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Odds & Ends

I Am an Animal!

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012: Odds & Ends, Society.

In David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man, when cornered by an angry mob, the title character cries out “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” Socially, it’s a powerful and poignant moment, but in the larger context of ecology, it’s an unfortunate choice of words. Human beings, of course, are animals in every sense, and our urge to differentiate ourselves from other animals is one thing that leads us astray.

But in another sense it’s a powerful comment on identity and labeling, and how people who are insecure in their own identities use labeling to assert control over a social situation, empowering themselves and bullying or manipulating others.

In the mid-90s, I was fortunate to witness a moving performance by the brilliant transsexual media theorist Sandy Stone, in which she dramatized her life journey from male to female. The experience had all the more impact on me because I had never heard of Stone and didn’t know she had been a man until it was revealed in her performance. I followed up by reading her book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, which discussed the ways in which people were beginning to use online avatars to craft new personal identities. In her view, new media and communications technologies were empowering people who had previously been victims of labeling.

I was surprised by her treatment of personal identity as a discrete phenomenon, because for me, identity had always been boundless, timeless, and in continual flux. One self with manifold manifestations. Labels were often convenient in specific contexts and discourse, but I never took them seriously unless others were using them to manipulate. In childhood, I was bullied and called “peewee” and “Tiny Tim” because I was small. Growing up, I ignored the warnings of my elders about “Jack of all trades, master of none.” To continually varying degrees, I was a passionate “artist” while I was making art, a gardener while gardening, a carpenter while building, and so forth.

My favorite example is the label “engineer.” At the end of my second year in college, I had just finished an intensive studio art program and had been accepted at a handful of art schools, but the economy was in a deep recession, and coming from a family with very limited financial resources, I was under crushing pressure to find a reliable career. My math and science skills enabled me to finish an engineering degree, although my heart wasn’t in it and I rebelled after graduation, rejecting job offers and becoming a vagabond and manual laborer, camping for a while in the hothouse environment of CalArts, broadening my horizons as an artist and playing in a band.

Desperate for financial security, I did eventually take a day job at an engineering firm, but only worked as an engineer for two years before moving into a part-time administrative position that allowed me to put most of my time and energy into the arts. Even so, I kept quitting, going broke, and begging to be rehired. That, and my education, are now decades in the past, and I could never resurrect that tentative beginning of an engineering career without going back to school. My expertise consisted of book learning that was quickly and carelessly forgotten.

Yet my father, who spent most of his working life as an engineer, would never let me forget it, nor will some of my old friends in the arts, to my dismay. My father, like all fathers I suppose, clung selectively to his favorite parts of my past. According to him I had made a terrible mistake by not marrying Victoria, and an even worse mistake by throwing away my potential on the arts instead of engineering.

Ironically, my artist friends have tried to diminish me from the opposite direction. Perhaps envious of my manifold skills – which truthfully have been a mixed blessing – they tell me smugly, again and again, “But you’re an engineer!” or “But you could go back to your engineering job!” Implying that they’re the real artists and I’m just a poser.

Of course, those are people for whom commercial success in the arts has been as elusive as it has for me, and they depend on day jobs they would equally resist as labels. But in the stratosphere of the arts, Damien Hirst spent as many years as a construction worker as I did as an engineer, and Moby has probably spent more time waiting tables, but no one would now call him a waiter.

Labels should never be used as a cage or a putdown, and identity is always relative to context. I am not an engineer! I am an animal!

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Space Tourists vs. Future Farmers

Saturday, February 18th, 2012: Odds & Ends, Society.

Taking the sporadic glance at my junk mail folder, I discovered that I’m on the self-promotion mailing list of the ex-girlfriend of an old pal. The ex-GF is a former self-styled internet “product evangelist” who has now elevated herself to the role of “futurist” and philosopher. She proudly proclaims herself a member of an international network of young futurists, many of them university-educated in “future studies.” The email linked to a recently completed video commercial based on her work.

In the slick commercial, four fashionably dressed young urban professionals are finishing a meal in a generic-looking upscale restaurant. One woman enthusiastically describes her recent trip to space. The waiter arrives with a handheld electronic bill/scanner device, and our yuppies proceed to divide up the price items in futuristically convenient ways, paying with various forms of scannable credit, including credits toward space flight. The implication is that technology is giving young urban professionals more personal freedom, including of course the freedom to travel in space.

But not all of us are yuppies. Human life doesn’t reach its full potential in the sanitized context of spacecraft or upscale urban bistros, and electronic credit is ultimately only a symbol which disguises our dependence on physical resources that are extracted from earthly ecosystems by rural communities. The freedom of the ex-GF’s “integrated mobile payments, credit cards, private coins and corporate space currency” is also the freedom from having to grow your own food, build your own shelter, make your own clothes, chop your own firewood. And this personal freedom, sometimes more patriotically termed “liberty,” is also a dependence on the labors of the rural providers, and an exploitation of them by means of a market economy that remotely, and unaccountably, manipulates their labors and their natural resources.

For a more balanced and realistic take on space travel, check out the poignant but even-handed 2009 documentary film Space Tourists, which shows an American billionaire enjoying her trip to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket, while peasants, out herding their flocks on the steppe below, collect discarded rocket parts to use as temporary shelter from the earthly elements.

I had my own fling with futurism as a teenage science fiction fan. What it all boils down to is adolescent insecurity – a craving for power and speed; adolescent rebellion – a need to distinguish yourself from your elders; and a fear of death resulting from urban society’s avoidance and denial of the role of death in the community and ecosystem. The primary themes of futurism are space travel, immortality, and a continual increase in personal power and convenience through technological progress. Any social or ecological consequences of these personal advantages can presumably be solved through engineering, in the same way that Nazism gave us the master race and nuclear power gave us unlimited cheap energy.

In the language of the Occupy movement, futurism is for the 1%. But statistics can be made to tell any story. The 99% is supposed to stand for the rest of us who are not rich, but one thing most of us have in common with the rich is that we’re primarily consumers of resources originally produced by rural farmers and miners under perennially exploitative conditions. And I’m not talking about Apple’s factory workers in China, who are also primarily consumers striving to increase their “quality of life,” meaning increased consumption of manufactured goods. You can reverse the Occupy statistics to observe that in today’s unsustainable human ecology, rural providers are the 1% exploited by the rest of us.

For the ex-GF, the future means perpetually young, fashionable, affluent urban consumers taking vacations in space. For this recovered futurist, the future is today, where, in my rural community far from the exaggerated consumer dreams and temptations of the city, young farmers and parents grow food for their neighbors and help raise each other’s children to become healthy providers for the next generation.

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Business Trip Snapshots, 2006-2010

Thursday, April 19th, 2012: Odds & Ends, Society.

During a five-year period, my design business took me to random parts of the US and Canada, both urban and rural, where I was sometimes a witness to strange, beautiful, or emblematic visions.

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Learning From Cruelty

Monday, July 2nd, 2012: Odds & Ends, Society.

My weekend movie was the 2009 film Last Ride, in which Hugo Weaving plays an ex-con who makes his 10-year-old son an accomplice in an increasingly desperate flight from the law across the spectacular natural landscape of South Australia. The brutality of Weaving’s character finds one (of many) outlets at a remote water hole where he tries to teach the frightened boy to swim by throwing him in the water and holding him down: “C’mon you wuss!”

That scene instantly evoked a memory of my Grandpa Carmichael, my surrogate father, who told me he learned to swim because his father (great-grandfather Howard, who I also grew up with) threw him in the river and told him he had to sink or swim. Apparently, Grandpa had solved this childhood crisis on the spot via the sidestroke, which became his only swimming style.

By contrast, I had friendly one-on-one swimming lessons with the star of the high-school swim team, so until seeing the movie it hadn’t really occurred to me how terrifying that first experience could be. I tried to picture my great-grandfather – who was generally good with children – throwing my Grandpa in the river – a tree-shaded, muddy waterhole with low, muddy banks just like in the film – wondering what the father was feeling, what the son was feeling, how those feelings might be churning like the muddy water – or simply programmed by tradition. What sort of reconciliation would emerge later in safety, whether gratitude, respect, or lingering resentment.

People who haven’t experienced much cruelty may hold simplistic notions of what is cruel, and how “cruelty” functions in society and ecology. Richard Nelson, in his beautiful deer-hunting memoir The Island Within, reports watching a sea otter slowly devour a living salmon tail-first while the salmon watched itself being eaten. And most of us have seen TV clips of hyenas bringing down and feasting on a living wildebeest. How do humans benefit by condemning some behavior as “cruel,” and how much of this depends on the context?

The “cruelty of childhood” is an old cliche, and I certainly experienced childhood as the cruelest phase of life. I was one of the smallest boys in town and was bullied all the way up to my senior year of high school, first because I was small and later because I got good grades. The jocks and the tough boys were always verbally abusing me, threatening to beat me up, chasing me, punching and kicking when they could catch me. The neighborhood bully once found me out in the country in the woods by the riverside and shot me in the leg with his BB rifle. That’s when I found out I could run faster than other kids – I ran all the way home, leaving him in my dust.

My Dad tried to compensate for his absence by packing intense parenting into short visits. One of his favorite father-son activities was the old Scottish tradition of roughhousing, fighting for the sheer love of it, which in the old days often led to casual maiming and blinding. Dad was in his view trying to teach me to be a man, but he was huge and obese, so the contest was patently unfair and traumatic for me.

One of my ex-girlfriends grew up in a family where a lot of physical violence occurred and was mostly tolerated. They were all big, strong people with violent tempers. She told me of her younger brother throwing a cat off a bridge into a river, waiting for it to swim to shore and throwing it back in again, over and over. In some sectors of our society – sports and the military – bullying and brutality are considered essential to learning toughness and endurance. If you grow up isolated from cruelty, you may end up unprepared and powerless when you do meet it.

So where and when is it appropriate to learn about intimidation and physical force?

Or maybe the right question is how. In Last Ride, the father’s brutality really came out in how he treated his son – the same vicious way he treated the victims of his crimes. I don’t see my great-grandfather treating my Grandpa like that – I envision a firm but encouraging act. And in The Island Within, Nelson evokes the traditional hunter’s creed of respect for the prey – which raises the question of how and why we are different from the sea otter. I don’t buy the conventional answers to how humans are different from other animals; I’ve heard about the Asians who relish eating animals alive, and I can’t condemn them, not having the full picture.

After his first (failed) swimming lesson, the boy in the movie appears traumatized. And in the end, for other reasons, Last Ride won’t end up on my list of favorite films. But the glorious final scene shows how, in a cruel world, a hard lesson may be transformed into a moment of liberation.

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