A Day in the Life

Dawn

I’m still in bed, awakened by the dogs moving about in the other room. It’s quiet this morning: I hear the sound of only one car in ten minutes. It’s been chilly at night, so the windows are closed; otherwise, I’d probably hear birdsong, though not much — with the windows closed, I can hear only the most penetrating of birdcalls.

Hardly anyone is awake: the bakers at the bakery up the street, of course, and a few restaurant and coffee shop owners and employees getting ready for the breakfast crowd; the night shift at the police station and the hospital, wrapping up a long night; a few insomniacs and early-risers taking quiet walks.

I slip back into REM sleep, where I have a strange and vivid dream of a different life, a gloriously self-sufficient life where I am no longer burdened by taxes or government interference with my essential freedoms…

I’ve been up for half an hour, milking my cow. Selling fresh milk is one of my most consistent sources of trade income, since I’ve the only cow in the area, owing to the good fortune of the grazing on this piece of land, and a running stream. She’s getting old, and I worry about her production. I give her a sad look, with a hint of calculation in it. I can see steak in the next year or two, but I’m not sure I’ll make enough off the meat to afford a new calf, much less a new cow. Not sure what I’ll do at that point.

My hands are nice and warm, the early morning ache from the cold worked out. My heavy quilted jacket is warm, but my feet are still cold; I’d traded for a poor batch of wood a year back, and the night fire had once again gone out early and left me shivering. I’d had words with Jim, the woodsman, for selling me crap wood, but he’d just shrugged. He knew he was the only game in town. He didn’t overcharge, at least not too much, but his prices were high. There’d been another young fellow a couple of years back who had tried to compete with Jim, but he’d up and vanished after a year. Some said Jim had cut his throat and burned the body. Could be — Jim was a mean son of a bitch — but with nary a trace of evidence, there wasn’t much to be done about it, and no one was going to pay for an investigation. I’m sure as Hell too old to be taking down trees: it’s trade with Jim, or do without.

I hear a shriek in the woods, and experience a brief moment of grim satisfaction. A new group of squatters moved into the area a week ago, and they haven’t yet learned that my fences mean business. I keep on milking as the screams grow hoarse and then subside to a bubbling howl. My son issues a soft birdcall as he slips through the trees around the perimeter, to let me know where he is, just in case I decide to explore. Wouldn’t want to shoot him by accident. No point to my going out there yet, though — I’m not going to waste shot on the poor bastard, he’ll die quick enough. My son will raise the alarm if there are more coming.

I sigh, thinking about the work involved in digging another grave, but it was that, or let the body rot in the open, and that would attract scavengers. It’s putting wear on the shovel, too, and new steel will cost me dearly. But I’m too damn old to work with a wooden shovel in this soil. Wish the squatters would just read the signs I post, or at least have the sense to pay attention to the scalps I’ve mounted on poles. Of course, who’d pay to teach any of them to read? This squatter was probably hungry enough to try to eat the scalps — I should check on those later today, too.

6:00 am

I wake a second time. The dogs are restless, and my wife has just fed them, so they’re yipping to go out and play. I throw back the covers, and put my bare feet on a cool hardwood floor.

The dream is still with me, and I think about the temperature in the house — not a usual early-morning thought. I can still feel the dawn chill of the dream and the warm udders against my palms. I hear the hum of the forced-air furnace as it kicks on, fed by natural gas and electricity from a public utility with government-regulated prices, quality-of-service, and safety practices.

I remember the gas leak up the street last spring, when the neighbors had gone digging with a backhoe to plant a new tree, and hadn’t bothered to call the utility company first for a free service visit to mark the underground gas line. We lost our gas in the neighborhood for two days while the crews repaired it, and I heard the neighbors got hit with a huge bill, which their insurance paid. Everyone complained that insurance costs were going to go up, but they didn’t.

I think about Jim, selling shoddy fuel for high prices, and how his only competitor just vanished one night, in a world where no one is interested in paying for justice.

Brrr. I shake off the dream and become preoccupied with my daily morning routine.

After breakfast, I pour milk into my coffee, and with the sight of pouring milk, the dream returns unbidden…

I dig with a steady rhythm, and when I tire, my son relieves me. He digs longer and faster than I do. I don’t want to sit too long, though, lest I stiffen up. The soil isn’t too hard, and we don’t hit any big rocks; we’re deep enough in less than an hour. We drag the two bodies to the grave and roll them in. The man had been caught by the trap. The woman had put a sharp stick through her own neck and died with her arms around the man. It was probably just the two of them. She lands on her back, and her eyes pop open — they seem to stare at me, though I know she’s dead and isn’t staring at anything in this world. She and the man are both emaciated scarecrows, doubtless starving for weeks. I cover her with dirt quickly, and then sit and let my son work. I tell myself it’s age.

Dammit, why should I care? If they starve, it’s their own damn fault. It’s not like they can’t work just as hard as the rest of us. These squatters are like all those people on welfare back when I was a kid, when we had the big nanny state fed by taxes taken at the point of a gun, no freedoms, a world full of welfare bums living off the hard work of other people, no respect for private property, no self-respect. Parasites.

I think suddenly of the other woodsman. What was his name? I don’t remember. I wonder if Jim really did kill him. Maybe Jim just drove him away. Maybe took his axe, and broke his arm, and frightened him off. Couldn’t very well work as a woodsman with a broken arm and no axe. Takes a month to starve, longer than that for a bone to knit. Assuming it knits straight, which there’s no guarantee if you can’t pay a bonesetter. I try to remember if the man we’re burying maybe had a bad leg, or a bad arm. I didn’t notice. Doesn’t matter. Squatters are squatters.

“You’re falling behind, Old Man,” my son says. He’s grinning, but there’s a sadness in his eyes, and a hint of calculation that I don’t like the look of. I suppress a grunt as I rise to take my shift with the shovel. I sat too long, and my back hurts.

8:00 am

Seated at my desk, I reply to e-mails from work. I sit in an ergonomically-designed chair that allows me to put in a solid eight hours without back or leg pain, at a desk designed to minimize wrist strain. The company I work for paid for both of them, which was less expensive than dealing with an OSHA grievance filed against them with the government. Without the threat of OSHA, there probably wouldn’t be any profit in making such chairs and desks, since they are too expensive for most people to buy on their own.

The VPN secure network software I use was developed by a private company, using algorithms developed by researchers at a public university. The Internet I use for high-speed data transfer is an outgrowth of the fiber-optic backbone laid in at government expense back in the late 1990’s. Performance is good, and relatively cheap. The government prevents the service providers from tiering their prices, the so-called “net neutrality” issue that keeps floating in Congress: providers can’t force their customers to bid against each other for better bandwidth, which removes incentives for scalpers and speculators to move in.

I finish reading all my new e-mails, and sit back for a moment before digging into the project I’m working on. I sip my second cup of coffee, close my eyes to savor the taste, and the dream intrudes again…

I’m late to market, and have to set up on the periphery instead of my usual spot. My customers give me a hard time about my “new location,” and I grunt and say, “Had to bury some bodies.” They laugh. They don’t ask questions. There’s some hard bargaining this morning, but I hold firm on prices, and sell out quickly. It’s a good take. The baker is preparing a cake for a wedding, and buys a whole pint with the cream. That leaves me short for the other customers, and they get into a bidding war over what’s left.

There’s a brief scuffle down by the baker’s table. Some drifter is accused of passing counterfeit coins. They’ve already got the rope around his neck when one of the other vendors looks at the fake coin and declares it to be Canadian quarter, rare these days, worth more than twice an old US quarter. The baker is embarrassed enough to throw in an extra bread roll for free. The drifter’s face is pale, but he gathers up his order and the extra roll with shaking hands and leaves quickly. We won’t see him again. Good riddance.

I buy a loaf of bread, and some eggs. No meat: I’m saving my money to try to buy a lamb at the big market in the Fall. I’ll be able to spin wool, then, and maybe get a second lamb and start breeding them. That might provide enough extra income to buy a new cow.

When I get back to my property, I walk the perimeter and check the traps. All of the scalps are still there. I always salt them before I put them up. Not even birds are stupid enough to peck at them. Only starving humans would try. Those two squatters didn’t get close enough to try. My son has reset the traps. All good.

10:00 am

I dial into the team meeting. Six of us in the group, a fairly large development team, but it’s a complicated project. The remote conference software is not too flaky this morning; developed by a pure for-profit company, one of many competing products in the marketplace, the software is constantly being revised, patched, and its user-interface redesigned. We rarely have a month go by without some major glitch. It’s the cheapest and most widely-used software out there. I swear, most of their money must go into marketing.

We all touch base, then two of us stay on for a half-hour longer working out some of the design issues on a virtual whiteboard. There’s an integrated whiteboard in the commercial conference software, but it freezes all the time. We instead use an old piece of code originally developed at a public university, which then moved to the public domain and is now maintained with community support. It does the job, and it’s fast and stable.

The two of us are about three thousand miles apart — she’s just returned from lunch. She says she’ll write up the notes, and we end the call and I wait for them. She’s always quick — it won’t be more than fifteen minutes, and there’s no point in doing anything more until we have a common document. I take a bathroom break, and then come back and open my windows to enjoy the warming breeze. I close my eyes…

I’m splitting some extra wood for the fire tonight — damn that fucker Jim, anyway — when the gate bell clatters. I pick up my shotgun and walk around front, to find the postman, of all people. He’s a rare sight, these days. I remember daily mail as a kid. These days, with no taxes and no government to collect them, there’s precious little in the way of official mail. I can read, but most people can’t, and don’t miss it, so there isn’t much call for mail at all. Postman used to come around once a month, to the middle of town, and a couple of the old-timers and I would make a little trade by reading the mail aloud to the illiterate recipients, then writing down their replies for return post. There hasn’t been much of that kind of work in the last few years. 

Postman has never shown up at my gate. No one pays for that kind of service. Yet here he is.

He isn’t in a talkative mood, just sees me coming and drops a big, fat envelope on the ground and takes off. I imagine he’s pissed to have to come out here, though it’s only about a mile from town — even paid for, it’s extra time added to his day, which I’m sure is as full as anyone else’s. Whoever sent it must have paid pretty well.

I pick up the envelope. It’s heavy, cream-colored paper, elegant stuff I haven’t seen the like of in … well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like this. The address is mine, my name and everything, and the writing is like artwork. I stare at it without opening it. Then I go in the house, the house I built with my own hands, and put it on the desk I built with my own hands. It’ll keep. I’ve got real work to do.

12:00 pm

I look up from my work and stretch. It’s already noon, time to take a break for lunch. My wife is meeting with one of her friends, and the dogs are done napping and want to have some fun. I rummage through the refrigerator, and find some left-over caprese salad from dinner last night, all local produce, including the balsamic vinegar. I dice leftover grilled chicken and mix it with mayonnaise, chopped kalamata olives, and a dash of seasoned salt, served on a bed of fresh lettuce. I have just water to drink — I’m trying to watch sugar and starch intake, since I’ve got high blood sugar. It’s just tap water, from another regulated public utility. The State is pretty fierce about enforcing water quality here — none of that nonsense like up in Flint, Michigan.

I take my lunch to the back yard, and sit at the patio table and watch the dogs frolic. Two ravens tick-tock at each other up in the branches of the trees. The heat is rising, and I feel a little sleepy…

My son and I eat our day-meal: fresh bread from this morning, with our own butter, a berry jam from last Fall’s canning, the eggs I’d bought, roast garden potatoes from last night, fresh garden greens, and the milk I reserved from this morning, cooled in the stream. We talk about what to do with our neighbor upstream, Raymond.

The stream smells of pigshit, again. He’s got pigs, and while the bacon is welcome in the Fall, he can’t seem to keep the styes from leaching into the stream, which flows through his land. We’ve had some friendly conversations, but they’ve soured and matters are coming to a head. No one further downstream cares: water flows into a small fen just beyond us, then over a spillway into a fast, shallow run over gravel with lots of sun, and folks past that are happy with their water. The matter’s between Raymond and me.

Once Raymond figured out that it was just the two of us, he stopped even pretending to care. Said he wasn’t about to spend time, effort, or money looking out for my interests, and I had no call to be infringing on his freedoms. I agree with that, in principle, but the stream past my place stinks, and I worry my cow will get sick. Raymond shrugs: says he’s lactose-intolerant, meaning he can’t drink milk anyway, so he doesn’t give a damn about my cow or the milk. The bastard says his water’s fine, and has the cheek to offer to pasture my cow for me, for a fee.

My son and I try to find a point of leverage against Raymond, but we come up empty. I wonder if we need to build a gravel bed upstream, though I don’t know if that will be enough without a fen.

2:00 pm

My computer bleeps at me, and my doctor’s appointment pops up on the screen. I pull on shoes, and drive to her clinic, about a mile away. There’s no traffic to speak of; it takes five minutes. Normally, I’d walk the mile, but I’ve got some work I’d like to finish today.

The doctor and I discuss my last tests, and the high blood sugar seems to be under control. She wants a follow-up in six months. It’s an easy visit — a lot easier than the one fifteen years ago, when they told me I had cancer.

Treatment has come a long way since I was a kid. Back then, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. Since then, basic research done in public universities had found new ways to treat different cancers, including some uncommon forms that gave them hints for handling some of the more common ones. Spreading the costs through insurance, combined with various direct and indirect government subsidies, had created a mass market for cancer treatments, which would otherwise have been restricted to the very wealthy. That, in turn, provided a profit motive for pharmaceutical companies to mass-produce some of the drugs, as well as support the education and training of a whole cadre of experienced surgeons and oncologists to serve that market. My treatment had been almost routine.

That whole turn of thought makes me change my mind about going back to work. When I get home, I walk to the nearby public park, where I sit and watch squirrels for a bit…

It’s just a finger cut, but it’s deep — I can see bone — and it was one of those stupid things. I know how to hold a knife to carve wood. Hell, I taught my son how to carve wood. Then I go and break my own rules, and slice my finger open.

Blood poisoning is an ugly thing. I’ve no choice — I need to make the walk back to town, and get the healer to clean, and stitch, and sell me some Pharma. I hope not Big Pharma. I don’t know if I’ve got enough saved to pay for that. Maybe a poultice will be good enough.

Looks like the lamb will have to wait another year.

4:00 pm

I receive a surprise call from the VP of Engineering. It’s six o’clock in his time-zone. He’s worried about the delivery of parts for the new hardware, and wants to discuss how that’s going to affect my part of the project. We talk for nearly an hour. I tell him about the new design we’d knocked out this morning, and he’s enthusiastic. We both hang up feeling good about the project.

It’s quitting time when we finish talking, and I retire to the back yard with a glass of wine. My wife joins me, and we enjoy the lazy afternoon heat together. She tells me about her day, and I smile, and tell her a little about mine. I don’t mention the strange dream, but then we fall into companionable silence…

I scream and weep as the healer cleans the cut. The stitching isn’t as bad as the cleaning, but then the pain settles into a throbbing rhythm that swells and peaks and dies away, only to swell again. She offers some pain-killing tea, but I decline — I’ve already spent enough. The poultice helps with the pain. As I’d feared, I can’t afford the Big Pharma. She sells me her best poultice, and gives me a price break, because she’s one of my milk customers: uses it to make one of her Pharmas, so it contributes to her own income. At least I’ll still be able to afford the lamb in the Fall. If I live.

The healer is my age. She helped deliver my son, and helped my wife recover from the hard birth. That set me back nearly all of my savings, and when my wife caught pneumonia a year later, I couldn’t afford the Pharma, so she died. I dug her a special grave, apart from the squatters. Damn lucky I was already in the milk business, and that my son wasn’t lactose intolerant, or I’d have lost him, too.

I walk out into the main street through the town, and decide to Hell with everything, I’m going to buy myself a shot of something strong. I don’t indulge often — my father turned to the bottle when I was young, a good man broken by changed circumstances, and I’ve seen plenty of fine men ruined by the stuff. But I need something to lift my spirits, or at least mute the pain a little. Healer’s tea would likely have been more effective, but also more expensive. I’ve spent enough today.

There’s something outlandish outside the bar. It’s a vehicle, like nothing I’ve seen. Shiny metal, gloss-painted silver. Tinted one-way glass windows. Sleek, like a fish or a bird, but powerful-looking. A man in a red jacket and white gloves steps out, walks around the vehicle and opens a door on the other side. A short man in a white suit steps out, looks around, sniffs the air. As he turns toward me, I see his face. It’s a mess.

There’s no other way to describe it. It looks like someone has gone at it with a chisel, leaving deep, purple gouges. His nose is the wrong color, as if it isn’t real flesh, and his lower lip droops and hangs open on the left. He carries a delicate handkerchief in his left hand, and dabs at the lip, reflexively, I imagine to keep from drooling.

I make a guess at cancer. They had better surgeons when I was young. When they dismantled the welfare state, the whole medical system broke down. No one could afford it. Well, the rich could afford it. They could afford anything. But they weren’t about to throw money away on the poor, and there weren’t enough of the rich getting sick to keep the medical schools open for training specialists. Besides, there were no students: there was no future in doctoring the old way. You might have one paying customer in a lifetime, and if you did, you were set for life. Most likely, however, you’d starve waiting for that one customer. A kind of patronage system came into use for a while, where the rich would fund their own private, exclusive hospitals, but the hospitals were almost always empty of patients and the doctors took to gambling and drinking to pass the time. Then, when a real case finally came in — like this poor bastard — they simply didn’t have the skills.

A crowd gathers.

“Begging the pardon of all you excellent people,” the man in the white suit says in a high voice like that of a pre-pubescent boy, all his labial consonants mangled by that dead lip. “Could you direct me to the property of the man who owns the cow?”

I step forward. “That would be me.”

“Ah,” he said. “I assume you received my letter.”

I scowl. “Haven’t read it yet.”

He blinks and pats his drooping lip in silence.

“Well,” he says at last. “I wish to purchase your land.”

“It isn’t for sale.”

The right side of his face smiles. I’m learning to ignore the left side. His smile looks condescending to me.

“Everything is for sale, my good man. Just name your price.”

“It isn’t for sale at any price.”

“Hey, mister, what the Hell happened to your face?” That’s the baker, who is an impulsive ass. The man in the suit turns to look at the baker. He says something in a soft voice to his driver, or servant, or whatever the Hell he is, and the servant replies inaudibly.

“Ah,” says the man with the ruined face, and there’s a hard glitter in his eye. “You are the baker. Your livelihood is selling bread to this community, is it not?”

“Aye,” says the baker. He stands a little straighter, and his chest puffs. He’s proud of his independence, his freedom, just like all the rest of us. He’s his own man, and he’s got a right to be proud.

“Take a note,” the man in the white suit says to his servant in a loud voice that carries, still staring at the baker. “I’d like to open a bakery in this village. A proper bakery. Spare no expense. I want greater variety. Higher quality. Lower prices. Much lower prices. Say, half what this fellow charges.”

The baker’s face is red, and his fists clench. “That’ll put me out of business!”

“Indeed,” says the man in the white suit. He turns back to me, dismissing the baker.

“You can’t do that!” the baker wails. “You can’t do that!”

“Take another note,” the suited man says in the same carrying voice, without looking at the baker. “Hire some men to travel with this baker fellow, to make sure he stays completely safe wherever he goes. Have them report regularly, and any place this fellow settles, open a new bakery. Same goods, same prices as here. For as long as he lives.”

The baker collapses to the ground, eyes wide, his jaw slack. The crowd moves away from him, slightly, as if he might be contagious.

The man in the suit speaks to me. “I understand that your livelihood is selling milk to this community, is it not?”

I stare at his misshapen face for a long moment, and a knot of fear rises in my stomach like nothing I have ever felt. I think as quickly as I have ever thought. I lower my eyes to the ground.

“It was,” I say, carefully. “What is your offer for my land … sir?” That last word comes hard. Damn hard.

“Name your price,” says the man in the white suit. His voice is cheery.

6:00

Dinner is pork loin on the grill, asparagus, and new butter-gold potatoes. We eat outside, and then come in as the evening cools and the mosquitoes come out. I wash up the dishes — there aren’t many — while my wife reads the local paper.

There’s an art walk tonight, and we walk to the downtown area. Sidewalks are a little uneven in spots, but the way is well-lighted, courtesy of city government. We have our own “squatters,” more than a few, but they generally have places to stay, and ways to eat. They don’t worry about lethal traps that landowners have set.

All the artists are local, and some of them are very good. We meet neighbors, old friends, familiar acquaintances. It occurs to me that I’m not plotting against any of them for running pig feces into my water; if they were, I’d complain to the cops, and the cops would make them stop, because that sort of thing isn’t allowed.

On the walk home, under a beautiful moon, I’m quiet and reflective…

I’m shit-faced drunk. I pull out the heavy, soft paper and stare at it again. My signature at the bottom, and the illegible scrawl of the man in the white suit. I’d never even learned his name — the letterhead is that of a law firm, representing a corporation named in the document as the new owner of my land.

At the top is a number. The price I’d asked. Enough for me and my son to coast through life like rich men. The man in the suit hadn’t even haggled. He’d just said, “Done.” Next thing I knew, I had two copies of the letter he’d sent by post in front of me, and a pen in my hand. I signed both copies, he signed both copies, then he handed me one, took the other and got back in his vehicle. The window had rolled down.

“I’d like you out by the end of the week,” he said, pleasantly.

After that, I headed straight to the bar.

What will I tell my son? That I’d just scored the biggest deal of my life? Or that I’d just sold both of us into slavery?

What can I do with this much money? How will I even collect it? There’s a bank named on the paper, located in a city. That city is a resort favored by the rich. It’s a month’s journey by foot, and they’ll view us as drifters, or even squatters. The contract will be my passport, if I’m not robbed en route, and if I get a chance to show it.

If they let me into the bank, then what? If I take out the whole amount, where will I put it? How do I keep it safe? If I keep it in the bank, I will be chained to the bank, living among people who can throw away this kind of money without haggling. That is my new career, and my son’s: making daily trips to the well of the rich man’s bank to draw up a bucket of money, to spend on a poor man’s vision of Heaven in a rich man’s city.

Or I could just burn this damn thing, and forget the money. But then what? I have no land, no house, no hand-made desk, no aging milk cow. I have nothing but this fucking piece of paper.

Is my life any less ruined than the baker’s?

The worst of it is that I had no choice. I’ve prided myself on being my own man, beholden to none, pulling my own weight in the world, dignified and free.

I gave up my land and my livelihood without a fight, without a struggle, without even a bleat of protest. I lowered my eyes and called him “sir” as he robbed me of everything.

The man with the ruined face had not even threatened me. He had been nothing but pleasant. He had destroyed the baker with a handful of words, words that should have been purest philanthropy — a new bakery for the town with better goods at half the price, and then a kind offer of protection for the man he’d just robbed of his livelihood and driven out on the road to become an unwilling evangelist for that benediction. Wherever the baker went, people would thank him for the blessing he brought with him — while he slowly starved to death. I had no doubt that if the baker figured out a way to exploit the situation, the ruined man would turn it back on him. I have never seen such vicious, cold-blooded cruelty.

Two emaciated faces appear uninvited in my mind’s eye. Faces buried at the bottom of a fresh-dug grave. One had died in agony, by my design, and I felt only satisfaction. The other had taken her own life in despair, and I felt only disgust.

No, dammit, that was different. They were trespassers, for God’s sake! Squatters. No respect for private prop….

No respect….

I curse aloud and tell the bartender to pour me another. I see myself in the mirror behind the bar, and for a moment, just a moment, I see a reflection of my father.

8:00 pm

I sit and try to read, but I can’t follow the plot, and my legs are restless. My wife watches me for a while, then asks what is wrong. I put down the book, and slowly try to convey the dream that has been haunting me all day.

“That’s a horrible dream!” she says, when I’m done. “What a nightmarish world!”

“I know,” I reply. “We all take so much of our civilization for granted. Streetlights. Electrical power grids. Potable water. A right to live unmolested, enforced by law, paid for by taxes. Courts to sort out who cheated whom in business. Sharing of costs for accidents and disasters. A basic, publicly-funded, free-to-all education in how to read and write. To give all that up for a … a ‘free market’ where even basic justice has a price tag on it…. My God.”

She shakes her head, and tells me she’s going to bed. She usually retires earlier than I do. She kisses me, and I hold her tight.

I give up on the book, and sit down at my computer to write out this dream.

I leave the bar, the last of the cash I’d brought to town spent on whiskey. I run into my son who is coming in the doorway. He stares at me with worry that slowly turns to disgust as he sees the state I’m in. He tells me he’d finished his chores and came to town because I hadn’t come home. The healer was already in bed, and he’d been asking everywhere about me. Says there was some nonsense story about a silver carriage and a man in a white suit, but someone finally mentioned they’d seen me go into the bar.

He wants to know what the Hell?

My son doesn’t cuss like I do. That he would use such language says a lot about his state of mind. I tell him I just want to go home, it’s been a pisser of a day.

Halfway home, I weave to the side of the road and puke my guts out. A long walk on a belly full of whiskey is not a good recipe for digestion. I feel better after that.

I still don’t know what to tell my son. I have to tell him. That we’re rich. And that we’re totally fucked. Tomorrow.

I’ll tell him tomorrow.

Reframing

I saw a Facebook bumper-sticker today, with the following quote, allegedly from Dr. Thomas Sowell, a Libertarian economist. (They like to call themselves “Austrian School economists.”)

Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?

This is one of those carefully framed rhetorical questions that admits to only one answer. In thinking about it, I decided to ask a different question:

What part of what I work for actually belongs to me?

The answer I come up with is, “Damned little.”

I don’t raise my own food, for my own consumption. I don’t shear my own sheep, to spin my own thread, to weave my own clothing. I don’t dig my own outhouses, set my own bones, or write my own books to read.

The work I do is of no direct benefit to me at all. I write software that I can’t even use.

I work exclusively for the benefit of other people, who offer me a “market value” in return for my work.

Of course, this “market value” is less than the actual value of my work, because my work must result in profits which accrue to the ownership class — my pay comes out of the “operating expenses” left over after profits are taken out. Economists always turn this around: they say profit is what is left over after operating expenses have been met, but that isn’t true. Businesses that don’t show acceptable profit are shut down; businesses that achieve profits by underpaying their employees are considered wise. Profits come first.

This is how the ownership class becomes and remains wealthy. This is why they start businesses and offer jobs. If my work doesn’t result in more value than what I am paid, then I get fired, or the division is shut down, or the company fails. I work on what the owners direct me to work on, under conditions they dictate, and their direction is for their profit, not mine. It isn’t “my” work at all. It is “their” work; I am simply doing it for them.

I work first and primarily to support the wealth of the Owners.

But even what I eventually receive as my “market value” — my income — is not what I’m working for.

I contribute a large chunk of that income back as taxes, to pay for all the infrastructure of civilization that allows me to have a “market value” for what I do. Indeed, much of the work that most of us do is in direct or indirect support of the trappings of civilization. The number of people in this country who live entirely “off-grid,” who need none of the trappings of civilization, is tiny: and if they don’t own the land they live on, they are considered vagrants and squatters with no right to be there — they are tolerated precisely to the extent that they remain invisible.

What is my alternative? Try to find an empty place, go off-grid, and hope no one ever sees me? End taxation, and with it, civilization? I think not.

I work to support civilization.

Most of my remaining income has gone to raising kids in a family: food, shelter, clothing, education. Now that my children are grown, support goes to my grandchildren.

What is my alternative? To let my children starve? I think not.

I work to support my children and grandchildren.

My father had a pension — Social Security, part of that civilization I support with taxes — else I’d have needed to support him in his old age. And he lived a very long time, longer than most parents. My wife’s father lived in a country with no national pension for old people, so we had to support him in his old age. And he lived a very long time, longer than most parents.

What is my alternative? Throw parents and grandparents out on the street to beg for crusts until they starve? Pray they die young, before they become too old to pay their own way? Shoot them? I think not.

I work to support the needs of my parents and grandparents through their old age.

We live in communities. I support law enforcement, and hospitals, and community colleges, and festivals, and dances, and symphony orchestras, and artists. I support trash pickup, and sewage treatment, and stoplights, and paved city streets.

What is the alternative? To live in the decaying squalor of a failing community? I think not.

I work to support a living community.

I hedge against the ups and downs of life: we call it “insurance.” There’s auto insurance, and homeowners’ insurance, and renter’s insurance, and unemployment insurance, and health insurance, and life insurance. If I’m extraordinarily lucky, I will never have a car accident, never have my property stolen or destroyed, never get laid off, never get sick, and live long enough to see all my obligations fulfilled. If I’m that lucky, then every dime I spend on insurance pays, not for me or my needs, but for the needs of others less fortunate. That’s how insurance works.

What is the alternative? To try to save up enough money myself to cover any possible hardship, and if it isn’t enough, to go bankrupt or die? I think not.

I work to support the needs of total strangers facing misfortune, expecting that if I face misfortune, strangers will support my needs.

None of these things that I work for are about me at all, and they certainly don’t belong to me — not civilization, not children, not parents, not community, not communal disaster relief funds.

They are not mine. What I work for is not mine.

I’m perfectly fine with this — working my entire life away for things that I never get to call “mine.” Most people are. We have just been distracted and deceived into answering the wrong, cleverly-worded question.

What angers me is not that people take “my stuff” away from me — they don’t — but rather the stamp of private ownership and profit laid on things that cannot, and should not, be owned. Which happen to be the very things I work for.

Skimming from the community disaster relief fund is as immoral as it gets, and there is no worse modern example than health insurance in the United States. Illness and medical disaster can strike anyone, and by definition, illness takes the ill out of the productive workforce — meaning they can no longer effectively pay their own way. This is why we share the cost of medical care, through a hedge fund, a disaster relief fund, an insurance pool, or whatever else you want to call it. Private insurance is owned — that’s the meaning of “private.” And the owners skim profits from the fund. This is simply theft from those struck by disaster, no different from finding someone struck by a car and going through his pockets for loose cash.

Skimming from pensions for the old is no different. The attempts to “privatize” Social Security are really just an attempt to allow the care of the old to be owned, and to allow the owners to skim from their care. It is theft from the old.

Putting oil pipelines through watersheds, poisoning entire cities with industrial waste, and in general destroying living communities for the purpose of private profit, is also deeply immoral. It is theft, but on a much larger scale, and occasionally strays across the line into mass-murder.

Threatening the viability of the very world our children and grandchildren will inherit is perhaps the deepest immorality of all. This goes far beyond theft — it is ecocide, the mass-murder of the future.

Threatening civilization is perhaps the least of my concerns, mostly because of my historical awareness that civilizations grow old and die, just like people. I do not know if Western Civilization has reached its senescence: many have said it has, for centuries now, and perhaps it is true. If not — if ownership and profit and theft is the only thing that threatens a great civilization in its prime — I don’t even know if there is a word for the crime. Perhaps kleptocracy. Perhaps a form of genocide.

Mr. Sowell’s understanding of what we work for, and what we expect in return, appears to be very shallow.

 

Trump’s Nuclear Option

Some years ago, I was at the annual Dragonfest gathering, hanging with witches and druids and pagans of eclectic persuasions, and chanced to hear a fellow — a regular there I recognized, but whose name I did not know — carrying on a long, instructive monologue on fairies, specifically how to catch them.

He was saying that the way you catch a fairy is to drill a hole through a rock, then hang it up by a thread where it can sway in the breeze. Fairies are attracted to holes drilled in rocks. They want to see what’s on the other side of the hole, and they will stick their head through to look. But the other thing about fairies is that they can’t back up. So if they can get their head into the hole, but can’t fit their wings, they’ll just stay there, stuck. Then all you have to do is go out, collect all the stones you have hanging in your yard, and you’ve caught yourself a mess of fairies.

This fellow was perspiring heavily as he spoke. At 8000 feet elevation, it can get blisteringly hot on a sunny day. But it was late afternoon, when even a blistering day is mellowing into merely warm, headed toward downright chilly by sunset. It occurred to me he might be tripping on magic mushrooms, which could possibly have contributed to his earnestness, as well as much of his narrative.

The odd thing about entheogens — mind-expanding compounds like psilocybin — is that they often unlock uncanny insights into the hidden workings of things. You just have to understand how to think metaphorically.

Because, of course, fairies don’t really exist. It’s ridiculous to think there’s a class of beings, anywhere, who would thoughtlessly dive headfirst into a hole in a rock, and upon learning that there’s no way through, would nevertheless refuse to back up, or back out, or back down, instead just pressing ahead into a stone noose until they either strangle themselves, or get snatched up and mounted on someone’s wall as a trophy. Ridiculous.

Except that I know far too many people who are exactly like that. They stick their head in a no-win situation, and when they realize there’s no way forward, they “double down,” which, as far as I can tell, means that they shove their head even deeper. I know far too many people who have wedged themselves into no-win situations so deeply that even their feet are no longer visible. That’s a metaphor, of course.

I keep reading about one fellow, in particular, who lives in a big white house in Washington, D.C., at least on weekdays. He calls himself a “puncher.” Meaning, I gather, that he doesn’t just stick his head in the hole, he rams his head into it as hard as he can, and when it doesn’t get him through, he rams it again even harder. He calls it decisive masculinity.

Methinks somewhere along the line, he got manliness and fairies mixed up.

This afternoon I read about the nerve gas attack in Syria, and this fellow’s manly response of lobbing fifty or sixty missiles at an airport in Syria.

I was also reading about the previous resident of that big white house after an almost identical nerve gas attack in Syria, and he spent quite a bit of time planning to stick his head in the hole, angling to get backing from England and the US Congress to hit ALL the airports — all the important ones, anyway — and completely knock out the nerve gasser’s air force, hopefully toppling his regime. England didn’t like the look of the hole, and said No, thank you. Congress had its collective head stuck in the Hole of No, and so immediately doubled down on No. So this previous fellow did the unthinkable — he actually backed out of the hole, to the catcalls of all the fairies who weren’t at the moment engaged into trying to shove their heads through a rock.

That’s a whole bunch of metaphors.

As far as I’ve heard, the current “puncher” doesn’t have a plan at all. It was just: nerve gas, punch. A manly reflex. Oooh. Ahhh. There was no attempt to take out the nerve gasser’s entire air force. From what I read, it’s not clear the airport had any strategic importance at all, but then, maybe that just got left out of the news. I’m sure this was a very important airport, the most important of all the important airports. Even so, the outcome is going to be about like hunting bear with a dessert-fork: if you’re really, really lucky, the bear will die laughing. Yes, that’s another metaphor.

But the real issue is, now that the current fairy-fellow’s head is stuck in this particular rock, he can’t back down. Manly fairies don’t do that, and he’s not just any manly fairy, he’s a “puncher.” He’s the most bigly “puncher.” He will escalate.

And escalate.

And escalate.

As a fairy, he has no other choice. He can’t back up. So unless he is gathered up and mounted on a wall somewhere, he will eventually double-down to the nuclear option.

And let me be perfectly clear. That is not a metaphor.

Pale White Men

Here’s a recent quote from Steve King, the sitting Republican Senator from Iowa:

I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people [other than white males] that you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?

I have just two words to say to Mr. King: Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood starlet through the 1940’s and 1950’s. She also happened to be an inventor who worked out (and patented) a method of frequency-hopping intended to be used by the military to avoid frequency-jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes during WWII, and which is a core component to modern WiFi and Bluetooth interfaces.

Did Lamarr contribute to civilization? Do Hollywood sex-kittens contribute to civilization? Do women contribute to civilization?

No. They don’t. Not nearly as much as they could, or should.

The implication — the innuendo — that King lays down is that these others are incapable of contributing to civilization. The reality is that they are prevented from contributing to civilization, and when they fight through the hurdles and contribute anyway, their contribution is plagiarized, minimized, or covered up entirely. History is written in such a way as to make their contribution completely invisible. As though it never happened.

Our nation is much poorer because of this.

So yes, Mr. King, if you search through a biased history of a nation founded on sexism and racism, you will find damn little evidence that anyone other than white men ever contributed anything to civilization.

Mr. King, there may come a day when white men like yourself — ignorant, arrogant, sanctimonious, hypocritical white men like yourself — will be painted out of history in the same way you have painted out women, and darker-skinned people. Because I am also a white male, that brush will paint over me, as well. We will become the Fomorians, the Pharisees, the ghost-people of myth: a symbol of evil, and decay. People will ask, “When did a white man ever do anything good?” and they will shake their heads and pity us. They will hold up their own biased histories, in which no white male ever did anything but rape, pillage, cannibalize, and betray. And if any white men are left in that world, they will be wretched creatures barred from any opportunity that might allow them to contribute anything of value to civilization.

Or perhaps… perhaps it will play out differently. Perhaps the women, and the darker-skinned, will not be so arrogant, hypocritical, and thin-skinned. Perhaps they will find a way to make a place for white males, in a way that white males could never make for them.

Maybe the women and the colored peoples are better than white men.

You are certainly not setting a very high bar for them to surpass.

The Joys of Scoring

The title is sarcasm. Yes, it is.

The Ukiah Symphony is planning to perform my piano concerto next season, and before that can happen, I have to get them a full score with parts. This has been a bundle of joy.

Here are a few examples of the kind of things I’ve had to figure out how to do in Finale (the software I’m using to score the music):

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.05.58 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.04.39 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.06.30 PM.png

Bleaugh! Of course, it looks gorgeous NOW.

So what does this process of scoring music look like?

The process starts with the Cuebase sequencer file I used to produce the CD. The first task is to quantize the sequence. You see, when I want a staccatto note in Cuebase, it looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 6.35.10 PM.png

If this came from a live performance on a keyboard, it isn’t nearly so regular. If I try to turn this into a score, I end up with a lot of very short notes, and lots of strange rests in between them. Editing those in Finale is actually worse than a root canal. On a plane. To Australia. So to make it easy, I want to convert it to something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 6.40.29 PM.png

Lining everything up with the grid lines is called “quantizing.” There’s some other prep I can do, like separating out the different piano lines. That takes a little creativity, because it’s usually not as simple as left-hand/right-hand, or even bass-clef/treble-clef. But after going through all the tracks and quantizing everything, separating everything, and testing it to make sure I didn’t move notes around to strange places, I can export the Cuebase data as a MIDI file — which is kind of like the basic CSV common file format for musical notes.

Then I need to import the MIDI file into Finale, and it converts all those dashes into notes.

I have a lot of complaints about Finale, but I have to step back and take my hat off to them on this: they do an impressive job of converting those dashes into notes. But now the real work starts, because impressive is still a long way from adequate.

The first pass through the score involves putting in the key signatures. It helps if I put that into the Cuebase file, but the key signature doesn’t make any difference to the sequencer, and I always forget. Finale has some algorithms for guessing, but they are … well, a little bizarre. Which I suppose is understandable.

The whole point of key signatures is that the Western chromatic scale over an octave has 11 distinct notes in it, but the musical staff notation used since A. Nony Mous scribbled out the first madrigal has room for only seven notes over an octave. They make up the difference using “accidentals” — flats and sharps — that push you up or down from one of the seven notes. Of course seven goes into eleven roughly 1.57142857142857 times, so there’s some black magic involving something called “modes” — there are seven traditional modes — two of which are “major” and “minor.” And that’s the easy part.

The thing is, musicians spend about twenty years learning to read music well, and so they get understandably irritated when you break the rules they’ve learned and hand them something that they can’t read and perform easily. So you pick a key signature, and the basic idea is to try to minimize the number of flats and sharps you have to throw around in the music. If you’ve written something in C# minor, and then rewrite it in C minor, the only place sharps or flats show up is right at the beginning of the piece, where you specify the key signature. All the rest is accident-free, and the notes will be otherwise identical.

It’s equally easy to add the key signature to Cuebase or Finale, which is why I generally don’t go back to Cuebase and just start over — which would also be easy, since all I’ve done with Finale up to this point is push a few buttons.

The next step is going through the score, staff by staff, fixing the accidentals that remain. As it turns out, that 11 versus 7 black magic ends up with as many as four different ways to represent the same note — as a sharp, a flat, a double-sharp, or a double-flat. This does turn out to be useful, and it’s way easier to show why than to describe:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 7.06.49 PM Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 7.06.09 PMThese are both identical passages, but the one on the right shows the flow of the music a lot better than the one on the left. You want to follow the natural flow, because it will make it much easier for the musicians to play while they’re reading it. And that’s something you want to do — make it easy for them to read. After all, if you piss them off, they don’t have to play your music well.

Unfortunately, Finale doesn’t always do a good job of deciding which way to write the notes — it chose the one on the left. So I have to go through and correct all of these so that they make sense.

As I’m going through this, note-by-note, I’m also correcting all the errors that arise from Finale trying to guess note durations. Finale does a pretty good job with triplets. That 21-note run up at the top? Not a whisper of a prayer. And, at the same time, I can correct the clef notation, to try to keep the notes more-or-less grouped in the middle of the five-line staff.

All of these edits are judgment calls. The music is already correct, if unreadable. I’m trying to improve the readability, and that’s ultimately a matter of opinion.

Once I’ve gotten through that pass, comes the sniff test — that’s the test you give a jug of milk in the refrigerator that has been in there since you aren’t-quite-sure-when. Fortunately, Finale comes with its own MIDI performance software, so I can tell it to play the music for me. I can listen for errors.

It sounds terrible, by the way. Standard notation is intended to facilitate the performance of a human being who spent twenty years learning how to read music and play it well. The truth is, there simply isn’t enough information in the score for a computer to figure out how to play it. But — and this is the important part — listening will at least tell you if you have the right notes, with the right rhythms.

Now the tedium begins. Every note has potentially a dozen or so “articulations.” Staccatto. Marcato. Tenuto. Tremolo. Pizzicato. Palmetto. Con Gigolo. Mio Spaghettio. Yes, I’ve started making these up-o. Made-you-look-o.

Remember all those short notes I “quantized” way up at the top? Now I have to recover that lost information by putting a little dot over each note that should be played short. More decisions: staccatto, spiccato, or marcato? They’re all kind of the same — but they’re all different, with different markings. Each instrument will perform them differently, and each musician will interpret them differently. Get a little alcohol in them, and they’ll fight about it.

Then there’s phrasing — slur marks to indicate phrases. This is a tough call, because a lot of phrasing is just part of that twenty-year learning curve. Throw a bunch of dots out there, and musicians will make phrases out of them, and usually the right ones. All you’re doing is giving them hints, and there’s no point in insulting them with the obvious.

Even worse, slurs are also used to indicate bowing in the strings, and breathing for the wind instruments. You don’t want your oboist to pass out because you created a single long phrase of twenty-five measures. Of course, they won’t do that, but then you might as well not waste the ink on a phrase mark that is going to be ignored anyway. I always find myself swinging between minimalism — hey, they’re musicians, let them figure it out — and the kind of obsessive notation that I have to put into the Cuebase sequence to get it to sound right.

Dynamics. Forte. Mezzo-forte. Sforzando. Subito piano. Crescendo. Diminuendo. I absolutely hate this part, because it’s like trying to pick your nose with a hammer. Dynamic markings are a very blunt instrument. There are only eight gradations from inaudible to deafening. Fine, ten if you want to include pppp and ffff, neither of which is playable. In fact, it’s arguable whether ppp and fff make a lot of sense — really, there are only six. Again, these are hints, but they can be extremely important hints — like when you want a horn swell that sends all the squirrels in the rafters running for cover, versus the sound of a dream falling into a feather bed.

Then there is the expressive text, like molto agitato. Or perhaps like butterflies hovering over a glass of pinot. I’ve seen very silly notations, like a passage in Wagner for the strings marked interminably, oh dear God will this ever end?

I usually end up putting in the tempo markings last, for some reason. That one is pretty easy: the Cuebase file has utterly precise tempos — it needs to. So I could add notation that says, slow from 111 bpm to 93 bpm. I don’t, of course. It would instead be Allegro (quarter = 110) followed by rit. The conductor is only going to take it as a suggestion, anyway.

Sprinkle in fermatas, indicating that a note should be held until the winds are blue in the face. Add a break, or even a Grand Pause, where there is pregnant (or perhaps blessed) silence for a moment.

Finally, there’s all the print niceties: measure numbers, page numbers, rehearsal marks, title, composer, copyright, etc., etc., etc.

Still not done, however. Now the parts have to be broken out. Musicians don’t read scores. They read parts. A flute part. A violin part. A piano part.

Here, Finale is truly your friend. It’s pretty much few button presses, and you have all the parts broken out for you. They still have to be individually edited, because sometimes Finale makes some rather silly decisions. In particular, it always seems to put the last measure of the piece on a page by itself, a single measure across the whole page with one stupid note in it.

And then — finally — let it sit for a week, and then edit it again with fresh eyes.

I’ve just gotten to the tedium on the second movement of the concerto. First movement is done and mellowing for that final edit. Third movement should be quick and relatively easy.

Almost there….

Mid-Life

I’ve recently had occasion to talk with several different people about “mid-life” and the dreaded “mid-life crisis,” because they’re about twenty years younger than me and happen to be going through it at the moment. I’d like to pass on a few nuggets of wisdom that I’ve picked up in my travels that they seemed to find helpful.

I was talking with my niece on the phone the other day — she’s nowhere near mid-life, but she’s currently taking a psychology class in college — and she brought up something called Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, which I thought were interesting from the standpoint that they seemed to have been developed by a bright but very young man. They are heavy on childhood developmental stages, but once they get to “well-adjusted adulthood,” they trail off into a vague mumble, as though adulthood is a featureless landscape that ends suddenly in the Cliffs of Senility and Death.1

Nothing could be further from the truth. Adults continue to develop, and some of the changes are as dramatic as puberty.

Mid-life is a particularly interesting developmental stage.

One way of talking about this is to use Carl Jung’s concepts of individuation and integration. In very general terms, a person spends the first half of life individuating, and the second half of life integrating, and this is useful language because the changeover corresponds to the mid-life developmental changes. It gives a lot of insight into the “crisis” that often ensues. So let’s talk about these words.

In a sense, the words are inverted. Individuation is actually a process of learning to conform to the herd, while integration is a process of becoming a true individual. But the words work well enough when framed properly.

To reliably conform to the herd, you have to internalize the expectations of the herd. All infants are, as someone once quipped, a system of unregulated orifices. One of the first thing we train infants to do is to control their bladder and bowels. We then train them to speak and be silent according to a rather complex set of social rules. We teach them to use magic phrases of power, like “Please” and “Thank You” and “In Jesus’ Name” and “When Allah Wills.” Further expectations are impressed on children as they grow, until they become “productive, well-adjusted adults,” which means that all of the expectations have become fully internalized, and the new adult can be trusted to function on his or her own as an independent member of the herd, rather than as a dependent under constant supervision. They have become an individual, an autonomous unit of society, a legal adult: they have “individuated.”

Jung’s insight was that all of the impulses they have learned to control, such as screaming when they are hungry, or simply letting the bladder go when the urge strikes, never actually go away: they just “go dark.” They retreat into an unconscious place in the mind that Jung called, appropriately enough, the Shadow.

The Shadow isn’t merely a collection of unregulated impulses. It’s also an entire collection of suppressed and unexplored potentials. Boys don’t play with dolls. Girls don’t fight back. Boys can’t care for sick people. Girls can’t do math. Black people must never show defiance to a white person. The list is huge, and it is augmented by all of the specific family expectations laid down, such as carrying on the proud military tradition, or becoming “successful” as a doctor or lawyer.

If all this stuff is merely suppressed and not obliterated, then it can come back out of hiding. The trigger that seems to open the floodgates most reliably is awareness of one’s own mortality.

Young people know, intellectually, that someday they’ll die, but they don’t feel it: it isn’t real to them. It is right at about mid-life — for the privileged classes within society, at any rate — when marriages are settled, job tasks are mastered, finances are as secure as they’re going to get, careers start to top out, children (if any) are able to feed and dress and care for themselves, parents are aging and ailing and dying, that a person starts to viscerally understand that what they envisioned as their “life” has peaked, and they’re on the downslope toward death. Two thoughts start to run around in their heads: first, Is that all there is? and second, If I’m dying, what do I really have to lose?

These two thoughts, together, tend to unlock the bars placed over the cave entrance into the Shadow. Unlocking those bars is what starts the process of integration.

It’s called “integration” because all of those suppressed and forgotten hopes, dreams, desires, and even impulses get re-integrated into a more balanced and complete person, who is now capable of choosing to break from the herd — even to lead it, if necessary. While this can trigger a psychological crisis for the person who starts integrating, and certainly causes a lot of uncomfortable feelings, it’s generally a very joyous time — for that person. The reason it’s called a crisis is not because the person going through it is in distress, but because it is a crisis for everyone around them.

The person going through mid-life change says, “I am trying to find myself.” They have a strong sense of purpose, and while they may be uncertain about where they are going, they feel in control, perhaps for the first time in their life.

The people around that person say, “I don’t know him (her) any more.” They feel betrayed, distressed, and — most importantly — helpless. They are the ones experiencing a crisis.

Every mid-life change is different, because it depends so much on what got stuffed into the Shadow. A person with a strong sex-drive that got suppressed is not unlikely to have one, or perhaps seventeen, sexual affairs. If it was emotional connection that got suppressed, they may have torrid emotional affairs without the bedroom athletics. If it was artistic sensibilities, they may quit their job and start doing music gigs in bars. If it was spiritual proclivities, they may travel to India with no notice and sit in an ashram for a year.

Some people don’t have a whole lot of Shadow to integrate, and they don’t have much of a visible mid-life change at all. Some people never integrate at all: they remain obedient, individuated, unintegrated members of the herd, and their Shadow remains dark right up until death takes them.

Others of us have a whole travel-trunk full of Shadows to unpack.

Because sex is wrapped with such restrictive taboos in US American culture, sex is one of the powerful things commonly stuffed into the Shadow, and consequently, a lot of mid-life crises lead directly into other people’s beds. Hence: the stereotype of the middle-aged executive running off with his barely-legal-age secretary to Bermuda. Because of the social taboos, this tends to cause a lot of collateral damage to families and friendships. By contrast, someone who stuffed a literary bent into the Shadow to make room for a legal career, and decides at mid-life to take up reading the complete works of Proust, will probably face no worse consequences than a little ribbing from his beer-buddies.

So with that framework in mind, here are a few personal insights about the process, based mostly on my experience of my own mid-life transition, and augmented by some of the experiences I’ve seen others go through.

First, don’t panic. This is a normal process, a lot like puberty. It’s often even called a second adolescence. It has a natural progression, and it ends.

For the person watching (say) a partner go through a mid-life change, understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about your partner, who is working through an internal issue. Don’t try to take the burden of telling yourself that you “failed” in some way. It simply isn’t about you. Your partner is looking for something lost long before you came into the picture.

For the person going through a mid-life change, understand that it is about you. If you’re having an affair, emotional or physical, it isn’t about that wonderful, charming new person you’ve fallen so madly in love with. It isn’t about your unsuitable marriage partner, or your dead-end job, or your worthless kids. No one has failed you. It’s about you. You are searching for something lost long before any of those other things came along.

Like puberty, once a mid-life change starts, you can’t turn back — you have to move through it. Gracefully, awkwardly, or dragged backward by your feet screaming, you are going to go through it.

Don’t cling to any particular outcome. Believe me, I understand how hard this is, especially for the people not going through the change. But the people who come out the other side of a mid-life change are never exactly the same people who went into it. It’s not at all uncommon for a mid-life change to renew and deepen existing relationships, but in many ways, the relationship has to be started over — which is a delightful rediscovery, if it works out that way. It’s also not uncommon for a mid-life change to completely end relationships, and mark the beginning of a new stage of life for everyone. There is no single right outcome.

Don’t cling to a timetable. Some mid-life transitions are quick and slick: a brief fling with a college student, or a crazy weekend in Vegas, and then it’s done. Some mid-life transitions drag on and on, or get stuck in a repeat cycle. Some introduce major life changes that are permanent. It’s worth giving a mid-lifer some clear space and looser boundaries to “find themselves,” but it’s perfectly okay to decide that it isn’t working for you, and move on with your life. No one needs to be a victim in this.

Try to not judge a person going through a mid-life change, if possible. It’s difficult, because the essence of the process is re-integrating things that were suppressed because they didn’t conform to herd expectations, and one of the tools the herd uses to enforce conformity is judgement, and shaming. People always try to shame the mid-lifer back into conformity with expectations, in an attempt to “re-parent” this wayward mid-life adolescent. It simply won’t work: at best, it will merely encourage secrecy and deceit.

Don’t go it alone. Get psychological counseling, if you can. If not, enlist the aid of an older person you consider “wise” in a non-judgmental way.

Don’t approach counseling as fixing a marriage problem. Remember that what probably started the whole thing was the recognition that you are actually going to die, and you’re asking Is that all there is? and What have I got to lose? These are not marriage issues, they are existential, or meaning issues.

Finally, don’t panic. It’s going to be okay.

In fact, it’s going to be wonderful.

[1] A dear friend and long-time counselor notes that Erikson’s “Childhood and Society” was, in fact, one of his early works, and that Erikson went on to develop a lot of the theory and science behind some of the very mid-life things I’m talking about above, as well as going further into old age and dying.

Firsts

firsts-front-3000My first commercial album is now out and available for purchase! Seriously!

Very cool stuff.

You can get MP3 downloads of the album or the shorter movements (under 10 min) from Amazon or iTunes (search for ‘joseph nemeth firsts’), and you can download a higher-quality version, or purchase the CD, from CDBaby.

This features the Piano Concerto and the Summer Symphony.

And in an act of naked commercial self-promotion, I’d like to ask that if you’ve heard these, and you liked them, hop over to CDBaby or Amazon and drop a review.