Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Friday, January 22, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 8

8: Resistance is Futile

Modern fashion. Yes, this is how we look.

If you are fifty or older, I would like you to do a little thought experiment with me (if you aren’t that old, you can watch): Imagine your 1960’s self, magically transported onto the streets of America today. What would be the first thing that would strike you as different and strange?

No, it wouldn’t be our sleek, shiny flying cars or the giant alien spaceships floating overhead. No, I think the first thing you would notice would be all the escaped mental patients wandering around the streets.

You know, all those sloppy, undressed people walking around in t-shirts and pajamas, even in the supermarket or at the bank… not smiling and saying hello or even making eye contact with you … many of them talking to themselves, loudly, and stare right through you if you try to respond to what they are saying. Has a rogue virus turned everyone into zombies? Have the commies poisoned our water supply?

But look closer and you notice these poor are not completely undressed – some of them are wearing jewelry – a large earring that only hangs from only one ear.  Some walk slowly, stooped over, staring at some little box that looks like a cigarette case that they carry both hands in front of them like a sacred object. Perhaps it contains some small items of great personal value.

Cleary, this brave new world has given up on mental hospitals and has drugged its citizens into near catatonia so they can put them out to wander on the open range. Young and old, they’re all pretty much alike, though the young ones seem to also be afflicted by a disease that afflicts their vision, because they have hideous fashion sense.

Okay, I know you know what I’m talking about – the world we are living in has become strange, so strangely different because we are now wired in, wired to each other, wired to the globe almost all our waking hours. (I’m writing this as I wait for a plane in Boston’s Logan Airport, checking Facebook and a listserve argument that I’m part of every five minutes… thanks to wifi.) We are always connected to everyone we know (and everyone we don’t know), yet… in the world around us we are strangely disconnected and alone.

Smart phone karma… or maybe bikema.
This happened relatively suddenly to our culture, but slowly enough that we didn’t “notice” anything unusual was going on, like the fictional frog who doesn’t notice that the water he is sitting in is heating to a boil. 

I say “notice” because of course we did notice, but decided to ignore it as an inevitable change going on in the world. (here is nice piece the NYT’s Tim Egan has written about his own struggles with this) I noticed when my teenage kids would sit at the dinner table texting their friends,  impervious to adult questions until parents got angry … and then would shout “hold on!” as if we were interrupting them at brain surgery (the phones, of course, were eventually banned at dinner, though often they snuck back, under the table).  I noticed when the person standing in the pasta aisle at the supermarket would seem to say something and when I’d turn around to ask “pardon me?” they would stare right through me and carry on their disembodied conversation with their virtual ghosts. I noticed the first dozen times I had to dive out of the way to keep myself from being killed by someone in an SUV,  talking on their cell phone (or texting or surfing…) as they cruised at 30 mph through a parking lot, only dimly aware of the wraith-like shadows of the actual human reality around them.  For those of us brought up in a more socially-dependent age -- where we were ferociously schooled in the importance of being polite to others and raised to feel self-conscious in public -- this change was jarring, as we found ourselves suddenly living amidst the half-present – people who looked superficially the same, but who wandered like zombies, heads and minds elsewhere, seeing things we did not see, hearing voices we did not hear, and nearly oblivious to people (us!) who were physically nearby.

At the same time I began noticing such strange public behavior, it also struck me that other, more subtle things were going on with the intellectual habits of the people around me, but it also seemed churlish to say so. I noticed that people stopped reading. Until they were well into college, my kids never read a newspaper article, unless it was given to them and required, and, to this day, I think, have never picked up a physical newspaper and read through it.  They aren’t completely uninformed – they read news snippets constantly online, in text alerts, on Twitter,  in Yahoo news alerts or on Buzzfeed, but they never read long, in-depth articles. They watch shows on TV or Netflix that don’t require their full attention – like the Kardassians or re-runs of something they have seen a dozen times before, a kind of video wallpaper, generally with a phone on or another screen open and some trivial conversation going on in the background. 

They are paying attention to everything and nothing at the same time. I notice that everyone, adults and children alike, are often caught up in the moment-to-moment news of the world, but generally seem to have no time to examine it, to think about what it means, to really understand it in detail, to have a conversation with someone else about it. Now don't get grumpy as I say this: I hear you. I hear that most people “don’t have the time” to “really get into that”…  though they seem to spend larger and larger chunks of their day distracted, doing things that are pretty meaningless or irrelevant. When engaged, these aimless strivers are easily bored and impatient. People get really annoyed if you demand that they listen to you say something for five minutes, like you have sucked them into some kind of unbearable vortex of emptiness and irrelevance, while they are engaged in some vital mission, like say dashing through the supermarket to buy chips and bean dip to be home in time to cue up the DVR for the latest episode of The Bachelorette.
Coffee shop conversation.

Think about coffee houses. Back-when-I-was-a-kid, the coffee shop (a venerable Western institution that dates back at least into the 18th Century), was a place where the central purpose was to get together with your neighbors and talk. Whether it was a lunch counter or a diner or a soda shop, it was a place where people went to be in public, to hang with people as much as the food. In some ways, the contemporary Starbucks still is this quintessential public space, but with one critically important difference – the store is as much required to have free wi-fi as much as it is to have coffee. Walk into any coffee shop you can find today and you’ll find most of the tables occupied by single people staring into their laptops, with perhaps a few couples having “business meetings.“ People want to be seen in public without actually interacting with other people in public, they want the sense of belonging to society without actually being social. “Social” takes place in virtual space, in vacuous text message interchanges, in Facebook lurking and occasionally the brief comment there (or on Twitter). Lengthy comments or extended exchanges on internet sites are somehow disturbing and troubling… like the kind of exchanges you might have had at the town coffee shop with your neighbors and friends. In those exchanges, you had to interact – they were there right beside you, talking to you. We used to like that but now it’s frightening and… creepy.

I chew on this strange disconnectedness and muse and complain about it fairly frequently, but the reaction of my friends and family is that I am just being a grumpy old person, telling everyone to getoffmylawnyoudamnkids. Until recently, I accepted this wisdom, knowing that it is a fact that every generation thinks that the generation after it has gone-to-hell. But now, suddenly, I’m reading everywhere people saying the same things I’ve been saying and thinking.  In particular, Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, has a book out about how technology is messing up our ability to think and interact with each other, including a fairly incisive piece in the New York Times. Turkle’s basic argument is that multi-tasking is a myth, and that we act like it’s not when we play with a cellphone, allowing technology to interfere with our ability to interact with each other, to think deeply, or even to mature as human beings and feel empathy with other people. Among the crotchety older faculty in academia, there has been a fair amount of similar comment, frequently filling the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education with screeds arguing for banning technology from the classroom because it keeps students from paying attention and participating.

But even as I nod my head and agree with this cranky worrying, I also begin to see my friends’ point that change is just change, and, well, inevitable. What’s so precious about complex thinking and human interaction when we can have SnapChat and… all those cool game apps! Old Babylonians probably whined and moaned about how people were losing their fine memory skills when cunieform was invented and everyone just played with clay tablets rather than memorizing night-long stories to sing over the campfire. Besides, it’s not really so much that technology is changing us as it is that technology is fulfilling what we really wanted after all. If we wanted to spend our time talking to each other rather than texting, internet surfing and playing Candy Crush, well, these thing wouldn’t exist and we wouldn’t buy them and use them. We really want this.

I remember moving to Arizona and being struck by the fact that though every house had a pool and a deck, it also had a yard just large enough to contain these, walled off from the neighbors by a cement block fence, at least 8 feet tall. Inititially, that seemed unattractive and I mentioned this to our realtor, saying it felt a little claustrophobic to me, and he quipped back that the developers only built the houses that way because it was what people wanted. I have to admit that in the 20 years I lived there I was perfectly happy to be secluded from my neighbors and, in fact, the only neighbors whose names I learned were those whose kids played with my kids. We are perfectly happy being left alone to do our own thing, un-observed, un-commented upon, un-social.

What technology has allowed us to do is to move our minds freely into the vast empty spaces of the internet where we can be like that, looking at only what we feel like looking at, interacting only with those who we want to interact with and only as much as we feel like, keeping it light and undemanding, keeping it fun, keeping it private. Our real selves, we keep to ourselves. We aren’t ambitious, and the technology makes it so we don’t have to be – we can play easy, undemanding games, watch easy, undemanding shows and movies, and have easy, three-misspelled-words-at-a-time conversations with our friends and those very things, in fact, are what is most popular. Whenever we are bored (which is nearly always), we can just switch to something else. You can be yourself and lose yourself in this.

“Resistance is futile.” The title of this essay, you may have noticed, is taken from the (now terribly dated but nostalgically remembered) TV show, “Star Trek: the Second Generation.” It’s a bit of geek cliché, the phrase The Borg -- a threatening machine collective intelligence, a society and culture where individuality does not exist – use to threaten humans. Back when the show was first created, this is what we imagined was the coming threat of technology – that it would conquer us and our individuality would be lost in the powerful machine singularity.  In a sense, it is what has happened – our tools have grown powerful and have conquered us, but only, ironically, by giving us exactly what we individually all want. We want to be free and left alone to be ourselves… and that leaves us lost in the nearly empty shells of ourselves. It’s the curse in that old warning: be careful in what you ask for – you won’t be able to resist the gift once it’s given.

There’s a temptation to see this self-isolation as a pernicious feature of the internet age and information technology, but I think there is evidence that it runs deeper and older than that. 

One of the first people to look closely and think deeply about American culture was the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, in his two-volume work, “Democracy in America,” begun in the early 1830s and finished in 1840. In volume II, book 2, chapter 2, de Tocqueville goes on a brilliant riff about the culture of “individuality” that American democracy has fostered. De Toqueville, who (as I said) is an aristocrat, admires the self-determining power of American individualism, but he sees problems for long term health of a society where individualism is a defining value. He concludes the chapter:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. (the italics are mine)

Sound familiar? Well, the rugged individualist is, of course, in our national character. Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener or Captain Ahab. Henry David Thoreau.  John Wayne. Clark Gable. John Galt. Politics and advertising recognize this as a given: “you deserve a break today,” “have it your way.” And so we now live in a country where a good (and ever growing) chunk of the population doesn’t understand why they should have to pay taxes, contribute to the welfare of others or even bother to have a government. With public narcissism growing, they live in what we metaphorically call “echo chambers” or “bubbles,” where basically all they hear echoed back to them are the sounds of their own narrow thoughts, with their own un-examined, self-validated perspective steadily amplified. They really are, as de Toqueville says, “confined..,entirely within the solitude of (their) own hearts.” It is interesting that de Toqueville, speculating about American culture almost 200 years ago, could see this coming so clearly.
 I guess, in many ways, that’s because this solipsism was inevitable. In a sense, it’s our core national character. It’s what we really most wanted when we first came to this be ourselves in this “empty wilderness” (the fact that we couldn’t acknowledge that it was neither empty nor a wilderness says volumes in itself) and it is what we have asked for all along… and it’s what we have been given. Even our tools, our technology now are designed to enable it. Resistance is futile. God bless us, each and everyone.
We are Borg, though not together but alone, each and everyone.

From Walt Kelly's great ode to solipsism, "The Prince of Pompadoodle." The last two panels.

Monday, January 18, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 7

7: Momento Mori

Back when I was a sloppy, bearded grad student (this differs from me now… how?),  I had a revelatory moment when one of my teachers, a professor of Victorian literature, challenged a group of his students: “Sure, the Victorians had a hang-up about sex. It was, more than anything else, what they were fascinated with, and, as a result, it was the one thing they couldn’t talk about it. Do you think we don’t have any taboos any more? Try talking frankly about death and mortality.”

This seemed profound to me back then because I realized instantly that he was right. In our age and culture, there are basic facts that everyone is aware of – that the place where we live is a giant ball of metal and rock, orbiting around a star (in the modern world, we’ve stopped believing it’s a flat garden, floating between heaven and hell); that we are warm-blooded mammals like many other creatures around us (not spiritual vessels, crafted by God out of spit and mud); that, as mammals, we are created in a sexual act between a male and female member of our species (not delivered from God’s baby factory by the stork); and that all animals, ourselves included, have finite lifespans that are limited by (if nothing else) the fact our biological selves are intrinsically perishable – they age and break down. Most people in our time are not terribly disturbed by any of these accepted modern truths, except the last one – the fact that we are intrinsically, unfixably, mortal. Death scares the you-know-what out of us, but we must not say so.

An interesting visualization of how short it is. More at: Wait but Why
 If you have read any other pieces in this sequence of essays,  you may have noted that one of my main themes here is denial and how it shapes our lives. I tend to think that a habit of rejecting reality and replacing it with the fiction of our choosing is really problematic for living intelligently and for getting along with others, but, at the same time, I also think it is a standard and necessary part of being human. In the bible it says that you can’t stare at the face of God and live. There’s a great truth there – we can’t handle reality unadorned, so we build crude representations of something we have only glimpsed in our peripheral vision – representations that look comfortably like ourselves – and call those graven images “God” – “the truth.” Well, in modern life something that generally doesn’t get incorporated into our personal picture of reality is the fundamental but unacceptable fact that we are weak and rapidly degrading bags of biochemical processes – that we are all dying. (Underlined for emphasis. I would do ALL CAPS, but then you would think I’m an even bigger a-hole.)

Denial makes us look stupid – stupid like an old man eating kale shakes for breakfast and hauling his bony ass out on a hot day, risking life, painful dehydration and limb by running a 10K, “for fun.” Curiously, our Victorian (and earlier) forefathers and foremothers had much less trouble with this, in part because infirmity and death from disease was so much more obvious in their lives (especially in childhood and past 40) and partially because they had a much more pervasive and convincing cultural mythos to counter the reality of death – their Christian religion, and the belief in an afterlife. (To see how important religion was to human sanity back then, re-read Arnold’s “Dover Beach” or Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and see how unhinged the poets got when the truth of their religions were threatened.) Victorians hated death just as much as any modern hipster, but they couldn’t deny their mortality either, so they used really effective work-arounds to deal with it psychologically.

By and large, our modern science-based culture has removed the comforting psychological dodge of metaphysical religious myth-reality from our lives (as Matthew Arnold bemoans),  and, though we still often “believe in God” (for the record, I do), we no longer live with a generally accepted religious conviction convincing us that death is not the end of everything.  Though I’m a Catholic now, I grew up in a non-religious household, and was never taught to believe that when I died I would simply go to heaven. I don’t remember when I first learned about death and accepted what it meant, but I do know that I was ghoulishly fascinated by it (as I said in a previous essay, I was a weird kid) and I guess I still am.  One of my earliest memories – probably about first grade – involves me cruelly reducing to tears a slightly younger friend by telling him all about death, a fact his parents had protected him from until then. He needed to know the basic truth, so I told him. Later, traveling with my parents in Europe and being lectured by my father on various historical figures, I always wanted to know first “how did they die?” I was a pretty creepy kid, I guess, but it seemed to me to be one of the most important facts in any person’s story. I was personally pretty proud of my knowledge of reality and of my no-nonsense acceptance of all that.

Of course I was a kid and, with no long, deep experience with life, I had a secret personal conviction that I was immortal. When you are a kid growing up in modern America, with adequate food, hygene and healthcare, death is not a threat, and if you are aware it is coming, it is a long, long way off. Death is so far distant to us in our callous youth as to be abstract. Sure, we see death when our grandparents (or other aged relatives or acquaintances) die, but they are so different from us as to be a different species -- like our pets are. Maybe, if tragedy strikes and a parent or a close acquaintance at school happens to die, then it becomes more real to us, but otherwise, not. Most of us go into adulthood with this secret conviction and, unlike most other childish things, we don’t necessarily put it aside.

However, as I went from adolescence to adulthood, there were things in my own life that made my own mortality increasingly real to me. My parents were older than most other people I know (I am the last child in my family, born when my mother was 43) and their health was more tenuous – my father, a heavy smoker, had serious emphysema most of my childhood. Their parents were really old – one grandparent died when I was an infant, two more when I was pre-puberty and my mother’s father came to live with us in my early teenage years, and moved to a nursing home before I went to college. I understood that people aged and died and saw it happening all around me. Old age, in particular, really made an impression on me. I couldn’t imagine ever being there myself (as Paul Simon says in his song “Old Friends,” – “how terribly strange to be seventy…”) but I saw it wasn’t fun. As the saying goes, it’s “not for sissies.” Mortality, I saw, was not the mythical creature us young people all wanted to believe it was.

And it was coming. Pretty early in adulthood, I started marveling at how other people seemed to be in denial of what we all knew was inevitable. I graduated from college in 1977, and the last quarter of the Twentieth Century saw the birth of the “Health and Personal Fitness” culture. For the first time, medical science thought it had some basic advice that medical researchers and doctors thought could help people live “longer, healthier and more productive lives,” so they started to publicize lots of useful tips: stop smoking; stop drinking heavily; don’t do drugs; lose weight; lower your cholesterol; lower your blood pressure; sleep better; get more exercise; cut down your fat, salt, sugar (and later) carbohydrate intake; eat more vegetables; eat less meat; eat less processed foods; eat more organic foods; eat more anti-oxidants; etc., etc. Of course, people didn’t really understand the medical science behind most of this (and, though I won’t go into it, a lot of the medical “findings” behind these pieces of information were incomplete, not proven by valid studies or simply wrong), but they did get this message: you can control things and fix your body.

In the culture I entered into adulthood in, the next step in this thinking was to begin privately believing, contrary to common sense, that somehow we might be able to escape aging, perhaps cheat death itself. Hence, a culture of extreme fitness began to flourish, with people doing distance running, bicycle racing, rigorous exercise routines and competitive contact sports (baseball, basketball, tennis and even football and rugby) long past the point (late thirties and early 40s) when their biomechanics (joints, tendons, muscles and bones – not to mention the cardiovascular system) could handle the strain. People began exercising to be healthy in unhealthy ways. They also began to take healthy diet ideas to fairly bizarre extremes: vegetarianism, veganism, fad diets, dietary supplements of dubious effectiveness (along with this came “Health Food” stores that essentially sold patent medicines and magical cures, all unsanctioned by the FDA or the medical establishment).  In short (I may be offending you by saying this so bluntly), we began doing irrational things and performing what amounts to magical rituals in our desperation to stay alive and healthy.

I’m afraid my response to this is pretty irreverent: you may not want to believe in old age and death, but they believe in you.

Delusion is history, history is delusion

I’ve got more to say about this, but before I do I want to take a side-trip into human history, because I think it explains the roots of almost universal human foolishness. The very development of our species has been driven by the desire to extend human life and thus has pushed us towards denial of aging and death. 

Paleoanthropologists say we physically became what we are somewhere between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, though a general group of human-like creatures had been loping around Africa and Eurasia for perhaps a million years. 100,000 years ago, we were scavengers, foragers and crude hunters living in small bands, using crude stone tools, and our normal (“natural”) healthy lifespan (assuming we weren’t eaten by a predator or had an accident, suffered from natural disaster or caught a disease (diseases were rarer because there were fewer of us) was a little over 30 years –after which aging began affecting our fitness and it was increasingly hard to survive. However, this is only the fossil record of the beginning of our species – I think (and some anthropologists agree with me) that the real beginnings of our species was a little later – sometime around 80 to 70 thousand years ago, when we first began to show signs of “culture” – programmed information for living that could be passed on from generation to generation, probably occasioned by the development of real language, which provided a mechanism for passing on important complicated accrued information – aka, “wisdom.” Language and culture allowed us to learn and preserve very useful information about dealing with the world and surviving, including more sophisticated tools, weapons (carved bone tools first appeared at this time – they are not easy to make) and other early technologies. This passed-on knowledge and culture probably didn’t extend our lifespans much, but it did allow more of us to survive and to spread out across the planet in search of more territory we could adapt to (by developing more culture) and exploit.

Until circa 10,000 years ago, this is how we rolled.
The first potential jump in human lifespan (it didn’t happen for everyone, in fact archaeologists say lifespan probably went down overall because of increased density and disease) happened sometime around 20 to 15 thousand years ago, when we developed agriculture and stopped being nomadic. This, I imagine, created the first glimmer in the human mind of the possibility of living into something like “old age.”  We then began living in villages with their own food sources in farm fields, and we could abandon the physically demanding nomadic lifestyle without starving. Living in villages, old people could exist with the support of others, perhaps even making valuable contributions to the tribe/community through their accumulated skills and wisdom. As living to old age became possible, it also became something to strive for. What “old age” meant here, of course, is not what we mean today. Even into modern times, someone over 40 was considered “senior” and in early urban societies it is doubtful that anyone lived beyond 60.

An old Roman. About 40?
As urbanized human culture, supported by agricultural technology,  developed and perfected itself between Ur (about 10,000 years ago) and Rome (2,000 years ago) – with roughly similar timeframes in Asia – average human lifespans didn’t increase much (Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century was still describing the normal human life as “nasty, brutish and short”) but what did develop was a class of people who might be expected to fare better – nobles and kings, an aristocracy. These people still didn’t usually live to what we now consider to be old age (because no human was immune to disease) but they still had the possibility of a significantly longer life, and that was perhaps the greatest perk of being a noble, and something to aspire to. Once it was possible to live better and longer, it was something everybody naturally wanted.

“Hope” was born, but it was only a slightly longer life -- not anything like immortality -- that any human could hope for right up to the 20th Century. Living standards began to improve for many with the industrial revolution, and death by starvation generally went away as a threat in the “developed” world, but death through disease and infection still stalked the homes of kings, the rich and the poor alike. Everybody knew that death was coming. With the advent of modern medicine, particularly with the development of antibiotics in the 20th Century, however, suddenly lifespans (in the developed world took a big leap forward. This was “the miracle of modern medicine,” but with miracles comes the belief in magic.

Give me liberty and give me death

I’m fully aware that what I’ve been saying in the five paragraphs above is ridiculously simplistic, and pretty inaccurate, unsupported by specific facts, etc., but my basic point is that the development of human civilization has been all about finding ways to extend human survival, which has meant teaching society that it could be extended, which is pointing us towards the false hope that it can be extended forever.  We’ve been building towards this delusion for thousands of years, and you can feel the social pressure to believe in it. If you read “speculative fiction” (fantasy and science fiction), then you know that immortality is a very common theme, perhaps the most common theme, whether the plot involves vampires or cyborgs or biotech. It’s what we all desperately want because it’s what we have been working towards for so, so long.

But can we have it? Sure, someone will talk to you about aging research and try to tell you otherwise, but realistically I don’t’ think so – certainly not in the lifetimes of anyone reading this at the present moment. You may want to “believe in the future,” but if you do, I’ve got a freezer for your disembodied head in Scottsdale, Arizona that you can spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars on… until the company goes bankrupt and they turn the power off. No, we can’t just turn off cell death. No, your mind isn’t some static data file (like the file this essay is written on) that can be uploaded onto a server someplace. As Eliot says in the  fantasy movie “ET” – “this is reality, Greg!” – and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to give you a re-write of the basic story. What I’m saying once again: you, I and everyone else is “doomed to die” (poem by Sauron) and we’d better get used to it. Yes, it’s a big bummer.

So why be so unpleasant and keep saying this, when delusion is so much friendlier and easier to work with?  I’m not sure that I’m completely advocating for living with brutal truth, but I also see some huge problems in living with delusion.

I’m overweight (I like to eat and find food fun and comforting), which is not currently life-threatening for me (perhaps…) but is certainly not healthy. As a consequence, I feel a certain amount of disapproval, unspoken and spoken, and even occasional shaming from the considerably more health-obsessed people around me. I should go on a diet, change my lifestyle, learn a new regimen for survival, I’m told, like this is a spiritual failing. “Don’t you want to live to see your grandchildren?” (For the record, none of my children has expressed any interest to date in producing any.) “You don’t want to die do you?” No, like you, of course I don’t… at least not right away. Life good. Death… well, not great.  But here’s what I’m thinking when some well-intentioned person is shaming me: rather than bullying me into following your “healthy” (is it really?) diet while you exercise your aging body into orthoscopic surgery -- please stop and think a bit about where all this is leading.

As I said, I’m a late child, and, consequently I have seen first hand a lot of aging and death. I’ve seen grandparents grow old, go into nursing homes and slowly die. I’ve seen the same thing with parents and inlaws.  What I’ve seen is that we don’t live forever… ever, and we don’t die easily. What happens to most of us who live to “ripe old age,” unless we succumb to slow death by cancer or fairly rapid death by heart disease or a rare illness or accident, is that we end up needing (often imposed on us necessarily by our children, against our irrational aging wills) some kind of long-term nursing care, which (I can’t sugar-coat this) is the opposite of a pleasant and dignified end. I know this is not everyone, but I have lived with three different aging relatives who all fervently wished to die years before they finally did.  I could go into really graphic detail, but I won’t be that cruel. Other people are fortunate, I guess, in that their minds go before their bodies, and they don’t know the grueling end (though their children do). Is this what you are denying yourself pasta for or running that daily mile in order to be able to experience? I didn’t think so. Sure, you don’t want to die, but how do you want to die when it inevitably comes? Death is an important detail of life. Think about it. I do.

OK, it doesn’t make me happy or even re-assure me to dwell on this, but it also doesn’t scare me and I’d prefer not to be ruled by fear. The one thing I want out of life is not control, but some calm awareness of how I’m living, some intentionality. A sane, thinking person knows there is no such thing as control… but there is such a thing as understanding and meaning. If I give into delusion for comfort, I  will know somewhere at the heart of myself that I’m living a fiction. Perhaps, as I’ve been saying occasionally in these essays, such a fiction is unavoidable, but I’d prefer not to totally give in to that.

Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas:  Momento mori

“Vanitas” by Jan Sande van Hemessan


Sunday, January 10, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 6

6: Butterfly Effect

When I was a boy, I loved butterflies and I really still do.

My poor mother, circa 1969, on a trip abroad, paying the price of having a very odd son.

I never really thought about it, but being a lepidopterist was not an easy thing for a boy to be. While other boys were learning how to throw and hit a baseball, I was out running around open wild fields, swinging a goofy net around. There was actually about the same amount of athleticism involved, but, as we said when I became a teenager, not cool. While other kids were collecting stamps or watching Saturday afternoon monster movies, I was poring over entomological guides, learning about insect biology, butterfly species and their distribution and ecology,  invertebrate behavior, evolutionary theory… I was, as people are fond of saying about other people’s children, a weird kid.

The red spotted purple, a common bug here.
Mainly though, I was just a boy, captured by an odd detail of our planet and sucked into the fascinating minutia you find when you start looking at anything closely, when you start focusing  on something in life with passion. I guess I loved butterflies because they were extravagant flying flowers, elusive as the first crocus, and often unnoticed the way magical things are, difficult to get close to but full of subtle, complex beauty once you did.  Perhaps you see a blue-black butterfly floating around your backyard right now, but have you ever been close enough to see the perfect iridescent blue sheen of the delicate scales on its lower wings, the aerodynamically elegant design of its strong upper wing, fragile and light yet expertly braced by rigid veins, the bright red scallops at the wing’s edge, more artistic and striking than the finest painterly detail? Have you ever looked at the stunning complexity of its two giant compound eyes, covering both sides of its head like a helmet (giving it nearly 360 degrees of vision), the neat geometric coil of its long tongue, nearly as long as its whole body, yet packed tight as a pressed spring for flight? I have, and, though I really know precious little about life, I guess I’ve seen God in small things.

I know a lot about butterflies (certainly far more than I would ever dare bore you by telling) but in learning it all I also learned humility: to know about butterflies is, almost by definition,  to know about something totally trivial; to talk about butterflies is to invite mockery. (I learned this lesson pretty quickly as a kid.)  We use the world “butterfly” to stand for something that is silly, unimportant, temporary, flighty, insignificant. They are beautiful, yes, but in a ridiculous, minor, trivial kind of way. They don’t fly purposefully like a bee, they “flit.” They don’t make honey, pollenate or destroy our major crops. They seem more like ornaments, whimsies of nature – not anything serious to think about. They are all around us, but we barely notice them. They are insects, phylum arthropoda, but the alien insect/arthropod part is hidden away, obscured by the large, colorful wings. With a very few exceptions, they aren’t even important as pests in your garden. They live at the fringes of our consciousness. Well, perhaps your consciousness.

This is how most people feel about the butterflies in our lives, but we also know better. Almost everyone is familiar with the meme of “the butterfly effect”:

Even the flutter of a butterfly's wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world.” (Urban Dictionary)

As the dictionary says, this is “the theory that everything matters.” Now, at the age of 60, I am long past being that boy who was seduced by the romance of the natural world, but I’m here to tell you that this is hardly a “theory” – it is, as far as I have seen, an obvious truth.

Dark form tiger swallowtail, common in the South
So, back to the butterflies. Here in Charlotte, they have been all over this summer, like a cryptic little message from God, trying to alert us about something.  It’s been hot and dry, really unspeakably hot and dry, and, as we stupidly argue about climate change and global warming (stupid because the warming is an undeniable fact, stupid because humans are obviously responsible and stupid because there is not much we are capable of doing to change it), this is a bit alarming, with water supplies dropping, lawns browning, trees dying.  With such unfavorable conditions, you don’t expect butterflies, yet here they are, clouds of them.

I grew up in the northeast, and one of the pleasures of living in the southeast has been the extravagance of  butterflies. As a general rule of thumb in nature, the further south you go, the richer the butterfly fauna. There were plenty of butterflies for me to hunt where I grew up, but here I see butterflies every day that would have really excited me when I was 12.

Common form tiger swallowtail.
Especially cool for me is the very common Eastern tiger swallowtail, one of the largest and most visually stunning butterflies in North America. Where I grew up, this was a familiar insect, but it was hard-to-catch and by no means common – you would see them at a distance, generally, flying high in the canopy of trees when you walked in deep, old woods. Here, it is one of the most common butterflies in my yard’s flower garden in early summer and then again in late July (it has two broods), and the second flight is especially common.  The tiger swallowtail has a variety of “forms” here in the south that are missing in the north, as males and females are somewhat different looking – the females are larger, with bigger tails and larger blue spots – and some females look really different, becoming almost solid brown-black -- what is known as “the dark-form tiger.” It’s the same insect as in the north, but the south has a larger and more diverse population.

This is a rarity -- maybe a fluke -- an in-between form, seen in my garden this year. Nature is strange.

But this year, the population of tiger swallowtails was really over-the-top. In my small garden on most sunny days in July I would walk out and find it literally dancing with large yellow (and black) tigers, perhaps as many as 20 flying together at one time. It was a pretty season, and most people would leave it at that, but for me, with my butterfly-centric world-view, it was magically unusual, and, frankly, a little odd and unsettling.

A couple of butterflies amid a crowd.
As I said earlier, this year was a very hot and dry year. Did the odd weather have anything to do with the bigger butterfly populations?  Though it ‘s counter-intuitive (excessively hot weather is generally bad for the plants the butterflies feed on as caterpillars and adults), the thought occurred to me, and I began to wonder if changing climate might be pointing to future summers where, as the leaves withered in the hot dust we might be choking on clouds of butterflies filling the air, a colorful plague of, well, beautiful, big-winged locusts.  It would be like God laughing at us: global devastation with a smile.

The thought was not completely fantasy, as I know that ecology is complicated and has its own “butterfly effects,” where changes in the environment affect something that affects something else and leads to really unexpected results. Heat and dryness, for example, might be bad for the bird population (birds eat caterpillars and butterflies), or the parasitic wasp population (wasps kill a lot of caterpillars) or (most likely) the mold population (molds are common causes of caterpillar disease).  Or it might be good for something that is bad for birds, wasps or mold. It’s an “ecological web” out there, and if you change something, it tugs on it and you may very well be changing everything.

We’ve changed everything and the change in the look and feel of our world is inevitable. Should you panic? I didn’t, because I’ve seen 60 years of life and I know that things that slide out of balance also have a tendency to slide back the other way. Once, when I was about 10, I saw a year when the viceroy butterfly (this is a butterfly that looks like the monarch, but is unrelated – it’s uncommon here) population exploded and they were everywhere. The next year, they were rare. If you spend much time out in nature, you will see the same thing happening with many species of animal, plant, fungus, etc. Populations of common animals (especially insects) tend to do this, with changes in the availability of their food supply or in the populations of their predators or in the prevalence of diseases (which can spread better in dense populations).

But climate change has made a lot of us very gloomy and we have started seeing everything on the dark side.

For years now, I’ve been seeing dire reports about the coming extinction of the monarch butterfly, another large, common and “charismatic” (this means people know it and like it) American butterfly. The initial alarm with the monarch started with environmentalists noting that some of the Mexican sites where monarchs “roost” in large numbers (and that are thus popular with tourists) were being destroyed. If monarchs have no place to roost, where will they go? (Obviously, someplace else, since the sites have been being destroyed for decades and we continue to see monarchs flying through every year.) People were horrified, horrified.  Other environmentalists, looking for examples to dramatize their own environmental issues, noted the success of trumpeting the risk to the monarch. Some researchers at Cornell (my alma matter), trying to establish the possible risks posed by genetically modified “BT corn” (corn that has been modified to produce a compound only toxic to caterpillars), dusted a tray full of monarch caterpillars with BT corn pollen like it was a baby’s bottom… and some of them died! The research was published in Science, though it really wasn’t established in the article how much the mortality differed from normal tray-grown caterpillar mortality, not to mention what the mortality is to caterpillar who are dusted with other substances, sprinkled on as heavily as potato chips are with salt. People were terribly, terribly worried about what all the BT corn out there was doing to the beloved monarch… yet, a decade later, we still have monarchs. 

Undaunted, the monarch has recently been enlisted in yet another fight against GMOs, this time against “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans. Though these plants contain no insect toxins, they are still a threat to the noble monarch (now as precious an emblem of nature to us as the bald eagle!). Round Up Ready GMOs are a monarch-extinguisher, the theory goes, because farmers are spraying herbicides willy-nilly and extinguishing milkweed, the monarch’s required food plant in the rows between fields. Without milkweed, the monarchs will starve! Never mind the fact that milkweed remains one of the most common wild plants in disturbed areas like roadsides, stream margins, badly mowed yards, etc. and the monarchs can simply fly a mile or so to find some. Further, some people claim to have done “surveys” and have noted “alarming declines” in monarch populations. (I’m not really clear on how you monitor the population of an insect that flies somewhat haphazardly all across the country, but there you go.)

You can’t prove it by me, because I still continue to see plenty of monarchs every year – this year I even had a dozen caterpillars on some of my ornamental milkweeds, as did a DC area friend. He posted daily reports on Facebook of the endangered caterpillars’ status, and went to semi-heroic efforts (to much public acclaim) to insure their survival to adulthood. Everyone saw this as the near equivalent of valiantly trying to save the passenger pigeon.
Monarch caterpillar. I had enough of these on my garden milkweeds this year that they ate all the plants.

Are monarchs really endangered? People are bound to hate me for saying so, but I really doubt it. They are a very common butterfly with a really broad geographic distribution. Are there more some years in some places than others? Sure – environmental conditions are changeable (as I noted with the tiger swallowtail) and bugs tend to have years of boom and bust. They breed up and down their several-thousand-mile migration route, having several generations between Mexico and Canada. Every adult female monarch can lay several hundred eggs, so if only a few happen to survive murderous GMO corn in Iowa or bad weather in Georgia, there is lots of potential to build up the population again when they hit Pennsylvania or Alberta, and who knows what locale will have a good monarch year and which will have a bad.

The bug has adapted to deal with adversity, and adapted very successfully at that. It migrates because keeping on the move gives it lots of options. A lot of other butterflies that don’t migrate and have less common food plants are much, much  rarer (Google the Regal Fritillary, if you want an example) and actually really in danger. Consider this – the monarch survived the last ice age about 12,000 years ago (the species is at least 500,000 years old), when a whole lot of its current northern migratory range (including those Midwestern corn fields) was covered by a mile of ice – think about that as an ecological game-changer. It’s a tougher bug than we give it credit for being.

But that doesn’t keep us from seeing the absence of a butterfly on a September morning  or the presence of a lot of another butterfly on a July afternoon as a harbinger of doom. It’s evidence, evidence I tell you! I’ve been watching and I’ve seen a pattern! The ancient Romans felt pretty much the same way, and three crows flying across the Appian Way was a clear sign that Caesar was about to get it, and good. And he did! So there!

So what’s my point? Reality is marvelous and complicated, and everything is interconnected and has meaning -- if we can only find it. Miracles happen around us every day, but there’s a reason for everything. The problem is, we don’t know what that reason is – we have to make a guess. Most of the time, we’re probably wrong, but if you accept your own obvious limitations that way, nothing will make sense, ever.  So we develop crazy theories, find evidence to support them and believe them and follow them like sacred roadmaps through the chaos of our messy lives. I do this, you do this – it’s ok (except I’m right and you’re deluded). I repeat – it’s ok -- it’s called being human.

At 60 years of age, I’m already past the point where delusion can do me any good, so I’m trying to be as realistic as possible about myself and about the world. But I’m also here to say knowledge and realism doesn’t help. Though the “honesty” should be bracing or freeing, instead I can’t help but feeling pretty gloomy.  I can’t help but wish I could see the world through the eyes of a child again, be Miranda (“What brave new world!”) rather than Prospero (“Tis new to thee”), and see wonder, not danger, in an unexpected thing, in a swirling cloud of tiger swallowtails, yellow and black, dancing on the warm wind like kites, tails flying behind, blue and yellow and orange spots flashing, the miraculous, momentary jewels of the summer air.