Category Archives: Human relations

‘He is a man of action’

So here we are trying to digest the first few days of life under “President” Donald Trump, Der Groppenfuhrer.

Trump’s advisers say that his frenzied if admittedly impulsive approach appeals to voters because it shows that he is a man of action.

Such voters, to the extent that they exist, are men and women of horrific ignorance.

To act without knowledge, to react without insight, to spontaneously opine (and effectively enact policy) without restraint, is the behavior of a narcissist madman.

In 2017, that’s our president.

He sits in the White House at night, watching television or reading social media, and through Twitter issues instant judgments on what he sees. He channels fringe ideas and gives them as much weight as carefully researched reports. He denigrates the conclusions of intelligence professionals and then later denies having done so. He thrives on conflict and chaos.

Oh, also: He lies. Repeatedly. And then lies again when he denies every uttering his previous lies.

Ironic and sad, that his general election opponent was ridiculed for supposed dishonesty.

All of this was predicted during the campaign, as he revealed the unhinged insecure reality TV star and huckster many knew he was.

But we get the government our uninformed citizens deserve.

Eyes in the Stars

I was born to see two thousand years
Of man’s effect upon the planet
Extinction seems to be a plausible risk
Whatever happens I’m a part of all this

–“Pandemonium,” Killing Joke

Is freedom so great
To fight for food?
Compete for shelter?
Who is the top dog?
Is this the winter of humankind?
What has become of us?
What made us blind?

After disclosure comes
Man takes his rightful place
Amongst the stars
The celestial barge awaits

One by one, we embark
To the sun behind the sun

–“Into the Unknown,” Killing Joke

I got to know my wife under the gaze of Orion. I wooed her under nods to Caseiopea and the “seven sisters” of Pleiades. I spend winter nights soaking in the hot tub staring at all of these, enjoying the clear sky in the crisp winter air.

Pleiades resonates almost universally with stargazers for being visible “from virtually every place that humanity inhabits Earth’s globe. It can be seen from as far north as the north pole, and farther south than the southernmost tip of South America.”

There is something wonderful about staring at these parts of our universe so far away knowing people so relatively close — yet so far — are staring at them with me.

In these settings I get humanity’s historical fascination and attachment to the stars, its projection of irrational meaning and attachment to them. They are constant in a world that is not. They offer some form of structure or packaging to the vast chaos that is our home.

As I sit in the hot tub pondering the infinite — or is it a vanishing point? — horizon of life and time, I think of these visuals that draw us together across physical space, time zones, generations, time.

As I watch a plane’s lights far up in the night sky literally fly in between me and Pleiades long enough to briefly block the constellation of stars 425 light years (!) away, I think of the frightening fragility of life, the relatively brief window in time of our civilization, and the many ways we can destroy ourselves in an instant.

Donald Trump, climate change denier, reality TV-emboldened narcissist and oblivious friend to all those who too easily place their own lifespans above everyone who might follow, is president-elect.

It gives one pause.

Best description of Missouri I’ve heard in a while

“It is a funny sort of state — a couple of big cities and then the Ozarks.”

–Colin Gordon, a historian at the University of Iowa and author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

That pretty well explains our bizarre bifurcated politics, too.

The quote is from a Huffington Post article on how Missouri is at the center of two of the nation’s most pivotal recent racial tension events.

But Gordon’s “Mapping Decline” work, one I recommend to all newcomers to St. Louis — well, those who can handle critical thinking — an awesome history and interactive map of the policies that helped make St. Louis so segregated over the last century, to the point we are now…where we are.

Hallmark Time, Awkward Time

For this special day, poison your (pregnant) mother with a cola!
For this special day, poison your (pregnant) mother with a cola!

I don’t do well with Hallmark holidays. To be honest, I just about hate them. That sounds silly and pretentious — “Get over yourself!” — but I can’t help my antennae being ruffled by the more contrived and manipulative parts of our surroundings.

So I’ll try to elucidate my feelings here.

For the sake of my loved ones who enjoy them, I do try to get into the “spirit” of these days. But this creates an awkward, repetitive clash between my natural inclinations to be genuine and to please.

Despite my efforts to “just go with it,” whether it’s Valentine’s Day reminding me of how many people are made miserable by that commercial push, or a parents’ “Day” reminding me of corporations filling windows in the calendar while telling me when and how to show appreciation that is already innate and heartfelt, it always feels different degrees of flat.

And that’s before the ads.

Continue reading Hallmark Time, Awkward Time

Secret World of Oil: Well-connected drug pushers, basically

The Secret World of Oil sounds as horrible as you’d expect.

From an ad for a book chat (or, “court”) tonight:

The oil industry provides the lifeblood of modern civilization, and bestselling books have been written about the industry and even individual companies in it, like ExxonMobil. But the modern oil industry is an amazingly shady meeting ground of fixers, gangsters, dictators, competing governments, and multinational corporations, and until now, no book has set out to tell the story of this largely hidden world.

The global fleet of some 11,000 tankers—that’s tripled during the past decade—moves approximately 2 billion metric tons of oil annually. And every stage of the route, from discovery to consumption, is tainted by corruption and violence, even if little of that is visible to the public.

Based on trips to New York, Washington, Houston, London, Paris, Geneva, Phnom Penh, Dakar, Lagos, Baku, and Moscow, among other far-flung locals, The Secret World of Oil includes up-close portraits of a shadowy Baku-based trader; a high-flying London fixer; and an oil dictator’s playboy son who has to choose one of his eleven luxury vehicles when he heads out to party in Los Angeles. Supported by funding from the prestigious Open Society, this is both an entertaining global travelogue and a major work of investigative reporting.

Sounds wonderfully depressing!

The Dark Side of ‘Suburban Cosmology’

Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small,
That we can never get away from the sprawl,
Living in the sprawl,
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,
And there’s no end in sight,
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.

“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains,” Arcade Fire

This op/ed is ostensibly about the Ethan Couch case (drunk, likely entitled 16-year-old mows runs over four bystanders, gets off with probation), but has lovely damnation of white flight and the isolated sense of unreality that results:

There, with a consumerist bravado later immortalized in Michael Elmgreen’s and Ingar Dragset’s “Prada Marfa” sculpture, islands of shopping centers were installed in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by oceans of subdivisions.

Driving north from Dallas or Fort Worth, you will eventually arrive at an outpost of the Cheesecake Factory, the only conceivable end for a rainbow that never was. There, at the crossroads of bourgeois comfort and ennui, these plastic fiefs — confederations of chain restaurants, multiplex cinemas and roadside churches — compose a ring of suburbs that are masterpieces in the art of urban control. In 2011, Money magazine recommended moving to the suburb of Keller, Tex., because, if you did, “you’d never know there had been a recession.”

Who are we to judge what one’s sense of “home” is? We all seek whatever comfort and familiarity that makes us feel “home.” Even the snark-the-suburbs Arcade Fire song noted above encourages “Come and find your kind,” which is its own kind of self-segregation, even if it theoretically has “more purpose” than a petty suburban brand interest.

That said, the sanitized, commoditized, vanilla obliviousness of our suburban enclaves does encourage a certain dissociation from the “real” world around us — be it nature or actual human experience, no?

The “Affluenza Society” piece concludes:

The case of Ethan Couch is many things, but perhaps most important it is a metaphor for the dark side of suburban cosmology, for every other barricaded enclave like Keller — places that, if not entirely above the law, are somehow removed from it. Even after four deaths by the side of the road.

‘If you build a bigger levee, all you do is move the flood somewhere else.’

Brad Walker, rivers director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said that isn’t the point. Walker said people shouldn’t be building on the bottomland, which are the rivers’ own creation and where floods are supposed to go.

“We don’t really ever learn that lesson, and even if we do, we forget it very quickly,” Walker said. “Even if you build a bigger levee, all you do is move the flood somewhere else.”

–Post Dispatch, July 28, 2013, “Lessons from the Great Flood

It’s not a novel concept. But collectively, humans are bad at:

  1. Thinking about future consequences in the face of near-term gains
  2. Working together to share responsibility for those consequences
  3. Giving a damn about future generations, other than as lip service to avoid taxes

I’ve rambled about (re)building on Chesterfield’s Missouri River flood plain before — now we have two new outlet malls in the area! — but of course the money and incentive were there to build an even bigger levee, so up it went. The problem is, as noted in the article, that just pushes the problem to someone else’s yard.

The super individualistic American bent does not tend to embrace collective efforts that ostensibly benefit someone over there. So we’ll keep doing it. We’ll keep building.

Because can you really put a price on access to strip malls?

On Detroit, and refreshing lack of pretension

You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan
And the next five years trying to be with your friends again.
You’re talking 45 times just as fast as you can.
Yeah, I know it gets tired but it’s better when we pretend.

–LCD Soundsystem, “All My Friends”

I wasn’t sure how the NY Times columnist Frank Bruni was going to praise Detroit, but he got me with this:

The people there don’t tether their identities to the luster or mythology of their surroundings. Their self-image isn’t tied to their ZIP codes.

That’s undoubtedly true of many, if not most, American cities, of Cleveland and St. Louis and probably Omaha and maybe Houston.

But if you inhabit the gilded precincts favored by those of us who fancy ourselves power brokers or opinion makers or players of one kind or another, it’s a remarkable thing — and a welcome one.

The political operative in Washington, the financial whiz or magazine editor in New York, the studio executive in Los Angeles, the Internet impresario in Seattle or San Francisco: all are creatures not just of a profession but of a profession that blooms and struts in a given self-regarding place. Many have egos nourished by that terrain, which feeds a hyperawareness of status, a persistent jockeying for position.

I LOVE New York and a few of those other major cities for all the reasons you are supposed to love them. But an unexpected bonus I inherited from not growing up in one: I am not obsessed with personal prestige tied to borrowing the brand of a place. Or as he puts it my “self-image isn’t tied to [my] ZIP code.”

I can visit those cities with a comforting clarity of perspective. I can return home (to a cost of living locale that affords such discretionary spending on travel) without suffering the persistent jockeying for position. (And without moving with resignation to New Jersey, either.)

One of the beauties of living in a mid-size city with major cultural attractions (but minor traffic) is you can find the fulfillment if you look for it. It is not plastered on billboards nor embedded into the local radio station or infinite traffic jams, but all the pleasures of a fulfilling life and fulfilling people are within reach.

And all of it is accessible without spending personal energy on being seen.

Babies and Immigrants and Uncomfortable Things

They have babies; not sure about immigrants...
They have babies; not sure about immigrants…

Ross Douthat’s Op/Ed this weekend advocates for babies, more of them, covering a couple of topics I love because they are overlooked as reasons for why the United States can enjoy being “Amurrica!”

Namely, babies and immigrants.

He begins:

IN the eternally recurring debates about whether some rival great power will knock the United States off its global perch, there has always been one excellent reason to bet on a second American century: We have more babies than the competition.

It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility. But compared with the swiftly aging nations of East Asia and Western Europe, the American birthrate has proved consistently resilient, hovering around the level required to keep a population stable or growing over the long run.

America’s demographic edge has a variety of sources: our famous religiosity, our vast interior and wide-open spaces (and the four-bedroom detached houses they make possible), our willingness to welcome immigrants (who tend to have higher birthrates than the native-born)

His point is that the U.S. birthrate has remained high, except for a recent downturn that coincides with the 2008 recession, and so he hopes we get, uh, producing and don’t fall prey to the comforts of modernity that keep us from going forth and multiplying. (The latter, when I think about my mother somehow raising six children, rings true when I consider the burden simply taking the dogs out imposes on my lifestyle.)

But I like that he brings up two keys to a society’s success — keys that are pretty divorced from the national pride points of independence and hard work and smarts and all that — that don’t get much attention. They’re demographic and sociological details, not nationalist or patriotic ones.

What’s more, they straddle two of the extremes of our present political and philosophical divide:

Proud and crazy “love it or leave it” nutjob conservatives tend to treat immigrants as an unwelcome menace, all to happy to pretend their lineage comes from immigrants too (immigrants who built the country, incidentally).

On the other hand, navel-gazing and self-righteous home-brewing, coffee-bean-parsing liberals tend to have children with great hesitation (if at all) lest it overpopulate the world and contribute to all the problems that fit on Starbuck’s cups. (Meanwhile, bountifully-producing religious people make them nervous, though it’s quite likely they came from the same stock before liberalizing.)

Finally, one component Douthat mentions — the thought of a child-friendly tax code — could make both sides nervous (the right, for having the nerve to use government to enact social policy; the left, for encouraging babies and babies).

Issues like this are good. It’s good to look at data and reality (*cough* “reality based community” *cough*) rather than let emotion or mythology (“America was built by people like me working all by myself! Government has never done anything for me! Now, why isn’t this park/bridge/road open?!”) get in the way.

Debates are good. Questioning assumptions is good. Reflecting on facts that make us uncomfortable…that’s how we find greater truths and, in theory, conceive (no pun intended) of better policy. In theory.

Accepting death as a part of life, again

Headed to the “death cafe.”

I probably wouldn’t go so far as to preserve a loved one’s head, but yes we could all do with a little more realistic, more accepting view of death even as we daily try to fight it off.

From “The Dead Have Something to Tell You” (timed for Halloween):

We tune in to television shows about serial killers, but real bodies are hidden from view, edited out of news coverage, secreted behind hospital curtains. The result, as Michael Lesy wrote in his 1987 book “The Forbidden Zone,” is that when death does occur, “it reverberates like a handclap in an empty auditorium.” It wasn’t always this way. Death once occurred at home, with friends and family gathered around. Local women were responsible for washing the body and sewing the shroud. People sometimes slept in the same room as corpses, because there was nowhere else to go.

[…]

The erasure of death also allows us to imagine that our mortal trivialities and anxieties are permanent, while a consistent awareness of death — for those who can stomach it — can help us live in the here and now, and teach us to treasure what we already have. In fact, a study by University of Missouri researchers released this spring found that contemplating mortality can encourage altruism and helpfulness, among other positive traits.

Yeah, I’d also venture it would make us a little less selfish in our intra-family dealings and — imagine this — would allow us to have a more honest conversation about national healthcare without some idiot smearing the debate with terms like “death panels.” (So much healthcare money is wasted on the final six months of life, when there’s little to do that has any effect, versus the rest of life, when some preventative care goes a long way.)

Philosophically, though no one has been outright ripped from my life in tragic and sudden circumstances, I notice my view of death settles somewhere like this: They’re not gone — the effect of their lives remains with us long after their death — but they’ve stopped adding chapters to their story.

It happens to all of us.