Archive for September, 2011

Sexual Comportment

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Shall We Dance painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself.” Fred Rogers

You may have heard about Cynthia Daily, a social worker using an interweb directory to keep track of all the children fathered by the same sperm donor who fathered her child. According to Cynthia’s data, this same sperm donor has now fathered one hundred and fifty children, several more of his offspring are on the way, and, also according to Daily (who enjoys vacationing with families of other children fathered by said sperm donor), “It’s wild when we see them all together because they all look alike.”

Wild? Interesting choice of words. I’m inclined to call this phenomenon anti-wild. I mean, what qualifies this guy to be populating the earth with his genes? Is he fabulously strong and intelligent and handsome and creative? Maybe. But he might be weak and stupid and ugly and nearsighted and prone to arthritis and gluten intolerance. Or maybe he’s just a regular guy with time on his hands, so to speak, and that’s why he’s donated so much sperm. The only thing we know for sure is that he’s potent.

One of the concerns of parents of children fathered by the same prolific sperm donor (and there are apparently quite a few of these randy fellows flooding the gene pool) is that their daughters and sons may unwittingly end up procreating with their half-siblings, which apparently multiplies the chances of genetic defects manifesting in offspring. On the other hand, some people with the same father but different mothers may enjoy hooking up with someone who looks wildly like them. I don’t know. I, for one, enjoy having a wife who looks nothing at all like me, thank goodness.

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

I remember some years ago there was a sperm bank in New York offering the sperm of celebrities to women seeking artificial insemination. I seem to recall that Woody Allen was one of the sperm donors. Several jokes come to mind about that, but I don’t want to get sued for slander. The idea that a woman would want to have, say, Albert Einstein’s baby, has a certain appeal until one considers the issues of unruly hair and huge foreheads. Are those attributes we would knowingly want to burden our children with in this appearance-oriented culture, even if he or she did turn out to be wildly intelligent?

“The four best things in life: to love, to be in love, to be loved, and to make love.” Lilo Bloch

As a young man I was a voracious reader of ethnographies, with a particular interest in how people of other cultures comported themselves sexually, both in terms of what was acceptable in those societies and what was taboo. I’m sure my fascination with sexual comportment in other cultures had to do with my sense that the acceptable sexual comportment rubrics of my own society were emotionally and physically suffocating, and I was looking for sexual comportment models that made more sense to me, and I don’t mean intellectual sense.

As a consequence of my particular interest, I unearthed dozens of ethnographies of indigenous societies with sexual comportment systems so shockingly antithetical to the American way of doing it, euphemistically speaking, that I could star at any party by reeling off a few synopses of the spicier comportment models employed by our genetically identical brothers and sisters around the globe. And in none of these indigenous socio-sexual systems were anonymous men fathering hundreds of kids.

“In my experience, there is only one motivation, and that is desire. No reasons or principles contain it or stand against it.” Jane Smiley

I know what you’re thinking. Or hoping. Am I going to share with the reader a few of those spicier (compared to the American model) sexual comportment systems employed by our genetically identical brothers and sisters around the globe? Yes, but with the following disclaimer: I will not be precise regarding locations, names, and historic time frames of the ethnic groups about which I write. And in keeping with the traditions of academic Anthropology, I will employ the present tense when speaking of these societies, whether or not they still exist.

“I think there are two areas where new ideas are terribly dangerous: economics and sex. By and large, it’s all been tried, and if it’s new, it’s probably illegal or dangerous or unhealthy.” Felix G. Rohatyn

There is a sect in India in which no one may marry outside the sect, and everyone in the sect must marry an age peer born in the same five-year period. For instance, an age peer group might be composed of everyone born between 1995 and 1999, after which the next age peer group would be everyone born between 2000 and 2004. Now here’s where things gets spicy by American standards. From the onset of puberty until marriage at eighteen to twenty years of age, all members of a particular age peer group are expected to have sex with all the members of the opposite sex in that group except with the one person of the opposite sex they ultimately marry and have children with. Try to wrap your American mind around that one. According to the ethnography I read, incidents of adultery among married couples in this sect are so rare as to be virtually non-existent.

“If a man and a woman go into the woods with a picnic basket and a blanket and have a picnic, that’s a G. If they go into the woods with a picnic basket and crawl under the blanket, that’s a PG. And if they go into the woods without a basket or a blanket and have a picnic anyway, that’s an R.” Jane Fonda on movie ratings

I’ve read several ethnographies of Australian aboriginal societies, and though these societies differ from each other in little ways, they share many foundational beliefs and sexual comportment rubrics that allow one to generalize about Australian aboriginal society.

One of the most un-American of those foundational beliefs is that females are born perfect, whereas males are born deeply flawed and must spend most of their lives striving to overcome their flaws in hopes of becoming more like women. Again, try to wrap your patriarchal Judeo-Christian-Muslim minds around that one.

Because females are perfect, when a girl begins to menstruate, her transit into womanhood is joyfully celebrated, whereas boys, being terribly flawed, must undergo brutal initiation ceremonies that often result in the deaths of some of the young males. Should they survive these initiatory ordeals, these young men are then sent off to wander about with other unmarried men as they quest to overcome their flaws so they might one day be good enough to marry one or more of those perfect women. Hence most Australian aboriginal men do not marry until they are in their late twenties and thirties, at which time they usually wed women who have only recently attained sexual maturity, which means a typical Australian aboriginal couple will feature a man much older than his wife or wives.

Adultery is taboo among Australian aboriginals, but it is a soft taboo, which means many people have lovers outside their marriages. That, on the face of it, is not unlike the American model, but among Australian aboriginals extra-marital activities are expected and even encouraged (even though they are taboo), and so there are rarely any dire consequences for extra-marital hanky panky.

Now…those questing men I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago? The ones sent off to roam around with other imperfect men? Well, they wander for years and decades trying to improve themselves spiritually and emotionally so they can one day get married, have children, and grow old in the company of perfect women and other much improved men. And in the course of those many years of roaming around, these groups of men occasionally come into contact with mixed gender bands with whom they like to hang out for a time because, well, that’s what life is all about, bumping into groups of other people and socializing. And the sexual comportment practice that goes on at the outset of contact between roaming men and a band of married people and children and unmarried women is, to say the least, by American standards, spicy.

So…imagine a band of four or five extended families camped by a desert spring, life meandering along, so to speak, when a group of wandering men appears and stops a respectful distance away from the camp to await a response from the larger mixed gender band. And that response, assuming the wanderers are discerned to be a worthy bunch, is for several of the women, married and unmarried, to go out to greet the wandering men.

And when the wandering men see the women coming out to them, they lie down on their backs and surrender themselves sexually to the women, who mount those eager yet submissive visitors and thereby expiate lust, tension, mistrust, and you name it, so that when the wanderers enter the camp, they are, as it were, tame. This is the only acceptable occasion for a married woman to have sex outside of marriage.

Are there any occasions when a married Australian aboriginal man may, with the blessing of his society, have sex with a woman other than his wife or wives? Yes, there is one such occasion. But because I am absolutely certain my description of that occasion would deeply offend at least half my readers, I shall not endeavor to describe such a shocking event and the astonishing aftermath.

Wrong Thinking

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange.” Ani DiFranco

One of my Anthropology professors was Nigerian, his people Yoruba. An exceptional student as a child, he was sent to school in England and eventually got his PhD from a prestigious American university. My professor married an African American woman, with whom he had two children, and when those children were five and three-years-old, he and his wife took the kids to Nigeria so they could get to know their paternal grandparents and the huge extended family that was my professor’s clan. After a few days in Nigeria, my professor was summoned to a meeting of the male elders of his clan who severely chastised him for not taking a second and third wife to produce more sons.

“You are a very rich man,” said his father, with twenty other men nodding in agreement. “You are richer than any of us, yet you shame your parents and your clan by not taking more wives. Why are you doing this?”

The professor explained to his outraged father and uncles and cousins that in America it was the law that a man may only have one wife. The Yoruba men were disgusted to hear this and shouted many insults at my professor, the gist of their insults being that wealthy American men who take only one wife are weak and impotent and effeminate and crazy.

“Fortunately this is not the law among our people,” said my professor’s father, “so we will find two more wives for you and you will keep them here and get children with them. You will send money from America and your wives will make a fine household for you here. You will come home for a time each year and get many children. And when you have finished your work in America you will live here with your wives and their children as you should.”

My professor said that he and his wife decided to cut their visit short in order to avoid the marriages being arranged for him. “You see,” he explained, chuckling, “my wife is liberated and will not share me with other women.”

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” Anthony Bourdain

If you have never, or not in a long time, read the forty-eight-page novella Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen, I highly recommend the tale as a thought provoking inquiry into context, memory, and truly great meals. An excellent film version of Babette’s Feast was made in Denmark in 1987 and is remarkably faithful to the original story, so whether you spend an hour and a half watching the movie or an hour reading the story, or both, you will see what I mean about thought provoking. Along with Dinesen’s exquisite prose, what I love most about Babette’s Feast are the myriad ways in which concepts of right and wrong are revealed to be little more than the passing fancies of context, memory, and truly great meals.

“SCORN FOR JOBLESS ON RISE: unemployed face compassion fatigue as economy remains flat” front page headline and sub-headline, Santa Rosa Press Democrat September 4, 2011

The article that follows those scurrilous sentence fragments is a lengthy piece of cruel propaganda quoting various wealthy politicos from around the country who are growing impatient and angry with tens of millions of unemployed people who lost their jobs and houses and savings due to the criminal activities of banks and investment firms expedited by wealthy politicos from around the country. Published with no indication it was intended as satire, the article emphatically suggests that people receiving unemployment benefits are “leeching off the system.”

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” John Wayne

I thought it would be wrong to attribute that quote to John Wayne until I checked multiple reliable sources to make sure he really did say such a thing.

“She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” Mae West

When I was eight-years-old I saw the movie The Horse’s Mouth, starring Alec Guinness, after which I knew what I wanted to be: a writer, director, and star of movies about strange and marvelous people. I have subsequently seen The Horse’s Mouth many times, and the movie remains a marvel to me.

My mother grew up in close proximity to Hollywood and her mother’s best friend was the wife of a famous movie director. My mother was a Drama major at UCLA before giving up her theatrical ambitions to attend law school, pass the bar, and postpone practicing law for twenty-five years while she raised four children. For reasons I never fully understood, my mother felt it necessary to try to burst my movie career bubble every chance she got, and her primary means of doing so was to cast terrible aspersions on anyone in the movie business I dared reveal my admiration for.

According to my mother, all successful female stars of stage and screen, without exception, succeeded not through their talents as thespians, but through sexual escapades with people of wealth and power; and all successful male stars were either promiscuous homosexuals or unscrupulous bisexuals. According to my mother, all but a very few successful actors of both sexes were alcoholics, and many were drug addicts. She never revealed where she got her information about the stars of stage and screen, and since she did not read gossip magazines or watch television, the implication of her fierce certainty was that she had firsthand knowledge of these immoral people. But how, I wondered, did she come by such knowledge unless, while I was at school, she spent hours on the phone with operatives in Hollywood and Manhattan?

I remember one evening in particular when I was fifteen and had recently won a small part in a school play—my first step, I hoped, on the road to fame and fortune, and my mother, fortified with several martinis, was excoriating yet another of my favorite stars with a history of sexual depravity and opportunistic backstabbing.

“Oh, come on,” I protested. “Are you saying that no movie star has ever succeeded because they were talented? They’re all whores and crooks? What about Fred Astaire? Ginger Rogers? Jimmy Stewart? Claudette Colbert. Alec Guinness? The Marx Brothers?”

“Ha!” she said bitterly. “Little do you know.”

“We made too many wrong mistakes.” Yogi Berra

On September 4, 2011, our beloved San Francisco Giants lost most ignobly to the Snakes, otherwise known as the Arizona Diamondbacks, and fell seven games out of first place with only twenty-two games left to play. We were poised to win that game, but then lost, and as we lost I felt in my bones, as opposed to in my brain, that we no longer had any hope of making the playoffs and returning to the World Series. I think we had good enough players to catch the Snakes, but not the right managers. I won’t say our managers are bad, for they are the same fellows who skippered our team to the World Series and won it all last year. But I do think they were the wrong managers this year because they were not creative or prescient, nor did they win the close games through guile and daring, all of which they were and did last year. Or so it seems. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” Alan Watts

In 1970, in the hour before dawn, I climbed to the top of the monumental Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán (near Mexico City) and made the acquaintance of four French travelers who had spent the night atop the pyramid. Our shared ambition was to watch the sun appear to rise out of the Pyramid of the Sun across the great plaza from us.

I write “appear to rise” in deference to Buckminster Fuller who cautioned us not to use expressions such as “the sun rising” or “the sun going down” because he felt such usage reinforced a wrong view of how our earth, in relation to our sun, actually operates. The earth spins us into light and spins us into darkness in relation to the sun; the sun does not rise or fall in relation to us. Bucky also pointed out that when humans first began to fly in airplanes, they spontaneously and accurately coined the expression “coming in for a landing,” rather than “coming down for a landing” because there is no up or down in space. Bucky fervently believed that the more truthfully we describe reality, the more successful we will be in developing a regenerative relationship with the earth and Universe.

So the sun appeared to rise out of the massive Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest human-made pyramid on earth, and the appearance was a stirring sight, indeed. Then, not long after the earth had spun us into sunlight, a tour bus arrived and shattered the quietude we had so enjoyed. The bus door opened and several dozen American tourists disembarked, their voices so loud and the acoustics of that amazing place such that we could hear the words they spoke a mile away. And the loudest voice came from a man reacting to the majestic Pyramid of the Sun. “That’s it?” he bellowed. “That one right there? What a let down. The ones in Egypt are so much bigger.”

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

There is a wonderful story about the current Dalai Lama visiting America for the first time several decades ago, before he was better acquainted with the American psyche. His Holiness was taking questions from a group of meditation teachers and their students when a man asked the Dalai Lama for advice about how to overcome low self-esteem because this man’s struggle with low self-esteem was seriously impeding his meditation practice.

The Dalai Lama had never heard of low self-esteem and was perplexed by the question. After someone explained to him what low self-esteem was, the Dalai Lama went around the room asking person after person, “Do you have this?” And when all the Americans admitted that to one degree or another they suffered from low self-esteem, the Dalai Lama proclaimed, “But this is wrong thinking. You must stop thinking this way.”

Good People

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their son Mischief by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” Abraham Lincoln

Our maternal grandfather Casey died when he was eighty. He was institutionalized for a year prior to his death because his worsening dementia made him too unpredictable and uncontrollable for our diminutive and frail grandmother to handle. I visited Casey several times in that sad institution where he spent his last days, and though my parents always prefaced my visits to him by saying, “Casey just spouts gibberish now,” I invariably found him cogent and funny in a rambling sort of way.

At the tail end of my last visit to Casey, about a week before he contracted a virulent flu and died, he said two things that have stuck with me for thirty years. We were sitting side-by-side on a concrete patio in a little pool of sunlight when Casey arched his eyebrow (he reminded me of Groucho Marx in appearance and voice) and said, “You know, this is a very exclusive university. It’s extremely difficult to get in here. But eventually, everyone does.”

We laughed about that and then Casey said, “Listen. When you find yourself with the bad people, get away from them and go to the good people.”

“Nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, ‘You can’t keep a good man down.’ Most human societies have been beautifully organized to keep good men down.”  John W. Gardner

So what makes someone good or bad? Or are good and bad essentially useless terms, since one nation’s mass murderer is another nation’s hero, and the town harlot turns out to be a tireless advocate for women’s rights, and that usurious money lender is the beloved grandfather of a girl to whom he gave a pony? I took Casey’s advice to mean: if I find myself entangled in unhealthy relationships, I should, as swiftly as possible, get out of those relationships and seek healthier ones. But maybe that’s not what Casey meant. Maybe he meant there really are bad people, and they should be escaped from and avoided; and there really are good people, and they should be found and hung out with. Or maybe he was just speaking gibberish.

“I’ve never met a racist yet who thought he was a racist. Or an anti-Semite who thought they were anti-Semitic.” Norman Jewison

We recently saw the wonderful movie Temple Grandin, a fictional rendering of the life of a real person. I knew nothing about the real Temple Grandin before we watched the movie and that made the story all the more fascinating to me, so I won’t tell you what the movie is about. But I will say that Temple Grandin confirmed in me that being an insensitive conformist is bad, and thinking you know everything is also bad, but insensitive conformists and know-it-alls are not necessarily bad people.

“If we’re bad people we use technology for bad purposes and if we’re good people we use it for good purposes.” Herbert Simon

As is my habit, I examine the little slips of paper that come with my PG&E bill because these little slips often presage rate increases for what I consider bad reasons. These slips foretold the coming of Smart Meters and explicated how we, not the private corporation PG&E, must pay for those stupid things with greatly increased rates. These tiny missives announced rate increases to repair and re-license disaster-prone nuclear power plants that never should have been built (with massive government subsidies) in the first place. Now this month’s bill brings news of yet another rate increase to pay for PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric forming a so-called partnership with…drum roll, please…Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, on a project entitled California Energy Systems for the 21st Century.

Dig this verbiage. “The partnership seeks to leverage the joint resources of the Utilities, California agencies and California research laboratories and institutions to develop the necessary technologies and computing power necessary to expand and enhance the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency resources for the benefit of California consumers, businesses and governments. The consortium will employ a joint team of technical experts who will combine data integration with the nation’s most advanced modeling, simulation and analytical tools to provide problem solving and planning to achieve California’s energy and environmental goals.”

In other words, three massive private corporations, each with more wealth than most nations, are going to jack up our rates yet again to pay for their use of public institutions, which you and I also fund with our taxes, to figure out new and more efficient ways to bilk us out of even more cash in the name of doing for the state what the state is now too bankrupt to do for itself. Leverage the joint resources? Puh-leez. How about plunder the dying carcass? I may barf, but then I’ll pay those higher rates because I prefer life with electricity.

For my money, literally, the people behind this latest PG&E extortion (the same people who brought us the exploding gas lines in San Bruno) are bad. Why are they bad? Because they know what evil they perpetrate, and they carry out their perpetrations self-righteously and with utter contempt for those they pretend to serve. So maybe that can be one of my definitions of a bad person: someone who knowingly does harm to others when he or she knows they are doing that harm for unnecessary self-advantage. I apply the adjective unnecessary because I can imagine someone who is starving to death doing harm to others to get food, and I might judge that person desperate rather than bad. The bad people of PG&E, however, are already so rich they should be ashamed of themselves for scheming to steal more.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wonder how Martin Luther King, Jr. would have defined a bad person. I’m guessing he believed in the essential goodness, or the potential for being good, in all people, but felt that racists were infected with racism and therefore had gone bad, as food goes bad when tainted with poisonous bacteria.

If all good people were clever,

And all clever people were good,

The world would be nicer than ever

We thought that it possibly could.

But somehow, ‘tis seldom or never

That the two hit it off as they should;

For the good are so harsh to the clever,

The clever so rude to the good.

This verse by Elizabeth Wordsworth is to be found in the Foreword to Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path and is preceded by Bucky writing: “This book is written with the conviction that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, no matter how offensive or eccentric to society they may seem. I am confident that if I were born and reared under the same circumstances as any other known humans, I would have behaved much as they have.”

“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Luke 14:13

When I was a young vagabond, I decided to read The Bible. I felt something was missing in my understanding of our society, and I thought I might find that something in The Bible. I thought this because I kept meeting people who would quote from The Bible and paraphrase the words of Jesus as His words were reported therein, and many of these people were kind and generous to me; so I spent several months plowing through the book, reading every word, though many of those words struck me as redundant and ill-conceived.

The Bible, as you probably know, is composed of two distinct halves, the Old Testament and the New Testament, each an anthology of booklets. Many authors contributed to both halves, and some of the booklets are far more interesting and better written than others. The editors of each of the two anthologies shared a well-defined agenda, and so excluded any gospels espousing beliefs contrary to that agenda, which was to increase the power of the Church and her operatives by making the case in booklet after booklet that the only way to access God was through the Church and her operatives, otherwise known as priests and ministers.

In the Old Testament, the pronoun He with a capital H refers to God, and in the New Testament He with a capital H refers to either God or Jesus, and depending on which booklet you’re reading Jesus is God or Jesus is the son of God. In any case, when I finished reading that enormous tome, I was most impressed by the command that is repeated dozens of times in the legends of Jesus in the New Testament; and that command is to be generous and kind to those weaker and less fortunate than we. Indeed, I think I could make an impregnable case that sharing our wealth with those less fortunate than we is the primary message of the New Testament, which is supposedly the guiding light of American Christianity, though sharing our wealth with those less fortunate than we is definitely not the guiding principle of the majority of representatives in Congress who claim to be Christians. Isn’t that odd?

“The young man said to Him, ‘All these commands I have kept; what am I still lacking?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’” Matthew.19:20

I love the word complete in that quotation. Complete. Whole. Connected to others in loving ways. For when compassion and generosity propel our actions, don’t we feel good? And when fear and greed propel our actions, don’t we feel just awful?

Collapse Scenarios

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Our business gets better as the economy gets worse.” Kent Moyer, founder and CEO of World Protection Group Inc.

The business referred to in the opening quote is officially known as Executive Protection, and Kent Moyer is the kingpin of a successful Executive Protection agency providing body guards and small armies and surveillance experts and surveillance equipment and defensive strategies to wealthy individuals and consortiums of wealthy people who are certain they need protection from kidnappers, assassins, disgruntled employees, mobs of poor people, psychotic fans, and the like. Having recently read The Three Musketeers, it occurs to me that the musketeers were a seventeenth century equivalent of one of today’s private armies dedicated to protecting a consortium of wealthy people. In the case of The Three Musketeers, the wealthy people in question were the king of France and his sycophants.

“It isn’t so much that hard times are coming; the change observed is mostly soft times going.” Groucho Marx

Today many thoughtful people are hard at work writing essays and books about the coming (ongoing) collapse of economic, social, and natural systems in North America and around the world. I applaud them for their efforts and salute them for their desire to awaken others to the dangers confronting us. I occasionally go on binges of reading (mostly skimming) these essays and I am variably filled with hope or despair depending on the prognosis presented by the prognosticator. Some of the most popular of these prognosticators are, to my wholly subjective way of thinking, charlatans, some are brilliant visionaries, some are down-to-earth folk with helpful information, and many could use good editors. Dave Smith, by the way, does a great job presenting a constant flow of these kinds of essays and other non-mainstream articles about important environmental, agricultural, and social issues on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

I realize this is probably an unwise generalization (most generalizations are unwise), but most of these collapse scenario essayists strike me as impatient for their predictions to come true. That is, there is a tone in many of these essays of righteous indignation about all the horrible things humans have done to bring us to these points of collapse, and now they (we) will be sorry they (we) did those horrible things and it serves them (us) right for being so horrible and greedy and stupid, and tomorrow, or next week, or at the very latest next year, the various houses of cards will come tumbling down, roving gangs of starving killers will take over the world, internet service will become patchy and then disappear, only obscenely wealthy people will be able to afford gasoline for their armored vehicles driven by executive protection operatives, it will never stop raining in some places on earth, never rain again in other places, and no one with any sense would want to live within a thousand miles of a nuclear power plant because after the economic collapse such power plants will be too expensive to keep cool and they will all melt down and radiate the surrounding territories. Yikes!

“When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?” Chuck Palahniuk

I am not saying these collapse scenario essayist aren’t right. Many of them are probably very right. Time is telling. What I’m trying to say is that the gestalt, if you will, of the sum total of these collapse scenario essays is that we, you and I, are doomed to suffer horribly, and soon. Put another way, these presentations strike fear in the reader’s heart, which I assume is the prognosticators’ intention, to strike fear. And my problem with striking fear in people is that fear, in my opinion, is our single largest obstacle to making the myriad substantive changes we need to make in order to avoid or at least soften the impact of the coming collapses we are destined to experience.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
 T.S. Eliot

Tremendous fear, in my experience, may inspire short-term fight or flight, but fear per se tends to paralyze. Indeed, it seems clear that our current overlords employ fear-striking tactics, overt and subliminal, to keep the population acquiescent and afraid to act out against even the most horrific unfair amoral misuses of authority, such as our government handing over trillions of dollars to the very thieves who stole trillions of dollars from us and brought about the current economic collapse scenario we now inhabit. I’m not advocating soft-pedaling the facts and figures underpinning various collapse scenarios; I’m saying that I, selfishly, would appreciate it if collapse scenario essayists would make more of an effort to balance their terrifying scenarios with plausible scenarios of renaissance.

“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.” Goethe

I realize that many collapse scenario essayists are making the point that there are no plausible scenarios of renaissance. Our window of opportunity, they explicate, has closed. We’re doomed. The end. Discussion over. Humans blew their chances. But how interesting is that, especially after the third or fourth or fiftieth proclamation of the irreversible nature of our catastrophic situation? Does it ever occur to these doomsters (I’m sure it does to some of them) that our thoughts have an enormous impact on what manifests as reality?

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Gertrude Stein

Yesterday, as I was parking in front of the bulletin board fence on Ukiah Street in Mendocino, I counted seven people arrayed along the sidewalk, their backs to the bulletin board, gazing into flat little cell phones. These people were not engaged in phone conversations but were staring silently at their tiny screens. Something about the solemn eerie scene held me in my truck until one of the seven moved, and this movement did not occur for a short infinity. These seven were transfixed, each lost in a different scenario being presented to them on a tiny screen. When one of the seven finally lowered her phone, she did not put it away in her purse or pocket. She simply held onto the thing as if it were the hand of an invisible friend—something to cling to on her walk through life. Then another of the seven lowered his phone and moved away, and he, too, did not put his phone away, but held onto it as one might clutch a gold coin too precious to entrust to a pocket.

The other five remained unmoving, their eyes glued to their little screens; and so I got out of my truck as quietly as I could, not wishing to disturb the funereal atmosphere of the silent watchers in the fog of Mendocino. And for the rest of my round of errands in the village, I encountered more and more of these people who never put their phones away, but hold onto them constantly, as if fearing to separate for even a moment from the flow of information and the illusion of connection their little gizmos provide. I hasten to add that these were not exclusively young people, but people of all ages.

Having completed my errands, the last of which was to fill my basket with tasty comestibles at Corners of the Mouth, I was hoisting said basket into the bed of my old pickup, when a young couple came by pushing their cherubic two-year-old in a state-of-the-art ergonomically-boffo royal purple baby buggy. The young mother paused in front of the former church that is Corners and asked her husband, “What is this place?”

“That,” he said, gazing into the phone he carried in his hand, “is a grocery store specializing in organic produce and run by hippies.”

“Want to go in?” she asked, smiling hopefully.

“I don’t think there’s anything in there for us,” he replied, continuing to stare at his tiny screen. “Want to get some lunch?”

“What is there?” she asked, gazing longingly at the little red church.

And I was about to call out, “Looking for a good place to eat?” when the husband, reading from his tiny screen, said, “Well there’s nothing in the direction we’re going, but back the way we came there is a three-and-a-half-star hamburger joint based on twenty-eight reviews, an almost-four-star café based on seventy-eight reviews, somewhat pricey, and…”

So I did not call out to them. We did not converse. They did not get to meet me, nor I to meet them. The natural, fascinating, enriching, expansive proclivities of human beings were circumvented by the latest greatest tool of isolation and alienation.