ON THE AVENUES: I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.


Aimlessness, ennui, and frustration.

These three words don’t begin to describe my mood during the year or so immediately following high school graduation in 1978. You’d need to add measures of angst, disaffection and frustration to the mix, not to mention an ongoing, crippling shyness.

To be more succinct, I was an extremely unhappy camper — and then, as now, I detest camping. I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was supposed to do with my life.

Small wonder The Who’s quintessential Quadrophenia album spoke to me so insistently at the time.

I am not the actor
This can’t be the scene
But I am in the water
As far as I can see

Of course it’s been 42 years since then, and honestly I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. The difference between now and before is sheer stagecraft. I’m much better adjusted to performing. As an adult I’ve become the actor. At some point along the way I learned that people can be shy extroverts, and there’s no law against faking it until you make it.

In fact, faking it has served me quite well.

But in 1978, I was at sea. For my inaugural semester at Indiana University Southeast, I signed up for four evening classes. It was a disastrous foray into academia. I failed one and managed somehow to beg an incomplete out of another. Such was my dysfunction that I derived no solace from solid academic performances in the other two, English Composition and Intro to Philosophy.

In fact, these two courses were harbingers of a future pathway forward, even if I couldn’t see it. In retrospect, I just didn’t know myself. Self-knowledge came only with time.

I’m a slow learner, which means that almost always, I’m also a late bloomer. If you want fast, decisive decisions, look elsewhere, because I may not be the best choice. I’ll hoard every last second you give me to think about it, then run the variations through my head multiple times.

Once focused, that’s where I remain. Getting focused can be an ordeal.

In addition, that horrid shyness made post-high school life challenging. The IUS class I failed in the fall of 1978 was Public Speaking. I should have refused the option when the counselor suggested it to me, but I couldn’t find the words to express my terror. I didn’t know what to say to myself, much less to other people.

To be truthful, coping mechanisms for shyness didn’t become clear until I was well into my twenties. In the beginning, I needed barriers to survive: a teacher’s desk between the students and me, the counter separating the liquor store clerk from his customers, and a nice row of taps like a picket fence from behind the bar.

I’ve proven to be a patient adult, and things gradually fell into place, although four decades ago shyness made it excruciatingly hard to find new friends. At first my friends after high school were the same as during high school, at least the ones who stuck around and didn’t go away to university.

Maybe all of us who stayed here had certain socialization issues.

The year following my high school graduation, I joined with a few of these friends to stage what we referred to at the time as a “commando raid.” It was juvenilia to such a brain-dead degree that my adult brain fairly recoils from the memory.

It seems that rudimentary steel gates had been installed at the roadway entrances to Floyd Central, our alma mater. This struck us as the first step toward a future police/education state; a blow needed to be struck for freedom of mobility, and who better to do it than us?

Besides, we were underemployed, bored and profoundly misdirected. Our bizarre conclusion was to advocate freedom of movement by preventing the school buses from leaving. The gang pooled pocket change, bought a few padlocks and coordinated our watches.

Just as the closing bell sounded one spring afternoon, we descended from three directions and padlocked the gates shut, reasoning this would make us famous.

A senior mole still on the inside subsequently reported a farcical outcome as annoying as it was utterly predictable. The bus drivers saw everything as it unfolded, and our cheap padlocks were no match for humongous bolt cutters wielded by yawning janitors who came trotting from the building within seconds of our getaway.

The whole episode lasted a few minutes at the very most, and we looked so foolishly impotent that the administrators didn’t even bother tracking us down. For me, the exercise actually generated a learning point, which was profound embarrassment. I no longer was in high school, and evidently needed to broaden my horizons.

After all these years, and quite apart from the youthful idiocy of our ill-fated stunt, the stated purpose of those schoolyard gates recently has come back to me. They were supposed to help secure the grounds at night and on weekends, when no one needed to be reposing on school property anyway.

However, if my memory is to be trusted, the gates seldom were used. It quickly became obvious that school activities ran seemingly around the clock, and students, teachers and staff were coming and going at all hours. The gates soon were padlocked open, and started rusting. Taxpayers griped in letters to the newspaper: why waste a thousand bucks on gates that weren’t being used?

All of it — the gates, those objections and our commando raid — seems ridiculously quaint looking back from the vantage point of 2020.

Nowadays when topics of school security and safety arise, we’re no longer talking about three or four flimsy gates, but armed guards, weapons, x-ray machines and in all likelihood quite soon, the micro-chipping of humans in the same way we did our cat at the vet last week.

Not to mention mental health services and counseling, the proposed funding for which comprise the bulk of monies being sought in 2020 by the school corporation via the current “safety” referendum ballot issue.

Damn straight; we do live in a different world. See what four decades of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and proliferating neoliberalism can do to a society’s sanity? When RayGun took office in 1981, the disassembling of America began in earnest. Joe Biden’s dementia-accented ascendancy this week seems calculated to assure there’ll be a two-party continuance of the fundamental neoliberal rot, with maybe a symptom or two addressed in passing before the inevitable veto by Amazon, Wall Street and the gendarmes of capital accumulation.

It’s a good thing we still have books.

Coincidentally, the late Mark Fisher’s amazing Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? closed out March atop my nightstand, from whence I devoured it in three sittings.

In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?”

It isn’t acceptable, is it?

Maybe it’s a fast food diet of pure sugar, the plastic fragments coursing through our veins, or the modern global economy’s reduction of work to frantic kaleidoscopic gigging.

Fischer’s view is that when alternatives to robber baron capitalism can no longer even be imagined, bat-shit craziness is the logical outcome for all except the 1%.

(In retrospect, listening to Joy Division while writing these words may not have been my best idea ever.)

I’ll never be entirely sure whether my inner turmoil during high school and shortly thereafter was the usual hormonal accompaniment to acne and masturbation, or something deeper. The odds overwhelmingly favor the former, but it strikes me as useful in the context of a public education that young people have access to mental health services.

Far more useful would be immediate and pervasive revolution against neoliberalism, and yet I understand how few Americans are in a position to undertake the corrective measures. I’m a patient man, and I trust that in time, they will, even if it’s after my time.

In the interim, allow me to state publicly that I’ve no issues with the school corporation’s referendum. I’ll campaign neither for nor against it, but if you have strong feelings either way, please submit them for publication. My blog is your blog.

In the main, my fellow baby boomers have been major bummers; my generation of unreconstructed narcissists has acquiesced in a greed-driven economic system built to benefit engorgement for the few, with the expense of a natural by-product of mental (and often physical) illness left to be borne by the many.

I’m for doing what we can to mitigate the effects, and while I’m on the topic, remember to vote for Bernie Sanders early and often. Maybe soon we can prevent this institutionalized insanity instead of slap bandages on the contusions produced.

Recent columns:

February 27: ON THE AVENUES: There is a complete absence of diversity among regular News and Tribune columnists.

February 20: ON THE AVENUES: For downtown New Albany, escaping reality might soon be a bridge too far.

February 13: ON THE AVENUES: War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

February 6: ON THE AVENUES Alas, New Albany is less of a place without a bookstore.