Going Viral, Part 2: The End of Civilization as We Thought We Knew It

Digital illo from photos: Self-Destruct Mode

Self-destruct mode is easy. Living wisely is hard.

While I’ve been having my tawdry fever-dream worries about unequal health care and expanding populations competing for dwindling resources amid name-calling politicians, suspicious citizenry, and fearful doomsday announcers, there are plenty of other aspects that nag at me as parts of the larger knotty problem. (Aside: is it knotty of me to point that out in the first place?) How do we reconcile the desire for a well-balanced, healthy, safe, educated, and relatively comfortable populace with those ever growing numbers?

This planet is finite. I hear highly educated people saying that we have both the brain power among the best of our species to make our equally finite natural resources capable of stretching to serve the needs of the whole world’s population. I hear some of these same bright lights claiming that the potential is here and now ready to enable humans to live far longer than the current average. I’ve no delusions of mathematical or scientific adequacy, let alone grandeur. But my limited powers of discernment and logic make me skeptical of the veracity and practicability of these claims; even more so, dubious of their desirability. Explain to me why I’m supposed to be so excited to live 300 years.

I’m not too enthralled with the idea of outliving many of my beloved family, friends, and favorite connections, whether the latter are places or experiences that eventually become outmoded or impossible for any reason. Not crazy about having to expand my thinking to find ways to occupy and better myself for not just decades but tens of them. And where’s the appeal in living a zillion years if I have to work three-quarters of a zillion to keep myself in milk and cookies? I have little faith that the American Social Security system will sustain me through the span of a now-typical life in comfort, let alone the attenuated sort being proposed. Where is the food, water, shelter, and acreage necessary to support more of us for so much longer going to be found? If I don’t die for lack of some such thing, will I languish in boredom until I wish I could die? No, really, I’m asking.

If even a sizable handful of humans live that long, I’m inclined to think their wish for such expansive longevity has less to do with all of the additional goodness they can shower on the world and its inhabitants than with how much more they believe the world and all of its inhabitants can do for or give to them. If even a couple of those millegenarians succeeded, I don’t imagine them skipping around the globe and tossing vials of AIDS cures like rose petals out to the milling crowds of children who have been born infected, or composing chorales so mystically entrancing that everyone in earshot will suddenly burst into united song and lay down their enmities, forgotten for eternity. I have more of a pessimistic image of them spending their length of days and years figuring out ways to acquire, win, or steal more, to hoard more, use more, and waste more—without being called to account for it all. Oligarchy is the longest socioeconomic tradition I can discern in human history, and I don’t think any opportunist able to spend more years perfecting that pursuit would likely be inclined to do otherwise. In fact, I would guess that those best able to push their way first in line to receive the treatment and support it will take to live 300 years will already be wealthier than the vast majority.

So what might we get? A rebellion from the planet’s resources themselves, perhaps, like the accelerated depletion of space for the competing needs of farming, manufacture, and residence that outstrip the miniaturization and optimization of those physical systems. What happens is not inevitably so, but historically speaking, it’s typically competition and division. Somebody wins, and more somebodies, both human and other, animate and not, lose. And, also in the long historical tradition, it’s the rich and privileged who win and the poor and disadvantaged who lose. No matter what you think of Darwin and evolution, by the way, there’s plenty of recorded and even remembered history to demonstrate that riches and privilege are no more a guarantee of moral fitness and communal palatability than poverty or lack of resources ever proved that one was inherently rotten or nasty.

Do we just lie back and let chance decide everyone’s fate, with a good shove from the encouraging hand of whoever can afford it to favor their own interests? Sounds to me like a good starter recipe for fomenting an increased appetite for eugenics and eventual genocide. I would hope that we could learn to prefer a taste for a good, balanced stew of self-restraint, collective and collaborative work for the widest benefit, compassion for the weak, and the kind of independence that’s less about cache-building and stockpiling and fortresses, more about how each of us can supply more of our own needs without denying  others’, and how one person’s brilliance can be harnessed to shed light on the widest possible sectors of life.

If we’re too preoccupied with how to get other people to conform to our beliefs and ideas, how to keep our Stuff safe from anyone else using or benefiting from it, and how to make more room for more and better Stuff solely for ourselves, none of this is going to happen. I tend to think that few of us who are safe and well-fed and educated and privileged spend enough mindful time recognizing that we are so only because of all the other living beings who work and sacrifice to make it possible. I can’t fix basic household plumbing. I can live without it, I expect, but probably only until I start to get too cold, hungry, scared, ill, weary, or lost to manage one more trip to the nearest stream for semi-safe drinking water or one more trip to a quiet spot where I can relieve myself far enough from the same drinking stream. I can’t find my way from my own front porch to where my spouse works without constantly consulting GPS, so getting from home to the nearest place I could safely forage for food not tainted by the traffic and household waste of suburbia would be quite the stretch indeed, especially on foot. I rely on so many others to keep me alive and functional that I can’t even wrap my brain around the gap between my abilities and the comfort in which I live, and I suspect that most other middle-class persons, never mind the much-maligned One Percenters, would struggle in the same way.

Seems like an opportune point in our history to pause and reflect on why it is not only a benevolence but a necessity that we do our best to feed, clothe, educate, heal, and make very good friends indeed with the rest of our kind, and perhaps most of all, those we too easily forget to think of as our kind at all. We’ll pay for the privilege one way or another. I, for one, would rather do so by choice and with the hope of friendship as its basis than by force and in fear, knowing that I have stepped on too many backs on my way upward to have hope of anything in the end besides a very, very long fall.

I’m feeling better already, just thinking about it.

Going Viral, Part 1: The Texas Sore Throat Massacre

Digital illo from a photo: Going ViralI’m sorry if I breathed on you. I was unknowingly the “I” of the storm. Patient Zero. One hand on the door knob; ten thousand infected. The maker of monsters, incubator for incubi. Thankfully, I have not yet come across a single one of my hundreds and thousands of contacts throughout this winter who was evidently poisoned into illness through contact with me. I never had any of the usual indicators of being contagious during the whole time I had my various and numerous waves of feeling lousy: no fever, no evidence of strange-colored, pungent crud emerging from anywhere in or on my person…unless you count the slightly hallucinatory character of my thoughts in their natural state. My doctors, when I finally saw them, didn’t seem to think I had been particularly dangerous.

So I wasn’t quarantined. I didn’t get hermetically sealed in a makeshift NASA bubble-style ICU. I didn’t even get quite miserable enough to go to the doctor with my complaints until about ten days ago, despite having felt uncharacteristically unwell so many times through the winter, when I generally manage to go the whole year without suffering more than, at most, one cold. I just dragged myself around with a wan little, pasted-on smile.

But here’s the thing: that’s how Bad Stuff can get passed around. Not every little germy critter that sneaks its way into our bodies, even in this very knowledgeable, clever day and age, is necessarily that easy to spot, let alone to treat. Just because modern medicine can recognize so many more diseases and injuries and conditions than previous generations knew doesn’t mean that every medically trained person everywhere would recognize even the majority of them quickly and easily, never mind how unlikely any of us commoners are to notice and understand them ourselves. So for all I know, while I thought I was being the appropriate combination of careful for others’ safety and stoically dedicated to keeping up my own commitments during the whole fun winter, I might as well have been opening the door to unleash Pandora’s Pandemic. I might have been Typhoid Mary the Second.

Let me be clear about a couple of other things, too, though.

First, I grew up thinking that the nickname of Mary Mallon was as good an epithet for a vile and deliberate criminal mastermind as any. But in more recent years I’ve had reason to revisit that idea and wonder if she mightn’t possibly have been as much victim as villain, after all. The current political climate of preferring divisive self-righteousness and sniffy dudgeon on all sides of any issue about all of the evils perpetrated, always, by Them, not Us, makes it remarkably hard to establish and enforce any policies that do any genuinely positive things to make societal problems any better—poverty, education and healthcare being always top of the list. They’re always somebody else’s fault and everyone else’s problem. I can easily imagine a modern plague getting the better of this entire country as much because we refuse to cooperate with each other and pay attention to some basic survival instincts and practicalities as because anything were especially virulent or unusual.

If we refuse to converse and cooperate, we have no one to blame but our own desire not to be subservient to any greater good. The law of unintended consequences visits its ugly repercussions on us all at times, and most of all when we are busy wishing everybody who isn’t in our happy little 100%-shared-view groups would just stay quiet and out of the way.

Reality works quite differently, as history should have taught us all long ago. If, for example, (a) we don’t provide health care for the indigent/impecunious and (b) they become ill but must find some way to pay for health care, then (c) those able to do so will continue to work when ill. They have no other clear way to pay bills, feed families, and get tasks done than to do the work themselves as always. If (d) the only kinds of work that marginalized populations tend to be able to get are in servitude, then (e) their work will most often be in service work like hourly hire positions as housekeepers, janitors, maintenance workers, food service employees, day laborers, child care workers, and personal health assistants in private homes, nursing care or rehab facilities, and hospitals.

That’s right: if we don’t take care of the poor unless they pay, they will continue to work as long as they can drag themselves there, and the work they do is often both the lowest paid—where, as a bonus, it takes longer to earn enough, while sick, for their own care—and the highest social contact-oriented in all of society. If we want to be truly Dickensian, we can repeat the Typhoid Mary solution as well and imprison the ill to keep them from working; at least in that instance, we can make the choice to either care for that new prisoner or risk his/her infecting the prison population, which again in Dickensian terms could “decrease the surplus population,” but of course containment will remain an ever-growing issue, if the prisoners are dying in droves and the staff either succumb or, more likely, refuse to return.

Meanwhile, let’s just imagine, as some folk are inclined to do, that the majority of the poor anywhere are illegal immigrants and layabouts who only take jobs away from natural-born citizens and live as criminals by choice. We certainly wouldn’t want to either train and motivate any natural-born citizens who are layabouts to do any of these highly desirable jobs that have been stolen from them or, perish the thought!, educate and give incentive to both groups. Thankfully, we have a whole crew of people in many sectors of the political realm working hard to see that there’s plenty of money allocated to such progressive and humane and productive activities as developing larger PACs and private donation coffers to better control election results, and keeping business strong in the blessed US economy by letting larger and larger mega-corporations swallow up dwindling independents until they resemble nothing so much as a snake that has snacked on a water buffalo. I know that I, for one, am greatly relieved that we are nationally so opposed to monopolies, or I might mistakenly think they were popping up by the dozens. It’s also comforting that the same herd of politicos of all stripes have among their numbers plenty who think that the best way to finance such boons to humanity is to cut budget waste in areas like state funded universities, social services, and other massive boondoggles like universal health care. Clearly, educating, mediating, and healing larger groups of people to interact and live in good health, productivity, and harmony is an evil conspiracy.

You could say that feeling unwell makes me, unlike the hardworking poor, prone to lying around and getting irritable, misanthropic, pessimistic, snarky, and critical of the state of this so-called Union. I certainly won’t argue if you accuse me of thinking we’re a lot of selfish, under-informed, entitled rich people and a counterbalance of too many people who can’t support themselves and their families with the paltry resources left for them after the top feeders have had their fill. If, as some social commentators and economists and even scientists claim, the concept of surplus population and limited resources is a fallacious or at least far from inevitable construct, since we theoretically have the brain power to make what already exists on this planet into resources and better distribute them, then I can think of few better, more immediate, or more visible places than health care, civility, and education in which to begin this process. And I can’t think of any valid excuse for anyone who believes in the value of a single human being not believing in the potential value of each human being and thinking all worthy of the effort. Good citizenship and care for others should not be a partisan Issue.

Knowing thus full well that we’re all capable of being stupid, lazy, entitled, paranoid, or just plain bad (just read or listen to the news, if you’ve somehow forgotten this), I still don’t think we should just assume that anyone is any or all of those. Isn’t it better to encourage and defend kindness, generosity, trust, humility, respect for differences, and joy in our commonalities?

Even I, at my most crabby old complainer moments, think it worth a try to do better. To be better. I would hope others might think me worth the effort.

If You don’t Like the Weather, Wait a Minute

photoHave you ever seen a pigeon flying backward? I did today. This phenomenal occurrence was not because I spotted a mutant genius helicopter pigeon; that really might be a matter for tales of magic and fantasy, given the modern pigeon’s brain.

It was that windy. The pigeon was making a valiant effort to take off from the edge of a roof and, blown instead straight backward, finally saw the same edge directly under him and came right back in for a landing. What’re you gonna do?

The wind is giving us a good whack here in north Texas today. Two days ago, it was over 80°F/27°C, brilliantly sunny, and calm as a sleeping cat. Tonight, we’re told, we can expect freezing temperatures and should cover all of our tender plants in the garden. A couple of days before our balmy pseudo-summer day, we had a storm pass through. Parts of our town had a little thunder and lightning and a fair amount of rain with a little bit of hail mixed in it, but nothing extravagant by local standards. Our house was in that lucky sector, and so was our car while we drove home in The Weather. Just across town, others were not so fortunate: some had hail the size of golf balls or larger, and tornado-like gusts, and among the downed trees and limbs there were homes where the roofs were destroyed or caved in, cars were damaged or totaled by metal-dimpling all over and glass smashed through, and interiors soaked with the rain and debris thrown in through the broken windows.

We’re torn, in more ways than strictly the physical, around here.

We crave every drop of H2O that we can squeeze out of the sky; even after a relatively mild number of months, our lake levels continue to be well below their norms, some still fully in drought status. It’s not considered a plus if you can drive directly to where your boat is moored, in case anyone wondered. All the same, if the moisture is dumped all at once as though shot through giant firehoses, it doesn’t always stay where it’s needed but instead causes flash floods, undermines foundations, uproots vegetation and breaks down buildings and roads left and right.

Doesn’t matter what you call it—climate change, global warming, a thirty-year cycle, or evil pixies run amok—the weather all around this wonderful, messy planet is more extreme than it had been for much of recent history. The extremes are more extreme, the heat and cold, the wind and dead stillness, the flooding and droughts. Only the inconsistency of the weather seems to be more, well, consistent.

All somewhat amusing, if the worst one experiences is the occasional sighting of a pigeon flying backward. But of course, that’s the least of it. Ask our neighbors who sustained major damage to house, car and property all at once last week. Ask the people—the peoples—displaced by tornado and typhoon, those who have lost home and family to the floods and famines that massacre everyone in their paths throughout whole regions.

I don’t much care about whether we’re partly to blame for the seeming extra intensity of nature’s capriciousness and fury at this point. It’s not all that different, in my mind, from all of the displacements, distortions and destruction in history that we can absolutely attribute to human invasion, conquest, greed, prejudice, ignorance and evil. As horrible as that stuff all, genuinely, is, it is: it exists, already. What matters is what we do now in order not to perpetuate the ills, and better yet, to mitigate them as best we can. We can’t undo history, and we can’t control nature. But we can and should change our attitudes, practices and beliefs (and the governing processes needed to support those societal improvements appropriately) in whatever ways will support a far better world, one where wars, rape, murder, slavery, thievery, violence and all sorts of other horrible human actions are not only universally condemned but undesirable to enact.

And, since we expect that we, and those generations who succeed us, will continue to need to live on this specific planet and its resources, hadn’t we better think up some less selfish and more practical ways of easing the effects of nature just as much as our effects on it? We won’t likely figure out how to stop the wind from blowing with great intensity, floods from filling valleys, hail from pelting like rocks out of the sky, or lightning from searing and exploding whatever it can lay its fiery fingertip on, but if we put our minds to it, maybe we can think up some reasonable ways to protect more people, and care for those who are affected, better.

I didn’t really start out with the intent of rambling on about this stuff, but it’s on my mind. Probably not so different from the pigeon’s reaction when he discovered his original flight plan wasn’t viable. Can I fly backward? I don’t know. But I’ll bet it’s worth trying, if I find myself needing to make an emergency landing. No matter how the wind is blowing.photo

A Little Texas Secret


Have you heard?

When people say Everything in Texas is Bigger it’s true–up to a point. Texans in general are happy to point out the vast number of marvels, from natural resources to business and entertainment, culture and personalities, that are bigger than life in this part of the world. Is Texas full of tall grass and longhorn cattle and bluebonnets and armadillos, sizzling days and stormy nights, oil wells and roughnecks and rodeo riders? You bet.photoBut there are amazing and unexpected and even–gasp!–tiny details that also sparkle throughout the Lone Star State and help to make it far more varied and unpredictable than the image Texas has beyond its borders might lead anyone to believe. A spectacular water-lily park? Why, yes, that’s here. Masses of beautiful, delicate butterflies? Oh, yes, those too. I think it’s safe to say that not many people are likely to think of French food when Texas is mentioned, but not only does la cuisine Française exist in Texas, it’s even featured in an eatery in the also seemingly non-very-Texas named town of Humble. I mean it: Texas is full of surprises, and not all of them even Texas-big.photoSee, that’s the thing about stereotypes, archetypes, assumptions and expectations. Generalizing about any place or culture may give us a handy entré to allow us the chance of learning to know it better, but it skims the surface of reality far too much to be dependable as a gauge for the whole of the thing. On my first trip overseas I was immediately struck by the odd conversations I overheard between the locals here and there and the American travelers. It’s not uncommon for natives to ask visitors what things are like where they live; what I found out is that it’s also pretty common for said visitors to pontificate as though their limited experience of life were the standard for all and sundry where they come from–not just all the folk in their house but all in their town, county, state, region–heck, I heard fellow US citizens abroad telling foreign nationals with utter nonchalance what ‘America’ was like. Just as though every part of America were completely homogenous, every US denizen interchangeable.photoI’m perfectly happy to state that not only is that a ridiculous barrel of hogwash but I have seen evidence very much to the contrary in places all over this country. Not to mention in the great state of Texas, in our county, in our town. Yes, in our own household. Texans do like their BBQ and their tall tales, their football and pecan pie and yes, their guns. The real secret, if you must know, is that no place is precisely, and only, like its image. No matter how small or grand that image happens to be.