I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Monday, August 2, 2010

What is Class?

A few days ago I was driving down the road in my mom's station wagon. I had my windows down and a Rolling Stones album cranked up and I was just living the rock life. In my mom's station wagon. As I passed my girlfriend's house, I saw her outside entertaining two gentlemen by her car. Naturally, I pummeled my horn like I was Mel Gibson (which is accurate, because my horn has no soul) to make my presence known. Immediately afterward I texted my lovely girlfriend: "Classy?"

Some time later, while sitting on the porch of my parents' house, my good friend Brian described to me the class-dynamics of our good friends from high school. We had always belonged to this metaphorical Island of Misfit Toys. Some of our friends fit the local dynamic better, coming from financially well-off families, whereas others, sometimes living directly across the street, lived from paycheck to paycheck and had, at various times in their youth, experienced poverty face to face. After high school, I think the differences in social status were more obvious. Those raised with money somehow naturally knew how to excel, and they amazed us with the kind of success they could achieve, whereas the so-called have-nots often lacked either drive or dream, and sometimes both.

The part that struck me the heaviest was when Brian described me as somehow being the most successful at jumping between these links, perhaps even the missing link himself.

The progression of my summer was enough to prove this theory of Brian's. As soon as I'd completed all required papers and exams I was on a plane to New York City to visit my high school friends Becky, Elliot and Ken. Ken had worked his way into management at The Walking Company before becoming a certified pedorthist. Elliot had an illustration degree and was working for a company that deals with possibly his favorite thing in the world: records. The two of them had consistent DJ gigs throughout town. But the cherry on top of this success story is my best friend (female category) Becky. She became our most successful high school friend the moment she moved to New York and began working in design for Liz Claiborne. I couldn't personally imagine anything more impressive than that. But she now has her own apartment in the Village and works freelance for Victoria's Secret. When I was in town there was no difference between us. I adore everything about these, my classy friends.

When I left my classy friends to their classy lives in classy New York City I returned to my home town in Michigan. Michigan is one of the states most devastated by the economic turmoil of the last several years. It stinks with suffering, sacrifice and sadness. Even those who might have had chances at a classy existence have found themselves stuck int his mire. Months prior to my return, my parents had been forced to declare bankruptcy, and my Michigan friends all found themselves in similarly difficult situations. My friend Jared, for example, had been working two jobs: he works for the City of Grand Rapids in a parking garage and at a local college in their food service, and yet there are many weeks where he's incapable of getting a single hour of work between the two jobs. Most of the rest of my friends have found themselves working in terrible factories and various temporary positions through Manpower. Some live in trailers. Others, like myself, live with their parents in whatever apartment or house they can still afford. My Michigan friends are, by the standards of many, trash, and I, by anybody's standards, am no different from them. We stand together in solidarity on the nation's bottom rung.

Some might imagine that class has something to do with your level of education. I have two bachelor's degrees and two half-completed master's degrees, one of which I intend to finish within the year. While speaking with my girlfriend's step-dad Cliff, he once remarked, "Some of us only had a little bit of college." He sarcastically addressed the possibility that the amount of education you have has some connection with how classy you are, with what subjects you can talk about in high society. Sure, I can argue that most people are giving Plato's Republic a bad reading, but I've only ever worked at low-paying jobs that anyone who graduated from high school could be hired for. And quite often the standards weren't even that high. Prior to my return to school I was selling fried chicken at a Chicken Express and confirming service switches for Verizon in a call center. And the pendulum of Justin Tiemeyer has swung back to the trash side.

It was actually a discussion with the aforementioned Cliff that brought my understanding of class versus trash into better perspective. Cliff runs a business in the town of Lowell, a town located not too far from where I grew up. When I was in high school we were trained to believe that Lowell was a town full of hicks on tractors. I went to Forest Hills Central, a fairly wealthy and respected school district. Lowell had a football team that became one of our football team's rivals, so it was important for people to spread rumors as to Lowell's deficiency in the name of school spirit. That's how you get mindless crowds pumped up and excited about crushing large groups of people you don't know or understand. (I wonder if anyone's ever tried to do this on an international level...) What Cliff told me is that he was once privy to some demographic information which told him that the average income in Lowell is much higher than he would have ever guessed. We were taught that Lowell was nothing but trash, but if the financial method of measurement is correct, Lowell was actually a place of class.

Cliff told me the story of a recently deceased and widely mourned local man named Ivan. Ivan was, by all standards, wealthy, but if you saw him walking around Lowell you'd never know. He'd be wearing over-alls. He'd be covered in sweat and dirt from working long days. If Ivan were to walk into a fancy jewelry store in some other part of town, there's a good chance he wouldn't even be waited on. In Lowell, however, Ivan was welcomed everywhere, regardless of his appearance. Ivan was of the old stock, the land-owners and pioneers who founded the area, the kind of person I am lucky to be connected to through my grandfather Paul Slater and great grandfather Hugh Slater. Ivan is a man who could purchase most businesses he's ever set foot in, but if appearance was all that mattered he would be called trash by lesser people. If such a person as Ivan ever existed on this planet, and expert testimony says he did, then the definitions of class and trash given so far in this essay ought to be called into question.

In China during the life of Confucius, traditionally rendered as somewhere between 551 BCE and 469 BCE, this concept of class and trash was of the utmost importance. Back then it wasn't merely a matter of what bar you were going to go get drunk at. It was a matter of whether your ruler was brutal or kind. It was a matter of life and death in many cases. The classy folk were known as chun tzu, which literally translated means "Lord's son." The chun tzu was a noble overlord of the people, a prince who ought to be defined by his kindly and thoughtful rule of the people. But as time went on, the word began to lose its moral overtones. The chun tzu no longer represented or protected the people, causing great suffering and often death.

In modern times, the most common translation for chun tzu are "gentleman," "superior person," or even "examplary person." None of these emphasize the noble ancestry of the individual, and this is a fact owed largely, if not completely, to the ancient philosopher Confucius. For Confucius, chun tzu was not a birth right: it was a perfection cultivated daily by a person, focusing on morality, filial piety and loyalty to other deserving individuals, and being benevolent toward all life. I once heard a speaker apply this benevolence even to the plant life around us, claiming that a Confucian ought to understand other life on this earth not in human terms, but in terms of the life itself.

Ancestry, like wealth and level of education, is not the measure of class, at least not of true class. True class is an invisible quality of character, built with hard work and careful guidance, an invisible quality that oozes off of a person, obvious once you learn how to recognize it. The trouble, in my experience, is that it takes time and close examination to understand the nature of class in another person. It takes love. In short, you need a spoonful of class yourself before you can recognize it in others.

Amidst the graft and excess of New York City, I have some friends with true class, and I would tell you more about them if that were the best way to hammer home my point. Instead, I want to tell you some more about my best friend (male category) Jared, he of the parking garage and food service. Why? Because if you know Jared Smith, the man I am speaking of, then you know that class, in its purest and most benevolent form, currently resides in a trailer park in West Michigan. Never have I encountered a more noble soul, and I can't imagine encountering his like ever again. Some have come close, but all have fallen short at some point. Jared is a man of kindness. He is discerning but never manipulative. He loves and respects women like few men I have ever known. He is understanding, almost to a fault. He'll give you the benefit of doubt even if you've just broken his heart and crushed his dreams. And that's because Jared is the modern chun tzu. He's a gentleman. He's The Gentleman.

Jared Smith, if my opinion can be trusted, has class, and I'm willing to devote my entire life to striving towards being this man's equal. In response to Brian's conclusion that I'm capable of moving between crowds of class and trash, that I am in some way "the Daywalker," I'm going to have to disagree. I don't have a single un-classy friend. I have some friends who might get kicked out of restaurants. This is true. I have some friends who I might get a call from in the middle of the night from jail. Also true. But all of my friends have class.

What is class? I don't think I could ever put my finger on it, But if I'm looking at the right people as examples I know that loyalty is definitely involved. And by loyalty I don't mean partisanship. I mean the kind of loyalty that spits in the face of all established order, the kind of loyalty that Jesse Custer embodies int he comic book Preacher when he says, "Well [God] can shove his law up his ass, if just one word of it says I can't stand by my friend."


1 comment:

  1. If I may add a bit to my remarks. I don't want to come off as being against higher education in general. I prefaced my remarks by saying that for some people, college education was very helpful, but that I did not think it was for everyone. As I recall, the discussion we were having when the subject of college came up was about passion and how passion could be a huge factor when it came to education and work. When someone has a fire in their belly, it shows - no matter what they are doing for a "job". We also discussed the value of "trade schools" or higher education that is focused on learning a particular skill or trade.
    As you noted, Ivan was a great example of not judging a book by the cover. Many times shiny new cars are driven by people who are one half step ahead of the repo man. Ivan was also a man of great passion - he never stopped coming up with ideas on how to improve or affect the things he was passionate about.
    One of the reasons I opted out of a college education (my parents were willing and able) was that I had no clue (passion) about what I would want to study and could not see the point in just going to college to go.