Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Look Inside the Tent

Yesterday I drove up to Lowell from Groton (that's the Connecticut version, not the Mass. or NH edition). I listened to a George Carlin CD and was just amazed from front to end at the stuff the guy comes up with. I've never heard anyone else come near Carlin on the way he skewers contemporary American English expressions for their ridiculousness and for the lack of thought that goes into a lot of what people say.

I thought a lot about where I would rank George Carlin on those hypothetical "Who-would-you-have-over-to-dinner" questions -- of course, that's assuming the deceased are within bounds.

That also led me to thinking about how much I wish I could have known George Carlin and how sure I am that if our paths had ever crossed, we would've become fast friends.

That, of course, led me to thinking about commonalities that people I would call "friends" share. Now, I use the term very loosely, and cast as wide a tent as possible, but when I think about which people have really *stuck* from the various phases of my life, the thing that stood out was intellectualism.

Now, a note of caution -- before I start coming off as some corduroy-wearing, pipe-smoking, Atlantic- and The New Yorker-subscribing but never reading effete northeasterner, let me clarify what I believe the term "intellectual" means -- it's a combination of a person's general state of open-mindedness and their curiosity about the world around them. That's it. So by my definition, George Carlin was one of the greatest public intellectuals of the late 20th century.

I don't know or care where George Carlin went to college, whether he listened to NPR, whether he drove a Volvo with Connecticut plates and a Golden Retriever in the back, or whether he knew the difference between Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. That's not what makes someone an intellectual.

Someone who wonders about why things are the way they are, someone who tends to start sentences with "Did you ever notice...?" and someone who can simultaneously hold and understand opposing viewpoints in their head is someone I want to have over for steak and rice.

Another thing I thought about was how the people I've stayed closest with aren't cheap. Again, that term could quickly open itself to misinterpretation so I want to be super-clear about this -- I'm not in any way talking about what type of car a person drives, the designer label on their shirts and shoes, or whether they know the difference between a Merlot and a Cabernet. I've never had any taste for any of that stuff, and I never will. Highbrow tastes just never made their way into my DNA.

So now that I've said what I didn't mean, here's what I did mean by that: 'Cheap' is someone who earns twice what you do but never buys a round or picks up a bar tab. 'Cheap' is someone who calculates the tip at a restaurant out to the twentieth decimal place with a high-powered calculator. 'Cheap' is someone who comes along on a 200-mile road trip but never chips in for gas or tolls.

The funny thing about 'cheap' is that is has so little to do with a person's gross income, or even their so-called 'disposable income.' I know people who truly span the gamut of incomes and I can assure you it has nothing to do with the things I've written about in the paragraph above.

I know people who struggle to get by from paycheck-to-paycheck but would open their entire refrigerator/home to me without blinking. I also know people who literally earn a half-million dollars a year but would inconvenience other friends while traveling because they don't want to drop a couple hundy on a hotel room for the weekend.

Rather than income, the difference between generosity and miserliness completely springs from something else -- a person's mentality. Someone who is constantly "on guard" for fear of being screwed over, someone who is constantly looking over their shoulder and counting their silverware after all their friends leave is just not someone I would look to call a 'friend.'

I don't care if this is the biggest cliche ever -- life is short. Years spent observing human beings in action show me that life is enjoyed quite a bit more by the generous and the open-minded. And to the degree that I can control it, I'll continue to choose to spend mine surrounded by those types of good souls.


Matt said...

Carlin was pretty amazing. Have you ever heard Bill Hicks or Mitch Hedberg? Considerably more offbeat and nowhere near the master, bur def. some good bits

Matt said...

Also wanted to give a shout-out to this week's New Yorker -- four amazing articles on Palin, Mugabe, Brando, and Bob Barr. Usually that magazine is boring but this week it is great.

The New Englander said...


Don't know Bill Hicks but I HUGELY appreciate the stuff Mitch Hedberg did with American English colloquialisms. Just awesome. Plus, a totally fresh delivery. I will look for Hicks on YouTube.

Also, will look for the New Yorker issue...speaking of which, any chance you saw that poll about whether people knew a) which party controls the House? b) who is the Sec. of State, and c) Who is the PM of the UK? Only 18 percent of Americans got it right, but what really shocked me was that only like half of New Yorker readers got them all right...makes me think they're using "reader" too loosely.