Insensible Cities

How Country Feels

The Randy Houser tour recently parked the bus at Little Whitefish Lake in Michigan to take a couple days off away from home. Our pedal steel player’s in-laws have a vacation home there, and they were kind enough to accommodate no less than eleven grown men with dirty underwear and drinking habits. We spent both days in and out of the water: tubes, darts, jet skis, Cornhole, pontoons, and handguns. We filled our tanks with Coors Light, coleslaw, and ice cream pops shaped like puppy paws. We smoked cigarettes and tanned our hides. We listened to the blues as the sun went down. It was two full days of asking and answering questions like, “This doesn’t suck, does it?” or, “It’s hard working for a living, huh?”

In addition to our group of pirates, there were two more families including kids, and I’m not too shy to say I’m uncomfortable around kids. It’s not that I hate them personally or anything, but hanging out with young people is like shopping at Claire’s Boutique: there’s nothing for me there. I don’t listen to the Black Eyed Peas, I don’t watch The Bachelorette, and most candy is too sweet for my taste. Sue me. But what makes kids insufferable is their intuition. You can bullshit a grownup, but a kid knows when you regret his or her presence. All it takes is one awkward look, and a kid’s like, “Oh, I see. You’re too much of an adult to interact with me. You have fun being a joyless prig; I’ll just be over here flailing my arms like an epileptic robot for the next five hours.”

In the late afternoon of the second day, a few bandmates and I were engaged in a particularly competitive match of throwing bean bags when the six-year-old kid named Leroy called the next game. With reluctance, I acknowledged him; he’d probably forget about it by the time we were done anyway. But he didn’t. I noticed him pouting at us when we were two innings into the following game, and then, impulsively, I stopped the match.

“Hey guys, this kid called next game. We need to let him play.”

What the hell was that? We had a serious game of bags going, and now I’d called the whole thing off to let this little kid called Leroy come in and stink up the place with his imagination and underdeveloped motor skills. But then, how could I refuse? He had called the next game, and what kind of a person would he grow up to be if he lived in a world where you call the next game and then you do not get to play the next game? Someday he’d resign himself to the inhumanity of existence like the rest of us, occasionally marveling at the spare flecks of order amid the chaos, but I’d be damned if he was gonna get there on my watch.

So I let him play on my team… and we lost. But not by much! He threw a few good bags, and it was fun to coach him. It must have been what it feels like to coach little league baseball or something like that, where the joy comes from awwwwwing at kids that are trying to do stuff like adults. It’s tempting to liken it to watching a monkey hit bongos, but a kid actually has the potential to grow up into something with a capacity for sophistication.

I excused myself to the bus after the game, worn out from all the tutelage. We’d be leaving in an hour, and I felt like taking my pants off and contemplating Euler’s Identity. Right as I was about to doze off in my bunk, I heard my name being called from the front lounge. It was Ward, our pedal steel player, telling me that Leroy wanted to say goodbye to me, and just as I swung my legs over the lip of my bunk to go throw some pants on, the little insect scurried right up to my bare kneecaps, little tiny kid-face shining like a candle. This is what he said:

“I want to thank you for letting me play the game. It was decent of you.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said.

“I understand how young people tend to get in the way of older folks’ plans, and we’re not always convenient to accommodate.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, no. It’s not inconvenient.”

“No need to say what you think I want to hear. All people, old and young, tend—”

“Alright, enough,” I said. “So you’re one of those kids who isn’t a kid at all, and now you’re gonna teach me some new shit, compliments of the wisdom of a child. No thanks. I’ve already seen that sitcom.”

“Sitcom?” he said. “Try Manhattan.”

“Don’t bring Woody Allen into this,” I said. “This concept was fresh for the commercial market in ’79, but now it’s old hat.”

“Then it ought to be perfect for you.”

“Fuck off,” I said, feeling stung, but then I immediately felt guilty for dropping the eff bomb directly on a child.

“You said a bad word,” he said, shocked.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That was out of line.”

“I can see you’re uncomfortable about not wearing pants right now. Is your anxiety exacerbated by the fact that I’m only six years old?”

“Yes, actually,” I said, relieved to address the elephant in the bunk area, now getting more crowded as band and crew members prepared to weigh anchor. “I’m extremely sensitive about what is appropriate between young children and adults, especially when they’re not immediately related.”

“That’s understandable,” he said. “Ha, I’ll bet that new Wes Anderson film made you feel pretty uncomfortable, what with all the provocative shots of that young actress.”

“Yes,” I said. “I found some of those images uncomfortably suggestive. And I was disturbed to find out that the girl was only twelve years old! I mean, does that not offend you?”

“Not really,” he said. “She’s twice my age.”

“Fair enough. What did you think of Moonrise Kingdom, anyway?”

“I felt the same way about it that I feel about all of Wes Anderson’s films. It looked great, it was well-conceived, but I couldn’t help the feeling that it was a small film. He’s like a composer who writes chamber music exclusively.”

“Agreed,” I said. “And can there be a composer of greatness who only writes chamber music?”

“Not really,” he said, “unless you say Chopin, but then there are the—”

“Concertos,” we said simultaneously.

“Yup,” he said, “to qualify as a great artist in any medium you must master every stylistic form of the day.”

“Amen,” I said. “And a great—no, an adequate—critic must be conversant with all said forms to the degree that he or she can both appreciate and discriminate within each.”

“Discrimination!” he said. “There’s an idea that’s been kicked to the curb. It’s as if the very possibility of doing or not doing, liking or not liking, has become the only defense for an aesthetic stance. Why do you like Duchamp? Why don’t you like Michael Jackson? What do you mean you only listen to rap music?”

“Because I can, because I don’t have to, and because go fuck yourself.”

“Ha!”

“Poets and critics alike,” I said, “have abandoned discreteness in form under the lame guise of post-postmodernism. It’s just a lazy excuse to justify opacity on the one hand and the inability to judge on the… Are you picking your nose?”

“Yeah,” he said. “So what?”

“So what?” I said. “Why are you doing that?”

“To get the boogers out.”

“Jesus, that’s disgusting.”

“What,” he said. “You don’t pick your nose?”

“Of course I do, but not in front of other people. It’s indecent.”

“What hypocrites you adults are,” he said. “Is all of your behavior based on propriety?”

“Don’t moralize, kid,” I said. “Or my editor will never let you see the light of day.”

“Oh, my bad.”

“In fact, keep picking your nose. It wouldn’t hurt for you to do some more kid-like stuff. At this point, all the well-read folks are groaning about you being a two-bit piece of irony.”

“I have a scab on my knee. I could pick at that, too. Or maybe we’ll get some points if I eat my own boogers.”

“Ah, you might as well do that anyway. The more germs you pick up now, the less susceptible you’ll be to diseases in the future.”

“I knew it,” he said. “My mom was bullshitting me all along! I’ve been saying it for years.”

“Years? You’re six years old.”

“Six and a half.”

“Pshh, six and a half. I’m thirty and a half. There’s a whole quarter-life crisis between us.”

“How presumptuous of you.”

“Ugh,” I said. “You’re right. I’m guilty of the very thing that bothers me most. Sorry, kid. I’ve got a lot of growing up to do.”

“Are you mocking me?”

“I swear I’m not, though I totally understand how what I just said may have sounded like it.”

“Alright,” he said. “Well, it looks like you’re gonna be rolling pretty soon. Here’s your chance to teach me something. Fill me in on your infinite wisdom.”

“Okay,” I said before taking a moment to think. “Alright, I got something for you. Don’t listen to a damn word anybody says. Be good to your parents because you owe them that, and ingratiate yourself to anyone you can because you never know what they’ll be able to do for you, but when it comes to the big ideas—existence, knowledge, conduct—just read the classics and then try to create your own. And oh, people who are bad at math also have no capacity for logic, and therefore must be ignored in all legal and/or political matters. You’ll discover this firsthand when you start a Facebook account.”

“Geez,” he said. “You’re one didactic bastard, aren’t you?”

“Aw, kiss my ass,” I laughed. “You set me up.”

“Ha ha ha, yeah,” he said. “I gotta go. Have a nice life clearing the toilet paper from your front yard.”

I gave him a high five and then he scampered off, all limbs and electricity. He’s a good kid, I thought. A bit idealistic, perhaps, but hey, we were all young once.

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.