Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I'm In With The In Crowd: An Essay On Cliques

It seemed a daydream kind of a day. We took our stand, setting up one microphone and plugging it in to a cordless amp, on the sidewalk in front of an ice cream parlor on the corner of River and Main streets in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. As customers continually entered and exited the ice cream parlor, an inside/outside doorbell tinkled, not necessarily to the beats we were playing on our busk. On the wooden bench beside us sat two people, elderly, both in their shirt sleeves and licking their three topping and sprinkled praline & cream ice cream cones. (Their obvious contentment prompted me to query what flavor they were savoring.) The air was warm, the clouds a bright white in the blue, blue sky, and the world was windless -- until the motorcycles came.

Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan must be the city of motorcycles, the Hog Town of the Prairies! Never a minute went by during our two hour stint that a Harley Davidson motorcycle did not roar down in front of us. The rumbling baffles of the motorbikes and the constant ringing of the ice cream bell became the auxiliary percussion for our afternoon cacophonic busk.

Two riders, a driver and his passenger, pulled their Coca-Cola Red Fat Boy Harley into the curb right in front of us, revving the engine more than a few times before finally switching it off. Both in black leathers, they dismounted and took just one step to get right alongside us.
The driver, a mustachioed man with a chin strap grey beard, and wearing a black leather vest over his bare chest, pulled a fin from his chain attached trucker's wallet, and tossed it into my open guitar case. His passenger, a middle-age lady in tight leather pants and a very cleavage revealing halter top, turned abruptly and said,
Baiter? Is it really you?
In that moment I was stunned. She knew my boyhood nickname so she must be from Vanguard, I thought to myself as my brain scrambled trying to imagine who this person in front of me might be. At last she came to mind! Sonja!
Hey, Sonja. How're you doing? I replied.
She responded by giving me a bear hug overtop my twelve string.
It's really great to see you, Baiter! It's been forever since I've seen you!
She was right. Sonja and I had not seen one another in over twenty years, and upon an eyeful consideration, she still looked quite the same.
This is my partner, Barry, she said.
And this is my oldest son, Baron, I replied.
You do this for a living? She asked.
Only in Summer, I answered.
Cool, she said.

We chatted awhile and then that was that and our day in front of the ice cream parlor came to a close. Later on though, while driving down the highway en route to our next busk stop, I thought of Sonja.

Hi yi ye yi yus
Nobody likes us
We are the girls
From Vaaanguard
Always a grinnin'
Always a winnin'
Always a feelin'

This was her evening summer song. Back in the day, a teenage Sonja and her girlfriends would march around town from early to late evening singing this song in unison. Sonja was smart and attractive, had well-to-do parents, and was definitely part of the in-crowd. The girls she marched and sang with, were the in-crowd.

I remember in their summer gig, Sonja and her friends having the same hair-over-one-eye do's, wearing the same skorts (fashionable skirts that looked more like shorts), and all driving 1950's Mini Minor cars which their farmer fathers had restored. Sonja and her friends were small town girls living in Hollywood movies. They were a clique.

And there were boy cliques, too. These were the guys with the brylcream rubbed in their hair (a little dab'll do ya), wearing the chalk white t-shirts with Black Cat cigarettes rolled in their sleeves (as did James Dean). These guys had the tight jeans, the rat-tails in the back pocket, and did the dance in black pointy shoes.

Then along came Troy Donahue and the dry look. No more hair oil. No more t-s. It was striped jack shirts and regular boot cut Lees. This lasted until the music of the British Invasion arrived, bringing along the Beatle haircuts, London pea hats, frilly shirts, and bell bottom pants.

Membership requirements for these lock and costume cliques were very apparent, being very physically observable. Other cliques, those based on common recreations, were observable only according to behaviors, beer drinkers and hockey players being two such examples.

First the beer drinkers. This was quite the crew, actually. Every weekend was same 'ol same ol', pick up some beer, drive around and around and around and hope that some girls would be enticed and practically jump in the car to join this wild bunch of cool guys. (I know this -- I was there.)

At the other end of this linear recreational model were the junior hockey players. Junior hockey players, then as now, enjoyed apotheosis status both on and off the ice. These were the foreigners from afar, merely in town to play hockey while on their way to The Show. These guys never had to wait for the girls to be enticed -- these guys were gods!

Then I experienced those kinds of cliques that are peculiar to emergent adulthood. Though more sophisticated than the cliques of adolescence, they were still very conformable, corresponding to the many ideological flavors of the day.

There were the university societies: the English Society, the Psychology Society, the Education Society, the Faculty Club. Those benighted persons, those non-privileged non-members of my clique societies, were considered to be groundlings.

Finally young adulthood arrived, and I became a dog-eat-dog graduate student, and no more cliques. It has been a long time since then, and now in my middle years, my companions are based on a variety of common activities, more or less. Carol is my cycling companion; Burt is my running mate; Gary is my nine-ball partner; Judy is my band mate; Baron is my workout buddy.

I shall offer some bits and pieces on the characteristics of cliques.

Though cliques are coeval, the older one gets, the less inclined one gets toward adhesion to any particular crowd of costume or of statement (including politics). Cliques in my life, as I suspect in others' lives, have served as bivouacs, in which to survive and confide with others who happen to be in the same camp situation. New teachers in any school, for example, tend to congregate with one another, to the point that these early teaching experiences often lead to lifelong relationships with these first time colleagues. In their beginnings, these friendships were unwittingly formed for professional survival, and over the years evolved into friendships necessary for family survival. I am still very close to a couple of colleagues from thirty years ago.

Cliques are never demode. They are ever present and always current in either fashion or ideology.

Cliques help group members edify their positions, in order to stay superior to those not in that particular clique.

Clique members have congruous fortes, athleticism and academia being common examples.

Cliques will never be passe because clique members intoxicate one another with camaraderie. We are all, save for our lighthouse keepers and backroom librarians, gregarious creatures just wanting to get along and enjoy life to the maximum.

To be a member of a clique demands a certain synchronicity; all the existential forces have to be aligned. To be a teenage Sonja was purely happenchance. She was smart, good-looking, and rich. How does this happen?

And it can happen to any of us! It is phenomenology at its finest! I've been a member of several cliques over the years, and my membership in these has proved time and time again to be quite responsible for my selfish and arrogant social survival.

These days, with regard to cliques, I'm more in with the out crowd. Among the young I feel too wise, and among the old I feel too foolish. Perhaps I should resign to the fact as presented (with poetic license) by Groucho Marx:

I don't want to belong to any clique that will accept people like me as a member.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mayberry and Mudville: An Essay on the Good Old Days

Mediterranean Spreads, Jerked Yam Pita, Maple Salmon Salad. These are some of the delicious items listed on the 13th Avenue Coffee House menu in the Cathedral area in Regina, Saskatchewan. With permission from the ever cordial owner, Michelle, and ever accommodating head chef, Olaf, we set up two microphones in the patio corner conterminous to the street. This noisy and busy little intersection proved a great place to busk.

It was rumoured that the people who resided in the Cathedral neighbourhood were quite the macedoine of gift basket consumers, and the patrons seated in the patio that evening helped to confirm this stereotypical impression. Seated to our left, two hirsute fellows, dressed in pin-striped suits were sharing a veggie salad. Seated right at the patio gate a couple of thirty something guys with Beatle haircuts were snapping their fingers to our 70's folk tunes. And seated right in front of us was an older gentleman wearing round rimless spectacles, a fedora hat, and narrow blue and yellow suspenders, sipping iced tea with lemons, glancing at his pocket watch every few minutes. Right alongside us was an attractive young couple with the lovely music enthusiast, Mik, who shook one of our tambourines, keeping the beat for our songs the entire performance.

It was right after we sang They Call the Wind Mariah when the gentleman sipping iced tea said to us, They don't write songs like that anymore. Songs like that stand the tests of time. Songs like that come from the good old days.

From the good old days. His comments took me back to my developmental years in the village of Vanguard, where my memories are oftentimes a meld between Mayberry, a place where everything always seemed to work out, and Mudville, a place where everything deemed important goes awry. Mayberry was the fictional town in The Andy Griffith Show, a popular situation comedy we watched on television, and Mudville was the fictional setting for Casey at the Bat, a poem we studied in school.

In my Mayberry memories, our village had a town pump, party-line phone telephones, wooden sidewalks, and the sweet scents of honey suckles and lilacs in the lanes. Groceries were delivered right to the door by a young boy pulling a red radio wagon. The iceman really did cometh, leaving a frozen block wrapped in newspaper on the front stoop. A uniformed service station attendant pumped your gas, wiped your windshield, and checked your oil. The doctor made house calls. Teachers were shown respect. We swam in the PFRA dam, and our diving board was a two by twelve anchored by a boulder. In summer evenings we played Work Up or Five Hundred baseball, Kick and Return or Aerial football. In winter we played hockey at the rink whenever we wanted.

In my Mudville memories our roads were dirt, and after any kind of rain, be it a downpour, a drizzle, or spit, the village became a quagmire, not drivable, barely walkable. In fact, after one rainy Hallowe'en some teenage pranksters posted Welcome to Mudville over the Welcome to Vanguard sign.

There were just two channels on our black and white televisions, and the reception rabbit ears had to be wrapped in aluminum to eliminate the static.

When we were old enough to kill, we drowned out gophers, pouring water into their holes until they surfaced for air where we clubbed them to death. As we grew older we advanced our spree, from drowning to trapping, from trapping to shooting.

Single parent families were very rare. I recall but one single parent in our town -- a teacher and her son who lived among us for a short time. Their singleness was the result of a death, not a divorce.

For the most part, the men went to work, the moms stayed home. One or two moms moiled at the grocery store and hotel cafe, but that was about it.

Outhouses with sawed moons and stars on the doors were the norm. Pee pots were plentiful and stored under the beds. To lave every Saturday in a metal washtub was the treat of the week. Drinking water at home meant using a dipper that was hung on a pail.

Readin', Ritin', and 'Rithmitic were the three R's of the school curriculum. The principal of my school was the same principal of my father's school. Even after my dad came back from the war he referred to my principal as Mister.

We were a community of churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, and Gospel Tabernacle. Those more influential citizens of the village were Catholics. Those more academic were Anglican. Those in the majority were United. And those more fundamentally devoted were Tabernacle -- for them, even using lipstick was discouraged.

There was no Gothic expression except for Bela Lugosi on television.

The demarcation between the town kids and the country kids was clear and simple. When the school day ended, the country kids rode the bus home to do chores, while the town waltzed downtown and played pool until suppertime.

Cochshutt, Massey Harris, Massey Ferguson, and John Deere tractor caps were the mandatory head dress for farmers.

Svelte was out, rotund was in. Ectomorphs signalled sickness, endomorphs signalled health, and mesomorphs were as understandably desirable then as now.

What began as a pleasure junket to my teenage past has become an olla podrida, a slow and simmering stew of sweet Mayberrys in a Mudville pie. Was my Vanguard the bastion of Mayberry contentment, stuck in time, forever free from externa social poisons? Or was my Vanguard a systematically polarized Mudville, where things were dictated as either black or white, right or wrong?

All systems asunder, we are all, in a sense, Vanguardians, and all of our pasts are the juxtapositions of our Mayberry and Mudville recollections. It is cliche that hindsight has twenty-twenty vision, but in reality we are purblind because of our Mayberry and Mudville perspectives. From our Mayberry perspectives we are able to keep the faith; from our Mudville perspectives we are able to experience the ennui.

Mayberry and Mudville -- a curious combination of glorious oblivion and cognitive outrage.
The good old days, indeed.