This Week You’re a Flowerpot

So much has been written this past week about abortion rights and the leaked Alito opinion, with responses far more comprehensive than I could hope to create, so I’ll keep my commentary to one small point of fact, shared in light of the sudden urgency among Democrats that WE MUST DO SOMETHING NOW.

As Ann Friedman put it, “NOW?!?”

Democrats have had fifty years to Do Something. Fifty years to codify Roe v. Wade into law, twenty-one of which have been under Democratic administrations. They didn’t do it.

In fact, Congress has had 250 years to Do Something, 250 years to codify a women’s right to bodily autonomy into law. They haven’t done it.

The full personhood of women remains contingent in this country, dependent on the good will of those we elect to office and the Court of Nine — really, five — who decide whether we are flower pots or people. Rectifying this has never been a priority. How do we know it’s not a priority? 250 years is how we know.

Americans by a large majority favor legal access to abortion, just as we favor affordable health care for all, affordable child care, paid parental leave, and a living minimum wage. We don’t get what we ask for. Instead we get forever wars and culture wars, a bloated military budget, and a wringing of the hands on the part of Democrats whose only unified response to the situation is to call on voters to “elect more Democrats.”

Yes, of course, I consider the alternative, and yes, I will continue to vote for the ones who seem to not hate women, hate children, hate the poor and people of color quite so much. But I’m tired of it. Tired of issues of major consequence being reduced, time and again, to messaging for the midterms.

Fifty years of post-Roe inaction is a message, too.


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April Links

My month-long hiatus extended nearly half a year (surprise!) as I wandered through a wet, gray, Midwest winter and on into early spring, when none of the news was good (really, is it ever?), despairing of pretty much everything. I did work on some half-assed hand-sewing (that pile above), which got me through, (still gets me through), and I finally dared a couple of dinner gatherings at friends’ homes, which allowed me to see that the world had not entirely gone to shit, not while Linda makes her most excellent cherry pie. I’m still on the fence about restaurant dining, but I’ll sit around in people’s kitchens now, which is a vast improvement over a year ago, right?

I’ll have a more substantial post to share with you soon. Consider this a gentle tap at your door, me on the porch, offering a plate of cookies.

_ _ _ _ _

Speaking of a year ago, this one’s from last May, and I find myself returning to it again and again: Alex Steffen on discontinuity and the climate crisis and how one of its grimmest aspects is “its transapocalyptic nature. That is, just how much of the world can thrive relatively well while enormous numbers of people suffer.”

Case in point: I keep waiting for mainstream news orgs to spend some time on the ongoing discontinuity in Sri Lanka. Even briefly. It hasn’t happened. [from Indrajit Samarajiva]

Lyz Lenz talks with journalist Allison Hantschel about how newspapers were damaging themselves long before the internet and private equity came along.

Music and cultural critic Ted Gioia on the Netflix/CNN+ disaster and what’s next for streaming. Hint: the greed might have to be dialed back a bit. For realz.

Laurie Penney, on why nominal choice does not equal liberation.

Roxanne Gay contemplates Sister Corita Kent’s rules for her university’s art department. Rule #1: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

What I’m listening to: mood enhancement. Arooj Aftab, Tony Karapetyan Trio & Sebastian Studnitzky, and Hania Rani [the last two via Ted Gioia]

What’s on the stove: a season-straddling take on traditional potato-leek soup, light enough to say “Spring is here!” and robust enough to satisfy on these lingering cool nights.

What I’m reading: I’ve gone full-on Murderbot Diaries, blazing through the entire Martha Wells series, some via print, some on audio. These books are so full of angst and tech-speak and ethical quandaries and other-worldliness (literally) there is no brain-space left for (my own) despair. Which is to say, exactly what I need right now

Until next time,

November Links

So much keeps happening. Much of it passes without need for comment, because what is there left to say? Our laws are as broken as everything else. Also: we don’t know how things will end, because nothing is ever really over.

Since this is my last post before I go on my December break (which, let’s face it, could go on a bit longer, knowing me), I’m sharing a lot today. Take what you need, come back again and take a little more.


Sonali Kohlatkar writes about “social spending” vs. “military spending.” Over the last several weeks the major U.S. media players have served up story after story about inflation, labor shortages, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner and the price of gasoline (and milk!), but have given us virtually no information about the $753 billion going to the Pentagon via Biden’s Build Back Better plan. 

For further reading on U.S. outlays for military and national security, spend a few minutes with Stephen Semler of Speaking Security. This is why we can’t have nice things. Unless you think bombs are nice things.

Some activists say we don’t vote with forks, we vote with votes, that the whole idea of the “personal carbon footprint” was invented by oil companies to distract well-meaning individuals from the singular issue at hand, which is the need to stop burning fossil fuels. But as Lisa Held writes in the (alas, dearly departing) Peeled newsletter: “As someone who covers food policy closely, I can tell you first-hand that Congress is a mess. When meaningful legislation actually gets passed, which is rare, changes take an insanely long time to implement. Oftentimes, they’re reversed or rolled back. Corporate influence is everywhere.” 

Meanwhile, some votes seem particularly fraught: Rebecca Solnit on the media coverage of the Nov. 2 election results in the U.S. “The Washington Post seemed to believe that Virginia was a national referendum on the (Democratic) party… but (losing candidate) Terry McAuliffe is not the Democratic party, and the nation didn’t vote in Virginia’s election.” 

How the bus driver shortage helps explain our current economic weirdness.

Why Tokyo Works “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

I know next to nothing about cryptocurrencies, other than the fact that they require a shite tonne of energy to create and maintain. But this particular perspective on Bitcoin, et. al., made me feel a little less benighted.

This one is a hard one. But it resonates. There Will Be No “Confessions of a Misogynist.”

Apparently it’s “cozy season” on social media, if not in our actual lives. “Collect a bunch of cozy-projecting objects and you’ll just end up working to maintain your stuff, when what you really need is for your stuff to maintain you. From Brooklyn to Silicon Valley, earnest aesthetes line up all their handmade ceramics just so but have no idea how to cook a fucking soup without spending 45 minutes on the internet searching for the perfect recipe. Is “Cozy Season” a Cry for Help? [Kathryn Jezer-Morton, via AHP]

The Trolly Problem is an ethical thought experiment we might do well to revisit.

From Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files #171: “As Susie and I grow older, the anger at the indifference and casual cruelty of this world can still burn bright, but it does not define us, for the oxygen that fuels that anger is love — love for the world and love for the people in it. Love becomes anger’s great animator, as it should, as it must.”

Pick your battles. Pick fewer than that. [via Rob Brezsny]

The CNN milk story seemed to irritate a lot of people this month. But as Lyz Lenz points out, “It is harder to be an American family right now. No one is disputing that. But it’s not because of milk prices. It’s because of a lack of affordable healthcare, housing, and a lack of childcare.” But we’re giving the Pentagon $753 billion, so it’s all good.

Were you beaten as a child? Maybe it was called “spanking.” Maybe “discipline.” Once again, the U.S. is an outlier. And once again, not in a good way.

One way to radicalize the heartland: take away the jobs. This is not an apologia for Trumpism, or racism, or xenophobia, or any of a dozen other social maladies facing our rust-belted, Bible-belted midsection. It’s an indictment of an economic system that seems designed to bring out the worst in human beings.

Music to calm you. From Ted Gioia’s The Honest Broker newsletter.

Kinda into the French 75.

Pod-interest: Shane Parrish talks with Douglas Rushkoff about extremism and social media. Debbie Millman interviews Nick Offerman about acting and woodworking.

I’m watching the Great British Baking Show this weekend. Taking my mind off the coming winter. Snow can wait.

I’ll leave you with this bit of wistfulness, via The The Marginalian:

“Everything that you are seeing has, apart from small changes, been there for thousands of years before you. After a while — not long — you will no longer exist, and the woods and rocks and sky will continue, unchanged, for thousands of years after you. What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you?” ~ Erwin Schrodinger, My View of the World

Thanks for reading. Be well. Have some pie. I’ll be back soon enough.

Housekeeping

Just a quick note today, and a couple questions for you.

For the last month of 2021 I’ll be off-line and somewhat out-of-pocket, which means the last planned post for the year is this Sunday’s links post, for which I have a slew of things to share with you. It’s been that kind of month.

As for December, it’s my red wheelbarrow, upon which so much depends. There are things to think about. This blog is one of them.

I’ve been writing in this space for ten years. And before this blog, there were two others. I’m not quite OG, but I’m OG-adjacent.

I intend to keep writing, here and elsewhere, but I’m considering how I might want to proceed. I know most of you subscribe via feed or email. Would you be (just as) happy with an email newsletter rather than a blog post? Would it make any difference? A newsletter feels more personal to me, more connected, less vox in deserto, but that’s me. What’s your take?

Also, I’m wondering how you feel about the monthly links posts. I know I’ve only done two so far, with a third one coming this weekend, but I’m completely enamored of them, and I look forward all month to putting them together. They give my online wanderings a sense of focus. Do you find them useful? I like it when writers I enjoy point me toward writing they enjoy. Give me all the links. The internet is too big for me to wander it alone.

But maybe you have all the links you need, and you just want more me. Maybe even more poems. (Seriously! I could make that happen!)

Please share your thoughts. I’m going to take your replies with me into my (deep and dark) December, and come out on the other end with a bit of clarity. That’s the plan, anyway.

Look for me on Sunday, then I’ll see you on the other side.

As always, I’m grateful for you.

Things Fall Apart

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial led me to wonder about the history of riots in the U.S. and around the world, and if our era was particularly riotous compared with other times and places. Spoiler: civilization is rife with riot. Surprise!

Here is a list that focuses on the U.S from the 18th century on. Race riots, draft riots, labor riots. The Know-Nothing Riots, in particular, have a certain familiar tenor.

This list is international and covers a broader historical period — its first citation is of a riot in 44 BCE that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar.

This list is mostly focused on riots in the Pacific West and Northwest of the U.S. over the past 150 or so years. Portland is just the latest iteration.

Yeats’ poem is 100 years old. The passionate intensity is as old as civilization.

Everything falls apart. We (at least) can count on that.

Just In Time

I'm a just-in-time poem, sitting offshore
in a shipping container on an uneasy ocean
waiting, waiting, waiting 
for the crane to hoist me high 
and swing me to the ground, 
for the door to open and the sky to appear, 
I will fly free like the miseries 
from Pandora's box, beat my wings 
against the windows of an indifferent world, 
until I settle at last in some poor poet's soul 
and live out my days in the sweet mercy 
of endless supply and not a single demand,

Give Us Your Burned Out Millennials

Fox River, Indiana [source]

The little city down the road from the little town in which I live announced this week that it wants to add 5,000 residents to its population. I think it’s a great idea. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Or maybe just your burned out millennials in search of affordable housing.

My friends who live mid-city shared a link on social media recently to a house for sale in their neighborhood. “Come be our neighbors!” It was a nice house. 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a basement, a manageable yard. It listed for under $200,000.

Out-of-state friends were gobsmacked. “What’s wrong with it?!”

There was nothing wrong with it. That’s what houses sell for here.

You want one?

Yes, it’s a small city in the Midwest. No, it doesn’t have a scene of any kind, except maybe sports; people are into basketball here. And high school football.

And, yes, the statehouse is full of reactionary Republicans and the state produced two of the most milquetoast vice-presidents in recent memory, but Indiana voters chose Obama in ’08. Yes, we did.

It’s true we’re powered by coal, and there are lots of big pickup trucks with stickers on the back reminding us that “coal keeps the lights on.” But we’re retiring the coal-fired plants — oh, so slowly — and we’re adding solar farms. Lots of solar farms.

Public transportation is abysmal here, there’s no denying it. But there are bike lanes (for the brave) and an off-street bike route that connects my little town to that not-so-big city, and a bicycle-and-pedestrian masterplan that’s translating into actual trail miles in the real world, not just in a slide deck. Astonishing, I know.

Property and other taxes are low, which is a mixed blessing, given that we want nice things but have no way to pay for them. But it does make it easier for people without a trust fund to afford that house.

The city’s downtown is livable, walkable. There are food trucks and art fairs. There’s a new bookshop (!!) on Main Street, owned by a couple local guys who went away and came back. People do that here. They leave, and they come back.

Plus, Hoosier National Forest is gorgeous.

Also: we’re not experiencing drought or wildfires. Which is not nothing.

There’s something to be said for aspiring to a functional life in a place less… aspirational. The Midwest is not sexy, but it’s do-able. So, sure. Bring us 5,000 intrepid sojourners. Maybe not all at once, but soon. We’ll leave the porch light on for you, powered by solar!

Once more for the folks in back: Indiana! It’s not that bad!

Glasgow

Journalist George Monbiot maintains that the only hope we have is to leave the oil in the ground. Leave the coal. The natural gas. If we want to spare ourselves the worst of what’s coming, we have to leave it all where it is.

Maybe we could leave the forests, too. Even the ones ravaged by the pine beetle; in a century, maybe two, they will come back around. In the meantime we can return to the selective harvesting practiced decades ago, no more clear-cuts or plantation-style reseeding.

It’s (almost) too much to hope for, too far beyond the realm of what seems possible. And yet.

In two essays, one before Glasgow and one as the conference got underway, Mr. Monbiot argues that, if we were serious, we could transition to cleaner energy in months, not decades.

“There’s discomfort in environmental circles with military analogies,” he writes, “But the war is among the few precedents and metaphors that almost everyone can grasp.” He’s referring to the second world war, when the U.S. and other allied nations turned their entire economies toward a single mission. If we did it once, we can do it again, “The only thing that stands in the way is the power of legacy industries and the people who profit from them.”

Kind of a big obstacle, that.

The reports coming out of Glasgow are grim. I heard one head of state from a country so smogged by emissions their people cannot safely breathe the air argue for the right to gain all the comforts and elegancies the fossil fuel age has to offer — for another 50 years! — before they transition to something less harmful. Assuming said transition doesn’t mess with their economy too much. Seriously!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, no matter when the transition comes — and it will have to come, because the water is rising — it’s going to mess with everybody’s economy: household, community, nation, world. And it’s likely that we’re going to see some devolution going on, not in 50 years, but in 15. 10. 5.

Now.

It’s happening now. Those cargo ships tossing about on the ocean, awaiting their turn in port? They’re a bellwether. This unceasing pandemic? Ditto.

Things are going to be different. Things are different already. But isn’t the sunset beautiful?

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill

I spent time this week listening to Eva Cassidy, whose music was unknown to me until long after her death in 1996. [h/t to music critic Ted Gioia, whose thoughtful homage got that ball rolling.]

It left me thinking of other artists and creators whose work goes largely unnoticed while they’re alive, and sometimes — sometimes — finds its way into the common culture long after they’re gone. Van Gogh’s wife became his persistent champion after he died in obscurity. Emily Dickenson had a sister who brough her poems to posthumous light.

Noticed or not by our contemporaries, the work we create is the verse we contribute to what Whitman called “the powerful play.” Most of it will go unheralded. So it goes. Our work is not (only) for us. It’s (also) for those who come after. Sometimes long after. We all plant trees under whose shade we will never sit.

It works the other way, too, where certain work — activist work in particular, creative and disruptive to business-as-usual — disappears down the cultural memory hole to become yet another subject about which we do not speak. History is littered with those as well.

Workers are in the news a lot these days. As are unions. With all the pushback one might expect.

Time for a resurrection.

Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”

“I never died,” says he.

Obscure Sorrows

Henri Ospovat, circa 1901 [source]

From John Koenig’s Tumbler, and now book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Follow the link to go to a more complete definition.

Monachopsis: a subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.

Meantime: the moment of realization that your quintessential future self isn’t ever going to show up.

Occhiolism: the awareness of the smallness of your perspective.

Anechdoche: a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening.

The wends: frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should,

Daguerrologue: an imaginary interview with an old photo of yourself.

Mimeomia: the frustration of knowing how easily you fit into a stereotype.

Anthrodynia: a state of exhaustion with how shitty people can be to each other.

Sonder: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.


Bonus Koenig: “Are these real words or do you just make them up? ”

h/t Ivaylo Durmonski for opening that jumpdoor.

October links

Mount Vernon, Indiana, 1937 [source]

Jon Michael Greer throws a shoe at intentional communities, and while much of what he says makes sense, it didn’t quite extinguish my desire to get on that bus to Elsewhere. I’m still curious. Still looking around. Still eager to hear your thoughts about it, if you have any to share.

On debt and death: an essay from Tennessee-born writer Molly McGhee on taking on her mother’s debt after her death. Found after falling down a rabbit hole via the prolific output of author Robin Sloan:

“Why are these people harassing me? What good does it do them?” I didn’t have an answer for her. Or I did, but it felt obvious and stupid to say out loud. They wanted money. Everybody wants money. The people in power don’t care if we live or die, as long as they get paid. […]

There are endless articles on why America has failed to curb the pandemic. The truth is simple. People profit from our death. Foreclosure companies, debt collectors, real estate agents, news corporations, health care tycoons, senators, and presidents, to name a few.

Molly McGhee, “America’s Dead Souls”

The Facebook Files is now a podcast. I’ve been following the story on NPR. Will I listen to the pod? Probably not. This company has already taken enough of my precious time.

On a related note, before I deleted my Facebook account altogether, I used the “unfollow everyone” strategy to clear my newsfeed of browsable content and give me a sense of control (heh) over who and what I engaged with. I did it manually, and it took a minute, but once it was done, it was workable enough, though ultimately unsatisfying. Still, for those who feel the need to remain on the platform, I recommend giving it a try, even though — or maybe especially because — Facebook really doesn’t like it.

Who is Oleg Deripaska and why does it matter that the FBI raided his Washington, D.C.mansion? The world is awash in treachery and greed. See how many famous faces you recognize!

Do you feel compelled to finish reading every book you start? Does it make you feel incomplete if you to abandon a book mid-read? Bibliophile John Warner feels no such compunction.

Suzanne Vega introduces and sings “Tom’s Diner.”

Music critic Ted Gioia offers ten suggestions for dealing with criticism. He’s writing for musicians, mostly, but it’s useful advice no matter what sort of creative work we’re putting out into the world. My personal favorite: #10. Because I’d much rather avoid it altogether — wouldn’t you? — but then where would we be?

Perfect fall soup. Skip the cream if you want, or replace it with coconut milk. Either way, it’s luscious.

Leaves are falling.

Be well,

Intermediation 2.0

“Here is a Ducat” artist unknown [source]

It’s not news that the health care system in the U.S. is broken. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve seen how ghastly it is to offer health care as a for-profit industry with all of the same just-in-time inventory and staffing issues that plague the rest of the economy.

And we know insurance companies have worn the devil’s mantle in the industry for decades, creating a boondoggle of opaque billing and protocols.

Now we learn from journalist David Sirota how private equity firms have woven their tentacles into ERs around the country, squeezing budgets as they siphon profits and compromise patient care (surprise!), leave ERs understaffed, and increase physician liability while hiding that risk within layers of paperwork and legalese.

It’s enough to make you swear off going to the doctor at all.

Private equity-owned ER staffing firms have been frequently sued by whistleblowers on their medical staff. Last year, the Washington state doctor Ming Lin sued Blackstone-owned Team Health for removing him from the schedule after he posted on Facebook criticizing the company’s unwillingness to appropriate sufficient funds for face masks and proper infectious disease protocols at the beginning of the pandemic.

And last month, Envision Healthcare, which is owned by the private equity firm KKR & Co and is widely viewed as the staffing company that invented surprise billing, was forced to pay a $26-million jury award to a physician it had terminated for claiming that the company’s understaffing of a busy Kansas ER violated the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), a 1986 bill that requires hospitals to keep physicians on hand to “stabilize” patients regardless of their ability to pay.

But few of the whistleblower lawsuits have alleged systemic fraudulent overbilling, because most physicians who work for the firms have no idea what is being billed under their licenses.

They have no idea because they are “supervising” a staff of physician assistants and nurse practioners, rather than working those ERs themselves, due to a private equity staffing practice of reducing the hours of higher-paid staff. Sirota explains:

An internal document circulated to client hospitals by the KKR-owned Envision Healthcare advises clients that between a quarter and 35 percent of ER visits could be handled by an employee who earns an average of 66 percent less than a board-certified emergency physician. As a result, bigger ERs now often “single covered,” meaning they only have a single doctor on duty at a time, and smaller ERs are often run by nurse practitioners or physician assistants being supervised remotely by a doctor.

In the article, Sirota refers to a private Facebook group “full of the anxious testimonials of doctors who fear losing their licenses over something in the daily mountain of paperwork on which they are required to sign off related to the endless string of patients treated by a nurse or physician assistant under their titular (and often Zoom-based) supervision.”

This intermediation on the part of firms that deal in junk bonds and hostile takeovers adds a layer of indifference and cruelty to the health care story that would be infuriating and dispiriting were it not so unsurprising. We’ve been watching it happen for so many years it’s become background noise: we’re all profit centers for someone, and for some of those someones, that is pretty much all we are.

It’s nothing personal.

It’s just business.

What a great system!

But never mind all that. The leaves are finally turning and we built a fire in the firepit at my friend’s house the other night and played music as the sun went down and the moon came up. I drove home afterward with campfire-scented hair and a head full of harmonies, put another blanket on the bed, did not set an alarm.

I hope you’ve enjoyed something equally satisfying this week.

History Is Not Inanimate

Teocallis at Chichen-Itza, Frederick Catherwood [source]

This past Wednesday a Tennessee legislator stood up in the Tennessee chambers and stated that the Civil War has not ended. That it is still going on, and that the South is winning.

He was making a bollocks economic argument, which the linked story does a fair job dismantling, but it reminded me that I wrote something not too dissimilar just a few weeks ago (sans the bollocks argument). Which led me to consider all the ways in which the past is fluid, unfixed and open to revisiting.

Re-conceptualizing.

In the Long Now, the State Senator may be right. The brackets we put around historical events are rather arbitrary. There is always a before and an after in any story, and those are a part of the story, too, the concentric circles that radiate outward until all their energy has dissipated into, has been absorbed by, lives on within, the ecosystem.

Performer Niko Case writes:

“History” is a place I linger and look for because it comforts me; it’s a bit of a habit. It has the most beautiful wallpaper and I have to make sure I don’t live there full-time. After all, history is not inanimate either and the past changes behind us. The wake from a ship on the ocean is a movement that never stops moving. It is a “forward” also.

NIko Case, Entering The Lung

History clings to us, like a shadow at our heel. It’s a thing we cast, and it attenuates with the sun, with our changing perspective. How much of it is the thing that happened, and how much of it is us, squinting into the light, trying to discern the boundaries?

Realizing there are no boundaries.

It reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago about where and when you draw a line around a thing, and call it good or not good, call it done, say “this is a part of it” and “this is not.” It’s not a poem about history, but it feels like part of the same conversation, ongoing.

October

Lady Plomer’s Palace, John Thomas Smith [source]
The maple trees along my street 
hold on to green leaves 
that ought to be red by now
and yellow like the sun that won't
stop warming us, 
I mowed the yard one last time 
before putting the machine 
away for the season, 
optimist about almost nothing 
beyond the end of yard work, 
believing it must surely be at hand, 
short days ahead and long nights 
meant for novels that last 
through all the cold months,
I will unpack my favorite sweater, 
turn away from the news, 
pay attention to how the sky looks 
just before the snow comes, 
if it comes at all,
if the grass will ever stop growing, 
if the leaves will only turn red. 

Indiana: It’s Not That Bad!

Workshop at a Carbonated Water Factory [source]

I read Alan Lightman’s Probable Impossibilities and sat for a while with the notion of an indifferent universe. I decided I was pretty okay with it.

It takes the pressure off. The cosmos does not care!

This weekend I wandered through the museum at the Working Men’s Institute in New Harmony, Indiana, a two-room display of bones and crystals and old paintings in ornate gilded frames, weapons from the Civil War, the skeleton of a horse named Fly who served in that war, the tooth of a woolly mammoth, plus the preserved body of a four-foot-long alligator gar, along with teacups and women’s shoes, and some questionable taxedermy.

Everything is interesting to someone!

In a gallery on Main Street there were mandalas made from plastic bottle caps and Mardi Gras beads by artist Diane Kahlo, whose best-known work is probably the traveling exhibit Las Desaparecidas de Ciudad Juárez: A Homage to the Missing and Murdered Girls of Juárez. Which goes to show: we can do serious work and still play with beads and bottle caps, still glue stuff to other stuff. It’s okay. The cosmos doesn’t care.

New Harmony is the site of two utopian communities, one religious, one secular, that were established in the early nineteenth century. Neither community lasted for more than a few years, failing for all the usual reasons. But many of the structures the residents left behind have been restored and maintained, not just as historical artifacts but as functional public spaces.

There are cabins, there is an opera house, a community house. These folks built things to last.

The Workingmen’s Institute, with the horse skeleton and teacups and alligator gar, was established by William McClure, one of the founders of the second community. He had the institute built just a few years after that last community disbanded. It contains Indiana’s oldest library and was inspired by the mechanics’ institute movement in Europe, which was creating lending libraries for the working class while Andrew Carnegie was still in short pants.

I have a decal on a corkboard in my art room that says, “Indiana: It’s not that bad!” And even though I drive on back roads past more than a few Trump yard signs to get there, New Harmony is one reason why.

You’re Complicit, I’m Complicit

Italian Greyhounds, Philip Reinagle [source]

But if you hate the system, and you reject what it represents, and you are against the hierarchies and societal organization it perpetuates, and already regret how it affected yourself or how it may eventually affect your own kids — you also have to reckon with how your participation, even your reluctant, conflicted participation, sustains it. Does that mean quitting altogether, or deciding your future family will opt out? Who knows. But it does mean that you start thinking about what’s at stake in leaving — and, more importantly, what’s at stake in staying.

Ann Helen Petersen, Against Kids’ Sports

Her argument is with kids’ sports, but the questions Ann Helen Petersen asks could just as easily refer to a host of other perplexities of modern life for which we have to ask ourselves, should I stay or should I go?

Do we quit the shitty job? Leave the unhappy marriage? Stay on Facebook? Move out of the red state? Do we write a manifesto and find a cabin in the wilderness, live like bears or feral cats? Do we blow up our lives — or blow up a dam — because we can no longer abide the way things are?

What’s at stake in leaving? What’s at stake in staying?

How do we decide what’s worth sticking around for, and what is just too much to bear?

It’s true that the vast stream of bullshit we wade through in the course of our daily getting-on-with-it is sustained by our (conflicted) pulling on of hip boots and venturing out into the murky water of systems we didn’t design and don’t necessarily feel good about supporting. We shop at supermarkets and drive to work, heat our homes with fossil fuels, wear clothes made in dodgy factories, pay taxes that support a trillion-dollar military budget, conduct our business within an economy that devalues most of us, human and non-human alike, and send our kids to schools that perpetuate cultural myths and economic fairy tales in order that we may keep doing it.

We didn’t start this fire, but we’re going to burn up in it all the same.

MLK said that the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and perhaps it does. But the arc of human history is less an arc than a wheel that turns and turns in the widening gyre until things fall apart and we begin again.

And again.

It seems to me that our efforts matter not so much in whether they sustain a system over which we have so little power, but in how what we do affects the people and places and things we love. What’s at stake in leaving? What’s at stake in staying? Here. In this place, among these people. Beside this river.

It’s one place to start.

It’s the Intermediaries

Magnolia Tree, Aubrey Beardsley [source}

Jon Michael Greer writes about what he calls the metastatic growth of intermediation, a phrase that furrowed my brow for a bit until I worked out that he was referring to the process by which supply meets demand within our increasingly dysfunctional economy. Also: what it means for workers and peasants when so many intermediaries insert themselves into that process.

Though it wasn’t among the examples cited, the food service industry was the first to come to mind, because that’s where I spent much of the last 20 years. During that time the giant food service producers began supplying much of what is served out of restaurant kitchens today. (Think your casual-dining restaurant is making that pumpkin ravioli from scratch in its own kitchen this fall? Not likely.)

Also quick to mind: the food delivery services that rocketed to ubiquity during the shut-down period of the pandemic, when nobody could go to restaurants but everybody still wanted to eat food prepared by others.

I was on my last months working in the industry at the time, managing a cafe, and these services were presented as a solution to the problem of continuing to serve customers during the lockdown.

They were not a solution. They were another service attempting to squeeze a few more pennies from an already strapped sector of the economy by inserting themselves into the supply-and-demand equation. Our margins could not accommodate them, and at a cost of 15-20% of a given ticket, I daresay few indie food businesses could.

Yet these delivery companies were everywhere, driven by demand. Many of my friends used them, believing they were helping their local restaurants stay in business. Clearly, more than a few food businesses were saying, “Sure, let’s give that a try.” So where did they find that extra 15-20%?

Understand that the largest cost of running any food-based business is labor, with the price of real estate a distant second. If your landlord won’t give you a break on rent, and you’ve tapped out — or don’t have — a line of credit with your bank — you’re probably going to look for cost savings on the labor side of your profit & loss sheet.

Which means shifts get cut, and work gets redistributed among three servers instead of five, and two cooks instead of four. It means those cooks get pressed into service as dishwashers, and the servers take on the duties of the bussers. It means exhaustion for those who remain, and impoverishment for those who are let go, not to mention poor service and long waits for the diners who come out, leave dissatisfied, and write pissy reviews on Yelp.

Many of those food service workers who were let go would have loved the chance to open their own business, my cafe’s chef among them. Little lunch counters and walk-up food joints, street carts and food trucks, in particular, ought to be relatively inexpensive options that have the added benefit of making for a vibrant food scene in any community. But even these options are not available, due in no small part to the parasitic scourge of intermediation. As JMG writes:

Go to any town in flyover country and walk down the streets, past the empty storefronts where businesses used to flourish. There are millions of people who would love to start their own business, but it’s a losing proposition in an economy in which governments, banks, and property owners demand so large a cut that most small startup businesses can’t break even. 

Once you start looking, you can’t not see it. So much of the vaunted “job creation” in our economy is really the insertion of intermediaries into the supply-and-demand equation. I’m thinking of my farming friends who employ a social media manager to maintain their online presence across the multiple platforms their customers expect to find them. The money to pay that manager is squeezed out of the produce these farmers grow, which is to say, out of their pockets. But without a social media presence, they flounder, and they don’t have time to do it themselves. They’re farmers, they already work 12-hour days.

And so it goes.

Speaking of farmers, and pumpkin ravioli, I am embracing October. I’ve been invited to go apple-picking, so I’m baking Deb’s apple cake this week. Don’t you wish you were my neighbor?

The Fate of Peasants

Transformation of the Palace of Luxury, Frederick Robinson

At what point will we call the folks fleeing the drought-stricken west and southwest “climate refugees”? And are they really going to Duluth, or is that just cable news conjuring a trend from random acts of dislocation?

Perhaps my old stomping ground in the rust-and-snow-belt will become a new safe haven for those exhausted by western wildfires and coastal floods. Though everywhere has its troubles. Really, there’s no escaping us.

The plague of COVID-19 has taken nearly three-quarters of a million people from us in the U.S. Worldwide deaths are approaching five million.

Nero fiddled, Rome burned. But really, what else could he do?

Every society in the history of the world has ultimately collapsed.

Eric Cline, 1177 B.C: The Year Civilization Collapsed

In a culture that has no use for its elderly and doesn’t seem especially fond of its children, it’s hardly surprising that we seldom acknowledge that anything of any real value came before us, or that something significant might come after. But civilizations come and go, and their demise can happen quickly, as in the case of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which seems to have occurred over the span of about 100 years.

Recall that this is “the Bronze Age.” Imagine a disruption along the route from Afghanistan, from which tin has to be imported, into the Aegean. It would end the bronze industry. As Carol Bell, a British academician, observes,“the strategic importance of tin in the LBA [Late Bronze Age] … was probably not far different from that of crude oil today.” 

Sally Mallam, The Human Journey Project

We can argue that it’s so much worse this time, that the whole world is involved, and that we’re taking much of the world’s species along with us. All true. And yet we seem unable to help ourselves.

It’s interesting to consider what might have been the fate of the peasants within those earlier civilizations, the ones who did not live in the palaces and trade in luxuries, the ones without a lot of wealth to lose. The vast majority of the population, in other words. No doubt they did what was necessary. They moved from famine-stricken areas, from war-torn locales, sought refuge where they could. They farmed, insofar as they were able, kept some chickens, maybe a goat for milk and cheese. They tended their children, mended their clothes, argued with their spouses, had sex, ate what was available, sat around in the evening drinking beer. They laughed, told jokes, buried loved ones.

They looked at the night sky and the expansive cosmos and wondered about the meaning of it all.

They did these things because they were humans. They were us.

We are not so far removed as we might like to believe. My father’s parents and grandparents were peasants. My grandchildren, should I ever have them, will likely be, as well, not in the pre-industrial sense, but in a post-petroleum age sense. It won’t be terrible, any more than any time is terrible, though terrible things may occur.

What it will be is different. So it (always) goes.

The Last Ivory-Bill

Ivory Billed Woodpeckers, Rex Brasher, 1930 [source]

Over mugs of coffee at my coffeehouse some 20 years ago, my friend Ricky said, apropos of nothing, “I’ve seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.”

At the time I was new enough to the area to not know about the elusive ivory-bill, how it captured imaginations in these parts, sent scores of bird-watchers into the woodlands of Kentucky and Arkansas and Louisiana over the decades in search of the mythical bird.

“They say they’re extinct,” he told me. “But I saw one.”

Understand, please: my friend was what might be called an unreliable narrator, were he a work of fiction. He said a lot of things that weren’t exactly false but didn’t quite meet the threshold for true. He claimed, for example, that he had designed a perpetual motion machine, that he would demonstrate it for me one day, though that day never came. So, grains of salt all around.

Still, he was adamant about seeing the ivory-bill. Swore it was not a pileated, even though the two birds look similar. Swore he could tell the difference, the ivory-bill being larger, with different coloring, a different crest. About his ability to discern such details I have little doubt; Ricky was an artist with a keen artist’s eye, a painter of wildlife, a noticer. He said he saw an ivory-bill. I believed him. Mostly. Pretty much.

He’d reported the sighting to the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife, but he had no expectation they would follow up on his claim. He had no photographic evidence, no fellow wanderer to confirm his report. Moreover, his faith in the bureaucracy was nonexistent. In the case of the ivory-bill, he saw a clear conflict of interest: if the bird was extinct, tracts of forest now designated critical habitat would be open for logging.

So maybe there was pressure from loggers to ignore reports of sightings, to move toward making the extinction official. Maybe.

But he saw what he saw.

This past week, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed removing the ivory-billed woodpecker from the endangered species list, declaring it extinct at last. No confirmed sightings since 1944. Just scattered claims, like Ricky’s.

Seven decades is a long time to go unseen.

Of course, if I were a creature on that list, I would hide from us, too. Wouldn’t you?

Ricky’s been gone nearly a decade now, himself. The ivory-bill may have preceded him, may have lingered on for awhile longer. But I will continue to believe that my friend saw one of last of them that day on an artist’s tramp through a wooded glade in some Kentucky holler.

Activated

This weekend is the Women’s March, happening in Washington, D.C., and in cities around the world, a reprise of the 2017 March that took place the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

That demonstration has been cited as the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Nearly a half-million people came to Washington for the march, another five million participated in cities around the country. Hundreds of other demonstrations took place around the world.

It was a big day. Did it accomplish anything? Was it suppose to?

Maybe it’s just too soon to tell.

Marches and protests in the U.S. are largely performative; they are theater. Which is not to say they’re ineffective; like all the arts, theater tells the truth but tells it slant, which can be helpful in a culture that prefers not to look at itself too directly.

But protest marches as theater are not as persuasive as they once may have been, now that a large contingent of policy-makers seems to believe that ignoring the will of the people is an acceptable way to maintain power. And protests that become activated — confrontational, destructive, violent — scare too many of us and lose support.

We do like our marches, though, and so do those in power, at least those who have not travelled too far down the path to fascism. We like them because they make us feel invested, even if it’s only in the right to walk and chant unimpeded down the middle of the street in the company of others who feel as we do. And power likes them because power recognizes the need for a social safety valve.

But power knows, and we should, too, that marches are allowed not because our right to assemble is in the Constitution — it is, but that fact hasn’t stopped lawmakers from curtailing it in the past — but because marches or any performative activism do little to upset the underlying framework of our culture, i.e., the unceasing drive for production, consumption, resource-depletion, exploitation and wealth-hoarding that shapes how we live in the world. It’s not that marches don’t “work.” It’s that the ways in which they work allow the underlying system to carry on as before.

In a recent post, Dave Pollard reflects on the future of activism, the effectiveness of protests vs. direct action, and the likelihood that we’ll soon have more issues than we can handle with regard to our right to redress.

Good luck to any activists who continue direct action under fascism. To discourage followers, they will simply be shot, or worse. Lots of Guantánamos and gulags waiting to be built. Reeducation is a growth industry.

Dave Pollard, The Future of Activism

On that happy note, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere the sweet scent of fall is in the air. Do we like it? Yes, we do. Let’s make some spice cake to enjoy as we contemplate TEOTWAWKI.

September Links

I’m trying something new here, devoting the last Sunday post of the month to the sharing of a handful of links that piqued my interest this month but didn’t make it into a post. Rather than let them get buried under the new stuff that arrives daily (so much stuff!) I thought I might pass them along as is, without (much) commentary, because things need to flow.

Life is a river.


From an entry about Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations she calls “the original self-help book,” Maria Popova considers trauma and luck and stoicism:

[There is a way] to esteem in attention and admiration not the unluckiness of what has happened to us but the luckiness that, despite it, we have become the people we are and have the lives we have by the sheer unwillingness to stay in that small dark place, which is at heart a willingness to be larger than our hurt selves.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Meg Elison on what it’s like to work in tech when you’re poor.

Trouble at Chelsea Green: like Montana poet Chris LaTray, who writes An Irritable Métis on Substack, I’ve alway caught a positive counterculture vibe from Vermont publisher Chelsea Green. But apparently there are dark things crawling about under that rocky Green Mountain soil.

Mark Manson clarifies, and it’s nothing new: we have met the enemy, and (surprise!) it is us. Social Media is Not the Problem.

Finally, The Woman and the Car, a “practical how-to guide for those who wanted to take to the roads, but did not quite know how.” Circa 1909. Enjoy.

Slack 2.0

We slipped into autumn overnight. This afternoon’s high temperature was 15 degrees lower than yesterday, and the rain is no longer warm. The cats want to sit closer; it won’t be long before my orange tabby will be hovering over the heat vent in the kitchen, absorbing all the warmth the furnace has to offer.

I’m looking forward to baking a pie.

Last week I decided I needed to start pulling some things together for a new book, so of course I’ve been finding plenty of other things to do instead. The dining room is in need of fresh paint, as is the front porch, and the books piled up on the coffee table aren’t going to read themselves.

I don’t get writers’ block, per se. I just procrastinate.

A few years ago I read something that Seth Godin wrote about needing to start right away on a fresh idea, that if you set it aside it will lose its spark. Maybe that’s how it works for him, but it doesn’t work that way for me. My ideas tend to need a long time in the bardo before they’re ready to come to life.

This is what I tell myself, anyway, when I can’t get seem to get started.

“Block” is a sign that you don’t have what you need and you should probably go somewhere else and do something else until you get what it is that you need.  

Austin Kleon, Skip the Boring Parts

The person on the news today told me I need to do my holiday shopping now. Something about supply chains and the likelihood of empty store shelves if I wait. I’m thinking, can we just not?

It would be comical if we weren’t so exhausted. I mean, it’s September. Leave us alone.

Not only that, but if supply chains are strained, that seems to be a singularly good reason to not shop right now. Let things relax a bit. Slack is important. What am I missing here?

Nothing. I’m not missing a thing.

I took Austin’s advice. I went to the store and came home with all the things I need to make my favorite lentil soup. It’ll simmer for an hour. It’ll feed me for days.

Crawl Space

When it rains you can 
smell the earth that lies
a scant few inches
beneath the kitchen floor,  
in that half-jacked 
crawl space of red dirt 
and someone's idea 
of what a home 
can rest upon, 
a few cinder blocks, 
a half dozen milled timbers,
all that lies between 
me and collapse. 
When the time comes, 
at least I won't have 
very far to fall.

Finite World

If you’ve been reading here a while you likely know I’m not much enamored of the cult of productivity. My antipathy pre-dates this blog, but if you’re curious, here’s an early rant that remains one of the most popular posts on the site even after ten years.

Anyhoo, I’ve been lately enjoying the work of Oliver Burkeman, a self-confessed time-management obsessive, who has written frequently of his efforts to rid himself of his addiction to maximizing his personal productivity.

I love a good conversion story. Come into the light, all ye burners of the two-ended candle whose to-do lists and in-boxes still runneth over! There is joy to be found here! And naps!

Burkeman draws on the Stoics and the French existentialists to shape his philosophy — similar to my own, which is why I like him — that things are generally going to go as they’re going to go, that most of it is out of our control, that we’re all pretty inconsequential, so we might as well chill out and have a life.

I found his new book, 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals to be a refreshingly sane perspective on all of this, and particularly on the nature of time itself. What it (probably) is and isn’t, and how you can’t really “have it” so much as be it, or be in it. Which is to say, we inhabit time in much the same way we inhabit our physical space.

It permeates us. It is us.

About that physical space, he writes:

In short: less Descartes, please, with his insistence on the mind and body as utterly distinct realms; and more Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French existentialist who saw that we could never flee the physical for the mental, because “the body is our general means of having a world”. Meaning gets made in the interactions between you, a physical thing, and the finite world in which you find yourself.  

Oliver Burkeman, Getting Physical

It’s nothing the poets haven’t been telling us for ages. David Whyte offered a similar observation in a conversation with Krista Tippett several years ago, when he discussed what brought him back to poetry after working as a marine zoologist:

I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you; that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it.

But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. 

David Whythe, The Conversational Nature of Reality

And, of course, there’s Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense

I hope you’re having a good week. Had any encounters with Whyte’s frontier, or Rumi’s field? How are your interactions with Burkeman’s finite world going? Share if you’d like.