere requires pretending you're playing a kid's game and taking giant steps. From most parts of town, you can see only the horizon's vanishing point (a feature I pondered over frequently as a child). From a few parts, you can glimpse mountains in the distance, but those only serve to remind you of the barrier between you and the outside world.

Inevitably, I lose the Lithium game. I once went to a carnival in France that had signs posted everywhere: "pas de perdue." No way to lose. The friend I was with didn't want to play any of the carnival games, so I kept pointing to the signs and pleading, "Pas de perdue!" The look on her face clearly said, "Don't you have carnival swindles in America?" or "How stupid are you?"

She patiently tried to explain that the signs meant the exact opposite of what they said, but by that time I had usually finished playing and was receiving my consolation "prize" of a plastic dinner ring or temporary tattoo. Anyway, the Lithium game is very pas de perdue. It morphs into, "How did I survive through high school without killing myself?" (Answer: sheer accident.) And then morphs again to "How can anyone stand to live here?" (Answer: to be discovered after they calculate the last digit of pi.)

I finally end up with the consolation prize of having left at age 18. But it costs way too many Euros.

sex ed

Tonight I watched The Education of Shelby Knox, a great documentary about a teenage girl who tried to get sex education taught at her Lubbock, Texas high school.

The footage of Lubbock zoomed me back through a wormhole to Bakersfield, which I recently read described as "a dirty, flat town." Those places have so much empty and deserted space. Very metaphoric, that. Anyway, as I was experiencing that mindtrip into the vortex, I was also feeling the creeping realization that this girl, Shelby, was freaking out in an extremely familiar way.

Shelby was raised by religious Christian conservative Republicans. Who totally supported her work to get sex ed taught in the schools. But scene after scene, Shelby is asking her parents, her pastor, and the TV audience, "Am I still a good person?" "Would I be a better person if I were a Republican?" "How can I be a Christian and disagree with my pastor?" Then she routinely collapsed into tears.

Taking me straight back to being seventeen in the Andre's drive-in parking lot, discussing Bertrand Russell with my Jewish boyfriend, to whom I give all the credit for successfully deprogramming me.

I was thoroughly distracted from the film's subject matter by her struggle with the logical paradox: how can I disagree and still be right? None of this was coming from her parents, it was all her. Shelby's repeated nervous breakdowns was the best illustration I've seen of how painful it is to disassociate yourself from fundamentalist Christianity. Nothing to do with the people around you; everything to do with how it makes your brain implode.

This girl had been taught all her life that there is only one truth, one way, one right. How can there be more than one right answer? Her self-doubt had a gentleness and grace, though, a purity and sweetness, that I've never seen.

In one conversation with her pastor, she tells him she wants to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her convictions about birth control education. "Because some people are telling me that I'm going to hell." She's clearly uneasy, but he's at a loss to allay her fears. She says, "You'd think we would all agree." That when he says disingenuously, "Christianity is the most intolerant religion in the world." She softly says, "Yes. I can believe that." He goes on to say that sometimes, when he hears her speak, he hears tolerance. This worries him.

I was reminded of a book that came out about ten years ago, Hitler's Willing Executioners. It was a history of anti-semitism in pre-war Germany, and it described a period in which Jews were granted more civil rights and were invited into Christian society. The idea behind those reforms was that, if given the opportunity, Jews would renounce their religion and find Christ. When that didn't happen, Christian Germans got angry enough to participate in one of the world's largest genocides. Maybe that's an oversimplification, but the book was the only one I'd read on Nazi Germany that put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Christian intolerance -- which is where I had always thought it belonged. Hatred is in the fabric of fundamentalism, impossible to unweave.

Anyway, Shelby fails to get the school board to change its sex ed policy from "abstinence only," despite the fact that her small town has twice the national average of teen pregnancies and STDs. In an interesting twist, the head of the school board was later fired for sending emails (on company time) offering an employee $500 to have sex with him in his office during work hours.

God bless America.