Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Top 5 Fiction Favorites

I recently finished reading two Charles Dickens novels and liked one of them so much that I thought to myself, “you know, this is easily in my top five favorite novels of all time”. That thought prompted the question of what exactly are my top five favorite works of fiction and the answer came so easily that it seemed significant enough to get on record. I like to do this sort of thing because it’s a given that preferences will change over time and it’s neat to look back years later and see what my tastes were at a particular phase of my life.

I’ve been an avid reader through most of my adult life but have always underestimated the value of fiction, being more concerned with history and fact and how the world works and why things are the way they are. You can go a long way towards that with non-fiction, assuming you do your homework and always try to get the background on the author’s motivation and agenda and what factors are involved with their particular point of view. Everyone is bullshitting you to some extent, just as you bullshit others and yourself to some degree. We can’t help it. But we can consider information that is presented to us with that in mind. The importance of this cannot be understated if you are truly interested in gaining an accurate view of the world.

But anyway…I’ve generally neglected fiction because I’ve been interested in learning about reality and practical things that I can apply in my own life. It’s only been over the last few years that I have ventured off into the wide, wonderful world of novels. And in doing so I’ve come to realize you can learn a tremendous amount from them also. Instead of facts and figures you learn about the human condition and the limitless scope of human creativity and imagination. Non-fiction can make you smart but fiction can make you wise. Personally I have come to value wisdom over intelligence.

So without any further ado here are my top five favorite fiction works (in order):

1. Jitterbug Perfume – Tom Robbins
2. Siddhartha – Herman Hesse
3. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
4. Island – Aldous Huxley
5. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy – J.R.R. Tolkien

This, of course, is subject to change and the number five was totally arbitrary.

Maybe next time I’ll do top ten.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Global Mourning

I recently found myself in a discussion about global warming, which is something I will only do with individuals who are least nominally capable of grappling with objective reality. On topics such as this that limits my prospects considerably.

The conversation went through the typical motions and concluded with my associate making a statement along the lines of: The American people are hostile to government action that addresses global warming because they know it will increase their costs at the pump and quite frankly, many wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Prior to the above statement I had been expressing my amusement and semi-bewilderment that the majority of the public had been convinced to believe something contrary to the conclusions of legitimate and rigorous scientific findings.
My associate’s retort was a valid one and we both commented on how common it was for individuals to be selectively skeptical of medical findings that interfere with lifestyle habits they are strongly attached to, downplaying the risks of smoking, eating Big Macs, or whatever.

This is all well and good and I appreciate and agree with the point that was made, but my objection lies not so much with my fellow Americans being reluctant to pay higher gas prices, but rather with the fact that they have been convinced that there are no risks associated with that choice; that “global warming is a hoax” or that it is a hotly debated topic within the scientific community. My problem is with the multi-billion dollar public relations campaign being waged by the most powerful corporations on Earth to sow doubt and skepticism, and generally manipulate opinion in the same cynical fashion that had tobacco industry funded doctors publishing reports telling us that not only was smoking not bad for you, it actually had positive health benefits. The parallels between the “global warming is a hoax” and “smoking has no harmful health effects” campaigns are striking. Both are cases of incredibly powerful industries doing damage control when overwhelming evidence starts to show that their product is harming human beings.

That Americans want to protect their pocketbook against higher gas prices is understandable and they cannot be faulted for that. But allowing themselves to be manipulated on such a mass scale to be “skeptical” of conclusions reached by over 90% of the experts in that field, while gullibly swallowing propaganda fed to them by oil companies is pathologically stupid. It’s unforgiveable.

The media presents the debate as if there are somehow two equal opposing sides. That the assertions of corporate-owned right wing politicians and television pundits, along with a few oil company funded “studies”, are the equivalent of the overwhelming, worldwide, scientific consensus on the topic. Given that no entity on Earth – with the exception of Wal Mart – rakes in more revenue than the five major energy corporations, and that the advertising dollars from these companies is staggering, perhaps it’s at least explainable (though by no means acceptable) that the media so complicit in this mass ignorance.

It’s true that most Americans get their information about the outside world from watching television and don’t have the time to do in-depth research on all of the issues of the day. But this is a potentially tragic situation, and one that does not do the collective intellect of the American public justice.

I would submit that given the opportunity to make a truly informed decision between lower gas prices now and taking action to reduce the consequences that science tells us will result from not lowering our carbon emissions, the result would be different than what we are now seeing.

If the same discipline that brought us cell phones, modern medicine, and space travel is telling us that there are very real and likely catastrophic environmental costs associated with continuing to burn fossil fuels at the current pace, those costs should be reflected in the price at the pump. Otherwise the market, that Hallowed Deity, is grossly distorted. And if the public was more informed as to how our wars in the Middle East and the so called war on terror are directly related to oil, they would realize that those costs should also factor in to their price at the pump.

The truth is that gas prices in the US are artificially low and this is solely the result of the power wielded by the energy corporations. Yes, this gives the illusion of being easier on the pocketbooks of American consumers, but the true cost is eventually paid one way or another. That may take the form of trillion dollar wars that costs lives in addition to taxpayer dollars, or environmental catastrophes with costs that we may not yet be able to comprehend but would be psychotic not to consider. By the time we begin to understand those costs it will probably be too late, and future generations will look back on us a society of gullible, short-sighted dupes that were either too selfish or too stupid to confront reality and make the necessary but difficult changes that could have prevented such a tragic predicament.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Reproduction

Why no kids?

It’s a question I have been asked so many times, a few of them with touching sincerity and genuine curiosity, and it’s one that I have never answered as earnestly as I should. In fact it is likely that I’ve never answered that question for myself in a comprehensive way; which, of itself provides a significant clue on the subject. To put it most honestly and simply, becoming a parent is something I just have never given that much thought to. And given the permanent, life changing implications and tremendous responsibility associated with child-rearing (what a weird phrase), I am of the mind that this is something one should feel passionately about if you’re going to go there. If it’s going to be a choice, which – let’s be honest – for many it isn’t/wasn’t, then it needs to be a well thought out and definitive choice. It needs to be something you want as much or more than anything else that earthly existence has to offer; something that stirs your soul. Something that you feel you cannot live without.

For me, it never was. If and when I thought about it at all it just seemed to be something I vaguely knew that I didn’t want to do. Like becoming a professional taxidermist or entering a hot dog eating contest, it’s never been one of those things that required a great deal of internal debate to know that it was not my cup of tea. Contrast that with the many, perhaps the majority, who feel the intense, in some cases almost desperate desire to produce offspring. It is my opinion that the child bearing is best left to the people who fall into that category. It reasonable to assume that they feel that way for a good reason, and I feel the way I do for a good reason, although the reason seems much less important for those of us who chose to abstain (from conception, that is).

Now. To go deeper into the issue it’s probably worth approaching the prospect of parenthood from the perspective of my view of life in general. For as long as I can remember I have felt an inner imperative to move through life as lightly and simply as possible. There have been decisions made that were not always congruent with this principle – who among us can truly say that they’ve lived up to their own values 100% of the time? – but for the most part, keeping the literal and metaphorical baggage to a minimum has been a consistent theme throughout my adult life. This is not something I feel compelled to justify to anyone anymore than I feel the need to explain my rationale for green being my favorite color. It is what it is. I had a seventh grade art teacher who gave the sage advice of K.I.S.S…Keep It Simple Stupid. Seeing as the act of living itself can be viewed as a form of art – perhaps the highest form – it made sense to me to apply this concept in the broadest context possible.

Raising kids in this current environment that we find ourselves in is, in my opinion, wholly incompatible with the K.I.S.S. philosophy, which brings up another significant factor in my decision to be a non-breeder – environment. Human beings are screwing up the planet. And the more of us there are, the more rapidly we wreck the natural world. I realize that at one point in our evolutionary history it made sense for us to reproduce at the highest possible levels. Indeed, it was key to our survival as a species. But at this phase of our evolutionary development I am of the opinion that the reverse is now true. That is, indiscriminate and mass reproduction now actually threatens survival of the species. Humankind, in all its arrogance and folly, now threatens its host planet. Resource wars, despite the bullshit explanations proffered up by the powers that be, are already commonplace. Humans kill each other over access to oil now and we will likely do so over water in the not so distant future. And knowledgeable sources and agencies are already predicting food shortages within the coming decades.

Not to be so heavy on the doom and gloom but ignoring problems will not make them go away and from my perspective these are reasonable things to take into account when considering making your own addition(s) to the Earth’s population.

Then there are environmental considerations of a different sort. What kind of a society/environment would I want to introduce my own children into? Frankly, not this one. There are many great things about America but it is not a place I would want to raise kids. With so much emphasis on competition, materialism, money, greed, consumption, image, and so on, it seems like our values are exactly backwards from the ones I would want to instill into any child that I brought into this world. And I’m afraid that despite my best efforts, it would be impossible for me to shelter my child from a culture that appears to have gone so horribly wrong somehow. The forces of hyperconsumption and reckless, self-serving ambition permeate almost every aspect of American culture and the onslaught of conditioning starts well before preschool.

There are also the metaphysical aspects of child-bearing. It is a hard truth, but life is suffering. Even for those of us who were blessed enough to be born into almost ideal circumstances, with an abundance of love and security, life is a difficult affair. It is also a beautiful, enriching, and rewarding one, and I do not mean to downplay the inherent good in human life, but nor will I deny the bad. And bringing a new life into that certain guaranteed amount of pain and suffering that is also inherent is something that generates significant resistance from my conscience. And as one of Aldous Huxley’s fictional characters in his book “Island” points out, any good Buddhist knows that childbirth is simply delayed assassination. Though I cannot rightfully claim to be a Buddhist, I am quite sympathetic to this sentiment.

Furthermore, simply providing for kids and a family in today’s world is no small or simple feat. From a purely financial standpoint the act of parenting appears daunting to me. Were I a parent, providing materially for my children would be the single most important part of my life. It would, of necessity, override any and all other considerations. By no means would this be an insurmountable situation but I cannot see how the majority of one’s time, energy, and efforts would not be primarily directed towards this end at the exclusion of all others. And when I take an honest assessment of myself, I cannot deny that I am someone who requires a certain amount of freedom and latitude. I need time to think, time to be, time to explore, room to make mistakes, a fair amount of solitude and quiet, and time to pursue things other than providing materially for myself or others. Notice I included ‘myself’ there. I already feel that too much of my time and energy goes into the pursuit of money. It is a fact of life, and one that I accept and have adapted to, but not one that I will willingly excaserbate.

All of this being said, I do not hold it against any of my peers - that being the majority - who feel differently. I do not feel contemptuous or superior to them. On the contrary, I am grateful for them. People have kids for a variety of reasons, some of which I do feel are ridiculous, but for those parents and kids who I am fortunate enough to have in my life, I am thankful. My young nieces and nephew give me feelings of delight and happiness that are uniquely wonderful, and – I might add – somewhat unexpected. (Who knew I loved little kids so much?) And I know whatever feelings of joy these little ones provide me is felt to an exponentially higher degree by their actual parents. I have no doubt that there is a level of satisfaction and fulfillment that can only be experienced and understood by parents, and I applaud them. And for the sacrifices and devotion and love that is given in such abundance by parents, I truly admire them. It is an enormous responsibility, and I am continually surprised and impressed by the skill and competency that I’ve observed in those close to me who find themselves tackling the various challenges associated with parenthood.

Also, I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason. If I were to find myself a parent I would know that it was meant to be and the resources and wherewithal necessary would appear in me, just as they have in those around me who have been thrust into parenthood. I’ve learned to never rule out any possibility. And woe unto him who ignores the admonition to ‘never say never’.