Monday, November 9, 2009

#29 The NorCal - SoCal Rivalry

Nearly everyone has a high school experience that feels both very specific and totally stereotypical. This phenomenon screws with our ability to remember things straight: high school is lived as a series of senseless, sort of upsetting social screw-ups but retrospectively understood as an altogether ordinary and predictable initiation into grown-up values. You go through it feeling really alienated and trying to shake off and forget every stupid thing that happens but once you gain enough worldly perspective to see that your alienation made you not alone but totally normal then you start to see high school as cosmically significant. You celebrate and fetishize the specialness of details that, at the time, were not important at all.

This progression would seem to make us more smart than dumb. Sane forty-somethings do not go around saying, “Remember that cross-town/cross-valley rival high school, those guys - its faculty, students, and mascot - f*ck them. They represent everything that was evil and wrong in the world.” Just the opposite. In hindsight the fervor and enmity that fed that rivalry, along with all the other rivalries (glee clubbers vs. cheerleaders, goth vs. punk, Emilio Estevez vs. Judd Nelson), seem vaguely amusing.

You’d think that this simple but foundational precept of relativism would be extrapolated to other conflicts in life but it almost never is, probably because, logically, there’s no obvious stopping point. You beat up your brother but the neighborhood kid better not beat him up but the kid from a different neighborhood better not mess with your neighbor and so on it goes, battling a team from another city to hating Arab-Americans to world wars and then alien wars and then, eventually, fighting shoulder to shoulder with our aliens against a**hole aliens from a second cosmos. People piss us off into infinite regress.

And this is why teenagers aren't entirely crazy. It's true that a high school rivalry - along with many other acts of cultural dissonance - is random and absurd but it’s only true after the fact. Hell is hilarious once it's over. Transcendent meaning in present tense reality, on the other hand, is always constructed out of arbitrary conflicts and polarization, since it has to be constructed out of something.

When reminiscing about high school, for example, people love to claim “I was such a nerd” (as if no one now could possibly imagine that being true) but such statements are wildly misleading. Retrospectively being called a nerd means you were smart but being called a nerd during high school meant something different. It meant you weren’t cool. It meant choosing the wrong side in a seminal conflict: teachers vs. the rebel youth.

Similarly, everyone sort of believes that romance is founded on two people liking the same unique things, such as frisbee, Business Week, or Catholocism. But that’s just a trick of memory. It’s not, if you think about it what really connects you with someone at the time of the connection. What sparks romance is not discovering a particular but shared affinity for something unusual - like you both adore Death Cab for Cutie - it’s when you share a very particular hatred - like you both can't stand Death Cab for Cutie. Or you hate bananas or southern France or Republicans or find fat people disgusting. That’s love. Two people against the universe.

Rivalries by this measure have to happen. Northern California has to despise Southern California and vice versa, not so the Giants can win the pennant but so love has a chance. The conflict could theoretically be over almost anything - Bonds vs. Manny, weed vs. coke, hiking vs. surfing, youtube vs. Paramount) - people will adapt to the governing construct. They will build art and nuance out of the contrivance they've chosen to care about. They will find a way to come together.

But here's the problem: Northern California has chosen to take a stand against a fundamental aspect of human attraction: physical beauty. We supposedly hate tans and big boobs and modelesque bone structure. We hate people who aspire to and care about such conditions. This is like taking the position of mass suicide over mass survival. Or puppies rather than babies. It's either self-destructive or a total lie and in this case both.

Every person in San Francisco would LOVE to date a model even if they'd never admit it. And every person male or female would rather be casually mistaken for Salma Hayek than Steven Hawking. Every single LA-hating person. No one wants to be loved for their mind. The primordial need of the human soul is utter devotion from someone who is totally superficial.

Basing a community-wide propositional attitude on bullsh*t falsehood has this strange result: everyone in San Francisco is simultaneously offended by beauty and offended no one finds them beautiful. Even though the disdain of beauty makes sense internally (since it makes you feel superior) it's counter-productive externally (since it's an implicit insult to the company you keep). "I ain't here because of your looks," we're saying, "Wanna make out?" Every time someone picks up on you it's a slap in the face. It's like being selected to play the part of the homely fat girl in a Lifetime movie. "You're perfect!" the casting agent delights.

And yet: the open and notorious defense of a self-defeating delusion is, curiously, sort of brave. We are saboteurs standing fast on a sinking ship. There may be no beauty in San Francisco and there may be no girls and to say to the world, “That's the way we like it” with a straight face, that's insanity and will surely be our risible ruin, but all of this, in some small way, is also spectacular. It makes us laughable loners but if Breakfast Club, Rushmore and Napolean Dynamite have taught us anything, it's that there's nothing profound about being popular. Greatness is achieved only in the pathos of an asymmetrical face and extraordinary social failure. And maybe this in the end redeems us. Maybe we're wrong but that's why we're right.