Familiarity breeds contempt, as the old saying goes (to which Mark Twain added “and children”). I don’t know about contempt. But certainly it brings a dulling of the edge, both of ones own perceptions and attitudes, and of the “character” of the place one finds oneself in--yes, that same place that had at first seemed endlessly exotic and new. In short, the longer one is in paradise, the more it begins to seem like Dayton, Ohio. Nothing against you Daytonians or your community intended. I could just as easily have said Phoenix, Arizona or Boise, Idaho, or indeed Portland, Oregon, my own home town. Dayton just sounded funnier--an evocation of that Midwest sort of sleepy-sameness that infects the familiar in general--where, as Paul Simon songfully said:
“Everyday is an endless dream of cigarettes and magazines,
And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories,
And every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be
Homeward bound . . . .”
I remember a time when my younger daughter was just graduating from high school, and was sick to death of “boring ass” Portland, Oregon. There was a big, wonderful world to be discovered outside our dreary city limits--sights and sounds and people and places, Emerald Cities which beckoned with promise.
Philosophically, I counselled that essentially “All the world is a stage,” and “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” I told her that every day is an endless dream of cigarettes and magazines. And so on.
What a fun dad, right?
Well, she decided forthwith on Seattle, Washington--that soggy yet luminous jewel of the West. And then on Atlanta, Georgia. Then on Washington DC. Then on Los Angeles, California. Then on New York City.
She lives now in boring-ass San Francisco, where the golden sun will shine on her (on those rare occasions when it breaks through the fog). She is older now, she is married, and will likely soon produce a brood of children.
Ah brave new world.
And so I tempt her in my old age with Bali--with the idea that paradise really did, and still does exist--knowing full well that this in the end is as much a lie as Los Angeles (the city of angels) or Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love). Why? Because she herself is paradise. She, my children, my wife, my friends. And so I use her old dreams for trickery. Because I am selfish. Because I want to see her again, to touch her, to hear her voice. E-mail and text messages just don’t cut it.
I admit it. I revel is glowing portrayals of what appears to be my happy circumstance--writing home, posting pictures on Facebook--the swaying palms, the silver surf, royal feasts, costume festivals, girls in bikinis, sexy dancers! The responses I receive fortify my glad delusions. “So beautiful! So exciting! You’re really living the life!”
I can’t bear for them to learn that it’s just Dayton, after all.
The fact is, paradise comes in small doses--which are yet large for their momentary savour. Moreover, it is sprinkled liberally throughout the earth--from Bali to Singapore, Congo to Paris. And Dayton, Ohio as well.
This is paradise: A Friday afternoon. They are launching kites at Padang Galak. They come in trucks. They spill out on the sand, setting it alight with their kites, their clothing, their laughter. And down by the sea some young men make a sculpture, their amazing artfulness producing a shapely black woman, every inch of her winking back at the sun, round buttocks raised in lush love-making to an invisible male just beneath the carpet of the endless sand. Three girls pass by, and look back as they pass, and say Hi!, and giggle, and say Hi again.
There is it, just going by. Paradise after all. Catch it if you can.