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.

On the Absence of Gears in the American Psyche

I don’t review movies, and I’m not even going to try to defend The Assassin as a film.  It sits at one star on Netflix, which means that the vast majority of the few who have seen it must positively have hated it.  The rank and file of the American public usually does detest anything that garners an award at the Cannes Film Festival, or is otherwise decked in artsy laurels.  Sometimes I’m one of those people.  For instance, I don’t see anything creative or inspired about placing a crucifix in a jar of urine.  If that’s art… then flush it.

The avant garde‘s pseudo-intellects have brought this upon themselves.  When they actually award a worthy creation, their verdict suffers from a bad case of Boy That Cried Wolf Syndrome.  The sensitive, delicate people with rainbow colors mingled in their spiked hair and pondering over a Starbuck’s which gender pronoun and restroom to patronize today cheat themselves of a chance ever to be taken seriously by compromising their credibility in a thousand frivolous matters.  The Assassin really is a work of art–even if it did win awards.  I say this having given the film four stars out of five.  I withheld the fifth because I could never fathom the motives behind the plot or, frankly, locate much of a plot.  Some of my confusion–perhaps most of it–is likely a product of my cultural limitations: I’m sure things would have made more sense if I were Chinese.

Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that what bothered the great American audience the most wasn’t obscure motivation or buried transition, but rather the extraordinary degree of stillness and silence from one end to the other of this film.  Productions like House of Flying Daggers and Red Cliff did very well on Netflix, despite being drenched in exotic oddities.  Characters talked.  Things happened.  When Assassin offers intense combat scenes (and there are a few), they tend to melt into other scenes while the outcome is still in question.  Far more typical are studies of brooding courtiers shot behind waving veils, panoramas of mountains or forests in the morning mist, and sequences of the conflicted assassin herself standing still as a slender statue or meandering meditatively through a field.

I found the result mesmeric.  I confess that I came back to it over a period of days.  Consuming twenty-minute or half-hour stretches was a welcome escape from the all-too-hectic pace of the holidays.  And I watched alone, so that I wouldn’t have to listen to the complaining of family members.  I still don’t really know what I saw: I just know that seeing it admitted me to a trance-like state.

The way Shu Qi’s character was able to absorb all the silence and stillness into her being, into her beautifully brooding face without hope that seemed to incarnate the landscape, fascinated me.  Having studied and written about myths of journey to the Other World all of my professional life, I couldn’t help reading in her much of the shamanic outcast who is able to drift back and forth across the life/death interface.  I might almost hazard that the movie sees the land of the living from the boundary of the dead, where voices have grown inaudible and deeds have lost all their haste and purpose.

Okay, maybe not in the running for your favorite Christmas movie.  But hated it?  Everyone who has watched The Assassin on Netflix has hated it?  Can we not content ourselves with saying, “I’m just not in the mood for this right now,” or, “Something’s going on here that I just don’t understand.”  How about two stars, at least?  Do you have to hit the “terminate” button on everything that doesn’t offer explosive car wrecks to a heavy-metal soundtrack?

That’s what really nags at me: the one star.  I’m reminded of the story about Bum Phillips after the Oilers won the Superbowl.  He ordered champagne, was told that the bottle brought to him was twenty years old, and complained, “Hey, this is a celebration!  Bring us the new stuff!”

I wish we had a gear for stillness and silence.  It would come in handy for Christmas, especially.