I Believe in Progress

I Believe in Progress

I. I’ve always found photo kiosks enchanting. Not necessarily the ones available at theme parks, amusement resorts, or other themed locations, but the ones maintained at malls. The utter lack of pretense and earnest facade never fail to give me pause and occasion to look wistfully upon them. Sometimes I’ll even peek behind the curtain and see if anyone is there. Inevitably, they are not, and in fact, my entire life, I have never seen one person either enter or exit these apparatuses. Yet, day in and day out, they are here, scattered over this brave land, tiny pods of ingenuity and progress ready for the asking.

Peeking in, invariably they are dirty. Not necessarily filthy, there are certainly no cakes of mud that have accrued nor are there heaps of dead insects (barring the husks of several houseflies that line the seat) but usually some red discoloration on the floor, if carpeted. One can imagine an errant foot tipping over a fruit beverage or smoothie onto the floor. Indicating their considerable age, two or more yellowish-amber stains may be found on the plastic, an indication of the long ago age when smoking in public was not only tolerated, but was encouraged.

Outside, they are decorated with examples of photographs. A series of photos, illustrating happiness measured at precise intervals. Here, there are three adolescents (two ladies and a boy). They mug for the camera, alternating hand gestures, with pouting lips, a kiss on the cheeks and smiles. Who are these people? They look like us. They look like the people who hurriedly walk by on their way to the faux German restaurant on the corner. Yet, their clothes are not exactly in fashion, their hairstyles are slightly out of date. They are both our contemporary and yet remain distinctly not; they are our peers and our elders. Close enough in proximity of age to be ours, yet older but not old enough for nostalgia. Their age and the time they represent fall somewhere in the folds of memory, close enough to be held but representing a distance, unfathomable in hindsight, yet tangible nonetheless.

With the rise of digital cameras, scanners, computer based cameras and other devices, for what purpose do these photo kiosks remain? Other than queasy nostalgia or a temporary space to make out, why do we keep these items around? The answer is simple: for pure evil. Evil, as any good thinker will remind you is no longer to be found solely in dramatic gestures, flairs of supernatural proportions or in pop music (barring the occasional country western album). No, evil is found in the unexpected interruption of well-contrived routine. Evil is not mere sleight of hand. Evil is no parlor trick. Evil is not buying a car and having it flip over, killing your entire family. That is merely shoddy workmanship. No, evil is buying a car, having it flip over, killing your family and finding a red rubber ball and an orange clown wig at the scene of the accident. Evil is getting Sunday’s paper and finding it stained with piss. Evil is walking into the men’s room at Sonny’s and finding “Randy is a good lay,” written in fecal matter on the wall. Evil is buying a Hank Williams CD and discovering it is Hank Williams Jr.

Of course, nothing could be quite so alarming as sitting for some photos in a kiosk and as they are ejected, noticing one looks strangely dissimilar from the rest. Why is it out of the sequence of four, the third picture bears the image of an elderly cadaver and a woman pinned behind the wheel of a car, bloodied and bruised. Imagine a kiosk that, at random and for no reason, provides a snapshot of its unwitting patrons at the moment of their death. Teenagers carelessly cavorting are startled to find one of them is headless and sprawled across some railroad tracks. A single mother with her sons in the booth is amazed to learn that one passes on in a presidential motorcade while the other drinks himself to death in a trailer in Oklahoma.

Although not everyone may be ready such an adventure, I believe it is good for the soul. For far too long, evil has occupied the backseat of modern life; there has been too much backsliding and not enough resolve to stare at the cold hard facts of life. Now then, where did I place that smoothie?

II. Overall, I think most Americans feel too good. As an exceptionally heroic people, we display an uncanny optimism and overall good humor. While most other nations would appear daunted by the sheer number of random accidents, bizarre homicides, and the dizzying array of suicide pacts that occur, Americans are always capable of a stoic countenance and upbeat attitude. Wherever you go across this fine land, you are bound to find individuals who, having suffered an unwarranted amount of heartache and disaster, still maintain a good humor. In fact, it is too good a humor, if you ask me. Wherever I go, on my daily walks, I frequently encounter individuals who display a warmth, a generousness, a gracious spirit that is frankly, alarming. Who are these people and why are they so happy?

As it so happens, I have asked them from time to time. One occasion was at the checkout line at the grocery store, with a woman named Tanya with strawberry blonde hair. As she was ringing up another patron I stood behind her and asked quickly, “Are you happy? Do you feel good?” To which she responded, “Yes.” Unfortunately, I could not engage her in confidence anymore as she inadvertently dropped a large melon, of no inconsequential girth, on my head (for I am quite small).

On another time, when I had the good fortune to be transferred to a new cell, I asked my escort, Officer Golem, if he was happy. He asserted that he was, in fact, quite happy. He preferred to relate at that exact moment, indeed the exact second as I was asking that question, he was thinking about how happy he was. He had just received his promotion to sharpshooter and indicated this by pointing to his new belt buckle he had bought to celebrate. “Very nice,” I commented, and it was very nice. I admired the workmanship of the embossed, screaming eagle. “True craftsmanship,” I voiced aloud, to which he winked.

Lastly, the third encounter I have had which should indicate my concern of happiness occurred at a sporting good store. It was during a period of time in my life when I was taken with what I could only call “The Troubles.” As I was being vigorously shaken back to consciousness from where I lay, under the salmon nets, I was able to pose this question again. Of course, what initially came out of my mouth was incomprehensible, owing in part, due to the large amounts of sputum and phlegm I was coughing up. But, as I once again asked my friends, “Are you happy? Does life please you?” The crowd of onlookers that ringed around me figure, looked upon me and said, “Sure,” “Certainly,” “Of course,” and “Why not?”

This alarming epidemic of hope, mirth, and general well-being poses a serious situation, one that I feel must critically address. The brazen bitch goddess of lightheartedness seems to be little more than the cruel inauguration of a bold, unseemly era. The whole world appears to balance precariously on its side, as unstable and awkward as a sugar cube transfixed on the edge of a teacup or a teardrop clinging to a lone hair that erupts, fitfully, from the center of your cleft palate. I know what you will say, my dear, that a few isolated incidents do not constitute a nexus of humor. They are random, isolated incidents; they are incidents with no precedent other than the odd actions of misbegotten fools. I can already hear your protests, you will point to the social break down, the rise in the use of pharmaceuticals, substance abuse, and a divorce rate that hovers at 50%. All evidence otherwise, I hear you say. But, my dear, these protests constitute nothing less than an illusion, a facade, they are little more than smoke and mirrors, my dear, smoke and mirrors.

To this end, I propose drastic measures, the daily usage of a series of chemicals collectively known as Nihilamins. Similar to a vitamin, yet with absolutely no known benefits, these pills will come packaged in a plain black bottle, with a black label and an embossed white lettering that reveals the title. The bottle would not be child proof; no, instead it would be created with the intention of easy access for children. In fact, in the hands of a child it would spill right open, leaving an oily film over their entire hands.

The purpose of such drastic measures should be quite clear. These Nihilamins would be used to reverse the sense of good nature and rootedness Americans seem to display. Instead, it would replace good humor with paranoia, solidness with a sense of unease, and equanimity with overwhelming feelings of weightlessness and loss of emotional balance. No more will Americans dream with ease and abandon of the open road, of steadily marching progress, of lumberjacks and locomotives. No, now their heads will be filled with the images of the hands of dead children weaving wreathes of cheap tinsel and of sour maidens marching in lockstep, backwards, into the golden eclipse of oblivion.

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