Denver: Infernal Paradise

My trip to Colorado already seems a distant memory. I thought I could probably write about it for weeks on end… but did it ever even happen? I keep drifting through my “new old” life saying to myself, “Two weeks ago, we were at the foot of Saint Mary’s Glacier—my son, my wife, and I…”—and the next day, “Two weeks ago, I was watching my boy’s shoulders merge with the night as he left us in the parking lot to return to his apartment….” I hate how life slips away like that, at least the good parts. The bad parts just don’t want to go away.

But I feel that I have to attempt some kind of wrap-up, some general verdict on what I saw. It would be this. Denver, like so many of our other major cities, is too “wide open”. I realize that that’s an attraction for young people, especially those who have grown up in small cities and towns. The situation has been repeated so often that it has become a rhythm characteristic of our national life: the young leave the farm for the city lights, jobs flourish in the city because so many people are pouring in, the cost of living also shoots up because the demand for everything has skyrocketed, public amenities are strained and local taxes soar through the ceiling, crimes related to vice and violent invasion surge because so much loot is lying about and so few neighbors know each other, the streets grow unbelievably congested… it’s a bonanza for some, and a descent into Hell for others. And here I’m talking about any large American city.

In Denver, this paradoxically “infernal paradise” phenomenon has been magnified by the legalization of marijuana. People have transplanted themselves to Colorado for no better reason than that here they may smoke their weed unmolested. The streets grow even more congested, the apartment complexes even more prolific, and the taxes even more onerous. The catastrophic failure of state economies to the west (California, Oregon, and increasingly Washington) has also generated a flood of “white-collar refugees” who want respite from ruthless taxation yet have not divested themselves of the political opinions that created the mess they left behind. In fact, I find Denver to harbor an unusually high density of contradictions rooted in “pampered white professional” fantasies.

Just consider. Denverites want the traffic, the pollution, and the unsightly and cheaply constructed apartment complexes to go away, yet they declare their burg a sanctuary city.

They view themselves proudly as defenders of the natural environment, yet they pour into the Rockies whenever they have a few hours of free time with bikes attached to vehicles and smother Mother Nature beneath their collective human mass.

They cheerfully accept being designated as health nuts and surrender substantial chunks of their paychecks at upscale grocery stores that grossly overcharge for cashew butter and bison steak; yet their appetite for kinky sex, socially lubricative beverages, and—yes—the inhaled smoke of certain incinerated leaves rivals any city’s anywhere in the country.

Half the population seems to possess racing bikes or mountain bikes, complete with skimpy biking clothes that cling like duct tape, streamlined water bottles, saddlebags of trail mix, etc.; yet the city sprawls too much for anyone to bike to work, and it’s so overrun with traffic that no one could actually get much exercise waiting for all the lights to change while biking a few dozen blocks.

Denver has no sense, over all. Like its horde of young residents, it hasn’t thought anything through. It likes to flash images of what it wants others to think about it and wants to think about itself; but these surfaces can no more resist profound realities than a grand vista can soften the threat of the daily afternoon thunderstorms that rage down from the mountains.

I have to believe that the pockets of surviving Denverites from generations back are no happier than long-time residents of Austin, Santa Fe, or Phoenix. You sometimes see evidence of a few of them: a pasture where horses graze boxed in by humming highways. How they afford the tax on their property is more than I can answer. Perhaps they’re holding out for someone to offer them a million bucks per acre… but at some point, you have to sell up and move on.

And then the sharks gather, like the faceless conglomerate that owns my son’s former apartment complex and tried to stick him with a $3,000 bill for undocumented damages months after his departure. That was my final impression of Denver this trip. Know what? You can have it.

Advertisements

Christianity in Denver: Musical Marijuana

Had to travel to Denver again last week. I have tried to like the place: most people love it. For me… no, I’m just not going to make it up to the Peak of Affection. I can’t even make it out of the Abysm of Antipathy.

Since I’ll likely be writing about this subject from various directions for a week or two before I can get it all out of my system, let me start with the progressive church in the heart of Lakewood that I attended last Sunday. My son was kind enough to invite his mother and me, so I did a fairly good job of bottling up my bile after the service. After all, I really wanted to see just what he was taking in every weekend.

The entry phase felt like a sporting event. Personnel in bright vests direct you to a certain portion of a huge parking lot. Then you make your way to a sprawling structure with virtually nothing in the form of exterior windows, art work, or signage. It resembles, rather, the economy-model gymnasium of a ritzy private school that, for all its wealthy patrons, has begun to bleed a little into the red after the class buildings are finished. And for all I know, that’s the actual story behind this unique sanctuary: a cast-off gymnasium. Even on the inside, it looks for all the world like a facility for basketball, volleyball, and the rest with a great wrap-around corridor where tickets and refreshments are sold.

No hoops in the inner sanctum, however. At this point, in fact, we might as well have been in some sort of bizarre (to me) night club. While I’m not a clubber, the near pitch-darkness in which thousands of fold-out seats were arranged around a central stage where performers moaned a cry-in-your-beer species of praise and love to Jesus as guitars twanged and drums thumped had to be drawn straight from Friday night on the strip. I stood with everyone else (of the two or three thousand, I would estimate) as three of these numbers were belted out interminably. A finger was stuck in my left ear most of the time to reduce the pain of 140-decibel sound waves. A casual onlooker might have thought that I was holding up my finger to give my life to the Lord, or something of the sort.

I’m already so long in this entry that I can tell I’m going to have to retain my comments about the main event (a.k.a. the sermon) for next time. So let me just say this about deafening, pulsating noise in a religious sanctuary. It is a physiological fact that a steady stream of stentorian sound waves plunges the mind into a kind of drunken stupor. Loud, throbbing music can be a drug. The tom-toms of certain rituals in tribal, pre-literate societies are a means of “elevating” participants into a higher state. Contemporary rabble-rousers can also gin up huge crowds into irrational behavior by packing them into tight spaces and then allowing cranked-up amplifiers to project their rhythmic shouts.

Whether intended or not, this same effect must inevitably work upon the minds of masses crammed into a dark room where a rock band keeps orgasmically repeating variations of a verbal formula containing, “Jesus”, “love”, and “beautiful”. I wouldn’t begin to argue that no thrill, no poignant or passionate emotional surge, is drawn from many of the congregants by this method. No; the very thing that worries me is the thrill’s reality.

The Christian faith in churches like this has become a drug. One shows up on Sundays to get one’s “fix”. The rational mind gives ground, real-life concerns evaporate, the boundaries separating self from other vanish, and a psychedelic fantasy fuses the mass in a communion of emotional orgy.

Sorry… but this does NOT have the look of my God and my faith. And I’m not entirely sure that the effect is unintended, for the “message” that finally followed appeared to count upon a sort of indiscriminate group-think… but of that, more later.

Except for People

Just got in from checking on my garden. The sweet potatoes are starting to send their leave up out of the ground—it happens literally over night. My bell peppers are doing much better now that I’ve transplanted them from the raised, boxed garden with its rich soil into more sandy terrain; they just didn’t take to the high-rent district! My goji bush is exploding; an odd little tree that I think (and hope) has sprung from a jujube seed continues to thrive; and the ever-screwball butternut squash have actually volunteered this spring (after I had given up on them after so many years of wasted time) and are producing plump gourds that, by all lessons of the past, just shouldn’t be there!

One can usually make peace with Nature. If things aren’t growing, there’s a reason, and one may be able to figure it out with a lot of patience—though it would have been even better to have preserved some of that ancestral wisdom which we’ve trashed along with Grandma’s sewing machine. Many times, I have the thought that a large part of our postmodern malaise is owed to our having ruptured our bonds with the soil and the seasons. Life and death, health and sickness, the stages leading to maturity, the rain that must fall so that the sun may give further life… even the electricity released by violent thunderstorms, I suspect, must be balancing out something in the atmosphere that would prove toxic if the weather were forced to be “peaceful”.

Yet all I hear and see in the human world is irksome whining about natural limitation (e.g., our paltry two genders), arrogant rejecting of cycle in favor of strict linear progression (e.g., our looming immortality as human/robot hybrids), and tasteless self-insulating in childish fantasies (e.g., the newly released Wonder Woman—and should she have hair under her arms, or not?). Plants can talk to you through how they look: my bell peppers told me that they preferred the sand when I saw them putting out new green leaves. Their language always makes sense. It’s about sun, and water, and survival, and supplying the next generation. People, in contrast, just don’t make any sense at all to me any more. Their audible language is much easier to assemble—but its message, the combined product of its words, is gibberish.

As I was walking back inside, I had the kind of thought that isn’t typical of me these days—and it came to me so powerfully that I was actually saying it out loud: “God, the world is beautiful… except for people. Except for people.” Yeah, that last part is typical “me”, I suppose, as I’ve now become; but I sometimes forget how Edenic life on this planet can be if you can just escape the clamoring, yammering apes in clothes. The alternative is well worth seeking out.

 

Animal Planet Peddles More Unicorns

I think “cryptozoology” is a really fascinating subject. The assumption is always made by the general public (and usually fed by professionals in the sciences, who don’t like to admit that something might possibly lie beyond their ken) that we must surely have discovered by now every life form on Planet Earth. This is an ignorant, arrogant leap of faith. Because most of us have now squeezed ourselves into “megalopolis” or into one of the concentric rings of suburbia enclosing it, we can’t imagine any weird creature’s escaping detection. One thing we fail to consider is that our collective influx into cities has left rural areas depopulated. Yes, the explosion of human inhabitants in all quarters of the globe would seem to compensate for any relative diminution in the percentage of people filling this or that corner. I doubt that this proposition is unassailable, however. Comparatively few though we were a hundred years ago, our overwhelmingly agricultural society still concentrated its strength very heavily in the boondocks. Now any drive along a rural highway (and how many of us ever take such a drive?) reveals desolation on all sides. Abandoned houses are falling apart everywhere, and seldom does any new structure rear its satellite dish in their place.

People who should find themselves in the country for some reason are also less likely now to know its sights and sounds. They can’t tell a wolf’s cry from a coyote’s or a crow’s call from a caracara’s. The situation where a tenderfoot thinks he may have seen a chupacabra when he’s only run across a large stray dog often works in reverse, thanks to such ignorance: a person might see an unidentified species and assume that it is a familiar one. Witnesses in shooting incidents almost invariably say that they at first thought the gunshots were a backfiring car. The stronger tendency of the human mind is to blend the unique into the commonplace, not the other way around.

Thirdly, the encroachment of human beings on so many once-remote parts of the natural environment can create opportunities for more resourceful species that were formerly hard-pressed. Squirrels are much more abundant in suburbia than in the wilderness. Humans have chased off or killed most natural predators (foxes, snakes, hawks) while allowing the “cuddly, adorable” little fur-ball to chew up orchards and attics unmolested. If something extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent like a Sasquatch did exist, an invasion of humans that thinned out rival predators like panthers and bears while allowing food sources like deer and squirrel to proliferate might actually improve the outlook for survival.

All of this is merely to say that I was looking forward to the first episode of Animal Planet’s Destination: Mungo last Sunday. Quite a letdown. Once again, we are treated to a showman who expensively, ostentatiously makes his way to some forgotten corner of the planet… and then spends one night in the “hot spot” to see if his infrared cameras are activated by anything larger than a rat. Bwana Mungo hasn’t even heard of the coelacanth, apparently (and hasn’t yet figured out how to pronounce the word, either). In one scene, he contacts his biologist buddy in the States to ask if the Postosuchus, a Triassic ancestor of the crocodile, might really exist today, as Liberian locals are reporting. Responding via satellite through a laptop linked to a smartphone, the suitably bearded academic tells an inspirational story. “Have you heard of the coelacanth, Mungo?” “No, never. Tell me about it.” Oh, please!

In the first place, the coelacanth’s presumed date of extermination was considerably closer to our own time than the late Triassic (by a factor of close to a thousand). In the second place, coelacanths inhabit ocean trenches and would be virtually undetectable to human beings in the normal course of events. In the third place, of course Mungo has heard of the coelacanth! I learned of its lately discovered survival into the present when I was a young boy—a professional wildlife photographer and cryptozoology enthusiast could no more have remained ignorant of the subject than a physicist could fail to have heard of a quark. And finally, biologist buddy’s fishing stories transmitted by satellite, however inspirational, are insufficient reason for Mungo to rise from his laptop feeling new confidence in his quest. He hasn’t garnered a single particle of arcane information about tropical African fauna that might be seen as assisting his search. The whole exchange is highly staged and utterly ridiculous… almost as bad as a mockumentary about mermaids.

So… my quest of credible shows on the subject of cryptozoology continues as we permanently put the Amusement Park of Mungo at our backs. I’m looking for something rarer than a unicorn, it seems. In the meantime, old episodes of River Monsters are far less a waste of time.

Does It Matter Who’s Truthful When All Action Is Corrupt?

Have you heard why Megan Kelly really left FOX News? Or why Christina of HGTV’s Flip or Flop really split from her husband, or why the same station’s Joanna Gaines is in hot water for arriving late on the set of Fixer Upper? It’s the same reason in all three cases, according to certain stories that pulse along the side-panel of your screen: they were all so busy marketing the same company’s beauty secrets that the bonanza of prosperity distracted them from their boring day jobs.

This isn’t quite the same level of aggressive, in-your-face duplicity that characterized (for instance) the History Channel’s idiotic “mockumentaries” about mermaids, megalodons, and Sasquatches… but the kinship is of a first-cousin order. “Fake news” is now so embedded in our cultural consciousness that we have apparently given up being outraged by it. “Kim Jong Un just nuked a small Pacific island… and the only survivors were using Apollo Sun Tan Lotion (improved formula)!” We swallow the b.s. with scarcely a grimace. The most worrisome problem is that, should the chubby child of Dearest Friend indeed decide to vaporize an entire populace, we would already have been rehearsed in passing over the news and looking for the next thrill.

“The Boy That Cried Wolf” Syndrome has deeply infected us. I don’t even know if most of my freshmen would recognize the folkloric reference… but I do know that they’re convinced, almost to a boy or girl (or whatever lies between), that human beings are causing a disastrous climate change. Chemistry and biology majors cite data to me that I can’t dispute, since their fields extend far beyond my intellectual reach. So maybe they’re right. But then a celebrated academic appears on national television and claims that carbon dioxide is a more lethal toxin than sarin gas. Even a chemistry-challenged numbskull like me knows the difference between monoxide and dioxide—yet our guru was apparently conflating the two. Could his ilk have been among the teachers of my freshmen?

I don’t like cars. Never have. I probably walk more in a week than most atmospheric scientists do in a year—and I don’t consume jet fuel flying to conferences that might have been held on Skype. Reducing car traffic is fine by me. Why, however, can we not address the problem by scrapping our special-interest-fueled zoning laws and oppressive regulations that prevent people from running shops out of their homes? Why is the “green” solution always more government intrusion into our personal lives? And why are the insane windmills that now deface much of the Southwest a step forward when the effort of constructing, transporting, and rigging their blades requires more energy than they are likely to restore in a century of steady gales?

I will postulate, for the sake of argument, that the science behind climate change is compelling: then why are the measures that we take in consequence so patently ineffective and mired in sordid political boondoggle?

On this issue as on so many others, I don’t know who’s telling the truth, and I don’t think I’m capable of knowing—not in the earthly time I have left. I know this much, however. On one side I see lies proliferating as part of popular cultural and consumerist marketing; on another I see our elected “saviors” getting sleek and fat as specially targeted problems only worsen; and on yet another I see campus culture shutting down free speech with thuggery and shouting down open debate in fanatical zeal. Maybe the wolf is really coming this time… but when the watchdog is a hungry Bengal tiger, maybe I’d rather have the wolf.

Peter Pan Run Amuck in the Era of Passion, Sass, and Exhibitionism

I heard a ballplayer whose glory days were in the Eighties opine on TV yesterday that he wished he had been more expressive while in uniform–more “passionate”, like the studs of today.  Fist-pumps, bat flips, victory dances in the dugout after a home run… he apparently found all this more “honest” on the player’s part and more entertaining from the spectator’s chair.  There’s something (and I should say quite a lot) that this old warrior oddly doesn’t understand about yesteryear’s Boys of Summer.  Yes, they wouldn’t let you get away with such gallivanting-monkey routines.  The pitcher would deck you with his best fastball the next time you stepped into the box–or the opposing team might not even let you get back to your bench before pouring out onto the field.  Why was that?  Was it because the old boys weren’t involved in the game–because they lacked “passion”?

Just the reverse, actually.  They were so absorbed in their chores that, should an adversary dance a derisive jig upon their best effort brought to naught, the insult bit them to the marrow. No one back then was trying to launch balls in some exhibitionist home run derby or spread his bright feathers in a slam-dunk contest: they were, as George Will has called them, men at work. The day’s labor of a working man doesn’t deserve to be scoffed at. Try it at your peril.

The lads of today, in contrast, do not bring an adult’s pride and determination to their job site. They bring a kid’s vainglory and frivolity. Like children, they have not yet fully grasped the self/other distinction. They can sense in any given moment no more than their own exultation, narcissistically–they cannot imagine what chagrin they would feel at the receiving end of a defeat and extrapolate that sentiment to the proud foe they have just vanquished.

We see this pathological childishness in so many theaters of pop culture that I really can’t think of one where it fails to appear. Take but a single further example. Tomi Lehren exploded upon Twitter and YouTube and won herself a nice gig on The Blaze by sassing her political adversaries. My limited exposure to her never suggested to me that she lacked intelligence or sensitivity, given the chance to display them–but her shtick did not involve giving herself many such chances. Young, petite blonde chick who’s twenty-five while looking and sounding all of twelve, Tomi could nyah-nyah at Black Lives Matter or campus protesters in vagina hats with all the joy and spirit of a brat kid at the zoo chucking rocks into the tiger’s cage. This is what people wanted to see her do… and so she did it, right up until the moment when she got a little too sassy and struck the tiger in the eye. It remains to be seen if Glenn Beck will renew her employment after she–in one of those endzone boogies that draws an “unsportsman-like conduct” flag–styled the abortion-opponents of her party hypocrites while congratulating herself for her marvelous coherence. All the issue’s complexities flew away in a toss of golden hair and in tones of juvenile but winsome smugness… and away went the paycheck, too.

Of course, no one made Beck employ Tomi, to begin with–and he knew exactly what he was buying. My dismay is over why such juvenilia sells. Is there no hope for us to recover any gravitas, any internal ballast, and sense of substantial selfhood hidden away from the world’s prying eye, ever again in this age of constant posing? Have we culturally contracted a terminal case of chronic adolescence?

The Robot and the Helot: Neither Side Gets It

I read a story today about a Canadian study that found living in close proximity to heavy traffic bad for your health.  The toxic emissions and stirred dust were not the only suspected culprits.  Interestingly, noise was believed to be a major factor in (for instance) the relatively high incidence of dementia among those dwelling less than 70 meters from traffic arteries.  Now, 70 meters is about the length of a football field!  Many of us live much closer than that to constant roar and rumble.  It’s a sad discovery… or a disquieting theory, if you prefer; but it also makes me smile.  I’m not amused because an inner sadist rules my tastes, but only because I’ve been warning people about this sort of thing all my life–admittedly, on the basis of mere intuition.  I never had a study behind me before.  And there also appears to be no corroborative study behind this one.  Why not?

Well, because it’s just junk science, some would say.  The academics are at it again, trying to drum up alarm against the innovative, high-tech free market that has driven unimaginable economic growth around the planet for two centuries and virtually eradicated poverty in First World societies.  Or… it might also be that the corporations and their government mouthpieces responsible for most grants to academic researchers would never hear of anyone cracking the lid on such a Pandora’s Box–not on their dime!

Conservatives–or people who style themselves conservative–need to get their act together.  Driving peace and quiet out of our communities was never a conservative undertaking: it was always definitively subversive to the established, traditional way of life.  To argue that mankind must adapt to the fits and belches of mechanization, even though machines were supposed to improve life for mankind, is to be a marketplace progressive–an advocate of any product or sales strategy that produces material wealth.  This vector is soon (as in about three decades) going to lead us straight to the point where we fuse with robotic technology.  Would anyone like to explain to me how such a trajectory may be described as conservative?

But the other side appears to be just as clueless.  I recently finished watching a Netflix documentary titled Killswitch about the all-too-effective efforts of big government and its private-sector cronies to suppress the free and open circulation of information.  The case is quintessentially libertarian; and, except for the side of it which pertains narrowly to national security (e.g., keeping a secret nuclear deterrent under wraps so that bad guys won’t labor on developing the next generation of horror), I’m entirely on board with the argument.  But why does every free-speech champion in the flick believe that more government offers an answer?  Just because suppression often begins in a private-sector, mega-corporation lust to maximize profits doesn’t mean that the public sector is our savior by default.  On the contrary, the hard fact that government hacks are always up for sale is what confers upon businesses the power to suppress.

I don’t know what the ultimate answer might be, or if it exists… perhaps some genuine and informed kind of populism: but its thrust must be to insist that regulators back off rather than that they pile on with more “well-intended” regulation.

The documentary’s blindness to this most basic of facts made me want to chuck my TV out into one of those busy streets around my house.  I could claim dementia as my defense.