Monday, July 24, 2017

Bring The Sixties Back

My earliest memories seem to be of music, and that music was from the sixties. By the time I was 4 years old it was already 1970, but what had happened in the 60’s had been imprinted hard upon my psyche, though being of such a young age I had no way of knowing that. The Beatles, The Animals, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and countless others had been the music I was immersed in as a child. Psychedelia was in my DNA.

My earliest memories were of war. Not of war as most experienced it, a psychologically scarring experience that changed people’s lives, never for the better. No, I experienced war broadcast to our living room every night. My experience with war was not a visceral one but rather presented to me as a moral dilemma: was it right or wrong? People used to ask such questions back then.

I was a bastard child of the 60’s, too young to be considered legitimate and yet bearing all the distinguishing characteristics. Having four siblings, all at least 8 years older than myself, I considered myself a legacy Aquarian. I was only four, but I knew who Syd Barret was. I had not done LSD, but experienced much of the art that had been influenced by it.

Most of all, I breathed in the winds of change that had been blowing since the doctor forced my first inhalation. Things had changed a hell of a lot in the years surrounding my birth. At home, people were becoming aware of the need for preserving the environment, were confronting racial, sexual, and societal injustices that had so long been imbedded in our society that they were not even mentioned in the mass culture. Fortunately, a sub-culture had sprung up to shine a light on what was going on beyond the bright chrome, neon lights, and Howdy Doody Puppetry that so often blinded us from the subtler aspects of our society.

Elsewhere, far from American shores, people were rising up and sloughing off the yokes of imperialism and colonization and white rule. We were no longer a white planet. The 1960’s led us to the concept that the world was not a world of white actors with a few persons of color strewn about the stage for variety but an actual melting pot and quilt where people of all colors and races could add something new to the world vision.

The world view freaking exploded! A fourth if not a fifth and sixth dimension was added to our way of seeing things. When we saw ourselves we no longer saw merely through the eyes of a white male but of an African American, an Indian, a Hispanic. The possibilities were endless. They were endless doubled, because we could also see through the eyes of women, women of every background, race, and creed. Sure, there had always been the feminine point of view, but it was something foreign, an other, an alternative to the prism we stared through. Now we could look through the eyes of women, now that gap was not merely bridgeable but was insisting to be crossed. Women spoke for women, demanded to be seen for who they were, demanded to be understood, demanded to have a part in defining the group reality.

I was perhaps among the first of American children to grow up on heroes who were not exclusively Caucasian. Bruce Lee, Roberto Clemente, Mohammed Ali, these were the people I wanted to be like when I grew up. Somehow race was downplayed in those days. Everyone had outrageously big, frizzy hair and dressed in bright colorful clothes and skin color seemed to be less of a distinction: everything faded into hippie.
But what I had been born into—or more importantly, what my earliest initial memories were about—was the furthest representation of an already spent force. I do not remember a time where Robert or John Kennedy walked the earth. Malcom and Martin too were gone. The great peaceful gathering that was Woodstock had been and gone and was followed by the violence of Altamont. The Beatles had broken up, and while we still had a few decent years of pop music left to us, the change was coming.

Like I said, I was never part of the 60’s but grew up in its wake. The revolution that so many seemed to anticipate had been diverted, but the appearance of progress had to be maintained for a while yet lest the truth be too unpalatable. The great movement for equality and power to the people was slowly subverted and distracted until what was left was hollowed out and perverted remnants of what once was. Feminism became concerned about women wanting to smash glass ceilings and forgot about those who had to mop their floors. Equality of the races became identity politics, driving us apart rather than allowing us to come together. Capitalism became the magic bullet for helping people out of poverty, pretending to empower people, giving them freedom from limiters without providing the freedom to actually succeed.

And war became an acceptable means towards achieving whatever ends we thought were worthwhile. That was the great betrayal, that violence in both word and deed should become a vehicle for change.

Even more than change, the 60’s were about peace. No American represented this notion of peace better than Martin Luthor King Jr., whose campaign for justice through non-violent means rivalled and echoed Mahatma Gandhi’s struggles in India and South Africa.

Peace was important enough to merit a logo AND a hand gesture. Peace was part of the holy trinity, a triune aspect of god co-existing with love and understanding. Peace was a perspective, a commitment, a path forward from the problems that threatened our planet. People actually protested for peace. People actually wrote songs that preached peace. They were the first generation to grow up in a world that might be utterly destroyed by war, who were taught to cower under their school desks, whose parents built bomb shelters. They knew viscerally that violence was not the answer they were looking for.

But like I said, the movement that very naturally came about was very unnaturally co-opted by those who artfully spin the narratives that big money pays them to spin. A generation that was clued into the importance of peace were subtly led down other paths. Mainly we were sold the idea that such a movement was impractical, impossible, or simply naïve. And gradually the narrative about Martin Luthor King became that he was a man who protested for the rights of blacks and nothing more. As if his life was not a remarkable example of the power of peace, the triumph of “soul power” and agape over violence and hatred. As if the gift he gave was to African Americans alone and not every man, woman and child on this planet.

We need another peace movement in this nation. We need to dust off the one that was abandoned sometime in the early 70’s and wave that banner bravely once more. We are a different culture nowadays, no longer naïve but perhaps we are somehow better able to understand the situation we now face. Perhaps—and it may require a degree of faith, hubris, and commitment to optimism—perhaps we are more uniquely suited towards a more sustained pursuit of the path that leads us to where we need to go. Because there is little doubt of where we need to go. All indicators point to the fact that we are worse off than we were when we first diverged from the path of peace.

Whatever changes we wish to see, to make, in this world, will come about only by walking the path of peace, only by a very real and determined commitment to peace. Perhaps those in the ‘60’s—and I’m referring to the average person and not those such as Martin Luthor King, who knew the depths of commitment it took—had a rather naïve view of peace, a shallow faith that did not survive the hardships they encountered.
But if you call the peace movement of the sixties naïve, I call the lack of one today delusional and chilling. Nuclear war is even more possible today than it was then, the belligerence of nations greater, the structures that were erected between humanity and annihilation left to rust. Peace is never going to happen unless we make it happen. No government will ever create peace, it is up to the citizens to demand it.

Whatever other change we wish to see in the world will flow from that. To work for peace is to find commonality with one another. It is seeing ourselves as part of the world, not in combat with it. It is love not hate, it is the realization that we have to find an alternative to conflict. It is a very clear choice: are we going to commit to the path that leads to a peaceful future or are we going to stray from it whenever it is convenient and self-serving to do so? At some point we have to realize that convenience and self-interest are our enemies. Fear and doubt, too, we must admit to be working against our overall odds of surviving as a species.

It is not as difficult a choice as fear, selfishness, and doubt make it out to be. These are the voices of the child within us that fears to take the steps necessary to reach adulthood. We once believed that the sixties were a time of naivete, now we can see they were the first tentative steps taken by a young species learning how to walk, how to stand on its own without the prop of violence. It is time to take the step forward towards a peaceful future. The steps will be unsteady, like a child’s, but we must take them or else wallow our short lives in infantile fantasies about how the comfort of the world we’ve known up to now can continue to provide us safety.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

In The Time Before The Beeping

When I was a child, nothing beeped at you. We were left to our own devices to figure things out. When we spelled something wrong, no wiggly red line appeared beneath the word, nor did a green one appear should we use improper grammar (or rather, something Microsoft Word thought to be improper grammar). We were just supposed to know. The struggle was real.

Things were different in our day. You knew if your car door was open because you felt a breeze and it was kind of noisy. No need for a beep. You knew your lights were on because it was bright. You knew your seatbelt wasn’t fastened because—hey—nobody wore a seatbelt back then.

Microwaves weren’t constantly providing annoying reminders that they had finished the task you had assigned to them because there weren’t any. Perhaps computers beeped back then, but I couldn’t say for sure because, like most people of my generation, I had never seen one.

Games didn’t beep, they unfolded. Games didn’t make any noise at all, unless you count the sound of the rolling of dice or the spinning of a spinner. People made noise back then while playing games, it was called conversation. Believe it or not, games were something you played with other people. Sure, people occasionally played solitaire, but if people were caught doing it, they would explain their behavior by saying they were bored. Boredom, for those of you who are younger and unfamiliar with the term, was a state of mind that existed prior to deciding to get up and do something useful. Again, to explain to those of you younger than myself, solitaire was once played with a deck of cards rather than an electronic device. The cards did not beep.

Boredom was once a signal that something was not right in your world. It was a feeling of discontent with the situation you found yourself in. It was a necessary stage in the evolution from being unproductive to finding some activity that really absorbed your attention. I’m not sure that boredom exists anymore, we have replaced it with anxiety. Like a child who has dropped his nook, we are never really satisfied without a digital distraction nearby. We are never really satisfied when in possession of a digital distraction either, but we are to distracted to notice.

When I was young a song was not only a song but part of something larger, which we called an album. An album had an overall tone to it, quite often having an overarching theme. Songs were arranged in a certain way to provide an overall feel, the way flowers are arranged in a vase or gems mounted in a ring. The overall impression it made was far more powerful than could be made with a single song.

An album was not merely a sack filled with songs, it was a statement. It was an artistic expression—at least to those who knew and practiced the art—that captured the zeitgeist of both technology and cultural understanding. It was immersive: you put it on your turntable and then experienced it as you gazed at the artwork and read the lyrics. It brought you on a journey, the peak moments making you close your eyes in order to experience it more fully.

We don’t have time to take a journey like that anymore. There is always a beep to drag us back to the here and now, away from the timeless.

I remember visiting my grandmother who lived in a small town and all the stores being closed on a Sunday. My father told me that’s the way it used to be in most towns, though by the time I came along such a thing was a rarity. My parents also never allowed me to cut the grass on a Sunday. Such notions were derived from Christian tradition, and I can understand how, with a decline of a strong Christian majority, such practices fell to the wayside (though I still never cut the grass or do anything outdoors that is bothersome to the neighbors on a Sunday). While I understand the change, I still can’t help feeling we’ve lost something in no longer observing a day of rest and refraining from commerce. We need to set aside time for what is important, and slowing ourselves down and giving ourselves time to reflect is important.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and with the receding of Christian values, a new set of values assumed cultural dominance: the idea that progress is both inevitable and always preferable. It was not simply swapping out the sacred and replacing it with the secular, it assumed religious overtones itself. Technological progress was not merely an idea, it became a faith. Sure, we always seemed to lose something in the exchange, but the promised rewards were too great to ignore. So we set aside the way of life we used to know and stepped aboard a train that promised to keep going further and faster. It did not disappoint, in fact it took us further and faster than any of us could have anticipated. It took us on such a dizzying journey we haven’t ever had a chance to question the initial assumption that technological progress will always make us happier. When something came along that made us stop to think—like losing a job because of technology, or losing the ability to engage in meaningful contact with friends and neighbors—we only had enough time to repeat the mantra that technology is inevitable before moving on to something else.

We once lived on human time. Then we created machinery and were to a degree forced to live on machine time. Alarm clocks woke us up, traffic lights told us when we could proceed, and lunch whistles told us when we could eat. Now we have created microchips and live on digital time, where everything is broken up into fractions of seconds. We have become anxious we might miss that new message, the next “Breaking News” story on TV, or a response to whatever we just posted on Facebook. We have adapted, but it is not a conscious choice we made. The excuse is—it has always been—that progress is inevitable. I would suggest that what takes us away from feeling and experiencing life more fully is not progress. I would also suggest that nothing is inevitable except that which we resign ourselves to.

Technology is fashioning our behavior, we are not fashioning it. We leap to the sound of the beep the way a dog is trained by a clapper. I’m not suggesting this is some nefarious plot devised by a secret cabal, though I could certainly see the danger of it being used in that way. I’m simply positing that it is a trap that we have fallen into. It is a habit which has spread across society, not unlike the way smoking did a century or so ago. And like smoking, we can gradually come to see how it adversely affects our wellbeing and discourage the practice.

Technology is a tool we created to make our lives better. We are its owners, its masters. It exists to serve us. It has no will or drive of its own. It is up to us to decide what we want it to be. I would suggest that we have forgotten that truth. We have abandoned our choices in the matter and now we have virtually everything we do being recorded digitally through cameras, cookies, or a myriad of other digital footprints we knowingly or unknowingly leave behind. More than most any other invention of mankind, digital technology has the potential to both help and harm us. If we do not pay it sufficient mind, if we are too busy checking Twitter to take control of the digital world we daily live in, there are assuredly others who will shape that world the way they see fit. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just heard a beep.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Adventures In The Not So Great Outdoors

There’s something about doing yardwork that gets me thinking. Perhaps it is just my mind telling me I should get out of the sun and back to my writing. It’s just that nature in any degree is inspiring and as a writer I get so little of it.

I’m not a big fan of bugs, especially when they are inside my house. Oh sure, I do try to shoo them out the door if at all possible, but I’m not above smashing them when necessary. When they enter the house they become intruders, and thus they become my enemies.

But I don’t see why we need to be natural antagonists. Bugs have their role to play, and in the long run they are probably much healthier for the planet than we humans. Which is why once outside my home I suddenly feel as though I am the interloper in their domain. I was picking weeds from my driveway today and as I did so, I seemed to cause a great deal of commotion among the little creatures that lived within the cracks. A colony of ants was all in a flutter as I ripped a handful of green growing plants from over the top of their little ant colony, and I couldn’t help see things through their little ant eyes. I placed myself in their little ant shoes and saw the catastrophe as something comparable to an earthquake or tornado. Their little ant world was being turned topsy-turvy and I couldn’t help wondering how this would seem to them. This event might someday be described by grandmother and grandfather ant to their little ant grandchildren as something comparable to Pompeii, might be written about and discussed for ant millennia to come.

Perhaps I anthropomorphize their behavior a little too much. Bugs surely experience things differently than human beings, but on some level it must have been traumatic. Not the ants only but some smaller version of bugs I know only as rolly-pollies were evicted from their homes like old ladies living where Donald Trump wants to build a parking lot. It left me questioning what it means to be a homeowner.

See, the whole idea of homeownership is merely a convention created by humans. Nobody owns anything, we merely inhabit a piece of earth for a while. Like every other creature on God’s green Earth, we’re just passing through. We don’t own the earth, we are part of it. From it we are born and to it we will return. Along the way we share the ride with everyone and everything we encounter. But we’re not in charge and we don’t really own anything.

It’s just our tiny little egos don’t know that. Believing we are something, we then need to feel we are something more than that little thing we actually are. We are not simply our corporeal body, we are the domain we inhabit. The very earth outside our abode is an extension of us, each blade of grass an expression of who we are. They need to appear orderly, in the same way we need to have our hair combed neatly so the world knows we are sanitary and worthy of human interaction.

I think it stems from worrying about what other people think of us. We have such a deep feeling of insecurity that we spend more time worrying about the perceived opinions of our neighbors than we do thinking about why we do what we do. The second we start caring more about how our lawn looks to others than our relationship to the nature closest to us, we have surrendered our autonomy as individual agents. So while we stake a claim to a larger area of ground that we believe we are in control of, what we are actually doing is making our domain smaller. Our lawn is no longer ours since we cannot do with it as we will.

So we douse our lawns with chemicals, in the same way men in the 40’s greased their hair or women in the 80’s sprayed theirs into submission. It was not bad enough that we waged war on nature on a broad front, we now feel compelled to dominate it on a micro level as well. The actual health of our yards be damned, it was how it looked that was important.

The problem is that we still seem to feel we need to master nature, rather than live with it, be a part of it. We are nature fascists, determined to dominate rather than coexist. And dominance, after all, is a very natural tendency, in species other than just man. But it is a primitive notion, something perhaps suitable for chimpanzees and gorillas but not for a species capable of creating nuclear weapons and global warming. At some point, we as a species must learn a different way to view our relationship with the outside world if we want to continue to enjoy the privileged position we now have.

As man encroaches more and more upon the last unspoiled portions of the world, it is more than ever important that we regard the nature within our small realm of influence with respect and reverence. In these encounters with the smallest of God’s living creations, we must cultivate a true appreciation for life in all its forms. For all that we wish to feel superior and dominant, such an attitude does not in the end lead to satisfaction and happiness. It requires an initial feeling of insignificance on our part to let go of such notions, but in the end we are deeply awarded for doing so. For in the admission that we do not own anything, we discover that we are in fact part of everything. I cannot imagine any possession that could provide as much happiness as that revelation.