Sunday, November 30, 2014

Through space, time, and the Northeast Corridor

This is a landscape heavy with memories, not because I inhabited it but because of what I believed when I traversed it. My life was full of significance when it had not yet been filled with much else.

I think I just recognized a discarded washing machine from 1980. I spent enough time staring out of train windows that year.

Movement generates is own optimism most of the time. Just to be en route seems like progress.

Unspecified cool things lay ahead. Every experience was literary, artistic, cinematic. The stack of blank sheets in front of me did not intimidate me, regardless of what passing anxiety or depression might temporarily freeze me to the bone. I would fill them with wisdom and whimsy that would painlessly tease the straying world onto a gentle path of shared pleasure.

No ambition? Does that sound like no ambition? It may not promise steady upward progress through a prosperous bourgeois existence, as ambition is typically defined to do. But it is a massive undertaking to be pursued with deceptive casualness. There is no blunt and bludgeoning approach. One must relentlessly entice and not annoy. It may be impossible. And it's the only thing that will work.

Growing up, perhaps I received so little great guidance because I had no idea what questions to ask. I was advised to be on the side of good in a generic way, and to do my best to stay off the dole. Good enough as far as it went, but one can do shocking amounts of unintended damage in pursuit of what seem like bland and harmless personal success. Don't bring that up if you want to entice people into a different course for society. They feel threatened. Then you've lost your appeal.

I scribbled on those blank sheets with the enthusiasm and education of a sixth grader. I looked toward the far horizon while tripping over curbs and stepping in dog piles I overlooked in the immediate foreground. I waded eagerly into swamps and briar patches without regard for whether I could bill for the hours.

What a chump. Never underestimate the self-destructive power of the best intentions. Forget Hell. Hell is a selfish concept. Trying to do the right thing can sometimes be no better than a 50-50 shot, even if you yourself come out of it unharmed or enhanced. The footprints you leave could be enough to cut the slope and trigger an avalanche that takes out those behind you.

Bleached grasses and bare trees fill the scene behind many hours of thought. I've ended up living where they are the dominant reality for a solid half of the year. I can own a much larger patch of that than I could hope to claim in places that look more alive, more of the time. Those places fill and fill, making the people who live there pay steadily higher prices for smaller pieces. The overflow bulges steadily farther into country more difficult both climatologically and mentally.

I went willingly into the harsh landscape. I met it with my own impermeabability. It was my element for years. But events will teach you what you didn't know you didn't know. Along with knowledge aggregating in ways you hope and expect, stuff pries your mind open or forcibly aims your head in another direction.  You can either build stronger walls to keep your mind at its familiar width or you can work to incorporate more variations into your world view. I've seen it go both ways. And when formerly perfectly enjoyable companions decide to remain the same intellectual width they were, the space grows too small to hold you both for long.

Pride in harshness takes up less brain space than empathy. It's also less work. People can be such a burden, even the ones you supposedly care about. Much easier to have a set of standards that allows you to take people or leave them based on compliance. Is it conditional love or stern but admirable principle? Conditional love is what makes winners, according to a winner I used to visit by rail. I was softened and weakened by the indulgences of my parents. They did not use their affection strategically to force me toward achievement. That's how I remember her analysis at the time.

Time brings experience. Experience may bring wisdom. Or you just might get older without compensatory improvements.

Get off the train, emerge from the station and life is no longer linear. Progress is no longer automatic. You have to get yourself around. You could be going nowhere or anywhere. Anywhere is everywhere, so there really is no nowhere.

Friday, November 28, 2014

It jiggles the pen

The flickering sunlight and grumbling vibration induce a trance. The world is moving while the train stands still. The reflection of the train windows does not change on the passing backs of industrial buildings that flow eastward past our westward facing engine and string of cars.

Chunks of ice release from the train's top.  The air must have warmed above freezing.

A chain link fence corrals dozens of portable toilets on one side of a dilapidated brick building. On the other side of it, broken pavement and old roadbed sand fill a bin defined by concrete blocks.

Bare trees, fallen leaves, brown brick, oily dirt scroll by. The sun reluctantly rises above the horizon as we fly toward December with its even more reluctant sun. A warming globe is no lighter. It's not so much the cold that induces dormancy. Without photo there is no synthesis. Without photosynthesis, all other life plays defense until the sun returns in force.

Photoperiod will control the northward spread of southern species even as warmer temperatures change or end the lives of northern ones.

Rolling through Norwalk the cartoonist in me looks for people puking, and puddles of vomit everywhere.  I left East Lyme, eponymous home of one disease, and pass through this other unfortunate town whose name is linked to a physical discomfort.

I recognized Darien just from one unsuccessful job interview here in 1984. The part of town visible from the tracks has seen no need to change drastically in 30 years. Impressive, in this country so eager to plow under all that was smaller, quieter and slower in favor of wider highways, broader parking lots and bigger box stores. But with the state of rail in this country, there is no right side of the tracks. Anything near the tracks seems to be caught in time, whether as a quaint village vignette or in a permanent state of mid-dilapidation.

Just under 40 minutes from  New York, according to the conductor, a golf course to the left of us looks at first like a Revolutionary War fortification and battlefield. Earthworks and old stone suggest it. A distant building supports the impression until the obvious putting greens defended by their sand traps show what conflicts are contested here now. The banked earth and old stone leave unanswered the question of whether the land did see an earlier, more serious  purpose.

For the most part the view is unending dumps, depots and debris fields. Graffiti dresses up a lot of it, applied by unseen artists. It's easier to imagine it appearing by itself than to envision in real time detail a person or people going through the process. It's the work of mythical entities.

Nothing fronts on the railroad. Urban America turns its back to the tracks. What can we do from inside our can, rolling by until the next scheduled stop? There's no need to care what we think. Every place needs a utilitarian side. This is it.

I like the utilitarian side. The best part of Walt Disney World was the tunnels. I would rather be the bartender than the guest of honor and I'm better suited to be a dishwasher than a chef. Just don't make the mistake of disrespecting any of those roles. Know who serves you and how you depend on them. What is not you is not necessarily beneath you.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Immunization and reduced susceptibility

When I went for a flu shot today, the young woman who attended to the initial paperwork saw my address and remarked that she knew the road well. She said she also works for the Green Mountain Shooting Preserve. That's the place that moved in and took over what was once a beautiful area in which to take little walks, ski jaunts and mountain bike rides. It was where I used to be able to nip over for a quick dose of rising sun long before that light would reach my house. It has been barred to me since the early 1990s when the present owner posted it with warning signs about the gunfire that rakes it whenever the guys are practicing or the clients are actually there for a nice killing spree.

"Have you met Dave?" she asked. "He's such a nice guy."

I knew she meant the owner. I did not say, "Has anyone asked what the birds think?" I did say I had not made his acquaintance.

The nice young woman said she takes care of the birds. I assumed that she meant this was before the clients "take care" of them in the manner of Guido the hit man.

When I got home and went out back with the cats, we met a refugee from the shooting preserve's recreational death factory. I don't know enough about game birds to know the species of this particular survivor. It was speckled, seemed taller than a quail, and not terribly afraid of humans. I was able to walk quite close to it, talking quietly. It blended so well with its background that I could not get a clear photograph even from a few feet away.

These birds are unrescuable. They don't live in this climate naturally. They become easy meals for local predators or the winter kills them. I suppose I could build a nice chicken house for them and call it the Real Green Mountain Preserve (where we actually preserve something), but that could turn into a pretty big operation. Probably better to let the foxes, weasels, coyotes and bobcats clean up after the wasteful humans.

The Green Mountain Shooting Preserve website is full of happy talk about bonding with your fellow humans, and -- get this -- "enjoying the solace of nature." I'm sure nature enjoys the solace of a rain of hot lead.

In another context I wrote something about hunters salivating over a picture of a deer. I was told reprovingly that hunters don't do it for the enjoyment of the kill. If the people who line up to blast a flock of pen-raised birds aren't enjoying the process of killing, what exactly are they doing it for? Be honest. It only takes a minute to explain to critics that humans are predators and that killing things is fun. Hell, I've even heard that killing people is fun. I don't advocate it, but I understand it. Once you suppress your susceptibility to the plight of your target it just becomes a game. See how many you can blast. It's cool. Everything dies eventually. Why not have some fun with it?

Hunters have referred to the clean death they offer their victims, as opposed to getting shredded alive by a pack of predators, or dying of disease, or starvation. That holds up as long as the hunter does not merely wound quarry that then escapes to finish its agony, or, as happens with many of the shooting preserve's birds, misses entirely, leaving confused and unready creatures to fan out through the woods to suffer various fates. In no case does that life amount to much of a "happily ever after."

Right before getting jabbed with a needle did not seem to be the time to fire up a controversy at the pharmacy window. I don't want to make this woman hate her job and I probably wouldn't be able to make her see her employer for what he is in the few short minutes I would have had to crap in her pool. Maybe Dave really is a sweet guy who simply hasn't connected the dots in his lifestyle. I will say I doubt it. He's selling a death sport and sugar coating it to attract clients and deflect critics. Since he's kept the place going for about 20 years now, I'd say he has plenty of customers who enjoy snuffing out baffled featherbrains. You can't argue with success, right?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans' Day: Military Industrial Complex meets Guilt Complex

When the United States moved to an all-volunteer military force in the 1970s it addressed many of the problems that the military had suffered as a result of unwilling conscripts.

Once the Vietnam War ended, military service wasn't such a bad deal. You had to cut your hair and take orders, but you got cool machinery to play with and you could present yourself as a badass. We might still go to war with the Soviets. And if we do, those Russki bastards are in trouble! Especially as the 1980s ramped up under The Great Actor, military prowess became fashionable as its use remained genuinely unlikely. If The Big One hit, there were going to be a whole lot of fireballs in quick succession and then maybe some ground fighting, or maybe just a long period of lingering death. So it was safe to wear and rattle a saber. It was also safe to think of those volunteer warriors as another form of nerd, pursuing a taxpayer funded fantasy life with expensive hardware.

If you had the right specialty you could be thoroughly trained at taxpayer expense and then lured away by a private-sector employer to do the same job for much more money. Military service was just another career move.

At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union crumbled. As the 1990s began, American military might steamrollered Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. Conflicts were picking up, but our forces prevailed routinely.

All this time the public paid no attention to the fact that the volunteer military had created a warrior caste separate from the everyday citizen. Military forces became just another service provider. It was a bit riskier business than most, but our technological superiority made the risk seem manageable. There was a little flurry of concern when we sent a large force to Kuwait. We made a point to welcome them back properly, to avoid any sense that we did not appreciate the fine job our brave fighters had done. Good. That's taken care of. Now, back to my stock portfolio.

With the attacks on 9-11-01, the national psyche abruptly changed. First there was a wave of enlistment and a less well documented wave of excuses for not enlisting. The Afghanistan War began. We watched the news. It seemed to be going well. Not Kuwait well, but well. We were cooperating with the local insurgents already fighting the Taliban. We were getting along.

Then came Iraq. To many of us this had all the earmarks of another Vietnam. Many details differed, but the general opportunity to wade into a tar pit was exactly the same. After the invasion established the American occupation, the strange war continued. Casualties mounted. Goals kept changing. All the while, military personnel were sent to do whatever it was we were doing over there, while the ordinary citizens were encouraged to shop and consume, to keep the economy going. The economy is the symbol of our country. It must be kept aloft at any cost.

While the troops were over there we sent them toothpaste, candy, and letters from schoolchildren who were being indoctrinated into the reverence we express for the warriors who face our heinous foes. Yes, you could grow up to be such a hero yourself. When troops returned home they were greeted with hugs, colored ribbons, firm handshakes and fervent thanks. Oh, the thanks. And that is the guilt complex. The noncombatants know they owe the combatants a debt they can never repay, because the noncombatants have not faced death in the same way the combatants have. Suddenly everything you do at home seems trivial compared to tense patrols among IEDs and snipers, or firefights in dusty towns. The warrior servants we created by separating military service from the timeline of every person's adulthood now face us with the knowledge that we let them go without questioning how we got to that point and how we might reasonably avoid it in the future. Most people want to think about it so little that they don't question the system at all. They just offer firmer handshakes, flowerier speeches and more fervent thanks. And tomorrow they move on.

Veteran's Day 2014

Time once again for the annual apology to the human sacrifices made necessary by the human predilection for violence. The fact that many of them are proud and happy to serve underscores how deeply ingrained the habits of combat are. They may be hopelessly ineradicable. Still, dreamers dream.

When someone suggests that humanity might redirect its energy from warfare to more productive and cooperative behaviors the smart kids say things like, "As soon as human nature changes, and we are no longer naturally nasty, violent, and savage. Human nature has not changed in all of human history (and prehistory, evidently). Once it does... yep, we're all over that." Indeed, it probably isn't even worth trying, because it's just a ploy to sucker weaklings into disarming and reaching out in trust and attempted friendship.

In a world of warlike beings, peace is temporary. One can only hope that the shit does not hit the fan in one's lifetime. Good reason not to have kids, because if you got lucky they probably won't.

War evolved with us. It comes from the unquestioned emotions of an animal, mixed with the higher level of imagination that develops in larger brains. Even as we could imagine peace we could also dream up more and better ways to take each other out. The temptation to try to eliminate a bunch of the competition supersedes the notion that we should make a stronger effort to kick that habit. Warily we square off, jab a few times, test the defenses. When the time seems right an aggressor launches an attack. The game is on. But it's not a game. It's a disgusting slaughter. We vie to see who is better at it. The survivors of this are called veterans. We revere them because of the hell they have faced. And the smart kids shake their heads when someone says they hope we can move beyond it some day. That day is never coming. But you know another Veteran's Day is, and another and another.

Thank you for your service, you poor fuckin' bastards. I really do wish you the best in the coming year and ever after.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The American Revolutions

Listening to the gunfire from up the road I thought about the Second Amendment fundamentalists, and how they like to talk about standing up to the government and criminals and powers of repression with their trusty shootin' irons. And I realized that we have had numerous revolutions in this country since the wars that severed us from Great Britain, and in all but one of them the winning side was mostly unarmed.

The Civil War was the one real armed conflict in America's evolution over a difference of political philosophy. All it really settled was the issue of that particular instance of secession and the legality of slavery. Slavery is a big issue, but obviously the underclass of former slaves endured many more years of harsh oppression after it was no longer legal to own them outright.

Just skimming history you can't overlook the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women's suffrage, and the civil rights  and anti war movements of the 1960s. These were politically effective revolutionary acts carried out largely without the use of force by the advocates of greater freedom. Armed conflict would never have yielded as satisfactory a result. Nor will it help in reestablishing civil rights and labor's power now.

A brutal dictator will not respect nonviolent protest. But we don't have a brutal dictator right now, and we can avoid having one at all if we get back to the individual liberties that matter and quit cranking up so much tension about the hypothetical necessity to shoot our way out of a situation. If it comes to that, every responsible adult, particularly weapon-owning ones, will have failed miserably going into the disagreement by letting the discussion get dragged into such unproductive territory that we have no recourse but to start shooting each other. And I guarantee if guns are outlawed and suddenly we need to have them to fight off our own government, freedom fighters will find them. We've seized arsenals before. We can do it again. Quit freaking out.

If society collapses and we need to establish our own personal forts, again we have no one to blame but our stupid selves. It may seem glorious in fantasy, but it will be nasty, brutish and short in reality.

The whole Second Amendment thing doesn't seem like the biggest issue in this election. The gunfire brought it to mind, and the "us or them" mentality in political discourse. After this election we will either have a Democratic majority in Congress, in which case the surviving Republicans will simply obstruct everything they can, or we will have a Republican majority, in which case they will enact whatever they think is a good idea. But if they're smart they won't do anything to make things much better for the common folk before 2016, because they can't risk making a Democratic president look good. So no matter what we have a tough couple of years ahead. Then we get to endure another expensive and nasty campaign starting in 2015.

Or people will get their heads out of their lower crevices and realize that we're all in this together, so we'd better start talking about how things really work instead of inflating scary monsters like Socialism and Fascism and kite fighting with them.