Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cracker Barrel: Love Thy Neighbor?

Many years ago, I watched Out in America, an HBO documentary including the profiles of a cold call stockbroker whose coworkers painted a Jolly Roger on the hood of his black sports car, and a woman working in the kitchen of a Cracker Barrel in some backwater state—I want to say Alabama, but it could have been Mississippi or any of those other southern states whose public image is indelibly linked to images of children grinning under the mangled and lifeless guest of honor at a lynching or photos of the car in which civil rights activists were last seen alive. The third profile was of a man who lived in some similar backwater who was murdered because he asked the wrong man for a date. His friends and relatives were interviewed one after the other, alongside a dirt road, in front of a two-pump gas station, or outside the bar in which the greatest number of people last saw the man alive.(

The woman worked for many years as a cook in the kitchen of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. She and her lover were raising a son who attended public school. Cracker Barrel corporate issued a memo delineating corporate policy that no employee of Cracker Barrel could be homosexual as the employee’s sexual orientation or “lifestyle choice” was not consistent with the public image of the corporation as a family friendly establishment. The woman figured the memo wasn’t about her; she didn’t interact with the public. She was back in the kitchen cooking. Her manager interpreted the corporate policy differently. She was terminated. She sued. During the lawsuit, her son suffered exactly the kind of bullying abuse at school one might expect. She eventually won her lawsuit. I like to think she took her money and moved north and coastal.

The documentary must have aired over a dozen years ago, but I haven’t forgotten it. And until recently, I had never eaten at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, despite many road trips on which a Cracker Barrel would have been a reasonable alternative to a steady diet of gas station snacks and Happy Meals.

Visiting Cracker Barrel was a socio-political experiment in expanding my cultural literacy as much as a dining experience, like ordering grits, fried green tomatoes or fried okra in the South. I live in Indiana. There are Cracker Barrels everywhere. This surprises me as much as seeing a Waffle Hut in downtown Los Angeles might. Or a rebel flag hung on the flagpole of a house in Province Town or Fire Island. Indiana was a Union state, and yet rural southern Indiana is dotted with houses whose front porches are hung with Confederate flags. Paddle faster, I think driving past them.

A Confederate flag snapping in the Atlantic breeze above a house on Fire Island. Now, that’s an image! There is no way for anyone encountering such an image to not giggle a little at the incongruity. Like Lee Iacocca and Liz Taylor zipping around on Harleys, a Confederate flag on Fire Island would be ironic; it could be nothing else. It would be a smartass decoration for a hoedown-themed brunch or a wry attempt at annoying despicably self-satisfied and pretentious neighbors. No one in the real world of college degrees and gainful employment takes such things seriously, right?

While watching Sunday Morning a few weeks ago, Beloved huffed in annoyance over the report that a majority of polled Americans do not support the Health Care Reform bill. The poll asked people whether they supported President Obama’s bill. A majority said they did not support the historic reform.  However, of the majority, a large percentage believed the president didn’t push for enough reform: they believed he didn’t go far enough. The newscaster reporting this failed to mention the point that a majority are glad it passed and most of those people think the bill was watered down and should have done more, more not less, to piss off Republicans and corporate interests. 

My beloved said, “This is exactly Bob Cesca’s point!”

Bob Cesca wrote in a recent blog post that America is a left of center country but has been convinced that it is something else.  Cesca argues that various media and polls frame the political debate with the presupposition that to be liberal is to be un-American. The questions asked in polls skew the results that wind up in the news. Bob Cesca opined that what these polls really ought to ask is whether or not the poll participant is a “vaguely gay elitist who hates America.” I said, “Hey! I need that on a T-shirt!”

Beloved said he’d look into getting me a t-shirt, and added, as he does often lately, that we really do live in two countries: one educated and urban, the other uneducated, disempowered and rural. Together, Beloved and I often marvel at the skill involved in convincing that other demographic that the Republican Party is actually on their side. The American Dream (anyone can make it, any Joe the Plumber can hit it rich if he works hard enough, prays hard enough, does what needs doing) is held before the workingman like a sad and withered carrot. Sad and withered!? Sad and withered?!

Yeah. You heard me right. Sad and withered. Sure that stuff happens. People win the lottery. People settle out of court for undisclosed sums. People start with one corner shop and soon have twenty. Oh. Wait. Wal-Mart put all of those guys out of business. Ok, people start with one Taco Bell franchise and buy another and another until they own fifty. Sure. That stuff happens. Far off in the distance, and to someone else. In forty-five years on the planet, I’ve been acquainted with only one person who has gone from something to millionaire in a private jet. Notice he started as something, in this case, a dentist. 

When’s the last time you heard of anyone going from the crap side of Anytown to Central Park East? (Rappers and rock stars don’t count. Athletes either. Why? What percentage of the American population are they? 2 percent? Less than half a percentage point?)

Most of us get as much education as we can (or as we can stand) and vie for the sweet job at the Wal-Mart distribution plant, with City or State government, UPS, Federal Express, the airport, a hospital, or Eli Lilly. That’s the list for central Indiana. Failing one of those, the service economy always needs wait staff and sales people.

Back to Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel is decorated nostalgically. The nostalgia is, apparently, for a rural “country” America of a long gone past: low country farm house architecture with a big front porch (like the one in the happy ending of the movie The Jerk), washboards and simple wooden board games (checkers and the golf tee game) that harken back to a time before the era of the high tech. There is no place for a computer in this decorating scheme. Admittedly cash registers are complex pieces of technology, but they don’t scream “digital age” the way an Apple desktop might. Inside the Cracker Barrel, even the registers are concealed behind board and batten siding like that one might find on the side of a barn. A small family farm barn, not the big corporate feedlots and dairy barns that comprise the majority of the beef and milk business nowadays.

The gift shop portion of the store includes children’s clothing, candy, country wall décor and knick-knacks. A large display is devoted to novelty candy in packaging from the first half of the twentieth century. Cracker Barrel is Christian, not spiritual, nor does it cater to any other concept of God. Bill Gaither books and CDs  are displayed for sale, as are Gaither-endorsed china platters and wall hangings. (The menu features Sunday Dinner specials.) Automobile parts—sparkplug boxes, cases of engine oil in early 20th century packaging are displayed in tasteful tableaux on the tops of shelving units in the country store. Cracker Barrel is agrarian: farmer’s popcorn still on the cob is offered for sale, the objets d’art offered are made of cornhusks or decorated with barnyard animals, milk cans of many colors and sizes are used as display receptacles for toy swords and princess wands. Note, though, that this is an imagined agrarian past of bucolic small family farms, not the squalor of subsistence that I would argue exists solely in Appalachia as the only remnant of family farming.

Decorative wall hangings in the dining area include late 19th century portraits of ancestors one can only assume represent the glorious past now Gone with the Wind. (One, having grown up with a Southern mother, would be familiar with the complex set of associations such family objects carry.) Tin advertisement signs for cola and other products from the early 20th century, notably not Coca Cola, but brands that are either fictional or long defunct hang on the walls around diners.

Cracker Barrel is the antithesis of the digital age.  Cracker Barrel is agrarian. Cracker Barrel is nostalgic for an America that existed at least 60 years ago, maybe longer. The oil lamps on the tables touted in a current billboard campaign along Interstate 65 come from a newly industrial America before electricity made it all the way out of the major cities. One of the wall hangings is a sign extolling rural electrification projects. Cracker Barrel imagines a world that is not urban, sophisticated, or by extension, liberal. If Cracker Barrel were a movie set, I would place the setting in the late 1920s and 1930s but the only set dressing that pushes Cracker Barrel further into the 20th century are the nostalgia candies for sale from several decades spanning the middle of the 20th century and the sign for rural electrification. Overall, this is an imagined rural community left behind, blissfully untouched by the complications and stresses of urbanity, technology, and an information age economy.

Cracker Barrel must then serve as a salve and comfort to the masses who identify with this particular brand of Bible Belt hospitality. Somewhere in the meaning of what it is to enjoy dining at Cracker Barrel lays an explanation of why those living far from even the margins of any constituency that could be said to benefit from Republican policy would believe in the rhetoric of the Republican Party.

Policy is not rhetoric. I find it difficult to believe that Cracker Barrel types agree with Republican Policy except where it must coincide with the more craven race baiting and fear mongering rhetoric that wins elections. Is it fair to say that true blue ‘Mericans, These Colors Don’t Run types are vaguely racist and homophobic? Well . . . if we did a full mouth of teeth count among those Americans brandishing sock monkeys at political rallies . . . what would those poll numbers be?

Wait. Sorry. Disrespectful. All too easy for elitist Left Coast me who has always had access to dental care, if not dental insurance, to cast dispersions on those who haven't and don't. What I meant to say is maybe there's a statistical correlation between owning clothing with John Deere or NASCAR logos and having a neck that is slightly red? Sorry. Someone stop me! It's hard to summon compassion for people who frighten us . . . and maybe that's the point here.

What I meant to say was—maybe people who are overwhelmed by late capitalism with its lightning fast processing speeds, its global village of ideologies complicating homespun truths that were once so comforting, its Fox News with constant reminders of which people of color are most frightening this week, its Entertainment Tonight with those horrible drunken lesbian girls flashing their bits and pieces, its Negro Presidents, its fierce competition for good middle class jobs that have evaporated with the fall of the unions—maybe those good, honest, hardworking people who used to be guaranteed a certain place in the world because they and all their friends always had been guaranteed a steady job, a decent home, and a neighborhood school free of the kind of shenanigans going on in those crazy urban neighborhoods—maybe those honest, hardworking people aren’t getting their slice of the American Dream Pie anymore and they’re looking around for someone to blame.

Fox News is already telling them morning, noon and night. Glenn Beck will tell them where blame belongs. Rush Limbaugh will tell them. The PTL Club has been telling them for years. The Republican Party will give a wink and a smile while tapping its toes to the faint strains of banjo music. And when all of that noise gets too loud, they can retreat to a quiet Sunday Dinner at the local Cracker Barrel where they can imagine they live in a small rural town, far apart from the syncopated frenetic rhythms of the big city. They can sit in rocking chairs on a big front porch and smile beatifically at neighbors who are easy to love because they look and act so much like themselves.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

While I've Been Away . . . Virtually

While I’ve been away, I learned to play World of Warcraft, not very well (level 46 Night Elf, a level 10 Troll named GoatEater, and a level 7 Rogue named Wllndorf). My friend, Gamer taught me to play. Away from my friend’s taunting and frequent retorts of “Such a noob!” the snowy world of the rogue is a peacefully quiet, almost meditative environment. Doing quests and running dungeons with the elf is more visually stunning; Elune’s temple and the city of Darnassus are beautifully awash in the colors one associates with airbrushed renderings of Pegasus flying over rainbows, and being able to fly a Hippogryph over an animated ocean as the sun sets over ships docked at Teldrassil is a virtual experience that’s worth making it to level 20 (or maybe that was the prerequisite for getting a “mount”—mine a white saber tooth, which looks like a huge tiger). It is exactly this sort of slipshod attention to the details of the game that most annoys the gamer buddy who introduced me to the virtual world.

Gamer buddy thinks the details of the game lie in gear scores, one’s ability to remember that “stam buff” means Fortitude spell, knowing which characters are able to pick locks. Apparently it is important to have a guild because there are benefits associated with membership. So far, I have only been able to make use of the guild to the extent that I know whom to pair with for dungeon runs based on the guild membership list that includes character levels. (A 46 can’t be paired with an 80 in a random dungeon. No need for despair, Whobbs has offered his services as my tank!)

One night on the docks of Darkshore, a level 80 Night Elf approached my friend and I and chatted us up. We ran a few quests, told a few jokes. My friend excused himself to run a raid, and I was left chatting with Kainis alone on the docks. We “friended” one another in the game. Soon after Kainis checked in with me whenever he saw I was “ingame.”  Which was helpful.

One of the pitfalls of being a “noob” is that finding your way back to the entrance of the dungeon (in which a fire monster, troll, or scarlet zombie monk has just smote you) can be next to impossible, especially if the charming man who has introduced you to the game fails to mention that the little torches leading away from the burial ground will take you directly back to the dungeon. Or maybe, I’m just too big a “lame fail noob tard” to have figured that one out on my own.

Kainis would frequently ask how I ended up in the middle of nowhere (since he could see my location on his friend list), and he would talk me back to the dungeon or the cemetery depending on how much I wanted to continue pretending I knew how to play. (From the cemetery a player can resurrect with the angel who hovers there, transport “home,” and be done with the dungeon run.)

One night I’m playing in a dungeon I’ve never been to before and whose burial ground is in the middle of some crazy desert landscape with cliffs, and I am so lost for so long that my dungeon mates have “kicked” me. Not only am I running around a desert full of monsters who want to kill me, but I have no one to ask for help because once the group “kicks” you, you can’t talk to them anymore. Out of nowhere Kainis messages me: “I see you’re in the middle of nowhere. What are you doing out there? Are you lost again?”

Being the knightly dungeon master that he is, he offers to come to me and help me home. He does find me and leads our toons to the top of a cliff where the toons lie down beside one another and we proceed to talk about the sort of thing single men and women discuss when they find themselves alone under a desert sky atop a cliff. I confess: I talked dirty online with Kainis, which may or may not be his real or assumed name either in real life or in game. 
 “But wait!” you say. “You are not single and the night sky is not real. Further, you are not a night elf, nor are you six feet tall and weight maybe 140 pounds with a huge portion of your total weight being devoted to your gravity defying purple cleavage!”

Cognitive dissonance, I believe, may be the term we’re looking for here. It is and it isn’t. It’s real, but it’s not. It feels real, but it doesn’t count in the same way meeting the real man behind the toon, Kainis, at a hotel midday would count. Or does it?

This may be a quaint confession in the minds of some. Twenty years ago a friend confessed to me that he liked to call 900 number chat lines to masturbate while talking with women who he was fairly certain were middle-aged pros who could no longer support themselves on the street. In my mind, there is a parallel here—anonymity, assumed personas and pretend bodies (every penis huge, every woman beautiful), the gentleman’s agreement inherent in the zipless fuck (that agreement being continued anonymity and emotional detachment), the pay-to-play element of gaming and 900 numbers—and the parallel is unsavory.  I couldn’t take communion the next day because the act of contrition in every mass just didn’t seem adequate to my sin. In my mind, I had been intimate with another man. My husband thought I was being silly.  It’s nothing like actually being intimate, he said; it’s virtual.

Virtual. But it feels real.

My trash-talking gamer friend talks trash on-line like an adolescent boy. Trash Talk, it seems, is the lingua franca of the gaming world, combining entries from The Urban Dictionary website with dozens style assignations. Gamer delighted himself with introducing “me” as “a top into chocolate sauce”—which is not anything you would want to be introduced as (unless your fetishes ran in that direction—think German shitze films, which I feel compelled to note I’ve never seen and in which I have no interest).  My toon fell into the role of providing comic relief: My elf would ask, “Are we talking about ice cream? I prefer chocolate ice cream, no topping, or vanilla with fruit, but I’m really a savory foods person. I like my fat with salt, not sugar” to the virtual howls of my dungeon group.

There are many things I’d never seen prior to entering the virtual world of gaming and gamers. The Internet certainly gets its freak on. Lemon Party, Goatse, and Tub Girl are iconic images of hardcore fetish the savvy send as links to noobs. The unsuspecting open the link and freak out, to the delight of the epic. Lemon Party didn’t freak me out—just seemed like a threesome of middle-aged men enjoying one another’s company naked. I have no judgments about Goatse, but I do worry for him; while it is his body, that can’t be healthy. Something about Tub Girl just doesn’t seem consensual, and that really bothers me, as does the dark video involving a man and a horse in Seattle. I sincerely hope the accompanying news stories are a hoax—otherwise, I have been unwittingly duped into watching a snuff film. My imagination, my sexuality, I don’t run anywhere near as dark as that stuff. If images leave the realm of the consensual and enter the realm of the tragic, I don’t want anything to do with them. Unfortunately, once you’ve seen something, you’ve seen something.

Have I done something though? How responsible am I for the feelings of the man lurking somewhere out there behind Kainis? Is it possible to hurt someone in the virtual world? Am I accountable for the promises my toon makes? I think the answer to all those questions is “YES, absolutely.”

My impression, though, is that many people would argue with me. They would say the lack of accountability is the point of the virtual world. They would say it’s all theater, make-believe play, pretend. They would say the power of the virtual world lies precisely in its ability to nullify the signifiers at play in real social interaction: class, race, gender, education, beauty, experience, age, geography, you name it. In the virtual world, we are who we say we are and no one will know any different. In the virtual world, I look like Angelina Jolie in Hackers and I’m a super smart, super confident 29 year-old vixen who owns not only her own sexuality, but likes to make anyone who takes an interest in it into her bitch. I wear shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather online.

Over the last few months I’ve “met” many new people—a stunning variety of personalities. Scuutor was especially helpful ingame; he helped me with gearing up my toon and explained some of the benefits of guild membership. My game realm, Proudmore is home to LGBT gamers. One member of the guild was a 16 year old exploring her real world options in the virtual world of gaming. She had a girlfriend in the real world, but allowed as how boys were not icky entirely. The adults in the guild, of whom I may have been the youngest, surrounded her protectively. The tone and content of conversation shifted rapidly to coming out stories and college entrance essays as soon as she revealed her age. The members of BloodBathandBeyond are models of virtual accountability and ethical behavior.

Some relationships I’m still confused about for a variety of reasons. “Stranger” may be ready to hire an attorney and sue me, or he may just be pushing for more talk of the sort we started out throwing at one another. Whichever the case, my husband said, block this guy. And I did, but not from chat. Because the conversation we shared was intense and edgy, part of me feels responsible for whatever psychodrama I lifted the curtain on. While we were talking, he asked if I were “real,” and I answered, “Yes, I’m real,” but I qualified that I was “playing” with him. “Pretend,” as any actor will tell you, feels “real” whether it’s in person or online, physical or virtual. And then he said something to me that I had said to my gamer friend; “It feels real, though.” If he needs to talk with me again, he can.

When I said, “It feels real, though” to my gamer friend, he had reduced me to tears ingame. By that, I mean I was sitting alone at my keyboard with tears trickling down my face typing furiously about how unfair he was being. I was frustrated and my feelings were hurt. I was trying so hard to master World of Warcraft, and nothing I did that night met with anything but taunts and criticism from him in the public chat line of the dungeon group.

Even in a pretend world, levels of public and private disclosure are in play. It was one thing for Gamer to taunt me through private “whispers,” quite another to be dressed down in front of the dungeon party or, worse, on the trade lines, which broadcast to the entire virtual city. Before I learned these distinctions, I accidentally told one of those stories (for which we only use the “whisper” feature of messaging in real life) on the guild chat. Or, at least, I think I did. When one of the female guild members whispered, “Are you ok?” in response to what I thought I had told only Gamer, I realized my mistake.  I was too embarrassed to pursue confirming my gaffe, and rapidly realized that no one but Gamer knew who I really am, in real life. How embarrassed can I be on behalf of my toon? She isn’t me, after all, is she?

“In real life,” IRL in the virtual world shrouds itself in hazy golden light. In the virtual world, to reveal one’s irl self is to invite the possibility of irl friendship. Irl friendship is revered online. Other players defer to irl friendships. If Gamer revealed to a dungeon party that I was his irl friend, the tone and content of conversation changed to align with his tone and level of familiarity. Even on line, on a LGBT server, in a world populated with men pretending to be women (albeit of various species), the socially prophylactic properties of falling under the “ownership” of a man are at play.

Irrationally, one would expect the virtual world to conform to our fantasies of a libertine world unfettered by the signifiers that shackle us irl. The only problem is that we inhabit the virtual world and bring ourselves with us when we log on.