News Diet

There was this fella by the name of Scoop Nisker who did news on the radio ‘back in the day’ in the Bay Area. I can’t remember if it was KSAN in San Francisco or KTIM in Marin but he would do these news stories that were sort of unconventional. Very 70s, man, like those great old rock stations were before the corporate takeover of our airwaves. Mostly I remember his tag line: “if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

That’s my new ethic. Not that I’m much of a news-maker, just that I don’t really like the news. Never have, really, but felt obligated as a citizen to watch, listen, and read so I could ‘be informed’ and all that rot. We live in the Information Age, my friends. Any idiot can ‘be informed.’ It’s not hard. Everywhere we go we are bombarded by information. One can hardly find a beer-drinking joint these days that doesn’t run the television constantly. Really? Do we have to have the TV on? I like to watch a ballgame or two, certainly, but sometimes I just like to shoot the shit with the regulars. But asking a bar to turn off the TV is like asking them to turn off the taps. Seems we need to be guzzling electronic jibber-jabber along with our ales.

Screw that. I’m going on a diet. A news diet. A media diet. We live in a land of plenty. We have lots of food and it’s available all the time and it is pretty damn cheap and convenient. Look at the consequences: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. So we limit our intakes, right? We cut the fat and the sugar and all that and try to do portion control and try to have healthy snacks and whatnot. There’s a diet out there for every kind of eater, all with the same goals of losing weight and improving health. That is, we know we have too much and we have to have schemes for controlling our behaviors so we don’t over-indulge.

So why can’t we have a news diet? Don’t you think we get too much of that shit? I do. I find my brain rotting from the overload. Our electronic media are everywhere. We carry them around with us, fer chrissakes. There’s no place where you are free of the electromagnetic stream. Even in my favorite watering holes everyone is pulling out their damn gizmos instead of talking. Or just shutting up and drinking. Yeah, I know I sound like a grumpy old man. I don’t mean to, I have no beef with technology. I’m typing a blog post, after all, that’s something I couldn’t do not long ago, and I enjoy this freedom and opportunity to blather on and on about pointless stuff. If you are concerned, as I am, about information overload, then STOP READING and go outside and play.

There I go, telling you what to do. There you go, reading when you should be out playing. I have no prescription for anyone else. I know I need a diet, that’s my reality. Yours, I hope, is something else entirely. Along with my news diet, which I hope will improve my health, I have some other peeves. (Why do they have to be ‘pet’ peeves? Aren’t ‘peeves’ good enough?) Like going to Raley’s and being subjected to that truly wretched musical crap they pump through the store-wide speakers. Gag me. Does pop music have to be part of shopping? I’m sure the corporate geniuses worked it out and decided it was soothing and keeps the customers from throwing things. Or makes us hungry so we buy more, something like that. But it makes me want to run away. It’s a funny thing about pop tunes, many of them are genuinely good but the endless repetition of the same ones over and over again in both original and ersatz versions ultimately robs them of any artistic merit. I remember the early days of MTV where you could see Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” video at least a dozen times in a day. Great song, terrific artist, but after a week or two you never wanted to hear it again. Doesn’t that make you sad? I don’t want any more fine things ruined by excess exposure.

So, I’m going to make my own news from now on. It won’t be earth-shattering. I don’t do much that’s exciting. I don’t know any terrorists or illegal immigrants or attention-whore celebrities. I do know a lot of wonderful people who seem to like me despite my poor attitude. The news I make with them won’t be anything to read about but I expect I’ll find it interesting and fulfilling.

I’ll tell you what—I think we should all create more and consume less. Instead of sucking on the electronic teat we should be investigating, exploring, building, inventing, learning, and growing. Shit, there I go again telling people what to do. I think I should eliminate “should” from my vocabulary!

 

 

Drought

I remember first learning about “drought” in the early 70s, back when Jerry Brown was governor. Oh yeah, he’s STILL governor! And we still have drought. Not that it’s ol’ Jerry’s fault, by any means. His pop—Edmund G., Sr. aka “Pat”—was the guv when I was a kid, just before Ronnie Reagan. Pat was the architect, in many ways, of the gigantic state plumbing system that moves water from where it is (northern mountains) to where the people are (southern deserts). It’s a continuing refrain of NorCal-ers that the SoCal-ers are “stealing our goddamn water.”

Whatever. I note the rain has stopped this morning and the sun is coming out. And as saturated as the state has been this winter, we still have drought. That’s because drought means “shortage” and we will always be short of water here in California. In fact, we will always be short of water anywhere in the American West. Head Pacific-ward from the Mississippi River and you’ll cross the 100th meridian before encountering the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. West of the 100th meridian, roughly speaking, is the semi-arid region of the country, distinct from the humid continental areas blessed by moisture from the Atlantic and, more importantly, the Gulf of Mexico.

Climb the Rockies and descend into the Great Basin and you will encounter deserts of vast extent. The reason much of the West is still wide-open is because of its inhospitable climate. It’s too damn dry. There’s no goddamn water! People can’t live where there’s no water, and if you wonder how people can live in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Phoenix, it’s because enormous pipelines and canals ship water to these thirsty regions. Few parts of California have the moisture necessary to sustain large populations, unless you’d like to see urbanization along the North Coast in the Redwood Region or perhaps metropolises in the Sierra Snow Belt.

Even the vaunted production of California’s agriculture—breadbasket of the nation—is dependent on water shipments. There’s not enough to go around. And there never will be. The climate in the Golden State makes it among the most desirable places to live in the country. The pull of 60ºF days on the beach in San Diego in January when the Northeast is gripped in ice storms is strong, and the migrants keep coming. Most of us in California are from somewhere else (my parents are from Massachusetts, theirs were from Ireland). We came to find gold, or flee the Dust Bowl, or to find work in the war factories. We came for economic opportunity and a chance at “the good life” in the sunshine along the seashore.

Now there are close to 40 million of us. And we all want to drink, bathe, wash our cars, and water our lawns. Demand for water is always increasing, supply is not. So we will always have drought. It’s part of life in a Mediterranean climate where six months of the year can pass with neither rain nor snow touching the ground. Some of the population pressure has been reduced by northward migration. Cities like Portland in Oregon or Seattle in Washington enjoy temperate climates with abundant natural water. But both of those states, like ours, have a narrow band of habitable regions along the coasts and the near inland valleys. Head east over the Cascades and you are back in the arid wilderness. Over half of both states get a foot or less of rain in a year.

If you aren’t native to the Golden State, you might think we are a lush, garden paradise. If you are, you know that’s bull. We are dry most of the time. Our greenery is the result of engineering. The Bay Area for example, home to seven million people, gets almost all of its water from the Sierras, 100 to 200 miles away, via pipelines, aqueducts, and reservoirs. They have to—there’s not enough otherwise. The mountainous regions of the state store our life-giving liquid in the snowpack, but we don’t live there. We live in the temperate valleys, foothills, river basins, and coastal plains where there are year-round roads and ports and all the other amenities of modern civilization.

Here in the High Country we don’t really feel the impact of drought because we don’t use enough water. Sure, we have times when the snow doesn’t fall and our forests are tinder-dry and our irrigated pastures can’t get their share out of our over-stressed streams. But there’s not enough of us to cause a crisis. We can make it through the dry time and enjoy the blessings of winter. This year the state will have full reservoirs (assuming the Oroville Dam holds!) and likely an above-average snowpack, so we’ll muddle through. But it can rain from now until July and we’ll still have drought.

 

 

truth

I’m a truth with a small-t kind of guy. In science, everything is conditional. An object in motion at a constant velocity stays in motion at a constant velocity if and only if it is not acted upon by an outside force. For the statement (“. . . stays in motion . . . “) to be ‘true’ the condition (” . . . not acted upon . . . “) must be met. Science works this way. My mind, it seems, does as well.

The Χians will tell us the Truth of the Redeemer, the Musselmen will counter with “Allah akbar”, and Lao-tse will give us The Tao. Truth with a big-T kind of stuff. Interesting, to be sure, but hard for my materialist brain to swallow whole. It’s not that science has all the answers—far from it—but rather it has the best questions. Finding the ‘truth’ in science is finding out what is testable, and what results are repeatable. That’s a lot of stuff. Certainly nowhere near all the stuff, just focused on the knowable stuff. And that’s the appeal for me, deciding what is knowable and what may not be.

The mystics tell us we can know God. And perhaps they are right. But it seems to me what they’ve really been saying all this time is that we can know ourselves. God is within us, just as He/She/It is in the Universe. We are part of a Whole, and knowing The Self is the same as knowing The Whole. Take a look at the history of mystical practices: they involve self-abnegation and a retreat from worldliness. This is designed to do just the opposite, that is, teach you about your ‘true’ self. And the remarkable thing about mystical literature and tradition is the commonality across cultures and religions. All mystics say the same thing, and describe the mystical experience similarly. The mystical types tell me this means it’s ‘true’, that is, this shared reality must be ‘real’ if so many people have felt it.

Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s just another ‘madness of the crowd’ phenomenon. When encountering the mysterious we often rely on the words and thoughts of another who has been there before. We all know about bias, and how we can prep ourselves to like or dislike something before we ever see or feel it. Our language and our prejudices are handed down to us from our forbears, we aren’t original in thought or deed. Just because we regurgitate what we are told doesn’t make it any more ‘true’ than anything else.

These days we’ve been arguing about “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Politics is a rather odious undertaking as what is said is not near as important as how it is said. Issues are just packages wrapped appealingly for consumption. Politics doesn’t deal with the complexity of the world but instead reduces everything to binary yes/no schemes when little in life is so simple. Lower-case truth is raised to the status of upper-case Truth simply by declaring it so. Is it any wonder that arguing is the only real political activity most of us engage in? Pick your tribe, embrace their rhetoric, and beat your adversary over the head with it. Don’t learn, don’t grow, don’t open your mind to new ideas, just cling to the safe phrases that prevent you from actually thinking about something.

These things—”fake news” and “alternative facts”—are, for better or worse, the fruits of the Information Age. I can sit here at my keyboard and use this lovely software to spew my opinions about the world for any and all to consume. So can millions of others. Now my own personal reality can be yours, too. It’s in our nature to coalesce around the comfortable and the familiar. If someone says things that reinforce your view of the world you find safety in numbers and sign on with them.

So I’ll stick with small-t truth. Science may find itself the handmaiden of government or corporate interests, just like any other human endeavor, but in the end it’s about the two things that matter most to me. One is uncertainty. In science you have to quantify your uncertainty. Since most of the universe is uncertain my mystical quest, if you will, is to embrace it. The second is humility before the facts, that is, the results of the experiments. We don’t have to like what is revealed, but we do have to accept it. Nature is what nature is and we can re-organize it in our heads to make it more palatable, but we still have to gag it down.

 

 

Overtime

As ball games go, it was a lively one. The upstart Falcons had their way in the first half and even into the second, befuddling Brady and the Patriots. But the New England machine had too much juice in the fourth quarter, and to top it off they had too much love from the football gods. If I were an Atlanta fan, I’d wonder about that coin toss. We saw the first half at a party, and came home for the second. It was nice to spend time with old friends, but it was nice to be in my recliner, too. I feel for Falcons fans, I’ve seen my beloved ball clubs, over the years, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the do-or-die moments. It’s part of the drill, and it sucks. But I’m of Massachusetts stock despite my California provenance, so I know the relations are excited (if not a bit spoiled!) and I’m happy for ’em.

The Super Bowl is a lot of things, but what means the most to me is that football is over and baseball can begin. Sure, I know the spring camps don’t open for another week, but that’s how I feel. And sure enough the NFL had to fuck with me and make the damn final game go into overtime. At least it was exciting football, but enough already. I’m just not enough of a gridiron guy, I’ve no energy for sports other than baseball. Being a fan of my dimensions is hard enough work, I can’t be wasting valuable time on stuff I don’t really like.

And what I really don’t like is hype. I’m already tuning in fer chrissakes, stop shoving it down my throat. All sports broadcasts (hell, all of television) are hype-fests, but the Super Bowl is the apotheosis of all that, and it’s wearisome. I could never get into the whole commercials thing, a TV ad is a virus, highly contagious, not fatal but certainly illness-inducing. I believe the poetic spirit is wounded by such viral assaults as our flatscreens provide us and that we must inoculate ourselves. No known vaccine exists, most meds just delay the symptoms, abstinence appears the only safe course.

Our artistic and creative organs are ephemeral things: heart and soul are easily wounded by our material world. I love baseball, for example, but the way it’s packaged for my consumption is increasingly difficult for me to take. Those bastards talk too goddamn much and spend too much time hyping themselves and the industry that employs them. Like I said before I’m already a fan and I don’t need to be cajoled into spending time watching or listening. My favorite way to watch a game anymore is at a bar where the picture’s good but it’s too loud to hear the announcers!

It’s a complaint I suppose few have. But these days I really do feel those goddamn rays coming out of that goddamn box. I actually feel them entering my body and frying my nerve ends, robbing me of my senses, numbing my faculties and dulling my wits. Those are important natural resources and they require conservation and planning for the future. So I’m trying to stick with the reduced commercial-intake diet. Like I said I really enjoyed seeing old friends today at the game party so I could stand the deadly rays for a while, it was worth it.

What I need is one of those radiation badges that’s tuned to TV commercials and starts to darken or change colors when the safe dose levels have been exceeded. Don’t you think that would be a good thing? Don’t you want to know when your life-blood is being sucked out by corporate pimps? Or perhaps a gizmo I can attach to my TV that radiates a mitigating force field, that lessens the impact of the death rays. Or a special helmet, with mentally healthful shock-absorbing inserts. Imagine the advertising they could come up with for that stuff!

I’m a big boy. I know I live in a capitalist society where we have to sell, sell, sell, and buy, buy, buy. That’s how it goes. Produce, produce, produce. Consume, consume, consume. I’m an American, I understand. Ads are part of life, poisonous or not. And it’s the dose that makes the poison, so I’ll just have to watch those doses.

 

The Most Merciful Thing

H.P. Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926 and I encountered it some time in the early 1970s. The opening paragraph has stuck with me these many years:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

The over-the-top prose is part of his appeal—the man would never be confused for Hemingway. But he is on to something here, this idea that we really don’t know how fucked we are. Read Genesis and you get the feeling that God and Man are all alone in Creation. Sure, we got animals and Wo-Man for company, but there aren’t any other Chosen Folks out there. Earth is it. We are the only sentient beings other than God in the universe. Now that’s scary. This is why God is around, to help you with that particular terror.

It’s not like science is any better. Our post-Darwinian world is filled with terrors as well, seeing that DNA proves we are all part of the primordial ooze. Everything from the virus to the orangutan are our kin. Our racial differences, so important to our culture and identity, are hopelessly trivial in the grand genetic scheme. The Space Age showed us a universe that was close enough to infinite in size and age that god got reduced to lower case.

The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and  of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

That’s one sentence! I think we are there, that frightful position with the terrifying vistas. Whether you believe the universe is filled with intelligent aliens or not, the fact remains that even the close ones are so far away on the human scale that it doesn’t matter. We ain’t meeting them anytime soon. And be you theist or atheist you are still standing on a barely hospitable rock racing its way through a thoroughly inhospitable space. Step off the rock, you are dead.

So that leaves us with the choice: madness or peace and safety? And if we choose the rational course, peace and safety, we have to choose a new dark age. Madness is the consequence of understanding. See the truth, lose your mind. Stay sane only by closing it. Or medicating it. Or otherwise occupying it with such things as the pursuit of happiness. If we really allow our minds to appreciate our cosmic insignificance, we’ll quit. The vastness of the known universe already dwarfs our consciousness, the more we learn only makes it worse. The atomic nature of reality is too weird for normal people, only quantum physicists can really discuss it, but the little we do know shatters our world. Best not to think of it and stay afloat in the macro-verse.

Extra helpings of religion and mysticism come round to the same end. Only through embracing a deliberate irrationality—faith in a particular set of stories—can you have hope. Otherwise it’s an eternity of hell. Choose a particular madness and devote yourself to it and the pain of existence will be ameliorated. God will save you.

So, do we flee from the deadly light of knowledge? Do we accept insanity as the price we pay for learning? Seems like we have to. Just because science is scary doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. People have been saying ‘the truth hurts’ for a long time and they are right. So we are going to have to learn to take it. It’s hard to let go of sacred assumptions and precious notions but they are, on a daily basis, reduced to mere cant.

I fear the dark age more than the light. Technology is now independent of the science that spawned it. It will grow and mutate and evolve along its own lines, on its own power. So it can be used to serve the overlords of the dark age just as easily as the wardens of the lunatic asylums. I think we all need a little more madness in our lives. That’s not to disparage the rational, just to say how can one be rational when staring out on the abyss?

In Genesis, God stares down the abyss, the face of the deep, and brings order out of chaos. Each day our minds perform the same task. We wake from our bewildering dream world and we sort out all the shit and get everything lined up for another go. Eventually we will succumb to the entropy, our bodies and brains will decay and return to the void, but we have to keep busy creating our world in the meantime.

Lovecraft was a paranoid loon, a racist misanthrope who longed for simpler days. Those types prefer the dark ages. But I’ll take my chances on the terrifying vistas and the deadly light. It’s kind of exciting out here—something new every day. We started as cosmic dust and we’ll end up as cosmic dust, but maybe we’ll learn something along the way.