Saturday, December 19, 2009
I still think, deep down, Rush is doing schtick and he knows his listeners and followers have a below average IQ. The same with Joe, although I am even more convinced that Joe is doing schtick. GLers are the same as diddo-heads, not the brightest bulbs on the tree. I think Joe plays to them and realizes that that's his money-ticket. But somedays, I'm not so convinced and the way he goes on about global warming makes me think, perhaps, hes not doing schtick and actually believes the majority of things he is saying. So, this week, I went and sent an email to his show.
I am a long-time casual listener to your afternoon show. By casual listener, I mean I have 1500 programmed into my radio on my afternoon ride home from work. When I get into my car, my radio is tuned to 1500 after listening to Patrick in the morning on my way into work. I have been a fan of Patrick and your radio talents since the long gone days of Monday Night Sports Talk. I enjoy your program because I think you are a good storyteller and I think your mythic creation of Garage Logic is (you are going to hate this) *cute.* But, I also have the local sports station and MPR programmed into my radio and sometimes there are certain topics discussed on your show that I know won’t hold my interest and these stations are waiting when I inevitably lose interest. One such topic is global warming.
First, let me begin by saying I do not believe in Global warming. I will tell you later what it is I do believe in, but first I want to say that I assume that I am like most people and I refuse to be forced to choose between either believing global warming is real or that global warming is a hoax perpetrated upon us by anti-capitalistic thugs. Only fanatics from either side would force us to choose one side or the other and you, I am afraid, are one of the fanatics. The reality is that none of us really know. We don’t know. We take certain things on faith. I cannot test the atmosphere, so I am forced to either believe scientific reports or dismiss them. There is nothing wrong with this conundrum. We are forced to do this everyday. Our brains can only handle so much information and we have limited time. I don’t have the expertise to analyze H1N1 with electron microscopes (if this is really how they analyze H1N1 viruses), so I have to either choose to believe scientists and get vaccinated or choose not to believe that H1N1 is really a dire threat that requires vaccination.
So, let me explain what is appealing about global warming theories and why the majority of people do not dismiss the scientists that warn us of the dangers, even as we readily dismiss the anti-capitalistic thugs gathered in Copenhagen who use global warming as a means to rant against capitalism and imperialism. See, Joe, you still have to account for the scientists. And, listen, I share your skepticism. I admire those people who choose not to believe everything told to them that are supported by the words, “consensus in the scientific community,” or other words to that effect. Science has a track record of being wrong as many times as it has been right. In fact, that is the essence of science. Science is a continual striving to come up with better and better theories and the theories of today will be replaced with new theories tomorrow. So, taking on faith, certain truths, just because there is scientific consensus, is foolish. We have to admit, sometimes, that, sometimes science is wrong and also that scientists are humans with self-interest goals just like all the rest of us. They want the glory of publications and they will protect their theories from attack by others leading to hiding emails, and slandering opponents, etc. There is a history of this amongst every field in science.
Now, what do the scientist tell us about global warming? What is it that is appealing about global warming that is appealing to the majority of us? What strikes me is that there are certain things we take on faith that no one disputes. I cannot measure the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Nor, have I have made an analysis of the gases that result from burning fossil fuels. But, I haven’t heard anyone dispute that when you burn fossil fuel you use oxygen and create CO2. I also have not heard anyone dispute that CO2 levels have been increasing in the atmosphere over the past 50-100 years which coincides with increasing fossil fuel consumption around the world. The dispute seems to be around whether or not these increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have the ability to affect climate, which may in turn affect our way of life. I don’t know, but it seems plausible. Is it a certainty? Will it lead to disaster? Hell, if I know, but the underlying logic seems all right. And, yes, I still drive a car and live the typical American life with no remorse. I am just suggesting that the above logic seems sound.
What I believe is that there is a certain risk that man-made activities may eventually affect the climate on Earth enough that it may cause catastrophic effects in the future that could lead to the extinction of our species. I have no idea what that risk is. Nor, do I think this risk requires us to take immediate action. The risk might be incredibly small. Or it could be quite large. I have to take all of this information from both sides on faith, because I don’t know. Again, this is no different than knowing whether or not we should have made war in Iraq after 9/11 or whether we should increase the number of troops in Afghanistan today. There is a risk that terrorists are planning another attack on American soil, but I, personally, don’t know what that risk is. I don’t know whether immediate action was required back in 2003 in Iraq or if immediate action is required today in Afghanistan.
I know I don’t trust those who tell me to believe one way or another, because I know that those people do not know any better than I. Not George Bush, not Obama and not you. You all bore me. I am going to drive my slightly more ecologically friendly economy car, not because I want to save the world, but because it saves me money. I am going to be nice to everyone around me, whether a member of a Muslim, Christian, Jew or some other ethnic or religious community, because that is the only way I know to make peace in the world – by being nice to people around me. We are a “good” people as you said on your show yesterday. But, so are the Danish and the Iraqis and the Pakistanis and the Cubans and so on. These are all “good” people with brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children. Hugo Chavez does not speak for the majority of these good people, nor does anyone else in Copenhagen. Don’t give them more power than they deserve. I am not sure who the supposed “scientific community” is that believes in global warming, but I know they are not the people we see ranting against capitalism and imperialism in Copenhagen.
What I will say is that trading CO2 permits makes sense to me. It is a capitalistic idea and it will place limits on the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere. It can be balanced with economic growth and monitored in the coming years with climate and extinction rates, ocean levels and other things scientists like to study, make reports on and offer recommendations. Having CO2 permits available for trade will not drastically change our lifestyles in America if it will change it all. There is no more reason to believe it will than to believe that if we don’t do anything catastrophe will inevitably strike. Because, either way, WE JUST DON”T KNOW!
So, don’t tell me to take a side in the debate and don’t suggest I need psychological help if I don’t join you in claiming that global warming is a hoax. I don’t know and neither do you.
Friday, November 20, 2009
But, these days, I like melodies and rhythms and structures of songs. I play an acoustic guitar, mostly and I can hear my voice clearly when I sing. I don’t play out, but think I might some day again. For now, I strum my guitar alone in the house with my family and occasionally for a select group of close friends (cronies).
If you happened to stop by, this is what you might hear. I don't play with a pick but with my fingers, my thumb plucking out a strong steady bass line. My fingers brush against the strings with the back of my fingernails on the down-stroke to drive the songs rhythm and pluck the song’s melody with my nails on the upstroke. The sound is full with the melody weaving in and out of the bass line with a steady constant rhythm going on. I do all of this without thinking after years of playing and listening. Without band members, I have learned to create as much of the full band sound as I can all by myself.
I will start with a random song that falls from my head to my fingers. If I can’t find a song, I might reach back for an old one-even all the way back to an old Floored song. Its funny how much melody those songs actually had, underneath all that noise. I can’t even guess at the number of times I have heard my wife say “that’s really pretty, whose song is that?” after I have played an old Floored, Hammerhead, Diddy-wah-Diddy, Loaded or even a Mess song on my acoustic guitar.
Eventually I will pull out a folder of songs I have with lyrics written down to play and sing with. I might start with Taj Mahal’s “Johnny too Bad” to see my sons face light up so he can sing along to “You gonna run to the rock for rescue and there will be no RoocccKKKKK.” Dragging the Rock out like he is an opera singer.
After that song, I might choose John Prines “The other side of Town,” just to see my wife’s look of disapproval. The first time I played it for her I said to her, “Every time I hear this song I think of you.” And she sat down to listen in anticipation until she began to understand the meaning of the song around the second verse with “You might think I’m listening to your grocery list, but I’m leaning on a juke box half…”
Perhaps, then you might hear me do Tom Wait’s “The House where nobody lives,” followed by Greg Brown’s “Like a Dog,” that always gets a hoot from my son at the end when I howl like a dog at the moon. I will work in Michael Frante’s “Nobody right, Nobody Wrong” or “Bomb the World” just to provide a little inspiration before breaking into Charlie Parr’s “Cheap Wine,” that I just can’t help singing with much more bitterness from the liquor store owner perspective than Charlie’s sweet singing of old ladies and bums.
You would surely hear me sing “The man in the bed” by Dave Alvin at some point, but might not notice that I have changed a verse to reflect the man in the bed as my father or noticed the tears behind my eye and the lump in my voice. I will quickly switch to “Home Grown Tomatoes,” by Guy Clarke to liven up the mood again and then do “Rex’s blues” by Townes Van Zandt just for the pretty melody despite the sadness in the song.
I will do “Cold War” by Fred Eaglesmith, because I remember the cold war, my daddy fixing small machines and him listening to Johnny Cash on the radio. There will probably be some other songs mixed in, but I will end with the last song I wrote. I used to hate doing other peoples songs. If you remember one of my old bands, you know we mostly did our own songs. Except, it seems, everyone remembers that Floored did a mean ass cover of “Age of Aquarius,” and if I am in the right mood and I am passed my fourth Summit beer, you might still hear me do “Age of Aquarius” all the way through to “Let the Sunshine in.”
The last song I will do is Wishbone, which I wrote a couple years ago for my son. My son will sing along with this song too. I wrote it after I introduced him to his first wishbone and asked him to take a pull. He was about 4 years old at the time. Its got one Chord (E Major) and a steady Blues beat and melody weaving in and out of that one chord. Here's the lyrics.
We plucked the chicken
Skinned it too
Put it in a pot
Then we made some soup
(Lookie here) Now I got a wishbone
Tell you what we’re gonna do
I’ll make a wish
You make one too
Chorus (Wishbone, wishbone, wishbone,
Wishbone, wishbone wishbone [repeat])
I’ll take one end
You take the other
We’ll both pull it tell it gives
And then we’ll see which end is longer
Don’t you worry
Don’t you fret
You still got a chance
Though I ain’t lost one yet
Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes
Don’t you know
That the wishbone never lies
Hold your head up
I rigged this one for you
My only wish
Is all your wishes will come true
Been 4 years now since I wrote my last song. Still waiting for the next one to come along.
I can’t read the future and fate may hold other cards I’m not aware of, but I’ve always thought I would live a long life. I am 45 now and I feel my life is close to being halfway over. I don’t feel like the end of my life is approaching in the next decade or so. No, I am pretty sure I will see 2050 and my mind will be sharp when I do, even if I will often repeat myself.
I eat well and I fast a bit, and that will be my secret – that and I was lucky enough to make it through the highways and the terror of violence that is always at hand somewhere in the world. Some will say I died peacefully after a good long life, and I suppose they will be mostly correct. Life has been, is and will be satisfying although the way to the end, even with whatever trauma inevitably awaits me. I hope I will have grandchildren around me and a son I am so, So proud of, even if he has broken my heart several times with the inevitable turning away from the dreams I hold for him.
But, through all the good and bad luck, I will have eaten well and done my fasts, so I will live long, I suppose. I’m just wingin’ it. I don’t know any secrets and I don’t have any good science on my side, although I do think like a scientist. Eating fruits and vegetables is good for your health. Eating Kimchee and Yogurt is good for your digestion. You don’t need science to tell you this. Make these foods a significant part of your diet and you will start to feel better. But what about fasting.
First, anecdotally, humans have been fasting as part of our evolutionary history forever. Read any old text on ancient or nontraditional cultures and medicines and fasting will have played a part in religious and healing ceremonies. Second, there are Seventh Day Adventists. They fast once a week and they live longer and healthier lifestyles when compared to the general population. I read that somewhere. Look it up.
Finally, we come to my science. I read a New York Times article a few years back and a year or so later caught a 60 minutes episode on a new discovery. Both were a reporting of the discovery of a chemical compound found in wine that could extend the average human lifespan. This chemical apparently causes the human body to produce a chemical or hormone that switches our body chemistry and tells our cells to change emphasis from reproduction to longevity. In the New York Times article, just in passing, they mentioned that the Body is also induced to produce the chemical when we fast. But, hell, there is no money to be made in fasting and Americans love their pills. So, the race was on for patents to produce a product that can be sold as the fountain of youth to Americans and others wanting a long lush life. Eat McDonalds, take a pill, live a long life.
Well, I don’t think it works that way. There might be a chemical in red wine that induces the body to produce a chemical that changes our body chemistry. But, that is probably just happenstance. It is the fasting that the body is reacting to. Think about it. We go along millions of years, living as hunters and gatherers and having to face times and seasons where food is scarce. Evolutionary, we also strive to pass on our genes from one generation to another. So, when food is available, our bodies and cell structures put their energy into reproduction and the passing of our genes to our offspring. Men use their caloric intake for producing sperm and scheming for mates, while women prepare their body to carry a child to term. The child is born and then food becomes scarce, what do we do? We fast out of necessity and any scarce food goes to the children and the young whose bodies are also being prepared for reproduction.
When elders and parents fast, for the benefit of children and the passing on of genes, their bodies produce this chemical that induces cells to stop putting all this energy into reproduction. Evolution favors adults that produce this chemical, because once we have passed on our genes, longevity is more important than spreading more of our genes around. We need to live long for the sake of our offspring to teach and guide them in the world and to help them secure nutrition.
Enter the modern age where food, not nutritious food, but corn syrup and empty calories, is always available and we no longer fast. We get heart disease and cancer. Moreover, as our sex drives decrease we desire to recapture our health and take Viagra to feel young and sexual again.
Fasting may also kill those unhealthy cells that may lead to cancer or heart disease. And, fasting feels good. It makes you aware of your body and everything you put into it. You don’t eat for 24 hours and you will stop shitting for 24 hours. 24 hours after the Saturday night when you eat a salad and a meal, Sunday afternoon comes along and you have felt that salad and meal go all the way through you as you expel the remaining waste products.
So, I fast for 24 hours once a week. A few times a year I attempt to fast from 2 to 5 days. I’m wingin’ it, no doubt. Some people might think I’m doing it all wrong. People who eat regularly and are conscious of their health and diet cannot fathom the idea of going without a meal. They think their body has to maintain some homeostasis and their blood sugar levels need to be constant, or they will feel weak. But, I think they are wrong. I think all systems and parts of our bodies need rest and this includes the digestive system. Our cells also need to rest and need a trigger for the release of built up toxins from the constant metabolism stimulated by the constant caloric intake.
That is the purpose of the Sabbath. It’s not necessarily a testament to the creation and the rest required by the creator after a week of making the universe. Like every tale, the story of creation is a myth that provides us with a metaphor. We need to fast to allow our bodies to rest. Growing children need a constant supply of nutrition to meet their needs as their bodies grow, but adults should fast once in a while. That's my theory with the science to back it up.
The prostate is a very mysterious organ. My understanding of it is about as knowledgeable as my understanding of female reproductive organs. It always has served me well in the past when most needed, even if it often appeared to act all on its own. I believe it is a gland that either is also a muscle or somehow acts like a muscle to restrict the flow of blood out of the penis and cause an erection. It also cuts off the ability to urinate and is the impetus behind the power of ejaculation. But, the prostate grows over time as men age and as it grows it apparently causes urinary malfunctions or incontinence. I don’t believe this expansion of the prostate has any consequences in regard to impotence or the ability to achieve an erection, although relative to the aging process, I am still in the beginning stages of growing old and impotence remains far off in the future, although the anxiety that incontinence is the precursor to impotence grows in proportion to the enlargement of my prostate gland. Yes, prostate troubles are particularly worrisome for men as they age. However, this is not the most astonishing aging fact that we experience. The most remarkable and astonishing aspect of growing old is the diminishment of the sex drive.
Hell, maybe even that is caused by the prostate. Perhaps, the enlargement of the prostate over time is a result of the many past erections. I probably spent 21 out of 24 hours from the age of 17 until 23 with an erection and if the prostate is a muscle (fuck if I know, I am assuming, but likely my medical facts are completely wrong), then all that work, like exercise, has grown the prostate over time. Until the age of 40, I probably had, at a minimum, over 50 erections a day. But, now, I wake up with an erection and, although I still have some days where an erection is ever present, mostly, it seems, there are more days than not that my only erection is the one I wake up with to begin the day. And, going by my theory, if all these erections cause a prostate to grow over time, then maybe the downward quality of my life is being spared by all this lack of erection time, so I can at least have a good pee now and then. Yes, I am pleased to say, that a particularly remarkable and astonishing thing about a diminished sex drive is how many body functions are on par with sex or ejaculation as far as pure bliss and joy. Taking a shit, relieving oneself of a full bladder, flatulence and a sit-down meal of ribs, homegrown potatoes, vegetables and a salad all washed down with an ice cold local brew, are all looked forward too with as much or with more fondness than a good fuck, blowjob or cunnilingus.
Is that sad? I suppose in some ways it is. But in so many ways it is also reinvigorating. Don’t get me wrong, like all body urges noted above, the urge to ejaculate can still become all consuming just as the urge to eat well, shit and piss does. All bodily urges can be overpowering. In the case of ejaculation, this overpowering urge still possesses the capability to either lead one to bliss or drive one to do an incredibly stupid, embarrassing and unexplainable act despite our growing old and our diminished sex drive.
But the sex drive is also revealing of human nature, at least from my point of view as a man. There is nothing more annoying to me than male novelists, screenplay directors or other male artists who cast the elder male protagonist in a relationship with younger female counterparts. Woody Allen is an obvious example, but Philip Roth, Michael Ventura and many other male artists provide similar examples. The annoyance results from completely unrealistic portrayal of these relationships and I don’t mean because of the obvious revulsions most young females have for the aging male body. Despite the universal fact that as we age our physical attractiveness diminishes due to our bodies decaying and our odors becoming increasingly wrenching, I don’t think it is unrealistic to fathom that there might be a small minority of young woman out there who feel a need to be with an older man. A younger woman may feel the need to have a relationship with an older man and to live with him so she can be provided with a sense of security that an older man may arguably be more apt to provide than a younger one. No, what makes the older man/younger woman relationship untenable is not the attraction of younger women for elder men, but rather the inability of an elder man to stay interested in a younger woman once the sexual attraction wears off, which inevitably happens with all relationships, but happens more quickly as the sexual drive diminishes.
Hey, obviously, all men, when presented with the hypothetical lineup of women at a brothel, will choose the younger woman over an elder one. As men’s odors become more repellent when we age, so do women’s. As stomachs grow and various body parts sag, so do women’s asses grow and sag. That beauty is most revealing in the young is a universal fact no one can deny. But it is also a universal fact that there are very few people any of us can stand to live with. Once the sex is over and you are presented with the possibility of cohabitating with the person to raise the potential child that may result from the most recent copulation, it is not an unusual reaction to feel revulsion toward the person you only seconds before were intimate with. There is no better explanation for the oldest profession in the world than that, because when paying for sex a man is spared from even the contemplation of living with the outlet for his desires. For that matter, once you understand the level of detestation we can feel for the human and biological, you can understand why the history of war has always been accompanied by abhorrent acts against women and children.
Our inner and deepest natures are not our better natures. If forced to live with people we would happily bed down with in moments of overwhelming lust, the inevitable reaction will be violence.
The fact that we detest people we have to live with is not an aberration that only a few of us experience. We all experience it in one form or another many times in our lives. The challenge is to choose someone to live with that we will detest the least, not someone we will lust after the most. Once the sex is over, I could not imagine living with a person who has no memory of her Daddy listening to Ray Christiansen broadcasting Gopher football games on Saturday afternoons before turning the channel to a country station to sing along with Johnny Cash on the radio, no memory of the Cold war, and no opportunity to have seen the Replacements perform on Saturday Night Live. Once the sex is over, if there is no history to share between two people, how can there be any possibility to move beyond the detestation that will inevitably result when one human lives under the same roof as another?
And this is how our tolerance grows as our sex drive diminishes. Sex does not keep any relationship together where two people live together under the same roof. Infatuation will always wear off once exposed to another’s habits, ticks, and odiferous waste products. Infatuation can only continue if there is enough separation between two individuals that there is no opportunity to actually know one another. This wisdom is not available to those still caught in the threshold of multiple erections and infatuations. In fact, this wisdom is the first thing to leave us whenever we succumb to the urge for copulation, and it is always immediately recognizable upon the moment of ejaculation.
Our detestation for the person lying next to us and for ourselves is in inverse proportion to the amount of shared history we have for the person. And, of course, this is what makes the affair so devastating. Not to the other, but to ourselves. The more shared history, the deeper that devastation will be. For once we ejaculate with the stranger who has become the outlet for our sexual urges, our detestation for this stranger is on par with the detestation we feel for the person we live with. Without any shared history, we cannot overcome this detestation for the human and the biological that we all share. And the longer we live with a person the more shared history we accumulate. If that person is the mother of our children the history becomes even more impactful.
Of course, it is also true that sometimes the history becomes too painful to carry with us for any number of reasons, including affairs. In those cases it becomes necessary to find someone new to live with. But, even that someone new has to have something from her past that can be shared. A young woman cannot provide that to an older man.
The diminishment of the sex drive as we age is not astonishing because we cannot fathom life without sex. Sex is always an urge with the potentiality for being all-consuming for periods of time – even as we age. But, the diminished sex drive offers us a glimpse into what it means to be human and to be accompanied by all of our foibles and shortcomings for getting along with one another.
The long days of summer are gone and the garden has been put to rest. The leaves are piled high in the compost heap and the raised beds are all covered in straw. A gopher, some rabbits and many field mice scurry amongst the beds digging holes and piling dirt and causing worry to the gardener that refuses to use poisons or chemicals in his dirt that grows so much food to sustain his family. But the garden paradise he has created that flourishes with lush green growth from May to October has also created a panacea for other critters to call home. The rabbits and the mice he can live with, but this gopher going around digging tunnels and leaving gigantic piles of excavated dirt around his garden is the source of new frustration and worry. Is it time to get a gun?
Fall and winter is the time for reflection and also a time to let the darkness settle in all around us. We can be overwhelmed with thoughts of doomsday, as the Christmas shopping season ramps up and the Salvation Army bell ringers take up positions in the skyways, outside on downtown street corners and at the entrances of big boxes everywhere. We are also given a gift of time as the summer activities end, the harvest is over, and we sit indoors with our families and ourselves driving each other crazy. It is a time to read, play guitar and to write down thoughts. Winter provides opportunity to be poetic and to appreciate our longing for summer, even as the beauty of a winter snowfall covers pine and spruce trees and leaves the bird feeders at the center of the winter ecological backyard community.
And so, my guitar has been liberated from its stand and its strings are tenderly being caressed awake by my fingers several times a week as they mindlessly pick tunes and melodies on it and search for a lost voice put away early last spring. My son plays marbles and listens, sometimes sings along, and sometimes asks me to stop to join in his marble game. From upstairs I hear my wife’s voice say, “that was pretty, whose song was that?” Usually I don’t answer, embarrassed and slightly annoyed that I have to tell her that the origin of the song is unknown and has simply come with the darkness of the season. But, I am thankful for the effortlessness of my fingers as they pluck out melodies and a rhythm while my thumb keeps pace with a steady bass line on the low strings. Somehow my mind has picked out the songs of the darkness for my fingers to translate and the rooms of the house fill with a new lightness.
As I play marbles with my son, my thoughts remain on the guitar and I hear my voice call from within. I want to go back and pick it up and sing songs I’ve learned as my fingers provide the accompaniment. But, that will have to wait as my fingers struggle with a newer skill and get thoroughly trounced by smaller and defter fingers shooting marbles along side of me.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
I had never heard of David Foster Wallace until his suicide made national news this past fall. He was found dead in his home in September of 2008 at the age of 46. I read his commencement speech given to the 2005 graduation class from Kenyon College and I was immediately intrigued. Here was an obviously very intelligent individual who had had some success as a writer and then decided to end his life because living was just too painful. From a very limited perspective, I have some empathy for his feelings. I have been lucky to have never suffered from depression in my life. However, DFW’s writings had an appeal to me because of his ability to describe the meaninglessness of everyday life in our society.
I went to the library and checked out a couple of his books. He railed against the ironic, and coplained that irony was making it very difficult to be a fiction writer in today’s world because television had surpassed the novel as the descriptor for modern life. DFW believed that television was the prime mover of irony in modern society. I’m not sure if his depression was a result of his inability to find true meaning in his life, but I have a feeling it must have played a part. DFW was smart. He was a lot smarter than I. As I read him, I could not help thinking in my mind as he made acute observations on the mundane world around us, that this person eventually killed himself and basically came to the conclusion that life was not really worth living -- for any of us.
I know depression is more than just an intellectual exercise. I also understand that some people who are clinically depressed are really not that intelligent to begin with. But, the inability to find meaning in our lives is a symptom of modern society and the rise of depression must have something to do with the ironies and meaninglessness that surround all of us.
Reinhold Niebuhr observed that “every universe of meaning is constantly under threat of meaninglessness,” or something to that effect. Niebuhr was a social critic and a theologian. He had an understanding of the ironic and was aware of both the comforts and the pitfalls that science and modernism has brought humanity. Materialism has brought television, automobiles, cell phones, and other conveniences. The modern age, along with science, has also demonstrated the folly of certain religious beliefs and makes individuals who attack scientific theories such as Darwin’s evolution seem foolish and intellectually dense. Niebuhr had no problem with recognizing the limitations of literal beliefs from the Bible. However, Niebuhr’s observation that the Bible and religious faith provide meaning within the meaninglessness of existence is worth heeding attention to and could have saved DFW the torment that eventually led him to take his life. I think it might be the only thing that saves any of us from following DFW's example.
DFW was cool. He made many references to popular culture. He was obviously well-read and could pontificate on many subjects including philosophy, mathematics and literature. But, he could also talk about television and the internet. He was not just an intellectual. He wrote for Rollingstone, Harpers and the Atlantic. DFW was fully immersed in modern society and popular culture. But, despite his talents and success, the meaning of his existence eluded him. Was he just too smart?
Charlie Walters died on January 17, 2009 at the age of 83. I had never heard of Charlie Walters until a few years ago when I began subscribing to an organic farming magazine called ACRES,USA. The magazine was very informative and contained a wealth of information on farming and gardening that arrived each month. Charlie was the editor and, I assumed he put together many of the articles that gave me many facts for becoming a better gardener by taking care of my soil and using different organic techniques. But, the real value of the magazine was Charlie’s editorials. Charlie was a genius. He was incredibly smart, like DFW a lot smarter than I.
Charlie understood how to find meaning in his life even though he was confronted daily with the same ironies and meaninglessness from modern society as DFW. No, being smart, or thinking about all the examples of the meaninglessness in our lives and jobs in not necessarily a sentence for depression and eventual suicide. There has to be meaning among the meaninglessness. We have to find it. Sometimes that takes a little faith, but even when we find meaning it has to be understood that this meaning will be under attack by meaninglessness as Niebuhr says. So where do you find meaning? I cannot answer that and I’m not sure that Charlie can answer it either. Faith can mean many things and it can also lead one to blindness, but in the end everything is built upon the faith in something and because of this meaninglessness is built into any metaphysical or religious thought. But we can’t address the mystery without some sort of metaphysics and beauty in the world is as unexplainable as the ugliness and the mundane.
Meaning in our lives is found wherever we can find beauty or maybe love. We can tear down all of this meaning with irony and, I suppose, that was why meaning could nosustain DFW. For Charlie Walters, equally aware of the ironies and meaninglessness of modern life, meaning was sustainable because he had faith in something beyond the meaninglessness, call it God, call it humanity, call it beauty or love. Charlie had faith in something and I don’t think DFW had faith in anything. I can understand why DFW didn’t either and that’s what scares me most.
Which brings me back to Niebuhr’s “every universe of meaning is under constant threat of meaninglessness,” or something like that (I don’t remember the exact quote, but it really was something either exactly like that or very close to it). It’s a tenuous hold on sanity for all of us. People like Charlie and Niebuhr shine a light on meaning and faith, while not asking any of us to be fanatics or to sacrifice our intelligence to fundamentalism. This faith or meaning is mysterious and our inability to describe it or defend it with reason is what makes it fallible. It is the same as saying there is not Truth or nothing we can point to that describes exactly the workings of the universe – or knowledge is not discovered, but made. Acknowledging this does not mean we are nihilists. We can still be pragmatists and still have a faith in a meaning of our lives whose outcome is not predetermined or known by a larger being or entity. The meaning can be in the process of living or even our acknowledgement of the beauty and order amongst the chaos or meaninglessness.
There have been many proposed alternatives to neoclassical economics. Critics of neoclassical economics often criticize from these alternative positions. Marxists are the most well-known example. My contention is that Marxists and neoclassical economists suffer from the same affliction. They are both based upon scientific thought and what economics needs more than anything is an ethic that goes beyond objective valuation – which is the key ingredient for and economics school of thought to be labeled scientific. One of the latest alternative schools of thought to neoclassical economics is ecological economics and two of its founders and leaders are Herman Daly and Robert Costanza.
According to Herman Daly, Ecological Economics “seeks to ground economic thinking in the dual realities and constraints of our biophysical and moral environments” while promoting “truly transdisciplinary research in which practitioners accept that disciplinary boundaries are academic constructs irrelevant outside of the university.” With Robert Costanza and others, Daly has launched this bold new discipline seeking to displace the standard economic theory known as neoclassical economics. Although well-intentioned, Daly and Costanza are only the latest in a long line of academics attempting to make economics a more exact science.
Costanza’s contention that economists versed in the natural sciences would have a greater appreciation of the biosphere is correct, but ecologists should be wary about versing themselves in the seductive jargon of neoclassical economics which treats the biosphere as a commodity. Costanza’s 1997 $33 trillion estimate of the values of environmental services is one example of the folly of linking ecology with economics.
In the history of economics there have been many attempts at creating a theory that is rational and objective emulating the standards set in the natural sciences. Philip Mirowski has thoroughly documented these attempts and trends in his two seminal works More Heat than Light and Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science. Mirowski describes three waves of immigrants from the natural sciences during the 200 year history of economics. The first wave occurred during the mechanistic era of physics from 1870 to the turn of the century. The second phase of immigrants occurred during the operation management era of the cold war. The final phase is happening right now and is characterized under the heading of inter- or trans-disciplinary studies. Mirowski says in Machine Dreams:
The ubiquitous contraction of physics and the continuing expansion of molecular
biology has not only caused sharp redirections in careers, but also redirection
of cultural images of what it means to be a successful science of epochal
import. In many ways, the rise of the cyborg sciences is yet another
manifestation of these mundane considerations of funding and support;
interdisciplinary research has become more akin to a necessary condition of
survival in our brave new world than merely the province of a few dilettantes or
renaissance men; and the transformations of economic concepts…is as much an
artifact of a newer generation of physicists, engineers, and other natural
scientists coming to terms with the traditions established by a previous
generation of scientific interlopers dating from the depression and World War
II, as it is an entirely new direction in intellectual discourse.”
Ecological economics is part of the latest interdisciplinary push that has united the natural sciences and economics within the confines and constructs of neoclassical economics. Daly demonstrates his devotion to the “scientific method” as the only means for reforming neoclassical economics by offering objective valuation criteria for our resources at the expense of all other intellectual pursuits with his admonishment to other thinkers using alternative methods to “keep silent.” He states in his Ecological Economics textbook:
“…many members of the intelligentsia deny either nondeterminism, nonnihilism, or
both, yet they engage in a policy dialogue. It is not just that we
disagree on exactly what our alternatives are in particular instances, or about
what our value criterion implies for a concrete case—that’s part of reasonable
dialogue. The point is that determinists who deny the effective existence
of alternatives, and nihilists or relativists who deny the existence of a value
criterion beyond the level of subjective personal tastes, have no logical basis
for engaging in policy dialogue—and yet they do! We cordially and
respectfully invite them to remember and reflect deeply upon their option to
remain silent—at least about policy.”
Even if you agree with Daly that we should do more to protect our resources and opt out of a consumerist and materialist culture, he wishes for you to remain silent if you are unable to adhere to a nondeterminist program for discovering real and objective valuation criteria. Daly, like most scientists, believes we cannot act until we frame our arguments within objective, scientific rhetoric. It is as if we cannot trust our senses and argue for the nonproliferation of nuclear armaments, the reduction of CO2 emissions and the preservation of our air, water and wilderness areas because we just think (or God help us, believe) that this is the best course for the future of humanity. If we cannot come up with a reasonable valuation criterion demonstrating irrefutably that clean water is better than a high GDP and job growth, we should remove ourselves from the discussion. If we cannot play the economist game then Daly wishes we would all just shut up—respectfully, of course.
The determinists and nihilists Daly is referring to are the poets, novelists, artists, philosophers, and others in our society creating a culture valuing aesthetic beauty, peace, clean air, wilderness, and solitude over a consumer and materialist culture. Many of these individuals value inter-subjective agreement over discovering an objective valuation measure existing in its own right.
Daly has a strong attachment to the theology of “universal truth” and feels economics is tainted by its devotion to determinist Darwinism, which believes that historical contingencies play a greater role in the evolution of human society than the ultimate design by some universal entity. He misplaces the faults in neoclassical thinking by noting that this leads one to believe that “the natural world is just a pile of instrumental accidental stuff to be used up in the arbitrary projects of a purposeless species.”
A belief in ultimate ends does not guarantee one will also hold a belief in the importance of the stewardship over our environmental resources. Perhaps believing in a creator of this Earth will help one develop an environmental ethic and perhaps not. Regardless, Daly’s diatribe against determinists and nihilists needlessly isolates allies in a liberal agenda for preserving our planet from the excesses of modern consumerist culture.
One can believe that there is no purpose to human existence and still advocate a future for protecting the environment over a future of material gain and a buying culture. Environmental destruction and an accelerated pace towards extinction for the human race is as likely a future as one promoting stewardship and solving the many large environmental catastrophes currently facing us. The only way to ensure the latter choice is by changing culture through persuasive argument and convincing the majority of humans on our planet that a culture promoting wanton destruction of our planet in order to support a materialistic culture for a minority of inhabitants will lead to misery for the rest of us. I believe a search for an “ultimate truth” revealing the “real value” of our environmental resources is a fruitless and ultimately wasteful endeavor.
The problem with Daly and most ecological economists is not that they don’t feel strongly about the need to change the direction of our economy through reforming how economists think about valuation. The problem is they think, like scientists about truth, that a valuation criterion still exists out there in the real world somewhere and the economist’s job is to discover what this objective measure is and where it is at. In addition, ecological economists follow the example of others in scientific circles believing truth is discovered and not made through inter-subjective agreement among humans. This is a problem because, instead of using all means of persuasion available for changing culture around the world from aims toward consumerism and rising GDPs to one promoting an ethic of stewardship, ecological economists wish to replace neoclassical economics as the only game in town by discovering the one and only ultimate end which they propose falls under the rubric called ecological economics.
We would be better served if we realized price is a human creation but value is unknowable. Value defies scientific thought and is impossible to model accurately no matter what economic system we create. We need to rely on ethics and morality as the means for valuing natural resources. Accounting for them in a national accounting system will never provide the protections we need for the world we live in. Such an accounting system may have some desirable effects, but it is bound to have flaws which can be exploited by savvy entrepreneurs in search of profits.
What we should be striving for is not an amalgamation of economics with ecology, but rather the reduction of the role economists play in policy making and a greater emphasis upon the role ecologists, artists, novelist, poets and communities make in policy decisions. Both ecologists and economists need to open up their ears to the opinions and arguments of all members of the human race, rather than beseeching some to “remain silent.”
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
I am not sure when I first got an interest in plants. I do know that I neglected this interest for several years of my life. I have always loved outdoor places and felt at home around plants and gardens. My parents tended a garden and I spent many hours observing my mother and father till, hoe, rake and harvest our little garden plot in out backyard. As an adult, however, I never tended a garden or even took care of plants until I was well into my thirties.
I lived with a girlfriend who kept a few houseplants and I always appreciated these plants, but I did not tend to them. She also kept a stock of cut flowers on display in the rooms of our apartment. We would attend the Farmer’s Market together and admire the fresh produce. When our relationship ended, and I moved out on my own, I immediately sensed the emptiness of my new apartment. I missed the plants.
I went to Frank’s Nursery and Craft and purchased several houseplants and cacti. I bought pots and potting soil. I tended to these plants and discovered a nurturing side of myself and a need to grow things. My plants flourished. They grew huge and became centerpieces of attraction for all who came to visit a bachelor pad I shared with two roommates. Our houseplants were the envy of many female visitors to our little pad.
I had a talent for growing things. I even experimented with some seeds I had found in a purchase I had made for recreational pleasures. Again, my plants grew large, strong and powerful. My friends and I harvested more than a years supply of buds that was shared between 5-10 thirty-something bachelors. My success in growing this item was not to be repeated.
Upon moving to New York State to attend graduate school, my girlfriend, and soon to be wife, rented a small cottage in Schenectady, NY. In the small backyard I started a compost pile and made a small garden plot of vegetables and flowers. In the Front yard, I created a spot to grow the three sisters (corn, beans and squash). Growing Sweet corn right along the sidewalk in an urban area is bound to become a neighborhood attraction and conversation piece.
When we moved back to MN into a suburban home I began a backyard conversion of lawn into a large garden. Over three years I planted strawberries, red raspberries, blue berries and concord grape vines. My garden area grew from a 10 by 10 foot plot to eventually cover nearly the entire backyard which now stands at 110 by 50 foot plot. We have an apple tree and a pear tree. I created a series of raised beds and trellis to grow my plants to the heavens and save room on the ground. I mulch heavily and have a rich compost that I prepare with neighborhood discarded leaves and grass clippings, our kitchen waste, discarded plants, and added soil amendments (Sea Salt and azomite).
I have set up rain barrels in front of the four downspouts that drain the water from our roof and have four more barrels that collect the overflow. I hand water everything, but my soil holds a lot of moisture, so I don’t have to water too often. I don’t use any chemical fertilizers or herbicides and pesticides. I plant clover in the aisles between the raised beds, but welcome an occasional weed if it is not interfering with my harvested plants. Otherwise I control weeds by mulching and pulling. All of this tending the garden is full time work when I am not working for pay at my day job. It is work that I do not abhor, in fact, it is work I love doing and work that makes me understand authors like Wendell Berry and his reflections upon work.
During the height of the harvest we have over 40 blooming tomato plants, 30 some pepper plants, potatoes, garlic, onions, bush beans, pole beans, peas, carrots, lettuce, kale, swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, herbs, squash, pumpkins, sweet corn and many other herb and flowers. Our freezer quickly fills with stored produce (fruits and veggies) and our cellar bins fill with garlic, potatoes, squash and apples. We can pickles and jellies and fill large jars with brines with other vegetables. We dry peppers, too and then settle into a long winter of preparing for the next season.
What amazes me is how easy it is to grow things, but how often I am approached by others for gardening advice. Many times I am told tales of woe about an inability to tend a garden or even to grow a plant. I have no secrets. I am perplexed by these inquires from others. I suppose I have what is called a green thumb. I care for my plants and they grow. It’s as simple as that. I don’t neglect them. I watch their growth from seed to bloom/fruit and grow right along side of them. I don’t miss a step along the way, because I am excited for their growth as they appear to be. As much as I nourish them, they nourish me. I suppose that’s the secret to a green thumb as much as anything.
Monday, March 30, 2009
But, it is also true, that I disagree fundamentally with each of these economists in regard to their approach to their field. Economists are trained to do a particular analytical type of analysis that has a heavy reliance upon statistics and mathematics. There is nothing wrong with turning to statistics (or econometrics) or mathematics when doing economic analysis and looking for some insights into how economies function. However, over the last 60 years, as econometrics and neoclassical economics—with heavy reliance upon mathematical analysis and modeling—have increased in importance, economic analysis relying upon rhetoric and storytelling has been shunted aside and the field of economics has become increasingly hermetic and unintelligible to the average person.
My goal is to tell a story about economics that brings this trend toward mathematics into sharp focus, but does not veer away from the ultimate story about what the economy does and how it allows us to live in the world. To do this we have to start from the beginning and describe what economics is.
When I was a graduate student in economics, I taught an introductory level undergraduate course in economics. On the first day of class, I asked all my students to define what economics was. There were as many definitions as there were students. Most of the definitions said something about money. After going through my students answers I told them that Economics is the study of the economy, which begs the question, “what is the economy?”
Lets begin with the standard neoclassical definition of Economics. Lionel Robbins provides the modern definition of economics as “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” This differs markedly from Alfred Marshalls turn of the century definition that states economics as “a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” Marshalls definition is much more general and allows much more to fall under the rubric of economics and what it is that economists study. Marshal elaborates further to say that economics “examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing. Thus it is on one side a study of wealth; and on the other, and more important side, a part of the study of man.”
What Marshall was one of the fathers of welfare economics and Robbins did not think economics should be concerned with concepts that were not measurable. Thus, Robbins became the father of a more rigorous economics that tried to study only what was measurable. The influence of Marshall and Robbins was enormous among modern economics known as neoclassical. However, in Marshalls time there were still economists, such as Thorstein Veblen, who relied upon rhetorical analysis and focused on the “more important side, a part of the study of man.” Robbins definition refined Marshalls Welfare analysis, which created supply and demand curves with the Lagrangian equations behind them, and cast aside all analysis from economics that could not be appropriately measured.
Robbins definition of economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses,” restricts the study of human behavior to relationships. These relationships are all measured using price as the common metric. The given ends are what is produced for consumption and the means are the resources we use to produce them. The alternative uses refer to the choices we make for both production and consumption. All of this is captured inside of equations describing relationships between ends and means with price as the common metric tying them together. Price is the quantity of money, so we can see how the influence of money to the study of economics became the dominating focus of economics until it becomes difficult to think of the economy without thinking of money.
We compare products and make choices based upon price and the amount of money we have. When the price of a product goes up, we demand less of that product, ceteris paribus. When price goes up, producers also wish to produce more to that product, ceteris paribus. The result of all this economic analysis is the false impression that we can measure and predict our choices. No other social sciences come close to economics lofty ambitions for predicting human behavior, although many, such as psychology, are trying very high. Because of this, economics is often referred to as the queen of the social sciences and is said to be closer to a science than all other social sciences – even offering a yearly Nobel prize to economists for their contributions to the science.
I want to go back to describing the economy using rhetoric and focus more on the study of humanity by observation and not necessarily by measurement and relationships. Rhetoric is often called the art of persuasion and many people think it is inferior to science or mathematics because it does not reveal a truth or essence, but rather is capable of tricking or fooling someone into believing a false conclusion. Although it is true that some one may be able to lead a person to the wrong conclusion, rhetoric also requires one to make a compelling argument and allows the reader to come to their own conclusions based upon the evidence provided from the author.
In rhetorical economics, the author (me) is not trying to prove an economic insight or accurately predict the future. It the author could do either of these things he most assuredly would. However, the author believes that neoclassical economics with its overreliance upon mathematics and econometrics is also engaged in rhetoric. Neoclassical rhetoric operates under a false rubric that defines itself as science and claims to be offering proofs instead of evidence.
But, the main drawback of neoclassical economics is that it has become a field in which only a few are baptized and allowed the keys for understanding and then truths are revealed from the high priests above in which we all are supposed to accept without question. If Economics is a part of the study of humanity we should all be able to engage in this discussion.
In the spring of 1994, I was working in St. Paul, MN as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. I was wearing my headphones, listening to the radio for updates on Kurt Cobain who had gone missing for almost a week. I was not surprised when word came in that his body had been found with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. Kurt Cobain had taken the deal I turned down earlier from the same mysterious dark man with steely dark eyes many would refer to as the devil. Cobain met him on a crossroad in rural Washington or, perhaps, an alley in the Seattle urban area. I met him at a crossroads on the outskirts of Fargo in the summer of 1988. Three years later I walked away from the same dark man as he cursed my name from the same crossroads outside Fargo.
As I listened to the reports of Cobain’s death coming in, I realized that the world would have surely be hearing of my similar tragic demise had it been I, instead of Kurt, who took the deal for rock-n-roll stardom. As it was, I was suffering through my own curses when the news of his death reached me. However, since I eventually walked away from the devil, my demons were much milder than Cobain’s. I turned down his offer, but it was not without consequences and it took many more years of battle of suffering the Devil’s curses that haunt me to this day.
It was August in1990 when I was making my second trip to the crossroads to seal the deal I had made a couple of years earlier with this mysterious dark man. I was walking along a gravel road with my guitar case concealing a Gibson Sonix 180 guitar and following in the footsteps of the great blues guitar playing legend Robert Johnson. It was a road outside of Fargo, North Dakota, and a long way from the Mississippi Delta. On this hot day in August outside of Fargo however, I assumed this flatland plain along the Red River of the North was an equally attractive place to meet the force from the dark side so I could seal the deal for my rock and roll future. It could not have been any less hospitable place for the tyrant of eternal hell fires than the flat plains of the Mississippi where Johnson made his deal more than 60 years earlier.
It was 5:00 in the morning and the air was thick with humidity as the temperature still hovered in the high 80’s. I had walked several miles after the bars closed, through the city streets of Fargo until I reached a dusty road south of the city past Interstate 94. I was still feeling the effects of several pitchers of beer served up to me and my band mates by Bob at Ralph’s Corner Bar in Moorhead just across the bridge from Fargo. As I walked my mind was on the band and the recent streak of bad luck we had experienced.
Floored was just starting to get attention in Fargo and soon the local colleges would fill the campuses with students during the days and the bars with young drinkers at night. We were playing well and our sound was bigger than anything you could find on the radio or even on records from bands that were playing in Minneapolis. Many bands, like the Geardaddies, Run Westy Run, Soul Asylum and Jonestown from Minneapolis, knew of us as a great little secret from backwards Fargo. However, our drummer, Rodney, had just been kicked out of his house in north Moorhead leaving us without a practice space. My girlfriend, Sweet Anne, was in Montana and I was feeling the pains of lost love. My former best friend and another band sidekick, Manny Breeze, had a fling with Sweet Anne before she left to Montana leaving a fistfight between best friends in her wake. This proved to be a blessing for Floored, since the band with Manny, Diddy Wah Diddy, was probably not as viable as Floored. But, I was depressed as I walked to the crossroad to offer the rest of my life to Rock-n-roll and seal a deal for Floored that would finally bring rock stardom to all of us.
I had learned of the crossroads from my friend Spooky. Spooky was a piano player—the best one in Fargo. He would play in the back room at Ralph’s for all of us. He had his own band called Spooky Chunks. Although he was only slightly older than all of us, we considered him the wise old sage musician and he was an inspiration to each of us. He would leave town periodically and come back at random intervals. When he was in town he stayed at Rodney’s house and joined us in after hours jams until early dawn when he’d finally announce he had “crickets in his ears.”
Spooky was the one who told me of the crossroads south of Fargo. I wasn’t sure of the exact spot, but after many late nights of wandering and days of driving I found what I assumed was the spot. That was the first time I met the Man with the dark soul, before I had been given the gift of guitar playing to go with my raw and nascent songwriting abilities. When I met the dark man at the crossroads the first time, he ordered me to come back later when I was ready. He gave me some inspiration and cursed me for a portion of my soul and put a retainer on the rest.
Now, I found myself wandering the same route to the crossroad on a hot sticky night outside Fargo to sell what was left of my already seriously compromised soul. I had a long walk to think about what I was going to do. A lot was on my mind-Sweet Anne, Manny, Betsy, Mary, Heather, Molesy, Thumpy, Rodney and, mostly, Spooky. The talk at Ralph’s that night was some recent news we had received from Minneapolis. Spooky was in the hospital.
He had been on the roof of a three-story apartment building dancing, naked under the light of a full moon. He was doing his patented spooky jig that ended up taking him over the edge of the building before he fell and landed on a stair railing in the middle of the night. Spooky would never walk or dance his jig again. He broke his spine completely through in two spots. Spooky was the best blues piano player ever in Fargo and might have been on his way to Blue immortality when the Devil came to collect his dues. Spooky had made the same walk I was making several years earlier and now he would never walk again.
I was contemplating my fate, weighing the pros and the cons of what lie ahead. I knew I was considering a shortened life for a brief period of fame and possibly putting myself in the same class as Dee-Dee Ramone, Keith Richard, Sid Viscious, Bob Stinson, Jimi Hendrix and others. We had already reached the height of a very good rock and roll band - maybe even great. From my perspective, based upon the raw power we could generate that transposrted each of us to the mysterious and unexplainable, we were equal to any band I had ever heard on record or seen live in a club. But, we were stuck in Fargo where the police broke up our parties quickly due to noise complaints and bar owners kicked us off the stage for being too loud.
This story should be accompanied by a soundtrack, but unfortunately the soundtrack does not exist. There would be Gremlin Stomp playing in the background as Molesy stumbled home on a snowy and drunken February evening, Blue Fields of Wheat playing during the adult exploits each of us partook with Betsy our local porn queen, Queen Geraldine whenever I held sweet Anne in my gaze, Guaranteed to Bleed as my fists drove into Manny’s face crushing his nose and cheekbones and I Can’t Get my Dick Up at the appropriate Rodney moment.
But, alas, the music meant to accompany this story has been lost to everyone but me. There are others who remember, particularly my band mates Thumpy and Rodney. My occasional recent conversations shared with them discussing those far away days reveal a shared nostalgia for the music we created almost twenty years ago in Fargo. However, even their memory is tempered when compared to my own. The memory of Floored in each of their minds is one of failure to rise to the level I thought we had reached. Rodney revealed to me he still has some recordings in his apartment in New York City and his descriptions of these recordings today does not support the memory I have of what came roaring from our amps and fingertips. But Thumpy and Rodney never made the trip to the crossroads. I was the only one to make that trip, although each of us paid a price for the curse the man with the steely eyes put upon me. Paul and Rodney’s pursuits for careers in music were similarly cut short by my breaking of the contract I had signed at the crossroads. For that, they were tantalized with limited success in a band called Hammerhead and the subsequent failures accompanying it.
I spent three years living in Fargo from 1988 to 1991 playing in three bands – Diddy wah Diddy, Hammerhead and Floored. I arrived as a twenty-two year old singer/songwriter with limited rhythm guitar playing abilities. I could strum a few chords and string together some songs. After my initial meeting with the devil, I became one of his potential minions capable of harnessing power and magic from my fingertips as they danced along the fret board of my cheap Gibson guitars before releasing it to anyone who dared stand in front of our amps to feel the full force of our songs. We played sparingly to only a few people who remain largely unknown. Later we learned we had actually built up a group of core fans that went on to make the “scene” in Fargo that became modestly famous along the same line as so many other local scenes around the country lasting months to years and producing a limited fame among national audiences.
From 1988 to 1991 however, there was nothing that could be described as a scene except for a small following that included some young and beautiful high school and college girls from nearby small towns willing to play the role of rock groupies for us. Those days from my early twenties created memories that would last a lifetime. In those three years, I did more living than the more than twenty years I have lived since. It seemed everything we touched turned to magic; it seemed that beauty was to be found in every direction we chose to perceive - it seemed I touched something I would never get a chance to touch again, for better or worse.
I have talked to a few others who witnessed some shows of Floored in Fargo. This small group of people is of varying opinions of what they witnessed on the stages of Kirby’s, the back room of Ralph’s, frat parties at North Dakota State University, gigs at area colleges and parties in the house where we practiced in North Moorhead. My memory of the music remains resolute even amongst those who remember a loud, drunk and obnoxious band. I know what we were. We were the greatest rock and roll band never heard.
Friday, March 27, 2009
We have been called social animals and it is true, we are. We are defined by our relationships and without them we would not exist. Our thoughts are meaningless without language to guide them and language is the tool that connects us with other humans. But, still, why do I feel so often that I am alone?
I am sitting in a coffee shop and I can feel my heart beating and I am reading of Adam Smith whose heart stopped beating almost a quarter of a millennium ago. As I look around observing everyone walking to and fro, some young, some old, I realize that in another quarter of a millennium all of our hearts will have also stopped beating a long long time ago.
What will that moment be like – when my heart stops beating? Will I know it at the time – that my heart will never make another beat. Will I know my last thought? Will I know when my body will no longer be seeking nourishment or eliminating its last bit of waste.
Of course, my genes will live on in another being whom I am aware of – love deeply – but it cannot be said I know his thoughts, nor will I live on in them. And, yet, I will – in his thoughts, but not my own which will have ceased at some point in the future.
Just as Adam Smith’s thoughts are still alive, my son will keep me alive in his thoughts as he goes through the rest of his life – stuck and immersed inside his own head monitoring his own heart beating. At least that is what I wish, should a catastrophe not fall and my son be taken from me before his time. His thoughts must live beyond my own, for my own sense of worth and being.
I see my father as he is in the last phase of his life. His brain still working, working well, but his thoughts not as cogent as they once were. He is part of me. He raised me. But, he does not have access to my thoughts. Nobody does. We are each alone even as we sit together and speak of baseball games and fishing trips.
My wife is social. She talks. She comes from a family of talkers. I mystify her. She mistakes my quietness for self-assuredness and wisdom. Many people do, but she is my wife. You would think she would know by now. Of course, in many ways she does, but she still thinks I am a thinker. I suppose I am smart. I mean I do think. I think a lot. But, I am not solving quadratic equations in my mind.
I read many other people’s thoughts, too. The ones they put down on paper. Some tell stories and we call them novels. They entertain me, but they also reveal to me the thoughts of the author. Brilliant men and woman, much smarter than I, thinking about what to put down on a paper for me to pick up to read, many of who’s hearts stopped beating a long time ago.
Other authors provide me with a different perspective on many problems in the world worth contemplating. Often when I decide to speak, I have this information readily at hand. People take this for me being smart – knowledgeable. Sometimes, when I contradict someone, they take me for a pompous fool. Indignant, they would say to themselves, if I could read their thoughts.
But, most of the time I cannot, because usually they don’t write them down. They walk away without saying anything and we both leave with only our own thoughts as we wonder what the other might be thinking. Judging each other as we rerun the conversation in our minds and continue it forward all inside our own minds, because our hearts are still beating and we can for as long as we can continue to nourish our bodies, breathing the air and taking in all of the creation.
We each may wonder about our souls, but our bodies and our brains are confined to this earth and one day our bodies will stop working and our thoughts will cease. Then we might find out about our souls, perhaps.
In some ways I am sure I am much larger than what is confined inside my body. What is it my dreams stand for otherwise? I am a part of the ecosystem that has its own metabolism and thoughts. Or is this just a delusion I use to deal with the loneliness of my existence and the knowledge that some day my thoughts will cease.
For that matter, is this why I write down my thoughts? Can I not bear the thought of the conversation ending? Do I delude myself into thinking that by having my thoughts written down others will keep them alive? Of course, this is a worthy goal. Who would not want to be part of the great conversations that live on with Aristotle, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and others? But, even if we can get our thoughts down for the next generations to read this will not keep our own brains alive. For what I wrote twenty years ago does not keep the twenty year old young man alive. Some day my thoughts will cease and my heart will stop beating. I am confined inside this body. We can share thoughts in conversation as long as I am still alive. But, some day this possibility will end.
And when it ends, it will end as lonely as it was when it all began, but much more abruptly. I was not aware of my first thought, but I will be aware of my last even as I am incapable of remembering it. My last thought will not be in conversation with another. It will be alone and I will not be able to share it just as I have not really been able to share with you what it is like to sit here alone and listen to my own heart beat. But, you know that anyway. Perhaps we don’t need to share that. We are each alone even if we are social. We will always be alone in our thoughts.
Has the house of cards finally fell? Yes and no.
What I was saying was two things. On the one hand I said that the US could not continue to mount a debt and have other countries finance it. Eventually, those holding the debt would come calling. It was no secret that U.S. households as well as the U.S. government were living beyond its means. The only thing of value that the US exported to the rest of the world was its military might and why would countries continue to finance our bullying around the world.
So, I said that house of cards would fall soon and this is what appears to be underway right now. I thought it would come sooner, but with each passing year as the debt mounted and the cards stacked higher, I predicted the crisis would be that much greater. I was Chicken Little. I told those that listened that eventually our troops would be stranded in Iraq, because we would be too broke to bring them home. Hmm… I am certainly a nutjob at times. But, my point was still that we could not continue on the pace we were going at. What is troubling is that Obama’s plan to get us out of this mess is still too much of the same thing that got us into this mess. While the debt mounted, the wealth distribution in this country was increasingly being divided between the haves and have-nots. Under Obama’s plan this will continue. The consolidation of wealth and power has never been in so few hands and the ones in the Obama administration writing the plans to get us out of the present financial crisis are the ones who got us into trouble in the first place.
In a way it can’t be any other way. I always said that to get where he is, Obama had to shake hands with a lot of dirty players. The financial sector paid for Obama’s campaign by and large and the deal that was cut was that they would be in charge of certain operations, one of them being any bail-outs or regulations of the finance industry. What else do people make these large donations for, but to further their own interests? Obama’s hands are tied.
But, that does not mean he can’t or won’t do something to make life better for those who actually voted for him, if not the ones who paid his way. Its just that his options are limited.
But, there is another way that our economy was doomed that is much more fundamental and structural than the finance industry and the fact that there were risky investments made by large financial institutions with unregulated derivatives and hedge funds that would some day crash just as every other bubble has done before it. Even if we can get out from under this financial crash, we are still up against another wall or limit. The other crisis I was always warning of to anyone who would listen were limits to growth. Something here would eventually give as well. We could not grow our economy forever. Sooner or later we would come up to a limit that had nothing to do with wealth distributions and debtors/creditors. This limit was with out environment and ecology as well as our own technological limits. We would not be able to solve all our problems with technology, because each technological solution to an environmental problem creates a larger problem waiting down the road. In a way this is similar to the financial crisis where we have been offering temporary solutions time and time again over the last half century as we moved from one crisis to the next forestalling the next bigger crisis until we arrive at where we are today where the solution being offered is again only temporary.
With the ecological crisis (and I am not talking about climate change which is really a small and irrelevant problem compared to other environmental limits imo) we can grow no more without causing more hardship. There are no technological solutions. Human ingenuity has reached its environmental limits. The Earth just becomes too small to support our entire economy and we are forced to adjust through various measures including famine, death and disease until our present means of living and economy are long gone and we learn to once again live day to day with little surplus to carry over and barter with others. That day has not come, yet, but it still awaits us in the future. This present financial crisis says nothing about how close we are to the true economic crisis which will end our civilization as we know it. I’m not sure we can avoid it and if our reaction to this financial crisis is any indicator, we will almost certainly not. We will continue to march right up to our doom.
Friday, March 6, 2009
My first questions were not necessarily economic questions. The questions I had in my mind as a young and impressionable undergraduate were philosophical ones. What is the meaning of life? Why is there injustice in the world? Who has power? What is democracy? Why is there war and hate in the world? What should I do with my life? With my limited experience and understanding of the world, the best answers I could come up with any for any of these questions had to do with money, as in the instruction – follow the money. In other words, my intuition told me that if I could understand how the economy worked, I would be much closer to having answers to all the above philosophical questions that plague many a young and inquisitive mind.
My first college economic course was taught by a raving free market economic lunatic who would later host a conservative economic blog that brought him national prominence. He was a fascinating teacher and he instilled in me the economic notion that people operate according to what is in their best interest. This is a basic assumption in economics. Assumptions are important to economic thought and theory. Most of the underlying assumptions for economics, such as people make decisions based upon what is in their best interest, are not only conceivable, but are not overly objectionable. The assumptions that are taught in introductory economics are important because they form the mathematical foundations of a theory that is taught in upper level and graduate economic courses. I will go into these assumptions in greater detail in another post. Suffice it to say that the final outcome of this assumption of individuals making decisions according to what is in their best interests is homo-economicus or economic man.
Economic theory postulates a society populated by economic man; an entire population of identical actors making decisions that will maximize each of their happiness and the result of this is a society that is the most well off. The fin de siècle economist and social critic, Thorstein Veblen, described these economic actors called homo-economicus as “homogeneous globules of desire.”
Some of this may be familiar to those of you who have suffered through the introductory economics course while you were an undergraduate student. The mere mention of introductory economic classes to most individuals can bring a sense of insecurity. I have often heard statements such as, “the only course that I got a C in was Intro to Econ,” or “I don’t remember much from the class except how incomprehensible it was.”
Introductory Economics provides the first exposure to concepts such as supply and demand curves, general equilibrium, consumer and producer surplus, price elasticity, gains from trade, comparative advantage, prisoner dilemmas, externalities, perfect competition and other economic concepts that can be a trying and forgetful experiences. However, what often sticks in peoples minds from these courses are certain counter intuitive concepts that were apparently proved to the young student using the economic model introduced in these classes; i.e., minimum wage actually will end up hurting young and poor wage earners, restrictions on trade are detrimental to economy, or that taxes from the government will undoubtedly lower the overall welfare in society. The actual details of the proof are lost to most of us, but the enthusiasm of the instructor who introduced these concepts to many people remains and are vehemently trotted out as absolute proofs daily around the blogosphere today.
As we are bombarded with news reports about the falling stock market, unemployment figures and bank failures, I don’t think an understanding of economic theory is necessarily going to help us understand exactly why our economy has failed this time around, because there are no simple answers and economic theory is a simplification of a very complex process. However, there is a very important reason for getting a handle on exactly what the economic theory says and that is the fact that we should know enough to know when economists are basing their opinions on a theory that is a simplification and the conclusions drawn from these theories are not always applicable or helpful when dealing with real world problems. A famous economist from the past, Joan Robinson, once said, “the purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.
Simplifying for the sake of understanding concepts is a very good thing, but we should also understand all the assumptions that underlie these models of simplification. The result of many people’s exposure to a limited set of neoclassical economic ideas is often fundamentalist maxims such as “government is awful and cannot do anything worthwhile,” “restrictions on trade are always bad for both importing nations and exporting nations,” and/or “raising the minimum wage will always lead to lowering the welfare of the least well off people in society.” People often believe they have discovered a Truth about the world after sitting through the introductory courses on economics and then want to go out and change the world to conform to the simple models they were introduced to in these classes often with the encouragement of professors or entire economic universities or think tanks espousing similar ideas at the expense of intellectual honesty.
Whenever you hear the cry from people or pundits that the we must have “free markets” or “lower taxes” or call any government program “socialist,” you can be sure that these people or pundits are informed by these simplified models in economics and are using them to their advantage. For there is one truth from economics that we can take away introductory economics that does provide light on individuals who describe themselves as “capitalists” and “free market activists” while calling those of us who criticize such fundamentalist beliefs “socialists.” These individuals are doing what we all do; they are operating according to what is in their own best interest because there is a hell of a lot of money at stake in the economy. I sometimes think we should all carry around certain moral assumptions when we are in possession of objective models that we are told provide us with scientific proof. Moral assumptions such as “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that wealth is the surest means for obtaining power, because there is nothing objective about those who ask for the freedom to do whatever they wish to do with their wealth regardless of the negative effects this may cause society. These people want money and power and they will do what ever it takes to obtain it and to hold on to it. This is the meaning and motivation behind many large and historical events we witness in the world that we place the label “evil” upon.
It looks like I will have to wait for households and a simplified model of economics for another day. Don’t worry, we will get to it. I’m not sure if will be the next post or one further down the line. Actually, I have no idea what the structure of format for all these posts on economics will look like. But, we will get to the nitty-gritty sooner of later.
I am not going to join the listing of blogs our in the blogosphere calling for Truth about the events of 911. I don’t know what happened that day anymore than anyone else does. However, there are enough inconsistencies in the official version of what happened that day to make anyone who does believe what the government tells us happened on that day much more susceptible to “tin hat” theories and crackpots than those that question what happened.
I’m not an expert and I am as susceptible to flawed information as anyone else. However, David Ray Griffin has presented enough questions and evidence that contradict what the government and the 911 commission have told us happened that day. These questions have not been answered. I don’t want to argue those questions and put my opinion out there as another among many in the Truth 911 movement. If you want to know more, go read David Ray Griffin’s books and come to your own conclusions. Here is a small list of the unexplained phenomena that happened that fateful day.
1. Why didn’t US defenses scramble to intercept any of those three flights that day?
2. How did inexperienced pilots with a record of poor flying manage to fly these jets to their targets in three of the four cases?
3. How did 3 (not 2) skyscrapers collapse at a freefall speed into their own footprint due to fire and minimal structural damage on that day (the first time ever that any skyscraper anywhere in the world has collapsed because of a fire).
4. Recorded Phone calls made from passenger on the four planes on that day when technology in 2001 would not have allowed those phone calls to go through.
5. The Pentagon building damage was not consistent with damage of a plane hitting it
6. other inconsistencies in the pentagon “attack”
7. The reports of named highjackers still be alive.
8. inconsistencies in the report of flight 93 and the apparent crash after passengers rushed the cockpit.
There are more inconsistencies and much evidence that makes the official version of what happened on that day unconvincing. This is the problem that most people have with those that question the official version. If four planes were not highjacked on September 11, 2001 by operatives of Al Qaeda and flown in the twin towers, pentagon, and a field in Pennsylavnia, if this version of events is not true, then what other explanation is there. The only other possible explanation is that we were attacked by someone else with the involvement of many top level officials in our government, military and corporate institutions and this explanation seems more implausible than the official theory.
I don’t think this is true however, especially in light of what we now know about the administration at the time and all the lies and criminal acts they were involved in such as the selling of the Iraq war to the nation, torture, extraordinary renditions, US attorney general scandal, etc. I don’t doubt that there was the necessary evil consolidated in top level positions to pull off an attack by our own government against its own people to bring about a change in our government, make the case for war in the Middle East, and continue to privatize our military while making huge contracts available to a few corporate entities. It wouldn’t be the first time pure evil had found itself in a position of power and made decisions leading to catastrophic events and the deaths of thousands if not millions of people. I am not a religious man, but I do have a belief in good and evil and I can entertain the idea of a cosmological war being played out in front of us between God and the Devil. How else can you explain a historical anomaly like Hitler and the extermination of millions of Jews? Likewise, I think it is a perfectly plausible explanation that George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and others in that administration were agents of the Devil set forth to bring evil and destruction to God’s creation on this Earth. For we should also not forget how the administration came into power with the dubious election of 2000 and the Supreme Court intervention in Florida as well as their dubious reelection in 2004 with all the election anomalies in Ohio and around the nation. Could there not have been some help from an evil powerful entity making all this possible?
Another, more human, explanation is that they were drunk with thoughts of wealth and power that accompanied the Presidency and a consolidation of powers and were eager to bring about a cultural change in America to benefit a small few while instituting a new neoconservative ideology into the largest superpower in the world. Regardless of whether evil is a human or metaphysical construct, I have no doubt that it is possible for certain events to arise that only the most heinous explanations will provide us a level of understanding for what happened on those days. And once we allow us the possibilities that are increasingly becoming actualities, such as that the administration condoned use of torture, the firing of US attorney Generals for not investigating dubious allegations of voter fraud, spying on US citizens with wiretaps, lying to get us into war, etc., it becomes more and more believable that nothing was out of the question for reaching the objectives set out for by this administration even before they came to power in 2000. Events such as the election night frauds in 2000 and 2004, the orchestrating of an attack killing thousands of US citizens on our own soil, and downing an aircraft of a sitting US Senator who was most oppositional (with a considerable level of influence) to the administrations wants become not only possible, but even likely if we are ready to accept that a certain amount of evil was in charge of our Democratic institutions for a period of time in the US. Perhaps this evil has always been there and is still there at some level. All I know is that it is possible.