Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Summer (Part I)

(In a voice that's not my own.)

That was a simple summer, perhaps the last of the simple summers. That was the summer I became an atheist and drove a junk truck. It was, by far, the best of the simple summers. Simple; I shed my belief in an all-powerful being and all the mess that entailed; I extracted myself from my parents' suburban Episcopalianism and for the first time I made a living wage, which freed me. No longer did I have to grovel to anyone (except my boss) for cash. And my boss was a simple man. He never grilled you on your values, never asked where you planned to be in 5n years (where n=1,2,3...), never corrected your speech in prescriptive manner, and never impugned your taste in clothes. I came to work every day with the same soiled jeans (soiled from beer and wine the night before, soiled with spit, semen, vaginal fluid as well as garbage-water, caked-on dust, grease and salt), the same oversize t-shirt and the same absolutely non-ironic trucker hat. All he ever asked for were results: forms filled out appropriately, cash-out statements that made sense on a cursory glance, a positive-enough attitude

Lest you think this was some sort of slumming for an upper-middle class college boy, I assure you it was not. It was, actually, a surprisingly fertile period of intellectual exchange. I already mentioned my acquisition of atheism as a belief system (though, for clarity, I feel compelled to add it was "weak" atheism, not the crypto-fundamentalism of "strong" atheism). My junk truck partner (the junior partner; i.e., the guy who was stuck tossing the awkward, heavy junk pieces into the compactor) was a grad student. He studied some eclectic mix of fields (philosophy, world religions, actuarial science, with software engineering on the side), always talked about the importance of "keeping yourself open to the surging sea of this world", and would not shut up, ever. This developed in me that latent, often repressed, faculty of listening, and getting my end of the conversation in the form of epigrammatic remarks.

Oddly enough, it wasn't the philosophical side of this never-ending pundit that gave any direction to my atheism. On the contrary, he talked (and talked and talked) about how he, too, had flirted with it in his teens and early twenties, but how he had now developed a more ecumenical world-view. This still entailed atheism, but entailed very muted mockery of religion. He was aggressively eclectic in his approach. Half the time he was over my head, and the other half of the time, his explanations were just too pat. His crypto-Buddhist positions with regard to everything were shallow in the extreme. Not in the sense that he didn't know his stuff, merely in the sense that explaining things using that particular system was looking at it from too high a level. Everything was grist for the mill, and everything seemed promissory. Enlightenment would come, would come to me as well. I just had to work at it. I was ignorant of the Truth because my attention wasn't trained enough. (Fair enough: my attention broke down roughly evenly between strategizing on how to get laid and reading poetry with a gaze intense enough to burn through the page.) I told him as much and he would just smile, wave his hands a little and change the topic. It was a very strange apprenticeship. In retrospect I think he was planting seeds.

...(to be continued)

Consider: "The awful daring of a moment's surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract / By this, and this only, we have existed."