Arguments V: Authoritarianism, Nature’s Trick, and What Makes Life Worth Living

The authoritarians would be pissed. They’re always pissed, but they’d be even more pissed to find out we found a new way to have fun. They hate it when we’re having fun because they don’t get to have much fun anymore. They followed rules we aren’t following and now they’re pissed because we think they were silly. So they banned pot and tried hard for centuries to ban sex, they failed there because no one can stop sex. But they still tried, and they still want to punish you for it. They really can’t intercede much, but they can try to make you have that baby that may or may not be the result. They pretend it’s about life, about respecting living things, but then they don’t really give two hoots about anyone’s quality of life. Poor people get stiffed and other unfortunate folks with disease or handicaps get very little. So really, the fact is authoritarians just hate your fun. They hate your ability to enjoy life. They can’t afford to have a cop follow you around day and night (as much as they’d like that), and Orwell’s Big Brother isn’t yet practical, and in our country the religious right are supposed to be separate from the state and so, . . . oh, wait Mr. Senator who voted against abortion rights, isn’t that a photo of an illicit bare bottom on your cell phone? Who is sending you their lovely bare bottom? Does your family know about her? How about that? And oh, no was your kid caught with a pound of marijuana crossing the Mexican boarder? Good thing you have connections.

What inspires this? What makes a Nixon? OR as they would have it in classic Star Trek, a “Herbert”. Their code for an authoritarian square. Someone who loves the rules, feels safest with the rules and regulations, and is terrified when others aren’t. You think cops, or Nixons, or the priest isn’t masturbating? They aren’t telling you. Then we find out that they were using the kids at their disposal. Of course they were, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because of biology. You see friends, Nixons, Herberts, and squares nature tricked us. We are not meant to live very long, not like tortoises or trees. Nature made us to be eminently replaceable. I know. It hurts. We are obsessed with our individuality but nature couldn’t care less. Our individualism dies quickly. We are like insects flitting at a floodlight. We think we’re so unique. But really we’re mostly just wired to replace ourselves. We are sexually primed as young teens, ready like bunnies to reproduce. Of course, we aren’t ready at all socially or culturally. What nature didn’t count on was us having these big brains that could actually account for ourselves. We’re supposed to have the brains of bunnies too, or at least monkeys. Nature never intended for us to build any of what we’ve built. Nature never anticipated our social inventions, never expected us to create so many rules. Nature didn’t anticipate self-awareness in general. It’s really incredible. Self-awareness after all is what allows us to create arts and history and learning. It’s what makes us collectors and curators and polluters. We are wired for social behavior there’s no doubt about that, we’re excellent at working together, even better than ants and bees really because they’re just clones, they don’t get to have individuality. But individuality, while it is great pleasure to fly our flags, also causes us so much grief. Individually we differentiate into creative and protective types. Lots of other types too. Some types do nothing but fear. Other types do nothing but complain. It’s better when individuals do things that are tangible. It’s healthier. Too many do nothing but consume and then become neurotic, their energies are untapped. If only they made music or wrote books but they don’t and their powers end up channeled into anxiety. Anxiety breeds more anxiety and soon they’re digging holes and collecting weapons. Now they are armed monkeys terrified of everything. Especially your lack of concern about the wild dangers they dream of. Nature didn’t know about this, didn’t expect us to poison rivers or fill the atmosphere with carbon. There aren’t any checks on our population save economic ones. We used to have the plague but our big brains conquered it. We used to have starvation, and that’ll be back soon, but right now, despite all our big brained warnings we keep growing our population.

We’re ready to have sex and reproduce early because, as I’ve just said, nature doesn’t expect us to live long. Most life is about replacement. It’s the species that matters, it’s the whole that nature intended to survive, not individuals. So we’ve been equipped with massive drive to reproduce. Perhaps there are drugs we could take that could ameliorate that. Instead we mostly have the opposite drugs. We are individuals. It’s a sort of beautiful thing that we can be individuals. It makes our big brained lives worthwhile. After all, many of us end up so frustrated and disappointed with life that we occasionally purposely end our lives. It’s not a difficult thing to understand, though it is very sad and so we pretend we can’t comprehend it. It must be a disease. We treat depression as a disease rather than treating our ability to adjust to horrible conditions as a disease. When the canary in the coal mine dies of the poisonous gasses (as they were once used as an early warning system of that mining hazard) do we think of it as a canary’s flaw?
And on it goes. We are sexy monkeys with too many anxieties. Some of these monkeys get pushy and decide that others need to be managed. And it’s as old as recorded history. The ancient Greeks were arguing about it (actually they already argued about everything we’re currently worried about—and it’s forgotten because we can’t be bothered to look at it). The question is what makes your life worth living? What makes your time well spent? What are you looking forward to? How do you spend your time? Is it pleasurable, whatever it is? Do you go to the beach? Do you send pictures of your bare bottom to a lucky recipient? Are you the lucky recipient of lovely bare bottom photos? Most of the time we probably only get photos of unwanted asses. Most of the time we’re only approached by the unwanted solicitation. It’s a pitfall of our easy lives. The authoritarian in us wants to make it all stop, but then, there are occasionally solicitations we want. Once at Provincetown in Cape Cod a man in a flamboyant wedding dress wolf-whistled at me. Later a woman asked me to assist her in getting an amorous fellow off her trail. I called him and told him his affection for her was misplaced and that she wasn’t interested in him. She spent an hour complaining about the poor guy who only had asked her if she wanted to go dancing, and since she lived next door he’d also offered her some home-cooked treats. Later in a kind of spell of introspection she said to me that she wondered how she would have felt if she’d actually found this fellow attractive–differently, very likely.

Nixon hated the Beatles. He considered John Lennon a true national menace. Along with the terror posed by Elvis swinging his hips in his effeminate manner (and it was seen as such at the time, despite the popularity of guys like Liberace!) it’s hard to not see all our objections in much the same light. Most of our fears are fashions just as harmlessly absurd as rampant tattooing or top hats. But our authoritarians will be concerned and will do their best to install the blandness of whatever era they feel most comfortable with.
Why do they want to do this? I’m convinced much of it, despite all our biology and all our epicurean sense, is about an endless desire to be children. I am convinced that authoritarians loved their position as children in their families, and miss those days of routine and irresponsibility. Someone else took care of everything, mother and father supplied the needs and they didn’t even know there were bills. Whatever household they were raised in is nostalgically perfect and righteous. As adults everything is a terror and the structure of childhood is irrelevant. there’s a kind of free-fall of free will! And this terrifies authoritarians. But for the rest of us this free-will is the thing we’ve been waiting for our whole lives! Our childhoods were holding patterns intended to shield us from the the difficulties of the real world, of course, but the real world is where all the fun is. After all, certain levels of risk is what it is we play with. Being an adult is when free-will can be realized. Of course there are various economic and responsibility limits to it, but it is still far better than the captivity of childhood—for most of us.

Personally, I’ll never sit and do a jigsaw puzzle. Nothing could be more utterly stifling. I will never sit and watch hours of ancient television shows because I grew up on them, few things could be more counteractive to my adulthood. It’s not a judgment it’s just nothing I want.

What makes life worth living? Experiences I’ve not had. And of course, repeating the most excellent adult experiences I’ve loved. Exploration is key and stimulates that most exciting of activities: learning. In short, being free from the restraints of authoritarianism is the reward of freeing ourselves from childhood. Plus, I still get a kick out of going to bed or not when I chose, and eating ice cream for dinner, and receiving an occasional photo of a beautiful behind.

The River, the Wind and Boredom

I don’t know what’s going on lately, said this ancient god. Possibly, I’ve lost my ability to dedicate to anything, you know, after so many eons . . . it’s hard to maintain the enthusiasm. How long’s it been?
A while, shrugs the Wind, looking askance at the River. But you always talk like this, for as long as I’ve known you, which, you know, has been a while—they both chuckle at this—but seriously, can’t you think of anything else to say?
I’m sorry, I’ve just been feeling a little put off lately, it’s hard to get excited.
You seemed OK that time the ladies went skinny-dipping.
I can barely taste any more. I can’t enjoy it anymore. My memory’s going, I’m telling you.
I envied you that.
The ladies?
But, goddamn you go everywhere! I’m stuck in this stinking direction, this embankment. It may as well be a cage, honestly. But you, look at you, you can go anywhere, top to bottom, any direction, all over.
Oh whatever. What do you want me to say, some kind of stupid lesson about life?
Neither god cares to speak for a while. Several thousand years pass before the conversation is again picked up. During that time many crude boats traveled the River, and many sweet damsels swam, and many fisherman cheered upon catching a magnificent fish. And the Wind uplifted astonishing numbers of birds, blew chills into the bones of many animals, and occasionally provided just the right delicious cooling breezes to the hot laboring faces of peasants.
Oh, I know what I was going to say, says the River.
Oh? I’m listening.
Well, when you’re not all wrapped up with the storms.
It’s my job.
I know, but still, you could be a little less accomodating.
The Wind sighs, something he does very well. What were you going to say?
Listen, I was thinking, I’m bored.
Only boring gods become bored.
I’ve heard that, but I can’t help it. I have to admit it. Boredom is inescapable. Can’t I complain to someone?
It sure does look that way.
I’m going to confront him, says the River.
I don’t recommend it, replies the Wind.
Why not?
He’s difficult. At least that’s what I’ve heard. He’s kind of a difficult customer. The Wind swished about and teased the trees.
The River quietly plied its course, while several complete lunar cycles passed.
I’m gonna call him, I can’t continue like this, said the River to the Wind finally exasperated.
Fine, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Boredom! Ennui! Whatever you call yourself! I want to talk to you. The River shouted from bank to bank from the mountains of its youth to the aged ghastly specter at the Sea (who hadn’t spoken to him since he upset her back around when crustaceans separated from worms, neither could remember the offense any more, but it had been callous.)
What do you want? Said a very drab voice.
Is that you? I need to talk to you. I’m . . . going crazy with familiarity, with the sameness, the homogeneity, the lack of any excitement!
What about those ladies who skinny-dipped in you?
Yes yes, that was fun, but honestly, even that becomes tired after a while.
So? What would you have me do about it? Said the incredibly monotonic voice.
I need help, you have to tell me how I can escape you.
During the interceding pause an entire olive harvest and pressing into oils and storing in enormous clay jars took place.
I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do about it. I am part of the plan.
The plan? What are you talking about? The Wind jumped in, having been listening along as was his habit.
OK it’s not a plan, I was just making an excuse that I thought would satisfy the stupid River, I didn’t realize I was going to have to answer to you as well.
I’m not stupid.
He really isn’t stupid, the Wind objects.
Well let’s just say, he’s no Wind. Or even the Sea really.
Oh now, that’s just uncalled for, what’s she got that I haven’t?
The Sea? She’s very deep you know? Sensitive, and with unplumbed depths.
Of course, I knew you were going to say that. Are you . . . in love with her?
Love . . . can you imagine me in love? Look at my face?
The River gazes at the placid face of Boredom, the Wind too has a cool look.
So you see, it’s not a matter of love, it’s simply a matter of character.
Her depth.
Right, whereas, I mean, if you look at it, you’re . . . I mean, I don’t mean to insult, but, you’re not deep.
Nope, I’m shallow. The River said, precisely, with a certain immediate compunction.
No offense. Boredom’s voice was entirely passive, as if pointing out the sun was up.
Storms blew up, the clouds rolling into foreboding, dark, and enormous mushroom caps of pelting rains.
Oh damn it all, the River moped.
Now you’ll have some excitement, said Boredom.
No I won’t it’ll just be the same swelling and over-running the banks and sweeping away farm animals and babies. It’s always the same!
But it isn’t really the same, is it? Boredom carefully stated, not asked.
Of course it is! Look it’s happening now all these poor creatures I’m about to upset. The River began to swell and his surface started to impinge on his banks.
No, I mean it can’t really be the same, all the details will be utterly different. You can’t sweep the same pig away in the same manner two times. There are too many variables.
Seriously? I’m really supposed to find the difference in the pig a satisfying variation?
Why not? Boredom said as the rain pelted his broad and entirely forgettable face.
For fuck’s sake, that’s just exasperating. One pig’s the same as another, the damned things drown the same! Stop pretending I should be reveling in it.
You really are stubborn. Can’t you at least understand that you get to do something. You get to be something?
What do you mean, the River said just as a silly hog stumbled down the bank and into his currents and was swept away. Damn it all.
Well, imagine my role. I have no form, like Disease and Dream and Mirth, I just am. I never get to drown a pig, nor feel the lovely damsels swimming in my currents. Think of that, all I get to do is create the sense of endless hopeless uneventfulness.
That Mirth is a character, why not compare me to him?
There’s no comparison, Boredom said with a distant look.
So, you want to drown a hog?
His attention returned. I’m not, you know, in particular, saying that’s what I want.
Just then the powerful River began eroding some foundations and a few of the weaker structures that had been placed near the waters, were collapsed, baskets, and lumber, and straw, and piles of other flotsam along with a baby in a crib were washed rapidly downstream. The horrified mother, a pale and raven haired beauty, threw herself into the current to attempt to rescue the baby, but after a few flails she rapidly drowned.
Thrills. The River said desperately unhappy.
They always start out giving you distance, and then they get closer and closer, they forget easily the danger. Can you feel her?
You mean the dying and the dead? Of course, I feel them. I don’t know what they feel, but I feel them.
What does it feel like?
It itches.
Do the fish itch too? And the turtles, and the little things, the, what do you call them, shrimp and bugs?
No, I’m used to them. They’re like the birds in the Wind.
I feel the birds, the Wind piped up suddenly.
Fine, so tell me what the birds feel like. The River said growling with frustration.
Not right now, I’m kind of busy pushing this storm around. It’s a pretty good match, I’m getting kind of winded.
See? You should be more like the Wind, Boredom said with leveled honey-like consistency. I’d like to feel itchy.
It’s awful.
It’s hard for me to imagine any feeling being awful. What’s it feel like when you freeze in winter.
Honestly, I feel nothing in the winter. I’m asleep.
The rain increased and the River began to really make trouble even for the folks living at the higher edges of the flood zone. These were, as usual, the richer people who almost never had to worry about the seasonal flooding.
That’s really interesting, Boredom replied. Your life is fascinating.
You’re patronizing me, I’m not happy about this.
It isn’t my meaning, replied Boredom.
The rain and River were at peaks of incredible natural violence. Homes being swept away were smashing and drowning life already caught in the currents. The rain at this point was causing horrific mudslides. The people who managed to get to higher ground were finding that ground under their feet was being shockingly eroded. It was a real tragedy.
Isn’t there anything you can do about this tedium? The River moaned.
I’ll have to think about it, Boredom retreated.
Eventually, as time passed, not only did the River return to normal levels, and the rain subside but the summer was wonderful, and so were subsequent years. In fact the next several decades saw sunny and perfect seasons. Soon enough the people and animals returned and sure as the sun rose and set with Dawn’s rosy fingers, the houses crept closer, and the barns were built on the water’s edge. Beautiful damsels, more beautiful than any in history, plunged naked into his mild currents and bathed. The River sighed.
Yes, said Wind.
Do you know if there will be any relief.
I don’t expect so.
Will Boredom return?
When he’s ready.
After a pause in which amazing technological advances allowed for beautiful metal suspension bridges and speed boats roaring up and down his length, dropping oil onto his surface, he moaned, Have you heard from the Sea?
She says you’re an asshole.

Arguments IV: Talking Shit, Superiority, Comedy, the Fish Bowl Life

Have I been talking shit? I told some stories about how a friend of mine exasperates me with some of his squarish and intensely insular behaviors. For example, this friend of mine—and I should emphasize I do love the guy—frequently tells the same anecdotes and jokes over and over. He can’t help it. Life triggers the same folders of responses for him and he’s not updated those folders in years. He also claims to love music, but not a bit of the music I’ve brought to him has had any impact on his collection he plays for us at classes over and over again as background music. One year I had all his students create him a collection of their favorite music so he could add things into his mix. Of course, he never did. His walls erected to impede influence are impenetrable. He has silly childlike eating habits (he avoids grapes because they resemble ticks!), and even more remarkably silly puns. I was trying one day to get him to listen to some Stewart Lee comedy, having just enjoyed Lee’s send-up of the conservative British immigration opponents (Yes be angry at these people who brought you a cuisine, and enriched your culture with their arts), at any rate within seconds he’s pummeled my messenger feed with piles of ancient clips of chronically parochial jokesters sounding like Hee-Haw had never left the air. OK I get it, we all have our tastes and there’s no accounting for it honestly, but I was hoping to have some impact on his homogeneity. It gets under my skin that he so effectively blocks any sort of introduction to anything new through a method of defensive barrage of his own favorites. Look, I’m not saying you don’t have things you love, all I’m trying to do is introduce you to something you may not have been familiar with before. The response should be “Oh great! I’ve never seen this guy, or heard this before! Thank you!” Instead, the response is more like, “Well here’s what I like.” I hate to sound vicious but, I didn’t ask, I assumed you had a collection of things you like (because I’ve heard it all over and over again over the years we’ve been working together).

All of a sudden a lady friend who works with us hollers at me, “I really try hard not to shit talk about people.” She gives me a stern censorious look, as if I’ve broken some social trust and should be ashamed of myself. At first I’m taken aback, of course, I feel some guilt and I want to apologize, but then I start to think about it.
What do people talk about after all? We talk about other people. We talk about sports figures and celebrities and our friends and relatives. We complain about their behaviors, and choices, especially when we’re married to them. Occasionally we brag about folks’ accomplishments or kindness, but mainly we are relating endless anecdotes about how funny, or silly, or wild people are. It’s how we learn about people. It’s how we relate experiences to one another. This idea of “shit talk” is entirely irrelevant. If my goal was only one of disrespecting someone because they are a bad person then the discussion is one of warning and necessary. If it is a story relating character or humor, it certainly isn’t abusive, or destructive. If I were telling a story about a friend who had an affair and I’d been asked not to discuss this, I’d understand the complaint. Don’t confide in someone who is likely to tell these stories.

My friend sometimes does his hilarious thing. He’ll start talking about a favorite food or place he’s been, and he’ll wind it all up with an incredibly dull reveal. For example, one day, during a discussion of favorite treats, he pipes up, “Oh you know what I like?” We look his direction implying the “What?”. “I love a really good, maybe a Haagen Dazs brand vanilla ice cream.” It takes this form. You have the wind up, you imagine he’s going to treat you to something you’ve not had before, something you’ll be excited to go try right after work, a whole new experience you’ve never heard of. But instead, he lets you down with the most obvious and possibly even weakest of choices to get excited about. He really is this funny with his boring-ass preferences. Vanilla! Who hasn’t had vanilla? It’s like going to the sushi restaurant and only ordering white rice, and then acting like, somehow, that plate of white steamed rice (about as special as those industrially produced soft white-bread dinner rolls at most restaurants) is the most satisfying thing available on the menu. He does these sorts of things all the time and they are hilarious. It becomes a kind of comedic performance that we often joke about. Going into an international cheese shop and walking out with the five pound block of yellow “American” cheese. These are childhood experiences that should be built on in adulthood, but instead have been preserved in his psyche, untouched from those years as the best! And hey, I’m not saying vanilla isn’t good! I’m just saying that no one needs it expressed at this point in our lives. We’ve all had vanilla.

Shit talk. I got into a discussion about music with someone online one day in a Captain Beefheart fan-group. I love Captain Beefheart but possibly not as much as some folks. One day I found myself faced with a fellow who wanted to argue that the Beatles were, once again, the best band ever. This is a tiresome argument at best and usually ends in a disappointment when I realize that this isn’t a quantifiable communication, it’s an outlook that has established itself and become unshakable. Of course the Beatles were terrific, but they by no means need to be flagged again and again by the stalwart supporters who imagine that we’ve somehow lived our lives so insulated from the world that we’re not familiar with them (though, actually these days, fifty plus years on from some of it, it is entirely possible to be ignorant of the British Invasion and much of the old psychedelic rock—no judgment, there’s really no reason to worry about it). This fellow went on to suggest that you needed no other band! This idea left me a bit breathless. What do you mean we don’t “need” any other band? What the hell kind of argument is that? Music is a vast sea of variety and beauty that can be dipped into at any point and amazing treasures can be retrieved through that rewarding exploration. This fellow, however, was satisfied with his one band. He stipulated the many ways the Beatles covered all varieties of music. They had acoustic and electric styles, they occasionally dipped into old jazz and humorous takes on twenties singing styles (that appealed to their older producers), they had love songs, they had rebellion songs, they had rockabilly, blues, and even crazy experimental pieces. You see? he wound up with a triumphant flourish, everything you need! One imagines the fellow seated in front of his stereo pondering what he’ll listen to today. Obviously one of the Beatles albums at his fingertips, but then, which of the wonderfully diverse styles will he delve into. The connoisseur style of appreciating a beloved collected item usually involves a circling of a very narrow range of focus expanded into a universe of detailed familiarity. Imagine living in a fish bowl like a little goldfish. How each familiar day would have to be spent looking over the same bits of gravel and swimming through the same little plastic treasure chest. How your daily highlight might be when the owner comes and sprinkles a pinch of pink and red flakes of food onto the surface of your water. You’d pick at that, you’d maybe swim a few laps, and then? Well I can tell you I’d be looking to leap out in a suicide plunge to end the monotony. Obviously goldfish don’t suffer this kind of mental torment, their most devastating experience is getting toilet flushed. But also, it seems to me many people don’t apparently suffer from the endless familiarity much either. My friend reaching for his vanilla over and over again, the fellow who only needs the single band’s album output to be satisfied, folks who are perfectly happy to never leave their apartments, or watch the same old reruns of television programs over and over. These people fascinate and somewhat terrify me. The goldfish-like ability to never leave the self-proscribed limits of interest would make my life not worth living, and yet these folks seem to thrive!

Shit talk. Again it’s inevitable. I was watching an episode of a comedy show in which Jerry Seinfeld was discussing the business with Jim Carey. Carey very astutely pointed out that most comedy is about superiority. We are laughing down at others who aren’t as erudite or clever as ourselves. Could be a variety of other qualities that we might laugh at as well, but in so many ways what is comic is us feeling a bit better than those who somehow don’t measure up. Maybe this is my argument, maybe I’m feeling superior about not living what I see as the limiting lives of some of these people I’m discussing. Just because I’m not interested in telling or hearing the same jokes or music every day, day in and day out, doesn’t mean others can’t be satisfied by it. Who am I to say? And what judgment I level at it is possibly entirely subjective. I see our world as this massive place that we’ll never get to put our arms around entirely, but that we should do our best to appreciate and experience through any means available to us. However, there is fear. There’s not just fear of the unknown, but fear of not knowing!

As a young man I was a bit ashamed of my inexperience. I was quite limited, as I am now, financially and so I worked hard, out of this insecurity, to dismiss things I wasn’t familiar with. One day someone mentioned that I should read Jack Kerouac and I was stunned. I’d not heard of him. Who was this artist that this guy knew about and I didn’t!? Eventually I got my hands on the famous On The Road and blew through it with an eye toward hating it. What a shitty book, I cried with laughter. What ridiculous style, what silly anecdotes. What were we going to learn from this dope? Nothing! I concluded, my defenses up and my walls against influence secure. Uh oh. Yes there I was feeling insecure and afraid and doing my best to avoid changing and enjoying and experiencing. I heard Henry Miller describe much the same feelings writing in his treatise Books In My Life. I longed to be superior, and I thought if I could dismiss all the influences and experiences other folks had that I had not, then, I was equal. By the way, it is remarkably easy to be stubbornly untouched by the world. You only have to keep your habits as they are. You only have to ignore the new offerings. Or at best, simply skim them and hate. It’s as easy as ignoring a homeless fellow, or dismissing a workmate because of their ferally southern accent.

What you soon learn as you expand outside your fishbowl, the thing you should have left as a child, as you get more skillful about navigating the more dangerous world outside your baby crib, is that some people never do. Some people hate challenges and hate having to open themselves to scary new experiences. They “hate” people, and they “hate” social situations they haven’t got control over. We’re all like this to some degree.

Am I wrong to want to get people to expand their experiences? To argue for more unfamiliarity in our lives? To break conformity and comfort bubbles that surround many of us to the point of fearing anything not immediately in our circles of experience? Isn’t this, in fact, what causes, at least in part, xenophobia and terror about the world? Most of what is in our lives, easily on offer, is the sameness that can be sold to the most people. Almost all products are aimed at that middle-of-the-bell-curve of human desire and experience. It’s why there’s an isle in the grocery store called “international”, rather than the products scattered throughout. It’s how various forms of religion develop and perpetuate. Progressive change is impeded by the fear of experience. Impedance is a factor of a natural human reaction to fear of experience.
Shit talk nothing, shit talk is necessary. We have to break these barriers and we have to cause experiences to happen, good and bad. The bubbles need to be burst because they’re impedance on social improvements. Fear is not an option. Shit talk undermines superiority. Shit talk is our tool!

Caddyshack Revisited

It was 1980, I was a pimple-faced fat kid who was just leaving the world of James Herriot novels and an obsession for trout fishing to enter into a lifetime fixation with, well, women. Women who, mostly, were never quite interested in me. Of course, there are few things crueler than a teenage girl—pretty little human beings negatively preoccupied with the foulness of any odors and unusual looks.
I grew up in Coventry, Rhode Island, and we had a little grungy downtown cinema frequented by the local kids. And when I saw Caddyshack I remember the audience being mostly high school kids and feeling like I was at a school assembly. I can’t remember if I saw it with my friend Kerry or not. But I can remember laughing hardest at some of Bill Murray’s portrayal of Carl. At one point Carl is tasked with killing gophers, at first he misunderstands the over-the-top Scottish accent of his boss and thinks he’s being told to kill golfers on the golf course, but once it’s made clear Carl accepts the job and adds with a shrug of resigned clarification, sure I can kill the gophers . . . don’t even need a reason. And that line, killed me at fifteen.

Netflix is carrying the old film, and it’d been about thirty-five years since I’d seen it. I selected it with some trepidation, would I enjoy it, could it possibly hold up? So few things loved as a kid do manage to survive adult scrutiny. Especially when coupled with a disdain for nostalgia. Seriously, I don’t do nostalgia.

The Kenny Loggins song kicks in, the puppet starts dancing, and I thought, OK at least it’s not goddamned CGI. Here’s what impressed me, about the revisit to an old favorite. Ted Knight’s rich bastard character was much better than I remembered. I remember hating him, and you still do hate him, but you also are impressed with his amazing expressiveness. Ted Knight for me was always Mary Tyler Moore’s Ted Baxter the dumb-as-dirt, self-important anchorman on the news show they produced. In Caddyshack his role isn’t much different as the judge, and his job is basically to cross foils with Rodney Dangerfield’s goofy loutishness, but it works. If exaggeration is a means of effective teaching, and it is, then we can imagine these incidents being told to us by not quite trustworthy blue collar pals in the break-room. Dangerfield’s strutting and tossing of bills, slamming the judge’s hat, and stupid child, and the entire zombie dance of the old folks—confusingly Caddyshack is a series of events that seem unconnected in any sensible context but it barely matters because you’re excited by the feral quality of most of the humor—the story seems intact because we all want to believe in the richness of mythological superior moments.

Moving on we meet Noonan, a regular kid acting as our straight man to most of the movie’s action. He gets slammed early on by Ted Knight’s judge telling him that the world needs ditch diggers as well as lawyers, implying solidly that he doesn’t much care what happens to our hero. As a young man this bit of asshole Republicanism lodged deep. It was as good as Mary Karr’s father saying that a Republican is someone who can’t enjoy a meal unless he knows someone else is going without. After all we are raised in this nation to believe our desire and our work ethic are what matter, not our economic hang-ups, or social position acquired from birth. Noonan takes it in stride after all he’s got an adorable, and generous lady-friend at the country club with a spell-binding Irish brogue, sorta. She also takes it in stride when Noonan clearly pursues the beautiful relation of the judge, Lacey Underall. More about this later.

One of the things that jumps out thirty-five years later is the youthfulness of both Murray brothers. Bill as Carl and his brother Brian-Doyle who portrays the caddy manager. Today these brothers are doing a podcast visiting baseball clubs around the nation and enjoying song and jokes about baseball in general. Sadly, sports-ball is not my thing and not even the clever fun of the Murray brothers is likely to assuage that, I’m sorry to say. It’s important because much of this movie revolves around people golfing, but never so much that you’re actually worried about having to watch golf. Also, gambling rears its ugly head, and quickly goes off the rails, with betters soon betting on nose-picking, and doubling exhorbitant sums in a space where gambling is supposed to be illegal. I think what I liked best about that as a kid was the portrayal of ostensible adults acting like unleashed kids, it’s both unnerving and somehow satisfying to realize that the world (or at least the world of certain movies) is populated by people who are all just a step away from unhindered foolishness. It’s not just Dangerfield and Knight who are behaving with the unhinged rambunctiousness of empowered demons. Dangerfield and Knight are of a generation both born in the 1920s and seemingly comfortable vying as contemporaries from opposite angles of the social spectrum. While both characters portrayed are wealthy, Dangerfield’s Czervik is frustrated and bored with the stuck-up attitude of the elite and acts to undermine it, making him heroic to the movie-going audience. This differs from Dangerfield’s usual self-deprecating humor in which he “gets no respect”, and which he played with great success in about 1000 Tonight Show appearances (actual score of appearances was 70!).

Alongside these heavyweight characters trading blows is Ty Webb, a strange and often wholly unfunny weirdo played by Chevy Chase. I remember as a kid wanting desperately to like him, as I had enjoyed him on Saturday Night Live and was probably the only person in the country who actually liked his TV comedy special. Chevy is strange, many of his lines are entirely oddball and seemingly random. My uncle says you have a screw loose engenders, “Your uncle molests collies.” I’m sure I guffawed and probably even tried that line out a few times at school, but now, Chase’s haunted, goofy, possibly gay, maybe a Vietnam veteran making the noise of the Six Million Dollar Man as he golfed—meant to seem vaguely mystical with a tinge of martial artistry—just falls flat. He has a few sight gags, billowing smoke between his clenched teeth, and spilling wine, and punching decorations with vigorous gestures a la Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. But none of it seems funny now. Especially when compared to Murray’s outstanding and lovable looniness.

OK let’s get to Bill’s portrayal of Carl. What is going on here? Is Carl autistic? Is he meant to seem handicapped? I never thought to ask back in the day, but now I’m finding myself a little uncomfortable with Murray sticking his lip out sideways and sounding rather like he’s had some sort of stroke. As his gopher-hunting activities escalate we’re along for the ride, but his appearances in the film are genuine gold. Blasting the flower heads with his drives while he improvises being on a television golf show, or producing animals to trick the gopher with out of C4 explosives I remember I was most enthralled with his wonderful fun. When, near the start of the movie, he’s got Noonan backed up against the wall with a pitchfork carelessly pointed at his throat and telling him about the Dali Lama granting him prefect consciousness on his deathbed (whatever that means) it becomes part of us. Later, when Ty and Carl meet in Carl’s shabby abode, the character is greatly expanded. Carl seems much more acutely aware than he did before. He’s interested in Ty, and tries to socialize with him. He’s even got a research project going on with a grass hybrid you can supposedly smoke. Then, they start passing a doobie and shotgunning booze over it. Chevy as Ty is oddly straight for a guy with the weirdest lines in the movie, at one point following a come-on from Lacey to tie her up with his ties with “let’s pretend we’re real human beings.” Getting back to the story at hand, Ty wants to just play his ball through Carl’s home, Carl then starts up a gas blower to clean up. Scene over. But what a fun scene, it does nothing to enhance the movie, nothing to move the story of our hero Noonan as he attempts to get a scholarship. It is there merely for the yucks produced by these two SNL alums.

Back to Noonan’s love life. Soon enough he’s managed to bed the lovely relative of the judge, boobies are out for this scene and I don’t remember having been a young person thrilled about it. I wholly forgot it. But lovely boobs are on display and what does a young man watch a movie for? I’ll tell you, boobs. Noonan gets quite lucky, until he’s boldly dressed in the robe of the judge who promptly arrives to kill him, retreating Noonan steals into the bathroom where the wife of the judge is taking a shower—the lady having walked half barefoot in her torn dress directly to the shower we presume—OK we’ll roll with it, as it’s a cute sequence of the older lady giving a fine smile to our hero.
Here’s where things get interesting. Noonan also beds Maggie, who in a later scene he offers to marry out of an impulse of chivalry. The Lacey character is also with the Chevy Chase character for an odd nude massage scene. And in the end Noonan is with Maggie again, receiving a kiss in the final celebratory moment of the film. Was 1980 a more sexually liberal time? It appears so. The final line of the movie delivered seemingly at random by Dangerfield is “Hey everybody we’re going to get laid!”, which is received with a big cheer from the crowd he yells it to.
As a boy I remember this film giving me a sense of possibilities of the future in the way some of those jackass “What Will You Do?” with your life assemblies they did at High School were meant to. I didn’t care about golf or riches. What I cared about was being loved, and finding pleasure. Caddyshack, while obviously a vehicle for rambunctious jokestering, championed a kind of celebration of epicurean lifestyle. Granted much of that style relied on extreme wealth, but the character of Noonan managed to parley, despite his lower economic status, a healthy, and fully immersed experience which was assisted by kindness and hopefulness that are the mark of any sensible band of humanity. One hopes that Carl will achieve his goals and become the head groundskeeper, and that the jokes will continue, and that we all will get laid!

Five Delicious Emergency Recipes You Can Make In a Pinch!

We’ve all been there, low supplies and ice on the roads. How to satisfy the family while keeping the meal nutritious during a nor’easter or an arctic clipper isn’t magic, it’s about using your noggin. Creativity will save the day in most situations and provide meaningful nourishment your family will thank you for, right after demanding it of you. Let’s get to it!

The first of the five emergency meals is a favorite all the time. My kids go nuts for it on TV night and I usually have it ready by the time The Brady Bunch is on. Jiffy Pop and eggs is all you’ll need and believe me it truly is fun to make!
Get the Jiffy Pop going on the stovetop. Once it’s blossomed into that fantastic shining balloon of popped corn goodness, tear it open and crack two eggs into it. Cover it back up and shove it in the toaster oven for about five minutes at 400 degrees. Pull it out and serve. That’s it! It’s a hot ticket to your family’s hearts!

The next meal for irregular situations is a practical solution to the age old problem of using up those frozen goods. We all have good intentions when we buy those Goya fruit pastes or that extra large, fifteen dollar, bag of frozen strawberries, but after awhile it is clear that those things are taking up much needed space. But what to do with them? Fret no more I have the solution! Take that frozen freezer stuffer to a well greased nine by nine baking tray and fill to the brim with any of your unwanted fruit. I like to lay the pineapple or guava paste boards in the bottom of the pan and top with berries. Set the oven to 400 degrees and bake for about 20 minutes while the kids take a bath. Have yourself a cigarette and a cognac. When the time’s up pull the piping hot fruit out and crack a couple of eggs over it and send it back in the oven for about two minutes. Health experts tell us that fruit and protein are a perfect meal for those of us putting on a bit of tire round the middle, if you know what I mean! Hey, the fruit and eggs is about done, time to get those kids on the sofa for an episode of the Love Boat while they sing mom’s praises!

The third no fuss meal for stormy weather comes to us from Beatrice Morsello and was a favorite of her immigrant family when they first arrived from their shithole country. After a long day of working the loading docks her papa wanted nothing more than to settle in with a beer and his favorite meal of baked root vegetables. That’s right, anything you’ve been saving in that bottom cupboard near the stove, the old potatoes sprouting legs, the slowly softening parsnips, the old carrots–keepers for a storm day! Arrange these root vegetables on a huge baking sheet like this, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, yucca, carrot, onion and repeat. Put enough on the sheet for a real smorgasbord of flavorless starch. Set your oven to 400 degrees and bake those suckers good for about an hour. Have the kids de-flea the family cat while you’re waiting and get them pumped for an episode of Happy Days. What does Fonzi say kids?! Ayyyyyy! As soon as you pull the roots out of the oven crack a couple of eggs over it and stick it back in the oven for a few minutes, you’ll be glad you did. Yum-yum, nothing satisfies like piping hot root vegetables. Health experts remind us that eggs have good cholesterol. And no one knows what that means!

It’s about time for that fourth recipe folks, this one is a real killer. It’ll make your kids so glad they came in from your tick infested backyard to watch Charo on the Jerry Lewis Telethon that’s been on most of the weekend and you’re out of cognac. The kids want foodstuffs and you’re prepared, aren’t you? No? Well look again at those packages of ramen! Ramen have about a hundred and ninety calories per package with or without the sauce packet. That’s right, the sauce packet is clearly calorie free! I usually have a large collection of the little foil packages ready to sprinkle onto almost any dish, chicken, beef, that weird one that you can’t really tell what it is . . . anyway get ready to use those little foil packets for all they’re worth while that lady with the fucking lambchop puppet depresses your children. Boil up all the ramen in the house, and slice up some bananas, try to use up the old ones because you know no one is taking a brown banana to lunch with them. Mash the bananas into the ramen once they’re all piping hot on the stovetop. Add flavor packets to taste. You’re probably about out of eggs by now, so for a flair the kids will love, dump some brandy on the serving bowls and light them on fire! Your kids will love and then quickly be disturbed by the dancing flames.

I know I said five meals, but Jesus I’m exhausted and Starsky and Hutch are on and the kids seem a bit woozy now, so I don’t wanna get them all cranked up again. So just get out some of that brick-hard Aldi’s ice cream and see if you can identify the artificial flavors in that neopolitan. Enjoy!

Arguments III: Self Mythology and Understanding Chaos

We love to tell successful stories about ourselves and have an astonishingly adept ability to find nonexistent patterns in chaos—we can see faces in wood grain, or bunnies in clouds—we tend to make neat narratives about our lives where none really existed. Of course, some of this is done just to simplify, but more often than not we strip our stories of the vast amounts of confusion and flat-out anxiety over the unknown.

Self-help gurus would have us get up every day and say a bunch of self-affirming dreck into a mirror. While there may be positive results of doing such (maybe you were about to slit your wrists?), no one can say there’s any evidence that doing so has the slightest influence on the outcome of our lives. Devotions to spiritual deities are much the same self-help nonsense. These games we play with ourselves may help us survive by convincing us, at least temporarily, or parochially, that we matter.

Facing the world as it is, which is to say, random and without concern for us, scares the piss out of some folks. Especially folks who grew up in that bubble of religious belief that cradled them with this idea that human beings are somehow the children of greater super parents who are looking out for us. I get the desire for this comfort, and it makes sense that so many cling to it with fervor, however it’s utterly immature, virtually by definition.

In other words, desiring a kind of super-parenting beyond your childhood is in fact the ultimate “Peter Pan” syndrome.

And I’d go so far to say more destructive to society than drugs. Why? Because belief in this supernatural sense of self-importance related to cosmic care hinders actual social progress. Believers have a tendency—despite the dedication to family and even some admirable charitable causes—to press belief over rational causality. While most American Christians have a tendency to variably define their God, it is almost certainly the case that each one considers all others wrong. It has long been understood that our nation of individuality breeds religious variation, in fact, long ago quipped by some founding father intellectual that every man in America with a Bible has his own religion. But I stray from my point.

Our self-narratives, linear and clean, expressed as solutions to problems overcome, reflecting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (especially in terms of esteem and love), are inevitably as full of bullshit as our popular movies. We adore a clean story of success and admirable, possibly even, ethical process. We want our heroes to be heroic down to their boot soles, their prosperity the result of their genius and hard work. I will admit that without some hard work and smart thinking chances for prosperity likely plummet, but it is also the case that the prosperous are, more often than not, just as shiftless and lazy about their choices as any of us are. Good fortune does not favor anything we can pinpoint. Randomness cannot be harnessed or influenced. This is why investments are gambles. This is why there are hedge fund specialists. This is why corporations and research institutions employ risk analysts. We don’t like hearing about these things. We are discomfited by the idea of so much risk and gamble. But these elements are solid truths of our society. While the blue collars sweat and toil, every night putting their hands together to appeal to God, the owners and bankers are reading the statistical research from their analysts.
Statistics are the language of science. Understanding statistics is the antithesis of con artists and bullshit. While statistics can be used to lie, the lies are only very successful with the statistically illiterate. And so, I suggest to you to read a stats book. There are many good ones. One of my favorites is Statistics Explained by Perry Hinton. I’m sure you can get a cheap used copy! And to wrap up, don’t be fooled by people’s excitable mythology about themselves. We can’t help making up the shit to make our stories seem vital and reasonable. It’s a human folly that we have little control over.

It’s as irresistible as imagining we can easily solve anyone else’s problems!

Arguments II : the Apathy Bird

The world has a way of wearing down our resolve. Vigilance gives over to complacency. Eventually the natural forces of entropy dissolve our dedication. Our razor sharp capabilities, our laser-like focus, our passion for excellence all wane. For a million reasons we nap instead of fight. We miss a bill payment, or order pizza in when we’re trying to diet. The fuck-it bird comes home to roost. We rediscover a childish apathy. I lose interest in talking to anyone but my closest associates, those with whom I can absolutely let the guard down and never be misunderstood. Fuck it indeed. Then it gets bad. I start to feel belittled and then I act out. Childish fantasies of suicide follow fantasies of violence.
A letter arrives from the DMV three days before they will revoke my registration based on an incorrect accusation of being without insurance. I have exactly one day to fix this issue because the two following days are weekend. It looks like the letter was drafted a week ago, but for some reason the letter only just arrived. I fire off an email to my agent when I get home from work. He picks it up with vigor the following morning (the good fellow) and tells me that I’m innocent of the accusation and won’t have to pay the fifty dollar fine. He shows me that he’s faxed the form and I thank him. But what the hell happened? Why am I being punished for not only doing everything right but even being the type of person who actually worries about this kind of shit. When I read the letter I felt like a criminal. I freaked out thinking I’d possibly allowed the insurance to lapse somehow. I let these bureaucratic freaks unnerve me. But then I found out that they were wrong, and they even seem to know that they are often wrong because the first paragraph of the instructions of the letter tell you that despite being innocent of the charge you’ll have to hurry up to prove it. And so now I’m mad.
I’ve been threatened by a system that I willingly participate in because I’ve always felt it was the correct way. I have acquaintances who drive without licenses and without registrations and are flippant about insurance or paying taxes. They’ve spent nights in jail, and regularly talk to law enforcement officers as though they were their superior officers, worse actually, more like the way Donald Trump speaks to just about anyone who dares criticism him. Why do I worry about this crap so much? Why am I sweating my tax efforts and concerned about my medical bills? Why do I let anxiety about my poverty and lack of lucrative work ruin my time on Earth?
When you think about it the only reason you can be chased is because you did everything right. These institutions of regulation have your name and address and the right to censure you because you’ve given all that to them freely—because it’s the process and we abide. It makes us low hanging fruit, we are nearly free—cost them little in resources—to aggressively pursue and abuse.
The jury duty letters that come from the sheriff’s office are much the same. Their attitude is one of aggressive threat if you disregard your responsibility. The letter doesn’t build up the experience as an opportunity to participate in something that should be more thought of as a civic pride. Instead it blankets the landscape with threats. Threats cover everyone from the most dedicated of socially concerned citizens to the careless who toss the letter away and never think of it again. Threats, we realize, are the most efficient way for the bureaucracy to deal with us. But it pisses us off, it makes us wish to retaliate, that’s only natural. A level of politeness would alleviate much of that sense of belittling, just a please and a thank you. In truth they are pretty good when you go do your jury duty, they do make a big deal out of thanking you for it. But still I can’t shake that sense of disrespect and that rankling of ego when professional courtesy is denied. We’re put on the defense for no good reason, and it makes one dream of providing a reason.
Before long I’m on Donald Trump’s side (not really of course, he’s an idiot, and I was done with him as soon as he said to Wolf Blitzer that his evidence of Mexicans all being criminal was that our leaders were “stupid”. This was long before he accused all Africans of having Aids and our POWs as being losers, etc. I was long ago done with that kind of belligerent bullshit artist (shit, he doesn’t even really qualify as artist, maybe just slinger). But I want to get something clear, Nixon was right about something. And that thing was this—you can’t be offended by people you don’t respect. Respect is key, and if you don’t respect a fool who calls you a name, you really can’t be injured by an unknown quantity whose voice really has no proven value. It’d be like wanting to slug a parrot for blurting a slur. Of course, if we somehow put that parrot in a position of eminence then there could be cause for a slap upside the beak.
Norm MacDonald joked recently about suicide, a roundly unfunny topic, he felt it was kind of silly that people weren’t more understanding as life does indeed seem to be a long chain of disappointments generally capped off by a calamity. I too agree with Norm and I think the application of understanding should be wide. In other words, I also understand why people are fat, or gamblers, or alcoholics, or binge shoppers. Because it’s difficult to be depressed. I comprehend how these things become our refuges for that fleeting feeling of satisfaction in a world of crass disinterest in us. Try not to become an addict of self-destructive habits, friends. And that’s really the best we’ve got. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs seems simplistic, and even ridiculously self-evident. How is it we’ve so long managed to avoid teaching it across the board to everyone? Even Iggy Pop said recently that the best thing in life is being loved. These needs of esteem and love really do take their toll when we’re denied and having those ideas of human desire clearly expressed, perhaps with the familiarity of the Ten Commandments would help all of us when we’re feeling crushed by the worst of our experiences.
So drink, gamble a bit, try some new experiences, meet some new folks, leave your chair, your house, your fish bowl. Just because your booklist wasn’t lauded by some NPR program doesn’t meant it’s not impressive (I never finished War and Peace). But, you should also reach out to areas that aren’t already part of your tiny existence. Stop defending your parochialism and get a copy of Anna Karenina (I did finish that one!).

Arguments and Beliefs, Race and Pride, Hate and Randomness

Is there progress without violence? Do our people respect anything short of murder and beatings? Despite all efforts to the contrary the Civil Rights marchers carried arms, and Dr. Martin Luther King paid with his life for the efforts. Those efforts can often seem to have fallen flat, I hear the word “nigger” every day. Often applied humorously and usually with an expectation of your appreciating the joke. The young blacks I work with use the word consistently, and I’ve even been embraced and called “My nigger” by one of them. This still rankles my old white sensibilities. I still see Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor in the interview sketch in which Pryor replies “dead honky” to Chase’s use of “nigger”. Times have changed I suppose, Richard was long time ago now. I suppose the argument would be that when used by my young black friends the term has been repurposed, it’s evil scrubbed and that my squeamishness is a kind of relic from the ancient history of racism. Where is our modern Richard Pryor? Chris Rock’s humor has left me shaken. His rant about hating “niggers” himself, and railing about what a “nigger” is abraded me so intensely that I thought that it’d have been no different if his work had been penned by white supremacists. Maybe I’m too uptight, and also maybe our generations get caught in tidal surges of worry that leave us stranded where islands of political correctness trap our aging understanding of social peace and justice. Should I just trust the kids? That seems to be the last thing any of us over fifty care to do!
In the past I have argued that there is no political correctness that there is only correctness. When our current administration’s tacit endorsement of the alt-right leaves us anticipating ever more grotesque debasement of everyone from non-Christians, to internationals, to even women in general it isn’t about some kind of passe or false “political correctness” that is engaged to make all Americans feel part of the process. That engagement of nation for all Americans is simply correctness, it is American correctness—period.
And this past Christmas (2017) when folks in Raleigh woke up to find Klu Klux Klan reading material carefully distributed in their neighborhoods, tauting white pride, and other race baiting stratagems, my friends shrugged and insisted that it’s really not enough people to even raise your blood pressure a tic. That there will always be some level of shittiness no matter how hard you work. And of course, this past fall when the eagerly chanting, torch bearing defenders of Jim Crow era confederate statuary were heard shouting something about not being replaced by Jews, they also shrugged and said that the story was overblown and that we were getting ourselves all worked up for nothing. And when Donald Trump who sits so bizarrely in our highest office tweeting responses to every and all criticisms with the energy and narcissism of a Old World “God Emperor” Nero somehow transported to our time—I am amazed he hasn’t yet taken to the road with a singing career as Nero did—I am still unable to grasp how so many people (yes not a majority but still too many!), even my own well-respected dad, could cast a vote for the obviously stupid reality television personality who continues to behave no differently than he did as a TV personality (which he has always been, and nothing more). For Trump, all is forgiven in the hopes that his business acumen (something I don’t have much faith in and I’ll discuss why) would be good for the nation! My dad wants me to accept that Trump is a solid choice, he wants me to understand that in his inability to keep his feet out of his mouth lies his brilliance. Somehow, the thinking continues that Trumps boorishness and total lack of any sort of social grace means he’s going to do amazing things for the people. This sort of obvious inverse qualification instead of disqualifying the candidate somehow, in the bizarre world of politics, created a choice candidate. And because of this inverse qualification nothing Trump says is held against him. He is utterly free to sound like a xenophobic walking cock, offend anyone he pleases in any manner imaginable and his supporters simply don’t care. Of course, for many people his outward belligerence toward non-white, non-Christian suits them just fine! These people are basically the hidden variety of the sons and daughters of the KKK who quietly go about their business, but when the surface is scratched bleed with a kind of human oil of dispute and disregard for anything not directly benefiting themselves. Their understanding of society and its institutions often ends with bibles and firearms. They’ve been lucky people. They’ve been able to live fairly peaceably their whole lives in a society that takes care of them utterly, and been allowed—like some failing of Lao Tzu’s old wisdom of politics—to imagine they did everything themselves. They imagine, with mental filters better than anything on your iPhone camera, that they never had any help, and that their successes are due only to their own grit and wit. And best of all will rail at you with the evil and ferocity of a Tolkein wraith if you even suggest to them that society educated them, and that society protected their rights, and that their devotion should in part be to the country they so devoutly fly little flags of on their cars or houses. The costs of running a country aren’t always sweet. It’s sometimes hard to swallow the fact that we have to support prisons, where we attempt to rehabilitate the wayward. Some people without children are expected to put in tax money so we can run schools for other people’s children. And, of course, illness and death face us all, and it’s an amazing thing that there are people in those hospitals waiting to care for you, and training right now to deal with your problems. But those are all big things. We easily forget the roads, and the buildings, and the sewers, and the water systems, all that stuff we blithely refer to as “infrastructure” as though it were nothing more than a piece of rebar mounted in a lump of concrete. Get this, society is the thing that lets us all be something other than a subsistence farmer. You know what a subsistence farmer is? It’s what 99% of all human beings did for the vast majority of human history. You lived or died on the gamble of your crop. You have a good crop this year? Good for you! Drought, insects, and disease managed to give you a pass, don’t go believing it’s your awesome relationship with Ganesh or Yaweh. Because next year you’re in the same gamble, and it will likely go horribly wrong at some point. So society made it so we could survive that yearly subsistence gamble. Without society you could live, but you wouldn’t live well. You could write all your own novels and make all your own television shows—if you knew how to build cameras, make film, and project it all yourself on equipment manufactured at home. For most of human history people didn’t go much farther than walking distance from where they were born. They had to heat with wood—a limited resource for certain (Europe used to be covered with trees)—and very often succumbed to the elements.
I have to stop here and add something important to this rant, in fact, it’s something that constitutes an entire rant in itself but requires elaboration to understand where science and liberalism come from. The crux of the argument is this: the world is a largely random place and there’s not much we can do to affect the courses of events that are our lives. Randomness pervades our existences. No matter how hard we try to manipulate the course of our lives what happens to us is mostly out of our control, but, many of us refuse to admit or understand it. It’s a terrifying reality to fully realize. None of us live a science experiment where variables are corrected for or limited. We are in the world, and every day millions of people are laid low by happenstances beyond our control. People are quite magical thinkers, and we mostly enjoy a positive narrative about ourselves, and so we self edit these happenstances into a logical story. In the same we are able to see human faces in so many inanimate objects, we are also capable of fabricating these stories where they don’t really exist. We like a moral or a self aggrandizing lesson in our tales. Most of our daily interactions with other people are combinations of these sorts of inventions. People imagine they won’t have traffic accidents because they’re superior drivers. They imagine they would survive warfare because they are resourceful individuals. They imagine illnesses can be avoided through the eating of organic veggies. When the truth of the matter is these skills and choices have only a modicum of, if any, influence. Illness are often genetic. Our socio-economic circumstances are most often inherited. You have no control over a drunk driver. Almost everything in life is a roll of the dice (fair unadulterated dice) in which no matter what, you have no influence over the outcome. People who eat right and exercise regularly still die of terrible afflictions, while heavy smokers and drinkers live on. The statistics are with the healthier choices, but just the same bad things happen to good people, as the old saying goes. Now, this is where religion comes in and this is where I find myself unable to talk to many people. Many people want to insert the care of a supernatural being into the equation. In fact, this is why gods were created. The reason there are so many religions and religious tactics is that anxiety about randomness is universal. We big-brained primates are alone in our anxiety about our own eventual suffering. Religion acts as our escape hatch. The problem is it isn’t real, and it influences how people think about other people. As soon as someone can imagine that suffering is brought on by not being amply devout to a religion that religion becomes a dangerous social disruption. Strangely almost all religions preach kindness and love, many even devote themselves to charity and alleviation of poverty, yet, they also breed a code of disgraceful superiority. Many people imagine their choices in life make them righteous simply because they are the choices they were born and raised with. This kind of condescending cultural bias is the heart of almost all social problems. The entire ghastly error of pride for accidents of birth.
When these facts of life can’t be made acceptable to the viewpoint actively arguing against me, the one that wishes to maintain their racism, their self-pride, and their devotion to keeping the goods of society for themselves because they deserve them while others do not, using some kind of rubric of responsibility, or effort, as if this self-determination meant anything in the case of success in our culture, there isn’t much more to talk about. When the people can’t see that their lives had more to do with the luck of belonging to a good functioning society it is impossible to make the argument that poor people are deserving humans as well. The simplistic and magical equation of of seeing ourselves as hard-working and therefor deserving is balderdash and almost impossible to dislodge from the believer. Of course the evidence lies all about us, yet believers are able to argue away each element of it in order to maintain their comfortable outlook. You see those hardworking and basically impoverished ethnic laborers, powerlessly operating as sweaty mules for a lawn-care service employed by the wealthy, and yet it is easy to dismiss their struggle and their plight as right despite the actual backbreaking and often dangerous work being undertaken. We often have no qualms with the idea that people who don’t have good jobs don’t deserve them because they somehow didn’t take the correct steps in life to have them. This again may have examples we can see in our lives (every conservative seems to know Reagan’s welfare queen despite it having been totally apocryphal), but more often than not we easily forget that working for someone else generally means we won’t ourselves see wealth or even real prosperity. Americans don’t want to admit that wealth does not move very much, that the wealthy are those who have been for a very long time, and those who are poor have few to negligible opportunities to break that barrier.
Mostly anecdotal tales of hard work paying off prevail and are wholly untrustworthy. The statistics, the real studies done, including of cost of living index and rates of pay, show that we are suffering. The fact that occasionally a few very lucky individuals manage to gain some wealth (usually through some ludicrously ignored lucky break) does not change the fact that most of us will never see it. Most of us won’t even be able to afford the hospital bills we’ll inevitably incur. Most of us won’t be able to afford having a family and drop into such precarious debt that it’ll never actually be paid off. These are difficult realities to digest and many folks simply don’t.
A few years ago people were bombarding the internet with handheld and handwritten testaments of their own excellence. Despite being utterly hubristic most of these placards of self-congratulations held the actual keys to their success unknowingly divulged right in the text. One person was proud of their ability to graduate from a university program debt free, but also mentioned the winning of two scholarships that paid for 90% of their schooling. Wildly, instead of a placard about such good fortune the student used this information like a whip to suggest that with hard work and self-determination two scholarships were anyone’s obvious ticket to the good life. And while the student deserves a pat on the back for devotion to the scholastic, plenty of us have devoted to academic pursuits without such help, and of course, ended up in debt for the investment.
Few people want to talk about the obvious input from family and friends. It’s not cool to talk about how easy you had it because your folks managed to pour a lot of resources into your education and living circumstances. It’s not wrong for a family to buy a child a car, but it shouldn’t be imagined a quality of life only denied those who don’t deserve it.
Beating this bias, this ridiculous misunderstanding of privilege isn’t easy. People who work hard to build a living for themselves seldom care to hear about the ease with which they managed to achieve these opportunities. Especially when the efforts are compared across socio-economic and racial / ethnic categories. More of that randomness of birth being the greatest weight on our success. There are few arguments a struggling small businessman wants to hear when he spouts some kind of cruelty aimed at his favorite scapegoats. And it is very difficult for those of us understanding of the carelessness of the universe and the uneven playing field of life selling the idea of past privilege as the actual solution to the difference between us and them. I can report this as a lifelong devotee of academia and a PhD with many PhD friends who all struggle to just get by. Effort and training have had little to do with success or lack of it. Ability to pay rent has often had more to do with chance pay-offs that have nothing to do with our chosen fields of study. And when a professorial job opens up and you hear that there were more than four-hundred applicants you begin to wish for a deity who would take a personal interest. C’mon Hanuman!
What can I say to those who are invested in beliefs as astringent and caustic as the KKK? How can I make my outlook on President Trump understood when I was appalled by his character when he was nothing more than a lousy and belligerent television personality. How can we get across to the believers that a man who misunderstands what is meant by evidence, and instead offers anecdote and a vociferous “Believe me!” in its place, is not fit to really do any adult work.
Is it possible to actually reach and persuade someone as deranged as a Westboro Baptist waving anti-homosexual signs at soldier burials? Is it possible to corral those KKK literature throwers and make them understand that their idea of pride is useless and bankrupt? How hard should I work to get a magical thinker to understand that they should do more than just wave a flag, but should instead actually wish to invest in their society, with or without the film industry, or a love of novels?
The reality is no amount of argument will matter to those folks who are so invested. The argument itself is sport and will never be relinquished. All one can really hope to do is lead by example, continue being kind, and vote and patronize thoughtfully. Life needs to be lived, don’t waste your efforts arguing with people who can’t be persuaded.

Recommended Reading

A reading list compiled by Dr. Geoff Balme
(books once categorized are in no particular order)
While a PhD student at NCState I managed to impress my advisers (one of the few times!) with my reading habits. At one point a fellow graduate student blurted at me “But you read that Stephen J. Gould stuff!” and shook his head in a kind of mock awe. While he was teasing me there was also a sense of accomplishment that was unexpected in the students, and I was quite surprised by this. Whenever one of my advisers, the fellow who ran the genetics lab I was using to do my research, held up a book in a meeting or a seminar—I bought it and read it. I didn’t know at the time that it wasn’t the normal behavior. So here is a list of reading I’ve loved, it’ll not be hard to see my philosophical underpinnings outlined as you roll down the list. There’s a great deal more, but these stand out.


Jan Pechenik Biology of the Invertebrates (it’s a textbook, but so well written I read it like a popular science book)

Abraham and Shaw Dynamics The Geometry of Behavior (if I had money I’d give everyone a copy of this book, it’s just beautiful)

Menno Schilthuizen Frogs, Flies, and Dandelions: Speciation The Evolution of New Species

Lucretius On the Nature of Things

Leonard Mlodinow The Drunkard’s Walk

Stephen J. Gould Mismeasure of Man
Wonderful Life
any of his Natural History Magazine essay collections

Carl Sagan Cosmos, Demon Haunted World
Pale Blue Dot

Charles Darwin The Origin of Species
The Ascent of Man
The Voyage of the Beagle.

Richard Dawkins Climbing Mount Improbable

E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth

P.W. Atkins Creation Revisited

Sean Carroll and Jennifer Greneir From DNA to Diversity

Daniel Gardner The Science of Fear

Ernst Mayr One Long Argument

James Randi The Faith Healers

Michael Shermer Why People Believe Weird Things

Charles Darwin On the Origin of the Species (while it is rare to actually read this work (even among scientists!), I highly recommend it as Darwin’s style and thoroughness are fascinating and loaded with humility.)
Joel Bourne The End of Plenty

Lewis Thomas The Lives of a Cell

Perry Hinton Understanding Statistics

Criticism / Essays / Popular Culture

Neil Postman Technopoly

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search For Meaning

Gore Vidal The Selected Essays of

Yann Martel What is Stephen Harper Reading?

George S. Trow Within the Context of No Context
The Harvard Black Rock Forest

Wallace Stegner American Places

Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to Death, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century

Kurt Vonnegut Fates Worse than Death
Palm Sunday
A Man Without A Country
and at least the Playboy interview from Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.
Letters (Edited by Dan Wakefield)
Henry Miller The Air-conditioned Nightmare
The Books In My Life

Jim Harrison Just Before Dark

Eric Schlosser Reefer Madness
Fast Food Nation
Command and Control

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion

Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great

Jon Ronson The Psychopath Test

Freud Civilization and It’s Discontents

Dan Wakefield New York City in the 50s

Edward Abbey Abbey’s Road, Desert Solitaire


Charles Darwin The Voyage of the Beagle
Bart Ehrman Jesus Interrupted, Misquoting Jesus (it’s easy to get addicted to Ehrman’s efforts to put the New Testament into correct context)

Herodotus The Histories (trans. Tom Holland)

Polybius Histories (trans. Robin Waterfield)

Evan S. Connell Son of the Morning Star (I’ve never read any of his other works but my feeling is they’d be excellent.)

Tom Holland Rubicon, Persian Fire

Mary Beard SPQR

Jared Diamond Guns Germs and Steel

Michael Herr’s Dispatches

William Manchester A World Lit Only By Fire
The Glory and the Dream (America to the early 70’s)
The Last Lion trilogy of Churchill.

Barbara Tuchman A Distant Mirror, The Guns of August

Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces

Eric Hobsbawm (any)

Mark Kurlansky Cod
The Big Oyster, 1968

Simon Reynolds Retromania

Peter Vansittart Voices From the Great War

Loree Rackstraw Love As Always, Kurt (love correspondence with Vonnegut)

How To

Esther Perel Mating In Captivity

Kendrick Bryce The Fifth Kingdom (a guide to the life of fungi)

Angier Bradford How to Stay Alive in the Woods


Salinger Franny and Zoey,
Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour

Gogol Dead Souls

Flannery O’Connor Everything That Rises Must Converge

Jorge Luis Borges Collected Fictions

Frank Herbert Dune (and sequels)

Isaac Asimov The Foundation Trilogy

Dave Sim Cerebus (a huge graphic novel production of 10,000 pages)

Edward Abbey The Monkey Wrench Gang

Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel

Mary Karr The Liar’s Club

David Sedaris Me Talk Pretty One Day

Voltaire Candide

Kurt Vonnegut Siren’s of Titan
Cat’s Cradle

Karel Ĉapek War with the Newts.

Philip Roth Portnoy’s Complaint
Goodbye Columbus
American Pastoral.

Thomas Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow
Mason and Dixon

Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment
Notes From Underground.

Lebov Tolstoy Anna Karenina

George Saunders Pastoralia

Maxim Gorky short story: Creatures Who Once Were Men

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

Saul Bellow Herzog

Henry Miller Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Plexus, Nexus.

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale
Oryx and Crake

Joseph Heller Catch-22

William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury
As I Lay Dying

Norman Mailer The Naked and the Dead
The Armies of the Night

JD Salinger Catcher In the Rye and short story collections

Lord Byron Don Juan

Edward Dorin Gunslinger

Stanislaw Lem Cyberiad
Star Diaries
Tales of Pirx the Pilot.

George Orwell Animal Farm
Road to Wigan Pier
Homage to Caledonia
Down and Out In Paris and London

Thomas Berger Little Big Man
Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet On the Western Front
The Black Obelisk.
Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegon Summer 1956

Sir Walter Scott Ivanhoe

Alexander Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo

Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing
Great Shark Hunt

Flaubert Madame Bovary
Sentimental Education

D.H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Albert Camus Myth of Sisyphus
The Fall
The Plague
The Stranger

Walker Percy The Moviegoer

John Kennedy Toole A Confederacy of Dunces

Herman Hesse Siddartha

Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way

Halldor Laxness Under the Glacier,
Iceland’s Bell,
Independent People

Robert Coover The Origin of the Brunists

Jack Butler Jujitsu For Christ

John Steinbeck Cannery Row

Jim Harrison The Road Home, The River Swimmer, The Shape of the Journey

Nabokov Lolita


H.D. Thoreau Walden

Lao Tzu The Tao Te Ching

Homer The Iliad
The Odyssey

Plato The Republic

Walter T. Stace The Teachings of the Mystics

Clyde Kluckhohn Navaho Witchcraft

Chaung Tzu Basic Writings

Shinkichi Takahashi Afterimages

There’s no such thing as classic rock.

This boat has certainly sailed but there’s no such thing as “classic rock”. If you put John Lennon, Ray Davies, Ted Nugent, and Captain Beefheart in a room together they would not naturally produce a pop tune you would love. They weren’t in cahoots producing your childhood associations. And just because so much of that music got round the clock airplay to sell radio advertising doesn’t mean it was superior!