Us and Them

by Matt Mattheisen

    Driving through an entire Minnesota winter is one of life’s great equalizers.  During one particular snowstorm my grandpa went to pick my grandma up from her hair appointment and by the time he got there he was crying.  Poor guy.  He was from Sweden for God’s sake.  It snows in that country every day.

    Ever the ones for self-directed asceticism and restlessness, Minnesotans will actually move farther away from their places of employment to live life in the suburbs or acquire some property in a rural area.  It is a unique part of the American spirit still prevailing in the Midwest to pioneer patches of country yet unclaimed even if that patch only means a quarter acre parcel in a great school district.  A consequence of this pioneering spirit is that drive times have doubled for many people.  My wife and I followed this migratory pattern by moving to a suburb north of St Paul.  There have been times that I’ve spent two and a half hours in the car during a rush hour blizzard.  In the process, I’ve discovered that there are some cds that are more conducive to this driving situation than others.  Southern rock is a good companion with its laid-back, boogie beats and long jams.  I like Steely Dan as well: West Coast grooves and misanthropic lyrics that you can direct at the dirge of a procession in front of you.  Hard rock or metal choices are just an act of futility.  How anyone can listen to Metallica or Pantera while stuck in rush hour traffic is beyond me.  Listening to anything over 100 beats per minute when your car is traveling barely 10 feet a minute will do nothing but piss you off. 

    Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is not the best cd to listen to in its entirety when you’ve got thirty miles to go and you’re doing only 15 mph.  But there are tracks from that cd that are the perfect compliment to the surreal experience of driving in near white out conditions.  The implied insanity of "Brain Damage" and hyper-coloratura singing of "The Great Gig in the Sky" may cause you to get out of your car and start beating upon your fellow travelers’ windows with your head.  Yet, there are booty shaking tracks like "Time" or "Money" that will get you to air drum or thump the bassline joyfully, accepting your auto-penance like a whistling martyr on the way to the lions.  The best track for brain draining, slo-mo snow driving, however, is "Us and Them."

    I still remember it as if it was just last winter, nearly a decade ago driving home from my job in Minneapolis to the suburbs.  "Us and Them" began to play as I was slowing down(!) to merge on to the freeway.  I had heard this song dozens of times before.  Growing up in the rural Midwest meant that you either had to get stoned in the back of a Camaro while listening to Dark Side or wax philosophical with one of the school burnouts on the merits of Dark Side while waiting in line at a keg with the album blaring in the background.  The choice was up to you, but you had to do one or the other. 

    There was something about the evening and that song and the pace of traffic and the snowflakes hypnotically floating out of the sky like thousands of lights from a distant past that made me think of American pioneers and, being a Catholic, of the ancient Creed.  "I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body."   What did I have in common with those early settlers who braved the snow and wind for a future that was at best uncertain?  Those who headed west through the snow and wind leaving behind the past to begin anew in territories where God would use nature to humble before He would exalt.  Alone in the car, released from expectations, myself and all of the humanity around me slowly propelling ourselves home after accomplishing our mission for another day.  We were duty bound to return to our homes and to our loved ones some distance away to be tended to and to tend.  How the pioneers and farmers must have felt so many years ago.

    The echo of David Gilmour’s voice at the end of each verse tugged at my soul.  The solitude of the car, the desire to be safe and warm at home, the bootless attempt to maneuver quickly in out of lanes, it all echoed along, given voice by Gilmour’s vocals, out into space higher and higher, diminishing in volume until finally disappearing.  There is no reply.  The elements know nothing of your impatience nor do the cars in front of you hear your shouting.  The haggard, intrepid settlers and trappers and mountain men knew of this and respected it and it stopped them not in the least.

    We can choose to accept the pace.  Like snow falling on the windshield or on the wagon, on the freeway, in the mountains or on the prairie.  When and what we expect to happen is often not the case but that indomitable American courage will find a way regardless of the time it takes.  We will find our way home.

    There have been times when I’ve wished "Us and Them" was a two and a half hour long song.