Into the Avoid

I remember crotchety old Mr. McMahon, my junior high math teacher, issuing us stern warnings inspired by crime-related newspaper clippings. All of his cribbed cautionary tales shared two ominous words: the and bar. That last r he would elongate and growl out, for emphasis. His assertion was that robberies, brutal crimes of passion, and general shit-outta-luckery always occur or begin in, around, or behind a barrrrr. Mr. McMahon was not a coach, so he had no locker room in which to hang a Nothing Good Happens After Midnight sign, so he took it upon himself to warn the youth of America, a score at a time, by simple word-of-wrinkled-mouth.  

At the time, it hadn’t clicked that my father’s upbringing around his parents’ bar hadn’t been as fun or quirky as the characters he sometimes mentioned, and my knowledge of these mysterious places was limited to the fictitious bonhomie I witnessed every Thursday on Cheers. I’m sure there were a few kids in my class with drunken parents who really understood what Mr. McMahon was saying, but by and large he was preaching to the too-young-to-get-it.

From college to my late twenties, I thought bars were heaven on earth: dens of pleasure where I could revel in the loose numbness of the buzz itself, spirited and jocular arguments, and the affections of impaired females. In those days I spoke of bars with reverence, every once in a while recalling Mr. McMahon’s words and thinking him nothing more than a santimonious scold. Of course, at that age, any sort of buzz-killing advice from an elder is easily dismissed as simple crankiness, and it rarely computes that such a point-of-view could be nuanced, valid, or hard-won. We just figure the McMahons of the world were born no fun - crewcut and all.

I’m far from a teetotaler, though the type of drinking that gets one in trouble seems to be in my rearview mirror for good. But the message of Mr. McMahon rings truer to me than ever before, and it’s not one of temperance. What I hear him preaching to me from the past is avoidance: the act – the art -  of not being there.

Confront our fears, we are told, and face the music. Man up. There’s an internet meme out there – half-inspiring and half-poisonous – that goads: Do Something Every Day That Scares You. I am a full supporter of fear-confronting, music-facing, and up-manning, of course, but I don’t like what lies underneath all these feel-good fear-facing mantras, which is the implicit condemnation of a more basic instinct: that of getting the hell away from what can damage us. We may be super-intelligent, complicated animals, but we’re still animals. Do one thing every day that scares you? I’m pretty sure that was the credo of the squirrel I saw splattered and baking on the road yesterday.  

 Josh Hamilton, the haunted baseball slugger, famously strayed from his sober ways a few years ago in a Tempe, Arizona bar. His recidivism, which would have just been a story a few years earlier, was digitally documented (natch), and we were all treated to telling photos of the embarrassing and quite honestly extremely fun night that Hamilton enjoyed. Having to click through through the pictures – several of sloppy ASU coeds taking body shots off of his taut torso - with his wife? That was probably less fun.

One can’t help but wonder: Did Hamilton’s crippling need for a drink lead him into that bar, or did he go in there believing he could keep it mellow with a Sprite? Either way, there is no doubt that giving a wide berth to Maloney’s and spending the evening at the public library would have been a better plan for Hamilton. Frankly, I’m surprised the ballplayer didn’t know better. Those who have set foot there and seen the sights know that, if you are doing your best to stay sober and/or married, you are wise to avoid Tempe altogether.

Avoiding the things that we like best is a cruel but sometimes necessary strategy. Luckily, the doctrine of avoidance also licenses us to steer clear of the things that we like the least. I used to ride my bike to work on the same thoroughfare that lawyers in Lexuses and rednecks in F-250s use to get where they’re going. It’s the most direct route, the traffic moves the fastest, and, like a batter risking his health crowding a plate that’s “half his,” I felt that I was doing my duty to assert the cyclists’ right to the road. My rides would be tense, but I would suffer through them to achieve two ends: getting me to work and maintaining a sorely-needed place-claiming presence on the Nashville roads. 

My mission now consists of 99% of the former and 1% of the latter, and my route has therefore changed. As tempting as it is to advance the cause by stubbornly insisting on my – our - narrow strip of road, it also makes a lot of sense to stick to the side roads which are small, slow, and therefore maddening and repellent to hurried drivers. These roads, like the gantlet of West End Boulevard, get to the same place I am going. There is nobility in fighting the good fight, but sometimes taking the road less travelled really does make all the difference – especially when you’re not lying dead on it.

It’s a fallacy to think that avoiding something or someone is to avoid managing that part of our life; the avoiding, in many cases, is the management. The pruny mouth of Maggie Smith recently clucked a little of this wisdom into my ear via Downtown Abbey. Avoiding those you wish to avoid is the easy part, she asserted. It’s dealing with those who you can’t avoid that takes finesse. Amen, sister. If avoidance is not a part of our personal relationship strategy, we’re sentenced to die by a million tiny status updates. Whereas once we could cut out the undesirables in our lives by simply maintaining physical distance, avoidance in the time of social media is a much stickier thing. We are bound by fine threads to people who, in the ancient binary world of in- or out-of-touch, would have been long - and far - out. I have heard that class reunions are having an attendance crisis because their whole raison d’être has been obviated by social media. Perhaps after a little face-time reminds us why we never lifted a finger to stay in touch with our classmates, reunions will enjoy a reverse-purpose renaissance, there to remind us why we don’t want to be.

Most of the people we used to know exist in that fat middle zone: They are not friends, they are not enemies, just people we’d love to have a drink with once every ten or twenty years. Avoiding them on social media is a must, as it spares us of the minutae of their lives and gives the rare reunion, if it ever happens, a fighting chance at being pleasant. The less detail you’ve had to endure, the less likely you are to greet a past chum by choking him and screaming “We get it! You’ve got a fucking Tesla!”

Passivity in the material world results in distance. There, avoiding is as simple as doing nothing – the only peril being the chance of running into personae non gratae at a downtown hardware store. On social media, however, such non-action can result in prolonged attachment. You can get away by de- or un-friending, but that’s seen as a bellicose move, and lurking on social media is like constantly browsing the aisles of the ACE at State & Main. You never know who’s right around the corner, waiting to call you out.

That’s why Facebook’s Unfollow is a valuable tool of social media avoidance. It’s not a nuke of unfriendliness, just quiet sabotage. It’s the best offense that does not arouse the best defense. If you are unlucky enough to run into one of The Unfollowed in person, you can skirt awkwardness by responding with a brief and innocent, “No, I didn’t see that post.” No need to say, “I haven’t been able to stomach you since you started a GoFundMe to build an eight-foot bong.”

What’s worse? The confrontation that can pop up when an acquaintance realizes you’re avoiding her, or the soul-siphoning effect of keeping in reluctant touch? I’ll take the former, as I’d rather be stunned into action than ruminate on every eventuality. If there’s resistance on the path that promised little, I’ll deal with it when I run across it. The most valuable thing I have taken from a Tom Petty lyric is this wise jewel: Most of the things I worry ‘bout/Never happen anyway.

Mr. McMahon’s plan for retirement was to move to a small town high in the Sierra, far away from the thickening Bay Area. I heard that he did move, but whether or not he is still there, or is still alive, is a mystery to me. I Googled him, but found only faint traces. Perhaps a lifetime of dealing with obnoxious pre-teens like me left him wishing to get away and never be found.

 Well done, sir.


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