Columnist for Tuesday, 5/15 - Betsy Shebang

If a tree falls on a consumer in the middle of a forest, will his car stereo continue to make annoying sounds?

The forest was somber and peaceful, but for some dickhead a few campsites away blasting the Gypsy Kings from a small silver stereo. Last time we'd gone camping, two truckloads of teenagers drank beer and played the Doobie Brothers very, very loud past two in the morning a dozen steps up the road. If that had been 1975, the noise would have been a frightening symbol of a nation's future broken loose, the secondary spawn of the Greatest Generation stumbling out of their parents' homes to find that conformity and rebellion had wound together and brought all sense of certainty crashing down upon them. As it was, on a windy night in 2000, the spectacle of drunk teenagers cranking the Doobie Brothers in a public place suggested only a world cruelly run out of ideas.

So it was with some sense of urgency to right the wrongs that extended far out of my reach that I stepped up to ask the Gypsy Kings guy to turn the shit down. Nice music for another place, perhaps, but a stereo in a forest is a terribly destructive thing. Recorded music carries with it a sense of place - the recording studio, the dance club, the car, the street - and the whole tedious ordeal of camping is valuable almost entirely because it offers a temporary escape into an older world with its own nourishing rhythm, and with no need for further distraction. While public camping grants little privacy, a sense of common purpose under a canopy of trees can offer redemption among strangers. And one small transistor radio can rattle away all such tranquility like a hot needle pushed into the balloon of mystical calm.

I was now only a few steps away and I repeated "HELLO" with increasing volume, as the apparently deaf Gypsy Kings guy slept in a folding chair, the whining stereo propped on the table behind him, a fire burning in the pit below his knees. A mammoth recreational vehicle filled all available parking space between his chair and the road. His lips and fingers fidgeted as he struggled to get comfortable even in sleep. His eyelids sank deep into the sockets, as if they were empty; he looked like an old blind man, glass eyes removed, who'd been driving around the country in search of exactly that peace I'd been trying to take from him.

Noticing his hearing aids, I decided that any pleasure he would get from his ears would have to be at our expense, and I crept away to let him peacefully sleep through his annoying music. Only steps away, I turned to see him stand, eyes open and apparently real, to stoke the fire. I stepped back to say a few words and he pleasantly turned the music down, saying he got carried away sometimes.

And that was the cue for the three young women in the camp across from ours to start blasting Janis Joplin from the stereo in their shiny new truck as they prepared dinner. (And since when is every new car in America an SUV? Did I miss an uprising?) If there is any moral justice in the universe, a special forest fire campground in Hell will be reserved for those ugly souls who blather their music between the magical trees of nature's solitude. Jeez! Why do they even post the rules on the bathroom doors? I couldn't drag the ranger around, like Junior calling on mom and dad, every time someone missed the point of outdoor living. This would have to stop, and I couldn't stop it.

Worse, I was torn, eager to encourage these young ladies that camping remains a fine recreational activity and Janis Joplin a superb musician (I'd hate to contribute to the further downslide of the culture by suggesting otherwise), but angry that they were dragging my placid soul back to the cul-de-sac life I'd gone to some effort to leave behind on this long weekend. Finally I worked up my best casual, even flirtatious smile, took one step into their campsite and was greeted with a field of scowls. "We'll be sure to tell you when you do anything wrong", bitched one of the three as she leaned into the car to shut off the music. It was a strange expression she gave, not really meant for me. She'd been practicing it for some time, knowing someone was going to tell her to turn the music down, knowing she was going to blame that person for making her do it. Almost as if she had secretly wanted to do it, but could not admit it to herself. Almost as if she were resisting the call of the wild, using Janis Joplin or the Doobie Brothers as the last, best anchor to keep her in the same place she'd come from. And now, she and her friends would have to brave the mysteries of nature with nothing but the sounds of the evening birds, the hissing of the gas stove and the scraping wheels of the neighbor kids' razor scooters to offset the maddening mirror silence that commands our attentions to turn within the darkest parts of ourselves.


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