I am have been travelling quite a bit recently – a different city and a different conference for three weekends of the past four. Venturing from the sublime (U2 academic conference in Durham, NC) to the ridiculous (was in a booth across from a disco dancing Yeti under a mirror ball blaring the Michael Jackson back catalog at the YS National Youth Workers Convention in LA) to the somber and informative (the AYME conference where I gave a paper on racial identity in teens in Louisville, KY), in the immortal words of Jerry Garcia – “oh what a long strange trip it’s been.”
I am pretty beat up after all this travelling and frankly marvel as frequent business travelers who keep up this pace. It is utterly de-humanizing to be travelling those distances in that period of time. I was bumped up to first class on one leg of a trip and got a taste of what happens to people who travel that much – people shoving their overhead luggage into you so they can secure a spot, barking at the stewardess for yet another drink, grunting at the elderly as they attempt to get off the plane with limited mobility. I kept thinking “so THIS is what the boys in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” would have become if they had traveled by plane as opposed to ship…”
Being bone tired makes you realize your limits and on a spiritual level offers a space to consider what it is that makes us human. Exhaustion is the end of the bell curve and I am beginning to see it as the polar opposite from imagination. The lack of human intimacy, the frantic blur of locales and yet the utter banality of hotel rooms in drab sameness, the lack of distinctiveness in food all add up to a vacuum that provides no resources nor encouragement to even consider possibilities and a vision larger than just making it through another metal detector and TSA strip search.
Frankly, I am too tired to even know what to do with this… but at least I am home to think about it.
Los Angeles – arguably one of the most “American” cities you will ever visit. Flash and image swirl around you in the reflections of 100 foot video billboards, half the television shows in the past twenty years are shot in a 10 mile radius of Wilshire and Figueroa in downtown where I am currently writing this blog at the pool side of an old 50’s faux Moroccan hotel: everything feels like a canceled TV show on Nick at Nite down to the extras walking across the street.
I am in LA this time at the National Youth Workers Convention. This is the Superbowl of youth leader events if the Superbowl was only the halftime show and there was no game and held in a strip mall. And perhaps that is my worry as I watch over 1,000 youth workers running around with the latest messenger bag with hip flare pins on the strap: has youth ministry become only the halftime show and no game? The Big Room events capture this perfectly: huge expensive stage show with set musicians cranking out great covers of Stevie Wonder while the MC throws plastic frisbees probably made in a sweat shop in China to the cheering crowd who have spend the day grabbing as many free pens, T-Shirts, and funky USB drives from the booths as they could get their hands on… ‘consumerism sanctified’ to be sure.
Just outside the Convention Center where this is all taking place another gathering of the faithful has assembled: hundreds of Michael Jackson fans have gathered around the Staples Center awaiting the premiere of the posthumous concert film of their dead hero. For days they have been gathering, sitting in lawn chairs, dressed like MJ and iPod docking stations blasting out his back catalog for all on Figueroa to hear. Votive candles have been lit and flowers left under a huge wall of messages written in memorium.
Both groups have gathered because someone died. Both groups seek to honor their hero. Both are also driven and defined by the products and merchandise that is being sold to give form to their faithfulness: CDs, T-Shirts, concerts, DVDs, books, hats, etc.
Question: if we switched the groups, traded the faithful at each gathering and televised it to the world, would the masses be able to tell the difference? Could someone just watching behavior see which “King” is being lauded and worshiped?
I suppose like MJ I am wondering who IS the man in the mirror after all?
(Update five minutes later – Right after posting this, I walked into the Big Room session and caught the end of the talk. I was feeling like perhaps I had been too pointed in my reflections. Then the speaker handed the microphone to a singer who launched into “a song to have in our heads as we think about change…” The song? Yup… MJ’s “Man in the Mirror” Oh sigh… )