Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Crisis & Opportunity

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014


* Sally holding Molly 9-1 - 10-6 & 12-15-2013 email

Sally Holding Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy

According to Chinese philologists, President Kennedy’s famous assertion about the Chinese word for crisis is either untrue, not entirely true, or true under certain linguistic circumstances but not under others. In any case, this now popular idea always reminds me of challenging situations in my life that proved to be opportunities for creative inventiveness.

“I’m trying to use the language of today to express a general existential crisis that I think the world and I are going through.” Sean Lennon

In 1967, when I was a senior in high school and intending to grow up to be a star of stage and screen, I landed one of the leads in the Woodside High production of the not-so-great musical Take Me Along, based on Eugene O’Neil’s play Ah, Wilderness. The musical ran on Broadway from 1959 to 1960 and starred Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon. I got the Walter Pidgeon part and Joe Tiffany got the Jackie Gleason part, though I was far more Jackie Gleasonish than Joe, and Joe was far more Walter Pidgeonish than I. However, this was a high school production wherein teenagers impersonated middle-aged adults suffering midlife crises; thus the entire play was miscast.

You may recall the title song Take Me Along because the tune became an annoying advertising jingle for United Airlines in the 1960’s. Take Me Along was the show’s only remotely memorable song, though I enjoyed singing my big solo number I’m Staying Young, a song in which my character laments everyone else growing old while his character is determined to stay young, speaking of ironic poignant existential hokum sung by a horny seventeen-year-old virgin hoping to seem convincing as a fifty-five-year-old grandfather.

Existential hokum aside, the climax of the entire show was the song Take Me Along performed as a bouncy upbeat duet sung by the Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon characters while they executed a good old smile-provoking tap dance routine. I don’t know about Jackie and Walter, but Joe and I were vomitously bad dancers, and no matter how many hours we put in with the choreographer (the sweet but wholly inept Miss Stewart) we sucked. Or as we liked to say in those innocent days of late adolescence, “We sucked raw turkey eggs.”

The rest of the production was pretty okay, and our singing of Take Me Along was fine, our harmonies solid. But our dancing was beyond awful, so much so that we never once made it through the entire routine without screwing up, and that included our dress rehearsal performance, which was so painfully grotesque that even the two-hundred drama groupies assembled by the director to cheer us on were stunned and horrified by our colossal ineptitude.

“The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.” H.G. Wells

So we spent two more hours after that dress rehearsal and two hours just prior to the opening night performance practicing the dance routine, but rather than improve, we got worse. Miss Stewart smiled bravely and declared, “I’m sure it will come together when you do the dance in the context of the play.”

When Miss Stewart was gone, I said to Joe, “It will never come together, and we both know it. So here’s what I propose. We do our best not to fuck up, but when we do, we improvise. Okay?”

“But we almost got it,” said Joe, giving me a terrified look. “Let’s just…try to get it.”

“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own.” Charles de Gaulle

The first act of Take Me Along went off without a hitch. The orchestra sounded plausibly orchestral, no one forgot his or her lines, and the audience seemed mildly appreciative. Yes, the production was deadly dull, but the second act rambled along without disaster until we came to that moment we’d been dreading—our climactic Take Me Along duet and tap routine.

Joe and I moved to the front of the stage, the curtain closed behind us, and we were illumined by spotlights that would follow us around the stage for the duration of the number. Joe winked at the conductor and said, “Maestro, please,” and as the orchestra began to play, two straw boater hats and two white canes were handed up to us from the orchestra pit. We popped those hats on our heads at rakish angles, tucked those canes under our arms, and off we went.

After a few moments of roughly synchronized approximations of tap dancing, and as predicted…we fucked up. Badly. So I launched into a goofy Groucho Marx kind of dance, spinning and sliding and twirling my cane and hamming things up, while Joe doggedly and gracelessly tried to remain faithful to Miss Stewart’s clunky dance routine. And something about what we were doing—perhaps the ridiculous juxtaposition of elements in tension—struck the audience’s funny bone and we brought the house down. Thunderous laughter shook the auditorium, and as we hit the harmonic bull’s eye with the last notes of the song, five hundred people jumped to their feet and applauded for so long we had to come back out for an encore of me sliding and twirling around while Joe relentlessly butchered Miss Stewart’s dance and the orchestra repeated the last few bars of the song.

And though our ridiculous pas de deux unquestionably lifted the show out of the trough of mediocrity into the realm of sublime silliness, Miss Stewart was terribly upset by our failure to adhere to her choreography. Joe apologized profusely to her and promised it (whatever it was) would never happen again. Fortunately, it happened five more times and saved five more shows. Sadly, the one and only time we managed to sort of get through the routine as we were kind of supposed to, the response from the audience was exactly what we’d gotten at the dress rehearsal—embarrassed silence followed by a smattering of disingenuous applause. But every time we fucked up and I improvised and Joe doggedly tried to get the steps right, the audience went insane with laughter and stomped and clapped and cheered until we had no choice but to come out for a curtain call.

 “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” Henry Kissinger

Darwin suggested that evolution is a progression of genetic responses to environmental crises; and most scientists, until quite recently, believed that those genetic responses resulting in new physical traits and new behaviors were chemical and random. But now a growing number of epigenetic researchers posit that some or all of these genetic responses are actually choices made by something (what, where, how?) that directs genetic potentiality in a less than purely random way, even, perhaps, as a conscious response to crisis.

Nonsense, Todd, you magical thinking dimwit. Go wash your mouth out with soap and write five hundred times: The Universe does not think. Everything that happens is the result of random chemical centrifugal fractal accidents guided by unfaltering principles that we narcissistic humans actually think we understand, even though we don’t.

 “There are two principles inherent in the very nature of things—the spirit of change, and the spirit of conservation. There can be nothing real without both.” Alfred North Whitehead

A few years into my eleven-year sojourn in Berkeley, I ran out of work, ran out of money, and found myself the sole support of a woman slowly recovering from a nervous breakdown and her unemployed teenaged daughter and two cats, not to mention moi. As a consequence of this wholly unanticipated crisis, and with three weeks to earn enough to pay the usurious rent while continuing to buy groceries, I spent three days and nights trying to drum up editing work. Failing there, I wracked my brains to think of someone, anyone, I could borrow money from, and when I could think of no deep pocket to implore, I got so panicky I ran out the front door, down the nine steps, and along the sidewalk until I was out of breath and slowed to a walk and asked the unseen powers of Universe, “What am I going to do?”

Then I stopped, turned full circle, took a deep breath and turned full circle again. And as I made that second revolution, I saw not one, not two, but five fruit trees in need of pruning. I had not pruned trees for money in nearly two decades, but as I walked home to get my notebook, I felt overjoyed at the prospect of resuming that line of work. I then slipped handwritten notes under the doors of the three houses attached to those five trees in need of pruning. The notes mentioned the specific trees I felt needed attention, identified me as a neighbor who would expertly prune those trees at a reasonable rate and/or be happy to give advice and free estimates for my services. Universe apparently dug where I was coming from because the phone began to ring and I never lacked for work again.

Tiger Bunnies

Monday, December 14th, 2009

On this rainy December day, we cannot resist tying together the feeding frenzy on the carcass of the icon known as Tiger Woods, the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, the extensive media attention awarded a woman in Arkansas for giving birth to her nineteenth child, the so-called jobless recovery, the so-called healthcare debate, and our collective denial of what actually going on here on spaceship earth, circa 2010 (Christian calendar).

Ukiah Blog Live, a culling of thought-provoking counter-mass media internet essays provided by the estimable Dave Smith of Mulligan Books, has been rife of late with articles about the impending worse-than-ever economic collapse, vegetarianism versus the eating of mammalian flesh, and our inevitable return (as a species) to a genteel version of the Dark Ages (if we’re lucky) in the aftermath of peak oil and the bursting of various noxious economic bubbles. These reports are countered hourly in mainstream media mouthing government/corporate propaganda with happy news that things in general are getting better even if they seem to be getting worse in the majority of specific cases. The jobless recovery, reports The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, will soon create new jobs because, well, it just will.

The climate talks in Copenhagen have everybody buzzing about the billions of dollars to be earned through not releasing carbon into the atmosphere. That’s right. If you can prove you’re not being bad, Daddy will give you some money. How will you prove you’re not being bad? You will pay some scientists (with bona fide college degrees, mind you) to say you are being good. Won’t that be nice? How about that for some job creation?

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods, a very rich and famous golfer and salesperson for several powerful multi-national corporations, has been having copious sex with expensive prostitutes for several years, but the news just recently leaked out to the mass media, so Tiger is currently being publicly flayed for popping the noxious bubble about the what why who he never was.

Also meanwhile, Michelle Duggar of Arkansas just gave birth to her nineteenth child, and Michelle’s husband (reputed to be the actual father of the nineteen kids, one of whom just had a baby, too) told the adoring media, “We will continue welcoming children as long as Michelle is able to have them.”

“Welcome. You will be in bed number twenty-two. Here’s your meal card, your blanket, your pacifier, and your cell phone. Try to be good.”

Why, I wonder, are we celebrating one American woman having nineteen children when there are millions of women around the world (and in America, too) having more kids than they can adequately feed? And why is over-population not the number one topic of discussion and emergency planning at the Copenhagen climate talks?

Recent studies by bona fide universities and scientists with actual college degrees have proven conclusively (and this even got a mention in the Press Democrat) that the most effective way, by far, to reduce carbon emissions in the world is to spend money on birth control. By far. Seven dollars spent on birth control saves something like four trillion tons of carbon emissions. Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but I wanted to get your friggin’ attention.

There are nearly seven billion people on our beautiful little planet (that’s not an exaggeration). The regenerative carrying capacity of the planet, depending on which bona fide scientist one speaks to, seems to be somewhere around a billion of us, give or take a few hundred million. Regenerative Carrying Capacity refers to what a particular eco-system can support without necessarily suffering any damage to its health and viability as a system. Put another way, there would be plenty of everything for everyone forever if we would thoughtfully reduce our population and stop being so violent and greedy. As soon as possible.

Why don’t we do that? Why do nations in Europe go into panic mode when their populations begin to finally decline due to falling birth rates? Because capitalism (otherwise known as a big old pyramid scheme) is founded on, runs on, exists because of, continuous growth coupled with continuous consumption. Which explains why the official verbiage from the Copenhagen climate talks goes something like this, “Please reduce your carbon emissions, once you’re born, but don’t not get born because we need the system to keep growing.”

What does Tiger Woods have to do with over-population? For all his fooling around with high-class hookers, Tiger and his official wife only have two children. So far. Well, but, see, Tiger likes, apparently, to have sex many times more often than his one wife wants to have with him. (Oh, maybe not. Maybe she’s ready to go twenty-four seven and Tiger just longs for variety.)

Now listen up, boys and girls. Tiger is not some oversexed stud. He’s a normal healthy young man with a normal healthy sex drive and average sexual capacity. Nature, over millions years of evolutionary tinkering, designed human males to function exactly as Tiger functions (physically). Remember: it has only been in the last few dozen human generations that we tasty animals have been much more than easily caught snack food for gigantic carnivores, otherwise known as lions and tigers and bears. We got eaten as fast as we could breed. Thus male humans evolved to be capable of (and desiring) lots of sex, while human females evolved to want sex, too, while being capable of getting pregnant every month as opposed to only once or twice a year, as is the case for most other large mammals. Mice and bunnies, it should be noted, not deer and whales and lions and tigers and bears, are the procreative peers of humans.

We wonder if the previous paragraph about human sexuality made you, dear reader, uncomfortable, or even somewhat anxious. Have we broached a taboo subject? Heaven forbid. Perhaps a few minutes of watching television or surfing the Internet or leafing through the newspaper or skimming a fashion magazine will ease your anxiety. You won’t have any trouble finding some psychosexual stimuli to feed your cognitive addiction to titillation. Sex, sex, sex. Watch it. Hear about it. Click on it. Be assured you can get it if you really want it (or some facsimile thereof.) Be pharmaceutically supported in being able to perform adequately should the golden opportunity arise. But whatever you do, don’t connect your fantasies of sex with shortages or pollution or urban sprawl or economic disparities or starvation or the deaths of thousands and millions of superfluous humans in China, India, Iraq, America, Brazil…

Thank goodness the phony healthcare bill they’re about to force on us (a bill that will make it a crime not to buy inadequate usurious insurance from organized criminal organizations) will allow a woman to have an abortion. Hallelujah. A great victory for women and polar bears, we are told. And jobs will be created. In the insurance industry. To process all the new folks being forced to buy inadequate usurious insurance.

I’d go on, but I’m itching to watch the Victoria’s Secret Anniversary Runway Show featuring twelve of Tiger’s thirty-seven mistresses wearing almost nothing and promising everything as they strut and jiggle their impossibly perfect bodies to electronic sex music. And then I may catch a little of the Bangladesh flood coverage and that great new documentary about the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers, source of most of the water for most of the people on earth.

I used to belong to an organization named Zero Population Growth, but they were forced, yes, forced by popular demand and funding impasses, to change their name to The Population Connection because so many otherwise reasonable people were offended by the very idea of zero population growth.

How we survive big cats

and long winter

we no have many baby?

Aye, there’s the rub.

Todd is currently writing the sequel to his novel Under the Table Books. His web site is Underthetablebooks.com.