Monday, December 15, 2014


Monrovia, California

December 15, 2014

It has been raining in southern California, which, for the benefit of my readers from places like the Eastern US and Europe, is a sort of significant event.  A couple of weeks ago there were two straight days of rain, bringing the annual total rainfall since July 1 from practically nothing to something like 2.3 inches.  That's was quite a deluge by LA standards.  Friday it rained again, adding another inch or so and catapulting us past the average for this time of year.  I think the average for an entire year (measured from July 1 to June 30) is about 12-15 inches. Los Angeles and environs would be expected to get a lot more rain than the areas east of the city, what with moisture coming off the ocean and all that.  (Palm Springs, about 100 miles inland, averages less than 5 inches a year.)  The rainy season, such as it is, is in the winter months, and from about April through November it rains so seldom that when it sprinkles for a few minutes I find myself looking skyward, slightly perturbed, thinking, "What's this? Did a jet empty its holding tank or something?"

Of course the newspapers will bitch, as they're wont to do, that this isn't going to relieve the drought, which has been several years in the making, but hell, what do they want, no rain?  Because this is the desert, or at least the edge of it, when it's dry for long stretches the soil gets hard packed and less absorbent, so there will be some flooding problems.  Most of the storm drains have been dry forever, and probably are filled with debris and animal nests and God knows what else, since why would anyone think to check them out on the otherwise endless sunny days?  Like fixing a leaking roof when it's not raining.  Oh, and then there are the mudslides from the hills.  As they say, every silver cloud has a dark lining.  It seems to be in the nature of people to find a problem in the midst of a boon of some kind.  When it comes to the weather, everyone's a critic.

You know it's a generally dry area when you can remember the last time it rained hard (here you Easterners may read "moderately and steadily, for most of the day"),  And I do remember it, with particularity.  It was in the fall of 2013, and on that day as well as a week ago Tuesday I was walking the half mile or so from a parking lot in Chinatown to the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration where I ply my current trade as a mediator, all dressed up in my fancy duds.  My Sunday-go-to-meetin' suit, as Jed Clampett might say.  I had a big umbrella both times, but got soaked from the thighs down.  Since I only work two or three days a week you could call this a coincidence, but I prefer to think of it as my personal sacrifice to the rain gods.

All of which brings me gradually, a drop at a time, to my main topic.  Speaking of Jed Clampett, and actually more generally of old situation comedies from my childhood and that of most of the folks who read this, I'm reminded of something.  As I've mentioned before in this blog the mighty County of Los Angeles is ruled by a board of five supervisors, one elected from each of five districts that divide it into chunks containing about 2 million people each.  That of course means there are 10 million souls in this county alone, making it the most populous county in the nation.  In fact, if LA County were a state it would rank eighth in population in the US.  And most of these souls are crammed into the lower third of the county in a vast and often ugly expanse of overpriced one- and two-story dwellings.

These five supervisor's districts vary greatly in geographic size and shape, so as to be fairly equal in population, but are gerrymandered somewhat to achieve representation by some of the county's  major ethnic groups .  There's the predominantly African American 2nd District that covers the central and southern part of the city of Los Angeles and adjacent communities--Compton, Inglewood, Hawthorne, etc.  Its supervisor is Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was once the head of the LA branch of the SCLC.  Then there's the heavily Hispanic 1st District, including East LA and several other communities, whose supervisor is a woman named Hilda Solis.  The 4th District, headed by a guy named Don Knabe, sort of wraps around the chin of the county.  The 5th District, where I live, covers the San Gabriel Valley, Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale, and the vast two-thirds of the land mass of the county north of the mountains, which has comparatively few people.  Its supervisor is Michael Antonovich, the longest serving supervisor, who for some odd reason began to be called "mayor" as well as supervisor a few weeks back.  The Mayor of the Board of Supervisors, I guess, whatever the hell that means.  Finally there is the 3rd District, covering the more affluent west side communities and the northern part of the city--including Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Bel Air, the San Fernando Valley, and Malibu, This district is home to much of the Jewish community, the Russian mob, actors and would-be actors, Scientologists, wackos and grifters, and women with artificially-created fish lips and apple cheeks--in other words, what most outsiders imagine when they think of Los Angeles.  In November's election that district's long-time former supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky, who was term limited, was replaced by a 73-year-old woman named Sheila Kuehl.
Here I should pause to confess my comparative ignorance of exactly how the County governs itself.  There are, of necessity, overlapping jursidictional matters.  The City of Los Angeles and dozens of other cities have their own governments.  But there are many areas that are directly run and policed by the County.  My ignorance is especially glaring given the fact that I sort of work for the LA County Department of Consumer Affairs.  Technically this isn't true, since I'm employed by a temp agency that contracts with the County, but for all practical purposes I'm a County employee, going to work at the central County building, named after a guy named Kenneth Hahn, who was once a long-serving supervisor, and who is now dead, which is what generally precedes getting a building named after you.  This quintumvirate of county supervisors occupy offices on the 8th floor, the penthouse, of the self-same block-long building in which I work in the basement.  They are rarely if ever seen, sort of like the Great and Powerful Oz.  In fact the only one I've met is Mark Ridley-Thomas, who spoke at some mediation conference I had to attend, and whose mere presence at the conference seemed to be a big deal and to lend great credence to the mediation program. He was on that occasion down on the 1st floor of the same building where he and I both work, although he didn't seem to quite know where he was.  He was accompanied by two guys who seemed to be his bodyguards or handlers, and who, if they had been wearing bow ties instead of neckties, would have resembled denizens of the Nation of Islam.  It  didn't seem to me that Supervisor Ridley-Thomas had ever been on the 1st floor before.  I think the supervisors have their own private elevator from the underground garage to the 8th floor.  I should add that his remarks at the conference were brief and pointless.

I'm not sure how much actual work the supervisors do, since they employ a County Executive to do  the day-to day-stuff.  You don't see them at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and they don't get the press that the Mayor of Los Angeles or the always-under-the-gun sheriff get.  They probably like it that way.  I guess they're sort of like the board of directors of a huge corporation, content to know among themselves that they wield considerable power, that their votes can ratify labor contracts, decide tax and zoning issues, build (or not build) jails and other buildings, and determine how much money goes for social services, parks and recreation, and infrastructure of all kinds.  They can't fire the sheriff, who is separately elected, but I think they can tighten or loosen the Sheriff Department's purse strings more or less at will and harass him with investigations if they wish to.  Any investigation into the activities of the LA County Sheriff's Department is bound to cause at least a minir shit storm, since like most large municipal police forces it is as corrupt and ruthless as the day is long.  The supervisors meet weekly and/or monthly in a room somewhere in the building--I think on the 4th floor--where they confront the people, great and small, who petition them, and take up the weighty matters of the county.  They also have local offices within their districts.  But as to how much real work they do--well, who knows?  They could work their asses off, or pretty much let the county run itself, like most governments do.  I do know that whenever we mediators hear the word "supervisor" we're supposed to more or less drop everything and genuflect.

But back to the recently-elected 3rd District Supervisor, Sheila Kuehl.  It turns out that Sheila Kuehl was the actress who played Zelda Gilroy on the old sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, from 1959 to 1963.  She acted under the name Sheila James then.  Her character Zelda was this smart girl who was very fond of Dobie, who in turn always had his eye on some unattainable beauty like Thalia Menninger, played by Tuesday Weld.  Zelda always sat next to Dobie in class, and scrunched her nose at him and called him Poopsie.  Dobie's sidekick was Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver, who went on to be Gilligan on Gilligan's Island, a vastly inferior show.  And there was Dobie's nemesis Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., played by Steve Franken, who died a couple of years ago and was the subject of a posting on this blog.

Electing former actors to high office is nothing new in California politics, as we all know.  Two of the state's governors were actors, and one even went on to become President of the United States (I forget his name).  As for Sheila Kuehl, now Supervisor Kuehl, she seems to have had a career characterized by more integrity and quality than some other local actors-turned-politicians.  After Dobie Gillis ended, she continued to play parts here and there on TV shows, until she quit show business in the early 1970s.  Like her character Zelda, she was smart as a whip, and graduated from UCLA and went on to get her law degree from Harvard, after which she came back to LA and practiced law for the next couple of decades.  Then in about 1994 she was elected to the California General Assembly as an openly gay candidate, perhaps the first in the state.  In 2000 she was elected to the state senate and served two terms there.  Then this year she edged out the former Mayor of Santa Monica, Bobby Shriver (Maria Shriver's brother and the son of Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy), for the 3rd District Supervisor position.    

My hope is to encounter my new boss Sheila Kuehl, a remnant of my past when I sat in front of the TV every week to watch Dobie and Maynard G. Krebs and Zelda, and of course Dobie's longsuffering parents, Herbert T. and Winifred Gillis.  Chances are not great that this will happen, since I am only one of almost 100,000 county employees (not all of whom work in my building by any means).  I suppose I could go up to the 8th floor and just say hi.  I don't know how it's set up, but I might have to make an appointment, and more than likely she wouldn't be there anyway.  The supervisors do, as I said, convene weekly or monthly or something in their stately hearing room, but I think it's while I'm busy working. I'm hoping for a chance meeting in the parking garage as I walk across to the Superior Court building in the morning.  Sheila is no longer the perky teenager she was on TV as Zelda Gilroy, but if you look at the photos accompanying this posting you'll see that in her eyes and her nose she's the same person.

Since there are at least two generations after me, including most of my coworkers, who have no idea who Dobie Gillis or Zelda Gilroy were, those of us who do remember her as Zelda are becoming rarer with the passing years, and although she probably regards her political career and her present position as more important than that of a teenage actress who called her costar Poopsie, for me it would be a delight to shake the hand of someone who graced my pre-teen television evenings, and to thank her for the memories.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Career Move

Monrovia, California

October 4, 2014

Wow, it has taken me a long time to finish this post.  Started it back in August.  Obviously I'm not keeping to my resolution to put up more posts this year.  Oh well, here's what I have been meaning to say, although its currency as news has been undercut with the passage of time and the relatively short attention span of the public.

I pretty much liked Robin Williams.  He was funny and versatile, could act in both comic and serious roles.  A bit too hairy, but hey, that happens.  I didn't care for Mork and Mindy, which was just a silly joke repeated endlessly, though in that respect hardly different from many other situation comedies.  Like a lot of other zany comic actors who are still alive (Jim Carrey, Will Farrell, and Melissa McCarthy come immediately to mind), Robin Williams was at his best not when he was given free reign to do whatever he wanted to do, but when he was well-directed and reined in somewhat by a decent script.  Give such folks too much liberty, performance-wise, and they are likely to go over the top in an uncomfortably manic way.  Let them write their own material and the movie would become just an extended and much more expensive variation of a standup bit or a Saturday Night Live performance.

After Robin Williams killed himself the media, in typical fashion, fell all over themselves with repeated "Why?"s, as if there were something mysterious and unknowable about the phenomenon of serious depression followed by suicide.  Then they discovered that he'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and suddenly it was as if they'd found the KEY to the whole event.  Oh, they said, parroting expert physicians, Parkinson's can cause depression, or exacerbate it if it already exists; or alternatively Parkinson's medications can do the same.  It's all brain chemistry, and his went unexpectedly haywire.

Well I'm sorry, but BULLSHIT.  There was nothing unexpected about it.  Robin Williams had been subject to depression all along, probably from birth.  The fact that he was funny and not all mopey all the time and often almost the opposite of depressed signified nothing other than that he was subject to drastic mood swings, by whatever diagnostic term you wish to use.  Richard Pryor was so afflicted; so were Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, Chris Farley, and a host of others, and they all killed themselves or tried very hard to do so.  Thinking that being funny and making jokes predisposes someone to being cheerful and living a happy life is like thinking that a Formula One racing car isn't likely to crash and burn or blow an engine just because it's really fast and well-tuned and cared for.  In fact, it's counter-intuitive, when you think about it.  Laughing and creating humor and goofing around are some of the drugs certain people use to stave off the depression that lies in wait for them every day of their lives.

Yeah, Robin Williams could be cheerful at times, and productive, and downright funny.  But he was depressed, and eventually that part of him overcame all else.  When he "fell off the wagon" a few years ago that was just the prelude to a long slide that ended inevitably.  The gum-chewing public, not to mention substance abusers themselves, don't always understand that substance abuse isn't about a lack of willpower, and that returning to substance use isn't a sign that someone is all better and can handle whatever underlying malady afflicts them.  It's all about self-medicating.

Then there are those in the media who point only to other brilliant famous people who have committed suicide, as if it's a phenomenon reserved for the super-successful or the super-funny.  The fact is that skid rows and dry-out clinics and institutions of all kinds and homes in suburbia are filled with depressed people.  It's a disease that kills, only it kills in a variety of ways--sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly.  If Williams had been diagnosed with terminal cancer everyone would have nodded and said, yeah, that shit happens, to the young and old alike--wow, tough break--a good guy lost the battle with his disease.

In truth I'm sure many people got the picture.  Lots of the people I know did.  But out there, on the covers of magazines and tabloids, still lurks the lurid suspicion that something else, more explainable, more convenient and less mundane, was the true culprit in his death.  Progressive neurological disease of course, or maybe alien intrusion, the insidious workings of the NSA, whatever.

This phenomenon is related of course to the tendency of people to accept alternative theories about a myriad of situations, from the assassination of Kennedy to the bombing of the World Trade Towers, all the way to the dazzlingly absurd story I saw on Facebook recently that the reason Mr. Rogers always wore long-sleeved shirts and sweaters on his program (as if anyone wondered about that) is that his arms were covered in wartime tattoos or scars or something, and that he and Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) and another well-known person whose identity I can't remember now were all combat buddies who saved one another's lives.  Holy cow.

What lies beneath this tendency is the same thing that lies beneath the search for alternative, or at least supplementary, explanations for the suicide of Robin Williams.  We abhor the vacuum created by the mundane reality of the obvious, and we crave a sort of Hollywood plot twist that will tie everything with a neat and amazing bow and leave us, as we depart from the theater of everyday life, wondering why we ever took the rather straightforward word of the authorities, or the initial news coverage, or the reports of friends and eyewitnesses and medical examiners, when really there was lurking behind it all some unseen and surprising plot or culprit.  Come to think of it, I'd be willing to bet that soon people will be speculating that Robin Williams was really murdered.  And why not?  Doesn't that make for more compelling reading that the fact that the guy was chronically depressed and trying to medicate himself and finally gave in to the urge to end it all?

In any event, he's dead, which is a sad thing, even if it may have been, as Gore Vidal said when he heard of the demise of Truman Capote, a good career move.

                                   and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Planet Of The Baldwins

Monrovia, California

July 11, 2014

Well, I just re-read that last posting, and it reads a bit like a mediocre commencement speech, which of course wasn't my intention.  It was a fragment of an idea I'd been gnawing at for some time and just couldn't quite finish the right way.  But what the hell, it's only a blog, a mere step above a Facebook posting or a tweet.  At least I didn't tell you what I did over the 4th of July weekend or post a selfie taken at a restaurant or a photo of a cat or dog doing something cute.  By the way, though, do you remember that picture of the evolution of man from knuckle-dragging tree-dweller to upright homo sapiens?  I've always wanted to do a version of that using the Baldwin brothers as the primates.  I'd put Stephen first, behind Daniel and William as they became less simian in appearance, with Alec representing modern evolved man (to the extent that anyone from Long Island can be considered as such).

But the bone on which I wish to gnaw today isn't that, exactly.  It's the genre of science fiction.  I'm specifically referring to stories set in the future as differentiated from mytho-fantasy (like the Tolkien-inspired tales of the imaginary past, glorifying monarchy and feudalism, filled with statuesque Viking-like warriors and women with heaving bosoms wearing leather breastplates).  Nor am I referring to anything having to do with vampires or zombies.  Lots of people love science fiction.  I suppose they figure it's a way to imagine something that hasn't happened yet.  But it really isn't, especially when it's about a dystopian or post-apocalyptic future, which most of science fiction is.  It's really a way of expressing fears about the present as differentiated from the more stable and safer past.  Essentially it's nostalgia, one of my favorite betes noire. Rarely if ever do good things happen in science fiction. You're supposed to think the story's about the future, but what's really going on with most science fiction is that the author is pissed off with things as they are, and wishes to push the present to its worst logical conclusion.  And of course what's behind that motive is a longing for things to be as they once were.  Naturally there are some exceptions to this rule, including the very intelligent works of Douglas Adams, which make fun of the limiting agendas under which most sci-fi writers labor while also making fun of the bureaucratic present.  But most of the genre is just as I've described it.  It may begin with a premise based on some current scientific breakthrough, such as nuclear fission or advanced robotics or gene splicing, but what happens is pretty much always the same, that is, that things get quickly out of hand and go freakishly bad, or they're already that way because, in the time between the author's present and the date when the story is set, something cataclysmic happened.  Nuclear war is a biggie, but there's also alien invasions and the latest worldwide source of fear, climate change.  So the story is usually either dismal or scary of both, and almost always carries the same implicit warning:  "Be careful of progress!  It can go too far too fast, and we won't be able to handle it!"

So what's wrong with such a warning? you may ask.  Shouldn't we be at least a little afraid of progress?  Shouldn't we be worried about the future?  The answer is, simply, no.  Not because bad stuff isn't happening all around us even as we speak.  And not because bad stuff isn't likely to happen in the future, perhaps as the result of what we're doing now.  It does, and it will, without a doubt.  But we have never heeded our own warnings in the past, and we aren't likely to begin doing so anytime soon.  The advantages of progress simply outweigh its disadvantages, and so it continues.  This isn't really conscious on our part; it's biological.  Any there's no point in worrying, since although things will most definitely change, they will do so in ways we cannot possibly anticipate right now.  We've never been good at anticipating the consequences of our actions.  What we're much better at is making adjustments once the damage has been done.  That's how we roll as a species.  Change is the only constant.  So relax and enjoy the ride.
The situation on which the sci-fi author bases his or her vision of the future is essentially just the present writ larger or more frightening or transferred onto another planet.  Which is why science fiction becomes almost instantly dated, and as a result, silly.  Just watch any old sci-fi movie from the 1950s, or an episode of Twilight Zone.  The space ships have primitive dials and gizmos from what is now pre-modern air travel, superimposed on some unimaginable cataclysmic event in the future.  Even the stories that try to break out of the box a little have to use the information and technology at hand when they're written, so that in Star Trek, for instance, people dress a little like people actually dressed in the late 60s, wearing tunics that make them look like they could be swinging with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion.  Oh, and pointed ears and sideburns, for whatever that signifies.  And of course the women are always buxom and always wear tight-fitting and revealing costumes.  Some things never change.  Ultimately the impetus for most science fiction is the mindset of the adolescent male, resulting in combat-filled jerk-off fantasies.  (Oh wait...that describes pretty much all entertainment, doesn't it?)

Another bit of silliness is the fact that most (though not all) science fiction movies and stories are not set far enough into the future to prevent them from outstripping their own days of reckoning, so to speak.  "The year is 2023, and bioengineering and robotics have relegated humans to the status of helpless subordinates to the monsters of science."   Or "The year is 1999 and pollution and overpopulation have overtaken the cities, causing the government to scoop people up and turn them into food." Or "The year is 1984, and Stalinism has attained its apotheosis."

Yet another aspect of science fiction I find to be ridiculous is the whole subject of travel to or from other planets and galaxies.  Space is quite simply too large to make this practicable.  Are we alone in the universe?  Of course not, but assuming there are beings out there who resemble us, as well as ones that differ from us, we won't be encountering them even if they can travel many eons at the speed of light.  Just too damn far to go for too little in return.  If they're smart enough to travel this far they're smart enough to know they don't want to waste their time coming here.  Why would they?  For the burgers and fries?  For Disneyland?  For Facebook?  Give me a break.

One of the things such science fiction usually overlooks is the incredibly long life of the infrastructure of most places, an intransigence that is built into life because of the high cost of and amount of work it takes to construct things, and because of the entrenchment of our institutions.  Highways are built to last for decades, and as long as they're around there will be automobiles, not little flying spacecraft flitting between buildings.  For one thing, such craft would be ridiculously expensive compared to cars, and for another the air traffic control situation in a three-dimensional world would be too formidable.  In all the time automobiles have dominated the human scene--a century now, in which other incredible advances have been made in medicine, air travel, astrophysics, you name it--the basic style of land travel has not changed in any fundamental way.  Roads have become smoother and wider and cars have become faster, but roads are still roads and cars are still cars.  And guess what?  They still run on petroleum and electricity, for the most part, just as they did a hundred years ago.  That's because some things are just too ponderous to change in a few decades, and the people who build them have a vested interest in keeping them the same.  While progress has been fast in some respects (electronics and telecommunications for example), in other respects it has been comparatively slow.  If a science fiction writer is at all interested in something approaching verisimilitude (as oxymoronic as that concept might be within the realm of the genre) the writer should set things in a future too distant to be disproved during the lifetime of the author or his contemporary audience.

Personally I look forward to seeing the things that really are going to change, as differentiated from the purely speculative and outlandish ones like alien visitation. For instance, I like the idea of global warming. The inundation of south Florida, for example, will be enjoyable to watch.  Also, it might be fun to go see what Greenland and Antarctica look like underneath all that ice.  It'll be interesting to see what kinds of technological challenges will be encountered and met by humans in response to climate change, and I hope I live to see some of them.  One thing is for sure--there's no use worrying about it.  It's going to happen, and definitely in some ways that prove to be wildly unexpected.  It's too damn late to change it, even if we wanted to.  Let's stop wringing our hands and stop making all those stupid movies about it.  Or to put it in another way, in the words of that old Jethro Tull song "Locomotive Breath,"
The train it won't stop going
No way to slow down.

The changes that will take place in the future are sometimes fun to imagine, and I'm sure that's part of the charm of science fiction.  But the imagining will prove for the most part to be utterly wrong.  In the short run, and probably in the much longer run, we are going to continue to live not on the Planet of the Apes, but on the Planet of the Baldwins, from which, it appears, there is to be no escape.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


Monrovia, California

July 6, 2014

History, as it is commonly described in books and shown on television and in films, vastly oversimplifies the course of human endeavor.  I suppose it really must do so, or the textbooks beleaguered students carry around would be even more ponderous than they already are.  History for public consumption tends to present the progress of our species as a series of long periods of comparative ignorance and torpor (and even regression) punctuated by bursts of profound inspiration, usually by famous individuals or small groups of famous individuals. Recorded history has little to say about the human race as a whole, instead tending to elevate the ideas of a few to such a level that we're given the impression that the rest of us just are just waiting for the next Einstein or Darwin or Newton to show up.  That definitely makes for good drama, but doesn't give much credit to the general populace, who are usually ignored except to be depicted as dumbly toiling in the grip of feudalism, peonage, economic depression, postwar healing, mindless consumerism, and so on, depending upon the era.  This idea in turn fuels the tendency in Western culture to elevate the accomplishments of individuals over those of the masses.  We like to have things summed up for us neatly and representatively, in little bites of print or sound or film.

Of course many of us do just muddle along waiting for things to happen.  But it is our needs, our aspirations, and the deficiencies in our daily lives that push history along.  As trite as it may sound, necessity is indeed the mother of invention.  The problem with a stop-and-go view of history is that it ignores the fact that we are above all a species, not merely a collection of individuals, and that we have always worked together, generation after generation, building on who and what preceded us in order to solve problems and make things happen, instead of waiting for some savior genius to solve them for us.  Christianity elevates that latter misapprehension to its apogee by suggesting that one single man, the son of God, is the savior of all mankind.  Other religions do much the same thing.   Little wonder that we buy into the idea of the brilliant accomplishments of the individual over the collective. If we are encouraged to worship one single dude who saved us all, why wouldn't we tend to venerate individual dudes who, throughout history, have come to exemplify scientific and political and philosophical advances?

And so the great leaps forward (or backwards) are usually represented in history books by the individual Big Thinkers or Doers.  For example, we love to believe (and in fact are taught from early childhood) that until fourteen hundred and ninety-two, when this intrepid explorer named Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, people generally thought the earth was flat.  Although I'm sure a few people believed that, and still do, the idea that people generally thought so then, or ever, is demonstrably wrong.  Long before Copernicus and Keppler and  Galileo (the Big Thinkers), the ancients who identified the planets and anyone who looked at the sun and moon could see they were spherical, so it stood to reason that the earth was no exception.  People may have quibbled over what revolved around what, but they knew they weren't in a universe of flat cubic chunks.  Anyone from the stone age onward could easily deduce, from standing on a mountaintop or at the seashore and looking off into the distance, that eventually the horizon gives way to the sky.  Then the next day they could travel to the point where that horizon had been the day before and see a new expanse of land  or sea beyond and a new horizon.  This wasn't, I daresay, rocket science.  Sailors, of all people, must have figured this out as they got farther from home and lost sight of land.  From such observations even the dullest of tools could deduce that the earth's surface must continuously curve.  Early humans weren't any less intelligent than we are; they simply possessed less cumulative data.  Columbus's big contribution wasn't in proving that the earth was round or that you could get to the far east by sailing west (something he didn't quite prove anyway).  His accomplishment was to convince the king and queen of Spain to pay for his trip, something which, by the way, they wouldn't have considered doing if they'd really believed the earth was flat.  And the Spanish monarchs were a bunch of inbred nitwits compared to the general populace. And if Columbus hadn't made the trip, someone else would have done so very soon, at the behest of a different monarch.  What scared people wasn't the idea that they'd fall off the edge of the earth so much as the vast unknown of the ocean.  And what prompted them to explore the world was the desire to make money.

Similarly, Darwin didn't "discover" the idea of the origin of species through evolution; he merely observed and documented some fairly obvious things about species that confirmed what he and many of his predecessors suspected already, namely, that species change over time and adapt to their surroundings. The idea has its roots in the ancient thinking of others all over the world--China, the Middle East, and Europe.  True, Darwin (and his immediate predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lamarque) had to contend with the opposite theory, promoted by Platonic thinkers and the Christian church, that things are more or less as they have always been in the animal and plant world, having been stuck here by "the creator," whoever that might have been.  But had it not been for the absurdity of this "essentialist" theory (now called "creationism" by some), Darwin and his predecessors would not have been at such pains to disprove the theory in a systematic way.  So a necessarily dialectical approach to the issue pointed to the answer most of us knew to be the right one.  But even "primitive" people the world over have had the opportunity of observing the curious  interrelationships of such things as birds and plants, and to see the uncanny similarities and subtle differences between individual members of various groups of animals--primates, ruminants, equines, fish, reptiles, and so on--and understood that they probably had common evolutionary ancestors.  Ordinary people, I submit, could grasp these ideas without much trouble.  The people who opposed and resisted them were the self-appointed experts who had to protect their theological and pseudoscientific turfs.

Columbus and Darwin are just two examples of how we tend to elevate gradual forward movement in human thought to something akin to a Cult of Personality.  Most people will latch onto a concept more readily when they can see an individual as its prime mover.  But look closer at any person who is considered "the father of" or "the inventor of" just about anything, and you'll find that no, they didn't actually invent it.  Perhaps they improved on it, or worked out a kink or two, or made a better or cheaper or more understandable version of it, but they didn't invent it from whole cloth, as it were.  People like to say that the Einsteins and Edisons and Teslas and Marconis of this world arrived at their conclusions riding on the shoulders of giants.  But even that is an exaggeration, and elevates the accomplishments of a few over those of many.  And it still encourages us to consider that, with respect to any great idea--in medicine, mechanics, political thought, whatever--before that great idea was promulgated and personified by some Great Thinker the rest of us didn't know jack shit about it.  You know the drill: "For thousands of years people believed [fill in the blank] was caused by evil spirits, and then suddenly [fill in the blank] discovered [fill in the blank]"  The problem with this paradigm is that it makes one wonder upon what stroke of oddball inspiration the great Fill in the Blank ever conceived the idea of wondering about Fill in the Blank, much less "discovering" it.  The question we should be asking is not something like, "What would we ever have done without Thomas Edison?"  Rather, it is, "Who gave Thomas Edison the idea that he could do what he did, and who in turn gave those persons the ideas they had?"  And so on.

My point is that the world as we know it is the sum total of all knowledge we've gathered up to this point.  Some ideas, of course, have been more important than others, and some have indeed had to be discarded in favor of better ones. Some, like astronomical discoveries beyond our immediate atmosphere, have been mere theoretical musings, little removed from theology.  What difference does it make to us how many solar systems are out there just like ours?  Ultimately, who gives a damn how the universe was created except the merely curious?  Far too much time and energy is spent on such speculation, giving rise to phrases like, "They can put a man on the moon, so why can't they [fill in the blank]?  The people who ask that question are right in a very practical way.  Take the time and energy and money devoted to putting men on the moon and put it to better use here on earth.  And get over this preoccupation with life on other planets.  Of course there's life on other planets.  But so what, unless you write science fiction stories for a living?

Some ideas, like the progressive development of mechanical and electronic devices, have been very useful on a day-to-day basis.  Using a big rock to bash your prey to death was crude, but it worked, if you could get close enough.  But bashing gave way to throwing, and then to throwing with precision, and then to shooting.  The basic idea was there all along:  hit your prey hard enough or deep enough in the right place and it will die or be stunned so you can eat it. The rest was just a matter of improving on existing techniques.  They call weapons "arms" for a reason: they are things that are extensions of our own arms--allow us to extent our immediate reach.   Likewise in food production, running out of food might originally have led to wandering around to another place to find more food, but eventually people began to settle down and let the food come to them, leading to domestication of farm animals and plants.  It was all gradual, prompted by necessity and the need for convenience, and ultimately creating enough leisure time to muse on other problems.

The greatest "invention" in the history of the human race has simply been our evolution into modern homo sapiens, and that didn't happen because some Great Thinker figured out it was time for us to come out of the trees and walk upright.  It happened out of a combination of necessity, luck, trial and error, and millions of years of very gradual change.  Because we're humans and quite fond of ourselves, we love to see ourselves as the most highly evolved animals on the planet.  And we are pretty damned clever and adaptable, at least superficially.  We're always puzzled by how early people could have created things like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, and we like to assume they couldn't possibly have done so without some divine or extraterrestrial help.  But hell, moving big stones from one place to another isn't really such a technological miracle.  Get some logs or some rivers or canals and a bunch of beasts of burden and slaves and you're basically in business.

The world of great ideas and great accomplishments isn't a world separate from ours; rather it is going on around us incrementally as we speak.  Its prime movers are all of us and all of our needs and ideas and struggles.  We as a species make it happen.  The only obstacles in our way are the ones we've always had to contend with:  religion, entrenched interests, and a longing for a simpler and somehow purer past.  Those things, and the belief that we must wait for someone to come along and solve our problems for us.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

To Hell

Monrovia, California

Saturday, May 10, 2014

There is a persistent feeling, especially prevalent in those who are influenced by the media, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  Our food is bad for us because it contains nasty shit, pollution is choking and poisoning us, people are opening fire at schools and offices, the forces of repression are arrayed against us and others throughout the world, and you can't get a good five cent cigar anywhere.  Oh, and someone is out to steal your financial identity and use it to buy power tools at a Walmart in Arkansas.  In general, things are not going well.  Or, as Charles Barkley would say, "jus' turrble."

I said "influenced by the media," and of course the media has taken many forms over the centuries.  Now it's television and the internet, and before that it was radio, newspapers, broadsides, the town crier, and the local preacher or priest (often the only person in town who could read and write).  We're pretty much all influenced by whatever media happens to be around at the time.  I'm no exception, except that I refuse to believe much for public consumption that I see, hear, or read.  So I'm generally prone not to accept what the media says, at least not at face value.  If it's predicted to rain, it might.  If it IS raining, I believe it.  Movies are replete with folks like me, who blithely deny the rumors of impending doom and then pay the price.  Godzilla does come.  The tornado does destroy the town.  The rogue European nutbar does plant a nuclear device in a soda machine.  The world does freeze over because of, well, whatever bad thing we set into motion years ago.  These movies function as excellent ancillary support for the "real" media, to reinforce in us the idea that we should PAY ATTENTION, for God's sake, to what we're being told, and BELIEVE IT before it's too late.  Never mind that in the movies it's almost always too late from the beginning.

It's instructive to consider the media in the many forms it has taken throughout human history because the predictions from the earliest times to the present have always been roughly the same: "You, O Israel, O England, O America, O California, have displeased Me, and I will smite you with a curse."  Amazingly, there are still people who adhere to the basic scripts set out in the Old Testament or in the book of Revelation.  But mostly these days the forms of dystopian hysteria tend to appear superficially more sophisticated, dealing with stuff like the ability of computers to shut us down or the possibility that someone will create robots that decide to take matters into their own hands or that something we have done ostensibly to promote progress is instead going to kill us all.  Superficially more sophisticated, but then, look at history.  For instance, Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein was pretty much the same story, predicting, in the early years of autopsies and modern anatomical study, that we were screwing around with Mother Nature in ways we should not be doing.  That might have been the point at which fear of science and progress really merged, and was thrown in to our existing mixed bag of fears.

But even as things get more dire, from the point of view of the media, things tend to be getting better for us as a species.   Food is cheaper and more plentiful.  Deadly infectious diseases are decreasing rather than increasing (not that they're gone entirely of course, but we do know how to handle them in ways that are, shall we say, more proactive than merely going to church and praying for deliverance).  Warfare is as brutal as ever, but it is subject to more external scrutiny and isn't always considered merely the private business of the combatants or the visitation of God's vengeance on one side or the other.  We are beginning to understand the interconnectedness of things, even if we do not always behave responsibly about it.  And most importantly, from the perspective of our species (which after all is the only perspective that has ever been truly relevant to us) we are multiplying and, despite the horrors that lurk in the dark corners created by our own excesses, living longer on average.  And from a biological standpoint living longer and multiplying are probably the truest measures of where any species stands.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not Candide's Dr. Pangloss, blithely ignoring the sickness of reality behind the naive idea that we are living in the best of all possible worlds.  This not the best of all possible worlds, by any means.  But it is better in most respects than all the worlds that have preceded it, if you reckon such a thing from the perspective of health and survival.

Perhaps as a way of contributing to human progress on the larger scale, we seem to be motivated to make more progress by constantly finding something wrong with things as they are.  Sometimes I think people who are from younger generations than mine (notice that I said "generations" plural) may regret the lack of a specific cause to which they can attach themselves in order to vent their frustrations about what they see as wrong with the world today.  My generation had opposition to the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights, among other things.  The previous generation had the international crusade against fascism, and the generation before that the quest for peace in Europe and the desire to expose ruthless monopolistic capitalism and establish basic rights for (some) working people here at home.  A generation or two before that was the war to end slavery.  Big Stuff, historically speaking.  Today there is gay rights, also a big thing, but beyond that what is there, exactly, for people to get riled up over, about which they also can do something?  The Occupy movement accomplished, as far as I can tell, next to nothing.  We knew beforehand that capitalism was bad, and we still know it.  But we're addicted to it, like a smoker who knows tobacco is going to kill him.  We purport to hate Wall Street, but we love Apple and Starbucks, two of the biggest corporate pigs in the world.  (The fact that they sell nifty communication devices or caffeinated drinks rather than petroleum or pesticides does not lessen their rapaciousness and greed for profit at the expense of workers.)  So what's left to the would-be earthshakers among the young?  Making marijuana legal for general non-medicinal consumption all over the country?  Really??  And that's going to do the following: it will permit us to get stoned and forget about everything except eating pizza and drinking five dollar double chocolate mochacccinos and texting our friends.

Which trivialities bring me to the triviality about which I intended to post at the outset: Gluten.  It now seems that what's really wrong with the world is that there's just too much gluten in our diet.  This evil thing (which is a protein found in various grains and is a key component of most bread, as well as a protein additive to various other foods) seems to be the culprit in any number of health problems, and if we could only avoid it we'd all be better off.   In fact, a very few people are intolerant to gluten, and they should avoid it.  Statistics say that approximately one in 133 persons, or 2/3 of one percent of the population, has trouble tolerating gluten, from a dietary standpoint.  That means that at any moment in your local grocery store maybe half of one person is intolerant to gluten, meaning that they have trouble digesting it.  But a great many more people are simply intolerant of gluten, meaning that they've identified an apparently nasty thing which, if we could just eliminate it, would make life more pure and healthy and meaningful.  These are the depths to which folks have sunk.  Guns?  Well, there are too many and people use them to kill each other, but what the hell, there's the second amendment.  Meth?  That's bad too, but it makes for a great TV series and only affects other people, not us.  Lack of health care for people under 65?  That's their problem, not ours.  However, gluten must be avoided at all costs.  Maybe that's because, unlike gun control and the eradication of meth, it presents a fresh opportunity to make money.  Advertise foods as "gluten-free" and you can get more for them or at least sell them more readily.  The exploitation of the fear of gluten has lined the pockets of food manufacturers and purveyors everywhere.  I'm  drinking a cup of coffee now, which I imagine is utterly free of the dreaded gluten.  I feel so much better knowing this.

Well, I didn't start this rant just to go on and on about gluten.  The point is, obviously, that if you can't do anything about the really large problems in society, like the inequality of wealth (which seems pretty insoluble short of a worldwide socialist revolution), you can at least limit your intake of some comparatively insignificant food protein.  Or eat less dairy and red meat or watch your cholesterol intake.  Or you can smoke cigarettes that contain no additives, and pretend that it's not the repetitive inhalation of smoke from burning leaves that gives you the cancer.  Or you can drink low calorie beer, which allows you to consume twice as much before you get a fat gut or a fatty liver.

All of which underscores that fact that the problems the younger generations face are so large that they really can't do a damn thing about them unless they're willing to completely change their attitudes about economic and social justice and, frankly, start a revolution that might inconvenience everyone.  And so we continue our trip to hell in a handbasket.  But at least if it could be a gluten free handbasket that might make it a safer ride for all of us.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Forever Old

April 4, 2014

Monrovia, California

My keyboard has been finicky lately, making it difficult to write the blog.  Guess I shouldn't have spilled coffee on it.  At least I don't use sugar, but a little milk has enough sugar in it to gum up the works.  So it's been slow going, with the occasional freezeup.  Having now made that Facebook-worthy disclosure, I proceed, a bit tardily, with this posting.

A couple of weeks ago I awoke from a dream in which I was in the presence of a person I gradually came to understand was my great grandmother.  People were milling around, and she was talking to them and sometimes standing alone while I observed her and was given information about her by others or gradually came to understand things about her in that way that happens only in dreams.  In that weird fashion I was becoming aware of her existence for the first time, and was supposed to be--indeed was--rather impressed with her accomplishments.  She was a stout, matronly woman of indeterminate old age, rather tall as she stood there with her hair pulled back tightly from her face and gathered in a no-nonsense bun.  She wore a full dress, not quite formal but very dignified, and resembled older women in prewar movies and New Yorker cartoons.  Definitely a personage from another time.  She was supposed to have been the first president of something or other, and one of the few women to have.....whatever the hell it was.  That part was never quite clear, or the details were lost to me in the seconds after I woke up, but the overall sense I had was this was a forebear who did some remarkable things.  And in the dream she was alive and in front of me.

Of course this woman wasn't really my great grandmother, but after the shell of the dream had broken and floated away with most of its contents, I was left thinking about great grandparents in general.  Each of us has had precisely eight great grandparents, biologically speaking.  In my case all of them died before I was born.  All four of my grandparents were born in the 1880s, and their four sets of parents were all born before or during the Civil War.  As with most of my contemporaries in age, we are fortunate if even one of our parents is still living, and our grandparents are long gone, and great grandparents are out of the question.  Indeed comparatively few of us have any recollection of them.  Perhaps, if our parents or grandparents were story tellers, we have some sketchy information about those great grandparents, such as their names and where they were born and what they did, and maybe a personal anecdote or two about them.  Our great grandparents are for the most part the oldest relatives we might have had during our lifetimes, and probably the oldest our own parents had, given people's comparatively shorter lifespans half a century or more ago, and therefore the oldest people with which we have any degree of personal familiarity.  We might have a few old and yellowing photos or even some tintypes of them, from the early years of photography.

In my own case I know the first and last names and maiden names of all eight of my great grandparents and where they were born.  I have seen photos of seven or possibly eight of them, most taken the better part of a hundred years ago--rich yellow and ocher formal-sitting-type photographs such as were the norm in the those days.  Two were born and died in Holland; one was born in Germany and one in Canada of a German father and both came to Michigan; one was born in Illinois and one in Missouri; and two lived their whole lives in southern New Jersey, descended from early settlers in New England and New York.  That's pretty much the story of an average American of mixed northern European heritage.

The thing about great grandparents in general as opposed to great-great grandparents and earlier ancestors, is that they lived on after their deaths in story and pictures and maybe some family legends or anecdotes--either you knew them yourselves, or your parents could tell you about them, the way you might occasionally tell your children about your own grandparents.  They were close enough to be real and yet remote enough in time to be semi-historical--the last solid link with the past before becoming merely a name on a family tree, relevant only to the curious (unless you're a Mormon looking to baptize them).  We might know we had an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, but half the time what we think we know isn't really the case, because stories always get more interesting in the retelling, and there's no real link with people we actually knew. With great grandparents it's harder to fudge the reality of their existences, since they're too close to the present.  Even if we knew them a little when we were kids, they were hopelessly old--caught and held forever, in photographs or in our memories, as too remote to be the affectionate and indulgent grandparents who might have loved and nurtured us, but too recently passed out of time to be full-fledged ancestors.

The bridge of progress and technology our great grandparents crossed was enormous.  Chances are they were born before automobiles, electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, and air travel, to name just a few innovations that came into being during their lifetimes.  Their livelihoods more than likely were of a different era, too, if not in their particularity then in the way they conducted them.  Half of my great grandparents were farmers, one was a baker and one a sawmill operator.  I don't think any of them made it to what we'd call secondary school, and that was entirely the norm for their era.  The fact that they survived into adulthood, much less old age, was in itself a defiance of the odds.  At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century the most common cause of death was infectious diseases, followed by heart disease and strokes.  Childbirth complications for mothers and babies were common.  The life expectancy for someone born in 1860 was about 42 years.  It was rare for someone of my great grandparents' era not to have had at least one sibling who died at birth or at a young age from things like influenza, measles, diphtheria, and typhoid fever.  Antibiotics and vaccinations were rudimentary, injectible insulin didn't exist. Workplace accidents were frequent, as were unfortunate childhood events like falling into wells and dying in fires.  Life was risky in the way it still is in the third world.  Or people might live to be 35 and catch or develop something that today would be treatable, and be gone in a flash.  The fact that cancer and high blood pressure and type II diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease are so common today speaks volumes.  These are for the most part conditions that take decades to develop to the point where they are fatal.  It is in all respects, in this country at least, a safer world, even with the real and imaginary dangers that blare out at us from all the news media outlets.  In fact, the reason we hear so much about such dangers--plane crashes, murders, traffic fatalities, and so on--is that they are news, which is to say that they don't happen often enough to be taken for granted as part of the fabric of life in the advanced western world.

So often we unrealistically imagine the peace and quiet and comparative safety of a bygone and more rural age.  But the days of our great grandparents were not safe. Dangerous in a less noisy way, perhaps, but dangerous nonetheless.  In terms of what government or employers had to offer, they were not much removed from medieval times.  No social security, no old-age health insurance, no minimum wage, no child labor laws, very little reliable medical treatment.  Life was a bitch and then you died.  Between your fortunate survival of birth and early childhood and your departure from this mortal coil you worked your ass off six or seven days a week, read the scriptures (if you could read), and were ruled by your religion.  Many of that time also were born into slavery or peonage, or lived with the fear of impressment into military service, local vendettas, the oppression of a merciless employer and an equally merciless and indifferent government.  As Thomas Hobbes put it in the 17th century, life for the majority of people without the protection of a benevolent sovereign (and how many of them have there been?) was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.  This was barely beginning to be less the norm than the exception in the western world during the last half of the 19th century.  And all of it was happening within the living memories of persons who were able to tell us, or our parents, about them.  But they didn't do so, for the most part.

Some wit once said that nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but of course it is what it always has been--a form of ignorance, in the true sense that it deliberately ignores facts.  For some this ignorance is probably therapeutic, for others it is merely self-delusion.  Despite all of human misery, what generally survives in the telling are the sweeter and more glossy recollections in life, which is where the nostalgia comes in.  I suppose that few who make it into comparative old age really enjoy dwelling on their own life's miseries, although the temptation, so often succumbed to, is to remind our descendants of how practically everything was done differently (and by implication better) when we were kids.  That of course is because what we're remembering is not life as a whole, but childhood.  Ironically, this gloss of nostalgia, which seeks the memories of the comforts of youth, is not how we see our great grandparents.  We tend to view them as old, because if we knew them at all, or have pictures of them, chances are they were old at the time.  No home movies survive of great grandparents frolicking down by the old fishing hole in some Huckleberry Finn-like way, or rolling hoops down the rutted dirt streets while avoiding horse turds, or spending shivering nighttime moments in the three-hole outhouse, or trudging out to the family graveyard with an infant's coffin.  But all that happened.  What we see is their mature old age, if they made it that far, and the serious looks on their faces--looks that said life is hard, by God, but we made it.

Most of us will someday be viewed that way by our own great grandchildren--as relics of another era, wearing out-of-date clothing and speaking in a hopelessly uncool way and sporting the comparatively grim looks that reflect a long life of comparative hardship: Having to get up to change one of the few channels on the TV; having to use only telephones that were attached to the wall by a cord; having to look things up in books; having to use typewriters; having only hot dogs and hamburgers to choose from at fast-food places, having to spend cash most of the time.  Having measles, mumps, and chicken pox; having had or known someone our age who had polio; having no seatbelts, airbags, or child car seats; having segregated public facilities; having to watch only white guys play major league sports.  The list, trivial and serious, goes on and on.  We will be the last living--or recently dead--links to a dinosaur world of semi-history.  We will, above all, be forever old.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Days And Years

March 8, 2014

Monrovia, California

Okay, I've already begun to backslide from my goal of posting more often.  But February was a short month, with two holidays.  How much work can you expect anyone to get done?  And speaking of the calendar, sort of, it was three years ago this week that I reported in this blog on the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, or at least on my trip to Hollywood to get as close as I could to the glitterati. (Check out "The Last Oscars" posted here on 2/28/11.  I just reread it and I must say it's not bad.)  At that time there were people in the streets talking about the impeding end of the world.  It was going to occur in somewhere between 84 and 90 days from Oscar night, if I recall.  This date had been calculated independently by several end-time Armageddon type groups, based generally on various interpretations of the biblical book known as The Revelation of St. John the Divine.  (St. John the Divine was so named to differentiate him from St. John the Nosepicker, St. John the Not-too-Punctual, and other Monty Pythonesque personages.)

Back then, as I waited in vain for a close look at the famous Hollywood actors who were about to go into the Kodak Theater, I had just finished my walk across the country and was examining some of the more specific areas of quirkiness in the Los Angeles area, on which I've attempted to continue to report to my readers ever since, having now made LA County my home.  On that particular day I didn't get near enough to where the A-listers were disembarking from their limousines to see any of them too well, but I got a flavor of the whole scene.  More importantly, however, I got to chat with some end-of-the-world types, including one I called Armageddon Dude, and to read his manifesto regarding the state of the world in its waning months. The guy told me he was Jesus Christ himself, and although I was skeptical of this claim initially, I gradually came to realize that he had, at any rate, a divine world view in some respects.  Apart from believing he was from somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn, he also held that the Republican Party was the apotheosis of evil in America.  No arguing with that, and indeed, even though the world didn't come to an end later in 2011, as he and others were predicting, the Republicans have continued to wage their satanic war of attrition against the few good things others have tried to do through and within the government of this country.  I had hoped to find Armageddon Dude again over in Hollywood, and though I've been there a few times since then, I haven't seen him.  Maybe he's back upstairs with The Old Man, recalculating the whole second coming thing.  As anyone knows who is familiar with western theology and mythology, sometimes even the gods make mistakes.

But back to calendars, because that was the rub in that end-of-the-world thing in early 2011 when I visited Hollywood.   Somehow the end-time Christians screwed up.  Not long after that, in fact the next year, the Mayans, or at least their modern adherents, also screwed up. They got their dates wrong, and damn it, the world didn't end.  That would have been news.  Bigger even than war or the movies or sports.  Somehow humans have a tendency to make things for their own convenience, then forget that they've made them in the first place, and begin to think of them as God-given.  Happens over and over, throughout the world.  It's a major failing of the human race.  The calendar is one such device among many--created by man and then imbued with divine authority to give it more authenticity.  Within the calendar are a number of instances of days, weeks, or months that have become special or sacrosanct merely by having been arbitrarily designated so on the calendar.  December 25 as the date of the birth of Jesus comes immediately to mind, as if anyone could have figured that out, and of course no one really did, especially since not even all Christians agree on that date.  There are the eastern Orthodox folks and the western Christians, and they have different dates.  But whenever it's celebrated, it's holy.  It kind of gets you to wondering about how a species as clever as homo sapiens is in many ways can at the same time be so profoundly silly.

As for calendars in general, whoever it was who decided there were going to be seven days in a week also had to decide which day was going to be Sunday, and go from there.  As for the number of days in a week, you might well suppose that seven days makes sense in terms of the lunar cycle--there being four seven-day periods within one such cycle.  Possibly six days of breaking your ass seemed to a lot of folks as reasonably calling for a seventh day of comparative leisure.  But there could as easily have been seven four-day weeks as four seven-day weeks.

So my question still is, Why is Sunday Sunday, and not Monday or Tuesday, or whatever?  Well, the answer is buried forever in the recesses of time, although updates to the calendar have happened over the centuries, by agreement or fiat, some not so long ago.  As recently as the mid-1700s in Protestant Europe and even as recently as 1917 in Russia, today would not have been Saturday March 8, but some other day and date, about eleven or thirteen days earlier.  Different day of the week, different day of the month, even a different year, because up to a certain time March 1 was New Year's day.  George Washington's date of birth, for instance, is recognized today as having been February 22, 1732, but when George was born, it was February 11, 1731, and until Washington was about 20 and England got on the Gregorian calendar (the one decreed by the Pope for all Catholics in 1582, and the one we use today), he thought his birthday was on February 11.  Of course there was lot more he didn't know back then, including the fact that we'd still be commemorating his birthday in 2014 and that it would be on a convenient Monday instead of the real day so we could have a three-day weekend, and that it would have morphed into President's Day and that Crazy Dave's Mattress Store and all your local Toyota dealers would be having fantastic sales to commemorate it, and so on.

The Great October Socialist Revolution, which started on October 25, 1917 in Russia (a country that was even slower getting on board with the Gregorian calendar than England was), actually started on what is today November 7.  They really should have named that submarine Red November. When the Soviets shifted calendars, 13 days just went pfffffft, and disappeared.  Anybody whose birthday was within that period of almost two weeks just sort of missed out, I guess.  Maybe birthdays weren't as important then as they are now, but still.... imagine if someone told you on the day before your birthday that the calendar was going to jump ahead almost two weeks and your birthday would be skipped that year?  You'd be plenty pissed off, I'll bet.  Maybe you'd still get a cake and some presents, and you'd have to consider yourself a year older, but imagine the havoc it would play with other aspects of the modern world, where specific times and dates are so important?  My car payment is due on March 5, but there is no March 5.  What the hell do I do?  And more importantly, what will the loan company do?

I suppose the point I'm getting to is that we're pretty strongly tied to calendars, much more so than when Washington or Lenin were kids.  In this context I was examining my own calendar this morning and noticed that on the calendar hanging on the kitchen door, picked up for free at a bank, it says March is Women's History Month.  I thought more or less the same thing I thought last month when it was Black History Month, namely, hmmmm, why do these groups--one comprising about 12.5 % of the country's population and the other an overlapping 51%--have one lousy month per year dedicated to their history?  And doesn't that mean that Black females get two months a year, while Black males get only one?  Does that mean that the other ten months of the year--from April through January--are by default white male history months?  Then upon closer examination of my calendar I observed that May has been designated Asian Pacific Heritage Month and November is National Native American and Alaskan Heritage Month, so I guess we white guys get eight months a year--but still, that's two-thirds of the time--not bad, in a disproportionate way.  And after all, in addition to all those months white males gets, even though we're 35% of the population, we get most of the wealth, property, and political power, not to mention fame and fortune in the entertainment industry and the majority of the Get Out of Jail Free cards.  It seems that on just about every corner these days you see a white man.  Turn on the TV and what do you see?  White men.  Go to court and who do you see sitting in black robes and carrying around briefcases?  White men.  Look at the heads of the large corporations, the inventors of technological advances, the members of rock bands--mostly white men.  What's the country coming to?  All but one president has been a white man, and all the vice presidents, too.  Maybe we're a bit underrepresented in professional sports--hockey and golf excepted--but that's not a bad trade-off for being the owners and head coaches and managers of most of the teams.  Even Armageddon Dude was white.

But take heart, women of America, and people of color, because you've got yourself a whole month dedicated to your history, and if you're a woman, two whole months.  And if you're part Native American or Asian and African American, maybe three months.  This, and the subject of the Oscars, helps me hop up into the saddle of another hobby horse.  The movie Twelve Years a Slave took some of the prime Academy Awards this year.  I saw the movie and liked it, in an uncomfortable sort of way.  Slavery, as we all know, was bad.  But why does it take the story of a guy who was illegally pressed into slavery to make us pay attention to the subject?  What about all his plantation companions who were born and died as slaves and didn't even get a chance to engage in a tearful reunion with their free families up north?  Twelve years is bad enough, but how about a lifetime?  I'm just saying.

Oh, by the way, here's a good trivia question involving knowledge not only of U.S. presidents but of the Gregorian calendar:  Other than George Washington, who was elected to his first term in 1789, name the only two presidents who were elected in years that weren't leap years.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Death Scream Of The Carrot

Monrovia, California

February 19, 2014

This is about what we eat, as a species.  Somehow I have the feeling I've written about this before on the blog, but it might be that I've only alluded to aspects of the problem.  Problem? you ask.  What's the problem?  Let's have pizza!  Well, go right ahead.  Extra cheese and pepperoni for me.  And while you're eating a slice, I'll chat.

One of the things about humans that has made us so successful (in the short run at least as the history of the world goes) is our adaptability.  We can live almost anywhere on earth, from the frozen poles to the jungles of the equator to the lone and level sands of the desert, and everywhere in between.  Give us something to eat and wear and something with which to shelter ourselves and we're good.  Of course there are other species that can and do adapt to all sorts of climates--rats and dogs and certain insects come immediately to mind, and they don't even have to make clothing.  It's our ability to imitate other species and use them for our own purposes that allows us to be damned near everywhere.  We are predators of the highest possible order, in that we not only prey on other species but have developed ways, on a vast scale, of managing them, changing them, and molding them to our needs.  We hunt, we fish, we gather, but more importantly we develop and refine.  In some places and at some stages of social and economic development we do simply grab what's at hand.  But in most areas we do far more than that, and for most of us, historically, each phase of development has led to a more complex one, from subsistence to full-blown agriculture.

Where human habitation has been unsuccessful on a large scale that has been due to the fact that folks have been unable or unwilling to adapt--to get with the local program.  (The Vikings in Greenland come immediately to mind here--they knew there were Inuits who had adapted well to that environment by fishing and hunting aquatic mammals, but instead of copying them they chose to transplant the agricultural model of their native Scandinavia, which, when the going got rough climatically, just didn't work.  So they died or went back home.)  But almost everywhere we've not only gotten with the program, but have improved upon it and developed it.  Where there were once herds of wild bovines we have converted them into domestic cattle; where there have been schools of wild fish we have learned to net them or better yet have enclosed them into fish farms; where there were once fat wild edible birds we have converted them to tame chickens, ducks, and geese.  We use their meat, their hides, their feathers, their milk, or their eggs, as the case may be.  We not only prey on other animals, but we actually improve the quality and quantity of our prey, often on a mass scale, for our own consumption.  And of course we do the same with plants.

The human level of predatory behavior goes far beyond the cunning and opportunistic habits of those predators we most fear and admire--lions and tigers and bears, for instance.  It is not entirely unprecedented in the rest of nature for one species to, as it were, farm another.  Certain wasps are known to keep bees under their control in order to have a steady supply of honey.  But the average meat-eating king of the jungle appears to just lie in wait and take what it can from the weak and the slow of the herd rather than killing the fattest and strongest of them as we do.  Lions are kind of a garbage disposal for their prey.  In human terms, they're dumpster divers.  Lions do make it a point to kill competing predators when possible--no baby cheetah is safe from a lion, and a lion will eat a human when it can, with relish.  They're opportunistic, as I say, but not particularly forward-thinking, just highly adapted in a narrow way.  It's worked okay for them for quite some time, except where they've come into contact with us, because we're more efficient as predators than they are, however much stronger they may be than us, however much we like their sinuous ferocity.  We reduce their habitat for our personal use, and we kill not only them, as competitors and potential predators of us, but we also kill their prey.  So while we admire their pure bloodthirstiness, reflecting as it does our own, we also know how to get rid of them if necessary.

Because humans live all over the world, we've learned to get by with whatever food is at hand, for the most part, and to avoid what's not good for us.  Where meat or seafood is potentially tainted or harmful to us, we've developed rules against such foods, usually dressing them up in the elaborate proscriptions of religion.  Where plants are practically nonexistent, we eat meat only, deriving whatever necessary nutrients we can from body parts.  And where meat is scarce, we eat only plants, getting as much nutrition out of them as possible.  But mostly, when we can, we eat just about anything and everything, because our digestive systems have developed to allow us to be omnivorous.  It all seems to work pretty well.  Folks in some parts of the world eat things that people elsewhere would consider revolting or perhaps a bit wacky.  Raw blood, insects, guinea pigs, even dirt.  Nature seems to provide pretty well for us wherever we find ourselves.  And if not, we move on or die.

This brings me to people who are vegetarians by choice, rather than by necessity or under the insidious influence of some religious mumbo-jumbo.  This particular subset of our species is dedicated to the proposition that even though we live in the midst of plenty and are enjoying ever-longer lives (in part by having successfully exterminated or reined in the species, from large to microbial, that prey on or compete with us) we are doing something drastically wrong to ourselves by consuming animals.  And here I'm talking mostly about American and western European vegetarians who have the luxury of choice in this area.  These vegetarians seem to have, as their primary motivation, the promotion of human health, and maybe also some concerns about the cost and waste of eating high on the food pyramid.  But those opposed generally to the eating of meat usually observe a kind of natural, and telling, set of priorities.  They are, to put it bluntly, species-centric, and concerned with the welfare of their own kind--good old homo sapiens.  They are vegetarians because eating no meat appears to them to be the best thing for humans, above all.

Then there are vegans--those who don't eat anything that comes from an animal, even things that don't involve the killing of animals, such as milk, cheese, eggs, or honey.  They seem to be vegetarians who have moved to a different level, motivated by a more extended agenda.  This agenda has more political and social  overtones.  For the vegan mere dietary and health considerations are perhaps important, but human self-interest appears to have taken a back seat to altruism.  They profess to object to the killing or even the exploitation in any manner of other animals.  It's these folks I worry about, because, without seeming to realize it, they still practice self-centeredness, or at least what might be termed, biologically, kingdom-centrism.  Perhaps without meaning to, the species whose consumption both vegetarians and vegans most abhor are the ones that most closely resemble us, or our own conception of ourselves.  Thus the smarter an animal is, or the larger it is, or the cuter it is, or the more useful or attractive to us it is in some capacity other than as meat, the more likely they are to oppose the butchering and devouring of it, either on grounds of human health or in the interest of kindness to our fellow-creatures.  Whales, and especially dolphins, have big brains, so they're high on the list of the forbidden, since we believe we have big brains.  Cows and horses, fellow-mammals, are also a no-no.  And puppies, even the tenderest and most potentially succulent of them--well it would be just unthinkable to eat one of them.  Vegans of course don't stop at objecting to the consumption of mammalian flesh.  They oppose the eating of birds, fish, insects, reptiles--anything that is within the animal kingdom, and anything produced by members of that taxonomic group.  Their objections seem to arise from a general sense of solidarity with the rest of the beings within our kingdom--the swimmers, the quackers, the mooers, the growlers, the buzzers, the singers of the mournful songs of the sea.

I said I was worried about vegans, so let me clarify what I mean.  I think, in their zeal, they've drawn the line a bit too high, taxonomically speaking.  It's all well and good to be considerate to animals (and to make ourselves feel better, in a sort of self-sacrificing way, at the same time), but can we afford to ignore the feelings of plants?  Why should the sufferings of species that are rooted in the ground be absent from the consciences of these otherwise well-meaning folks, as if things that have flourished on earth for millennia longer than animals are less deserving of our thoughtfulness?   And why should we exploit them for our selfish uses, forcing them from wild to tame and planting them in uniform rows to serve our needs?  Have vegans never heard the death scream of the carrot as it is untimely ripped from the womb of Mother Earth?  What about the cry of agony of the broccoli plant as its flowers are amputated?  Or the grief of the fruit or nut tree as its offspring are plucked from its branches or gathered from the ground beneath its protective shade?  Have these vegans no hearts, no souls, no consciences?  Shouldn't we, as thoughtful humans, be more circumspect?  To spare our fellow biological species, we should, by rights, eat nothing but dirt and minerals.  And for that matter, who are we to presume that rocks have no feelings?  Where will it end?  We should, I think, in the apotheosis of the vegan mentality, simply go out of existence.

Of course I'm being deliberately hyperbolic here.  Almost all of us draw the line somewhere, in terms of what's okay to eat and what's not.  Most people don't consider plants to be sentient beings in the same sense that animals are, and most of us even imagine a hierarchy of sentience within the animal kingdom.  This is mostly to make ourselves feel better.  Hook a fish through the lip with a pointed piece of metal, throw it in the boat and let it suffocate, what's the harm?  The fish has a tiny brain, after all, not a large one like ours.  Toss a live lobster into a pot of boiling water and bring on the clarified butter.  It's just a giant insect anyway.  But cut the still-beating heart out of a cute little lamb or eat a house cat?  Well mister, you're going straight to hell.

Somehow it doesn't bother either vegetarians or their more unhappy cousins the vegans that other animals eat nothing but meat, often while it's still alive: the soaring  eagle, the crouching tiger, the graceful killer whale.  Or that others are omnivorous: the pig, the rat, the chimpanzee.  It only irks them that we humans have these same eating habits.  This discomfort with our nature, amounting to self-loathing, is what really worries me.  How full of hatred for all that we are and have been in our comparatively short run on this planet must someone be to hold himself to such drastically different standards of behavior than any of his fellow animals? Does a deer think more or less of itself because it eats only grass and other plants, and does it worry about ruining trees and bushes?  Does a mountain lion feel guilty about eating the deer until they are no more?  I think not.  Why, then should we care?   It suggests, simultaneously, that we are both inferior and superior to other species: inferior in that our carnivorousness is somehow more evil than that of other animals, and superior in that we are, or ought to be, the caretakers of the rest of creation.  And how self-consciously pro-animal and anti-vegetable these vegans are.

Shakespeare's Hamlet comes to mind here, as an example of mankind in its most befuddled state of indecision and misplaced priorities:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of thought.

For Hamlet and his story that quote cuts more than one way.  The poor guy just doesn't know what's right.  Should he kill his uncle and avenge his father's death--a fairly natural human response to murder and usurpation?  Should he send him straight to hell, or should he let him say his prayers first?  Should he punish his mother for marrying his father's killer and make her a widow, or, for want of being able to make any damned decision, should he just kill himself?  What to do, what to do?  By the end of the play pretty much everybody gets killed, deliberately or accidentally, in a real tragedy of errors.  Hamlet gets it from a guy with a poisoned sword blade who is avenging his own father's and sister's deaths caused by Hamlet's mistake; but oops, Hamlet's killer dies from the poisoned blade, too; Hamlet's mom accidentally drinks poison intended for Hamlet; and Hamlet finally does kill his uncle, which, had he done that in the first place, would have shortened the play considerably and saved a lot of lives. You students of great literature might disagree here, but I think Hamlet's tragic flaw is that he's a ditherer, unable to accept the reality of what's right in front of him.  He doesn't trust his natural impulses, or recognize what ought to have been pretty obvious to him from the beginning--(gee, dad died and Uncle Claudius immediately married mom, wonder what's going on?).  He remains supremely self-centered from beginning to end, even while imagining that he's being thoughtful and careful.  What passes for compassion on his part is only momentary indecision.  He keeps wondering where and when to draw the line.  

I'm convinced that if such a thing had been on anybody's radar screen back then, Hamlet would have been a vegan.

To put it more bluntly, shut up, eat, enjoy.