Throughout history, the mere act of meeting together in person to sit, sing and talk with others was never all that countercultural…[what] the church has to offer the world now is to remind us all how to be human creatures, with all the embodiment and physical limits that implies. We need to embrace that countercultural call.
(Rev.) Tish Harrison Warren, Churches Should Drop Their Online Services NYTimes, 1/31/22
When viewed from a big-picture perspective, the expansion of digital technologies – which are inherently centralized and centralizing – runs contrary to the emergence of a more humane, sustainable and genuinely connected future. Why should we accept a….technological infrastructure that is fundamentally about speeding life up, increasing our screen-time, automating our jobs, and tightening the grip of the 1%?
Helen Norberg-Hodge, Putting Technology (& Billionaires) In Its Place (Counterpunch)
“So it is, little ones. He who labors, he who endures, is the superior one.”
“Crutch,” a carpenter, in Chekhov’s In the Ravine
Last week Molly, Orin and I enjoyed a dinner at one of Utica’s “upscale” local farm-to-table type restaurants. The first of this kind in Utica, The Tailor & the Cook has made it onto a few online lists of distinguished eateries, and has just been sold for a tidy sum. The staff, of whom Molly’s partner Patrick is one, are unsure if the new owner will maintain the values that brought the success, now that the founder’s culinary and aesthetic dream is no longer guiding the establishment. Under the warm umbrella of mealtime conviviality, we three attempted to open up the fraught subject of how to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our little uptown coffeeshop, Cafe Domenico. This conversation has proved so difficult, after years of imperiled existence, and now pandemic uncertainties, we’ve backed off it several times, but now the birthday this July is rapidly coming upon us!
Thus, our talk was an attempt to leap over the day-to-day grind, the reality of keeping the business running, with all necessary infrastructure and supplies and finances in place. We, or at least I, attempted to stir up the embers of our former glory, the fact that our coffeeshop was truly influential for an entire generation of small businesses, bars and restaurants, including the one in which we were sitting, that sprung up in Utica after or about the same time we opened. Once more, our talk did not get far, and that is why I write today. I want to locate the spark – conjure it if necessary! – if one still glows after years of seasonal ups and downs, of watching the line of cars to the McDonalds takeout window, the 2008 market crash, then the 2016 election of Trump, now with 2 years of pandemic on top of that. Above all, for Orin and me, the disappointment is that though our “countercultural” goal – a place where people sit down together, talk together, laugh together, and so anchor ourselves in human connections was met, that ours is a creation of countercultural passion goes “over the heads” in Utica. Here most peoples’ “thinking” remains locked within predetermined lines of the 2 parties and their media instruments.
To celebrate, the spark must be real, which is what scares me; we cannot rely on “glory days” but must find a meaning sufficient to sustain us as we sacrifice for a goal that is fast becoming passé in the culture at large. For our business was a consequence of Orin and I seeing human connection itself as endangered; our Cafe and its poetic underpinnings were our resistance to that. As most of our patrons likely do not, we knew the Cafe was/is a dissent to the “planned obsolescence” of our humanity in a corporate-ruled context that values profits over people. The key, the very essence to our maintaining the vision is to understand ourselves as countercultural.
For sure, as I age its easier to spook myself with the idea of planned obsolescence! Especially as society continues to undergo a kind of pandemic sunset, it is easy to brood, to see my over-70 self as entering that Big Fadeout. But, I insist, the fact that I’m tempted to feel “old and obsolete” does not come from natural causes. In a competitive, bullying society where everyone feels insecure, kindness – though essential for social cohesion at all levels of society – is luxury. As Woody Guthrie says in the movie Bound for Glory (1976), speaking of the hoards of people going hungry in the Hoovervilles in the 30’s, “it doesn’t have to be this way.” Society makes choices, and if the choices make any one of us feel worthless or irrelevant, there is something terribly, morally, wrong in that arrangement. No matter how pervasive nor how taken for granted, it’s bullying. So what do you do when society is a bully? Hey, you can’t cancel everybody!
For example, the practically universal dependence upon screens and digital connection which people forget is a dependency we were sold, carries an inherent suggestion – just because of its universality – that if you don’t know how to navigate the digital world, it’s your problem. Given the fact that most of the people who don’t “get it” and need help from savvier sons and daughters are usually over 60, this very assumption implies bullying; it contains temptation to eliminate someone from inclusion in consciousness (and the obligation to kindness). In the capitalist context the temptation to bully can only be countered when human ties are sufficiently strong, when respect for others, in this case – elders – exists in the society; but capitalism works to erase those bonds, and in the shared liberal world it does so fairly unopposed.
In our society the disparagement of people who are old – despite the fact that Congress is largely made up of us fossils – comes from both sides. Elders cannot complain too much who themselves opt to sign up for a spot in a retirement residence; although there’s wisdom in letting go of tasks and things as we age, this is voluntary ghettoization. Nobody talks about the counter wisdom of staying in place, of insisting on the rights of human connection and mutuality over time, not as a call for government assistance but as a social obligation. For of course we cannot ask our children to sacrifice their sanctified necessary place in the global market, and perish the thought that grandparents’ proximity is not optional, but is necessary for the health of children’s souls.
However, I do not want to make my main focus that of how we exclude and marginalize elders, but rest my case with the words Woody Guthrie used that make the real case so well (and which hang on the Cafe’s wall): “I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that….”
I think Woody knew its not only songs he hates but the reality unconsciously embedded in songs – even, or perhaps especially those that are “just entertainment” – and in all media and the institutions that reflect back to us not our possibility, but our insufficiency – the values of the dominant bullying class. For a topdown society that values money over people, liberals and conservatives alike – bullying is its way of functioning, it knows no other.
For Orin and me counterculture is no hippie pose. Counterculture is born exactly from the double awareness: 1) that one is aware of feeling one does not “fit,” one feels wrong, dissatisfied, alien, no-account, “too this or too that,” unable to find one’s real place, perhaps mad, and 2), the accompanying (redemptive) realization that this condition is not my own fault but is inflicted contextually. – i.e., “It doesn’t have to be this way.” This “corrective” message, whether or not one is a religious believer, can issue only from a larger reality, beyond the One (neoliberal) social-political context. For white middle class people like me who’re conditioned to believe the system works for us, the neoliberal context of the current age is the invisible bully against the perceptions of the heart; it reinforces the disembodied head and its banal reasons, and in turn feeds my abject feeling “I’m too this or too that.” Our situation is so totalitarian, beginning in the cradle, it can only be broached by “an outside agitator,” an outsider voice that can reinforce the insurgent heart in its existential isolation. Orin and I were both misfits in this shared world until we – miraculously – were reached by some of those insurgent voices – poets, thinkers, visionaries, rogue therapists – that led us to pick up our practices of art. On our own, each of us discovered the (imaginary) world of vision was better than this vision-less one; this became the basis for founding our Cafe.
I called human obsolescence “planned,” but its not planned by men around a table like the Final Solution, nor is it calculated like the cars and appliances fabricated so as to be buried in mother earth’s bosom in a matter of a few years. Human obsolescence is “planned” in terms of acceptable collateral damage; those of us who for whatever reason do not or cannot fit into the (harsh and bullying) bourgeois life pattern are left on our own with meaningless jobs, with our loss of connection and meaning in a “disenfamilied,” unkind world that compensates with screens and dollar stores for the social sacrifice we make. I disagree with anyone who says this is enough for some. It’s enough for no one, but awareness of the larger meaning that might contradict the acceptance of this compensation is fading fast in cultural memory. Few of those outside-agitator voices get to us past our media-saturated social environment.
Back at the turn of the millennium Orin and I dreamed, perhaps too-naively, of cultural revival, of conversations and revolutions beginning in our Cafe that didn’t happen. But we continue to learn from young people who came here as teenagers the coffeeshop planted seeds of possibility: one could live ardently, creatively. What appears to be the impractical, “fluffy” quixotish aspect of our Cafe is also pragmatic: to survive humanly, with alive spirits, people must have connection with each other, and with creative spirit. Sadly, though, the worthiness of our enterprise is not always sufficient to keep us from exhaustion.
Recently I spoke with a young friend who in the last year and a half bought a co-ownership in a natural foods store in a village a few miles south of Utica. In the course of our chat, I asked him about his closing time on Saturday, the day of the week Orin and I happened to be in his shop. In answer he confided he’s closed earlier a few times than the 6 pm official closing time, due to lack of business. Now, over the last 20 years I have mused many times over the implacability of shop ownership, the previously unimaginable sacrifice involved in simply being there, ready for business, during the hours you’re supposed to be open. The sacrifice is akin to what we used to think of as a mother’s sacrifice for her children – in its full extent a sacrifice inconceivable for most women today. The reason for this goes beyond women’s liberated consciousness: in a society that admires neither the one “who labors, who endures,” nor one who stands fast merely to serve the invisibles of relatedness, just “being there” with neither a commensurate cash reward nor recognition to show for it, is intolerable.
To my shop-owner friend I mentioned conversationally that mystery of “being open;” he seemed to hear me as if I were, in a parental way, chiding him for closing early. (Not his fault, since he was at work and not at leisure to philosophize) Not wanting to risk further confusion, I dropped it. But it occurs to me if we are to regain the world of small shops and businesses we will have to contend with the fact that the life of sacrifice, of he/she who labors, who endures, is unbearable, or becomes unbearable once the joy of creating something new wears off. Equally true, if we do not keep maintaining these places of intrinsic worth, not solely for the money they generate – the small local business, the local farms, local families, and local communities – we – or most of us, rather – forfeit our chance to de-centralize, restore the human scale, the possibility of making it easier to be kind.
Despite exhaustion, having looked into the possibility of this celebration of our Cafe’s 20th, I persist in believing the small local enterprise is a location of the sacred, just as the family is. Exhaustion comes not just from the work, but from the fact that the sacrifice needed for the maintenance of the small-business-as-art, just as with the embodied ties of family, is optional in our dreamless, stressed out, frightened, screen-and-streaming-dependent world that, as far we’re taught, is the only world. Thus, the project of restoring our local existences and local economies is doomed unless/until people know their pain as contextual and not “just mine,” an awareness that calls for replacing the faux “Absolute” including the liberal media we look to for comfort – with the true. There’s no comfort except the countercultural one of knowing it doesn’t have to be this way.