Thursday, September 29, 2005

Conflict of Interest

If you want to have enough money to contribute to environmental causes, you probably have to be employed in something environmentally destructive. Even if it isn't in your back yard, it's in someone's back yard.

If you live small, trying to leave less of a mark on the land, your financial vulnerability increases the chances that someone destructive could move in next door.

Because the environment is considered a special interest, it derives much of its support from rich eccentrics who happen to like trees. This works fine for the po' folks if they happen to live where such ecccentrics and a ready supply of trees come together, but the rest of you are screwed. And the eccentrics have to get that money from somewhere. See paragraph one.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


We feel the irresistible urge to clean twice a year, spring and fall. We may feel cleaning urges more frequently, but I’d guess most of us find them easier to stave off. But the major changes of season really bring out the nesting urge.

Back when I hoped to land the job of novelist/cartoonist/house husband, I devoted myself to housework. Unfortunately, I’m not very creative in the kitchen. What I consider creative in the kitchen most other people classify as criminally insane. That leaves me with only a few safe, bland meals to cook over and over. So I threw myself into the cleaning.

Laundry never piled up. I vacuumed at least once a week. I even tried to dust. And I did my poor best, for a while, to put some sort of meal on the table in the evenings, at least until I received word that I needed to start earning more of my keep in the outside world. Supper then became a ritual of guilt, blame, disappointment and macaroni and cheese.

Still I cleaned, hoping that this would compensate for my other inadequacies, as a chef and best-selling author. It helped that the house was a tiny shack.
Eventually the marriage fell apart under a number of stresses, but by damn the house was clean.

My model was an ex-girlfriend’s mother, whose house was not fancy, but was as clean as you hope an operating room will be. The stove still looked new, despite the creditable meals that had issued forth from it. After supper, the kitchen would be cleaned, the dishes all washed, everything scrubbed sparkling.

Yes, it sounds obsessive, but I was impressed. I knew it was beyond the power of an ordinary mortal to maintain such a standard, but at least I had an ideal. I tried to imagine what she might say if she had a flat tire out front and happened to drop in to use the phone, a highly unlikely circumstance given how far away she lived.

“I was right about you never amounting to much, but you’ve got the cleaning thing down,” she might say.

Then again, probably not.

I’ve fallen from those Olympian aspirations since my house grew and my spouse changed. Neither of us feels really motivated to chase down all the hairballs produced by a cat population that has now grown to five, or the relentless tide of sand that comes in on everyone’s shoes. The continental ice sheet slept here, 15,000 years ago or so, and it left all this sand and gravel lying around.

Fall comes. Clean the chimney. Stack the wood. Clean the windows that have hung open all summer collecting spider webs. Too soon we will have to shut those windows for a few months. If they’re smeared and silk-veiled, that’s what we’ll look through until spring.

In the spring, a winter’s worth of dirt and another collection of cobwebs will await banishment into the flower-scented air. But that’s another project for another season.

Civic Duty

Citizens have one social duty, and that is to think. Does that mean we’re doomed? Often people grow resentful when they go to the effort of thinking and then nothing appears to change to suit them. In frustration, some may decide it’s no longer worth the effort to think about society’s problems when they have so many problems of their own. It’s much easier to wait to be told what to think about the bigger issues. But if you wait to be told, you are not free. You’ll be free for a while to make your personal decisions, but eventually all those people abdicating leave all power in the hands of a few.

Cynics say we are there already and always have been. I’m not so sure. It’s difficult to get the people in power to listen to you. But someone will always have to be in charge, and they’ll always be busy, with all the rest of us trying to reach their ear.

Our political system doesn’t help. I keep thinking of great questions to ask my congressman, but then I realize he doesn’t dare give me a straight answer, because I might talk to the wrong people, or someone might overhear him, and his unscripted words will have an unpredictable effect. Even if it turns out to be a good effect, no one wants to take the political risk anymore. It was never a good idea, and it becomes ever less of one.

For every moment of political risk, a politician will spend many hours refining the message, squeezing the future risk out of it as it becomes part of the party framework, or perhaps as many hours recanting it, reshaping it to prove it was misunderstood if it was disliked. When do they have the time to think in real terms about issues where the script has failed? With whom can they think in secure privacy? The world must be a dark, frightening place to a public official, never knowing when a chance comment or sincere intellectual experiment will blow up in his face.

Because the politicians dare not publicly think, we end up led by shadowy figures in the background, who are free to do the thinking away from public scrutiny. But that’s the real problem. We often find ourselves led through ideas none of us have had an opportunity to scrutinize and criticize until they’re about to become policy. Sometimes it is even later than that.

I get annoyed when my congressman, who once appeared to have a brain, just spouts the safe party position. But then I remind myself that by winning election he gave up the chance to do anything on his own initiative.


I love the quote from John Stuart Mill: “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid is true that most stupid people are conservative.”

John must have been in a cranky mood that day.

On the other hand, as frustrating as those sticks in the mud may be, those who need to be dragged forward to progressive thinking do prevent a certain amount of unstructured darting about. To quote another conservative, “If I have to answer right away, the answer is no.”

If you like to think outside the box, remember that you have conservatives to thank for the fact that there is a box at all. I always ask myself whether my own radical notions only seem supportable because I can hop back in the box for shelter if things look like they’re going to go badly. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But always ask.

We need both the reassuring box and the courage to go outside. Even more importantly we need to know when it’s time to follow the disciplined approach of thinking creatively within a structure and when it is proper to discard some of the structure to build anew. Otherwise we just mutate uncontrollably, and survival is a matter of luck.

It’s not just a matter of being moderate. Sometimes you have to be selectively extreme.

I never said it was easy.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Looked good in the showroom Posted by Picasa
Rush Hour Posted by Picasa

These People have a Problem

I work for Republicans who hate the rich.

Republicans who hate the rich? That's like being allergic to your own skin, isn't it?

Fiscally and socially conservative, my employers hate all welfare. New Englanders seem especially prone to blame victims for their own misfortune. You're in a bind? What did you do wrong? These things don't just happen.

On the other hand, they also hate the privileged, because the privileged most often chisel them for lower prices. But mere chiseling does not define the problem, because I also hear them complain about some of our wealthy customers who spend their money freely, but spend a bit too much time in the shop, live more flamboyantly or enjoy more leisure than my employers can accept.

Hardworking, perceiving themselves as virtuous and largely correct, despite a rural, naive bigotry, they don't think it's fair that they should work so diligently, vote so faithfully and still find their circumstances pinched.

What could possibly be going wrong? Why isn't the system they serve serving them?

Unfortunately, they tend to equate high profitability with low honesty. And at that they may be correct. Maybe until they play the game ruthlessly to win they will never break through to the riches that hang tantalizingly out of reach. But that kind of profitability accumulates consequences that can all come due at once. The indictment could be delivered by a grand jury or by political commentators planting bombs or flying stolen aircraft. Or the aggregate poverty of those left behind could simply drag most of society down, spilling the failing middle class into the abyss between misery and oligarchy.

Protecting the Valuables

When we have something of value, we hire a watchman to guard it. If it's really valuable, the watchman is armed. Maybe the protective force is a large detachment of people with weapons and enforcement powers, to prevent anyone from plundering or damaging the important facility. But the people who guard our one and only environment are considered crackpots. Far from being paid to keep watch, they're expected to spend their own money and work without pay, all the while being criticized and despised for restricting other people's freedom and hindering the economy.

So where are you going to live when the job finally gets to be too much for them?

So You Think You Can Drive

We need to build race tracks in every community. These would not be real sporting tracks. They would be proving grounds for all those people who consider themselves great drivers.

Anyone could drop in at any time to run a quick heat against whoever else was around. They would get no guidance and no training, just a starting flag and a finish line.

At regular intervals, crews would remove the wreckage.

In a closed environment, dangerous idiots would finally be a danger only to each other. Concentrated in that way, they would be more likely to take each other out.

Traffic would be two-way, to simulate the environment in which these self-perceived experts usually operate. To goad them further into doing something homicidally or suicidally impatient, we could insert remote-controlled slower vehicles.

Drivers would pay no entry fee. In addition, anyone convicted of a traffic offense would be sentenced to run a certain number of laps, increasing with the severity of the offense.

All participants would be encouraged to sign up as organ donors.

Spectators would pay huge admission fees. The money would go toward highway safety programs and improvements in bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Origin of Neoconservatism

Conservatism is based on fear. Conservatives tend to be paranoid. Some group or social force is out to get them.

I believe that a lot of people who smoked too much pot in the 1970s and became deeply paranoid formed the bulk of the wave of converts to the Republican Party in the 1980s.

"Screw the yurt! Forget the geodesic dome! I have to live in a big, honkin' mansion with foot-thick walls to keep out all the bad people!!!!"