Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
One Tramp in Dirt Time

I was born in Iowa.  

I grew up in an Iowa town that had less than a thousand people – even if you counted all of the dogs and cats as denizens (if not citizens).  It was a town that didn't have a swimming pool. So we were carted via an un-used school bus to another town to swim in their municipal pool.  My town's school system joined with the next town's system for junior high and high school.

I am not an old man.

Seriously, in the great scope of things, most folks I know have always been older than me.  (And they will always be older.)  But even though that was a very short time ago, the world that I knew no longer exists.

Our one telephone was a land line in the kitchen.  We watched an old black and white, analog console television with an actual picture tube.  We didn't even have an 8-track tape player in that house – they hadn't really become common yet.  And my father got an actual calculator – a machine bigger than the computer that I use to write this column that plugged into the wall.

I was a town kid.

Even though we lived in town, there always seemed to be a connection to the farms that surrounded the town.  To drive anywhere meant driving past endless fields of corn.  On damp mornings, you could smell the pigs and cattle and turkeys outside of town.  It was a world in which the family farm mostly still existed.  It was a world in which farms grew a variety of crops and animals were kept the way animals have been kept pretty much since the Neolithic era.

So what?

I think so much is encapsulated in the word "rich."  "Rich" is an old word with a long human history. The curious evolution and change in the meaning of "rich" in our culture says much about where we are – and who we are.

Rich has meanings that have to do with power.  The most obvious cognate is the German word "reich."  Once upon a time, "rich" was about power, not money. That's because once upon a time, wealth ( in a worldly sense) meant stuff and not money.   

Think about Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.  Antonio has to borrow ready cash (money) from Shylock because he's wealthy, but not in liquid assets.  A wealthy man was wealthy because he had stuff.  And not simply stuff in the contemporary sense of gear.  He had an estate where they made the food he ate and used to entertain friends.  He had vineyards that became the wine he drank.  He had flocks of sheep that produced the wool for his clothing. Antonio's wealth was a literal connection between his stuff and his material well being.

The system of contemporary American culture appears to work very diligently at separating each of us from connections we have with anyone or anything else.  We don't have to worry about our connection to agriculture.  Nice people in a factory farm grow factory animals that get slaughtered and processed by nice people who whisk it away to a factory kitchen for more processing so it can be flash frozen and warmed up by some more nice people at the corporate restaurant outlet.  Corn can be processed from the most delicious food on the planet to artery clogging crap that we can shovel into our mouths by the ton in brightly colored packaging that piles up in our landfills.

How did all this happen?  We have an easy means by which we don't have to worry about how we connect. We have money.

When I was a boy people worried about the separation of war from the warrior.  Comfortable men in comfortable places could push a button and miles away bombs fell on hapless civilians.  This separation, it was argued, takes the hell of war away from those who would wage it. Consequently war would become ever more attractive.  Since the cost is so negligible to us – heck, we could even make a profit from the wages of war – we could bring war more often.  So went that argument.

Something equally corrosive seems to be happening as we continue to use money to distance ourselves from the consequences of money.  In our society we have people who are very  . . . rich.  Once a person with power might have been assumed to also have stuff. Now we presume that someone has power because that person has money.

The wealth of American society is concentrated in a very small minority at the very top of a very large group who have very little.  When you can buy a very expensive car with less than 1% of your money, what is the worth of that car?  What is the worth of anything?

The American government almost seems to have become ungovernable. What do people complain about? The lack of connection.

Now I live in a nation where the Supreme Court has ruled that the legal fiction of a corporation can spend as much money to do whatever it wants in influencing elections in a media landscape that is hungry for money. Given that some folks already complain about a lack of connection, how will they fare in an environment where a company can lay down as much cash in whatever way it wants?

And now, the coda.

"He's got a real bug up his butt," you might say.  "What's gotten into him?  Why the jeremiad?"

The world has changed from when I was a boy.  The biggest change is that I'm not a boy anymore.  When I was a kid, people took care of me.  Now I don't quite have that same pleasant luxury. But there are compensations.  I like my life in the here and now just fine, thanks for asking.

But you can see where this same line of thinking can take other folks. Folks who have more anxiety than I do can become quite fearful and angry at the changes that have happened within their life experience.  We remember the past with some rosiness because we were younger then.   

Human nature – the essential part of what makes all of us human – has been pretty much the same since we became human thousands and millions of years ago.  If this were not the case, we would not be able to laugh at Greek comedy.  We would not be able to feel the drama of the antique stories.  We understand the dilemma of Antigone because she's human.  She's one of us.

Every human that has ever lived has had some share of the capacity for happiness and joy as well as heartbreak and sadness.  The people of Athens, the people of Elizabethan London, the people of late 19th century Moscow – these human beings had their own separation in some way.  And so a group of nice people came together and told a story through the unusual pretence of behaving as if they were the participants in the story being told right now. Orestes, Hamlet, and Treplev are all fictions and are all human.  The stories of them and their families and their troubles help an audience find a way to connect – to connect to a story, to the actors, to the rest of the audience, to their own humanity in all of its silliness.

Life is tough.  OK. Life is not for the timid.  Life is meant to be lived.  And when people forget, we help them mend their connections. We help strengthen the connective tissue that makes us all human.

Not a bad life.  Not a bad life at all.


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©2010 Nathan Thomas
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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February 2010

Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

February 2010

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