By Michelle Railey

Originally published 26 March, 2013.


I was motoring, along 465 on a grey day, waiting for snow. There were billboards, everywhere billboards, and signs for gas stops, truck stops, the cheap, plentiful, and ubiquitous food. And the mood that’s been hanging over my head fell in the way it’s been threatening to do for some time.


It’s all so insubstantial, isn’t it? A culture, a society, a way of life that’s built on and of the disposable, the transient, the impermanent. And somewhere between the sign for Concentra Urgent Care (Jennifer chopped more than her veggies. Now she’s at Concentra.) and the sign for Chik-Fil-A (Two cows in firemen costumes, appearing to paint “Try Spicee Chikkun”), it occurred to me that this world, or at least here, is built on vapor. You could pass a hand through it. You could see its breath on a mirror, you could see its reflection, but don’t try to see the object reflected, the object that’s behind the respiration– it was built of plastic and neon in 20 minutes of undervalued labor. It will be torn down in less.

It’s been coming for awhile, this sense of inescapable, perpetual insubstantiality; the sense that nothing is solid. People’s houses are under water, “security” has seemed to mean only rent-a-cops in doorways and not a meaningful value actual people can acquire for their lives. The murals painted by well-meaning and middle class volunteers on bridges and buildings in poor neighborhoods where a solid investment in infrastructure would have real meaning but, what the hell, paint is cheaper, so we’ll go with that. The budgets built on Continuing Resolutions and not actual, annual, literal budgets of needs and income, black columns and red. The way relationships, profits, bills, earnings, livelihoods, health, stability all seem to hang on the slenderest of filaments, easily snipped by poor luck, a moment of insufficient judgment, or a vehicle’s mercurial belt.

The way we believe in “middle class values” and tout terms of hard work and respect and decency, and for all our ideals, for all the weight of our history, for all our vaunted beliefs, and despite a very great deal of hard work and capital, at the end of the day, we’re stuck in a world of minute-to-minute; a tango of plastic and short-attention spans.

So that was the Sunday drive. That was, is, the mood of the moment: this sense that everything in the internal and external world is TBA— to be announced, written in pencil but never ink, tentative, impermanent. Ether, vapor, and air. But not much else, no matter our best intentions.

Other people have hit on it before, of course, you get Shakespeare’s mortal coils and “such things as dreams;” you get the literary castles of air; you get the Beckett and the Kundera, the “Incredible Lightness of Being.”

And even for the fact that our kin has been there before, written about it before, you can’t help but feel they weren’t talking about mannequins of cows spray painting the benefits of inexpensive, readily available, cruelly-raised chicken. They weren’t talking about state monuments that were built of drywall and convenience: monuments to decades not centuries. They were talking about something basic, but they were not talking about us– because we’re, well, not that.

Which is the mood that has kept going, of course. After all, I’m not a dog capable of easily relenting its bone.

And so long as we live the way we live, all slab construction, paint, and short-term planning, with jobs that don’t satisfy and work that has lost its virtue and its rewards, with a culture that can celebrate “Honey Boo Boo” but not remember that just because a word has an “s” doesn’t mean it necessarily merits an apostrophe; so long as we go on building everything of vapor, full steam ahead, planning for nothing, or (in political banalities) kicking the can down the road, I think the mood will continue. Hamlet getting trumped by his ghosts. A topsy-turvy world. An insubstantial world. In some senses, an immaterial world.

Of course, I will say, every now and again you see a bird stick its little feathery head out of the recesses of a neon “B.” Or you’ll hear a little kid squeal with joy at a Tonka truck sliding across a table. And you’ll think Now, that. That is real. There is actually something there. Something solid. Something real.

And you’ll be grateful. But that, like everything else, will not last. Because, apparently, for this moment, nothing really ever does.

But moments pass, too. Vapor themselves, incorporeal, mercurial, impermanent, and temporary. Vapor, electrodes, synaptic connections that connect and evaporate, connect again. Insubstantial. Immaterial.

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