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.

Listeners Like You

I work in public radio. It’s an on-again, off-again relationship that began long ago at a community station in Boulder, where I volunteered for a few years, hosting shows, stuffing envelopes, answering phones. I’m now a host at my local station in southern Indiana, the voice that reminds you that “support for this station comes from listeners like you.”

Radio has become a legacy industry. Like traditional publishing, radio is in the midst of the kind of creative destruction that Joseph Schumpeter and others, including Karl Marx, understood to be the essential fact of capitalism: an incessant revolution from within that upends culture and unmakes livelihoods while providing the system its essential juice.

Out with the old, in with the new. Onward and forever, ’til death or abject poverty do us part.

Like others in legacy media, my station is grappling with a diminished audience and decreased underwriter funding in the aftermath of the pandemic. We’re trying to do more with less (the mantra of our times!) and asking ourselves how we might attract new listeners and if we might somehow broaden our appeal to become relevant to a younger audience.

It’s the Holy Grail, that younger audience. It’s also a bit of a red herring.

The working assumption in commercial radio for the last half-century is that one needs a strong showing among people aged 18-34 in order to survive. There is a reason for this. An ad-driven reason. This is the prized age group that drives trends, defines the popular culture, and spends money with the greatest abandon.

Advertisers love this cohort.

But public radio is not ad-driven. Its funding comes from listeners, foundations and philanthropic organizations, local fundraisers, underwriters, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Like any not-for-profit organization, public radio operates under a complex business model that doesn’t look much like that of the HOT-101 commercial station down the street.

And yet, when facing down the steamroller of creative destruction, the siren song of that young demographic persists, even among experts who really ought to know better.

Here’s a tautology, one that those experts might want to ponder: public radio skews older because its content is of interest to older people. That’s not a bad thing. As younger people become older people, they’re more likely to become interested in public radio.

Let them come when they’re ready. When they’re older. It’ll be okay.

After all, legacy industries don’t automatically disappear when they’re dislocated from their central positions within an economy. Sometimes they transform into elite preoccupations, like horseracing, or tourist railways. Some people say public radio is already an elite preoccupation, but anyone who’s listened to Alternative Radio, for example, or even recent episodes of NPR’s The Takeaway, knows otherwise.

It remains to be seen how public radio will transform. It’s always been a long-tail operation, appealing to a small subset of the overall audience. An older subset. Listeners whose curiosity about the world didn’t end when they finished school.

This Thing Ain’t Over

I stopped wearing a pandemic mask in mid-May. I’m wondering if that was a mistake.

The CDC and reliable public health experts advise that fully-vaccinated people do not, for the most part, need to wear masks for their own protection any longer. Being fully-vaccinated, I don’t feel personally vulnerable without mine, even as the new variants gain ground in my state, where less than 50% of the population 16 and older is vaccinated.

My concern about going mask-less is that it creates a false sense that the pandemic is behind us.

It isn’t behind us.

In his latest COVID-19 update, Dave Pollard shares some IHME projections.

In the US, estimated actual deaths, which dropped to as low as 300/day at the start of this month, are now expected to soar back above 1000/day this fall and stay at that level for an extended period. This will increase the total US death toll to 1,025,000 by October 31, a full 80,000 more than the current death toll. Almost all the projected deaths will be among the unvaccinated, and over 90% of them will be in the 28 vaccine-hesitant states where levels of vaccination continue to lag as low as 35%.

Seeing so many masked faces over the past year made us all acutely aware of our collective plight. Now that the masks are disappearing, we have no visual reminder that there is still trouble in River City, that people among us are still getting sick and dying from COVID-19, and that those numbers are likely to go up in spite of the fact that we have an effective vaccine.

Vaccine refusal is contributing to the rise in infections and deaths. This morning I read a polemic from a vax-refuser, just to get a sense of what the arguments are. I’m not linking to it, but a quick search will get you plenty of similar items, if you are inclined to seek them out.

I probably spend far too much time wondering what lies behind the baseline state of denial that undermines so many efforts to make things better for living things in general, and humans in particular. Be it living wages, ending forever wars, addressing the climate crisis, or coping with a major public health emergency, some large contingent always stands opposed, often for no discernable reason beyond ideology or the opportunity to profit from the status quo. Perhaps it’s just one more way in which the death cult of our casino economy tilts in favor of the House. Who gains when people are sick? What is the cost/benefit analysis?

I can feel myself falling into cynicism here. It’s barely a stumble anymore.

While I ponder these (largely rhetorical) questions, let’s not forget that we’re also having to combat the flawed argument that getting or not getting vaccinated against a deadly virus is somehow an individual choice unburdened by social responsibility. Such a quaint notion, that. You’re not the boss of me.

Our low vax numbers in Indiana put us in line with most of our Midwest and Middle South neighbors. It’s a pretty dismal picture. So I’m thinking of putting the mask back on, just to remind my fellow supermarket-shoppers and library-browsers that this thing ain’t over yet.

The All Star Game

I’m working long shifts at the radio station this week, getting an overdose of NPR news and current events as two members of our on-air staff are away and I’m covering for both of them. My intention was to write something for you this evening, then watch at least a few innings of the MLB All-Star game. But those long shifts are long, and the news overdose has me anxious and rattled and in need of rest, so I’m not sure I’ll accomplish either goal.

But never mind all that. Let’s give it a go.

About that All-Star game: it’s being played in Denver, at a lovely ballpark in Lower Downtown, a classic park, completed in 1995, built in the style of the grand parks of the early 20th century, before the generic stadiums of the 60s and 70s took over.

I grew up in a rookie league town, and live down the road from another one now. For years I travelled to Arizona for spring training games. And I lived in Denver when that stadium was being built, back when baseball still meant something to me. I watched it rise from the red dirt in what was once a sketchy factory district, before we learned to call it LoDo, before the craft beer pubs arrived.

One night two friends and I drove down to get closer look at the unfinished park. We left the car a block away, squeezed past the construction fence and went inside.

Even then I was surprised at how easy it was to get in to this cathedral-in-the-making.

The turf had just been laid, extending from the infield out to the fences. We made our way down the steps and out onto the field, where we fell onto the luxuriant grass. Trespassers. Disciples.

I’m a little worried about tonight’s game. Worried that some berserker with a gun is going to let us know how unhappy he is that MLB moved the game from Atlanta to Denver after Georgia passed its voter suppression law back in April. By the time you read this it will be yesterday’s news. Let’s hope it doesn’t become another headline I’m sharing with listeners at the station tomorrow.

As I type, my orange tabby is kneading my shoulder, purring, ready for his evening let’s-hang-out time. So this will have to do. Not exactly the post I’d intended, but the one that wanted to be written.

Baseball memories are welcome in the comments.

Fixing Things

“When I think about the most wearying thing about becoming middle-aged, it’s that you are the only one who can fix things – there is no one you can complain to, or seek comfort from; for you are the grown-ups, now, and if you can’t fix it, it will remain broken.”

Caitlin Moran, More Than a Woman

We’d probably have more luck fixing things if we could agree on what is broken. Is it capitalism? Is it government? Is it the stories we tell, or won’t tell?

The Desiderata assures us the universe is unfolding as it should, which is a statement of faith, not fact. Moreover, the universe isn’t broken, doesn’t require maintenance.

We do.

There’s nothing sexy about maintenance, which is why nobody gets excited about doing it. Daily upkeep, tending, noticing. Things fall apart and need to be put back together. That’s the work, whether household, bridge, beachfront high-rise, or the relationship that might be salvaged with the help of a qualified counselor. Who wants to invest in preserving what is, when the possibility of what might be is so tantalizing, so sparkly and alluring?

Speaking of which, if all goes according to plan, billionaire Richard Branson goes “into space” today, his sub-orbital space plane carrying him 55 miles above the surface of the Earth for an hour, at a cost of who knows how much. Ten days from now, billionaire Jeff Bezos will ride his own space plane into a somewhat higher orbit. An auction for the seat beside him topped out at $28 million.

It calls to mind an ad council poster from my youth, featuring a photograph of a man in rags in an unkempt bed, with the caption, “Can we afford to explore the heavens when there is still a hell on Earth?”

Don’t @ me, I grew up with Star Trek and I’m fascinated by the stars, too. But it’s a question we should continue to ask, if only to acknowledge that there are choices.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to spend their money.

Simply Sit Down

The most important undertaking of my day is to simply sit down at my desk and pick up my pen. Without this elementary act I could not call myself a songwriter, because songs come to me in intimations too slight to be perceived, unless I am primed and ready to receive them. They come not with a fanfare, but in whispers, and they come only when I am at work.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files #156

Hiding the Dead

When I first learned of the graves, understood the likelihood that there are so many more to be found, hundreds of children at each site, at each ‘boarding school,” each “residential school,” I was taken aback by the sheer numbers. It is not common, not normal, for hundreds of children to die while at “school.” It’s not normal to shovel the dead into mass graves, hidden graves, their bodies not returned to their families.

What sort of people would do this?

What sort of people hide the dead?

It’s a tell.

Always, it’s a tell.

We see aerial photographs, infrared, revealing gravesites of enslaved people near Louisiana’s chemical factories, on former plantations, unmarked cemeteries tucked alongside the season’s plantings of tobacco, the dead made visible by the technology of our time, the technology of revelation.

We should not be surprised when what it reveals is us.

“They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.”

R.D. Laing

Word of the week: Procrustean. We made your bed. Go lie in it.

There is No Path

I know nothing about Ethan Hawke, other than the fact that he’s been in some movies. I couldn’t tell you which ones without resorting to Google.

I don’t know if he’s a good guy or if I’d like his movies.

I liked this, though.

As you get close to what you love, who you are is revealed to you, and it expands.

Ethan Hawke

“There is no path until you walk it.”

Timeless

A few weeks ago I wrote about my Gap Month, and how the simple process of asking a question and listening for an answer has helped me manage my tendency to worry about money.

The question is one that I pose to the world: What do you need from me today?

Usually the answer is something mundane, a quiet suggestion that takes me out of the abstraction of worry into the specificity of action. Finish that poem. Work on that painting. Eat something delicious. The world likes it when I’m doing things I like to do. Though it also tells me to clean the garage, ask for help, say no more often.

I do what I can.

This morning, though, I got something a little different.

Perhaps, said the world, you might want to step away from urgency.

Find your place in a much longer Now.

Make your way toward the timeless.

I admit, I was nonplussed.

My first thought was of the urgency of the news, of how many hours I spend scrolling news sites, staying current, following stories that lead to more stories. I thought about social media, and the false urgency of FOMO. Beyond that, there is the cultural fixation on keeping up, not falling behind, all of which contributes to a constant churn within an ever-present now.

This is the water in which we swim. Ahistorical. De-contextualized. Who does it serve? What does it serve?

Cui bono?

I turn to Wendell Berry, who wrote, “Do I wish to keep up with the times? No.”

What might it mean, to live in a longer Now? What might it mean for humans, for the living creatures we share this space with, for the world? I want to take some time to consider, because I suspect the world is pointing me toward something deeper than “stop with all the the scrolling.”

Though that’s probably a good place to start.

God Plays Pool

We are born of collision, objects in motion 
meeting objects at rest, 

God may not play dice with this universe, 
but he plays pool, 

marking each day on the green baize, blue 
chalk dust, cosmic cue of ash and inlay, 

he breaks us with every dawn, birds fall silent, 
the sky cracks, see how we scatter.