The Old Normal

Decisions about opening schools in the Fall will be made all around the country this next week. I don’t want to denigrate the people making those decisions in any way, because they are facing a lot of very loud, conflicting demands, and will manage to offend nearly everyone in the end, regardless of what they decide. They have all my sympathy.

But I think the school reopening this Fall will be a national catastrophe.

Here’s hoping I’m completely wrong: we’ll know, soon enough.

Everyone wants to get back to the Old Normal. The poor need to have the schools feed their kids, so they can go back to work trying to make rent. The middle-class — what is left of it — want their kids to jump through all the right hoops to get into college. The rich — well, I have no idea what the rich are thinking, other than that they want more, and that getting more for them is good for everyone.

I don’t really see the future, but I’m pretty sure the “Old Normal” is gone for good. There’s a pun there: it is gone, for Good. Because the Old Normal was not good, and growing increasingly fragrant. Time will tell if we replace it with something better, or tumble into the abyss.

My parents both got sick at the same time during the influenza pandemic of 1968/1969, the so-called “Hong-Kong Flu.” Both were very, very ill. It left one side of my mother’s face paralyzed in the end. I don’t recall if my sister and I caught it, but as kids, we bounced back quickly. But watching my parents get that sick — especially my father, who never got sick — was terrifying.

My sister and I might very well have brought the disease home from school.

Hong-Kong flu broke in the spring of 1968 in Hong Kong, and was spreading in the US by September. The first vaccines were already available in August, a month before the flu hit US shores, and a more effective vaccine was released in November. As influenza viruses go, the H3N2 virus responsible was relatively benign: R0 was not as high as, say, measles, mortality rates were low, and long-term complications after recovery were uncommon. While you could get very sick, as my parents did, when you recovered, you recovered. Even better, catching the flu causes the human immune system to produce antibodies specifically designed to destroy that flu virus, and this immunity lasts for years, if not an entire lifetime — to catch influenza again, the virus has to mutate (which it does), but that often comes with a cost to the virus.

COVID-19 is much, much, much worse. R0 is higher, meaning it spreads faster, and mortality is much higher. Complications after recovery are often severe, including heart, lung, liver, kidney, and brain damage. There is early evidence that immunity after catching the virus is not retained: like a common cold, you can catch COVID-19 again and again, which will limit the effectiveness of vaccines and makes COVID a “forever” threat. It is possible that an effective treatment will be found: a shot that knocks out the virus, for instance, before it has a chance to ruin your heart or lungs.

COVID-19 is a different beast from influenza, and it’s going to have a deeper effect on our society.

For one thing, it’s going to break at least a few of the grubby fingers off our Capitalist pharmaceutical model. Our current model requires that you be relatively wealthy to be (medically) healthy.

We’ve eradicated most infectious killers, like plague and smallpox, and the remaining contagious killers are generally “lifestyle-related,” such as syphilis; the rest of the contagions are relatively minor, like a common cold, or the seasonal flu. Most of the remaining diseases are things we “develop” rather than “catch,” like heart-disease, or cancer, and we also tend to label these as “lifestyle-related.”

Though it’s cruel and barbaric, we’ve come to a place as a society where we feel we can justifiably blame the ill for their illnesses. That allows us to justify extorting them for any cure we might have in our magic black bag. If they can’t pay up, we deny them care. After all, it was their own damn fault for getting sick in the first place.

With an airborne infectious killer, the blame for my illness falls on the person who gave it to me, who could have been anyone on the street, from a homeless beggar to a well-groomed banker.

Or my own child, returning home from school.

So here’s how I think it will play out.

They’ll open the schools, under the insistence that “kids don’t give kids COVID.” Then a bunch of teachers will test positive, and all the kids will be sent home for two weeks. Toward the end of that two weeks, some of the kids’ families will be hit by COVID. Some of those people will end up in the hospital, some may suffer crippling complications, and some may die. There will be lawsuits, naming the teachers, the school district, and anyone else involved.

They’ll close the schools.

Then the “treatment” will come out — the anti-COVID pill, or shot, or maybe even a vaccine that covers you for three months, or a year.

They’ll open the schools again. A bunch of teachers will test positive, and they’ll give them all the shot, and give all the kids the shot and send everyone home for two weeks, just to make sure.

Oh, wait: not all the kids will get the shot. Look at the number of dimwits out there who won’t wear a mask. The anti-vaxxers will come out in force. There will be religious exemptions — my mother would have claimed one of those. Someone will die, somewhere, maybe because of someone who refused to take the shot. More lawsuits, now naming and blaming everyone in sight.

They’ll close the schools again.

Assuming something like our society survives, it’s pretty clear to me that we will need, in the end, to move to some kind of system in which a) taxes pay for public health (i.e. Medicare for All), and b) refusal to participate in public health mandates will carry stiff legal penalties.

And how the Libertarians and anti-maskers will scream at that violation of their Freedoms….

As with all such things, the end result (after much flying spittle) will be some kind of a compromise: I can see a split between “public health” and “privilege care,” and specific public health exemptions for insular groups. There are a lot of people who don’t like the public schools, and can’t afford private schools, so they home-school. So long as they stay within an insular group, they can manage their own collective health care under Libertarian principles. It could work.

But this won’t be happening in a vacuum. Other things will be going on. I’ll touch on those in subsequent posts.

My First Dragonfest

The Dragonfest pan-Pagan gathering got its start back in the 1970’s with a smallish group (as I’ve heard tell) of about 25 people, who decided to go up into the mountains and do a communal “Pagan” sort of thing.

I’ve only heard stories of that time. My first encounter with the festival was in 1996, two decades later. By then, it was a “going concern” with admission tickets, liability waivers, a full board of directors, and a very thick three-ring binder containing tips on “What to do when….” Dragonfest is a going concern in 2020, though it will be interesting to see how they handle the post-COVID-19 world.

The organizers have asked for stories from the olden days, and looking back through my blog, I see that I’ve never fully commented on my first experience.

Perhaps it’s time to share.

Every story lives in a context. To understand the context of this story,  which is intensely personal, I think the relevant personal points are just a few: I was raised in what I would call a large urban center in Wyoming, which qualifies as a small town anywhere else, in a household dominated by a particularly unhealthy form of Protestant Fundamentalism uprooted from rural Oklahoma. I went to Long Island and got an advanced degree in physics. I never felt at home on the East Coast, and returned to Colorado to raise a family. In 1995, the marriage ended, and in 1996 I found myself catapulted into a slightly-early mid-life rediscovery of myself. A work acquaintance recommended Dragonfest, and in the spirit of why-ever-not?, I decided to go.

I was both excited and apprehensive. I knew this was a “Pagan” gathering, and I did a little bit of reading beforehand, in much the same way you’d learn a little German if you were planning to travel in Germany. Danke schön, Blessed Be. Don’t lead with Hitler or the Burning Times. And just in case, keep your passport handy and your car keys on you, in case you fuck up majorly and need to beat a quick retreat.

Bring condoms. Just in case.

I think that captures the personal context well-enough.


August, 1996. Wednesday.

Dragonfest is held at the Wellington Lake campground, under the shadow of the Dragon. From the flat beyond The Point, just below the entrance to the Old Boy Scout Camp, you can look up at the mountain and unfocus your eyes, and the Dragon pops right out at you: usually sleeping, though if the light is just right, s/he looks like s/he’s maybe thinking about a getting up for a snack. The idea of anything that large looking for a snack is a bit discomfiting.

The drive takes me down I-25 into Denver, then the cutoff to I-70 and E-470 all the way around to US 285 running toward Conifer and Bailey: the point being it’s a less-than-idyllic drive through big-city traffic, in early August, which is invariably hot, dusty, terrifying, and did I mention hot? My car is a Toyota Tercel without air conditioning, a tiny car with a tiny engine that cannot maintain highway speed on the uphill leg of a mountain road, much less power an air conditioning unit, and I have not yet learned the trick of having a liter bottle of water handy to sweat out on the trip. I drive through the smoggy,  frantic Hell of the Denver freeways, and then, bit-by-bit, find myself climbing into a quieter, cooler, more breathable Wild. After the turn-off in Bailey, I get a mile or so of pavement, and then it’s gravel, and then dirt, surrounded by dense green forest. I cannot drive fast on the wandering, washboarded road, so I slow down. There are signs pointing the way: a bunch of balloons tied to a fencepost at a turning; a sign taped to a rock. I roll down the window, and the air is cool and scented with pine, aspen, and sage. I start to relax.

The lake appears suddenly as a glint of sun on the water, seen through the trees, and then I am there.

Attendance is far short of the peak it will reach, sometime in the early 2000’s. Even though they have not yet opened campsites on the upper fire road — this week, we are all crowded down onto the edge of the lake — the area seems almost deserted.

There is a sense of timelessness. Only one person is at the “greeting” tent, and she’s deep into her book, a floppy sun-hat on her head. She looks up, smiles broadly, and waves her hand at the table. There are some things to be done, like sign up for a two-hour workshift sometime during the weekend, pick up a schedule, collect some free bling. There is little urgency to it. The quiet, following after hours of the roar and rumble of tires on highway and gravel, is a benediction.

Because I am here for the full-tour experience, I decide to camp in Bare Country, which is the clothing-optional area on the flats below the Boy Scout Camp, directly under the amused gaze of the Dragon. I know I am in the right place when I drive past a fellow wearing hiking boots, a mountain-man beard, and nothing else, pounding in tent stakes. I find a place to park and get my tent set up just as the afternoon rain comes, a gentle but bitterly frigid sprinkle. I see other people who have arrived after me, struggling with their tents in the rain, and I spend the rest of the afternoon helping them get set up.


Drums in the darkness.

I will one day in the future read an interesting article about culture and sleep. It turns out that our modern ideal of sleeping in a dark box inside a bigger box for eight solid hours, is neither common in human history, nor particularly beneficial for our bodies and minds. The band hunter-gatherers — the social organization of  homo sapiens for at least 95,000 years before we started writing down “history” — seem to have slept in shifts through the night, where there were always a few people awake, tending the fire, having sex, preparing food, getting high, telling stories — and, of course, drumming.

I know nothing of this in 1996. Indeed, I don’t have a drum, don’t know anything about drums, and have no idea drumming has anything to do with Pagan gatherings. But I do experience it. It touches something primal, something profoundly restful. It says that I am not alone, that there are others watching for the tiger, the wolf, the flood and the fire and the enemy lurking in the darkness. The regular, meditative beat of the night drummers says that all is well. Something deep in my brain relaxes. Something that may be truly relaxing for the first time in my life.


Thursday.

I decide to brave the lake.

The issue isn’t the water, though the lake is quite chilly.

The issue is that this is a clothing-optional swimming area. In mixed company.

I am here for the deluxe, full-tour experience. I am not going to chicken out over this. Yes, there are naked people everywhere, but I’ve seen naked. I was married for years. I’ve changed diapers. I’m fine with naked.

Just fine.

I’m still standing there, dressed, gnawing on my lip. I’m the odd one on the beach, wearing clothes.

I take a deep breath, and remove my clothing. It’s not much different from showering at the gym. Just take it off, fold it, walk down to the lake, and wade in. I make sure to keep my sandals on — when the lake isn’t crowded with Pagans, it’s crowded with fishermen, and fishermen leave hooks and broken beer bottles in the water.

Fuck! The water is freezing! Keep moving. There are other people swimming out here, they aren’t drowning, it isn’t going to kill me. Even if it feels like my heart will stop any second. AAaagh! My navel just got wet, and my diaphragm froze. Puff. Puff. Puff. Dive!

There is something about getting your head under the cold water that changes everything. Within seconds, the water is merely cool, almost tepid. I swim out, and back, dipping under the water again and again in pure delight. There are warm currents, and cooler currents. They all feel heavenly. I dive again, and there is no swimsuit that threatens to pull off and leave me embarrassed. There is no possibility of such embarrassment. I am naked. I swim as people swam for 95,000 years before getting trapped by modesty.

When I come back to the beach, I glance around, and realize that no one is paying any attention to me. We are all naked. I also see there are no supermodels on the beach, male or female. There are rolls of fat. Scars. Birthmarks. Wrinkles. A lot of nipples, mostly in pairs, all different, yet all alike, on both men and women. Pubic hair, of all colors. All colors, including …. fluorescent pink? Oh, my….

I relax on my towel on the warm sand, and I start to realize — viscerally — that clothing is about power, and modesty is about submission to that power. I wear the software engineer’s T-shirt and jeans — I have power over the people in coveralls. That fellow has a suit — he has power over me. That guy in the uniform with a badge has power over the guy in the suit. The guy in a slightly different uniform with stripes on his sleeve has power over the guy with the badge. And on it goes.

Strip us all naked and throw us in the water, and where is that power? It’s why they tell us to imagine the audience naked if we are nervous about public speaking: when we lose our clothing, we cease to proclaim our rank, and without rank, there is no power.

These are thoughts that will develop over the years, from this and many other experiences of public nakedness yet to come. But my first experience is right here, right now, under the sleepy gaze of the Dragon with sand on my feet and the sun on my face. There is something very right about sunning naked on the beach.


Friday evening.

I stand outside the Drawing Down circle.

I’ve inquired a bit about this rite, and read a little about the general practice. It’s an Oracle. Priestesses of the Goddess “draw down” or “channel” a higher power, and will respond to questions from people who ask them. It’s very popular: the waiting circle fills with people.

This is a “Goddess” rite, and I’ve somewhere gained the impression that this is primarily for the women at the gathering. On Saturday there will be a Sun Rite, where a Priest of the God will channel a higher power, and I’ve already decided I will go to that and not this one. I will simply observe from outside the circle. I do see that there are some men in the circle. But it is mostly women.

I do not want to offend by barging in where I’m not welcome. Danke schön.

Someone is beating a slow heart-rhythm on a mother-drum, a large drum with a deep tone that is almost subsonic. THUM. thum-THUM. THUM. thum-THUM.

As I stand, watching, I feel … what is it that I feel? A pull. An invitation. I take a deep breath, realizing I’ve become slightly entranced by the drum, by the wild beauty of the sun setting over the back haunches of the Dragon. I let myself fall back into the rhythm, and the pull is still there. “Come,” it says. I follow the pull into the waiting circle.

I don’t know what is proper. But I belong here. Tonight.

We are gathered before four high arches erected at one edge of the circle, each topped with a banner of a different color. One of a small army of guides will step forward to lead a single person standing at a gate through the arch and across a field to where the oracular priestesses hold audience. Then another. One by one.

I have been raised with a God who demands sacrifice and obedience: perhaps not literal sacrifice any more, in the form of goats and doves and firstborn children, but certainly obedience, and right-thinking, and modesty. “We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy,” we recite from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Or, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis — Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us,” from the Latin Mass. We are sinners. We are not worthy. We are not worthy. Have mercy on us.

What I had read of the Pagan paths was that we approach the gods as suitors seeking a lover. We approach as peers and collaborators. As companions. As equals, living in different realms. Rather than us asking them endlessly to stoop to lift us up from our perpetual inadequacy, they call upon us to rise. To speak with a Goddess, I must must not abase myself — instead, I must find the God within me.

I feel a bit terrified. What have I gotten myself into? Seeking the God within myself? What nonsense is this? What heresy is this? What if I get it wrong?

When the guide at last takes me across the field, it is nearly midnight, full-dark under a black sky scattered with pin-prick shining diamonds. I am led to a cleared area, where someone in a dark, hooded cloak stands, dimly lit by torches and a low fire. At first, I think this is the channel, but that somehow doesn’t feel right. Then I notice a lump on the ground:  a smaller figure seated — kneeling? — in front of the standing figure, who stands guard. I approach and kneel, not in supplication, but merely to meet on the same level. The channel is also hooded, face in shadow, looking at the ground. Then she looks up, directly at me.

Her eyes….

I don’t really know what I see. It’s like her eyes are backlit, but they aren’t. It’s something else, something deeper. It isn’t a human gaze: it is far too intense. It involves recognition. Welcome. Delight.

I know Her.

My heart is pounding.

It’s only a moment later that I notice the neatly-trimmed beard on her face. The channel is male.

It’s not important.

We speak, briefly. The words also mean very little.

All of the real communication has already taken place.


Saturday.

I skip the Sun Rite. In the same way I had felt pulled into the Drawing Down circle the night before, I feel pushed back from the Sun Rite.

Instead, I attend a Discordian Wiccan rite. Question: How many Discordians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: One, standing in a bathtub full of brightly-colored East German power tools.

(Don’t try too hard: it isn’t supposed to make sense.)

We start by raising energy, stomping vigorously in a counter-clockwise direction while chanting: “We love bananas, because they have no bones! Hey!” We call the cross-quarters, rather than the quarters: instead of air, fire, water, and earth, we call dust, hot air, steam, and mud. The assistant High Priestess passes out red construction paper circles stamped in small letters proclaiming “Model GP-18 suitable for all ritual purposes,” and we “cast the circle” by throwing them in random directions. The High Priestess enters the circle and channels the spirits of Moose and Squirrel. With puppets. Ritual degrees are conferred upon all participants, very few lower than Bishop, drawn from an old hat. The high priestess moons the entire gathering and and then leaves the circle, walking backward.

The High Priestess, Amber K, holds a workshop after the ritual, and we discuss the essential role of humor, mockery, and anarchy in ritual, religion, and culture. It’s like the Fool in the Medieval Court, who is often the only one who can speak the truth, because, hey, he’s just the Fool. It would be undignified to be upset by anything the Fool says. Even the truth. In the same way, any ritual can become encrusted with self-importance, and it’s good to give it a bit of an irreverent thrashing when that happens.


Saturday night.

I wander the entire campsite as night falls, feeling very much at home here among these mad, wonderful people. Many of the campsites are individual covens or clans, and they are doing their own rites tonight, for themselves. It is the last night of Dragonfest.

A peculiar thing begins to happen. I begin to feel very alone.

I walk past one camp, on a low hill above me. They are toasting with a mead horn, and laughing and speaking, and there seems to be something wrong with my hearing, because the sound seems muted: the soft lapping of waves on the lake seems louder than the laughs above. There must be a lake breeze carrying the sound away. There is also campfire smoke, which perhaps accounts for the fact that they all seem dimmer than they should. Or maybe my glasses are dirty.

I would like to join some group — it’s getting quite chilly, and the sense of aloneness is growing a bit oppressive — but it feels more and more like I’m the only person actually in the entire campground, surrounded by a vast wilderness. Just me, and the bears. There are bears. I’m not wearing a hat, which is stupid: I’m shedding heat like a candle. Perhaps I should go back to my tent and get warm in my sleeping bag. Maybe just go to bed. It’s dark, and cold, and I’m all alone in the woods.

I come to a three-way junction in the road, and stop. I can’t decide which way to go. There’s a nearby campsite with a lovely campfire, but it seems completely unwelcoming. I don’t understand why.

And then, the light from the nearby campfire seems to brighten — perhaps someone threw wood on it — and it’s suddenly very welcoming. My indecision vanishes. I walk toward the fire.

As I approach along the path, I feel a sudden agitation, a kind of “butterflies in the stomach” feeling. I chalk it up to incipient hypothermia: I’m clearly about to start shivering. There is an older man, and two older women, puttering about with the fire. I greet them and ask if I can share their fire for a bit.

“Your timing is perfect,” Judith, the more outgoing woman says. “We just finished up our ritual, and opened our circle.”

“Oh,” I say. “So the circle is gone now?” I’m thinking about that sudden sense of openness.

“No….” she says. “We only opened it. It’s still there, and we’ll likely leave it up all night. The big drumming circle right over there is … well, they don’t do a very good job of warding their space in the first place, and the drummers get drunk and they walk in and out and punch holes in it all night long, and they have all kinds of chaotic energy spewing out all night. Sloppy, and it’s annoying. It gives me headaches. So we’ll leave ours up until it fades by itself.”

“Interesting,” I say. I don’t really understand a word of this. How do you open a circle but leave it up?

We make small talk while I soak up heat. Earl is a retired nuclear engineer from Rocky Flats, and we talk shop for a bit. I’ve been surprised by the number of engineers and scientists at the gathering.

Once I’m warmer, I ask if they would mind if I … well, played with their circle a bit. Seeing that it’s still up. They have no objection.

I’ve still got butterflies, though I’m reasonably warm now. I walk back along the path, and suddenly — instantly — the butterflies are gone. I step back toward the fire, and they return. So it isn’t incipient hypothermia.

“Right here?” I call out. They’re all watching me closely.

“That’s right where I cast it,” Judith says. I’m now playing all kinds of confirmation bias hypotheses through my head: they can see me, I can see them, we’re just playing off each other without realizing it.

I start moving around their campsite, in and out, in and out, and there seems to be an invisible line: when I’m inside, I’m quivery; when I’m outside, I’m not. I get to the far side of their tent, where we can’t see each other, and I call out, “Seems like you cut really close to the tent on this side.” More assent, called back across the tents. I follow the tent line back into view from the fire, and they are all watching me and grinning.

Then I stop.  No quivers. I move around, and I can’t pick up anything at all. I move back toward the tent, and the quivers are still there. I move forward, and it’s gone.

“I’ve lost it,” I say.

To my surprise, Earl and the other woman start laughing out loud, while Judith scowls. “All right, that’s enough, you guys. It’s not my fault. It was a nice, tight circle.”

“Yeah,” Earl says, “but you forgot to leave the firewood inside the circle.”

Judith seems really embarrassed, and irritated.

“Earl is right, I don’t know what I was thinking. I drew the boundary, and then cut right across there and left the darn firewood outside. We couldn’t have Earl walking back and forth tearing holes in it during our rite, and I didn’t want to start all over again, so I made a cut right where you’re standing, and patched on an addition. To cover the wood.”

Seriously?

I will think about this experience, and others like it, in the coming years. It isn’t that humans can sense things more subtle than flashing lights and loud sounds and television advertising — I will continue to have plenty of experiences with subtle “energies” of one sort or another, just as everyone does, though most pretend they saw nothing, heard nothing. The astonishing thing is not that we can sense these things. What is astonishing is that one human can draw a line in the air with their finger, imagining a curtain of fire rising from the ground, and another human can come along later and find the line, and where they scrubbed it out.

A blot of mustard. A bit of underdone potato. Bah, humbug.

Our philosophy leaves much to be desired.


Sunday.

The festival shuts down at noon. I don’t know where they do the working, but “the dome” comes down. I feel it happen. The entire campsite has been enclosed in something like what Judith had constructed, a bubble or a barrier of some sort, so big that I hadn’t noticed it until the moment it was gone. It’s like the sunlight changes color, imperceptibly. The world gets larger and more impersonal; time begins to flow inflexibly again, where one second is always and everywhere the same number of beats of an oscillating Cesium atom in Boulder.

I remember that sense of timeless ease the afternoon I first arrived.

I think of that moment in Lord of the Rings, when the Fellowship leaves Lothlórien and at the boundary of the land, some light seems to leave the sky, and the earth.

I don’t want to leave. But I have obligations, and — for the moment — the magic is hidden again.

The Bad Guy

There’s a whole class of literature that involves caricatures. Fables, fairy tales, morality plays, allegories, Westerns, superhero tales, the list goes on and on….

These are fine in their place: they simplify moral issues so that you can see what is going on. There’s generally a “good guy,” and a “bad guy,” and they duke it out and the good guy wins. Or sometimes, the good guy loses, but becomes a martyr (or a helpful spirit) that inspires and aids the next good guy in the sequel.

One of the things that always gritches me — yes, I’m verbing an adjective, deal with it — is the traditional shallowness of the bad guys. They want “absolute power” for instance: but why? If you look at Star Wars, the evil emperor wants absolute power over everything, so let’s just assume he wins and gets absolute power over everything. So now, he just sits on his throne, immortal, unchallenged, all-powerful? Does he let out an evil chuckle every now and again, just because that’s his greatest remaining joy in life, chuckling while he remembers the good old days when he had something interesting to do with his time?

Of course, any sensible person would point out that this is a sci-fi/fantasy movie, an upscale comic book plot, and I’m taking it far too seriously. I agree, of course.

But then we come to “conspiracy theories.”

A lot of people believe that these things are real. That they are an imminent threat. That we all have to “do something” to respond to the threat, though it seems that — in most cases — the only thing we need to do is “see through” their evil plot and say, “Aha, I see through your evil plot!”

There are two sniff tests I always apply to any tale of conspiracy pretending to be real.

The first is this: never ascribe to conspiracy what can be adequately explained by mass stupidity.

The second is: if there is a conspiracy, and a bunch of “bad guys” secretly pulling strings and getting mass stupidity to work for them, then there is an objective to their conspiracy, and the objective makes some kind of communicable sense — otherwise, the conspirators would not have fallen in together in the first place.

There had to be a point in time that they were having lunch at a very upscale bistro, and one of them said, “Say, you know if we decided to do this thing that we would have to keep secret, just among us, it would benefit us all….” And then the others thought about it and decided they were all in.

People don’t conspire to “do evil.” They conspire to do something else, and evil is a side-product. They’ll often even acknowledge this, calling it a “regrettable, but necessary evil.”

In short, the second sniff-test is, “Follow the money.” It isn’t always money — sometimes it’s pride, or vainglory, or ideology — but there’s always some guiding benefit.

So there’s a conspiracy theory trying to make the rounds right now about how this whole COVID-19 thing is a hoax/conspiracy. Two, actually. Trump thinks (or says he thinks, which doesn’t mean much) it’s part of a conspiracy by the Democrats to take him out of power. Others, on the web, have been saying it’s a government/media conspiracy to try to enslave common citizens.

Neither makes an ounce of sense.

If it’s a hoax to take Trump out of power, then it started in China, spread to Italy, and is now worldwide. While I could easily believe that most of the world would like to see him kicked out of the Oval Office, quarantining Northern Italy is a very strange way to go about it.

But this other one is equally strange.

Again, you have the global nature of this. You have to assume a global government/media conspiracy, which is a bit like the evil emperor of Star Wars — what is the point of a global government/media conspiracy that … asks everyone to stay home for a few weeks?

Yes, like a curfew, it’s a ham-handed way of maintaining control. But you have curfews to quell riots, uprisings, and crime waves. During a curfew, you expect — demand, even — that people go back to work during the day. There’s no benefit to the powerful to asking people to stay home instead of going to work.

Indeed, quite the opposite. Business suffers.

And then the stock market tanks. It has already wiped out all the claimed gains of the Trump presidency, and we’ll see where it goes next week. The Federal Reserve has just announced it will cut the prime interest rate to zero. Were I trading in the stock market, I’d have sell orders placed with my broker, for execution at opening bell on Monday. Because I don’t expect swift recovery. In fact, I’d not be surprised if it reaches a point where the markets are closed altogether, to prevent financial panic and meltdown. I’ll not be surprised if we see a financial panic and meltdown, anyway.

It will be worldwide. Because the hoax, if it were a hoax, is worldwide.

This benefits whom?

Certainly not a global media conglomerate, which makes most of its money from advertising bought by the companies that make their money in a global economy that has to be functioning in order for them to buy advertising. If the stock market tanks, the global media empire gets hit, too.

Certainly not government. Governments do not benefit from economic meltdowns. In fact, they often fall, and the people in power get booted out, sometimes assassinated, sometimes driven out of the country to seek asylum elsewhere.

No one is going to deliberately fake a global pandemic. That would only happen in a comic book.

The Last Billionaire

Eric puttered in the garden, idly chipping at the hard, dry earth with his hoe. Sweat ran down his back, soaking his shirt but offering no relief from the heat. The temperature was already 37, and it was still early in the day. It would be in the mid-40’s this afternoon.

“Come on, Papa,” he muttered to himself, glancing again at the steel door to the compound.

Almost as if in answer, the locks on the door disengaged with a loud, metallic clack, and the door swung inward to disgorge his father, dressed — as always — in the formal clothing of his station.

“We’ve got to go, Papa,” Eric said.

His father stepped out into the sun and heat, blinking rapidly. His back was straight, his head held high, but his jaw was tight.

Eric clenched his own jaw and suppressed a flood of anger.

The bastard probably yelled at Dad. Called him names. Maybe struck him, though I don’t see any marks or blood. Well, it doesn’t matter any more.

He let the hoe fall to the ground, and strode quickly to where the two stuffed backpacks lay half-concealed under a dying bush, one for each of them. He donned one — the heavier one — and carried the other back to his father, who stood, staring at the fallen hoe with a faint scowl on his face.

“You need to put your tools away, son,” his father said, his voice cultured and calm. Eric felt another wave of anger, mixed with shame. He hesitated, then bent and picked up the fallen hoe.

It’s not about the tools,” his father had told him once, when he was a hot-headed teen-ager and had thrown a garden tool to the ground in a rage. “Tools can be repaired or replaced. It’s about you, and how you approach the world around you. Are you going to care for the things in your charge, or are you going to neglect and abuse them?

“I’m sorry, Papa,” Eric said.

His father took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

“I’m sorry, too, son. Leave the hoe. Walk with me.”

Eric blinked in surprise. But anxiety won out.

“Papa, we’ve got to go! They aren’t going to wait for us.”

“There’s time. Put down your pack, and walk with me to the lake. I want to sit by it for a moment.”

Eric’s clock was the sun. His father’s clock was inside-time, atomic-time, exact time. The same time as the people waiting for them. If his father said there was time, there was time.

Eric sighed, set down his father’s pack, and shrugged out of his own. His father had already started walking into the forest.

This was the fourth forest. The first — the original forest that had stood for centuries on this land — had burned and failed to grow back, because of drought and the growing heat. The second forest had been made of sterner stuff, manufactured to look like real trees, and the result had been … disturbing. They were close to real in appearance, but not quite — the branches did not bend properly in the wind, the leaves did not rustle the way they should, the bark was too regular, and they did not smell right. Though they were designed to give the illusion of life, in reality they emphasized the deadness of the forest. They had been torn down long before the project was completed.

They were replaced by the third forest, which was made up of gardens and sculpture, with climbing, heat-tolerant vines covering arbors and tall marble columns. The heat had eventually baked the heavily-irrigated gardens and withered the vines, leaving the sculpture standing desolate and alone on bare, sun-parched earth. The sculpture was removed and replaced with the fourth forest.

The artists had this time abandoned any attempt to replicate or incorporate nature. They had instead created an abstract fantasy forest of crystal, metal, and enamel. It tinkled rather than rustled in the breezes, and when the wind rose, it would stroke taut wires and openings in hollow branches, and the forest would actually sing. Lights built into the crystalline branches and leaves would flicker and create complex patterns at night. Faintly-perfumed water was pumped through the boles of the trees, and then misted into the air, cooling the shade beneath the branches.

At the center of the forest was a small lake of clear water. The beachfront was made of natural sand that dipped artful fingers into the water. Strategically-placed benches offered striking views of the lake and its surrounding crystal forest.

It had been both beautiful and pleasing, though it was sterile.

This forest had been completed five years ago, but like any man-made art exposed to the weather, it needed constant maintenance. There had been poor maintenance for the last three years, and none at all for the past year, and there were visible signs of decay. Sand had shifted, leaving bare spots that revealed metal and fabric. Enamel had faded where the sun was brightest, and chipped where wind-borne pebbles had struck. One of the trees on the far side of the lake had lost its exterior shell on one side, blown off in a windstorm, revealing rusted iron scaffolding inside. Wind-blown trash and detritus had caught in branches.

It was still beautiful.

They found a bench in the perfume-misted shade and sat. Eric waited in silence for his father to speak.

“Ramón,” Eric’s father said after a time, pensively. “My mother named me Ramón. She looked it up in a book. She said it meant ‘wise protector.’”

He fell silent.

Eric glanced at the sun’s angle, and fidgeted impatiently.

“I am staying,” Ramón said.

Eric stopped fidgeting, and stared at his father blankly.

“Papa! We have passage arranged!”

His father was silent.

“You can’t stay here! This place is dying. You will die with it!”

His father’s shoulders slumped, ever so slightly.

“Son, I am old, and spent. I will die before long, regardless of where I am. Here…. If I stay here, I may still do some good.”

“What good can you possibly do here?!” Eric cried out.

Ramón turned to fix Eric with a sharp gaze and faint smile that curled one side of his mouth.

“Good does not come of circumstances…” Ramón said.

“…it comes of choices,” Eric finished, with angry tears in his eyes. “As you’ve told me my entire life. But that is just as true whether you are here, or far from here. You can do good here, and you can do good there. Why stay? WHY?”

Ramón sighed, and turned his gaze back to the sterile lake.

“He will not notice the disappearance of another gardner. But if I leave, he will certainly notice. It will frighten him, and he will report my absence. They will hunt us both down.”

“Papa, half the staff is already gone. He has done nothing.”

Ramón smiled tightly, without mirth. “He does nothing, because he does not know.”

Eric blinked. “How… how can he not know?”

“Because I have not told him.”

Eric gaped.

“Papa, this whole place is like an abandoned house. Look at that tree over there — no one has fixed it. No one will. The last real gardens are nearly dead. Fountains have gone dry, and they still gurgle, because no one has bothered to shut off the power to the pumps. The apartments have far more dark windows at evening than lighted windows. How can he possibly not notice?”

Ramón closed his eyes and sighed, and slowly shook his head.

“He doesn’t notice, son, because he never leaves the compound, and has never noticed the staff. He does not bother to learn their faces, or know their names, or what they do, or where they live. He has people — like me — who do that for him. The working staff are as invisible to him as individual tiles in the floor, or bricks in a wall. Years ago, he would have noticed the … decay. The poor quality of service. He would have called on me to answer for it. But he is also aging, just as I am, and has other matters on his mind. He has not noticed, and I have not told him. So he has done nothing.

“If I leave, he will notice. He will report it. Contract Authority will hunt us down. They will find us. They will treat us as traitors and terrorists.”

Eric stared blankly ahead, silent tears on his face. They he scowled.

“You’ve always known this. Yet you agreed to escape to freedom with me. You helped me plan our escape. Did you ever intend to come with me? Or was it always a lie? To send me off to safety alone?”

“I have never lied to you, son.” Ramón’s voice was quiet, but suppressed fury rang in his tone, and reproach covered his face.

Fresh tears sprang to Eric’s eyes. “Then something else changed. What is going on, Papa?”

The anger and reproach on Ramón’s face blew away like dust in a hot summer wind.

“What changed, Papa?”

Ramón was silent for a long time. Eric waited.

“Elon is dead,” Ramón said at last, as though that explained anything at all. Eric merely shook his head.

“Who is Elon?”

“His friend. They were the last two of their kind. They were working on a final project together, he said the most important project he had ever attempted. He did not want disturbances. He barely wanted to eat. But Elon has been ill, and this morning, when he did not answer, I reported it. Contract Authority confirmed that Elon is dead, of natural causes associated with old age.”

“I don’t understand. So he lost a friend. We’ve all lost friends.”

“You are not thinking clearly, son. Work it out.”

Eric scowled and looked at his feet.

“I see,” he said at last. “He was distracted by his project with this friend. He would not have missed you right away. We could both have left, and would have been beyond reach before it was reported. Now, he has no friend, and no project, and he’ll be calling for you at all hours. If you aren’t there….”

Ramón smiled and nodded. “Remember in the future to think before you speak. As I’ve told you countless times.”

Eric shrugged off the rebuke.

“We should still take the chance, Papa. Contract Authority has lost a lot of men, and they are overworked controlling riots and massacres in the gated enclaves. They are stretched very thin. Why would they look for us?”

“Because of who he is,” Ramón replied. “The Contract Authority was created to serve men like him. Their charter is to track down runaway employees, not quell riots among employees who have stayed. His report of a runaway will gain their full attention. Even if the enclaves are burning.”

“But what about the people giving us passage? Can’t they protect us?”

Ramón shook his head.

“Much of the passage fee is to bribe the Authority to look the other way. If he reports us, Authority won’t honor the bribe.”

Eric began to sob openly, and he clenched and unclenched his hands as he wept. Ramón pulled Eric’s head into his shoulder and held him close. Eric clung to his father like a child.

When Eric’s weeping was done, he released his father and pushed himself away. He stared at Ramón with reddened eyes.

“Then I must stay, too. I can’t go without you.”

Ramón smiled with sudden tears in his eyes.

“No, Eric. You don’t need me any more. You are no longer a boy. You are a man, and you will thrive in your new home.”

“That’s not what I meant, Papa. I meant I can’t go, and leave you here. He is a cruel man. Things will get worse, and he will take out his rage and disappointment on you, as he has in the past. I can’t leave you to face that, all alone.”

Ramón glanced at the shiny disk on his wrist, then rubbed his face with his other hand.

“Eric, there is so much I want to tell you, but time is growing short.

“Yes, once I rose out of the lower echelons, he noticed me, and was cruel to me, and many nights, especially after a beating, I went to my bed dreaming of my hands tight around his throat. But by that time, I had you, and your mother had died, and I knew that if I showed so much as a hint of my murderous thoughts, they would tear up my contract and send me to the slums, and sell your contract on the open market. As a child. You know what that would have meant.

“So instead, I swallowed my pride, and endured. I continued to rise in rank. He came to trust me, and then to depend upon me. I grew close enough that I could have killed him. Perhaps even made it look natural. But I was always afraid I would make a mistake, and they would find me out, and execute me, and I can only guess what they would have done to you. Something unbearable.

“I endured. I adjusted staffing quotas to ensure you had work, and rations. I’ve kept you close to the compound and off the hard labor lists. I’ve structured my life so that you could live until a real opportunity came along. That time has come. You must take passage. You must go. Because you are right: this place is dying. The entire civilization is dying. If you stay, you will die with it. You will make everything I endured meaningless.

“Please, Eric. Go. Let me stay and do what I need to do, so that you can go, and be free. Please.”

Eric studied his father’s face for a long moment, then took a deep breath.

“I will go, Papa. And you will stay. And I will tell my sons, and daughters, and anyone who will listen, what you did for me.”

Ramón smiled, and the smile at last caused the unshed tears to fall and rain down his cheeks.

“Then it is time, my son,” Ramón said, and rose.

They turned and walked back through the metal forest toward the compound.

“Once I’m safely en route, will you kill him?”

Ramón walked in silence for a while.

“No,” he said at last. Eric glanced at him in surprise, and saw that his father also had a puzzled expression on his face.

“Why not?” Eric asked.

Ramón said nothing for a long moment. Then he spoke, hesitantly.

“I saw the project he and Elon were working on. They had decided to fix the climate. Just the two of them. They would put their vast financial empires together, and get the job done. They had a plan. I don’t know enough to tell you if it was a good plan, or a bad plan, or just a fantasy of old men. They spoke as if they thought it would work. But they were stuck on one, final point, something they could not get around.”

“What was that?” Eric asked.

“They could not figure out how to make it profitable.”

Eric stopped walking, his mouth open. Ramón stopped, and turned back to face his son. They stared at each other. And then Ramón’s lips twitched slightly, and they both burst out laughing uncontrollably.

The laughter at last subsided, and they quickened their pace toward the compound. Ramón’s face grew sad as they walked.

“When I understood that they could not move forward with a plan to save the Earth because it would not make them wealthier, I understood something about both of them that I had never imagined. 

“They were afraid. Their lives were consumed by that fear. They were like dogs that keep eating, not because they are hungry, but because they are afraid of becoming hungry. They eat to try to quell, not their hunger, but their fear. They eat until they are in pain, and then eat more until their stomachs burst, and they die. Their fear does not allow them to do otherwise.

“He has always had apple pie on his birthday, since he was a boy. A few years ago, his chefs could not prepare his birthday pie, because there were no apples to be found, at any price. 

“He screamed at the cooks. He had the head chef beaten. When he finally grasped that we couldn’t find apples, he ordered us to plant an apple orchard, at enormous expense, in a special climate-controlled garden with seed we acquired from a seed ark: the seeds never germinated. Then he wanted us to buy a biotech company to create new heat-resistant apple seeds — but there weren’t any such companies left, and their employees’ contracts had all been scattered to other industries.

“He is the richest, most powerful man in the world, and he can’t have apple pie on his birthday. And he can’t seem to grasp why this is the case.”

They had reached the compound door, and Eric shouldered his pack.

“I no longer hate him,” Ramón said. “I pity him. He’s caused himself far more pain than he ever caused me. And he has nothing to show for it. His last friend is dead, and all his wealth cannot buy him a final taste of apple pie. I’m the fortunate one: I have a son, who is going to make a life for himself in a place where the rain still falls.

“So no, son, I’m not going to kill him. I’m going to continue to serve him as I have for so many years, and try to make his last days more comfortable.”

They embraced. Then both wiped away their tears, and Eric turned and strode away without looking back.

Super Tuesday

I voted in the California Democratic primary yesterday. We’re in one of those remote regions where there is no actual polling place: ours is all done by mail. Somehow, when we moved, my registration didn’t move with me, and while my wife’s ballot came a week or two ago, mine didn’t come, and didn’t come, and here comes Super Tuesday. So I found the county election office (it’s in town) and went there in person to get my ballot, and I voted. I even wore the “I Voted” sticker.

I voted for Bernie.

There were a lot of factors involved, but in the end, the biggest item was the young voters.

I wrote an open letter to Nancy Pelosi some time back, in response to an old video clip in which she was dismissively grandma-‘splainin’ to a young voter that “we are capitalists” — she seemed exasperated that he didn’t seem to understand this. I pointed out in my letter that, no, “we” are not capitalists. In particular, the young man she was talking down to was clearly not a capitalistIn the end, he is going to win, for one, simple, unarguable reason: he’s going to outlive Pelosi. He’s going to outlive me. His beliefs and attitudes are going to control the future. Not ours.

Elders preserve their beliefs and attitudes by passing them on to the young, by selling them to the young, if you will. When the elders are unconvincing and the young don’t buy what they are selling, those beliefs and attitudes die out.

Our time has already passed.

If you look at the young voters, they are all in for Bernie. They have plenty of good reason to be, of course. But I also see how idealistic the young are — and remember how idealistic I was back in the day — and I think they will walk away from the election almost en masse rather than vote for someone they think is the wrong person.

Put Biden up against Trump, and the young will not vote at all. Or they will throw away their vote on a write-in candidate.

Our time has passed. It is time to let the young take the torch.

WTF Is Going On?

On Facebook, a friend of mine was asking how it was that conservatives and liberals in this country are accusing each other of hatred, dishonesty, ignorance, fanaticism, and numerous other sins of the mind and soul. We’re all quite certain we’re doing none of that, and that the other guy is absolutely guilty of all of that.

But then he turns it around on us, and we wonder if he’s a Russian troll gaslighting us, and then laughing when we start doubting ourselves.

I think there are plenty of Russian trolls out there, especially on Facebook. And I think there are plenty of people of bad intention and bad faith gaslighting us because they are small-souled people who think it’s funny.

But I find it hard to believe that so MANY people are such shmucks. I think there’s something else going on.

Here was my response to the post, which the poster liked quite a lot.

For what it’s worth:


We are, in my experience, very poor judges of ourselves, and of our own core value systems. We also tend to lie to protect ourselves, our reputations, and our power. We lie to ourselves all the time.

These personal lies tangle with the cultural lies we tell ourselves as a society.

Let’s start with the cultural lies.

Our nation no longer bears much resemblance to what we say about it. We do not have a democracy in the US, or anything like a democracy. We have a huge, but inflexible and fragile economy that is teetering perpetually on the edge of collapse, because it must grow proportionally to survive, and it can no longer grow proportionally. Our society has moved very far indeed from any kind of “free” society: nearly all of us are job-slaves, with our housing, our food, our medicines, and even our friendships and communities tied to a rationing system that is grotesquely inequitable, and — for most of the population — insufficient for our basic survival needs. The “successful” must pull up roots and move anywhere at the behest of their masters: should they refuse, they are not sold to another master, but rather, must to sell themselves to another master on the auction block. When we become too old or ill to be useful to a new master, we are sidelined, warehoused, and forgotten. We are profoundly racist, sexist, ageist, and classist.

In other words, most of the things we repeat endlessly about our nation are lies.

I think the main difference between conservatives and liberals is the nature of the lies and rationalizations they are willing to tell themselves about our nation.

Conservatives have crafted a “conservative mythology” in which this crumbling nation is beset by immigrants, lazy bums, badly-raised “millennials,” and whining left-wing socialists. If we could just get rid of all those worthless parasites, everything would be fine.

Liberals have crafted a “liberal mythology” in which this crumbling nation is beset by greedy capitalists, corrupt bribe-takers in Congress, dishonest elections, and lying right-wing fascists. If we could just get rid of all those sociopaths, everything would be fine.

Both viewpoints are lies told to protect the fundamental lie that we still live in a strong, young, vigorous, viable democracy.

I would say that both sides have drunk the toxic kool-aid. They just prefer different flavors.

That said, there are two distinctly different flavors.

Conservatives tend toward authoritarianism. That’s been borne out by many studies.

I saw a conservative comment the other day saying “Yay! Trump 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032!” and some other conservative who was shocked enough to say, “You want a dictator?” I would say that the true answer, in general, is yes. Not that most conservatives would admit to that openly (though many would), since it runs against our cultural lies about how democracy-is-best. But authoritarians crave a structure of authority, and are really just fine with a dictator. They all want a “good” dictator, of course, but that mostly means one who aligns well with the lies they tell themselves. Like a dictator who will build a wall to keep out the evil immigrants, which will solve all the problems of a crumbling society.

When we get into politics itself, there is a lot of very deep corruption, which you would expect in a crumbling republic. It’s impossible to discern true motives, because the politicians are all working with propagandists to craft a “message,” meaning a way to sweeten what is bitter. All of them. Are they really in it for the power? The money (licit and illicit)? The adulation? Are they trying to preserve the republic, or loot it as it goes down?

Surprising comments pop out of their mouths from time to time. They always claim “they misspoke.” I tend to think that for just a moment, they lost focus, and accidentally spoke their truth.

Given that most people are trying to preserve the lie of living in a viable and everlasting republic, they start off confused and get more confused by the antics of the politicians.

Then we come to Trump. All the evidence points to him being a pathological narcissist, and if that’s true, his motives are quite straightforward: it’s all about him. Adulation, power, and wealth. His behavior is consistent with that, including the stream of self-aggrandizing lies he tells.

For some reason, people are fascinated by narcissists, and are more than happy to promote them to positions of adulation, power, and wealth. Maybe it’s a survival thing: when you have a pack of starving wolves attacking your tribe, it’s not the best time to sit down and have a debate over the best way to deal with them.

Given that the republic is failing, it isn’t surprising that large numbers of people would turn to a narcissist, and particularly conservative authoritarians. We all feel the collapse. We want it to stop. We want someone to tell us what to do.

The Parties

My son wrote me an e-mail the other day. He was pointing out that Obama and Biden engaged in plenty of “quid pro quo,” and cited some references. So what’s the big deal with quid pro quo for Trump?

My son is very negative regarding the Democratic Party. I don’t actually disagree with him: the party is contemptible. I think the main difference between us is context. I view Obama — in particular — in the context of the Bush/Cheney: my expectations for Obama were very low, and he exceeded them by quite a lot. By contrast, my son was only thirteen when the Bush/Cheney was elected, and was still under twenty when the Bush/Cheney disintegrated in the mid-term election of 2006. Obama was his first president as an adult, and his expectations were very high. Obama disappointed him terribly.

But his question was a good one: what was this quid pro quo all about?

Well, it was never about quid pro quo at all. It was about separation of powers. It isn’t that Trump leaned on Ukraine. That would have been fine, had he been backed by Congress and all of the vested interests within his own executive branch. Instead, Trump went all cattle baron and hired a gunslinger — Rudy Giuilani — and a bunch of other politically-appointed thugs like Gordon Sondland and Mike Pompeo, to go rough up the Ukrainians, and he didn’t consult with the other cattle barons. Or, if you prefer, he didn’t give the other Mafia dons the respect — and the kickback — they expected.

Let’s back up. To understand the Constitutional separation of powers, you have to first understand that the Framers believed that people are assholes. They used the term “devils,” which — in the language of the eighteenth century — is considerably darker than “asshole.” So using metaphors like “cattle barons” or “Mafia dons” to describe the Washington culture is perfectly in keeping with the way they thought about matters while they were debating the Constitution.

They set up the government as a Mexican standoff, with three parties — the courts, the legislature, and the president — all pointing shotguns at each others’ heads. They did not believe that any of those three groups would behave honorably. Quite the contrary. But they did believe that they would always look out for their own self-interest.

This is the heart of the impeachment clause. It is the shotgun that Congress has pointed at the president’s head.

When Trump leaned on Ukraine, his sin was not what he did, but the fact that he went around Congress, and around all of the laws they had passed, and did it anyway — and then, when someone noticed and said something, covered it up. It was a direct subversion of the separation of powers, and it rightly caused Congress to pull the trigger.

Or rather, it caused half of Congress to pull the trigger.

One of the things that the Framers feared was the power of the political parties, and for precisely the reason that has just played out in front of us. What has happened is that the power of the political party — the winning party — is greater than the power of Congress, the executive, and the courts together.

The Republican majority in Congress is not supporting Trump because he’s the president: they are supporting him because he is a Republican. The courts, embodied by Republican favorite Chief Justice Roberts, will ratify their “trial” of the president, regardless of the level of sham it represents.

What this means is that, in practice, the structure of US government has changed at a very basic level. It is no longer a three-party Mexican standoff among courts, legislature, and executive. It is now a two-party standoff between two political parties, Republican and Democrat, both of which act to imbue the dominant party (their own) with absolute power in a no-holds-barred struggle for power.

The Bush/Cheney loaded the courts with Republican jurists, enabled by a Republican Senate, and that same Republican Senate blocked Obama from reversing that during his time: as a result, the courts, by-and-large, are now preferentially allied with the Republicans, with a full twenty-year lead. The current Republican Senate majority is fully-allied with the Republican president, and there is no imaginable crime or misdemeanor a Republican president could commit that they would not excuse. The only dissenting voice in the political system is the Democratic majority in the House — one-sixth of the elected government. They attempted to pull the impeachment trigger on the president over a clear transgression of separation of powers, and the Senate put its finger in front of the hammer. The shotgun did not fire. It will never fire while the Senate and president belong to the same party.

Note that this isn’t about “policy” or “conservative” or “liberal” political theories. This is simply a matter of raw power: who has it, and who does not. The Republicans are a disciplined group willing to do whatever it takes to take and maintain power. The Democrats are still divided, with many playing the old game of polity and negotiation and public will and “good of the nation,” which is why their primaries always look like a circus.

It doesn’t really matter who wins the 2020 election: not unless the Democrats take the presidency, and Senate, and hold the House, and spend the next eight or sixteen years reversing the de facto Republican takeover.

But that won’t really make any difference, either, because it remains the same two-party standoff, merely with a different party in power. The Democrats won’t get there unless they become as disciplined as the Republicans. And remember: they are all assholes. Or devils, if you prefer. Once they hold the power, they are not going to voluntarily go back to the Mexican standoff.

The only solution I see is to break the power of the parties. To shatter them both beyond any possible repair. We need third, and fourth, and seventh parties, and a voting system that supports that.

The Sibelius Concerto

This weekend, the Ukiah Symphony Orchestra will perform Jean Sibelius’ one and only violin concerto, with Polina Sedukh as soloist.

I fell in love with this concerto as a teen-ager.

In those dark ages, the vast array of modern musical delivery devices simply didn’t exist. The thing that all the kids had was a 45 rpm phonograph, a “record-player,” and all of us had our collection of our favorite 45 records, kept in a box where they stood vertically, to protect them from scratches. We’d carry them to our friends’ houses, listen to tunes, and swap records. We played them over and over until the sound grew grainy. Storing them vertically didn’t preserve them from dust, grit, dull steel phonograph needles, and overuse.

Later, as a teen-ager, I gave up all other Christmas presents for a couple of years in return for an audiophile’s dream: a 33 rpm changer, with a separate amplifier and headphones. That took a LOT of wheedling and whining. You would stack the much larger LP (Long Playing) albums on the spindle, and the platter would drop onto the turntable, the arm would automatically swing and drop onto the starting track, and the music would play. Then, when the album had completed, the arm would automatically move out of the way, the next album would drop onto the turntable, and the needle would again move to the starting track. You could listen to a couple of hours of music without touching anything.

The album business was well under way by then — Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in 1967 — but LP albums were expensive. I didn’t have a budget for that. What I did have was a library card. And the county library had LPs — mostly classical music.

Sibelius’ violin concerto was in the bin, and I fell asleep listening to it many, many nights. I think it’s fair to say that it helped to shape, and give voice to, my soul.

I have my favorite passages, of course.

There’s a place in the first movement where the violin starts crossing strings, lightly, like a Mozart cadenza, but then it gradually turns into firestorm of shifting chords that simply can’t be contained: he gives up the string crossing and starts sawing wildly in desperate octaves, culminating in thunder from the drums and blaring horns. The raw passion of it is so like the explosive passions of a teen-ager, trying to come to terms with hormones and social pressures and parental expectations in a world that resists making any sense at all.

Then there’s a sweet, rising theme in the second movement that occurs twice, filled with yearning. The first time, it rises and falls back into the general fabric of sound, incomplete, but the second time, it rises, and rises, and rises, and then resolves into a major chord broken by a major seventh — a triumph tinged with unanswerable sadness — and just remembering it gives me chills up and down my neck, and brings tears to my eyes.

And then, the third movement, with its insistent drumbeats and the mad little tunes dancing around them. My favorite passage is the demented elven melody played entirely with harmonics, which is a violin technique where you just barely touch the string in just the right place with your little finger, and it drives the pitch up a full octave with a strange, unearthly, hollow sound.

The Sibelius violin concerto ranks among the most difficult violin concertos to play, and what I’ve heard from the rehearsing musicians is that Polina Sedukh makes it sound easy, drawing an astonishing life and depth from the music.

I, for one, can’t wait to hear it.

An Economy

My college roommate used to talk about his math teacher in high school.

“Last year,” the teacher would say, as introduction to his class, “you learned AN algebra. This year, you will learn THE calculus.”

There is an instructive truth to this. The algebra taught in high school is only one of an entire collection of different algebras with very different mathematical properties. Everyone knows, from high school algebra, that (A times B) is the same as (B times A). That’s because high school algebra is a commutative algebra. But there are non-commutative algebras in which this is not true. There are quantized algebras, and algebras over closed sets, and abstract algebras with names like “open-closed homotopy algebras,” or the algebra of a “rational two-dimensional conformal field on
oriented surfaces with possibly nonempty boundary.”

To say that you “understand algebra” almost invariably means that you understand the algebra taught in high school. It’s a little like saying you “understand language,” meaning that you understand your mother tongue, and can speak in full sentences. Most people know at least one language, and some know many languages, but to say that you “understand language,” if taken at face value, is highly unlikely to be true.

I believe that people who “understand economics” are in much the same situation. They understand AN “economics,” which attempts to describe one kind economy. But there are many different kinds of economy.

In the broadest sense, what is an economy? I would say it’s simply the things that people collectively do around an organizing theme.

If you look at ancient Egypt, they had a “pyramid building” economy. That’s just shorthand for a large collection of related activities, from farming the Nile delta, to raising up Pharaohs, to training armies, to venerating their gods, to — of course — actually building stone pyramids. The idea of the Pyramid more or less captures this idea of people doing activities around some organizing theme.

You can look at fourteenth-century Europe as having a “cathedral building” economy. It organized resources, and provided steady, multi-generational skilled employment for stone masons, architects, artists, glass-blowers, vendors of everything from bricks to pastries to holy relics.

The general thing about an economy is that it organizes the activities of excess labor: labor that would, absent the economy, have pretty much nothing to do but eat and procreate and quarrel.

Think about it. The stone masons are not producing food. Cathedrals can’t really be considered “shelter” from the weather. They aren’t good places to procreate — they’re drafty and full of cold, hard surfaces — and quarreling is likely to break something priceless. From any practical perspective, cathedrals — like pyramids — are pretty damned useless.

If you look at our economy, it seems that the focus is producing billionaires. Like the “pyramid economy,” the “billionaire economy” is an oversimplification. But if you look at what our modern capitalist economy produces, it is — purely and simply — capital: hoards of unspent wealth owned by individuals.

Unlike the pyramid economy, we don’t have a particular “thing” we produce with our excess labor. One of the current fads is computers, but in ten years, it may be windmills, or solar panels, or nuclear power plants, or desalinization plants, or something else. However, whatever “thing” we stay busy with, it will surely produce concentration of capital, and will produce another billionaire (or twenty).

The interesting thing is that most economies function, not by means of production, but by means of rationing. By definition, excess labor means excess goods, specifically food, and this is rationed out by a complicated system of “merit” based on the underlying economy. For the pyramid economy, surveyors lived better than log-rollers. For the cathedral economy, stonemasons lived better than street-sweepers.

Rationing is a way of rewarding people for complying with the current economy, and punishing those who do not. This is how it provides focus.

“I’d quit my job, but I have to eat.”

People didn’t build European cathedrals because they were pious. They build cathedrals because it was how they could earn their daily bread in the rationing system of the cathedral building economy. It was how they could gain standing, power, and wealth.

“It’s a good job, son. Learn to cut stone and you’ll never go hungry.”

Every job in our current economy is tied to profit, which is defined by its ownership class, which hoards paper wealth in a kind of financial Tokamak ring called the “stock market.” The goal of a real Tokamak ring is to produce nuclear fusion. The goal of the stock market is to store capital and grow endlessly bigger over time, filled with more and more money, buoyed up on a string of business fads that strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more. The great steamship builders; the great electric power utilities; the great computer cable networks.

We produce billionaires.

Future generations will look back on us, and ask, “What were they thinking?”

But to return to the opening topic, our economists study, not economies, but AN economy: specifically an economy that produces billionaires, not cathedrals or pyramids. In doing so, they rationalize and glorify the creation of billionaires — economists need to eat, too — and this warps the whole picture frame of what “economic health” looks like.

One of the questions that people throw out from the so-called “right-of-center” (on the accepted one-dimensional political axis) is: “How will we pay for it?” The “it” can be anything that people from the so-called “left-of-center” bring up: single-payer health care, student loan forgiveness, free education, free food for the homeless.

But that isn’t their real question. What they are really asking is, “How can we accomplish this thing that the left-of-center wants, but make it fit within the rationing rules of our current economy?”

Well, we can’t.

By definition, the people the left-of-center want to benefit are the ones currently being punished by AN economy that produces billionaires. If we we bail out the students, we will fall short on our annual quota of new billionaires. If we treat the sick, the billionaire economy will sag.

Explaining the left-of-center view to an economist is like explaining to the Exchequer of the Royal Court in Medieval Paris that we halted construction of a cathedral to dig a well for a bunch of lepers, the Cursed of God.

Off with your head, you irresponsible fool!

But the original question is the better question, and it has a simple answer.

“How will we pay for it?” We pay for it the way any economy pays for anything: with our excess labor. Because the economy is whatever we do with our excess labor. And we are approaching a crisis in what we are currently doing with our excess labor.

I had an amusing exchange with my boss this morning. We had our weekly online meeting, and he was fifteen minutes late, waiting for his computer system to reboot. Last week, I had to skip a meeting because my system wouldn’t connect sound in either direction. I had to talk with a co-worker today, and we had to switch to a different program to hear each other.

It seems like half of all our time is spent rebooting computers, upgrading phone software, filtering out junk mail, fighting with “productivity tools” that make us less productive, less communicative, and less organized.

What the Hell are we all doing?

Creating billionaires.

If economists tell us that this is our highest good as a people and a species, they are wrong. They are wrong because they are laying out the rules of AN economy, our economy. There are other economies.

It is time to change.

 

Reflections on a Power Outage

I live in Northern California, about an hour North of Santa Rosa, and we experienced a five-day PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutdown) from Oct 26-30. I thought it might be useful (or at least interesting) to others for me to talk about the experience itself.

We did at least know it was coming, which was a good thing. We had no idea how long it would actually last, which was not so good. They said “up to five days.” Could have been one; could have been ten. I’m not sure they had ever done such a large shutdown, but certainly not recently — power could have been out for a lot longer if they had trouble bringing it back up, as they did along the Mendocino coast.

Weather was mild throughout the shutdown. We have normal daily temperature swings of about fifty degrees (Fahrenheit) in the summer, somewhat less by October, so nights can get a little chilly — checking on the web, the low that week was about 40, and the high 86. Forty can lead to hypothermia if you sleep naked on the ground, or get wet, but this is otherwise not deadly weather.

We lost home heating. We have a newly-installed heat-pump system, which is all-electric and (of course) did not function at all. But even those with central gas heating have electric fans and igniters, so those did not function, either. We have a traditional wood fireplace, but those generally cool the house by drawing cold air in through windows and vents to feed the fire; and during fire season here, the smell of burning wood is not charming. However, because the weather was mild, it was enough for us to scrounge up an extra blanket for the bed, and wear layers in the early morning.

We lost running hot water. We have a gas-fired on-demand water heater, but — like central heat — it has electric components which won’t work, as do standard gas water heaters.

We have a gas range, which did work. The electric igniters would not work, but it’s easy enough to strike a match to light the burners. The oven has electric thermostatic control, so that wouldn’t work: no pies during a power outage. We also had our camping stove, with its little Coleman propane tanks, which we could have used. We ended up lending that to a neighbor. We also have a propane grill in the backyard. Cooking was well-covered.

We had clean water and sewage removal. The city kept the systems on, both of which require electric pumps somewhere along the path. We could drink clean water and shower (cold). With the stove, we could heat water and take warm splash baths in the tub, and drink hot tea or coffee in the morning. More importantly, we could get rid of five days of human excrement with a system designed to handle daily effluent.

We had no Internet. I have no idea if Comcast stayed up: it was a moot point, since anything I have that would use it requires electricity to run. I suspect their cable service was down, but I don’t know.

We had cell phone service. The cell towers remained operational, and we could send and receive phone calls and messages, so long as we kept our phones charged.

The level of darkness was impressive. The PSPS began right on the cusp of the new moon, so we had full nights of only starlight, unrelieved by city-glow or moon-dusk or moon-dawn. I had to use a flashlight to find the bedroom or bathroom after sunset, or feel my way around using my hands. Nights seemed extraordinarily long.

We had candles, enough for me to read after sunset. But it takes quite a few candles for my old eyes: you also have to have the book pretty close to them, and my eyes got tired quickly. There wasn’t much joy in late-night reading.

There was also a profound silence. Right now, I can hear a persistent 60 Hz hum in the house. If you listen for it, you can even hear it outside, coming from every house, every power line. With the entire city shut down, it was quiet, the way it is in the mountains. The crickets were loud.

We have an electric refrigerator and chest freezer, and both of those went off and stayed off. We had to pay close attention to food, and ended up losing some.

A lot of the food we normally keep in the refrigerator keeps just fine without refrigeration. Cheese is simply a way of preserving milk without refrigeration, and hard block cheeses will keep for a long time, as well as ripened cheeses that haven’t been cut. Similarly, dried, salted, and fermented (e.g. salami) meats will keep without refrigeration. Intact eggs don’t normally need to be refrigerated at all. Anything pickled or canned doesn’t need refrigeration. Dry goods like crackers or rice don’t need refrigeration. And there is the oldest of all preservation methods, fire: cooking preserves fresh food, though it’s fairly short-term.

Other food in the refrigerator — fresh vegetables, meat, milk — all had to be eaten, or thrown out.

The chest freezer stayed cold. Had there been more food in it, I think everything would have stayed deeply frozen. As it was, we ended up with a thin layer of water at the bottom, though the bags of ice we had in there were not visibly melted when the power came back on. We made judgment calls on what was in the freezer.

The grocery stores all shut down. None of them had enough failover generator capacity to keep all of their refrigeration running for five days: some, like Safeway, had no failover generators at all. They all lost all of their frozen food, and after five days, had to throw out all of their fresh meat, vegetables, and fruits, which people weren’t buying a lot of, anyway, since they had no way to keep it, either. By day three, the grocery stores were all closed, and entire shelves were empty for the next week after the power came back on.

A few other stores stayed open.

Costco kept their gas pumps running: people with generators needed gasoline, and we could still use cars to get around — and ironically, to recharge our cell phones. I saw people sitting in their cars in their driveways, idling, while their phones charged: an expensive charger, to be sure. None of the smaller gas stations could run their pumps, and closed.

The hardware stores stayed open, though they only had small generators to power the cash registers, and the aisles were generally dark, lit only by skylights or worklamps clamped to a shelf and powered by a long extension cord snaking across the floor back to the generator: they had employees who would greet you at the door with flashlights, and would walk you around. They sold out of batteries, flashlights, and Coleman lanterns almost immediately, of course, as well as generators.

A few restaurants and pubs that had generators stayed open, at least early in the power outage, with specials to get rid of their food while it was still good.

Other stores simply closed: without electricity, cash registers won’t open, credit card scanners won’t scan, store lights won’t come on.

Schools and the college all shut down.

They brought in a generator for the library, to provide a working community space, and a place to get news and charge phones.

Streetlights and traffic signals were dark: every intersection with a signal was treated as a four-way stop, but there wasn’t a lot of traffic.

In short, the experience was — personally — a bit easier than the five-day mountain retreat that Marta and I would go to in Colorado every summer: here, we didn’t need to pack in our own water and use porta-potties; nor did it get as cold at night.

I held that mountain-retreat image in my mind, and relaxed into the inevitability of forces beyond my control.

I spent some time writing letters. I had paper, and pens, and during the day, light. I sat in the back yard, at our patio table in the sun.

It was interesting to return to that lost art. I used to write a lot of letters, in the days before the Internet. It’s a lot harder than using a word-processor.

Marta and I also worked outside in the yard during daylight hours, which is how I knew the hardware stores were open: any work around the house always requires trips to the hardware store. We did a little unpacking, took walks. We retired early, rose early.

If this all sounds relatively benign, even pleasant — well, for us, it was. We were quite fortunate.

For others, it was neither benign, nor pleasant. A lot of lower-income people lost food they were counting on being able to eat. They lost work hours they could not afford to be without. Many businesses took a serious hit in terms of lost inventory and income.

In reflecting on this, the big issues were the things that have always made cities marginal places to live: food, water, and waste.

I would say waste is the most important of the three. Had the sewage pumps shut down, the city would have quickly become uninhabitable. It was the first thing travelers noted about many Medieval cities: the stench as you approached it, becoming unbearable once you were walking the streets. Pestilence and plague follow.

Access to clean water comes only shortly behind. Our “aqueduct into every kitchen” model isn’t the only model. Water can be delivered, just like milk used to be, or people can travel to get it from a central source, a kind of urban equivalent to the “village well.” Without water for washing and drinking, however, a city dies pretty quickly.

We didn’t experience any interruption of waste removal or water supply.

What we experienced was the consequence of our reliance upon electricity for fresh food. Again, the supermarket with bright lights, freezers, and electric credit-card readers is not the only model. We could have more corner stores, each taking more frequent deliveries of fresh, locally-procured food in smaller quantities: the “corner grocer” of the sort you find in very large cities, with a cash-only, or neighborhood account-based payment. It would likely mean less variety, more frequent “sold out” conditions, and certainly higher prices.

There’s a basic rule in life: efficiency is the enemy of resilience. When a violinist buys extra strings for his fiddle, it is inefficient: the money spent on strings, and the time spent pre-stretching them, when they may not be used for years, could have been more efficiently spent on something else. Economists even have a term for this: “opportunity cost.” But it compensates with resilience: if a string breaks just before a performance, or even during a performance, the show can continue — otherwise, the show must be canceled.

Our supermarket system is quite efficient. But it is also quite fragile. A five-day loss of electricity exposed just how fragile it is. A five-week loss of electricity would require a completely new system of food distribution, and a lot of chaos getting it set up, possibly including food riots, violence, and even starvation.

That’s in a little village surrounded by vineyards and pear orchards and squash patches. Rural country, close to local farms.

Right now, everyone is angry with Pacific Gas and Electric, because they’re what’s called a regional for-profit monopoly, and they’ve been making substantial payouts to investors and company officers for many years, and “deferring” (neglecting) maintenance on their systems, resulting in failing systems that are causing some of the fires up here. For which they’ve been sued into bankruptcy.

Some people want to “fix” PG&E, and punish the miscreant officers who mismanaged the company.

But the real issue is resilience, which pretty much the entire nation has sacrificed in favor of efficiency. In some ways, this PSPS was a blessing. We don’t need a better regional monopoly. We need a resilient system.