Wednesday, December 28, 2016

5 Toxic Byproducts of Civilization (and a Parable)

This post is going to take some imagination. It's going to take some pondering. But that's okay because I know you're both imaginative and ponderous. Oops, scratch that last one. You're not ponderous, but rather have the ability to ponder. And away we go.

Let me make a prediction: You're miserable. It isn't really a prediction, though, so much as it is a glaring reality. I know because I'm miserable too. Everyone is. Sure, we can pancake over our inherent agony with all manner of sticky sweetness. Sports. Sex. Cinema. Booze. Drugs. Video games. Religion. Hell, a good spy novel takes the edge off.

But it's always temporary. It always wears off and that ugly misery resurfaces.

You ever see some fool in the comments section of a Yahoo article begin a rant with "The problem with this world is . . . " before going of on some half-cocked and wholly inane argument about gas prices or schools quashing the Pledge of Allegiance?

I'm here to tell you what the real problem with this world is. The singular root of all evil. (Spoiler Alert! It's not money.) Ready? Here goes.

We live in a society deliberately designed to make us as miserable as possible for as long as possible. Ah, I can almost hear the sound of all the keyboard warriors heading straight for the comments to dispute what they know, in the darkest and most secret chamber of their essence, to be certainty. But as I am the one making the claim, I bear the burden of providing evidence to support it. Here are five terrible byproducts of civilization:

1) Labor. How many of you love your day job? Truly, unabashedly, full-on love it? Like, if you won $564 gazillion dollars in the Gonzo Megabux Lottery, you'd keep your job because that's how much you can't get enough of the place you spend 40+ hours every week? None of you. Good. How many of you lament (often loudly and with generous profanity) about the horrible conditions under which you toil and still insist everyone must work? Homeless people simply need to "get a job" and "pull themselves up by their bootstraps," right? If you can't see the sheer contradictory madness in this, I fear you are beyond saving.

2) Wealth. Money. Moolah. Bread. Greenbacks. Strips of germ-ridden fibrous papers are what we've collectively determined hold value in our sick society. Let that sink in. Take as long as you need. The thing we've assigned the most value to is literally one of the filthiest. You can cut the irony with a butter knife. A suitcase full of these bills is worth more than your life to some people (I first wrote "most people," but revised because I haven't quite lost that much hope in humanity yet). There are people walking around right now, probably in your city, maybe even in your neighborhood, who would happily take your life for a suitcase full of paper rectangles bearing the faces of our forefathers and, no doubt, traces of Colombian cocaine. The idea of grimy paper worth more than human life is utterly alien to a healthy mind. Or at least it ought to be.

3) Power. A civilization--especially one with a capitalist base, such as we've inherited--is constructed as a hierarchy. Those with the greatest wealth have the ability to attain the greatest power, or at least have greater control over how much power they wield. That's why some folks wouldn't blink twice at gunning a fellow human being down for a suitcase full of cash: They seek power. Easiest way path to power is, say it with me, wealth. I often wonder, though, what happens after someone GETS ALL THE POWER. Then what? Look for more power, of course. When does seeking power just get boring? I can only answer for me: It already has. Power is boring. It's imprisoning. It's false and it's damning. I pity those who resort to extremes in order to attain it or who even go looking for it in the first place.

4) Demeanor. Observe human interactions. Watch the way films and television bitterly imitate life. What do you see? You see people berating others. Shaming them. Laughing at someone else's expense. Gordon Ramsay bellowing into some sorry sous chef's face rather than sweetly coaxing confidence out of her. Know why? Because when you're miserable, you feel better when you can make someone else feel worse. It's so intrinsic to the nature of civilization that most of us fail to see it. Nine out of ten TV ads feature such behavior; everyone is always so angry at someone else, or degrading them, or laughing at them. That's what you do, though, when you live in constant wretchedness: You hurt others to feel better. It's why kids bully--to feel better about their shitty little lives. You could even make the argument that it's some sick perversion of empathy. YOU SHALL FEEL MY AGONY, WORM! YOU SHALL KNOW MY PAIN.

5) Speaking of pain, what about depression and anxiety? Okay, technically, these are separate byproducts, but they seem to go together like buggy whips and buggies, so they're addressed here simultaneously. What causes them? People just love to use the classic "chemical imbalance" as a fallback. Of course, some cases of anxiety and depression are undoubtedly caused by chemical imbalances, but give it a longer look. People who live in a state of constant stress are bound to be anxious and depressed. Cause and effect.

I want you to try something. This is where I want you to use your imagination. Close your eyes, if it helps (but only after you've finished reading!). Ready? Okay, imagine this:


You awaken in a foreign land. You are surrounded by waving grasses, tall trees (oak, you think, or maybe ash), the rocky face of a mountain range, a stream burbling nearby, and maybe a species of yellow bird twittering from above. You don't know where you are, but at least you know its not on an extraterrestrial craterscape or hell's hottest furnace and so you journey in search of answers. (You take your time, though, because once you find your way home, the mortgage needs paying, the boss wants a 12-page report you haven't started yet submitted first thing Monday morning, and both cars could use a wax, so what's the rush, right?)

After hours of hiking you happen upon a village. You are hot, hungry, and exhausted. The villagers greet you with smiles, though they don't speak your language. They offer you strange but delectable fruit and a thoroughly thirst-quenching beverage. They provide you lodging in the grandest chambers of their inn. You try to offset their overhead by doling out bills from your wallet as payment, but these folks don't understand why you're trying to force on them odd, grubby, funny-smelling portraits of old men.

Okay, you think, they're generous. It's kind of them to help a poor, lost stranger in a strange land. But hospitality doesn't solve the larger problem of getting home. I mean, it's not as if they offered you Dorothy's ruby slippers. So what's the next logical step?

You want to speak to their leader, right? Someone in control, someone in command. Someone with connections, who can point you toward the nearest airport and send you back to the land of plenty. After much frustration on your part (your hosts are ever-patient in your constant stumbling over the language barrier--after all, you bear the burden of learning their language), you at last convey the concept of "leader." Or think you did. As it turns out, they have no term for "leader" in their vocabulary. It's a concept utterly foreign to them, just as the absence of a singular leader or a committee of leaders is foreign to you.

How do you govern, then? you manage to ask them at length. Who has the most power?

The power is shared, they tell you (and look at you go! You're starting to pick up the lingo already!) There is no one person or group of people who control everything. Everyone works together for the good of the whole. Every person is vital. No one hordes possessions. Everyone is crucial.

And then it dawns on you. Every person you've met in this village is happy. Not just happy, though. Overjoyed. Thrilled to be alive, to be a part of a greater good. No one scorns anyone else. No one is left languishing in despair because she cannot pay her debts. All are nurtured and loved. Maybe civilization isn't the best, you think. Maybe we aren't as smart or cultured or advanced as we think we are. Maybe there can be something better, where people actually matter more than materialism. It's something you'll have to take time to ponder because you've been conditioned all your life to think otherwise. Yes, time is what it will take.

You ask the villagers if you can stay a few days, which become a few weeks, which become, of course, months and years. You stay forever because you're happy, overjoyed, and thrilled to be alive. You love and are loved. You don't worry any longer about making it home again because, at last, you are home. And, as a cherry on top, you don't have to worry about submitting the damned report to your overbearing boss.


I can practically hear you seething through your screen. Communist! Liberal! Hippie! Tree-hugger! How dare you question the American Dream, the Cradle of Democracy, The Flag of the United States of America and the Republic for Which It Stands? 

Settle down there, chum. Take a deep breath. First, none of those labels apply to me and I'm not questioning America, the flag, or the Republic. I'm simply offering another viewpoint. Because you're miserable and so am I. We all are, everyone. I'm not suggesting we shoot for Utopia because we all know there's no such thing--people are just too different to ever agree on what defines a perfect world. But we can shoot for something better, because it's out there. I know it. You know it, too. It may only take you time and imagination to accept it.

So to those denouncing, denigrating, and/or degrading me right now, it's all right. It's what you've been taught to do. It's not your fault. Say it with me Good Will Hunting style: It's not your fault. It's. Not. Your. Fault.

It only becomes your fault if you are too shortsighted or hardheaded to imagine something else, something better. We can be better. We have to be or we won't be around long enough to have to worry about it. Civilization's lone virtue is that it has produced a creative, intelligent, and imaginative population. Let's use those gifts, not squander them. How can we be prosperous if our default setting is misery?

Love to all and Happy New Year. Let's try to make it the best one yet, shall we?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Not Delilah

Hiya, friends. It's been over a year since I've posted anything here and . . . I know. It's bad. It's real bad. I've been busy, but I have no excuse for letting my blog lapse for a damned year. It's reprehensible. Please enjoy an essay I wrote in college about the end of the world. 

Look, I'm no mystic. I don't buy into portents and potions or psychics and spirits. Nostradamus was a primitive John Edward, delivering to his audience a bunch of hokey hocus and cold-reading rhetoric, having no more "vision" than a sun-blinded bat. I'm pretty open-minded on most issues, and I certainly subscribe to the preternatural world (you'd have to be a jerk not to), but let's be realistic about it. There are things that exist outside the human realm of experience – a new species, for example, is discovered on our planet virtually every day – but you have to draw the line somewhere.
             My motto is this: if it's tangible, it's possible. Faith?  Faith is like rhythm – you either have it or you don't. It can be learned, but then it takes on a certain awkwardness and the learner never quite dances just right. It's simply not natural.
But something happened one night that stirred my tenuous faith.

May, 1997. It rained that morning. I woke to it pattering against the window above my bed. Nice way to wake up. I showered, washed my grunge-rocker hair, dressed, and went about my day. But something was growing. A feeling. A premonition, maybe, as I came to believe. Something was wrong. But isn't that the understatement of the century?  Something was horribly, hideously, fatally off beam. As that spring day in 1998 wore on, a nameless, sickening dread blossomed in my mind like some poisonous flower. I tried uselessly to ignore it.
At work, I smiled at  customers and bid them come again. I half-expected one to morph into a disfigured creature and begin pillaging the store and its patrons. But none did. That nameless dread just continued to unfurl until its noxious pollination threatened to suffocate me.
That evening, after band practice, I retired to my room and strummed my acoustic guitar in hopes of clearing my head. I listened through the wall to Rob, my friend and bandmate, negotiate a date for Friday with a nice young woman he'd met at a show. Jared, the singer, was uncharacteristically quiet, staring at the evening news without so much as blinking. I decided to take a walk to clear my head. Jared called for me to wait up and asked if he could tag along.
It was not my intention to tell him anything about the feeling I'd been wrestling all day for fear he'd think me senseless. Or perhaps I was worried that he may think me a new subscriber to the world of the occult and thus would label me "new age-y."  But he remained reticent and reflective on that long-ago night walk. We mumbled a few banalities. We watched the sidewalk slip beneath our feet. The stars revolved and the trees shook and the smell of rain rinsed the wind. Eventually, the conversation broke when I stopped and said, "Hey, man. Do you feel that?"
And he said, "Yeah." Because the dread had infected him as well.
Someone died. Or perhaps an Antichrist was born. I didn't have the barest hint of what it could have been, only that something large and terrible had happened. Was happening. A tipping point had been reached. I sensed it the way a stallion senses the approaching tempest and stomps a helpless hoof in reply. Somewhere, something had tipped and Jared and I both felt it.

April, 1996. It really began with the dreams, I suppose. Nightmares pulsing with the vividness of summer dawn were nightly born behind my eyes. These monstrous displays could not be tethered to mere invention on my behalf – I did not sire them. They were sent. I know this as I know my middle name replicates my father's first.
These were warnings. Must have been. Never before or since have my dreams crackled with such surging energy. They were living things. I can recall each sliver of detail down to the final agonized scream. I could not bear to relate them here outside of a few brief glimpses; nor would I expect you, reader, to shoulder their weight (though one day you may have no choice). Suffice to know that they were apocalyptic in nature. Global ruination. Our demise will not come about by the wreckage of war or the demolition ball of a marauding meteor; it comes about through . . . 

. . . an explosion. Somewhere, far to the south, something blows sky high. My hair is cropped close to the skull, and saturated with sweat. I am stalking through the remains of a building, gutted by some long-gone fire. The walls are scorched and smell of cordite. The ceiling has caved in and the sky outside is purple-tinged. I am carrying an assault rifle. Though I've never touched one before in the waking world, I know how to use it here. I breathe soot. Somewhere behind me issue the calls of men in pursuit. I am hunted.
Weaving through the labyrinthine corridors, I find myself at a dead end. No exit, except the way I came – which is, of course, blocked. In the center of the room sits a young girl on a folding chair. She is crying. When she sees me, she gains her feet and, sobbing, wobbles forward. She stretches out her arms, seeking comfort I cannot offer.
"I want my mommy," she whispers, sniffling.
I tell her I can't help her.
"I want my mommy!" 
I tell her to hush and shoot a glance toward the dimming corridor where the hunters draw near.
"I want my MOMMY!" the child shrieks and before I know what I'm doing, I shoulder the rifle and trigger off a volley. Fire spits from the muzzle. Shell casings bounce at my feet. The girl is lifted from the force and tossed against the wall before crumpling to a pile of rags.
Sickened, I peer wildly around. There are only shadows, and shadows upon shadows. There is only the lingering ghost of damnation. I start back the way I came, seeking an exit, but knowing it is useless. 
And then I hear it.
"I want my mommy," the voice chokes. It is calmer now, but drowned. I turn, and the gun drops from nerveless fingers. The girl is renegotiating her feet. She is not dead, though her hair is now a straw mat of blood and her face is gone. "I want my mommy," she says again and takes a tentative step toward me, stretching her arms in embrace.

According to the latest reports, America's population has now topped 318 million. China and India already have us beat, each exceeding 1 billion souls. Global pop increases by about 75 million annually, by conservative estimates. What the dreams were showing me was simply the consequences of expanding unchecked. An explosion.
What happens, according to these visions, is this: humanity's growth accelerates so rapidly that resources are soon exhausted. We need more food to support more people, but we now have require so much housing that habitable structures are built on the only land left available – the rich soil needed to raise our foodstock. Essentially, we choke off our food supply with housing. And then it happens: total collapse. People outnumber usable resources, equaling mass famine, disease, rioting. It's ugly. And I already see its precursors. They're everywhere. Two hundred acres of cornfield near my in-laws were paved over last year to put up a subdivision. A local forest was leveled in favor of a shopping mall. We're burning ourselves out and, for some reason, I was allowed a sampling of the end result.

There is a lake with a car sinking into it. The car is red, compact. It belongs to my friend Jared, and he is still inside. He does not move. He is not singing now; he is smiling. The captain, going down with the ship. He remains oblivious to my frantic screams to save himself. He doesn't care, because everyone is going down with the ship. The big cabin cruiser S.S. Earth is capsizing and no amount of bailing will save its passengers now.
As the radio aerial slips beneath the surface, I watch the concentric rings of water ripple out and away, a fading bulls-eye. For a time, I watch the surface where that target floated, willing my friend to rise. Willing him to change his mind and rejoin me in what is left of this world. But he does not, and I flee this tortured gravesite scrubbing a hand through my devastated hair.

            After the dreams, I vowed never to cut my hair. Since all these visions displayed me sans ponytail, I figured that if I kept my hair long indefinitely, none of these terrors would befall the world. What psychiatrists would, I suppose, label rationalization. But maybe I was like Samson. Just maybe I carried not only my strength, but the strength of the world in the winding strands of hair. If I preserved it, I could preserve the world; save it from the suffering I knew was coming.
            Like Samson, though, I lost the hair because of a girl. Her name was not Delilah and she did not wield the shears. After an arduous breakup, she began dating a rival. Out of a desperate need for change, I cut the hair off (pathetic, I know, but I was but a young lad then). In my defense, the fate of the world was the farthest thing from my mind that winter; I didn't give it a single passing thought as I trooped into the barbershop. So, if these portents ever emerge, you may blame the destruction of the world on a woman whose name is not Delilah.

            The city is all but empty. Winds hush down vacant alleys. Automobiles rust along the curbs. It is dark, except for certain places where the few remaining inhabitants have scrounged generators to light the quiet places of this necropolis. At the top of a skyscraper, I survey what remains. On the wall of the penthouse, someone has scrawled a message in mud or blood or excrement: ALL DEAD HERE.
But not all.
            Boots scrape on the rust-flaked fire escape. Still they pursue me, though now I am unarmed. The breeze stirs their voices away and riffles the hood covering my scalp. I pick my way down the opposing side. When I reach the ground, a cat with a torn ear hisses from an overturned garbage can. I flee into the streets of a city acrawl with silence.

I'm aware this all sounds like an enormous load of bunk. Hell, for all I know it is. I'm no scientist. Humanity's not about to collapse under its own weight. Mother Nature won't retaliate by striking down two-thirds of the world population. Global warming's a myth devised by men in suits to keep us subservient. AIDS has been contained. The Greenhouse Effect is certainly not melting the ice caps and the world is definitely not lorded over by a shadow government. It's all scaremongering, propaganda, new age-y rubbish. Dreams are dreams and mean nothing beyond their surface luster. The exploding population is by no means an issue worthy of attention and strength is not carried in  locks of hair. As long as we're all comfortable in our two-bedroom homes, eating our sushi, raising our 2.5 kids, and taking our puggles out for walks, we'll be okay. Right?  

It's not a prison cell, really. It's a prison suite. A fire snap-crackle-pops on an antique hearth. A queen-sized bed with a down comforter sprawls in the corner. There is a television and a radio (both worthless because there is nothing now to broadcast), and a desk with a candle where I can write.   
I'm not sure why I'm in custody; the days of Miranda are long gone. I'm to be tried sometime in the near future and a guilty verdict will undoubtedly lead to execution. I kneel on the woven rug before the fireplace and peer into its depths as if the flames will hold answers. As if anything holds any answers. The door unlatches and my hood stirs in the breeze from the corridor and I stand to meet my fate.
"Aaron," says a voice, familiar. It is Rob, whom I believed dead, victim to the initial catastrophe which claimed so many lives. He has joined the other side (whatever that side may represent), and has traded in his drums for an assault rifle. Rob and I embrace, then he stands aside to let me pass. He has come not to kill me but to free me. The corridor leads to an exit and I take it, out, into the night.

We all still have an exit, I'm sure, though I don't know if we'll have a friendly steward to open it for us. We'll have to open it ourselves. We needn't blindly fumble for the latch. We need merely open our eyes and see.
Which is what I'm attempting. Since that night those years ago, when I felt the nauseous dread of something nefariously awry, I've come to understand we are doomed unless we do something to initiate a reversal. Our ship is sinking and we are all unwilling captains.
I've gone so far as to try to grow my hair out again, but it doesn't seem to work. It's thinner now, and weaker. Or maybe it's the stuff its rooted in that is not conducive to growth. Perhaps the brain has grown soft and clayey, porous and silty, no longer rich with the topsoil of thought and ambition. Perhaps all it can do now is grow dreams that disguise themselves as visions and visions that disguise themselves as dreams.
And speaking of dreams, I'll leave you now with a final sample. The last of those pseudo-prophetic reveries that plagued me all those years ago:

On the bank of a river, far from any vestige of humanity, I watch the water whirl south in spits and eddies. A reflection appears over my shoulder and I turn, startled, certain my relentless pursuers must have at last caught up with me despite Rob's head start. However, though this newcomer walks upright, he is not a pursuer (or even human). It is a dog. Its legs have evolved to hold its entire form erect, and it seems particularly proud of this achievement. Its center of gravity has shifted. It wears a purple cloak and a leering grin. I get no sense of danger from it. For a long while we watch one another; I swallow and it licks its chops.
At last I manage, "Have you come for me?"
"Mm-hm," it answers, its voice perhaps yet unfit for the full use of human language.
"Are you going to help me?"
"Mm-hm," it replies.
"Can you show me the way?"
"Mm-hm," for the third time.
And I follow this man-dog into the woods, where, at last…

…the dreams vanish in a wisp and I am released from their burdening yoke. So where does this leave us?  As I've said, I'm no mystic, I'm no scientist, and I'm surely no interpreter of dreams. Who really knows what the resurrected girl, the sinking car, the pursuit, the release from captivity, the dog speaking in indefinite affirmations truly mean?  How much strength can hair really hold in its slim follicle?  How dangerous is a population that rises unchecked?  How much damage can global warming really do?  Who knows? 
I can really only glean two things from this: a) I experienced a rash of nightmares in the spring of 1996 and b) I experienced a bout of deep malaise a year later. Beyond that, what can I tell you? I'm no prophet.  
 (Originally published in a slightly altered form in Withersin Magazine, Spring 2008. )