Digging in Rock and Re-Learning the Stars’ Names

We spent all of July 3 and 4 in a house possessed of little furniture, as yet: a small table, three deck chairs, a pocket-sized refrigerator retrieved from a college dorm, and a cot (I slept in a bedroll on the floor).  By day, I spent most of my time swing-blading weeds that had grown waist-high since the construction crew last plowed an industrial mower through them (obviously months ago) and trying to pound holes in rock for my garden transplants.  The scything was urgent.  Wild critters tend not to approach a domicile too closely if you make and maintain a clearing, but they grow pretty bold if you have underbrush scratching at your windows.  As for the rocky soil, which thoroughly shocked me… I finally figured out that the builder had bored down to bedrock for the house’s foundation—good, very good—and had then simply strewn his stony shavings and scrapings all over the lot, to be kneaded into the red clay by massive treads.  Not so good.  And the same bulldozers had left piles of brush along the original clearing’s boundary rather than hauling off the deadwood.

I don’t know how much of such “minimalist” execution of duties is routine these days.  I recall my grandmother’s house in Austin, built in about 1875.  Yes, the floors creaked and the plumbing and electricity presented constant problems, even when I was a child; but the faux fireplaces were true works of art, and the plastering and wallpapering had lasted for decades without showing wear.  Frankly, the woodwork, for all its creaks, was sound and fresh.  All the corners joined.  In my new house, occasional stretches of molding are not even glued or nailed in along the floor.

I have to conclude that, a hundred years ago, people cared about the job they did.  They depended more on word-of-mouth advertising and repeat custom, true enough; but I also tend to believe that they just took more pride in their craft.  Now contractors are forced to engage gangs of laborers who move from job to job almost like gypsies, many speaking no English and having no sentimental tie to the region where this week’s contract takes them.  “In and Out” is apparently the name of a trendy hamburger franchise.  It might as well be the brand name of our entire private sector.

All of that having been said, I got a lot of satisfaction from clearing most of my “compound” out with my two hands in just a few hours.  I infinitely prefer such labor to pushing a snarly mower around the lawn, back and forth and forth and back, so that my curbside doesn’t embarrass the neighbors and draw a pink slip from the homeowners’ association.  The litter piles probably aren’t as bad as I’d thought at first.  I can burn the deadwood in a trench, little by little, and fertilize my grounds with the ashes.

Pounded rock and all, the soil in its present state hadn’t dissuaded most of my transplanted peanuts from greening up by the time we left.  (I’m going to let them stay in the ground and spread this fall; they’re my future protein source in the event of societal and infrastructural calamity.)  The Georgia rain had murdered two out of my three cactuses—but the antioxidant-rich prickly pear were booming along.  My blueberry and goji bushes were nestled in soft soil next to the house, safely within the deadly shoals created by the bulldozers.  They, too, would be fine in my absence.

On the outskirts of the rocky shoal, I at last found sufficient good dirt to plant my trees.  Oddly enough, the orange tree (which represents the last of any kind that I’ve been able to grow from grocery-store produce: GMO proponents take heed) seems to resist all efforts to kill it.  The pomegranates didn’t appreciate being blown about in a 70 mph wind for eleven hours… but some of them, too, will survive.  The pecan and apple had been dug up too soon in Texas, thanks to the builder’s continual fudging about our move-in date, and the former has undoubtedly fled its roots to wander Pecan Shadowland in spirit; but the apple, miraculously, was sending up the tiniest of green shoots out of an unpromising stump as we prepared to leave.  I thought of Noah’s doves.

For housing my tools, I had hurriedly bought a prefab shed at Home Depot.  (Rubbermaid, of all people, makes them!)  One of the features I liked was the solid floor pad—but I discovered that I hadn’t leveled a space with enough attention to create perfect stability.  I’ll carry back some old plywood pieces from Texas on my final run to slip beneath the pad.  Here and on several other occasions, I was struck by the importance of being “on the ground” and actually doing the job if one is to know what the job entails.  That our preferred method of operation, in all official—especially governmental—undertakings is instead to stick to some master-plan generated by remote bureaucracies doesn’t bode well for the nation.  There’s probably more energy, time, and expense wasted in conforming to inefficient boilerplate models than you’d spend in entering a work zone with no plan at all and flying by the seat of your pants.

The county code, for instance, requires that hot water heaters have pans beneath them if placed in the attic—but the dopes who drafted this wording assumed the presence of a single-story dwelling. Our tank is on the second story, not in the attic; so it lacks the pan necessary to ensure that the house isn’t ruined in the event of a rupture, and we’ll have to get a plumber out on our own to correct the gaffe.

At dusk on our final day, as she adjusted the cot, my wife alerted me that a “cougar” was walking along the gravel drive.  It turned out to be a bobcat—a colorless, long-legged silhouette ambling into the shrouded west.  I’m going to have to convince her to carry a small sidearm on her walks if she’s making T-Rexes out of geckos… and I thought she was a country girl!

My bedroll held down the far side of the fort (since we’re still a little unsure of what visitors might prowl by night).  From the floor, I stared for a long time at rising stars whose names I once knew but have mostly forgotten.  Sirius, Betelgeuse, Altair… Arcturus, Deneb, Antares… was any of these any of those?  Four decades have passed since I was a kid on the fringe of Fort Worth, inhabiting the last house before a prairie began.  Now all of that area is concrete, tarmac, traffic, and smog—and I’ve been living in other cities similarly immersed in a suffocating progress.  I need to go back to school and re-learn my constellations.  I should have plenty of leisure to do so, if God is patient with me.

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Easter Thoughts: Does Hell Exist?

I’m not a “high church” guy these days, if I ever was.  I’m certainly less inclined to Catholicism than I was in my youth; and if I were Catholic today, I would likely be very tempted to walk away from the Church.  The Supreme Pontiff has not a little to do with that aversion.  Pat Buchanan has lately written that Pope Francis seems destined to create an enduring schism among the Roman faithful, and some lifelong Catholics are charging that this Pope is the Antichrist.  He doesn’t hesitate to weigh in on issues that have nothing whatever to do with his scholarly expertise or moral understanding, as in his promoting the exploitative crusade to ban guns spearheaded by our sheltered “safe zone” teens.  (Modest estimates put the annual cost in lives, should the Second Amendment be repealed, in the vicinity of the entire Vietnam War’s—though it’s hard to calculate how many people escape death thanks to a Smith & Wesson’s appearing at just the right moment.)  Yet on matters like the propriety of transgenderism, about which Christian doctrine is both long established and wholly coherent, the papal response is, “Who am I to judge?”

All of that said, I am going to make a case this Easter morning for why Hell is an ultimate irreality, as Francis is reported to have opined in private recently (and has coyly backed away from publicly without issuing an actual denial).  I must say first off that I’m appalled by the number of purportedly conservative mouthpieces who have retorted, “Well, if there’s no Hell, then there’s no reason to seek salvation”—as if the motive for desiring a closer approach to God were really a terror of the shadows at one’s shoulders.  If you read Shakespeare’s collected works because I’m holding you hostage and feeding you only when I see you turning pages, then you’re hardly a bibliophile.

God is all good, and we must believe that He does no evil and could create nothing evil.  (As for His ordering the slaughter of women and children—and livestock, too, just to make it a clean sweep—at times in the Old Testament, you may make of this what you will; I know what I must call it.)  Now, evil exists in this world… so has God therefore not created all that is?  He has.  But evil does not ultimately exist, any more than the other illusions of this world.  Shadows do not exist as material objects—you cannot trap one, bottle one, or stroke one.  Yet during certain long hours of our terrestrial day, there is nothing around us but shadow.

Or consider it from this angle: the practical angle, if you will—the point of view of a sixty-four-year-old man who has seen people at most of their not-so-good moments.  What happens to desperate characters?  They rarely get punished by human laws—not if they’re really good at being bad.  (“The big thieves are arresting the little one,” once quipped Diogenes.)  I know what happens to them: I’ve seen it.  They have themselves.  Having spent their adult life usurping God’s role and creating a universe just to the dimensions of their whimsy—X millions of population making X income per capita with X children per household, Y mandatory visits to state doctors and Y years in state education camps, Z police watching over them to “protect them”—these fantastical egomaniacs arranging their human ant farms end up in a tight, impenetrable cocoon of Self.  They are clinical sociopaths to start with; their dead souls eventually ossify and permanently relegate them to a “safe zone” of utter non-being—a place where any contact with reality and with outward-reaching souls is impossible.

This is what I find so grimly sobering about no-longer-children shaking their raised fists in fascistic salutes to the cause of forcing behavior patterns down people’s throats: I see little “ant-farmers” in the making, eager to assign prison or execution to those who stand in the way of their utopia.  And, no, Pope Francis has not taken the side of reason and free exchange against the goose-stepping utopians, so I am not, alas, in effective agreement with him about anything here.

Yet the evil ones do disappear.  They do not burn in a real Hell.  They define nothingness by dwelling where no vibrant soul can dwell; and in being forever separated from God, they suffer an indescribable anguish beyond any torture of physical flames.  Each is them is a madman trapped for eternity in a labyrinthine hall of mirrors, his own lunacy facing him at every turn, visions of lunacy awaiting him whenever he attempts escape by shutting his eyes.

These days, whenever I hear words like “change”, “meaningful change”, “progress”, “a better future”, and “not good enough”, I catch a hubristic scent of fire and brimstone in my nostrils.  I sense the presence of the void—of that which is not.  But, you protest, the Christian faith is all about change… well, yes and no.  It is about the opportunity of individual souls to return to the self-effacing wonder and joy in elevating mystery that characterize a little child.  One might say that it is about changing back to our Edenic state, about coming home, after a fruitless trek through the surrounding desert. God All Good no doubt made us this way because we cannot appreciate—with mind and spirit, with intellect and imagination—the infinite possibilities of what is until we fill our mouths with a bitter ash of our own arrogant concoction: what is not.  And in this, let us recognize that He did well.  Reality is vivified and deepened when infused with sentient participants who embrace it.  That some, perhaps many or most, prefer a squalid pit of ash wherein they alone rule is not an excessive cost to pay for such an awakening; for life within the ashes does not really exist.

If what I have written today takes the side of Pope Francis against his detractors, then I am happy to lend a hand.  The truth, however, knows no sides, in truth.  The road goes straight, and we fools tumble off it where we may.

Death by “Answers”: The Suffocating Narrowness of “Education”

My father’s mother dabbled in oil painting.  The best thing she ever did was probably a Southwestern landscape copied from Mexican-American painter Porfirio Salinas.  The foreground is flooded with bluebonnets, as is typical of a Salinas canvas.  On an overcast day (enhanced in the copy, since amateurs always have trouble with light), a prickly pear cactus rises front-and-center, a stone wall humbly navigates the distance, and a campesino’s hut crouches lifelessly off to the right.  Whatever the copy’s weaknesses, I like it, and it hangs over my mantelpiece.  It takes me out of myself.  I see a faraway place that people have left largely untouched because they have found no way to turn a profit from it (such as by littering it with windmills)—a place where the cry of a solitary caracara carries for a mile, and where a horizon-prowling mountain and you can exchange stares for an hour without blinking.

The Newly Minted Scholar in the Humanities, though, would see the same scene a different way.  He would zero in on a socio-political issue the way a hound sniffs out a rabbit.  That hut, so dilapidated and shorn of luxury… what an outrage, that people should still be living almost like cavemen when our world contains such wealth!  Where is there any evidence that the peasant has electricity?  Where is his running water and plumbing?  What does he do for health care?

The Newly Minted Scholar knows how to ask questions that quickly reduce everything to the tight parameters of a few answers.  If the answers are satisfactory, we move on.  If unsatisfactory, they indict some crime or other that becomes grist for the activist mill… and we move on, once again; for the mill can never have enough grist.  There’s nothing more to see here as soon as a new Incident Report has been logged.  A distant mountain ridge?  Why mess with that?  It has no purpose, and hence no meaning.

Now, the Newly Minted Scholar may see one of the china horses that I bought as a child (or that was bought for me, I should say) at the Alamo, and he may suddenly be filled with missionary zeal for nature.  Those poor wild horses!  The Bureau of Land Management is brutally chasing them with helicopters, penning them up, and selling them off as “adoptees”.  The BLM will claim that it absolutely must prune their numbers so as to prevent overgrazing and eventual starvation… but the Newly Minted Scholar sees right through that.  Nature establishes her own balances.  Leave her alone!  (Let’s forget that horses are not native to North America.)  All of this rubbish about over-grazing is a problem created by ranchers who want to milk a filthy profit from wide open spaces never intended for ruthless exploitation.  Leave it all alone!  Get the ranchers out of there!  Let the horses run free!  (A few thousand windmills… well, they would disrupt nothing: they would be serving the Common Good, and the mustangs would grow to love their wild, windy blades.)

Others in our corrupt, venal society are too sick to hear the voice of moral obligation… but our Newly Minted Scholar is receiving signals loud and clear from a higher dimension.

As for me, I remember the nobility and love of freedom that I once saw in my white horse’s high-held head… and now I also understand that it’s made of cheap china.  So I see the mass-produced, exploitative capitalist bauble that the Scholar would be sure to sneer at, yes; but I also, even now, continue to understand how that tawdry little article was able to reach a child’s heart.  Like my grandmother’s painting, this is no masterpiece.  Yet all of us—especially children, perhaps—are drawn to powerful symbols thanks to a spirit within us constantly seeking overt expression… if, that is, our spirit retains any vital signs.  As children, we were insulated from the stigma of cheapness.  Even an adult, though, can appreciate the pathos of a favorite toy—something that has the mystical magnetism to draw an unformed mind into a much broader world.

In a way, I regret that we adults so readily notice the seams where the toy fell out of the mold, and that we tend to murmur with a smile, “Just a dust-catcher.”  Sometimes the genuine article doesn’t fare much better with us, and we mutter with a frown, “Just another mouth to transform good prairie into a dust bowl.”  To that extent, the Newly Minted Scholar is right about many adults, all too often.

But how true is our Scholar’s devotion to freedom, or natural beauty, or any of those loftily soaring ideals which he claims as exclusively his?  How receptive is he to taking a holiday from his painfully constructed, finely manicured identity?  Where is the magic in his materialism?  For in his obsession with answers, he is as insistent on having things justify themselves—having them pay their way—as was the shopkeeper who put a price sticker on my china horse. To him, even a real horse is but a token worth X bonus points in establishing his environmental bona fides, as is indicated by the uncompromising fury with which he opposes measures to enhance the horse’s life roaming the range.  Not surprisingly, he himself is often the child of professionals who put price tags on things. If his parents hadn’t left him comfortably well off, how would he have time to stage protest marches against the BLM?  And when he attends “cutting-edge” conferences pledged to effecting “meaningful change”, how much more fuel does his jet to Seattle consume than would a lowly bourgeois pick-up truck making the same transit?  Isn’t everything he sees quickly funneled down a chute whose vortex is his own ego, the hub of the universe?  Does his spirit ever leave its centripetal straitjacket to circulate in the broader world, fleeing “answers” and “meaning” in favor of an elusive but irresistible oneness?

I observe this phenomenon in all “politically correct” positions.  Our enlightened superiors see a beggar and quickly bottle him up as Exhibit Q in the ongoing prosecution of mainstream society… yet the beggar is never given a name.  He may receive food stamps and a health-care card, but never an invitation simply to converse about how trusted colleagues stole his business or how his infant son perished.  The self-appointed custodians of our society’s pity and conscience are pitiless in their programmatic crusades and robotic in their reduction of life’s complexities to checklists.  They are indeed well adapted to the process referred to, in their corridors, as “transhumanism”, the next great leap forward: fusion of human beings with Artificial Intelligence.

The spirit will have no haven in this new destination, because the spirit bloweth where it listeth; it dissolves answers rather than forcing them to crystallize and makes a reverent space for the inexpressible rather than deleting unused blanks.

Inasmuch as the Newly Minted Scholar is the footsoldier of an onslaught that would annihilate mystery, he is unwittingly, perilously serving the cause of darkness; and the inspiration of this cause is nothing less than the active power of evil.

Suicide: Dark Goddess of a Youthful Cult?

I learned yesterday that one of my favorite students had committed suicide.  As far as I knew, she had continued on from her Bachelor’s to a graduate program.  I don’t think she managed to be admitted into the university of first choice, but she had settled into a program that would prepare her to be a professional editor.  She seemed to “have it together”.  While I was aware that she suffered from severe insomnia and was on medication, I had supposed that the problem had been brought under control.  She had a boyfriend of whom she spoke with much warmth, so I wouldn’t have imagined her to be agonizingly lonely and isolated.  She was not unattractive, though the average male these days would likely have been drawn neither by her looks at first glance nor by her quiet, retiring manner.

The person who broke the news to me explained that the girl was bipolar, as if that accounted for everything.  My informant was almost in tears, and I’m certainly not criticizing her individually; but I’m a little vexed when someone hands down the bipolar diagnosis as being sufficient reason for tragedies like this.  We can resist, we can fight—all of us can.  A genetic or hormonal predisposition to gloom means only that some have to fight harder than others.

I couldn’t help but recall, as well, that our victim had been enrolled in that class about which I’ve written so many times—the one whose members (well, three or four of them) howled at me when I once remarked, “I guess the homework assignments drove them to suicide,” in an effort to wave away my irritation at certain frequently absent students.  I have always made clear (including when the incident happened) that I was NOT joking about suicide, but rather about the lack of commitment in this group; and I have since stressed, upon reflection, that I view the manner in which my remarks were received by the loud few as willful, wanton belligerence.  If I say, “I’m out of ammunition,” am I showing insensitivity to the school children slaughtered at Parkland?  If I say, “I’m kind of spacey today,” does someone whose sibling died of a drug overdose have a grievance against me?

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I was indeed joking about suicide.  Why shouldn’t I, or why shouldn’t anyone?  Why should the word “suicide” only be whispered, and always with fear and awe, as if she were some ancient goddess from the dark side like Hecate or the Erinyes?  Why should not Suicide be scorned and derided like the opportunistic, cowardly assassin that she is?  At the end of The Haunting—original version, directed by Robert Wise—Richard Johnson’s character subdues a murderous poltergeist by openly, mockingly laughing at her.  Why should not Suicide be shown the same degree of respect… which is to say, none at all?

When I was suicidal in my mid-twenties (as I, too, enjoyed the delights of graduate school), I fought my way out of the haunted house by observing to myself how melodramatic I was being, and how stupid and cowardly an exit by way of The Pit would be.  I can hear one of my detractors from two years ago right now: “Well, that’s fine for you—but it doesn’t mean that other people feel that way.”  No… and your style of “sensitivity” doesn’t mean, either, that you’ve shown more mercy or saved more lives than I have by refusing to venerate the dark goddess.  What if you have actually contributed to the problem by inducing those around you to bow before spirits from hell?  Are you so sure that you haven’t?

Personally, I am convinced that such “sensitivity” is somewhat implicated in the suicide epidemic.  Suicide has become an Event, perhaps the Ultimate Event (in a society that has no other use for the metaphysical or the supernatural).  It is the dramatic exit always accessible to people whose lives otherwise have no drama and attract no notice.  I’m not suggesting that the friend we lost last week was such a one: if her insomnia had returned, that alone may have driven her over the edge (or that and the useless medications so freely and heavily prescribed by “professionals”).  Yet even under such horrible torment, perhaps she would have held out if the shame of suicide were still prominently etched in everyone’s soul.  Feeling shame before certain acts is healthy.  It can protect us from catastrophe.  Now that we’ve decided that shame is “judgmental” and “lacks compassion”, our brothers and sisters have a diminished power of resistance which makes them easy prey for the spiritual parasites gnawing the human psyche.

But that doesn’t really matter, of course: the only thing that really matters is for you, generation of hair-trigger outrage, to make clear to the world—and yourselves—that you are morally superior beings.  Gee, what great friends you must all make! What comfort the despairing must find in you!

Rest in peace, S.B.

The Spirit and the Flesh: Adversarial Allies

If a man asks you for food, take him to a sandwich shop and sit with him to eat.  Don’t give him a wad of bills or a card to draw infinitely upon the food bank.  You do not serve the man in him with such charity—you stifle his humanity by making your sacrifice at the altar of the Stomach.  You proclaim that the end of life is to stay alive.  You heard the word “hungry”, but you did not hear the man who said he was hungry.

If a man tells you that his child is sick and needs medicine, take him and his child to a doctor, and buy what medicine is needed.  But do not give the man’s family endless draws upon your account to buy whatever medicine they may need at any time in the future.  Charity without a setting or boundaries is an unlimited worship of the god Health; and in serving that god, you declare that life is about nothing but health, always health.  If the child is cured for no other reason than to stay cured, then he might as well grow on a stem in a garden, like a vegetable.

And if a man comes to you saying that he is so tired of life that he yearns to end it, do not give him a free pass to an amusement park or introduce him to a wild leaf that sends the bored mind into ecstasy.  The god of Escape can keep bodies alive as well as food and medicine sometimes—but what lives is only a body.  Try your best, rather, to show the man what weariness of life teaches about life: that it ends in nothing if one sets one’s goals within its boundaries.

Charity is not about feeding the hungry, but about removing hunger as an obstacle to a higher mission.  Sickness is another obstacle—and the purpose of life is not to avoid being sick, any more than it is to avoid boredom.

We always teeter on the brink of getting this wrong, because lavishing people with food or medicine or amusement is a deed, a measurable behavior… but the spirit has no measure.  The spirit is a negative presence, we might say.  We cannot bestow it as we would a sandwich of a Z-pack.  We can only remove obstacles to it.  Saving a person from death only gives him the opportunity to live; we cannot know if he will use his opportunity well.  Refusing to fuel a lie only gives the truth an opportunity to prevail; we cannot know if that truth will bring most people to insight or despair.

Health, happiness, prosperity… they all end when life ends.  And if life ends tomorrow, then it might as well end today—at least if it is to hold nothing for us but animal satisfactions won from a body that declines to torture us.  But for a person who has found purpose in life, even bodily tortures—sickness, tedium, poverty—are a small price to pay if they are a means of the spirit’s reaching its end.  A father will live on one meal a day to feed his child.  An artist will take the money that might have kept wood in his fireplace if it will buy paint and canvas.

What kind of person are we producing in our world today—a plump vegetable immobilized in a garden, or a visionary who happily suffers privation for the sake of a higher end?  I think we all know.

 

A Professor’s Life at a “Christian” College: Assume Nothing!

Once again, very pressed for time, I’ve decided to excerpt from the introduction I’ve just written to some of my past scribbles collected into an anthology.  Will try to be more original next time!

The Greeks called the period of life when a man reached his thirties the acme, or peak. Perhaps I continued to be a late bloomer. In retrospect, it certainly seems to me that I might have awakened to a few unpleasant facts of existence a little sooner.

Foremost among these would have been the truth about the professorial lifestyle. At the beginning of these “acme” years, my unstable professional situation had put my small family into something near survival mode.  I resigned the last tenure-track position that I would ever occupy for numerous reasons, some having to do with how far scattered our extended families had become as I dragged my wife about in search of employment “with a future”; but the ignition point of my resignation, as I’ve never denied to myself or anyone else, was a boss who constantly laid traps for me after carefully removing her fingerprints from the set-up. This went on from Day One, for five years. I had been hired against her will, and her “beef” had soon become pretty obvious. She had to her credit neither a Ph.D. nor a single “significant publication” (as it’s known in the biz). Ever hoping that I would stumble into one of her finely crafted snares, therefore, and have to depart in disgrace, trailing behind me my offensive résumé of publications, she didn’t so much transform life into hell as sabotage my moments of enjoyment with perpetual anxiety about where my front foot was about to fall.

Our first son was born as this period began—the happiest day of my life; and, if the reader will pardon me for taxing credibility, it was only after the general display of interest in and congratulation to my newly expanded family roused her tireless envy that the Boss decided she, too, must have a child. Any eclipse of her place in full sunlight was intolerable. Her own son was duly born (almost as if on command) within a couple of years, she collected her laurels and applause… and then she consigned the child’s rearing to her milquetoast husband and returned to addressing higher rungs of the career ladder. After my departure, I’m told that she addressed them very successfully.

All of this took place in the context of a “Christian” school.  If I devote what may seem an inordinate amount of space to such events, it’s because I would have you accept that they took a very heavy toll on my morale. I probably should have laughed them off… but the priceless endowment of a forgetful, dismissive heart was left out of the package that holds my character traits. There were less shocking incidents, of course—and a lot of them: for instance, the dean who seriously proposed to me that I could fight “grade inflation” in my classes by giving A’s all semester long (thus ensuring good student-evaluations) and then bring the inverted numerical pyramid crashing down at the last moment with a killer final exam worth half the term’s total. Those words were really spoken… and many others in the same genre, always behind closed doors. The fraudulent masks of piety and prayer that covered daily business, month in, month out, made of my life away from home an unending transit through a haunted house.  I’m not entirely ashamed that I couldn’t endure a diet of rotten meat served with honey for twenty years, as did a few genuinely decent people around me in this institution; yet something in me, I’ll admit, wishes that I had owned a stronger stomach.

True, I had a devoted wife—and now a child—to stabilize the weaving hallucinations beyond our doorstep. That should have been enough, some would say. Traditionally, that was supposed to be enough (though I never actually saw it work for anyone in my father’s generation). I’m afraid that the reverse may be true: that the lies you live when you exit your driveway will come slithering through your energy-efficient windows to infect the whole household….

How Does a True Conservative Stay Out of Holes?

If I have to read or listen to one more commentary about Trump’s coprologism for corrupt, impoverished Third World nations, I’m going to eject something malodorous from the other end of my digestive tract.

I’ll say this much, though, about the so-called conservative contempt for living close to nature: it isn’t conservative at all, and it has made my own alliance with the political Right very unstable at times.  Face it.  There’s a very vocal strain in “conservatism” that wants to burn energy and build highways the way any normal person would relish describing in front of a snowflake how he killed a squirrel.  (Squirrels eat baby birds, by the way, dearie: that’s why mockingbirds hate them.)  In other words, certain self-styled conservatives are reactive.  They say and do things because they know the other side will be ticked off.  Rush Limbaugh leaps to mind.  How many times has he discussed smoking his cigars, turning on all the lights in his mansion, and driving about in a gas-guzzler just for the joy of making his political adversaries change their diapers?

Now, I don’t know if the president made the specific comment attributed to him or not.  I know, however, that many who have sprung to his defense leave me feeling a little skittish with their implied judgment that life without cell phones and Netflix must be hell on earth.  The ancient Stoics viewed a man as free and true to his natural purpose to the extent that he could eliminate his ties to material needs and assert the superiority of his will.  I have always deeply admired that perspective.  To my mind, it comes very close to describing the essence of manliness (a word which literally translates the Latin virtus).  That’s one reason, by the way, why I have never found it very masculine for men to go chasing addictively after women: that is, if they can’t control themselves, then they deserve to be considered something more on the level of a dog pulled on an invisible leash behind any pooch in heat who wanders through the neighborhood.

Part of the independent life is being able to supply most or all of your needs for food, shelter, and defense.  There was a time when certain parts of what we call the Third World were very good at such self-sufficiency.  True, most of those places have since been transformed into hellholes; but they have been so courtesy of the USSR, the PRC, and—yes—sometimes the USA piping sophisticated weapons into the region and enabling (unintentionally or otherwise) tinpot dictators to subjugate their populace.  I am NOT willing to brand such spots the anal sphincters of the globe just because farmers have to use their hoes manually and don’t have iPhones in their pockets.

Any real conservative, on the contrary, would be very concerned about the inroads that frivolous high-tech is making into the lives of our children.  When a teenager plunges into deep depression and withdrawal syndrome just because he or she is deprived of Internet for a week, then we should not be proud of the new kind of dependency we have permitted to corrupt a once-independent citizenry, even if it “creates jobs”.  If said teenager were truly using the device to become better informed about the world, then a case might almost be made for the addiction… but remember where this ramble of mine started: in a news cycle that hasn’t for a week been able to let go of one badboy comment uttered in a supposedly private conference.  Meanwhile, China is sentencing a blogger to twenty years in prison and water has been incontrovertibly discovered on Mars—but who has time for that?

We don’t need more jobs: we need more nut-bearing trees, more hands that can turn sun and rain into potatoes, more minds that understand how to get an egg from the chicken to the table: that would be a conservative’s view.  But no, let’s all just keep piling into our own urban hellholes.  That’s the approach, by the way, which is drawing all the Third Worlders here—and the loss of traditional skills and social structures in their own homelands is what’s driving them to emigrate.