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.

Not Even Past

The Delta Variant is a reality made by cultural claims scratched into our minds. A certain type of American freedom is worth the death of children – it’s a war cry long shouted abroad and now hissed at home.  

Meg Conley, “Many Happy Returns: a Birthday on September 11. 

In her latest posting, Meg Conley of Homeculture leads us from Manifest Destiny through the 1999 Columbine school shooting to 9/11 and the pandemic. Drawing a line, and then a circle. Pointing out along the way: this is who we are.

These are our delusions.

They are scratched into our minds like the ruts formed by wagon wheels heading west to claim our destiny.


It felt like a subdued remembrance this year, at least from my vantage point here in the midsection of this brainsick country. The sign stuck in the ground at the local American Legion said, “Never Forget,” but I don’t know what it is, exactly, I’m supposed to remember.

If it’s the image of the burning towers, CNN has those pictures preserved for posterity. If it’s the lessons to be drawn, it’s unclear what those lessons are. Those of us who lived through that day and the days that followed may have witnessed the same events but we don’t share a common understanding of what it was we were seeing.

What it meant. What it means.

Even at a twenty-year remove it’s hard for Americans to find a way through to that common understanding, in no small part because 9/11 was not only a tradegy and an outrage, it was a humiliation. The most powerful nation in the world was brought to its knees in the full light of day by a handful of men with boxcutters.

Never forget.

How does a nation forge a narrative borne of humiliation? For clues we can look to a defeated Germany after the first World War, look to the American Confederacy. Ask ourselves, at what point is humiliation ever fully avenged?

Ask ourselves, what will it take this time?

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

The events and aftermath of 9/11 have not yet crystalized into a shared narrative, a story we tell with a beginning, middle, and end, because we all know it’s not over. It didn’t end with the death of Osama bin Laden or of Saddam Hussein. It won’ t end with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.

Ask the ones who currently wave the Confederate battle flag, “When did the Civil War end?” They’ll tell you straight up: it never did.

The Other Left-vs-Right

I was introduced recently* to the work of Iain McGilchrist, philosopher, poet, psychiatrist, polymath, best known for his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary, in which he explores the current neuroscience regarding the hemispheric functions of the brain, and considers how those brain functions have shaped western culture.

I’ve spent some time this past week listening to his lectures and presentations. Turns out Dr. McGilchrist has a Youtube channel.

What is relevant about the ways in which the two hemipsheres deal with the world? It’s not that one of them does logic and science and maths and the other one does painting and makes pretty pictures and hums little tunes like Pooh Bear. It’s actually nothing to do with what they do because they both do everything. It’s the way in which they do it.

Iain McGilchrist, The Dangers of a Mechanistic Philosophy

The left hemisphere he describes perceives a world made up of bits, disconnected and static and fixed. It evolved as such because that’s what allowed us to select, capture, and manipulate the world in order to ensure our survival. In the search for food, for example, it helps to know the seed from the pebble.

The right hemisphere, meanwhile, knows that a global awareness of one’s surroundings is also necessary for survival, that nothing is ever completely distinct, that things constantly flow and change, and that we are intimately connected to it all.

We are the seed. We are the pebble.

These give two completely different pictures of the world. One is a bureaucrat’s dream — that’s the left hemisphere one — the other is a bureaucrat’s nightmare, because it’s very hard to pin it down.

He posits that western culture has diminished its capacity to flourish by heavily favoring the processes of the left hemisphere over the right, producing societies of atomized individuals trained to select, capture, and manipulate, at the expense of pretty much everything else.

It’s not the old left brain/right brain dichotomy. It’s about perception, vision, worldview, and which wolf gets fed.

If you’re drawn to the ideas but prefer a more casual interaction with them, you might enjoy Gilchrist’s conversations with John Cleese in which the two discuss, among other things, the importance of playfulness in getting anything done.


Speaking of playfulness and getting things done, I don’t bake much, and my repertoire is generally limited to chocolate chip cookies and the occasional loaf of bread. But I found this video of Flo Braker and Julia Child making Genoise cake to be satisfying to watch even if I never attempt the thing myself. There is something infinitely patient about baking, with its specificity and attention to detail, the prep work of greasing pans, of sifting and combining, the getting on with things so the melted butter doesn’t cool and harden and the beaten eggs don’t deflate from sitting too long.

Also: I love that Flo does all the measuring, sifting, folding, pouring, piping, slicing and instructing; Julia is there to peer into the mixing bowl and make approving noises while nibbling bits of cake.


*Turns out, I’ve mentioned him before, in 2015, in a quote from a film by Carol Black. He was smart then, too.

Who’s Utopia is This?

I keep thinking about something Margaret Atwood said when I interviewed her in 2017: Every dystopia is someone’s utopia. So whose utopia is this?

Ann Friedman, Whose Utopia is This?

The congee I had for lunch today was served with sauteed cabbage and mushrooms and fresh ginger and a fried egg. It was delicious. Aside from the egg, it looked a lot like this one.

My friends on the far side of town who have not hosted a concert in their barn since the pandemic swept through 18 months ago have announced one for the end of this month, featuring these folks. Am I excited? Why yes, yes I am.

The nights have cooled off and the cicadas are still singing. My long weekend is blissfully unscheduled.

My new-ish practice: not wanting what I haven’t got.

This post is for all who are furious about the Texas abortion law and do not need another angry screed to tell them whose utopia this is.

Also, to echo (punctuate! underline!) Ann (and Andrea), stop it with the coathangers, already.

Inertia

Think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud. We get to Marie Kondo the shit out of it all.

Julio Vincent Gambuto, Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting 

Would that it were true.

Would that we could “get rid of the bullshit” that has brought us to this point and “only bring back what works for us.”

Alas, it is beyond our poor power — as individuals, as communities — to get rid of the bullshit. We can’t even get ourselves off Facebook.

The inertial force is just too strong to overcome.

When Julio Vincent Gambuto’s essay circulated in April 2020, the coronavirus pandemic was a new phenomenon, one we had barely begun to consider in any but the most urgent sense: how do we protect ourselves, how can we keep our loved ones safe? Gambuto served up some welcome perspective, and in two more essays that followed, gave us the pep talk we probably needed when things were looking particularly dark.

But the solutions he offered were ultimately too personal, too individual. Too “Yes, we can.” They were written in that honeymoon period of solidarity, and didn’t reckon sufficiently with entrenched power, and the willingness of those who hold it to allow hundreds of thousands to die if it meant they could maintain that power.

It’s that power that assures the bullshit will always be with us. Pick any issue — social, ecological, economic — you’ll likely find it.

Here’s one. Back in 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, President George H. W. Bush put the world on notice that “the American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.”

Thirty years later, the devasting effects of climate change everywhere in evidence, entrenched power has not retreated from that position.

As soon as Joe Biden’s green promises collided with business as usual, they collapsed in a crumpled heap. Since he pledged to ban new drilling and fracking on federal lands, his administration has granted 2000 new permits. His national security adviser has demanded that OPEC+, the oil cartel, increase production, to reduce the cost of driving the monstrous cars that many Americans still buy. (…)

Unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground, any commitment to stop climate breakdown is merely gestural. The atmosphere does not respond to gestures. It is unmoved by promises, unimpressed by words. It has no factions that can be set against each other, no voters who can be fobbed off and distracted.

George Monbiot, Dead Line

I dare say we will not be leaving the fossil fuels in the ground, no matter how much the ice melts and the west burns. C’est la vie.

The bullshit will go on. We all know this. I’m pretty sure Mr. Gambuto knows this now, even if he didn’t when he wrote that hopeful paragraph in his essay.

How do we know the bullshit will go on?

We know because none of the power structures that brought us to this place have been dismantled, or are under consideration to be dismantled, or are allowed to be under consideration for dismantling, by those who may be in a position to speed such action along.

We know because none of the necessary transformations to a simpler, more localized economy has begun, or is under consideration, or allowed to be under consideration, by those who might be in a position to speed such a transformation along.

And we know because none of the authoritarian trends worldwide have been forestalled, not even in the U.S., where a change of administration might have indicated we had stepped back from the abyss.

We have not stepped back.

Even with the withdrawal from its longest war, the U.S. continues to grow and maintain its forever-war machine, the ultimate public-private bullshit enterprise, whose all-seeing eye is scanning the globe in search of the next great investment opportunity. We did not build this machine to have it sit idle in the garage, after all.

So keep your eye on our relations with North Korea. Iran. Or some other up-and-coming threat to the American way of life.

Or, you know, don’t. Whatever happens will happen. Maybe go make yourself a cup of tea and find a good book to read. And hope the power grid holds through the coming storm.

Rules for Showrunners

When I first encountered the word “showrunner” I thought it referred to the person who went for coffee and bagels for the tv production crew. You know, the “runner.”

We had a runner when I worked in corporate, all those years ago. This was the person who delivered important documents to the FedEx counter at the airport in time for the last flight out. The person who drove the signed contracts to the clients across town, the person who picked up pastries for the conference room in that long-ago time before Door Dash.

A “runner,” I have since learned, is not the same as a “showrunner.” Heh.

Forgive me if I’m telling you something you already know — I’m late to so many parties anymore — but the position of showrunner in tv production is, quite literally, the person who runs the show. Yes. In a time of patronizing, specious job titles, you have to appreciate one that’s so blessedly straightforward.

The showrunner has creative authority and responsibility for keeping a TV show’s writers focused and moving forward, keeping the director on point and up to speed, and keeping the whole effort within budget. In decades past they were called executive producers. And still are. Which is confusing, but I didn’t make the rules.

I’m sharing this with you because a link showed up in my inbox recently to an essay called “11 Laws of Showrunning.” It came courtesy of the Do Lectures newsletter, (Chicken Shed, highly recommended) and it was written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who has an IMDB profile a mile long. His creative cup runneth over, truly.

Anyway, it’s one of those “this may be about (insert specific topic) but it’s really about life” pieces, even though, from what I can tell, Grillo-Marxuach wasn’t intending universal relevance; he just wanted to share his thoughts about being a good showrunner.

No matter. It’s relevant.

I may not be a television-producer person but I appreciate frank advice about acting like a grown-up, knowing yourself, learning how to work with other people, how to collaborate, how to trust others and get out of their way so they can do their work, but also how to ask for what you want and not be precious or pompous about it. Also: how to deal with auteurs and other assholes and not become one yourself.

So, yeah. Useful.

I’ve read it through twice, and now I’m on my third read, taking notes. If nothing else, it gets my head out of the daily doomscroll. Which is to say, worth its weight.

Who Watches the Watchers?

Near the end of his new book, After the Fall, Obama White House adviser Ben Rhodes writes of a meeting between Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Rhodes describes their brief conversation and ends with an observation:

This reflexively defensive guy was a thirty-four-year-old worth $44 billion, the world’s fastest-growing billionaire and CEO of a company that was remaking the global economy, media, and politics for the worse, and he was accountable only on the basis of the wealth his company accumulated. There’s something wrong with a society that produces that.

People with far more insight than I can claim have written about Facebook and its contribution to a culture of division and disinformation, as well as its enduring popularity — 2.8 billion users worldwide — even as it continues to collect more and more data on everyone who’s ever used it or has ever been in digital contact with anyone who’s ever used it.

From what I can tell, Mark Zuckerberg seems a little unclear on the notion of responsibility for the behavior of the beast he sits astride, but that puts him in the good company of every capitalist who’s ever ignored the externalities of their business model, or insisted that the overall benefits of their super-duper product outweigh whatever costs get offloaded onto the public. I’m from the Rust Belt, land of the Superfund Site. I know a self-serving argument when I hear one.

But self-serving is the name of the game, all of us forced into participation even when we’d really rather not. I can choose to ignore Facebook, but that doesn’t mean Facebook ignores me. It hardly matters that the company’s founders met cute in college. It is and always has been a tool of surveillance, as useful to authoritarians as it is to advertisers and all those in positions of power who act in opposition to the public they claim to serve.

There’s something wrong with a society that produces that.

A Radical Absence of Certainty

I went to the library this week and came home with Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, recommended in a recent newsletter by Austin Kleon, and written for readers with basically no scientific background whatsoever.

I do not understand physics. I read A Brief History of Time — twice! — with complete incomprehension. My one physics course at university was known internally as “physics for poets,” and still I barely managed to pass. But I’m desperate to think new thoughts, even confounding ones about the curvature of time and the idea that electrons only exist when they collide; my old thoughts have worn out their welcome, utterly and completely.

Plus I like Rovelli, who writes simply and beautifully, like the best poets. This, from his most recent book, Helgoland (also via Austin Kleon):

The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and to learn better. 

Would that the search for knowledge were always accompanied by the awareness of our ignorance. We lay folk might be less inclined to assume ourselves foreign policy or public health experts if we began each search with the understanding that we know so very little about so very much indeed.

My desperation for new thoughts comes after a week of listening to the gnashing and howling over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a war most Americans had forgotten about until suddenly we were leaving and the President insisted it would be nothing like our departure from Saigon in 1973 but the optics said otherwise, and oh, look, here come the Bush people rising like Voldemort’s death eaters to populate the news shows and rewrite history once more.

So, yes. I needed new thoughts. Like this one:

General relativity has taught us that space is not an inert box but rather something dynamic: a kind of immense, mobile snail shell in which we are contained. (…) Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, has taught us that every field of this kind is “made of quanta” and has a fine, granular structure. It immediately follows that physical space is made of these quanta.

Where are these quanta of space? Nowhere. They are not in space because they are themselves the space. Space is formed by the linking of these individual quanta. (…) Once again, the world seems to be less about objects than about interacting relationships.

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

I’ll be pondering that for a while.

Next up: Rovelli’s 2018 book, There are Places in the World Where Rules are Less Important Than Kindness. Because who can resist a title like that?

This Rigged Game

A locally-owned food-based business in my community found itself in hot water on social media this week after announcing it would be closing on Sundays because “nobody wants to work.”

The comments that followed were blistering. Even I was surprised. Apparently the working class in my community is fed up with being called “lazy.”

The response certainly surprised the original poster. “Why is everyone so negative?” they wrote, after wandering through hundreds of versions of “pay your people better!”

Why, indeed.

The “nobody wants to work” trope was tired before it even put on its shoes, especially in the food industry, where 18 months of pandemic upheaval has left restaurants and cafes unable to offer employees enough hours on a regular basis to make the jobs work for them. As long as the pandemic persists, customers cannot — and may not wish to, for myriad reasons — return to their former dining-out habits. And serving the ones who have returned is often fraught, with issues over mask-wearing and concerns over vax status adding to the emotional workload.

It’s an unfortunate feedback loop, and I see little reason for optimism in the near term. And no reason to blame workers, who are, after all, reacting to market forces beyond their control.

As someone who has spent many years owning and working in food-based businesses, I do commiserate. The foundational assumptions on which the industry was erected have always been flawed and exploitive, and individual restaurant owners are at the mercy of this exploitive system, even as they themselves become exploiters.

The only winning move is not to play the game.

We should ask ourselves, our communities, and our government: if a business can’t pay a living wage, should it be a business? If it’s too expensive for businesses to provide healthcare for their workers, maybe we need to decouple it from employment? If childcare is a market failure, but we need childcare for the economy to work, how can the government build that infrastructure? If the pay you provide workers doesn’t allow them to live in the community, what needs to change? Collectively, we should be thinking of different funding models, different ownership scenarios, and different growth imperatives. Failure to do so is simply resigning ourselves to another round of this rigged game.

– Anne Helen Petersen, The ‘Capitalism is Broken’ Economy

Waiting 2.0

I think virtually everyone, except perhaps the very Zen or very old, goes through life haunted to some degree by the feeling that this isn’t quite the real thing, not just yet – that soon enough, we’ll get everything in working order, get organised, get our personal issues resolved, but that till then we’re living what the great Swiss psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz called the “provisional life.” (“There is a strange feeling that one is not yet in real life. For the time being, one is doing this or that… [but] there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about.”) 

Oliver Burkeman, What if You Never Sort Your Life Out?

So it’s not just me.

If only it were. Then I could hold out hope that others, somewhere, were compensating for my deficiencies.

Knowing how common this feeling is adds another layer to the grief of our time, existential now, and pervasive, this sense that we’re just not getting to it, whatever it may be.

Your mileage may vary. If so, share your secrets.

cf. Waiting.

Oops, Out of Time

The U.N. IPCC report on climate change was devastating. But it came on a busy news day, what with the governor of New York resigning amid scandal and the governors of Texas and Florida pretending the latest deadly surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in their states is not the result of their own gross negligence, but somehow the fault of the Democrats.

We’re not going to be led from this precipice by these people.

Nor, I fear, by the ones flying to Glasgow at the end of October. Not to nitpick, but if our situation truly is dire, why are they getting on airplanes at all?

Perhaps they’re going there to party like it’s 1999.

Possibilities Still Within Reach

The sooner we let go of our overinflated sense of importance and grasp that we’re just one civilization out of many, going through the familiar arc of rise and fall, the sooner we can get to work on the possibilities that are still within reach.

John Michael Greer, The Future is a Landscape

I went to a neighborhood street fair this weekend, sat with friends near the food trucks and watched the people wander by. The din of the generators, combined with the jazz stylings of the musician on the corner made for an appealing sort of dissonance, part urban concert, part carnival midway. This is how we re-enter the world, the air fragrant with the scent of fried waffle batter, everyone’s summer shorts a little too tight at the waist, but we’re crop-topping anyway because the fashion gods have decreed it to be so.

Note: I am not crop-topping. The gods may have decreed it, but the goddesses say wear what pleases you. I am pleased by a cotton t-shirt dress.

The neighborhood where the gathering took place has been the recent recipient of some much-needed traffic-calming street design: a new landscaped median and angled street parking. Three- and four-way stop signs replaced two traffic lights, allowing the crowds of pedestrians to move with greater ease and safety, and there were, indeed, crowds. Or a crowd, singular, dense with milling humans dressed for each other at long last.

The local schools are back in session this week, which seems unjustly early, summer barely ripe on its vine. Districts dithered for weeks over masks and vaccination requirements, but most have capitulated to common sense and are requiring the former, if not the latter. Kids will get sick in those classrooms, though, that’s a given, and some may die, and some may become COVID long-haulers, but the prospect is not sufficiently dreadful, apparently, to change the minds of those who might actually be in a position to do something about it ahead of time.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Today I cleared away the tree limbs and grapevine that Jubilee and I cut down last week, which will please my neighbor, at least, the one with the big dog and the gentle requests that I please trim back this tree or that. Watching Jubilee wield that chainsaw was an inspiration, in her hard hat and face shield and chaps and gloves and boots. I aspire to be such a badass.

What possibilities are you considering these days?

Life Coach

The life coach wants twenty-two hundred dollars
to talk to me on Voxer, meet with me on Zoom, 
to share the keys to the internet kingdom with me,

she will unlock the secrets to a life less disaffected, 
but I will have to do the work, she says, as if it were
a choice, as if doing the work was not what I’ve done 

since putting on a uniform at sixteen years to dump
French fries into paper sleeves, disposable then as 
now, I was fired for telling what I knew was the truth

to a harried woman at the counter rooting for change 
in her coin purse, that what filled her cup was not a 
milkshake, that it contained no milk, just an oily ersatz 

that didn’t quite cross the threshold of authenticity, 
and what did you learn at work today, dear girl? 
I learned that getting fired is not the worst thing,  

that selling yourself for pence and pounds can be
a greater magnitude of worse, you called me a child 
then for learning the wrong lesson, call me failed 

and naïve even now and I agree: all I ever wanted was 
to write my stories and ride a horse through the hills 
above Attica where I could see the concrete wall 

of the prison on a clear day, we rode together, once 
upon a time when we were young and I knew the secrets 
of your heart, bound up then as now in knots, for we

told each other everything, even when we were afraid, 
I know you wanted to ride your own horses and tell your 
own stories, before they taught you otherwise, before they 

handed you a piece of paper and led you to a cubicle with 
a motivational poster in place of a window, no view of 
your own horizon, I know you wanted those things, too.

Life During Collapse

What you’re feeling is exactly how it feels. It’s Saturday and you’re thinking about food while the world is on fire. This is normal. This is life during collapse.

Indi Samarajiva, “I Lived Through Collapse. America is Already There.”

I went to a local coffee shop yesterday, sat outside with my cold brew and watched the cars go by. The hand-painted letters on the shop’s plate-glass window are pitted now and ragged at the edges, the result of several years of weather-blasting and the air-borne grit of perpetual street repair. There was grime embedded in the painted trim, a crack in the sidewalk leading to the door. The coffee was good.

Later I went to the local fancy food market and bought some vegetables for dinner. Broccoli, some mushrooms to go into the pasta sauce. I drove home past the new hospital campus, the one that seems to sprout another building every three months. Business is booming.

Nobody comes on TV and says “things are officially bad.” There’s no launch party for decay. It’s just a pileup of outrages and atrocities in between friendships and weddings and perhaps an unusual amount of alcohol.

I came upon an old Salon article from 2010 in which the author discussed the collapse of the American Empire by 2025. He offered four scenarios. Not one mentioned climate change. Or a global pandemic.

Or a mad would-be king.

Collapse as an abstract: whose armies will prevail? Whose economy? Meanwhile, the eviction notices are going out and what will happen then?

Collapse is just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else. That’s all it is.

Our focus is necessarily myopic. We see what’s in front of us: the coffee in the cup. The ragged, hand-painted letters. The cars on the street, going too fast for the neighborhood. The accident that hasn’t yet happened to us.


Indi Samarajiva is a writer living in Sri Lanka. You can read this three-part series of posts on the American collapse starting here.

Not Junk

There is a young-ish tree in my yard that is enveloped in grapevine, for which I must take some responsibility. I’m a neglectful yard-keeper and I let things run amok out there, though in my defense this is Indiana and the plant life here runs wildly amok no matter what one does.

At any rate, the top of the tree now bends precariously over the roof of my (also neglected) garage. And so a friend is coming over on Friday with a chain saw and we will attempt to remove the grapevine, whose main stem is as big around as a baseball bat. Yikes.

The tree around which this vine is wrapped is a “junk tree,” according to a landscaper who came to give me an estimate for removing a dozen saplings and overgrown shrubs from the back of my lot last year, where they were slowly engulfing the garage. He offered to include it in his removal estimate, but it was far enough away from the garage that I didn’t think it was necessary. Plus, I took offense at his characterization of this tree, of any tree, as “junk,” because of course I did.

It has a name, I wanted to say, but I didn’t, because I didn’t know what that name was.

Later, I tried to identify it, first using my Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Trees, but the results were inconclusive. From its compound leaf structure it could be one of several species; a flower or a seed pod or a fruit or nut would have helped with identification, but there were none of those in evidence. It’s a young tree, perhaps too young to flower or seed. Or perhaps it was too early or late in the year for either of those.

Online guides were scarcely more useful, but I’ve now narrowed it down to three species, maybe four.

It could also be none of the above.

My ignorance regarding the trees of my neighborhood can be attributed in part to the fact that I’m not from here. I’m from elsewhere. Several elsewheres. But I’ve been here long enough that you’d think I’d have absorbed some of this knowledge by sheer osmosis.

Alas, no.

I know the make, and sometimes the model, of most of the cars parked on my street. I know the names of all the streets in my neighborhood. I also know the logos of hundreds if not thousands of corporate entities. But I do not know the name of this tree that shares my back yard, its genus or species, its habits, what its seeds look like, how long its family has lived here, on this hill, in this ecosystem, whether its ancestry pre-dates the European colonization of this continent or is, like me, a more recent arrival.

Bill McKibbon, in his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information, wrote of this phenomenon, peculiar to our culture, in which we are inundated with so much information about the built world of humans but know so little of the natural world in which we’re embedded. Which makes it hard for us to understand this place in which other creatures, like the trees in my yard, “are not there for you — they’re there because the world belongs to them, too.”

It’s a subject more recently visited by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her lovely book, Braiding Sweetgrass, where she writes:

In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance.

Coffee tree, I’m thinking. Maybe ash. Possibly walnut. A teacher. Not junk.