Monday, December 17, 2012

Kicking it at the Top of the J-Curve

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

Kicking it at the top of the J-Curve

When you are a retired person you can do things like this:  Tape the "Les Miserables" Festival they were having on Turner Classic Movies last week and begin your day with the very good - very complete - 1934 French version that runs over 5 hours in length.  Then, having done your homework - I didn't have the 6 hours required to read the 1,800 page novel by Victor Hugo - you can move on to the 1935 classic (read: 2 hours) starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton before advancing to the 1952 version with Michael Rennie and so on.

It was a plan, however small.

Until my brother-in-law emerged from the basement...  My brother-in-law lives in the basement, no questions, please...  and he says, "Ain't ya watching teevee?"

Today's Voice speaks to tragedy in our culture but in a more broad way.  Bear with me, we've got a few miles to go before we sleep.   I have detected a severe reaction to the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, which I was made aware of by my brother-in-law.

When you begin your conversation with "Turn on the television, you've gotta see this," it is as sure a sign of pending graphic horror as you will ever see.  But you can't just keep watching Les Mis, you have to look.  But I got a sick feeling in my stomach.  My mind raced back to September 11, 2001, when I was home with my toddler son and the phone rang and my wife, the editor of The Progress, a small daily paper in Clearfield, Pa., said, "Turn on the teevee.  You've gotta see this."

The presses had been stopped at The Progress that day to observe the insensate violence of that day.

"What channel?" I said.

"It doesn't matter what channel," she said and hung up the phone.

My mind grappled with that.  It doesn't matter what channel?  And I woke to a new age in real-time horror.  The phone rang a while later and it was the office calling me in to report to Shanksville, Pa. as part of the response to the crash of United Airlines Flight 93.

So I'm sitting there watching the carnage in Newtown unfold but I'm not hearing much of it.  I'm thinking about how the Rodney King beating set LosAngeles ablaze with violence.  How everyone was transfixed by the run-up to the Iraq War.  How everyone was glued to the teevee for the O.J. Simpson verdict while society itself was coming unglued.

A real friend posted to Facebook about her visceral reaction to some network trotting out a 9 year-old to interview about the Newtown shootings.  While you recoil from that, I will take the reaction as a positive sign.  You need to be offended at something like that.  And it is a good sign that there is a place that is too awful to go.  And turning off the teevee is a good and natural reaction.

Consider the opinion of The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.  I think you have to click through to watch this on YouTube, but it is worth the view.

I'd like you to step on back with me though.  As I posted yesterday, sometimes I feel anxious or alone.  I feel like things are getting unhinged and it should, it should affect any decent person.  These feelings are normal, if unfortunate.  The problem is not in your set.

I wonder as I pull away whether or not each little dose of hell is a symptom instead of the disease we're all trying to put our finger on.  See, everybody's going to go talk about gun control as a political issue:

Well that's all good and alright, I guess.  It is a reasonable response to the symptom but not the disease.  Take two Motrin and call me in the morning if it doesn't clear up.  That's the problem, folks.  We're always talking about the symptom and never the cause.  We are standing on the mountain but we cannot see that truth under our feet.

No, I'm aiming at something larger.  Stay with me now.  I've been reading books like the incredible Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jared Diamond - a must read for anyone - where Diamond examines cultures in Easter Island, Central America, Polynesia, Greenland and Idaho (yes, Idaho) among others.

Check out the enumerated list on the book's Wikipedia page and you quickly see that Diamond posits the root source of societal collapse as "overpopulation relative to the practicable carrying capacity of the environment."  Now, that's a very short tell on a very complex (and I think, thrilling, anthropological history) book.

Look.  You take an ant colony, like in the Pixar movie, "A Bug's Life."  The colony exists on Ant Island and it can grow as an ant colony only so far because the island is only so big.  Never mind the grasshoppers and the rushing waters all around.  Once all the natural resources are used up, and nobody has any food left, the population has got to die off from famine.  This is the principal behind the notion of the J-Curve.

But if you take an overcrowded planet - our own Ant Island - where everyone feels so alone and powerless, could there not be another symptom besides die-off.  Like the rash you get when you are exposed to an allergen, could not our society, not unlike any animal species, exhibit other troubling side effects?

I wonder if this propensity for people to go bat-shit and start shooting isn't somehow related to anthropological population pressure.  As if that pressure somehow just causes more and more people to crack.  Examine how you can feel alone in a crowd.  Examine how Facebook just quickly encroaches upon you and unleashes this tide of information on you and you just can't manage that many "friends."

I think the ones who crack are the hopeless ones.  The isolated ones.  And the goddam teevee just makes me feel more hopeless sometimes...  Maybe if I just click back over to the middle of Les Miserables (literally, "the miserable").

But writing to you, dear reader, makes me feel less alone and more hopeful.  What do we do with these situations?  We sensible people share and talk and try to be a little kinder.  Folks, I don't think it's necessarily the teevee or the gun or the perpetual war by themselves.  I think it's how the constructs of our society - all of those things, and more, together - cause hopelessness.  The answer - all you can do - is to go about and be kind.  Cause hope wherever you are.

We'll see you tomorrow and we're going on a frightful sleigh ride with the Original Santa in a movie from Finland called "Rare Exports:  A Christmas Tale."  Until tomorrow.  Enjoy!

Shawn K. Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.


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  2. Ah, dear wit, you've beat me to it!

    After reading your original reflection this AM before trodding off to work, my mind was racing. I felt a strange reaction in that, on one hand, I agreed with your views wholeheartedly (especially that about being torn between murdering and helping others), yet on the other hand, feeling the uncomfortable pang of a "Big Picture" blog not truly taking in the Big Picture. I thought to myself, can it really be so simple as a few "Big Men" ruining things for everyone else? I couldn't square myself with that. I couldn't accept that I did not bear some responsibility for the state of such things, or my friends, or family, or culture, or society in general.

    It got me thinking of some truly "Big Picture" stuff, like the Permian Extinction, for example. I thought about unavoidable circumstances, such as asteroids or volcanoes, coming out of seemingly nowhere and changing the course of life on earth. I thought about the fall of the Roman Empire, and how greed, overpopulation, religion, and corruption set humanity back hundreds of years once it collapsed. I thought about circumstances, natural and man-made, that impact our every day lives.

    I thought about how plant life millions of years ago pumped oxygen into the air, which at that time was poisonous to life, and ended up destroying itself, only to be replaced by something that had adapted to breathe the toxic fume. The oxygen-producers didn't know they were creating their own demise, they were just doing their thing, and it cost them.

    I thought about Rome, and how constant expansion was the goal of the Empire itself. The whole point of Rome was to get bigger, expand influence, create wealth, bring "civilization" to the world. And, it got so big it couldn't sustain itself (you know, like a housing bubble or a constantly soaring DOW Jones market), and it died. The Romans weren't intending on destroying themselves, but it was in their nature.

    Then I thought about us. Today. Maybe, we're the first life on the planet capable of understanding the fragile and complex ecosystems necessary for our survival. We were given the gift by our creator to master our environments, alter them to suit our needs and enrich our lives, but unfortunately we weren't given the wisdom to moderate ourselves. Moderation is just not in our nature. We're conquerors, controllers, manipulators. We're competitive, because we needed to be to survive, but we don't know when to stop!

    I rushed home after work to point out these "Bigger Picture" pictures, but before I could start I read about your "Ant Colony". That pretty much summed it up. And I think that's really the root of our problems. The difference being, of course, the ants in a colony don't know or care that they're in a colony. They only care about themselves, their colony, and their existence. My fear is the only difference between us and the ants is that we know we're in this colony, but we're still unwilling to do anything that isn't wholly self-serving.

    As you said, all we can do is go about and be kind. Cause hope wherever we go. It's a great philosophy, and one with which I couldn't agree more. Not exactly an original idea, though. Some guy from Nazareth told us about it over 2000 years ago, and it doesn't seem to have sunk in yet....

    1. Well, Matt. Great minds. I thoroughly enjoyed your response. See, it's conversations like these that just get me going and I thank you for chatting back like that. From the Permian Extinction to Jesus of Nazareth and the bottom of MY heart, thanks.


    2. A human being has a natural desire to have more of a good thing than he needs.
      -Mark Twain

  3. Another must read is Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel." I believe that's the one he got the Pulitzer Prize for.


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