Friday, February 15, 2019

Sleepy cat gonna sleep.

Man Love.

To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking exclusively with the other sex, i.e., women). All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize,and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire … those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.

Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving.

Excerpted from The Politics of Reality by Marilyn Frye


Thursday, February 14, 2019

An Entirely Subjective History of Los Angeles .

The best metaphor for understanding the way in which modern Los Angeles has grown is the metaphor of cancer.

If cancer is, at its simplest, just the rampant and uncontrollable division of mutated cells, then remember that Los Angeles, in its pre-mutation form, began more than a thousand years ago when the Tongva people gave it a name: Iyaanga. It means something along the lines of, “place of poison oak”. Some people who know about these things believe that the Tongva actually descended from tribes out of Nevada which migrated to the coast of southern California fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, or roughly the same time that Cecrops I was founding Athens. There is some evidence that the Tongva forced out a different prehistoric tribe which had been in the area for six thousand years before that, grinding grain at the base of the San Gabriel mountains while farming was only beginning to take place in the Nile River Valley. So who can really say where a cancer starts? Maybe it is always just a latent memory.

When the Spanish ships arrived in 1542, they were greeted by the Tongva’s ocean-going, twelve-man canoes. The sturdiness of those canoes was attributable to three thousand years of experiments in engineering and also to the thick black pitch from the La Brea Tar Pits, which today have a gift shop.

It was the Spanish who named the place El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula, which means something like “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Porciuncula River”. By that name, of course, they were referring to the LA River which is now a dry chasm of concrete. The Spanish built missions and cleared ranch land, and little changed even when it passed to Mexican control, Mexico was still called New Spain in 1821. A blurry and sometimes bloody twenty-six years passed with little changing but politics and loyalties. The United States took control of the whole place on January 13, 1847 with a military treaty signed at the Campo de Cahuenga, which still exists. It is across the street from the Universal Studios movie-themed amusement park. Both Universal Studios and the Campo de Cahuenga have gift shops.

There are two changes which are generally indicative of the cellular mutations that cause cancer: the unchecked multiplication of cells and the diversion of blood flow required to feed that malignant cluster.

In 1892 oil was discovered 460 feet below what is now the corner of Colton Street and Glendale Boulevard, less than a mile from the present site of Dodger Stadium, which has a gift shop. The resulting oil boom and its concurrence with the waning days of the California Gold Rush caused the population of Los Angeles to multiply until it had swelled to more than one hundred thousand by 1900. The resulting pressure on the city’s water supply became manifest in the Federal legislation which created the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which would, over time, drain the Owens Valley dry. That same legislation gave Los Angeles access to the aquifer below the San Fernando Valley, over the hill the north. Provisions of that legislation prevented the City of Los Angeles from selling that water back to the farmers who grew wheat and grapes and citrus fruit in the Valley, because they were not within the city limits. Quickly the little farm towns which sat at the bottom of the 260 square mile bowl of the San Fernando Valley begged to be annexed into the jurisdiction of the City of Los Angeles. With the economic and population booms that followed World War II, LA needed somewhere to keep its people, having already filled its own space. The San Fernando Valley was ripe for suburban sprawl as it was already connected to the Los Angeles Basin by a natural gorge through the Santa Monica Mountains called the Sepulveda Pass. In 1957 construction began on the 405 Freeway which would forever forward link LA to the Valley like a hardened artery. Nested atop the southern edge of the Pass, above the freeway and looking south to Downtown and West to the Pacific Ocean, sits the Getty Center which gleams white like a mirage when the sun is out. It has a gift shop. Through the 1950s nearly all of the Valley farmland was concreted over to make space for a shockingly inefficient grid system of streets and for subdivisions of single-family homes which were built with the same energy and interchangeability of parts which had so recently served the war effort to such great success. There are still a few tiny ghettos of citrus farmland in the modern Valley. Tourist brochures refer to them as open air museum groves. One of them is a small stand of orange trees on the campus of California State University Northridge, it is located on the south side of campus along Nordhoff Street across from a gas station and a Cupid’s Hot dog stand. The hot dog stand does not have a gift shop but the CSUN bookstore sells all manner of branded commemorative trinkets.

The direct connection a tumor establishes to the bloodstream provides it with more than just a means of sustenance, it also creates a highway through which mutated cells may travel through the rest of the body.

Portions of the population looking to escape the suburban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley moved north over the Santa Susanna Mountains into the Santa Clarita Valley, which was formerly notable only for the Newhall Pass through which the Southern Pacific Railroad moved its trains between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and for the 262 acre Six Flags Magic Mountain roller coaster amusement park built there in 1971. The amusement park offers numerous gift shops. Other population booms have occurred to the west in the Santa Clara River Valley along State Route 126, where citrus and fruit farmland has been rezoned to serve the expansions of Santa Paula and Fillmore. Further to the northeast, population expansion has metastasized into the Antelope Valley which is a desolate high desert of more than two thousand square miles named for the pronghorned deer-like animals - unrelated to but resembling eurasian antelopes - which lived there until being hunted out of existence in 1888. Most of the Antelope Valley grows little food and possesses even less water.

Cancerous cells which leave their initial cluster and spread throughout the body can eventually form their own new clusters in new locations through the perversion of the natural process of angiogenesis, thereby allowing the new clusters to begin siphoning off blood supply on their own.

Population growth in the Antelope Valley has depleted the existing ground water aquifer to such a degree that land subsidence has begun to occur, whereby the ground level itself is dropping. From it’s main population centers of Palmdale and Lancaster, it is impossible to see across the desert and mountains back down into the cancerous cluster that is Los Angeles, but the fragility of the very ground there is indicative enough of its presence.

Left untreated, virtually all cancer is terminal.

(An earlier version of this piece was published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Northridge Review)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

How to Train Your Sheeple.

In 1966 Robert Kennedy gave a speech in which he said, “There is a Chinese curse which says, ‘May (you) live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times.”

I thought about it the other day because I had Bobby Kennedy on my mind (as liberal white men of a certain type often do) and so I thought to look up the quote and was quickly informed by the fabulous site Quote Investigator that while Kennedy did say it, there is no evidence at all that what he said was an old Chinese curse. There is however evidence of lots and lots of white men attributing the saying “May you live in interesting times” to the ancient Chinese.

Similarly, there is a famous Mark Twain quote, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over” that was never actually said of written by Mark Twain.

It sure does sound like Twain though, right?

Because we live in interesting time, there is often too much for us to think about and so we all develop our own little cognitive shortcuts. For instance, I trust Roxane Gay. If Roxane Gay is upset about something on Twitter, I trust that it is worth being upset about. I don’t have the time or the bandwidth to investigate everything out there in the world, so to some degree, I rely on Roxane Gay to guide me.

Similarly, I do not trust Tucker Carlson. If Tucker has an opinion about something, I can rely on the statistical likelihood that I believe the opposite thing. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for me to pay attention to everything he says, so I have to cut some corners.

We all do this. It is not a great system, but it is the best one we have.

Or it used to be.

You probably already know that we are currently toiling under a post-truth American President. He’s not simply a liar, he’s that weird, special type of liar who seems in any given moment to believe the truth of what he says because he is saying it.

How is that for a uroboros of logic?

The President though is just a symptom of the larger disease. A certain quality of tail-eating, conspiratorial thinking seems to have been moving from the fringes into the mainstream consciousness. There seem to be more flat-Earthers and anti-vaxxers now than their used to be. I feel like every fifth white man I meet believes that water fluoridation is somehow nefarious (I don’t know what white men love to hate about fluoride).

From Cesar Sayoc and his pipe bombs to the Pizzagate shooter Edgar Maddison Welch to the fact that Jenny McCarthy has been permitted a spot on a network television show like she’s just another kooky celebrity and not a person whose advocacy has literally placed children's lives in danger, one has to wonder where all the crazies are coming from.

My guess is that once you start to believe a not-true-thing, it becomes easier to believe the next one, then the next, then the next, because the world is a busy place and so we have all had to cut some cognitive corners.

Once you begin to believe something as simple as “all politicians are the same” it becomes easier to then believe “all politicians lie” then “the government is lying” then “the government is lying about vaccines” and then “the government is using vaccines and chemtrails to keep us docile while they take our guns before they round us up and force us into FEMA death camps because: Socialism!”

And it isn’t just the 2nd Amendment types either. Talk to a Bernie Bro for 15 seconds and he’ll explain to you how Clinton rigged the Nevada primary, you don’t even need to drop a hat to get him to do it.

I grew up on Fox Mulder and so personally I have a soft spot for the Aliens-Are-Real-And-The-Government-Has-Been-Working-With-Them-Since-Roswell people.

Did you know that there are even several elaborate conspiracy theories about who really assassinated Robert Kennedy? There’s a whole podcast about it.

Since it only seems to take a little nudge to begin pushing us in the direction of crazy, I thought it would be fun to explore that and game out a dumb thing to believe. Anyone can discover something that’s real, but it takes real inventiveness to discover something that isn’t real.

In an homage to the New Chronology theory (which attempts to prove that the Middle Ages never took place), I will now prove that there never was an Old West and that it was invented by Hollywood, but they left us a trail of breadcrumbs back to the truth.

All of these facts are true, real and google-able:

1) In the Stanislaus National Forest of California there’s an old Gold Rush ghost town called Bodie.

2) One of the buildings in Bodie is the abandoned Swazey Hotel.

3) In the 1991 film Point Break, Patrick Swayze played a surfer/bank robber called “Bodhi”.

Do you think that is just a coincidence? Well then explain this:

4) The term “bodhi” is Sanskrit and means “enlightened” and it is often used to describe the spiritual awakening of the Buddha.

5) In the 1989 film Road House, Patrick Swayze played the unflappable Buddhist-inspired bouncer Dalton.

6) Timothy Dalton starred in the 1989 James Bond film License to Kill alongside a very young Benicio Del Toro.

7) In 1992, Del Toro starred alongside Marlon Brando and Tom Selleck in the John Glen film Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.

8) Columbus is the namesake of the South American nation of Columbia.

9) Columbia State Historic Park in California was the primary shooting location for the 1950s television anthology show Death Valley Days.

10) Season 6, Episode 5 of Death Valley Days, entitled “Fifty Years’ a Mystery” starred Patrick Waltz as a night watchman and bouncer working in the Gold Rush town of Bodie, California!

Or do you think that is just a coincidence too??? #sheeple


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

22 Storyteling Tips from Pixar.

Okay, Obviously I did not write this, but I did just find out about it and I think it is interesting. The below list was compiled by Emma Coats who is a director/animator/actress for Pixar.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.


Monday, February 11, 2019

A Brief History of/for Millennials.

If you’re anything like me, then while you’re driving to the gym in the mornings you like to argue with the people on the radio. This morning there was another of those discussions on NPR about why people are so down on Millennials. This topic is about as stale as jokes about airline food, but much like airline food, there are genuinely interesting discussions to be had, unfortunately no one is having them.

For instance, did you know that one of the of the problems with designing meals for airline passengers is that at 30,000 feet the changes in humidity and air pressure in an airplane cabin reduce a person’s ability to taste sweet flavors by up to 20% and saltiness by up to 30%? See how interesting that is?!

Concerning Millenials and discussions about them, we are again confronted with two of the most static and incontrovertible truths about people:

1) They like to have easy discussions and think easy thoughts, this is true of virtually all people in all contexts;

2) We will almost always behave, think, talk as though we are living at the end point of history; as if all that has come before has led inexorably to THIS MOMENT in which we are RIGHT NOW existing. We will almost always fail to accept that THIS MOMENT that is happening RIGHT NOW is just one more street lamp that history is blowing past on its long road trip to somewhere else. THIS MOMENT only feels special to us because we are living it.

So … Millennials.

Here is a short list compiled by Business Insider of industries that the Millenials have murdered:

  • Casual dining (Applebees, Buffalo Wild Wings, etc.)
  • Starter homes
  • Beer
  • Napkins
  • “Breast-aurant” chains (Hooters, Twin Peaks, etc.)
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Golf
  • Motorcycles
  • Home ownership
  • Yogurt
  • Bar soap
  • Diamonds
  • Fabric softener
  • Banks
  • Department stores
  • Designer handbags
  • Gyms
  • Home-improvement stores (Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc.)
  • Football
  • Oil
I did not make this list and I don’t even have time to go into all of this. I mean, beer? Also, are we supposed to be all like, “But think about the plight of the oil companies!”

This list is a pretty good example though of the discussion around Millennials. The rebuttal of course is that the REASON that the starter home market sucks isn’t that a bunch of 30-year-olds are sitting around their apartments playing the well-known and not-at-all-just-invented-by-me drinking game “Fuck Detached Single Family Homes”, the reality is that the entire Millennial generation basically got screwed by the “Great Recession”. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway and I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong, just symptomatic of points 1 & 2 above: it is easy and assumes we live at the end of history.

Full disclosure now: I am not a Millenial, I’m a little bit too old. I’m also not an X Gen, a little bit too young. I didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was until he shot himself (because I’m not an X-er), but I also do not care one little tiny bit about Harry Potter even at all (because I’m not a Millenial). I’m from that little generation born in the late 70s and early 80s. There have been a lot of names floated for us. I’ve always liked the name “Carter Babies” (named for Jimmy Carter’s Presidency from 1976-1980) and I despise/hate/am enraged by the name “The Catalano Generation” (named for Jordan Catalano the dreamy-eyed pretty boy asshole played by real life dreamy-eyed pretty boy asshole Jared Leto on the MTV series “My So Called Life” from 1994-1995 and who left a significant impression on all of us).

I personally think we should be called “The Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act Generation” because when Reagan signed the Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act into law in 1981, he essentially prohibited the FTC and FCC from regulating advertising to children, the result being the hasty creation and/or importation from Japan of shows like Transformers, He-Man, She-Ra, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, and similar because the cartoon shows were not properties in and of themselves, but rather half hour long commercials for the hugely profitable lines of toys they we engineered to sell. Just to be clear here: when people my age get nostalgic for the things of their youth, what they are getting nostalgic for are products of a Late Stage Capitalism bender that weaponized children to abet in the gorging of their parents’ wallets. Thankfully credit card markets were similarly deregulated under the Reaganite corporate plundering of America in the 1980s.

So … Millennials.

The marketing that was beta-tested on people my age in the form of Optimus Prime and the like, had been all but perfected by the time Rugrats and Doug Funnie came along. Whereas we Carter Babies still possessed a little bit of X-Gen mistrust of the world Baby Boomers had built, the Millennials we completely unarmed and undefended against the corprotized onslaught from Nickelodeon and all the others. More so than any other generation ever, Millennials were raised by television and taught by it to find comfort, value, completion, happiness, status, and moral rectitude in mass-produced cheap plastic bullshit that was not inexpensive by the time it landed on the shelves of a thousand Target stores right between the Furbies and the Tamagotchis.

Then the Millennials grew up and went to college and expected that the world waiting for them would be the one that they were promised. They had big dreams of drinking beer and using napkins in breast-aurants and going golfing and then watching football in their starter homes.

The next part of this story is usually told this way: The Great Recession happened and no one saw it coming or could have and economies are like unpredictable animals or weird weather and so it is no one’s fault that the bottom fell out of the market and the Millenials just happened to be the ones with no place to sit when the music stopped, sorry about that kids.

The way it should be told is like this: All of us who came before were complicit in selling Millenials on a stupid bullshit lie we chose to believe in because it that us money. We behaved as though progress and prosperity were a perpetual motion machine, when in reality the whole thing was a cultural pyramid scheme and it always had been.

Even now people don’t talk about it that way, because that is not an easy way to think about it. See Point 1 above.

We act like the whole thing wasn’t bound to collapse and even now as the economy is “improving” we are STILL acting like the manner in which our society behaves is fine. We say that the jobs numbers are good, but yesterday I saw a listing for a part-time job, $12 an hour, that required a Masters degree and there were TWO positions available. Not ONE full-time position with health insurance and a 401K, but TWO positions neither of which offered either of those things. A couple weeks ago fully employed FBI agents were standing in bread lines in America.

Now, here is where Point 2 from above becomes interesting: we have seen all this before.

If I were boring or a conventional wisdom type of person, this is when I would say, “THE GREAT DEPRESSION!” and you as my enraptured audience would mutter, “Oh yes, The Great Depression, we forgot about that. This guy is so smart, he can connect historical threads in the simplest and most obvious of ways! And we like that because see Point 1 above.”

The Depression is a good analogy, but not a great one because the stock market crash of 1929 really did come out of nowhere for most people. We like to tell ourselves that the housing crash of 2007 came out of the blue and that it was all the fault of the banks; that’s not entirely true, but it is MORE true of the Great Depression than of our most recent big Recession.

So… Millennials.

What they have endured is, I think, more like the Dust Bowl.

We tend to conflate the Dust Bowl with the Great Depression because the Dust Bowl happened during the Depression, and while they are linked, they are not the same.

Leading up to 1930, the Midwest had been enjoying a really fantastic climactic period of reliable rain and good weather. Nebraska, Kansas, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, north Texas, these places were experiencing a boom time because the climate was so good growing crops there was relatively easy and profitable and had been for a long time. All of the promise of America, all the work of settling the West, all the sacrifice and backbreaking toil of the 19th Century was finally paying dividends to the stout and honest descendants of those brave homesteaders of the prairie (irony added). An entire population of people who had done the work, were finally getting something back and they were raising a generation of children to believe in the promise of the land, of the country, and of the future.

Then in 1930 the rains stopped. There was severe drought in 1934, 1936, 1939 into 1940. This was dryland farming in the Midwest, there were no vast irrigation systems like in California; without rain nothing would grow. The depths of the Depression were now darkened by the fact that there was literally no food and no profit from growing food.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The type of dryland farming that European settlers imported to the prairies was not well suited to the semi-arid region of the Midwest because it didn’t account for the high winds that sweep across the land at various times of year. Essentially farmers plowed up as much land as they could, hoping that one good season could buy them out of the financial hole they found themselves in, but the droughts continued, the soil in the plowed fields stayed soft and loose waiting for water, then the winds came sweeping in strong enough to lift the soil up into the air, forming thick cloud banks higher than skyscrapers and darker than any night sky.

I don’t think people now really understand what it was like then. Soil would blow for days and even weeks without end. Dirt and sand would work its way in under doors and around windows. Sand would collect in the corners of rooms in piles up to the ceiling. Entire farm houses would be buried in a matter of days. People who were caught out in the open when a heavy cloud of dark dust overtook them would disappear for days, their bodies discovered later, suffocated. Livestock left tied up in the open would sometimes be found eviscerated by the blowing grit. People were commonly reported to be vomiting up dirt.

It was actually apocalyptic. And it went on for years.

It was end-of-the-world stuff.

A generation of Americans who had been raised to believe in the promise of the future had a front row seat to what must have looked like the complete collapse of not just civilization, but of the entire infrastructure of ideals that their world view was built on.

And then the Depression got worse.

And then Hitler invaded Poland.

And then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

And then the war finally did envelope the whole world.

In his now famous 1998 book, Tom Brokaw dubbed the generation of young people who endured all this “The Greatest Generation” and while I understand the desire to praise them (they surely deserve it), I feel like the label disguises a lot. Calling them “The Greatest Generation” is meant to show admiration, but in doing so it hides the underlying sets of circumstances that created the need for them to be great in the first place. If he were being honest, Brokaw would have called them, “The Generation That Got Really And Truly Fucked Over From Every Possible Direction.”

They were sold an unrealistic set of dreams by their predecessors, and not only did they get screwed, they had to sit there and watch as their world was consumed by dirt clouds literally created by the mistakes of those same predecessors.

So … Millennials.

As far as I know, the Millenials are not currently puking dirt, but in most other respects I feel as though their experiences are pretty much on par with what that Greatest Generation went through. We don’t talk about them that way though because see Point 2 above. History isn’t over yet and it is important to remember that no one was calling The Greatest Generation “The Greatest Generation” in 1936. We promised the Millennials accessible - and perhaps even easy - success, happiness, and fulfillment and then we said, “Hey, watch this” as we flew the plane we’re all on into a mountain.

This is a good moment to take a breather and realize that so far all of this more or less still falls under Point 1 above: we like easy ideas; analogizing Generation Depression to Generation Recession isn’t exactly brain melting. So let’s think harder and imagine the road not taken …

Have you ever noticed that mostly only Americans are obsessed with this generational labeling? Have you ever heard a European talk about “The Greatest Generation”? How about a German?

The answer is no, you have not.

While America’s greatest generation was trying to avoid sandstorms in Kansas, their contemporaries in Germany were also starving.

Following the 1918 armistice that ended World War I, Germany was slapped with much of the moral responsibility for the war, that may not have been wholly fair, and the conventional wisdom is that a broken Germany, humiliated and impoverished by it’s former enemies, gave birth to the most virulent and poisonous fascism the world had ever known in the form or Nazism. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway; please see Point 1 above.

In reality, while Germany was stripped of its empire and forced to pay war reparations and initially suffered from hyperinflation, the internationally adopted Dawes Plan incentivized other western powers to pour development capital into Germany and helped to create what the Germans referred to as the “Goldene Zwanziger”, the Golden Twenties. While America was going through it’s Great Gatsby Roaring Twenties SO WAS GERMANY. We never ever talk about that.

So what happened? The same thing that happened in America, but worse. Following the stock market crash of 1929 worldwide GDP fell 15%, compared to the Recession of 2008 when global GDP fell about 1%. As bad as the Depression was in America (and it was very bad) it turned out that the rebuilding of Germany through the Dawes Plan had functioned in such a way as to bind the German economy very closely to America’s and so when America fell flat on its face, Germany fell straight through the floor. THIS is the part of the story that we tell correctly: economic ruin in Germany DID in fact help produce Nazism. It just wasn’t the economic ruin of World War I, it was the economic ruin caused by the stock market crash in 1929.

The rise of Nazism followed the collapse of the world economy that followed the implosion of the American stock market.

Here’s why all of this is important: the same set of circumstances that produced America’s Greatest Generation also produced Nazism.

So … Millennials.

Analogizing Generation Depression to Generation Recession isn’t particularly helpful unless we understand that Generation Depression includes both sides of World War II; The Axis and The Allies. Understanding this hopefully helps us understand the danger of the moment that we are living through.

The Millennials grew up under the first black president in American history and then he was followed by arguably the most fascist President in American history and none of that makes any sense if you believe THIS MOMENT is the culmination of all of history, but it makes perfect sense if you recognize that THIS MOMENT that is happening RIGHT NOW is just one more street lamp that history is blowing past on its long road trip to someplace else. It makes sense because we have seen all of this before. The only mystery is which path the generation suffering through all of this is going to take. And if history tells us anything, it’s that we don’t know yet and that it might take both.

When I hear that the Millenials are killing the napkin industry or the bar soap industry, it makes me genuinely angry and a little afraid, because that is too easy an understanding of what is happening. It makes me wonder how the napkin industry of 1930s Germany was doing just before the Reichstag fire.

The Millennials have inherited a world that prefers easy thinking and believes that we are the culmination of history; they didn’t make the world that way. In fact the state of this world represents the betrayal the rest of us perpetrated on them, and I believe that is how history will tell it, but there is no way to know right now, because history is still happening.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Look at these weird ass clouds I found! I believe these are called ‘mammatus’ clouds and are formed by sinking cold air, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also about to eat me.

Migratory Labor.

You probably don’t know it, but right now we are at about the height of bee rental season.

(I wish that as a writer I had the Hemingway-esque ability to simply stop writing this very second and leave that sentenced to dangle out there in the breeze. For sale: my sense of brevity, never used.)

The busiest time for gainfully employed rental bees is February and March because that is when almond trees in California need to be pollinated and that is such a herculean endeavor that it requires the work of about half the rental bees in the United States. No other crop is quite as dependent on migratory bee labor as almonds, though virtually all crops grown in America are dependent on our airborne pollinators to one degree or another.

Just to be clear, yes, we are talking about bees the insects and stars of the 2007 Dreamworks Animation hit Bee Movie. Now that we have that cleared up, you are likely wondering, “But don’t bees just … pollinate stuff, naturally? Isn’t that just something that they WANT to do? And are we … actually paying them? How do you even pay a bee? The Cash App? I mean, where would they even keep money? It’s not like they have pockets …”

So that is a lot of questions. Let’s try to get them answered for you.

First, if bees use the Cash App, they have kept that a secret. Second, while bees do not have pockets, they do have very sticky legs and if they were into passing fiat currency back and forth between them, that is probably how they would hang onto it. Third, yes you are correct that bees do naturally want to fly around from flower to flower, but they do not do that in order to pollinate them, they do that because they are collecting nectar and pollen to take back to their hive, the fact that some plants get pollinated in the process is 100% an accident. Bees are not pollinators because they’re doing anybody a favor, bees are pollinators because they have sticky legs.

This next part is going to be slightly larger in scope and not about bees: we have been culturally programmed to think that there is a natural world and a human-made world. The human-made world is, by way of example, Manhattan. Concrete, steel, glass, subways, asphalt, buildings that block out the sun, really good bagels, etc. The natural world is, say, Nebraska. Fields of green, amber grain waving in the wind, tall stalks of corn, terrible bagels, etc.

However, before people got to Nebraska, it did not look anything like that. Just because organic things are growing out of dirt does not mean that something “natural” is going on; we have engineered that land to within an inch of its life and occasionally even closer. The cornfields of Nebraska are exactly as human-made as anything in Manhattan. The simple presence of plants does not a natural world make.

Now let’s zoom up up up into the air high above Nebraska and let’s point our noses out west and glide over the wide dry Colorado Basin, we look down at the Great Salt Lake glittering in the rocky country below us, we zip up above Nevada, sail over the tall Sierra Nevada Mountains capped in white blankets of snow, and now we begin to descend down into the long tan center of California where only about 800,000 acres of trees produce 84% of the almonds in the world. As we drift down out of the air, our feet touch down in an almond orchard. Lines of relatively short, compact trees are planted in perfectly straight rows almost always 21 or 22 feet apart.

Standing in this orchard, admiring the precise spacing of the trees and the rows, you are reminded of the long and straight and grid of streets and avenues of Midtown Manhattan. Cities are also a thing humans have learned to grow, but we do not confuse them with the natural world.

In a good year, a pound of almonds can sell for as much as $4.00 and in a good year the almond industry is worth about 22 billion dollars. The entire NFL is only worth about 13 billion dollars.

Almond production is big business and it all depends on our busy little friends the bees. Understanding now that these orchards are just as planned and controlled as city streets, it would be folly for the farmers to rely on the size and enthusiasm of the local bee population to get all these trees pollinated. In fact, honey bees are the best commercial pollinators out there and they aren’t even native to the western hemisphere. Enter the rental bee.

One of the best place to raise bees on a commercial scale is Florida, this is largely due to the climate and because bees just love Epcot Center. Farmers all over the country will pay to rent bee hives (apple farmers in Pennsylvania, pumpkin farmers in Illinois and Michigan, etc), but every year the main event is almond pollination season out in California. Every winter hundreds of semi-trailer trucks in Florida are loaded up with boxes of bees (one box is a hive) and then a madcap insect Cannonball Run ensues as long-haul truckers haul ass out to the west coast. It generally takes two hives of bees to pollinate an acre of almonds. One hive contains around 16,000 bees. A standard semi-truck can transport 450 hives. That is about 7,200,000 bees per truckload.

Again, for effect: SEVEN MILLION TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND BEES! Take a moment to imagine what that sounds like.

The boxes of bees are generally unloaded at night and quickly placed into the orchards before sunrise because bees don’t like to fly at night. In the morning the first of the forager bees will begin to cautiously buzz out of their boxes and sniff around and pretty soon they discover that at the end of their harrowing cross country road trip, they have arrived in the promised land; more nectar and pollen surrounds them than the colony could ever need. The bees buzz out on their collection runs and in the process accidentally pollinate nearly a million acres of almond trees, keeping about 100,000 people employed and, late in the summer, the almond growers of California will harvest somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.2 billion pounds of shelled almonds.

But it isn’t just about almonds. Rental bees are used to pollinated grapes, tomatoes, onions, cotton, eggplant, zucchini, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, boysenberries, oranges, nectarines, pears, pomegranates, peaches, plums, apricots, avocados, alfalfa, apples, sunflowers, fennel, carrots, limes, watermelons, caraway, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, cashews, and celery, just to name a few.

Bees are very busy and very very important to everyone and everything we do because we can’t do much if we are starving to death.

In 2018, US beekeepers reported that up to 40% of their bees had died in the year prior, an increase of more than 30% over the year prior. For more than a decade American bees have been dying at rates that challenge the continued sustainability of the bee population. This is a condition referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The bees do not so much die, as loose their ability to find their way back to the hive and then they die essentially of exposure. Without the worker bees, the queen can’t survive and reproduce and the colony simply dies out.

There is ferocious international argument about what causes CCD, though most European agencies are comfortable pointing to neonicotinoid insecticides and have actually ban them across the entire EU. At this moment there is no such ban in the US, or in China where Colony Collapse Disorder has been so severe in some rural areas that it has become cheaper to pay human day labors to apply pollen using brushes than it is to rent a colony of honey bees. That is not a joke.

The rental bees of America will likely stay busy as long as there are enough of them to keep shipping around the country by the truckload. They can also be mailed through the Postal Service, though if you showed up at your local post office with 7,200,000 honey bees, the USPS would just load them up on a semi-truck anyway. On the off chance you ever need honey bees delivered overnight, the Postal Service will ship them by air, but only a queen and up to 8 of her attendant bees. In that way, ironically, flight becomes not a viable means of travel for the humble workaday rental bee.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

If You Grow It, They Will Find Something To Do With It.

(This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book project I have been working on about my artist residency experience in Nebraska last summer. Special thanks to the Center for Crops Utilization Research, University of Iowa, Ames.)
*** *** *** ***

Things I Have Learned About Corn

(Products which are made with corn or its derivative byproducts or manufactured using corn or its derivative byproducts.)


Baby Corn

Pickled Baby Corn

Boiled Sweet Corn

Canned Corn

Packaged Frozen Corn


Snack Food

Corn Nuts


Canned Corn

Soup Mixes

Canned Hominy

Livestock Feed

Wild Animal Feed

Polishing Media

Furfural (Chemical Feedstock)

Liquid Spill Recovery Media

Dust Absorbent

Construction Board

Cosmetic Powders

Tortilla Flours


Corn Chips

Taco Shells





Fuel Ethanol

Distilled Dried Grains with Solubles

Breakfast Cereals

Fortified Foods


Snack Foods

Maize Porridges

Alkali Cooked Products

Breads and Bakery Products

Fermented Beverages

Unfermented Beverages

Pet Foods

Corn Bread

Wallpaper Paste

Floor Wax

Hand Soap

Dusting Agents

Masa Flour

Baby Foods

Baking Mixes



Pie Fillings

Gravies and Sauces

Salad Dressings

Frozen Foods

Meat Extenders

Non-Meat Extenders

Thickening Agents

Fermentation Media


Gypsum Wallboard

Paper Products


Foundry Binders

Ore Refining

Drilling Fluids

Label Adhesives

Edge Paste


Livestock Feed

Vitamin Carries


Cooking Oil



Potato Chips



Soluble Oils



Printing Inks

Rubber Substitutes

Rust Preservatives


Tanning Agents


Amino Acids

Fur Cleaner

Steepwater (Feed)



Yeast Culture

Dry-Milled Germ

Gluten Feed

Poultry Feed

Zein Products

Chewing Gums

Retortable Thickeners



Prepared Desserts

Pastry Fillings

Gum Candies




Dehydrated Foods

Instant Tea

Instant Breakfast Foods

Low-Calorie Sweeteners


Pan Coatings

Modified Starch


Book Bindings



Casting (Mold) Binders


Printing Inks

Printer Inks


Insulation and Fiberglass


Leather Products

Incendiary Compounds


Ore Separation Compounds

Poster Paints

Paper Products

Plastic Molding

Plywood and Wallboard




Shade Cloth

Baby Foods

Baking Powder

Brewed Beverages

Chewing Gum

Chocolate Drinks

Meat Products

Prepared Condiments

Prepared Soups

Powdered Sugar

Canned Vegetables


Abrasive Papers

Dry Cell Batteries

Composite Binders

Paperboard Products

Boiler Compounds


Clay Binders (Ceramic)

Chemical Precursor

Fermentation Feedstock

Detergents and Cleaners


Paper Color Carriers

Textile Color Carriers

Cord Sizing and Polishing

Cork Products

Crayon and Chalk Binders

Dispersion Agents

Dye Component

Fiberglass Sizing

Powdered Insecticides

Insulating Materials

Lubricating Agents


Well Drilling Mud

Ore Refining


Fillers and Caulks

Molded Plastics

Colloid Emulsions

Textile Finishers

Ceiling Tiles

Rubber Tires

Water Treatment

Antibiotics Products

Antibiotics Production


Powered Cosmetics

Liquid Thickener

Dietary Formulations



Surgical Dressing

Medicinal Syrups

Cheese Spreads

Coffee Whiteners

Cordials and Liqueurs

Prepared Egg Products

Extracts and Flavors

Fruit Jams and Butters

Pickled Products

Frozen Seafood

Peanut Butter

Leather Tanners

Metal Plating


Shoe Polish


Theatrical Makeup

Tobacco Products

Canned Fruits

Canned Juices


Frozen Desserts

Soft Drinks

Wine Products

Yeast Production

Fruit Jams and Preserves

Alcoholic Beverages


Flavor Enhancers

Amino Acids (Feed)

Industrial Alcohols

Engine Fuel

Fuel Octane Enhancers




Food Packaging

*** Be sure to tune in next week for the final installment in our 16-part series, "Why Does Kevin Costner Act Like He's Everybody's Crappy Stepdad in Every Movie He Does Now? ***


Friday, February 8, 2019

80 Million Years, or so.

This is just a quick love note to the fantastic and absolutely essential Kate Wagner who runs the always amazing McMansion Hell.

Her work is so necessary in this weird period of late stage Capitalism, but occasionally she riffs on people who are more in my orbit and I utterly love her for it:

Everybody who has been to college (or even a coffee shop near a college) knows that guy who pretends to be a beat poet and thinks that smoking joints in public and treating women like garbage makes him extremely cool and talented. The sixties were 80 million years ago and yet beatnik cosplayer dudes remain their longest-running export. (Stuff with The Beatles on it is the second longest running export.)
From McMansion Hell
“Rockwall County (House 16): AKA Satellite of Nub”

*** Join us next week as our team of resident scientists tell us what other materials can be used as as kitty litter! ***


Thursday, February 7, 2019

The 6th Sense is Actually Proprioception.

Recently the movie Glass hit theaters and while I personally do not watch M. Night Shyamalan movies because, with the possible exception of The Sixth Sense, they are not — you know — good, I did for a brief moment, when I heard that there was film called “Glass”, entertain the charming and wistful notion that it might be a documentary about the history of glass.

Boil me up some fake movie theater butter because THAT is something I would pay to go see!

I can already hear you shouting, “Now wait just one minute sir, Signs was a damn good movie!”

But here’s the thing: No. No it was not.

As I recall, there is a scene in that movie when Joaquin Phoenix beats an alien to death with a baseball bat. That’s dumb.

Also, if I recall correctly, that scene is shot in such a way that you only see the beating of the alien with a baseball bat in the reflection on a TV. You know why it is shot that way??? Because the premise of the scene is dumb. And the movie KNOWS IT! That is why it is shot that way. It’s like that scene in the second Matrix movie when Laurence Fishburne is fighting somebody on the top of a moving semi truck and for some reason he does a handstand on the edge of the trailer in the middle of the fight and the logical next shot would be a wide shot so the audience can see what is happening, but instead they go to a super tight shot on his face because everyone involved with the making of that movie understood that the premise of the entire moment was so unbelievably stupid that is was basically insulting to the audience.


Glass has a fascinating history and while I am not going to even attempt to explicate here all of the ways in which you should find it interesting, I will just share this one nugget of ensorcelling glass-related information:

Beginning in the 13th Century, the water-treading, lagoon-locked city-state of Venice (in what is now the nation of Italy) sequestered all of its glass production and its glass makers and their families on the island of Murano, about a mile outside of the city. This was done to prevent the spread of the technology of glass blowing. Much like gunpowder, silk, and pasta (which is Chinese), glass production was once a closely guarded secret. Glass makers were not allowed to leave the island without permission from the government and if they did, they could be killed.

It’s like if the Manhattan Project was taking place on Ellis Island so New York City could keep a watchful eye over it.

Are you telling me that you would not be interested in watching a documentary about that? Because I sure as hell would. See? Glass is interesting! And I have not even told you yet about Depression Glass! But I will save that for another time.

*** Be sure to tune in next week for our report investigating why Mel Gibson is still being allowed to make movies! ***


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What's Water?

When I was growing up, my family was in the agriculture business in Central California and even though I can’t personally tell the difference between a Case IH Module Express 625 cotton picker and a John Deere CP690 round module harvester, I still have a bit of metaphorical dirt in my veins. Mostly this manifests itself in my life as an annoying propensity to find boring things interesting. Things like dam spillways or almond harvesters (you ever SEEN an almond harvester??? Look one up on Youtube, you won’t believe that’s actually how we do that).

For about as long as I can remember, I have had a book on my Read-This-One-Day list called Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. This book has always been on a bookshelf nearby pretty much my entire life. It is considered one of the BIG, IMPORTANT books about water in the west. The subtitle is, “The American West and its disappearing water.”

Recently it occurred to me that I am having a moment in my life where I can finally and actually sit down and read a 600 page book about the history of water infrastructure. It is much better written than I’d expected and at times it is genuinely fascinating.

If you did not grow up interested in water and/or around people whose very livelihoods were wrapped up in issues of water, then you might be all like, “What the fuck kind of book is that, even? Like … water? Water, water? Like … showering?”

Yes. That kind of water.

So, if you’re from Maine or something, I’ll break it down for you real quick: basically the western half of the United States is pretty much a desert. Not like the Sahara desert, but often a high desert, a rocky desert, even the great middle west has natural rain-less cycles when not much grows that isn’t yellow.

The rough dividing line between the East (which gets a lot of rain) and the West (which doesn’t) is considered to be the 100th meridian (see pic above). If you’re West of that line and you want to maybe fuck around and get crazy and do some agriculture, you’re going to need a way to get water to what you’re growing.

Now I strongly believe that there are certain types of facts people know without understanding them; they know them without knowing them.

On some level you know that farmers water crops. That’s, like, what they do, right? You know that they drive around in old faded blue Ford pickup trucks and they wear cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats and spurs and they have quick-draw shootouts in the middle of the one street that runs through the middle of the Old West town where they play card games and mine gold and actually all the prostitutes are robots because really it is the future and life is a dystopian vacation land?

First of all, no. You are thinking of the HBO series Westworld. That is nothing like what farmers do. You have no idea what a farmer does.

Second, you probably do not now, nor have you ever, cared about the American water infrastructure that has made possible virtually every meal you have ever eaten.

The book I am reading is the story of that infrastructure, of how it came to be and why and what had to happen to get it done. That means it is a story that brings together politics and climate and ego and geology and money and mountains and ideology and dirt and tectonic plates and greed. It is a fascinating story about America and in large part about the America that no one ever really sees. It is an invisible America that allows the visible America to exist. It is a story about projects of size and scale larger than the freeway system or the Moonshot, but about which most of our population knows nothing and cares even less.

In many ways the book is an instruction to think about all that which we have been trained not to think about. Remember the story of the two young fish who encounter an old fish and the old fish says, “Isn’t the water great today?” and the young fish respond, “What’s water?” This is that kind of book.

This is one of the more startling passages I have run across and it is why I wanted to tell you about this book. This passage is about the Colorado River which if you have ever thought about it at all, is probably because it carved the Grand Canyon:

The Colorado's modern notoriety (...) stems not from its wild rapids and plunging canyons but from the fact that it is the most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world. It also has more people, more industry, and a more significant economy dependent on it than any comparable river in the world. If the Colorado River suddenly stopped flowing, you would have four years of carryover capacity in the reservoirs before you had to evacuate most of southern California and Arizona and a good portion of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The river system provides over half the water of greater Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix; it grows much of America’s domestic production of fresh winter vegetables; it illuminates the neon city of Las Vegas, whose annual income is one-fourth the entire gross national product of Egypt— the only other place on earth where so many people are so helplessly dependent on one river’s flow.

And the real kicker is that this book was published in 1987 and things have gotten a whole lot worse in the West since then. The use of that word “evacuate” is so evocative here because it lays bare our relationship to water and to the invisible infrastructure we rely on it bring it to our showers and kitchen sinks in our homes build west of that 100th Meridian. It exposes our very real daily vulnerability and the artificiality of the civilization we have built for ourselves.

*** Tune in next week when we investigate the history of doors and ask the question on everyone's minds: should trust them?? ***


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Out running and a guy running the other direction put his hand out and we high-5-ed as we passed and that part was awesome, but his palm was soaked in sweat and that part was not awesome.

Necessitous Men.

Ever since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) made white people’s brains liquefy into steaming pools of shrieking acid a few weeks ago by suggesting that America return to a pre-Reagan-presidency tax structure, I have been thinking about my man Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).

Since this is the internet, I feel compelled to mention that I think racism is bad and that Japanese internment was unacceptable. As time goes on, I think this will be up there with slavery and the genocide of Native Americans as one of the worst things the United States has ever done on its own soil.

However, that is not why I have been thinking about FDR. I have been thinking about him because of something he didn’t do, or rather, failed to do.

On Tuesday January 11th, 1944, FDR gave his State of the Union Address (but it wasn’t called that then) and he proposed an American Second Bill of Rights. He believed that the original Bill of Rights had in many ways, “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” Sometimes this Second Bill of Rights is referred to as an ‘economic bill of rights’.

FDR said, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

BTW, “necessitous” is an adjective meaning “(of a person) lacking the necessities of life; needy.” Even I had to look that one up and I’ve often been accused of possessing a sesquipedalian loquaciousness.

Basically he was saying that you won’t have a free country very long if people can’t afford to live. Here, and in a great deal of his policies, you see notion that politics and economics are inextricably linked in an input/output fashion. If you input massive wealth inequality, you output dictatorship. If you input economic egalitarianism, you output democracy.

I don’t believe this thinking of this sort is common anymore and I think that it would be generous to even refer to it as “rare”. Thinking of this sort is essentially nonexistent.

Now it is lucky for me that no one reads this blog, otherwise a wandering BernieBro would pop up in the comments and wail, “THAT IS WHAT BERNIE HAS BEEN SAYING FOR ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS EVEN THOUGH I JUST LEARNED WHO BERNIE WAS THREE YEARS AGO!”

I like Bernie, I have always liked Bernie, I’ve liked Bernie since I learned who he was in the 1990s when he was working on health insurance reform with … (wait for it!) … Hillary Clinton. However, what I’m saying here is that neither Bernie nor anyone else is making the argument that anti-democratic political movements are a direct result of economic inequality. To make this theory even simpler, we’ll just call it: Garbage-In/Garbage-Out. If our thinking can dispense with notions of dignity and equality (though I value those things and believe they are important) and narrow down to the simple notion that the battle against wealth inequality is a battle that is objectively in everyone’s self interest, I think we would get a whole lot further.

I recently did a Quija Board call with FDR and he said that I am presenting this information correctly.

Here are some of the things FDR proposed for the Second Bill of Rights:

The RIGHT to a job.

The RIGHT to earn enough money to afford decent food, clothing, shelter, and recreation.

The RIGHT of every farmers to a fair income.

The RIGHT of businesses “large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad”

The RIGHT of every family to a decent home.

The RIGHT to “adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health”

The RIGHT to “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”

The RIGHT to a good education.

For context, this was the American President who was arguably the most popular during his lifetime, in the midst of the largest and most expensive war that had ever taken place in the history of the world, suggesting not only that we should do these things, but that they are so arguably necessary that they rise above the realm of simple policy and should instead be enshrined as inalienable rights. I can count on one hand the politicos I think even have the moxie to say something like that out loud. And FDR said it a State of the Union address.

The past is a wild place that is almost always unlike how we think of it, because we often only think of it the way we have been taught to by people who were not there.

FDR went on to say, “America's own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.”

Sadly, FDR - who was not a well man - died about 15 months after this speech. The spirit of many of these rights were rolled into various government programs and legislation (like the Employment Act of 1946 or LBJ’s Great Society project), but no one after Roosevelt had the verve and, frankly, the batshit-crazy determination to make the American Second Bill of Rights happen.

It is my personal opinion that the last 40 years of American political thought has been a disastrous failure of imagination. I personally lay blame for this at the feet of Ronald Reagan and his facile and puerile sense of what patriotism means, but other people might have other culprits to blame.

I’ll say this though, I think we need a second American Bill of Rights and I think there is great value and utility in framing that discussion as one that was started 70 years ago by the only President we’ve ever elected four times.

*** Tune in next week when we ask the eternal question: are we absolutely certain that birds don’t have arms? ***


Monday, February 4, 2019

Stop, Drop, and Cover.

You know how everyone makes fun of Mitch McConnell because he looks like a turtle? Well I am not in favor of that. I think it is not right to make fun of him. He is not funny. He is however, a treacherous and treasonous cancer on this country and author Christopher R. Browning recently referred to him as “the gravedigger or American democracy”. McConnell has probably done more damage to America than the actual fucking KGB did during its 37 years of existence.

But that's not what I want to talk to you about. Sorry. I somehow managed to start on a tangent. What I want to talk to you about is actually Bert the Turtle. OH! That’s what happened: Bert the Turtle is a turtle, Mitch McConnell is a turtle and so my brain just went from there. Now it makes sense. Anyway, fuck Mitch McConnell and now let’s proceed to Bert the Turtle.

In 1951 the US Federal Civil Defense Administration released a nine minute black and white film to American schools that focused on how to survive an atomic blast. If you know about this at all, you know about it because it’s where the phrase “duck and cover” came from. There was even a little song.

Well Bert the Turtle is a turtle and he’s just turtle-ing along (on his hind legs like a human, as turtles all tend to do when no one is looking) and suddenly a fucking terrorist monkey lowers a fucking stick of dynamite down next to Bert’s head. Well I guess that despite the well-known centuries-long blood feud between monkeys and turtles, this particular dipshit monkey didn’t know that turtles can RETRACT THEIR APPENDAGES inside their famously dynamite-proof shells, which is exactly what Bert does just before the fuckwad monkey detonates himself exactly like Mitch McConnell did to his sense of patriotism in order to make room in his heart for one of Donald Trump’s fucking horcruxes.

Anyway, when the smoke clears Bert is fine and the monkey is as dead as good faith parliamentary procedure is in the United States Senate.

As the film goes on it features actual humans and even school children demonstrating how to duck and cover. In each sequence there is a FLASH OF LIGHT as an atomic bomb goes off and then whomever is in the frame drops to the ground and curls up into a ball of hides under a desk or a picnic blanket.

By the time I became aware the Cold War was going on, we’d already entered the glasnost & perestroika era. I lived a childhood free of the fear that had my parents had been indoctrinated with. They lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis after all. On the other hand, I always kind of liked Mikhail Gorbachev, he seemed like a cartoon beaver. I certainly wasn’t afraid he was going to bomb the living shit out of everyone I’d ever met.

That, however, is the interesting part. See, even though I was not afraid of Gorbachev (even remotely as much as I am afraid of Mitch McConnell), in the 1980s he controlled somewhere north of 55,000 nuclear weapons including the largest yield ever developed, the 50+ megaton “Tsar Bomba” weapon. During the period of time when I was not afraid of thermonuclear annihilation, it was very much within the realm of possibility that I would die as a result of thermonuclear annihilation. At the very least it was technically POSSIBLE, which is to say that it was within our ability as humans.

And so we laughed at old Bert the Turtle. “Oh Bert,” we would say mockingly, “you dumb dumb stupid idiot turtle dummy. Just accept the sweet inevitability of death why don’t you?”

That’s how we all talked on my elementary school playground.

But Bert knew something we didn’t. Bert was a creature of his time and his time was 1951. When America dropped the first atomic bomb on the unsuspecting population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the resulting yield was clocked at about 15 kilotons.

Now 15 kilotons is nothing to sneeze at. That’s 15,000 TONS of dynamite. It killed an estimated 200,000 people. It was no laughing matter. Before and after pictures make it look like the city was scraped from the face of the Earth with the edge of a blade.

Three days later, Nagasaki was bombed. A big round implosion-type bomb named “Fat Man” free fell through the air for 43 seconds before detonating almost two miles off target. The blast radius was so wide however, that it didn’t matter that they missed. It killed about 80,000 people.

At that moment, as Fat Man dropped free of the B-29 bomber floating above Nagasaki, it was the only functional atomic bomb left in the world. The United States initially built three bombs. One was detonated as a test in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico. One was dropped on Hiroshima. After the third bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, there were literally no more. In what was possibly the boldest bluff in the history of the world, the United States acted like it TOTALLY had a bunch more of these things.

And in fairness, pretty soon after that they did have a whole bunch more. Turns out it is not that hard to build an atomic bomb once you already have the material and the manpower and the knowhow and the money and the desire to do so. And the US had all of those things.

The Soviets had a lot of those things too, but they didn’t detonate a bomb of their own until August of 1949.

That bomb was called “First Lightning” and it had a 22 megaton yield, so it was bigger and more destructive than the bombs that America had dropped, but it was not bigger by orders of magnitude. It was not unthinkably bigger. It was big and terrible and the most destructive thing in the history of human existence on the planet Earth, but what it wasn’t, was the end of the world. In fact, when the US dispatched researchers to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war, they discovered that the bombs had not even been as destructive as they’d initially believed.

Yes, that means that there was a moment when a team of Americans with clipboards were standing on the surface-of-the-moon blast zone that had once downtown Hiroshima and writing in their notes, “Need to make the bombs bigger.” They researchers discovered that in the midst of all of destruction and carnage and unspeakable horror, a surprising amount of life had survived. People in basements, people under water, even people who were simply lying down on the ground had survived.

So this gets back to the difference between Bert the Turtle in 1951 and me in the 1980s. The bombs of the 1940s and 1950s were of a type and size that - while powerful and god-awful-terrible - were strictly speaking, survivable in a lot of scenarios. That is to say, a child inside a single story brick or cinder block school building a few miles from the hypocenter of the blast could, if immediately upon seeing the flash, drop to the ground below a heavy wood and metal desk and maybe maybe maybe survive. “Duck and cover” was not actually nihilistically laughable advice in 1951.

But 30 years later in Reagan's America, we had every right to laugh. By then America had developed the B83 hydrogen bomb which offered 1.2 megatons of destruction at the push of a button. Whereas the Hiroshima bomb was equivalent to 15,000 tons of dynamite, the B83 clocked in at 1,200,000 tons of dynamite. Just to be clear: that is 15 thousand vs. 1 million 200 thousand.

By the time my friends and I were laughing at dumb old Bert the Turtle, mankind had very easily transitioned from having three bombs that destroyed cities to tens of thousands of bombs that destroyed species.

That is the important part. The real history is not - as we are so often taught it, when we are taught it at all - that humanity went from being simply really good at killing, to suddenly jumping the shark in the sky above Hiroshima in 1945 by suddenly becoming capable of utterly extinguishing itself entirely.

It didn’t happen that way.

We built three bombs. We dropped two of them on other humans. Then we carefully surveyed the destroyed landscapes, the sagging melted flesh of the survivors, the skin of the women whose kimono patterns were burned onto their bodies, the children whose eyelids had been seared from their faces, the blackened remains of bodies incinerated by light, and then we said, “We’re gonna need some bigger bombs.”

The decision to build the fourth bomb was even more important than the decision to build the first.

In 1951, when Bert the Turtle was turtle-ing along, minding his own business and trying to avoid monkey assassins, the Soviet Union had 5 atomic bombs. Five. A decade later they had more than 1,500. And America always had more than the Soviets did. By the time I was a kid, there were more than 70,000 bombs in the world. No amount of duck and cover can save you from that.

So the lesson - and now I remember why I was thinking about Mitch McConnell! - is that sometimes we don’t notice the BIG CHANGE. The point of no return isn’t always where we think it is. We did not develop the actual ability to destroy the world and the entire human race in 1945 or even 1951. It was on some random day sometime in the mid-1950s as the US and the Soviet Union raced to crank out bomb after bomb after bomb. One bomb, one city. One bomb, two cities, and on and on and on and suddenly we have one bomb for every city and two bombs for every city and on and on and somewhere in there we reached critical madness.

The day we developed the ability to actually annihilate ourselves went completely unnoticed.

*** Please tune in next week when we try to determine if a snail is a mammal, a bird, a fish, a reptile, or an amphibian. ***