Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kathy, I'm Lost

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping. "I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."

If you're wondering, that's a line from Simon and Garfunkel's song "America." Simon and Garfunkel used to be big. Paul Simon still is. Art Garfunkel travels the country and gives concerts as a "legend." I don't think that's quite the same thing.

The line came to my mind last night after an exchange I had with a colleague about references to pop culture in textbooks. I'm writing a textbook, and I've occasionally tried to spice things up. Not a good idea, he said; such references are dated the moment the book hits the stands, and are unfathomable a few years later. So I found myself wondering if anybody else is still in love with Kathy.

I don't even know who she was, but Paul Simon fell for her in England in 1964 and wrote that song about how he had "come to doubt all that I once held as true. I stand alone without beliefs. The only truth I know is you." Kathy was probably a distant memory by the time he invoked her again in "America" a few years later, but I discovered both songs when I was in high school, and they spoke to me as I'm sure they did to many adolescents at the time. The angst was at once eloquent, a bit facile, and indescribably right. It's not great poetry, great music, or great anything, but it's a permanent part of me, and that no doubt marks me as being precisely the age that I am. Dated and now unfathomable, my memories have been replaced by many more recent generations' defining lyrics.

In my case, the Simon and Garfunkel moment was prolonged because I was romantically stymied. Not unusual for an adolescent, I know, but for me it was particularly severe because the years of bullying I had endured through most of my childhood left me afraid of my own shadow. It's one of the lesser-known—but well documented—effects of bullying that victims often find it nearly impossible to develop romantic relationships as adults. Having been there, I understand why. If you've been treated as a worthless piece of trash long enough, it may be literally impossible to believe that anybody else could care about you. What for other adolescents and young adults is a peril-filled but often comical rite of passage was for me simply out of the picture. It didn't happen. (Until it finally did, but that's another story entirely...)

Of course I fantasized about the romantic partners I feared I would never have, and they were always named Kathy. Like I said, being in love with Kathy was a permanent part of me.

I recall all of this now because what I was in love with represented something else that moved in and took up the large empty space that was available in my imagination. As a child of the 60's who came of age in the 70's, cursed by an unrequited need to love, I came to believe deep down that I was a part of something transformative. The Civil Rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, the flower-draped, hippy-crazed ambience: I was too young to find it threatening. Instead, it charged me with hope for what this country was becoming. Never having lived in a different America, I didn't know any better than to assume that those who were changing our country before my eyes would continue to do so. It was the only reality I knew.

Paul Simon, though older than I by over a decade, expressed the same yearning in "America." The lyrics, which famously don't rhyme, begin by saying "Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together." (Kathy and I? America and I? It wasn't quite clear.) "I've got some real estate here in my bag." (The entire country, to be sure.) "So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies." (Do they still make those things?) "And we walked off to look for America." The song seems to trace a journey that progresses from the Midwest toward New York City. At the end, Simon immediately drowned the introspection of the first line I quoted by asserting that he was "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. They've all come to look for America." America, it seemed, was something worth searching for, worth creating.

I am writing this to try to explain, once again, why I find the current situation of our country so brutally disappointing. The unraveling of Simon's and my dream began when Ronald Reagan was elected president—something I never, ever saw coming. (To those of you who are too young to remember, until sometime in 1980 Reagan looked exactly the way Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann do now: extreme, dumb, and absolutely unelectable.) The man who had once used National Guard helicopters against student protesters at Berkeley began the process of dismantling everything that was good about the country I had always known. I can only compare the slow, brutal descent into an ugly, discordant reality that has unfolded ever since to an unrequited love that just goes on and on. Like so many others I knew, I so wanted to give this country what my generation grew up believing, and I've been spurned - again, and again, and again, with unbelievable vehemence. Kathy, I'm lost.

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