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Collapse Scenarios

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.

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Three Musketeers

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Oh, the women, the women!” cried the old soldier. “I know them by their romantic imagination. Everything that savors of mystery charms them.” Alexandre Dumas

Last Thursday evening, as I was about to go to bed, I had a moment of panic because I had nothing to read. Yes, there are millions of books; and hundreds of new volumes flood the world every day; but I was hungry for a particular literary food I’ve cultivated a taste for over a lifetime, nothing else will do, and I wasn’t sure I had anything of the kind in the house I hadn’t too recently read. Alas, I am allergic to science fiction, murder mysteries (save for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes), fantasy, horror, mainstream fiction, exposés of the depredations of the oligarchic octopus, and odes to the coming collapse, thus new prose is, for the most part, of no use to me.

Stumbling into my cluttered office, I espied a volume recently procured from Daedalus Books, that goodly purveyor of publishers’ overstocks—a happily inexpensive Dover edition of the 167-year-old The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I had attempted to read the book as a teenager and found the language too rich for my fledgling taste buds. I had seen a movie based loosely on the book (there have been more than twenty movies made from the novel) and I have always liked myths in which a group of characters compose a collective being, each character a distinct aspect of the whole—Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck; Groucho, Harpo, and Chico; D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. And so with hope in my heart, I lugged the ample paperback to bed, settled in for my customary bout of reading before sleep, and was relieved to find the first two chapters of The Three Musketeers exactly the food I craved.

“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas

Three months before I began to read The Three Musketeers, I was inspired by various twists of fate to begin a series of large and colorful drawings (large for me, small for Picasso), 20 x 16 inches. I have been making pen and ink sketches since I was a child, but it was only two years ago at the age of fifty-nine that I went public for the first time with my artwork by introducing each chapter of my novel Under the Table Books with a pen and ink drawing. When these illustrations were mentioned favorably in reviews, I was emboldened to create seven zany black and white birthday cards (you can color them or not) that failed to cause a commercial ripple, much less a splash. Thereafter I contented myself with using the myriad scans of my drawings to decorate the instant stationery that computers and laser printers make possible.

What do my drawings have to do with The Three Musketeers?

“My heart is that of a musketeer; I feel it, Monsieur, and that impels me on.” Alexandre Dumas

Nine months ago I was invited to submit a short story to the Consumnes River Journal, a literary magazine of Consumnes Community College near Sacramento. I sent the editors a provocative story I was sure they would publish, but they disappointed my hopes. However, they were enamored of a drawing I included with the story, and to this drawing they dedicated an entire glossy page of their journal. Then about two months ago, shortly after the publication of the journal, I was contacted by a curator of an annual art show in Sacramento, a show of visual art created by writers, and this curator asked if I would like to present a few of my drawings in the next such show.

As it happened, the day I received the curator’s communiqué, I had just completed a series of three (large for me, small for Picasso) pieces I hoped to enter in a juried show at the Mendocino Art Center. However, I failed to have these beauties framed in time (they are still not framed) for the day of judgment, and so I will never know if I would have won a place in that show or not. Nevertheless, my sketching juices were flowing nicely when I received this invitation from Sacramento, and so there ensued a flurry of pen and ink inventions resulting in the birth of a family of colorful characters named Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Mystery, Mischief, and Merlin.

“D’Artagnan was amazed to note by what fragile and unknown threads the destinies of nations and the lives of men are suspended.” Alexandre Dumas

The central hero (sometimes anti-hero) of The Three Musketeers is a daring young man named D’Artagnan. Whenever Dumas found himself at a cul-de-sac in the plot, he arranged for D’Artagnan to accidentally stumble upon an important someone or something to get the action moving again. These recurring “accidentals” are among my least favorite things about the novel, along with much of the final third of the mighty tome, though when I learned Dumas wrote the novel in serial form (The Three Musketeers was first published in a French magazine over the course of several months in 1844) I was more forgiving of these implausible plot twists, having myself authored a serial work of fiction for a Sacramento weekly in the 1980’s.

And, in fact, we do frequently stumble upon and over things that propel the plots of our lives, so in that sense D’Artagnan embodies the Sufi mystic who goes forth with an open heart and open mind to discover what the universe has to offer. As Paladin’s business card said Have Gun, Will Travel, so D’Artagnan’s card might have read Have Sword, Will Duel, and my card might say Have Pen, Will Make Large (for me, not for Picasso) Drawings.

Speaking of propelling the plot…lacking a studio I have commandeered the dining table for purposes of making my larger-than-usual drawings, and Marcia, my wife and boon companion these last five years, is now privy to my works-in-progress. To my great relief, she likes my drawings and even makes cogent suggestions about color choices and composition, all of which I strictly obey. (Not)

One recent evening Sandy Cosca came over and Marcia said to me, “Show Sandy your drawings,” which I did.

Sandy chuckled at the drawings (because they are funny) and asked, “Are these illustrations for a story?”

And though I heard myself say, “No,” I wondered if they were illustrations for a story. How long a story? A novella? A novel? A serial?

Two days later, Marion Crombie, freshly returned from England, viewed the drawings, smiled brightly, and asked, “Do these go with a story?”

So at last we come back to that fateful evening I alluded to in the first sentence of this article, when I, in a D’Artagnan-like moment of desperation, stumbled into my office, found The Three Musketeers, and began to feed upon that tale. Having gobbled the first two chapters, I fell asleep and had a vivid dream in which the Magician family came to life and revealed themselves to be a complicated and compelling collective being, each character a distinct aspect of a fantabulous whole. The dream, clearly, was the beginning of a story: Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Merlin, Mystery, and Mischief, though what the story is about and how long it turns out to be remain to be seen.

I have only written the first two chapters, and so far the tale seems less about dueling with the forces of evil ala D’Artagnan, and more about parents and children and their struggles to separate and individuate and ultimately come together again to take meaningful action against the larger forces of greed and avarice. The Magicians, though not great swordsmen or the darlings of wealthy queens and kings and cardinals, seem to be social activists of a most unusual kind, and they seem to pose the question: how will we, you and I, give aid to our friends and our communities in the face of the terrible and growing inequities engendered by a ruling class of narcissistic psychopaths hell bent on turning back the clock to feudal times when the likes of D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers served a tiny minority of wealthy people whose pathological selfishness kept all but the luckiest few enslaved by poverty and fear?

You can view Todd’s zany birthday cards (and soon his Magician family drawings) at UnderTheTableBooks.com