Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Good News is the Bad News is Exaggerated


This was your TV in 1977.

A friend writes that he strongly suspects he is not a "modern" man.

There is something about the modern world that disturbs his rational conscience. He is not exactly sure what it is.

"It's rather a conundrum and a very real impediment to my peace of mind."


I think I know how he feels. I feel it too.

Or should I say I still feel it. The feeling is a little less pronounced that it once was, but it is still there.

It slithers out late at night, tips its hat in my general direction, and disappears around the corner into a shadow of doubt. Where the hell are we going with all this? How does it all end? I can feel it; I can smell it. Something wicked this way walks.

I talk to a friend about this generalized feeling of malaise. This is the same fellow who once told me: "Your mind is like a bad neighborhood; don't go in there alone." He knows me.

"I feel a sense of impending doom."

"Right," he says, taking a sip of coffee at Starbucks. "Do you know what that is?"

"No."

"That's impending doom."


And then he smiles.

He says we all have it.

And why wouldn't we? We were all raised in the full light of the Atomic Bomb, with duck-and-cover as Lesson One in our grade school plans.

We have been told that the water we drink is toxic, that the male fish in the river are gravid with eggs, and that 40% of all animals are going extinct tomorrow.

We are informed, almost on a daily basis, that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and that that hand basket is being delivered to us by terrorists.

Our jobs are sliding out from underneath us, even as we get older and health care costs skyrocket.

The place where we hunted last year is now a Wal-Mart, and our 15-year daughter is on the Pill.

Our new car is made of plastic, and we can't find the dipstick.

The American flag flying from our porch is made in China, and the girl serving us eggs at Denny's was made in Mexico.

My friend has his own version of this windup, but you get the general idea.

Everything is happening too fast, and there is a general sense, among all of us, that we are losing control.

But it's not quite as bad as we think, he says. We need to perform an autopsy on our fears.

And so I do that.

I remind myself that the nuclear treaties have actually worked. The U.S. and the Soviet Union have one-fourth the number of atomic bombs they had two decades ago, and neither side is rattling is sword in a believable way. In fact, no one on earth has an Air Force or a Navy worth worrying about except the United States.

The water in our rivers and lakes is cleaner now than when we were kids. So too is the air we breathe.

Fish have always been able to change sex at will -- we just didn't know it.

The best weapon the terrorists have come up with is a couple of guys with box cutters. We are not fighting Lex Luthor.

Yes, our jobs are sliding out from underneath us, but that has been happening for 200 years -- horse shoes to iron rails, iron rails to cars, cars to flying saucers. Every era brings declining industries and rising ones too. The direction forward may not be up for all of the people all of the time, but it's generally up for most of the people most of the time. In America, even the homeless watch color TV and get hot meals and a free bed at the shelter.

Yes, we all have a sense of impending doom from time to time. That is natural. It is probably how we are supposed to feel. Like fox, humans are naturally wary. We distrust new things that show up on old ground.

And, truth be told, there is a lot of new stuff: New roads, new laws, new TV shows, new foods, new people, new electronics, new medicines, new ways of producing old things. By the time I figure out how all the features on my new cell phone work, it is out of date, and time for a new one.

We can never catch up.

And yet, most things are better now, aren't they? Who wants to return to 1975 health care? Who wants to return to their 1975 job, their 1975 house, their 1975 wage, their 1975 phone, or their 1975 car? Even after the real estate crash, my house is worth twice what I paid for it.

And yet it is easy to lose any sense of good. After all, who wants to talk about good on television? No one!

The media knows there are no ratings to be had by saying we are going to stumble forward and be alright in the end. Disaster and doom sell. Apocalypse sells. "If it bleeds, it leads"

CNN knows its ratings surge with every war. Triple murders, assassinations and child disappearances are good for Fox television's bottom line. Never mind that these things never actually happen to any of us. We listen to cable TV talking about some dead blond girl, and we never internalize that it's a child we do no know, in a city we have never visited, and the murder occurred two years ago. This is not news. This is olds. This is a contrived crisis: a cocked up story designed to suck us in so that we will watch more TV commercials. This is television appealing to our basest fears and our most prurient interests. It has nothing to do with the reality any of us is actually living.

Ditto for so many stories we hear about the natural world. We are told everything is about to go extinct, but the IUCN Red List shows that over the last 400 years very few animals and plants actually have, and most of these have been endemic birds on very small tropical islands.

Meanwhile, we ignore the natural world we really live in.

In America today, we are knee-deep in ducks, deer, mountain lions, alligators, buffalo, manatee, fox, raccoon, hawks, bear, falcons, eagles, wolves, coyotes, jack rabbits and elk.

Across the world, more and more wild land is being put into protected parks, even as population growth is slowing, child mortality is falling, access to clean water is improving, and starvation is in decline.

We bemoan the loss of small farms, but we are not celebrating the fact that large farms are more efficient, farmers now get vacations, food is cheaper, and the real problem in America is not starvation but obesity.

We are awash in vitamins, milk, and soap. It is a pretty great thing if you ask me.

But we ignore that. Instead we like to scare ourselves a little by dwelling almost exclusively on the negative, no matter how small or unlikely.

It's like the mind games we play when we are in deep woods and it is beginning to get dark. We have never actually seen a rabid coyote. We have never come across a cougar following us on a hiking trail, or an alligator sliding off the bank while we are swimming.

But we like to imagine it could happen, and so we bounce that danger around in our mind and write and talk about it a bit more than we should. Never mind that a bee sting is more likely to kill us than a wolf.

We do the same with food. We read unpronounceable ingredients on the side of packaged foods. Dihydrogen Monoxide? What the hell is that? It must cause cancer.

We fret about the possibility of a single death from nuclear energy, while ignoring the scores of very real deaths that occur from coal mining every year.

We elevate the scary and exotic because it is more interesting than the boring and conventional. And, as a consequence, we have this vague sense of impending doom hovering over everything.

And yet the future keeps coming, doesn't it?

And always, it seems a little bigger, and a little more complex than we are really comfortable with.

The future is fast and unknown.

The past, on the other hand, was slower. And we know how that story turns out.

A lot of good stuff lies in the past.

But isn't that the good news?

We can keep all of the good stuff we want. After all, don't we still run this country by choice?

We can still fish with a cane pole; we do not have to buy graphite.

We can still get an aluminum canoe; no reason to buy plastic.

We can still grow vegetables in our back yard, walk to school, bicycle to work, and run the dogs in the park.

We can still hunt, go to the high school basketball game, and watch old episodes of I Love Lucy.

And if we don't do that, then we are making a choice.

And, in truth, that choice is often logical.

A plastic canoe is better than an aluminum one.

A four-piece pack rod is better than a hard-to-carry cane pole.

Jon Stewart is generally funnier than Lucille Ball.

And so we come to the troubling truth: For the most part, the world is getting better.

Is not the Internet a marvel? How about color television, the I-pod and central air?

I have fruits and vegetables at the store I could never have dreamed of as a child -- kiwis, mangoes, Asian apples. If I want Tang and marshmallows and Graham Crackers, they are still there, but now they are in competition with so many other things that they only rarely make it into the basket.

Is that a bad thing?

No. And yet, just saying the names of these childhood foods creates a certain level of nostalgia.

I am reminded that the world was once slower and simpler.

Whatever happened to the smell of a hay loft? Whatever happened to the smell of old varnish in a boat house? They have been replaced by giant round bails wrapped in plastic and gleaming fiberglass decks. And why? Because no one want to lift 2,000 square bails into an expensive and hard-to-maintain barn, and everyone knows a wooden boat is 200 seams just waiting to sink.

And so the world changes rapidly, and with the change we feel a growing sense of unease.

Our comfort foods are gone. The secret woods of our youth have been razed to expand a parking lot. It has been years since we walked down a creek looking for tadpoles. Instead we check email, do taxes, and run to the next appointment.

And yet, most of us fight back in a fashion, don't we?

Some of us hunt with dogs or hawks in a manner unchanged since the Middle Ages. Others have large vegetable gardens, or spin their own wool for knitting, or have backyard chickens.

Some people carve wood, ride horses, or hunt with black powder.

I have friends who collect toy soldiers and sail old E-scows. I have friends who tinker on vintage cars and trucks, who herd sheep, and who have kitchens full of Ball jars for home canning.

Nothing loved is ever lost.

And yet, much of what people are doing now is not exactly traditional.

Most of the people with backyard chickens did not grow up with backyard chickens.

Most of the people flying hawks and digging on terriers did not grow up with these sports.

Thirty-five years ago, almost no one shot black powder.

So what is going on?

I am not sure. But one possibility is that even as we rush towards the future, some part of us is setting up a belaying point to the past.

It is a kind of psychic anchor -- our way of hedging our bets.

Yes, we are jumping off the cliff into the Great Unknown, but we will hold on to a few bits as a touchstone to the past -- a reminder not only of simpler times, but also of the notion that we might be able to still do it the old way, without the new technology, the nouvelle cuisine, the video games, and the Starbucks Coffee.

Maybe. We are not sure.

We remember what happened the last time the electricity went out in the house. We remember the time they were working on the pipes down the street and the water was turned off for a whole day. We remember what coastal Louisiana looked like after Hurricane Katrina, and the wild look in the eyes of the folks in California who have seen fire licking at the shingles of their house.

And so we do not cut the cord to the cable TV, and we do not pour sugar into the gas tank. Instead, we put 20 pounds of rice and 20 pounds of beans into two old plastic paint drums, and we make sure we pack in one of those new radio-flashlight-generator-cellphone-charger gizmos and a few bottles of water purifier to boot.

And then we go out for coffee.
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1 comment:

Viatecio said...

Very well said. I too occasionally bemoan where we are going (who HASN'T looked at children these days and put a palm to their forehead?), but sometimes I'm rather impressed with what we come up with and what I see.

Although seeing my city sprawl further out into what used to be farmlands is still pretty depressing. I've watched a suburb annex more and more of my area and it almost hurts me inside each time I drive through there and see condos where there used to be corn and soybeans. Despite everything else there is to complain about regarding the future, that's what I find myself angered with more and more.

I grew up without cable and we still don't have it :) I bought my first gaming console a year ago and still play it less than a few hours a month. I have other quality things to do with my time. I may be young, but I appreciate where we've been and I'd like to keep some part of that alive if at all possible, while keeping an eye, however cynical, on the future.