“While the number of prescriptions that doctors in the United States today write for anxiety disorders might suggest our own moment in history is particularly anxious, we should step back and think of all recorded human history as an anxious age. Ever since we humans created what we call ‘civilization’ and started the project of living beyond the planet’s means and beyond our own capabilities, it has been inevitable that human societies would struggle with anxiety. The further we overreach—creating complex societies too big to manage, drawing down the ecological capital of Earth—the more intense the collective anxiety. Our problem is not just the many anxious individuals who had particular trouble coping, but ways of living that aren’t designed for the type of animals that we are, as we try to micro-manage a world that is too vast and complex for us to control. Our collective anxiety is not an aberration but a predictable outcome of a simple truth: ‘For ten millennia, we have been a species out of context.'”

– Bob Jensen

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy

An email from a friend:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the quote you had from one of your friends on your blog, and how the struggle she’s describing isn’t really any different than the struggle we all face in all fields (healthcare, teaching, education, even finance).

There’s ownership in the struggle to treat patients of every shape, size, and economic class; there’s ownership in the struggle for the millions of teenagers looking to achieve certain scores in the SAT to get into college; there’s ownership in the day-to-day struggles for millions of business people to make money because for them, the most important thing is providing for their family.

I can think of lots of examples in my life – everything from stock market trading, to my med school battles now, to teaching juvie in DC – where I’ve been pushed, and I’ve had to become smarter, more resilient, and push back harder.

What I’m saying is in all of these examples, one possible interpretation could be that I was trying to “make ends meet,” but another equally plausible interpretation is that I was invested, dedicated, and passionate about each one of these enterprises. I made it my own because i was intellectually and emotionally engaged. I didn’t feel alienated, I didn’t feel mislead or had any kind of “false consciousness” due to some larger cultural, capitalistic phenomenon.

So what I’m saying is this: if your friend feels passionate and alive while living out in the woods – great for her. But is she alone? Is she with one or two people? And what kind of phenomenon emerges when one is alienated, removed, and isolated from the greater society if there is, in fact, no larger community that she’s living in. There’s alienation and false consciousness there, no? And most importantly – I think there’s no real difference between the resilience, strength, and agency she feels and what I’ve felt in all my endeavors thus far.

Then there’s this: there are people who work for Wal-Mart stocking shelves, people who have to put themselves in dangerous positions doing construction work, people who mop floors against their will – these people are all oppressed and subjugated by society because capitalism requires this underclass. And as educated people, I believe it’s our responsibility to eliminate this.

But to say that we won’t participate in society because this kind of capitalistic oppression exists – when one has the education and tools to not only participate – and possibly help eliminate this underclass – is wrong. and I’ll leave it at that.

Skunk Hour

A poem by Robert Lowell:

Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season’s ill–
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town….
My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love….” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat…
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here–

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their solves up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air–
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

Here is a collection of brief interpretations of this poem. My favorite? “The end of the poem provides a perfect emblem of secular communion.”

I’m not sure what that means. To me, the poem is about the daily, on-going lives of forgotten animals, human and nonhuman. Also, the image of the skunk rooting through trash is a good metaphor for all kinds of things, but especially the hatred projected on animals that have adapted to human environments.

We loathe roaches, rats, grackles, and other “pests” because they produce a reaction of disgust, and have come to symbolize unsanitary or otherwise dirty things. But their filth is a human creation, not their own.

Roaches seem digusting only because they’ve learned to thrive in disgusting human structures, and only provoke fervent ire because they dare to extend their territory beyond the subterranean or hidden world and “invade” our space. But they wouldn’t be there in the first place without a vast network of sewers, and would die off in non-tropical environments without artificial heat.

Skunks seem similarly maligned, simply because they are usually spotted rooting through trash and of course they produce a foul-smelling substance in self-defense. But skunks are only eating garbage because it’s a readily available food source (Americans produce about 251 million tons of trash a year, according to the EPA) in an ever-shrinking natural habitat. Anyway, this is a huge digression from the poem, but there you go.

The Risks of Breathing

Here’s the future we’ve created.

A friend sent me a link earlier today, saying that maybe the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River is a sign that things are turning in a positive direction, and that one day the right to clean air and water will be fought for with the same ferocity as the right to marry someone of the same gender. I flippantly replied, “I’m not holding my breath,” but I hope my friend is right. I just don’t see a way to circumvent material limits.

But speaking of fresh air, here’s two friends’ ongoing account of moving to the woods somewhere in the middle of the country. These are my favorite few lines so far:

Nothing can ever really just go smoothly. But there is ownership of that struggle. That struggle has a life, and it pushes against us, so that in pushing back, we grow more resilient and reluctant to quit. It’s not like struggling to make ends meet, or class struggle or any kind of struggle that oppresses and forces capitulation. It is our own, we feed it, and use it as fuel to carry on.

Gay Marriage and the Gun Lobby

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook this week:

Pretty good point: “Those people who have been pushing for marriage equality? They were calling for change. And marching for it, demanding it, donating money to get it, running for office to achieve it, and supporting candidates who would vote for it, filing lawsuits to make it legal. In many cases, they based their entire political identity around it.”

Perhaps the only groups who can change the status quo are those whose pet issue is tied to their very being? The gun lobby isn’t just “folks who like guns,” they’re people for whom unfettered gun ownership is a basic tenet of citizenship. Same for marriage equality advocates.

Worth a thought.

This sentiment was in response to this article in Mother Jones about how the NRA was able to keep Congress from passing gun legislation.

I’d like to believe this is true, but my view is that (surprise!) it’s all about monied interests. Marriage and guns are both industries. Expanding the former is an easy concession to make, if it can even be considered one. More people will file for licenses, buy gifts, rent convention halls, buy homes, and so on. Meanwhile the prevailing notion is that an “evolved” government was oh-so-generous is doling out rights. Restricting the latter, on the other hand, is anathema. This is because some powerful company somewhere will lose money, and Congress, like every other institution, is an auxiliary of the corporate oligarchy that really runs the show.

Two Kinds of the Same Bomb

This week has been marked by horrific explosions: two in Boston and one in West, Texas, where last night a fertilizer plant caught fire and then erupted, obliterating everything in a five-block radius. One might jump to differentiate the explosions by intent; the Boston bombs were set on purpose and the West explosion was a tragic accident. Yet, despite all efforts to categorize them differently, they really should be seen as similar manifestations of the same violent culture.

The reporters covering the explosion in West couldn’t help but point out that the chemicals in the plant were the very same used to make bombs (and several witnesses described the blast as “just like a bomb going off’’). Indeed, the fertilizer plant was in effect a giant bomb, just as man-made as the pressure cookers in the backpacks on Boylston Street.

The intent, it must be realized, of both bomb makers is also similar. The people who attacked the Marathon felt some ideological cause (or maybe just chaos or misanthropy) was worth sacrificing human life, as did those who built the fertilizer plant.

Are we to act as if the people producing ammonium nitrate don’t know it’s dangerous? (The Department of Homeland Security website has a whole page devoted to it, and, not surprisingly, this kind of thing has happened before, in Texas for that matter, via the Monsanto Chemical Company.) And even if the building doesn’t blow up, why is it so close to schools and houses, and why are we putting said chemicals in our soil in the first place?

The only difference really is that in Boston the victims were targeted and their injury was the point of the act, whereas in West the casualties are bystanders, part of what are called externalities: the negative effects factored in to the ongoing business transaction. In either case, though, people are killed by bombs. And in both cases, we see the results of a violent culture that has no regard for human or nonhuman life. In that respect both acts should be equally condemned as attacks on public safety.