Rainy Day at the Big Sleazy River
It was 4:30 on a Saturday morning at Tug Armstrong's cabin on the bank of the Big Sleazy River, and Boone Fowler was up early because it was his turn to fix breakfast. He opened the window and heard the heavy rain falling so he went back to bed, knowing there would be no fishing on this day. This rain had the feel of an all-day inclemency, but Boone was happy to get some more z's.
The four friends who met occasionally for a weekend of fishing on the Big Sleazy would take turns fixing breakfast before daybreak. They were dedicated fishermen and believed fishing was best early in the morning, although they had long arguments about the best time to catch fish. Lancaster Markem had at first expressed the belief that evening was the best time because most fish did their feeding at night. Finally, Lancaster had to give up his theory, not because it was wrong but because if they started early in the morning they had a longer time to fish. For these friends, fishing was a passion, an activity akin to the healing rituals one can find in an authentic religion.
Thus, owing to the rain, it was 7:00 when the men awakened, and Boone began to prepare his breakfast special of bacon, biscuits, and cheese pudding. These mouth-watering toothsome viands made the day special even if fishing was out of the question.
“Boy, this cheese pudding is delicious,” Dr. Wanton Slaughter opined.
“A dish fit for a king,” Lancaster Markem seconded.
“It certainly helps to compensate for the disappointment of the rain,” Tug Armstrong said as he poured a second cup of coffee.
One would think that on days when rain prevented fishing, the men would pack up and go home, but such was not the case with these friends. Instead, they saw a rainy Saturday on the Big Sleazy as an opportunity to loaf and invite one's soul, as Walt Whitman once put it, except for some reason he spelled loaf with an e so that it was loafe. I hasten to say that for Uncle Walt as well as the four friends, loafing is not to be equated with laziness; instead, loafing means the leisurely opportunity for men of good will to connect with the universe and discuss important questions. For in addition to fishing, these four shared an enjoyment of good conversation, the kind of conversation one cannot have with cellphones or in the noisy environments of this postmodern world where any conversation is impossible.
“How about we sing “Blowing Bubbles?” Boone said and then launched into the song
I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air
They fly so high and nearly reach the sky
Then like my dreams they fade and die
“Naw, it’s too early in the morning for singing. Let’s talk instead,” Wanton Slaughter suggested.
“Does anyone have a good topic for discussion?” Lancaster Markem asked.
“Yes, Tug Armstrong seconded. “Let’s not waste the day waiting for the rain to stop and the skies to clear but choose a good topic and debate it.”
“I have one question I have always wanted us to discuss,” Boone Fowler said.
“Well fire away. Let’s have it,”Markem said as he finished the last bite of cheese pudding.
“Ok, here goes: Assume you are an alien from outer space and landed in the United States, knowing nothing about American culture. All you had to study was American commercial television. What conclusions would you draw about American culture from hours of studying TV?”
“Ray Bradbury has already written that story,” Markem commented, “And as far as I know, Colin Wilson has too.”
“But we haven’t read those stories. Let’s do our own version and answer the question. .
Wanton Slaughter exuded customary enthusiasm because this question led him as a physician directly to his mission in life. “I would conclude that post-nasal drip is a major cause of suffering in America, that to find a cure for this plague would be the greatest thing one could do.”
“No, no,” said Tug Armstrong. “Your answer is too narrow and self-serving.” Then he looked at his friends and said, “You all know that I have the temperament of an Artisan and that I am an inventor at heart. Consequently, I believe that irregularity is even worse than post-nasal drip. I pity the men who confess on those commercials that they haven't been the most regular of fellows. Regularity is essential to the health of any living organism. I would therefore invent a product and call it Balm of Alacrity, market it, and sell it on TV. I would hire the Feldco Man or Dr. Pillow to importune the viewers that my product would help restore that bright-eyed, bushy tailed zest for life. With the Feldco Man or Dr. Pillow as my salesman I could make a fortune.”
“But that’s not the purpose of our discussion. The question calls for an analysis of television and what it reveals about American culture,” Boone reminded the group.
Boone Fowler, who often clashed with Tug, slammed his fist on the table and said, “Tug, you should be tied to a chair and forced to watch Mama Mia for forty-eight hours. The most obvious truth about American advertising is that Americans are completely obsessed with getting, spending, and saving money/ The viewers are constantly bombarded by urgent messages which offer them the chance to save big money. And the offers are so simple that all the people have to do is ‘Call Now.’ But what is amazing is that viewers do not see that to save big money they must spend big money. Menards has the perfect formula. They offer rebates, but the customer never sees the money that is saved—it has to be spent at Menards. And the Title Max commercial defies all logic. If I were an alien, I would conclude that Americans have absolutely no critical thinking. At every turn they are hoodwinked, duped, and bamboozled into saving money not realizing that they are actually spending big money and saving very little.”
Lancaster Markem then asked his friends to discuss the programs that were offered to television viewers. An ignorant alien from outer space might conclude that American society consists of four classes: lawyers, police, criminals, victims. The lawyers deal with all kinds injustice; they govern, make the laws, and suggest punishment. The police and the criminals are engaged in a violent war to see who will be victorious, and the victims, the rest of the people, including the Others and the Outliers, haven’t a clue. All they have is the hope that lawyers and police can provide a semblance of order and that Dr. Phil, a postmodern bhagwan, can help them solve their problems. Notice all of the violence you see in TV programs—explosions, car chases, murders, natural and man-made catastrophes. It is clear that American culture is filled with all kinds of violence and crime.”
Wanton Slaughter then asked for another try at the question, so he opined that viewing TV would suggest that Americans worship intensity as the only way to tell they are alive. Intensity and noise, the louder the better, are signs that people are alive. ‘Don’t lose your intensity’ is really the mantra you see on TV, whether it is in rock music or in a program like the American Ninja Warrior or The Voice, talent programs like Dancing for the Stars. Furthermore, many of the products advertised are intended to help people maintain their intensity—the beer commercials, the Viagra and Cialis ads, and the beauty aids which keep people looking young. “
The conversation among the four men was much more detailed than what I have given here. They spent the entire morning discussing this fascinating topic. Real conversations are like that; they often wander about, bringing up speculations and side issues—unlike the conversations we see on TV talk shows. Thus in the interest of brevity I will summarize the conclusion the men drew if an alien from outer space was to understand American culture by watching commercial TV.
1. The only purpose of human life is to get, spend, and save money.
2. Americans have a pathetic lack of critical thinking skills.
3. Americans are incapable of solving their own problems; they need experts and advertisers.
4. Americans believe that only what is available in life is advertised on TV,
5. Happiness is achieved by finding the right product.
6. A life lived to full measure is defined by one’s intensity.
7. American culture is dominated by violence, crime, and pathological narcissism.
Fortunately, in the early afternoon the rain stopped and the skies cleared. The four friends were able to call a halt to their crepe hanging and social criticism. They fished from the middle of the afternoon until dusk. Then they played cards and sang Irish songs until the wee hours of the morning. They would all agree with what Richard Widmark said to Gregory Peck in the movie Yellow Sky, “The day was not exactly what we wanted, but you can’t have everything.”