How to Be Good

James O'Brien

Last St. Patrick's Day, I stood outside a bar in the North Beach neighborhood of downtown San Francisco, watching a traditional Irish folk band under northern California stars. In between a jig and a reel, the singer-fiddler bent down to hear something her guitar player had to say, then stepped to the microphone and, in an Irish brogue that might as well have been Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous whispering, "It's a sad and beautiful world," delivered this sobering bulletin: "Your president has just declared war."

A shudder went through the crowd. Dancers stopped, drinkers flopped, and the whole reality-checkered scene was framed by the spires of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were married, in a part of town not far from where Harvey Milk fought for (and won) gay rights, and where some of the biggest pre-Iraq War demonstrations on the planet took place. After a few stunned seconds, the band started up again, and my friend Arieh O'Sullivan, a war correspondent for the Jerusalem Post who covers nightmares for a living and who was hanging with me in California last year to get away from it all, turned to me and said, "I wonder where we'll be this time next year."

Where will we be? I've thought about his words since, and now that we're here, it seems impossible to say where "we" find ourselves. There's no simple means of summing up how skittish it all feels, how thin-ice and thin-skinned everyone's feeling. No song, film, novel, or essay has captured how it feels to be alive at this rare moment, to navigate all this shit, or how the year has affected the average person's psyche. But for me, a recent quote from a college tennis player came pretty close.

It was in the Star Tribune at the beginning of March, buried in a sports section story about University of Minnesota women's tennis coach Tyler Thomson, whom four players tried to oust for "inappropriate behavior," an allegation that was dismissed by the school's athletic director after an investigation. One of the players' main complaints was that Thomson screened for the players Being There, the 1979 Peter Sellers classic that tells the tale of Chauncey Gardiner, a sheltered domestic servant whose affinity for television and not much else makes him a high-society guru in Washington.

It's easy to see why a coach would want his players to see it--Chauncey is nothing if not in the zone--but according to the Strib, some players took offense at the film because it contains "a female masturbation scene." Said senior Brandi Watts: "We were all like, 'Are you kidding me?' It was completely inappropriate. It was so uncomfortable."

Now. This is a college senior, talking on record about a film that for more than 20 years has been hailed by college students as a sardonic commentary on the absurdity of daily life, the evils of media, the caprices of power, and the importance of nurturing an inner life. The "masturbation scene" so reviled by Watts is one in which Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) hilariously and benignly attempts to please the sexually oblivious Chauncey, who of course only wanted to watch.

It would be easy to write off Watts's comment as prudish. But unpack the therapy-speak of words like "inappropriate" and "uncomfortable," and what you end up with is a case study in what has happened to the average American's mind, soul, and libido in recent times. It's almost as if Watts's reaction is not her own--her words are such clichés they die on the way out of her mouth, tokens of a "bad touch" culture shaped by a creeping right-wing sensibility that routinely defines what is "good" and "bad" for you and me, and whether we are "good" or "bad" people.

I'm talking with-us-or-against-us Christianity here. Talking judgmental, holier-than-thou simpletons running around equating goodness and steadfastness with praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-ammunition jingoism, sex with sinning, and a slasher movie about Jesus as something not only to be seen but to be "supported." All this infernal goodness is obviously a reaction to the ubiquitous badness of the day, and while that rhetoric may be the province of seeming "extremists," it colors everyone's experience, on down to a young woman who watches a PG-rated film in the company of other adults and is made to feel shameful.

She's not the only one. And she's not the only one who's trying to out-good her neighbor and trumpet it to the world. But all it makes me want to do is be "bad"--dress up in latex, snort crushed Oxycontin, fuck goats. Springtime! Alas, the most I can muster is a trip to the bar. There, I feel like myself, and not like I'm going crazy, or like some DEVO-boy who's been transported back to the '50s of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road. At the bar there's loud music and bad boys and girls and a sweet seediness, and nobody's talking about being good, even though the mix of music and humanity brims with a palpable goodness. Like the best churches, bars are an acknowledgment of aliveness, of life's great gray areas, and they act as temples of essential unrestraint where somebody like the Hold Steady's Craig Finn can sing, "What Would Judas Do?"--as he did last weekend at the Triple Rock--and not risk getting

As Steve Perry wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, "As a matter of cultural manners, first and foremost, Americans aren't supposed to say no to God, openly anyway." Me, I don't ever say "no" to God. What I say "yes" to is my definition of God, which works the same way my definition of "good" works: It changes every day, and at this late date, I'll listen to anybody's version of either, but I don't let anybody tell me what my path to the good life is. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a date with a DVD, a female masturbation scene, and all sorts of inappropriateness.

Pray for me.

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