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I Know a Place…

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On Why the Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

What I love about so much ’70s music was its optimism. Many of the songs by Sly and the Family Stone and the Staple Singers songs were full of life and optimism, but they were not the only ones. The whole era had a sense of possibility. In ’82 when John Lennon got shot (Sean said he thought Poppy Bush was in on it but who knows), everyone artistically went into hiding, Dylan hid in a bottle, and punk was about the disappointment of a generation who had been raised on this optimism, who came out into the working world when all the promises were broken, and all they could do is mourn, cut their hair off and wear black and pierce their body parts, make their outside match their starving and mutilated souls (I know, I was there). Why is the perfect the enemy of the good? Not that we lose sight of the perfect. But the perfect requires of us an intensity of hope that has to come without the expenditure of energy, an intensity of hope that has no doubt, that has no niggling hole in its foundation that says it’s unfounded. Did we lose hope when Poppy Bush arranged for the Iran Contra scandal to drag on until Reagan was elected and the Revolution became officially over? When did it happen, when was that wound in our collective soul inflicted that destroyed our belief in hope? We get a little back when we listen to ’70s rock, when we listen to Patti Smith who went from rebel to survivor. We are all survivors. That is why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because we are, all of us, battle-scarred, and we don’t see that the fact that we’re still hanging on is what is perfect about us.

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Think Same

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Dissidence starts insidiously.

I was probably eight years old. My parents had sent me to camp, where my entire day was mapped out for me. Tetherball. Swimming. Arts & Crafts. In the constant company of about 40 screaming kids, I couldn’t hear myself think. By the third day, I slipped away, into the woods, where it was quiet. I looked at the trees. The pine needles swallowed the sound of my footfall. I listened to the birds. I looked at lady’s slippers and jack-in-the-pulpits. I had a great time.

On my return I discovered that my disappearance had thrown the camp into pandemonium. When I got home, I was in big trouble. I had broken a cardinal rule that I didn’t even know existed: you don’t go off and do things by yourself. In time, I was slipping off and doing things by myself every day. In a family where my every move was watched, I became an expert at knowing my moment, when my jailer was distracted, and then off I would go. When people asked what I was like, my mother would snarl, “Shelah is very independent.

When you’re young, dissidence is simple and intuitive. You just don’t enjoy what the other people are doing. You try to join in and the fact that you don’t have the fun you’re expected to be having makes you miserable. You become aware: you’re not like the others. This awareness forces a choice — stay with the group and try to be like the others, or keep to yourself and be yourself.

At first, you might experiment and see what works for you. If you try to stay with the group — in other words, if you choose to hide in plain sight — you’ll be lonelier than you would be if you were alone because you will be reminded at every turn that you do not belong. What’s more, sooner or later you will be found out, at which time the group will turn on you. However, if you can master the trick of forgetting the differences, if you can master the trick of forgetting how you feel, if you can enjoy what others enjoy and think what others think, then the group will accept you. The group will back you. Membership has its advantages. You’ll know that everything you think and do will be safe. You won’t know who you are, but that might not bother you.

If you make no effort to be like the others, they may leave you alone. You will be lonely but not as lonely as if you had people around you. But nothing about you will ever be safe. Because you are alone, if you are ever pitted against someone in the group, the group will close ranks and instead of an even fight against a single person, you will find yourself fighting the unified group. Because your rejection of the group constitutes an existential threat to the group’s sureness of itself, you must be eliminated.

As you get older, you discover that you don’t enjoy the same things as others because you don’t share their value system. You don’t accept their premises. You can’t help yourself — you think differently. It’s not a choice. It’s who you are.

Orthodoxy is safe. You know your opinions will not be challenged. You know you’re right. Other people feel safe with you, because you hold the accepted notions dear. You will not challenge them. You belong. You’re one of us.

Whereas independent thought is inherently threatening. It is dissidence. By questioning accepted premises, independent thought jeopardizes everything that follows. Independent thought jeopardizes a worldview and therefore it jeopardizes the whole world. It jeopardizes our whole world. The more reasonable and seductive this dissident thought appears, the more threatening it is.

Every college application I filled out wanted to know examples of my leadership qualities. Yet when I finished college and got into the working world, I learned that what employers want is a good follower. Someone who will take orders and drink the Kool-Aid. Someone who will do the work they don’t have the time or the skills or the inclination to do, but someone who is essentially an extension of whomever is hiring them. Someone who will Think Same.

Back in 1997, Apple introduced the slogan, “Think Different”, and its associated commercial, which showed 17 of the people whose work defined 20th century western culture. The implication was that those who think differently make the world a better place. The crazy ones, the square pegs in the round holes, the ones who would not be pounded down, they are the ones who invent things, who fight for the downtrodden, who encourage the ones who don’t fit in.

When you watch the commercial, thinking differently sounds romantic. It sounds like the stakes aren’t that high, that it’s just about being a little quirky. And then you notice how many of these people were murdered. You might wonder, if you’re going to think different, just how different is too different?

The real question is, do your ideas fundamentally threaten the power structure? If not, if your ideas are only superficially different, you might even be extolled. For instance, Apple’s MacIntosh or iPhone were far more elegant devices than anything offered by competitors, but they did not threaten capitalism, or the practice of using cheap foreign labor, or the premise that for every ill there is a technological solution. Apple makes a better device which superficially is different, but fundamentally is not.

Why was Gandhi murdered? Why was Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy or John Lennon? These figures all threatened white hegemony by fighting for people of color.

Why is it even a question whether black lives matter?

Why has there been a 40-year cycle since the 18th century where a few women would rise up and accrue followers, and then for the next 30 years the “war against women” cracks down with draconian force. Why are women writers, artists, comediennes, and political figures routinely threatened with murder?

Why, when we are seeing vast hoards of new poor, when most of our jobs have been automated away and the remainder have been outsourced to impoverished countries or to domestic prison labor, when industrial farming has created rural wastelands where there is no work and people waste themselves on drugs, why when our people are in crisis, is any call to amend the crisis decried as “socialist”?

Why, when most of the best-paying jobs are now technological in nature, are we defunding our educational system? Why are we not teaching critical thinking skills?

Why is it alright to ignore a 150-year old treaty and send privatized security forces to steal land from Native Americans in order to build a pipeline whose oil cannot compete for price against wind or solar, but which is bound to despoil the environment?

Why is “thinking different” forbidden when it means that some very wealthy people may enjoy less profits?

We like the idea of “thinking different”. We like the romance of it. But we are not a romantic people. Americans care about money, period. If thinking a little differently will make someone a lot of money, that’s great. As long as you do not think differently enough to challenge the status quo.

We in the US think we are all about rugged individuals. We think we are all about the self-made man who “thought different”. These narratives are fundamental to our identity. But they’re lies.

In America, we expect you to Think Same.


The Individual vs the Group

mv5bmza2mda5mzm5m15bml5banbnxkftztgwmdgyndeynje-_v1_sy1000_cr0014441000_al_Last night we were watching an episode of The Man in the High Castle, in which the Obergruppenführer explains to his son why an individual who thinks independently is doomed to failure. He explains why the group is all, why motivation from outward sources is the only valid motivation. It became obvious that an examination of the two worldviews, one predicated on the heroic individual and the other on the glorious group, was the whole motivation for the creation of this series. The writer wanted to follow each to its logical conclusion.

I have always thought of the sublimation of the individual to the group as a distinctly Eastern cultural norm, because we see it in various Asian cultures. The fact that it is articulated in this series by a Nazi, then, is striking, because the Nazis are the opposite of Eastern. What occurred to me last night, while I watched this, is that the focus on the group is not about East-West. It’s about tribalism.

Which brings us to the push-pull of the individual vs the tribe within America.

The American archetype is the cowboy, the rugged individual. Why is that? Within America, we have all sorts of enclaves, particularly on the coasts, where immigrants came not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, and they bonded together in little communities. So for instance, New England is replete with towns or neighborhoods that contain a predominance of one ethnic group or another, from the English Puritans to the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Poles, the Portuguese, the blacks, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Puerto Ricans, the Guatemalans. At first, the group takes care of itself. You need to go to a doctor, you go to someone in your group. You need a job, you look for someone in your group. Over the decades, these ethnic groups shift, so as one ethnic group assimilates, it literally splits up. The children or grandchildren leave the self-imposed ghetto to go live and work amongst the Others. Another ethnic group comes in, occupies the same cheap apartments, the same cheap houses, and the cycle begins again. And the children who leave to be amongst the Others, they’re on their own, but they still have their connections to the previous generation. They have to navigate the tension between the Tribe and the Self. They are a battleground.

You might ask, why do we have this archetype in America, why do the Europeans think Americans are cowboys? I would say it comes down to all the westerns on 1950s television, but you have to ask, why did the medium of the western become so popular? And why, as it persists in variations of the gunslinger in space, the gunslinger against zombies, the gunslinger against criminals, why is this cultural archetype so central to Americans?

It has to do with history — the US was populated by the riffraff of the rest of the world. The poor, the dispossessed, the hunted, those cut off from their communities. Some gathered in groups and some went into the wilderness to be alone.

But those ethnic groups who gathered together also spawn off their “cowboys”. It has to do with neoliberalism and the economic destruction of small businesses. The generation who has to leave home to make a living is without backup. Part of American identification with the lone individual has to do both with assimilation and with the economic breakdown of community.

I am reminded of Earl Butz’s mantra to the agricultural industry, “Get big or get out,” that dates from 1971. The push to corporatism has been going on for more than 40 years, not just in agriculture but across the economy. Corporatism killed mom-and-pop businesses, and in the process destroyed the economic viability of the ethnic enclave. It encouraged a different kind of tribalism, loyalty to the corporation. Some corporations have had a notion of a social contract, a duty to provide for the workers who helped grow the business. However, over time this social contract has been eroded by the profitability of raiding pension funds and replacing labor with cheaper foreign workers, or with software and robotics. So the individual, who may have thought he was part of a group, finds that he was on his own all along.

As we find ourselves corralled into cities and into isolation, new groups appear. The growth of religious fundamentalism has a lot to do with the lure of instant community. The growth of online groups and social media is a symptom of the loneliness of the heroic individual, out there fighting every day for survival and sanity, fighting without backup.

People are looking for backup. Even André the Giant has a posse.

You even see the breakdown of the group within families, because automation and global competition have eroded the purchasing power of the salary to such an extent that both parents must work. Some have time to prepare a meal but many do not. Some have time to eat together but many do not. The family becomes an aggregation of individuals; it is no longer a group.

Much has been written, and rightly so, about the tyranny of the group. Groups enforce groupthink, which is the price of solidarity. Some people are willing to pay that price. Some are not. People to whom individual thought comes naturally may find that it is simply not possible for them to conform to a group, that it requires too much acting, too much hiding. But people who fit into the group, for whom group membership is effortless, get to enjoy all manner of support that comes from having allies.

This is what the Obergruppenführer was referring to. Unity is strength.

To some people, freedom of thought is nothing desirable. If you think your own thoughts, if you make your own choices, you could choose wrong. As Laurie Anderson said, “Freedom is a scary thing. Most people don’t really want it.”

Just tell me what to think. Tell me what is acceptable to think. I’ll think whatever you want, just don’t make me go out there and fight on my own.

Right now the US is in the middle of a battle between the group and the individual. A pattern has emerged whereby individual liberties are being snuffed out state by state. It is the effort of the group to enforce thought conformity. It is, essentially, corporatism of the culture.

Get big or get out.

What’s a cowboy to do?

 


The Dark Highway

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Guidance comes when we least expect it.

You get in a rut. You get stuck. You can’t find your way out. It happens.

What are you waiting for? New information, without which, nothing can change.

I was driving on a dark highway on a moonless night, in a dark time of my life. I was on my way home from a job that literally made me wish I had never been born, after a long line of jobs that made me wish I had never been born, after years of unsuccessfully trying to find anything else that would give me a living wage.

I was 49 and alone, with no end in sight.

Everything I had ever worked for, everything I had ever fought for and sacrificed for, had come to nothing.

I used to say that resilience was my middle name. That I kept getting knocked down but I always bounced back. But you might notice that when you yourself get knocked down, a little air bleeds out. Over time, the ball of your resilience goes flat. And then you’re going on grit.

I was going on grit.

It’s March, the beginning of spring. I am driving up Rt. 95N in Massachusetts. I turn off to Rt. 125E, a dark road through a strip of woods the width of a front yard. Beyond these woods, suburban homes. Midcentury split levels. Travel a little farther, and the bleak standing dead trees mark a beaver pond, and on the other side of the beaver pond, a state forest.

The headlights of the car in front of me pick out the ghostly shapes of five whitetail deer — a doe in front, three fawns, a doe in back. They hurry across the highway towards another narrow strip of forest and another split-level subdivision.

The first doe makes it to the other side, then the fawns, and then the car, which hasn’t slowed a bit, plows into the head of the last doe and speeds on. As though nothing had happened. As though the deer had been imagined, vapors, as unreal as the shifting images on a TV.

The doe is flat on the asphalt in the middle of the highway. Her legs kick and she can’t get up. I stop my car so the headlights illuminate her, put on my flashers, and get out.

I’m a city girl. My knowledge of deer comes from photographs and Bambi. At the time I have this crazy idea I’ll just pick up the deer, put her in the back seat, and bring her to a vet.

I come up to the deer and kneel beside her. She stops kicking. Her head is laying in a pool of blood. She raises her head, looks me in the eye and I see that half her face has been smashed, mostly the jaw. She drops her head.

I try to pick her up. I had no idea how big a deer would be. She is the size of a small cow. She probably outweighs me by half my weight. I try to pick her up and can’t budge her at all. She tries to help me, raises her head, starts kicking, can’t move herself. Falls back exhausted. She lets me lay my hand on her flank. I see my ambitions have to be scaled down to giving her all I’m capable of giving her, love and comfort.

I’m crying by now. I’m thinking of all the houses nearby and how this used to be all forest. I’m thinking about what it’s like for a deer to live in the little stretch of woods along the highway because it’s the only woodlands that are left. I’m thinking about the extremis the deer must have been in to make the choice to cross the dangerous highway. They needed to get somewhere and this was the only way to go.

I dig my fingers into her fur and it is so dense I can’t reach skin. I think, this is how they survive the winter. I stroke her, thinking love heals, trying to channel to her atmospheric qi.

A car approaches and I stand up in front of my headlights and wave it away.

I return to the deer, who is lying in a pool of blood. I look at her limbs — no injuries. Only her skull is smashed. Her eyes catch mine in a mute appeal: Help us.

I promise back, also without words, I will see what I can do.

Another car approaches and stops. The woman inside beckons me over. She says, “I’ve called the cops to come out and shoot the deer.” I get really angry, because I think the deer still has a chance. I say, “Don’t you think we’ve done enough harm?” Meaning we humans. We in the suburbs, occupying their land. While we’re arguing, I see the deer haul herself to her feet, totter back to the woods where she had come from, and collapse.

The woman says to me, “I want you to stay here and show the cops where the deer is so they can shoot it.” I say no. I’m really angry. The woman has no intention of staying herself, though. She drives off. Because the deer is out of the highway and I am sure now she won’t be hit by another car, I also drive off.

The whole next week I can think of nothing but that deer. On the weekend, I return to the site where she collapsed in the woods. I’m hoping the coyotes didn’t get her. There’s no body. There are no bones. I comb the site. I see a trail of scat leading to the state park.

And I’m ebullient.

A couple of weeks later, I’m on a dating site. They have a question, what do you think about a lot? I tell this story. And then I get email out of the blue, from a man in Norway, Olav, who was moved by the story. I like him right off. I have this strict rule about no long distance relationships, but I figure, I like him, we can be pen pals.

Three days later he calls me from Norway. We talk for five hours. By the end of the week he asks me to dinner in New York City. We hit it off and he spends the next several months pretty much commuting between Norway and my apartment. I visit Norway twice. For work, he has an internet phone line that allows him to talk for indefinite periods of time. When we’re not together, we’re on the phone.

Surfing the internet together, from across the ocean. We’re separately and together looking at black steampunk gowns. I send him a URL. Isn’t it gorgeous? He says, “Get it.” I say, “But it’s a wedding gown.” He says, “Get it.” That’s how he proposed.

On our second trip back from Norway, he gets detained by Homeland Security. We have two weeks to marry or he gets deported. So we elope.

I paint a series of paintings about the animals on the fringe between wilderness and civilization, because I am still thinking about that deer. And then I have things to say that I can’t say with a painting because the ideas are too complicated, so I start a novel.

deerWhen you paint something, in order to get the anatomy and the expression right, you have to go into your subject. You have to become them. You paint a deer, you go in through the bones, coincidentally at the place the Indians call the “third eye”, and you inhabit their body, you stretch out into their limbs, take on their scents and their teeth and hooves. So much time I spent inhabiting deer and lynx and ravens, I had to write from the standpoint of something that was half animal, half human.

I wrote a novel about a sasquatch’s search for meaning. Its premise, with its Weekly World News tabloid edge, tickled my sense of the absurd but gave me a launching point. But as a city girl, I had a lot of research to do, if I were to set a story in the woods and make it come alive.

I had a character, Clare, who was going to leave the city and live off the land, and this character would meet a child sasquatch. So how would she live? Where would she live? Originally I decided on the Cascade range in Oregon.

I started studying rewilding. A biologist friend pointed me to the books of Bernd Heinrich, about living in a cabin in the mountains of Maine. I read about foraging. Hunting and trapping. Building cabins and underground shelters. Root cellars. Winter ecology. Passive solar heating. Wells. All manner of farming and season extension techniques. Over the next three years I read enough to give myself a Ph.D. on living off the land and I was just getting started.

We visited the Cascades and there had been a drought for seven years. I looked around and it was obvious, Clare could not survive here. There wasn’t enough food to forage. There wasn’t enough water with which to farm. Oregon would not do.

So then I started searching in concentric circles around Boston. If Clare were an engineer like me, then she would have savings like mine, so I know what she would be able to afford. How far would she have to go from Boston to be able to afford a piece of arable land on which to live, big enough to feed her, and inexpensive enough so she could pay cash and not have to deal with a mortgage? And then I found a place in Maine, perfect, nestled in the mountains, a modest but beautiful new house, situated perfectly for passive solar gain, on 15 acres of woodland, with 900 feet of brook frontage. For 1/3 the price of a 2-BR condo in Boston. Wow. Clare could afford this.

We could afford this.

And so we bought our homestead, in the town that coincidentally turned out to be the same where Bernd Heinrich lives. My husband has met him. I haven’t.

The neighbors welcomed us literally with open arms. I never felt a sense of community before. I had never had a real home before. Now I have both.

When I drove on that dark highway, I was in a trap with no end in sight. That deer showed me the way.

On our 15 acres, hunting is forbidden. We plant food for ourselves, of course, enclosed within deer fences. But we also plant for the deer. New England used to have an entire ecosystem around chestnut trees, but we lost almost all of them in the first decade of the 20th century due to a blight. Now blight resistant hybrids exist, and last year we planted 40 chestnut seedlings. We planted the native species of black raspberries. This year I’ll be planting kinnikinnick (bearberry). Little by little we will be filling the woods with wild foods. We are creating a sanctuary.

I am sure that the deer I met on the road has died. But I made a promise to her. From her I have a loving husband and a home and friends far better than I ever dreamed I would have. The deer has become my benefactor and my guide.

As the Chinese say, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”